BATTLE OF MALEME, Crete
 

The Battle of Crete was a ten day, World War II battle that took place in 1941. The battle began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when the Nazis launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code name of Operation Mercury. After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered high casualties and none of their objectives had been achieved. The next day, through miscommunication and the failure of Allied commanders to grasp the situation, the Malame airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans, enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the Allied forces. The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects: it was the first mainly airborne invasion; it was the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code; and it was the first time the invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. In light of the heavy casualties suffered by the parachutists, Hitler forbade further large scale airborne operations. Nonetheless, he Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and later used them.

The German army high command was preoccupied with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa, and was against involvement. Nevertheless, senior Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by a daring airborne attack. Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal, though the directive stated that the operation was to be in May because of the approaching attack on the Soviet Union. The priority of the attack was underlined: Crete was under no circumstances to be allowed to interfere with the war against the Soviet Union. In advance of the land battle, the Germans launched frequent bombing raids against the island. This air campaign eventually succeeded in its objective, forcing the Royal Air force to remove its planes to Egypt.

At the outset of the land battle, the Allies had the advantage of numerical superiority and naval supremacy. The Germans had air superiority and greater mobility, which allowed them to concentrate their forces more effectively. The Germans deployed a new weapon on Crete in the form of a “light gun” or recoilless rifle. The Germans used colour-coded parachutes to distinguish the canisters carrying rifles, ammunition, and other supplies. In contrast with the practice of most other nations' airborne forces, who jumped with personal weapons strapped to their bodies, German airborne procedure was for individual weapons to be dropped in canisters; this was a major flaw. While it helped exiting from the aircraft and prevented loss and damage to the rifles, it left the paratroopers armed only with their fighting knives, pistols and grenades in the critical few minutes after landing. The poor design of German parachutes compounded the problem: the standard German parachute harness had only a single riser connecting the paratrooper to the chute, and thus could not be steered toward weapons canisters and away from ground hazards. Many German paratroopers were shot attempting to make it to their weapons canisters.

Hitler's orders made it very clear that the forces used were primarily airborne and air units already in the area. Hitler's order was that the preparations for the operation must not conflict with Operation Barbarossa. Further, units committed for the attack on Crete but earmarked for Barbarossa were to conclude operations before the end of May at the latest. Barbarossa was not to be delayed by the attack on Crete. This meant that the planned attack had to be launched within the allotted period or else it would be cancelled. Planning had to be rushed, and much of the German operation would be improvised.

As a primary objective, Maleme offered several advantages: it was the largest airfield, capable of supporting heavy transports bearing reinforcements; it was near enough to the mainland to allow air cover from land-based fighters; and it was near the northern coast, so seaborne reinforcements could be brought up quickly. A compromise plan was forced by Hermann Göring and the final plan heavily emphasized securing Maleme first, while not ignoring the other Allied assets. German airborne doctrine was based primarily on parachuting in a small number of forces directly on top of enemy airfields. This force would capture the perimeter and any local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider.

The local Allied command was aware of this after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However, they were overruled by the Allied Command in Alexandria, who felt the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the return of the Royal Air Force once the island was secure/is believed by some experts to have a fatal error. It is not clear whether this is the case, for the Germans proved they were able to land reinforcements without resort to fully-functioning airfields. One German pilot crash-landed his transport on a deserted beach; others landed in empty fields, discharged their cargo and took off again. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some of their numerous transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference to the final outcome. The gliders were designed to be expendable and consequently their pilots were even more daring in their landing choices.

At 8:00 am on 20 May, German paratroopers landed near Maleme airfield and the city of Chania. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme airfield and the surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion. For example, one company of the III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment, lost 112 killed out of 126; and 400 of the battalion's 600 men were killed before the end of the first day. Of the initial forces, the majority were mauled by New Zealand forces defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing. Those who did land were wiped out almost to a man by the New Zealand and Greek defenders. A number of German forces had landed off-site near both airfields, as is common in airdrops, and set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield, and "Prison Valley" in the Chania area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, they were in place and the defenders had to deploy to face them.

Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. In other cases, Cretan civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and many German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case, an elderly Cretan clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines.[18] The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms. Their actions were not limited to harassment as the civilian population also played a significant role in various Greek counter-attacks. Civilian action also checked the Germans to the north and west of Iraklion, and in the town centre itself. This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time, it unbalanced them. However, once they had recovered from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity.

The next morning, it was found that the New Zealand infantry battalion defending the strategic Hill 107, which rose abouve the Malame airfield, had mistakenly withdrawn at night. This gave the Germans control of the undamaged Maleme airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby. That evening, transport aircraft started flying in units of the German 5th Mountain Division into Crete. These troops moved into the line as soon as their planes landed, many of which were hit by artillery fire and littered the airfield. Realizing that Maleme was the key to holding the entire island, the defending force organized for a counter-attack by two New Zealand battalions on the night of May 21st. The force attacked at night, but by this time, the original paratroops had set up defensive lines and the newly-arrived mountain troops proved difficult to dislodge. The attack slowly petered out and failed to retake the airfield. From this point on, the defenders were involved in a series of withdrawals to end of the island, in an attempt to avoid being out-flanked by the advancing German forces. Fighting against a constant supply of fresh enemy troops, the Allies began a series of retreats working southward across Crete. Allied command in London eventually decided the cause was hopeless and on 27 May, ordered an evacuation, consequently orders were given to allied troops to begin withdrawing to the south coast to be evacuated.

Over four nights, 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by ships. The majority of these troops embarked from the southern Cretan harbor of Sphakia. A smaller number were withdrawn from Iraklion on the night of 28 May. This task force was attacked en route by Luftwaffe and suffered serious losses. More than 9,000 Anzacs and thousands of Greeks were left behind to defend the remaining territory as best they could. They fought on until they were surrounded. The cities of Irakleion and Rethymno were taken in the following days by the Germans. By June1, the island of Crete was under German control.

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. On the first day of battle, they decisively repulsed the German Engineer Battalion. During the next several 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. On 1 June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sphakia surrendered, although many took to the hills and caused the German occupation problems for years. By 1941, an estimated 500 British Commonwealth troops remained at large, to say nothing of the Greek resistors, who were more easily able to blend in with the native population.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History, citing a report of the Historical Branch of the British Cabinet Office, concludes that military historians largely accept estimates of between 6,000 and 7,000 German casualties as correct. The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an approximate equal number wounded, as well as 12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek soldiers captured. There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Royal Navy. After the war, the Allied graves from the four burial grounds that had been established by the German forces were moved to Suda Bay War Cemetery.

The city of Chania, Rethymno and Iraklion were bombed and a significant proportion of the area's population was either executed or imprisoned due to its participation in the resistance against the German rule. A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire or died fighting. Many Cretans were shot by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation that followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children. German records put the number of Cretans executed by firing squad as 3,474, and at least a further 1,000 civilians were killed in massacres late in 1944. The Jewish community of Crete was also eliminated during the German occupation. Many of them were transported off the island by the Nazis occupiers in 1944. Unfortunately, a British torpedo sank the ship "Tanais" carrying most of the Jewish prisoners, tragically killing the island's pre-war Jewish community.

Many of the attached photos were either taken from the central focal point of the battle, Hill 107, overlooking the Malame airfield or from the Malame airfield itself.

 
Makeshift memorial at Maleme Airport
Naval memorial to fallen allied sailors
View of Airport from which allies mounted attacks
Gaves to fallen heroes
Maleme museum display
Maleme museum display
Maleme museum display
Memorial Tree
Memorial to fallen Greek pilots
View of the town of Maleme