Crete Pilgrimage 2016 - Day 30

Hill 107 and the German Cemetery, Tavronitis Bridge and the airstrip at Maleme

Maleme area

The region around the town of Maleme saw some of the heaviest fighting on the 20 May 1941. It was also the area defended by the 22nd Battalion. The defence of aerodrome at Maleme has been one of the most analysed actions in the Battle of Crete. Most people agree that the loss of the aerodrome led directly to the loss of Crete. Some blame the 22nd Battalion and LTCOL Andrew in particular, but others, including the men of the 22nd Battalion, would argue that the defending forces were never sufficient to hold such an important site. They would cite the lack of radios, paucity of heavy weapons, lack of artillery, lack of anti-aircraft weapons, lack of tanks (that worked), lack of reserve forces as contributing factors. They might also cite the refusal of higher command to permit the demolition of the bridge over the Tavronitis River just to the west and the refusal to allow the airstrip to be destroyed. Few would doubt the courage and the actions of the men who saw action that day.

Just to the south of the airstrip is Hill 107. It has an unobstructed view to the north, over the runway and out to sea. It was ideally sited for the defence of the area and it proved difficult and costly ground for the German forces to capture. Today it is the site of the only German cemetery on Crete and was our first place to visit in the area. The cemetery is not signposted and is difficult to find - a reflection of the Cretan's lingering attitude to the invaders of 1941.

The only sign on the main road through Maleme to the German Cemetery.
The entrance to the cemetery.
As with most German war cemeteries, the memorials lie flat amongst low-growing ground cover.
Only small groups of stone crosses stand amidst the graves.
Two or more lie to a grave.
On the top of Hill 107 is a cross and small chapel to the Cretan locals who lost their lives here.
Looking further south where some of the heavy fighting occurred.
The olives groves that afforded the defenders such good cover still survive.
But are now maintained by a complex watering system.
The car park to the cemetery is still defended by barbed wire...
but the view north is expansive.
And yes that red sign really does prohibit photographs (of the military airport...)
Looking down from Hill 107.
Maleme airport runway, still in good condition and in use today by the Greek Air Force.

Tavronitis Bridge

Just to the west of the end of the runway, the Tavronitis River runs north into the sea. In 1941 it's eastern bank marked the western limit of the 22nd Battalion's area and thus the limit of the Allied defence of Crete. The left flank of the 22nd Battalion was undefended. The river bed is flat and wide and made an ideal landing place for gliders carrying troops and supplies. Being undefended, German troops were able to land, consolidate and then attack the left flank of the battalion.

The bridge over the Tavronitis River has been kept as a memorial. Today you can walk over the bridge, look at the landscape and search for the bullet holes and other damage that remains from the conflict on 20 May 1941.

Air Force Memorial

Across the coastal road from the track leading to the old Tavronitis Bridge is a memorial to the men of the Royal Air Force who were stationed at Maleme and who lost their lives in the battle. Many of the men were mechanics and other non-combatants, but never-the-less were caught up in the battle.

Tavronitis River Bridge

1941 reconnaisance photo of the river and bridge.
The bridge and river today
Closer view of the bridge structure
And evidence of the 1941 battle
A heavy calibre, possibly from one of the I-tanks.
Map showing locations and the areas where each German formation landed.
German photo soon afer the battle of a glider resting on the embankment.
Another German photo of a glider in the riverbed.
Contemporary photo of the paratroops descending on Maleme airport
View up to Hill 107 today.

Commemoration Service at Maleme Airport

Despite the prohibition on photography of the Maleme airport, the gates were thrown open so we could attend the Greek service at the airport. Clearly, this had become an event favoured by the locals, due perhaps to the persistent rumour that paratroopers from the Greek Air Force would jump over the airport in a re-enactment of the 1941 event. The rumours also suggested that the event was planned every year, but had never actually occured. Perhaps this year it would....

In typical Greek fashion, there was chaos on the road as cars made their way into the airport.
The crowd assembled and so did all the cars. From the makes and vintage, the Greek recession had not hit this part of Greece...yet.
The ceremony got underway - in Greek only - flags flew and wreaths were laid.
Military aircraft, now part of a museum, formed the backdrop.
But out on the runway was a forest of chairs, carefully guarded.
Locals in the know drifted out to the runway, waiting expectantly.
Suddenly, out of the west came a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
It flew over, its rear ramp down with paratroopers ready to jump.
But just as suddenly it flew away - too much wind.
The band played the last of the anthems...
and everybody headed for the chairs.
Just as the last rays of the sun burst through the clouds...
with a rumble and a frightening roar an F-16 streaked overhead.
Much to the delight of the crowd.
If only we had some of those in 1941....

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Last updated: 12/06/2017