|The airborne invasion of Crete started early on the morning of 20th May, 1941.
|This main section deals with
the three invasion areas around Maleme, Rethymnon
and Iraklion, as well as the retreat
to the south coast. The evacuation of
the allied forces from Chora Sfakion is covered under the section on the
|Another good book giving eyewitness accounts from Cretans, Germans and
Allied soldiers is "Crete Eyewitnessed" which you can buy from
Amazon via this link. Unfortunately they have no cover photo of this
Crete 1941, Eyewitnessed: Eyewitnessed
|The drawing on the right was sent to me by Thomas Tidswell,
it shows his father Edward Tidswell who was the senior officer of 42 Field
Company, RE. 42nd Street was given its name because of the work of
42 Field Coy on this stretch of road. I don't know what Edward
looked like in real life, but the drawing seems to be a particularly good
example of the genre that was quite popular then; I have one of my father
from his time in the RAF in Ceylon during the war.
My thanks to Thomas for the drawing.
Because of the previous concentration of Allied efforts on North Africa and Greece, the
defenses of the island had been neglected. The 2nd Battalion
of the York and Lancaster Regiment had sailed for the island from Alexandria on the 31st
October, 1940, following Mussolini's ultimatum to Greece but Major General Weston's
assessment of the defenses in April '41 found them sadly lacking. The anti-aircraft
defenses needed strengthening, and fighter and bomber aircraft should be based on the
island. Unfortunately there were too many other demands on resources. By the
18th May there were only 5 fighters left on Crete, 2 Hurricanes and 2 Gladiators on
Heraklion, and 1 Hurricane at Maleme, the decision was taken to withdraw them, and they
flew back to Egypt before the invasion started. There were a small number
of 'Light Tanks', and (I) Tanks on the island that would
take part in some of the the actions to come.
By the 27th April the information gathered from ULTRA was sufficient for the British to
be aware of the German airborne units now in Greece, and that they were intended for use
against Crete. On the 6th May Bletchley Park had discovered that the German
preparations would be completed by the 17th of May.
As the information came in Churchill was communicating with his C-in-C Middle
East, General Wavell. 15 May; "I am increasingly impressed with the
weight of the attack impending upon Colorado [code for Crete, J Dillon],
especially from the air. Trust all possible reinforcements have been
sent." Wavell responded the same day; "Have done best to equip
Colorado against beetle pest ... Colorado is not easy commitment and German
blitzes usually take some stopping. But we have stout-hearted troops keen
and ready for fight under stout-hearted commander and I hope enemy will find
Scorcher [code for invasion, J Dillon] red hot proposition."
Now determined to hold Crete,
Churchill wanted a fighting General to command the forces on the island. He
appointed General Bernard Freyberg of the New Zealand Division,
who had arrived on the island from the evacuation of Greece on the 29th April. Freyberg had
many reservations about the defensive situation, but accepted the appointment. On
the 19th May Freyberg learnt, via ULTRA, that the invasion would start the next day, the
|The airborne invasion would be carried out by 4th Air Fleet under
General Lohr, its two Air Corps were 8 Air Corps under General Freiherr
von Richthofen, and 11th Air Corps under General Kurt
Student. The plan called for the the Maleme-Canea area to be
taken on the morning of the first day while on the afternoon of that day
the second wave would take Retimo and Heraklion. In this way 8 Air
Corps could bring their full weight to bear on each sector.
|11th Air Corps consisted of the airborne troops while 8th Air Corps was
primarily the bombers and fighters that would support the invasion.
11th Air Corps had some 22,500 men for the landing; 750 to go in by
glider, 10,000 by parachute, 5,000 in transport aircraft and 7,000 to go
on the seaborne invasion. Supporting them were some 650 aircraft of
8 Air Corps; 280 bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 90 twin engine fighters, 90
single engine fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft.
|The attack would take place in two waves, one in the morning and one in
the afternoon. The first would occupy the airfield at Maleme and the
defence positions around Canea and Suda Bay, while the second would take
the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. Once the first landings had
taken place there would be follow up landings of airborne and seaborne
troops to consolidate the positions. Prior to the landings 8th Air
Corps would carryout strafing attacks on the airfields and any defensive
positions, and then would support the airborne troops during their
landings. There would need to be a great deal of planning for these coordinated
attacks to take place. An example of this was given in the analysis
of the battle done in April 1943 by the office of the Chief of
Naval Operations (WO 252/1201);
| "As an example of
this close support and the detail with which its preparation is worked
out, the following may be instanced. One glider company that
landed in the Canea area had a whole flight of Stukas to support
it. The task given to the flight was to bomb anti-aircraft and
artillery positions and a group of houses which was the company's
objective for three minutes. In addition, this company's operation
was covered by twelve Me109 and six Me110 whose task was to neutralize
anti-aircraft batteries and enemy ground troops."
|The fact that Crete would be invaded certainly seems to have been fairly
common knowledge in many circles. Sir Henry "Chips"
Channon, MP, had the following entry in his diary for the 20 May;
"The long-expected attack on Crete has begun with parachutists and
air-borne troops arriving in large numbers." And then on the 29
May; "The Cabinet have decided to clear out of Crete; but the news is
not yet out."
|General Student's plan in brief was for his
main formation to drop on and around Maleme airfield while the 3rd
Regiment and the engineer battalion would drop and move on Hania and Suda
Bay. Further East the 2nd Regiment would drop on Rethymnon airfield
while the 1st regiment would drop further to the east on Iraklion
airfield. The first waves would be the troops in the gliders who
would take out the anti-aircraft batteries around Maleme and Hania.
Once the airfields had been secured the transport aircraft would bring in
the 5th Mountain Division.
|This sketch show the area from Suda Bay to
Maleme. A coast road runs through Suda, Hania, Platanias to
Maleme. Galatas and Perivolia were scenes of heavy fighting in the
few days after the landing. The hilly area on the Akrotiri Peninsula
includes "Zorba's Mountain" where the film Zorba The Greek was
made. I have spent a week's holiday in the little village of Megala
Khorafia which was on the route of the evacuation to Sfakia on the south
The first waves of the attack were aimed at the airfield of Maleme, a few miles along
the northern coast to the West of Hania, with Hill 107 behind it and the river Tavronitis
entering the sea close to the perimeter of the airfield. The coast road here crossed
the river on an old iron bridge.
||Maleme, on "finals" for the
east/west runway, coming in from the West, with the White Mountains
rising up in the distance. It would have looked very much like
this for the German troops coming in by glider. The north/south
runway can just be seen where it intersects by the threshold of the
|Photo from Karlheinz
The airfield, Hill 107 and the area of the river
would all be scenes of bitter fighting in the hours to come. The area around Maleme,
Kastelli Kissamos, Galatas and Hania all formed the target area of the German Group West, under General Eugen Meindl.
|On the 22 May Churchill was reported in Hansard; "It is a most
strange and grim battle that is being fought. Our side have no air,
because they have no aerodromes, and not because they have no aeroplanes,
and the other side have very little or no artillery or tanks.
Neither side has any means of retreat. It is a desperate, grim
battle ... which will affect the whole course of the campaign in the