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Battle of Crete

Battle of Crete
Part of the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II

German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) landing on Crete
Date 20 May – 1 June 1941 (11 days)
Location Crete, Greece
Result Axis Pyrrhic victory[1][2][3]
 United Kingdom
 New Zealand
Commanders and leaders
Bernard Freyberg Kurt Student
United Kingdom:
New Zealand:
40,000–61,800[5] (10,000 without fighting capacity)[6]
14,000 paratroopers
15,000 mountain troopers
280 bombers
150 dive bombers
180 fighters
500 transports
80 troop gliders
Casualties and losses
4,123 dead
unknown wounded
17,479 captured
Total: 6,698
370 aircraft destroyed or damaged

The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta; Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης) was fought during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code name Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury). Greek forces and other Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.[7] After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered very heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion. The next day, through miscommunication and Allied tactical hesitation, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans, enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the defenders. The battle lasted for approximately 12 days.

The Battle of Crete was unprecedented; it was the first battle where Fallschirmjäger (German paratroops) were used en masse, 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 German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.[8] Due to the heavy casualties suffered by the paratroopers, Adolf Hitler forbade further large airborne operations. In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form large airborne formations.


  • Background 1
  • Prelude 2
    • Order of battle 2.1
      • Allied forces 2.1.1
      • Axis forces 2.1.2
    • Intelligence 2.2
      • British 2.2.1
      • German 2.2.2
    • Weapons and equipment 2.3
      • German 2.3.1
      • Greek 2.3.2
      • British Commonwealth 2.3.3
    • Strategy and tactics 2.4
      • Operation Merkur 2.4.1
  • Battle 3
    • 20 May 3.1
      • Maleme–Chania sector 3.1.1
      • Rethimnon–Heraklion sector 3.1.2
    • 21 May 3.2
      • Maleme airfield counter-attack 3.2.1
      • First landing attempt 3.2.2
    • 22 May 3.3
      • Maleme 3.3.1
      • Second landing attempt 3.3.2
    • 23–27 May 3.4
      • Italian landing at Sitia 3.4.1
    • Evacuation, 28–31 May 3.5
    • Surrender 3.6
    • Civilian uprising 3.7
  • Aftermath 4
    • Analysis 4.1
    • Casualties 4.2
  • See also 5
    • Resistance 5.1
  • Notes 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Allied forces had occupied Crete when the Italians attacked Greece on 28 October 1940.[9] Although the Italians were initially repulsed, subsequent German intervention in April 1941 drove 57,000 Allied troops from the mainland. The Royal Navy evacuated many of them; some were taken to Crete to bolster its garrison.[10] Possession of Crete provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could threaten the Axis south-eastern flank.[11] 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."[12]

Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, German army high command) was preoccupied with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), and was against involvement.[13] Senior Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by a daring airborne attack.[14] The desire to regain prestige after their defeat by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain the year before, may have played a role in their thinking, especially before the advent of the much more important invasion of Russia.[15] Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal, although the directive stated that the operation was to be in May.[15] The second reason for the attack was that Crete was not to be allowed to interfere with the campaign against the Soviet Union.[15] Before the land battle, the Germans launched frequent bombing raids against the island, to establish air superiority. This air campaign succeeded and forced the Royal Air Force to move its planes to Alexandria.[16]


Order of battle

Major-General Freyberg (right), Allied Commander at the Battle of Crete

Allied forces

On 30 April 1941, a 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 structure 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 typical of an evacuation, intact units under their own command, composite units improvised locally, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an army and deserters; most of the men lacked heavy equipment. The main formed units were the 2nd New Zealand Division, less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters; the 19th Australian Brigade Group; and the 14th Infantry Brigade. There were about 15,000 combat-ready British Commonwealth infantry, augmented by about 5,000 non-infantry personnel equipped as infantry and a composite Australian artillery battery.[17] 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" but few of these men had left Crete by the time the battle started.[17]

Axis forces

A Fallschirmjäger and a DFS 230 glider in Crete

On 25 April, Hitler signed Directive 28, ordering the invasion of Crete. The Royal Navy retained control of the waters around Crete so an amphibious assault would be quickly decided by an air-versus-ship battle, making it a risky proposition at best and with German air superiority assured, an airborne invasion was chosen. This was to be the first big airborne invasion, although the Germans had made small parachute and glider-borne assaults in the invasions of Denmark and Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and mainland Greece. In Greece Fallschirmjäger had been dispatched to capture the bridge over the Corinth Canal, which was being readied for demolition by the Royal Engineers. German engineers 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 23,000 to Egypt, albeit with the loss of most of their heavy equipment.[18]

Mountain troops prior to their transfer to Crete

The Germans planned to use Fallschirmjäger to capture important points on the island, including airfields that could then be used to fly in supplies and reinforcements. The Fliegerkorps XI 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 operation was scheduled for 16 May but was postponed to 20 May, with the 5th Mountain Division replacing the 22nd Air Landing Division. To support the German attack on Crete, eleven Italian submarines (Nereide, Tricheco, Uarsciek, Fisalia, Topazio, Adua, Dessie, Malachite, Squalo, Smeraldo and Sirena, took post off Crete and the British bases of Sollum and Alexandria in Egypt.[19]



Allied commanders knew of the imminent invasion through Ultra intercepts. Freyberg was informed of the air component of the German battle plan and started to prepare a defence near the airfields and along the north coast. 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 men, if not more. Although the Ultra intelligence that Freyberg received was detailed, it was taken out of context and misinterpreted.[20] While emphasis was placed on the airborne assault, the German messages also mentioned seaborne operations, which influenced Freyberg, as he expected an amphibious landing and garrisoned the coast, which reduced the number of men available to defend the airfield at Maleme, the principal German objective.[21]


Alexander Löhr and Wolfram von Richthofen (1942)

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.

Weapons and equipment


Wehrmacht cuff title (German: Ärmelband) for the Crete campaign

The Germans used the new 7.5 cm Leichtgeschütz 40 light gun (a recoilless rifle). At 320 lb (150 kg), it weighed 110 of a standard German 75 mm field gun, yet had 23 of its range. It fired a 13 lb (5.9 kg) shell over 3 mi (4.8 km). A quarter of the German paratroops jumped with a MP 40 submachine gun, often carried with a bolt-action Karabiner 98k rifle and most German squads had an MG 34 machine gun.[23] 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 were dropped with a special triple-parachute harness to bear the extra weight.

The troops also carried special strips of cloth to unfurl in patterns to signal to low-flying fighters, to coordinate air support and for supply drops. The German procedure was for individual weapons to be dropped in canisters, due to their practice of exiting the aircraft at low altitude. This was a flaw that left the paratroopers armed only with knives, pistols and grenades in the first few minutes after landing. Poor design of German parachutes compounded the problem, the standard German harness had only one riser to the canopy and could not be steered. Even the 25 percent of paratroops armed with sub-machine guns were at a disadvantage, given the weapon's limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were shot before they reached weapons canisters.


Greek troops were armed with Mannlicher–Schönauer 6.5 mm mountain carbines or ex-Austrian 8x56R Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifles, the latter a part of post-World War I reparations; about 1,000 Greeks carried antique Fusil Gras mle 1874 rifles. The garrison had been stripped of its best crew-served weapons, which were sent to the mainland, there were twelve obsolescent St. Étienne Mle 1907 light machine-guns and forty miscellaneous LMGs. Many Greek soldiers had fewer than thirty rounds of ammunition but could not be supplied by the British, who had no stocks in the correct calibres. Those with insufficient ammunition were posted to the eastern sector of Crete, where the Germans were not expected in force. The 8th Greek Regiment was under-strength and many soldiers were poorly-trained and poorly equipped. The unit was attached to 10th New Zealand Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General Howard Kippenberger), who placed it in a defensive position around the village of Alikianos, where with local civilian volunteers, they held out against the German 7th Engineer Battalion.

Though Kippenberger had referred to them as "...nothing more than malaria ridden little chaps...with only four weeks of service," the Greek troops repulsed German attacks until they ran out of ammunition, whereupon they began charging with fixed bayonets, overrunning German positions and capturing rifles and ammunition. The engineers had to be reinforced by two battalions of German paratroops, yet the 8th Regiment hold on until 27 May, when the Germans made a combined arms assault by Luftwaffe aircraft and mountain troops. The Greek stand helped to protect the retreat of the Commonwealth forces who were evacuated at Sphakia. Beevor and McDougal Stewart write that the defence of Alikianos gained at least 24 more hours for the completion of the final leg of the evacuation behind Layforce. The troops who were protected as they withdrew had begun the battle with more and better equipment than the 8th Greek Regiment.

British Commonwealth

British and Commonwealth troops used the standard Lee–Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and Vickers medium machine gun. The British had about 85 artillery pieces of various calibres, many of them captured Italian weapons without sights.[24] Anti-aircraft defences consisted of one light anti-aircraft battery equipped with 20 mm automatic cannon, split between the two airfields. The guns were camouflaged, often in nearby olive groves and some were ordered to hold their fire during the initial assault to mask their positions from German fighters and dive-bombers. The British had nine Matilda IIA infantry tanks of "B" Squadron, 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) and sixteen Light Tanks Mark VIB from "C" Squadron, 4th Queen's Own Hussars (4th QOH).[25]

The Matildas had 40 mm Ordnance QF 2 pounder guns, which fired armour piercing rounds only which were not effective anti-personnel weapons (high explosive rounds in such a small calibre were considered impractical).[25] The tanks were in poor mechanical condition, the engines were worn and could not be overhauled on Crete. Most tanks were used as mobile pillboxes to be brought up and dug-in at strategic points. One Matilda had a damaged turret crank that allowed it to turn clockwise only. Many British tanks broke down in the rough terrain, not in combat. The British and their allies did not possess sufficient Universal Carriers or trucks, which would have provided mobility and firepower needed for rapid counter-attacks before the invaders could consolidate.[25]

Strategy and tactics

Operation Merkur

Map of the German assault on Crete

Hitler authorised Unternehmen Merkur (named after the swift

  • Landing in the bay of Sitia 28 May 1941 r. (PL) .
  • Battle of Crete Photo and Documents Archive
  • siteBattle of CreteJohn Dillon's
  • Stoker Harold Siddall Royal Navy, his capture on Crete and life as a POW
  • Richard Hargreaves's The invasion of Crete article
  • Battle of Crete is considered one of the most sensational events os t he Second World War
  • Admiral Sir A. B. Cunningham, The Battle of Crete
  • Charles Prestidge‐King, The Battle of Crete: A Re‐evaluation
  • James Cagney, 2011, Animated Maps of The Battle of Crete
  • Power, Graham. "The Battle of Pink Hill". Power Publishing. Archived from the original on 25 May 2010. Retrieved 13 June 2010. 

External links

  • Axelrod, Alan (2008). The Real History of World War II: A New Look at the Past. Sterling Publishing Company Inc.  
  • Badsey, Stephen (2000). The Hutchinson Atlas of World War II Battle Plans: Before and After. Taylor & Francis.  
  • Barber, Laurie; Tonkin-Covell, John (1990). Freyberg : Churchill's Salamander. Hutchinson.  
  • Beevor, Antony (1991). Crete: The Battle And The Resistance. Penguin Books, Limited.  
  • Brown, David (2002). The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean: November 1940 – December 1941. vol. II. London.  
  • Chappell, Mike (1996). Army Commandos 1940–1945. Elite Series # 64. London: Osprey Publishing.  
  • Clark, Alan (1989) [1962]. The Fall of Crete. London: Anthony Blond.  
  • Cody, J. F. (1956). "28 Maori Battalion". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch. 
  • Comeau, M. G. (2000). Operation Mercury: Airmen in the Battle of Crete. J&KH Publishing.  
  • Elliot, Murray (1992) [1987]. Vasili: The Lion of Crete. London, Australia, South Africa. (Greek paperback edition Efstathiadis Group S.A. ed.). New Zealand: Century Hutchinson.  
  • Ewer, Peter (2008). Forgotten Anzacs: The Campaign in Greece, 1941. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications.  
  • Guard, Julie (2007). Airborne: World War II Paratroopers in Combat. Osprey Publishing.  
  • Hadjipateras, Costas; Fafalios, Maria (1989). Crete 1941, Eyewitnessed. Efstathiadis Group.  
  • Harokopos, George (1993). Spilios Menounos, ed. The Fortress Crete 1941–1944 The Secret War 1941–1944: Espionage and Counter-Espionage in Occupied Crete (Greek paperback edition/English translation: B. Giannikos & Co., Athens ed.). Seagull Publications.  
  • Hellenic Army General Staff (1997). An Abridged History of the Greek-Italian and Greek-German War, 1940–1941 (Land Operations). Athens: Army History Directorate Editions.  
  • Hill, Maria (2010). Diggers and Greeks. UNSW Press.  
  • Keegan, John (2003). Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda.  
  • Kokonas M.D., N.A. (1993). P. Leigh Fermor; et al., eds. The Cretan Resistance 1941–1945 (Greek paperback edition Graphotechniki Kritis, Rethymnon, Crete, Greece ed.). London.  
  • Kurowski, Frank (2010). Jump into Hell:German Paratroopers in World War II. Stackpole Books.  
  • Lind, Lew (1991). Flowers of Rethymnon: Escape from Crete. Kangaroo Press.  
  • Mazower, Mark (1993). Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation 1941–44. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.  
  • Nasse, Jean-Yves (2002). Fallschirmjager in Crete, 1941: The Merkur Operation. Histoire & Collections.  
  • Nigl, Alfred (2007). Silent wings Savage death. USA.  
  • Psychoundakis, George (1991) [1955]. Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed.  
  • Richter, Heinz A. (2011). Operation Merkur. Die Eroberung der Insel Kreta im Mai 1941. Rutzen.  
  • Ross, A. (1959). The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. 23 Battalion Historical Publications Branch. Wellington. 
  • Sadler, John (2007). Op Mercury, The Fall of Crete 1941. Pen & Sword Books.  
  • Saunders, Hilary St. George (1959) [1949]. The Green Beret: The Commandos at War. London: Four Square Books. 
  • Saunders, Tim (2007). Crete. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books.  
  • Schenk, Peter (2000). Kampf um die Ägäis: die Kriegsmarine in den griechischen Gewässern 1941–1945. Mittler & Sohn.  
  • Spencer, John Hall (2008). Battle for Crete. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books.  
  • Taylor, Alan J. P. (1965). English history, 1914–1945: Oxford History of England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • Thomas, David A. (1980) [1972]. Crete 1941: The Battle at Sea (Greek pbk edition (in English): Efstathiadis Group, Athens ed.). Great Britain: Andre Deutsch. 
  • Willingham, Matthew (2005). Perilous commitments: the battle for Greece and Crete 1940–1941. Spellmount.  

Further reading

  • Ansel, Walter (1972). Hitler and the Middle Sea. Duke University Press.  
  • Antill, Peter D. (2005). Crete 1941: Germany's lightning airborne assault. Campaign series. Oxford; New York: Osprey Publishing.  
  • Bertke, Donald A; Smith, Gordon; Kindell, Don (2012). World War II Sea War. Volume 3: The Royal Navy is Bloodied in the Mediterranean. Lulu.  
  • Buckley, Christopher (1952). Greece and Crete 1941. Second World War, 1939–1945; a popular military history. London: H.M. Stationery Off. 
  • Carruthers, Bob (2012). Blitzkrieg in the Balkans and Greece 1941. Coda Books.  
  • Churchill, Randolph Spencer; Martin Gilbert (1983). Winston S. Churchill: Finest hour, 1939–1941. Houghton Mifflin.  
  • Cloutier, Patrick (2013). Regio Esercito: The Italian Royal Army in Mussolini's Wars, 1935–1943. Lulu.  
  • English, John (1993). Amazon to Ivanhoe: British Standard Destroyers of the 1930s. Kendal, England: World Ship Society.  
  • Greene, Jack; Alessandro Massignani (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943. London: Chatham Publishing.  
  • Higham, Robin (2006). Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.  
  • Hill, Maria (2010). Diggers and Greeks: The Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete. UNSW Press.  
  • Joseph, Frank (2011). The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.  
  • Kavanaugh, Stephen (2010). Hitler's Malta Option: A Comparison of the Invasion of Crete (Operation Merkur) and the Proposed Invasion of Malta (Operation Hercules). Nimble Books.  
  • MacDonald, Callum (1995). The Lost Battle – Crete 1941. Papermac.  
  • Murfett, Malcolm H (2008). Naval Warfare 1919–1945: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea. Taylor & Francis.  
  • O'Hara, Vincent P. (2009). Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940–1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.  
  • Pack, S.W.C. (1973). The Battle for Crete. Naval Institute Press.  
  • Shores, Christopher; Cull, Brian; Malizia, Nicola (1987). Air War For Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete 1940–41. London: Grub Street.  
  • Schreiber, Gerhard; Bernd Stegemann; Detlef Vogel (1995). Germany and the Second World War: The Mediterranean, South-east Europe, and North Africa, 1939–1941. Volume III. Oxford University Press.  
  • Vick, Alan (1995). Snakes in the Eagle's Nest: A History of Ground Attacks on Air Bases. Rand Corporation.  
  • Whitley, M.J. (1999). Cruisers of World War II. London: Brockhampton Press.  


  1. ^ Stephen, Martin (1988), Sea Battles in Close Up World War 2, Volume 2, Naval Institute Press, p. 53,  
  2. ^ Buell, Thomas; Greiss, Thomas (2002), The Second World War: Europe and the Mediterranean, Square One Publishers, p. 101,  
  3. ^ Wright, Robert; Greenwood, John (2007), Airborne forces at war, Naval Institute Press, p. 9,  
  4. ^ (Greek) page 10, retrieved on 27.5.2010: 474 officers and 10,977 soldiers
  5. ^ a b Battle of Crete: Greece sacrificed much for the greater good
  6. ^ Long 1953, p. 210.
  7. ^ New Zealand History online
  8. ^ Maloney, Shane (July 2006). "Bogin, Hopit".  
  9. ^ Long 1953, p. 203.
  10. ^ Long 1953, p. 205.
  11. ^ Murfett 2008, p. 114
  12. ^ Churchill 1983, p. 898
  13. ^ Pack 1973, p. 21.
  14. ^ Spencer, John H (1962). Battle for Crete. Heinemann.  p.95
  15. ^ a b c Schreiber 1995, pp. 530–531
  16. ^ Vick 1995, p. 27
  17. ^ a b Long 1953, pp. 218–219.
  18. ^ Antill 2005, p. 13.
  19. ^ Bertke, Smith & Kindell 2012, p. 505
  20. ^ Beevor 1991, Appendix C.
  21. ^ Antill 2005, p. 36.
  22. ^ Buckley 1952, p. 163.
  23. ^ Antill 2005, p. 25.
  24. ^ MacDonald 1995, p. 153.
  25. ^ a b c Antill 2005, p. 24.
  26. ^ a b Carruthers 2012, p. 22
  27. ^ a b c Kavanaugh 2010, p. 38
  28. ^ Kavanaugh 2010, p. 39
  29. ^ Antill 2005, p. 32
  30. ^ a b c Vick 1995
  31. ^ a b Keegan 2011, p. 135
  32. ^ Keegan 2011, pp. 135–138
  33. ^ Germany and the Second World War, Volume 3, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, p. 546, Oxford University Press, 1995
  34. ^ Donald, Haddon; Hutching, Megan (2000). "Haddon Donald describes defending Maleme airfield, Crete". New Zealand History online. 
  35. ^ a b c "The battle: days 1–3 – The Battle for Crete". New Zealand History online. 2011. 
  36. ^ a b c Long 1953, pp. 221–255.
  37. ^
  38. ^ a b c Donoghue, Tim (2011). "Officer breaks rank over the Battle of Crete". 
  39. ^ The battle of Crete – who’s to blame for the loss?
  40. ^ Andrea Piccinotti. """Torpedo boat "Lupo. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  41. ^ Greene 1998, p. 170.
  42. ^ Naval Events, May 1941, Thursday 15th – Saturday 31st
  43. ^ La notte del Lupo (Italian)
  44. ^ Cunningham, A. B., The Battle for Crete, Despatch published in the London Gazette, 24 May 1948, Section 1, paragraph 5.
  45. ^ Greene 1998, p. 172.
  46. ^ Beevor 1991, p. 167
  47. ^ Cunningham, A. B., The Battle for Crete, Despatch published in the London Gazette, 24 May 1948, Section 1, paragraph 8, and Section 2, paragraph 30.
  48. ^ Cunningham, Section 2, paragraph 38.
  49. ^ Beevor 1991, pp. 166–168.
  50. ^ Shores 1987, pp. 357–9. 5 Ju-87s and 5 Ju-88s were lost.
  51. ^ Shores 1987, p. 358.
  52. ^ The Noël Coward film In Which We Serve was based on this action.Beevor 1991, pp. 170–171.
  53. ^ Davin 1953, pp. 289–292.
  54. ^ Davin 1953, pp. 71–72
  55. ^ a b c Ansel 1972, pp. 401–402.
  56. ^ Schenk, p.25
  57. ^ a b Ansel 1972, pp. 401–402
  58. ^ Cadogan, Alexander (1972). The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938–1945: Edited by David Dilks, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. Page 381.
  59. ^ a b c d Saunders 1959, p. 55.
  60. ^ Davin 1953, pp. 377–379.
  61. ^ a b Forty, George, The Battle of Crete Ian Allen, London, 2001, P.129
  62. ^ Germany and the Second World War, Volume 3, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, p. 549, Oxford University Press, 1995
  63. ^ a b c Cocchia, Aldo (1980). The Hunters and the Hunted. Naval Institute Press, pp.59–69. ISBN 0-405-13030-9
  64. ^ Egeo in Guerra – Lo sbarco italiano a Creta del maggio 1941 (Italian)
  65. ^ Hall 2010, p. 230
  66. ^ Chappell 1996, p. 16.
  67. ^ MacDonald 1995, pp. 176–178.
  68. ^ MacDonald 1995, p. 195.
  69. ^ Beevor, Antony. Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray, 1991. Penguin Books, 1992.
  70. ^ , Πατρίς onLine, 9 Σεπτεμβρίου 2003Ξεφυλλίζοντας την Ιστορία: Τα τραγικά Γεγονότα που Οδήγησαν στην Καταστροφή της Βιάννου
  71. ^ Buckley 1952, p. 211.
  72. ^ Buckley 1952, p. 212.
  73. ^ Buckley 1952, pp. 212–215.
  74. ^ Buckley 1952, p. 216.
  75. ^ Kurowski, Frank, 'Jump into Hell: German Paratroopers in World War II', Stackpole Books, (2010), pp. 165–166
  76. ^ Willmott, H.P. (2008). The Great Crusade: a new complete history of the second world war (Revised ed.). Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc. pp. 128–129.  
  77. ^ Schreiber 1995, pp. 530–1
  78. ^ Germany and the Second World War, Volume IV, The Attack on the Soviet Union, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt ed, (1995), see especially p.376; McDonald, C. (1995) The Lost Battle: Crete 1941, pp.63–84.
  79. ^ Pack 1973, p. 57
  80. ^ Vick 1995, p. 21
  81. ^ "A Brief History of the RAF Regiment". Ministry of Defence. 2012. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  82. ^ Playfair et al. 1956, pp. 148–149.
  83. ^ a b Davin 1953, pp. 486–488.
  84. ^ Davin 1953, p. 488.
  85. ^ Davin 1953, p. 486.
  86. ^ Taylor, Nancy Margaret (1986). "8 Blood is Spilt". The Home Front. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Volume I. Wellington, NZ: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Government of New Zealand. p. 299. 
  87. ^  
  88. ^ Davin 1953, pp. 486–487.
  89. ^ a b Shores 1987, p. 403
  90. ^ Long 1953, p. 316.
  91. ^ Playfair et al. 1956, p. 147.
  92. ^ Οι ωμότητες των Γερμανών στην Κρήτη, Πατρίς onLine, 29 Μαΐου 2008
  93. ^ MacDonald 1995, p. 303.
  94. ^ Higham 2006, p. 166
  95. ^ Joseph 2011, p. 33
  96. ^ Cloutier 2013, p. 71
  97. ^ Shores, Cull and Malizi, p. 391
  98. ^ English, p. 107
  99. ^ Whitley 1999, p. 94.
  100. ^ Pack 1973, p. 91.
  101. ^ Cunningham, A. B., The Battle for Crete, Paragraph 78 and Paragraphs 1–54 of the last section, Despatch published in the London Gazette, 24 May 1948.
  102. ^ Davin, p. 486 and Playfair, p.147, for RN Casualties. This number includes those missing in action.
  103. ^ a b Davin, p. 486 and Playfair, p.147, for RN Casualties.
  104. ^ Davin, p. 486. The total number excludes several hundred RN PoWs.
  105. ^ Davin, p. 486 and Playfair, p.147, for RN Casualties. The total number excludes several hundred RN PoWs.
  106. ^ Αγώνες και νεκροί του Ελληνικου Στρατού κατά το Δεύτερο Παγκόσμιο Πόλεμο 1940–1945 [Struggles and dead of the Greek Army during the Second World War 1940–1945] (in Greek). Athens: Γενικό Επιτελειο Στρατού, Διεύθυνση Ιστορίας Στρατού, (General Staff of the Army, Army History Directorate). 1990. pp. 15–16. 


  1. ^ 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.[71] Warned by British intelligence of the coming airborne invasion, the King 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.[72] 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 escapers left to forage for weapons instead of betraying their fellow fugitives.[73] Though forced to abandon their pack mules, and lacking proper clothing and equipment for mountain climbing, the entourage arrived safely at their rendezvous. 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.[74]
  2. ^ Participants on the battle included Max Schmeling • Theodore StephanidesEvelyn Waugh (battle portrayed in the novel Officers and Gentlemen, part of the Sword of Honour trilogy) • Lawrence DurrellCharles UphamGeoffrey CoxDan Davin (New Zealand Official Historian of the battle)




See also

Crete Military Casualties Killed Missing
(presumed dead)
Total Killed and Missing Wounded Captured Total
British Commonwealth 3,579 [102] 3,579 [103] 1,918 [103] 12,254 [104] 17,754 [105]
German[83] 2,124 1,917 4,041 2,640 17 6,698
Greek[106] 426 118 544 5,225

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 down and six more damaged, for a total of 22 claimed destroyed, 11 probably destroyed and 21 damaged.[101]

The Luftwaffe destroyed the cruisers HMS Gloucester, Fiji and Calcutta, the destroyers HMS Kelly, Greyhound and Kashmir from 22 May – 1 June. Italian bombers from 41 Gruppo sank destroyer Juno on 21 May and damaged another destroyer Imperial on 28 May beyond repair.[94][95][96] The British also lost the destroyer Hereward on 29 May, when she was attacked by German Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bombers and hit by one bomb just in front of her forward funnel. She turned towards the nearby coast of Crete, but was sunk by further attacks.[97] Four officers and 72 crewmen were killed, but the 89 survivors were rescued by Italian MAS torpedo boats and taken prisoner.[98] Damage to the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, the battleships HMS Warspite and Barham, the cruisers HMS Ajax, Dido, Orion and HMAS Perth, the submarine HMS Rover, the destroyers HMS Kelvin and Nubian, kept them out of action for months. At anchor in Suda Bay, northern Crete, the heavy cruiser HMS York was badly damaged by Italian explosive motor boats and beached on 26 March and later wrecked by demolition charges when Crete was evacuated in May.[99] By 1 June, the eastern Mediterranean strength of the Royal Navy had been reduced to two battleships and three cruisers against four battleships and eleven cruisers of the Italian Navy.[100]

The Allies lost 1,742 dead, with a similar number wounded, 12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek captured.[90] There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Royal Navy.[91] After the war, the Allied graves from the four burial grounds that had been established by the Germans, 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 reprisal during the battle and in the occupation.[92] One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by Germans 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 1,000 civilians were killed in massacres late in 1944.[93]

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.[26] Buckley, based on British intelligence assumptions of two enemies wounded for every one killed, gave an estimate of 16,800 casualties. The United States Army Center of Military History, citing a report of the Historical Branch of the British Cabinet Office, concluded that military historians accept estimates from 6,000–7,000 German casualties.[87] The Australian Graves Commission counted about 5,000 German graves in the Maleme–Suda Bay area, at Rethymno and at Heraklion. Davin concluded that this would have included a sizeable number of deaths during the German occupation, due to sickness, accidents or fighting with partisan forces.[88] The Luftwaffe lost 220 aircraft destroyed and 64 written off due to damage, a total of 284 aircraft, with several hundred damaged.[89] 311 Luftwaffe aircrew were listed as killed or missing and 127 were wounded.[89]

Exaggerated reports of German casualties began to appear after the battle had ended. The Press on 12 June 1941 reported that

Official German casualty figures are contradictory due to minor variations in documents produced by German commands on various dates. Davin estimated 6,698 losses, based upon an examination of various sources.[83] The total excluded Fliegerkorps VIII and Kriegsmarine casualties. Davin wrote that his estimate might exclude several hundred lightly wounded soldiers.[84]

Memorial for Greek and Australian soldiers in the centre of Rethymno
Suda Bay War Cemetery
German soldiers pause before the graves of their fallen comrades


The sinking of the Bismarck distracted British public opinion 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, led the British government to make changes.[79][80] The RAF was made responsible for the defence of its bases and the RAF Regiment was formed on 1 February 1942.[81] Allied commanders at first worried the Germans might use Crete as a springboard for further operations in the Mediterranean East Basin, possibly for an airborne attack on Cyprus or a seaborne invasion of Egypt, in support of Axis forces operating from Libya. Operation Barbarossa made it apparent that the occupation of Crete was a defensive measure to secure the Axis southern flank.[82]

The battle for Crete did not delay Operation Barbarossa.[76] 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.[77] Units assigned to Merkur intended for Barbarossa were to be redeployed to Poland and Romania by the end of May and the movement of units from Greece was not delayed. The transfer of Fliegerkorps VIII north, ready for Barbarossa, eased the Royal Navy evacuation of the defenders. The delay of Operation Barbarossa was caused by the late spring and floods in Poland.[78]

Hitler and the German commanders who fought on Crete were shocked by the very high casualties, and the Germans rethought their airborne theory.[75] Hitler cancelled airborne operations associated with Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Front. The German casualty rate was hidden from Allied planners, who rushed to create airborne formations. Allied airborne planners like Colonel James M. Gavin realised from the German experience on Crete, that airborne troops should jump with heavy weapons. The lack of such equipment contributed greatly to German losses during the invasion.

Map of occupied Greece showing the German and Italian occupation zones on Crete



This was the first occasion that the Germans encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population and were surprised. After the shock, the Germans retaliated, killing many Cretan civilians. The Holocaust of Viannos (Greek: Ολοκαύτωμα της Βιάννου and the Massacre of Kondomari (Σφαγή στο Κοντομαρί) were exterminations of civilians of around 20 villages east of Viannos and west of Ierapetra provinces. The killings, with a death toll in excess of 500, were carried out from 14–16 September 1943, by Wehrmacht units. They were accompanied by the burning of most villages, and the looting and destruction of harvests.[69][70] The massacres were some of the deadliest of the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. It was ordered by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, in retaliation for the involvement of the local population in the Cretan resistance. Müller, "the Butcher of Crete", was killed after the war for his part in the massacre. As most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or insignia such as armbands or headbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints of the Hague conventions and killed armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.[1]

Cretan civilians 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. 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 olive groves. An elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking cane, before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute.[67] A priest and his son broke into a village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan Wars and sniped German paratroops at landing zones. The Cretans used captured German small arms and civilians joined 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. Civilians also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion and in the town centre.[68]

Massacre of Cretan civilians at Kondomari, Crete, 1941

Civilian uprising

Colonel Campbell, the commander at Heraklion, was forced to surrender his contingent. Rethimno fell 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, about 500 Commonwealth troops remained at large on the island. While scattered and disorganized, these men and the partisans harassed German troops for long after the withdrawal.


The retreat of the brigade was covered by two companies of the Māori Battalion under Captain Rangi Royal who overran the I Battalion, 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment and halted the German advance. When the main unit was safely to the rear, the Māori retreated 24 miles (39 km), losing only two killed and eight wounded, all of whom were recovered. Layforce was the only big unit in this area to be cut off. Layforce had been sent to Crete by way of Sphakia when it was still hoped that reinforcements could be brought from Egypt to turn the tide of the battle.[59] The battalion-sized force was split up, with a 200-man detachment under Laycock at Souda to cover the retreat of the heavier units. Layforce and three British tanks, were joined by the men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, who had been assigned to guard Souda docks and refused to believe that an evacuation had been ordered. After a day of battle, Laycock ordered a night retreat Beritiana where he was joined by Royal and the Māoris, who managed to fight their way out but Layforce was cut off near the village of Babali Khani (Agioi Pandes). Laycock and his brigade major, Evelyn Waugh, were able to escape in a tank. Most of the other men of the detachment and the 20th HAA Battery were 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 179 men got off the island.[66]

The Germans pushed the British, Commonwealth and Greek 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 road to Vitsilokoumos, north of Sphakia. About halfway there, near the village of Askyfou lay a large crater nicknamed "The Saucer", the only place wide and flat enough for a large parachute drop. Troops were stationed about its perimeter, to prevent a 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 manoeuvre but they were forced to withdraw for lack of air and artillery support, despite their superior numbers. The Luftwaffe was over Rethymnion and Heraklion and they were able to retreat down the road.

Monument in Sphakia commemorating the evacuation of British and ANZAC forces. Click on the left plaque for a closer view

Greek soldiers were cast aside in favour of the Australians, with some Greeks reportedly thrown off ships.[65] Over four nights, 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt, most being embarked from Sphakia on the south coast. A smaller number were withdrawn from Heraklion on the night of 28 May. The force was attacked by Luftwaffe dive bombers, suffered many losses and more than 9,000 British and thousands of Greeks were left behind. By 1 June, the island of Crete was under German control. After Alikianos was taken, the Germans began a series of collective punishments against civilians, from 2 June – 1 August, killing 195 persons from Alikianos and the vicinity in mass shootings known as the Alikianos executions. After the war, Kurt Student, who ordered some of the shootings, avoided prosecution for war crimes, despite Greek efforts to extradite him. A subordinate was tried and served five years in a Greek prison.

British wounded evacuated to Alexandria

Evacuation, 28–31 May

At 13:30 on 28 May, the Italians incorrectly believed that three cruisers and six destroyers of the Royal Navy were steaming up towards the northern coast of Crete to support their troops[63] but, in fact, all Royal Navy efforts were now directed towards evacuating Commonwealth forces from the island.[61] They believed that the supposed Royal Navy force 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 Lince to increase speed. 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 Italians 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.[63][64]

On 26 May, in the face of the stalled German advance, senior Wehrmacht officers requested Mussolini to send Italian Army units to Crete in order to help the German forces fighting there.[62] On the afternoon of 27 May, an Italian convoy departed from Rhodes with the intention of landing a brigade from the 50th Infantry Division Regina, supported by 13 L3/35 light tanks.[63] 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.

Italian landing at Sitia

Troops of the German 141st Mountain Regiment blocked a section of the road between Souda and Chania. On the morning of 27 May, the New Zealand [61] Freyberg concurrently ordered his troops to withdraw to the south coast to be evacuated.

An Italian marines' machine gun team takes position after landing at Sitia.

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 (Colonel Robert Laycock).[59] Laycock had tried to land the force on 25 May, but had turned back due to bad weather.[59] Although armed mainly with only rifles and a small number of machine guns, they were to carry out rearguard actions in order to buy the garrison enough time to carry out an evacuation.[59]

Although they did not play a decisive role, the panzers were useful in helping round up British troops in the Kisamos area, before speeding eastward in support of the German pursuit column.[55]

Schuster issued Österlin new orders to 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 assembled near 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.[55]

Despite the dangers posed by British naval forces, the Kriegsmarine made another attempt to supply the invasion by sea. On 24 May, Oberleutnant-zur-See Österlin, who had led the Maleme Flotilla, was given the task of transporting two Panzer II light tanks over to Kastelli Kisamou. Österlin commandeered a small wooden lighter at Piraeus and arranged for the tanks to be lowered onto it. At dusk the next day, the lighter, towed by the small harbour tug Kentauros, left Piraeus and headed south towards Crete. Reports of British naval units operating nearby, convinced Admiral Schuster to delay the operation and he ordered Österlin to make for a small harbour on the German-occupied island of Kithira.[55][56] At a meeting in Athens on 27 May, Luftwaffe Generals Richthofen, Jeschonnek and Löhr pressed Schuster to get the tanks delivered somehow before "... the Englander claws himself erect again".[57] One of Richthofen's liaison officers had returned from the island on 26 May; the paratroopers 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."[57]

After air attacks on Allied positions in Kastelli on 24 May, the 95th Gebirgs Pioneer Battalion advanced on the town.[53] These air attacks enabled the escape of German paratroopers captured on 20 May; the escapers killed or captured several New Zealand officers assigned to lead the 1st Greek Regiment. The Greeks put up determined resistance but with only 600 rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammunition available for 1,000 ill-trained men, they were unable to repel the German advance.[54] Fighting with the remnants of the 1st Greek Regiment continued in the Kastelli area until 26 May, hampering German efforts to land reinforcements.

While the three ships were rounding the western side of Crete, they were attacked by 24 Stuka dive bombers. Kashmir was hit and sank in two minutes, Kelly was hit and turned turtle soon after and later sank. Kelly shot down a Stuka immediately and another was badly damaged and crashed upon returning to base.[51] Kipling survived 83 bombs, while 279 survivors were rescued from the ships.[52] 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. German search-and-rescue aircraft and Italian motor torpedo boats, spotted and rescued the 262 survivors from the German light convoy sunk off Cape Spatha.

Fighting against fresh German troops, the Allies retreated southward; the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of HMS Kelly, Kipling, Kelvin, Jackal and Kashmir, (Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten), was ordered to leave Malta on 21 May, to join the fleet off Crete and arrived after Gloucester and Fiji were sunk. They were sent to pick up survivors and then diverted to attack a German convoy of about fifty ships and caïques off Cape Spatha on Rodopou peninsula, western Crete on the night of 22/23 May and then shell the Germans at Maleme. Kelvin and Jackal were diverted to another search while Mountbatten, with Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were to go to Alexandria.

Aftermath of a German air attack on Suda Bay

23–27 May

The air attacks on Force A1 and Force C continued, two bombs hit the battleship HMS Valiant and another hit Fiji disabling it at 18:45. A Junkers 88 flown by Lieutenant Gerhard Brenner dropped three bombs on Fiji, sinking it at 20:15.[48] Five hundred survivors were rescued by Kandahar and Kingston that night. The Royal Navy had lost two cruisers and a destroyer but had managed to force the invasion fleet to turn round.[49] 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.[50]

Force C rendezvoused with Force A1 (Rear Admiral Rawling) at the Kythera Channel, where air attacks inflicted damage on both forces. A bomb struck HMS Warspite and 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 did not know 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.[47] Gloucester was hit by several bombs at 15:50 and had to be left behind due to the air attacks; the ship was sunk and 22 officers and 700 ratings were killed.

Admiral Andrew Cunningham, sent Force C (three cruisers and four destroyers, commanded by Admiral King) into the Aegean Sea through the Kasos 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, saving itself from an air attack that struck the cruiser HMS Naiad as the German pilots tried to avoid killing their troops in the water. The British squadron was under constant air attack and short of anti-aircraft ammunition, steamed on toward Milos, sighting Sagittario at 10:00. King made the "difficult" decision not to press the attack, despite his overpowering advantage, because of the shortage of ammunition and the severity of the air attacks.[44] The transports were defended by a torpedo charge by Sagittario, which also laid a smoke screen. King had succeeded in forcing the Germans to abort the operation. During the search and withdrawal from the area, Force C suffered many losses to German bombers. Naiad was damaged by near misses and the cruiser HMS Carlisle was hit. Cunningham later criticised King, saying that the safest place during an air attack was amongst the flotilla of caiques.[45][46]

Italian torpedo boat Sagittario

Second landing attempt

The defending force organised for a night counter-attack on Maleme 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, claimed a long delay ordering the planned counter-attack turned a night attack into a day attack, which led to its failure.[38] 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 the Royal Navy which arrived too late for the plans to be changed. The delayed counter-attack on the airfield came in daylight on 22 May, when the troops faced Stuka dive bombers, dug-in paratroops and mountain troops. The attack slowly petered out and failed to retake the airfield, which forced the defenders into withdrawals to the eastern end of the island, to avoid being out-flanked.[38]


22 May

An Axis convoy of around 20 caïque's, escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Lupo, tried to land German reinforcements near Maleme. Force D under Rear-Admiral Irvine Glennie, with three light cruisers and four destroyers, intercepted the convoy before midnight; the convoy turned back, covered by Lupo but the British ships suffered only slight damage caused by friendly fire.[40] About 23 of the German force of over 2,000 was saved by the Italian naval commander, Francesco Mimbelli, against an overwhelmingly superior Allied naval force. About 800 German soldiers and two Italian seamen were killed and two British sailors on HMS Orion.[41][42][43]

First landing attempt

In the afternoon of the 21 May, Freyberg ordered a counter-attack to retake Maleme airfield during the night of 21/22 May. The 2/7th Battalion was to move 18 miles (29 km) north to relieve the William Cremor have criticized Freyberg for not properly defending Maleme airfield.)[5] Hargest also blamed Freyberg for the loss of the airfield.[39]

Attacking Fallschirmjäger

Maleme airfield counter-attack

Overnight, the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, leaving Maleme airfield undefended. During the previous day, the Germans had cut 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. The lack of communication was assumed to mean that the battalion had been overrun in the west. With the weakened state of the eastern elements of the battalion and believing the western elements to have been overrun, Andrew requested reinforcement by the 23rd Battalion.[34] Brigadier James Hargest denied the request on the mistaken grounds that the 23rd Battalion was busy repulsing parachutists in its sector. After a failed counter-attack late in the day of the 20 May, with the eastern elements of his battalion, Andrew withdrew under cover of darkness to regroup, with the consent of Hargest.[35] 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.[36] This misunderstanding, representative of the failings of communication and coordination in the defence of Crete, cost the Allies the airfield and allowed the Germans to reinforce their invasion force unopposed.[37] In Athens, Student decided to concentrate on Maleme on 21 May, as this was the area where the most progress had been made and because an early morning reconnaissance flight over Maleme airfield was unopposed.[35][38] 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 Ju 52s flew in units of the 5th Mountain Division at night.[36]

21 May

As night fell, none of the German objectives had been secured. Of 493 German transport aircraft used during the airdrop, seven were lost to anti-aircraft fire. The bold plan to attack in four places to maximize surprise, rather than concentrating on one, seemed to have failed, although the reasons were unknown to the Germans at the time. (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.)

A second wave of German transports supported by Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attack aircraft, arrived in the afternoon, dropping more paratroopers and gliders containing heavy assault troops.[33] One group attacked at Rethymno at 16:15, and another attacked at Heraklion at 17:30. The defenders were waiting for them and inflicted many casualties. Heraklion was defended by the 14th Infantry Brigade, the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and "Garrison" (ex-5th "Crete" Division) battalions. The Greeks lacked equipment and supplies, particularly the Garrison Battalion. 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 counter-attacked and recaptured both points. The Germans dropped leaflets threatening dire consequences if the Allies did not surrender immediately. The next day, Heraklion was heavily bombed. The battered Greek units were relieved and assumed a defensive position on the road to Knossos.

More German paratroops landing on Crete from Junkers 52 transports, 20 May 1941.

Rethimnon–Heraklion sector

Some paratroopers and gliders missed their objectives near both airfields and set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield and in "Prison Valley" near Chania. Both forces were contained and failed to take the airfields but the defenders had to deploy to face them.[32] Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. Greek police and cadets took part, with the 1st Greek Regiment (Provisional) combining with civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli. 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 be landed.

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 held Maleme airfield and the vicinity. The Germans suffered many casualties in the first hours of the invasion, a company of III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment lost 112 killed out of 126 men and 400 of 600 men in III Battalion were killed on the first day.[31] Most of the parachutists were engaged by New Zealanders defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing and the glider troops who landed safely were almost annihilated by the New Zealand and Greek defenders.[31]

Captured German paratroopers under British guard

Maleme–Chania sector

20 May


Operation Mercury battle groups[27]
Group name Mythical codename Commander Target
Gruppe Mitte (Group Centre) Mars Major General Wilhelm Süssmann Prison Valley, Chania Souda, Rethymnon
Gruppe West (Group West) Comet Major General Eugen Meindl Maleme
Gruppe Ost (Group East) Orion Colonel Bruno Bräuer Heraklion

A compromise plan by Hermann Göring was agreed and in the final draft Maleme was to be captured first, while not ignoring the other objectives.[28] The invasion force was divided into battlegroups, Centre, West and East, each with a code name following the classical theme established by Mercury; 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. German airborne theory was based on parachuting a small force onto enemy airfields. The force would capture the perimeter and local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider.[29] Freyberg knew this, after studying German operations and decided to make the airfields unusable for landing but was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria.[30] The staff felt the invasion was doomed now that it had been compromised and may have wanted the airfields intact for the RAF once the invasion was defeated.[30] (The Germans were able to land reinforcements without fully operational airfields. One transport pilot crash-landed on a beach, others landed in fields, discharged their cargo and took off again. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference, particularly given the number of troops delivered by expendable gliders.)[30]

fighters and it was near the north coast, so seaborne reinforcements could be brought up quickly. Bf 109 As the primary objective, Maleme offered several advantages: it was the largest airfield and big enough for heavy transport aircraft, it was close enough to the mainland for air cover from land-based [27] wanted to disperse the paratroops more, to maximise the effect of surprise.Major-General Kurt von Student [27]

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