Battle of Crete: How Cretans Faced the Biggest Airborne Operation in WWII

Thursday, June 1st, 2017
Last Update: 09:03

The Battle of Crete will remain in military history as the scene of the largest German airborne operation of World War II. In Greek history, it is another chapter of bravery and triumph of the Hellenic spirit.

Crete was targeted because of the British airfield on the island, which were more than capable of striking the vital Ploesti oil fields in Rmania. Hitler’s forces needed all the oil they could get for the impending assault on Russia. Securing Crete would be tantamount to driving the British out of the eastern Mediterranean; it would also be the first step towards Cyprus and the Suez Canal

The battle that started on May 20 and ended in June 1, 1941 was dubbed the  “Graveyard of the Fallshirmjager” (German Parachutists known as ” Sky Hunters”). Nearly 4,000 German troops were killed and 1,500 wounded in the first three days of the assault. It was also the first time the Germans had encountered stiff partisan activity, with women and even children getting involved in the battle.

Early on the morning of May 20, waves of Stuka bombers and low flying fighter planes bombed and strafed the Maleme, Chania, and Souda Bay areas. Later, a total 570 carrier aircraft dropped 8,100 parachutists at Maleme, Chania, Rethymno, and Iraklion. The attack was done in two waves, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, so they had enough time in between for the aircraft to return from Crete, refuel and return again back to the island. The sky filled with thousands of parachutes as the church bells began to ring. The stunned Cretans began to run towards the drop zones shouting “Stop the Germans” with anything they could find, outdated rifles, pitchforks, old pistols. Many Germans never made it out of their harnesses.

The Allied troops on Crete — British, New Zealander, Australian and Greek Battalions that had been evacuated from mainland Greece — under British Commander Major General Freyberg had been aware of the impending assault through Enigma intercepts. The Germans were dropped into areas heavily defended with nearly three times the amount of men they were expecting. In Maleme they jumped into enemy fire from infantry weapons, positioned in the hills south of the airfield. Many of the paratroopers were killed during the descent or shortly after landing. Most of the men were unable to recover the weapons containers and had to rely on the pistol, knife and the four hand grenades they carried. Casualties were very heavy. The commander of the 7th Airborne Division, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Suessmann was killed during the approach flight, while Generalmajor Eugen Meindl, who was in command of the Maleme group, was seriously wounded shortly after landing. Both the Maleme and Chania groups were left without their commanders.

The parachutists suffered even more casualties than at Maleme and failed to capture the airfields, towns, or ports they were ordered to. Some landed at the wrong points because the troop carriers had difficulty in orienting themselves. After they touched ground many Germans found themselves in an almost hopeless situation, struggling for survival.

After the first day, no field was available for the airborne landing of the 5th Mountain Division, which was scheduled for the next day. Chania was still in enemy hands and the isolated troops landed at the four drop points had so far been unable to establish contact among themselves. However, despite the strong resistance, the fury and strength of the onslaught surprised the defenders. Despite heavy opposition and fire from the British antiaircraft guns set up near the airfield, the attackers captured the northern and north-western edge of the airfield and advanced up the northern slope of Hill 107.

The Chania group, which was to capture the village of Souda and the town of Chania and eliminate the British command staff located in that area, landed on rocky ground and suffered many jump casualties. The isolated German elements made little headway against the well-entrenched enemy forces.

As the battle wore on and casualty reports started  to come in to General Airborne Commander Kurt Student’s HQ at the Hotel “Grande Bretagne” in Athens, it seemed that the battle was lost. But luck was on the German side. Freyberg had to withdraw some troops from positions around Hill 107, overlooking the Airfield at Maleme. This stroke of luck gave the Germans the upper hand and enabled them to begin the desperately needed air landing troops of the Gebirgsjager on the airfield. Little by little, the entire 5th Mountain Division was flown in. Even more important to the attack forces were the artillery pieces, antitank guns, and supplies of all types, which had been missing during the initial stage of the invasion and which were now being airlifted into Maleme.

The allies pulled back in the face of a constant flow of fresh troops and began their retreat. On May 29, motorized reconnaissance elements, advancing through enemy-held territory, established contact with the German forces in the Rethymno area and reached Iraklion the next day. After repeated encounters with enemy rear guards, the German forces reached the south coast of the island on June 1st. The struggle for Crete was thereby terminated. Despite the long delay in issuance of evacuation orders, the British Navy was able to embark approximately 14,800 men and return them to Egypt. The Navy conducted the evacuation during four nights, suffering losses from German aircraft attacks. Subjected to severe losses and constant harassment by German planes, the Navy performed the evacuation during four nights. Five thousand British and Allied soldiers were left behind.

The retreat of the Allied forces was defended by the 8th Greek Regiment in and around the village of Alikianos. It was composed of young Cretan recruits, gendarmes, and cadets. They were poorly equipped and only 850 strong but they made up in spirit. Along with the 10 New Zealand Infantry Brigade they decisively repulsed the Engineer Battalion. During the next few days they held out against repeated attacks by the 85th and 100th Mountain Regiments. For seven days they held Alikianos and protected the Allied line of retreat. The 8th Greek Regiment is credited with making the evacuation of Western Crete a possibility.

The Germans had never encountered the extent of civilian resistance that they encountered on Crete. Retribution was swift. The German High Command wanted to break the spirit of the populace and do it quickly. In retaliation for the losses they incurred, the Nazis spread punishment, terror and death on the innocent civilians of the island. More than 2,000 Cretans were executed during the first month alone and 25,000 more later. Despite these atrocities, the brave people of Crete put up a courageous guerilla resistance, aided by a few British officers of the Special Operations Executuive and Allied troops who remained. The resistance fighters were known as the “Andartes” (the Rebels).

According to several historians, Cretan resistance played an important role in developments. By the end of the three-and-a-half years of occupation, Hitler had sent a total of 100,000 troops to the island to subdue 5,000 Cretan Andartes. These German troops could have been deployed somewhere else instead of being tied down on Crete.  More German troops were lost during the Battle of Crete than in France, Yugoslavia and Poland combined. Most importantly, as a result of the fighting on Crete, Hitler’s master plan to invade Russia before the coming of winter, had to be postponed, which resulted in the deaths of many German troops who were not properly prepared to survive the harsh Russian winter.

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