On May 20, 1941, the Battle of Crete commenced. Axis forces launched a massive invasion of the biggest Greek island and used German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) for the first time.
Thousands of troops, supported by the Luftwaffe and the German Navy, attempted to take the island in a massive Blitzkrieg of combined arms. The technicalities of launching such an endeavor were not easy to resolve, and the Germans ran into some serious problems, including unexpectedly rugged defense from the local population, who pounced on every opportunity to inflict losses on the German forces.
The Battle of Crete was a hard-won victory for the Germans and one that they would never forget.
Crete before the German Invasion
When the Italians attacked Greece in October 1940, the British were sent to garrison Greece’s largest island, Crete. The situation served the British well, as the strategic location and the numerous ports around the island gave the British a platform from which to threaten German forces in the eastern Mediterranean. Although the Italian campaign failed, the Germans invaded Greece in April 1941 and succeeded in driving the Allies out. A large portion of the Allied army had retreated to Crete, but they had been forced to leave much of their heavy equipment behind.
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The German High Command was prepared to let the Allies have Crete for the time being, as it did not present a big enough danger to the southeastern flank of Axis territory. The Command was also preoccupied with planning the invasion of the Soviet Union, which was a major priority. Hitler, however, was concerned about the danger Crete posed to fuel supplies in Romania, and the Luftwaffe was eager to regain its prestige over the disaster that was the Battle of Britain.
And so it was decided that Crete would be invaded, and Operation Mercury was devised.
A bombing campaign conducted by the Luftwaffe was successful in forcing the Royal Air Force off the island and prepared the way for an invasion that would be spearheaded by the German Fallschirmjäger.
By May 19, one day before the battle began, the Allied garrison numbered around 15,700 Britons, 7,750 New Zealanders, 6,500 Australians, and 10,200 Greeks – a total of just over 40,000 troops.
The Germans were under the command of General Kurt Student, a pioneer of the use of airborne forces, while the Allies were commanded by New Zealand Lieutenant-General Bernard Cyril Freyberg.
The Attack Begins
For the British Command, the attack on Crete came as no surprise. Intelligence had gathered enough data to confirm that the Germans were preparing to take the island, and it was evident that paratroopers were going to be used en masse.
On the German side, they underestimated the size of the British and Commonwealth forces and hoped they would be greeted as liberators by the strongly anti-monarchist Cretan population. They were wrong on both counts.
On May 20, 1941, the attack began. Jumping out of dozens of Junkers Ju-52 transport aircraft, Fallschirmjäger descended upon the airfield at Maleme and the town of Chania. It was almost a complete disaster for the Germans. Three New Zealand battalions were defending the airfield, and Chania was garrisoned by Greek forces. The Germans suffered heavy losses but were in good enough order to maintain cohesion and battled on throughout the day.
Cretan civilians were eager to join the fight, and many grabbed whatever they could use as weapons, including canes and kitchen knives. As the German Fallschirmjäger descended, many Germans lost their lives to Cretan civilians lying in wait.
The second attack, conducted later in the day, targeted Rethymno and Heraklion and met with similar opposition. The area was defended by British, Australian, and Greek troops who put up stiff resistance. The Germans managed to pierce the Allied defenses and capture the Greek barracks and the port, but the Greeks counter-attacked and re-captured both areas.
The next day, May 21, Heraklion was heavily bombed, but the Allies refused to surrender. The same day, the New Zealanders evacuated some of their positions, leaving Maleme Airfield to the west of Chania undefended. This was the result of communications problems due to the Germans being successful in cutting communication lines.
The lack of coordination and communication would go on to characterize the Allied defense of Crete, and the Germans quickly exploited the Allied mistake and captured the airfield. It was a critical objective, and the Germans were now able to reinforce their positions on the island but still needed to create a beachhead to be able to offload vehicles.
Later that day, and into the early hours of the next morning, the Allies launched a counter-attack to retake the airfield but were unsuccessful. They were successful, however, in being able to prevent Maleme from being reinforced via the sea that night. A German flotilla of transport boats, protected by the Italian torpedo boat Lupo, attempted to land but were intercepted by a much larger Allied naval force. Of around 20 transport boats in the German force, only two made it to shore, and the soldiers who disembarked were immediately engaged by Allied forces.
The next evening, the Axis made another attempt to land an invasion force on Crete. They were blocked by a powerful Allied naval force and forced to turn back under the cover of a smoke screen. Under constant attack from dive bombers, the Allies, however, could not press the attack and lost two cruisers and a destroyer for their effort. The Germans were not without losses either. Ten aircraft were shot down, and 16 were damaged, some of which crash-landed when they returned to base.
The Germans Get the Upper Hand
Over the next few days, relentless air attacks took a massive toll on the Allied naval forces around Crete. With complete air superiority, the Germans also helped their forces on land by bombing Allied positions. Many Germans captured on May 20th were able to escape and rejoin their comrades in battle. Nevertheless, without reinforcements from the sea, they were too few to hold their positions for long. The Allies, however, knew that a German landing was inevitable. It became clear to the Allies that an evacuation was in order.
On May 28, the Germans managed to put ashore an ad hoc group of soldiers which included a motorcycle battalion, an anti-tank unit, a reconnaissance battalion, a motorized artillery troop, some engineers, and two tanks. Later that day, the Italians landed 3,000 troops supported by 13 light tanks. Transporting the troops to the Cretan shore was unopposed, as the Royal Navy was already busy evacuating troops.
Reinforced with fresh troops, the Axis forces pushed the Allies steadily southward. Retreating troops were under constant threat, and the action saw many gallant actions. In one instance, four men held off the advancing Germans, sacrificing themselves and buying enough time for the rest of their unarmed column to retreat to safety.
Evacuation, Surrender, and Occupation
From May 28 to June 1, about 18,600 British and Dominion troops had been evacuated, while over 12,000 still remained on the island along with thousands of Greek soldiers when the Germans took full control on June 1. Those who remained were forced to surrender as their positions became surrounded.
The German victory in the field did not, however, end the horror. Five hundred British and Commonwealth troops were unaccounted for and fled to the hills, where they joined up with Greek partisan units. Resistance to the German occupation began immediately after the Allied surrender.
The German response was heavy-handed, and Cretan civilians were massacred, many as victims of collective punishment. After the end of the invasion, Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller was put in charge of the Axis occupation forces. Partisan action and reprisals continued, and thousands of Cretans were executed. Müller became known as the “Butcher of Crete” and was prosecuted after the war. Greek courts found him guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to death.
The invasion was a success but costly on a relative scale. Casualties were roughly even on both sides, with the Germans and the Allies both suffering around 4,000 dead. Comparatively, however, these casualties in terms of their numerical value were almost insignificant when one considers the millions of soldiers deployed for Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union, a few months later.
The Battle of Crete was a particularly fierce and vicious affair. Both sides fought furiously. The New Zealanders (including a Maori battalion) became particularly well-known for their ferocity in combat as a result of the battle. The Allied naval losses were particularly bad. Nineteen Royal Navy ships were sunk.
For the Germans, the lessons were harsh. Many soldiers were slaughtered before they even reached the ground. The element of surprise they had hoped for was not present, and as a result, Hitler ordered no more paratrooper operations for the rest of the war. The Fallschirmjäger spent the rest of the war fighting as regular infantry. Aircraft losses were also high. The Luftwaffe lost 284 aircraft during the battle.
The Allies, however, used paratroopers effectively, and despite the fact that the Germans could have learned and adapted their tactics to achieve similar success with their airborne troops, Hitler’s mind was made up.
For the Greeks, the Battle of Crete serves as a reminder of the bitter struggles the Cretans have endured over the centuries, and on a larger scale, it illustrates Greek resilience that has existed for thousands of years.