Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Battle Of Crete Remembered

The 70th anniversary of the Battle Of Crete was marked around the world over this past week.
It’s remembered as a ferocious defence against the biggest airborne invasion in history. The battle raged from 20-31 May 1941 – often hand-to-hand and with fixed bayonets – between Allied forces withdrawing from the Greek mainland and tough German paratroopers. The locals fought heroically too, and suffered terribly in later German reprisals. Many acts of bravery occurred in this battle, some rewarded with very high honours. Here, a NZer (then a 2nd Lieutenant) Charles Upham earned the first of his amazing two Victoria Crosses.
My dad, in No.7 Commando (part of an ad hoc commando formation called Layforce), was part of that fight. Layforce had been sent in with only its usual light weaponry for a quick raid, but the situation was far worse than realised, and the men were very under-equipped. Eventually as other units streamed to the coast for evacuation, Layforce was ordered to hold a defensive position astride the main road inland from Sphakia, alongside OZ and NZ forces. They expected to be heavily dive bombed and shelled, and were not disappointed. Their orders were to ‘hold to the last’ and then surrender...so very few escaped.
Dad managed to board the cruiser HMS Orion, on its final run back to Alexandria on 29 May. This nearly proved to be a fatal decision, when the ship was attacked by German stuka dive-bombers. One bomb hit the Orion, wounding 280 and killing 260 (some sources say as many as 360 died).
Of the 800 commandos sent to Crete, about 600 were listed as killed, missing or wounded - three quarters of their strength. Only 23 officers and 156 other ranks managed to escape to Egypt.
So that’s where my father was 70 years ago today, 29 May 1941, just a week before his 22nd birthday.

[see also my July 2011 post about NZ Crete veterans...]

1 comment:

Gerald said...

War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.