|Admiral Andrew Browne Cuinningham. Photo attributed to Yousuf Karsh. Wiki.|
Cunningham and the Battle of Greece and Crete, 1941
One of those was Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham (affectionately known as "ABC"). The following post is drawn from his memoirs - A Sailor's Odyssey.
Born in Rathmines, Dublin of Scottish heritage, Cunningham was the Royal Navy's Commander-In-Chief Mediterranean during the battle of Greece and Crete in WW2.
He led the Allied naval forces that defeated the Italian Navy in the battle of Cape Matapan, off the Mani peninsula in Southern Greece on the night of 28th-29th March 1941. The Australian Cruiser HMAS Perth and HMAS Stuart took part in this battle. Two Italian destroyers were sunk by Allied destroyers commanded by Captain HML Waller of the HMAS Stuart. Another three Italian cruisers were sunk and the powerful battleship Vittorio Veneto crippled.This engagement effectively destroyed the Italian Navy's surface fleet as an offensive force in the Mediterranean.
Cunningham was also responsible for transport to and the evacuation from Greece - and then Crete - during the subsequent battle for Greece and Crete. During the evacuation - operating without air cover, the Navy suffered many losses. Cunningham was determined that "the navy must not let the army down" and is famously recorded by Winston Churchill as having said in response to Army generals' concern that he would lose too many ships:
"It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It will take three hundred years to build a tradition. The evacuation will continue."
Cunningham and the Navy's efforts meant that of 22,000 men on Crete, 16,500 were rescued at the loss of three Cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Fifteen other major warships were damaged.
Below are reproduced images from the Australian War Memorial archive showing the battle of Matapan and the evacuation from Greece in 1941.
|Battle of Matapan, viewed from HMAS Perth, 1941. AWM|
|HMAS Perth on patrol Suda Bay, Crete, April 1941. AWM.|
|Troops evacuated from Greece arrive in Suda Bay, Crete, April 1941. AWM|
|Troops evacuated from southern Greece, Suda Bay, Crete, April 1941. AWM|
|Troops evacuated from southern Greece, Suda Bay, Crete, April 1941. AWM|
Yet many are unaware that Cunningham also served in the Aegean in WW1, including taking part in the Gallipoli campaign. He was a highly decorated officer during the First World War, receiving the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and two bars.
In 1911 he was given command of the destroyer HMS Scorpion, which he commanded throughout the war. In his memoirs, Cunningham described the warship as "one of the latest ocean-going destroyers" - 900 tons, speeds of 27 knots and with one 4 inch, three 12 pounder guns, and two 21 inch torpedo tubes.
Cunningham and the Scorpion was sent to the Mediterranean in November 1913 and stayed there in active service until January 1918.
Between March and the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Scorpion and its flotilla sailed the Ionian, Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, calling into Corfu, Ithaka and Zante.
With the outbreak of war, Scorpion was involved in the shadowing of the German warships the SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau, both of which managed to evade the Scorpion and the Allied naval force and sail through the Dardanelles to Constantinople.Their arrival contributed to the Ottoman Empire joining the Central Powers in November 1914.
|The waters of Tenedos. Photo Jim Claven 2015|
Prior to the formal outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire, the Scorpion was engaged in naval actions off the port of Vourlah in the Gulf of Smyrne - destroying an Ottoman vessel being converted into a minelayer.
With the declaration of war between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire on 31st October 1914, the Allied fleet - including Cunningham and the Scorpion began patrolling the entrance to the Dardanelles and shelling the Dardanelles forts.
The weather was recorded as very poor, Cunningham writing of the weather around Lemnos and the northern Aegean. In words that resonate with anyone - especially sailors - who have experienced a northern Aegean winter:
"The weather that winter was a sharp surprise to those who had regarded the Aegean as an area of warmth and calm seas. Strong south-westerly winds with a fairly heavy sea nearly always prevailed, though occasionally we had three or four days of north-easterly blizzards with sleet and snow, as bad, and as bitterly cold, as anything I ever saw in the north Sea. it was difficult to keep one's accurate patrol position day and night with visibility of no more than 25 yards, and some destroyers had narrow escapes of running ashore."
|View of ships in Kondia Bay, 1915. AWM|
Some days Cunningham's vessel would participate in the shelling of the Dardanelles forts that would last from 9.50 am in morning until sunset. Fishing trawlers re-fitted as minesweepers swept the entrance to the Dardanelles, including around Kephez Point. Landing parties were put ashore during this period to help in the destruction of the forts and gun emplacements. The Scorpion took part in the shelling of Ottoman troops gathered near Morto Bay.
Following the failed Naval attempt to force the Dardanelles in March, the Scorpion sailed into "the fine harbour at Mudros" - Lemnos' Mudros Bay:
"...we got a little more rest in harbour and could occasionally let the boiler fires die out. Fresh food was short, and as often as not we were on "Bare Navy", of which the staple ingredients were bully beef and biscuit."
From March the Allies began assembling the landing forces need for the Gallipoli landings at Lemnos:
"By about the middle of March, 1915, Mudros had become the scene of great activity. though we destroyers did not see much of it. Large transports filled with troops occasionally arriving , and then returning to Egypt to be re-stowed for the assault. Great camps of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and French troops were set up on shore."
Cunningham describes the disorganized way materials were assembled - with one ship bringing guns, another ammunition, another vehicles and another machine guns. Everything had to be landed, sorted and re-loaded for the coming landings. These would have best been undertaken at Alexandria, rather than Mudros, with its limited piers and harbour facilities. Meanwhile the destroyers patrolling the Dardanelles could hear "the enemy driving in stakes, putting in barbed wire, and digging trenches, the delay was just asking for trouble."
Following the landings, most of the battleships soon departed the theater for other duties, although some remained at the base at Mudros as a covering force for the Gallipoli campaign as there was still a need for long-range heavy gunfire off the beaches. In August, the Navy would also be engaged in supporting the landings at Suvla Bay.
|Shore leave at Imbros. Three Midshipmen set off for an afternoon's picnic, carrying a basket and kettle. Note the ships anchored in the harbour. AWM|
With the evacuation of Gallipoli in early January 1916, Cunningham writes that the Scorpion and the Allied Navy laid a large minefield across the opening of the Dardanelles straits and destroyers patrolled outside it:
"Life was dull indeed. We spent three days on patrol in all sorts of weather, followed by two days coaling and resting at Mudros. after all our months of action and excitement it was a very dreary anti-climax."
As the Allied campaign moved to the Egypt and the Salonika front, the role of the Allied Navy moved to patrolling the Turkish coast from Asia Minor to Syria, to protect Allied shipping from German submarines.
In March 1916, Cunningham and the Scorpion became part of a naval force operating in the Dodecanese, with the forces headquarters at Maltezana (modern Analipsi) on the Island of Astypalea.
|Entrance to Vathy harbour, Samos. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
"...with his many Greek contacts and friends among the local fishermen he was of the greatest assistance to us, though his Greek sympathies by no means made him popular with the Italian governors and officials in the Dodecanese."
|The harbour at Rhodes. Photo Jim Claven 2013|
By October 1916, Cunningham was again in Lemnos' Mudros Bay. One of Lemnos' military uses at the time was as a naval supply base. Cunningham's Rattlesnake and Scorpion both received coal supplies at Lemnos.
Cunningham returned to the Dardanelles patrol in late 1916 and early 1917, which he described as:
"...a soul-destroying occupation neatly out of sight of the coast along which we had steamed with impunity such a short time before."
It was during this time that Cunningham's ship was rammed astern by another Allied warship, the HMS Wolverine. Repairs were carried out at Mudros:
"We limped back to Mudros, where we were temporarily patched up by the repair ship."
For his service during the Dardanelles campaign, Cunningham was promoted to commander and the awarded of the Distinguished Service Order.
A Naval Officer - Across Greece in Two World Wars
Cunningham reflected in his memoirs the curiousness of history:
"I have often reflected how curiously history repeats itself. When I left the Mediterranean as a young commander in 1917 I knew it well. Malta, the Adriatic, Greece, Crete and a multitude of lovely Islands in the Aegean were all old friends. I served in the Mediterranean again between the wars. Little did I imagine how the accumulated knowledge was to be of service to me years later in a position of far greater anxiety and responsibility."
|HMAS Scorpion, Valetta Harbour, Malta, 1915.|