The Battle of Crete
Dr Ross J Bastiaan AM RFD 2007
In 1941 the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany and the Fascist Italian regime led by Benito Mussolini. This juggernaut had overcome all attempts by the many European nations and the British to defend the continent of Europe against an extremely confident and aggressive enemy. The United States of America was still over half a year away from going to war.
On the European mainland only one nation now challenged these axis powers: Greece. The Greek army had convincingly defeated a larger Italian force on its Albanian border thereby forcing Hitler to reluctantly relieve his defeated ally. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill recognised the potential likelihood of this German attack on Greece and, against strong senior military advice, committed a combined small British, Australian & New Zealand force to fight on mainland Greece.
On April 3, 1941, 29 Nazi divisions were available to attack the northern boarder of Greece which was defended by a numerically inferior and poorly equipped allied force. Within 26 days the allied army was crushed and hastily evacuated by sea from the southern coast of Greece. From these 50,000 Allied troops that were saved, 25,000 went to Crete.
Crete was viewed as strategically important as it controlled the eastern portion of the Mediterranean. Linked with Malta and Gibraltar, the British held sway at the sea. Crete, with its airfields, provided tactical advantages against the German forces in the Mediterranean and more importantly against the oil fields that Hitler controlled in Rumania and soon he hoped, in Russia. The British however had done very little to prepare for a front line role. There was no large defensive artillery, heavy tanks or equipment. In a matter of only five months, seven different British commanders had been appointed, none of whom were able to effectively secure the island as a fortress base. In hindsight however it is not fair to be too critical when one considers just how desperate Britain was at that time of the war. Nothing had gone right for the Allies since 1939.
Into the chaos on Crete, Allied reinforcements from mainland Greece were dumped on the north coast of Crete around Suda Bay minus their supplies, munitions or supporting heavy equipment. The New Zealander, General Freyberg VC, a favourite of Winston Churchill’s, was appointed senior commanding officer. Freyberg, previously a dentist, had shown great gallantry in the First World War and was respected throughout the force as a good tactitioner and leader. His orders from General Wavell, Commander in Chief Middle East, and Churchill were to hold Crete at all costs. Wavell was unable to provide any significant air protection and this would ultimately prove to be a decisive factor in the Battle of Crete. The Royal Navy controlled the seas but was incredibly vulnerable to air attack from German bases as close as Rhodes.
Despite the lack of air cover and heavy equipment, the allied force had major advantages over the Germans. Freyburg had numerical superiority and access, through the Enigma code-breaking machine, to all of the German plans for the attack. As a consequence he deployed his troops exactly where the air drops were to occur.
The Allies knew that the German tactic was to capture the three vital airports on the north coast of Crete. In 1941, Crete had only one poorly made, narrow linking road on the north coast and few virtual dirt roads across the spine of Crete to the south coast. Freyberg wisely determined to deploy and concentrate his 25000 man force around the three airfields. At Maleme (and Hania), the main force was made up of New Zealanders. At Rethimno there were the Australians, whilst at Iraklio, the force was predominantly British. The Greeks, who were both regular army and Cretan civilian forces, numbered 7000 and were distributed throughout these Allied structures. The 11,500 men of the Greek force were underestimated in terms of their fighting qualities by both the Allies and the Germans.
No sooner had the Allies been thrown off mainland Greece than the Germans started building up for the attack on Crete. Airfields were built in days and secretly a division of paratroopers (10,000 men) was transported from Silesia, south to the Greek coast. German paratroopers were the elite force of Hitler’s army. He held them back from previous major conflict during the conquest of Europe. These were the handpicked ‘masters of the Aryan race’ who had an unswerving belief in themselves, their training and Hitler. This over-confidence was to result in their suffering major casualties in the coming days. In support of these men were 750 glider borne soldiers and 5,000 ground troops specially equipped and trained in mountain warfare. In all, the Germans had 23,000 men ready to attack by sea and air.
The Airborne Assault
On a beautiful, clear, sunny morning on May 20, 1941, the Germans launched their attack at Maleme. From the north, scores of German aircraft slowly crossed the coast discharging their paratroopers onto and around the Maleme airport. The Maleme attack disintegrated. Many of the paratroopers jumped directly onto the New Zealand defensive positions and they were killed in large numbers. Only to the west of the airport were successful landings made, but here paratroopers were herded into gullies to avoid complete obliteration. That same afternoon, a similar armada of German paratroopers jumped over Rethimno where the Australians inflicted even worse casualties than at Maleme. This German force effectively collapsed and was isolated to a few strong points to the east of the airport. Concurrently at Iraklio, the drop was equally unsuccessful and that force was almost wiped out.
By late afternoon the German High Command was desperate. To many in the Athens Headquarters, defeat on Crete looked inevitable. Such a military consequence was unprecedented for the Germans as, since the start of the war, they had not known defeat. Additionally the prestige of the paratrooper corps was at stake, not least the reputation of many senior officers who masterminded the attack including Herman Goering, Head of the German Air Force. It was Goering who had persuaded Hitler to commit to the campaign. Hitler had not been keen on capturing Crete as he wanted all his forces preserved for the huge Russian campaign due to be launched only days ahead. Not surprisingly therefore Athens HQ ordered glider borne troops to land as reinforcements the very next morning. Brave German glider pilots touched down on the airfield at Maleme despite direct and intense New Zealand fire. Each glider contained 15 highly skilled and equipped German glider troops but most gliders were riddled with bullets on landing. Despite terrible mounting casualties, the weight of German numbers slowly increased and a major battle evolved over the next 24 hours at Maleme. At the other two airfields the Germans made little or no gain and subsequent supporting airdrops resulted in repeated disaster.
The battle hung in the balance on the 23rd May. Maleme was the only chance of a German victory. Unfortunately for the Allies at this time, two front line New Zealander battalion commanders pulled back vital New Zealand troops from around the heavily contested airfield, and senior command refused reinforcements fearing a sea landing. These decisions sealed the fate of the campaign.
During daylight the allied forces in all three battle zones on Crete had no air protection. The troops were constantly bombed. Morale was holding but some New Zealand commanders felt it could fold under additional assault and this thinking resulted in further unfortunate withdrawals. The Maleme airfield, now free of infiltrating fire, witnessed a massive airborne build up. German ground troops landed unopposed in the following 24 hours including a full mountain division. This force swiftly moved inland attempting to go around behind the New Zealand defensive positions but was brilliantly stopped by a Greek division in the mountains south of Maleme.
New allied defensive lines near Hania were established on May 24 and again the initiative was lost when a fresh allied reserve force, which outnumbered the Germans, failed to counter-attack at the crucial moment. Allied reinforcements of men and materials now proved extremely difficult and Freyburg feared complete collapse. The allied soldiers around Hania were tired but worse still, sensed defeat. Around Rethimno and Iraklion the allies held the initiative.
In the meantime at sea, the second phase of the German attack based on seaborne landings at Maleme and Rethimno, had started. The Royal Navy, including elements of the Royal Australian Navy, intercepted two German naval fleets carrying 7,000 soldiers. They reversed this attack and sank many small landing craft in sight of the Cretan coast, drowning hundreds of Germans.
Still at this stage of the battle the Germans feared defeat and totally expected an Allied counter-attack, which they knew could overwhelm them. The counter-attack never came. The Allies, with poor communications, dwindling supplies and no air cover, caused General Wavell to reluctantly order a full withdrawal from Crete on May 27, 1941. Churchill was devastated but ill-informed of the true allied position. His political rhetoric did not match the realities on the ground.
Evacuation of Crete
The Royal Navy pledged to save the men on Crete and therefore at night on May 28, 1941, 6,000 men embarked at the port of Iraklio with no loss. However once at sea, German planes found the convoy as it headed south and when two warships were hit, over 800 soldiers drowned. This tragic loss reflected the vulnerability of the allied forces to the German aerial dominance on both land and sea.
At Hania the allied line with 11,000 men was buckling and a strategic withdrawal towards Sphakia on the south coast was ordered. This tiny fishing village was only accessable via a rough and meandering road that crossed over the 2,000 metre high spine of Crete. The road terminated 500 metres above sea level and 3 km short of Sfakia beach.
The remnants of the British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek forces trudged along this road, constantly under aerial attack and harassment from the pursuing German motorised forces. Discipline was not always maintained. Over five nights from May 28 to June 1, 11,000 men made their escape. Sadly, however, after June 1, the Royal Navy could not risk further evacuation and 5000 men were left behind destined for captivity.
Perhaps even worse than that loss was the fate of the undefeated garrison of Australians at Rethimno. Here, 2,000 Australians and supporting Greek forces had completely controlled and dominated the Germans for 10 days. However, with the region to the east now controlled by the German forces at Hania, German reinforcements flooded into Rethimno. On May 30, the gallant Australian force and its Crete allies reluctantly, but wisely, surrendered en masse. A sea escape, like at Iraklion, was never a possibility as the port was very small and vulnerable.
Many Allied troops were just not prepared to surrender and took to the hills. Countless loyal Cretan families provided shelter to these soldiers despite German retribution, which was often both vicious and deadly. From June to September 1941, 600 more Allied soldiers were safely shepherded off the island. For the Cretan forces, guerrilla warfare lay ahead for some whilst others melted away into the civilian population. German retaliation against the guerillas was vicious and swift. Many villages were destroyed and the inhabitants killed. Such actions by the Germans caused a hatred that remains to this day. In many Cretan villages war memorials are found which have within them the bones of those executed by the Germans.
Consequences of the Battle of Crete
The fall of Crete was a major allied disaster. With some luck, air cover and a stronger command structure, the allied forces at Maleme could have defeated the Germans. Brave though the defence had been, in the long term, the concept of holding Crete by the British High Command was an unsustainable strategy. There was no way Crete could have withstood a long term siege by the Germans particularly as the Royal Navy would have been incapable of supplying an army of 25,000 men over a long period of time. The fact that the British lost 9 war ships and almost 2,000 sailors in the evacuation bears testament to their courage but equally a naivety to think that such a force could have protected Crete over the coming years of war. It was no Malta!
For the Germans, Crete may have been a victory but it came at an appalling cost. From an attacking force of 23,000 men, 4,000 were killed and 2,500 wounded. These losses were too high for Hitler to accept and he dismissed any further use of the paratroopers in the airborne assault role that they had trained so carefully for years. This misuse of the paratrooper’s rapid deployment potential was to continue in the remaining four years of war when they were wasted as ground-only assault troops before Starlingrad, Monte Casino and Berlin. The Germans also lost 220 vital aircraft at a time when Hitler had eyes only for his forthcoming attack on Russia. The Crete campaign delayed the start of the attack on Russia by a week and this delay was later to cost the Germans dearly when the terrible winter of 1941/42 closed in on them at the outskirts of Moscow.
In 1991, I placed in Hania, Rethimno and Iraklio 3 large hand sculpted bronze plaques to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Crete. They were commissioned by The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association to mark the anniversary and in response to the plaques that I had successively placed the year before on Gallipoli for the 75th anniversary of ‘The Landing’.
The 50th anniversary was a proud period in Crete’s history as that week saw big events occur including the return of 200 Australian veterans and their families. Sponsored by the Australian Government, ceremonies were held throughout the major battlefield areas of the campaign. Memorable for all of us was the warmth and hospitality shown by the Cretans to our veterans. Coupled with the Australians, many more British veterans attended and there was a strong contingent from New Zealand. The years may have wearied them but on Crete the years had not condemned.
Also interestingly at the time was the appearance of hundreds of German veterans. I joined them on the day of their 50 year commemoration at Maleme. No prouder group of men was there to be seen nor more correctly turned out with their medals on straight and backs bolt upright. No Cretan joined their throng. By contrast the Australians, with their typical casual air that had not been diminished by 50 years, mingled freely with their Cretan brothers. Ties loose and medals adrift, the ouzo flowed by mid-morning so that by mid-afternoon the allied veterans were looking much the worse for wear but very happy.
Time has marched steadily on and other wars have come and gone. For those who visit Crete today, there is little to be seen to remind us of the ferocious battles that occurred here 65 plus years ago. The magnificently maintained Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Suda Bay is a sad reminder of the casualties of war, whilst the sombre German cemetery overlooking Maleme airstrip is testament to the terrible price the Germans paid for their victory of 1941.
It is fitting therefore that our conference organisers have commissioned me to make a plaque to place at Sphakia to record the events that occurred at that small but vital fishing village in 1941. As delegates, we leave for all those who come after us a strong message of the pride that we share with the Cretans in what our forefathers did in a time of great danger and consequence.
Copyright 2007. Greek/Australian International Legal and Medical Conference.
For more information contact Jenny Crofts at firstname.lastname@example.org