The Invasion of Crete

The Daily Hate by the Luftwaffe arrived with Teutonic precision at 0730, just as it did everyday for the last two weeks. The men of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion and the left behind RAF ground personnel defending Hill 107 and Maleme airfield smoked in their slit trenches, and when the Germans departed, trudged over to their company messes whose cooks prepared breakfast during the bombardment. But at 0800, as most were standing in line for their bully beef and olive stew, orange slices, and biscuits, a larger, heavier sound echoed from the north. Men scrambled back to their trenches as an impossible number of large twin engine bombers, Stuka dive bombers, and Messerschmitt fighters screaming in at treetop level concentrated on the Royal Marine anti aircraft battery on the airfield. Following closely behind this second attack, which had never happened before, came the rhythmic heavy beating on triple engine JU-52 troop transports. They were accompanied by the “tearing whoosh” of wooden gliders crashing on the headquarters company outside of the coastal town of Pirgos, and in the dry Tavronitis river bed on the west end of the airfield.

20 kilometers away, in a quarry on the Akrotiri peninsula, Lieutenant General Freyberg looked up at the the sound of the lumbering transports, commented, “right on time”, and went back to eating his breakfast. His surprised staff had no idea their commander knew the exact time of the attack, but they sat silently like their beloved commander and quietly ate. Freyberg’s very British tendencies of indifference and aplomb in the face of danger served well during the retreat in Greece, but seemed strangely out of place at the beginning of an airborne attack when audacity, initiative, and decisive action in the first 24 hours usually decided the battle. It was even more so when the distinctive crash of a glider was heard less than a quarter of a mile away.

Nonetheless, the first day was an unmitigated disaster for the Germans, the Allied junior officers and NCOs didn’t share their superiors’ lethargy and they slaughtered Germans wholesale. But it didn’t matter. Most of the troops were stuck in defensive positions facing the sea for the expected amphibious assault. Consequently, for every helpless, disorganized, and most likely unarmed German paratrooper killed on that first morning by a Cretan butcher knife, Greek bayonet, Kiwi rifle, Aussie machine gun, or British tank, there were three more organizing in obvious and neglected assembly areas like the Tavroniti river bed. In a few days, there were over 100,000 troops engaged in the battle, but the next chapter in the story of Crete is defined by a single battalion at the far west of the island: the 752 hungry men, mostly from Wellington, of the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion, defending the Maleme airfield and led by Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew, a Victoria Cross recipient from a war twenty years before.

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