On 27 April 1941, the German army raised the Nazi flag over the Acropolis in Athens and the last Allied troops were evacuated to Crete from the Peloponnese. Crete was the obvious next target. The loss of Crete would isolate Turkey, seal the flank of the upcoming German invasion of the Soviet Union, put permanent Luftwaffe bomber airfields in range of Egypt, prevent the British from easily supporting the already troublesome Greek and Jugoslav partisans, and most importantly, keep British bombers from targeting Hitler’s only dependable supply of natural oil, the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The three big, and new or expanded airfields on the north coast of the island were the keys to Crete. On 30 April 1941, MajGen Bernard Freyberg was given command of Crete with the explicit task of keeping the airfields out of German hands.
Freyberg was a larger than life and barrel chested man, personal friend of Winston Churchill, and the senior operational officer from New Zealand. He earned the Victoria Cross in the First World War, and was fearlessly aggressive: he was wounded 27 times though he did tell Churchill once that it was only half that as “you usually get two wounds each time – one coming in and one going out”. As the 2nd Zealand Division commander, he inherited “Creforce” with more than 40,000 soldiers. He had three of his Kiwi brigades, one large Australian brigade group, the British brigade sized garrison, three Greek brigades, and a surprisingly effective composite Greek brigade consisting of Greek officer cadets, NCO and basic trainees, their cadres, and the Cretan gendarme. A formidable force to repel any German invasion, on paper at least.
Unfortunately, 15,000 were noncombatant soldiers from which he could only form a single under strength composite brigade. The rest were “mouths to feed” and “useless, except for causing problems with the civilians”. Crete had a food shortage that the extensive vineyards, and olive and orange groves were no help mitigating. Furthermore he had woefully inadequate artillery and AA, only 24 working tanks, few trucks, and only 15 fighter aircraft. Moreover, the exiled Greek Royal family was on the island, and made the local political situation delicate. But most troubling were the few operational radios, and a supply and communication’s system based on runners and vulnerable wire along the single coast road. However, what he lacked in essential resources, it was thought was made up with numbers, a generous to a fault, warlike, and zealously anti-German population, and near perfect intelligence.
The morning Freyberg assumed command, he met with RAF Group Captain George Beamish, ostensibly to discuss the appalling air defenses of the island. But Beamish had a more important additional duty: he was the only officer on the island allowed to decode and view the “Orange Leonard” communiques, the Ultra intercepts of high level Luftwaffe operations orders. Through Beamish and Ultra, Freyberg knew the German objectives (the airfields, particularly Maleme), the German units involved (7th FJ Div, and 22nd Airlanding Div), the invasion method (airborne with supporting seaborne landing), the German commander (Luftwaffe Gen Kurt Student, the Father of the Fallshirmjaeger), the supporting air groups, their airfields, and finally the invasion date – 16 May.
Later that evening, Winston Churchill cabled his support to his friend and said the upcoming battle was, “a fine opportunity for killing parachute troops”.