It’s 75 years, today, since German paratroopers descended over Crete – the last act in the Balkan campaign of March-June 1941. It was also the first and only time that the Germans deployed their feared paratroopers as the spearhead of an invasion.
New Zealanders were at the forefront of the defence. They were part of a motley force of British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops hastily assembled by the British – mostly with left-overs from the disastrous Greek mainland campaign – to defend the island.
They lacked air support and heavy equipment. The force commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg – who had been commanding the Second New Zealand Division – was of the opinion that the island could not be held with what they had, particularly in the face of the combined air-sea assault he had been told to expect.
In fact the defences he organised came very close to success, particularly after the Royal Navy – with a daring foray under enemy-dominated skies – destroyed the seaborne component.
The crack came in the New Zealand sector, where the paratroopers were able to secure Maleme airfield and begin flying in support. That swung the battle in the German favour and by the beginning of June it was all over. A fair proportion of the British and Commonwealth troops were pulled off in a risky evacuation, but many were left behind and made prisoner.
It remains one of the most controversial battles of New Zealand’s Second World War. The ‘near-run’ side of the defeat fitted the prevailing ‘cultural cringe’ like a glove: we took pride in thinking that, as a small nation, we could punch above our weight – but we knew we really wouldn’t quite make the grade, and afterwards went around looking for scapegoats.
Crete was no exception. The arguments began directly after the evacuation when the issue was hot and militarily important – Britain was looking for heads to set rolling – and continued through and after the war both in New Zealand and among military historians around the world.
Both the immediate airfield commander and his brigadier in the New Zealand sector have variously been blamed. In the early 1990s, attention fell on Freyberg – British historian Anthony Beevor claimed he had misread vital signals intelligence.
That argument was specious (and I ended up on New Zealand TV in 1999, arguing the point after Beevor had made an appearance).
None of this, of course, was very useful historically because it didn’t give proper insight into what was actually going on. None of those at the time knew their future, and they could work only with what they had been given. And the reality was that the Germans had total air superiority – a decisive advantage that, as Freyberg had pointed out ahead of time, really meant the island couldn’t be held by ground forces alone.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016