It began just after dawn on 20 May 1941. Many of the 7700 New Zealand soldiers stationed on Crete were finishing breakfast when hundreds of German transport aircraft – some towing gliders – rumbled in over the Mediterranean island. The air above was suddenly filled with parachutes as thousands of elite German paratroops began to descend from the sky.
This was the start of what is known as the Battle for Crete. For 12 dramatic days New Zealanders, British, Australian and Greek troops, assisted by Cretan civilians, tried to repel a huge airborne assault by the Germans. They almost succeeded.
Many New Zealanders made it off Crete, but thousands were left behind: more than 2000 were taken prisoner; 671 died. Among those evacuated were Charles Upham and Alfred Hulme, both of whom won the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions on Crete. A few New Zealanders took to the hills, sheltered by the Cretans who, to this day, remember New Zealand’s role in the battle.