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The Rock-itt : November 2010
OUR DIGGERS IN THE GREAT WAR OUR DIGGERS IN THE GREAT WAR OUR DIGGERS IN THE GREAT WAR OUR DIGGERS IN THE GREAT WAR by Simon Lyon The Battle for Crete, 20th May 1941 Aussie and Kiwi graves in Souda Bay Commonwealth Cemetery in Chania, Crete Following the Allied evacuation of mainland Greece, Adolf Hitler authorised an airborne invasion of Crete, recently reinforced by British and Commonwealth forces. On 30 th April 1941, Major-General Freyberg, a New Zealand Victoria Cross winner and the first man onshore the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915, was appointed Commander of the Allied forces on Crete. The German invasion was aimed primarily to capture the main airports of Crete, Heraklion, Rethymnon, Maleme and Chania. It was codenamed Operation Merkur (Mercury) and was due to commence on 20th May 1941. The initial assault was a complete failure for the invaders. So much so that Adolf Hitler refused to allow another airborne invasion throughout the duration of the War. Led by Major-General von Student, the Fallschirmjäger (Paratroopers) first landed around Maleme, the island’s largest airfield, and Chania. New Zealand forces inflicted terrible losses on the German attackers, who were hampered by the fact that only 25% of the aerial force was armed with light machine guns. Unfortunately, despite this repulse and fierce opposition by Australian troops elsewhere, the second day the Germans had control of Maleme airport and were able to land several units of their 5 th Mountain Division, a highly mobile (motorbikes) force suited to the mountainous terrain. By 27th May it was clear to British high Command that the Battle of Crete was effectively lost (but not over) and ordered a strategic withdrawal over the ranges to the south, where Royal Navy ships were to take the majority of the troops (16,000 over 4 nights in an operation reminiscent of the Gallipoli evacuation in 1915) to Egypt. The battle continued until 1 st June, 11 days only after the start of the conflict. However many Greeks continued to resist the German occupation and despite the constant reprisals against innocent Cretan civilians, the local fighters made the German’s life extremely difficult.