The WW2 Battle of Crete

The WW2 Battle of Crete

Introduction

In May, 1941, the Greek Island of Crete was the only part of mainland Europe holding out against advancing Nazi forces whose Blitzkrieg had overrun the continent.

As the huge wave of German aircraft approached, the Island of Crete was defended by a poorly equipped allied force.

Such a huge airborne invasion had never been attempted before or since in war.

In May, 1941 the German invasion force consisted of 14,000 elite paratroopers who’d be dropped on the Island. The aim was to take it from 30,000 allied soldiers from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and 12,000 Greek soldiers tasked with defending it. The airborne invasion would be successful after just two weeks, but the campaign was bloody with both sides suffering huge losses. For Germany, they would lose more troops on the first day of battle than they lost in 18 months of the war.

Crete is an Island familiar with bloodshed and invasion throughout its long history, but the invasion and four year occupation of the Island by German forces marked one of its most violent chapters.

Today, war graves of both allied and German soldiers are scattered across Crete along with memorials to Crete and civilians and resistance fighters either killed or massacred by the German occupiers

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Build up to the Battle

In the months previous, German troops had pushed down through the Balkans and just a few weeks earlier had taken mainland Greece. The capital Athens fell on April the 27th and the swastika was raised over the Acropolis. The Italians under Mussolini had launched the invasion of Greece the previous year, but it was widely seen as a failure. German involvement had turned it around.

Thousands of allied soldiers had been defending the mainland until its fall, but had been hastily evacuated to Crete along with members of the Greek government and the King of Greece. Churchill needed to delay any further German expansion into North Africa and the middle East and decided to make a stand against impending invasion in Crete.

To lead the defence of Crete, Churchill turned to a New Zealand general Bernard Freyburg, a Gallipoli hero, and old friend.

Crete is 160 miles long, between seven and 30 miles wide, and has 8,000ft mountains dividing the North coast from a very steep Southern coastline. In 1941, there were only three main roads connecting North and South; other routes were no more than tracks and mountain paths.

The German invasion would involve an airborne division of the Luftwaffe developed by Goering a few years before the war. It was known as the Fleigercorps, and the paratroopers were known as the Fallschirmjager or ‘sky hunters’.

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

The Fallschirmjager were very effective when used in commando style raids. Many were drawn from old elite Prussian military families and were famous for their willingness to give it every effort unwaveringly even in the grimmest of situations.

From above the island, the Luftwaffe could strike the South at the British sea routes to Egypt and Cyprus.

By contrast, the allied forces defending Crete were poorly equipped. There had been about 50,000 troops involved in the Greek campaign. Two thirds of them from Australia and New Zealand. The Australian Imperial force was a volunteer one, the first to be raised since the first world war.

There was a shortage of weapons among the defending troops. The 10,000 evacuees from the Greek mainland had been forced to leave a lot of their equipment behind.

As the German Luftwaffe buzzed the skies above Crete, preparations were made for the evacuation of the King and Greek government to Egypt, an indication as to the diminishing prospects for a successful defense.

Considering this, New Zealand’s Freyberg was a reluctant commander. He wanted to return to Egypt with his troops. After the defeat on the Greek mainland, he contacted his HQ in Egypt requesting the removal of troops that he regarded as useless, unwanted personnel who did not have weapons and had little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civilian population and subsequently most were removed from Crete before the battle began. The Australians were amongst those accused of behaving badly.

Allied Air forces were confined to only a handful of planes. Most were destroyed on the ground by German fighters. There would be no reinforcements as Churchill had prioritized Libyan defenses in North Africa and for the British base in Malta. This then was an army with no air defense.

The British Navy was effective in neutralizing any invasion by sea, but its ships faced a serious challenge from the German air force.

In the weeks before invasion only 2,700 of 27,000 tons of supplies shipped from Egypt arrived. The rest was lost after ships carrying it were attacked by the Luftwaffe. In the days leading up to the invasion, Germany’s massive air arsenal was employed to ruthless effect to soften up allied defences.

The Luftwaffe

Hundreds of aircraft took part including 200 elite Stuka dive bombers otherwise known as Junkers Ju 87s. This aircraft’s distinctive and frightening noise emitted when diving earned it the nicknames ‘the sirens of death’, ‘the flying swastika’ and ‘the Jericho trumpet’. The Stuka could dive bomb at an angle of almost 90 degrees, and at a speed of almost 400 miles per hour.

The backbone of this Blitzkrieg style operation however was the fast bomber, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Almost 35,000 of these were produced by Germany during World War II, fully half of its air fleet, and they were heavily involved in the Cretan air invasion. Also involved was the twin Heinkel He 111, one of the Germans’most important bombers. It was distinguished by its greenhouse nose complete with rotating machine gun turret to allow greater and more precise visibility above targets.

There was also The Dornier Do 17 known as the flying pencil on account of its unique sleek design.

The actual airborne invasion was set to take place on May 20 1941. It was a unique high tech enterprise of its time — the brainchild of World War I German fighter ace General Kurt Student, the head of the air Corps and architect of a successful and highly innovative air campaign in Holland a year earlier.

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Code named Operation Mercury, over 500 Junkers Ju 52 transport planes would drop the 14,000 paratroopers from the skies above Crete. They would be supported by another 570 aircraft made up of the Stukas, Junker 88s, Dorniers, Henkiels and Messerscmitt 109s and 110s. The invasion was a showcase of supreme and innovative German airpower – perhaps the single greatest example during the entire war. In the days preceding the invasion, these were the aircraft that had been used to soften up Allied defenses on the island.

Hitler, like the army, was actually opposed to the plan believing it was too costly but was persuaded by Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. He, like Student, was a World War I fighter ace and the Fallschirmjager paratroopers were his elite force.

The Battle

Leading up to the battle and throughout it, General Freyberg had access to German plans through Britain’s secret Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, in England. But despite this apparent advantage, Freyburg was heavily criticised for not using the information more intelligently.

In the first wave of the air invasion, 8,000 paratroopers were landed. In another first in aerial warfare, the lead troops were carried aboard DFS 230 gliders, towed by Junker JU52s. The gliders were released a good distance before target so the sound of towing aircraft would not alert the allied forces, allowing them to silently descend upon Crete.

One of the first German objectives was to knock out Allied anti-aircraft warfare. In all, 70 gliders, each carrying ten paratroopers would land in the first few hours of the battle, many along the dry Creek bed, west of the strategic Maleme airfield in the north west of the Island. The paratroopers came very well equipped-but on their initial descent they carried only a pistol, knife and hand grenades for weapons. They were also kitted out with knee pads and some carried cameras. Their heavy equipment was parachuted separatedly.

These well-equipped paratroopers, or sky hunters, became known to the Allies as the green devils.

The German mission was first to take three airfields along the Northern coast at Maleme, Rethimno and Heraklion, paving the way for the giant transports to land more troops and supplies in order to take the Island.

The key airfield was Maleme. This would be defended in a series of bloody and costly encounters, often involving hand to hand combat with allied troops, mainly new Zealanders and, surprisingly for the invaders, with the local Cretan population who had formed themselves into militias.

In all drop zones, the paratroopers were dropped in between and around allied troops, making for a confused battleground with no front lines. At Maleme, the paratroopers were dropped on top of and among battalions of New Zealand troops. At Rethimno, they were dropped either side and on top of Australian and Greek defenders protecting the airport and the city. It was a similar story in Heraklion where the paratroopers were set down amongst Australian, Greek and British troops. also defending both the city and airfield.

It wasn’t all plain sailing — The German aircraft had to come low and slow in front of prepared positions.

 “We were delighted to leave the aircraft because we thought they couldn’t hit us as easily as they could in the aircraft. But that was not so. In the air I heard this whistling of bullets around me, but the whistling is not so bad to hear because you know, everything you hear is already past you, it can’t hit you anymore. “

— Felix Gaerte, German paratrooper

New Zealand Maori troops attacked paratroopers as they landed with the bayonets.

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

One German unit dropped on the 23rd New Zealand battalion lost 800 out of a thousand men in just a few short hours. Cretan peasants even took the parachutes which were made of silk and made them later into dresses and other garments.

The key moments of the battle would unfold at the Maleme airfield.

Due to the slow Allied response to the attack on the airfield, at the end of the crucial first day, the German paratroopers had secured a foothold on the airport perimeter and the battle was balanced on a knife edge.

Despite the German advances, a New Zealand brigade still occupied the olive groves on what was known as Hill 107, which had an elevated position overlooking the airstrip. What happened next was critical.

The New Zealand officer commanding the Hill 107 position liuentant Colonel Leslie Andrew who won a Victoria Cross in World War I said the bombing incurred by his troops on May 20, made what he’d witnessed in the Battle of the Somme appear like a picnic.

Andrew then decided to pull the New Zealanders off the hill giving the Germans the advantage.

Then on the morning of day two the German commander General Student took a huge risk, turning the course of the battle in his favour. He crash landed Ju 52 transporters – allowing troops to get off and onto the contested airfield.

Within a day or two and with the airfield secure, the Germans had landed up to 10,000 troops and made up for the huge losses on the first day. From this point on, the Allies had lost the Battle of Crete.

Freyberg was heavily criticized for continuing to plan for a Seaborne attack and for spreading his forces too thinly across Crete’s Northern coast. British historians said it would prove the most costly and strategic miscalculation of the brief campaign which gave way to the lengthy German occupation of Crete.

But New Zealand historians say Freyberg’s planning was correct, and rather that he was let down by his brigade commanders at Maleme.

Despite a bold counter attack at Maleme involving brave fighting from Freyberg’s New Zealand brigades, it came too late and the allies were unable to retake the airfield, allowing the Germans to begin building a crucial bridgehead. This enabled the landing of more paratroopers and hardened fighters from the seventh mountain division.

With the Maleme airbase finally secure it took each JU52 just over a minute to touchdown, drop their troops and take off. As the reinforcements arrived, the invaders began spreading out.

Despite looming controversy, the allies would begin a series of dramatic rear guard and counter attack actions. 20,000 of their troops were still on a now German held Crete. The job now was how to protect them and get them off the Island.

Evacuation

Retreat

As the allied troops fell back from the Maleme airfield, a series of bitter battles occurred, the first of which was in the village of Galatas.

The narrow lanes and streets of Galatas were the site of bitter close quarters combat, given its strategic location atop a small hill between the lost airport at Maleme and the allied lines between Channia and Suda Bay to the East. It was the first of several rear guard positions taken by the allies.

The historic city of Channia occupied by the Venetians for 450 years was heavily bombarded. Thirteen Venetian palaces were destroyed in a brutal bombing campaign.

Chania after bombing

Chania after bombing

The first of many thousands of POWs were already being rounded up. In addition, there was the gruesome task of burying the dead. There were atrocities on both sides.

The Battle at Sea

The Royal Navy’s role in the unfolding battle would be crucial. Initially tasked with intercepting German reinforcements arriving by sea, the fleet had needed to sail from Egypt and was repeatedly attacked by dive bombers. For the British, there would be more casualties at sea than on land. Admiral Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, had nearly 30 ships off Crete on the morning of the invasion- two battleships, eight cruises, and 17 destroyers. But over the course of the battle, two thirds would either besunk, damaged, or lost.

One of them, HMS Gloucester would lose 715 out of a crew of just over 800.

Her sister ship, HMS Fiji, lost 250 hands when she too was sunk on May 22nd whilst attempting to help rescue crew from the destroyer; HMS Greyhound.

The HMS Kelly, a destroyer commanded by a great grandson of Queen Victoria and future Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, was also among the ship sunk. Mountbatten lost half his crew of 200; the others, including himself, rescued from the sea while being machined gunned by some of the 27 Stukers that had attacked.

Soon the Royal Navy’s role would change from stopping German reinforcements from landing on Crete, to a rescue mission with the sole aim of getting allied soldiers off the Island before further bloodshed.

Evacuation

On May 26th, six days after the invasion, the commander on Crete, General Freyburg let his commanders in the Middle East know the battle was over and that the evacuation was beginning.

The route chosen for more than 15,000 troops was from the battlefields around Chania up over the central mountain range to the small port of Khora Sfakion known as Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships would spirit the survivors across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt.

Crucial in delaying advancing German troops, moving East from the Maleme airfield was an action fought on a sunken road that ran Southeast from Channia to Suda Bay, the giant Naval port and Harbor that had been crucial for incoming supplies delivered by sea. 42nd street would become the last hoo-rah for the defenders of Suda Bay, mainly New Zealand, and some Australian troops who would undertake most of the land combat operations on Crete.

As the two sides slugged it out, Maori soldiers from New Zealand even reverted to traditional methods with their war cry known as the Haka.

More than 80 German troops were killed in the action.

The Battle at Rethimno

Further east, the Germans had been met with stubborn resistance, trying to take the airfields at Rethimno and Heraklion. The Rethimno area had been defended by two Australian battalions, commanded by Colonel Ian Campbell, but they were now cut off from their commanders to the west.

The Germans were unable to take both the town of Rethimno and its airport. Overlooking the airport on what was known as Hill A, the Australians were able to keep the Germans at bay.

The Germans retreated to the high ground offered by the church of St George where bullet holes in the church facade and the damage to the cemetery can still be seen .

During the fighting, local villagers who lived near the coast were herded onto the beach, suspected of collaborating with the allied soldiers. They were executed.

Meanwhile, Freyberg’s evacuation order hadn’t been picked up by Colonel Campbell’s Australians. The Australian battalions were effectively abandoned, but carried on defending the airport. They would eventually ssurrender .

Today, commemoration ceremonies in Rethimno honor the battle here, which involved both Australian and Greek troops. Here, Greek and Australian dignitaries attend annually, reflecting the special bond that formed here between the two.

The Battle at Heraklion

Further east in Heraklion the German paratroopers had been dropped on and around the city. Heraklion today still has a busy sea and airport, but on the 28th of May 1941, it was dedicated to evacuating sorely pressed troops.

A force of nine Royal Navy ships, including six destroyers had been sent from Alexandria, but during the rescue two ships out of the nine ship convoy had been sunk and three more badly damaged, including the flagship, Orion. More than 600 lives were lost.

The Road to Sfakia

While many allied soldiers on the North coast were surrendering or being evacuated, thousands were heading for the South coast in hope of an evacuation by the Royal Navy as Sfakia.

On this treacherous march across the Island, weary soldiers were constantly exposed to overhead attack by German fighters, which left them abandoning their equipment along the way.

In 1941, the road over the central mountains of Crete was little more than a dirt donkey track. All along the road to Sfakia, rear guard troops were installed at strategic points to slow down the German pursuit, as almost 20,000 fleeing troops tried to get off the island.

Once over the mountains the fleeing troops reached a high plateau, known as The Saucer, where they were once again exposed to attack forcing them to abandon yet more equipment. Some of this can still be found in local museums today.

The road to Sfakia then descended down precipitous gorges and mountainsides. The hair pin bends today give an indication of the journey thousands of soldiers had to make by foot. The road stopped 500 feet above the villages of Sfakia and the coast.

Evacuation

Over several nights at the end of May 1941 the British Navy successfully evacuated over 10,000 troops from Sfakia. The operation was described as a mini Dunkirk.

Of the thousands who made it to Egypt, there was one Australian office and offered a place on the boats who was not among them opting to stay instead with his men. Colonel Theo Walker then walked several kilometers along the coast from Sfakia where he would officially deliver the allied surrender.

5,000 allied soldiers became prisoners of war. Others either took to the hills to fight or tried to escape or get off the island by any means. The Germans began four long years of occupation.

Aftermath

For the Anzac forces, the battle of Crete represented a reminder of their famous defeat at Gallipoli a quarter of a century earlier, a campaign that ironically had made heroes of the battle commanders on Crete.

New Zealand commander general Freyburg, another Gallipoli hero who in the end had spent 10 years of his life fighting the Germans, would spend the rest of his life defending his decisions and tactics, which his critics maintained lost the Island.

For the man that commanded Australia’s ragtag Creten forces, Australia’s most decorated soldier General Thomas Blamey, also a Gallipoli hero, Crete was a blemish on a glittering career that had spanned two world wars. He was accused of evacuating himself off the Island before his troops. He and other World War 1 veterans could not escape the criticism that they were old and out of step with modern day warfare.

Despite the huge losses for Germany, these were papered over and the battle was marked with victory parades.

The German boxing champion, Max Schmeling who had beaten Joe Lewis in 1936 to become world champion became a Nazi pinup. He jumped with the paratroopers but hurt himself landing.

But Nazi propaganda announced a triumph as awards for the paratroopers were dished out by the commander in chief Hermann Goering.

German commander General Kurt Student would dub Crete “the graveyard of the German paratroopers”, and a disastrous victory. Almost 2000 German troops were killed on the first day of the invasion alone. Out of 4,400 dead, another 2,600 were wounded, in less than 12 days of fighting. Dead and wounded meant half the paratroopers fighting force became casualties.

Hitler would never again approve the use of paratroopers in such large scale operations. More than 250 aircraft including 150 of the JU52 transports, were lost.

On the allied side, 3000 were dead and a dozen warships lost. More than 12,000 allied soldiers would be taken prisoner of war — one third of the defending force.

The loss didn’t go down well in some parts of the British Empire. Australian prime minister Robert Menzies lost power in August, 1941 in part due to his conduct of the war in Europe and in particular in Greece and Crete.

New Zealand prime minister Peter Fraser was in Alexandria welcoming his evacuated and exhausted troops and urging the British to go back to Crete to get more, but Menzies was nowhere to be seen.

Australian historians blame Churchill for deceiving the ANZAC forces. He was accused of committing ANZAC forces to a hopeless cause which didn’t square with their national interests.

They were also wider consequences on the greater war effort. The devastated British Mediterranean fleet had been expected to head East into the Pacific, but could only muster a handful of ships in an unsuccessful attempt to counter Japanese aggression. 

But the cost of the battle to the Germans had higher strategic value for the allies. It was credited with delaying the ultimately ill-fated operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia later that year, and German aggression in North Africa and the Mediterranean stalled as a battered Royal Navy interrupted supply routes.

General Kurt Student , the world war one fighter ace who’d built the German paratroopers into such an innovative, feared and daring airborne fighting force, went on to salvage his reputation to some extent with a daring and successful raid, also using gliders that rescued Mussolini from a remote mountaintop in Northern Italy after he’d been deposed and captured by Italian royalists. But Student never recovered from the huge losses in The Battle of Crete, and after the war served a prison sentence for war crimes on the Island.

Occupation

After an historic invasion by air and 10 days of fierce fighting. In May, 1941 German forces were in effective control of the Island of Crete.

With the majority of Allied troops captured, evacuated or literally escaping into the hills, in the last days of May, 1941 with the Germans victorious, the remaining allied troops had streamed South from the battle zones around Chania, heading to Sfakia and their evacuation point.

Cretan irregulars had put up fierce resistance during the battle, and they continued this resistance as the occupation began to take hold.

This would lead to brutal and bloody reprisals.

Early Village Massacres

German commander, General Student ,would stand trial for war crimes, for ordering German responses to Cretan resistance. The reprisals endorsed by the head of the air force ,Goering, were numerous and alluded to in notices distributed by the Germans.

Greek villager arrested by German troops

Greek villager arrested by German troops

In Kondomari, on June 2nd , 1941, 22 men were shot by German paratroopers. They were commanded by Lieutenant Horst Trebes, a former Hitler youth member and the only officer of his battalion to survive the invasion unscathed. A German journalist who took photos of the execution and helped a villager to escape was court marshalled.

In Kandanos on June 3rd, the very next day, just two days after the surrender,  villagers were punished for holding up German motorcycle divisions that were heading south along the mountain road to the village of Paleochora to stop the Allies landing reinforcements on the island’s south coast. Twenty five German soldiers had been killed in the action. The villagers would pay dearly for their actions. A few days later, fearing retaliation, they had taken refuge in the surrounding hills. The Germans entered the village and raised it to the ground.

Allied Escapees

The Cretans would also pay dearly for protecting Allied soldiers who were left behind after the evacuation. Several thousand had been taken prisoner, but hundreds took to the mountains in Southern Crete where they were protected for months, or even years by Cretan families.

German authorities knew the Allied soldiers were on the run and issued leaflets demanding they surrender . In the coming months, several individual groups of these escapees would make their way in small craft across the Mediterranean to Africa.

One of the first was Australian Stan “Tidge” Carroll, who later demonstrated how he made the final leg of the journey with just a steel can to keep him afloat. After spending several weeks on a solo escape trek on a small boat he found on the South coast, he finally reunited with his battalion in Egypt, alerting the Allies about the number of stranded soldiers still on Crete.

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

A number of other groups also made daring escapes. A group of Australians sailed to Egypt in a craft powered by sails made from army blankets stitched together with boot laces.Another group who had manned the rear guard against advancing Germans but were left behind, also escaped by small boat and were picked up at sea.

Hundreds of other soldiers were protected by Cretan families or hid out in the hills and caves awaiting rescue.In Sfakia Today a memorial still contains the remains of 26 Cretans executed the aiding Allied soldiers.

The Preveli monastery in particular played a crucial role in getting Allied soldiers off the island. Abbots from the Greek Orthodox church have a tradition of protecting Greek independence. dating back to the Turkish occupation.

Forced Labour

In 1941, after their victory, the Germans had named the island Fortress Crete. By 1943 there were 75,000 soldiers on the Island. This constituted a sixth of the entire Cretan population.

Crete became an important air staging post for the resupply of German forces in North Africa where General Rommel wreaked havoc until late 1942.

Concerned about a British sea invasion, the Germans embarked on an ambitious series of public works, including defenses and the rebuilding of air strips to further fortify the Island.

Cretans were the clear choice for a labor force. All Cretans from the age of 16 until the age of 50, were obliged to offer work on a regular basis.

The obviously unpopular forced labor project involved half the Cretan male population at its peak.

British Intelligence

The Germans also took over and occupied iconic Cretan sites. They established their headquarters first in Chania where they occupied the home of the Greek and statesman Venizoulas.

Then later they set up their headquarters further east at the Villa Ariadne next to the historic Minoan site ofKnossos. This was the former home built by Sir Arthur Evans, the eminent British archaeologist responsible for uncovering so much of the ancient Minoan city.

Not all massacres or executions were of Cretans. John Pendlebury, Evan’s protege, had taken over from his boss in the years proceeding the war. But with the outbreak of war, he became a British agent.

Working undercover and injured just a day after the invasion, he was discovered in civilian clothes, regarded as a partisan and executed by the Germans. This brilliant archeologist was age, just 36.

The British intelligence network on Crete, part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), would become one of the most successful intelligence networks in occupied Europe. They were responsible for the surveying of enemy positions and movements, and for planning sabotage operations. These intelligence operatives would be landed on remote South coast beaches with their supplies and radio sets where they would then dress as Cretans. Operatives included colorful characters such as Patrick Leigh Fermor who became known for one of the most daring undercover operations of the war — the capture of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944.

As early as 1942, raids were undertaken against airfields, which were critical to the resupply of German forces in North Africa. A particularly bold one at Heraklion airport destroyed more than 20 aircraft, but sadly resulted in the execution of 50 prominent Cretans.

The Italian Sector

During the occupation, the Germans had effectively divided the island into East and West. They ran the West themselves and put their Italian allies in charge of the Eastern zone.

After Mussolini was overthrown in September 1943, the Italian commander on Crete, Angelico Carta, a royalist not fascist, contacted Patrick Lee Fermor and arranged to be smuggled to Egypt along with the defense plans for the rest of the Island.

After abandoning his car near the divisional headquarters at Neapoli as a diversion, Carta and his comrades were than guided Southwest across the Island, evading German patrols and observation planes, before being taken by a British motor torpedo boat to Egypt.

Italian POW Tragedy

There had been more than 20,000 Italians stationed in Eastern Crete. After the Italian armistice, most had surrendered. Hitler had instructed that they should be taken as POWs and sent to the Reich as military internees.

The fate of many of these Italian POWs from Crete would become one of the great forgotten tragedies of the War incurring a loss of life greater than the Allies on the island In 1941.

Just a month after the surrender, a German merchant ship, the Sintra, carrying 2000 Italian POWs, was sunk. Most POWs were loaded in the hole below and drowned.

Then another merchant ship, the Petrella, carrying 3000 Italian POWs suffered a similar fate and was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine, the HMS Sportsman. 2,600 perished. In both these sinkings, the German guards were accused of locking the holds when the boats sunk.

Abducting a General

German reprisals would worsen in 1944 with return of General Frederick Muller as Commander. He was already known as the Butcher of Crete. Muller was to be the target of the most daring operation carried out by British intelligence, led by Fermor, but he’d just been replaced by another commander General Kreipe.

Over a period of several months, Fermor and his fellow SOE agent William Moss had assembled the kidnap party involving several Greek partisans. Fermor had been parachuted into the Island earlier in the year and the party set off from high in the mountains of Crete. They had already staked out a kidnap spot at a road junction near Kreipe’s headquarters near Heraklion.

Fermor and Moss had dressed up as German army corporals as Kreipe’s car headed down a quiet road with just a driver and no escort.

A Memorial at the kidnap point marks the spot where Fermor and Moss dressed in their German uniforms and manning a fake checkpoint stopped Kreipe’s car. The general was bundled into the backseat and his driver knocked unconscious.

The general’s car, the general and the kidnappers continued the journey back to Heraklion where they were to pass through more than 20 checkpoints even including the gates of the old city. The car was purposefully abandoned by Moss and Fermor as a red herring, designed to indicate that Kreipe had escaped the island. The car’s pennants can now be found in the Rethyminon folklore museum.

Kreipe was then spirited away in an arduous, three-week trek across the Island. The party would hide out along the way before reaching the coast near Rodakino where Kreipe was picked up by boat and taken to Egypt where he would begin his captivity for the rest of the war.

The British then produced leaflets in German bragging that they’d just kidnapped their commanding officer.

In 1972 the participants of this real life escape drama, including Fermor and an ailing General Kreipe were reunited on Greek television in a bizarre “this is your life “encounter.

Resistance Stories

The successful kidnapping of Kreipe sparked further German reprisals later in 1944. The vast Omari Valley had been a favored thoroughfare for escapees and the resistance and the Kreipe party had passed through here. Resultingly nine villages here were destroyed, and 164 killed.

Southwestern Crete with its dramatic and impenetrable coastline, rugged mountains, cliffs and gorges was home to numerous groups of resistance fighters. Tiny villages like Koustogerako were targeted by the Germans. It was home to Manolis Paterakis, the most trusted Cretan colleague of Paddy Fermor. The village was rebuilt afterwards, but during the occupation it was declared a dead zone.

The most famous resistance group operating in these mountains was known as the Selino gang. A leading member was Manolis’s brother, Vasilis Patarakis. The gang were be joined by a New Zealand Sergeant, Dudley Perkins.

The gang was eventually tracked down by German counter agents and Perkins was killed in a firefight in 1944. Perkins is buried in Souda Bay cemetery.

End of occupation

By the end of 1944, German morale was dissipating and desertions were becoming a problem. As it became clear that the Germans would withdraw, British agents met at the Acardi monastery and near the ancient site of Knossos of to plan the transition.

As World War 2 entered its final phase and with German defeat looming, the Germans pulled back. In the end, the Germans remained in control of only a small pocket of the island around Chania and Souda Bay.

Crete was among the last German positions to surrender at the end of the war. Fearful of surrendering to Cretan militias, the German commander was secretly flown to meet the British at the Villa Ariadne, their former headquarters at Knossos and signed an unconditional surrender document on May 9th, 1945.

Fearful of revenge from Cretans, the British established a perimeter and arranged to escort the Germans off the Island.

Aftermath

The Cretans’ fierce defense of their Island led it to being regarded as one of the most successful resistance movements of the war.

Patrick Lee Fermor, the most famous British SOE agent on Crete, became an acclaimed travel writer and only died in 2011 age 96.

Today, memorials to Cretan, Greek, German and Allied soldiers who lost their lives in this conflict can be found all over the Island. Cretan bitterness at their treatment by the Germans lingered for decades after the war.

Two generals who were commanders of the German forces during the occupation — Generals Brauer and Muller, the so-called Butcher of Crete — were handed over by the British and tried by a Greek military court for war crimes. They were executed by firing squad on May 20th, 1947, on the sixth anniversary of the invasion.

Brauer is buried in the German military cemetery here, but it took decades for him and others to be laid to rest. Greek claims for war reparations dragged on for years with the dispute preventing the remains of German soldiers killed in the Battle of Crete being interred in a permanent cemetery on Cretan soil.

After being removed from their original burial place, they were stored in a monastery for almost 30 years, while negotiations continued.

It wasn’t until 1974 that a military cemetery containing the remains of more than 4,300 German soldiers was established on Hill 107 overlooking the Maleme airfield, the site of their crucial victory, but also where so many paratroopers lost their lives in the name of war.

Even today, Cretan claims for compensation from the German government drag on.

German cemetery at Maleme

German cemetery at Maleme

 

The WW2 Battle of Crete

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