Crete is the largest of the Greek owned islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Lying about 60 miles from the southern tip of the Greek mainland, Crete is about 160 long and varies in width from 7.5 miles to 37 miles. It’s a mountainous island with peaks reaching over 8,000 feet high.
Strategically, Crete is an important island. It lies about 130 miles southwest from the coast of Turkey and about 170 miles north of the coast of Libya. Any European nations wanting to invade North Africa would love to have Crete as a staging point for such an invasion and such was the case for two axis powers, Italy and Nazi Germany in the early stages of World War II.
On October 28, 1940, Italy launched their invasion of the Greek mainland sending in approximately 565,000 troops.
On October 29, 1940, Great Britain responded by sending 62,612 troops to help defend Greece, even though they were already having to defend the attacks of Germany. Joining the 430,000 Greek troops, the British Commonwealth troops were composed Australian, British and New Zealander forces.
The Italian campaign lacked real planning and strategy and it didn’t take long for the combined Allied forces drove the Italian troops north into Albania.
On April 6, 1941, Germany expands their hunger for more territory by attacking Greece and Yugoslavia. Approximately 680,000 German troops are sent to Greece.
On April 13, 1941, Yugoslavia surrenders to Germany.
As Germany drove south into Greece, the Greek and Allied forces were driven south in front of them. Nearly 50,000 Greek and Allied forces were driven to the southern tip of Greece and on to Crete by the end of April of which over 42,000 were British.
On April 30, 1941, Major General Bernard Freyberg of the New Zealand 2nd Expeditionary Force was given the task of commanding the Allied forces and defending Crete. To make Freyberg’s task even harder, in the hasty retreat from Greek mainland, British Commonwealth forces had left most of the heavy artillery and supplies behind. Many of their troops only had what they could personally carry, leaving ammunition in rather short supply.
There were four airfields on Crete that Freyberg had to defend and all four of them were on the northern coast of the island which faced the Greek mainland and the German forces. One of the bases was only 60 miles from the southern tip of the German occupied mainland. The possibly of destroying the airfields was considered, but the British leaders hoped that the RAF could use the airfields so decided not to destroy them. The airfield at Suda Bay was being used for supplies so it was protected as much as possible.
The only real advantage the British forces had is that they knew that an attack by German forces was inevitable and prepared as best they could. Back in Berlin, Hitler and his top aides debated whether to try to capture Crete for its strategical significance or turn their efforts to their upcoming invasion of Russia. Some of Hitler’s staff believed that the conquest of Crete would be a quick venture and at most would only delay the plans for the Russian invasion by a couple of days so Hitler gave the go ahead to move on Crete.
On May 20, 1941, around 8am, the skies over the Molema airfield and town of Canea was filled with German gliders, followed by powered airplanes. Then the skies filled with several thousand parachutes. British troops managed to shoot many of the German paratroopers before they touched down and a number of others as they tried to get out of the harnesses. However, enough German paratroopers survived and began mounting their attack on the British defenses.
A second wave of German paratroopers arrived later that day near the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. When day one of the invasion of Crete sunk into the darkness of night, none of the German forces were able to accomplish their objectives at any of the three airfields they targeted. German command began to question the wisdom of trying to take Crete. The Germans decided to go for broke and sent everything they had available on the Greek mainland at the airfield at Malema the next day. At the same time, Freyberg had withdrawn his New Zealand infantry battalions from the Malema airfield and the higher ground behind the airfield.
On May 21, 1941, the brunt of the German forces arrived at the Malema airfield to find it virtually unprotected. Once they knew the airstrip was secured, the Germans began flying in more troops and artillery.
On May 26, 1941, Freyberg received orders to evacuate his forces from Crete.
On May 28, 1941, the evacuation of Crete began. The British troops were moved over the mountains to the southern side of Crete around Sfakia where they boarded boats to take them to Egypt. A number of the boats were destroyed by German planes.
On this day, June 1, 1941, the remaining 6,500 troops still on Crete formally surrendered to the German forces. Those that surrendered were taken to POW camps in Italy and then later on to Germany and Poland.
The casualties in Crete were high. Allied forces lost 1,742 men on the island. During the evacuations, Germany sunk three cruisers and six destroyers, costing the Allied forces an additional 2,265 men. Germany lost about 4,000 troops, which Hitler believed to be too high, causing him to not pursue any further expansion in the Mediterranean Sea at the time.
Sources for the above includes: The Battle for Crete; Germans conquer Crete; German Airborne Invasion of Crete; Operation Mercury: The German Invasion of Crete, 20 May-1 June 1941; World War II: Battle of Crete; Battle of Crete: It Began with Germany’s Airborne Invasion — Operation Mercury; Timeline of Selected Events 1931-1945; Crete.