Luftwaffe versus the British Fleet

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The sun rose blood-red over the Aegean Sea, and May 22nd 1941 promised to be hot. On the Peloponnesian airfields of Argos, Mycenae and Molae hundreds of engines roared into life as Ju 87s, Me 109s and Me 110s lined up for the take-off. Seldom had German airmen waited to do so with such impatience.

The war diary of Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps explains the tension: “Since 05.00 hours today reports have multiplied of British cruisers and destroyers in the sea areas north and west of Crete.”

On the previous day German reconnaissance aircraft had kept the movements of the British Mediterranean fleet under observation, and established that Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s force was cruising out of sight to the west of Crete. In view of German air superiority, he could not risk participating in the island struggle with his naval guns. As for the German bomber units, their support of the hard-pressed paratroops was for the moment the more important task. Only single Stuka Gruppen attacked the fleet, sinking one destroyer.

But during the night of May 21st/22nd the whole situation changed. Admiral Cunningham now sent two powerful battle groups, each of seven cruisers and destroyers, to take up positions off the north coast of the island. Lying in wait there, they thwarted every German attempt to bring in heavy weapons by sea.

On one matter the British and German supreme commands were in agreement: both rejected the idea that the strongly defended island bastion could be taken by airborne troops alone. If the paratroops, etc., were not to find themselves in a hopeless situation, they must be reinforced from the sea by the second, or at latest the third day of the campaign. But the German transport fleet consisted only of small coasters and powered sailing-ships or caiques—all that was available in the Greek harbours.

On the night of the 21st/22nd the 1st Caique Squadron under Naval Lieutenant Oesterlin neared its destination, a landing-place west of Malemes. It had in fact started the previous day, only to be recalled half-way, then finally sent out again. This coming and going took the twenty-odd heavily laden little ships six hours to accomplish—a delay that was to cost them dear. For now they were delivered straight into the hands of the British.

Just before midnight the British cruisers and destroyers all at once opened fire. Two of the caiques immediately burst into flames, and a small steamer, carrying ammunition for the paratroops, blew up with a blinding flash. The rest sought safety in flight.

The one-sided battle lasted two-and-a-half hours. Rear-Admiral Glennie then broke off the pursuit and led his “Force D” south-west through the Straits of Antikythera. His flagship Dido, and the other two cruisers, Orion and Ajax, had spent a good two-thirds of their flak ammunition, and Glennie reckoned that he was in no position to withstand the Stuka attack that was sure to come early in the morning. In any case the German transport fleet seemed to have been completely annihilated. The British estimated that some 4,000 German soldiers had gone down with their ships.

But at first light ten scattered caiques found themselves once more off the island of Melos. The rest had been sunk, and all over the sea shipwrecked soldiers were clinging to pieces of flotsam. After a rescue operation that lasted the whole day, only 297 men were finally missing. But the British fleet had achieved its objective of preventing sea-borne reinforcements reaching Crete.

Such was the position early on May 22nd, when the Luftwaffe was again able to join battle. Lieutenant-Colonel Dinort, commander of the “Immelmann” Geschwader, StG 2, briefed his crews from his field caravan at Molai airfield. Reconnaissance patrols, he said, had reported ship after ship. They could not fail to find the British fleet.

At 05.30 Hitschold’s and Sigel’s Gruppen took off, formed up over the airfield and headed south-east. By this time “Force D” had departed, and been replaced by the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji and the destroyers Greyhound and Griffin, which lay twenty-five miles off the Cretan north coast. They were the first ships to feel the impact of the Stukas.

From 12,000 feet the Ju 87s dived down into the concentrated naval ack-ack fire. Using full speed and maximum rudder, the warships zig-zagged violently to avoid the bombs. All about them the sea boiled with mast-high columns of water. Often the bursts were so near that the cruisers steamed right beneath the cascades.

Light 100-lb. bombs struck the superstructure of the Gloucester, but though the fragmentation was considerable, they failed to penetrate. The Fiji was also only slightly damaged. All the heavy bombs missed their targets, if often by only a few yards. After an attack lasting one-and-a-half hours the Stukas were compelled to return to base to re-fuel and bomb-up again.

The British used the breathing space to join up with their main fleet, cruising some thirty miles west of Crete. Altogether the combined “Forces A, B and D” represented an imposing array of two battleships (Warspite and Valiant), five cruisers and a dozen destroyers. Its commander, Rear-Admiral Rawlings, reckoned that the anti-aircraft guns of nineteen warships would be enough to scare the Stukas away, or at least to prevent any accuracy of aim.

But the Luftwaffe was aware that, apart from the main fleet, there was another British flotilla considerably nearer: “Force C”, under Rear-Admiral King. As ordered, its four cruisers and three destroyers had from first light on May 22nd been cruising to the north of Crete. Such a daylight penetration of the lion’s den suited the Luftwaffe.

Twenty-five miles south of Melos Rear-Admiral King’s force encountered the second German caique squadron, which had sailed at dawn for Crete. The latter was compelled to turn back, and a second massacre was only avoided by a hair’s breadth. At literally the last minute rescue came from the skies in the shape of a Gruppe of Ju 88s.

Captain Cuno Hoffmann and his I/LG l had taken off from Eleusis near Athens at 08.30, and a few minutes later they were presented with a fascinating picture. Lieutenant Gerd Stamp, one of the Ju 88 pilots, saw far below him the German “midget fleet” sailing off northwards, with the British cruisers and destroyers steaming after them only a few miles away to the south.

Between the latter and their apparently certain prey, however, an Italian torpedo-boat, the Sagittario, had placed itself. Zig-zagging at full speed, the little vessel was laying a smoke-screen to hide its charges, meanwhile drawing the fire of the cruisers Perth and Naiad. It was high time for I/LG l to intervene! Captain Hoffmann gave the order, and the first Ju 88s dived obliquely into the inferno of flak. Their bombs produced two water-spouts beside the Naiad’s gunwales, and the cruiser stopped.

Though the German convoy lay close ahead, the British admiral, fearing to risk his own ships by any further move to the north, decided to turn back. But the Luftwaffe would not let him alone. As the flotilla sped south-west, bombs rained down upon it for three-and-a-half hours, I/LG 1’s Ju 88s and KG 2’s Do 17s taking turns to attack. Effective near-misses put two of the Naiad’s gun turrets out of action and tore her side open, water flooding several compartments. But the bulkheads held, and the Naiad steamed on at half speed.

A direct hit on the bridge structure of the ack-ack cruiser Carlisle killed Captain Hampton, but the vessel continued on her course, and the cruisers Calcutta and Perth successfully evaded every bomb the Germans dropped. Meanwhile Rear-Admiral King grew anxious at the expenditure of anti-aircraft ammunition, much of which had been used up during the four-hour attack of the previous day, when the destroyer Juno had sunk two minutes after a direct hit from a heavy bomb. Though Admiral Cunningham sent him a radio signal to stick things out on behalf of the army in Crete, he felt himself in no position to turn round and re-enter the lion’s den. In fact he had himself to ask for succour, signalling Rear-Admiral Rawlings to bring the main fleet to rendezvous with him in the Straits of Antikythera to help protect his crippled cruisers.

Soon after noon the two groups made visual contact. Ten minutes later the battleship Warspite, Rawlings’ flagship, received a direct hit, and was further damaged by a flight of Me 109 fighter-bombers of III/JG 77 under First-Lieutenant Wolf-Dietrich Huy. These attacked from directly ahead, and wrecked the warship’s starboard 4-inch and 6-inch batteries. All the same, the fleet came off relatively lightly, even if the supply of anti-aircraft ammunition became hourly more critical.

The Luftwaffe, however, had not finished. VIII Air Corps’ war diary records: “The Stukas had meanwhile been brought to readiness again for an attack on the enemy fleet in the Straits of Antikythera. Aided by Me 109s with bombs or without, by Me 110s and bombers, they were to pursue a ceaseless attack.” On May 22nd Richthofen had at his disposal the following units:

KG 2, with three Gruppen of Do 17s under Colonel Rieckhoff, based at Tatoi. Two Ju 88 Gruppen (I and II/LG 1 under Captains Hoffmann and Kollewe), plus one Gruppe of He 111s (II/KG 26)—based at Eleusis. Dinort’s StG 2, with two Gruppen of Ju 87s at Mycene and Molai, and the third under Captain Brücker on the island of Scarpathos, between Crete and Rhodes.

ZG 26, with two Gruppen of Me 110s under Captain von Rettberg at Argos. JG 77, with three Gruppen of Me 109s under Major Woldenga (including I/LG 2 under Captain Ihlefeld), also based at Molai in the Peloponnesus.

While the air-sea battle of May 22nd was at its height, few of these units were launched as such. As soon as their aircraft had landed to refuel and bomb-up, they took off again in pairs or sections to resume the assault. It remained to be seen whether a powerful naval force, without fighter escort, could assert itself against an opponent who ruled the skies.

Towards 13.00 hours—half an hour after the Warspite had been hit—the destroyer Greyhound was sent to the bottom by two Stuka bombs. She owed her doom to having been despatched alone to sink one of the caiques that had been sighted off the island of Antikythera.

As a result, Rear-Admiral King ordered the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston to the spot to pick up survivors, with the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji as anti-aircraft cover. Both of them had been in the thick of things since dawn, and had now virtually no ammunition left. On learning of this, the admiral recalled them. But by then it was too late.

Snatching their chance, a number of Ju 87 and Ju 88 sections bore down upon the isolated cruisers, and the Gloucester was immediately hit. Fires broke out between the funnels and spread rapidly to the whole deck. Unable to proceed, and belching smoke, the cruiser circled slowly around till at 16.00 hours an internal explosion finally sank her.

Again Rear-Admiral King faced a difficult decision, and in the end he left the Gloucester’s crew to their fate. The report of the engagement stated that to have despatched the battle fleet in support of the Gloucester would simply have meant hazarding more ships. Before the next day dawned the Germans saved more than 500 British sailors, partly by means of air-sea rescue aircraft.

As a second potential target the Fiji, with her destroyers, was forced to make a getaway. Proceeding on an individual course to Alexandria, she never joined the main fleet again. For suddenly, at 17.45 hours, she was spotted by a single Me 109 of I/LG 2, carrying a single 500-lb bomb. The pilot, with his plane at the limit of its endurance, was about to return to base when he sighted the cruiser through a thin veil of cloud.

Twenty times this day the Fiji had withstood all the attacks of bombers and dive-bombers, and now she met her fate at the hands of a lone fighter-bomber. Like lightning it came down and planted its bomb close up against the ship. The bomb exploded like a mine under water and tore the ship’s side out. At once the vessel hove to with a heavy list. The Me 109 pilot summoned a colleague by radio, and when the second attack took place half an hour later, the cruiser could defend herself with only feeble fire. This time the bomb scored a direct hit in the forward boiler room—the coup de grace. At 19.15 the Fiji capsized.

At dusk five modern destroyers began a fresh patrol of Crete’s north coast. The British C.-in-C. had ordered them out of Malta in support. The Kelly and Kashmir shelled Malemes airfield and set fire to two caiques. But at dawn next day the Luftwaffe made a final effort. The two destroyers were harried by twenty-four Ju 87s of I/StG 2 under Captain Hitschold, and both were sunk by direct hits.

At 07.00 on May 23rd the battered Mediterranean Fleet returned to Alexandria. The first air-sea battle of Crete was over.

“The result,” wrote Richthofen in his diary, “was abundantly clear. I was convinced we had scored a great and decisive victory. Six cruisers and three destroyers had certainly been sunk, with many additional hits even on the battleships. We had at last demonstrated that a fleet at sea within range of the Luftwaffe was vulnerable—provided the weather permitted flying.”

The actual losses suffered by the Mediterranean Fleet between May 21st and dawn on the 23rd were two cruisers and four destroyers sunk, plus two battleships and three other cruisers damaged—not counting the scars caused by numerous near-misses.

Admiral Cunningham signalled London. He was afraid, he said, that in the coastal area they had to admit defeat and accept the fact that losses were too great to justify them in trying to prevent seaborne attacks on Crete.

Nevertheless the Chiefs of Staff in London required the fleet to risk everything, even by daylight, to prevent seaborne reinforcements and supplies reaching Crete. But Cunningham stuck to his guns: he could not, he said, retain sea control in the Eastern Mediterranean if the blows his fleet had received were repeated. He added that their light craft, officers, men, and machinery alike were nearing exhaustion.

Meanwhile the Ju 52 transport formations of XI Air Corps had succeeded in ferrying to Crete the augmented 5 Mountain Division under Lieutenant-General Ringel. British troop reinforcements, brought by warships and transports in darkness, encountered heavy air attacks at Suda Bay and in the Canea area.

On May 27th the German Navy for the first time succeeded in landing a couple of tanks on the island, after towing them adventurously across the Aegean in an open barge. About the same time General Freyberg reported: “The limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command here at Suda Bay. . . Our position here is hopeless.” His force could no longer stand up against “the concentrated bombing that we have been faced with during the last seven days”.

[W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. Ill, PP- 235-6.]

Though Churchill telegraphed once more: “Victory in Crete essential at this turning-point in the war,” General Wavell answered the same day, May 27th:

“Fear we must recognise that Crete is no longer tenable….”

During the following night the evacuation of the British troops began. It was completed by June 1st.

So it was that victory in Crete was won by the German paratroops, together with the air-lifted Mountain Division, and supported by the ceaseless onslaught of VIII Air Corps’ bombers and fighters. The ten-day struggle had cost the Germans dear, the paratroops alone losing 5,140 dead, wounded and missing out of a force of some 13,000 men.

The greatest loss had been incurred during the initial jump right amongst the alerted enemy, and the paratroops’ victory was a Pyrrhic one. For the rest of the war they were virtually confined to a ground role.

During the evacuation of Crete the British Mediterranean Fleet was once more subjected to heavy air bombardment. The Stukas of StG 2 were now operating from Scarpanto, thus dominating the Straits of Kasos to the east of Crete. A number of cruisers and destroyers laden with troops were either sunk or severely damaged.

Already on May 26th Admiral Cunningham had suffered a new blow, when his only aircraft carrier, the Formidable, was subjected to heavy air attack. Late in the morning II/StG 2, which had been sent to support Rommel in North Africa, and while on the look-out for troop transports, happened upon the British battle fleet, hitherto completely unreported. The Formidable at once turned into the wind and sent off her fighters. But the Stuka commander, Major Walter Enneccerus, dived straight down to attack, followed by the squadrons of First-Lieutenants Jakob, Hamester and Eyer.

The aircraft carrier’s flight deck was struck at the point of gun turret No. 10, and other bombs tore open her starboard side between bulkheads 17 and 24. She then limped back to Alexandria.

It was an echo of what had happened four and a half months previously, when the same Stuka Gruppe had handed out similar punishment to the Formidable’s sister ship, the Illustrious, west of Malta.

II/StG 2 under Major Enneccerus, and I/StG 1 under Captain Werner Hozzel, had only just arrived at Trapani in Sicily on January 10, 1941, when they received information that a British supply convoy, with a large escort of warships, was headed westwards for Malta. Staking all, the Stukas swept down from 12,000 to 2,000 feet into the concentrated fire of the ships and planted six bombs on the Illustrious. Though she did not sink, she had afterwards to be repaired in the United States—a job requiring several months.

On the following day, January 11th, II/StG 2, guided by a “pathfinder” He 111, gave chase to the British fleet as it steamed back eastwards. At extreme range, nearly 300 miles east of Sicily, the Stukas attacked out of the sun and sank the cruiser Southampton with a direct hit in the engine-room.

This represented the first operation by X Air Corps, which in fulfilment of an agreement between Hitler and Mussolini had been posted to Sicily to bolster up the reeling Italian forces. Air General Hans Ferdinand Geisler and his staff accordingly took over the Hotel Domenico in Taormina. Their air force was given the following comprehensive duties:

Bar the narrows between Sicily and Tunis to British shipping. Mount an air offensive against Malta. Provide air support for the Italians in North Africa, and subsequently secure the transport of the German Afrika Korps to Tripoli. Assault all reinforcements for Wavell’s army going via the Suez Canal.

Though the last assignment seemed the most important—i.e., to hamper the British offensive in Cyrenaica—it was also the most difficult. As a base of operations against the Suez Canal the island of Rhodes was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, however, it was without stocks of fuel, and to supply it was a difficult problem. Benghazi had plenty, but within a few days it would be occupied by the British.

There, however, II/KG 26 under Major Bertram von Comiso was hastily sent from Sicily. Of its fourteen He Ills three were lost by a collision on landing, and a further three were billed for a reconnaissance role over the canal. Thus the Gruppe’s effective strength was reduced to eight.

During the afternoon of January 17th the expected report arrived: a convoy stood off Suez, about to enter the canal from the south. Accordingly at half-hour intervals, and in darkness, the bombers took off on their mission. The two quartets of He 111s were briefed to scour the canal from opposite directions, one on the right bank, the other on the left.

From Benghazi to Suez is 700 miles, which meant that the target area was almost out of range. Only at the most economical cruising speed and airscrew trimming had the He 111s a hope of fulfilling their mission and returning to base. In view of these difficulties X Air Corps’ chief of staff, Major Martin Harlinghausen, decided to lead the attack in person. Though the Corps meteorologist, Dr. Hermann, forecast an adverse wind of forty m.p.h. for the return flight, it was hoped to counter this handicap by flying at the most favourable altitude, 12,000 feet.

After a four-hour flight the He 111 carrying Major Harlinghausen, and piloted by Captain Robert Kowalewski, reached Suez and turned north. They flew along the canal, rounded Bitter Lake and continued. But not a ship did they find. The convoy seemed to have been swallowed up.

The other aircraft were sent against alternative targets, but Harlinghausen was loath to give up. On reaching Port Said, he considered returning, but instead turned and repeated the search, this time southwards. Again nothing was seen, and a stick of bombs was dropped on the Ismailia ferry. Once more they came to Bitter Lake, and suddenly there were the ships, widely dispersed and at anchor for the night.

The He 111 tried to bomb a steamship, but missed. The whole operation had failed.

The return flight straight across the desert was hair-raising. At 12,000 feet the Heinkel had unexpectedly to battle against a storm of at least 75 m.p.h. But on board the plane its strength was not realised, for it was now pitch dark, and there were no landmarks by which the ground speed could be measured. Harlinghausen calculated that they would be back in four and a half hours, but at the end of them there was no welcoming beacon. Five hours passed, then five and a half—still nothing. Finally, with his last drops of fuel, Kowalewski had to make a belly-landing in the desert. The ground was indeed so level that he could have landed normally on his undercarriage.

After a brief discussion the four airmen set fire to the wreck, and set off north-west on foot. Benghazi could not be far off, they thought. In fact, it was 175 miles.

Next morning the burning wreck was spotted, but the crew had disappeared. Only four days later were they found by a searching aircraft, which landed beside the exhausted men. Their rescuer was none other than First-Lieutenant Kaupisch, whose He 111 had been the only one to get safely back to Benghazi. Becoming aware of the high-altitude wind force, he had clung low down to the coast. All the others had made emergency landings in the desert, and three of the crews became British prisoners-of-war.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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