The Battle of Crete

More German paratroops landing on Crete from Junkers 52 transports, 20 May 1941. -
More German paratroops landing on Crete from Junkers 52 transports, 20 May 1941.

However, the native units counter-attacked and managed to recapture the barracks on the edge of town as well as the docks – two important places around Heraklion.

As night descended on the first day of the battle, the Germans had not managed to secure any of their objectives, and the Allies were confident of repelling the invasion. Despite this confidence, things would soon change for the defenders.

On the 21st of May, 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, which left Maleme airfield undefended. Communications had been cut between the commander and his two westernmost companies, and Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew VC assumed this lack of contact was due to those two battalions being overrun.

Because of this, Andrew asked for reinforcements from the 23rd Battalion, which Brigadier James Hargest denied because he thought those men were fighting parachute troops. Andrew then mounted a counter-attack, which failed, and so he was forced to withdraw under cover of darkness with the consent of Hargest.

By Unknown - is photograph E 3039E from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,
A pall of smoke hanging over the harbour in Suda Bay where two ships, hit by German bombers, burn themselves out.

When Captain Campbell, who was commanding the western company of the 22nd Battalion, learned of the withdrawal he also conducted one – thus leaving the airfield to the Germans because one side of the island couldn’t talk to the other.

This terrible misunderstanding allowed the Germans to take the airfield unopposed, which let them reinforce their invading force with ease.  It is probably the most important part of the whole battle, and is a huge reason in why the Allied forces lost the island.

Commanding the Axis forces from Athens was Kurt Student, who quickly moved to concentrate their forces on, and take, Maleme airfield and land more troops in via sea. In response, the Allies bombed the area – but it wasn’t enough to stop the 5th Mountain Division flying in by night.

A counter-attack was planned for the 23rd of May, but this failed because long delays in the planning process meant the attack took place during the day, instead of at night.

The two New Zealand battalions sent to take back the airfield faced Stuka dive bombers, dug-in paratroopers, and mountain troops. As the hours passed, the Allies withdrew to the eastern side of the island.

After four more days of hard fighting among inhospitable terrain, Freyberg was ordered to evacuate his troops from the island. Parts of the Allied force retreated to the south coast, and 10,500 were evacuated over four nights. 6,000 more were evacuated at Heraklion, while around 6,500 were taken prisoner after surrendering to the Germans on the 1st of June.

As the smoke cleared, it became clear that more than 1,700 Allied soldiers had lost their lives in the battle – while more than 6,000 Germans were sent to their graves by the defenders. Hitler was not impressed by these losses and concluded that paratroopers should only be used to support ground troops, and not be used as weapons of surprise.

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