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Location 1 – Maleme German Military Cemetery

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Reaching the Cemetery – From the village centre continue along the main coastal road to the west and turn left at the signpost indicating the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof. Go through the S-bend and take a right where sign-posted. The cemetery is about 500m further on past the Minoan tomb. There are also toilets, a café and a small museum.

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All photos © Mark Sluman. Click on image for full size.

Historical Notes – The German Cemetery which was consecrated in 1974, is located on the northern slopes of Hill 107 looking out over the airfield that so many of the interred died to capture. It contains the graves of 4,460 German soldiers killed during the campaign who were originally buried in 62 separate sites across the island.

Hill 107 was of vital strategic importance to the British and Commonwealth troops as, from positions up here, they could cover the entire airfield with fire. However, through the morning and afternoon of the 20th May, Colonel Andrew, the commander of the New Zealand 22nd Battalion troops in the area who had his HQ just beyond the rear of where the cemetery now stands, became increasingly concerned. He had lost contact with his forward companies (C Company which was holding the airfield perimeter, and D Company holding slit trenches at the western base of Hill 107). He feared German paratroopers and glider infantry attacking from the dry bed of the Tavronitis River to the west had overrun them.

The truth was that his forces were still successfully repelling enemy incursions, although paratroopers had captured the RAF camp between the hill and the airfield. In fact the German airborne troops had suffered massive casualties during the day's fighting. Despite the limited protection afforded by the riverbed, Major Koch, commander of I Battalion, Sturm Regiment, received a severe head wound and Brigadier Meindl, the regimental commander, was twice wounded. Koch's I Battalion lost 16 officers killed and 7 wounded on the 20th alone. Most other corps would not have been able to sustain such casualties and continue to fight effectively – but the Fallschirmjäger were a different breed.

Worse, however, for Colonel Andrew, was that he had also lost radio communications with the 23rd Battalion, located slightly to the east and designated as a counter-attacking unit should the airfield be threatened. Semaphore and flares failed to raise any reaction. Eventually at about 5pm, Andrew reached his commander, Brigadier Hargest, on the wireless, but Hargest erroneously stated the 23rd Battalion was engaged with enemy paratroopers (most of these had actually been killed, wounded or captured as soon as they landed).

With hope fading of holding the Germans, Andrews sent in his last reserves, two Matilda tanks, to drive the Germans off the runway perimeter. The attack failed when one tank found it had the wrong ammunition and the other got stuck in the dry bed of the Tavronitis. With additional reports that German forces were encircling his position to the south and promised reinforcements from Hargest failing to arrive, Andrew concluded later that evening that he had no other option than to withdraw under the cover of darkness. Hargest's response was "...if you must, you must".

Although understandable in the fog of war that Andrew now found himself, it was a fatal error. C and D Companies, who had repelled numerous enemy attacks and were ready to do further execution in the morning from their strong positions, were forced to withdraw likewise when scouts reported that the remainder of the battalion had retired from the summit of the hill. At higher command level Hargest and the commander of the island's garrison, Freyberg, must take some of the responsibility. They were too focused on the seaborne threat, had established an inadequate communications network and did not recognise the importance of Hill 107 in the defence of Maleme airfield until it was too late. With this decision was lost Maleme, Hania and the whole of the island.