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The airborne invasion of Crete started early on the morning of 20th May, 1941.

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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 Naval war.
Crete the Battle and the Resistance The Fall of Crete
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 book; 

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 20th May.

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 coast.

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 east/west runway.
Photo from Karlheinz Schlaweck

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 Mediterranean."