Battling the Fallschirmjager on Crete

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.

Major General Bernard Freyberg and Jack Griffiths watching the assault on Canea, Crete, during World War II. New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. War History Branch :Photographs relating to World War 1914-1918, World War 1939-1945, occupation of Japan, Korean War, and Malayan Emergency. Ref: DA-01149. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22646242
In this photo by Sir John White, Major General Bernard Freyberg and Jack Griffiths watch the assault on Canea, Crete, 20 May 1941. Sir John, who I knew later, took it using Freyberg’s personal 35mm Leica and told me that he’d lined the photo up and clicked the shutter just as Griffiths (left) turned to ask for a pair of binoculars. DA-01149. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22646242

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.

German Fallschirmjager (paratroopers) on Crete. 'German paratroops on Crete', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/german-paratroopers-crete, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2013
German Fallschirmjager (paratroopers) on Crete. ‘German paratroops on Crete’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/german-paratroopers-crete, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2013

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.

The 2003 cover.
The 2003 second edition cover of my book on the Battle for Crete, with new title.

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.

Wright_Battle for Crete 200 pxIn that context, the real question isn’t why the British and their forces were knocked off the island. It’s how they were able to stand up for so long.

My book Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair tells the New Zealand story on Crete, and is available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


5 thoughts on “Battling the Fallschirmjager on Crete

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong (it’s your area of expertise, after all!) but wasn’t the battle for the Maleme airfield one of those “damned close-run things”? I think I read an account of it where the forces contending for the airfield were roughly battalion strength on both sides, and the battalion commanders were both World War 1 vets who had won medals for valor — the VC for the Commonwealth commander, as I recall. The irony was that when the Commonwealth soldiers surrendered the Fallschirmjagers were almost out of ammunition. If my recollection is reasonably correct your observation that the Germans had complete air superiority makes a little more sense of the event. I can think of few things that would shrink my own morale faster than being strafed and bombed from the air with an apparently inexhaustible supply of enemy troops willing to take incredible casualties being continually flown in, and perhaps even seeing one’s Navy blown out of the water as well. Regardless, an incredible fight.

    1. The battle was very close. The guy on the spot, Colonel L W Andrew, was a WW1 VC. Overall commander was Brigadier James Hargest. The finger is usually pointed at him: he failed to give direction at a crucial time. The reason why, a colleague of mine in the field has theorised, was that he suffered a recursion of shell shock from his WW1 experience. Either way, his performance was below par. Freyberg had been reluctant to take him on as a brigade commander: Hargest had served in WW1 but then bwcome a career politician, and Freyberg judged him too old and his experience too stale. But the politics of the division, coupled with a shortage of senior officers in the NZ army, led to the appointment being made anyway. When he was on fotm, though, there was nothing wrong with Hargest’s resolve and personal courage – he was later captured in North Africa, broke out of an Italian POW camp, and escaped to Switzerland. I republished his account in one of the books I edited on NZ escape adventures.

  2. An interesting write-up, Matthew. Interestingly, despite the success of the airborne operation the Germans would never again deploy their paratroopers in any significant operation during the war. Hitler was appalled by the losses his men had suffered and (as you rightly put it) how close they came to defeat.

    The allies on the other hand viewed the reverse of the situation which is why airborne forces were so integral to D-Day. One could argue that the German success at Crete actually encouraged greater use of allied paratroopers on June 6th. Ultimately, of course the allies would loose confidence in their own paratroop forces after Market Garden.

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