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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battle for Crete

20-31 May 1941

Theatre: Mediterranean
Area: Crete
Players: Allies: Crete Garrison (mainly New Zealand Expeditionary Force under General Bernard Freyberg VC, plus British and Australian troops). Germany: 7th Parachute Division, including a Glider force and 5th Mountain Division, all under General Student; 8th Air Corps under General von Richthofen.
Outcome: An audacious airborne attack by the Germans rapidly defeated Allied resistance, but heavy losses dissuaded Hitler from repeating such attacks elsewhere, particularly Malta. As a result, arguably he missed his opportunity to drive the British out of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

'Cannot understand nervousness; am not in the least anxious about airborne attack.' - General Bernard Freyberg, Commander of Crete Garrison, 5 May 1941, quoted in Churchill's 'The Second World War' vol III

A German plane crashes to earth after a British hit during the airborne invasion of Crete
A German plane crashes to earth after a British hit during the airborne invasion of Crete©
The Greek island of Crete was garrisoned by around 28,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops, and a similar number of Greek soldiers. Any German attack was expected from the sea and Crete had little air support or even anti-aircraft guns.

On the morning of 20 May, around 3,000 German paratroopers fell out of the sky in the Canea-Suda area and at Maleme, Réthimnon and Iráklion. By the end of the day, this number had doubled and was being further reinforced by parachutists, gliders and eventually troop carriers. These began landing on Maleme airfield while it was still under Allied fire.

Eventually, some 22,000 of Germany's toughest troops arrived in Crete. The Allies were numerically superior but less highly trained; many had only recently been evacuated from Greece. They were also badly equipped, but nonetheless many put up stiff resistance. After the war, General Student recalled that 'the infantry, mostly New Zealanders, put up a stiff fight, though taken by surprise'.

The Allies were initially optimistic that the attack could be repulsed. Student agreed that any organised Allied counter-attack on Maleme airfield on the night of 20-21 May would 'probably have succeeded in routing the much-battered and exhausted remnants of the Assault Regiment'. However, the Allies still expected the bulk of the German forces to arrive by sea and so kept the main body of defence on the coast to repel the expected seaborne invasion.

The opportunity was lost and, despite fierce fighting, by 26 May Freyberg reported that 'the limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command? our position here is hopeless'. As Freyberg held the Victoria Cross for bravery in World War One, few were inclined to argue.

Evacuation began on the night of 28 May. It lasted three days, with the Royal Navy suffering heavy losses from German air attacks. They managed to rescue around 16,500 troops, but the rest were either killed or captured. The Navy itself lost around 2,000 men as three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk. On 31 May the last remaining defenders were overwhelmed at Réthimnon.

The Germans lost around 4,000 men, around half the British losses. However, these men were highly regarded and their loss weighed heavily on Hitler, who had been used to the easy successes of Western Europe. His disappointment was a factor in his decision to avoid similar operations in the future, even though they enabled him to attack distant targets without interference from the still-dominant Royal Navy.

Against all Allied expectations, Hitler therefore failed to follow up this success by attacking critical British posts at Cyprus, Syria, Suez or Malta. As a result, he missed out on his best chance of driving the British from the Mediterranean and Middle East, and capturing the Suez Canal.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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