National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

New Zealanders at Crete

On 20th May 1941 the Germans launched an airborne invasion of Crete from bases in Greece. Within ten days the Germans had taken Crete and General Freyberg had lost over 13,000 men dead or taken prisoner. The New Zealanders on the north-western edge of the island, absorbed much of the initial brunt of the attack and had been forced to withdraw over a mountain chain to ports in the south for evacuation. Charles Upham, a Second Lieutenant at the time and Sergeant Hulme were both awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry at Crete.

The troops on Crete faced an immense struggle.  Few heavy weapons were available, there were barely any radios and very little for the men to dig with.  Creforce was merely infantry armed with rifles. One of New Zealand’s infantry brigades, the 10th, was formed from men who had been separated from their own units or who had lost their specialist equipment such as armoured carriers, artillery guns, trucks, radios or musical instruments.  As .303 ammunition quickly ran out, many New Zealand soldiers started to use weapons from dead Germans.

Once the evacuation commenced, it became clear that not all those still on the island would escape.  Eventually about 17,000 men were carried safely back to Egypt although many of the ships were damaged or sunk by air attack on the way.  But when the evacuation ended there were still thousands of men left behind on Crete.  These were ordered to surrender and about 6,500 did so.  Others escaped into the hills and attempted to find their own way back to Egypt.  Many of these did eventually escape, often with the aid of the Cretan people.  Others were killed or captured later in the war.    

New Zealand casualties were also high and included many unfortunates who had to spend the next four years in prison camps in Italy or Germany. New Zealand casualties in just ten days of fighting were 671 killed, 967 wounded and 2,180 captured; a total of 3,818.  The total number of New Zealanders on Crete at the start of the action was only 11,859 so the casualty figure is actually 32% of the New Zealanders involved.

The people of Crete also fiercely resisted the German occupation of their island and sheltered many New Zealand soldiers left behind after the evacuation.  After the war, a commemoration service was held on the island and the Cretan people attended in great numbers to show respect for the foreigners who died defending their homes.  Even today, New Zealand tourists are welcomed on Crete as descendants of the Kiwi soldiers who fought and died there.