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Crete:The Battle for Heraklion 1941


Staff member
This is another book review that I hadn't previously posted here on CSW.

I have finished reading Crete:The Battle for Heraklion 1941 by Yannis Prekatsounakis and my overall impression is a huge missed opportunity. The author presents a lot of new material in his book but does little to integrate it with current research.The text is light weight and doesn’t equal the photographs. The bibliography is limited and much of the book appears to be heavy on the German side. My hope was that the Greeks get more press than normal, but that isn’t the case. That said, I feel the book is worth reading for what it does offer if one is interested in this campaign.

As Prekatsounakis states in his preface, “As I have mentioned, this book emphasizes personal stories and accounts.” His book does that to an extreme. The personal accounts bring to life the reality of the fighting that is merely stated in other books about the battles on Crete. The confusion, the exhaustion, the uncertainty of the fighting became vivid in my mind as the reader. The connection of various accounts to a single event allowed me to actually visualize, to some small extent, what the soldiers on all sides likely experienced. The photographs are excellent, bringing to us many that have never been seen before. Some are graphic showing different ways the Fallschirmjägers (FJs) died. The accounts and photographs forge a personal connection that is unusual in history books. This alone will make this book a keeper for me.

The problem is that Prekatsounakis lets these accounts carry the story of the battle with little support. He doesn’t present the conditions in which their experiences unfold, nor tie them together to create a complete narrative of the battle. The accounts themselves are too brief, too incomplete to let the reader follow the flow of the action. Neither the defense plan of the Allies nor the offensive plan for the Germans is presented to set-up how complete the break-down between intent and reality affected decisions. I was amazed how well the accounts themselves help illustrated this gap, but it wasn’t enough by themselves to understand the why behind many decisions. My earlier research on the campaign allowed me to better frame what I was reading.

It is this lack of framing that seriously weakens this book. Doug commented that there isn’t a wealth of information of the fighting around Heraklion. This is true, but the author doesn’t use what is available. No order of battle is provided for the forces, nor is their equipment (or lack of) discussed. The whys and therefores of the Allies dispositions are occasionally touched on in the accounts, but the problems facing the defenders aren’t offered. Prekatsounakis makes it appear that the Allied artillery was effective, but he never mentions that the captured Italian guns had very limited ammunition supply; the crews lacked training with them, and they lacked proper indirect firing tools. Many of these guns were received only days before the invasion.

The book is mainly an account of the German side of the battle. While UK/CW and Greek accounts are provided in goodly numbers (hence a reason for keeping this book), it is clear the author’s main effort was to resolve popular questions about the FJs. This was especially noticeable in the differences between Chapter 2 and 3 when compared to Chapter 4. The former were supported by aerial photographs with overlays to show the positions of both sides. Historically interesting, but the photos were too small a scale to be useful in following/understanding the topographic issues of the action. These chapters lacked a sense of commitment that I felt when reading Chapter 4. That chapter covers the fighting that involved the Blücher brothers. The German counterparts to the Sullivans, all three brothers were killed during the campaign. The author presents multiple views, all in an effort to resolve the hows and whys of their deaths. The chapter has several detailed maps supporting the accounts that were lacking in the earlier chapters, as well as several that mark the locations where the FJs in the accounts were killed. No such detail is offered for Allied soldiers.

My big disappointment is with the Greek part of the battle. The lack of framing is especially acute for their story. No discussion of the available Greek forces or their condition. Several accounts mention the need for arms and securing capture weapons, a discussion which could have been better supported by using the info in the Greek OH. What was the strength, armaments, and other equipment of the two Greek regiments involved in the fighting (regiments in name only, each was less than a battalion in strength and the weapons were a mixed bag and lacked ammunition). Not trained troops, but a combination of new recruits, older reservists, escapees from the mainland, and cadets, all with few seasoned officers and NCOs. How many gendarmeries were available and their weapons? Knowing these facts would allow the reader to better appreciate the decisions the Greek soldiers made during the fighting as presented in their accounts.

As I read, I gained the impression that the indigenous Crete militias rather than the Greek army were the most ferocious defenders. It is certainly presented that way in some accounts. I will offer that the Army units had orders and in most cases successfully executed those orders in the face of tremendous odds. The civilian population had no such orders and could freely ‘move to the sound of the guns’. All the accounts of FJs landing in areas controlled by the Greek Army units or trying to gain areas held by those units received the same reception as that provided by their civilian counterparts. Going out and killing with no requirement to hold ground is a bit easier task. I am not trying to lessen the participation of the Greek people; Prekatsounakis states that unlike other European countries, the Greeks civilians on Crete didn’t passively accept what was happening and actively defended their homes.

I do recommend this book for those with a keen interest in the campaign. My warning is that without a solid understanding of the events of the battle, one will get lost amongst the detail. This books offers plenty of detail, but not such to uniformly cover the entire battle. If you have a strong interest in the FJ, the book is a must.
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