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CWGC remembers The Battle for Crete on 75th anniversary

12 May 2016

In May 1941, Crete became the scene of a fierce struggle when German forces launched a large-scale airborne assault, seizing control of the island from its Greek and British Commonwealth garrison.

By 1 June, some 18,000 Commonwealth servicemen had been evacuated from the island, but during the battle and the subsequent evacuation more than 3,500 British and Commonwealth servicemen had been killed and some 12,000 taken prisoner.

Suda Bay War Cemetery was designed by architect Louis de Soissons, whose 17-year-old son, Philip, died on 23 May 1941, when German aircraft attacked and sunk the light cruiser HMS Fiji off the coast of Crete, with the loss of 241 of the ship's crew.

Philip has no known grave and is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Battle of Crete

On 28 October 1940, Italian forces invaded mainland Greece from occupied Albania. The Greek Army repulsed the attack, and in March 1941 British and Commonwealth troops were sent from Egypt as reinforcements.

On 6 April, a German led invasion of mainland Greece quickly overwhelmed the Allied forces, and many were evacuated by Royal Navy ships to Egypt and Crete.

On 20 May, German forces launched an airborne assault on Crete, targeting the airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion. British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops were not organised into a single formation and had only light weaponry and limited transport, artillery and signals equipment.

Despite fierce resistance by the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Division, German forces captured Maleme airfield and began landing supplies and reinforcements.

Allied troops fought for several days alongside Cretan civilians to resist the invaders, but Commonwealth commanders were eventually forced to order the evacuation of the island.

The evacuations began on 28 May and German air and sea attacks caused heavy losses. During the operation the Royal Navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers, and a further 16 vessels were badly damaged.

Although German troops now occupied the island, they too had suffered heavy losses, with some 6,500 casualties, including 4,000 killed or missing.

They would never again undertake a large-scale airborne assault.

The names of those Commonwealth servicemen who died on Crete and have no known grave are inscribed on the Athens Memorial, which stands in Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens. Those Royal Navy sailors and marines who were lost with their ships are commemorated on the Naval Memorials at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham in the UK.