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Naval Battle of Crete 1941: The Royal Navy at Breaking Point

28 Apr 23


(Osprey Publishing – £16.99)

ISBN 9781472854049

96 pages

This eloquent campaign analysis of an eventually unsuccessful Royal Navy defence of Crete contains a host of well-illustrated lessons relevant to many studies of maritime warfare. Konstam’s introduction sets the scene by reminding readers that this was “one of the darkest periods in the Royal Navy’s history”. Faced with grim odds against a determined enemy which undoubtedly held the initiative (and air superiority), British maritime commander Admiral Andrew B Cunningham responded to pressure to abandon the Crete garrison with the much-cited epithet that “It will take three years to build a new fleet … it will take three hundred years to build a new tradition”. Having failed to prevent the amphibious reinforcement of attacking Axis forces, he then stuck by his army colleagues to evacuate 16,500 soldiers from the island, despite adverse odds.

The flowing descriptions of context, intelligence and decision-making draw the reader into the intensity and also the agony of fighting an action against a determined and overwhelming enemy. Key themes include the calculated risk-taking of the majority of British Commanders as they mutually supported each other across warfare domains. But the dominant theme as the initial battle progresses is one which we are again seeing played out in the 21st century … a paucity of ammunition.

By the end of the day’s fighting on 21 May 1941, “The only real problem facing [Rear Admiral] Rawlings … was that his ships had expended most of their AA rounds … if the [air] attacks continued the following day, then the ships would potentially run out of the ammunition they needed to defend themselves”. Noting Axis air superiority, the attacks continued, relentlessly, requiring Rawlings and also his fellow Force commanders to adopt increasingly defensive and sub-optimal tactics as they tried to execute their mission. Before succumbing to a pair of Me 109-delivered 250Kg bombs, HMS Fiji even resorted to firing flares and starshell at enemy aircraft, their AA situation was so desperate.

This tale of Axis air power prevailing over Royal Navy forces is a well-structured and intriguing read. As an enduring lesson in the realities of conflict, where not every event is a British victory but concurrently where British spirit and determinations can make the best of a bad situation, it is also a positive addition to any warrior’s bookshelf.