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The Battle of Crete

By Edited Jun 6, 2016 0 0

In 1941, the North Africa Campaign continued. After their initial victories in Libya, Britain's armies were less effective after the arrival of German reinforcements. Nazi troops were bolstering Italian positions in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and in May the Third Reich sent divisions to occupy Crete.

Crete is an eastern Mediterranean island, which in 1941 included British airfields. In addition to this, the Royal Navy also had harbors located there. In the Battle of the Mediterranean it was a notable base from which to strike at German supply convoys heading towards North Africa which were supplying the Afrika Korps.

Germany also had substantial oil supplies in Romania. Crete put British aircraft within range of the oil wells located there, which could not be overlooked by the German High Command. As such, the Reich drafted plans for the occupation of Crete.

The German plan to defeat the British army stationed at Greece included paratrooper divisions, backed up with divisions that would be landed from the sea. The Wehrmacht planned to land thousands of paratroopers at various destinations along Greece's northern coastline. Heráklion, Rétimo, Máleme and Canea were the designated landing points for the German paratroopers.

The British had a larger number of troops available in Crete not only from the British army, but from New Zealand, Australian and Greek divisions. Their code breakers had informed them of the Nazi's plans, and the U.K reinforced Crete shortly before. A German victory was by no means assured in this battle.

On May 20 the paratrooper divisions landed in Crete after a Luftwaffe aerial bombardment, which took out antiaircraft guns on the ground.[1] When they landed, the paratroopers came up against New Zealand and Australian divisions, both of which were relatively effective as the German losses mounted on the ground. Expected Nazi seaborne divisions did not arrive as Royal Navy warships intercepted their convoys, some around Melos and others closer to Crete's coastline.

Around Máleme the Germans were able to seize the airfield on which their aircraft could land. The British and Commonwealth troops went in to recapture it, and artillery bombardments provided further support around the airfield. However, without any RAF air support provided they could not take it and withdrew. The Nazis held their positions, and soon reinforcements and supplies were flown in to further support their advance in Crete.

The Nazis advanced southwards toward Galata. Here a small battalion was left to halt their advance, but enemy mountain infantry battalions outnumbered them. Stukas also provided further air support for the German troops as they bombarded Allied positions on the ground. Without any potential reinforcements for the Allied soldiers, the town fell to the Nazis.

Britain's divisions were now dispersed as the Nazis maintained their advance. With general German air superiority established they had no air support, as the few RAF aircraft had been quickly downed, and were lacking required ground reinforcements. In contrast, Italian troops were landing in increasing numbers and linking up with the Germans by the 29th. As such, Crete was all but lost.

The orders were given for Allied divisions to withdraw via Sfakia and Heraklion. Thousands of British and Commonwealth troops were withdrawn to Egypt during the final days of May. However, they did not have enough ships for them all. As such, thousands were also left behind, which were eventually surrounded by the Nazi divisions. The cities of Irakleio and Rethymno were both occupied by German troops, and the remaining Allied troops surrendered.

Having lost Crete, Britain had lost access to the Eastern Mediterranean. But the Battle of the Mediterranean was not over, and the U.K. held bases within Malta in 1942. From here they continued to wipe out German and Italian supply convoys in increasing numbers.

After the battle, the British had lost about half of the troops they had stationed to defend Crete. Most of these losses were actually down to the number of soldiers that surrendered as the Germans captured more than 10,000 troops. The battle also cost the Royal Navy nine ships sank during the battle.

However, the battle was not an easy one for the Wehrmacht. They too had lost thousands of soldiers during the Battle of Crete. Estimates suggest that the German army lost three to five thousand troops during the battle. In addition, the Luftwaffe had also lost about 300-400 aircraft at Crete.

With victory at the Battle of Crete, Germany had gained a position of notable strategic significance in the Mediterranean. However, as most of the Wehrmacht was mobilized in Eastern Europe, heading towards the USSR, the Nazis invaded Crete largely to secure the Reich's southern flank. Crete did not really become a base for further German operations in the Mediterranean.

Months later, the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR and the war also continued in North Africa. Rommel’s advances into North Africa pinned the British back, but they held out at Tobruk. The Siege of Tobruk continued into the winter until the Eighth Army defeated it during Operation Crusader.

Then 1942 would be the decisive year for the war in the North Africa. Buoyed by further US support, the British began to take the Desert War to the Axis; and in late 1942 they secured a decisive victory at the Battle of El Alamein. Britain's army pushed Rommel’s Afrika Korps into retreat and the Suez Canal remained out of Axis reach. Operation Torch soon followed as US troops landed in West Africa, and the Afrika Korps surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia in 1943.

With the Axis defeat in North Africa, the rest of the Mediterranean was now left open to Allied advances. The Dieppe Raid in 1942 had highlighted that greater planning would be needed to open a front in France. As such, the defeat of Fascist Italy became the primary objective for the western Allies in 1943 as they landed their troops in Sicily. As Sicily was secured, and the Allies began to land on mainland Italy, the Italian king removed Mussolini from his post and was ready to begin peace talks with the Allies. As a result, Fascist Italy was all but defeated.

Although Italy was re-enforced by German troops, which ensured that the war in Italy continued, Italy had joined the Allied side. With Italy defeated, the Allies had won the war in the Mediterranean by 1943. The Battle of Crete was a setback, but the British and Commonwealth armies still won the war in the Mediterranean. 



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  1. "Balkans Campaign ." WW 2 Database. 2/02/2016 <Web >

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