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73 Years Since The Battle of Crete

By April's end 1941, mainland Greece was under the heel of Axis boots, and only Crete remained still free, harboring the fleeing King and government. For the Germans, Crete could not remain a thorn in their side while they pursued their interest north and south of the Balkans.

On the morning of 20 May 1941, German transport aircraft began to arrive in swarms over the island of Crete. Aboard them, the elite of German armed forces, the Fallschirmjager, the paratroopers, of General Student's 7th Flieger Division.

Down below, Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, a New Zealand veteran of the First World War, commanded a motley crew of Commonwealth troops, Greek Army and gendarmes, and civilians. To the 15,000 garrison troops another 25,000 evacuees were added. Alongside them were 9,000 Greek troops. All were under armed and ill equipped. Furthermore, even Fryeberg understood that at least 10,000 of these troops were useless and would only get in the way, yet they were not evacuated to Egypt due to lack of means.

Freyberg was informed via Ultra radio intercepts that the Germans were planning an airborne invasion. Though he shifted many of his troops to guard the northern airfields, intelligence also suggested that there would be a seaborne element. This meant Freyberg spread his forces thin in trying to defend from sea and air assault.

Leading up to 20 May, the Luftwaffe undertook a concerted campaign to drive the Royal Air Force from Crete and establish air superiority over the battlefield. These efforts proved successful as British aircraft were withdrawn to Egypt. In the process allied naval forces were also battered

On that morning, aircraft began arriving over their drop zones. As they left the aircraft, the German paratroopers began getting fired upon even before landing. On the ground they met hell. Their situation was made dire by German airborne doctrine which called for their personal weapons to be dropped in a separate containers. Armed with only pistols and knives, many German paratroopers were cut down as they moved to recover their rifles. Beginning around 8:00 AM, New Zealand forces defending Maleme airfield inflicted staggering losses on the Germans.

Glider borne troops fared little better as they immediately came under attack as they left their aircraft. While attacks against Maleme airfield were repulsed, the Germans succeeded in forming defensive positions to the west and east towards Chania. As the day progressed, German forces landed near Rethymnon and Heraklion. As in the west, losses during the opening engagements were high. Rallying, German forces near Heraklion managed to penetrate the city, but were driven back by Greek troops. Near Maleme, German troops gathered and began attacks against Hill 107 which dominated the airfield.

The New Zealanders were able to hold the hill through the day. But for some still obscure reason they were withdrawn during the night. As a result, the Germans occupied the hill and swiftly gained control of the airfield. This permitted the arrival of elements of the 5th Mountain Division though Allied forces heavily shelled the airfield causing significant losses in aircraft and men. As fighting continued ashore on May 21, the Royal Navy successfully dispersed a reinforcement convoy that night, causing high casualties. Quickly understanding the full importance of Maleme, Freyberg ordered attacks against Hill 107 that night.

The attacks failed to dislodge the Germans and the Allies fell back. With command of the airfield the Germans began to continuously reinforce their forces. With the situation desperate, King George II of Greece was moved across the island and evacuated to Egypt. As a result, Freyberg's forces began a slow fighting retreat towards the southern coast of Crete.

Recognizing the battle was lost, London instructed Freyberg to evacuate the island on May 27. Ordering troops towards the southern ports, he directed other units to hold open key roads south and prevent the Germans from interfering. In one notable stand, the 8th Greek Regiment held back the Germans at Alikianos for a week allowing Allied forces to move to the port of Sphakia. The 28th (Maori) Battalion also performed heroically in covering the withdraw.

Determined that the Royal Navy would rescue the men on Crete, Cunningham pushed forward despite concerns that he might sustain heavy losses. In response to this criticism he famously responded, "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition." During the course of the evacuation, around 16,000 men were rescued from Crete with the bulk embarking at Sphakia. Under increasing pressure, the 5,000 men protecting the port were forced to surrender on June 1. Of those left behind, many took to the hills to fight as guerillas.

In the fighting for Crete, the Allies suffered around 4,000 killed, 1,900 wounded, and 17,000 captured. The campaign also cost the Royal Navy 9 ships sunk and 18 damaged. German losses totaled 4,041 dead/missing, 2,640 wounded, 17 captured, and 370 aircraft destroyed. Stunned by the high losses sustained by Student's troops, Hitler resolved never to conduct a major airborne operation again. Conversely, many Allied leaders were impressed by the airborne's performance and moved to create similar formations within their own armies. In studying the German experience in Crete, American airborne planners recognized the need for troops to jump with their own heavy weapons. This doctrinal change ultimately aided American airborne units once they reached Europe.

Some historians in the past, have fueled a belief that the invasion of Greece and subsequently Crete (operations Marita and Merkur) cost Hitler the war, by delaying operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. In 1942, members of the British Parliament characterised the campaign in Greece as a "political and sentimental decision". Eden rejected the criticism and argued that the UK's decision was unanimous and asserted that the Battle of Greece delayed the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. This is an argument that historians such as Keegan used to assert that Greek resistance was a turning point in World War II. According to film-maker and friend of Adolf Hitler Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler said that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad. Despite his reservations, Brooke seems also to have conceded that the Balkan Campaign delayed the offensive against the Soviet Union.

However in the end one must side with John Keegan who writes:

In the aftermath, historians would measure its significance in terms of the delay Marita had or had not imposed on the unleashing of Barbarossa, an exercise ultimately to be judged profitless, since it was the Russian weather, not the contingencies of subsidiary campaigns, which determined Barbarossa's launch date.