Battle of Rethymno

Battle of Rethymnon
Battle of Retimon
Part of World War II, Battle of Crete
LocationRethymnon, Crete
Greece Greece
Nazi Germany Germany

The Battle of Rethymnon, also known as the Battle of Retimo, was a battle during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the codename Unternehmen Merkur ("Operation Mercury"). Australian and Greek forces defended the Rethymnon airfield.


Further information: Crete order of battle

Rethymnon, a town on the north coast of Crete, was important to the military defense of Crete by the British and Commonwealth force because an airport had been completed about 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) east of the town and near the Pigi village shortly before the battle.

British and Commonwealth forces had been forced out of Greece by the Germans and had retreated to Crete. While there were between 27,000–28,000 troops in Crete to defend it, most were only lightly armed because the heavier equipment had been left in Greece.[1] Although the Germans were able to dominate the skies, the British Royal Navy had control of the sea. The German plan was to use paratroopers and gliders to send forces down by air.

Before the battle

The Australian 2/1st and 2/11th Battalions, supported by elements from Australian artillery, medical, engineer and signals units, as well as the Greek 4th and 5th Regiments, took up positions in the hills south of the airfield. This was in anticipation of an airborne German attack. Australian Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell, commanding the 2/1st Battalion, was overall commander of the Rethymnon units and had been charged to defend the area.[2] The defence was based around two hills that overlooked the airstrip.[3]

The day before the battle, a lone German plane flow over Rethymnon on a reconnaissance mission. Against orders, a Bren gun position shot it down. Campbell obtained a code book and photos of the area from the crashed aircraft. From the photos, Campbell could see that part of the defences were hidden by trees and would not be known by the Germans. The code was used by the commander of the 2/11th Battalion to order supplies.

The offensive

German paratroopers, the Fallschirmjäger, landed in three areas on 20 May: Maleme, Rethymnon and Iraklion. The German operation was a three-pronged strike. The central assault, codenamed Aris, focused on Rethymnon.[4] Maleme, on the west of the island, quickly fell.[5]

The German 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment, numbering two battalions and with detachments from divisional support troops, were to land and attack Rethymnon. The paratroopers had expected to take the airfield easily, but were surprised when they found it heavily defended.

Preceded by heavy aerial bombing, the initial German landing was disorganised, with seven transport Junkers Ju 52s shot down and the paratroopers receiving heavy casualties. However, the paratroopers did manage to capture the hill that 2/1st Battalion was positioned on. German forces were also able to block the roads east and west of Rethymnon. On 22 May, after two failed counterattacks, a third counterattack organised in four columns by the Australians drove the Germans off the hill, who took up positions in an old olive oil factory at Stavromenos. While the German paratroopers had no heavy equipment or armour, the Australian troops had the use of two Matilda tanks as well as artillery. However, the two tanks were not used effectively, as both tank crews were originally captured after the tanks were trapped in ditches. Control of one was later regained, and it was used to support the infantry with a further attack by the Australians, which drove the Germans out of the factory on 26 May, who later retreated to Heraklion.[6]

Another group of German paratroopers made a landing to the west of the airfield. However, their landings were scattered, and some landed on top of the 2/11th Battalion with others dropping in the nearby plain. Those that were not intercepted or captured moved towards the town of Rethymnon itself. Finding Rethymnon defended by Cretan police, the Germans took up defensive positions in a ridge that ran from the mountains to the sea.

From 22–28 May, Australian and Greek troops moved together against the German paratroopers in this ridge. Coordination between the Australians and the Greeks proved difficult, and at one point, the lesser-trained Greek soldiers opened fire early and warned the Germans of the incoming Australian attack. There was no communication with other Allied units on Crete, so Campbell was unaware as to what had been happening with the overall Allied effort. An attack was made against Pervolia on 27 May, with the use of the two Matilda tanks (both of which had now been recovered from their immobilised positions). When one tank was knocked out by anti-tank guns and the other was hit by a mine, the attack stalled. The assault on Pervolia again proceeded on 28 May, and this time the town was taken. By this time, the Australians were running low on supplies and were forced to withdraw after holding Pervolia for only a short while.[7]

On 29 May, the Greeks abandoned their positions and the Australians were forced to reduce the size of their perimeter. While the battles for Rethymnon and Heraklion had been more successful, Maleme had been lost to the Germans. The German control of the airstrip there, coupled with their total air superiority, meant that the Luftwaffe could now land infantry and equipment by plane.

At this time, reinforcements from Maleme arrived to assist the original Fallschirmjäger, including German panzers, and the Australians soon found themselves outgunned and surrounded.


With the Greek troops gone, a lack of food, dwindling supplies, no contact with the rest of the Allied troops on Crete (who were in fact surrendering or retreating), and the appearance of additional German troops, Campbell chose to order the Rethymnon group to surrender to the Germans. However, Major Sandover, in charge of the 2/11th Battalion, instructed his men that they could either surrender or evade capture. Many chose the latter by hiding in the hills, some protected by local Cretans who were under threat of being executed by the Germans.[8] Of the 2/11th Battalion, 13 officers and 39 other ranks escaped to Egypt.[9]


  1. Bassett, James A. "Past Airborne Employment", Military Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter, 1948), p 214 URL:
  2. Battle of Retimo
  3. Bell, ATJ, "The Battle for Crete - The Tragic Truth", Australian Defence Force Journal 1991 no.88, May–June p.15-18
  4. Stouros, I Brigadier. "Allied forces in Greece and Crete. 1941" Australian Defence Force Journal 1991 no.88, May–June pp 31 - 42
  5. Bassett, James A. "Past Airborne Employment", Military Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter, 1948), p 214 URL:
  6. Handel, Paul. Matilda Tanks at Rethymnon on the Island of Crete Part 1
  7. Handel, Paul. Matilda Tanks at Rethymnon on the Island of Crete Part 1
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-21. Battle of Retimo
  9. Bell, ATJ, The Battle for Crete - The Tragic Truth, Australian Defence Force Journal 1991 no.88, May–June p.17

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