The Role of Crete in the North African War

The Role of Crete in the North African War

Background

While Crete is best known for Operation Merkur, the German airborne assault that took the island from the Commonwealth forces defending it at the end of May 1941, it also played a considerable role in the war in the Mediterranean, and became of great importance to the Axis effort in North Africa.

  • Suda Bay, on the north-western tip of Crete, became an Italian naval and submarine base. Submarines and destroyers were based here, and would be used to bring supplies to North Africa from Suda (see also the Italian reports I posted here).
  • Airfields around Crete were used as bases or to stage both combat and supply missions towards North Africa. Missions against Commonwealth supply shipping in the Suez Canal zone were flown from here. I believe support missions for Iraq and Syria also originated from here, but it is also possible that these came out of the Doedecanese islands then occupied by Italy.
  • During the siege of Bardia/Halfaya from December 41 to January 42, some supply and combat missions were flown from Crete, but impeded by bad weather in Crete.
  • Air cover and aerial reconnaissance were provided from Crete to protect convoys running on the eastern leg from Greece to North Africa. Not always successful as the loss of the tankers Maritza and Procida showed (again, see the report by escort commander Mimbelli here).
  • During the build-up for the battle of El Alamein, Crete became a source for reinforcements to Panzerarmee Afrika. 164. Leichte Infanteriedivision was previously an occupation force in Crete, called Festungs-Division Kreta.

CM880Bombs exploding on Maleme airfield, Crete, during a daylight raid by Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF, flying from LG 21/Qotafiya III, Egypt. The aircraft are Junkers Ju 52/3ms, most of them in a wrecked condition as a result of the landing of airborne troops on the airfield on 21 May 1941, during the German invasion of the island. IWM CM880.

The Risk to Air Crew and Civilians

Throughout this time, Crete also was a target of R.A.F. operations, which also posed a risk to the local populace, as the document below shows.

This incident relates to a plane lost on a raid by Wellington medium bombers of No. 148 Squadron, targeting shipping off the north-western coast off Crete, off Candia. 

A total of fifteen Wellingtons operated, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ flights of No. 148 Squadron. They operated from Kabrit to L.G.104, and then from there to Crete, which they covered during the late evening hours. A correspondent of the Sunday Times accompanied the raid, and wrote a piece about it, which notes that his plane freelanced for a raid on Bardia when no targets were found off the coast of Crete (the report can be downloaded here: Sunday Times Report). This being a night raid, it appears ground bombing was not permitted in order not to endanger the civilian population.

Two planes were lost that night, ships ’S‘ and ‘W’, both of ‘B’ flight. ’S’ is noted as ‘failed to return’ and all crew are missing believed killed. This was a multinational crew composed off Sgt. Taranto, R.A.A.F., Pilot Officer Elliott, R.C.A.F., and R.A.F. Sergeants Warner, Bramwell, Ray, and Conley. ‘W’ crashed on land, with an R.A.F. crew of Flying Officer Canton, and Sgts. Townsend, Black, Bailes, Brown, and Rutland. One of the pilots was on his 60th mission.

Contrary to what the letter says however, it appears that five of the six members of the crew died in the crash, and only the plane’s commander F/O Canton was ultimately taken prisoner by the Germans.

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Notes

AIR994/15, 16 ORB of No. 148 Squadron

AIR998, No 148 Squadron Appendices

Gunby and Temple, Royal Air Force Bomber Losses