Operation Action

This was the British preliminary movement of forces from Egypt to Crete (late 1940/early 1941).

After the Italian forces had launched their ‘Emergenza G’ campaign against Greece from Albania on 28 October 1940, the British commanders-in-chief in the Mediterranean theatre met in Alexandria to determine how to accelerate the creation of the naval fuelling base, already agreed with the Greeks, at Souda Bay on Crete’s north coast. They decided to despatch, by air, a three-service reconnaissance party to assess and report on local conditions. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet would depart Alexandria that night, covering the passage of store ships and auxiliaries to Souda Bay, and one cruiser was allotted to carry the 2/York and Lancaster, hitherto intended for Malta, which General Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, had now decided to send to Crete. In addition Wavell agreed to make ready some anti-aircraft and other units.

All the naval forces at sea in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean were recalled to fuel, and air reconnaissance from Malta over the Ionian Sea was intensified. One British submarine was patrolling the Strait of Otranto and another was off Taranto, and two Greek submarines were off the Ionian Islands.

At 01.30 on 29 October Cunningham departed Alexandria with all available fleet units (four battleships, two fleet carriers, four cruisers and three destroyer flotillas) and headed into the Ionian Sea. Early on 31 October the fleet was off the west coast of Crete, covering the arrival of the ships at Souda Bay. Air reconnaissance reported the Italian fleet to be at Taranto and Brindisi and, as any Italian naval activity appeared to be very unlikely, Cunningham returned to Alexandria with the battleship Warspite and fleet carrier Illustrious on 2 November, the fleet’s other major units following on 3 November.

The joint reconnaissance party had meanwhile reached Crete early in the morning of 29 October, and during the afternoon of the same day the first convoy departed Alexandria. This comprised two Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, two armed boarding vessels, and the netlayer Protector, escorted by two anti-aircraft cruisers and a number of destroyers. The convoy reached Souda Bay on 1 November, and at the same time as the light cruiser Ajax arrived with the 2/York and Lancaster. By that afternoon the troops and stores had been disembarked and one anti-submarine net had been laid. The only Italian reaction was attacks by about 15 bombers on Souda Bay and Caneá on 1/2 November, but these caused no serious damage. By 3 November all the anti-submarine defences had been laid and the seaward defences were being strengthened.

More convoys arrived from 6 November carrying a brigade headquarters, two anti-aircraft batteries (one heavy and one light), one field company and ancillary units, together with stores and supplies for 45 days. It was hoped to be able to operate one fighter squadron for the defence of the base if required, but the only airfield on Crete was at Heráklion, some 70 miles (115 km) to the east of Souda Bay and therefore too far distant for aircraft to protect the naval base with any efficiency. The airfield was suitable for use by Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, but for Bristol Blenheim light bombers there was only one take-off and landing direction. Work was immediately begun on improvement of the airfield, and on the development of another airfield about 11 miles (18 km) to the west of Souda Bay.

Up to this time nothing had been said or done to encourage the Greek government to believe that the British had any intention of any commitment on the Greek mainland, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill now agreed to this after the Greeks had invoked an earlier British guarantee. In the evening of the same day the British considered the matter and decided upon a number of measures including, for example, a full endorsement of the Middle East commanders’ actions in securing Souda Bay, and authorisation for Wavell to despatch one infantry brigade group to defend the Greek islands in general and Souda Bay in particular.

There were currently several schemes to strengthen the British position in Malta, the Middle East and Greece Among these schemes was ‘MB8’, and from 4 November this included the AN.6 convoy with coal, essential stores, and aviation spirit for Greece and Crete, and then the MW.3 convoy of five store ships for Malta, to which two additional ships for Souda Bay, one with eight 3.7-in (94-mm) mobile anti-aircraft guns and the other with fuel and petrol, were attached for the first part of the voyage. This convoy, under the close escort of cruisers and destroyers, was routed north of Crete while the main Mediterranean Fleet, sailing two days later, provided cover in the central basin. Another movement within ‘MB8’ was that of the light cruisers Ajax and Australian Sydney with the headquarters of Brigadier O. H. Tidbury’s 14th Brigade, one light and one heavy anti-aircraft battery and administrative troops from Port Said to Souda Bay. After disembarking their troops and stores, the two cruisers were to join the main strength of the Mediterranean Fleet comprising four battleships, the fleet carrier Illustrious, two cruisers and 13 destroyers.