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battle of crete

The Beginning 

The Battle of Crete , also Unternehmen Merkur, "Operation Mercury", Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης was fought during the Second World War on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany began an airborne invasion of Crete. Greek and other Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island. After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion.


The Battle of Crete was the first occasion where Fallschirmjäger (German paratroops) were used en masse, the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine, and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.

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Order of battle

April 30th

On 30 April 1941, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC a New Zealand Army officer, was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete (Creforce). By May, the Greek forces consisted of approximately 9,000 troops: three battalions of the 5th Greek Division

On 25 April, Hitler signed Directive 28, ordering the invasion of Crete.

Documents (21)

Operation Mercury

Unternehmen Merkur 

Hitler authorized Unternehmen Merkur (named after the swift Roman god Mercury)

The invasion force was divided into Kampfgruppen (battlegroups), Centre, West and East. 750 glider-borne troops, 10,000 paratroops, 5,000 airlifted mountain soldiers and 7,000 seaborne troops were allocated to the invasion.

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May 20

At 08:00 on 20 May 1941, German paratroopers, jumping out of dozens of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, landed near Maleme Airfield and the town of Chania. The 21st22nd and 23rd New Zealand battalions held Maleme Airfield and the vicinity. The Germans suffered many casualties in the first hours of the invasion: a company of III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment lost 112 killed out of 126 men, and 400 of 600 men in III Battalion were killed on the first day. Most of the parachutists were engaged by New Zealanders defending the airfield and by Greek forces near Chania.

Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. Greek police combining with armed civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli.

Overnight, the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, leaving Maleme Airfield undefended. The Germans quickly exploited the withdrawal from Hill 107 to take control of the Airfield.

Troops of the German 141st Mountain Regiment blocked a section of the road between Souda and Chania. On the morning of 27 May, the New Zealand 28th (Māori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion cleared the road by a bayonet charge (the "Battle of 42nd Street"). Command in London decided the cause was hopeless after General Wavell informed the Prime Minister at 0842, 27 May, that the battle was lost, and ordered an evacuation. Freyberg concurrently ordered his troops to withdraw to the south coast to be evacuated.



May 28 - June 1

From 28 May – 1 June, troops were embarked for Egypt,where about 6,000 troops were rescued on the night of 29/30 May but the force was attacked by Luftwaffe dive bombers on the voyage back and suffered many losses. About 4,000 men were withdrawn from Heraklion on the night of 28/29 May, on the next night 1,500 soldiers were taken away by four destroyers and during the night of 31 May /1 June another 4,000 men were lifted. About 18,600 men of the 32,000 British troops on the island were evacuated; 12,000 British and Dominion troops and thousands of Greeks were still on Crete when the island came under German control on 1 June.



June 1

Colonel Campbell, the commander at Rethymno, was forced to surrender his contingent. Rethymno fell and on the night of 30 May, German motorcycle troops linked up with the Italian troops who had landed on Sitia. On 1 June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakia surrendered. By the end of December, about 500 Commonwealth troops remained at large on the island. While scattered and disorganised, these men and the partisans harassed German troops for long after the withdrawal

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Civilian Resistance

Cretan civilians joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. Most civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns and several German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in olive groves. In one recorded incident, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking cane, before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute. The Cretans also used captured German small arms.


Massacres of
Greek civilians

June 2 - August 1

Immediately after Crete fell, a series of collective punishments against civilians began. Between 2 June and 1 August, 195 persons from the village of Alikianos and its vicinity were killed in mass shootings known as the Alikianos executions. On 3 June, the village of Kandanos was razed to the ground and about 180 of its inhabitants killed.

On several occasions, villagers were rounded up and summarily executed. In one of the worst incidents, around 20 entire villages east of Viannos and west of the Ierapetra provinces were looted and burnt in September 1943, with more than 500 of their inhabitants being massacred. These massacres were among the deadliest during the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. In August 1944, more than 940 houses in Anogeia were looted and then dynamited. During the same month, nine villages in the Amari Valley were destroyed and 165 people killed in what is now known as the Holocaust of Kedros. All these reprisals were ordered by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, who was nicknamed "The Butcher of Crete". After the war, Müller was tried by a Greek military court and executed.

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Estimated 6,000 to 7,000 German casualties. The Australian Graves Commission counted about 4,000 German graves in the Maleme–Souda Bay area, and about 1,000 more at Rethymno and Heraklion, that would have included deaths during the German occupation due to sickness, accidents, or fighting with partisan forces.

The official historians recorded 147 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and 64 damaged beyond repair by enemy action, with 73 destroyed due to extensive non-combat damage, for a total of 284 aircraft. Another 84 planes had repairable non-combat damage.

The British lost 1,742 killed, 1,737 wounded, and 11,835 taken prisoner from a garrison of slightly more than 32,000 men; and there were 1,828 dead and 183 wounded Royal Navy personnel. Of a force of more than 10,000 men, 5,255 Greek troops were captured.  Many Cretan civilians were shot by the Germans in reprisal during the battle and in the occupation. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by Germans at 6,593 men, 1,113 women, and 869 children. German records put the number of Cretans executed by firing squad as 3,474 and at least 1,000 civilians were killed in massacres late in 1944.

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