Battle of Crete: Maleme 61 years on.
Nowadays, the village of Maleme is virtually indistinguishable
from all the others that line the main tourist strip on the north
coast of Crete, to the west of Chania. For 10 miles or more, with
varying intensity, the tavernas, restaurants and supermarkets line
the coast road, ripe with tourists from across Europe. Only the
names distinguish one former village from the next: Ayia Marina,
Platanias, Garina, and Maleme. Maleme, being furthest from the city
of Chania, is a little quieter than the others. It also has an airfield.
As the coast road heads straight west out of Maleme to the village
of Tavronitis, the coast itself juts out gently, forming a shallow
salient upon which the cross runways stand. The river bed of the
Tavronitis forms the western perimeter, with the old metal bridge
- pock marked by bullets - still standing gauntly, slightly closer
to the sea than the newer bridge that now carries the coast road
across the rocky river bed. Save for a metalled surface, the airfield
stands almost unchanged from the pandemonium of May 1941.
As you approach the airfield heading west on the coast road, Hill
107 appears rising steadily on the left. It is a respectable - if
not steep - slope, reaching a commanding height overlooking the
landing strips. This Hill was the key to the airfield and therefore
to the whole island. Hold it, and the Germans could not reinforce
significantly by air. Lose it, and reinforcements pour in by the
Upon walking the ground, the strategic importance of the area is
clear, and with it the tactical folly of the Allied defence. The
western edge of the airfield was garrisoned by two platoons from
22nd New Zealand battalion. The land beyond the Tavronitis was not
garrisoned, providing an area for Germans to land and form up without
direct opposition, and dead ground (the river bed) from which to
mount the assault on the airfield and hill. This was a major error.
Although the hill itself dominates the airfield, from many places
on its slopes the view is very restricted, thanks to the great number
of olive and orange trees in groves across the area. In places,
bamboo thickets grow to three storeys tall (I am not joking, it
amazed me). Although they are more common slightly further east,
towards Chania, they severely restrict visibility in some areas.
From the ground, these groves and thickets present a nightmare playground
of claustrophobic close combat.
Observation posts on the hill must be carefully sighted to give
any kind of clear view of the battle for the airfield below. It
is not at all certain that this was done. Lt Col Andrew, Battalion
commander, sited his command post on the rear slopes of Hill 107
and at no time ventured to the forward slopes to see the picture
for himself. Without radio contact with the forward platoons he
was blind, and wrongly assessed them as having been overrun, before
obtaining permission to retire.
'Fog of war' notwithstanding, the Allied dispositions and communication
arrangements around Maleme airfield were deeply flawed, which put
its continued possession in doubt from the start. Before my trip
I understood that Andrew's confusion as to the true state of affairs
on the western edge of the landing strip played a big part in his
decision to withdraw. Only now do I see exactly how he placed himself
in the dark by remaining on the reverse slope, without at least
reliable contact with a well-sited OP on the forward slopes.
Since 1974 the German War Cemetery has stood on the forward slopes
of Hill 107, containing the graves of 4,466 German dead, many of
whom fell within a few hundred yards of their now final resting
place. Had Lt Col Andrew ventured to just the same spot on May 20th
1941 he may have prevented them ever capturing the island, and in
the long run saved them the many casualties to come in the long
and bloody period of occupation and resistance.