The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects: it was not only the first battle where the German paratroops (Fallschirmjäger) were used on a massive scale, but also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history;the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code; and the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. Because of the heavy casualties suffered by the paratroopers, Adolf Hitler forbade further large-scale airborne operations. However, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to build their own airborne formations.
Allied forces had occupied Crete when the Italians attacked Greece on 28 October 1940. Although the Italians were initially repulsed, subsequent German intervention drove 57,000 Allied troops from the mainland. The Royal Navy evacuated many of them; some were taken to Crete to bolster its garrison.
Possession of Crete provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could threaten the Axis southeastern flank.From the island, the Ploieşti oil fields in Romania, which were critical to the Axis war effort, were within range of British bombers. Given its strategic value, Winston Churchill would later quote a telegram he sent to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on 4 June 1940: “To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.”
The German army high command was preoccupied with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), and was against involvement.However, senior Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by a daring airborne attack.The desire to regain prestige after their defeat by the Royal Air Force over Britain in 1940 may have played a role in their thinking, especially before the advent of the much more important (and army-controlled) invasion of Russia. Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal, although the directive stated that the operation was to be in May. The secondary priority of the attack was underlined: Crete was under no circumstances to be allowed to interfere with the upcoming campaign against the Soviet Union. In advance of the land battle, the Germans launched frequent bombing raids against the island in order to establish air superiority. This air campaign eventually succeeded in its objective, forcing the Royal Air Force to move its planes to Alexandria.
At the outset of the land battle, the Allies had the advantage of naval supremacy and defending with relative numerical superiority, while the Germans had air superiority, more highly trained troops, and the momentum of an unbroken run of victories.
Order of battle
For more details on this topic, see Battle of Crete order of battle.
Major-General Freyberg (right), Allied Commander at the Battle of Crete
On 30 April 1941, a New Zealand Army officer, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC, was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete.
By May, the Greek forces consisted of approximately 9,000 troops: three battalions of the 5th Division of the Hellenic Army, which had been left behind when the rest of the unit had been transferred to the mainland to oppose the German invasion; the Cretan Gendarmerie (a battalion-sized force); the Heraklion Garrison Battalion, a defence battalion made up mostly of transport and logistics personnel; and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions, which had also escaped from the Greek mainland to Crete and were organised under British command. In addition, cadets from the Gendarmerie academy and recruits from the Greek training centres in the Peloponnese, had been transferred to Crete to replace the trained soldiers sent to fight on the mainland. These troops were already organised into numbered recruit training regiments, and it was decided to use this existing configuration to organise the Greek troops, supplementing them with experienced men arriving from the mainland.
The British Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original 14,000-man British garrison and another 25,000 British and Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation—substantially intact units under their own command, composite units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment. The key formed units were the New Zealand 2nd Division, less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters; the Australian 19th Brigade Group; and the British 14th Infantry Brigade. In total, there were roughly 15,000 combat-ready British Commonwealth infantry, augmented by about 5,000 non-infantry personnel equipped as infantry, and one composite Australian artillery battery. On 4 May, Freyberg sent a message to the British commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, requesting the evacuation of about 10,000 personnel who did not have weapons and had “little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population”. However, few of these men had left Crete by the time the battle started.
A Fallschirmjäger and a DFS 230 glider in Crete
On 25 April, Hitler signed Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete. The Royal Navy’s forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault would be quickly decided by an air-versus-ship battle, making it a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on.
Mountain troops prior to their transfer to Crete
This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had used parachute and glider-borne assaults on a much smaller scale in the invasions of Denmark and Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and mainland Greece. In the last instance, German paratroops (Fallschirmjäger) had been dispatched to capture the bridge over the Corinth Canal which was being readied for demolition by the Royal Engineers. German engineers were landed near the bridge in gliders, while parachute infantry attacked the perimeter defence. The bridge was damaged in the fighting, which slowed the German advance and gave the Allies time to evacuate 18,000 troops to Crete and an additional 23,000 to Egypt, albeit with the loss of most of their heavy equipment.
The intention was to use Fallschirmjäger to capture key points of the island, including airfields that could then be used to fly in supplies and reinforcements. The XI Fliegerkorps was to co-ordinate the attack by the 7th Flieger Division, which would insert its paratroopers by parachute and glider, followed by the 22nd Air Landing Division once the airfields were secure. The assault was initially scheduled for 16 May, but was postponed to 20 May, with the 5th Mountain Division replacing the 22nd Division.
By this time, Allied commanders had become aware of the imminent invasion through Ultra intercepts. General Freyberg was informed of the air component of the German battle plan, and started to prepare a defence based near the airfields and along the north coast. However, he was seriously hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and was faced with the reality that even lightly armed paratroopers would be able to muster about the same firepower as his own men, if not more. In addition, although the Ultra-derived intelligence that Freyberg received was very detailed, it was taken out of context and misinterpreted. While emphasis was placed on the airborne assault the German messages also mentioned seaborne operations, which seriously affected Freyberg’s troop deployment, as he expected an amphibious landing, consequently detracting from the defence of the main German objective of the airfield at Maleme.
Alexander Löhr and Wolfram
von Richthofen (1942)
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr, originally reported a mere 5,000 British troops on Crete and no Greek forces. It is not clear whether Canaris, who had an extensive intelligence network at his disposal, was misinformed or was attempting to sabotage Hitler’s plans (Canaris would be executed much later in the war for supposedly participating in the 20 July Plot). The Abwehr also predicted the Cretan population would welcome the Germans as liberators, due to their strong republican and anti-monarchist feelings, and would want to receive the “…favourable terms which had been arranged on the mainland…” While it is true the late republican prime minister of Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, had been a Cretan, and support for his ideas was strong on the island, the Germans seriously underestimated the depth of patriotic feeling on the part of the Cretans. In fact, King George II of Greece and his entourage escaped from Greece via Crete with the help of Greek and Commonwealth soldiers, Cretan civilians, and even a band of prisoners that had been released from captivity by the advancing Germans (see below).
German Twelfth Army Intelligence painted a less optimistic picture, but still believed the British Commonwealth forces to be much weaker than they actually were; they also underestimated the number of Greek troops who had been evacuated from the mainland. General Alexander Löhr, the theatre commander, was convinced the island could be taken with two divisions, but decided to keep 6th Mountain Division in Athens as a reserve. Events would prove this to have been a wise precaution.
Weapons and equipment
Wehrmacht cuff title (German: ärmelband) for the Crete campaign
The Germans deployed a new weapon on Crete: the 7.5 cm Leichtgeschütz 40 “light gun” (actually a recoilless rifle). At 320 lb (150 kg), it weighed only 1⁄10 as much as a standard German 75 mm field gun, yet had ⅔ of its range. It fired a 13 lb (5.9 kg) shell over 3 mi (4.8 km). Adding to the airborne units’ firepower was the fact that ¼ of them jumped with a MP 40 submachine gun, often carried in addition to a bolt-action Karabiner 98k rifle. Moreover, almost every German squad was equipped with an MG 34 machine gun.
The Germans used colour-coded parachutes to distinguish the canisters carrying rifles, ammunition, crew-served weapons and other supplies. Heavy equipment like the Leichtgeschütz 40 was dropped with a special triple-parachute harness designed to bear the extra weight.
The troopers also carried special strips of cloth which could be unfurled in pre-arranged patterns to signal low-flying fighters to coordinate air support and for supply drops.
In contrast with most nations’ forces, who jumped with personal weapons strapped to their bodies, German procedure was for individual weapons to be dropped in canisters, due to their style of exiting the aircraft at low altitude. This was a major flaw that left the paratroopers armed only with their fighting knives, pistols and grenades in the critical few minutes after landing. The poor design of German parachutes compounded the problem: the standard German harness had only a single riser to the canopy, and thus it could not be steered. Even the 25% of paratroops armed with submachine guns were at a distinct disadvantage, given the weapon’s limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were shot attempting to reach their weapons canisters
Greek troops were armed with the Mannlicher-Schönauer 6.5 mm mountain carbine or ex-Austrian 8x56R Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifles, the latter a part of post–World War I reparations. About one thousand Greeks carried the antique Gras rifle. The garrison had been stripped of its best crew-served weapons, which were sent to the mainland. There were twelve obsolescent Saint Etienne light machine guns and forty other LMGs of various manufacture at the Greek troops’ disposal. Many of the Greek soldiers had less than thirty rounds of ammunition, but could not be resupplied by the British, who had no stocks in the correct calibres. This affected their placement in the battle; those with insufficient ammunition were posted to the island’s eastern sector, where the Germans were not expected in force. The Greeks made up for the lack of equipment with intensity of spirit; historian Christopher Buckley stated that “…some fought with extreme courage and tenacity.”
British and Commonwealth troops used their standard Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and Vickers medium machine gun. The Allies had about 85 artillery pieces of various calibres, many of them captured Italian weapons without sights.
Anti-aircraft defences consisted of one light anti-aircraft battery equipped with 20 mm automatic cannon, split between the two airfields. The guns were carefully concealed, often in nearby olive groves, some were ordered to hold their fire during the initial assault so that they would not immediately reveal their positions to German fighters and dive-bombers.
Allied armour consisted of nine Matilda IIA infantry tanks, belonging to “B” Squadron, 7th Royal Tank Regiment, and sixteen Mark VIB Light Tanks from “C” Squadron, 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. In common with most British tank units at the time, the Matildas’ 2-pounder (40 mm) guns had only armour piercing rounds which were not very effective against infantry (high explosive rounds in such a small calibre were considered impractical).
The tanks had numerous maintenance problems. The engines, especially, were worn and could not be overhauled with the limited resources available on Crete. Most of the tanks were therefore used as mobile pillboxes to be brought up and dug-in at strategic points. One of the Matildas had a damaged turret crank that allowed it to turn in a clockwise direction only. In the end, many of the British tanks were lost to the rough terrain, not in combat.
The Allies did not possess sufficient Universal Carriers or trucks, which would have provided the extra mobility and firepower needed for rapid-response teams to attack paratrooper units before they had a chance to dig in.
Strategy and tactics
Map of the German assault on Crete
Hitler authorised the operation with Directive Number 28. He made it very clear that the forces used were primarily airborne and air units that were already in the area. Furthermore, units committed for the attack on Crete but earmarked for Barbarossa were to conclude operations before the end of May at the latest. Barbarossa was not to be delayed by the attack on Crete. This meant that the planned attack had to be launched within the allotted period or else it would be cancelled. Planning had to be rushed, and much of the German operation would be improvised, including the use of troops who were not trained for airborne assaults.
Although the German planners agreed on the necessity of taking Maleme, there was some debate over the concentration of forces there and the number to be deployed against other targets, such as the smaller airfields at Heraklion and Rethymnon. The Luftwaffe commander, Colonel General Alexander Löhr, and the naval commander, Admiral Karl-Georg Schuster, favoured a heavier concentration against Maleme, to achieve overwhelming superiority of force. By contrast, Major-General Kurt von Student wanted to disperse his paratroops more widely, in order to maximise the effect of surprise. As a primary objective, Maleme offered several advantages: it was the largest airfield, capable of supporting heavy transports bearing reinforcements; it was near enough to the mainland to allow air cover from land-based Bf 109 fighters; and it was near the northern coast, so seaborne reinforcements could be brought up quickly.
A compromise plan by Hermann Göring was agreed and the final plan heavily emphasised securing Maleme first, while not ignoring the other Allied assets. It was codenamed Merkur, after the swift Roman god Mercury. German forces were divided into three battle groups, Centre, West and East, each with a special code name following the classical theme established by Mercury. A total of 750 glider-borne troops, 10,000 paratroops, 5,000 airlifted mountain soldiers, and 7,000 seaborne troops were allocated to the invasion. The largest proportion of the forces were in Group West.
|Operation Mercury battle groups
|Gruppe Mitte (Group Centre)
||Major General Wilhelm Süssman
||Prison Valley, Chania Souda, Rethymnon
|Gruppe West (Group West)
||Major General Eugen Meindl
|Gruppe Ost (Group East)
||Colonel Bruno Bräuer
German airborne doctrine was based primarily on parachuting in a small number of forces directly on top of enemy airfields. This force would capture the perimeter and any local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider.
Freyberg was aware of this after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However, he was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria. They felt the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the RAF’s return once the island was secure, in what is held by some to have been a fatal error. It is not clear whether this is the case, for the Germans proved they were able to land reinforcements without fully functioning airfields. One German pilot crash-landed his transport plane on a deserted beach; others landed in empty fields, discharged their cargo and took off again. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some of their numerous transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference to the final outcome, particularly given the number of troops delivered by expendable gliders.
Day one, 20 May
Captured German paratroopers under British guard
At 08:00 on 20 May, German paratroopers, jumping out of dozens of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, landed near Maleme airfield and the town of Chania. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme airfield and its immediate surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion. One company of the III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment, for instance, lost 112 killed out of 126 men; 400 of the battalion’s 600 men were killed before the end of the first day.
Of the initial forces, the majority were mauled by New Zealanders defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing. Those glider troops that did land safely were wiped out almost to the last man by the New Zealand and Greek defenders.
A number of German paratroopers and gliders had landed off-site near both airfields by accident, as is common in airdrops, and set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield and “Prison Valley” in the Chania area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, they were in place and the defenders had to deploy to face them.
Greek police forces and cadets were also in action, with the First Greek Regiment (Provisional) combining with civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli. Meanwhile, the 8th Greek Regiment and elements of the Cretan forces severely hampered movement by the 95th Reconnaissance Battalion on Kolimbari and Paleochora, where Allied reinforcements from North Africa could potentially be landed.
More German paratroops landing on Crete, dropped from Junkers 52 transports, 20 May 1941. Taken by a British combat photographer, the photo was edited for propaganda purposes to show a black smoke trail from a damaged Ju 52. Several were indeed lost by anti-aircraft fire during the airdrops but none were hit at the time this picture was taken
For more details on this topic, see Battle of Rethymnon
A second wave of German aircraft arrived in the afternoon dropping more paratroopers along with several more gliders containing heavy assault troops, with one group attacking Rethymno at 16:15 and another at Heraklion at 17:30. As with the earlier actions, the defenders were waiting for them and inflicted heavy casualties.
Heraklion was defended by the British 14th Infantry Brigade, augmented by the Australian 2/4th Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and “Garrison” (ex-5th “Crete” Division) Battalions. The Greek units were sorely lacking in equipment and supplies, the Garrison Battalion especially, as the bulk of its matériel had been shipped to the mainland with the division, but they would fight with distinction nonetheless.
The Germans pierced the defensive cordon around Heraklion on the first day, seizing the Greek barracks on the west edge of the town and capturing the docks; the Greeks counterattacked and recaptured both points. The Germans dropped leaflets urging surrender and threatening dire consequences if the Allies did not surrender immediately. The next day, Heraklion was heavily bombed. The battered Greek units were rotated out and assumed a defensive position on the road to Knossos.
As night fell, none of the German objectives had been secured. Of the 493 German transport aircraft used during the first day’s airdrop, seven were lost to antiaircraft fire. The risky plan — attacking four separate points to maximize surprise rather than concentrating on one — seemed to have failed, although the reasons were unknown to the Germans at the time.
Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. The Axis commanders on Crete decided to throw everything into the Maleme sector the next day. Among the paratroopers who landed on the first day was former world heavyweight champion boxer Max Schmeling, who held the rank of gefreiter at the time. Schmeling survived the battle and the war.
Dead paratrooper, Crete, 1941
Executed Cretan civilians at Kondomari, Crete, 1941
Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians – men, women, children, priests, monks, and even nuns, armed and otherwise – joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient matchlock rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. In other cases, civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and several German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case of extreme brutality against the German Fallschirmjäger, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines. In another, a priest and his son broke into a village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan Wars and sniped at German paratroops at one of the landing zones. While the priest would aim and shoot at German paratroopers with one rifle, his son would re-load the other. The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms taken from the bodies of dead paratroops and glider troops. Their actions were not limited to harassment—civilians also played a significant role in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora, the British and New Zealand advisors at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilian action also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion, and in the town centre itself.
This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time, it unbalanced them. However, once they had recovered from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity, killing many Cretan civilians. Two examples of such extreme brutallity towards Cretan civilians are the Holocaust of Viannos (Greek: Ολοκαύτωμα της Βιάννου) and the Massacre of Kondomari (Greek: Σφαγή στο Κοντομαρί). The Holocaust of Viannos was a mass extermination campaign launched by the German forces against the civilian residents of around 20 villages located in the areas east of Viannos and west of Ierapetra provinces on Crete. The killings, with a death toll in excess of 500, were carried out on 14–16 September 1943 by Wehrmacht units. They were accompanied by the burning of most villages, and the looting and destruction of harvests. The massive loss of life amounted to one of the deadliest massacres during the Axis occupation of Greece. It was ordered by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, in retaliation for the support and involvement of the local population in the Cretan resistance. Müller, who earned the nickname “the Butcher of Crete”, was executed after the war for his part in the massacre. Furthermore, as most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions and killed both armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.
The escape of the King
The majority of Cretans were Venizelist Republicans—as were a significant number of mainland Greeks. In 1924, George II, King of the Hellenes had been deposed and exiled to Romania, only to return in 1935 after the collapse of the republican government. The Germans regarded George as a hopeless Anglophile and an obstacle to their conquest of Greece, which they believed to be mostly anti-monarchist. After the King had escaped to Crete on 22 April and issued a defiant memorandum to the Germans, Hitler responded by attacking him in a speech on 4 May. The British feared a propaganda coup if a sovereign monarch under their protection were to be captured.
The King was staying in a Venetian villa, Bella Capina, two miles southwest of Chania. Warned by British intelligence of the coming airborne invasion, he left for the house of Emmanouil Tsouderos, the prime minister, in the nearby village of Perivolia, on the day before the invasion began, but was forced to flee Perivolia the next morning. His entourage narrowly escaped capture. From the garden of Bella Capina, German paratroopers were seen landing in the area of the villa. As it turned out, they were members of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment, which was assigned to the Galatas sector, and had been dropped near the villa by mistake. An evacuation by the Royal Navy had already been arranged, with Colonel J.S. Blunt, the British military attaché to Greece, acting as liaison. A platoon of New Zealand infantry under Lieutenant W.H. Ryan was assigned as a bodyguard, along with a complement of Cretan gendarmes. The King was accompanied by his cousin, Prince Peter; Colonel Dimitrios Levidis, Master of Ceremonies; Prime Minister Tsouderos; and Kyriakos Varvaressos, Governor-in-Exile of the Bank of Greece.
The party had several close calls with both Germans and native Cretans. A detachment was sent back for some papers left behind by Mr. Tsouderos; they returned to report the house was already occupied, meaning the Germans were by now aware of the King’s presence nearby. Lieutenant Ryan had the King remove his Greek general’s uniform, which was adorned with gold braid and other ornaments that were bound to attract attention. At one point, the group were pinned down by the rifle fire of Cretan mountaineers. Prince Peter shouted to them in Greek, and they replied “Germans also speak Greek and wear Greek uniforms”. Eventually convinced that the royal retinue were not German spies, they let them pass. That night, the evacuees rested in the village of Therisso. There, they were startled by a clamour at the doors, which turned out to be caused by prison escapees released earlier in the day. Patriotism apparently overwhelmed any sympathy for their German emancipators and antipathy to the monarchist constitution, and the escapees left to forage for weapons instead of betraying their fellow fugitives.
Though forced to abandon their pack mules, and lacking proper clothing and equipment for mountain climbing, the entourage arrived safely at their rendezvous point. There, joined by members of the British diplomatic corps, they signalled HMS Decoy and were plucked from the shore, arriving in Alexandria on the night of 22 May
Day two, 21 May
Overnight, the New Zealand 22nd Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, leaving Maleme airfield undefended. During the previous day, the Germans had succeeded in cutting communications between the two westernmost companies of the battalion and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew VC, who was on the eastern side of the airfield. Andrew mistakenly interpreted the lack of communication as meaning his battalion had been overrun in the west. With the weakened state of the eastern elements of the battalionand believing the western elements to have been overrun, Andrew requested reinforcement by the 23rd Battalion. This was denied by his superior, Brigadier James Hargest, on the grounds that the 23rd Battalion were fully committed repulsing parachutists in their sector. After a failed attempt at a counter-attack late in the day of the 20th with the eastern elements of his battalion, Andrew withdrew under cover of darkness to regroup, with the consent of Hargest. Captain Campbell, commanding the western-most company of the 22nd Battalion, out of contact with Andrew, did not learn of the withdrawal of the 22nd Battalion until early in the morning, at which point he also withdrew from the west of the airfield This misunderstanding, representative of the failings of communication and coordination in the Allied defence of Crete, cost the Allies the airfield, and allowed the Germans to reinforce their invasion force unopposed. Back in Athens, General Kurt Student decided to concentrate his forces on Maleme on the 21st, as this was the area where the most progress had been made on the first day, and because an early morning reconnaissance flight over Maleme airfield was unopposed.The Germans quickly exploited the withdrawal from Hill 107 to take control of Maleme airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby. The Allies continued to pour artillery fire into the area as Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft started flying in units of the 5th Mountain Division at night.
The Germans now had a foothold on Crete.
Failure to recapture Maleme airfield
The New Zealand commander of Creforce, Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, realized that the airfield at Maleme was key to the battle, and ordered an overnight counter-attack to retake it on the night of the 21st. This decision was reached in the afternoon of the 21st, and relied on the 2/7th Battalion moving 18 miles north to relieve the 20th Battalion, who would participate in the attack. The 2/7th Battalion did not have its own transport, and vehicles for the battalion were delayed by the German daytime air superiority. By the time the battalion moved north to relieve 20th Battalion for the counter-attack, it was 23:30. The 20th Battalion then took three hours to reach the staging area, its first elements arriving around 02:45. The counter-attack was launched at 03:30, but failed because of German daylight air support.
First landing attempt
Before midnight, Rear-Admiral Irvine Glennie’s Force D, consisting of three light cruisers and four destroyers, intercepted a flotilla of reinforcements, escorted by a single Italian torpedo boat, the Lupo, successfully preventing their landing. The convoy, comprising around 20 caïques, was fiercely defended by the Italian ship. About 2/3 of the German force of over 2,000 was saved by the aggressive manoeuvres of the Italian naval commander, Francesco Mimbelli, against an overwhelmingly superior Allied naval force. About 800 German soldiers and two Italian seamen died in action, as well as two British sailors on HMS Orion.
Day three, 22 May
Realising that Maleme was the key to holding the entire island, the defending force organised for a night counter-attack by two New Zealand battalions, the 20th Battalion of the 4th Brigade and the 28th Maori Battalion of the 5th Brigade. A New Zealand officer present at the battle claims a long delay ordering the planned counter-attack turned a night attack into a day attack, which led to its failure.Fears of a sea landing meant that a number of units that could have taken part in the attack were left in place, although this possibility was removed by a strong Royal Navy presence which arrived too late for the plans to be changed.
The delayed counter-attack on the airfield did eventually come, but in daylight on 22 May, when the troops were at the mercy of the German Stuka dive bombers, dug-in paratroops, and the newly arrived mountain troops. The attack slowly petered out and failed to retake the airfield. From this point on, the defenders were involved in a series of withdrawals to the eastern end of the island, in an attempt to avoid being out-flanked by the advancing German forces.
Second landing attempt
Italian torpedo boat Sagittario
Admiral Andrew Cunningham, was determined that no German troop transports should reach Crete. He sent Admiral King’s Force C (three cruisers and four destroyers) into the Aegean through the Kaso Strait, to attack a second flotilla of transports escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Sagittario. The force sank a caïque separated from the main flotilla at 08:30, thus saving itself from an air attack that struck the cruiser HMS Naiad at this time. The German pilots were trying to avoid killing their own troops in the water. King’s squadron, still under constant air attack and running short of anti-aircraft ammunition, steamed on toward Milos, sighting the Sagittario at 10:00. King made the “difficult” decision not to press the attack, despite his overpowering advantage, as a result of the shortage of ammunition and the severity of the air strikes. The transports were gallantly defended by a torpedo charge by the Sagittario, which also laid a smoke screen. Admiral King had succeeded, however, in forcing the Germans to abort this seaborne operation. During the search and withdrawal from the area, Force C suffered heavy losses to German bombers. Naiad was damaged by near misses and the cruiser HMS Carlisle was hit. Admiral Cunningham later criticised King’s decisions, saying that the safest place during an air attack was amongst the flotilla of caiques.
Force C met up with Rear Admiral Rawling’s Force A1 at the Kithera Channel where more air attacks inflicted damage on both forces. A bomb struck HMS Warspite and then the destroyer Greyhound was sunk. King sent HMS Kandahar and Kingston to pick up survivors while the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji provided anti-aircraft support. Their commander was, however, not aware of the shortage of anti-aircraft ammunition in Gloucester and Fiji, which were down to 18 and 30 percent, respectively, four hours before they were detached to support the destroyers. Gloucester was hit by several bombs at 15:50, several hours after being detached, and had to be left behind due to the intense air attacks. The ship was sunk with 22 officers and 700 ratings losing their lives.
The air attacks on Force A1 and Force C continued. Two bombs hit the battleship HMS Valiant (with Lieutenant Prince Philip of Greece on board) and later another hit the still detached Fiji, disabling her at 18:45. A Junkers 88 flown by Lieutenant Gerhard Brenner dropped three bombs on Fiji, sinking her at 20:15. Five hundred survivors were rescued by Kandahar and Kingston the same night. The Royal Navy lost two cruisers and a destroyer sunk, but had managed to force the invasion fleet to turn round.In total, Royal Navy AA gunners shot down 10 Luftwaffe aircraft and damaged 16 more, some of which crash-landed upon their return to base, on 21/22 May.
Fighting against a constant supply of fresh enemy troops, the Allies began a series of retreats working southward across Crete.
Aftermath of a German air attack on Suda Bay
The 5th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of HMS Kelly, Kipling, Kelvin, Jackal, and Kashmir, under Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, was ordered to leave Malta on 21 May, to join the fleet off Crete. It arrived in the area after Gloucester and Fiji were sunk. They were first sent to pick up survivors, but were then diverted to attack some caïques off the Cretan coast and then shell the Germans at Maleme. Kelvin and Jackal were diverted on another search while Mountbatten with Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were to go to Alexandria.
While the three ships were rounding the western side of Crete, they came under heavy air attack from 24 Stuka dive bombers. Kashmir was hit and sank in two minutes; Kelly was hit and turned turtle soon after and later sank. Kelly succeeded in shooting down one of the attacking Stukas immediately, while another was badly damaged and crashed upon returning to base. Kipling survived 83 bombs aimed at her, while she picked up 279 survivors from the two ships. The Noël Coward film In Which We Serve was based on this action. By this stage, the Royal Navy had suffered so many losses from air attacks that on 23 May Admiral Cunningham signalled his superiors that daylight operations could no longer continue, but the Chiefs of Staff demurred.
After air attacks on Allied positions in Kastelli on 24 May, the 95th Gebirgs Pioneer Battalion advanced on the town. These air attacks enabled the escape of German paratroopers captured on 20 May; the newly liberated paratroopers killed or captured several New Zealand officers assigned to lead the 1st Greek Regiment. Despite this setback, the Greeks put up determined resistance, but with only 600 rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammunition available for a force of 1,000 ill-trained men, they were unable to repel the German advance. Fighting with the remnants of the 1st Greek Regiment continued in the Kastelli area until 26 May, hampering German efforts to land reinforcements.
Despite the dangers posed by roving British naval forces, the German Kriegsmarine had not entirely given up on attempts to ship heavy weapons to the struggling paratroopers. On 24 May, Oberleutnant-zur-See Österlin, who had led the ill-fated Maleme Flotilla, was given the task of transporting two Panzer II light tanks over to Kastelli Kisamou. He quickly commandeered a small wooden lighter at Piraeus and arranged for the tanks to be lowered into it. At dusk the next day, the lighter, towed by the small harbor tug Kentawros, left Piraeus and headed southwards towards Crete. But reports of British naval units operating nearby convinced Admiral Schuster to delay the operation and he ordered Österlin to take his charges into the relative safety of a small harbour on the German-occupied island of Kithira.
At a meeting in Athens on 27 May, Luftwaffe Generals Richthofen, Jeschonnek and Löhr pressed Schuster to somehow get the tanks delivered before “…the Englander claws himself erect again”. One of Richthofen’s liaison officers had returned from the island on the 26th with ominous news. The paratroopers, he stated, were in poor condition, lacking in discipline and “at loose ends”. He stressed the “absolute and immediate need” for “reinforcement by sea shipment of heavy weaponry if the operation is to get ahead at all.”
Schuster issued Österlin new orders via radio to set sail for the Gulf of Kisamos where a landing beach had already been selected and marked out. Upon nearing the shore on 28 May, the lighter was positioned ahead of the tug and firmly beached. A party of engineers then blew the lighter’s bow off using demolition charges and the two tanks rolled ashore. They were soon assigned to ‘Advance Detachment Wittman’, which had earlier assembled near the Prison Valley reservoir the day before. This ad-hoc group was composed of a motorcycle battalion, the Reconnaissance Battalion, an anti-tank unit, a motorized artillery troop and some engineers. General Ringel gave orders for Wittmann to “strike out from Platanos at 03:00 on 28 May in pursuit of the British ‘main’ via the coastal highway to Rethymno” and thence towards Heraklion.
|“Awful news from Crete. We are scuppered there, and I’m afraid the morale and material effects will be serious. Certainly the Germans are past-masters in the art of war—and great warriors. If we beat them, we shall have worked a miracle.“
|Alexander Cadogan, end of diary entry for 27 May 1941
Although they did not play a decisive role, the newly delivered panzers did perform useful work in helping round up British troops in the Kisamos area before speeding eastward in support of the German pursuit column.
On the night of 26/27 May, a detachment of some 800 men from No. 7 and No. 8 Commandos, as part of Layforce, landed at Suda Bay. Their commander, Colonel Robert Laycock, had tried to land his force a few nights before on 25 May, but had turned back due to bad weather. Although lacking any indirect fire support weapons and armed mainly with only rifles and a small number of machine guns, they were tasked with carrying rearguard actions in order to buy the garrison enough time to carry out an evacuation.
In a ferocious bayonet charge on the morning of 27 May, the New Zealand 28th (Māori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion, cleared a section of road between Souda and Chania which was under threat from troops of the German 141st Mountain Regiment. Command in London decided the cause was hopeless after General Wavell informed the Prime Minister at 0842, 27 May, that the battle was lost, and an evacuation was ordered. Major-General Freyberg concurrently ordered his troops to begin withdrawing to the south coast to be evacuated.
Italian landing on Sitia
On the afternoon of 27 May, an Italian convoy departed from Rhodes with the intention of landing a brigade-sized task force from the 50th Infantry Division Regina, supported by 13 L3/35 light tanks. The escort was made up of the destroyer Crispi, the torpedo-boats Lira, Lince and Libra, two MAS torpedo-launches, while the amphibious force comprised four fishing vessels, two steamships, one river boat, two reefer ships, three tugs and three tankers. The Italian commander in the Dodecanese had volunteered the services of his men as early as 21 May, but the request had to pass through German channels to Hermann Göring, who finally authorised the move when it became clear that the German effort was not moving ahead as quickly as planned. At 13:30 on the 28th, the Italians learned that three cruisers and six destroyers of the Royal Navy were steaming up towards the northern coast of Crete to support their troops.They would be off Sitia, the planned landing site, by 17:00. It was decided that the slowest ship of the convoy would be taken in tow by the Lince, in order to increase speed. The Crispi was detached to shell the lighthouse at Cape Sideros. The 3,000 men of the division and their equipment were on shore by 17:20. The Italian division started to advance to the west unopposed, and linked up with the Germans at Ierapetra. The Italian troops later moved their headquarters from Sitia to Agios Nikolaos.
Over four nights, 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by ships including the light cruiser HMS Ajax. The majority of these troops embarked from Sphakia on the southern coast. A smaller number were withdrawn from Heraklion on the night of 28 May. This task force was attacked en-route by Luftwaffe dive bombers and suffered serious losses. More than 9,000 ANZACs and thousands of Greeks were left behind to defend the remaining territory as best they could. They fought on until they were surrounded. The cities of Irakleio and Rethymno were taken in the following days by the Germans. By 1 June, the island of Crete was under German control.
The defence of the 8th Greek Regiment in and around the village of Alikianos is credited with protecting the Allied line of retreat. Alikianos, located in the “Prison Valley”, was strategically important and it was one of the first targets the Germans attacked on the opening day of the battle. The 8th Regiment was composed of young Cretan recruits, gendarmes, and cadets. They were poorly equipped and only 850 strong — roughly battalion, not regiment-sized. Attached to the 10th New Zealand Infantry Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger, little was expected of them by Allied officers. The Greeks, however, proved such pessimism wrong. On the first day of battle, they decisively repulsed the Engineer Battalion. During the next several days, they held out against repeated attacks by the 85th and 100th Mountain Regiments. For seven days, they held Alikianos and protected the Allied line of retreat. The 8th Greek Regiment is credited with making the evacuation of western Crete possible by many historians such as Antony Beevor and Alan Clark.
The Germans pushed the British, Commonwealth, and Hellenic forces steadily southward, using aerial and artillery bombardment, followed by waves of motorcycle and mountain troops (the rocky terrain making it difficult to employ tanks). The garrisons at Souda and Beritania gradually fell back along the lone road to Vitsilokoumos, just to the north of Sphakia. About halfway there, near the village of Askyfou lay a large crater nicknamed “The Saucer”. It was the only spot in the rugged terrain sufficiently wide and flat enough to support a large-scale air drop. Troops were stationed about its perimeter to prevent a German airborne force from landing to block the retreat. At the village of Stylos, the 5th New Zealand Brigade and the 2/7th Australian Battalion held off a German mountain battalion which had begun a flanking manœuvre, but they were forced to withdraw for lack of air and artillery support, despite their superior numbers. Fortunately for the ANZACs, German air assets were being concentrated on Rethymnion and Heraklion, and they were able to retreat down the road safely in broad daylight.
The general retreat of the brigade was covered by two companies of the 28th (Māori) Battalion under Captain Rangi Royal. (Royal’s men had already distinguished themselves at 42nd Street.) They overran the 1st Battalion, 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment and halted the German advance. When the main unit was safely to the rear, the Māori in turn made their own fighting retreat of twenty-four miles, losing only two killed and eight wounded, all of whom they were able to carry to safety. Thus, the Layforce commando detachment was the only major unit in this area to be cut-off and unable to retreat.
Layforce had been sent to Crete by way of Sphakia when it was still hoped that large-scale reinforcements could be brought in from Egypt to turn the tide of the battle. The battalion-sized force was split up, with a 200-man detachment under the unit’s commander, Robert Laycock, stationed at Souda to cover the retreat of the heavier units. Laycock’s men, augmented by three of the remaining British tanks, were joined by the men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, who had been assigned to guard the Souda docks and refused to believe that a general evacuation had been ordered. After a day’s fierce fighting, Laycock decided to retreat under cover of night to nearby Beritiana. He was joined there by Captain Royal and the Māoris, who took up separate defensive positions and eventually made their fighting retreat. Laycock and his force, however, were cut off by superior German forces near the village of Babali Khani (Agioi Pandes). Pummelled from the air by dive bombers, Layforce Detachment was unable to get away. Laycock and his brigade major, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, were able to escape by crashing through German lines in a tank. Most of the other men of the detachment and their comrades from the 20th were either killed or captured. By the end of the operation about 600 of the 800 commandos sent to Crete were listed as killed, wounded or missing. Only 23 officers and 156 others managed to get off the island.
British soldiers surrender to German paratroopers
During the evacuation, Admiral Cunningham was determined that the “Navy must not let the Army down”. When Army officers expressed concerns that he would lose too many ships, Cunningham said that “It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition”. The Navy might have suffered worse losses had not VIII Fliegerkorps been transferred to its start positions for Operation Barbarossa before the battle finished.
Major Alistair Hamilton, a company commander in the Black Watch, had declared, “The Black Watch leaves Crete when the snow leaves Mount Ida (Psiloritis)”. Hamilton himself never left the island; he was killed by a mortar round, but his men were ordered off. The consensus among the men was that they were letting their Greek allies down, and while most British heavy equipment was destroyed in order to keep it from falling into enemy hands, the men turned over their ammunition to the Cretans who were staying behind to resist the Germans.
Meanwhile, Colonel Campbell, the commander at Heraklion, was also forced to surrender his contingent. Rethimno fell too, and on the night of 30 May, German motorcycle troops linked up with the Italian troops who had landed on Sitia.On 1 June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sphakia surrendered. By the end of December 1941, only an estimated 500 Commonwealth troops remained at large on the island. While scattered and disorganized, these men and their partisan allies would continue to harass German troops on Crete long after the withdrawal.
Allied commanders at first worried the Germans might use Crete as a springboard for further operations in the Mediterranean’s East Basin, possibly for an airborne attack on Cyprus or a seaborne invasion of Egypt in support of the German/Italian forces operating from Libya. However, these fears were soon put to rest when Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, made it apparent the occupation of Crete was likely a defensive measure intended to secure the Axis southern flank.
Map of occupied Greece showing the German and Italian occupation zones on Crete
Hitler and the German commanders who had fought on Crete were shocked by the very high casualties of the paratroopers sustained in the capture of the island. As a result, the Germans were forced to reconsider their airborne doctrine. Because of what Hitler considered to be heavy losses, he cancelled all future airborne operations associated with Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front. The German casualty rate was hidden from Allied planners, who scrambled to create their own airborne formations after this battle. Crucially, however, Allied airborne planners such as the American Colonel James M. Gavin realised from the German experience on Crete that airborne troops should jump with their own heavy weapons. The lack of such equipment contributed greatly to the German losses during the invasion of the island. This realisation would later allow elements of the US 505th PIR to prevent the elite Hermann Göring Panzer Division from mounting a counterattack on US beachheads during the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The battle for Crete did not delay Operation Barbarossa.The start date for Barbarossa (22 June 1941) had been set several weeks before the Crete operation was considered and the directive by Hitler for Operation Merkur made it plain that preparations for Merkur must not interfere with Barbarossa. Units assigned to Merkur and earmarked for later use in Barbarossa were to be redeployed to Poland and Romania by the end of May and, in the event, the movement of units from Greece was not delayed by Merkur. Indeed, the transfer of VIII. Fliegerkorps during the battle in order to reach their assigned positions in time for Barbarossa was a key reason in allowing the Royal Navy to evacuate so many of the defenders. The reasons for the delay of Operation Barbarossa owed nothing to the battle of Crete, but was because of the need to allow swollen rivers to fall and for airfields to dry out in Poland.
The sinking of the Bismarck distracted British public opinion at the time;but the loss of Crete, particularly as a result of the failure of the Allied land forces to recognise the strategic importance of the airfields, served as a wake-up call for the British government. As a direct consequence, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was given responsibility for defending its own bases from ground and air attack. The RAF Regiment was formed on 1 February 1942 to meet this requirement.
German soldiers pause before the graves of their fallen comrades
Memorial for Greek and Australian soldiers in the center of Rethymno
Official German casualty figures are hard to determine with any degree of precision due to minor variations between different documents produced by the various German commands on various dates. The New Zealand author Dan Davin has calculated an estimate of 6,698 based upon an examination of various sources.This total excludes the 8 Fliegerkorps as well as any casualties suffered by the Kriegsmarine in the aborted seaborne landings. Davin also notes that his estimate might exclude several hundred lightly wounded soldiers. Other minor omissions are possible. However, Davin states in regard to the Battle of Crete:
Reports of German casualties in British reports are in almost all cases exaggerated and are not accepted against the official contemporary German returns, prepared for normal purposes and not for propaganda.
These exaggerated reports of German casualties began to appear almost immediately after the battle had ended. Government official Nancy Taylor cites a report published in 1986 in the New Zealand newspaper The Press on 12 June 1941 that:
The Germans lost at least 12,000 killed and wounded, and about 5,000 drowned
Winston Churchill claimed that the Germans must have suffered well over 15,000 casualties,while Admiral Cunningham felt that the figure was more like 22,000. Buckley, based on British intelligence assumptions of two enemies wounded for every one killed, gave an estimate of 16,800 total casualties. Despite the enduring popularity of these rather fanciful estimates, the United States Army Center of Military History, citing a report of the Historical Branch of the British Cabinet Office, concludes military historians largely accept estimates of between 6,000 and 7,000 German casualties as correct.
The Australian Graves Commission counted a combined total of roughly 5,000 German graves in the Maleme-Suda Bay area, at Rethymno and at Heraklion. Davin concludes that this total would have included a sizeable number of deaths during the German occupation due to sickness, accidents or fighting with partisan forces.
German casualties included a lengthy list of commissioned officers. Leading this list is Major General Wilhelm Süssman, commander of the 7th Flieger Division and Group Centre in the assault, who died when his glider crashed in an accident on 20 May whilst en route to Crete. Also prominent on this list is Major General Eugen Meindl, commander of Luftlande Sturmregiment and Group West in the assault, who was shot in the chest on 20 May and evacuated the following morning. According to Davin, the only German prisoners evacuated to Egypt were 17 captured officers.
The Luftwaffe also lost heavily in the battle; 220 aircraft were destroyed outright and another 64 were written off due to damage, a total of 284 aircraft lost, with several hundred more damaged to varying degrees. 311 Luftwaffe aircrew were listed as killed or missing, and 127 more were wounded.The major loss of transport aircraft would later seriously affect attempts to re-supply German forces in Stalingrad.
The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,742 dead, with a similar number wounded, as well as 12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek captured. There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Royal Navy. After the war, the Allied graves from the four burial grounds that had been established by the German forces were moved to Suda Bay War Cemetery.
A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire or died fighting as partisans. Many Cretans were shot 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. German records put the number of Cretans executed by firing squad as 3,474, and at least a further 1,000 civilians were killed in massacres late in 1944.
Attacks by German planes, mainly Ju-87s and 88s, destroyed three British cruisers (HMS Gloucester, Fiji and Calcutta) and six destroyers (HMS Kelly, Greyhound, Kashmir, ‘Hereward, Imperial and Juno). Damage to the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, the battleships HMS Warspite and Barham, the cruisers HMS Ajax, Dido, Orion, and HMAS Perth, the destroyers HMS Kelvin and Nubian, kept these ships out of action for months. While at anchor in Suda Bay, northern Crete, the heavy cruiser HMS York had been badly damaged by Italian explosive motor boats and beached on 26 March 1941. She was later wrecked by demolition charges and abandoned when Crete was evacuated in May. By 1 June the effective eastern Mediterranean strength of the Royal Navy had been reduced to two battleships and three cruisers to oppose the four battleships and eleven cruisers of the Italian Navy.
Royal Navy shipborne AA claims for the period of 15–27 May amounted to: “Twenty enemy aircraft…shot down for certain, with 11 probables. At least 15 aircraft appeared to have been damaged…”; from 28 May – 1 June, another two aircraft were claimed shot shot down and six more damaged, for a total of 22 claimed destroyed, 11 probably destroyed and 21 damaged, during the entire campaign.
|Crete Military Casualties
|Total Killed and Missing