THE INVASION & BATTLE OF CRETE

     
 

The Battle of Crete began on the morning of Tuesday 20th May 1941 during World War ll when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code-name Unternehmen Merkur 'Operation Mercury'. The British had already occupied the island of Crete when the Italians had invaded Greece on October 28th, 1940. This was after the German intervention in Greece where 57.000 allied troops had been chased from the mainland of Greece.  

 

The Royal Navy decided to evacuated many of them, some to Crete to bolster its already 14,000-man garrison. By May 1941, the island defence consisted of 10.000 men in 11 Greek battalions. New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg was appointed commander of the British, Greek, Australian and New Zealand forces on the isle of Crete on April 30th.

Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean. From Crete, the Romanian airfields were within range. Also, with Crete in British hands, the Axis south eastern position would never be safe, a vital necessity before starting Operation Barbarossa. On April 25th Adolf Hitler signed the directive No.28 ordering to take Crete.
 

The British expanded their defence to 30,000 men, though in many cases the men lacked vital heavy equipment and as a result of  constant bombings from the Germans on mainland Greece, the R.A.F withdrew its planes to Egypt leaving the Luftwaffe with air superiority. 
 

The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects, it was the first-ever mainly airborne invasion and the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code, as well as the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. Greek rebels took up arms along side Allied forces to defend the island.

  

On the morning of May 20th, German paratroopers landed at 08.00 near Maleme and Hania to take the vital airfields. The next wave landed at Rethymnon and Heraklion. These landings were preceded by 3 hours of heavy bombing, putting most anti aircraft guns out of action. German landings were hampered by heavy losses and at Maleme, the paratroopers jumped into heavy infantry fire. German paratroopers were unable to recover most of their heavy weapons, which had landed with separate parachutes, with the Germans suffering many casualties around Hania due to the very rocky terrain. 

 

The next wave of the airborne landing took place at about 16.00 at Rethymnon and Heraklion. Its purpose was to seize the local airfields. These groups however  ran into even heavier infantry fire than those at Maleme.

 

The German officer General Freyberg refused to commit his reserves and towards the evening of May 20th, the Germans at Maleme were slowly pushing back the British from Hill 107, which overlooked the all important airfield.
After just one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered appalling casualties and none of their objectives had been achieved. The next day, through miscommunication and the failure of Allied commanders to grasp the situation, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans. 

 
During that night, Royal Navy vessels penetrated into the waters north of Crete, forcing back the first German naval convoy. But on May 21st, Axis planes scored several hits on the British ships. Nevertheless, British vessels intercepted the axis convoy at 23.00 hour around Cape Spaha, sinking several vessels. But on May 22nd, an all out attack by the Luftwaffe drove away the British ships. Enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the Allied forces.

 
The following day the Germans landed additional troops on the beaches of Maleme and west of its airfield. By 16.00, enough control had been established to enable parts of the 5th Mountain Division to land at the airfield. To this end the Luftwaffe provided the paratroopers with continuous close air support. From that point on, the Germans were able to constantly fly in additional weapons and troops. Consequently it only took the Germans 10 day in all to captured the island, but not without even more heavy loses  6,600 German soldiers in all, including one in four paratroopers, lay dead on the battlefield.
 

The Allied soldiers were evacuated by the Royal Navy during four desperately dangerous consecutive nights between 28th and 31st May, with British Commandos providing cover. About 17,000 escaped, probably more were killed, captured or went missing.

 
The invasion was known as the first airborne invasion in history, but that honour goes to the German paratroop assault on the Hague on May 10th, 1940. However, Hitler was so shocked by German losses suffered by the parachutists, during the Battle of Crete that he never approved of .a third large airborne operation again. As a comparison, the Germans had lost only 45,000 troops in taking France, Belgium and the Netherlands which were defended by more than 3 million well armed allied troops.  The Allies took the opposite view and were so impressed that ironically they started to build their own airborne divisions, putting them to good use during the Normandy invasion.
 

By the time the Battle of Crete had ended the Germans had lost 370 aircraft and admitted losses of 6,200 men: 3,714 dead and 2,494 wounded. Today, however, there are around 4,500 German graves at Maleme alone. Allied soldiers claimed to have buried 900 German corpses in Rethymnon and 1,250 corpses at Heraklion by the fifth day of battle. German losses may have been considerably higher than admitted. Winston Churchill claimed the Germans must have suffered well over 15,000 casualties, and Admiral Cunningham felt that 22,000 had become casualties. 

  

The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an equal number wounded, and an enormous number captured (12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek). There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the British Navy in an effort to protect the sea lanes around the island and in evacuating the allied troops. 

  

A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire and died fighting as partisans. Many Cretans were murdered by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation that followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children.

 
Following the capture of Crete many Cretans and allied soldiers that had escaped capture took to the mountains to continue the struggle.  Cretan families took huge and sometimes fatal risks to help save the allied soldiers that had been left behind.  Cretan women became mothers and sisters to allied soldiers, including many Australians, as they sheltered them from the Germans.  The Germans took out their vengeance for their shocking losses on the local population.  Whole villages were wiped out in reprisals.  In one village, Kandanos, which was burned to the ground only a sign remained stating: “Here stood Kandanos. It was destroyed in retaliation for the death of 25 German soldiers.”
 

However, the German atrocities did not stop a tenacious resistance campaign which only ended when the Germans left the island. 

   

So many of the islands caves were intensively used by the partisans. The names of those who died are engraved on many of the walls. Like the caves, the Monasteries were a refuge for the brave fighters in the Battle of Crete.

 
 

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