In May 1941, Crete became the scene of a fierce struggle when German forces launched a large-scale airborne assault. Allied troops were eventually overwhelmed and had to evacuate the island.

Background

On 28 October 1940, Italian forces invaded mainland Greece from occupied Albania. The Greek Army repulsed the attack and was reinforced in March 1941 by Commonwealth troops sent from Egypt. On 6 April, a German invasion of mainland Greece quickly overwhelmed the Allied forces. They were evacuated by Royal Navy ships, with many taken to Crete. The island was an important strategic location in the Mediterranean, particularly for naval operations. New Zealander Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC was given command of the garrison and told to prepare to defend Crete.

Airborne Assault

On the morning of 20 May 1941, the Germans launched an airborne assault along the northern coast of Crete, using paratroopers and gliders. British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek forces were not organised into a single formation and had only light weaponry, limited transport, artillery and signals equipment. German forces soon captured Maleme airfield and began to land supplies and reinforcements.

Allied troops fought on for several days and Cretan civilians including men, women and children resisted the invaders. Reluctantly, Allied commanders were forced to order the evacuation of the island. The Royal Navy began a rescue operation on 28 May, but German air and sea attacks caused many casualties. The Royal Navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers and a further 16 vessels were badly damaged. By 1 June 1941, the evacuation was complete.

Aftermath

The Battle for Crete was a victory for German forces, but they had suffered heavy losses with around 4,000 killed or missing. Germany would never again attempt a major airborne assault. Of the total Commonwealth force in Crete of 32,000 men, some 18,000 were evacuated, and 12,000 were taken prisoner. A further 2,000 lost their lives.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Suda Bay War Cemetery was chosen after the war by the 21st and 22nd Australian War Graves Units and the 1st New Zealand Searcher Party. It contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War of whom nearly 780 remain undefined. Also commemorated in the cemetery are nearly 30 First World War servicemen.