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WWII & Australia: Battle of Crete (1941)

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Battle of Crete - Wikipedia

Source: WikiCommons

The Battle of Crete was fought during the Second World War on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany began an airborne invasion of Crete. Greek and other Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island. After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion. The next day, through communication 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 north of the island. Allied forces withdrew to the south coast. More than half were evacuated by the British Royal Navy and the remainder surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance. The defence of Crete evolved into a costly naval engagement; by the end of the campaign the Royal Navy's eastern Mediterranean strength had been reduced to only two battleships and three cruisers. Read through the resources below to learn more about this battle.

Map of Crete (ANZAC Portal, n.d.)

Historical map of Crete, 1941. Use this to see the strategic importance of Crete.

Greece and Crete (Department of Veterans' Affairs, 2012, October)

This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in World War II. It contains a selection of images and a brief history of the Greece and Crete campaign. During World War II Greece independence was threatened. Australian and British Troops gave support to Greece against German occupation. 

Battle for Crete (New Zealand History, n.d.)

The Battle for Crete was one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War. Over 12 days in May 1941 a mixed force of New Zealanders, British, Australian and Greek troops desperately tried to fight off a huge German airborne assault. Despite suffering appalling casualties, the parachutists and glider-borne troops who led the invasion managed to secure a foothold on the island and eventually gained the upper hand. The battle ended with the evacuation to Egypt of the bulk of the Allied force. Read through this website to learn more.

What was the Battle of Crete? (Imperial War Museums, n.d.)

After their successful conquest of Greece in April 1941, the Germans turned their attention to the island of Crete. Its capture would give them a useful base in the eastern Mediterranean and deny its use to the British. Read through this website to learn more.

The Battle of Crete (ANZACs of Greece, n.d.)

The Crete campaign, code named ‘Operation Mercury’ or ‘Merkur’ by the Germans, was ferocious and lasted ten days, from 20th to 30th May 1941.  Read through this website to learn more.

Defeat in Create, 1941 (Australian War Memorial London, n.d.)

Crete, the largest and southernmost Greek island was strategically located in the eastern Mediterranean. Many British, Australian and New Zealand troops evacuated from Greece in April 1941 were landed at Crete while others were sent to Egypt. By mid May the 30,000 strong British garrison on Crete included 6,500 Australians. In addition, there were 10,000 mainly untrained and poorly armed Greek troops on the island. Read through this website to learn more.

Crete: the battles of May 1941 (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

The battles for the island of Crete were fought from the second week of May 1941 when the island’s British, Commonwealth, and Greek garrison was attacked by German airbourne troops. The defender’s numerical superiority was eventually overwhelmed by the attacker’s massive advantage in logistic and air support. By the end May, organised resistance had broken down. Germans hunted small groups of Allied soldiers abandoned by inadequate evacuation facilities and desperately trying to evade capture. Read through this website to learn more.

Looking back: Australians on Crete (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

From 20 May to 1 June 1941, Australian, British, New Zealand, Greek and German soldiers fought a savage battle for possession of the island of Crete. At first victory was uncertain, and could have gone either way. German reinforcements tipped the scale, however, and the campaign swung against the British. The result was another evacuation by sea of defeated British soldiers, and the falling of yet another part of Europe to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Read through this article to learn more.

Battle of Crete (State Library of Victoria, n.d.)

In 1941, German and Italian forces drove the Allies off the Greek mainland. Some Allied troops – British, Australian, New Zealand soldiers and Greek civil milita – retreated to the nearby island of Crete and took up a defensive position there. The German high command were determined to drive them off Crete, but Hitler was preparing to invade Russia and did not want to divert his resources. The German commanders in Greece were given a strict deadline for the Crete campaign. Read through this website to learn more.

'We were just overcome' - veteran recalls devastating 'Battle of Crete' (SBS, 2021, January 8)

World War 2 ANZAC veteran Alf Carpenter recalls the dramatic and devastating battle on the Greek Island.

How Crete changed the course of World War Two (BBC, 2018, August 16)

The Cretan Resistance caused significant damage to German morale and is likely one of the reasons why Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was unsuccessful. Read through this article to learn more.

World War II: the Battle of Crete (ThoughtCo, 2019, October 13)

The Battle of Crete was fought from May 20 to June 1, 1941, during World War II (1939 to 1945). It saw the Germans make large-scale use of paratroopers during the invasion. Though a victory, the Battle of Crete saw these forces sustain such high losses that they were not used again by the Germans. Read through this article to learn more.

Crew members of the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) look through a hole in the forward funnel 3 days after the ship had been damaged in action against the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete, on 19 July 1940.

German parachute troops of the XI Air Corps, over Suda Bay during the airborne attack on Crete, May 1941

One of the glider planes is on fire and about to crash, while another has part of its fuselage shot away. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the paratroopers.

Crete was one of the first battlefields where invading German troops encountered stiff resistance from the local population.  The rugged terrain of the island made for a self-reliant people, more likely to take their defence into their own hands.  German reprisals against the civilian resistance were ruthless

News item: Australians who escaped from Crete

Not all the troops on Crete could be evacuated, and those left behind had to choose surrender and imprisonment, or escape.  Crete was a defeat for the Allies, but newspapers boosted morale by emphasizing the stories of those who escaped.

The Argus 30 Oct 1941 p.5

Document: letter by Pte Harold Adeney

Harold Adeney had a ringside view of the German invasion of Crete, the first such invasion to use parachute troops in large numbers.  He wrote this account to his wife once he had been safely evacuated to Alexandria.




We had an excellent view as we were camped high up on the mountain side overlooking Suda Bay.  We saw ship after shop bombed and set on fire including a vessel loaded with ammunition which after catching fire blew up with a terrific explosion and sank in a few minutes. 


Then the air raids began to increase in intensity until the air was full of German planes and word came through that German parachute troops had landed in three places around Canea, a fairly large town near Suda Bay.  We took up our positions and waited as the fighting was about 6 miles away and we were guarding a portion of the island which did not become involved in the fighting until later.  We established an observation post overlooking the scene of battle and I was sent there to signal messages back to Regimental Headquarters in semaphore which I had learned in the Scouts. 


While up there I saw intense activity around Canea and the Maleme aerodrome, the sky was full of German planes  - Dorniers, Hinkels, Stukas, Messerschmidts – bombing and machine gunning.  Parachute troops would then float down followed by dozens of huge tri-motored Junkers troop-carrying planes, and gliders which would land and unload their cargo then take off and return to Greece for another load.  After two or three day we were ordered to move up and take up a position in the second line, just behind the regular infantry.  Here we were right in the thick of it, we were bombed and machine gunned practically continuously, suffering some casualties .


NOTE: Adeney describes gliders taking off again after landing their troops, but perhaps he is mistaken.  Gliders have no engines, and can only take off by being towed behind a powered aircraft.  It is unlikely that the Germans would have been able to manage this in the heat of battle. Most of the gliders which landed at Crete were shot up by the Allied forces, and would not have been re-launchable even if the Germans had the means to do it.