Greece and Crete during the World War 2: operations Marita and Merkur
During the world war 2, the strategic interest of Crete is worth the help of the allies, as England, which guarantees from 1938 the territorial integrity of the island. The strategic interest for England is obvious: Crete establishes a base in the Mediterranean Sea and a first rampart in the defense of Egypt and its Suez Canal. It also serves as base forward for the sea route of India. England sends from 1940 the troops to raise the Greek army parked in Crete, to allow the latter to join the northern front, on the Albanian border.
On October 28th, 1940, Mussolini asks Greece for the free access to italian troops. The government of Metaxa answers not the ultimatum (still celebrated nowadays during the Oxi national day). Mussolini decides to invade the North of Greece but his results do not go according to plan. 27 Italian divisions, exceptionally equipped, toil in front of 16 Greek divisions, which launch an offensive at the end of year 1940 and push the Italian front. In the end of December, 1940, the Greek army sank of 60 km on Albanian territory.
Hitler wants to protect the south side and to regild the blazon tarnished by the axis, but he does not feel so much like dashing into an operation in the Balkans because he retained the lessons of the history of the World War I. Hitler considered that the commitment in the Balkans was a major cause of the defeat of Germany in 1918. The need to regain prestige of the axis takes him finally and, on April 6th, 1941, Hitler launches the operation “Marita” in the Balkans: a big offensive in Yugoslavia and in Greece, since Bulgaria. On April 21st, day of Hitler’s 52th anniversary, general Papagos signs the surrender of the Greek royal army. The English troops which had been deployed in the region reembark and get back partially to Crete: it is the operation of evacuation called “Devil”. The English people repatriated all their strategic weapons in England but a part of their troops evacuated by continental Greece on the island of Crete.
Hitler has just realized the first stage of his plan to deprive England of any maritime and air bases in the Mediterranean Sea. His other objectives are Gibraltar, North Africa, and Crete. Hitler’s operation aims at seizing all the possiblemediterranean bases there to deprive England of its supply bases. Hitler wants absolutely Crete because if he leaves it to the allies, the english Royal air force could be a threat against the oil fields of Ploiesti, in Romania. Hitler knows that it is impossible to pursue a blitzkrieg based on the coordination of armored cars and air strike forces without good oil supply. Hitler also wishes to use Crete to make the junction, with Afrikakorps of general Rommel and strike a major blow at the English troops. The day of the Greek surrender, Hitler meets, in his private train, in Austria, the inspirator of the plan of invasion of Crete: General Student. For the general, the time has come to launch his airborne elite troops, the “Fallschrimjäger” for a blitz. The will of the general is to galvanize the morale and the Nazi ideal by a glorious feat of the strengths of elite of Reich. Nazi Germany is in full euphoria. The Balkans campaign is a success and the authorized agents of Reich want to take advantage of the dynamics of the success: Hitler thus plans the invasion for May, 1941. And a code name: “Merkur”
Crete enter in war world 2: allied troops set the defense of the island
From the end of 1940, the British were responsible for the defense of Crete. What worries Winston Churchill is to know ” if everybody is rather competent to understand the stake which represents this island of Crete. It is necessary that all the efforts are made to forward, immediately, weapons and reserves on the island and enough men to defend it. “We would lose Crete, because we would not arrange sufficient armed forces; it would be a crime “. sended Churchill by telegram ton the Royal Navy Headquarters.
The military command of Crete, the headquarters of which is established in Souda (Chania), suspects that in case of German invasion, the main part of the Nazi strengths will be airborne. The troops are distributed as follows: 12.000 men to Chania, 550 to Rethymnon, 900 to Heraklion and 400 for Lassithi, that is 13.850 men.
From March, 1941, the gold of the bank of Greece is evacuated by boat towards Crete, then towards Egypt. The Greek government installs a new military command in Crete but the instructions of defense are vague and the coordination with the british troops is difficult. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, as still underlines Winston Churchill, because Crete has ports and very precious airports for the continuation of the strategic operations in North Africa. When the German army attacks, at the beginning of April, the order is given in the haste to the soldiers of the classes 1940-41, freshly trained, to escort towards Crete. Some 5000 soldiers land in Souda, a few weeks before the German airborne assault.
On April 23rd, 1941, a seaplane of Royal Air Forces evacuate George II of Greece and the crown prince for Crete.
At the end of April, the 1st Greek Secretary meets English Major general Weston to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Weston asserts, one more time, the strategic interest of Crete, which will not be abandoned. The British government will do everything to preserve Crete from the Germans. During this meeting, the prefect of the region of Rethymnon asks that England equip the population, but the Central Administration of Chania refuses. The day after this meeting, 5.000 men of the New Zealand 5th brigade arrive in Crete.
April 28th, Churchill, whom secret services warned of the imminence of a German attack, sends a message to staff chief in the Middle East ” it seems that a violent German airborne attack, with massive bombardments, will be launched against Crete. Let me know which strengths you have on the island and which is the state of the supply. It is necessary to organize the defense and to cling in Crete. It will be a brilliant opportunity to strike an effective blow at the german paratroopers”.
In the beginning of May, New-Zeland general Freiberg is chosen by the Middle East Head quarters to create Creforce ” and to insure the defense of the island. This is the plan ” Ajax “. First mission for Freiberg: federate and take in hand all the scattered and disrupted strengths. New Zealanders, Welsh, Scottish, Australians, all hardened, as well as little experimented Greek soldiers constitute the main part of the troops. In which is added the local police, the “Antartissa” ( the resistance fighters) and some very badly equipped militias. This means, in total, 20.000 men.
German plans and preparation of battle of Crete
On May 14th, Luftwaffe bombards relentlessly airports and ports of the island to deprive the allied troops of any provisioning and especially any reinforcement from North Africa. For the Greek Secretary Tsouderos, still on the spot, the situation is catastrophic and there are troops. He sends a telegram in London to announce his fears. General Freiberg aims to be more reassuring. He considers that the troops are in good physical condition and that the morale is good.
On the German side, the preparations intensify. 19th of May, general Student convoke his headquarter for a last briefing.
The German plan to invade Crete: “operation Merkur“
The Group Centre (Generalleutnant Süssmann) with the 1st and 3rd regiment: Chania, Rethymnon, Souda
Group East (Generalleutnant Ringel) the 2nd regiment: Heraklion.
The battle of Crete day by day
From the beginning, the Germans understand that the invasion will be rough. The surprise is total for the German elite troops. The german general headquarter had based itself on the reports of admiral Canaris, who had considered the allied Forces, essentially consisted of the rests of the routed Greek army, little numerous, badly organized and very badly armed. Report stressed by the negative German reconnaissance missions. So, on May 16th, a reconnaissance plane Henschel Hs 126 is shot down around Rethymnon. Air photos found on board showed that only one of the positions of the defense could be identified and the camouflage was immediately strengthened. It incited the Germans to think that the zone was practically defenseless.
And nobody expected, in the Berlin headquarters, in the fact that the Cretan population so defends its island. Informed by the Ultra deciphering machine about the German plan, general Freyberg had all the time to draw up his plan of defense. And he gets in the first days of the battle a numeric superiority of 1 for 5. He ordered the servants of AA(ANTI-AIRCRAFT DEFENSE) not to fire at fighters and German bombers of the first raids to give the impression to them that any resistance stopped. German pursue however their bombing, but without big result. The allied defense is nearly no affected by the bombing. When the “aunt Ju” (carriers Ju 52) goes into action, full of parachutists, the antiaircraft artillery makes a barrage fire. The surprise is total for the Germans and the losses are heavy even before arriving on the drop zones. So, general Wilhelm Süssmann, asked to cut in two the British defense system, is killed, perturbing so largely the German plans.
Only drawback in the plan of defense of Freyberg: he arranged on the beaches a part of his troops, asked to push away an amphibian assault of the German mountain infantrymen. Troops which, if they had been arranged on the points of defense of cities, would have doubtless annihilated the parachutists’ first wave.
In the air, the situation is not better for the German army. Messerschmitt Bf 109, although more numerous, do not succeed in obtaining the air superiority because they are at the limit of their fight range.
The sector of Heraklion, defended by the 14th Brigade of Chappel, is lacking heavy equipment to counter air attacks. The best unit, the 2nd battalion Black Watch takes care of the defense of the airport. They arrange about ten artillery guns there. At about 3 pm, hundred devices bombard the allied positions, but it is a failure and when transport aircraft release the first one of 4 paratrooper battalions of colonel Bauer, it is annihilated even before having get a foothold on the Cretan ground. 3 other battalions arise with great difficulty but are nailed on the ground. In the first evening of the battle, the paras of colonel Bauer hold only the hill. Their situation is of the airport and is precarious. They lost more than 800 men killed, wounded or scattered.
The sector of Rethymnon is defended by 2 Australian battalions of Colonel Campbell. They arrange only little heavy armament and any heavy anti-aircraft defense. 4 very weakly armed Greek battalions are kept as reserve. When the 2nd paratrooper regiment of colonel Sturm launches the assault of the airport, it is violently repelled by 2 Australian battalions. The German elite unit, more heavily armed than the allies, succeeds however in seizing the hill A of the airport, but a Greek counter-attack pushes them away. In the first evening, the situation to Rethymnon is catastrophic for the German paratroopers, who have to suffer very heavy casualties.
On Maleme and Souda bay, the losses are the worse still. The New Zealand division and troops hardened to the fight as Royal marines wait firmly for the paras of colonel Heidrich. Two of three regiments of fallschrimjäger are decimated. But German parachuted in this place elite units. The 2 remaining battalions of the assault regiment succeed, at the price of a relentless fight and heavy losses, in holding the airport of Maleme. A first crucial victory because it will allow to forward by air 2 divisions heavily armed and to knock down the balance of power in presence.
The ” cemetery of the German paratroopers “
The landing of the German paras was a real blood bath. The rough landscape, the relative preparation of the allied Forces, the wild resistance of the partisan fighters and the Cretan population which went as far as waiting for German with weapons of fortune, a blazing sun … So many factors which hinder the German progress. In the first evening of the airborne operation, no military objective is reached. Worse, German army record very heavy losses (more than 4.000 men out on 6.000 are no more able to fight). Without counting the losses in officers who destabilize the troops. The list of the German superior officers died the first day is long: General Willhem Süssmann (general assistant of the 7th paratrooper division), the Chief warrant officer Braun (Commanding the assault regimentt) the Chief warrant officer Koch (Commanding the 1st battalion of the regiment of assault) and the Chief warrant officer Scherber (Commanding the 3rd battalion of the regiment of assault) are killed. Generalmajor Meindl (responsible for the western group) and the Chief warrant officer Derpa (Commanding the 2nd battalion of the 3rd regiment) are hurt.
May 21st: commander Freyberg decides to set no night operation against the German paras and to camp over his well defended positions. What Germans take advantage to try to strengthen their positions on the airport of Maleme and to establish an air bridgehead. About 600 mountain infantrymen arrive at night and attack the hill facing the airfield. The German soldiers also seize the locality of Maleme.
On the other hand, all the efforts being concentrated on Maleme, no provisioning by air is made by Germans and troops try well that badly to keep their precarious positions. It is at sea that the biggest fights occur on May 21st: the convoys of caïques (small fishing boats) transporting more than 2000 German soldiers is intercepted by Royal Navy. The Italian torpedo escort boat goes into action and the survivors (about 1700 soldiers) get back to continental Greece to make the transport by air). The allied troops managed to delay the arrival of reinforcements. In the air, Luftwaffe strike the Royal Navy boats to assure a naval corridor for men’s transport. The destroyer Juno is poured.
22th of May
The German aviation has to fight from now on on several fronts: pursuing its fight against the Royal air force fighters for the control of the sky, also pursues its strikes on the ground to support the precarious positions of the paras while chasing the Royal Navy ships. The balance sheet is heavy for Royal Navy: the heavy cruiser HMS Gloucester, HMS Fiji and the destroyer Greyhound, are poured. The Warspite battleship, the cruisers Naiad, and Carlisle are strongly damaged. Luftwaffe loses 10 devices (Stukas and Junker Ju 88).
In spite of losses, Royal Navy succeeds in diverting another troop convoy which turns back. In the air, Luftwaffe begins air provisionings and transports new reinforcements. It releases also 800 paras above Heraklion and Rethymnon.
Luftwaffe stresses its hunting in the British ships. German aircrafts pour destroyers Havoc, Kashmir and Kelly. Two other destroyers are damaged. On the ground, the situation evolves favorably for Germans. The mountain infantrymen of general Ringel arrive in the region of Maleme and make a breakthrough to widen the German positions and reach closer to Souda. The airport is firmly kept and German planes can use the airfield for some missions. Not for a very long time, however, because RAF sends fighter-bombers to bombard the airfields of Maleme to return it impracticable. German reach of Souda, the port is going to be able to be used for the fast routing of troops. In the sector of Heraklion, the paras stamp. The troops of colonel Bauer lost 1.300 men and are nailed on the spot, waiting for reinforcements.
On their sidethe, allied troops begin operations of reassurance of strategic points with the aim of a possible retreat of the island. So, 200 commandos are landed on Hora Sfakio to hold the port giving access to Egypt.
The next three days see the fights growing in intensity in the region of Chania. With the airlift, general Ringel has from now all his mountain infantry division, and an artillery mountain regiment. The Germans can now arrange sufficient ways to push back the New Zealand and Australian troops which held the accesses of Chania. The lock breaks down and the road of Chania falls to German hands.
26th of May:
The ship Glenroy, asked to forward reinforcements on the island, is chased by Luftwaffe and has to turn back. The allied command realizes that the situation is critical and commander Freyberg orders the allied troops to withdraw southward.
27th of May:
Germans land on the island a company of the 5th panzer division and seize Chania, still progressing a little more towards Souda. The allies begin the fold towards the south coast or embark in Souda. The German aviation makes undergo heavy losses in Royal Navy. Three destroyers and a cruiser are destroyed.
The three following days see the allied troops leaving the island under Luftwaffe repeated bombardments. Those who were not able to embark by Souda or by the south coast are from now prisoners on the island. Those who are not captured will go to strengthen the rows of the Cretan resistance.
Cretan resistance during word war 2
Masters of the region of Chania and the North of the island, German army again have to seize ports of the South, among which Hora Sfakio and Paleochora. If the allied Forces gave up, the population and the Cretan resistance fighters continue their guerrilla warfare of ambushes in the steep passages that are obliged to follow the German troops. The first decision of the new occupant lets no doubt over its will to bring to heel the Cretan population: for every German killed in an ambush, ten villagers will be shot.
From August 1941, the new prefect of Chania, in the orders of the Nazis, orders the evacuation of monasteries, which always played a major role in the Cretan revolts, to install the German military authorities there. In September, Germans arrive close to Hora Sfakio, gathering place of the Cretan resistance. Trapped, 26 resistance fighters are shot. The Cretan resistance pulls heavy losses to German, which try from the beginning, in September, to disarm the Resistance fighters. Greek Prime Minister, the German authorities and a representative of the allied Forces meet at the instigation of the German authorities. These order Antartissa still in the scrubland to lay down arms that they kept from the British troops when these left the island. Any refusal will be punished by heavy reprisals against the civilians. At the same time, the German soldiers begin to plunder the foods of the local population.
Far from giving up, the Cretan resistance gets organized, under Manolis Badouva’s authority, who will become the supreme leader of the resistance. English spies are sent on the south coast with mission to frame and form the Cretan resistance. In spite of some dragnets of secret services and German military authorities, the resistance does not weaken. In July, 1942, the German authorities set of drastic measures: on a width of 6kms, all the north coast, of the department of Heraklion until Lassithi is declared “no-man’s-land” and all the population has to evacuate the zone. Every person who is found will be straight shot.
The situation becomes so critical that the Greek president personally comes to try to convince the resistance fighters to lay down arms. Then it’s the turn of Red Cross to ask for an inspection of the north coast of the island. German refuse. The East part is from now under the command of Italian troops, but the situation is better there hardly because no order reigns there and the famine rages there. Especially as the Cretan authorities, named by the occupant, stress the measures of requisition for the German army. So, the prefect of the Lassithi orders to the mayors to deliver 15 % of the local production, otherwise they will be deported!
In May, 1943, the Cretan resistance sees itself endowed with wireless telegraph machine, brought in submarine by the English secret services. But messages relative to this operation are intercepted by the Gestapo and the German launch dragnet operations in the region of Rethymnon, where are the radios. As the resistance increases, essentially in the South, the German authorities, which know that the Libyan sea is the link between the allied Forces of Egypt and the Resistance fighters, orders the same measure as on the north coast: a no-man’s-land is established.
In August, 1943, allied armed forces land in the South, in the region of Sfakia and took refuge in the Lefka Ori mountains to make the junction with the resistance fighters and strengthen their positions. The German garrison is more under pressure and is engaged in more and more bloody reprisals: deportations, shot burned, villages where burned lively…
The ambushes multiply
In September, 1943, agents of British secret services begin secret negotiations with the Italian forces parked to Aghios Nikolaos and in Lassithi. They try to rally to them the Italian troops, strongly demoralized by the fall of Mussolini. On their side, German are wary of Italian since the fall of the Italian fascist dictator. Having bombarded Italian installed there, they try from now to obtain their surrender. Caught in the crossfire, the Italians choose the allied camp and succeed, by means of the English forces, in fleeing the island by the South, in the direction of North Africa. The situation of German army is more and more intolerable. To try to restore the order, German destroy and burn about twenty villages in the South and kill all their inhabitants.
In October, German decide on a large-scale operation against the village of Koustogerako. They plunder Koustogerako, Livada, Moni and Selinou. Follows one month from intense fights of guerrilla warfare between Resistance fighters and SS troops. At the request of the English secret services, a meeting takes place in a monastery with the representatives of the resistance. During this meeting, the secret services representatives set up a strategy of harassment of the German troops. They are assisted with their task by Manousaki (a communist resistant nicknamed ” the devil “, who knows very well the strategies of guerrilla warfare). Strenghtened with these new directives, the Cretan resistance multiplies remarkable deeds. The occupation forces also pursue the escalation in reprisals.
The situation is such as in March, 1944, the island of Crete, formerly food granary of Greece, is not more than burned villages, decimated population and the famine seizes the whole island. The resistance tries to steal from German army some food to redistribute to the population.
The abduction of German general Heinrich Kreipe
At the end of April is going to take place a feat of arm mattering in the Cretan fight against the Germans. On April 19th, a resistance fighters small group of the ELAS leave the foothills of the mount Psiloritis to sink into the valley. They decided on a major operation: the kidnapping of general Kreipe. The group goes to the village of Skalani and to the road crossing that the car of the general has to follow. The resistance fighters, helped by two English officers (major Leigh Frermor and captain Moss) take position from part and others of the road to support the fire of the enemy. Two Resistance fighters, dressed in uniform of the German military police, are in charge of stopping the limousine by signalling bright with a lantern. The soldiers shadow expected an escort but the luck is with them. The general decided to get back without escort to the house which he occupies (the former Sir Arthur Evans’ house during his excavations in Knossos).
The chauffeur of the general, seeing the light signals of the military policemen, lines up. He is immediately mastered by the Resistance fighters. The English officers take place in the car, holding at gunpoint the general. The car succeeds in running away in the direction of Rethymnon. The events of the German officer are far from being finished. He is taken by a small group of Cretan soldiers, always accompanied with the English officers, and escorted through the mountains of Lefka Ori to the south coast, where a submarine embarked general Kreipe to Egypt.
Liberation of Crete
The process of Crete liberation during world war 2 is mostly due to the cretan resistance. At the end of 1944, the fights between resistance fighters and Greek police in the pay of the occupant, supervised by the German army, are more and more bloody and the resistance loses strengths all the time. What does not prevent it from committing a new large-scale action: the murder of SS major Knabe. New reprisals take place: dozens of villages are annihilated and the population shot.
This situation becomes intolerable for the population and, in September, 1944, ” wise men’s ” committee compound of notables, middle-class persons and liberal professions meets, at the request of the episcopate of Chania. The committee asks Germans to take measures against the famine which rages, but also to respect the code of war and to organize the retreat of the island of all the SS troops. Meanwhile, the fights continue and the resistance gains ground: prisons are freed and Resistance fighters’ flows rout the SS troops which leave the big cities of Sitia and Ierapetra. The German troops retreat more and more and abandon gradually the strategic points such airports, having sabotaged them previously. German troops withdraw towards the bay of Souda. In December, is it is practically freed. Chania is always in the hands of Germans but the West of the island is always the theater of intense fights.
In January, 1945, the various networks of resistance meet to decide on a joint attack on Chania. All the Resistance fighters of the liberated regions converge on the city. Germans go out of depth little by little. They withdraw by committing new slaughters in the population. In March, the last German, exhausted servicemen, short of ammunition, have no other choice than to surrender. A surrender which they dreaded, regarding the exactions committed by the German army during this bloody occupation. The German prisoners are delivered to the allied troops. Crete is free! Never the allies will forget the intense collaboration between allied Force and Cretan population. By way of thanks, they will help Crete to reconstruct, by endowing it in particular with a new school network which will allow its development.