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 German War Cemetery at Maleme
However, the most dramatic event began on 20th May, 1941, when the largest airborne invasion in military history took place in the skies over Crete. The island had been a refuge for Allied troops being pushed back as the Germans moved through Greece, as the British Prime Minister and war leader, Sir Winston Churchill, regarded it as an impregnable island fortress. With 32,000 Allied troops there in the Spring of 1941, it seemed a safe place to recover and regroup.
Hitler had other plans. He had already tried several sea attacks against Crete, all of which had been driven back. He knew the strategic importance of the island, with its access to the east and west of the Mediterranean, and to the North African coast. He therefore launched his massive airborne attack, flying tens of thousands of troops over northwestern Crete, who parachuted down, most thickly in the skies over Maleme. Here was a vital airstrip that the Germans had to take in order to secure safe landing for even more troops, backed up in the skies.
It was a bloody time, as the Allies combined with the brave Cretan villagers and fought off the paratroopers with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on: pitchforks, clubs, knives, guns, axes. Women, children, even priests joined in the battle, and there are still people around today who can tell you exactly what it was like to be there.
It was to no avail, though, as the vast numbers of Germans were ultimately too much for the local defenders, although the Battle of Crete raged for ten days. Eventually, having taken that crucial Maleme airstrip, the German troops swept through Crete as they had swept through Greece, forcing the Allies to retreat even further, and eventually evacuate the island, mostly to the safe haven of Alexandria in Egypt.
German reprisals were swift and brutal. In many villages they would round up the men, shooting ten of them for every German that had been killed. Nor were the women and children spared. But the Cretans are an incredibly proud people, much more so even than the average Greek, and the resistance fighting against the German invaders continued throughout the war. Today there are poignant reminders in countless towns and villages – memorials to the Cretan people who gave their lives for the freedom of their island.
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Greece is a comprehensive 750-page guidebook to the whole country.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Zacharioudakis Winery near Ancient Gortina in southern Crete, and does a vineyard tour arranged by our guide from Go Crete.