Operation Scorcher

This was the British plan for the defence of Crete after the fall of Greece (May 1941).

At the time of the German ‘Marita’ campaign against Greece in April 1941, the garrison of Crete consisted of three British battalions (Brigadier B. H. Chappel’s 14th Brigade of Major General Major General J. F. Evetts’s 6th Division) and a number of half-trained and poorly equipped Greek units, reinforced early in May by Major General E. C. Weston’s Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation.

The strategic and operational importance of Crete was well understood by the Allies, and though it was appreciated that in the short term the Italians would be unable to undertake the conquest of the island, it was believed that the Germans were an altogether more formidable proposition, as they might undertake the venture to prevent the British establishing bases from which their naval and air forces could raid into the Aegean Sea and as far north as the vital Romanian oilfields.

On 30 April it was decided to entrust overall command of the island to Major General B. C. Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand 2nd Division recently evacuated from southern Greece in 'Demon'. Freyberg assumed command at the beginning of May, quickly assessed the defence needs of the island, and came to the conclusion that any realistic invasion of the island could be effected only on its north coast, where the coastal plain was suitable for the development of successful landings. Little thought was given to the possibility of a large-scale Axis airborne invasion, but the plan devised by Freyberg nonetheless retained its basic validity against this contingency.

From the Allied point of view the island’s main assets were the harbour at Souda and the three airfields, and each of these areas was allocated to a brigade-sized formation. From west to east these areas were Máleme airfield (Brigadier Edward Puttick with the New Zealand 5th and 10th Brigades of the New Zealand 2nd Division, which Puttick now commanded), the Souda-Caneá region (Weston with his Royal Marines and other units), the Heráklion area (Chappel’s 14th Brigade) and the Rétimo-Georgeopolis area (Brigadier George A. Vasey with the Australian 19th Brigade). The Greek units were divided among the Allied formations. Freyberg’s plan was to hold these vital points and defeat any invasion on the beaches and/or airfields. Heavy weapons were in very limited supply, and communications all but nonexistent, so great emphasis was placed on local initiative and rapid response to any German approach.

Air defence was also scarce, the garrison having just 32 heavy and 36 light anti-aircraft guns, and no aircraft. Group Captain G. R. Beamish had command of Nos 33, 80 and 112 Squadrons of the RAF and No. 805 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, but the hectic pace of operations against an overwhelming German air superiority meant that when the squadrons were withdrawn to Egypt on 19 May they had a mere four Hawker Hurricane monoplane and three Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters between them.

The Allied forces on Crete numbered some 30,000 men, and faced their decisive challenge in 'Merkur' (i).