Greece and Crete
In early 1941 the New Zealand division was training in Egypt before finally going into action. In March they were sent to Greece to help protect the country from a threatened German invasion. But the Allies were so outnumbered that defeat was inevitable.
Eventually thousands of soldiers were taken off the Greek mainland before the German armies overran them. Every available ship was crammed with soldiers and men were ordered to abandon their possessions to save weight.
Many of the Kiwis who escaped off the mainland recovered on the island of Crete. For the first few weeks Crete was like a holiday. But the Germans had a daring plan to invade the island by air, using their elite parachute regiments.
Such an invasion had never been tried before. When British code-breakers learned of the plans Winston Churchill decided that the Germans should be given a bloody nose. General Freyberg became the senior officer commanding Crete. He was told to prepare to defend the island. This was a big job as he had fighting men but he was short of planes, tanks, and radios.
The key to holding Crete was the island's airfields. The German's would need to capture at least one of them to succeed. A New Zealand battalion and some units in reserve held the airfield at Maleme. This would be where Crete was won or lost.
The German attack began on the morning of the 20 May 1941. Thousands of German assault troops glided in from over the sea and filled the air with parachutes. They were sitting ducks but some Germans did reach the ground alive and began fighting back.
At Maleme airfield the Germans gained a foothold. The Kiwi defenders were stretched and by nightfall the battalion commander felt he could no longer hold on. His brigadier, Southland farmer and MP James Hargest, was exhausted and out of touch with the action so agreed to abandon the airfield.
This action was the turning point of the battle. The Germans took Maleme airfield and poured in reinforcements. Soon the Kiwis were fighting for survival. The invaders gained the upper hand and Crete was lost.
Freyberg had to order another evacuation. His men were soon retreating over the Cretan mountains to the south coast for rescue again by the Royal Navy.
Prime Minster Peter Fraser was waiting in Egypt to meet the rescued troops. He was furious that the New Zealand government hadn't been fully informed about the campaign. More than 2,000 Kiwis had been killed or wounded in Greece and Crete and 4,000 left behind to be captured, all for no apparent purpose.