Battle of Crete summary
The Battle of Crete took place 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 and Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island
- At 08:00 on 20 May, German paratroopers landed near Maleme airfield and the town of Chania. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme airfield and its direct surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion for New Zealands and Greek defenders.
- A number of German paratroopers and gliders had landed off-site by accident. They set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield.
- A second wave of German aircraft arrived in the afternoon dropping more paratroopers along with several more gliders containing heavy assault troops, with one group attacking Rethimnon at 16:15 and another at Heraklion at 17:30. The defenders were waiting for them and inflicted heavy casualties.
- The risky plan — attacking four separate points to maximize surprise rather than concentrating on one — had failed. At the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the Maleme airfield. The Axis commanders on Crete decided to throw everything into the Maleme sector the next day.
- This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from the civilian population. After recovering from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with ferocity, killing many Cretan civilians. As most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints of the Geneva conventions and killed both armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.
- After a failure of communications the New Zealand forces withdrew from the Maleme airfield. This misunderstanding cost the allies the airfield, and allowed the Germans to reinforce their invasion force unopposed.
- The Germans quickly exploited the withdrawal to take control of the Maleme airfield. Also the 5th Mountain Division arrived at night and the Germans managed to gain a foothold on Crete. A landing of 2.000 Germans was aborted due to the action of the British Fleet
- The New Zealand commander of Creforce, Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, realized that the Maleme airfield was key to the battle, and ordered an overnight counter-attack to retake the airfield on the night of the 21st. After many delays the counter-attack was launched at 03:30, but failed because of German daylight air support.
- On May 22 a second German landing was aborted due to German actions. As in the previous attempt the Italian navy although outnumberd managed to protect the German landing troops.
- Fighting against a constant supply of fresh enemy troops, the Allies began a series of retreats working southward across Crete. On the 27th of May General Wavell ordered the evacuation of the island.
- On the afternoon of 27 May an Italian convoy departed from Rhodes with the intention of landing a Brigade, supported by 13 L3/35 light tanks. The 3,000 men of the division and their equipment were on shore by 17:20 narrowly avoiding the British Fleet. The Italian division started to advance to the west unopposed, and linked up with the Germans at Ierapetra.
- Between the 28th and 31st of May 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by ships. The majority of these troops embarked from Sphakia. A smaller number were withdrawn from Heraklion on the night of 28 May. This task force was attacked en route by Luftwaffe dive bombers and suffered serious losses.
- The defence of the 8th Greek Regiment in and around the village of Alikianos is credited with protecting the Allied line of retreat. Alikianos, located in the so called Prison Valley, was strategically important and it was one of the first targets the Germans attacked on the opening day of the battle. The 8th Greek was composed of young Cretan recruits, gendarmes, and cadets. They were poorly equipped and only 850 strong.
- More than 9,000 ANZACs and thousands of Greeks were left behind to defend the remaining territory as best they could. They fought on until they were surrounded. The cities of Irakleio and Rethymno were taken in the following days by the Germans. By 1 June, the island of Crete was under German control.