Retimo is a town on the north coast of the island of Crete, located between the island's major population centres of Canea in the west, and Heraklion in the centre of the north coast. In May 1941 it was strategically important because of the recently-constructed airstrip about 8 km east of town.
In preparation for an expected German airborne attack, the 4th and 5th Greek Regiments and the 2/1st and 2/11th Australian Battalions, supported by elements from Australian artillery, medical, engineer and signals units took up defensive positions in the hills south of the airstrip. The defence of Retimo itself was the responsibility of a battalion strength unit of Cretan police. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell, commander of the 2/1st Battalion, was appointed overall commander of Retimo Force.
On the morning of May 20, the invasion of Crete began with German paratroop landings in the west of the island. At around 4.30 pm it was Retimo's turn. The invading force was made up of two battalions of the 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment, with detachments from divisional support units. The Germans, expecting minimal opposition, planned to take the airstrip first and then march west to the town. They received a very severe shock.
The German landing was disorganised, and strong resistance inflicted many casualties, but the invaders were initially successful. One battalion-strength group of paratroops landed on and around the hill occupied by 2/1st Battalion that dominated the airstrip. They captured the hill but were forced off it the next day with heavy losses and fell back to defensive positions around an olive oil factory at Stavromenos, east of Retimo. From 21 to 26 May, the 2/1st Battalion attacked this group of Germans, eventually capturing the factory and forcing the few unwounded survivors to flee toward Heraklion.
Another battalion-strength group of paratroops made a very dispersed landing to the west of the airstrip. Some landed on top of the 2/11th Battalion, others on the coastal plain between the airstrip and the town. Those not killed or captured in the landing fell back toward Retimo. They reached its outskirts but, blocked by the Cretan police, took up defensive positions on a ridge that ran from the mountains to the sea. From 22 to 28 May, the 2/11th Battalion launched several attacks on these positions, but, hampered by poor coordination with the Greek units, made little progress. They made a final attempt on 28 May but the inadequately trained Greeks opened fire early, warning the Germans of the Australians' approach. The attack was driven off. By this time Retimo Force had almost exhausted its food and ammunition. Communication with other Allied forces fighting on the island had broken down on 27 May, leaving Campbell with little idea of how they were faring.
On 29 May the Greeks abandoned their positions and the Australians reduced the size of their perimeter. The next morning vehicle engines could be heard in the distance. A few optimists among Retimo Force assumed that they were about to be relieved but the appearance of German light tanks soon persuaded them otherwise. Campbell realised that further resistance would only inflict unnecessary casualties and he ordered his men to surrender. Major Sandover, leading the 2/11th Battalion, offered his men the choice of surrender or escape. Many took the latter option and evaded capture for several months, living in the mountains with assistance from the local population, despite the fact that locals helping Allied soldiers risked death if discovered. Between June and September 1941, approximately 600 Allied soldiers were able to escape the island of Crete. Almost one in ten of those escaping were from the 2/11th Battalion.