Crete


When it became clear at the end of april 1941 that the greek mainland could no longer be defended against the superior german forces began an evacuation of the greek and british forces to Greece’s largest island Crete. The geographical location of Crete made the island a suitable place to continue the war against the Axis powers (Germany and Italy). First, the British fleet could start from Crete’s ports and carry out offensive operations against German and Italian targets in the Mediterranean. First, the British air force was able to reach the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania. The oil fields in particular were extremely important for German warfare and therefore Crete became a primary attack target. The imminent attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 also meant that the germans considered that the southern flank had to be secured. Since the British fleet was superior to the Axis powers, an invasion of Crete could not take place by sea, but if Crete were to be occupied, it had to take place by air.

On May 20, the Germans launched an airborne attack (operation Mercure) against Crete in which about 14,000 paratroopers participated and were released across the north coast of Crete. The main goal was to quickly occupy and occupy the airports at Maleme, Rethymnon and Heraklion. These were to be used in the later stages of the invasion for the transport of both materials and troops to fight the defence in Crete. But the Germans had partly misjudged the defence of Crete and the difficulties of an airborne landing, especially at Maleme, the Germans suffered severe losses. The area was strongly defended and was strategically beneficial to the defenders. The paratroopers were shot at immediately and many were killed before they could even land. The terrain was also to the detriment of the Germans and they became disoriented and split when they landed under heavy shelling. Bitter battles took place at height 107 and at the bridge at Tavronitis below the height. But after the initial day, the Germans began to grasp the situation and secure strategic positions, including the airfield.

The defence of Crete consisted not only of forces of the British commonwealth but also of Greek forces as well as of civilian cretans who promptly interfered in the fighting. Often with a brutality that made them immensely feared by the German soldiers. This inevitably led to German reprisals. The battle of Crete lasted for another two weeks and ended with the British forces being evacuated to Egypt from Heraklion in northern Crete and from Hora Safkion in southern Crete. But the German victory had been immensely expensive. It is estimated that about 22,000 German soldiers participated and of these, about 4,000 were killed or missing. In particular, the paratroopers suffered such heavy losses that the German commander General Kurt Student called the battle a disastrous victory. Hitler himself was convinced after the battle that airborne operations were over and banned similar operations. British losses amounted to about 2,000 killed and about 12,000 were captured while about 18,000 were evacuated.

During the occupation, a party war was fought between the German occupation and partisans. The Germans did not want to go up into the uncertain mountains where the partisans were. The Germans’ response to the brutality and warfare of the partisans became brutal reprisals against the civilian population where villages were destroyed and its inhabitants murdered. Alongside partisans, the British also infiltrated Crete with agents who interfered with the rest of the population and had contact with various Greek resistance groups. In April 1944, a British/greek group managed to kidnap the german local commander general Heinrich Kreipe during a drive. For two months Kreipe was held captive in Crete before they managed to bring him to Egypt. During the occupation, the Germans built extensive defense facilities against a possible allied invasion attempt. Crete was never invaded, however, and when the Greek mainland was liberated in October 1944, Crete was overlooked. Crete’s military importance was non-existent and the small German garrison on the island remained there until the end of the war in May 1945.

Current status: Preserved with museum/monument (2015).

Location: 35°31'20.67"N 23°49'51.90"E (Maleme Cemetery).

Get there: Car.

My comment:

The German war cemetery at height 107 at Maleme overlooking the Mediterranean is well worth a visit. It is really atmospheric to calmly go and read the names of the young (around 20 years) soldiers who are engraved on the tombstones. Just above the cemetery and right next to a small chapel are the ruins of the new Zeeland management bunker from where the defense of height 107 was led. Below the height, the bridge at Tavronitis has been replaced with a new one, but the old bridge is still there and it bears clear traces of the fighting. At Souda Bay east of Chania there is the British counterpart but it does not succeed at all in creating the same feeling as the German. In Platanias between Maleme and Chania there is a museum in German protection tunnels that were built under a church. In addition, there are lots of German defense bunkers and air defense systems left all over the island. These are in varying condition and very located inaccessible or are within private land and can be very difficult to spot. There are also several museums on the island. The German reprisals against the people and villages of Crete do not go unnoticed either. There are few villages inland and among the mountains that bear no trace of this.

Another interesting thing is the Fallschirmjäger Denkmal which the Germans built in memory of the paratroopers killed during the battle. The monument still exists and is located just west of Chania. However, the monument has been subjected to vandalism over the years and also begins to take its toll, among other things, is not the paratrooper eagle that adorned the top of the monument left. A qualified guess is that it was removed because it needed renovation and not because of vandalism. But the monument is still relatively preserved and can be easily reached via the stairs leading up to the monument itself. When it was built, the monument could be seen from a long distance, but now it is obscured by both houses and trees. The fact that the monument was not demolished in connection with the exploitation of the land may indicate that the Greek side is aware that there is a historical value in the monument that is worth preserving. Not enough for it to be maintained and lifted into the light, but enough for it not to be torn.

Follow up in books: Beevor, Antony: Crete (2004).