Eighty years ago, the defenders of Crete pay the penalty for weak air cover


The German naval foray into the North Atlantic got off to a good start when the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen encountered HMS Hood, the largest warship in the world and a veteran of World War One, and HMS Prince of Wales, the navy’s newest battleship. Hood was destroyed by a massive explosion killing almost all of her crew and Prince of Wales failed to damage the German ships seriously. The reputation of the “mighty Hood” far outran her actually military worth and the loss was a severe blow to public morale. Thus began a frantic hunt for the Germans which sucked in practically all the British capital ships in the region. Bismarck was located by a Catalina flying boat flown by a USN pilot covertly “on loan” to the British. A torpedo from a carrier borne Fairey Swordfish disabled Bismarck and she was finished off by a large concentration of British heavy warships.

Air power began to prove decisive in the battle for Crete. It lay within range of German aircraft operating from mainland Greece but the British had been unable to build up RAF resources on the island in time, handicapped by the general shortage of aircraft in the region. German bombers sunk two Royal Navy cruisers Fiji and Gloucester together with a number of destroyers including Kelly under Captain Louis Mountbatten. On land air superiority helped the Germans push on to the island's second city, Chania, against disorganized Commonwealth forces, including Layforce commandos hastily despatched from Egypt, amongst whom was the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who left a memorable account of the battle in Officers And Gentlemen. The Germans were practically sure of victory and King George II fled Crete for Egypt.

The extempore agreement between Vichy France and Germany to allow German aircraft into Syria in transit for Iraq broadened into a wider discussion of the relationship between the two powers. They reached a deal under which the financial indemnity that France paid to Germany would be cut by a quarter, passage between the occupied and unoccupied zones would be eased and certain classes of French prisoners of war with specialist skills for the economy would be repatriated; in exchange France would grant Germany permanent military facilities in Syria, Tunisia and West Africa. The resulting “Paris protocols” are sometimes seen as the high point of relations between Vichy and Germany but they were doomed never to be ratified.

The London government had already unsuccessfully attempted to introduce conscription into Ulster in 1939 but heavy air-raids on Belfast appeared to create the opportunity for another try. It was vehemently opposed by the Catholic church and the government of Eire under Eamon de Valera, to whom the war was merely a British project and an opportunity to reinforce his own anti-British credentials. De Valera repeated the Eire claim to the six counties and asserted that the Catholic population’s human rights would be infringed if they were forced to fight for a state to which they did not wish to belong. Had conscription been introduced, the British would have faced the near certainty of mass non-compliance amongst the Catholic population and the plan was withdrawn on the basis that it was more trouble than it was worth. Recruitment in Ulster remained on a voluntary basis for the war and was heavily concentrated amongst Protestants; by some accounts more people volunteered to fight from Eire’s, admittedly far larger, population.


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