Battle of Crete

May 17, 2019

On 20 May 1941, Australian and Allied troops serving and garrisoned on the island of Crete (eastern Mediterranean) were faced with skies filled with Nazi-German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger), beginning the 13 day Battle of Crete in WWII.

This battle – following the fall of Greece to the Axis powers the month before – turned on the first large-scale deployment of paratroopers ever seen, and the first mainly airborne invasion in a field of war/conflict. It was carried out by Nazi Germany against the Allies, which included Australian, NZ, British and Greek soldiers, as well as Cretan farmers, police and townsfolk.

German airborne troops descended *en masse* from fly-over aircraft to secure Cretan airfields and strips so supplies and reinforcements could be flown in to escalate the German ground offensive.

The foreign sight was described by Australian later Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner as:

“… a spectacle that might have belonged to a war between the planets. Out of the unswerving flying fleet came tumbling lines of little dolls, sprouting silken mushrooms that stayed and steadied them, and lowered them in ordered ranks into our consuming fire. And still they came, till all the fantastic sky before us was filled with futuristic snowflakes floating beneath the low black thundercloud of the processional planes - occasionally flashing into fire as if struck by lightning from the earth.”

Despite significant losses, the use and effect of the German paratroopers meant that, by month's end, Crete had effectively fallen with the defending Allied forces in retreat and evacuating the island (or surrendering).

This failed Allied defence of Crete saw about 3,000 Aussie soldiers – from several Australian infantry battalions, including the entire 2/7th Infantry Battalion – unable to be evacuated. There was insufficient room on the last of the ships sent, so stranded soldiers either:

  • were captured and taken prisoner by the German occupiers, or
  • fled and lived in the mountains, assisted by the locals, until they could escape the island.

The Battle of Crete was also a first for the Allies putting to use intelligence from decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine and German troops encountering mass resistance from a civilian population (the Cretans).

Commemorate this day in WWII history that marked the beginning of a difficult retreat and abandonment for Australian troops, and where paratroopers were first mass-deployed, by:

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