The Battle For Crete: An Island’s Hidden History

Allied tanks in Crete during WW2
WW2 Allied troops in Crete c/o Maritime Museum of Crete

Crete is the sunshine island, blessed with beautiful scenery, golden beaches and ‘picture perfect’ holiday resorts.

Over the centuries Crete has survived the destructive force of earthquakes, ancient conflicts, and invasions. But the story of a dark period in the island’s modern history is less well known.

Crete’s biggest battle came when the Nazis invaded the island on 20 May, 1941. Parachutes descended from the skies as Germany launched one of its largest airborne attacks of World War Two. 

I’ve been exploring this bloodstained period in the island’s history which should never be forgotten…

“Operation Mercury” – Crete’s Invasion

The Battle for Crete starts at Souda Bay – and Souda harbour today

It’s hard to imagine the destruction that descended on the island in WW2 as you enjoy your cocktail in a charming beach bar or lie on the beach soaking up the sunshine. But Crete’s golden sands saw wartime action just 80 years ago.

The Battle of Crete started on 21 May 1941 when German glider and parachute troops dropped from the skies around Maleme and Chania on the north coast of the island.

The Nazis established a foothold at Maleme airfield, and the island’s capital city Heraklion fell soon afterwards as the Nazis exerted their control.

The Germans thought that the island would surrender quickly. Only a small number of Allied troops were stationed on Crete, and the locals weren’t expected to put up any effective resistance to a German attack.

Although there were 32,000 Allied forces on the island including British, Australian and NZ troops plus 11,000 armed Greek soldiers, they only held a fragile foothold. They were particularly vulnerable to air attacks.

They troops were organised into five teams along Crete’s northern coastline, based around three airfields at Heraklion, Retimo, Maleme, Souda Bay and Chania.

All of these bases came under attack and the Germans captured many of the Allied troops’ strategic positions. But the resistance they encountered was stronger than anticipated.

Cretan civilians proved to be hard to wear down, with many fighting as resistance fighters, assisting Allied troops and disrupting the Germans’ military plans.

Video – The Battle of Crete – archive footage

Eventually the German’s superior air power was the decisive factor in their ‘victory’, but they also suffered major losses.

Over 3,000 men were killed in the operation to claim Crete. The Germans also lost 150 aircraft during the initial attack because many were hit by ground fire.

Hitler stated that the invasion had been incredibly costly and declared that “the day of the parachutist is over”. The Germans never again attempted another major airborne operation of this scale.

A German troop-carrier is hit whilst parachute troops descend © Imperial War Museum IWM A 4154

The Battle for Crete was a humiliating defeat for the British and Allied forces. Tragically, almost 4,000 men were killed in action whilst over 11,000 were captured. Many more were seriously injured.

Cretan civilians staged a fierce resistance and attacked German troops with knives, axes, scythes and even their bare hands. Executions of civilians took place where there was any resistance to the German forces.

The Nazi occupation of Crete resulted in the destruction of at least 106 villages and the death of hundreds of civilians.

Photograph – Kondomari Massacre – c/o Franz-Peter Weixler Archive

The  Alikianos executions were amongst the most brutal when 195 people from the village were shot by a firing squad. Today, you can drive through this peaceful area on the outskirts of Chania and visit the monument to the fallen.

Just outside Souda, a pretty arts and crafts village called Kondamari (Kontamari) is surrounded by orange trees and olive groves. But chilling archive photographs reveal how the village was almost completely destroyed in WW2.

Around 60 villagers were killed in the Kondamari Massacre – and today you can see a memorial to the war victims.

Kondamari Massacre monument

Crete’s Top 10 World War Two Sights

Even today the scars of World War Two run deep and memories of the war are everywhere to be seen on the island. But you have to look carefully for the evidence or book a specialist WW2 tour with a guide.

Here are 10 places with World War Two connections which are worth seeking out to get a flavour of this dark period…

1. Chania’s Old Harbour – War Ruins

Bomb site in Chania

The aerial attacks on Crete in 1941 had a major impact on Chania, now one of Crete’s most popular tourist destinations.

Bombing by the German airforce left many ruins and caused extensive destruction to civil buildings and monuments. There’s still evidence of this in the Old Harbour – the best example is a ruined site close to the old Mosque building.

This area – formerly known as 26 Sourmeli Street – was once a three storey building adjacent to the old Byzantine walls. It was completely destroyed by German bombs in World War Two and remains in ruins to this day.

Photograph: Evidence of World War Two bombing near Chania Harbour

2. The Nautical Museum of Crete – Chania – War Stories

Just off the main trawl of Chania’s picturesque harbour is the Maritime Museum of Crete which has an extensive World War Two collection. It’s worth a quick look on your tour around the harbour front.

This small museum is old-fashioned but “characterful”, with exhibits crammed together in a slightly haphazard way.

But it’s worth picking through the story of the Battle for Crete, if you have the willpower to piece together the different twists and turns in the harrowing invasion story.

There are endless cases full of war memorabilia, shells, uniforms and military weapons as well as maps and charts illustrating the conflict.

But it’s the striking black and white archive photographs and personal testimonies that really bring the war story alive.

Star exhibits include a replica of a World War Two torpedo boat and an impressive model of the bridge of a destroyer ship where you can walk on the deck.

Next to the museum is the Firkas Fortress, the Venetian fort at the entrance of the old harbour, which was taken over by the Nazis who made Chania their main base on Crete.

Surprisingly, it survived the wartime bombings, thanks to its almost impregnable walls and rock solid construction. Today it’s open to the public and you can see the former barracks and ammunition depots. 

3. World War Two Museum – Chania under the Nazis

Photographs – Crete welcomes Allied troops c/o Chania WW2 Museum – and Allied troops ship c/o Chania Maritime and Nautical Museum

Further along the harbour in Chania (near the marina), you’ll discover the World War Two Museum in an old warehouse.

This provides a modern interpretation of the Battle for Crete through archive photographs, WW2 memorabilia and a video presentation. It provides an interesting journey through this important period of history, even if it’s small in size.

Entrance is free so it’s worth a visit if you’re in the locality, although I’m not convinced that it’s worth a special trip if you’re not already staying in Chania.

4. Souda Bay – War and Peace

For a different perspective on World War Two, Souda Bay is a fascinating excursion, even though it’s tricky to reach without a hire car. It’s located seven miles to the east of Chania , with two sites to take in, some distance apart.

My plans to catch a local bus from Chania and then walk were scuppered by infrequent public transport and the extreme heat. In the end, I opted to take a taxi both ways because the war cemetery is a fair way out of town. A friend later told me that she had got stuck here for four hours without any bus transport!

Today Souda is a busy port, but in 1941 it was the key strategic location for the invasion of Crete by the Germans. This is where German parachutists dropped from the skies to invade the island, and bombs rained down on the town.

It must have been a terrifying moment as the battle to capture the island took place right across the bay. I could only try to imagine the screeching sound of aircraft carriers and bombers – and the deafening artillery and aircraft fire.

Souda – epicentre of the invasion in 1941

The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Souda is one of the main landmark sights – it was created in 1945 to commemorate the Allied fighters who died in the Battle for Crete. It’s a very moving experience.

The endless rows of graves speak volumes about the ferocity of the fighting to defend the island.

The pristine white gravestones reach as far as the eye can see, and include 862 British soldiers, 446 New Zealanders, 197 Australians and 22 men from other Allied nations.

An astonishing 776 of the burials are unidentified, but there are special memorials to commemorate a number of casualties believed to be buried among them.  “A solider of the 1939-1945” is one of the very sad and lonely inscriptions you’ll see on some graves.

The War Cemetery is located in an agricultural area of olive groves and fields. It’s so peaceful that it’s hard to visualise the fateful day when the Germans attacked the town from the air.

From the cemetery, try to imagine the scenes 80 years ago when German parachutists descended on Souda Bay from the skies. Today this scenic spot and working port is where the ferries , cargo ships and sailing yachts moor up.

For those thinking of taking this trip, the Cemetery is permanently open and it’s easy to visit at any time of the day.

Souda Bay today

5. Chania’s Jewish Quarter – A Lost Generation

Old Chania is a tourist magnet with its maze of narrow alleyways and convoluted medieval street pattern. One of its most vibrant and interesting areas is the Jewish Quarter, once the home of the town’s Jews.

The Jews called it ‘Ovreaki’ but today the name has completely disappeared from Chania’s modern street maps. The area around Skoufon Street, Kondylaki Street and Zambeliou Street provides a sense of what the original Jewish area would have looked like.

With the arrival of the Nazis in 1941, there was a massive clampdown on the Jewish population’s activities. The Germans called for a detailed Census of the Jewish population, an ominous sign of things to come.

The Jews lived under Nazi occupation for three years, fearing for their future. On May 31, 1944, their worst fears were realised. Megaphone announcements ordered anybody with Jewish identity papers to bring a single suitcase of belongings and report to the street outside their house.

US Office of Strategic Services report on the Jews of Chania – May 1944

Families living on in the Jewish Quarter were herded down to the harbour. Others were pushed through a narrow passage into a small open space where trucks were waiting to load them up.

They were taken to the Ayias prison near Chania and their houses and possessions were plundered. German soldiers entered Etz Hayyim Synagogue and removed all its religious artefacts whilst the Jewish cemetery was destroyed.

A few days later, 265 of the Jews were transported by trucks to Heraklion where they were loaded onto a steamship called the Tanais. They were to be taken to Piraeus on the Greek mainland from where they would be transported by train to Auschwitz.

But a British submarine spotted the ship off the island of Santorini and, seeing its enemy flag, torpedoed it. Everyone on board was killed and the Jewish community in Chania was completely wiped out in this tragic accident.

Today the Etz Hayyim Synagogue is still in in the same place where it has stood since the Venetian invasion of Chania. It’s surrounded by a dense maze of alleyways and streets which radiate down to Chania’s Old Harbour.

For decades, the synagogue lay abandoned but one man had a vision to restore the Jewish history of Crete. Local man Nikos Stavroulakis wanted to revive the synagogue after extensive earthquake damage in 1995.

After its refurbishment, it became a place of workshop and reflection once again as well as a vibrant cultural centre which anyone can visit. It’s well worth making a trip to see this important ‘survivor’ and ponder the fate of a lost generation of Jews.

Today, there are many tavernas and shops in what was once the heart of the Jewish community. Several restaurants are located in the ruins of World War Two bombed-out houses.

I was intrigued to learn that the Ela restaurant (above left), opposite the synagogue, was once a Jewish soap factory.

Walk a few metres to Kondylaki Street and you can see a building which once housed the Talmud Torah School. Further along the street at number 39 is the former house of Rabbi Elias Osmos.

Several Jewish buildings were destroyed by German bombing in WW2 including the kindergarten on the corner of Kondylaki and Portou streets as well as the Beth Shalom Synagogue, also Kondylaki Street.

To work out where these buildings were located, take the virtual video tour of the old Jewish quarter by clicking here

A Virtual Tour of “Ovraiki”

6. The War Museum of Askifou – Resistance and Rebels

Photograph – Cretan partisans and British Special Operations plus Allied forces on Crete – Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 66044

A trip into the mountains could be the antidote you need to the extreme heat on the coastal strip of Crete in summer. It’s also the home of a very special collection of wartime memorabilia, WW2 objects and Resistance artefacts.

The War Museum of Askifou was founded by George Hatzidakis who wanted to collect everything that he could about the Cretan struggle during World War Two. His family home was destroyed by the bombardment of the Germans, family members lost their lives and he was badly injured.

Sadly, I didn’t make it to the museum because of complications reaching it by public transport. Askifou is located in the Cretan hills so it’s only practical to take a hire car. Several friends have recommended the museum as a ‘must see’ attraction for history ‘geeks’ like me.

7. The Battle of Crete – The Ultimate War Tour

Lieutenant General Freyberg of the British forces c/o Imperial War Museum © IWM E 3020E

If you’re passionate about World War Two history, there’s no better way to see the sights than joining an official tour party which will take you to many of the ‘out of the way’ locations with an expert guide.

The The Battle of Crete tour offers a full day trip which covers off most of the key WW2 battle locations, airfields and monuments including:

  • The Maleme airfield and Tavronitis historical bridge.
  • The battlegrounds of Galatas and Ayia prison valley.
  • War monuments around the area of the battle.
  • WW2 exhibitions in small museums and secret shelters.
  • The German and British Commonwealth war cemeteries.

8. Heraklion – Devastation and Surrender

Heraklion is where Crete’s World War Two story starts and finishes. The Battle for Heraklion in 1941 was particularly brutal because the town was a key target for the Germans.

The fighting was fierce. One of the Australian fighters, Captain Paul Tomlinson, recalled that: “Heraklio was one large stretch of decomposing dead”.

The bombing of the town by the Luftwaffe was carried out with “mathematical precision laterally and diagonally”, so that there was “not one stone left standing”. Even some of Heraklion’s ancient walls were lost to the bombardment.

Heraklion’s fort survived the bombardment

Heraklion was almost completely destroyed despite the resistance of the local Greek garrison. Eventually, the local population was forced to abandon the town amidst growing casualties and devastation.

Today Heraklion is a modern town with few old buildings with the exception of its Venetian harbour and fort. It has been dubbed “the ugliest town in Greece” because of the concrete, brutalist style of its post-war redevelopment.

I think this description is a bit harsh because pockets of picturesque scenery remain, especially on the harbour front. But there’s no doubt that WW2 robbed us of some fine buildings which once stood in Heraklion.

Photograph – Heraklion Fortress and Venetian harbour. Bottom right – Heraklion’s modern, rebuilt town centre.

During the Battle of Crete, many of the villagers in Knossos, on the outskirts of Heraklion, hid their families in the Minoan palace’s archaeological ruins for safety.

The Villa Ariadne (once the residence of famous archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans) and the Taverna, in the palace complex, served as a British military hospital.

After the Nazis’ successful invasion, Villa Araidne was commandeered as the residence of the commander of the German occupation, and bunkers were built in the back garden. 

The Villa Ariadne at Knossos c/o The British School at Athens

By 1944, World War Two, Germany’s power was on the wane, morale was low, and it gradually started to pull back its troops in Crete. However, they still controlled a small area around Chania and Souda.

At the end of the war, the German commander was secretly flown to meet the British at the Villa Ariadne, their former headquarters.

The final surrender of the German troops took place at the Villa Ariadne in Heraklion in May 1945. It was the end of four years of hell for Crete and its island population, a purgatory which will never be forgotten.

A German troop aircraft is shot down near Heraklion – 20 May 1941 © IWM A 4144

9. Rethymno – Ruins and Retreat

Rethymno is another coastal town in Crete which suffered severe damage during the Nazi invasion. The town was strategically important to the military defence of Crete because there was an airport five miles to its east.

The Battle of Rethymno took place between 20 and 29 May 1941 when Australian and Greek forces tried to defend the town and its nearby airstrip against a German paratrooper attack.

Sadly, the Allied forces were unable to defend the town which came under heavy bombardment. Many of the town’s beautiful Venetian and Turkish buildings were destroyed, although its 16th Century fortress remains today.

Some of the Australian troops retreated into the hills to the south of the town. and 52 soldiers eventually managed to escape, with the help of Cretan resistance fighters.

Today you can visit the Hellenic-Australian Memorial Park at Rethymno which commemorates those who fought in the Battle for Crete.

10. Maleme Airfield – A Bridge Too Far

Bombs exploding on Maleme airfield during the German invasion © IWM

Maleme was one of the key battlegrounds of World War Two because it had an airfield on the northern coast of Crete.

Today the skies are quiet and the it’s hard to imagine the war that raged with such intensity in the early 1940s. Much of this coastline is now peppered with beach resorts and holiday accommodation.

Look carefully and you’ll see several remnants of WW2. There’s a memorial to the RAF airmen who died during the battle, located close to the roadside between Maleme and Tavronitis.

Tavronitis Iron Bridge

Nearby is the famous Iron Bridge across the Tavronitis River which saw intense fighting on the first day of Operation Mercury.

The German parachutists leapt from gliders and landed near the bridge during the invasion of Crete. From here they attacked the nearby airfield of Maleme from the river, and claimed victory. 

Today you can stroll around the German War Cemetery and its small WW2 museum, located 2 kms from Maleme.

The best way of exploring this area is by hire car although there are some local buses between Chania and Maleme.

The German Cemetery – Maleme

“Island of the Gods”

Sailing in Chania Harbour today

Today Crete is known as the “island of the gods”, an idyllic holiday destination where people come to enjoy sunbathing, sailing and swimming in the perfect waters of the glistening Mediterranean sea.

Crete might be most famous for its ancient civilisations, but World War Two was a pivotal period in its modern history.

As one modern Cretan leader has said: “The Battle of Crete remains a symbol of Struggle, Courage, Self-Sacrifice and Determination for the supremacy of the ideals of Freedom and Democracy”.

Today, memorials to Cretan, Greek, German and Allied soldiers who lost their lives in this conflict can be found all over the Island.  The brutality of the war and its lessons linger on and resonate with current international conflicts.

For those living in Crete, the pain of the war and its impact on the island’s people and buildings will never be forgotten. If you’re a tourist, it’s sobering to take a journey back in time to discover this hidden history…

Photograph – Battle of Crete c/o Chania WW2 Museum. Map of Operation Mercury c/o War History Network and Chania after a German bomb attack (copyright unknown)

“When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

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