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The Battle of Crete

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The Battle of Crete

The sight of thousands of German paratroopers filling the Cretan sky signalled the beginning of one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War.

The invasion of Crete began at 8am on 20 May 1941 when thousands of German paratroopers and gliders landed near Maleme airport.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1999-1-18-2.

The attack

With German troops heading south after invading France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, British forces garrisoned the mountainous Greek island of Crete in October 1940.

But despite its strategic importance - due to its proximity to both Europe and North Africa - there were minimal troops on the island. British forces were spread across a number of fronts in North Africa and Western Europe and the local Cretan soldiers were stationed in Greece.

The population on the island dramatically increased after the German victory in mainland Greece. The Commonwealth and Greek troops were evacuated to Crete - among them 7,700 men from the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Their first experience of war had been harrowing; almost 300 New Zealanders were killed and 1,800 taken prisoner in the brief Greek campaign.

When Allied intelligence discovered German plans for an attack on Crete, the 2nd NZEF's General Freyberg arrived to lead the defence of the island. Allied supplies and air support were in short supply, but the troops prepared themselves for the expected attack.

An attack by airborne troops

On the morning of 20 May, there were more than 42,000 British, Commonwealth and Greek soldiers on the island.

2nd Lt Clif Poole and his brother Vernon went home for a few days' final leave before sailing to Egypt on the troopship Dunera in December 1939.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2010/5, MS-2010-5.

2nd Lt Clif Poole20th (NZ) Battalion, had been detailed to the 10th Brigade headquarters as a signaller under Colonel Kippenberger's command. He had just sat down to eat breakfast at headquarters in Galatos village, east of the airfield, when the attack on Crete began.

"The air was black with planes of all descriptions including many troop carriers. Then it seemed to rain men, hundreds of them." 2nd Lt Clif Poole, 2009

The men were German paratroopers, some towing gliders, who landed near the airfield and the town of Chania. Despite suffering many casualties in the first hours of the invasion, the Germans were able to re-group and a day later were able to capture the airfield at Maleme, exploiting a communication breakdown between the New Zealand Battalions whcih inadvertently left the airfield undefended.

A counterattack by the 20th (NZ) and the 28th Māori Battalions failed to re-take the airforce. But Capt. Clive Lochiel Pleasants earned the Military Cross for his actions near Galatos. German transport planes were able to land and enemy reinforcements poured in.

Withdraw and evacuation

German dominance in the air left the Allied defenders facing impossible odds. 2nd Lt Poole remembers:

"We had no show against their terrific air force. We did not have a single plane to hit back with."

With ammunition and supplies quickly running out, it became clear to General Freyberg that Crete was lost. The order for evacuation arrived from London on 27 May.

Despite the number of German planes flying over Crete, the Germans remained unaware of the evacuation. Over several nights, thousands of Allied troops were evacuated by navy ships from Sfakia on the south coast of the island.

25th Battalion Gunner, Cyril Pasco, wrote on the back of this photo: "This was taken the evening before our evacuation. I was out scouting in front so I missed the photo."

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1999-1-20-4.

Eventually it became too dangerous and further evacuations were ruled out. The last men to be evacuated on 31 May were the 20th Battalion. More than 16,000 New Zealand, Australian, British and Greek soldiers had been evacuated, but another 12,000 including 2nd Lt Poole, were left behind to become prisoners of war.

In his 2009 account of the Battle of Crete, 2nd Lt Poole wrote:

"Only those who have been in a similar position can understand the utter despair a soldier feels in such a case. It seemed that the bottom had fallen out of the world for us ... Our people at home would not know whether we were dead, wounded or well, or prisoners of war."

On 1 June, the Allies surrendered. More than 2,000 New Zealanders were forced on a gruelling march back across the mountains, this time as prisoners of war.  They were exhausted from lack of food and the fighting for more than a week. From a transit camp near Galatos, the prisoners were eventually transferred to mainland Greece.


German flyers addressed to "Soldiers of the Royal British Army, Navy, and Air Force" warned escapees of the consequences of "attempting to flee".

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. EPH-W2-8-10.

After three weeks, 2nd Lt Poole  began to plan an escape with his cousin who was also a prisoner. The camp was not well guarded and they left without being noticed. The two men were helped by locals - villagers they had met in the days leading up to the paratrooper attack.

When they reached the mountains they discovered hundreds of Allied soldiers hiding in the mountains. Some soldiers joined the Cretan resistance in their attacks against the Germans. Others, including 2nd Lt Poole, managed to escape by boat or navy submarine.

Of the 7,700 New Zealanders involved in the battle, 671 were killed and 967 were wounded. Another 2,180 were taken as prisoners of war. The battle of Crete was a costly battle for both sides, and for the people of Crete. Many villagers were executed for the part they played in the battle and for helping the Allied soldiers left behind after the evacuation.

Further reading

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2014). The Battle for Crete, updated 5-Aug-2014

Poole, H. C. (2009). Escape from Crete: One Soldiers Story

Cite this article

Dix, Kelly. The Battle of Crete. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 11 May 2016. Updated: 23 May 2016.

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