Book: Crete: The Battle and the Resistance

Excellent book of second world war military history

Antony Beevor
Crete: The Battle and the Resistance
Westview Press, 1994
ISBN: 0-8133-2080-1
343 pages

I have had occasion to say before (1, 2, 3) that Antony Beevor is a brilliant military historian whose particular genius consists of presenting an astonishing wealth of detail and making it sustain a historical narrative that is virtually novelistic in its readability. This time, Mr Beevor turns his attention to the second world war's Battle of Crete.

As the narrative gets going, it's the spring of 1941 and Germany attacks Greece from positions in Bulgaria. The Greeks fight a courageous but ultimately futile defense. Among the Greek troops were most of its Cretan division. The Greek government had brought that division to the mainland partly because of British assurances that they would see to the defense of that strategically valuable island. Mainland Greece surrendered on April 20th and Commonwealth forces that had been assisting in its defense began evacuating on April 24th. About 25,000 of them were evacuated to Crete, reinforcing the garrison of about 14,000 Commonwealth and 9,000 Greek soldiers.

Major-General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand contingent of the forces on Crete, was placed in overall command. Unfortunately, General Freyberg misinterpreted the intelligence he was given and expected a sea-borne assault. (Or so Mr Beevor convincingly maintains; there is controversy on the point.) Instead, the Germans attacked by air on May 20, with paratroops and soldiers in gliders attempting to seize the island's airports. Landings of that sort were pretty chaotic in that era and the German troops didn't hold the island's main airport anything like securely for the first 48 hours. Even so, still expecting an assault by sea, General Freyberg didn't release enough troops from the coast (where they were guarding some stretches that were very unsuitable for an amphibious landing) to attack the German forces around that airport until it was too late and German troop transport aircraft were landing regularly.

From that point the Battle of Crete was effectively lost. There was more fighting, some of it heroic, but the allied forces began evacuating for Alexandria on May 28. Once they left, the story starts to get really interesting.

The first two parts of the book, "The Fall of Greece" and "The Battle of Crete", of which I have just given a too-brief summary, are good and interesting military history. The battle was of a new kind in a couple of respects. It was the first mainly airborne assault and it was one of the first battles in which radio intelligence and communications might have been decisive factors. It's also an interesting footnote that the novelist Evelyn Waugh was the intelligence officer for Colonel Robert Laycock on the island.

This book was published before Mr Beevor's books Stalingrad, The Fall of Berlin 1945, and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy and the first two parts of the book have the feel of a slightly younger Mr Beevor feeling out the powers that he would use so effectively in those later books on larger-scale events. If this book consisted only of the first two parts, it would be worth reading by a fan of Mr Beevor or by someone with a particular interest in the Battle of Crete. But the battle was short, not especially dramatic, and peripheral to the history of the second world war in general. There wouldn't be that much to interest the general reader.

But the third part of the book "The Resistance", which continues until the end of the war, contains more feats of derring-do than your average war movie. Some of the Commonwealth troops were inevitably left behind in the evacuation and some of them eluded the Germans for considerable periods. And some Cretans, especially in the mountains, formed fierce (and impressively mustachioed) guerilla bands. British intelligence arranged for many of the Commonwealth stragglers to be evacuated by sea and arranged for some irregular troops to be brought in by sea and had them and the Cretan resistance resupplied by sea and by parachute drop.

The Cretan resistance was a persistent thorn in the Germans' side. And it makes a cracking story. For example, there's the story of how about 15 allied soldiers ambushed three German trucks and several other vehicles, and finally an armored car which was dealt with by a British soldier climbing up on it and dropping a grenade down its hatch. And then there's the story of how, in the spring of 1944, a group of British and Cretans kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander on the island, and after a long march across the island, sent him by boat to Alexandria. There's also politics, personality clashes, and everything else you'd want from a war drama.

If Mr Beevor's other books of history are nearly as compelling as novels, the third part of this one is nearly as engaging as a movie.

American readers will be saved a rather odd image if they know in advance that "life-preserver" (p. 305) can refer to a short club.

Posted: Tue - July 13, 2010 at 08:04   Main   Category: