Greece and Crete

It was a baptism of fire in the ancient lands of the Mediterranean.The Allied defence of Greece and Crete against German attack in April and May 1941 was to end in crushing defeat. The New Zealanders suffered heavy losses, but in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting at Maleme and 42nd Street, the legend of the Māori Battalion was born.

Greek tragedy

Crowds welcome NZ Division in Athens
Athens welcome

In late March 1941 the Māori Battalion, part of the NZ Division's 5th Brigade, was sent to defend northern Greece against a possible German invasion through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. When that offensive began on 6 April, Commonwealth and Greek forces were quickly outflanked. The Māori Battalion first saw action at Olympus Pass on the 15th, when four men were killed.

The Allies then fell back to defend the Thermopylae Line, but on 21 April 1941 the British command decided to abandon Greece. Most of the Māori Battalion was evacuated from the Athens area to Crete aboard the Glengyle on the 24th. They left behind 10 dead and 81 prisoners of war. (See also the Battalion battle diary for April 1941.)

The battle for Crete

German planes in the sky
German paratroopers over Crete

They came from the sky – on 20 May 1941 thousands of German paratroopers and glidertroops swooped onto Crete in one of the world's first-ever airborne assaults. Two days later, as enemy reinforcements poured in, the Māori Battalion took part in the belated Allied attempt to wrest back control of the key Maleme airfield. They used the bayonet to good effect in a spirited night attack, but were forced to withdraw as daylight approached, leaving 33 dead behind.

42nd Street

Although the German invaders had suffered heavy losses, their complete dominance in the air left the Allied defenders facing impossible odds. By 27 May 1941 New Zealand's depleted 5th Brigade had fallen back to a sunken dirt road named 42nd Street, near Suda Bay. As the enemy advanced, the Māori Battalion led their comrades in a ferocious bayonet charge, severely mauling a battalion of crack German mountain troops. The Māori alone claimed to have killed more than 80 Germans for the loss of only four of their own number.  (See also the Battalion battle diary for May 1941.)

Defeat and evacuation

The battle for Crete was lost, but 42nd Street and other valiant rearguard actions helped the Allied forces withdraw across Crete's rugged mountains to the southern coast, from where they could escape to Egypt. By 31 May 1941 more than 16,000 New Zealand, Australian, British and Greek soldiers had been evacuated, but another 12,000 – including 71 Māori were left behind to become prisoners of war. The Battalion had also lost 74 dead. (See also the Battalion battle diary for June 1941.)

For the Allies, the campaigns in Greece and Crete were disasters, doomed by inadequate planning, lack of air support and often poor leadership. For the Māori and other New Zealand troops it was a tough introduction to modern warfare, but one they had faced with discipline, skill and courage. 

Their Stories

  • The five months between the evacuation of Crete and the Māori Battalion’s next action was a period of adjustment, consolidation and more training.
  • On Anzac Day 1941 over 500 members of the Māori Battalion were among 16,000 troops who reached Crete after the Allies’ failed campaign in Greece.
  • In late March the 2nd New Zealand Division was sent from Egypt to Greece. Just over 700 members of the 28th (Māori) Battalion disembarked at the port of Piraeus and after two days at Athens they travelled by train to the town of Katerini in a doomed attempt to halt the German invasion.
  • The Battalion had set sail from England for Egypt back in January. At the beginning of March they reached Port Tewfik near the entrance to the Suez Canal. Most of the month was spent adjusting to the new environment and getting fit enough to cope with the hotter climatic conditions.
  • Rāwhiti Īhaka speaks now about the war in Greece in the Second World War.