Commemorating the Battle of Crete

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Crete during World War II. This historic battle, which took place from May 20-June 1, 1941, changed the course of the war.

 

battle of Crete
IMAGE: Australian War Memorial

 

Battle of Crete changes the war

This important battle that began 75 years ago today, changed everything. Hitler anticipated that Crete would be a quick and easy conquest, with a battle lasting a couple of days at most. Then again, he probably had never encountered a Cretan! On that first day, which included the first-ever airborne invasion, the Germans experienced more casualties than they had experienced collectively in the war to that point. In a most stunning display of true grit – the truest and most real ever seen: the Cretans – armed with a tremendous love and pride for family and country, plus rocks, sticks, miscellaneous farm implements, basically whatever they could get their hands on – gave the Germans a fight they hadn’t encountered before or since. It is even said that one elderly mad clubbed a German to death with only his walking stick! To say that the Cretan fighting spirit is unmatched, is clearly an understatement.

 

“Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!”  ~ Winston Churchill, following the Battle of Crete

 

Throughout history, Crete has been the target of several takeover attempts. The beautiful, southern-most and largest of all the Greek islands, would indeed be quite the prize: its location would make it a strategic must-have for any country contemplating areas to the East, like Hitler, who at the time had his sights set on Russia.

Under the code name Operation Mercury (Unternehmen Merkur, in German), more than 8000 paratroopers, called the Fallshirmjager (Sky Hunters), landed in Crete for the surprise of their lives. None of Germany’s objectives were achieved that day, and the number of casualties (2/3 of the battalion) forced Germany to call in reinforcements. They landed near Maleme, Hania and Souda Bay. On the second day, miscommunications and miscalculations by the Allied Forces resulted in the fall of Maleme Airfield on Western Crete. The Allied Forces had been on Crete since Italy invaded Greece on October 28, 1940 (OXI Day). The forces were made up of New Zealanders, British, Australian, and Greek troops. The Cretans worked hand-in-hand with the Allies, delivering intelligence and fighting with everything they had. They almost succeeded. It is important to note that Crete never surrendered.

 

Battle of Crete like none before

History reports the Battle of Crete as unprecedented. Besides being the first-ever airborne invasion, it was also the first time the Allies deciphered German Enigma code for intelligence use. It was also the first time that the Germans experienced such a mass resistance from civilians, including women and children. As a result, Hitler banned any future large scale airborne operations.

Much happened during those days of battle. In short, according Explore Crete:

 “The Cretan Resistance Movement that was organized during the German occupation continued to inflict heavy casualties to the Nazi forces – even the kidnapping of a heavily-guarded German general – four years after the invasion – set an example for all the conquered people of Europe to follow. The people of Crete also suffered savage punitive reprisals for their fighting and resistance and thousands of civilians were randomly executed, while entire communities were burned and destroyed by the Nazi invaders.” 

 

Kidnapping Kreipe “most daring exploit”

The kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe, in April 1944, called the “most daring exploit of WWII” – masterminded by Patrick Leigh Fermor, an officer with British Special Operations (with the help of Billy Moss), was the only successful abduction of a German general in all of WWII. Wearing actual German uniforms, with fake insignia embroidered by Cretan women, guerillas smuggled the general off the island.

John Manos, former president of the Pancretan Association of America, recalled his grandfather’s stories about the kidnapping.

“I remember my grandfather telling me stories of how the Germans would raid our village looking for resistance fighters and those cooperating with the British. He was one of a small group of resistance fighters that took part in the abduction of ‘General Kreiper’. They hid him for several days in a small cave at the gorge in our Village, Vilandredo, in Rethymno, Crete. They kept him there waiting for a British submarine to come to the south shore of the island at Rodakino, where they then took him to Egypt, where he was released after the war was over.

I am proud to be a Cretan and pray for those brave heroes, for their memories to be eternal, for it is because of their courage and sacrifice that we are free today!”

 

A German victory, but a costly one

The Website History of War reported:

“The Battle for Crete was a German victory but a costly one. Out of an assault force of just over 22,000 men, the Germans suffered some 5,500 casualties, of which 3,600 were killed or missing in action. Almost a third of the JU-52s (transport and bomber aircraft) used in the operation were damaged or destroyed. The Allies suffered almost 3,500 casualties (of which just over 1,700 were killed) and almost 12,000 were taken prisoner. The Royal Navy suffered one aircraft carrier, two battleships, six cruisers and seven destroyers badly damaged and another three cruisers and six destroyers sunk with the loss of over 2,000 men. The RAF lost some forty-seven aircraft in the battle. Exactly how many Greek soldiers and Cretan civilians died during the fighting will never be known.”

 

Battle of Crete Timeline

May 20: German attack on Crete begins at 6:30 a.m. The Germans subject the towns of Hania, Rethymnon and Iraklion to severe bombardment prior to dropping their elite parachutists. Local confrontations take place between German paratroopers and Allied Forces reinforced by the local population.

May 21: The Germans concentrate their attack on Maleme Airfield. Germans land there in the evening carrying significant forces and material for the attack. The British fleet in the Mediterranean strikes a German convoy heading for Crete. Fifteen requisitioned vessels were sunk; their losses are still unknown.

May 22: The Germans manage to finally occupy the airfield of Maleme. Allied efforts to retake the airfield are fruitless.

May 23: Greek political leadership abandons Crete on destroyer “Decoy”. Churchill sends the following message to the Headquarters: “The Battle of Crete must be won”.

May 24: The bombardment of the towns of Crete goes on. At Hania, the Germans gained the initiative. The Allied Forces at Rethymnon and Iraklion are determined “to fight to the end”.

By May 31: The total occupation of Crete was a fact and the withdrawal of the majority of the Allied Forces to Egypt marked the end of the Battle of Crete.

 

Commemorations

Memorial services will take place around the world. Some events have already occurred. Here’s one this weekend in Springfield, MA. A weekend of events is planned on Crete.

 

You don’t learn this in school

While this important battle is rarely mentioned in history courses or in the mainstream, it is well documented, and worth learning about. Google ‘Battle of Crete’, and get an extensive listing of information. Also, many books have also been written on the subject.

Unfortunately, we don’t learn these things in school. Everyone should know about this battle, because it changed the course of WWII – the second time the Greeks impacted the war – which altered Hitler’s plans significantly, and no doubt saved countless lives. We must get this in the history books! The lessons of the Battle of Crete are as significant today, and should never be forgotten. May the memories of all those who perished be eternal.

 

Video of Winston Churchill’s famous words


More on the Battle of Crete:

Video: German Airborne Invasion of Crete | 1941 | World War 2 Documentary

Video: The Battle of Crete-full history in 15 min-Greek with English subtitles

Google search listings: Battle of Crete

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete  by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Other books about the Battle of Crete

Maria A. Karamitsos

Maria A. Karamitsos

Founder & Editor at WindyCity Greek
For 10 years, Maria served as the Associate Editor and Senior Writer for The Greek Star newspaper. Her work has been published in GreekCircle magazine, The National Herald, GreekReporter, HarlotsSauce Radio, Women.Who.Write, and more. Maria has contributed to three books: Greektown Chicago: Its History, Its Recipes; The Chicago Area Ethnic Handbook; and the inaugural Voices of Hellenism Literary Journal.
Maria A. Karamitsos

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