[By Major Gen. Kostas X. Konstantinidis (Ret)]
D- DAY 20 May 0750
Before the main battle the Germans made reconnaissance and bombing activities against airfields , bridges, harbors and other targets.
In 20 of May from 07.50 until 08.00 hour the Germans bombed severely Maleme and Chania and the defensive sites around Maleme airfield.
At 08.00 o’clock made their appearance the cargo air crafts bringing the air born troops . At 08.15 the first paratroopers started jumping from planes and gliders upon the area of Agia- Alikianos and a smaller force to the western area of Kastelio-Kissamou. The launched paratroopers east of Maleme airfield suffered a real catastrophe and most of them were killed by 21 and 23 N. Z Battalions and Engineer Battalion. Among 126 Germans parachutists 112 were dead and a few alive , concentrated in Pyrgos area and resisted to survive.
However the German aggressors made their main effort to seize the height 170. On the contrary, the New Zealander defenders fought heroically to keep this stronghold, that controlled Maleme airfield, any way in their hands. The German air born Detachment of major Koch, that launched upon the height 170 , within the defensive lines of 22 N. Z Battalion, suffered serious losses but at the end succeeded to make a bridgehead. For the Germans it was the key for the final success of the Battle of Crete. It judged the whole operation, while for the Allied forces it was the beginning of the defeat . In the mean time a greater air born force of the Assault Regiment, under the major Braun , landed with their 50 gliders along side of Tavronitis river , where no British forces existed and stabilized a serious stronghold. After that another force under the German major general Mild landed in this area and stabilized a base for further attacks against the main objective, that is the Maleme airfield.
This German force attacked immediately against Tavronitis village and the height 170 , that was the key of the whole allied defensive position. Under the German pressure the British company retreated from the height 170 eastward and discovered the whole defensive position and the Maleme airfield. The military analyzers criticize the British command that did not launch a direct counter attack to regain the height 170. However 5th N. Z Brigade was knocked out -and especially the degraded 22 Battalion – were unable to react this night. At this critical moment the inability of the commander in chief, General Frayberg, to launch a direct counterattack to seize the height 170, is the main cause of the failure of Battle of Crete . If the British command launched a counterattack this night, it is certain that the Germans could not survive, because they were very weak , disorganized, their troops were decimated and most of their commanders dead( major Braun and Koch) Instead of counterattack the commander of the already decimated 22 Battalion , at 24.00 o’clock took the initiative to retreat it behind the defensive positions of the 21 and 23 Battalions at Pyrgos and Modion. We can not criticize him because he did not take any reinforcement from the Brigade and the Division to take over a night counterattack.
During the critical time of night 20/21 May the brigadier commander of the 5 Brigade had not any communications with the Division commander to brief him and ask reinforcements. Within this confusion he did not stop the retreat of the 22 Battalion that proved fatal for the further outcome of the whole operation. In the sectors of 4th and 10th N. Zealand Brigades in the morning of 20-5-41.
SECOND DAY 21 May
With the exemption of the capture of height 170, the first day of the battle was disappointed for the Germans, because they suffered full surprise from the stubborn resistance of the British forces and the local population. This day they had suffered heavy losses and the struggle was in a very critical point, if the British forces launched a timely night counterattack.
When the brigadier general Pattick informed the situation he reacted in a hurry and launched a counterattack early in the morning , in order to regain the height 170. However, it failed, because it was executed during the day light of 22/5, under the German strong air strikes from the Luftwaffe, that struck severely the allied attacking force. After the seize of Maleme airfield, new fresh German units aboard cargo air crafts started their landing, even under the British artillery fires.
The 3 Air born Regiment was launched in Alikianou sector at 08.15 and later landed with gliders the staff of VII Air born Division, with the exemption of Commanding General Schusman whose glider has fallen in Eagina island (near Pireus) and all aboard were killed.
From the second day the Germans started to land fresh reserve units and reorganized their forces in order , a/ to keep their own bridgeheads and , b/ clear the remaining British resistance within their lines. The earmarked sea transfer of troops and heavy material during the first night was postponed, because the occupation of the Maleme airfield permitted them a more safe transfer. Despite the airfield was still under allied artillery fires and its corridors were excavated, the Germans succeeded the normal landing and taking off their planes.
THIRD DAY 22 May
During this day both opponents were very tired, disorganized and exhausted from the previous 48 hour heroic battle. So, did not happen any serious battle activity. Both have suffered heavy losses and should bury their dead and treat their wounded . They were also busy to reorganize their forces and transfer them in places for the future operations.
As a matter of fact the commander in chief, general Frayberg ordered the commander of the 5th Brigade to take over a counterattack against the height 170. The brigadier general answered that could not make such an attack and the operation was aborted, because its troops were exhausted. Instead of that the commander of 5 Brigade retreated eastward in new positions the night 22/23, to avoid an isolation form the main body in the case the Germans cut off the main road Maleme – Chania.
FOURTH DAY 23 May
The new German commander of Crete and commanding general of V Mountainous Division, general Ringel reorganized his forces in four Groups as follows:
Group “A”, under the Lt. Colonel Stette, to defend the sector of Maleme (height 170, airfield)
Group “B” (air born troops) , under the Colonel Ramke to advance against Chania.
Group “C”(V Mountainous Division minus), under the Colonel Ouz to make a outflanking movement through Revma Keritis, Koufos, Galatas toward Chania.
Group “D” , to make a secondary movement against Stalou(east of Agia Marina)
The British commander in chief lost any hope to regain the Maleme airfield and took measure to facilitate the future evacuation of Crete. In the meantime he give a struggle of rear guards along side of the road Alikianou – Chania- Suda.
The battle stricken 5 Division retreated eastward for relax and reorganization the night of 23/24 May
FTH DAY 24 MAY
During this day the Allied forces prepared themself for defense of Chania- Suda sector , while the Germans prepared themself to launch an attack eastward to capture Chania and Suda base. In the mean time they continued the pressure against all directions. A German force of motorcyclists moved against the village Kandanos and Palaiochora at the south coast of the island. This force was decimated from the brave resistance of the local population. Later in 3 June the Germans destroyed even the ruins of this village and put the label that wrote “HERE WAS SOMETIMES KANDANOS”
SIXTH DAY 25 MAY
This day the Germans having the crushing air superiority stuck the allied forces and launched a strong attack against 4th N. Z Brigade. The New Zealand fighters despite the fatigue and the great losses from the previous days.
Fought heroically and repelled the German offensive all the day. But at 20.00 o’clock the Germans seized the village Galatas that was a stronghold in the area. The New Zealanders with 2 tanks made a counterattack and the fight continued body to body with swords and hand grenades and finally the New Zealanders regained the village Galatas . It was an epic battle of the New Zealanders that was respected even by the Germans for their gallantry. On this point the Germans built an impressing monument that is still in good condition.
From the time that Maleme airfield was seized by the Germans the battle of Crete had already been judged. From now on the fight for the Allied forces was to gain time in order to evacuate orderly from the south coasts of the island, while the German forces were in a hurry to catch the strategic points of the island and cut off the allied evacuation to the Middle East.
SEVENTH DAY 26 MAY
The commander in chief, General Fryberg after the estimate of the tragic situation of his forces he communicated with the Middle East commander in chief, General Wayvel in Cairo his proposal for the evacuation of the island.
This night the allied lines were 2 klm west of Chania and the Germans with air strikes and ground attacks were pushing them eastward.
EIGHTH DAY 27 MAY
The situation in the British forces is tragic. The commander in chief of Crete called again General Wayvel and pleased him to order the urgent evacuation of his forces to the Middle East, otherwise they were in a danger to be caught prisoners by the Germans. The same day Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his permission and Wayvel gave the order of evacuation.
THE OTHER SECTORS
The sectors of Rethymnon and Heraklion, constituted secondary attempts for the Germans. So, their small air born forces dropped in those sectors either were neutralized or created strongholds to survive from destruction.
All this time the German air force had a crushing superiority over the island. Only in 23 May appeared 12 British hurricans from Egypt, that made a dog fight with the German air crafts. As a result, two British aircraft were fallen from their own anti-aircraft fires and four landed in Heraklion airfield, due to their damages.
In the night of 28 /29 took place the evacuation of British troops from harbor of Heraklion. For this purpose came a British naval force under the admiral Rollings ( 3 cruiser and 6 destroyers).
After the successful evacuation of 400 men the flotila left at 03.00 o’clock at midnight, without to be discovered by the Germans. However during the day the German air force sunk two desrtoyers. It is remarkable the telegram of British admiral Kanningham to this flotila“ A battle ship takes three years to be done , but the naval fame needs three centuries”
28 MAY – 1 JUNE THE EVACUATION
A commando detachment came from Egypt to cover the evacuation from the south coasts of the island. From the Chania -Suda sector were evacuated to Egypt all and all only 4.000 men. All the other either were killed in action, or wounded, or were caught prisoners from the Germans. General Fryberg left in 1 s t June with the last ship.
Dead: 2.000 plus 1900 missing in actions
Total dead = 3.900
Dead: 1.750 plus 2.500 naval losses = 4.250
Prisoners of war: 11.350
[The II New Zealand Division (Maori) had suffered great losses:
Among the 7.000 men that went to Crete were: 671 dead, 967 wounded and 2.180 prisoners of war.]
Wounded: Great number of military and among the population too.
Prisoners of war: 5.300
After the Germans occupation the local population suffered wild collective reprisals, mass executions, destruction of their villages, imprisonment, hunger, starvation e t c
The Germans lost 350 planes (mostly cargo air crafts)
The British lost 3 cruisers, 6 destroyers and all the heavy equipment, trucks and armament that remained in the island.
The Greeks suffered great damages in infrastructure, buildings, harbors, ships, agriculture etc.
The Battle of Crete is an epic confrontation among the Axis and Allied forces. The W. W II and especially the Battle of Crete, introduced the importance of the air superiority and vertical attack in waging the modern warfare.
It was the first and the last independent air born operation in history that although it was successful, it rejected for the huge losses. These significant losses made Hitler to state: “Crete proved that the parachutists belong to the past”
The British forces fought bravely, despite they were extremely tired after their long retreat along the continental Greece. When they reached the island they tried hastily to organize the defense system , however they lacked air support , armor units, transportation, defense fortifications , enough supplies and reserves.
Despite the General Fryberg estimated correctly the German attack against the Maleme airfield and Suda base, the lack of reserves permitted the Germans to create the fatal bridgehead in Maleme. Finally the higher Germans moral and the Luftwaffe gave them the victory.
Now the Battle of Crete seemed as a civil European War. The soldiers and officers from both sides fought gallantly for the glory of their fatherlands, despite the responsibility of Nazist regime that committed crimes against the humanity.
Eternal to be their memory and a paradigm to the present generation to establish a lasting and just Peace all over the world.