Two months after the fall of Crete, General Kurt Student, the German Airborne Commander, was summoned to Hitler's headquarters at Wolf's Lair. Together with a number of senior officers who had survived the battle of Crete, he was awarded the Knight's Cross. The Fuhrer congratulated the men he decorated on accomplishing a vital task by the only method possible under the circumstances, an airborne assault. This was encouraging talk for Student. Already his Airborne Corps was nearly back up to strength. The many casualties had been replaced, equipment losses made good. He had ambitious plans for further operations in the Mediterranean against Cyprus, Egypt, and Malta. After lunch, over coffee, Hitler shattered his hopes. Turning to Student, the Fuhrer said quietly: "Of course, General you know that after Crete we shall never do another Airborne operation. The parachute arm is one that relies entirely on surprise. That surprise factor has now exhausted itself.....the day of the parachutist is over."
Crete was the scene of the largest German airborne operation of the war, and the first time in history that an island had been taken by airborne assault. Crete was later dubbed the "Graveyard of the Fallshirmjager" (German Parachutists known as " Sky Hunters"); they suffered nearly 400o killed and 1500 wounded in the first three days of the assault. It was also the first time the Germans had encountered stiff partisan activity, with women and even children getting involved in the battle. The XI Fliegerkorps was responsible for ferrying the paratroops to Crete using 500 JU-52's and 70 DFS-230 light assault gliders, all together 8100 men were dropped on to Crete, 1860 men at Maleme, 2460 men at Chania, 1380 men at Rethimno and 2360 men at Iraklion. Crete was chosen because of the British airfield on the island, which were more than capable of striking the vital Ploesti oil fields in Rumania. Hitler's forces needed all the oil they could get for the impending assault on Russia. Securing Crete would be tantamount to driving the British out of the eastern Mediterranean; it would also be the first step towards Cyprus and the Suez Canal.
One major problem was the lack of transport aircraft, there was not enough to ferry all of the forces across in one go. There would have to be two waves, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, so enough time in between for the aircraft to return from Crete, refuel and return again back to the island. Early on the morning of May 20, waves of Stuka dive bombers and low flying fighter planes subjected the Maleme, Chania, and Souda Bay areas to the heaviest bombing and strafing attacks yet experienced by the seasoned troops manning the defenses. Most of the antiaircraft guns were put out of action and the defenders were forced to seek shelter. Bombs were dropped at the approaches to the airfields to put the telephone lines out of order. Suddenly after hours of bombing, an eerie silence descended over the smoke covered target areas. It was followed by a tremendous droning sound as the first transport aircraft came into view. They were loaded with German parachutists. The sky filled with 8000 parachutes as the church bells began to ring. The stunned Cretans began to run towards the drop zones shouting "Stop the Germans" with anything they could find, outdated rifles, pitchforks, old pistols. Many Germans never made it out of their harnesses. Most of the Allied troops on Crete (3 British battalions, 2 New Zealanders Brigades, 8 Greek Battalions and 6 Australian Battalions) had been evacuated from mainland Greece. They were exhausted and had to leave most of their heavy equipment behind. The British Commander Major General Freyberg had
been aware of the impending assault through Enigma intercepts and the Germans had been given poor intelligence. They were dropped into areas they were heavily defended with nearly three times the amount of men they were expecting. At 0800 the first gliders, each carrying twelve men, landed near the airfield and on the beaches near Chania. At the same time, approximately 2,000 parachutists jumped in waves of 200 each at fifteen-minute intervals. Two of every three parachutes in each wave carried containers with weapons and supplies. At Maleme, the parachute troops jumped into withering enemy fire from infantry weapons, positioned in the hills south of the airfield. Many of the paratroopers were killed during the descent or shortly after landing. Because of the concentrated enemy fire most of the men were unable to recover the weapons containers and had to rely on the pistol, four hand grenades, and large knife they carried. One battalion of the assault regiment landed too far to the east among olive groves and vineyards near Maleme and was greeted by murderous machine gun and heavy weapons fire. Casualties were very heavy, and the medical platoon that had set up a first aid station in a farmhouse was overwhelmed by the constant influx of seriously wounded men. The gliders would have been completely destroyed by enemy fire, had they not been covered by clouds of dust, which formed as soon as they touched ground. The commander of the 7th Airborne Division, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Suessmann was killed during the approach flight, while Generalmajor Eugen Meindl, who was in command of the Maleme group, was critically wounded shortly after landing. Both the Maleme and Chania groups were therefore without their commanders.
One parachute combat team in regimental strength jumped over each of the two points between 15:00 and 16:30. Running into very heavy British fire, the parachutists suffered even more casualties than at Maleme and failed to capture the airfields, towns, or ports. Some of the troops landed at the wrong points because the troop carriers had difficulty in orienting themselves. After they touched ground the Germans found themselves in an almost hopeless situation. Surrounded by greatly superior enemy forces, they struggled for survival. Their signal equipment had been smashed during the airdrop and they were therefore unable to establish contact with the nearest friendly forces. Although they were completely on their own and faced by an uncertain fate, they were determined to hold out to the end in the vicinity of the two airfields so that they would tie down the enemy forces and thus assist their comrades in the western part of the island. They proceeded to spell out as best they could the words "HELP US" on the ground. By the evening of 20 May not a single airfield was securely held by the Germans. The most favorable reports came from Maleme, where the defenders were falling back from Hill 107 and their perimeter defenses around the airfield, which, however, was still under British artillery fire. Moreover, crashed aircraft and gliders obstructed parts of the field. Thus, no field was available for the airborne landing of the 5th Mountain Division, which was scheduled for the next day. Chania was still in enemy hands and the isolated troops landed at the four drop points had so far been unable to form airheads, let alone establish contact among themselves. While the attacker had run into unexpectedly strong resistance and had failed to reach the objective of the day, the fury and strength of the onslaught surprised the defenders. The success of the Maleme operation depended on the quick capture of the airfield so that reinforcements could be landed without delay. To achieve this the British forces had to be dislodged frown Hill 107, which dominated the airfield and the surrounding terrain. The remnants of the initial force launched simultaneous attacks on the hill and the airfield at 15:00. Despite heavy opposition and fire from the British antiaircraft guns set up near the airfield, the attackers captured the northern and north-western edge of the airfield and advanced up the northern slope of Hill 107. Two German transport planes tried to land on the airfield toward evening but machine gun fire prevented them from doing so. The Chania group, which was to capture the village of Souda and the town of Chania and eliminate the British command staff, located in that area, landed on rocky ground and suffered many jump casualties. The few men who were not wounded attempted to gather weapons and ammunition and establish contact with their comrades. Here the German paratroopers were opposed by New Zealanders who engaged them with small arms and heavy weapons fire from olive groves offering perfect camouflage for snipers and machine gun positions. The isolated German elements made little headway against the well-entrenched enemy forces.
As the battle wore on and casualty reports started to come in to General Student's HQ at the Hotel "Grande Bretagne" in Athens, it seemed that the battle was lost, but luck was on their side, Freyberg had delayed committing his reserve and at a critical point in the battle the Allies were forced to withdraw from positions around Hill 107, overlooking the Airfield at Maleme. This stroke of luck gave the Germans the upper hand and enabled them to begin the desperately needed air landing troops of the Gebirgsjager on the airfield, although it was still coming under artillery fire. Little by little, the entire 5th Mountain Division was flown in. Even more important to the attack forces were the artillery pieces, antitank guns, and supplies of all types, which had been missing during the initial stage of the invasion and which were now being airlifted into Maleme.The allies pulled back in the face of a constant flow of fresh troops and began their retreat. On May 29, motorized reconnaissance elements, advancing through enemy-held territory, established contact with the German forces in the Rethimno pocket and reached Iraklion the next day. A small Italian force that had landed at Sitia Bay on the eastern tip of the island on 28 May, linked up with a German advance detachment two days later. After repeated encounters with enemy rear guards, the German forces reached the south coast of the island on 1 June. The struggle for Crete was thereby terminated. Despite the long delay in the issuance of evacuation orders, the British Navy was able to embark approximately 14,800 men and return them to Egypt. Subjected to severe losses and constant harassment by German planes, the Navy performed the evacuation during four nights. In spite of the heroic efforts, 5000 British and Allied soldiers were left behind.
The defense 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. The Greeks made up for the lack of equipment with intensity of spirit. Attached to the 10 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 a possibility by many historians such as Anthony Beevor.
In the first months of Nazi occupation, thousands of Cretans were randomly executed to stamp out the resistance movement before it could grow. Families were sent to the concentration camps. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Yet unlike other European resistance efforts which quickly yielded to German pacification—the celebrated French and Dutch among them—Crete’s civilian population never gave up; they locked German soldiers into a state of continuous and relentless conflict in a single location for over four years, drawing in thousands of additional German troops with each passing year. By 1944, that number would exceed 100,000. Yet despite this brute force of numbers, and the brutal terror those numbers would unleash upon the population, the Cretan people never stopped fighting.
The Germans had never encountered the extent of civilian resistance that they encountered on Crete. Retribution was swift. The German High Command wanted to break the spirit of the populace and do it quickly. In this they failed and failed miserably.In retaliation for the losses they incurred, the Nazis spread punishment, terror and death on the innocent civilians of the island. More than two thousand Cretans were executed during the first month alone and twenty five thousand more later. Despite these atrocities, for the four years following the Allied withdrawal from the island, the people of Crete put up a courageous guerilla resistance, aided by a few British officers of the Special Operations Executuive and Allied troops who remained. They risked certain death to assist and protect the British soldiers left on the island. Those involved were known as the "Andartes" (the Rebels).
Cretan people of all ages joined or aided the Andartes. Children would pile rocks in the roads to slow down the German convoys. They even carried messages in their schoolbooks because it was the only place that the German soldiers never looked. These messages contained information critical to the Andartes who were hiding in the mountains and would come down for midnight raids or daytime sabotages.The German terror campaign was meant to break the fighting spirit and morale of the Andartes. Besides the random and frequent executions, German soldiers used other means to achieve their goal. They leveled many buildings in the towns and villages, destroyed religious icons, and locked hundreds of Cretans in churches for days without food or water, but nothing worked. These actions only made the Cretans more ferocious in their quest for freedom. The hierarchs, priests and monks of the Orthododox Church served with distinction in the struggle and were role models for their flock.
Even in the face of certain death while standing in line to be executed, Cretans did not beg for their lives. This shocked the German troops. Kurt Student, the German Paratrooper Commander who planned the invasion, said of the Cretans, “I have never seen such a defiance of death.” General Alexander Andre, the German Commander of the Occupation Forces was amazed and said: "The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary. Cretans turn into mythical figures. They are so proud of their moment of death that one can hardly fail to admire their courage. When executions were to take place I would leave my desk and walk out onto the balcony to watch their moment of death. Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete."
Finally, the Cretan people participated in one of the most daring operations that brought shame and humiliation to the German occupation forces and exhilaration and hope to the enslaved peoples of Europe. They would kidnap the commander in chief of German forces on Crete—the famous abduction of General Kreipe, masterminded and led by British Special Operations officer Patrick Leigh Fermor. It was the only successful kidnapping of a German general throughout the war.
By the end of the three-and-a-half years of occupation, Hitler had sent a total of 100,000 troops, to confront a little more than 5,000 Cretan Andarte fighters. These German troops could have been deployed somewhere else instead of being tied down on Crete. More German troops were lost during the Battle of Crete than in France, Yugoslavia and Poland combined. Most importantly, as a result of the fighting on Crete, Hitler's master plan to invade Russia before the coming of winter, had to be postponed, which resulted in the deaths of many German troops who were not properly prepared to survive the harsh Russian winter.
Technorati Tags: Battle of Crete, World War II, Hellenic Army, British Army, ANZAC, General Kurt Student, Geberal Alexander Andre, Generl Freyberg, Falshirmjager, 5th German Mountain Division, 8th Greek Regiment, Cretan Resistance
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