20 May, 1941

20 May 1941: The British embassy in Greece holds a memorial service every year in Crete to commemorate the fallen in one of the most dramatic episodes of WWII. The Battle of Crete marked the final victory of the Germans in their two-month-Iong Balkan campaign. The Nazis suffered enormous losses against a militarily weaker adversary as they sought to capture the strategic Greek island by air invasion. The battle started at dawn on May 20 with a massive bombardment of the island's bridges, ports and transport networks by 1,300 German Stukas aiming to cut off the supply routes of some 28,000 Greek and British troops (including thousands of Australians and New Zealanders) that had retreated there from mainland Greece. Within hours, the Nazi air strikes had neutralised the island's regular military defences, paving the way for the invasion and takeover of Crete by successive waves of paratroop landings around the main towns of Hania, Rethymno and Iraklio. But

the spontaneous resistance of Cretans, armed with stones, knives, axes and hunting rifles (as shown in this archival print), virtually decimated the first waves of several thousand Nazi paratroopers. Only the widespread destruction of villages and towns by a renewed German campaign of blanket bombings forced the British-Greek high command to evacuate its forces from the island on May 27, leaving the Cretan civilians to bear the full brunt of Nazi retaliation for their heroic resistance, with daily mass executions for most of the summer of 1941. By the end of the battle for the island, the German side had lost more than 6,500 elite troops, which was the highest casualty figure the Nazis had sustained in a single WWII campaign prior to their invasion of Russia in the autumn of the same year. The corresponding losses of regular troops on the Greek and British side were estimated at 5,500 dead and 12,000 POWs. The Battle of Crete is commemorated each year on May 20 with joint events and war-veteran reunions on the Greek island itself as well as in Britain, Australia and New Zealand

Dimitris Yannopoulos

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(Posting date 4 June 2007)

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