Voices from the Past

The Battle of Crete

On 20 May 1941, the battle for Crete began, and in only 10 days, 10,000 German Parachutists defeated 42,500 Allied soldiers. So, why was Crete also considered “the grave of the German Parachutist”?
1992.1697 National Army Museum: German paratroopers landing at Crete

Despite being a fighting force of some 42,500 Greek, British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers defending against 10,000 German Parachutists, the troops defending Crete faced an immense struggle. Few heavy weapons were available, there were barely any radios, and very little tools for the men to dig with. They were merely infantry armed with rifles with ammunition quickly running out.

On 20 May 1941, the Germans mounted an airborne assault. 10,000 paratroopers and glider-borne troops made their main attack on the New Zealanders defending Maleme airfield. After heavy fighting throughout the day, the attackers were decimated and preparing to evacuate. Only 6,000 Germans were still in action.  However, without adequate communications, the New Zealanders did not realise they were so close to winning. Thinking they were cut off, they pulled back from the airfield leaving it in German hands. 

Now with total control of the air and an airstrip in their grasp, the Germans were able to reinforce their invasion with additional troops and heavy weaponry. Although the New Zealanders tried to recapture Maleme airfield, daylight stole the last chance for them to win and Crete was lost. 

Once the evacuation of the Allied forces commenced, it became clear that not all those still on Crete would escape. Eventually 17,000 men were evacuated to Egypt by ship, although many were damaged or sunk on the way, but there were still thousands of men left behind. They were ordered to surrender. Some 6,500 did so, while others escaped into the hills to find their own way back to Egypt. Many did escape, often with the aid of the Cretan people, while others were either killed or captured later in the war. 

New Zealand casualties were 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 10 days of fighting included 671 killed in action, 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 was 32% – a high cost indeed. Both Second Lieutenant Charles Upham and Sergeant Alfred Hulme were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions of gallantry on Crete.

Despite the defeat, the Allied forces fought with such ferocity and inflicted such casualties on the attackers that the Germans never again mounted an airborne invasion. Colonel General Kurt Student, General Officer Commanding 11 German Air Corps, is quoted as saying, “Crete was the grave of the German Parachutist.” So, despite being a victorious battle, so many German units were used on Crete and took such high casualties that the German invasion of Russia was delayed. This delay contributed to the eventual defeat of the Germans in Russia by allowing the Russians to hold out until winter snows stopped the German advance. 

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 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.

DA470: Crete WWII


DA11022: Germans jumping over Galatas, WWII