The Battle of Crete is probably the most significant historic event in the context of Cretan-Greek-Australian history. It is the event that has forged a special bond between the island’s people and ANZAC veterans. It is commemorated each year in May and is certainly the most important occasion in the annual calendar for Cretan Australians.
The Battle of Crete was one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War. It began on 20 May 1941 when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code name Operation Mercury. It was just after dawn, many of the ANZAC soldiers stationed on Crete were finishing breakfast when hundreds of German transport aircraft rumbled in over the island. The air above was suddenly filled with parachutes as thousands of elite German paratroopers began to descend from the sky.
Over the next 12 days, a mixed force of Australian, New Zealand, British and Greek troops, assisted by Cretan civilians, desperately and valiantly defended the island against the huge German assault. The Allied troops were undermanned and ill-equipped but they almost succeeded.
By 1st June 1941, the battle was over. Despite suffering appalling casualties, the Germans deployed more fire power and troops to eventually secure a foothold and occupy the island. However, a heavy toll was paid by both sides. More than 1700 British, ANZAC and Greek soldiers were killed and 15,000 captured during the Battle of Crete. More than 6000 Germans were killed or wounded and the German air force lost more than 350 aircraft.
During the ensuing evacuation of ANZAC soldiers off the island, Cretan villagers risked their own lives providing food and shelter for many ANZAC troops, hiding them from Nazi forces until they could escape. The Germans inflicted terrible reprisals against the locals in villages where it was discovered Allied soldiers had been concealed or German soldiers killed; in some villages the entire male population were executed and homes were razed to the ground.
The Battle of Crete was the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. The heavy casualties and the12 days it took to occupy the island seriously disrupted Hitler’s plans in Eastern Europe and Russia.
In Melbourne, the Battle of Crete is commemorated and tribute paid to the ANZAC veterans every year in late May. The commemorations typically involve wreath laying ceremonies at the Shrine of Remembrance and the nearby Australian-Hellenic War Memorial, with representation from the Australian and Hellenic Armed Forces, as well as commemorative functions to which surviving ANZAC veterans are invited