Parachutes over Crete:
Battle for Prison Valley
To the west of Maleme, the next objective for the German airborne assault would be Canea, in those days the capital of Crete. Canea had no airfield in 1941; that only came in 1959. But it was adjacent to the deep-water anchorage at Suda Bay and the smaller port of Akrotiri, where the Germans planned to land their convoys of requisitioned fishing boats bearing mountain troops, vehicles and artillery.
The landings here would be under the direct command of Maj. Gen. Wilhelm Süssmann, commander of the 7th Airborne Division. The first landings would be by two companies of glider-borne infantry, tasked with eliminating anti-aircraft batteries south and north-east of Canea. They would be followed by the 3rd Parachute Regiment’s three battalions and two companies from the divisional parachute engineer battalion. Süssmann had a long list of objectives: to secure the port and anchorage, to eliminate Creforce headquarters, which the Germans mistakenly believed to be located in Canea, and to free the large number of Italian prisoners believed to be held in the Canea area.
The paratroopers would land south-west of Canea, in what both sides called Prison Valley, as a large prison was its most notable landmark. Two parachute infantry battalions would move south of Canea toward Suda Bay and Akrotiri, one would assault the capital itself, and the engineers would act as rear guard while taking an important bridge and power station.
Ayia Prison, namesake of Prison Valley, seen in 1941.
Unknown to the Germans, Prison Valley also lay atop the boundary between the zones held by 2nd New Zealand Division and the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization tasked with defending the Suda anchorage. The New Zealand 4th Brigade was nearby with three battalions; the New Zealand 10th Brigade had been scraped together from a composite New Zealand Brigade, the battalion-sized divisional cavalry regiment and two Greek regiments. The MNBDO had two small composite Australian battalions, two British battalions (one of them formally part of the Creforce reserve), a small battalion of Royal Marines and assorted coast-defense and anti-aircraft units. Creforce headquarters was on the Akrotiri Peninsula north of Suda Bay.
Things began to go wrong for the Germans almost from the start. The wings flew off the glider carrying Süssmann and it crashed, killing all aboard. Command passed to Col. Richard Heidrich of 3rd Parachute Regiment. The glider company landing near Akrotiri ran into anti-aircraft fire, and then several of its craft crashed on landing. Once the survivors formed up, they found the battery they had been assigned to attack was a dummy position. Counter-attacked by British infantry, they eventually surrendered when their food, water and ammunition ran out.
The other glider company managed to land eight of its nine gliders safely, and knocked out its assigned anti-aircraft battery after a brutal close-quarters firefight. The company suffered more casualties from a counter-attack, and when it finally joined Heidrich’s main body it had lost three-quarters of its strength.
The parachute regiment’s 1st Battalion came down without heavy losses, and captured the prison but faced strong counter-attacks by a Greek regiment supplemented by angry, armed Cretans. The 2nd Battalion landed and immediately came under heavy fire from the New Zealanders and Greeks of 10th Brigade, suffering heavy losses as the men tried to recover their weapons. Similarly, the 3rd Battalion drifted down atop the New Zealand 4th Brigade and lost most of its strength, while the engineers fended off attacks by shotgun-wielding Cretan men, women and even children but managed to collect themselves and secure their landing zone.
The two large collections of tents that had been identified as prisoner of war turned out to be a field hospital where the Germans took 500 of the patients prisoner, and a transit camp for men awaiting return to their units following the confused evacuation from Greece. Maj. Gen. Eric Weston of the MNBDO found weapons and formed 700 of them into an ad hoc infantry battalion.
By nightfall of the first day, Heidrich had consolidated his three surviving battalions and had firm control of Prison Valley, but had made no progress toward taking any of his other objectives. The New Zealanders had likewise firmed up a defensive line, but as at Maleme the efforts of one aggressive brigadier (Lt. Col. Howard Kippenberger, the ad hoc commander of the ad hoc 10th Brigade) to counter-attack were undone by the passivity of the division command and the other brigades.
Heidrich spent the next day probing Kippenberger’s lines, as his scratch force stood between the German airborne regiment and its objectives of Canea, Akrotiro and Suda Bay. He his men had collected about 300 additional supply cannisters (right), but lacked the strength to mount a full-scale attack. The Greek troops made up most of Kippenberger’s defense, but were almost out of ammunition with no easy way to obtain fresh supplies. “Though they did not seem to mind charging,” Kippenberger wrote later, they “were obviously incapable of holding ground.” Despite rumors - later proved to be unfounded - that the German engineer battalion had begun clearing a landing field in the valley, the New Zealanders did not attack.
Both sides made small-scale attacks on the 22nd, with the German engineer battalion advancing away from Canea toward Maleme and the rear of the New Zealand brigade facing the Air-Landing Assault Regiment. The Greeks again made up the most enthusiastic part of the Allied assault: “A crowd of disorderly Greeks, including women,” one Kiwi participant recalled later. “One Greek had a shot gun with a serrated-edge bread knife tied on like a bayonet, others had ancient weapons—all sorts. Without hesitation this uncouth group . . . went over the top of a parapet and headlong at the crest of the hill. The enemy fled.”
The 23rd remained relatively quiet as well, with the German engineers continuing to lead a probe to the west and the New Zealanders to hold their ground in front of Canea. The Germans began to suffer from ammunition shortages that airdrops could no longer relieve. Both sides knew that German mountain troops had begun to pour into the Maleme airfield and would soon spearhead an offensive to link up with the paratroopers in Prison Valley.
During the following night the New Zealand 5th Brigade withdrew from its exposed position between the two German forces. The mountain troops advanced cautiously from Maleme despite the near-total lack of opposition, making contact with Heidrich’s paratroopers in the afternoon of the 24th. The Prison Valley phase of the campaign was over, and the combined force now prepared to continue the eastward offensive along the island’s north coast.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of the Iron Dog.