Crete might be an idyllic tourist island now, but during a 12-day period in May 1941 a mixed force of British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops fought like demons to try and repel a German invasion.
When mainland Greece fell to Nazi forces in April 1941, attention quickly turned to securing the territory – which is the largest island in the eastern Mediterranean.
Its central position in the Aegean sea and its harbor at Suda Bay made Crete the ideal place for naval operations. The airfields on Crete were also important as planes based there could hit targets in North Africa, disrupt Nazi oil production in Romania or attack British shipping in the Suez Canal.
The capture of Crete would also stop Allied forces from launching counter-strikes into the newly occupied Balkan region, which the German war machine had trampled through in 1941.
Despite concerns that opening up a new area of conflict would distract from Hitler’s plan to take eastern Europe, he was won over by the Luftwaffe’s plan to use paratroopers to carry out the assault.
The Fuhrer gave his consent for the invasion to go ahead, but with the strict caveat that it must not distract from the invasion of the Soviet Union in any way. German air forces then carried out a bombing campaign on the island, which forced the Royal Air Force (RAF) to evacuate their planes to Egypt.
Thanks to the success of the Allied ULTRA intelligence operation, commander of Crete Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg was aware of the incoming threat – and as a result, he could plan the defense of the island in advance.
Geography made defending the island a difficult task, as did the poor communications equipment among the fighting forces. The key positions were all on the northern face of Crete, which was just 100 kilometers away from from the Axis-occupied mainland.
The airfields at Maleme, Retimo, and Heraklion were locations of vital importance, as was the port at Suda Bay. These had to be defended, as the Allied high command was unwilling to destroy them because of their strategic importance.
Freyberg had a large force under his command, around 40,000, but they were poorly equipped and lacked the ability to communicate with each other effectively across the rugged, mountainous terrain of the island. This would prove to be a fatal undoing, despite the valiance of the men on the ground.
Within the 40,000 were 30,000 British, New Zealand and Australian troops and 10,000 Greeks. Most of these had been evacuated from the mainland after it fell to the Axis forces – many had their own weapons, but lacked the heavy armaments that would have made a difference in the fighting.
Along with the ground troops, General Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief for the region, provided Freyberg with 22 tanks and 100 pieces of artillery. These guns were in such a poor state that they were stripped down and turned into 49 pieces of better quality.
Although the tanks and heavier weapons were a positive addition to the defending forces, they were too thinly spread across the island to be able to have a significant influence on the outcome of the failed defense.