On 30 April 1941, a New Zealand Army officer, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC, was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete ("Creforce").
By May 1941, the Greek forces consisted of approximately 9,000 troops: three battalions of the 5th Division of the Hellenic Army, which had been left behind when the rest of the unit had been transferred to the mainland to oppose the German invasion; the Cretan Gendarmerie (a battalion-sized force); the Heraklion Garrison Battalion, a battalion made up mostly of transport and logistics personnel; and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions, which had also escaped from the Greek mainland to Crete and were under British command.
Maleme Airfield near Chania, is where the Battle of Crete commenced on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code name Unternehmen Merkur. (Operation Mercury)
This was the first large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had used parachute and glider-borne assaults on a smaller scale for invasions in Scandinavia and some other countries. On the 20th May, more German troops also landed in the town of Chania.
The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme Airfield and its immediate surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion.
Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. (A visit to Hill 107 is recommended)
A second wave of German aircraft arrived in the afternoon, dropping more paratroopers along with several more gliders containing heavy assault troops. One group attacked at Rethymno at 16:15, and another attacked at Heraklion at 17:30. As with the earlier actions, the defenders were waiting for them and inflicted heavy casualties.
Heraklion was defended by the British 14th Infantry Brigade, augmented by the Australian 2/4th Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and "Garrison" (ex-5th "Crete" Division) Battalions. The Greek units were sorely lacking in equipment and supplies, but they fought bravely. On 23rd May most of the New Zealand forces around Maleme Airfield retreated to a new defensive line at Platanias, by mid-morning on the 23rd the majority of the 5th (NZ) Brigade which was soon threatened by fresh German forces moving in from the south and the New Zealanders were forced back toward Galatas, a small village near Chania. However two major German forces –were advancing west from the vicinity of Canea – were only hours away from joining up, preparing to launch an attack on Galatas.
24th May: the Germans re-enforced with fresh troops who had landed at Maleme Airfield made a cautious advance on Galatas.
The 4th (NZ) Brigade took up a defensive position surrounding Galatas village. There was no major attack, but several skirmishes took place as German reconnaissance patrols probed the New Zealand line.
For Brigadier Edward Puttick, commander of 2nd New Zealand Division, the situation was bleak with ammunition in short supply in addition to communication and transport problems. By this date, around 20% of the New Zealand Division had become casualties. On the 25th May the New Zealanders stationed in Galatas were subjected to further bombardment from German mortars, artillery and aircraft and then fighting, where losses were so great, they finally had to retreat from the village, which fell to German forces (A black day for Galatas)
27th May: On this morning the German 141st Mountain Regiment blocked a section of the road between Souda Bay and Chania. The New Zealand 28th (Maori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion cleared the road with a ferocious bayonet charge, an action dubbed the "Battle of 42nd Street."
28th May: The main elements of Creforce began their withdrawal over the White Mountains to Sfakia. They faced sporadic attacks and a difficult route. A breakdown in German communications ensured that the evacuation path was kept open. While the garrison at Retimo (Remython) remained isolated, most of the troops at Heraklion were evacuated by ship.
At Sfakia preparations were made to evacuate the first troops from the main force.
"We didn't have much sleep. I remember one night, my mate and me, the only thing we had to keep us warm was a stiff bit of canvas from a jeep, and it was too stiff to bend. It had these celluloid windows in it. But anything like that was used to keep you warm. There were a lot of shot-up trucks with dead bodies in them. It was hot during the day and a couple of times, particularly where people had been burnt and the trucks had burnt, the smell was horrible"
Private David Taylor, 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion, in M. Hutching (ed.) 'A unique sort of battle': New Zealanders remember Crete, 2001, p. 176
Major-General E.C. Weston met with his senior commanders for the first time since the withdrawal began to discuss the final stages of the evacuation. It was decided that 4th (NZ) Brigade would set up a defensive screen at the southern end of the Askifou Plain and make its way to the beaches at nightfall. The 5th (NZ) Brigade would move further south near the village of Komitadhes – some 5 km from Sfakia – before heading for the beaches. The New Zealanders would be followed by 19th (Australian) Brigade and a Royal Marine battalion. The assumption was that the evacuation would be completed on the night of 30 May.
During the afternoon 23rd Battalion, defending the northern entrance to the Askifou Plain, came into contact with leading elements of the pursuing German force. Short on rations and water, the New Zealanders held off several attacks before pulling back to join the remainder of 5th Brigade near Komitadhes. They were closely followed by German troops.
30th May: beach preparations were made to embark the first men. Four destroyers arrived that evening, bringing much-needed rations. Over the next few hours men were loaded onto the ships. At 3 a.m. the destroyers sailed for Egypt.
31st May: More than half the remaining members of Creforce were evacuated from Sfakia. Lack of space on ships combined with a scarcity of supplies meant that 6,500 troops – including 2,100 New Zealanders – were left behind on Crete to face possible capture by the Germans.