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Member Articles - Page Four

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(written by the man himself)

1. If you look at a map you will see the island of Crete is a long strip of land lying across the Southern end of the Aegean Sea and 300 miles from Alexandria. Bomber aircraft based on Crete could control all shipping in the Aegean, therefore after the fall of Greece it was essential to the Germans to take the island. It is a rugged mountainous country with one good airfield at Maleme and a place that could be used in an emergency at Heraklion. After the fall of Greece it was decided that air defence of the island was not practicable for a number of reasons. First there was no good harbours or transport for large supplies. Secondly there was only one airfield which was bound to be the object of the enemy's attack and if that fell they must fly to Alexandria 300 miles away. Thirdly there were very few fighters and they could not be replaced in time to defend Alexandria itself. So the fighter force was withdrawn. The anti-aircraft defences were also scanty. As you know at that time we were expecting an invasion of England and rightly or wrongly we kept most of our men and material at home. Added to that we had lost a lot of material in Greece, and with the Libyan air bases in enemy hands, it was too dangerous to run convoys through the mediterranean. It is true one did come through, as we came with it, but that is another story. So, though woefully short of equipment and lacking air protection, the army decided to stay and fight it out, with the assurance that the Navy would prevent an invasion by sea.

2. It was dawn on May 21st that HMS Fiji, in company with the majority of med. Fleet left Alexandria. For the last fortnight units of the fleet had patrolled the waters round Crete waiting for the German assault. Each night cruisers had been busy ferrying supplies of men and material to the island in a hurried preparation. At last news had come from reconnaissance aircraft that convoys were stealing down the Greek coast and we knew the attack was imminent.

3. On arrival off Crete about 2100, the fleet split up into 5 separate units. Two striking forces of cruisers and destroyers entered the Aegean itself, one force patrolled the north eastern entrance to the Aegean; one patrolled the NW entrance, while the main battle fleet cruised to the south'ard as a covering force just in case the Italian fleet came on the scene. The Fiji, only 4 months in commission again after being repaired from a torpedo attack, was detailed to accompany the war hardened Gloucester, who had come successfully through all the actions in the med, the two being escorted by the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston. We were closed up at action stations all night but nothing happened and dawn saw all units withdrawing on to the main battle-fleet off the Western end of Crete. On board the Fiji we were just changing from action to A.A. Defence when R/Df reported "aircraft Green 100, large formation 15 miles". All that day formations attacked the fleet, but we kept together and put up a massed barrage that deterred them from pressing home their attacks. Some of the daring spirits however sometimes broke through and one registered a hit on Warspite which wiped out her starboard 4-in. Battery but did not decrease her speed.

We were attacked at regular intervals throughout the day but no more casualties occurred. With darkness, we once more split up into our separate units and went in searching for convoys. During the night one of the striking forces in the Aegean ran into a German convoy of several transports and 20 or 30 caiques, which are fishing craft's little smaller than our drifters. Our force got in the middle of them blazing away with everything they had, and a few thousand Jerries met a watery end that night. Unfortunately, in the melee the Carlisle was torpedoed by an e-boat and Naiad took her in tow, reducing the speed of withdrawal to 6 knots. With dawn aircraft were sighted and Naiad asked for assistance. Meanwhile the remaining forces had withdrawn and were just rejoining the battle fleet. Fiji had just reported only 350 rounds of 4-in. H.A. Ammunition remaining, but before that could have got through, a signal came from Warspite "Force Z to proceed with all despatch to cover the withdrawal of force Y". I was in the 6-in. T.S. At that moment and the Gunnery Officer's voice came through "Our big moment has come. We are going in. Warn all quarters to be prepared both for surface and air attack", Almost immediately came the warning from R/DF "Large formation approaching from Green 15; 12 miles". Shortly afterwards from the Gunnery Officer came "I can see them they are passing ahead to attack the fleet". Then came a medley of voices, through which broke the Gunnery Officer's "With C.P.B.C load, load, load". "Surely you mean H.E sire?" I queried. "No" he answered, "there is a lot of smoke on the horizon and it looks as if we shall get our teeth into something at last", The log now showed 34 knots and it seemed the ship herself was quivering with excitement. The low angle R!DF gave a cut at 2400 yards and then from the R.A.set "Aircraft approaching from ahead 12 miles". From the Gunnery Officer came "Repel aircraft, turrets follow director, stand by to Clear guns". I waited for no more, as my repel aircraft station was the 4 in. T.S and I had to husband that ammunition.

I arrived just as the ship shook under the discharge of the 12-6-in., and I watched the R/DF pricker creeping along the range plot. 13,000 - 12,000 - 10,000 "Open Fire". They began a confused medley of sound through my phones. The crack crack of the 4-in., the whoosh and shake of the 6 in., the roar of diving bomber engines; the pom-pom and chatter of close range weapons; the whistle of falling bombs the tilt of the deck as the helm went over followed by the concussion as the bombs exploded near, and a clang-clang as pieces hit the ship's side. Often the ship seemed to leap and then drop back again. Above all this I could hear the 4-in., Control Officer commenting "That was close, I'm drenched to the skin". "I believe they've got the Gloucester; no, she's coming out of the spray; Yes we are all here still". Occasionally he would say "That's one so-and-so less" or "Did you see the pieces fall from that one, I don't think he'll get far".

During the first lull I checked the ammunition and was forced to order the director to wait until the target commenced his dive before firing. Then came a blow as the 4-in. Control officer said "God, they've got the Gloucester this time; Yes, she's stopped and on fire". Over the broadcast system came "All available hands stand-by to let go c Carley rafts." We zig-zagged a bit more and then turned towards where the Gloucester was slowly settling in the water and men were already taking to the water. A stick of three bombs had caught her amidships. We could not stop as once more came the warning "Aircraft ahead" so as we passed we dropped the carley rafts which hung from the sides of our hangars and went on to draw the attack away from her. We fired the last of our I-I.E. and I ordered "Carry on with practice and target smoke-shell". Long before this the 6-in, had finished their H.E and were firing low angle armour piercing shell. I went on deck to go to the after 4-in. T.S. Just as a terrific explosion seemed to lift the ship right out of the water. We heeled right over but came back upright and with a sigh of relief I saw we were still going at full speed. I went over to the side of the explosion and found the triple torpedo tubes had been lifted bodily inboard. Then I went on the 4-in. Gun deck and found the deck under the foremost mounting had been rolled up like a piece of cardboard and the gun thrown over backwards. Looking over the ship's side I saw a sheet of armour about 20 feet long hanging by two bolts and flapping in the rust of the water. I think that near miss must have been a small one, say about 2,000 lbs. But there was not time to think about it, as back they came again; 1-leinkels this time, 9 of them. As I looked up at them I remember thinking "How beautiful they look, just like a flight of swallows with the sun shining on them". But that idea was soon dispelled when they all released their bombs in a pattern.

How the captain managed to dodge them I can't imagine, but the ship seemed to swerve between them like a rugby forward going for a try. Fountains of water splashed down on us knocking the breath from our bodies. Then we were up again, and now we only had low angle H.E left. So we started busily unfuzing them and fuzing them for H.A. Only the two after mountings were now in action and the after director had jammed after that big near miss. So for the next hour we shifted fuzes as if our lives depended on it, as they probably did. Each time the attack came we would drop everything and fire off what we had, in local control. It was Messerschmitts coming now, in groups of 3, which seemed to suggest they were running short or else we were wearing them down. As last we had fired our last round and I had collected the crews to join up with the porn porn supply parties. I also assisted to clear away the mountain of links and empties round the porn porn. The sun was well down in the sky and if we could hold them for an hour we should get away.

Then came a lull and we began to think it was all over. Utterly worn out, I think we all began to relax. Suddenly the captain's voice "Look out! Hard a starboard!" It was too late. A messerschrnitt had corne in out of the sun and a terrific explosion seemed to lift the ship bodily. She went over to 30 degrees and this time she did not come back. There was a hiss of escaping steam and our speed slackened. A bomb had entered the water to starboard and as it passed to port it exploded where that sheet of armour was hanging off. We were still doing half speed, but now she would not answer her helm quickly enough. Three more Messerschxnitts appeared and behind them another 3. We survived the first group with only the porn porn firing now, in hand. But all the captain"s skill could not save us from the next group. A near miss; then a hit which stopped us completely, and increased the list. It was plain to all, we were doomed and after the Engineer Commander had reported damage to the Captain he gave the order "Abandon ship, over you go everybody". Our boats were smashed by near misses, our rafts had been given to the Gloucester, so we threw over planks and everything movable that would float. Then came "aircraft astern" and slowly majestically a Heinkel came gliding in to make an end of us. Then suddenly came the Porn Porn of the 2 pounder and I looked up to see the Captain of the gun heaving round with all his strength training uphill against he list of the ship while an ordinary seaman worked the hand firing gear. Puffs of black smoke appeared under the Heinkel and she swerved away. Then as the Heinkel returned to the attack, the ammunition gave out and we threw ourselves flat as 3 bombs left her. The shone red and gold in the last rays of the setting sun and seemed to float down. I saw the fins sprout on the centre one and shut my eyes. I was asked afterwards by the doctor if I had shut my mouth, but I couldn't remember that~ A giant hand seemed to catch me in the small of the back and squash me; something smacked against my tin helmet and whipping it from my head; a deluge of water descended on me and I passed out. The bomb had burst as it entered the deck 12 feet away and it had taken heavy toll of the men in the catapult space below who were waiting their turn to take the water.

At the same time another had dropped amongst those in the water. When I caine to I seemed to be the only one besides the captain still on board and as the ship was now at an angle of about 60 degrees I caught a rope dangling from the davit and walked down the side into the water. The wooden planks and benches, had all drifted astern so I struck out for one of the destroyers some 200 yards away. Then I saw her get under way and looking up I saw more enemy aircraft approaching. I grabbed a 6-in. Cardboard cartridge case floating by and rested while I watched one of the planes detach itself and circle over us. I wondered if the rnachine-gunning of survivors was about to commence, but no, after a few moments circling, the plane shot off again after the destroyers. It was getting dark then and the sea began to get a bit choppy. I found myself getting low in the water and as my support was getting waterlogged and it hindered my swimming, I let it go. Then feeling my lifebelt, it seemed rather slack so I screwed up a bit tighter on the valve. I dared not try to blow it up harder for fear of losing the air I had in it. Then I realized I must get to a group before it became too dark to see them, so I swam over about 50 yards to where about six others were hanging on to some oars and a lifebuoy. Time passed and my brain swam. Waves were breaking over us and I found difficulty in breathing. I did not know it then, but the blast of that last bomb had injured my lung. It would have been so easy to have given up the struggle and drifted away into the darkness, as two of them did. We dared not go after them because we had not the strength.

Our last meal has been 24 hours before and the only sleep we had was what could be snatched closed up at action stations the two nights previous. Then someone said `the destroyers are back, we must make for them". Another group about 50 yards away were flicking a torch and the desroyer came up between us and stopped to them up. The others let go and swam towards her but I felt I could never make it. Yet if I remained I should drift off into the darkness and be lost, so I HAD to make it. It needed an effort to force my fingers to let go, and then began a swim I shall never forget. It was only 20 yards but it seemed to take me hours. Could I fight off, long enough, the waves of blackness that clouded my brain? Would the destroyer go on before I reached her? At last she loomed over me; my fingers clutched a trailing rope; I twisted it round my wrist and remembered no more. I came to, to find myself laying on a messdeck table wrapped in a blanket and someone forcing Navy rum through my clenched teeth. I had only been 3 hours in the water but it seemed like ages. Although I did not hear of it till long after, a little act of heroism had just occurred. A Lieutenant Commander, himself a survivor from the Greyhound earlier in the day, saw the Fijis dropping back exhausted after catching hold of a rope, so he jumped overboard to assist them. He was seen securing ropes to one man but then was lost to sight. After saving his own life he had given it up trying to save others.

Here's the escape stories of officers I met in hospital

1. A major of marines had his headquarters in a building overlooking Nalene airfield They were pouring a deadly fire into the troop carriers as they came in. Then they were attacked by a swarm of dive bombers. One bomb went through the floor at his feet and he fell after it. It did not explode so he ordered his men to withdraw to some shallow trenches they had prepared in ear. Twice he was blown out of these trenches and crawled back again. He fought a long rearguard action during the withdrawal and finally he walked 15 miles over the cliffs in the dark, ending by falling 20 feet to the beach below. All he suffered was a chipped spine.

2. A naval lieutenant, captain of one of our motor launches spent two days being dive bombed and machine gunned. At last a near miss overturned and sank the launch. He and his crew swam to the shore which was held by the enemy, and hid in caves. By night they tramped over the cliffs towards the embarkation beach and by day the hid in caves or gullies, without food or ward. They arrived at one beach only to be told no more were being taken off and the embarkation beach was another 15 miles away. They made it in the darkness and on reporting he was told "Here are some rifles, take your men up to the top of the cliff and cover that footpath there". Without a murmur they did so and then at a signal scrambled down to the boat just as a machine-gun opened on it. He was only in hospital for gastric stomach.

3. A naval sub-lieutenant had his motor launch blown up under him and was machine-gunned in the water. He was wounded but got ashore and was taken to a Crete hospital. Shortly after, the Germans captured it and posted armed sentries there. The Cretian nurses supplied him and an army officer with peasant dress and then went out and talked to the German sentries while the two officers walked out at the back to the hills.

Now for the army's side of the affair

The Germans attacked at dawn on May 22nd which synchronised with the first day's attack on the fleet. For hours waves of dive bombers systematically dive bombed everything moving within a half mile radius from the centre of Maleme airfield and the beaches at Heraklion. Then from behind the hills came waves of troop carriers towing strings of gliders also full of troops. While the dive bombers continued to blast every living thing, the planes and gliders landed on Maleme airfield and Heraklion beaches. In their haste to get down quickly they did not hesitate to crash land them. Once on the ground the troops mushroomed out to take cover in the bomb-craters conveniently left by the dive bombers, whilst behind them more and more arrived. Paratroops were dropped also on the surrounding hills but most of these were picked off on their way down. Then the dive bombing eased off, which synchronised with the increased attacks on the Fleet. Our army counter-attacked and at 1-lerakilon succeeded in wiping out the whole of the German troops. At Maleme a fierce battle was taking place, more and more Germans landing and moving up to take the place those that fell.

At nightfall they were still clinging precariously to their bomb craters round the ed of the airfield with a litter of wrecked planes and gliders about then. If our army could keep them pinned there for another day the prospects seemed good, because they could not continue to waste men and planes at that rate. But with the dawn again came the dive bombers to blast our defences. Human flesh and blood could not stand up to it and we had to withdraw to the hills. Then came more and more german troops and supplied including artillery and light armoured carriers. Now the Germans attacked and for several days confused fighting raged along the Northern shore and among the hills.

Heraklion was captured and re-captured by a fierce counter-attack. But there was no respite from our troops from the dive bombing and at last we were forced to withdraw to the South. Units of the mediterranean Fleet sill patrolled the coasts, successfully preventing any attack from the sea. But ship after ship suffered bomb hits and at last the Commander-in-Chief had to warn the army that he could not guarantee to evacuate them after 31st May. So the decision was taken to evacuate and his was carried out with relatively small losses on the nights of the 30th and 31st. Yet for the next 3 nights, destroyers still cruised along the southern shore taking off isolated parties and bringing them back.

So ended the Battle of Crete

Daughter's Note: My father returned from the war a haunted man, wanting to tell someone about his war experiences but nobody wanting to listen, not even my mother. So a few years later, to relieve himself of the trauma (no counselling in those days, there must have been thousands that needed it) he wrote it all down and I typed it out. I'm sure he felt a lot better after getting it out of his system. There were other descriptions which he told me about on his dark days which were too horrific to be put in the booklet, but people can use their imaginations!

Son-in-law's Note: LEONARD CHARLES EADES WAS A COMMISSIONED WARRANT GUNNER on board the HMS Fiji. Father spent more time on other ships on his return and finished his time in the Navy as a Lt. or ? Lt/Commander at Whale Island, after being at the Normandy invasion on one of the Battleships. He passed away ten years ago now but we all in the family have very strong memories of him.
Jas. M. Russell - June 2004

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