The Battle of Crete

The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

Military cemetery at Maleme, Crete, from https://www.greece-travel-secrets.com/Battle-of-Crete.html

The German War Cemetery at Maleme

The events that took place on Crete during World War 2 were among the most dramatic anywhere in Europe, and inspired several books. Notable among these was Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss, which tells of the heroic – if not foolhardy - kidnapping of the German Head of Command, General Karl Kreipe, by British and Greek resistance fighters working together. This took place on 26th April, 1944, when Moss, aided by soldier and subsequently travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, captured Kreipe and drove him in his staff car through 24 German military posts and away into the Cretan mountains.

The Battle of Crete began with the biggest airborne invasion in military history. So determined was Germany to capture the island that they launched an offensive on 20 May 1941 that turned the skies black with planes and paratroops. Tens of thousands of German soldiers invaded the island, in an event that lives on in the memory of every Cretan, whether alive at the time or not.

The value of Crete was in its size and location. At the time of the invasion some 32,000 Allied troops were recuperating on Crete, having been evacuated from Greece and the other Balkan countries. The Italian army had invaded the Greek mainland in October 1940, and with German help had pushed their way through the country, forcing the evacuation of troops to Crete. Crete's location in the southern Mediterranean, conveniently placed for access to Greece, the Middle East and North Africa, meant it was tactically important.

The British war leader Winston Churchill had described Crete as his island fortress, believing it to be impregnable, and for some time the Allied naval forces succeeded in keeping German forces at bay. It was then that Hitler took to the skies. 

The Battle Begins

At 6am on 20th May, an initial bombardment began. At 8am, after a short lull, another wave of planes flew over, and at 8.15am the paratroopers began to arrive. Tens of thousands of troops filled the skies, concentrating at first on Khaniá and the important airfield nearby at Máleme. German losses at first were heavy, as ordinary Cretans rushed to help the troops defend their island. Men, women and children, armed with pitchforks, rifles and makeshift weapons, killed many of the Germans as they floated to earth.

Eventually, though, the sheer scale of the invasion proved too much for the defenders. After several hours of heroic defence, the Germans seized Hill 107, a strategic position which enabled them to take control of the airfield. After this, German planes were able to land and bring in more troops and weaponry. 

By the first afternoon, German troops were also landing at Iráklio and Réthimnon. It took them until 31st May to capture Réthimnon, but by then the Allies were in retreat, across the White Mountains, down the Imvros Gorge and were being evacuated to Egypt from the little port of Khóra Sfakion.

Losing the Battle, Winning the War

Hitler had planned to start his invasion of Russia in April 1941, but needed to throw more troops into the task of capturing Crete. It may have been a decision which cost him the war, as the Russian invasion was postponed until June and his armies had not succeeded in capturing Moscow or Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called) when the ferocious Russian winter struck. Hitler ordered his southern troops to attack Stalingrad (now Volgograd) instead. One million German soldiers were killed in this exercise, a defeat from which Hitler's army never fully recovered. Though losing the Battle of Crete, the Allies went on to win the war.

Casualties

Official casualty figures necessarily include estimates, and probably under-estimate the numbers involved. Greek figures are not known, although the German Air Corps recorded taking 5255 Greek prisoners. The Allied Forces reported 1751 killed, but a further 1738 wounded and 12,254 prisoners of war. In addition, the Allied Naval Forces estimate that well over 2000 of their men were killed. German estimates indicate about 4000 men killed or not accounted for, and another 2600 wounded. It seems likely, therefore, that at least 10,000 people lost their lives during the Battle, and many, many more died during the 1941-45 German occupation of Crete.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

The British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was an Intelligence Officer in the British Army, serving on Crete. After the German invasion he lived in the Cretan mountains for two years, disguised as a shepherd, helping co-ordinate the Cretan resistance. In 1944 he was responsible for the audacious kidnap of the German Commander on Crete, General Kreipe, the story of which is told in Ill Met by Moonlight, written by his fellow conspirator, W.Stanley Moss. They succeeded in kidnapping Kreipe from the very heart of the German headquarters, spiriting him away to the mountains and eventually taking him off the island to Egypt for interrogation.

Other Crete pages

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  • Knossos

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  • Rouvas Gorge Walk

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  • Irakleio

    Crete's capital and largest city is Irakleio, also called Iraklion or Heraklion, a large and busy place with good restaurants, museums and historical buildings.

  • Keramos Studios in Zaros

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  • Dining at Vegera

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  • Lasithi Plateau Drive

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  • Crete

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  • Olive Grove Walk

    This olive grove walk from Limnes to Vrises on Crete also takes you through orchards and gives close-up views of some of the island’s windmills.

  • Zacharioudakis Winery

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  • Amari Valley Drive

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  • Malia and its Minoan Palace on Crete

    Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

  • Paleohora and the South-West Coast

    The area east from Paleohora along the south-west coast of Crete includes resorts like Agia Galini, gorges like the Imbros Gorge and quieter towns like Sfakia.

  • How to Make Petimezi

    How to make Petimezi, the sweet Cretan syrup made from wine must, is explained to Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Hiking the Samaria Gorge

    Hiking the Samaria Gorge on Crete, one of the best things to do on Crete, by Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Hiking in Southwest Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets goes hiking in southwest Crete with Ramblers Walking Holidays based in Paleohora and hiking the E4 footpath and to Anidri and Azogires.

  • Ancient Gournia Minoan Site in Eastern Crete

    Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

  • Goules Taverna Crete

    The Goules Taverna in Goulediana, south of Rethymnon, has been called one of the best tavernas on Crete and Greece Travel Secrets recently visited them.

  • Gortina ancient archaeological site in southern Crete

    Ancient Gortina is an archaeological site in southern Crete famous for the church of Ayios Titos and for the Law Code inscribed here, the first in Europe.

  • Elounda and Spinalonga, setting for The Island by Victoria Hislop

    Elounda on Crete's north coast is a popular holiday town with a pretty harbour, from where you can take day trips by boat to see the island of Spinalonga.

  • Eco-Tourism Accommodation on Crete

    The Dalabelos Estate offers luxury eco-tourism accommodation on Crete in the hills near Rethymnon with its own farm, vineyard and olive groves.

  • Diktean Cave, the Birthplace of Zeus near Psychro on Crete

    The Diktean or Diktaean Cave, also known as the Psychro Cave, near the village of Psychro in eastern Crete, is said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

  • Crete Olive Oil Tour

    For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

  • Crete Festivals and Events

    Crete festivals and events include Carnival Easter, Whitsun, Christmas, many other religious feast days and public holidays.

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