History

1. Minoan Period

It is not clear when Crete was first inhabited but there is ceramic and other evidence of human habitation from the Neolithic Age around 7000 BC.  The Minoan period from around 2700 BC to 1450 BC is the first clearly recorded historical period in Crete.  The apex of Minoan civilisation was in the 17th and 16th centuries BC.  It was during this period that Crete took advantage of its strategic position at the crossroads of three continents and became a flourishing maritime power and the great palaces, such as the one at Knossos, were built.  The term “Minoan” comes from the legendary King Minos who was supposed to rule Crete around that period (refer section on Cretan Legends).

A reconstructions depicting how the palace
A reconstructions depicting how the palace

The Importance of Trade

img_history02Through trading with other states in the Easter Mediterranean, Crete not only became powerful but developed a unique culture that took elements from various other cultures through which it came into contact.  The civilisation that developed became the forerunner of Greek civilisation and western civilisation in general.

It is believed that the Minoans were important players in the tin trade which when alloyed with copper from Cyprus was used to make bronze.  The trade in saffron was also important as it was used throughout the Mediterranean in perfumes, ointments, medical treatments and divine offerings.  The Minoan fresco of saffron gatherers in Santorini is well known (picture on left).  Ceramics and other durable goods were also extensively traded.  The decline in Minoan civilisation appears to co-incide with the increasing use of iron and the reduction in the importance of bronze and other goods that they traded.

Cities, Palaces & Architecture

img_history03Minoans built great cities and palaces which were well designed and employed advanced construction techniques.  Stone and mud bricks as well as timber were used in construction.  Some buildings, particularly in the palaces, had several floors and were grand in scale.  The palace at Knossos has buildings with as many as five floors and more than 1,300 rooms.

Streets were laid out according to traffic volume and drained through clay pipes.  Water and sewage facilities were provided and the world’s first flush toilets can be seen in Minoan palaces. Roads paved with stone connected Minoan cities.

A reconstructions depicting how the palace at Knossos would have looked like
A reconstructions depicting how the palace at Knossos would have looked like

According to Homer, Crete had 90 cities with Knossos being the most important.  It is believed that Knossos, at its peak, was home to between 50,000 and 100,000 people.   Other important cities were Phaistos, Malia and Zakros.  Minoan cities were not protected by walls as it appears reliance was placed on the strong Minoan fleet to protect the island from invaders.

A unique feature of Minoan buildings is the inverted columns used in their construction (see picture above).  Unlike other Greek columns they are wider at the top than the bottom and are topped with a round piece.  The columns were normally painted red.

Agriculture

Minoan agriculture was varied.  Wheat, barley, grapes figs, olives and honey were produced.  Sheep, cattle, pigs and goats were raised for their meat and milk.  Wooden ploughs pulled by donkeys or oxen were used in cultivating the fields.  The practice of growing several crops at the same time provided a varied and healthy diet which allowed the population to increase rapidly.

Language

The Phaistos Disc from the Heraklion  Archaeological Museum depicts the unique Minoan hieroglyphic writing

Although thousands of tablets with writing have been found from the Minoan period the understanding of the Minoan language and writing is limited.  To date the writing found on tablets prior to 1400 BC has not been deciphered.  However, in 1952 Michael Ventris managed to decipher the writing on tablets found after 1400 BC and concluded that it was an early form of Greek.  As the language of the peak in Minoan culture has not yet been deciphered our understanding of Minoan civilisation is based on buildings, mosaics and paintings that have been found as well as later accounts from various Greek writers such as Homer.

Clothing & Hairstyles

img_history07Women wore bell-shaped colourful skirts with wide hems not dissimilar to modern clothing.  The skirts were either smooth or consisted of several succeeding layers of increasing ruffles.  Bodices that fitted the arms closely and fastened beneath the breasts leaving them exposed were also worn.  These were in fact, the first fitted garments known in history.  Some experts believe that Minoan women covered their breasts after marriage and therefore it was easy for single men to identify single women.  The famous snake goddess figurine found at Knossos (picture on left) shows the style of dress of the time.  Women are often depicted in paintings with long black curling hair and it is believed that this was the norm for hairstyles at the time.

Minoan men wore a loin cloth and boots or sandals made from leather.  They also wore T-shaped garments with a variety of sleeve and skirt lengths and turban shaped hats made from twisted fabric.  Men also appear in Minoan paintings with long hair.  The painting from Knossos on the right depicts a typical Minoan men’s outfit.

Religion and Festivals

img_history08The religion of the Minoans is somewhat of a mystery although it seems to have been centred on the worship of goddesses as there is little evidence of any male gods.  There are a variety of what appear to be depictions of a number of goddesses such as a goddess of fertility, of the harvest, of cities and so on.  In some experts’ opinion the depictions may represent a single goddess with many aspects.

The Minoans also seem to have worshiped bulls and these are depicted on many of the frescoes, paintings, figurines and pottery found.  Bull jumping was a favourite sport with both men and women participating.  The famous fresco from the palace of Knossos above on the right shows how the sport was played with the participant grabbing the bull by the horns and flipping backwards over it.

Status of Women

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother unique feature of the Minoan culture compared to the rest of Greece and probably all ancient civilisations is the apparently high status of women.  Women seem to have had equality in all areas of life including religion, social gatherings, administration, sports and trade.  On pottery, frescoes and paintings women are depicted participating equally with men in bull jumping, in festival, as artisans and traders and as bureaucrats.

In fact, in religion women seemed to have played the dominant role and this has led some experts to suggest that Minoan society was matrilineal with women having a higher social and legal status than men.  Some also believe that kinship descent was determined through the mother.

The picture on the left is taken from an old source book on Minoan civilisation and depicts a palace scene with Minoan women socialising, knitting and playing the Minoan board game called ‘zatriko’.  A princess is shown receiving a manicure.  The entire scene combines several depictions of Minoan women that have been found on original Minoan artefacts.

The Decline of Minoan Civilisation

The source of Minoan power:  A fresco from the island of Thera depicting a Minoan trading ship
The source of Minoan power:  A fresco from the island of Thera depicting a Minoan trading ship

There are a number of theories on what caused the sudden decline of Minoan civilisation which occurred around 1450 BC.  A popular theory is that a natural catastrophe occurred which severely weakened the Minoans and from which they never recovered.  This may have been caused by an earthquake or the massive volcanic eruption that blew the island of Thera (nowadays Santorini) apart around that time.  In fact, many historians suggest that the legendary Atlantis which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption was Minoan Crete.  There is ample evidence for the natural disaster theories as most Minoan sites show signs of having been destroyed by fire around 1450 BC and in eastern Crete there is evidence of ash fallout.  A volcanic eruption in Thera would have caused a tsunami which may have caused the destruction of the entire Minoan fleet on the north coast of Crete thus leaving the island open to invasion from the Greek mainland.

Another theory of what led to the decline of Minoan Crete is that their trade networks collapsed and this led to increasing poverty and famine as the growing population could no longer import much needed grain supplies and other food.  The increasing use of iron at the time gives some support to this theory as the Minoans who were traders in bronze would have lost their markets and therefore their source of wealth.

A model reconstruction of such a ship at the Maritime Museum of Crete at Chania
A model reconstruction of such a ship at the Maritime Museum of Crete at Chania

It may also be that the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, who were themselves going through a strong development process at the time, simply managed to land on Crete and take it over either through the use of the element of surprise or because the Minoan fleet had been devastated by some natural catastrophe.  If the Mycenaeans did manage to land on Crete there would have been very little to stop them as the Minoan cities were not protected by walls and the Minoans did not have a strong army.

Perhaps all of the above theories are to some extent true and the decline in Minoan civilisation was a combination of several factors which occurred over a relatively short period of time.  However, one thing that is well established is that around 1400 BC the Mycenaeans take over Crete and the long and stable Minoan rule over the island is brought to an end.

2. Mycenaean, Classical, Hellenistic & Roman Periods

Following the decline of Minoan civilisation Crete generally had a similar fate to that of the rest of Greece.  The language and culture of mainland Greece was adopted.  Homer writes that Crete was prosperous during the Mycenaean period and contributed 80 ships to the expedition against Troy in approximately 1194 BC.  Aristotle also refers to Crete as a relatively prosperous place during the Classical period.

It was during the Classical and Hellenistic period that Crete was split into several city states which challenged each others for supremacy and which at times were at war.  Gortyn, Kydonia (modern Chania), Ierapytna (modern Ierapetra) and Lyttos all challenged Knossos and often involved outside powers to gain some advantage.  It was in this atmosphere of division that the Romans attacked Crete in 71 BC on the pretext that Knossos was assisting King Mithridates VI of Pontus in his war against the Romans.  Initially the Romans were defeated but they sent a new army with three legions which managed to conquer the island in 69 BC after a difficult three year campaign.  Gortyn was made the capital as a reward for the assistance it had provided to the Romans.

A map of Roman Crete
A map of Roman Crete

3. Byzantine Rule

When the Roman Empire split in two Crete became part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.  The island converted to Christianity and the largest Christian basilica in Crete was built in Gortyn in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Titus, the first Christian bishop on the island.

Crete remained part of the Byzantine Empire until 824 when it was conquered by the Arabs.  During this time, Gortyn was completely destroyed and its Christian archbishop killed.  Candia (modern day Heraklion) was established by the Arabs as the capital of an emirate they created on the island.

In 960, during a period of resurgence for the Byzantine Empire, Crete was reconquered by the Byzantine general and later emperor Nicephorus Phocus.  It remained a part of the Byzantine Empire until 1204.

4. Venetian Occupation

A self-portrait by El Greco (1600) now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
A self-portrait by El Greco in 1600 at the age of 60 (from the Metropolitan Museum in New York)

Following the capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade Crete was given to Venice which continued to occupy the island for the next four centuries.  The Venetians governed the island harshly and were ruthless in suppressing the many revolts that took place during their rule.  Their presence on the island can still be seen in the many castles they built and in the old towns of the major cities.

Under Venetian occupation the island was exposed to Renaissance culture to which it made many valuable contributions.  Domenicos Theotocopoulos (best known as El Greco) made the most notable contribution with his paintings (refer section on famous Cretans).  The romantic epic Cretan poem ‘Erotokritos’ was also written during this period by Vitsentzos Kornaros.  The poem about love, honour, courage and friendship consists of 10,015 verses and is written in a style similar to traditional ‘mantinades’ (refer section on Cretan culture).  Another important work from the time is the drama ‘Erophili’ which was written by Georgios Hartatzis around 1595.

Hopeless Mission to Constantinople

img_history13Occasionally in history an event captures the essence or character of a people or culture.  One such event occurred during Venetian rule in 1453 when 1,000 Cretans answered the call of the Byzantine emperor and went to his aid in what can only be described as a suicidal mission to defend the freedom and honour of their fellow Greeks.

In January 1453 Sultan Ahmed II had completely surrounded Constantinople.  With only 7,000 soldiers left to defend the city against his huge army of over 150,000 and fleet which numbered over 150 ships it was only a matter of time before the city fell.  The cry went out for help.  Against these impossible odds 1,000 Cretans under the leadership of Manousos Kallikratis sailed in 5 ships towards the desperate city.  They managed to break through the Turkish blockade and went on to courageously defend the city.

When the city finally fell the surviving 170 Cretans barricaded themselves inside one of the city towers and continued fighting.  Their refusal to surrender in the face of certain death so impressed the Sultan that he allowed them to leave the city with their arms.  They sailed back to Crete in one of their ships knowing the huge burden they carried to retain their Greek Orthodox heritage over the difficult years ahead.

During the Venetian rule the Turks made several unsuccessful attempts to take the island including one by the notorious Barbarossa in 1538.  However, in 1645 the Turks successfully landed in Crete and within two years managed to expel the Venetians from nearly the entire island.  The town of Candia (modern Heraklion) held out for 21 years between 1647 and 1669 which may be the longest siege in world history.  The last Venetian outpost on the island was the fortress of Spinalonga which fell in 1718.

An 18th century mural of the Turkish armada outside the port of Heraklion (from the Historical Museum of Crete at Heraklion)
An 18th century mural of the Turkish armada outside the port of Heraklion (from the Historical Museum of Crete at Heraklion)

Erotokritos: A Cretan Epic

img_history15Erotokritos which was written by Vintsentzos Cornaros is considered a masterpiece of Greek poetry.  It consists of 10,015 fifteen syllable rhyming lines.  It is an epic story about love, exile, suffering, patriotism, loyalty, friendship and courage.  In this it reflects the romanticism and notions of valour and chivalry during the renaissance period.  The poem was probably written towards the end of Venetian rule around 1600.  The first known manuscript still in existence was produced in 1710 in the Ionian Islands where many Cretans escaped following the Turkish invasion.  The poem was first published in 1713 in Venice.

The poem tells the story of Erotokritos who is precluded by social class from marrying Aretousa, the daughter of an Athenian king, who he is in love with.   When the king discovers the young lovers relationship Erotokritos is forced into exile.  He later returns, having changed his appearance by drinking a magic potion, to help the Athenians defeat the attacking Vlahs.  In the process he saves the king’s life and as a reward for his courage the Athenian king offers him the hand of Aretousa in marriage.  Aretousa who has waited patiently, having earlier been jailed for her refusal to marry anyone other than Erotokritos, initially refuses to marry the stranger.  However, when he reveals his true identity to her their love is finally fulfilled.

Despite its intricate and twisting plot the poem was written in a style that was easy to read and understand and quickly became popular amongst the Greeks living under the oppressive Turkish occupation as it captured their imagination and reflected their national aspirations that one day they would also triumph over adversity and achieve their freedom.  Even today the poem is still widely recited and parts of it have made it into popular songs.

5. Turkish Occupation

img_history16Turkish rule was less ordered than that of the Venetians but it was no less harsh.  Crippling taxes were imposed on the local Christians and these were not used to invest on the island which led to the economy stagnating.  The many revolts by the local population were put down brutally and massacres were common as reprisals.  To avoid the taxes, gain more rights to property ownership and avoid reprisals the local Christians began to convert to Islam in large numbers particularly in the cities and fertile areas where Turkish authority was strongest.  Many of the conversions were initially only nominal in nature and the ‘converts’ continued to secretly worship as Christians.  However, as the Turkish occupation continued many of the locals effectively became Muslims and the Turkish hold over the island was strengthened.  It is estimated that by 1821 when the Greek war of independence began about 45% of the population of Crete was Muslim and they made up the majority of the population in the larger towns.

img_history17Resistance to Turkish rule began from the very first years of the Turkish occupation.  Christians who had not converted to Islam gradually took to the mountains where Turkish authority was limited.  From there many revolts began with the first major one coming in 1770 and centred in Sfakia under the leadership of Daskalogiannis (picture on right).  Daskalogiannis used his wealth accumulated as a shipowner to organise the rebellion after he had been promised support from Russia which in fact never materialised.  Although initially successful the revolt was suppressed in 1771 when 40,000 Turkish troops succeeded in defeating the rebel army of 1,300.  Daskalogiannis along with 70 men surrendered after being surrounded by the Turks in the castle of Frangocastello near Hora Sfakion.  The Turks tortured Daskalogiannis and then skinned him alive as retribution.  According to eyewitness accounts of this event, Daskalogiannis suffered all of the torture without uttering a sound.

However, the Turkish repression of the many Cretan revolts did not stop the local yearning for independence and the 19th century in Crete was one of almost continual struggle to achieve this aim.  During the Greek War of Independence between 1821 and 1828 Crete was the scene of repeated hostilities.  Uprisings by Christians were met by fierce reprisals by the Turks.  Initially the Turks were besieged in the large fortified towns but gradually they re-established control over the island.  During this period the local population, both Greek and Turkish, suffered a large reduction either from plague (in the case of the besieged Turks) or from the reprisal massacres (in the case of the Cretans).  As part of their reprisals the Turks executed several bishops who were considered ringleaders of the uprising. When Greece finally achieved its independence in 1830 Crete was excluded from joining it mainly due to the objection of Britain who feared that Crete may become a naval base for the Russians who had supported Greece in its struggle for independence.

6. Cretan Revolution

The long years of war in the 1820’s reduced the population and left Crete impoverished.  However, one effect of the constant struggle for independence during the 19th century was that the Christian population of Crete increased as a proportion.  Many Cretans who had nominally converted to Islam switched back to Christianity while at the same time some local Turks emigrated due to the constant fighting.  As a result of these developments, by the last Ottoman census in 1881 Christians comprised 76% of the population.  This increase in the Christian population strengthened the position of those calling for union with Greece.

Following Greece’s independence Cretan’s were more determined than ever to achieve their freedom and join the new nation.  A period of relative stability followed the turmoil of the 1820’s but tensions between the Christians and Muslims on the island continued and it was only a matter of time before a major conflict erupted again.  This happened in 1866 when a new revolution against Turkish rule began at the instigation of a 16 member Revolutionary Committee.  The conflict followed the usual pattern with the countryside falling to the rebels and the Turks holding the fortified coastal towns.  The most important battle of the 1866 Revolution was fought in November 1866 at Arcadi Monastery where the Revolutionary Committee had set up its headquarters.  After two days of fighting the Turks used their overwhelming strength in numbers and equipment to break through the monastery’s defences.  In a heroic act of defiance the Cretans inside, including most of the Revolutionary Committee, chose to blow themselves up rather than surrender.

Realising that the loss of Crete may encourage other provinces with a majority Christian population to revolt, the Ottoman Grand Vizier himself landed on Crete and personally organised the suppression of the revolt.  He set in place a localised strategy of reconquest of the island.  As each district was reoccupied a fortress was erected and the local population was given some control over the local administration to appease them.  Using this intelligent strategy, by 1869 the Turks had regained control of most of the island.

The Holocaust of Arcadi

img_history18The most defining moment of the Revolution of 1866 took place at the Arcadi Monastery, 22 kilometres south east of Rethimno, which had become the headquarters of the Revolutionary Committee.  At least 550 Cretans, mostly unarmed women and children, had taken refuge in the monastery under the leadership of Abbot Gabriel Marinakis.  Only 250 of the Cretans were armed.  The monastery was surrounded by 15,000 Turkish soldiers armed with 30 cannons.

The Cretans refused the call to surrender and heroically fought off repeated Turkish attacks for two days.  In the meantime, the Turks received reinforcements including two huge cannons which were used to blow apart the main entrance to the monastery as well as large parts of the outer wall.  The Cretans fought to the last man as the Turks stormed the monastery.

With the end in sight the women and children, who had barricaded themselves inside the gunpowder store, made the fatal decision to blow up the gunpowder store rather than surrender and face the inevitable Turkish atrocities.  The massive explosion killed all of the Cretans as well as hundreds of Turks that were inside the monastery.  Total Turkish losses in this battle were over 3,000 killed.

The Arcadi Monastery is a powerful symbol of freedom for all Cretans and a defiant warning to those who may seek to subdue them.  The sacrifice of the heroes of Arcadi was not in vain as it created a wave of sympathy and support for their cause throughout the Christian world as well as increasing the determination of those Cretans that continued the struggle for freedom.

In 1878 there was another uprising on the island.  However, the rapid intervention of Britain stopped it spreading and the Sultan was forced into a constitutional settlement known as the Pact of Halepa.  Crete became a semi-independent parliamentary state but still nominally under Ottoman control.  In 1889 the Pact of Halepa collapsed and a new uprising occurred which was suppressed by the Sultan through the introduction of martial law.  In 1895 a new more severe uprising again led to the Turks losing control of most of the island by 1896.  By this time the Great Powers of Britain, France, Italy and Russia had had enough and decided that the Ottomans could no longer maintain control over Crete.  In March 1897 they intervened and took control of the island.  They governed the island until December 1898 when they appointed Prince George of Greece as the first Governor of an autonomous Crete.  The island had effectively achieved its independence but not yet its cherished union with Greece.  In 1908, when the Ottoman Empire was in a period of domestic upheaval, the Cretan parliament decided it was time to declare the island’s union with Greece.  This unilateral step was however not recognised by the international community.

The Controversial Cretan Flag (1898-1913)

img_history19When Crete became an autonomous republic it was prevented by the Great Powers from flying the Greek flag as the island was still nominally under Ottoman sovereignty.  The flag shown on the left was imposed on the island and it was required to be used at official events.

The flag essentially consists of the Greek flag of the time with a red section in the top left had corner designed to represent the Muslim minority.  The flag was a controversial symbol which was not generally accepted by either Christians or Muslims on the island.

img_famous09It was during the period after autonomy that one of Crete’s most famous sons and the most important statement of modern Greece emerged.  This was none other than Eleftherios Venizelos (refer section on famous Cretans) who would go on to play an instrumental role in Crete’s union with Greece.  Initially Venizelos served as a minister in the autonomous Cretan government but in 1910 he went to Athens were he quickly became a leading figure and in October 1910 he became Prime Minister of Greece.  Venizelos immediately began to re-organise the country and prepare it for a war to liberate all of the lands with Greek populations still under Ottoman control.  In 1912 after careful preparations and alliances with other Balkan countries he allowed Cretan deputies to take their seat in the Greek parliament.  This, along with other demands from Greece and its Balkan allies, led to the First Balkan War between the Christian nations of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was soundly defeated in the First Balkan War and Crete’s formal union with Greece was sealed on 30 May 1913 when the Ottomans signed the Treaty of London.  On 1 December of that year the Greek flag was raised in Chania in the presence of King Constantine and Eleftherios Venizelos.  Crete was again part of the Geek motherland.  The dream of so many generations of Cretans had finally become a reality.

Following Crete’s incorporation into the Greek nation its fate became tied to that of Greece.  In 1923 the Muslim minority on the island was exchanged with Christians from Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne which followed the disastrous Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922.  Thus Crete’s population became entirely Orthodox Christian.

7. Battle of Crete

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Crete and the rest of Greece was busy rebuilding and adjusting following a decade of war and absorption of ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey.  Therefore, when the Second World War started Greece avoided taking part as it had barely recovered from the last war.  However, when Italian troops invaded Greece on 28 October 1940 Greece and therefore Crete became unwilling participants.  Initially Greece repulsed the Italian invasion and provided the first Allied victories of the war.  However, early in the following year Germany came to the aid of its Italian allies in a massive invasion of Greece.   Despite heroic resistance, mainland Greece fell to the Nazis and by May 1941 Crete was the only major part of Greek territory that was still free.  The Battle of Crete was about to begin and a new heroic chapter of Cretan history was about to be written.

img_history20
German paratroopers jumping from Ju-52’s  over Crete

The Importance of the Battle

The Battle of Crete is unique in two respects.  It was the first and only time in history that an airborne invasion had taken place.  It was also the first time during the Second World War that the Germans had encountered massive resistance from an unarmed local civilian population.

The Opposing Forces

The Allies had numerical superiority on Crete although they were not well equipped having lost much of their heavy equipment in the evacuation from the Greek mainland.  In fact, General Freyberg, their commander, had requested that 10,000 of the allied troops be removed from the island as they did not have weapons and had little or no fighting capability.   However, most of these troops were still on the island when the German invasion commenced.   The allies could also depend on the British naval supremacy.

The Germans although fewer in number would use some of their best trained and equipped troops.  They could also rely on complete air superiority which gave them mobility in placing their forces.  Furthermore, they could rely on substantial reinforcements from the nearby Greek mainland should the need arise.

The Allies The Germans
Greeks 10,250 Parachute 10,000
British 17,004 Glider and air
transport
5,750
New Zealanders 7,702 Seaborne 7,000
Australian 6,540 Aircraft 1,270

The Course of the Battle

The battle began on 20 May 1941.  The German strategy was to capture the airports at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklio using parachutists and after consolidating these positions bring in larger numbers of troops.  However, the Germans did not count on the heroic resistance of the local population which together with the allied troops caused them massive casualties.  A large part of the first wave of German parachutists were wiped out.  Those who escaped the allied soldiers met the ferocious resistance of Cretan civilians who used whatever weapons they could find to attack the Germans.  Many Germans were killed by knifes, axes, clubs and spades at the hands of the locals.  In one typical incident an elderly Cretan man clubbed a German paratrooper to death.

German paratroopers landing near Chania
German paratroopers landing near Chania

At the end of the first day the Germans had not only achieved none of their objectives but they had also lost 2,000 of their best troops.  Crete became known as “the graveyard of the German parachutists”.  The German losses had so appalled the German commander, General Kurt Student, that he contemplated suicide.

However, through miscommunication the allies failed to grasp the extent of the German’s disarray and take advantage of the situation.  During the first night of the battle a fatal error was made when the New Zealand battalion defending the Maleme airfield mistakenly withdrew from its position.  As a result the Germans were able to take the airfield and bring in reinforcements and heavy equipment the next day.  The tide of the battle turned decisively in their favour.  The Allies began a series of withdrawals towards the south of the island.

A United States Military Academy teaching map which details the course of the Battle of Crete
A United States Military Academy teaching map which details the course of the Battle of Crete

As the British Commonwealth troops withdrew the Greek soldiers and local population continued to fight.  The ill equipped Greek 8th Regiment with only 850 men is credited with saving thousands of allied troops from capture as they repulsed continued German attacks for 8 days and protected the allied line of withdrawal.  The Allies managed to evacuate some 17,000 troops to Egypt.

The Aftermath and Occupation

Cretan partisans during the German occupation
Cretan partisans during the German occupation

As the Germans consolidated their control over Crete they continued to suffer heavy casualties.  By the time the Battle of Crete had ended the Germans had lost 370 aircraft and at least 6,000 of their best troops compared to 1,751 allied soldiers killed on Crete and 1,828 British naval casualties in protecting the sea lanes around the island and evacuating the allied troops.  In addition, 17,500 allied soldiers were taken prisoner.  The German losses were so high that they were hidden from the public and Hitler ordered that airborne troops never be used in this way again.  As a comparison, the Germans had lost only 45,000 troops in taking France, Belgium and the Netherlands which were defended by more than 3 million well armed allied troops.

Following the capture of Crete many Cretans and allied soldiers that had escaped capture took to the mountains to continue the struggle.  Cretan families took huge and sometimes fatal risks to help save the allied soldiers that had been left behind.  Cretan women became mothers and sisters to allied soldiers, including many Australians, as they sheltered them from the Germans.  The Germans took out their vengeance for their shocking losses on the local population.  Whole villages were wiped out in reprisals.  In one village, Gandanos, which was burned to the ground only a sign remained stating: “Here stood Gandanos.  It was destroyed in retaliation for the death of 25 German soldiers.”

However, the German atrocities did not stop a tenacious resistance campaign which only ended when the Germans left the island.  In fact, the Germans were forced to keep as many as 50,000 soldiers on the small island in order to control it.  It has been estimated that nearly 9,000 Cretan civilians and partisans were killed during the war including 1,100 women and 900 children.  Perhaps the following quotes from some key participants best sum up the importance of the Battle of Crete and Greece’s heroic resistance in general:

Winston Churchill:
“Hence we shall not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”

Adolf Hitler in a speech to the Reichstag in 1941:
“It must be said, for the sake of historical truth, that amongst all our opponents, only the Greeks fought with such endless courage and defiance of death.”

General Freyberg during the Battle of Crete:
“I wish to express the admiration of the Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers for the bravery, daring and courage shown by the Greek troops as well as the inhabitants of the island of Crete in these critical hours.  The whole world has its eyes turned to Crete and her noble defenders.”

General Kurt Student referred to the Battle of Crete as being:
“The graveyard of the German parachutist” and “a disastrous victory.”

From the British Ministry of Defence official records:
“The Battles in Greece and Crete forced the Germans to postpone for many crucial weeks their invasion against Russia.  They staved off the danger of German air force attacks against the bases in the Middle East.  In other words, the Battles in Greece and Crete although defeats from a tactical point of view, may be considered victories from a strategic point of view.”

8. Crete Since the Second World War

Hellenic Foundation for Research and Technology at Heraklion
Hellenic Foundation for Research and Technology at Heraklion

Following the Second World War Crete was for a short time caught up in the civil conflict that occurred in Greece between communists and royalists.  Many Cretans immigrated during the 1950’s and 1960’s as Greece had been left impoverished by the Second World War and the civil strife that followed.  A large number of these immigrants came to Australia.

The new 18 hole golf course at  Hersonissos designed to attract higher spending  tourists
The new 18 hole golf course at  Hersonissos designed to attract higher spending  tourists

In recent years Crete has prospered along with the rest of Greece.  Since Greece entered the European Union in 1981 Crete has slowly changed its traditional inward looking mentality and now sees itself as playing a more important role in the wider region using its strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean.   The recent establishment of many higher learning and research institutions are part of this new vision for the island.  In the near future Crete hopes to bridge its immense heritage with a quickly developing world by becoming a centre not only for culture and tourism but also research, education, technology and high quality products and services.

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