June 6 – THE BATTLE OF CRETE

Exactly 75 years and two weeks ago, the Battle of Crete was the first paratrooper invasion in history, and the first battle influenced by decrypted German messages from the Enigma Machine.

I spent today in western Crete walking the battlefield, visiting war cemeteries, and examining war photos in the naval museum.

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To summarize: in spring 1941 Allied troops retreated south from the Greek mainland to the island of Crete. Germany wanted Crete for the same reason the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and British had wanted it: it’s the East Mediterranean crossroads of the world, roughly equidistant from Egypt, Jerusalem, Rome, Istanbul (Constantinople to us romantics), Malta (the Crusader-era Knights Hospitaller from Rhodes, remember?), and—not incidentally—the Nazi oilfields in Romania.

Rough neighborhood. Valuable real estate. But I digress.

The Allies held Crete. Germany wanted it. The Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks outnumbered them, roughly 50,000 to 22,000. But in the retreat from the Greek mainland, the Allies had left most of their heavy equipment behind. On the other hand, the Royal Navy patrolled the Aegean between Crete and the mainland. What to do? The first full-scale paratrooper invasion in history.

The Germans went for the island’s three airfields, stretched across its long north coast. Today I stood on a hill overlooking the western airfield outside the town of Chania, sweating in the late morning sun.

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After landing by the airfield, the paratroopers ran up the hill, shooting. Lots of them died. Lots of defenders died. Cretan partisans armed with hunting knives stole the revolvers of the Germans they killed. A Maori regiment served with distinction. But German warplanes overwhelmed the Royal navy, and ultimately, the Allies withdrew to the south shore and from there to Alexandria, Egypt.

The combined toll: 8,000 dead or missing. 17,000 Allied soldiers captured, 300 Luftwaffe destroyed, 20 Royal warships sunk or damaged. And in keeping with the Nazi policy of punishing resistance, 500 Greek civilians were executed.

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On the hill above the airfield is a German military cemetery, which I walked. There had been a big ceremony marking the battle’s 75th anniversary, and so there were fresh flowers by each grave. There were also wreaths from the governments of the various Allies. I was quite surprised by the ecumenical messages among the former enemies. Seeing a personal message from the British Ambassador leaning against a plaque commemorating German war dead—men who had died killing Brits—was eerie, almost theatrical.

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From there I drove a half-hour east to the Souda Bay Allied War Cemetery. The setting is a quiet, beautiful harbor (from where I could see three NATO ships in the distance). Again, the graves were freshly attended, and messages from dignitaries marked the anniversary—the last one that will be seen by its survivors. The complimentary observances linked the two sites in real time, as if they had spoken to each other. The two sites were halves of a whole.

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In the chaotic evacuation, some surviving Allied soldiers fled into the hills. They lived there a year or more, fed and clothed (and occasionally married) by Cretans who risked their lives to do so. To this day, Wellington, New Zealand and Chania are Sister Cities, and a main street in Welly has been renamed Chania Street.

The British War Cemeteries Commission oversees the graves of 1.6 million soldiers around the world. Here at Souda Bay the cemetery also includes a German, an Italian, and a French soldier, brothers in death with several thousand Brits, Kiwis, and Aussies. My father could have ended up here. But the 18-year-old medical corpsman happened to be fighting two years later, in a different uniform, half-way around the globe in the Pacific.

He lived to be 80.

I spent the afternoon touring Chania, admiring the remains of its Venetian and Ottoman heritage: synagogue, hamam, palace, mansions, mosque. Their occupations of Crete ended in bloodshed, too. Their cemeteries here didn’t survive the bombing of World War II.

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