History makers: Cretan resistance

This week we look at the incredible ‘love of freedom and defiance of death’ of the men and women who defended Crete against the Nazis.

Of all the resistance movements which fought against the Nazis during the Second World War, few had the tenacity, courage and unwavering popular support of the Cretan Antartes (Partisans). Today, if the resistance on Crete is remembered at all, it is usually portrayed as having been led by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Overall however, British involvement in Crete did far more to stymie the Cretan resistance movement than to help it.

On 20 May 1941, the Nazis invaded Crete. Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury) was the first time in history that an almost entirely airborne invasion had been undertaken. Despite the fact that the 40,000 British and ANZAC troops stationed on Crete knew invasion was imminent, they were still startled by the invading German paratroopers and had no coherent plan for the defence of the island. The defence against the Blitzkrieg was further impeded by General Freyberg, the New Zealander in command of Allied forces on the island, who had actively sought to keep arms out of the hands of Cretan militias prior to the invasion, believing them to be untrustworthy and full of anti-royalist sentiment. Unsurprisingly, the Allies were swiftly routed, evacuating Crete after just 10 days of fighting. The Cretans, now abandoned, were to demonstrate far more resolve than those who had been charged with defending them.

Whereas resistance movements against Fascist occupations in other parts of Europe took some time to organise, the civilian uprising in Crete started spontaneously, as soon as the first German paratroopers landed on Cretan soil. People came out of their houses and attacked the German troops en masse. Men and women, the very young and the very old, attacked the invaders with axes, scythes, and butchers’ knives. When nothing else was at hand, people attacked the Germans with rocks and their bare hands. Elite members of the feared Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), pride of the Wehrmacht, were often dispatched by peasants with the most rudimentary weapons moments after they landed. There was the elderly shepherd who clubbed a paratrooper to death with his walking stick. There was the priest, helped by his son, who held down a German unit with antique rifles stolen from a local museum. There were the people of the village of Kandanos who, lacking military training or equipment, managed to stop a much larger German force from entering their town for two days using little more than a few hunting rifles and policeman’s pistols.

This was the first time the Nazis had been met with such ferocious resistance from a local populace. The Nazi elite were shocked by the level of civilian resistance and it led to Crete to becoming known as the ‘Graveyard of the Fallschirmjäger’. Hitler, who had hitherto believed paratroopers would be at the forefront of future campaigns, never used them to spearhead an operation again.

The people of Crete often paid a terrible price for their courage. The Germans razed Kandanos to the ground and massacred its people in revenge for their brave defence of their village. To this day, a reproduction of the sign put there by the Germans stands: ‘Here stood Kandanos, destroyed in retribution for the murder of 25 German soldiers, never to be rebuilt again.’ The same story was to be repeated over and over across the island in the following years. Over just three days in September 1943, 20 towns were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred in retaliation for resistance activity.

However, even the Nazis expressed admiration for the resilience and courage of the Cretans. General Alexander Andrae, German commander of the occupation, a man responsible for the murder and torture of thousands of islanders, said: ‘The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary. Cretans turn into mythical figures…  Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance of death as I did on Crete.’

The initial defence of the island by the Cretans was heroic but hopelessly disorganised. An organised and coherent resistance would be needed to fight the occupation in the long term. Various groups sprung up, the largest of which was the leftist PMK (Patriotic Front of Crete), later called the EAM (National Liberation Front). The EAM took to the mountains of central Crete from, where it launched a ferocious guerrilla war against the occupying German and Italian troops.

The smaller National Organisation of Crete (EOK) was founded, and supported, by British intelligence with the aim of preventing left-wing elements from completely dominating the resistance.

From the outset, British involvement in Crete often seemed more concerned with keeping the leftist EAM under wraps than it was with expelling the Germans. Indeed, the Brits often set out to sabotage and undermine the EAM efforts by encouraging divisions in the movement, withholding badly needed ammunition from them, and spreading anti-EAM propaganda. After the war, Greeks who fought with the British-backed EOK alleged that assassinations and kidnappings of German personnel were sometimes carried out on EAM-controlled territory in the hope that the inevitably brutal Nazi reprisals on civilians would turn the population against the left-wing partisans. JM Stevens, the head of the SOE’s Greek desk in Cairo, admitted that one of the principal aims of their activities was to ‘have in postwar Greece a stable government friendly to Great Britain, if possible a constitutional monarchy’.

What for the Cretans was a battle for survival, was for the British a secondary theatre of the war, especially after Crete’s decrease in strategic importance after Allied victories in North Africa. As such, the troublesome Cretans were only useful to the British in that they forced the Axis to garrison huge numbers of troops from elsewhere to maintain control of Crete. In this regard, to expel the occupiers from Crete - the stated aim of the resistance - would actually have run contrary to British interests.

The operations the British conducted on the island were sometimes little more than publicity stunts. Outside of Crete, the resistance movement is probably most famous for the adventures of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his kidnap of General Kreipe. Such stunts no doubt made for great propaganda, but they did little to further the liberation of Crete.

The final insult to the people of Crete came after the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945. The British, still unwilling to allow Crete to fall into the hands of the Cretans, allowed Nazi garrisons stationed on the island to keep their arms to maintain order. And so the Cretan people, who had fought so heroically for their freedom, were subjected to the humiliation of continued German occupation even after the fall of the Third Reich.

Despite the brutality of the Nazis, and the constant sabotage by their so-called Allies, the fearlessness of the Cretan people in the days of German occupation remains a powerful testament to the fact that when a people resolutely decide they will not be ruled, no amount of coercion will make them bow.

Rossa Minogue is staff writer at spiked.

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