Operation Assumption

This was a British operation to deliver the second echelon of the 'Creforce' garrison force to Crete (October/November 1940).

When the Italians invaded Greece on 28 October 1940 in 'Emergenza G' and the Greeks called on the British for support in accordance with a previous guarantee, the British commanders-in-chief in North Africa and the Middle East convened in Alexandria to determine how best to establish the naval fuelling base, whose creation had already been decided, at Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete. The first decision was for the despatch by air of a three-service reconnaissance party to report on local conditions.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet would sail that night to cover the passage of store ships and auxiliaries to Souda Bay. One cruiser was allotted to take the 2/York and Lancaster, hitherto intended for Malta but which General Sir Archibald Wavell now decided to send to Crete. Wavell also agreed to make ready some anti-aircraft and other units. Having reported his action to the War Office, Wavell was released from the obligation previously placed on him to hold a battalion in readiness for movement to Malta.

All other naval forces at sea in the eastern part of the Mediterranean were recalled to fuel, and air reconnaissance from Malta over the Ionian Sea was intensified. At 01.30 on 29 October, Cunningham sortied with all the available strength of the Mediterranean Fleet (four battleships, two aircraft carriers, four cruisers and three destroyer flotillas) and swept up into the Ionian Sea, ready for any meeting with Italian naval forces, but there was no sign of Italian activity off Corfu.

Early on 31 October the Mediterranean Fleet was off the west coast of Crete, covering the arrival of the British 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 in the battleship Warspite returned to Alexandria, together with the fleet carrier Illustrious, on 2 November, and other major units of the fleet followed during the following day.

Early on the morning of 29 October the joint reconnaissance party had arrived in Crete, and the first convoy left Alexandria during the afternoon of the same day. It consisted of two Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, two armed boarding vessels, and the net-laying vessel Protector, escorted by two anti-aircraft cruisers and destroyers. This force reached Souda Bay on 1 November 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 laid. The only Italian reactions were attacks by about 15 bombers on Souda and Caneá on 1 and 2 November, in which no significant damage was inflicted.

By 3 November all the anti-submarine defences had been laid and the defences to seaward were being strengthened. Further reinforcement convoys arrived from 6 November, carrying a brigade headquarters, one heavy and one light AA battery, one field company, and ancillary units, together with defence 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) east of Souda Bay, too far away for aircraft to give protection to the naval base. The airfield could be used by Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, but by Bristol Blenheim light bombers it could be used only in one direction. Work was immediately started on making the airfield suitable for all types of aircraft, and on the preparation of another site about 11 miles (18 km) to the west of Souda Bay.

It had already been decided, at the end of September, that the infantry garrison as well as the anti-aircraft artillery strength available to the garrison of Malta should be increased. The infantry battalion had then been diverted to Crete, as noted above, so now it became necessary for the required troops, stores and equipment to be convoyed from the UK, and it was now decided that the passage of these reinforcements should form part of a co-ordinated operation in the Mediterranean during which Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force 'H' would cover the movement of certain ships proceeding as reinforcements to the Mediterranean Fleet, and also cover the fly-off of a number of Hawker Hurricane fighters to Malta from the carrier Argus. Delays to Argus at home resulted in the division of the operation into two, the first being 'Coat' confined to the carriage of the troops to Malta in warships which were then to join the Mediterranean Fleet.

Accordingly, the men of one battalion, two 25-pdr field batteries, one tank troop, and one light and two heavy anti-aircraft batteries, in all some 2,150 men, reached Gibraltar by liner on 6 November. Here they were transferred to warships by night: 700 to the battleship Barham, 750 to the heavy cruiser Berwick and 400 to the light cruiser Glasgow. Three destroyers carried 50 men each, and three Force 'H' destroyers, which were scheduled to return to Gibraltar, also carried 50 men each. The guns, tanks and other vehicles were to follow by merchant ships later in the month. The reinforcing ships were to be met in the neighbourhood of Malta by the Mediterranean Fleet, and the whole operation, which also involved other important shipping moves and subsidiary operations, was known as 'MB8'.

The moves from the east began on 4 November with the departure first of the AN.6 convoy with coal, essential stores and aviation fuel for Greece and Crete, and then of the MW.3 convoy of five store ships for Malta, to which two additional ships for Souda Bay, one with eight 3-in (76-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, also part of the general operation, was that of the light cruisers Ajax and 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, these ships were to join the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet. Other movements were to be associated with the return voyage.

Cunningham’s fleet comprised four battleships, the fleet carrier Illustrious, two cruisers and 13 destroyers. The passage to Malta was uneventful, such air attacks as did occur being broken up by the carrier’s Fairey Fulmar fighters. On 9 November MW.3 reached Malta together with the battleship Ramillies and other ships which needed to refuel. Meanwhile Cunningham continued to the west in order to rendezvous with the reinforcing ships coming from Gibraltar. These had sailed on 7 November with Force 'H', whose strength had been reduced because the battle-cruiser Renown had been ordered to take part in operations against the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in the Atlantic.

On the morning of 9 November Somerville had ordered the 'Crack' air attack on Cagliari by Fairey Swordfish bombers of Nos 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons from Ark Royal. During the morning the Italians had made one heavy and determined air attack. The Fulmar fighters were unable to break up the Italian formations, and bombs had fallen close to several ships, including Barham. Ark Royal flew off three Fulmar fighters to Malta, for transfer to Illustrious, and that evening the reinforcing ships parted company. Force 'H' returned to Gibraltar without further incident.

On joining the Mediterranean Fleet at 10.15 on 10 November the reinforcements proceeded to Malta and disembarked their troops. Meanwhile the ME.3 convoy of four empty store ships had left the island under close escort together with the monitor Terror, which was to become the guardship at Souda Bay. By dawn on 11 November the reinforced Mediterranean Fleet was steaming to the north-east, and late in the day the units concerned took up positions for the Fleet Air Arm’s 'Judgement' (i) carrierborne air attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto and for a cruiser raid into the Strait of Otranto.