[By Major Gen. Kostas X. Konstantinidis (Ret)]
This military study* was overtaken on the 64th anniversary of the Battle of Crete for the honor of the dead in action, as well as for the living and dead veterans of the 2nd N. Z Infantry Division, that fought gallantly in Crete for the liberty, democracy, dignity and the human values.
The general situation
The Battle of Crete took place from 20 – 31 May 1941 and is last battle of Germans to integrate of occupation of Greece. The Axis aggression against Greece started at 28 October 1940 with the Italian attack against N.W Greek borders, in Epirus, and when it failed involved the German. Their offensive against the Greek Macedonia took place in 6th of April 1941.
From 6th of April til 24 May, the Germans made a quick advance along the continental Greece and when they succeeded their objectives, started the preparations for blitzkrig against Crete.
The Battle of Crete is the first great air born operation during the W. W II and the last one, due to the disproportional heavy losses from the part of the German Corps of Paratroopers. The use of air born in Belgium and Holland was not independent and were limited in extent and duration. The independent air born involvement in Crete was imposed to the Germans, for two reasons:
a/ they did not have the naval domination in the Aegean Sea. Despite their crushing air superiority, the British and Greek Navy dominated the waters all around Crete.
b/ the Germans had not sufficient time to concentrate their naval forces and landing crafts in the area, because they were in a great hurry to finish the Balkan theater of operations as soon as possible, because the Greek resistance had delayed their offensive against Russia (Barbarossa Plan) Finally this delay resulted in the defeat of Germans in Russia, because they faced the severe winter at the outskirts of Moscow. Therefore the German victory in Crete belongs to the Luftwaffe and the air born forces.
The situation in Crete
After the transfer of the V Greek Infantry Division from n Crete to the Albanian front , the island had been left only with a Military Command and a force of three recruits regiments.
The allied forces came in Crete the night of 28/29 April having only their light weapons. Due to their quick withdraw the heavy armament had been abandoned in continental Greece and fell into the hand of Germans. The same night arrived, aboard the cruiser “Ajax”, from Monemvasia to Crete the Commanding General of II N. Z Division general Fryberg. This heroic general left with the last detachments from Greece. The allied force consisted of:
1/ 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division
* The data were taken from the archives of the Greek General Staff
2/ VI Australians Infantry Division
3/ I Armor Division
4/ Some other formations, e. g anti-aircraft and anti-tank units, artillery units etc . The total number of allied forces that arrived in Crete was about 25.000 men. In addition the Greek General Staff transferred in Crete 8 recruits Battalions and a armed police unit, numbering 7.500 men.
The Greek Arm Forces had the order to fight stubbornly in continental Greece in order to facilitate the withdraw of the Allied Forces to Crete and Egypt.
The Operation Plans
The German Operation Order n. 28/25.4.41 provided “the occupation of Crete, in order to use it as an air base against the British Forces in Mediterranean”
Marshal Gheorig was commander in chief of the whole operation. Commander of the air forces was the air force General Lher, while commander for the ground operation was assigned Lt. General Student, which was the commander of the VI air born corps . Lt. General Richthoffen was commander of the air forces that would destroy the allied fleet and the defenses on the island.
The main targets of the German air force were:
The airfields of Maleme, the Souda naval and air base, Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion .
The British Defense Plan provided the repulsion of the German attacking forces from air and sea. For this reason the commander in chief General Frayber deployed his forces symmetrically to protect the above targets and especially, the airfields, the naval and air base of Suda and the suitable coasts for landing. The main effort was given in Maleme and Chania, where is the Suda base. However the great distant between the above sectors, in conjunction with the very bad conditions of the road network, made the defense very difficult , because the commander could not keep a central reserve force ready for launching a counter attack. It is evident that after the German air strikes against the bridges, the poor road system of the island became almost impassable.
The military importance of Crete
Crete is the fifth island in Mediterranean, having length 254 klm and wide 32 klm. It controls the East Mediterranean, as well as the Dardanelles Straits and the Suez Canal. This ideal position in the middle of Mediterranean was the cause that Crete became a sea dominator from the early prehistoric times and created the first civilization in the world. From Crete this brilliant Minoan civilization was spread toward Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and from the Cretan sailors to any corner of the world. Minoan civilization was destroyed twice , the first time when happened the Ogygus cataclysm and the second due to the eruption of Santorini volcano . From the Suda air and naval base the offender can controls the broader area of Middle East , the oil fields in the Gulf, as well as the North Africa and Balkan. Also from Crete the aggressor using its bases and facilities can attack against the Balkan, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa.
That is why Crete has been characterized as a strong point and the “unsunk aircraft carrier”. Many invaders from ancient times till now, e. g the Byjantines, Francs, Ottomans, British and after the W. W II the Americans are using the island as a major base.
Crete is mountainous and crossing from a mountain ridge from the west to the east , having the names White Mountains ( 2.452 m. height), Idi (2.456 m. height) and Dikti (2.147 m. height). However it has wide valleys, natural harbors and great beauties . Generally the terrain of Crete is not favorable for air born operations
The Adversary Forces
The New Zealand (N. Z) Division was deployed in the East sector, of Maleme airfield, that was the most critical. It was the key sector for the defense of the whole island. The occupation of Maleme airfield could be used as an assault base against the vital terrain of the island that was the city of Chania and Suda air and naval base. The British and Hellenic forces under the general Frayberg were deployed as follows:
1/ The Command Headquarters was at Saint Matthew, near Chania.
2/ The sector of Maleme:
Commander was the Brigadier General Pattick, having his headquarters in the village Efthimi. Under his command was:
a/ 2nd N . Z Division in 20-5- 41 the having:
5th N. Z Brigade ( 21, 22, 23 Battalions, and 28 Maori Battalion ) deployed all around the Maleme airfield, on the height 107 m. as well as at the village Platanias and Kontomari.
4th N. Z Brigade ( 18, 19, 20 Battalions) deployed at the area Efthimi, Kladissos river, Daratsos till the coast line.
10 N. Z Brigade (composite Battalion, cavalry Battalion, an artillery battery consisted of 200 men) . Under the 10 Brigade was also the Greek 6 and 8 recruit Regiments, in the area of Galatas, Agia, and Alikianou .
This defensive force had 16 artillery pieces , 16 anti-aircraft canons and 14 light tanks. (SLIDE 4 )
5 N. Z Brigade to defend the airfield and the strong terrain all around it.
10 N. Z Brigade to control the coast line and repel any sea and air landing operation.
4 N. Z Brigade to stay in reserve behind the defensive position , in the Efthimi and Kladissos area.
In the defensive area of Chania and Suda base were other British, Australian and Greek forces, as well as the first class of the Hellenic Cadet School, that fought bravely. The commander in chief had also deployed smaller forces at the sectors of Rethymnon and Heraklion , where the German threat was estimated limited.
Total Allied Forces in Crete
The total Allied Forces were 42. 980 men as follows:
British (plus the New Zealanders and Australians) 31. 500 men
Greek Forces 11. 480 men.
However the numerical comparison would be false, because the allied forces lacked heavy armament, armor, trucks, fortifications, tasted plans and moral.
The Resistance of the Cretan People
Furthermore, in the defensive force must be included the Cretan civilian people that without modern weapons they run voluntarily to participate in the battle. They fought bravely and killed many German parachutists, using only their hunting guns, agricultural tools (axis, shovels wooden sticks e t c) However they paid a great price for their brave resistance. When the Germans occupied the island, committed collective reprisals against the civilian population and destroyed completely many villages, as happened with the village Kndanos.
Way of action of German Forces
General Lher was the chief of the IV Airborn Fleet having under his command the following formations:
XI Airborn Corps deployment in the morning of 20-5-41 with:
VII Airborn Division with 3 parachutist regiments and other Divisional support and administration units.
An Assault Regiment with 4 battalions and other support units
V Mountainous Division (commander Major General Rinkel) with 3 infantry regiments and other support and administrative units.
Other Units that were transferred with boats, such as the armor , artillery, engineers and other heavy units . This transfer was made by the vice admiral Shooter, with 2 flotilla of light crafts , 2 steam boats , 2 destroyers , 12 torpedo boats e t c
2/ VIII Air force Corps (air force Major General Richhoffen)
Having under his command:
• 530 cargo air crafts ( three engines Joungers)
• 53 gliders
• 280 bomber air crafts
• 150 diving fighters (stukas )
• 180 different types fighters
• 40 reconnaissance aircrafts e t c
The total German force was 24.000 men and 1370 airplanes
Method of Actions
The German Command had not sufficient forces to operate in all fronts. That is why it operated in two phases:
• Phase One: To attack in 20 May from 08.00 until 15.00 o’ clock against Maleme – Chania
• Phase Two: To attack in 20 May from 16.00 hour until the sunset against Rethymnon and Heraklion.
Group A(West) , consisted of the majority of German forces and were directed against Maleme- Chania.
• Group B(Center) which included only the 2 n d Airborn Regiment was directed against Rethymnon, in order to occupy the airfield and Rethymnon.
• Group C (East) which included only the 1st Airborne Regiment was directed against the airport and town of Heraklion. Two Airborn Battalions were kept in reserve. (SLIDE 1 )
The Moral of opposing Forces
The British forces had suffered a very long withdraw, from the North Greek borders until the southern harbors of Peloponnese, about 900 klm . Therefore they were extremely tired and their moral was low. However they fought bravely. On the opposite, the Germans, although they had suffered the same fatigue, their moral was high, because they were winners. Especially the selected air born forces were considered invincible. The Greek forces although had suffered the psychological trauma from the occupation to our fatherland, they fought bravely in order to revenge.
To be continued