The Battle of Crete was one of the most dramatic battles of WWII, involving great reversals of power, and significant losses. The battle showed above all the strong will of the people of Crete – there was strong and valiant civilian involvement in the battle, and in its aftermath.

The Battle of Crete: An Introduction

In April of 1941, the German High Command was debating whether to focus on the campaign in the Soviet Union, or on attempting to seize Crete. The island was desirable for its strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in controlling it the Germans would prevent its use as a base for the Balkan operations of the Allies. Operation Merkur (operation Mercury), as it was to be called, was put into effect.

Battle of Crete 1941

British naval supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean made an assault by sea impossible. But the Germans had a considerable number of skilled airborne forces to employ.

The Allied troops on the island – called “Creteforce” were under the command of Major-General Bernard Freyberg, leading the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The Allied forces were at a significant disadvantage from the outset, being undersupplied. In the withdrawal from the Greek mainland, much equipment had been abandoned. Despite naval strength, deliveries of supplies to Crete were largely unsuccessful due to Luftwaffe attacks – just 10 percent of the 27,000 tons of supplies – reached the island. There were few tanks and wavy artillery, and not much ammunition. Many allied soldiers had only their personal weapons. So short were supplies that they used their metal helmets to dig defensive shelters.

Monument at Souda bay war cemetery

The strategic positions in Crete included Souda Bay as well as airfields at Maleme, Rethymnon, and Heraklion. The loss of any of these would mean that the Germans would be able to deliver both troops and supplies easily from their bases on the mainland of Greece.

At length, the invasion began. On the morning of May 21, hundreds of planes and gliders filled the skies over the ChaniaMaleme sector of the island. There was a mass invasion of German paratroopers, and another such invasion followed later that same day in the areas around the Rethymnon and Heraklion airfields.

German losses in the initial invasion were very heavy – many died in the air before reaching the ground, and others as they tried to release themselves from their parachutes upon landing. The German command in Athens, fearing a humiliating defeat, launched a second assault with all available resources the next day. Their focus was Maleme, where some of the paratroopers had managed to secure a foothold. Ultimately this tipped the scales in their favor.

In the ensuing days there was to be mass evacuation of forces from the island – over 10,000 headed through the mountains of Crete to leave from Sfakia on the south coast, while around another 6,000 left from Heraklion. Of those who stayed, most became prisoners of war. But some – helped by Cretan civilians – evaded capture and became part of the Cretan resistance.

Why Was the Battle of Crete Important?

In many ways, the Battle of Crete was of historic military importance. For one, it represented the largest ever assault by paratroopers. In fact, it was the first primarily airborne assault in military history.

Although the invasion was ultimately a success for the Germans, it was not without a great price. The fact that there were so many casualties among the paratroopers – some also at the hands of Cretan civilians – caused a change in German strategy. Henceforth, they would suspend the use of large airborne operations, and paratroopers were used as ground forces instead.

Souda Bay War Cemetery Graves

Another significant factor in the Battle of Crete was the Cretan spirit itself: the Germans had very seriously underestimated Cretan resolve and the loyalty of the Cretans. The Abwehr had thought that, owing to the republican and anti-monarchist sentiments of the Cretans, they may even welcome the Germans as liberators. They did not. In fact, nowhere had German forces met with such a formidable mass resistance of the civilian population as they did on Crete. King George had fact escaped via Crete, aided by Cretan civilians along with Greek and commonwealth soldiers.

Yet another important and interesting fact about the Battle of Crete is the role played by military intelligence. This was the first time that the Allies made extensive use of messages decrypted with the Enigma machine – the famous decoding device.

When Did the Battle of Crete Start and End

The battle of Crete began on the morning of May 20, 1941. Over the ensuing days the Germans pushed the Allied forces southward – by May 28th, many allied troops began their withdrawal from the island, heading over the White Mountains. From Sfakia, thousands were taken to Egypt, while many others departed from Heraklion. There were less fortunate, as many later died in a Luftwaffe attack en route to Egypt. On the 1st of June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakia surrendered.

Anti-aircraft gun at Second war museum of Platanias Crete

The German Involvement in the Battle of Crete

The Battle of Crete remains important in the history of the island, as it reveals much about the uncompromising character of the Cretans and their legendary bravery. Firstly, the initial resistance of the civilian population was swift and bold. Instances of civilian resistance include such tales as an old man beating a paratrooper to death with his cane, and a priest and his son taking rifles from a museum and sniping at German paratroopers.

The Germans were shocked at the resistance, and in time became enraged. There followed some brutal reprisals against the civilian population, often making no distinction between armed and unarmed civilians, in defiance of the Hague convention. The village of Alikianos and its surroundings suffered for example very brutally, with 195 civilians killed. The village of Kardanos was destroyed completely and 180 civilians killed, in an event now known as the razing of Kardanos.

How the Battle of Crete Changed the Course of World War II

The Battle of Crete changed the course of the war in two significant ways. The first – again – is owing to the bravery and resolve of the Cretan civilians. By the end of the occupation, the Germans had had to send about 100,000 troops to Crete. This was necessary in part because of the Cretan resistance – the “Antartes” – numbering just about 5,000.

Another important factor was that the battle of Crete delayed the German invasion of the Soviet Union, meaning that the German soldiers faced a brutal winter that would prove to contribute to their undoing.

Monuments and Sites dedicated to the Battle of Crete, WWII

There are monuments to the martyrs of Crete in many villages. One can be found at Kakopetros in Kissamos. There are also monuments in Chora Sfakion, Chania, Moni Preveli, Amiras, Kandanos, Anogia, and Kallikratis, among more. There is a Hellenic-Australian memorial Park in Rethymnon. The primary monument to the Battle of Crete is found in Heraklion. There are also both Allied cemeteries and German cemeteries in Crete – notably the Allied cemetery in Souda Bay, and the German military cemetery in Maleme.

british navy and army wounded from crete

The Battle of Crete in the Movies

The Enigma decoding machine that so enhanced Allied military intelligence and was first used extensively in the preparation for the defence of Crete is the subject of the 2014 film “The Imitation Game”. There is also a 2005 documentary of the Battle of Crete called “The 11th Day”. The 2010 film “Max Schmelling” is a biopic of the famous German heavyweight boxer – formerly one of the Paratroopers of the Battle of Crete.

The Battle of Crete

The true significance of the Battle of Crete for today’s visitor lies in what the battle revealed about the brave and formidable character of the Cretans – a fascinating and lasting legacy.

Souda bay war cemetery - view