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Battle of Crete: Hellenic Army General Staff

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  • Battle of Crete: Hellenic Army General Staff

    Like most other countries that participated in WW2 the Greek (Hellenic) military, too, created a volume of books – “The Hellenic Army During the Second World War”, describing the military operations on Greek soil, as well as for Greek forces abroad.

    The book describes, as stated in the introduction, “the last phase of the operations that unfolded on free Greek territory, the Battle of Crete”. It is a translation of the Greek edition published in 1967 with “certain necessary additions and corrections”. In the prologue it is further stated: “We hope that this book will attract interest because the Battle of Crete (20-29 May 1941) is considered generally to have been the most glorious yet the most unusual battle of the Second World War”. Be that as it may, it was a very interesting battle.

    A Greek fellow amateur historian was kind enough to arrange to have this book sent to me by the Hellenic Army History Directorate. This English translation was issued in 2000 and printed in 3000 copies.

    While the book recounts the general course of the Battle of Crete, its real value (to me, anyway) is in its detailed story on the Greek units participating in the battle. “Greek units on Crete”, you may say, …“weren’t the Greeks on Crete just some gangs of local village bands and para-military shepherds?" Yes, they were that, too, according to the book, but many were actually organized in military units under British command. They fought well, too, according to several British officers which are quoted in the book. Just to have said it, a little more than 10.000 Greeks and Cretans were mustered in the Greek rolls as fighting in the Battle of Crete, exclusive the "bands". With that the total number of allied troops on the island exceeded 40.000 at the time of the German onslaught.

    The book has a logical build-up as can be expected in a military publication. It takes us through the period up to the Italian invasion of Greece, the British involvement in the Greek campaign and the German attack, with emphasis on what was going on in Crete during this period and the involvement of the Greek units. This is covered in 11 chapters. Several appendices outline, in some detail, particular events, the formal organisation of the Greek units and their cooperation with the various British units they were attached to. It is all rounded off with lists of Greek officers and cadets killed during the fighting.

    When Mussolini took control of Albania in 1939, alarm bells rang in Greece. His expansionist ambitions were known and with the Italian Dodecanese colony along the Turkish coastline the island of Crete, if not Greece as such, could be a future Italian target to secure the communications with the Dodecanese. Under these circumstances, plans were laid for the defense of Crete. Already, Crete was to mobilize an infantry division, Division V, in case of war, and in 1939 was established the Naval Command of Crete.

    With the Italian occupation of Albania, the Greek military looked to the British and French for eventual support in the case of an Italian attack on Greece. In May 1940, when the Italian entry into the war seemed imminent British and French military authorities started negotiations with the Greek about basing troops on Crete, mainly French, to eventually be sent from Syria. The negotiations dragged on till October as the Greeks did not want to commit themselves in fear of provoking Mussolini. With the fall of France in June 1940 the French were out of the quotation and the British were not able to decide on what they could contribute.

    In the meantime, the Cretan defence had been organized in two Military Commands under the Higher Military command of Crete (Chania). Each of the Military Commands (Chania and Heraklion) were organized in two Military Districts with the three regular regiments of Division V and a number of HQ and regimental depot units. In addition to this the Royal Gendarmerie in Heraklion.

    With the Italian attack on Greece arrangements were made with the British that they should take over the responsibility of the defense of Crete and the transfer of the Cretan Division V to the mainland was approved by the British. By the end of November 1940 19.000 troops and 700 pack animals of the division had left Crete in two large convoys escorted by eight Greek warships. In the meantime, some British base and AA units were transferred to Crete, with emphasis on establishing and expanding the naval facilities on the island (Suda Bay). Two British infantry battalions had also arrived and after the departure of Division V three battalions were established by the Greek depot units. This would constitute the defense of Crete under the protection of the Mediterranean Fleet. In January 1941, however, the three Greek battalions were also transferred to the mainland.

    With this no regular Greek fighting army forces remained on the island so, to cover this vacuum, the Greek decided to establish a militia under the Gendarmerie, planning of which had started in December 1940, and which the British promised to supply with small arms. However, these supplies did not materialize. Originally, the plan called for a force of about 4.000 men in four battalions, but this was reduced to 1.200 due to the lack of weaponry. Personnel was picked from a survey of 10.000 registered Cretans, soldiers and officers on expired leave, recuperated wounded from the fighting on the mainland and qualified volunteers. This force could have been much expanded from the start if weapons had been supplied, instead many which originally had been rejected streamed to the militia units after the fighting started.

    This was the situation until the breakdown of the allied forces on the mainland. It is too time and space-consuming to go into the actual operations on Crete or the destinies of the British forces there, these should be well known by those interested. I shall, however, update some of what happened with the Greek forces generally. As the situation deteriorated on the mainland more and more refugees and soldiers on leave not returning to the mainland, filled the ranks of the Militia and the eight recruit battalions which started to arrive from various training bases in Greece in April, were organized as eight two-battalion regiments. These regiments became the main Greek forces which served under the various British commands, divisions and regiments on the island. Some on independent missions, but most integrated with British units. None of the Greek units were fully equipped, they had no artillery and very little automatic weapons, those they had were wwI-generation types. Actually, if the book is to be believed, at the end of the battle most Greek units were better equipped weapon-wise than when the fighting started due to the capture of enemy weapons.

    To this came the “bands”. These were spontaneously established units of citizens of local villages, among them many women, which for the most part armed themselves with personal weapons and gathered around esteemed local leaders. Some had British officers and soldiers joining them, some operated independently but many connected with other Greek or British forces in periods and fought under command of regular units as raiding parties, flank securities of holding key points in the terrain. The book describes many individual skirmishes of such units. The bands also experienced some improvement in armaments with weapons taken from fallen or fleeing Germans and strayed air-drops.

    An appendix lists all the Greek units, their location, leaders, which British units they fought with and a short story of the various skirmishes and battles each of them participated in. In-between the description of the main battle of Crete, Greek units are also mentioned whenever they have a special role.

    The book has a conciliatory tone. The Greeks had good reasons to complain on some occasions, one was the broken British promise of supplying the militia. As in Norway, there were occasions when British troops withdrew without informing their allies. They also played the same trick as they did against the Norwegians in Narvik, not to inform their allies properly and in time about their intentions to evacuate.

    After the defeat hundred of British soldiers were taken care of by the local population, often with grave consequences when this was discovered by the Germans.

    To me, this was a very interesting read.


    Fred
    Last edited by leandros; 21 Mar 20, 05:37.
    Saving MacArthur - a book series - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0...ies_rw_dp_labf
    River Wide, Ocean Deep - Operation Sealion - https://www.amazon.com/product-revie...owViewpoints=1

  • #2
    Excellent, I wonder if this book is availble anywhere? Perhaps at a University library?

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    • #3
      Originally posted by joea View Post
      Excellent, I wonder if this book is availble anywhere? Perhaps at a University library?
      Thank you, I couldn't say. I doubt it. Mine was sent directly to me from the Greek Army's history section.

      Fred
      Saving MacArthur - a book series - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0...ies_rw_dp_labf
      River Wide, Ocean Deep - Operation Sealion - https://www.amazon.com/product-revie...owViewpoints=1

      Comment


      • #4
        Hmmm I was recently in Athens (early February before this pandemic blew up) was considering visiting the military museum perhaps someone might have known there. Thanks again and enjoy the book.

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