Wartime Crete

The airborne invasion of Crete...

…started early on the morning of 20th May, 1941.

Because of the previous concentration of Allied efforts on North Africa and Greece, the defences of the island had been neglected.  The 2nd Battalion of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment had sailed for the island from Alexandria on the 31st October, 1940, following Mussolini's ultimatum to Greece but Major General Weston's assessment of the defences in April '41 found them sadly lacking.  The anti-aircraft defences needed strengthening, and fighter and bomber aircraft should be based on the island.   Unfortunately there were too many other demands on resources.  By the 18th May there were only 5 fighters left on Crete, 2 Hurricanes and 2 Gladiators on Iraklion, and 1 Hurricane at Maleme, the decision was taken to withdraw them, and they flew back to Egypt before the invasion started.  There were a small number of 'Light Tanks', and (I) Tanks on the island that would take part in some of the actions to come.

By the 27th April the information gathered from ULTRA was sufficient for the British to be aware of the German airborne units now in Greece, and that they were intended for use against Crete.  On the 6th May Bletchley Park had discovered that the German preparations would be completed by the 17th of May.  Now determined to hold Crete, Churchill wanted a fighting General to command the forces on the island.  He appointed General Bernard Freyberg of the New Zealand Division, who had arrived on the island from the Greek mess on the 29th April.  Freyberg had many reservations about the defensive situation, but accepted the appointment.  On the 19th May Freyberg learnt, via ULTRA, that the invasion would start the next day, the 20th May.

General Student's plan in brief was for his main formation to drop on and around Maleme airfield while the 3rd Regiment and the engineer battalion would drop and move on Chania and Souda Bay.  Further East the 2nd Regiment would drop on Rethymno airfield while the 1st regiment would drop further to the east on Iraklion airfield.  The first waves would be the troops in the gliders who would take out the anti-aircraft batteries around Maleme and Chania.  Once the airfields had been secured the transport aircraft would bring in the 5th Mountain Division.

The first waves of the attack were aimed at the airfield of Maleme, a few miles along the northern coast to the West of Chania, with Hill 107 behind it and the river Tavronitis entering the sea close to the perimeter of the airfield. The coast road here crossed the river on an old iron bridge.

The airfield, Hill 107 and the area of the river would all be scenes of bitter fighting in the hours to come. The area around Maleme, Kastelli, Kissamos, Galatas and Chania all formed the target area of the German Group West, under General Eugen Meindl.

 

 

Resistance

When the Germans invaded Crete they did so with poor intelligence regarding the strength of the Allied forces available to Freyberg for the defence of the island. They also made another wrong appreciation of the situation on the ground. They believed they would see little resistance from the villagers on the island, the Cretans themselves. Although Freyberg had decided not to arm the Cretans (they were believed to be anti-royalist and also likely to cause later problems for the Greeks), they fought bravely with whatever was to hand during the invasion. For the four years following the Allied withdrawal from the island they put up a courageous guerrilla resistance, aided by some British and Allied officers and troops. The scale of this resistance caused the Germans to garrison more troops on the island than they would have wished, making them unavailable for other war theatres.

In the months following the Allied evacuation it was necessary for those forces which had not been evacuated to make contact with the Allied Headquarters in Egypt, hopefully to arrange their removal from the island. It was also important to the Allies that these forces contact the Cretan Resistance on the island, and so get these resistance forces also in contact with Egypt. The Monastery of St. John the Theologian at Preveli on the south coast became an important link in this early communication, before the Germans later raised it. In July of 1941 the first batch of 79 men was evacuated on the submarine Thrasher. Lights had been used to signal out to sea from the monastery, this had been done nightly for weeks before Commander Pool came ashore to tell them their signals had been seen and contact established. The Allied soldiers had been hidden and looked after by the Cretans, at great risk to themselves, their families and their villages. Without the self sacrifice of the islanders these men would not have been able to get to Egypt.

Now that contact had been made it was possible over the coming months to evacuate many more Allied soldiers from the island. It also cemented the link between the island and Egypt and allowed a strengthening of the capabilities of the resistance.

In the years of occupation that followed the people of Crete, aided by a small number of Allied personnel, continued their fight against the Germans. Many were captured and killed and many villagers were also executed as a reprisal for the actions of the guerrilla forces. The islanders were, and still are, a hardy breed. You can still see today in some of the hill villages old men in their black tunics, calf length boots and full moustaches, much as they were in that period of struggle.