LEFT German mountain infantry gather by their aircraft, before their flight to Crete, 1941.

The Battle for Crete: 20 May-1 June 1941

Neil Faulkner analyses one of the Second World War’s most curiously asymmetrical battles.

This is part two of the Special on the Battle for Crete. You can read the first part, about the history of the German 7th Airborne Division, here.

British intelligence knew of an impending German airborne assault on Crete. Churchill was determined to hold the island for both strategic and political reasons, and he appointed General Freyberg to overall command of what came to be called ‘Creforce’.

This was an unfortunate choice. Freyberg was a brave soldier, popular with his men, and an old friend of Churchill’s. But appointment to the supreme command came as both a surprise and a disappointment. He wanted to return to Egypt to train and re-equip his division, and he had no confidence that the island could be defended. He told General Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, that ‘there were not enough men on Crete to hold it’ and that therefore ‘the holding of Crete should be reconsidered’.

LEFT German mountain infantry gather by their aircraft, before their flight to Crete, 1941.
German mountain infantry gather by their aircraft, before their flight to Crete, 1941.

This assessment – as was clear at the time and has been ever since – was wrong. One can only assume that Freyberg had been promoted to a level of responsibility that triggered a crisis of confidence. Though he came around – accepting the burden imposed on him – he failed to provide effective military leadership.

Instead of inspiring his senior officers with an aggressive spirit and a determination to win, he operated in a collegiate manner, presided over a chaotic command structure, and deferred to divisional and brigade commanders when they remained inactive.

The problems began with Freyberg’s deployment of force. Crete is 160 miles long and up to 30 miles wide. A spine of high mountains divides the northern coast from the southern. Only three main roads connected north and south; otherwise movement was on mountain tracks. The main settlements were on the northern coast, including an important naval base at Suda and three airfields at Maleme, Rethymno, and Heraklion.

Airborne troops could be landed pretty well anywhere, but they would need to secure an airfield early in the battle to bring in reinforcements and heavy weapons if they were not to be overwhelmed. This made the defence of Maleme, Rethymno, and Heraklion airfields critical.

Freyberg’s dispositions

Freyberg duly formed his command into three masses to defend the airfields, but with a preponderance of force towards the western end of the island, protecting not only Maleme airfield but also Suda naval base and the large coastal town of Canea. This, at least, was well judged – the German parachute and glider landings on 20 May would target Maleme, Suda/Canea, Rethymo, and Heraklion.

ABOVE Freyberg gazes over the parapet. He felt wrongly that Crete had too few soldiers to defend it against a concerted German attack.
Freyberg gazes over the parapet. He felt wrongly that Crete had too few soldiers to defend it against a concerted German attack.

Once deployed, however, units tended to dig in behind wire entanglements, as if preparing for an essentially linear and defensive battle; and this, it would become clear as the battle unfolded, reflected a deep-rooted mindset, especially in the 5th Brigade of the New Zealand Division, whose three battalions, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd, were defending Maleme airfield.

Linear defence was questionable in any circumstances, but especially in the face of airborne assault. The first days, even the first hours, would be decisive, and what was required was a capacity for rapid and overwhelming counterattack before the enemy could consolidate and build up force; in particular, at the western end of the line, it was essential that any lodgement on or near Maleme airfield should be destroyed, to deny the Germans any opportunity to make use of it to reinforce and resupply the assault force.

This was not the only problem. By the time the battle started, the small numbers of Hurricane and Gladiator fighters on the island had been destroyed or withdrawn following an unequal struggle with the Luftwaffe. The airfields were therefore empty of British aircraft. But nothing was done – by mining or demolition – to prevent the Germans making immediate use of them if they could only secure them.

Most bizarre of all was the small size of the force actually defending the airfield. This comprised C Company of the 22nd Battalion, 140 men in total, organised in three platoons occupying slit trenches around the airfield perimeter.

The rest of the battalion was deployed in the immediate vicinity, some guarding Hill 107, which dominated the airfield from the south. But Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, the battalion CO, lacked the strength to provide a comprehensive defensive screen. The Tavronitis valley to the west of the airfield, and the vital bridge over it, were left undefended, leaving airborne assault troops a convenient location in which to muster without molestation.

The first day 20 May 1941

Under heavy ground-fire, the Junkers Ju 52 transport planes came in low and disgorged their sticks of parachutists and released their gliders. Each Ju 52 could carry 17 men, while the DFS 230 glider carried nine or an equivalent in weight of heavy equipment – 20mm guns, 37mm guns, mountain howitzers, trench mortars, flamethrowers, motorcycles.

Junkers Ju 52s dropping paratroops.

General Meindl, commanding Group West for the attack on Maleme, planned a pincer, with drop zones on the airfield itself and to both east and west of it. This dispersal was premised on the German underestimation of British strength. The result was disastrous.

There were heavy losses on the approach. According to one Royal Marine sergeant, ‘They were sitting ducks. You could actually see the shot breaking up the aircraft and bodies falling out like potato sacks.’

Once the Germans were on the ground, the massacre continued. ‘Suddenly they were among us,’ reported one New Zealand captain. ‘I was watching the 21st Battalion area and a pair of feet appeared through a nearby olive tree. They were right on top of us. I had a tommy-gun and it was just like duck-shooting.’

Casualties among officers, senior and junior, were exceptionally heavy, and this contributed to the inability of the survivors of Meindl’s central and eastern arms to organise for any concerted action. Only the western arm – which had come down beyond the Tavronitis, where no defenders had been deployed – remained fit to fight. But it would now have to mount a set-piece assault across the Tavronitis if the Germans were to succeed in taking the airfield.

The news from Rethymo and Heraklion was equally bad for the Germans. The Australians mounted a well thought-out and aggressive defence of the former, and they would, by the end of the second day, have eliminated any real threat to the airfield. Equally spirited and effective was the combined Australian and British defence of Heraklion; so complete was victory here that the garrison buried no fewer than 1,300 Germans on 22 May.

Gliders carried heavy equipment, including flamethrowers, to be collected after the drop.

Here and elsewhere, Greek regulars, Cretan gendarmerie, and Cretan civilians played a major role, especially in the defence of towns and villages. One eye-witness reported that paratroops unfortunate enough to land in the streets would be attacked ‘by the entire population of the district, including women, children, and even dogs; those Cretans would use any weapon, flintlock rifles captured from the Turks a hundred years ago, axes, and even spades’.

At Kastelli, a tiny port on the far western edge of the island, the 1st Greek Regiment fought their own private battle. They had 600 rifles between a thousand men, each with only three rounds of ammunition, and two ancient machine-guns. Attacked by Lieutenant Muerbe’s detachment of 74 paratroops, they mounted an intelligent and ferocious defence, supported by Cretan police and local residents. Three hours after the Germans dropped, only 17 were still alive, and these were in the town jail.

At the end of the first day, Student, at XI Air Corps headquarters in Greece, was staring defeat in the face. He had only two intact bodies of troops under effective command on the island: two battalions of the Assault Regiment west of Maleme airfield, and the rump of the 3rd Regiment in Prison Valley a few miles south-west of Canea.

The abortive counterattack 20 May 1941

What was already clear was that the New Zealand and Australian infantry were easily a match for the German paratroops. Especially notable was the resistance of 22nd Battalion at Maleme airfield. Heavily outnumbered, under repeated Stuka attack, suffering from thirst and exhaustion, running low on ammunition, and with many men down, they were still holding on.

But their situation was increasingly desperate, and the battalion CO, Colonel Andrews, was sending up distress flares, a prearranged signal indicating a unit in trouble and in need of support. But 5th Brigade’s other two battalions, 21st under Colonel Allen to the south-east, and 23rd under Colonel Leckie to the east, did nothing – despite explicit orders to support the 22nd if necessary and despite the fact that neither was under any substantial enemy pressure. Instead – ‘wired-in for all-round defence’ – they did nothing. Their passivity was endorsed by the brigade commander, Brigadier Hargest, who remained firmly ensconced at his headquarters in Platanias, several miles west of Maleme.

Collecting flamethrowers.

Finally, in desperation, Andrews launched his own counterattack with wholly inadequate strength. Though supported by two I (for infantry) tanks, one of these was crippled by mechanical problems and had to withdraw, while the other bogged down in mud. The following infantry were unable to get forward against heavy enemy machine-gun fire.

Andrews had lost contact with his two forward companies, C and D, and he seems to have assumed they had been destroyed; in fact, both had suffered heavy casualties but were still full of fight. Andrews, however – exhausted, abandoned by brigade, fearful of being overwhelmed now that his counterattack had failed – made the disastrous decision to pull back several hundred yards, abandoning Hill 107, which dominated the airfield, to the enemy.

Thanks to Hargest’s lack of grip and Allen’s and Leckie’s defensive-minded inertia, the first opportunity to complete the defeat of the invaders had been lost.

Before the day was out, a second chance was thrown away. Brigadier-General Puttick, in command of the New Zealand Division, was urged by two of his senior officers, Colonel Kippenberger, in command of 10th Brigade around Galatas, and Brigadier Inglis, in command of 4th Brigade immediately east of Galatas, to mount a full-scale counterattack.

Puttick at first refused to authorise it, then, when he later changed his mind, ordered something that was too weak and too late in the day to succeed. A second opportunity lost.

The Stuka in the Battle for Crete

The Stuka – the Junkers Ju 87 – was one of the most important aircraft of the Second World War. A ground-attack dive-bomber with a range of 500 miles and a maximum speed of 240mph, it was armed with 500kg of bombs and three machine-guns (two mounted in the wings, one in the rear cockpit manned by a second crewman).

It played a central role in Blitzkrieg operations, where it operated as flying artillery. Though entrenched infantry were relatively safe, the Stuka’s steep, rapid descent and the piercing whine of its siren made it a terror weapon. Against larger targets in the open – artillery emplacements, communications centres, columns moving on roads – its attacks could be devastating.

It was vulnerable to fighter attack, suffering a mauling in the Battle of Britain, but it came into its own on Crete, impeding daylight operations on land and proving highly effective at sea. The Stuka was unable to prevent Cunningham’s fleet from liquidating the threat of a German seaborne landing, but imposed a terrible price. ‘The operations of the last four days,’ reported the British admiral,

have been nothing short of a trial of strength between the Mediterranean Fleet and the German Air Force… I am afraid that in the coastal area we have to admit defeat and accept the fact that losses are too great to justify us in trying to prevent seaborne attacks on Crete. This is a melancholy conclusion, but it must be faced. As I have always feared, enemy command of the air, unchallenged by our own Air Force, and in these restricted waters, with Mediterranean weather, is too great odds for us to take on except by seizing opportunities of surprise and using the utmost circumspection.

The second day 21 May 1941

The pattern of failure at senior command level was repeated the following day. A group of officers with a First World War mentality were fighting a modern battle with a complete lack of initiative, urgency, and panache.

Maleme was the centre of gravity of the entire Battle for Crete. The crisis of that battle had arrived. It was essential to retake the airfield as soon as possible to prevent the Germans from consolidating and reinforcing their air bridgehead – before, that is, they were able to build up their strength sufficiently to mount a full-scale offensive. The outcome of the battle would be decided by whether or not the New Zealand Division mounted an effective counterattack.

BELOW Ju 52s all across Maleme. Strongly defended at first, the airfield was needlessly relinquished.
Ju 52s all across Maleme. Strongly defended at first, the airfield was needlessly relinquished.

But Freyberg, Puttick, and Hargest – none of whom visited the front line – still did nothing.

The Germans – still underestimating enemy strength, an impression that seemed confirmed by Andrew’s withdrawal and Hargest’s inertia – mounted their own attack. The New Zealand infantry destroyed this in a matter of minutes with fire from their rifles, machine-guns, and Bren guns, leaving 200 paratroopers dead in front of their positions.

Nor was this the only success. At sea, Admiral Cunningham’s fleet first destroyed one German invasion flotilla (on the night of 21/22 May), then scared off another (22 May), thereby neutralising any possibility of seaborne reinforcements reaching the assault force fighting for its life on Crete.

The cost was high. The Royal Navy lost: three cruisers and six destroyers sunk; one aircraft carrier, three battleships, six cruisers, and seven destroyers damaged; and 1,828 men killed and 183 wounded. By 23 May, Cunningham had literally no ships under command that were 100% serviceable and was forced to withdraw to Alexandria for repairs, refuelling, and restocking.

But the German position on the island at the end of the second day was little better than at the end of the first. The men of the 7th Airborne Division – those who had survived thus far and were operating in organised units – were utterly spent after 48 hours in action. Newly arrived contingents of the 5th Mountain Division found themselves under fire and forced to take cover as soon as their transports landed. The Germans remained heavily outnumbered and outgunned, and looking out to sea they could see a great naval battle in progress, a sight that could only deepen their gloom, for it was likely to presage the destruction or dispersal of the planned amphibious invasion force.

ABOVE German paratroopers in action in a dried-up river bed. The fighting continued over every scrap of ground, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.
German paratroopers in action in a dried-up river bed. The fighting continued over every scrap of ground, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

The third day 22 May 1941

A counterattack was finally mounted in the early hours of the third day of the battle, but it was hopelessly mismanaged by Hargest, who was given command of the operation by Freyberg despite the accumulating evidence of his unfitness for the role.

Puttick had given Hargest control of the 20th and 28th Battalions, so he had under command five battalions in all. Had these fine New Zealand formations, one composed of Maoris (the 28th), mounted a single coordinated attack, there seems little doubt that they could have overwhelmed the two German divisions facing them.

Hargest vacillated through the night between going ahead and calling things off, and when the attack finally went in, around 3.30am, it was in the form of a pulled punch.

The attack was led by the 20th and 28th Battalions. They encountered stiff resistance. Every scrap of defensible ground had its knot of entrenched paratroopers. The attackers, as Captain Upham reported,

RIGHT Captured British troops on Crete. BELOW Troops who avoided capture were evacuated to Alexandria, North Africa.
Captured British troops on Crete.

went on meeting resistance in depth – in ditches, behind hedges, in the top and bottom storeys of village buildings, in fields and gardens along roads… The wire of 5th Brigade hindered our advance. There were also mines and booby-traps, which got a few of us … There was tommy-gun and pistol fire, and plenty of grenades, and a lot of bayonet work, which you don’t often get in war. The amount of MG fire was never equalled. Fortunately, a lot of it was high, and the tracer bullets enabled us to pick our way up and throw in grenades.

We had heavy casualties, but the Germans had heavier. They were unprepared. Some were without trousers, some had no boots on. The Germans were helpless in the dark. With another hour of darkness, we could have reached the far side of the ’drome. We captured, as it was, a lot of MGs. Two Bofors pits were overrun and the guns destroyed.

The Maoris in particular fought with extraordinary ferocity. During the following day, despite being outnumbered and outgunned – they faced four or five times their own firepower and were under repeated air attack – they continued to advance.

But even the best assault troops reach their limit: they become physically and psychologically exhausted, and they run out of water, food, and ammo. All attacks eventually grind down, and fresh units have to relieve their comrades in the front line.

Troops who avoided capture were evacuated to Alexandria, North Africa.

Yet again, however, Allen and Leckie did nothing, and Hargest did not press them, so the 21st and 23rd Battalions sat out the battle. Thus was lost the third opportunity to win the Battle for Crete.

The withdrawal from Maleme 23 May 1941

The high command – Freyberg and Puttick – now decided, without visiting the battlefield, on wholesale withdrawal from the forward position east of Maleme. This meant abandoning all the gains made by the gallant assault of the 20th and 28th Battalions on 22 May, and all the ground held by the dogged resistance of the 22nd since 20 May; it meant giving up all hope of retaking Maleme airfield, and thereby providing the Germans with the secure aerial lifeline on which the success or failure of their entire operation depended.

The effect of the withdrawal was to create a single L-shaped front facing west and south – that is, facing the main German mass around Maleme and a secondary mass in Prison Valley. The new position was ranged around the small town and road junction at Galatas.

Yet again, command decisions were based on pessimism – exaggerated estimates of enemy capacity and intentions, and gross underestimation of the fighting quality of the Allied forces, including that of both Greek regulars and Cretan irregulars. Instead of confidence and boldness, there was a corrosive defeatism.

One small example of what might have happened on Crete with effective senior leadership involves one Captain Forrester, who appeared just in time to break up an attack by a 50-strong unit of paratroopers in Prison Valley. Clad in shorts and yellow jersey, but without tin hat, and brandishing a revolver, Forrester was at the head of a crowd of disorderly Greeks, including women; one Greek had a shot-gun with serrated-edge bread knife tied on like a bayonet, others had ancient weapons – all sorts. Without hesitation this uncouth group, with Forrester right out in front, went over the top of the parapet and headlong at the crest of the hill. The enemy fled.

But instead of building on so many local successes by the fighting men, the senior Allied commanders on Crete did the opposite: they either did nothing at all, or they pulled their punches, and then they ordered precipitate retreats which could only destroy morale. ‘We withdrew under orders after midnight,’ recalled New Zealand Lieutenant Thomas,

carrying out wounded on improvised stretchers down the steep cliff face and then along a difficult clay creek bed to the road. Then we marched until nearly dawn. I was very impressed by the continued discipline of the men. Mile after mile we trudged. Everyone was tired. All were vaguely resentful, although none of us could have put a finger on the reason.

The Battle of Galatas 25/26 May 1941

The Germans, now in secure control of Maleme airfield, used the next two days to build up their strength. This included Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, batteries of mountain guns and 50mm anti-tank guns, a motorcycle battalion, and units of the 141st Mountain Regiment.

When they attacked the Galatas position in force on 25 May, they first hit the Allied lines with artillery and air attack, then launched infantry assaults at numerous and successive points, probing for weaknesses.

The first New Zealand line gave way, but Kippenberger, who was in his element, fighting in the front line, rallying broken troops, improvising tactical responses, formed a second. Then, on the second day of the battle, the New Zealanders mounted a magnificent counterattack, supported by tanks, and retook the town of Galatas. Yet again, the superiority of the New Zealand infantryman over German paratroopers and mountain troops in close-quarters combat was demonstrated. The Germans thought they had lost the battle. One reported:

We were fully convinced that this was much more than a local counterattack; it was a general counter-offensive along the whole line which we had been expecting for some days. The appearance of tanks confirmed this view, and we were quite sure that the whole battle was turning against us. The men had reached the limit of their endurance. My commanding officer had just been killed. Our morale was very low. We were both amazed and relieved that the counterattack, after clearing the town of Galatas, advanced no further and that the enemy appeared to be retiring.

Thus was the fourth opportunity thrown away – by another failure to reinforce success.

Retreat and evacuation

Freyberg seems to have decided that the Battle for Crete was lost the day before the counter-attack at Galatas. He later reported:

At this stage I was quite clear in my mind that the troops would not be able to last much longer against a continuation of the air attacks which they had had during the previous five days. The enemy bombing was accurate and it was only a question of time before our shaken troops must be driven out of the positions they occupied. The danger was quite clear. We were gradually being driven back on our base areas, the loss of which would deprive us of our food and ammunition… I really knew at this time that there were two alternatives, defeat in the field and capture, or withdrawal.

None of this assessment stands up. Air attack is relatively ineffective against entrenched infantry. The great majority of casualties had occurred during ground operations, when German casualties had been as high or higher than Allied. The New Zealanders had not been ‘shaken’ by the fighting, nor, for the most part, had they been ‘driven out of the positions they occupied’. What had actually happened was that they had been demoralised by poor generalship resulting in avoidable defeat and retreat.

Even now, the Allies could have held their positions and imposed a stalemate. Churchill, who grasped that Crete had become a decisive trial of strength, outgrowing its original strategic significance and becoming a test of Britain’s powers of resistance, urged Freyberg to hang on. ‘Your glorious defence’, he cabled, ‘commands attention in every land. We know the enemy is hard-pressed. All aid in our power is being sent.’

LEFT General Student (third from the left) confers with soldiers during the battle for Crete. Modern tactics and machinery outmaneouvred the ‘blimpishness’ of Allied command.
General Student (third from the left) confers with soldiers during the battle for Crete. Modern tactics and machinery outmaneouvred the ‘blimpishness’ of Allied command.

It made no difference. Freyberg was psychologically broken. Wavell was unable to persuade him to withdraw along the coast and establish a new position at Rethymno. Instead, he sent his army down the road to the southern port of Sfakiá.

The retreat quickly degenerated into rout as men discarded their equipment and took to looting. Discipline collapsed almost entirely at the port, as men struggled to get berths on the few available ships.

By 1 June, just 13 days after it started, the Battle for Crete was over. About 19,000 men were evacuated. Most of the rest, about 5,000, surrendered immediately, and some 500 or so escaped into the countryside, most eventually to be captured, a few to get away on small boats. Approximately 4,000 men had been lost during the fighting.


Crete was one in a long series of British military disasters in the first part of the Second World War. They include the Norwegian campaign (April-June 1940), the Dunkirk evacuation (May-June 1940), the retreat from Libya (March-June 1941), the evacuation of Greece (April-May 1941), the fall of Singapore (February 1942), and the second retreat from Libya and the fall of Tobruk (January-July 1942).

In each case, there were particular reasons for defeat, but also general factors at work. The latter were especially apparent on Crete. They can be summed up as deep-rooted military conservatism – or what, in the colloquial slang of the time, might be called ‘blimpishness’ (after the interwar cartoon character Colonel Blimp).

The Germans had invested heavily in new technologies of war and in developing the new military doctrine of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, based on mechanisation, mobility, manoeuvre, and attacks that combined armour, artillery, airpower, and motorised assault troops. German defensive tactics were also non-linear, instead involving a mesh of strongpoints ranged in depth and mobile reserves for rapid counterattack.

Allied generals never really caught up. The Russians had once been in the forefront of the new tactics, but an entire generation of forward-looking officers was murdered in the Stalinist purges in the late 1930s, and the survivors were left too traumatised to think for themselves. The Germans were eventually defeated by the sheer mass of the Allied forces, once the Soviet Union and the United States joined the war, but they retained their tactical superiority to the very end.

Crete was lost to blimpishness. Allied commanders were prone to entrench themselves and sit tight, despite facing an airborne assault, the ultimate in mobility. Senior officers who were not on the battlefield prevented more junior officers, who were, from exercising judgement, initiative, and aggression. Whereas the paratroopers, having lost cohesion and officers at the beginning of the action, formed improvised groups and took independent action – as they had been trained to do.

The New Zealand infantry were dispersed across wide defensive zones, and when they attacked, they were sent in piecemeal, supported by tiny driblets of tanks. Such a basic concept as concentration of force at the point of decision appears to have played no part in senior command thinking.

Just as bad, the pessimism and defeatism of the high command filtered down to the lowest ranks, spreading demoralisation where there had been fine fighting spirit at the beginning of the battle.

At sea, too, a legacy of blimpishness inflicted severe damage. The British had failed to develop their own dive-bomber and, more generally, underplayed the significance of naval aviation in the interwar years. The sea battle around Crete – essentially a battle between Luftwaffe dive-bombers and Royal Navy warships – was a crippling defeat for Cunningham’s fleet. •