Honouring Veterans – The Battle of Crete May 1941: May They Rest in Peace

In 2023, we will honour the enduring contributions of the worldwide community of military veterans in war, and in the service of peace. The historically unprecedented number worldwide of military veterans of twentieth-century conflicts makes them not only significant in the shaping of modern history but also a unique lens through which we can better understand the evolving relationship between war and society. 

Remembering those who fell in battle

Crete became a battlefield in May 1941, when German forces attempted to seize control of the Greek island by a combined airborne and seaborne invasion. On 24 May 2015, representatives of the opposing forces in the Battle of Crete came together to remember those who had fallen in battle. Veterans Lieutenant Nikos Kopasis of the 5th Greek Division and Lieutenant Ernst Könnecke of the German Fallschirmjäger (Paratroopers) met at the Deutschen Soldatenfriedhof (German military cemetery) located above the airfield at Maleme.

Island Garrison

Following the successful German invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940, and the Italian attack on Greece in October, British forces established a military garrison on Crete. By May 1941 this included three airfields, anti-aircraft and naval guns and radar installations on the northern coast, and a defended harbour facility at Souda Bay. The British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force now had forward bases within striking distance of Axis-controlled Europe.

Invasion

Repeated Italian offensives against mainland Greece had been repulsed by Greek forces stationed along the border with Albania. The German invasion of Greece from Bulgaria in April 1941 quickly overran the Greek defences, and forced the combined British, Australian and New Zealand force sent to help defend Greece to beat a hasty retreat. By 30 April the Greek mainland was under Axis control, while some eighty percent of the British and Commonwealth troops had been evacuated to Crete or Egypt.

Operation Mercury

As the German army prepared for the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Luftwaffe (air force) commanders convinced Adolf Hitler that Crete could be seized by airborne troops. The plan (Unternehmen Mercur or Operation Mercury) called for the defending forces to be reduced by fighter and bomber attacks, for the strategic airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion to be seized by paratroopers and glider forces, and for army reinforcements to be landed by sea.

Attack and Defence

The location and isolation of Crete posed unique challenges to both the assaulting and defending troops. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies over Crete during the day, while the Royal Navy dominated the seas around the island by night. Fallschirmjäger troops had the advantage of speed and surprise but were only lightly armed and proved vulnerable during parachute and glider landings. Reinforcements and supplies could only be dropped by air, as German attempts to approach Crete by sea were thwarted by the Royal Navy. The British, Commonwealth and Greek defenders had the advantage of prepared defensive positions together with details of the German plan of attack thanks to the interception and decryption of German coded radio traffic. The defenders lacked transport, heavy weapons, and reliable radios, having abandoned vital equipment during the evacuation from Greece the previous month.

The Knife Edge

On 20 May, the first day of the Battle of Crete, both the German and Allied forces had fought each other to a standstill. The Fallschirmjäger had suffered severe losses – one company involved in the principal assault on Maleme airfield had 112 of the 126 men killed by New Zealand troops. By nightfall the depleted assault force faced the exhausted defenders, and the outcome of the battle was on a knife edge. The withdrawal of New Zealand troops that night handed the initiative to the German commanders, who flew fresh troops from the 5th Mountain Division into Maleme throughout 21 May. A New Zealand counterattack early on 22 May failed to recapture the Maleme airfield, and the Allied defenders instead began a slow retreat in the face of increasing numbers of German reinforcements. The last Allied troops were evacuated from Crete on 1 June, and then began the bitter four-year long German occupation of Crete, marked by fierce Cretan resistance and German reprisals.

Rethymno

The airfields at Rethymno and Heraklion were denied to the Germans during the battle. The Rethymno sector was defended by two Australian battalions which had recently arrived in Crete from Greece, and two of the three Greek battalions of the 5th (Cretan) Division which had remained behind while the bulk of the Cretan Division went to the Albanian front in 1940 to oppose the Italian invasion. In contrast to the German assault at Maleme, the Fallschirmjager landings around Rethymno in the afternoon of 20 May were ill-coordinated and without fighter or bomber support. The fighting on the first day was described as ‘savage’, and the Australian and Greek forces repulsed repeated German attacks on key positions. On 26 May a combined attack by Australian troops and the 5th Greek Regiment resulted in the capture of 100 German paratroopers, and by the end of the battle the Allied forces had taken 500 prisoners.

Retreat, Capture or Escape

By 27 May, while the bulk of the Allied forces were in full retreat to Hora Sfakion on the southern coast, the Australian and Greek forces at Rethymno were isolated and running low on food and ammunition. On 29 May the Australian troops surrendered, although a number of Australians evaded capture and eventually made their way to Egypt. The Greek 4th Regiment surrendered, while the Cretan troops of the Greek 5th Regiment dispersed into the countryside.

Enemies are now friends

Lieutenant Nikos Kopasis served with the 5th Greek Regiment at Rethymno. He recalled his experience of the fighting when he spoke at the military cemetery at Maleme, which contains 4,465 Germans who died during the Battle of Crete or the occupation: ‘I feel particularly honoured to have had the fortune to take part in this battle and as a Greek officer to carry out my duty. Many incidents of the battle come to my mind every time I visit this holy place. I remember with pride the way I treated my prisoners, giving them a cigarette, telling my soldiers to fill the water bottles of the wounded, the flashlight given to me by a wounded German officer.’ He did not know if the cemetery included the graves of those Germans who fell to his machine gun and could not therefore light a candle to their memory, so instead he dedicated the cemetery to the ‘memory of all the fallen of the battle of Crete, Germans, Cretans, Greeks and allies, old and young, men and women. May they rest in peace.’  Ernst Könnecke, a former Second World War Fallschirmjäger officer, made the journey to Crete each year to assist with reconciliation. While he had not served on Crete, he went ‘because of the many dead… and it’s good that former enemies are now friends.”

Kopasis’s medal group included the Medal of National Resistance, the War Medal 1940-41, the Medal for Outstanding Acts, the War Cross (3rd Class) and the Cross of Valour (Gold). The War Medal 1940-41 was instituted in 1947 for award to those Royal Greek Armed Forces and Allied personnel who served in Greece from the Italian invasion in October 1940 to the fall of Crete. The Medal of National Resistance was instituted the following year to those involved in or who assisted Greek National Resistance Organisations during the Italian and German occupation between 1941 and 1945. The obverse of the medal depicts an armed Greek resistance fighter planting the Greek flag on a rock. The Medal for Outstanding Acts was instituted in 1940 and recognised meritorious actions and loyalty by Greek military personnel and civilians. The War Cross recognised heroism in battle, while the Cross of Valour, instituted in 1913, was the nation’s second highest award for bravery or distinguished leadership in battle.

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.