When the battle for Crete was lost in May 1941, the island came under the occupation of Axis forces, one of the last places in Europe to do so.
The Axis powers – Germany and Italy – then proceeded to garrison the island, secure the coastline, and turn Crete into an enemy stronghold, Festung Kreta.
The voyages were planned to take place on moonless nights, and the launches aimed to be as far off the Crete coast as possible during daylight
Within a short time, the Allies were looking for ways to penetrate that stronghold – a mission that had greater urgency after discovering there were still hundreds of British Commonwealth troops at large on the island.
Gathering these soldiers and arranging their evacuation was the first priority for British secret services, a task complemented by the need to make contact with the Cretan Resistance.
The service that took responsibility for these tasks was the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Set up by Churchill in 1940, the organisation had responsibility for undertaking subversive activities in Europe’s occupied territories and by 1941, working out of Cairo, it had responsibility for operations in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.
Balkan countries would be penetrated by sea (by the Royal Navy) and by air (Royal Air Force). In the case of Crete, air proved to be largely impractical, except for parachuting arms and supplies, so the movement of personnel in and out of the island had to be almost totally by sea.
The first boats sent to the island were two submarines, HMS Thrasher in late July 1941, and HMS Torbay three weeks later. They made landfall at Limni, the tiny secluded beach below the Preveli Monastery, where large numbers of Allied soldiers had gathered. Under the care of the Abbot Agathangelos Lagouvardos, the monastery had become a refuge for scores of escapers and evaders trying to flee the island.
Nearly 200 of these soldiers were taken off by the two submarines. The officer who went ashore and organised these evacuations was Lt Commander Francis ‘Skipper’ Pool, CO of SOE Para Naval Section. This marked the beginning of clandestine operations to and from Crete organised by SOE, and undertaken by the Royal Navy and the Royal Hellenic Navy.
Secret operations would continue for nearly four years, at the rate of one or two a month, building up in frequency during the last half of the Occupation.
More than 500 Allied soldiers would be rescued between 1941 and 1944; secret service agents, their wireless operators and their assistants would be infiltrated and exfiltrated regularly, Cretan resistance leaders taken to and from Cairo, and assistance given to sabotage missions by the Special Boat Squadron and SAS forces.
After the first submarine visits, Preveli was occupied by the enemy and was too dangerous to use again. SOE had to find alternative landing sites; it also had to find alternative boats as the Royal Navy cut back on the use of their submarines.
Two para naval officers with extensive small boat experience – Lieutenant John Campbell RN and Lieutenant Michael Cumberlege RNR – played a key in both matters.
They secured two small vessels, a 20-foot motorised lifeboat, HMS Escampador, and a 60-ton fishing trawler HMS Hedgehog, and from October to December 1941 they used them to reconnoitre more than 50 kilometres of Crete’s south-central coast, identifying landing sites and undertaking more evacuations.
The two vessels picked up another 155 Allied soldiers, 90 of them in one heavily over-loaded trip with Hedgehog from Treis Ekklisies (a tiny coastal hamlet due south of Heraklion) in late November. But the successes of 1941 were not to be sustained and keeping the Crete escape route operating became increasingly difficult.
By June 1942, the North African ports closest to Crete fell to the Germans, and the Royal Navy’s resources were being required more and more for the North African campaign.
There were a small number of operations in 1942 using Escampador and Hedgehog in combination with motor torpedo boats (American Elco Class) and motor launches (Fairmile Type B Class). The Greek Navy submarine Papanikolis was also used several times.
By the end of 1942, the preferred boat for the Crete run was the Fairmile Type B motor launch. These boats were being constructed in Cairo by the Anglo-American Nile & Tourist Co. using prefabricated parts sent out from Britain, and they soon came to dominate Crete operations.
At 112 feet long, the Fairmiles carried light armament and a crew of sixteen and, with two petrol engines, were capable of 20 knots. They could get to Crete in 14 hours from Tobruk or Mersa Matruh, allowing them to make overnight trips, with daylight travel at the beginning and end of each voyage.
One of the early successes with the Fairmile was the evacuation of 51 Allied soldiers from Tripiti in western Crete in May 1943, by ML 355 under the command of Lieutenant Geoffrey Searle RNVR.
The major threat to boats on the Crete run was from the air and the Fairmiles were no exception, except that they were faster and had the capacity to fight back.
The voyages were planned to take place on moonless nights, and the launches aimed to be as far off the Crete coast as possible during daylight. Even so, the voyages were fraught with danger.
The worst incident occurred in July 1943, on a return trip from western Crete by ML 361, under the command of Lieutenant Bob Young from the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve. Just after dawn Young’s boat was attacked by three German Arado 196 seaplanes. The gun crew fought them off but not before ML 361 was shot up and half the crew wounded. In September, Lieutenant Young led another operation, this time taking a small party to eastern Crete and, fortuitously, picking up one of the highest-ranking enemy officers taken off the island up until this time – the commanding officer of Italian forces on the island, General Angelo Carta.
A week beforehand Carta had been persuaded by SOE agent Captain Patrick Leigh Fermor to leave Crete for Cairo. While they were on the run, a reward of 30 million drachmai was offered by the Germans for his capture, dead or alive.
The abduction of General Carta had come about through the announcement of the Italian armistice on 8 September, which exposed the ambivalent attitude of Italian forces to their alliance with Nazi Germany.
The success of the Carta mission emboldened SOE to attempt a much more dangerous and ambitious plot, which also required the close assistance of the Royal Navy and its Fairmile fleet. This time the aim was to abduct the commanding officer of German forces in Crete.
Originally SOE’s target was General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, much despised by Cretans for the many reprisals he had ordered, but Muller was replaced by General Kreipe just before the kidnap team was assembled. Led by Leigh-Fermor, the mission went ahead and the general was seized on 26 April 1944.
This was followed by a high-stakes game of hide and seek, secreting the general across Mount Psiloritis, down to a remote rendezvous on the south coast, where they were picked up by ML 842 under the command of Lieutenant Brian Coleman on 14 May. For several days prior to this, ML 842 and ML 355 had been taking it in turns to make nightly visits to the coast, waiting for the kidnap party to appear.
The Carta and Kreipe abductions were two of the most daring operations carried out by SOE and the Royal Navy during the war but they should not overshadow the other missions. They all had their dangers.
The Axis occupation of Crete lasted nearly four years, and during that time there were more than 100 clandestine sea operations. Over 1,000 people were taken off the island, alongside the constant movement back and forth of SOE personnel. Large quantities of supplies were landed and all this was done without any loss of boats or their crews.
The story of Crete’s secret maritime lifeline in WWII is one of great daring, courage and adventure – many details of which are still emerging.