On 20 May 1941 the Germans launched their invasion of Crete. Landing among or near concealed defensive positions, the glider-borne troops and paratroops suffered heavy casualties. Pockets of survivors managed to establish a foothold on the island, but at the end of the first day the German position was still extremely tenuous.
The invasion began after dawn on 20 May 1941 with a heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe (German air force). For the New Zealanders on Crete – who had endured daily air attacks for over a week – the arrival of German aircraft promised just another day of bombing and strafing. Around 7.30 a.m. there was a lull in the attack, during which many of the men prepared to have breakfast. Before they had a chance to eat, a more intense air bombardment began. Shortly after 8 a.m. gliders began to appear in the sky – the first sign that something significant was happening. As the gliders passed overhead German transport planes lumbered into view and began emptying masses of paratroops and supply canisters. The sky above the New Zealanders was soon filled with a multitude of coloured parachutes.
I was scared stiff.
Spr John Haines, 7th Field Coy
Here the bastards come! My reaction was one of excitement.
Pte Ivan Divehall, 19th Bn
So this is it. Our OC simply said, ‘This is for real boys, put your bayonets on, it’s either you or them.’
Pte Walter Gibbons, 23rd Bn
I cried like a child, really frightened, then got stuck into the enemy.
Pte Howard Thomas, Div HQ
I was astonished. Some of our late arrivals from Greece told us of the parachutists at Corinth. ‘Bullshit’, we said – all the more realistic when the Deutsch did arrive.
Tpr Bill Boyce, 4th Field Ambulance
Those on the ground were stunned by the spectacle above them. After a brief moment of hesitation the defenders grabbed their weapons and began firing on the figures floating down towards them. Rifles and machine guns took a terrible toll. Many paratroops died before they reached the ground while others were hit as they struggled to remove their cumbersome parachute harnesses. Cretans too became involved in the battle. Local villagers, armed with shotguns, axes and spades, attacked paratroops who landed near their homes. The Cretan population would later suffer terrible reprisals from the German occupation force for these actions.
Initial fighting was confined to the areas around Maleme and Canea–Galatas. About 50 gliders came down around Maleme – mainly along the dry Tavronitis riverbed. Paratroops were also dropped to the west, south and east of the Maleme airfield, with orders to seize control of the airfield and high ground overlooking it. Those who landed to the south and east came down amongst New Zealand units and were cut to pieces. In one parachute battalion, two-thirds of the men were killed. It was a different story west of the airfield. Most of the gliders had managed to land safely in an area that could not be observed by defenders on the higher ground. A substantial number of paratroops had also dropped in and around the Tavronitis riverbed – an area Freyberg had left undefended. These troops wasted little time in reorganising themselves and were soon threatening the airfield.
Defending the key positions at Maleme was 22nd Battalion. Under the command of First World War Victoria Cross (VC) winner Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Andrew, the battalion occupied positions along the western edges of the airfield as well the substantial hill – known as Point 107 – overlooking it. By the afternoon the situation was serious enough for Andrew to seek additional support from 23rd Battalion, located to his east. This request was turned down by Brigadier James Hargest, commander of 5th (NZ) Brigade, who mistakenly believed 23rd Battalion was tied up dealing with enemy paratroops in its area.
In desperation Andrew decided to use his meagre reserve – two tanks and an infantry platoon – to drive the Germans back from the edge of the airfield. But the counter-attack petered out when the tanks broke down. Unable to contact his forward companies and fearing that the rest of the battalion would be cut off, Andrew decided to pull back from Point 107 to a nearby ridge. Hargest agreed to the withdrawal – famously replying, ‘if you must, you must’ – before ordering two companies forward to reinforce 22nd Battalion. One of these companies briefly reoccupied Point 107 before falling back, while the other failed to make contact in the dark and also withdrew. Andrew pulled his battalion back to link up with 21st Battalion in the east, leaving behind two forward companies fighting on the western edge of the airfield. Both companies managed to extricate themselves when they found that the rest of the battalion had withdrawn.
In the Galatas–Canea area, the German attack began with a glider assault. Glider-borne troops landed near Canea but were unable to achieve their main objectives – the capture of Canea and Suda – and were forced to surrender a few days later. German casualties during this operation were appalling as many of the gliders were shot down or wrecked on landing. Among those killed was General Wilhelm Sussmann, commander of the 7th Air Division.
The moment we left the planes we were met with extremely heavy small arms fire. From my aircraft we suffered particularly heavy casualties and only three men reached the ground unhurt… . The survivors rallied to a position near the prison where we became organised, collected equipment, and formed up for an attack up the hill to the north towards Galatas.
Karl Nuehoff, II Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment, in D.M. Davin, Crete, 1953, p. 142
The main concentration of German landings in this sector occurred in an area known as Prison Valley, south of Galatas. Two battalions of paratroops dropped astride the Canea–Alikianou road managed to establish a foothold around the Aghya Prison complex. Their presence threatened communications with 5th Brigade in the east and it became obvious that a strong counter-attack was needed.
Defending this area was Colonel Howard Kippenberger’s 10th (NZ) Brigade. He quickly realised that his exhausted composite brigade was in no shape to mount such an operation. At 4th (NZ) Brigade HQ, Brigadier Lindsay Inglis came to the same conclusion – he believed an attack by his brigade would clear the Germans from the Prison Valley and place it in a position to assist at Maleme. Freyberg rejected the idea and Inglis was ordered instead to mount a single-battalion attack. Two companies of 19th Battalion and three British light tanks set off, but made no significant progress and eventually withdrew.
At the end of the day the Germans’ foothold on the island was tenuous. Two waves of airborne troops had failed to secure the airfields or the port facility at Suda Bay. Though there had been small gains at Maleme, the second wave of German paratroops dropped near Retimo and Heraklion had met strong resistance and made no progress. German commanders in Athens feared the worst – that they had severely underestimated the number of defenders on Crete and were about to suffer a humiliating defeat.
On 21 May the Germans discovered that the New Zealanders defending Maleme airfield had withdrawn. They were able to consolidate their hold on the airfield and fly in reinforcements. A German attempt to land troops on Crete by sea was foiled when the Royal Navy intercepted the convoy before it was able to reach the coast. New Zealand units near Maleme attempted to recapture the airfield.
In Athens, General Kurt Student, commander of the German ground forces on Crete, decided to commit his meagre reserves at Maleme – the sector where the most progress had been made on the first day. All remaining airborne reserves would be dropped in the area while the Luftwaffe (German air force) pounded nearby New Zealand positions. Once the airfield was secure, a battalion of mountain troops would be flown in.
At the same time, a German convoy – 1st Motor Sailing Flotilla – carrying reinforcements and heavy equipment was ordered toward Maleme. Slowed by strong headwinds, the convoy was intercepted by a force of British cruisers and destroyers 29 km north of Canea. Many of the small troop transports were sunk. The heavy losses prompted the Germans to recall a second invasion flotilla to Greece.
The situation changed dramatically overnight. As dawn broke the Germans discovered, to their delight, that the New Zealanders had withdrawn from the airfield and the vital heights of Point 107. They wasted no time in taking advantage of this. With the airfield still under artillery fire, the first transport planes began lumbering in that afternoon, carrying much needed reinforcements (a battalion of mountain troops). The airfield was soon littered with wrecked and damaged aircraft, but enough troops were landed to tip the balance of the battle.
Freyberg realised that if the airfield was not recaptured, Creforce was doomed. A conference of senior New Zealand and Australian commanders decided to launch a counter-attack on the airfield that night. Despite the need for an aggressive response, concerns about a possible sea invasion hampered the operation. Only two battalions – 20th and 28th (Maori) – were assigned to the task, and they were instructed not to move until 20th Battalion had been relieved by an Australian unit. The New Zealanders also faced the prospect of advancing 6 km from the start line to the airfield across rough terrain at night in order to avoid air attacks.
On 22 May communication and other problems crippled the planned British counter-attack on the Maleme airfield. The Germans consolidated their position by flying in more troops and supplies. The Allies were forced to withdraw from Maleme and form a new front line near the village of Platanias.
The New Zealand counter-attack went wrong from the beginning. The Australian battalion relieving 20th Battalion was held up by German bombing. This delayed the launch of the operation by four hours – a fatal setback, given the need for the airfield to be in New Zealand hands before daylight exposed the troops to attack from the air.
When the attack finally began the New Zealanders pressed forward with great determination. Fierce fighting broke out as the troops ran into pockets of German defenders. With little time to organise set-piece attacks, these positions were rushed using improvised frontal charges. For his part in these actions, platoon commander Second Lieutenant Charles Upham would later be awarded the VC.
By dawn elements of 20th Battalion had reached the eastern edge of the airfield but were unable to move further because of heavy air attacks. Māori troops had fought their way to the village of Pirgos – 2 km from the airfield – but were pinned down by machine-gun and mortar fire. During the afternoon it became clear that no further progress could be made; the New Zealanders were forced to retire to the position they had started from. With the failure of the counter-attack the initiative passed back to the Germans. They lost no time in seizing it.
At Creforce HQ, Freyberg waited anxiously for news from Maleme. By mid-afternoon it was clear that the counter-attack had failed. The Germans were now free to use the airfield to pour in reinforcements and supplies. As these fresh troops arrived, 5th Brigade’s position became increasingly vulnerable. German units pushing along the southern flank of the New Zealand positions threatened to link up with those concentrated in the Prison Valley. If this were to happen 5th Brigade would be cut off from the rest of Creforce.
Realising the potential danger, Brigadier Edward Puttick, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division, telephoned Freyberg to urge that 5th Brigade be withdrawn. Freyberg agreed and the New Zealanders pulled back to a new defensive line near Platanias, 6 km east of Maleme.