CWGC Military Cemetery, Souda Bay
This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) military cemetery which lies in an olive grove at the north-west corner of Souda (Suda) Bay on the north coast of Crete. Currently 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen from the Second World War are buried or commemorated here with 776 of the burials being unidentified.
The cemetery also contains 19 First World War burials brought in from Suda Bay Consular Cemetery, 7 burials of other nationalities and 37 non-war burials. The memorial pictured below commemorates N.C.O.s and Private Soldiers of the 1st battalion Seaforth Highlanders who died during the International occupation of Crete in 1897.
In October 1940, without informing Hitler, Mussolini invaded Greece from Albania, convinced that Greece would collapse and he would have a victory to rival Germany`s conquests in Poland and the West. The Greeks, however, not only resisted stubbornly but counter-attacked and by December had driven the Italians back across the Albanian border.
On 10 April 1941 German armoured divisions crossed into Greece from Yugoslavia and immediately made good progress with panzers entering the Greek capital Athens on the 27th.
A British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece from Egypt in March was unable to prevent the Germans capturing the country and a seaborne evacuation was carried out from the Peloponnese.
This small piece of metal is all that remains of the Cameron-class merchant ship SS Clan Fraser which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a bombing raid on the port of Piraeus on 6 April 1941.
The vessel was built in Greenock by the Greenock Dockyard Company and entered service with Clan Line Steamers of London in 1939. She was a familiar sight on the Clyde until the outbreak of the Second World War when she was utilised for convoy duty in the Mediterranean.
SS Clan Fraser was just one of many ships that were struck and set alight during the raid but her cargo proved to be particularly catastrophic. She was carrying arms and 250 tons of high-explosives which soon ignited causing a massive blast which ripped through the port causing severe damage to ships, dockside installations and houses, some of which were a considerable distance from the waterfront. The shock wave even rattled doors and windows in Athens, fifteen miles away. This fragment was found in a Piraeus garden, 1.5km from the centre of the explosion. Clan Frazer sank in the harbour leaving six of her crew dead and nine wounded. Her master, Capt J.H. Giles was one of the survivors.
The black & white image above the shot of Clan Fraser shows a German anti-aircraft unit in Athens sometime in mid-May 1941, after Hitler`s forces had captured the city.
The shot on the right, also from the Imperial War Museum`s archives, is of RAF ground personnel in lorries outside Athens, about to travel to a port in southern Greece for evacuation.
During the operation, severe naval losses were incurred on both sides but a large number of Allied troops managed to reach Crete and reinforced the garrison there. On 20 May 1941, the Germans mounted a large-scale airborne attack, codenamed `Operation Mercury`, to capture the strategically important island.
Hitler`s key objectives were airfields at Heraklion (Iraklion), Maleme and Rethymnon, along with the ports at Chania and Souda Bay. German troops initially parachuted in, or landed in gliders such as this DFS 230 which is currently on display at the Luftwaffe Museum in Berlin.
Below: Junkers Ju 52s like the one shown below were the main Luftwaffe transport aircraft which ferried in not only troops but ammunition and supplies to the airfields on Crete, on some occasions even before they were totally secure. This example is on display at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, Brussels, Belgium.
Below left: German mountain troops of the 5th Gebirgs-Division board a Junkers Ju 52 at a airfield soemwhere on the Greek mainland before flying to Crete on 20 May 1941. They were among 3,000 German paratroops which landed at Maleme, Rethymnon, Chania and Heraklion that morning. The aerial shot below, taken on 21 May 1941, shows bombs exploding on Maleme airfield during a daylight raid by Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF. The aircraft were flying from LG 21/Qotafiya III, Egypt. Wrecked Junkers Ju-52/3ms, litter the airfield with most of the damage sustained in the initial landings rather than the Allied bombing.
Junkers Ju 87 Stukas were used to great effect to support the airborne landings and mainland-based Messerchmitt Bf109s were just within range to provide fighter cover over the Maleme airfield. Fighting was fierce with British, Australian and New Zealanders as well as many local fighters making a determined stand against the invaders. The Germans managed to capture and hold the airfield at Maleme which allowed them to fly-in reinforcements.
On 23 May, the remaining defenders at Maleme were forced to withdraw and made for Chania. On 26 May, the Allied line west of Chania was broken and Souda Bay became indefensible, forcing the troops from these two positions, along with the remainder of the Maleme garrison, to withdraw across the island to Sfakion, where many of them were evacuated by sea on the nights of the 28 - 31 May.
Below left: Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg VC, commanding officer of the British forces on Crete, gazes over the parapet of his dug-out in the direction of the German advance in May 1941. Right: A German troop-carrying Ju-52 shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire near Heraklion. Smoke and flames pour from the Luftwaffe plane as it loses altitude and a pall of smoke hangs over the habour in Suda Bay where two ships, hit by German bombers, are burning.
The airborne assaults on Allied-held Heraklion and Rethymnon were initially repulsed and the island`s capital Heraklion was successfully defended until late on 29 May when the garrison was evacuated by sea. The troops at Rethymnon fought on until the city was overwhelmed on 31 May. Pictured below are a crashed German glider with two of its occupants lying dead alongside and German POWs under British guard at an unknown location on Crete not long before the island fell.
The Greek National War Museum in Athens has a display on the Battle for Crete which includes a variety of weapons and equipment used by the opposing forces.
German weapons and equipment are shown above and below left with a British Bren Gun and tin helmet pictured below right.
Allied losses in the defence of the island amounted to 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an equal number wounded, as well as over 18,000 Commonwealth and Greek troops captured. The Royal Navy`s casualties in the supporting operations amounted to over 2,000 killed or wounded and a large number of civilians were killed, either fighting or caught in the crossfire.
The Paratroopers, (Fallschirmjäger) in particular suffered very heavy losses, and the operation cost the Germans in excess of 4,000 men dead or missing and 2,600 wounded. Over 370 aircraft were either lost or badly damaged. When he heard of the casualties, a shocked Adolf Hitler forbade any further large-scale airborne operations. For the remainder of the war the majority of Fallschirmjäger were used as infantry, often as shock troops, and latterly in desperate attempts to prevent inadequate defensive positions from being overrun.
Many of the Allied troops involved in the fighting here were Australian or New Zealanders.
The site of Souda Bay for a communal war cemetery was chosen after the war and graves were moved there from the four burial grounds that had been established by the German occupying forces, as well as from isolated sites and civilian cemeteries.
The War Museum of Chania, housed in what was originally the Italian Barracks, has various exhibits and photographs connected with the Battle for Crete. Unfortunately I only made a brief stop in the city while on a bus tour and didn`t have enough time to check it out. I`ve since seen a notification online that the museum has closed permanently.