Alikianos, Crete

Alikianos, or in Greek Αλικιανός , is a spectacular mountain village of the located approximately 12.5 mountainous kilometers southwest of Chania. The village is vey
picturesque and surrounded by citrus groves. Near Alikianos an artificial lake has been
constructed called Lake Aghia. This lake has been constructed for the purpose of providing sustained water supply to the Alikianos area and to facilitate crop irrigation. Lake Aghia also has a special ecosystem that is used by migrating birds each year.

Other major sites in Alikianos are a ruined Venetian castle of the aristocratic Molini and a noted 14th-century church of Agios Ioannis (or “Ai-Kir Yanni” in local Cretan dialect). Though much overgrown, the dilapidated walls standing among orange and lemon trees are still impressive. The castle was the scene of a famous massacre, when the Cretan rebel leader Georgios Kandanoleon was betrayed by Francesco Molini during his wedding to Molini’s daughter.

Alikianos is strategically positioned between the location of the famous Malame battlefield and the southern coast of Crete. Alikianos is best known outside the island for the fierce fighting which took place there during the 1940 Battle of Crete during which the 8 th Greek Regiment (Provisional) helped cover the retreat of British Commonwealth forces.

Prelude to the Battle of Alikianos

The Battle of Crete in 1941 was the first airborne assault on a major island. The defenders, mainly British Commonwealth soldiers withdrawn from the Greek mainland at the end of April, outnumbered their attackers, but of Lt. General Freyberg's 42, 460 men, barely half were properly formed and equipped. The New Zealand Division was deployed west of Chania up to Maleme airfield, the British 14th Infantry Brigade defended Iraklion airfield, and two Australian battalions covered Rethymno airfield. The attack was no surprise. Likely dropping zones had been identified in November 1940 as British Intelligence confirmed them as targets two weeks before the invasion. Freyberg's defense plan was distorted by his fixed idea that a seaborne invasion would follow rapidly behind the airborne assault.

Project Mercury, planned by Gen. Student was spearheaded by 7th Airborne Division on May 20, 1941. From well-prepared positions, the British and Commonwealth forces killed or wounded nearly two-thirds of the division. A total of over 3, 000 paratroopers were killed. Student's superiors believed the battle lost. In a last-ditch attempt early on May 21, Student sent reinforcements to the Maleme area. The New Zealand commander, still expecting a seaborne invasion, delayed sending in a counter-attack and the battalion responsible for the airfield withdrew. Student dropped his last paratroop reserves, then started to land the 5th Mountain Division. That same day, Freyberg misread an intelligence message OL 15/389. He took it to mean that the Germans were going to land troops by sea near Chania. In fact only a small convoy of caciques, bearing a single battalion of mountain soldiers was headed for Maleme, not Chania.

However, Freyberg had concentrated his best forces close to Chania and insisted that Australian troops replace those New Zealanders earmarked for the counter-attack due that night against Maleme airfield. This delayed its start fatally. Shortly before midnight, a Royal Navy force intercepted the flotilla and destroyed much of it. Freyberg went to bed convinced that Crete had been saved. But the two short-handed battalions, all that had been allocated for the counter-attack on Maleme, had started so late that they were caught in the open at daybreak on May 22, 1941 by General von Richthofen's fighters. Freyberg's son later claimed that his father had acted as he had only to protect the secret of British intelligence.

At other major cities in Crete of Iraklion and Rethymno, the airfields had been saved through prompt and vigorous counter-attacks. But once General Student had secured Maleme, he was able to fly in the rest of his mountain troops. The Commonwealth forces, exhausted from continual air attack, pulled back. Freyberg gave the order to retreat south over the White Mountains to the tiny port of Sphakia, where Royal Navy warships from Alexandria evacuated 15, 000 men. Those left behind surrendered on June 1, 1941. The Axis powers had thus conquered Crete, but at such a cost that the Fuhrer forbade any further airborne operations. There was another sever negative side effect to the resistance in Greece and Crete as it significantly delayed Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Russia, whose failure would prove to be the death ell to German efforts to expand its boundaries.

 The Battle of Alikianos

The defense by the 8th Greek regiment, defending the foothills above Alikianos, has to stand out as of one of the greatest testaments of courage and bravery, not only during World War II, but also in the history of warfare. Though acts of heroism by the recreated Greek Army in Crete were numerous, nothing can compare to the epic struggle that was waged at Alikianos.

When the Nazis conquered the Greek mainland the Greek Government fled to Crete, the last bastion of Greek sovereignty. King George II, and his Prime Minister Emanuel Tsouderos, a Cretan, arrived in Crete with 2,000 soldiers that had escaped the German onslaught. These soldiers, along with the 3,000 Cretan Police were going to form the nucleus of a recreated Greek Army. Along with these seasoned fighters, 9,000 men, primarily boys between 16 to 19 years old, were recruited to create a new Hellenic Army. This new army was going to be organized into regiments of 800 to 950 men. Though the overall command of the defense of Crete was under the British, the Greek units were operating independently under Greek officers. One of those units was the 8 th Greek Regiment stationed near Alikianos.

Most of the soldiers at Alikianos were young men under twenty years of age. These recruits had less than four weeks training, one-fifth of these soldiers did not have rifles, and most that were armed had five rounds of ammunition. Additionally, most of British General Bernard Freyberg’s key officers had a low opinion of the potential fighting capacity of the Greeks at Alikianos. One of those officers, Colonel Howard Kippenberger, bluntly described the defenders of Alikianos as “…nothing more than malaria ridden little chaps…with only four weeks of service.” This scenario does not lend itself to have high expectations for an epic defensive struggle.

The reason why the 8 th Greek Regiment was assigned to defend Alikianos by the British command was the mistaken assumption that the location wasnot that important and there would be no major German assault in that sector. The 8 th Greek Regiment was commanded by Colonel Peter Karkoulas; the battalion officers were Major John Valegrakis and Major George Vamvakis.

On May 20, 1941 the Nazi Air Division, popularly nicknamed the Herman Goering Division , launched its parachute attack on Crete. Contrary to British expectations, the Germans concluded that Alikianos was very important, and were going to take the village and the surrounding foothills. A German Engineer Battalion was to push aside the Greek resistance and take the position. The Germans suffered a rude awakening. As expected, within a couple of hours the 8 th Greek Regiment ran out of ammunition. The brave men of the 8 th Regiment, mostly local Cretan recruits, solved their ammunition problem with several fearless bayonet charges against withering fire. The Greeks captured enough German firearms and ammunitions to continue the fight for several days. Additionally, the brave people of Alikianos fell on the German invaders with anything that could be construed as a weapon. The Greek battle cry was “The German Will Not Pass.”

After the end of the first day of fighting at Alikianos, the shell-shocked Germans retreated. In frantically asking for reinforcement, Nazi Major Liebach wired the German Command that Alikianos “…was strongly held by at least 4,000 Greeks, partisans, and British.” The ferocity and bravery of the 850 Greeks at Alikianos made the Nazis believe

they were confronting a force five times its actual size. In spite of their spectacular success, by the second day the Greek Regiment at Alikianos had been completely cut off from any British or Greek military unit—as far as the defenders of Alikianos were concerned it didn’t matter they would stop the Germans.

The reinforcements that the Germans brought to take Alikianos were elements of the Mountain Division that a month and a half earlier had breached the toughest Greek defenses in Macedonia (the Metaxas Line) in conquering the Greek mainland. When these units of the Mountain Division launched concerted attacks against the Greeks at Alikianos, they were also beaten back by the heroes of the 8 th Greek Regiment. Though totally cut from supplies and reinforcements the Greeks at Alikianos held their lines. After seven days of epic resistance, the Greek forces at Alikianos were finally dispersed by an overwhelming assault that included the support from the German Air Force. It was not until May 27, 1941 that German forces could advance into positions that had been held by the 8 th Greek Regiment.

Though no one knew it at the time the epic Greek resistance at Alikianos was responsible for saving the entire British Army in Crete from destruction or capture. By May 27 the bulk of the British Army in Crete was withdrawing south to Sfakia for evacuation to Egypt on the Royal Navy. The Greek defense at Alikianos bought the British an additional 30 hours for their evacuation. Had the German forces from Alikianos had arrived at the village of Stilos 24 hours earlier, the bulk of the British forces would have been forced to surrender.

British World War II historian Ian McDougal Stewart, in discussing the British retreat to Sfakia explained that, “Among those thousands who had made their way through the narrow pass to the south, not one of them knew that he owed his safety to those few anonymous Greeks and Cretans who had continued their fight day after day, unrecognized by their friends and with little hope for themselves, on the hillsides above Alikianos.”

Distinguished military historian Anthony Beevor is even more blunt about the impact of Alikianos on the British retreat, “…[British General] Freyberg’s force had already been saved from almost certain encirclement and a humiliating surrender by that astonishing feat of resistance near Alikianos by the 8 th Greek Regiment and Cretan irregulars.” In a cruel irony, it was only after the war that the British were going to find out that their army had been saved by the heroes of Alikianos. The Germans expressed their disgust for the losses they sustained at Alikinaos by rounding up and executing over 200 men and boys in the vicinity of the village after their victory.

A visitor to Crete can visit the memorial at Alikianos to those victims of Nazi barbarism.

In reading about the Battle of Crete, the history is replete with heroism. However, no legitimate historical account of the Battle of Crete would be complete without recognizing the heroism of the defenders of Alikianos. [This article is courtesy of the Pancretan Association of America, and of Tony J. Kocolas, a teacher of history at Merced College, Merced California. In addition to having written articles for various publications, he is currently in the process of producing a video documentary titled Our Greek Heritage: The Greek Roots of Western Civilization. The articles can be found in its original form at . The website of the Pancretan Association of America is located at .]

Church Bombed Out Abandoned
Church Bombed Out German Bombs
Swollen River Downtownl Bridge to Alikianos
War Memorial Nazi Reminder WWII Hero