The decision had now been taken to evacuate the British forces on Crete. For the men on the island there was a long and arduous walk over the mountains to the beaches on the south side. The Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet had suffered serious losses at the hands of the Luftwaffe attempting to block the invasion, in which the sinking of HMS Kelly was but one example. Now Admiral Cunningham, who had won a famous victory at Matapan, now faced an entirely different challenge in marshalling his resources:
On the naval side the evacuation had to be undertaken with ships whose officers and men were on the verge of complete exhaustion, physically and mentally. As for the ships themselves, they had been driven hard for more than two months without the occasional two or three days’ respite in harbour for boiler cleaning and running repairs. Their machinery had become unreliable, while many were struggling on as best they could after damage by enemy bombing.
Moreover, their numbers were depleted. We had already lost two cruisers and four destroyers; while two battleships, our aircraft-carrier, another cruiser and a destroyer were out of action for weeks or months. Another five cruisers and four destroyers had been damaged; but were still able to steam and to fight.
We were not really in favourable condition to evacuate some twenty-two thousand soldiers, most of them from an open beach, in the face of the Luftwaffe. But there was no alternative. The Army could not be left to its fate. The Navy must carry on.