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Category: War Cemeteries

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The Australian Memorial, Stavromenos. Painted in Crete in 2004. Collection of Michael Winters. AWM
OL00475.062. The Australian Memorial in Stavromenos was built to honour the Australians who served in the Crete Campaign and to recognise the Greek soldiers and Cretan people who fought alongside them.

The Commonwealth Cemetery, Suda Bay. Drawn in Crete in 2004. Collection of Michael Winters. AWM

In 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 refuelling base.

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.


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces