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.