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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Invasion Begins

Invasion Begins

The usual blitz of Maleme airfield took place in the early morning of 20 May, but it was longer and heavier than usual, being directed especially against the anti-aircraft defences. Then, at 8 a.m. the sirens and bells from Canea to Maleme again sounded warnings and from that moment there was no “all clear” for the British forces on Crete. The invasion had begun.1

Maleme airfield and the hospital area near Canea were the two primary objectives of the enemy's concentrated air attack, which persisted for an hour and a half as part of the “softening-up process”. The hospital was marked with a Red Cross, 30 ft by 20 ft, formed by red-painted stones laid out on the ground, as well as by Red

1 Preparations for the invasion of Crete had been made from the beginning of April and aerodromes in Bulgaria and Greece had been allotted for this purpose. Parachute, glider, and mountain troops and large numbers of planes of all kinds were detailed for the operation. Altogether an original force of 22,750 men was selected and eventually about 23,000 Germans were landed. There were 650 bombers and fighters, some 500 transport planes, and 80 gliders.

page 167 Crosses on the roofs of the officers' mess, the cookhouse and another building, and a large cloth Red Cross on the ground; yet it was subjected to the same intensive bombing and ground strafing as Maleme. Wounded were machine-gunned in their tents by low-flying aircraft. When the blitz lifted, gliders crash-landed to disgorge more enemy troops. Then in came lumbering troop-carrying planes, from which hundreds of paratroops jumped at a height of about 500 feet and swung to earth.

The two main centres of these landings soon became obvious – Maleme airfield and the area to the west of it along the Tavronitis River,1 and, secondly, the prison and lake area south-west of Galatas. The paratroops were engaged by 5 and 10 Brigades in the respective areas. Landings were also made around Canea between Galatas and the sea but these troops were quickly mopped up by 4 Brigade. Fierce battles developed as the enemy concentrated on reinforcing the troops establishing themselves at Maleme airfield. In the hospital area west of Canea the enemy at first had it all his own way in attacking the unarmed medical units – 6 Field Ambulance and 7 General Hospital.

1 Captain Stewart, RMO 23 Battalion, reported later that he visited the Tavronitis riverbed when a prisoner of war and found it full of crashed gliders and Ju52s. To the west for one kilometre on the flat ground were still more. He counted 100* between the main road and the coast. Beyond them was a solitary AA gun spiked and surrounded by empty shell cases.

* This figure is now known to be too high—approximately 75 gliders were used in the invasion of Crete.