Dwindling Band of Veterans Remember 1941’s Battle of Crete

German paratroopers invading Crete in 1941

They say ‘old soldiers never die; they simply fade away’ but as Sunday marks the beginning 1941’s 13-day Battle of Crete this year’s commemoration also highlights the dwindling number of veterans from this fateful WWII conflict.

One 97-year-old former soldier from New Zealand who fought against the Nazis on Crete is making a final journey back to the Greek island.

Anthony Madden, a father-of-three, was serving with the Allied forces on the island when he was shot and eventually taken prisoner by the invading Wehrmacht.

On Sunday, he will take part in a commemoration ceremony to mark the battle, being one of only a handful of New Zealanders left alive who took part in the WWII conflict.

In April, fellow Kiwi soldier and former MP Haddon Donald died at the age of 101. Donald had joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1939 as an officer in the 22nd Battalion, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He fought in Greece against the Germans near Mount Olympus and in at the Maleme airfield as part of the Battle of Crete.

Crete had been targeted because of the British airfield, which was more than capable of striking the vital Ploesti oil fields in Romania.

Hitler’s forces needed all the oil they could get for the impending assault on Russia.

Securing Crete would be tantamount to driving the British out of the eastern Mediterranean; it would also be the first step towards Cyprus and the Suez Canal.

The battle that started on May 20 and ended in June 1, 1941 was dubbed the Graveyard of the Fallshirmjager (‘Sky Hunters’ or paratroopers).

Nearly 4,000 German troops were killed and 1,500 wounded in the first three days of the assault. It was also the first time the Germans had encountered stiff partisan resistance, with women and even children getting involved in the battle.

The Allies eventually pulled back in the face of a constant flow of fresh German troops and began their retreat.

On May 29, motorized reconnaissance elements, advancing through enemy-held territory, established contact with German forces in the Rethymno area and reached Iraklion the next day.

After repeated encounters with enemy rear guards, the German forces reached the south coast of the island on June 1 — ending the struggle for Crete.

According to several historians, Cretan resistance played an important role in developments.

By the end of the three-and-a-half years of occupation, Hitler had sent a total of 100,000 troops to the island to subdue 5,000 Cretan Andartes.

These German troops could have been deployed somewhere else instead of being tied down on Crete.

More German troops were lost during the Battle of Crete than in France, Yugoslavia and Poland combined.

Most importantly, as a result of the fighting on Crete, Hitler’s master plan to invade Russia before the coming of winter, had to be postponed, which resulted in the deaths of many German troops who were not properly prepared to survive the harsh Russian winter.

New Zealand news site Stuff published this moving interview with one 95-year-old veteran in 2013, recalling the harrowing conflict on Crete.