Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14
After Crete was lost, the evacuation of Allied troops proved almost as costly as the fighting. When half the Mediterranean Fleet had been crippled or lost, the Admiralty ordered the evacuation to stop. Fraser, then in Egypt, could not agree to abandoning the New Zealanders still there and made an eloquent plea in Alexandria to Admiral Cunningham, the naval commander. When he finished speaking the ensuing silence was broken by Cunningham: “Mr. Fraser is right.”
The Admiral resolved to ignore his orders and make one last attempt: “It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take 300 years to build a new tradition.”1 If the light cruiser HMS Phoebe got back to Egypt, Cunningham said, she would be sent back for one last effort.
In the darkness that night, Fraser and Cunningham stood on the dock at Alexandria, waiting in the hope that HMS Phoebe would arrive. It was nearly midnight before they could make out the faint loom of the ship as she ghosted in. Cunningham told the captain to return to Crete and pack in as many New Zealanders as possible. With a scratch crew, the cruiser left at dawn. She returned safely the next day, though HMS Calcutta, sent out to escort her, was sunk. She brought 3700 soldiers from Sphakia. Cunningham and the Royal Navy, said Fraser, were “beyond praise.”2
1. Quoted in Antony Beevor, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (London: Penguin, 1992), 217.
2. Fraser to his deputy and eventual successor Walter Nash, 2 June 1941. NZ Documents, I 313.
PHOTOGRAPHS: NEW ZEALAND NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM