Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Battle for Crete: 70 Years On - As Relevant as Ever!

Source: Wikipedia
"Regardless of what the future historians shall say, what we can say now, is that Greece gave Mussolini an unforgettable lesson, that she was the motive for the revolution in Yugoslavia, that she held the Germans in the mainland and in Crete for six weeks, that she upset the chronological order of all German High Command's plans and thus brought a general reversal of the entire course of the war and we won."

- Sir Robert Antony Eden (Minister of War and the Exterior of Britain 1940-1945, Prime Minister of Britain 1955-1957 - Paraphrased from a speech of his to the British Parliament on 24/09/1942)

 Early in the morning of May 20th, 1941, the Nazi air assault against the island of Crete began, primarily around the Maleme airfield just outside Chania. Initially squadrons of bomber and fighter aircraft pounded the area, until about 7:30 am when five bomber aircraft dropped a string of 1,000 kilo bombs on the Tavronitis and Platanias area. 

As those bombs subsided, the Cretan sky filled with German transport and glider planes which parachuted soldiers and supplies down on to the Cretan lands.

The Battle for Crete had begun!

In May each year, the island of Crete, and many Greek Communities around the World hold remembrance celebrations of the Battle of Crete - a battle which lasted for 11 days, from the 20th  to the 31st of May 1941, and was one of the most significant battles of the Second World War..

Members of Greece's elite Presidential Guard 
Battle of Crete commemorations May 1992
Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church 
Hania Street, Wellington, New Zealand   

This year is the 70th Anniversary of that epic battle, and as always, some of the last surviving veteran soldiers of the battle are in Crete along with representatives of the allied governments to remember and pay tribute to all those heroes, both military and civilians, who fought and died so the rest of the world could be free, to honour and to be honoured... 

The Cretan people, the Greek people do not forget those who fought to defend the island and always reserve a special welcome for them.
The ties of friendship forged on the battlefields of Crete remain strong to this day and is a unique chance for the younger generations, not just of those who fought, but of all those who attend the annual commemorations to understand the significance of this historic and epic resistance of the island of Crete.

Led by New Zealander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg  the Allied Forces on Crete, consisting of New Zealand, Australian, and British troops, worked with Greek troops and largely unarmed but dedicated and determined Cretan civilians, to fight off a huge German airborne attack, codenamed Operation Mercur (Ermis)  on the island of Crete.

To the world's amazement and to their credit, they almost succeeded. Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, men, women and children, armed and otherwise, fought them with all their strength, joining the battle with whatever weapons they could find -  ancient rifles last used against the Turks, kitchen knives, pickaxes, sickles, sticks, walking sticks, or even clubs. 

Source: Wikipedia

Many German parachutists were knifed or beaten to death in the wild and rough Cretan countryside as soon as they touched the ground. It was the first time in the war that the Germans had encountered such widespread and ferocious resistance from a civilian population, and this, coming at a very critical point in the campaign, threw them.  The heavy casualties to the invading forces were such that Hitler himself forbade further large-scale airborne operations.

The Germans’ reaction once they had recovered from the initial shock of such determined and continuous resistance was brutal, and eventually the island was occupied. The delays they experienced in Crete, however, were so significant that historians went on to say that the Battle of Crete was pivotal to the outcome of the Second World War - without the delay in Greece and Crete, Germany would have invaded Russia earlier and not had the catastrophic effects of the Russian winter to fight against, and the outcome of World War II may well have been totally different!

"You fought unarmed and won, small against big. We owe you gratitude, because you gave us time to defend ourselves. As Russians and as people we thank you."
Moscow, Radio Station When Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R
The resistance of the Cretan people continued, even as the occupying forces took over the island. Many families sheltered the allied servicemen who were wounded or stranded in and helped them escape over the rugged mountains to the port of Sfakia where they could be evacuated to North Africa.

The Bay at Hora Sfakion, the embarkation point for 
allied soldiers escaping to North Africa and the Middle East 

 The Memorial at Hora Sfakion

Despite the fierce and deadly reprisals which were certain if they were discovered, the Cretan people did not hesitate. Each family in Crete did what they could and has a story to tell...

My own father-in-law was one of those valiant Cretans who gave assistance to one of these soldiers, a  New Zealander who had lost his way and was stranded. They set out by foot from the village, with my heavily pregnant mother-in-law,  to go over the Madara mountains on the way to Sfakia and to freedom. Having covered a large part of the distance and with the sea in their sights, the New Zealander couldn't bear the thought of this courageous but very pregnant lady trekking through the mountains any more and told them to go back, that he now knew where he was going. They refused but he too refused to move on...When he had finally persuaded  them to leave him, the New Zealander, wanting to thank them for their courage and bravery, and not having anything else, tore a button off his uniform and gave it to them and went on his way down the mountains to Hora Sfakion to be evacuated.

To this day we don't know if he made it to freedom but we sincerely hope he did...

The Memorial at Hora Sfakion
The highlight of the ongoing resistance by the civilians of Crete was the kidnapping in 1944, by British and Cretan resistance fighters of the Commandant for Crete, General Kreipe, a kidnapping masterminded by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the only one of its kind - an incredible success for the Allies.   

One of the legendary figures of the Cretan resistance movement involved in this kidnapping was George Psychoundakis, from the village of Asi Gonia, 21 when the German invasion started. Psychoundakis was one of the many who guided Allied soldiers over the mountains to the south coast to be evacuated. Psychoundakis, a small wiry man in his youth, eventually became a runner, carrying messages, weapons and equipment between villages and secret wireless stations, always on foot, always in danger, often exhausted and hungry, over some of the most precipitous terrain in Europe.  It was physically exhausting as he spent many freezing nights out in the cold and rain in the mountains, mountains that even in the middle of the hot Cretan summer make a warm jacket a necessity...(We found this out firsthand a couple of summers ago when we stopped at Imbros Gorge on the way to Sfakia and had to resort to makeshift shawls in the form of beach towels!)

Imbros Gorge, on the way to Sfakia, Crete

In 1942 he met Patrick Leigh Fermor who would later translate his experiences, The Cretan Runner, into English. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who continues to live in Greece to this day, said this about his friend Psychoundakis:

George was a one-off, as they say.  Nobody was remotely like him.  Touchstone and Ariel spring to mind, and there is a dash of Kim.  It was the oddity, independence, charm, curiosity and imagination that gave him the cover-name of "Changeling" in our dispatches from Crete.  It seemed strange that someone so inventive could, when he took pen in hand, be so truthful, and it was puzzling that the war-like but unlettered mountain-world could give birth to anyone so gifted.  His pluck, flair and defiance of fatigue and danger were of the greatest help in many contingencies, particularly in rushing signals from cave after cave arranging the departure of General Kreipe.  He was happiest when writing.  His last work was a poetic dialogue with Charon who, in modern Greek folklore, is not only the ferryman of the Styx, but also Death himself.  We never lost touch.

I had the honour of meeting George Psychoundakis and Antoni Kosmadakis, along with other Cretan resistance veteran fighters at the Battle of Crete Commemoration celebrations  in Chania one year.

The accounts of their encounters with the Germans during the Resistance years and the colourful tales of their experiences were all so vivid that it was almost as if they were left untouched by the advancing years...

Many books have been written about the Battle of Crete.

One of the most recent books on the Greek and Crete campaigns has been written by Dr Maria Hill, Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales and is titled

In an article in the Australian Neos Kosmos newspaper in 2009, Dr Hill asked why the Australian and Greek authorities ignore the significance of the Battle of Crete? 

While this is not the case for the Greek authorities who honour the event every year and has sent representatives to all communities abroad celebrating the events for many years, including the elite Presidential Guard, it may well be the case for the Australian, New Zealand and British Governments who apart from organising the events during the Battle of Crete Commemoration celebrations, and apart from the significant anniversaries, 60th, 65th do not always send  high level representation. 

This year is the 70th anniversary and may well be the last major anniversary that surviving veterans from Australia, New Zealand and Britain will be able to attend.

Already some of those who came from New Zealand on a pilgrimage for the 65th Anniversary are no longer with us. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of that pilgrimage, just as it is to be part of this year's 70th. This year the veterans were welcomed by a visibly moved President of the Hellenic Republic, who thanked them on behalf of the Greek people for their contibution to our freedom.

The Greek Government  honoured those who came and the families of those who were unable to make it. In Athens, in 2006, they were warmly welcomed by then Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis and the Mayor of Athens, Theodore Behrakis, with receptions given in their honour before going on to Crete.

Former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, Minister Bakoyannis'  father, himself a veteran of the Crete campaign, was also present to honour the New Zealand veterans. 

May 2006
 NZ Battle of Crete Veterans listen to Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis   
Source: Jim Christie

We hope that as many of the surviving veterans as possible from the Allied forces make it to Greece for these commemorations and that the descendants of those who are no longer with us continue to come to pay their respects to those who fell on the battlefields of Crete so that the next generations would be free.

We join Dr Hill in encouraging everyone to lobby the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Britain to ensure that the epic Battle of Crete is given the same importance and recognition as Gallipoli so that the younger generations, who are in such need of solid role models, and positive leadership can learn what it means to serve your country and die in the name of peace and democracy.


Update: 20 May 2014
For a full programme of the 73rd Anniversary Battle of Crete Commemorations organised by the Region of Crete see below
In Greek:  Heraklion, Rethymnon
In English: Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion

Sources: Wikipedia 
             Prefecture of Chania

Related Articles:

Ned and Katina: A Real-Life Love Story that started with the Battle of Crete 

Seeking Leadership, Heroism, Courage, and Unity, in Greece's Politicians Today  


  1. Thank you for this wonderful information, a chance to learn and to remember the fighting Hellenic Spirit. Endowed in all of us and, with great respect to our patriotes in Ellada, it is within you. Never give up to hardship, never surrender your hopes, but believe that things will get better, will improve IF you do what you can, just as these amazing people did several decades ago.

  2. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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