May 31

This Day in History

World War II

May 31, 1941:

Germans conquer Crete

On this day in 1941, the last of the Allies evacuate after 11 days of battling a successful German parachute invasion of the island of Crete. Crete is now Axis-occupied territory.

On the morning of May 20, some 3,000 members of Germany's Division landed on Crete, which was patrolled and protected by more than 28,000 Allied troops and an almost equal number of Greek soldiers. The German invasion, although anticipated, was not taken seriously; the real fear was of an attack from the sea. Those initial 3,000 parachutists were reinforced—to the tune of an additional 19,000 men, arriving by parachute drop, glider, and troop carrier.

The Allies remained optimistic; many of the German soldiers who dropped from the sky died or were injured on impact. The rest were undersupplied and inexperienced. But by the May 26, British General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the defense of Crete, already reported that their position was hopeless. Evacuation of Allied troops began on the 28th. By the night of the 31st, the last of the Allies that would make it out had left the seaport of Sphakia; 5,000 men would be left behind in the hands of the Germans. The total loss of Allied land soldiers in the Cretan engagements was 1,742; a further 2,265 sailors were lost at sea. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been sunk. The Germans suffered a loss of about 4,000 men.

Strangely, Hitler, despite the victory, considered his "losses" too great to pursue further gains in the Mediterranean and finally drive Great Britain out of the area.

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