The battle of Crete – who’s to blame for the loss?

Key People:

Brigadier Jim Hargest, MP commander 5th NZ brigade

Although a popular and brave leader  Jim Hargest frequently takes the main rap for the loss of the battle of Crete.  Major General Freyberg had not wanted Hargest to work for him, but the member of parliament  used his political connections to get a job in charge of brigade of the New Zealand Division. Hargest was in charge of the brigade of Kiwi troops stationed on and near the vital Maleme airfield. Probably due to battle fatigue,  he  failed to reinforce the key airfield in time and dithered about ordering the vital counterattack.

Hargest appeared to find it difficult to make the quick decisions that were key to World War Two.  After the battle he blamed Freyberg for its loss. Possibly Hargest was suffering from battle fatigue. He had brave escape from capture a year later, but was killed in 1944, when working for New Zealand in Europe.

Lieutenant Colonel- Leslie Andrew VC: Nicknamed ‘Old February’, for sentencing men to 28 days jail for minor offences – Andrew’s mistake was to withdraw from the high ground of the vital Maleme airfield. Was he promoted beyond his ability? Or did he simply make a decision based on the fog of war and concern for his men? Andrew had no working radios, the battlefield was full of smoke, runner’s messages were confusing – and his men were outnumbered two to one. He asked for reinforcements which did not come. Andrew’s successor, Lt Colonel Donald, a platoon commander at Maleme, told this writer Andrew had little choice. ‘Old February’ cannot reasonably be blamed.

Freyberg was adamant Andrew was not to blame for the loss of the island. Had Andrew’s call for reinforcements been answered, or a substantial counterattack made earlier – the Kiwis would probably have won.

Freyberg himself had not invoked the obvious solution, a second battalion at Maleme, believing there was insufficient time to dig into the rocky ground.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is frequently blamed for the loss of Crete:  “I have taken part in all of your disasters Winston,” General Freyberg reputedly said to Winston Churchill after the war.

Churchill ordered the New Zealand Division to take part in the defense of Crete, against his own generals’ advice. Churchill should have cut his losses after the defeat at Greece, but instead blamed Freyberg, although they made up, as the New Zealand Division fought knuckle to knuckle with Rommel’s Africa Korps later in 1942 and 1943.  After the war, in his book on WW2, Churchill doctored the casualty figures to whitewash his image.

Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC: English-born Bernard Freyberg, a champion swimmer, fitness fanatic and lover of wine and wit was raised in New Zealand. A World War One hero, ‘Tiny; was famous for swimming ashore to light diversionary flares and for his quite legendary fighting in the World War One battle of France.  Knowing it was going to be tough, Freyberg never wanted the job of commanding the ill fated  CREFORCE, but had little choice to accept.

Freyberg was fortunate to be provided with top secret information from ULTRA. Strangely he did not appear to act on it. Freyberg had only one battalion defending the key Maleme airfield, which the ULTRA intercepts told him the Germans would attack. Instead he relied on mobile support nearby. The problem was, they were pinned down by the German air force, and could only move at night. Had there been two battalions at the airfield – and Freyberg had plenty at his disposal – then the battle would probably have gone the other way. This was a key mistake.

Freyberg was obsessed with a seabourne landing. Not unreasonable in itself, the British Navy dealt with it.The troops waiting for the seabourne landing had little to do.

But had Freyberg been left to his own devices, he might well have won the battle.

Freyberg’s boss General Archibald Wavell forbade him from the obvious and vital step of disabling the airfields – he argued British planes could use them later.  Had the Germans not been able to land their second wave of troops at the airport, they would mot probably have lost the battle.

Freyberg’s critics  survived the New Zealand Government’s inquiry into the battle. Soon he would mold the New Zealand Division into a top unit.

The energetic was a great division leader (20,000 men) – but when he had larger forces – as at Crete – he had less luck.

General Kurt Student: The idea of the paratrooper regiment was allegedly General Kurt Student’s own.  Although well trained and with the best equipment, nearly 2000 paratroopers were killed on the first day alone. Many died instantly from headshots. It must have been a shock.

After the war Student was tried at Nuremberg for war crimes – including the bombing the New Zealand hospital, the paratroopers using New Zealand troops as human shields troops and killing Kiwi POWs who refused to work. Student’s sentence was never confirmed.

The hospital was clearly marked with a huge red cross. When medical staff surrendered, German troops lined them up against a wall. The medics expected to be shot, until the intervention of a German officer-patient. Although most Kiwi prisoners were treated fairly, the hospital and human shield incidents have rankled Kiwi officers and commands. There were many incidents of allied troops being shot with their hands up. Germans also hunted down and executed both some soldiers and many civilians after the battle.

The battle begins: May 20th, as with every day for a week, had begun with a German aerial attack that was said Andrew, “worse than WW1”. Three battalions of German paratroopers jumped near Maleme airfield. One battalion was wiped out but two captured the airfields anti-aircraft battery, although they thought they would lose if the Kiwis were reinforced.

Lieutenant Charlie Upham VC:  At the beginning of the counterattack at Maleme airport, Germans shot dead four of Lieutenant Charlie Upham’s men. It put the former Canterbury agricultural cadet into a killing frenzy where he destroyed several machine gun nests, using grenades and his revolver. This was only the start to a series of actions, including a shootout, while holding a rifle in his unwounded arm. All the while, he was suffering from dysentery. He emphasized his work was a group effort, but his reputation was legendary. The maverick Upham had trouble moving on after the war, reputedly turning away a daughter’s boyfriend for driving a Volkswagen.

Lt Colonel Howard Kippenberger: Kippenberger had been dealt a week hand – having to command a brigade that included a battalion of cooks, bottle washers and drivers. It was not surprising that at one point, Kippenberger had to order his men not to run off and to follow his advance toward the Germans. ‘Kip’ was far from happy with his fellow-officers performance. “This (the battle of Maleme) was a case where it was the duty of an infantry battalion to fight to the finish,” he said later.. Kippenberger took risks, led from the front and was probably New Zealand’s best World War General – Freyberg promoted him later. Had Kippenberger had Hargest’s job, the battle may well have gone the other way.

Super Sniper Alf Hulme VC: Alfred Clive Hulme, later father of racing driver Denny Hulme, was awarded a VC at Crete. Hulme led several counter-attacks against pockets of German paratroops at the ill-fated counterattack. (check Maleme or Galatas) Hearing his brother, Corporal H. C. Hulme, had been killed – and using a German paratrooper’s smock as cover, Hulme began sniping the German snipers. Hulme killed 33 German snipers over the next few days. Badly wounded he was evacuated and repatriated to New Zealand and declared unfit for duty.

German Paratroopers (Fliegerkorps)

The German paratroopers were extremely fit and highly motivated volunteers. During the drop, they carried a machine pistol, or at best a rifle. They had no control over their parachutes, and were vulnerable until they formed up as a unit.

Once the survivors had broken up their weapons boxes or unloaded their transport gliders they became a formidable force – with machine guns, mortars and special lightweight cannons, towed by BMW motorbikes. Despite half their men in the initial attack being killed, the paratroopers succeed in their mission – clearing an airfield so that more troops and heavier weapons could be landed.

They prided themselves as being professional soldiers, although they had a Nazi code which included executing partisans.

Ultra secret – the intelligence that didn’t work

The Battle of Crete was the Allies first significant test of ‘Ultra’ that is ‘Ultra secret’ intelligence information, intercepted from ciphers after German code was broken by an army of boffins at Bletchley Park, using the world’s first valve operated computer, called ‘Colossus.’ Churchill insisted an Ultra executive personally brief Freyberg, so he knew what it all meant.

The Ultra information foretold an airborne attack at the three airfields, supported with a smaller seaborne landing, on the next day. This information had a very different slant from earlier intelligence from other sources.

Post-war research has shown that Freyberg knew the full significance of ULtra, so why did he apparently ignore its reports, leaving only one battalion at the vital Maleme and five others near the sea? Even after the war, he wrote that he his main concern was ‘a sea-attack with tanks,’ while the essence of the Ultra information was a large paratrooper assault.

Freyberg’ s son and biographer Paul claims his father had standing orders not to act on ULtra information alone, so as not to make the Germans suspicious. But at a pre-Crete meeting Freyberg had with Wavell and other top brass, the bulk of the opinion was that the main attack would come from the air.

It may be that Freyberg had trouble believing that the Germans would risk a large parachute attack or understanding that this battle would be a new paradigm – the first large scale parachute attack in history.

Sir Winston Churchill

After reading ULTRA intelligence reports British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill had decided that Crete could be won. He chose Major General Bernard Freyberg as leader because of his aggressive qualities and knew the Kiwis, Australians and some crack British troops would fight hard.

He reasoned that Hitler wanted a quick battle, so he could focus on Russia. Churchill’s reasoning was spot-on but his broad-brush approach ignored details like whether the troops had sufficient guns, radios or planes, or could have been better used elsewhere.

Churchill’s determination to win Crete was obsessive; he was prepared to face even higher losses, and reportedly considered it worth sacrificing half the Mediterranean fleet in order to win. He later told Parliament that the reason for fighting the battle was that it could have been won.

A flawed strategy for both sides

Early in the war, Crete, some German leaders wanted the British out of Crete, which they thought could be used as a base to bomb its oil refineries in Rumania. But initially Hitler saw little value in taking the island, but his generals, Herman Goering and Kurt Student persuaded him otherwise. After the easy wins of France, Poland and mainland Greece – they believed they could win a quick and easy battle.

It would be history’s first large scale use of paratroopers.

But the Germans underestimated the size of Creforce, had racist ideas about New Zealand troops – who Hitler said were  “only shortly down from trees “and expected the locals to be on their side. They were shocked when half their initial force was killed and the Cretan civilians joined in.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill for his part saw Crete and Greece in terms of combining Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia against Germany. It was always a flawed idea, as Germany and Turkey were old friends. It was flawed militarily because Germany had the advantage of a huge air force to support its army.

Allied generals knew the resources could be better used elsewhere. General Archie Wavell, head of North African command had to focus on Libya and Egypt where Rommel had turned the tables.

Having just escaped from the mainland by the skin of their teeth, the New Zealand Division was pulled into Crete, while heading back to their base in Egypt. They destroyed their transport and heavy guns, and even dropped machine gun tripods into the sea, thought to save weight on the British Navy’s overloaded destroyers. The Greeks were even worse off – some with just three bullets per man. But RAF air cover was minimal. The British kept most of their planes at home, because they thought Hitler might still invade Britain.

So Crete would be defended with a force of about 30,000? troops, comprised of Kiwis, Australians Brits, Palestinians and some Greeks.

What if the battle had been won? A fillip no doubt, but with German planes able to bomb and strafe at will, the island would have been costly to defend. Soon the allies would bomb Rumania from Libya – so Crete’s strategic value was minimal.

The battle

The Germans almost lost the battle on the first day – dropping most of their paratroopers directly over the allied positions.

It looked at first that the Germans would lose, with about 2000 paratroopers, including many senior officers are killed on day one, as they fell or soon after landing. One Kiwi officer shot two dead while still seated at his desk. But the German paratroopers got a foothold at Maleme airport, defended by just one battalion of New Zealanders, who withdrew and some British gunners who surrendered. With German transport planes landing every two minutes, the Kiwi counterattack one and a half days later was too late.

During this counterattack, there was considerable esprit de corps – two Kiwi VCs were awarded. But as the Germans flew in more troops to Maleme, with heavier weapons, the balance tipped in their favour. A working radio set on the airfield may have been sufficient for the battle to have gone the other way.

There were many other battles, in what became a desperate fighting retreat.

Overwhelming air cover had given the Germans a major advantage.

The arduous retreat to the port over the White Mountains took two days. Boots wore out. Water was scarce, some wells contaminated. German fighter planes strafed transport. New Zealand Prime Minister Fraser, who flew to Cairo and Britain, negotiated for an extra warship evacuation. The Royal Navy evacuated about 17,000 New Zealand, Australian and British troops – about 17,000 – at extreme risk and cost. But about 11,000?? remained.

Crete remains a New Zealand loss. The British and Australians had successfully defended their airfields – the Kiwis had not. But the battle’s loss is not the fault of brave soldiers, but of the higher level officers and of politicians.

Crete weakened the New Zealand Division temporarily, but for New Zealand it proved the Kiwis could give the German army a bloody nose. And it generated some incredible stories of survival and bravery. The cost in terms of lives lost was pointless – and thousands of young men unnecessarily spent the rest of the war in captivity.

Navy the biggest loser

The Royal Navy – including some Kiwi sailors – were the biggest losers on Crete. Its key task was to stop the German invasion flotilla of small sailboats called caques. But finding the flotilla at night was easier said than done and they had to keep looking in the early hours. When the German air force caught the Royal Navy out in the open several ships were sunk. It also lost ships carrying troops away from the island, but as fleet commander Admiral Cunningham said at the time. “It takes a year to build another ship, centuries to build a tradition.” The fleet also attacked a German air base, but was caught out, its aircraft carrier severely damaged. By the end of the battle three cruisers and eight destroyers had been sunk. A further twenty ships were damaged – including three battleships and the aircraft carrier. 2276 Royal Navy seamen paid with their lives.


Day one: May 20 1942: German paratroopers attack Crete: Many are killed, but some dig in near the key Maleme airfield. Outnumbered New Zealand troops abandon the vital high ground.

Day two: May 21: Kiwi officers disobey Freyberg’s orders to ‘counterattack and destroy immediately.’ German planes start landing at Maleme airfield.

Royal Navy destroys first German invasion fleet around 11.30 PM.

Day three: May 22: The Kiwi counterattack on Maleme fails. It’s mostly downhill for CREFORCE

Day four – May 22: Kiwi 5th brigade falls back – but the two German forces are close to forming up near the town of Galatas.  Kiwis’ supplies are diminishing.

May 24: Battle of Galatas:  Germans carpet-bomb the town of Galatas.

May 25: The battle of Galatas, the Kiwi’s stand against the Germans, fails to turn the tide General Kurt Student flies in, to find his men in control.

May 28: Evacuation begins at Sfakia`

May 31: Last troops evacuated

June 1  7000 troops surrender remainder surrenders

Battle of ‘42nd’ St

New Zealand troops begin to leave the island:

Being a straggler – a soldier without a unit on the evacuation beach was a bum rap. Soldiers with fixed bayonets prevented you from embarking until you rejoined your unit – tough luck if it was already onboard.

But an estimated 300 New Zealand troops managed to evade capture. Some escaped from the slackly managed temporary POW camp on the island. Some were evacuated by a Royal Navy submarine, others managed to escape in small sailboats, one party making a sail from blankets for a landing barge. A few fought with Greek fighters, but by mid to late 1943, most had been captured or killed by the Germans.

Ned Nathan and Joe Angell, of 28 Maori Battalion were among those who stayed with Cretans, avoiding the Gestapo and German spies, including a Mata Hare figure who tried to seduce lonely soldiers. Nathan married his Cretan sweetheart, Katina in 1945.

All POWs were taken to camps in the Reich, although some, like lieutenant Sandy Thomas DSO, escaped, was hidden by priests on mainland Greece and returned to the fray. By 1944, the NZ Official History of Crete notes it appeared no Kiwi solders were left on the island.

Others escapees  were sentenced to death by the Italian authorities after gunfights with police. Of those who escaped, it was frequently after being tortured by the Italian authorities. A minority though were well-treated, some even sharing food or even wine with their German captors.

One of the Nazis’ first acts after the battle was to execute all civilians who showed any sign of resistance. German officers alleged the Cretans mutilated soldiers’ bodies,  but these were probably small in number; civilians were defending their homeland. Over the next three years the Cretan people fought an insurgency, ensuring some of the more brutal Nazis never left. But the Nazis killed thousands of Cretan civilians, including over 500 men women and children at just one village Vianos. By late 1944, the Nazis had realized Crete was not worth the effort.