Battle of Crete
- "To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime." — Winston Churchill, The Second World War.
The Battle of Crete (German Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta; Greek Μάχη της Κρήτης) began on the morning of May 20 1941, during World War II, when Germany launched an airborne invasion under the code name Unternehmen Merkur (or Operation Mercury). The operation was successful in terms of taking the island from the Allied forces holding it, but the victory was so costly that the Germans never again launched a major airborne mission.
The battle is especially important to Cretans because of the fierce resistance they put-up against the numerically superior Germans and the terrible toll the invasion and subsequent occupation took on the island's population.
- 1 Prelude
- 2 Day one, 20 May
- 3 Day two, 21 May
- 4 Day three, 22 May
- 5 23–27 May
- 6 Evacuation to Egypt, 28–31 May
- 7 External Links
Allied forces had occupied the island of Crete when the Italians had invaded Greece on October 28, 1940. Though the Italians were initially repulsed, the subsequent German intervention drove the 57,000 Allied troops from the mainland. The Royal Navy evacuated many of them, some to Crete to bolster its 14,000-man garrison.
By May 1941, the defense consisted of approximately 9,000 Greeks - three battalions of the 5th "Crete" Division of the Hellenic Army which had left behind when the rest of the unit had been transferred to the mainland to oppose the German invasion, the Cretan Gendarmerie (a battalion-sized force), the Heraklion Garrison Battalion, a defense battalion, and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions which had escaped to Crete and were organized into "regiments" under British command. The British & Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original British garrison, and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation — there were substantially intact units under their own command, scratch units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an Army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment.
The key formed units were the New Zealand 2nd Division (less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters, which had been sent on to Egypt), the Australian 19th Brigade Group and the British 14th Brigade. Allied armour resources consisted of 16 obsolescent Cruiser Mk I tanks. There were approximately 85 artillery pieces of various calibres — many of them captured Italian pieces without sights.
On April 30, Major General Bernard Freyberg — a British general commanding the New Zealand forces — was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete.
Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. From Crete, the Ploieşti oilfields in Romania were within range. Also, with Crete in Allied hands, the Axis south eastern position would never be safe, a vital necessity before starting Operation Barbarossa. The Germans responded by starting a constant bombardment of the island, which eventually forced the Royal Air Force to remove its planes to Alexandria, giving the Luftwaffe air superiority over the island. However the island remained a threat, and would have to be taken eventually.
On April 25, Adolf Hitler signed Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete. The Royal Navy's forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault would be quickly decided by the nature of an air-versus-ship battle, making it a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on.
This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had used parachute and glider-borne assaults on a much smaller scale in the invasion of France and the Low Countries, and Norway. The intention was to use Fallschirmjäger (Luftwaffe paratroopers) to capture key points of the island, including airfields that could then be used to fly in supplies and reinforcements in the usual way. The XI Fliegerkorps was to coordinate an attack by the 7th Air Division, which would insert its paratroopers by parachute and glider, followed by the 22nd Air Landing Division once the airfields were secure. The assault was initially scheduled for 16 May; it was postponed to 20 May and the 5th Mountain Division replaced the 22nd Division.
Strategy, tactics, weapons & equipment
By this time, Allied commanders had become aware of the invasion through Ultra intercepts. General Freyberg was informed of their battle plan, although in some roundabout terms in order to hide the nature of the data, and started to prepare a defense based near the airfields. However he was seriously hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and was faced with the reality that even the lightly armed paratroopers would be able to manage about the same firepower as his own troops - if not more.
For the Germans were deploying a new weapon on Crete: the LG40 75mm recoiless rifle. At 320 lbs, it weighed only a tenth as much as a standard German 75mm field gun, yet had two-thirds its range. The new gun could fling a 13 pound shell over three miles. Adding to the airborne units' firepower was the fact that one-quarter of the German paratroopers jumped with an MP40 submachine gun, often carried in addition to a powerful bolt-action Mauser K98k. In addition, almost every German squad was equipped with an MG42 light machine gun.
Greek troops were armed with the Mannlicher-Schönauer 6.5mm mountain carbine or with ex-Austrian 8mm Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifles, the latter part of post-World War I reparations. British & Commonwealth troops carried the .303 Lee-Enfield, and used the Bren and Vickers machine guns. The Allies on Crete did not possess any Bren gun carrier tankettes, which would have provided the extra mobility and firepower needed for rapid-response teams to hit paratrooper units before they had a chance to dig-in.
German airborne doctrine was based on parachuting in a small number of forces directly on top of enemy airfields. This force would capture the perimeter and any local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider. Freyberg was aware of this after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However he was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria. They felt the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the RAF's return once the island was secure. This may have been a fatal error.
Day one, 20 May
At 08:00 on 20 May, German paratroopers landed near Maleme airfield and the town of Chania. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme airfield and its direct surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion. One company of the III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment, lost 112 killed out of 126; 400 of the battalion's 600 men were killed before the end of the first day.
Of the initial forces, the majority were mauled by New Zealand forces defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing. Those who did land were wiped out almost to a man by the New Zealand and Greek defenders.
A number of German forces had landed off-site near both airfields, as is common in airdrops, and set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield, and "Prison Valley" in the Chania area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, they were in place and the defenders had to deploy to face them.
Greek police forces and cadets were also in action, with the First Greek Regiment (Provisional) combining with civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli. Meanwhile, the 8th Greek Regiment and elements of the Cretan forces severely hampered movement by the 95th Reconnaissance Battalion on Kolimbari and Paleochora, where Allied reinforcements from North Africa could potentially be landed.
A second German wave arrived in the afternoon, one group attacking Rethymnon at 16:15 and another at Heraklion at 17:30. As with the earlier actions, the defenders were waiting for them and inflicted heavy casualties.
Heraklion was defended by the British 14th Infantry Brigade, augmented by the Australian 2/4th Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and "Garrison" (ex-5th "Crete" Division") Battalions. The Greek units were sorely lacking in equipment and supplies, the Garrison Battalion especially, as the bulk of its matériel had been shipped to the mainland with the division, but they would fight with distinction nonetheless.
The Germans pierced the defensive cordon around Heraklion on the first day, seizing the Greek barracks on the west edge of the town and capturing the docks; the Greeks counterattacked and recaptured both points. The Germans dropped leaflets urging surrender and threatening dire consequences if the Allies did not surrender immediately. The next day, Heraklion was heavily bombed. The battered Greek units were rotated out and assumed a defensive position on the road to Knossos. As night fell, none of the German objectives had been secured. The risky plan — attacking at four separate points to maximize surprise rather than concentrating on one — seemed to have failed, although the reasons were unknown to the Germans.
Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. The Axis commanders on Crete decided to throw everything into the Maleme sector the next day.
Among the paratroopers who landed on the first day was former world heavyweight champion boxer Max Schmeling, who held the rank of Gefreiter at the time. Schmeling survived the battle and the war.
Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. In other cases, civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and many German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case, an elderly Cretan clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines. The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms. Their actions were not limited to harassment — civilians also played a significant role in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora, and the British and New Zealand advisors at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilian action also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion, and in the town centre itself.
This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time, it unbalanced them. However, once they had recovered from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity. Further, as most Cretan partisans wore no identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions. In his book The Lost Battle, MacDonald argues that battlefield mutilations (attributed to the torture of injured Germans by civilians) were more than likely a result of carrion birds and physical decay of corpses left in the extreme heat.
The escape of the king
The majority of Cretans were Venizelist Republicans — as were a significant number of mainland Greeks. In 1924, George II, King of the Hellenes had been deposed and exiled to Romania, only to return in 1935 after the collapse of republican government. The Germans regarded George as a hopeless Anglophile and an obstacle to their conquest of Greece, which they believed to be mostly anti-monarchist. After the king had escaped to Crete on 22 April and issued a defiant memorandum to the Germans, Hitler responded by attacking the king in a speech on 4 May. The British feared a propaganda coup if a sovereign monarch under their protection were to be captured.
The king was staying in a Venetian villa, Bella Capina, two miles southwest of Chania. Warned by British intelligence of the coming invasion, he left for the house of Emmanouil Tsouderos, the prime minister, in a nearby village of Perivolia, on the day before the invasion began, but was forced to flee Perivolia the next morning. His entourage narrowly escaped capture. From the garden of Bella Capina, German paratroopers were seen landing in the area of the villa. As it turned out, they were members of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment, which was assigned to the Galatas sector, and had been dropped near the villa by mistake. An evacuation by the Royal Navy had already been arranged, with Colonel J.S. Blunt, the British military attaché to Greece, acting as liaison. A platoon of New Zealand infantry under Lieutenant W.H. Ryan was assigned as a bodyguard, along with a complement of Cretan gendarmes. The king was accompanied by his cousin, Prince Peter; Colonel Dimitrios Levidis, Master of Ceremonies; Prime Minister Tsouderos; and Kyriakos Varvaressos, Governor-in-Exile of the Bank of Greece.
The party had several close calls with both Germans and native Cretans. A detachment was sent back for some papers left behind by Mr. Tsouderos; they returned to report the house was already occupied, meaning the Germans were by now aware of the king's presence nearby. Lieutenant Ryan had the king remove his Greek general's uniform, which was adorned with gold braid and other ornaments that were bound to attract attention. At one point, the group were pinned down by the rifle fire of Cretan mountaineers. Prince Peter shouted to them in Greek, and they replied "Germans also speak Greek and wear Greek uniforms". Eventually convinced that the royal retinue were not German spies, they let them pass. That night, the evacuees rested in the village of Therisso. There, they were startled by a clamour at the doors, which turned out to caused by prison escapees released earlier in the day. Patriotism apparently overwhelmed any sympathy for their German emancipators and antipathy to the monarchist constitution, and the escapees left to forage for weapons instead of betraying their fellow fugitives.
Though forced to abandon their pack mules, and lacking proper clothing and equipment for mountain climbing, the entourage arrived safely at their rendezvous point. There, joined by members of the British diplomatic corps, they signalled HMS Decoy and were plucked from the shore, arriving in Alexandria on the night of 22 May.
Day two, 21 May
The next morning, it was found that the New Zealand infantry battalion defending Hill 107 had mistakenly withdrawn at night, although they continued to pour artillery fire into the area. This gave the Germans control of the Maleme airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby. That evening, Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft started flying in units of the 5th Mountain Division. These troops moved into the line as soon as their planes landed, many of which were hit by artillery fire and littered the airfield.
Before midnight, Rear-Admiral Irvine Glennie's Force D, consisting of three light cruisers and four destroyers, intercepted a flotilla of reinforcements, escorted by a single Italian torpedo boat, the Lupo, successfully preventing their landing. The convoy, comprising around 20 caïques, was fiercely defended by the Italian warship. Some ten boats and 2,000 German troops were saved due to the skillful maneuvers of the Italian commander, Francesco Mimbelli, against an overwhelmingly superior force. About 300 German soldiers and two Italian seamen died in action, as well as two British sailors on HMS Orion.
Day three, 22 May
Realising that Maleme was the key to holding the entire island, the defending force organised for a counter-attack by two New Zealand battalions, the 20th Battalion of the 4th Brigade and the 28th Maori Battalion of the 5th Brigade on the night of 21/22 May. Fears of a sea landing meant that a number of units that could have taken part in the attack were left in place, although this possibility was removed by a strong Royal Navy presence which arrived too late for the plans to be changed.
The force attacked at night, but by this time, the original paratroops had set up defensive lines and the newly-arrived mountain troops proved difficult to dislodge. The attack slowly petered out and failed to retake the airfield. From this point on, the defenders were involved in a series of withdrawals to the eastern end of the island, in an attempt to avoid being out-flanked by the advancing German forces.
Admiral Andrew Cunningham, determined that no German troop transports should reach Crete, sent Admiral King's Force C (three cruisers and four destroyers) into the Aegean through the Kaso Strait, to attack a second flotilla of transports escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Sagittario. The force sank a caïque separated from the main flotilla at 08:30, thus saving it from an air attack that struck the cruiser HMS Naiad at this time. The pilots were trying to avoid killing their troops in the water. King's squadron, still under constant air attack and running short of anti-aircraft ammunition, steamed on toward Milos, sighting the Sagittario at 10:00. King made the difficult decision not to press the attack, despite his overpowering advantage, due to the shortage of ammunition and a torpedo charge executed by the Italian warship. He had succeeded, however, in forcing the Germans to abort this seaborne operation. During the search and withdrawal from the area, Force C suffered heavy losses to German bombers. Naiad was damaged by near misses and the cruiser HMS Carlisle was hit. Admiral Cunningham later criticized King's decisions.
Force C met up with Rear Admiral Rawling's Force A1 at the Kithera channel where more air attacks inflicted damage on both forces. A bomb struck HMS Warspite and then the destroyer HMS Greyhound was sunk. King sent HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston to pick up survivors while the cruisers HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji provided anti-aircraft support, forgetting their ammunition shortage. Gloucester was hit by several bombs while the fleet was withdrawing and had to be left behind due to the intense air attacks. 700 ratings and 22 officers from this ship lost their lives.
The air attacks on Force A1 and Force C continued. Two bombs hit the battleship HMS Valiant (with Lieutenant Prince Philip of Greece on board) and later another hit Fiji, disabling it. A Junkers 88 flown by Lieutenant Gerhard Brenner dropped three bombs on Fiji, sinking it. Five hundred survivors were rescued by Kandahar and Kingston the next morning. The Royal Navy lost two cruisers and a destroyer sunk, but had managed to force the invasion fleet to turn around. In total, Royal Navy AA gunners shot down 10 Luftwaffe aircraft and damaged 16 more, some of which crashed landed upon return to base, on 21/22 May.
Fighting against a constant supply of fresh enemy troops, the Allies began a series of retreats working southward across Crete.
The 5th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of HMS Kelly, HMS Kipling, HMS Kelvin, HMS Jackal, and HMS Kashmir, under Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, was ordered to leave Malta on 21 May, to join the fleet off Crete. It arrived in the area after Gloucester and Fiji were sunk. They were first sent to pick up survivors, but were then diverted to attack some caïques off the Cretan coast and then shell the Germans at Maleme. Kelvin and Jackal were diverted on another search while Mountbatten with Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were to go to Alexandria.
While the three ships were rounding the western side of Crete, they came under heavy air attack from 24 Stuka dive bombers. Kashmir was hit and sank in two minutes and Kelly was hit and turned turtle soon after. Kipling survived 83 bombs aimed at her, while she picked up 279 survivors from the two ships. The Noel Coward film In Which We Serve was based on this action.
After air attacks on Allied positions in Kastelli on 24 May, the 95th Gebirgs Pioneer Battalion advanced on the town. These air attacks enabled the escape of German paratroopers captured on 20 May; the newly-liberated paratroopers killed and captured several New Zealand officers assigned to lead the 1st Greek Regiment. Despite this setback, the Greeks put up determined resistance, but with only 600 rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammunition available for a force of 1,000 ill-trained men, they were unable to repel the German advance. Fighting with the remnants of 1st Greek Regiment continued in the Kastelli area until 26 May, hampering German efforts to land reinforcements.
Despite the dangers posed by roving British naval forces, the German Kriegsmarine had not entirely given up on attempts to ship heavy weapons to the struggling paratroopers. On 24 May Oberleutnant-zur-See Österlin, who had led the ill-fated Maleme Flotilla, was given the task of transporting two Panzer II light tanks over to Kastelli Kisamou. He quickly commandeered a small wooden lighter at Piraeus and arranged for the tanks to be lowered into it. At dusk the next day, the lighter, towed by the small harbor tug Kentawros, left Piraeus and headed southwards towards Crete. But reports of British naval units operating nearby convinced Admiral Schuster to delay the operation and he ordered Österlin to take his charges into the relative safety of a small harbor on the German-occupied island of Kithira.
At a meeting in Athens on 27 May, Luftwaffe Generals Richtofen, Jeschonnek and Löhr pressed Schuster to somehow get the tanks delivered before "...the Englander claws himself erect again". One of Richtofen's liaison officers had returned from the island on the 26th with ominous news. The paratroopers, he stated, were in poor condition, lacking in discipline and "at loose ends". He stressed the "absolute and immediate need" for "reinforcement by sea shipment of heavy weaponry if the operation is to get ahead at all."
Schuster issued Österlin new orders via radio to set sail for the Gulf of Kisamos where a landing beach had already been selected and marked out. Upon nearing the shore on 28 May, the lighter was positioned ahead of the tug and firmly beached. A party of engineers then blew the lighter's bow off using demolition charges and the two tanks rolled ashore. They were soon assigned to Advance Detachment Wittman, which had earlier assembled near the Prison Valley reservoir the day before. This ad hoc group was composed of a motorcycle battalion, the Reconnaissance Battalion, an anti-tank unit, a motorized artillery troop and some engineers. General Ringel gave orders for Wittmann to "strike out from Platanos at 03:00 on 28 May in pursuit of the British 'main' via the coastal highway to Retimo" and thence towards Heraklion.
Although they did not play a decisive role, the newly-delivered panzers did perform useful work in helping round up British troops in the Kisamos area before speeding eastward in support of the German pursuit column.
On the night of 26/27 May, a detachment of some 800 men from No. 7 and No. 8 Commandos, as part of Layforce, landed at Suda Bay. Their commander, Colonel Robert Laycock, had tried to land his force a few nights before on 25 May, but had been turned back due to bad weather. Although lacking any indirect fire support weapons and armed mainly with only rifles and a small number of machine guns, they were tasked with carrying rearguard actions in order to buy the garrison enough time to carry out an evacuation.
|"Awful news from Crete. We are scuppered there, and I'm afraid the morale and material effects will be serious. Certainly the Germans are past-masters in the art of war—and great warriors. If we beat them, we shall have worked a miracle."|
|Alexander Cadogan, end of diary entry for 27 May 1941|
In a ferocious bayonet charge on the morning of 27 May, the New Zealand 28th (Māori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion, cleared a section of road between Souda and Chania which was under threat from troops of the German 141st Mountain Regiment.
Command in London eventually decided the cause was hopeless and on 27 May, ordered an evacuation. Major-General Freyberg concurrently ordered his troops to begin withdrawing to the south coast to be evacuated.
Evacuation to Egypt, 28–31 May
Over four nights, 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by ships including the light cruiser HMS Ajax. The majority of these troops embarked from Sphakia. A smaller number were withdrawn from Heraklion on the night of 28 May. This task force was attacked en route by Luftwaffe dive bombers and suffered serious losses. More than 9,000 Anzacs and thousands of Greeks were left behind to defend the remaining territory as best they could. They fought on until they were surrounded. The cities of Irakleio and Rethymno were taken in the following days by the Germans. A small Italian force assisted the capture of Rethymno. By 1 June, the island of Crete was under German control.
The defence of the 8th Greek Regiment in and around the village of Alikianos is credited with protecting the Allied line of retreat. Alikianos, located in the "Prison Valley", was strategically important and it was one of the first targets the Germans attacked on the opening day of the battle. The 8th Greek was composed of young Cretan recruits, gendarmes, and cadets. They were poorly equipped and only 850 strong — roughly battalion, not regiment-sized. Attached to the 10th New Zealand Infantry Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger, little was expected of them by Allied officers. The Greeks, however, proved such pessimism wrong. On the first day of battle, they decisively repulsed the Engineer Battalion. During the next several days, they held out against repeated attacks by the 85th and 100th Mountain Regiments. For seven days, they held Alikianos and protected the Allied line of retreat. The 8th Greek Regiment is credited with making the evacuation of western Crete possible by many historians such as Antony Beevor and Alan Clark.
The Germans pushed the British, Commonwealth, and Hellenic forces steadily southward, using aerial and artillery bombardment, followed by waves of motorcycle and mountain troops (the mountainous terrain making it difficult to employ tanks). The Souda Bay garrisons at Souda and Beritania gradually fell back along the lone road to Vitsilokoumos, just to the north of Sphakia. About halfway there, near the village of Askifou lay a large crater nicknamed "The Saucer". It was the only spot in the rugged terrain sufficiently wide and flat enough to support a large-scale air drop. Troops were stationed about its perimeter to prevent a German airborne force from landing to block the retreat. At the village of Stilos, the 5th New Zealand Brigade and the 2/7th Australian Battalion held off a German mountain battalion which had begun a flanking manœuvre, but they were forced to withdraw for lack of air and artillery support, despite their superior numbers. Fortunately for the ANZACs, German air assets were being concentrated on Rethymnion and Heraklion, and they were able to retreat down the road safely in broad daylight.
The general retreat of the brigade was covered by two companies of the 28th (Māori) Battalion under Captain Rangi Royal. (Royal's men had already distinguished themselves at 42nd Street.) They overran the 1st Battalion, 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment and halted the German advance. When the main unit was safely to the rear, the Māori in turn made their own fighting retreat of twenty-four miles, losing only two killed and eight wounded, all of whom they were able to carry to safety. Thus, the Layforce commando detachment was the only major unit in this area to be cut-off and unable to retreat.
Layforce had been sent to Crete by way of Sphakia when it was still hoped that large-scale reinforcements could be brought in from Egypt to turn the tide of the battle. The battalion-sized force was split up, with a 200-man detachment under the unit's commander, Robert Laycock, stationed at Souda to cover the retreat of the heavier units. Laycock's men, augmented by three of the remaining British tanks, were joined by the men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, who had been assigned to guard the Souda docks and refused to believe that a general evacuation had been ordered. After a day's fierce fighting, Laycock decided to retreat under cover of night to nearby Beritiana. He was joined there by Captain Royal and the Māoris, who took up separate defensive positions and eventually made their fighting retreat. Laycock and his force, however, were cut off by superior German forces near the village of Babali Hani. Pummelled from the air by dive bombers, Layforce Detachment was unable to get away. Laycock and his brigade major, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, were able to escape by crashing through German lines in a tank. Most of the other men of the detachment and their comrades from the 20th were either killed or captured.
During the evacuation, Admiral Cunningham was determined that the "Navy must not let the Army down". When Army officers expressed concerns that he would lose too many ships, Cunningham said that "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition".
Major Alistair Hamilton, a company commander in the Black Watch, had declared, "The Black Watch leaves Crete when the snow leaves Mount Ida". Hamilton himself never left the island; he was killed by a mortar round, but his men were ordered off, and they reluctantly complied. The consensus among the men was that they were letting their Greek allies down, and while most British heavy equipment was destroyed in order to keep it from falling into enemy hands, the men turned over their ammunition to the Cretans who were staying behind to resist the Germans.
Meanwhile, Colonel Campbell, the commander at Heraklion, was also forced to surrender his contingent. Rethimno fell as well, and on the night of 30 May, German motorcycle troops linked up with Italian troops who had landed that day on the Gulf of Mirabella. The Italian commander in the Dodecanese had volunteered the services of his men as early as 21 May, but the request had to pass through German channels to Hermann Göring, who finally authorized the move when it became clear that the German effort was not moving ahead as quickly as planned.
On 1 June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakia surrendered, although many took to the hills and caused the German occupation problems for years. By 1941, an estimated 500 British Commonwealth troops remained at large, to say nothing of the Greeks, who were more easily able to blend in with the native population.
It must have been a bitter pill for the British to learn that they lost the battle against German elite troops, many of whom had been taken prisoner during the earlier invasion of the Netherlands. Because the British were only able to transport about 1,200 captured German paratroopers before the Dutch capitulation to Germany, the majority of the paratroopers were freed.
- New Zealand's History Online: The Battle of Crete
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