After limited training in Egypt, the troops were sent to Greece to help defend it from the Italians advancing from the north. The Allied intervention forced the Germans to attack Greece in support of their Italian allies, fatally delaying the German invasion of Russia. The lightly-equipped Allied troops were forced back down the peninsula, engaging in a series of bloody defensive actions against the Germans until they were evacuated from the southern beaches and ports by the Royal Navy.
As the men arrived on the ships they were forced to throw everything they carried over the side except their rifles and ammunition. Radios, digging tools and heavy weapons were all dumped before anyone was taken on board.
In May 1941, many of the weary and ill-equipped troops evacuated from Greece were landed on the island of Crete to become its Garrison Force. The island was placed under the command of General Bernard Freyberg VC, the commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division. After 2 weeks of intense bombing, Crete was subjected to the first total airborne invasion in history. The Kiwis bore the brunt of the fighting and after 3 days of tough fighting, Maleme Airfield (the key to Crete) was taken by the Germans. The Allied Force was forced to evacuate the island and – like in Greece – fought a number of rear-guard actions.
Once the evacuation commenced it became clear that not all those still on the island would escape. Thousands of men were left behind and these men were ordered to surrender, with many spending the rest of the war in prison camps in Italy or Germany. About 6,500 surrendered; others escaped into the hills and attempted to find their own way back to Egypt. Many of these did eventually escape, often with the help of the Cretan people.
Although the Germans won the Battle for Crete, their exhaustive losses amongst the assaulting paratroopers dissuaded Hitler from ever again launching another major airborne operation against the Allies during the war.