April 1941 the fortunes of the British Empire reached a new low in the
struggle against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Greece had fallen to the
Nazis, the Afrika Korps had trapped the 9th Australian Division in
Tobruk, and an anti-British revolt had broken out in Iraq. Hitlerís
gaze now turned to Crete.
Crete was the destination of many of
the Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers fleeing Greece. The
Royal Navy conducted their evacuation from Greece in its best tradition,
but it was a dangerous operation. German forces pressed the escaping
soldiers on the ground, while the bombers of the Luftwaffe prowled
above. Not all made it. Bombers caught the Dutch transport Slamat and
sunk it with a heavy loss of life.
The troops arrived on Crete exhausted,
but relieved to escape. Many landed with just their rifles and the
clothes on their backs, some with not even that. At first they slept in
the open under olive trees, and cooked on fires using old water cans and
discarded food tins. The local population also came to their aid,
providing bread and wine. Gradually, the men regained their strength and
an army again took shape. But their rest would not last long: the next
test against the Germans was only a few weeks off.
Both the British and the Germans saw
Crete, the largest and southernmost Greek island, as strategically
important to their operations in the eastern Mediterranean. From their
airfields German bombers could reach Britainís vital bases in Egypt,
whereas, from these same locations, the British could attack the
Romanian oilfields at Ploesti, Germanyís main source of petroleum. The
British also wanted to use the fine harbour at Suda as a naval
The islandís airfields Ė Maleme,
Retimo, and Heraklion Ė as well as the naval base at Suda Bay were the
keys to Crete. The British commander, New Zealander General Bernard
Freyberg, had allocated garrisons to each of these positions. Each would
be subject to savage air and ground attacks.
On 20 May thousands of German
paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers descended upon Crete. The
defenders responded with brutal and accurate fire, killing many of the
enemy while in the air, and others once they landed. At Retimo and
Heraklion the Australian and British defenders kept the invaders off the
airfields. But at Maleme the situation facing the British was more
desperate. There the Germans succeeded in securing the field from the
New Zealanders. Sensing victory, German planes brought in reinforcements
from the 5th Mountain Division. With each passing hour German strength
grew while that of the British declined.
On 27 May Freyberg accepted that
evacuation was necessary. The main departure point was the village of
Sfakia. With the Germans in close pursuit, the army made its way across
the rugged mountains that divided the island. The Australian 2/7th and
2/8th Battalions were part of the rearguard that held off the Germans.
The evacuation began on the night of 28 May. Each night more ships
arrived, but there was neither time nor enough ships to rescue everyone.
When the final ship departed on 1 June 5,000 British soldiers remained
on Crete, including the 2/7th.
The Royal Navy took off the Heraklion
garrison on the night of 28 May. Discovered the next morning, the convoy
was repeatedly attacked by German bombers; the Hereward was wrecked and
other ships damaged, killing over 400 soldiers and sailors. At Retimo
nothing could be done for the Australians. Cut off, they never received
the order to evacuate. On 30 May they capitulated, and the men of the
2/1st and 2/11th Battalions became prisoners.
Many soldiers refused to accept defeat
and headed into the mountains. Some were caught, others joined the
resistance. The local people, such as the monks of Moni Prevali,
protected many until it was safe for them to escape. Eventually, about
600 soldiers made their way to Egypt.
Ironically, with its conquest, Crete
lost its strategic importance to both sides. The German soldiers and
airmen who had fought the battle soon departed to join in Hitlerís
next aggression, the invasion of the Soviet Union. For the British, the
real threat to Egypt was Rommelís Afrika Korps in North Africa.
Instead of a springboard to further conquest, the island became a
backwater garrison post, of little future importance.
For the people of Crete the war
against the Germans did not end with the British evacuation. A proud
race, the Cretans refused to accept conquest, and a fierce resistance
movement arose in the mountains and isolated villages. The Germans
responded savagely, with mass executions and burning of entire villages,
but were unable to quell the uprising. At one point there were 75,000
Germans on Crete, but still the people resisted.
Time has covered over the scars of
battle that swept over Crete in 1941, but, like the ruins of the ancient
Minoans, their memory remains. A Commonwealth cemetery with 1,509 graves
overlooks Suda Bay, and at Retimo stands a monument to the Australians.
At Maleme there is a German cemetery containing 4,465 dead. Dotted
around the island are plaques and memorials to the fallen of the many
small, but vicious, actions the two sides fought.
Images and text from AWM.