The Battle for Crete, May 20-June 1941, was one of the most significant, if subsequently underreported battles of World War II. This last battle for the defense of Greece against the Nazis was critical in leading to the ultimate defeat of Hitler. This battle also emphasized the sacrifice, through selfless bravery, that the people of Crete were willing to pay to defend their freedom.
The brutal Nazi war machine had already invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Romania and The Netherlands. Hitler was busy planning operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In April 1941, after over six months of successfully fighting Mussolini’s armies, the heroic Greek army was defeated by the combined forces of Germany, Bulgaria, and Italy. The Greek government fled to Crete, the last bastion of Greek freedom. The capital of Crete, Hania, became the capital of free Greece.
Some 19,000 British Commonwealth troops (Apprx. 5,299 English, 6,451 Australian, 7,100 New Zealander, plus 200 Jewish Palestinians) were hurriedly evacuated, leaving much of their armament behind, from mainland Greece to Crete, joining the small Commonwealth force already there and the Cretan army units, which had been previously stripped of much manpower and armament. (An additional 28,510 Commonwealth troops bypassed Crete and were evacuated from mainland Greece to Egypt instead).
In Crete, the British Commonwealth troops and Cretans were frantically trying to establish viable defenses on the island, while being incessantly bombed by the Germans who enjoyed total air superiority. New Zealand Major General Bernard Freyberg had just taken command of the Commonwealth forces on the island, which Winston Churchill had ordered be defended at all costs.
Though the Nazis had crushed Hellenic and Yugoslav resistance on the Balkan mainland with an army of almost 1.2 million, there was a legitimate possibility that Crete could be held. Greece’s ally Great Britain still controlled the Mediterranean Sea, and there was over 100 miles of water between the Greek mainland and Crete. A German attack would have to be by air and/or sea.
In addition to the Commonwealth forces, a Greek army was recreated in Crete. This Greek army consisted of the 2,000 police on the island, 2,000 survivors from the Greek mainland and 9,000 Cretan recruits, mostly boys of 17-20 years in age. The Hellenic force was divided into 11 “regiments” of 700 to 900 men. The Commonwealth forces had overall command of the defense of Crete, but the Greek units were independent and commanded by Greek officers. Most of the Greek units were poorly armed and had little ammunition.
INVASION AND RESISTANCE
The elite of the German Army, the paratroop division known as the Herman Goering division, lead the assault which began shortly after dawn on May 20, 1941, first with renewed bombing, then followed by the airborne assault. The Nazi assault had three points of attack, the Western Attack Group Comet, which targeted the Maleme airstrip and Kissamou areas, the Central Attack Group Aris, which targeted Hania, Alikianos, Souda, and east to Rethymnon, and the Eastern Attack Group Orion, which targeted the Iraklion area. However, because of the heavy resistance and resulting heavy losses suffered by the Germans at the Maleme/Alikianos areas, some of the second wave of German forces that were originally targeted to the east were later diverted to the west to support the attack on the Maleme airstrip, specifically the 5 Gebirgs Division. By evening on May 20, of the over 10,000 German airborne troops used in the initial assault, only 6,000 remained effective, and all three German attack groups had failed to achieve their objectives. Tens of thousands of waiting Nazi mountain troops were unable to be landed to support the airborne assault.
Contrary to the expectations of many Commonwealth officers the Greek Army was very successful against the German assault. As one example, at Alikianos the outnumbered 8th Greek Regiment successfully charged the German lines with bayonets when their ammunition had run out. The German commander wired headquarters that at Alikianios that they were confronting a force of over 4,000 Greeks-but in reality, the 8th Greek Regiment had less than 850 men. This kind of bravery was to be duplicated by Greek units throughout the island.
A factor just as important as the success of the Greek army was the resistance by the civilians of Crete to the Nazi invasion. The Battle of Crete was the first battle of World War II in which the civilians fought the Nazis during an invasion. This civilian defiance suffered from two handicaps: 1) most Cretans of military age were in the Greek Army on the mainland; and 2) most of the firearms in Crete had been confiscated by the Metaxas government before the war.
In spite of these handicaps the civilians of Crete fell on the Germans with a blind fury, and with no consideration to their own safety, Cretan men, women and children fearlessly attacked the Germans with weapons such as knives, rocks and field hoes. Distinguished military historian Anthony Beevor described Cretan defiance: “Boys, old men, and also women displayed a breathtaking bravery in defense of their island.”
The successful defiance by the Greek army surprised the Germans. However, the resistance by the civilians stunned them. World War II historian I.M. Stewart states: “During a year of unbroken triumph they [the Germans] had known nothing but the cowed submission of their victims. This unexpected defiance by civilian population surprised and angered them.” When the Nazis won they were going to brutally punish the Cretan population for its defiance.
The British Commonwealth forces also fought bravely in Crete (Approximately 1,500 of them are buried at the Allied War Cemetery at Souda Bay). After the first day of battle the entire German division had either been destroyed or pinned down by Commonwealth and/or Greek forces. Hitler told his staff that unless an airfield was captured in one day, the entire attack would be called off.
Unfortunately, major errors in British Commonwealth command coordination allowed the Nazis to capture the airfield at Maleme, which could have been held. At Maleme, significant German reinforcements, especially the Mountain Division, were flown in and ultimately the battle was lost. The continuing fighting by the Greek Army, especially by the 8th Greek Regiment, allowed the bulk of the British forces to escape.
After the main evacuation of the Commonwealth Forces from Sfakia on the south coast of Crete, May 31-June 1, 1941, the resistance of the people of Crete continued for four years, until Crete was free again. Hundreds of Commonwealth troops, left stranded after the evacuation, were sheltered and cared for by the Cretan people at great risk to themselves. This resistance, which also included sabotage and direct attacks on Nazi forces, forced the Nazis to garrison the Island for the four years with a much larger force than originally anticipated, which in turn reduced the German forces available on the Russian front and in the Middle East and Africa. The British Commonwealth sent into Crete several Special Operation Executive (SOE) officers during this period, who helped coordinate the resistance and gather intelligence. One of the greatest coups of this resistance occurred on April 23, 1944, when a band of Cretan resistance fighters and some SOE cadre kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kreipe and spirited him across the mountains, then off the island to Egypt. During the four years of the resistance, the Cretan people sacrificed greatly, and were going to suffer much more from the brutal reprisals of the Nazis (see below).
The impact of the Battle of Crete was going to be devastating for the Nazi war effort. Indeed, it may be argued that it was a very shallow victory. Over 5,500 Germans were killed and the overall casualties they suffered were over 25% of the forces they committed. Of these, 4,600 were re-buried at the German War Cemetery on Hill 107 above the Maleme airstrip. This was the highest percentage casualties suffered by the German Army in a single action up to that point in the war.
Psychologically it was a Nazi defeat: The Germans who fought in Crete or were engaged in its planning were totally demoralized. They were instructed by their superiors not to discuss the battle with other units in the future.
Many historians believe the Battle of Crete, along with the earlier campaign against Greece and Yugoslavia, contributed to a 4-6 week delay of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This delay was to prove fatal in not achieving German objectives before the winter set in. This position is supported by information obtained by the captured German Naval War diaries, as well as the testimony of German Generals Frederick Palus, Gerd Von Rundstedt, and Alfred Jodl.
Also significantly, the Battle of Crete totally altered the course of future battle plans in the Eastern Mediterranean. Hitler was so stunned by the losses that he chose not to use the Herman Goering Division as a parachute unit again. Not having this division available as a parachute weapon would turn out to be devastating for Germany’s war efforts in the Middle East.
Reflecting on the Battle of Crete, Winston Churchill wrote,: “The German losses of their highest class fighting men removed a formidable air and parachute weapon…for the forces he [Goering] expended there may have easily given him Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, and perhaps even Persia.” Churchill’s analysis is most profound when considering what occurred in the Middle East a few weeks after Crete fell.
Within weeks of the Battle of Crete there were pro-Nazi uprisings in both Syria and Iraq that had widespread popular support. The leaders of both uprisings appealed to Hitler for help. If the Herman Goering Division had been available both uprisings would have probably succeeded, with devastating results for Britain. As it turned out, with the utmost of difficulty the British managed to suppress both uprisings.
When Nazi General Rommel was launching the combined German-Italian assault toward the Suez Canal, the Commonwealth forces would also have been attacked from the east by a combined German-Arab army, and the Canal would likely have fallen. Loss of the Suez Canal would also have been devastating to Britain.
The loss of Iraq would have been even costlier for the Allies. Nazi Germany lacked sufficient petroleum supplies throughout the war. With Iraq in the German camp the Nazis would have access to an almost limitless supply of petroleum. Transporting it to Germany would be easy―it would go through Turkey. It should be remembered that from the outbreak of World War II to November 1944 Turkey, although technically “neutral”, was a principal supplier of the raw materials for Nazi Germany.
Additionally, during the invasion of the Soviet Union there were numerous instances where Soviet forces barely held on; in those situations, having a parachute division to be strategically used could have proverbially “broken the camel’s back.”
When reflecting on the Battle of Crete, Hellenes can be proud of the bravery of the Greek Army on Crete, and perhaps even more proud of the poorly armed civilians who fought the Nazi troops. Hellenes can take even greater satisfaction in understanding that the resistance in Crete significantly contributed to Hitler’s ultimate defeat.