On 28 October 1940 Italy invaded mainland Greece from Albania. Though the Italians were initially repulsed, subsequent German intervention forced the Greek Army and a Commonwealth expeditionary force, sent from Egypt the previous month, to be evacuated by the British Navy and to fall back on Crete.
Crete’s excellent harbours were a potentially important base of operations for the British Royal Navy, from which it could threaten German and Italian shipping in the Mediterranean, while the island’s airfields brought the Ploieşti oil fields in Romania, which were critical to the German war effort, within angle of Allied bombers.
Anxious to crush the Greek resistance and to secure the southern flank before commencing offensive operations against Russia, German forces planned the assault of Crete. The continued dominance of the British Navy in the Mediterranean prevented a seaborne invasion, but on 20 May 1941 the Germans launched a massive airborne attack using paratroopers against the British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops defending the island.
The Germans’ main objectives were the capture of the island’s three airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion, which would allow them to bring in reinforcements of men and supplies in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the outgunned defenders. Despite ferocious resistance, and heavy casualties, the German paratroopers captured Maleme airfield and gained the upper hand.
After many days of desperate fighting, the British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops were forced to evacuate the island. Over the nights of 28 to 31 May, the allied ships successfully evacuated 18000 troops, but at a cost. One aircraft carrier, two battleships, six cruisers and seven destroyers were badly damaged and another three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk with the loss of almost 2000 men. The British RAF lost forty seven aircrafts in the battle. By June 1st 1941, the evacuation was complete and the island was under German occupation.
The Battle of Crete was a German victory but a costly one. It is estimated that out of an assault force of just over 22000 men, the Germans suffered over 6500 casualties, of which over 4000 were killed or missing. Of the total Allied force in Crete of 32000 men and 12000 Greeks, approximately 18000 were evacuated, 12000 were taken prisoner and 2500 lost their lives.
Since the allied forced left Crete, the Germans settled the Italians in Lassithi and kept the rest Crete (Heraklion, Rethymnon, Chania) under their possession. The civilian population of Crete suffered bloody days mostly in retaliation for resistance activities by rebel groups.
The Germans were unable to confront the rebels in the inhospitable Cretan mountains, so turned against the civilian population in violation of every international treaty. Dozens of villages were leveled, children, women and elderly were executed, monasteries and archaeological sites were plundered, infrastructure was destroyed…
Even today no justice for the atrocities of the Germans against the civilian population of Crete has been set. Kontomari, Kakopetros, Kali Sykia, Viannos, Kandanos, Ierapetra, Anogia Vorizia, Amari ... dozens of villages are still awaiting justice.
The Battle of Crete was the first pure airborne invasion in history. Due to the huge losses in elite soldiers it was never attempted again.