Ceremonies mark Battle of Crete anniversary

11:21 am on 20 May 2016

Commemoration services will start on Crete today to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle in which allied troops fought to hold the Greek island against extreme odds.

German paratroopers jumping from Ju 52s over Crete, May 1941.

German paratroopers jumping from Ju 52s over Crete, May 1941. Photo: Wikicommons

New Zealand troops played a major part but were hampered by a lack of weapons as they tried to stop a massive airborne invasion.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Allies were forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal.

Nearly 8000 New Zealanders fought on Crete; 671 died, 967 were wounded and more than 2180 were taken prisoner.

The attack by thousands of German paratroopers and glider troops that descended on Crete on 20 May 1941 was one of the world's first ever airborne assaults.

Flight Lieutenant Bill Buchanan was one of those who witnessed what must have been a chilling sight.

"At twenty to eight that morning, the gliders and Junkers came over and out of them streamed bodies of men.

"It was hard to realise an invasion was actually taking place on Crete and the bodies seemed as though they were half way down before our personnel seemed to realise that it was an actual invasion by paratroopers."

The Battle of Crete lasted 12 days and was centred around three airfields; Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion and the port at Suda Bay.

The odds were stacked against the Allies and evacuation, when possible, was inevitable.

The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941.

The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941. Photo: DIA / Alexander Turnbull Library

The BBC reported in 1941: "The grim Battle of Crete is over. Once again the sheer weight of metal has beaten down the heroism of men and the hideous shadow of the crooked cross falls on Crete and its gallant people."

Ministry for Culture and Heritage senior historian Monty Soutar said the 42,000 allied troops on Crete were poorly armed and lacking the resources needed to properly defend the island.

"They were always on a hiding to nothing because in the end the Germans had the skies to themselves.

"By the start of the battle there were really only one or two British aircraft left in defending the island, and that just meant it was going to be a struggle from day one."

Dr Soutar said Crete was a defeat, and something of a disaster similar to Gallipoli in WWI.

"Much like Gallipoli, I think we tend to portray it as an epic of endurance with the greater focus on the courage of the participants than the overall strategy.

"And I think for that reason it is important that we mark it because of the individual heroism that took place on that island."

Victoria Crosses were awarded to New Zealanders Sergeant Clive Hulme, of 23 Battalion and Captain Charles Upham, of 20 Battalion, who fought on the island.

Allied leadership and planning on Crete has been criticised but Dr Soutar said it was not wholly justified.

He said General Fryberg, who commanded the allied forces on Crete, knew an airborne invasion was planned but could reveal this.

The allies had broken the German code.

"The British knew exactly what was going to happen. Whether Fryberg actually knew the source of the information is questionable, although most critics say he did, but he could not let on they knew because the Germans would know the code was broken, " said Dr Souter.

At the time, New Zealand Broadcasting Unit commentator Doug Laurenson summed up the battle: "Side by side with their British comrades New Zealand and Australian troops ... yet another glorious stage to the history of Anzac heroism."

The official New Zealand delegation to commemorations in Crete is headed by the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, whose grandfather, Arnold Nehe Reedy served on Crete with the Maori Battalion.

Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae and members of the New Zealand Defence Force are taking part.

A memorial plaque will be unveiled at 42nd Street in Crete, the scene of a pivotal attack on New Zealand and Australian troops.

In New Zealand, a service was held this morning at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington.

Archival material courtesy of Nga Taonga - Sound and Vision.

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