Maleme, 11 miles (ca. 18 km) west of Chania, the second-largest German military cemetery in Greece.
Simple grave complex at the place where in May 1941 after the German airborne invasion of Crete the heavily battled Hill 107 was.
2021 was the 80th anniversary of the heavy fighting for the island following the airborne invasion of Crete on May 20, 1941, and the allied evacuation until June 1, 1941.
The German military cemetery at Maleme
Table of Contents
The pretty, simple grave complex is situated on a gentle slope terrain with views over the bay to the peninsula Rodopou, approximately at the place where in 1941 the heavily battled Hill 107 was. From there you have a good overview of the still existing and military cordoned airfield Maleme and the old battlefield.
The cemetery is open daily and is served daily from several tourist buses. Not only members of the lying German soldiers come to here, but also British, Americans, Australians and Greeks to enroll in the guest books with their names, in the hope that this place may be a memorial to peace.
Originally in 1941 there were military cemeteries created by the occupying German forces at Maleme, Rethymno, Heraklion, Galatas and other places. However, these were demolished after WW2, and the bones of the dead were provisionally transferred to the monastery Gonais on the Rodoupou Peninsula.
In October 1974, the dead were reburied by the German Association for War Graves in these newly established cemetery. Here are lying 4,465 German soldiers, most of them were not older than 21 years old.
Of these, about 1,991 were killed during the actual fighting around the island, and the other 1,995 who were there reported missing and also must be considered dead. Up to 600, which were lost on or over the sea, the majority of them was obviously found thereafter. Nevertheless, more than 1,100 members of the Wehrmacht were killed in the actual occupation times from 1941 to 1945.
This resulted mainly from raids by Cretan partisans, which were not covered and protected by martial law. Moreover, such incidents in turn led to German reprisals, including against the civilian population of Crete (Explanations/Sources).
The largest German military cemetery on Greek soil with more than 10,000 graves is located near Athens. Again, the mismatch of about 1,518 killed German soldiers during the Balkans campaign in Greece between April 6 and April 30, 1941; but later 8,500 killed German soldiers during the actual occupation times 1941-1944.
Battle of Crete 1941
After the conquest of Yugoslavia and the mainland of Greece in the Balkan campaign the Axis powers could secure the Aegean as well as the access to both the Dodecanese as for their merchant ships to the Dardanelles and their Allies on the Black Sea through the conquest of Crete.
The Operation ‘Merkur’ (Mercury) was built on air superiority and surprise. But this failed because the British Intelligence Service had made with the help of ‘Ultra’ a good picture of the multiple times delayed operation.
During the airborne assault on May 20, 1941, the paratroopers could not take even one of the three airports of the island located at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion. They and the subsequent airborne troops suffered heavy losses, until in tough fighting the airfield of Maleme was assured.
Two convoys of small steamers and sailing ships were caught at night on the way to the island by British naval forces. Two Italian torpedo boats campaigned with great bravery and such skill that the losses were tolerable.
In daylight, the British fleet suffered heavy losses by dive bombers and was forced to retreat.
Finally, in seven days of hard fighting the Germans managed to win so tight on the island, which was defended by 42,640 Allied soldiers, that the British retreated by sea. 12,000 British were captured and by air raids they lost 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers. The only aircraft carrier, three of four battleships and numerous smaller vessels were damaged.
Chronology of events
Tuesday 20 May 1941:
Heavy German air raids on the area around Suda Bay and Maleme precede the landing of gliders and paratroopers. 10,000 German paratroopers land in the process but suffer heavy casualties, leaving only 6,000 of them operational by sunset.
With the four main objectives of the landing at Maleme, Galatas and Chania, Rethymno and Heraklion, they only succeed in forming a strong bridgehead at Maleme. The Allied troop concentrations ‘A1’ (Rawlings), ‘B’ (Rowley) and ‘D’ (Glennie) march into western Crete, while ‘Force C’ under King moves south of the Kasos Strait.
Wednesday 21 May 1941:
Three British destroyers bombard the airfield at Scarpanto before dawn. Heavy German bombing in the area of Maleme and Chania. Several gliders fly in despite heavy losses, with German reinforcements concentrated to the west of Maleme airfield and near Chania.
By late afternoon, German soldiers control the Maleme airfield and a counterattack by two New Zealand battalions fails.
Elsewhere, near Rethymno and Iraklion, the defenders have more success with their counterattacks. North of Crete, the British Royal Navy is at sea with patrols of cruisers and destroyers. In the process, HMS Juno is sunk by an air attack. During a night battle, British warships smash a German troop convoy of traditional Kaiki fishing boats carrying men from the 5th Mountain Division on their way to Crete.
Thursday 22 May 1941:
A pre-dawn counter-attack by New Zealand troops reaches the Maleme airfield, but they are forced to retreat. Their situation deteriorates further and they are forced to retreat to a shorter line to the east, leaving the Germans in complete control of the airfield. This allows about another 12,000 men of mountain troops reinforcements to be flown in. The New Zealanders continue to fall back on Galatas.
At Heraklion the situation continues to look good for the Allies. Many German aircraft are lost.
The naval unit ‘Force C’ encounters a German convoy south of Milatos and is heavily attacked by the German air force. The British ships HMS Naiad and HMS Carlisle are damaged. The unit is reinforced by ‘Force A’ in the Kithera Channel, but HMS Greyhound, HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji are sunk and the two battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant are hit and damaged.
Friday 23 May 1941:
A garbled signal about an alleged shortage of ammunition prompts Admiral Cunnigham to order all British naval forces back to Alexandria at 4 o’clock to replenish ammunition.
The New Zealand troops are ordered to withdraw towards Suda Bay. The new defensive line formed east of Maleme and west of Chania is under heavy German air attack.
An ultimatum to surrender to the British and Greek defenders of Heraklion is rejected.
More fishing boats are sunk by HMS Kelly and HMS Kashmir north of Crete. But both British warships are later also sunk by Stukas.
The Greek king leaves Crete aboard HMS Decoy.
RAF planes drop supplies and ambulance material for the troops at Heraklion and Rethymno. Blenheim bombers attack Maleme airfield at dawn. Five British motor torpedo boats are sunk by air strikes in Suda Bay.
Saturday 24 May 1941:
Before dawn the British warships HMS Jaguar and HMS Defender unload munitions on Crete. The RAF sends Wellington bombers to Suda Bay for the attack on Maleme airfield, three of which are lost. Hurricane fighters are also sent for low-level attacks on German positions near Heraklion, five of which are lost.
British army headquarters at Chania has to be moved back to naval headquarters at Suda Bay. The Allied troops are short of ammunition, especially the Greeks at Heraklion.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, informs the British Chief of Staff that the volume of German air attacks is such that the Royal Navy can no longer operate in daylight at Crete.
Sunday 25 May 1941:
German troops try to break through to Galatas and take the place, but British and New Zealand troops recapture it. For his bravery at Maleme and in subsequent battles, Second Lieutenant Charles Upham receives the first Victoria Cross of the battle and he will later receive another in North Africa.
The Allied garrisons at Rethymnon and Heraklion are cut off. The German troops advance further into the interior of the island and occupy Kandanos. The unexpected and fierce resistance of the Cretan civilian population results in executions, looting and the burning of villages.
Before dawn, British cruisers and destroyers patrol off the north coast of Crete. At dawn, Wellington bombers drop medical supplies over Rethymno. The German air force continues its attacks west of Chania throughout the day, while transport planes continue to fly in reinforcements. 24 Ju 52s are destroyed by bomb and machine-gun fire on the Maleme airfield by the attack of British aircraft, but three Hurricane fighters, three Blenheim and one Maryland bomber are also lost to the British.
Monday 26 May 1941:
British cruisers and destroyers conduct another patrol off the north coast of Crete. The British defensive line between Chania and Maleme is broken and the defenders have to retreat to Chania. The Germans penetrate Perivolai and Galatas.
At Heraklion, British troops, supported by two Matilda tanks, are able to break through from the south and trap a large number of German soldiers.
The Allied commander, General Freyberg of New Zealand, decides to withdraw to Sphakia on the south coast, from where his troops will be evacuated by sea.
The aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and HMS Nubian are badly damaged in an attack by German aircraft on Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wipell’s fleet.
Tuesday 27 May 1941:
Before dawn, the British fast mine cruiser HMS Abdiel, together with two destroyers, unloads the Layforce Special Commandos at Suda Bay.
Early in the morning, Wavell from Egypt informs British Prime Minister Churchill that Crete can no longer be held. The British General Staff then orders evacuation and the garrison receives Wavell’s confirmation to evacuate.
A new Allied defensive line, designated ’42nd Street’, is formed west of Suda Bay. As the Germans advance further, the New Zealanders and Australians counterattack with bayonets fixed, resulting in significant casualties. The Allied forces, though now in some disarray, retreat south across the White Mountains and through the Askifou lowlands towards Sfakia as their defensive line collapses. Major General Weston is made commander of the rearguard.
German troops take control of Suda Bay and Chania, but Heraklion still holds out. The Royal Air Force promises the Royal Navy as much air support as possible during the evacuation.
Wednesday 28 May 1941:
‘Force B’ of three cruisers and six destroyers leaves Alexandria for Iraklion to evacuate the garrison there. At the same time, ‘Force C’ of four destroyers heads for Sfakia, where the mass of troops to be evacuated is directed from a cave by a joint British Army and Navy staff.
More German paratroopers land in the Heraklion area. British Wellington bombers attack the airfields at Maleme and Scarpanto. HMS Ajax is bombed in the evening and has to leave ‘Force D’ and run back to Alexandria.
Italian troops from Rhodes land in the east in the Lasthi area.
Sergeant Alfred Hulme receives the Victoria Cross for his service during the fighting on 28 May and for a previous counter-attack at Galatas.
Thursday 29 May 1941:
Before first light, the first 700 men are able to embark at Sfakia and 4,000 at Heraklion. In the process, HMS Imperial sinks on departure. ‘Force B’ is under heavy air attack throughout the day, with HMS Orion and HMS Dido damaged and HMS Hereward sunk.
The British rearguard continues to withdraw in good order, but Sfakia is heavily bombed and attacked by low-flying aircraft.
‘Force B’ and ‘Force C’ reach Alexandria, while ‘Force D’ is on its way to Sfakia.
The Germans now also control Rethymno and Heraklion.
Friday 30 May 1941:
By first light ‘Force D’ loads 6,000 Allied troops at Sfakia and reaches Alexandria in the afternoon, but HMS Perth is hit en route. ‘Force C’ is now on its way back to Sfakia.
RAF aircraft bomb Maleme, Scarpanto and Rhodes.
The rearguard is now only a few miles from Sfakia. The garrison of Rethymno surrenders to the Germans.
Saturday 31 May 1941:
Last evacuation from Sfakia by British warships before dawn. ‘Force D’ loads about 1,500 men in the process. Fighter protection over ‘Force C’ shoots down four German bombers.
General Freyberg and Captain Morse of the Royal Navy are flown out on a Sunderland flying boat while Weston takes command on Crete. He suspects that he still has about 9,000 men who are to be evacuated from the Sfakia area. The naval unit ‘Force C’ with HMS Phoebe, HMS Abdiel and three destroyers is sent out to pick up the last troops. The Admiralty advises that the evacuation must be completed by dawn on 1 June. Weston informs Wavell that all troops remaining on Crete will surrender on 1 June.
General Student issues orders directing the execution of Cretan civilians.
Sunday 1 June 1941:
Force ‘D’ loads nearly 4,000 men at Sfakia. HMS Calcutta is sunk by a dive bomber on her way to ‘Force D’. The British ships reach Alexandria in the late afternoon.
Westen transmits a message to senior troop officers remaining on Crete about their surrender and returns to Egypt in a flying boat as ordered.
Pictures of Chania in WW2
Pictures from Chania and environment during and shortly after the fighting in Crete in May and June 1941.
Pictures of Heraklion in WW2
Pictures from Heraklion and environment during and shortly after the fighting in Crete in May and June 1941.
Directions to the German military cemetery at Maleme
Link to map with directions:
Click here: Directions Maleme German military cemetery.
References and literature
Der Kampf um Kreta – Die Geschichte einer Invasion aus der Luft (Franz Kurowski)
Fallschirmjäger auf Kreta (Jean-Yves Nasse)
The Grainville Raid, Invasion of Crete 1941 (After the Battle No. 47, Winston G. Ramsey)
The Fall of Crete (Alan Clark)
Crete – The Battle and the Resistance (Anthony Beevor)
Crete 1941 – Germany’s lightning airborne assault (Osprey/ Peter D. Antill)
Battle of Crete (George Forty)
Explanations and Sources
Andartis (Greek Αντάρτης) is the Greek term for a partisan. In the Nuremberg Trials it was stated that ‘irregulars’ (whether they call themselves partisans, bandits, Andartis, irregulars or Freikorps is irrelevant) must consistently comply with all the terms of Hague Law of War, which was obviously not the case.
Responsible British and New Zealand officers (among others Major Bedding, 20 May 1941 at Kastelli) report already during the battles around Kastelli Hill and Paleochora that they had difficulties to stop massacres of the ‘armed Greek mob’. Also, the mutilation of enemy soldiers – whether they were prisoners, wounded or already dead is irrelevant – and the like were hardly part of the ‘laws and customs of war’: already the mistreatment of enemy war dead is a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1929, which stated: ‘After every engagement the belligerent who remains in possession of the field shall take steps to search for the wounded and dead and to protect them from robbery and ill-treatment’. These practices were also a violation of the unwritten customary rules of land warfare and could result in the death penalty
Retaliatory actions (see also War Reprisals) were still considered permissible under customary law at that time, taking into account international law of war, even with a ‘reprisal ratio’ of ten to one (BGH, judgment of April 28, 1955 – 3 StR 603/54).