On the morning of 1 June 1941, the 5000 Allied troops left at Sfakia realised that they had been abandoned. Their trek over the mountains of Crete had been for nothing. Bewildered and angry, they now faced the prospect of captivity.
We reached some caves at Sfakia and hid in these caves. Then one of the officers told us to pile up our weapons and wait for the Germans – we were aghast, and cursed all and sundry. Then the Germans arrived and started marching us back over the mountains. There was no food or drink and the Germans robbed us of watches and rings on the march to the POW camp. It was a bloody shambles.
Signalman Peter Cosgrave, Divisional Signals, in M. Hutching (ed.) ‘A unique sort of battle’: New Zealanders remember Crete, 2001, p. 202
During the morning of 1 June the exhausted remnants of Creforce formally surrendered to the Germans and began a depressing march back across the mountains. With others captured elsewhere on the island, 6500 Commonwealth troops went ‘into the bag’. Among them were 2100 New Zealanders – the largest number of New Zealand prisoners of war (POWs) taken in a single battle during the Second World War.
Prisoners of war
Those captured on Crete were initially held at a transit camp near Galatas before being transported to mainland Greece. Conditions at the overcrowded camp were poor; food shortages, lack of medical supplies and primitive sanitation added to the depression of the POWs. Private Colin Burn, 18th Battalion, described how the lack of basic facilities at the Galatas camp contributed to an outbreak of disease amongst prisoners:
The conditions in the camp were shocking. It was dusty and dirty and there was only sandy ground, with a few tufts of grass. The toilet facilities were shocking. All they had was a trench in the ground, dug in on the outside, the edge of the camp. Out in the open. Everyone had dysentery. It was nothing to see a hundred all lined up along the trench, and more waiting to get there. Chaps couldn’t make it. If you soiled your clothes, all you could do was go down to the beach and get in the tide. There was only one well, and the water used to get muddy in that.
Private Colin Burn, 18th Battalion, in M. Hutching (ed.) ‘A unique sort of battle’: New Zealanders remember Crete, 2001, p. 199
On the mainland, the POWs joined those captured in Greece in transit camps at Corinth or Salonika. From here they were taken north by train. Officers and non-commissioned officers went to Germany, while the rest ended up in camps in Austria and northern Yugoslavia (modern-day Slovenia). There most of them stayed until they were liberated in 1945.
Others were not content to sit out the war in captivity. Many men took advantage of the relatively lax security at the transit camp near Galatas and took to the hills. They were helped, at great personal risk, by the Cretan people. Some soldiers roamed Crete for several years trying to find a way off the island. Others managed to escape on boats or submarines. A few made it to neutral Turkey via Greece or went directly to Egypt. One of these men was Second Lieutenant Walter ‘Sandy’ Thomas. Wounded and captured on Crete, he escaped from a transit camp in Greece and reached Turkey after sheltering with monks on Mt Athos.
Other escapees became involved in the guerilla war waged by Cretan resistance groups against the German–Italian occupation force. Among them were New Zealanders Staff Sergeant Tom Moir and Sergeant Dudley Perkins – escaped POWs who returned to Crete with the Special Operations Executive. Perkins, known as ‘Vasili’ to Cretan partisans, went on to earn the moniker ‘Lion of Crete’ for his exploits with resistance groups. He was killed in action in February 1944.
The cost of the Battle for Crete was high for both sides. Total casualties among Commonwealth forces were 15,743, of whom 1751 were killed or died of wounds. Of the 7700 New Zealanders involved in the battle, 671 were killed – a fatality rate of nearly 9% – while another 2180 were taken prisoner. In naval operations around Crete the Royal Navy lost three cruisers, six destroyers and the lives of more than 2000 sailors.
German losses were very heavy. More than 3000 died during the battle and a similar number were wounded. Crete would prove to be, as General Kurt Student later commented, the ‘graveyard of the paratroops’. They were never again used in a large-scale airborne offensive.