In May, 1941, German paratroops launched the largest ever airborne invasion in history.
More than 14,000 paratroopers were dropped on the island of Crete with a view to seizing its airfields from British, Australian and New Zealand forces defending the island.
The invasion was ultimately successful for the Germans but was to become one of the costliest campaigns of the Second World War. More than 4,000 German soldiers lost their lives, many of them paratroopers who were killed in the first two weeks of the campaign. The German Luftwaffe lost nearly 300 aircraft . The Allied side incurred huge casualties as well; 6,000 dead and 4,000 wounded.
German troops were to occupy the island for another four years and didn’t surrender until the dying days of World War 2 in May 1945. But throughout their occupation they met fierce resistance from the Cretans who waged a guerrilla campaign which led to bitter recriminations, including mass executions, on both sides. After the war German generals in control of Crete were executed by firing squad for war crimes by a Greek military court.
The Allied forces, who lost control of the island in 1941 after failing to defend its airfields, were forced to evacuate to Egypt and other parts of North Africa, after a forced march over Crete’s rugged central mountain range to its southern coast. Nearly 20,000 were forced to surrender. Those that didn’t escape or were captured, headed for the hills joining Cretan fighters in the underground resistance movement.
Each May Cretans gather to commemorate this epic event in their history at special remembrance services. There are numerous war grave cemeteries and monuments to soldiers and civilians from all sides scattered across the island.
Words by Ian Cross