Book Review Battle for Crete by John Hall Spencer

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Jonathan Ball, Jul 11, 2019.

  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    It’s the battle that shouldn’t have been lost, where; as John Hall Spencer in his classic account of the Battle for Crete in May 1941 points out,’the margin between success and failure was only one of hours’.

    First published in 1962 and now reprinted by Pen and Sword this is an excellent study of the battle. It starts with the political maneuverings that led to ‘W-Force’ being dispatched to Greece ahead of the German Invasions of both there and Yugoslavia. The Greek campaign seemed to those who fought in it to be a rearguard action from the first, ‘a one sided war between the Infantry and Stukas’. The men moved south towards evacuation by night, lying up during the day in the many ravines and olive groves which afforded cover from the attentions of the Luftwaffe above. Men were to take precedence over material. The route to the evacuation beaches meant crossing the Corinth Canal and the Germans knew this. The race was on and the Job of seizing the bridge over the canal was given to the Fallschirmjager. Their task was to attack the crossing over the Canal from the air. It was here that, in the words of Spencer, the New Zealanders got their first practice of killing Paratroops in the air. It was something they would perfect later in Crete. The Bridge was blown and helped 50,000 men get away, some to Egypt but the majority to Crete, to lick their wounds, take stock and to fight another day.

    The Anzacs landed at Suda Bay. Here, where there was a fork in the road stood a single officer giving directions for the New Zealanders to go to the left and the Australians to the right. As they dug in the men enjoyed listening to William Joyce from Berlin commenting about ‘The Island of the Doomed Men’. Those men had little more than the clothes they were stood up in and the rifles they had carried from the mainland. Heavier guns were rushed from North Africa as were some aircraft, 36 in all. Ranged against them the Luftwaffe could field 400 Bombers, 200 fighters and 50 reconnaissance aircraft. Add to that the availability another 500 Ju-52’s for the use of Fliegercorps XI and the difference was startling but morale was good and the men dug in along the northern coast of the Island waiting for the attack they knew would come from across the Cretan Sea.

    The Germans launched that attack, Operation Mercury on 20 May 1941. They began with a heavy bombing which Lt-Col Les Andrew V.C., Officer Commanding 22nd NZ Battalion said was worse than the bombardment at Passchendaele in 1917 where he had been awarded Victoria Cross. Then came the gliders and the Paratroopers and the bitter fighting which followed. The defenders, well hidden among the Olive Groves at times couldn’t miss. The Germans suffered hundreds killed during the drop. Those who fell away from the Allies had little better fortune. The Cretan Villagers, who had been resisting the Invader for 500 years went stalking their attackers. Armed with Shotguns, Flintlocks, Knives, Clubs, Spades and Wrenches they set upon the Paratroopers with gusto, for which they would suffer later in the mass reprisals the Fallschirmjager instigated after the battle.

    Spencer captures the action well with vivid detail and excellent use of eye witness testimony. The Germans were being overwhelmed but gained a toe hold at Maleme around the vital airfield below Hill 107. It was here in these hours that Crete was lost. Hesitation in counterattacking allowed the Germans to expand their bridgehead and open up the Airfield. The Ju-52’s started to fly in reinforcements, even if that meant crash-landing the aircraft bringing in the Mountain Division.

    What followed was history repeating. The Defenders fought hard but outgunned and in danger of encirclement they pulled back ever eastwards. Bernard Freyberg V.C., commanding Commonwealth Forces on the Island realized the game was up and signaled Wavell in Cairo that evacuation was the only option. Churchill again had to place manpower over Material and those weary men had to cross the White Mountains, as described by Spencer ‘to Khora Sfakion and the cocoa and calmly ordered hospitality of the navy, a familiar memory from Greece’

    The War in Crete didn’t end in 1941. The reprisals and the SOE-orchestrated resistance was still to come. That's a story for another day.

    There’s been many versions of the story written since John Hall Spencer sat down to write this but very few match the quality of his writing.

    Battle for Crete

  2. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    A useful review for what sounds like a good read, but, for heaven's sake Pen & Sword, must you generate virtually the same cover-art for every book you publish?
    Chris C likes this.
  3. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    They certainly have a formula!

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