Angus Konstam, Naval Battle of Crete 1941 (Osprey, 2023)
In April 1941, the British and Commonwealth forces in Greece discovered the difference between fighting lacklustre Italians and facing the German blitzkrieg. The result was a desperate evacuation to Crete, then an even more frantic escape from that island as the Germans overwhelmed it too. The instrument for evacuation was the Royal Navy, and it is that story Angus Konstam narrates in the latest Campaign series book.
After the obligatory background introduction, Konstam discusses the opposing commanders. He has a lot of respect for the resolute and intelligent Admiral Cunningham, his subordinates, and partners in command in the army and RAF. Konstam also gives due credit to the German commanders who would wreak havoc on the Allies on land and sea and in the air. But it is the struggle between the Royal Navy and the Luftwaffe that interests Konstam here. To that end, he discusses the Allied Mediterranean fleet, its strengths and deficiencies, along with their order of battle. He follows a similar line for describing the German air force but notes the absence of the Italian navy’s main battle fleet, which could have made all the difference.
Konstam moves onto the respective plans for both sides, then the reality as plans turned into action and the Axis forces launched their invasion of Crete. He follows the various Allied Forces’ naval operations through their discovery by the Axis reconnaissance planes and subsequent attacks by hundreds of bombers. Although the Allied ships did well against the initial assaults, their anti-aircraft ammunition became depleted, which led to Black Thursday when the Germans sank the cruiser HMS Gloucester along with sinking and damaging many other ships. Darkness could not come fast enough for the Allied sailors. The attacks continued as the Allied defence of Crete failed and the evacuation began. Cunningham was determined that the Royal Navy must do its utmost to help the army; a promise that cost many lives, though for the first time, the RAF provided adequate air cover for much of the operation. Konstam closes with the ‘butcher’s bill’ and his conclusion that, while costly, the operations to evacuate Greece and Crete were worth the sacrifice.
Like all the Campaign series of books, Naval Battle of Crete 1941 follows a formulaic structure, so you know what you are getting. But Konstam is a fine storyteller, particularly when it comes to naval matters. He does lean towards the Allied side of this story and defends Cunningham to the hilt where others might be inclined to stronger criticism of his command. The book is well supported by superb graphics, maps, and contemporary photographs, as you should expect from Osprey. All in all, this is a good introduction and overview of an important and under-emphasised campaign.