Friday, 20 May 2016
Remembering the Battle of Crete
75 years after the German attack
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Crete (Μάχη της Κρήτης) on the morning of 20 May 1941.
On this day 75 years ago, Nazi Germany began an airborne invasion of Crete. After a day of fighting, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion. The next day, because of communications failures, Allied tactical hesitation and German offensive operations, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell, enabling the Germans to land reinforcements and overwhelm the defensive positions on the northern side of the island. The allied forces withdrew to the south coast, where over half of them were evacuated by the British navy; the remainder surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance.
The Battle of Crete was the first battle in which German paratroopers were used en masse. It was the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine, and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.
Because of the heavy casualties suffered by the German paratroopers, Hitler forbade further large-scale airborne operations. In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form both airborne assault and airfield defence regiments.
Initially, British forces had garrisoned Crete when the Italians attacked Greece on 28 October 1940, and Crete gave the British navy excellent harbours in the east Mediterranean.
However, the Germans over-ran mainland Greece after their invasion in April 1941. At the end of the month, the British navy evacuated 57,000 Allied troops. Some were sent to Crete to bolster its garrison until fresh forces could be organised.
One of the key Irish-born figures in the Battle of Crete was Air Marshal Sir George Robert Beamish (1905-1967), who was born in Dunmanway, Co Cork. Before World War II, he was a keen rugby player, playing with Leicester. He was capped 26 times for Ireland and was selected for the 1930 Lions tour. His three younger brothers, Victor, Charles and Cecil, were all accomplished sportsmen – Victor was killed in battle, and Charles was also capped for Ireland as a prop forward. As Captain George Beamish, he was the Senior Air Officer in the Battle of Crete.
The writer Evelyn Waugh was a brigade major during the Battle of Crete.
At 8 a.m. on 20 May 1941, German paratroopers, jumping out of dozens of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, landed near Maleme airfield and the town of Chania. Most of the parachutists were engaged by New Zealand rtoops defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many gliders following the paratroopers were hit by mortar fire seconds after landing and the glider troops who landed safely were almost annihilated by the New Zealand and Greek defenders. But towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back.
In the afternoon, a second wave of German transports arrived in the afternoon, dropping more paratroopers and gliders with assault troops. One group attacked at Rethymnon at 4.15 p.m. and another attacked at Iraklion at 5.30. They pierced the defensive cordon around Iraklion on the first day, seizing the Greek barracks on the west edge of the town and capturing the docks. Iraklion was heavily bombed on the following day.
Eventually, the Germans pushed the British, Commonwealth and Greek forces steadily southward, using aerial and artillery bombardment, followed by waves of motorcycle and mountain troops, because the rocky terrain made it difficult for them to use tanks.
Rethymnon had fallen on the night of 30 May. During a mass evacuation of Crete between 28 May and 1 June, most of the remaining allied troops embarked for Egypt. Most of them were lifted from Sphakia on the south coast, where about 6,000 troops were rescued on the night of 29 and 30 May. Another 4,000 were withdrawn from Iraklion on the night of 28 and 29 May, on the next night 1,500 soldiers were taken away by four destroyers and during the night of 31 May and 1 June another 4,000 men were lifted. About 18,600 men of the 32,000 British troops on the island were evacuated. But 12,000 British and Commonwealth troops and thousands of Greeks were still on Crete, when the island came under German control on 1 June.
By the end of 1941, about 500 Commonwealth troops remained at large on the island. Although they were scattered and disorganised, these troops and the Greek partisans harassed German troops for long after the withdrawal, and Cretan civilians joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand.
The massacre of Cretan civilians at Kondomari in Crete in came after the first occasion the Germans encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population.
After Alikianos was taken, the Germans began a series of collective punishments against civilians, from 2 June to 1 August, killing 195 people from the village and the vicinity, in mass shootings known as the Alikianos executions.
In the Viannos massacres, over 500 civilians from about 20 villages east of Viannos and west of the Ierapetra provinces were murdered by German army units between 14 and 16 September 1943. Most of the villages were looted and burned and the harvests were destroyed. These massacres were some of the worst during the German occupation of Greece in World War II.
In recent years, I have visited the village of Pagalohori, 11 km east of Rethymnon. There Moni Arsanios (Μονή Αρσανίου), a monastery dating from the 16th century, offers panoramic views out to the Cretan Sea below and above to Mount Psiloritis, the highest mountain on the island.
After the Battle of Crete, the Germans executed Abbot Damianos Kallergis in 1941 for the support the monks of his monastery gave to the Greek partisans and the resistance to the Nazis.
Two years ago, I also visited Preveli, 37 km south of Rethymnion, where the Monastery played a key role in the resistance after the Battle of Crete, when 5,000 Greek, Australian, New Zealand and British troops found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in the monastery and others were hidden in homes and farms nearby.
The Abbot, Agathangelos Lagouvardos, helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines, the Thrasher and the Torbay, came close to the Palm Beach at Preveli below the monastery on the nights of 31 May and 1 June 1941 and 20 and 21 August 1941.
In a revenge attack on 25 August 1941, the Germans plundered the main monastery, the Lower Monastery was destroyed completely, and many of the monks were sent to Firka Prison in Chania. Among the precious items plundered from the Monastery by the Germans was its most precious relic, the miraculous Cross of Abbot Ephraim Prevelis. But the monks who returned immediately began rebuilding the Rear Monastery with help from local people and from other monasteries in Crete.
The miraculous cross, which is the best-known item in Preveli, is on display in the katholikon. This large, richly-decorated silver cross was brought back to Preveli from Constantinople by Abbot Ephrem and now kept in a special shrine in the main church.
During the German destruction of the monastery in 1941, German officers removed the Cross from the monastery and tried to send it in Germany. However, it is said the plane it was put on could not take off for Athens. The cross was placed on a second plane, but that too failed to take off. A few days after it had been looted, the cross was returned to Preveli, where it was put back on display in the church on 13 September, the eve of the feast celebrating the finding of the True Cross.
Meanwhile, Abbot Agathangelos of Prevel, who joined the Greek Army in the Middle East as a chaplain, died suddenly, just two days before he was due to return to Greece after the liberation.
One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by the Germans at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children. The Jewish communities in cities such as Chania, Rethymnon and Iraklion were almost completely wiped out, and Jewish life in Crete has never fully recovered.