Operation Mercury: The German Invasion of Crete, 20 May-1 June 1941

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Introduction
Background
The Italians Move
The Germans Move
German Preparations
The Allies Prepare
Battle in Joined
A Stroke of Luck
The Tide Turns
The Beginning of the End
Conclusion
Bibliography and Further Reading
Websites

Introduction

The German invasion of Crete in May 1941 stands as a landmark in the history of airborne warfare. Up until that point, airborne operations had been used mainly in a tactical and operational context to seize key objectives in advance of the ground forces, such as the seizure during the Balkan campaign of the bridge over the Corinth Canal on the 26 April 1941, and the seizure of the Belgium fortress of Eban Emael on the 11 May 1940. The German invasion of Crete (codenamed Operation Merkur, or Mercury, after the Roman God of communication, travel and thievery – the counterpart of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods in Greek mythology) has been the only strategic airborne operation aimed at attacking and occupying such an important target. The operation was the brainchild of Generalmajor Kurt Student, the commander, and fanatical proponent of the airborne arm (the Fallschirmjäger) who believed that the paratroopers could operate in their own right and not merely be used to support the Wehrmacht.
German Para with Flamethrower German Paras boading JU52sJU52s in flamesJU52 dropping Paras JU52s on Maleme Airfield
'Photos courtesy of the JSCSC Library. Crown Copyright

The island of Crete is just over 160 miles long and varies from seven to thirty-six miles in width. There are four mountain ranges (that almost seem to form a continuous spine along the island) that all come together in the central mass of Mount Ida. To the southwest is the Sphakia (White) mountain range, which literally falls into the sea at certain points and make access to the area very difficult. Rain falling on this range irrigates the northern strip of coastal land around Suda Bay and supports the town of Canea. Moving eastwards there is a depression, the Mount Ida range, another depression and then another coastal strip of land with Heraklion, the principle town, after which the mountains rise again to the summit of Mount Dikhti. The relatively poor harbours have meant that Crete has remained isolated and even by 1941, was behind in facilities and communications infrastructure compared to the rest of the Mediterranean. Crete has always been considered a strategic point in the Mediterranean that had greatly been enhanced by the appearance of aircraft in warfare. An airfield on Crete could be used to raid deep into the Balkans (for example, against the Rumanian oil fields) or be used against North Africa, particularly Egypt and Palestine. Suda Bay was also a harbour with great potential as a naval base and so whoever controlled Crete had a major advantage in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is however, a difficult place to defend, especially from an attack from the north as there is very little operational depth and the movement of any reserves has to be from east to west or visa versa along the probable frontline. It is more practical to establish a series of defended localities, based around the key points on the island, such as the fishing ports, towns and the airstrips.

Background

The immediate background to Operation Mercury lies in the events in the Europe (and the Balkans) in 1940 and 1941. With the postponement of Operation Seelöwe (Sealion), Hitler decided to opt for a peripheral strategy, as recommended by others in the Nazi hierarchy such as Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring (Commander of the Luftwaffe) and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (Commander of the Kriegsmarine), to try and bring Britain to the negotiating table before American assistance could prove effective or the Soviet Union decided to enter the war on the Allied side. Even the Army considered a Mediterranean strategy with the Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder discussing with General Walter von Brauchitsch options in case Sealion proved impossible and concluded that “we could deliver the British a decisive blow in the Mediterranean, shoulder them away from Asia, help the Italians in building their Mediterranean empire and, with the aid of Russia, consolidate the Reich which we have created in western and north-western Europe.” (MacDonald, 1995, p. 46) In October 1940, Hitler attempted to cement a Mediterranean coalition by travelling on his personal train to visit General Franco (Spain) at Hendaye and Marshal Pétain (Vichy France) – the only time Hitler left his headquarters for anybody other than El Duce, a sign that he attached a great deal of importance to the plan. Neither meeting was entirely successful – Hitler’s meeting with Franco drawing a comment from Hitler that “rather than go through that again I would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out” (Clark, 2001, p. 3) as both leaders were wary of loosing colonial territory so as to persuade the other to join the Axis cause. These diplomatic efforts were conducted so that the Wehrmacht could conduct an assault on Gibraltar (Operation Felix) and then deploy reinforcements to the Italian forces in Libya (an offer made personally to Mussolini) and then drive for the Suez Canal.
JU52s dropping Paras Germans loading onto plane German patrol German mountain troops
Additional photos courtesy of the website Battle for Crete, 1941. The origin of these photos were unclear and so we fully acknowledge the copyright of the owner whoever they may be."

Hitler had in fact vetoed earlier Italian designs on Yugoslavia as it was tied economically to the Reich and he wanted to keep the Balkans relatively stable. He had intervened in a dispute between Hungary and Rumania over the region of Transylvania, as Germany depended upon Rumanian oil exports and while he had allowed the transfer of some territory to Hungary (Hitler also settled the Bulgarian claim for Southern Dobrudja), had guaranteed the remainder of Rumania and sent a large military ‘training mission’ to the country. This upset the Soviets who had seen that part of the Balkans as traditionally being part of their sphere of influence (the Soviet Union annexing part of Rumania – Bessarabia and Bukovina – during the Battle for France) and despite German diplomatic assurances, accused the Germans of breaching Article III of the Non-Aggression Pact that called for joint consultation.

Having established some form of stability in the Balkans, the Fuhrer strongly recommended to the Italians that the status quo be kept there for the time being as Hitler was anxious that a war with the Soviet Union be started when and where he wished it to start it, not as a result of some crisis in the Balkans. This immensely annoyed Mussolini who was afraid that the war might end before the Italian Armed Forces could show their prowess in battle to the world. Greece seemed to be the exception to the Balkan rule, as it was really part of the Mediterranean theatre and could serve as a strategic outpost to support the Italian drive against Egypt and the Suez Canal and Hitler had tried to interest Mussolini in both Greece and Crete as early as July 1940. Both OKH (the Army High Command) and OKW (the High Command of the Armed Forces) had considered plans to implement the joint Italian-German offensive in the Mediterranean and concluded that an attack on Greece would be an essential part of any campaign. Such an attack would take place after the Italian capture of Mersa Matruh that would provide the Axis with airfields in North Africa from which to give air support to the drive towards Suez and an airborne invasion of Crete. Although led by General Metaxas and maintaining a neutral position, Greece was bound strategically and economically to Britain and the Greek Royal Family had strong British connections. Occupying mainland Greece and Crete would pre-empt a British move into Greece that would directly threaten Italy, provide an additional base for operations against the Italian advance in North Africa and threaten the Rumanian oil fields. Therefore an Italian attack on Greece suited Hitler’s overall plans and he may even have given Mussolini a green light when the two met at the Brenner Pass on 4 October.

The Italians Move

The Italian intelligence assessment of the Greek Armed Forces was unflattering at best and therefore an easy victory was confidently predicted. British intervention would be forestalled by the simultaneous launching Marshal Graziani’s second-stage of his North African offensive against Mersa Matruh. Mussolini launched his attack on 28 October after issuing an ultimatum to the Greeks. Unfortunately he had ignored warnings that the Italian forces in Albania were completely unprepared to conduct an autumn campaign and had not even been assigned engineers. The lack of a clear and sensible strategy – such as pushing directly towards the vital port of Salonika instead of pushing across the mountain range of the Epirus – exasperated Hitler almost to the same degree as the campaign’s completely inefficient and uncoordinated execution. He later stated that he had counselled against undertaking the expedition at that point. The Italian campaign in Greece quickly came to a complete halt and the Greeks then launched a counter offensive, which drove the Italians out of their country and threatened Albania itself. The Italian position in the Eastern Mediterranean started to completely unravel as the British first damaged half the Italian battle fleet in a daring raid on the port of Taranto on 11 November, then intervened in Greece by sending RAF squadrons there and a battalion (2nd Btn, York and Lancaster Regiment that was eventually followed by 2nd Btn, The Black Watch) to Crete to secure Suda Bay allowing the Greeks to transfer the Cretan V Division to the mainland and finally took the initiative in the desert war (Operation Compass) after Marshal Graziani had stopped at Sidi Barrani to reorganise his supply lines. The attack completely defeated the Italian force of ten divisions in Libya and threatened the entire Italian position in North Africa.
CreteCreteCreteCreteCreteCrete Crete

At the same time as the Italians were facing crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean; events elsewhere were to change the context of the situation in that theatre. The Germans had faced continued Soviet intransigence and suspicions over their plans for Europe. Since late July, Hitler had been toying with the idea of exactly when to attack the Soviet Union but had decided to defer the decision and try and secure the Balkan and Mediterranean theatres. This would weaken the British position so as to potentially force her to the negotiating table and therefore Hitler was coming around to the idea that the attack on the Soviet Union should be delayed until 1942. Events towards the end of 1940 were to cause a shift in the emphasis in the German war effort irrevocably towards the East and push the timetable up by a year. In November, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, visited Berlin for negotiations with Hitler and von Ribbentrop to pave the way for the Soviet membership of the Axis. Despite dangling the tempting offer of a share in the British Empire, Molotov would not be deflected from the Soviet demands to control Finland and Bulgaria as well as control over the exits from the Baltic Sea. Hitler was staggered by the scale of Stalin’s demands and decided the issue of when to attack the Soviet Union had been settled. The Soviet Union had to be destroyed in 1941 before the United States could enter the war decisively. With this the peripheral strategy fundamentally changed character, from having its focus as part of the war against Britain to being a part of the war against the Soviet Union. The southern flank had to be secured so that the British could not be allowed to intervene effectively and threaten the Axis position in the Balkans.

In light of these events and as a result of the new emphasis on an attack on the Soviet Union, the original staff plans for the Mediterranean were revised. Operation Felix (the attack on Gibraltar) was put on hold, possibly until late 1942, due to Franco’s bland non-commitment to the Axis cause, but Operation Marita (the invasion of Greece) had become more important than ever to due the need to secure the right flank of the advance into the Soviet Union. In this light, Marita can be seen as limited operation as was the sending of an expeditionary force, the Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel, to North Africa to bolster the Italian defence and contain the British advance. Both Göring and Raeder were unhappy at the new emphasis on a move eastwards as they had both greatly preferred to see the UK knocked out of the war before Germany turned its attention east in order to prevent the dreaded two front war. Göring was especially unhappy, as while the Luftwaffe would be very much subservient to the Army’s needs in Barbarossa, in the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe still have freedom of action and so despite the shift in focus, planning continued for operations against Gibraltar, Malta and Crete, all potential targets of the airborne forces. Fliegerkorps X was transferred from Norway as they specialised in anti-shipping operations and scored their first success by crippling the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious on 10 January.

The Germans Move

While preparations were still underway for Operation Barbarossa, the Germans attacked on 6 April 1941, launching Operation Marita against Greece and Operation Punishment against Yugoslavia (where a coup by a group of military officers had toppled the regime that had acceded to German demands). In a few short weeks they had completely reversed the Axis fortunes in the area and forced the Allies to evacuate their forces after overrunning the two countries. By way of a foretaste of what was to come, Oberst Alfred Sturm’s 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment, 7th Flieger (Airborne) Division was used to capture a road bridge over the Corinth Canal. One of the main escape routes for Allied forces from Megara was across the Corinth Canal where it was spanned by an iron bridge. The bridge was guarded by a ‘close bridge garrison’ of British troops and had been set for demolition by the Royal Engineers. The Germans delayed over executing the operation but once decided, carried it out with characteristic speed and flexibility. The British defenders were numerically sufficient for the task, with a reinforced battalion concentrated on the south side of the bridge supported by AA guns and a few light tanks. The two methods usually open to airborne operations is to either land the troops some distance from the objectives (and therefore away from the strongest part of the defence) to allow them to form up and assault the objective in good order (which was used in Market Garden). The other method is drop the paratroopers as close to the objective as possible, taking into account the need to minimise dispersion, in order to achieve surprise and overwhelm the defenders before they can react accordingly. The latter method was chosen as the means of assault and in the early morning of the 26 April, the German vanguard of parachute engineers, loaded in DFS 230 gliders landed at either end of the bridge after the German close air support had pounded the defenders and proceeded to take it and set to work on the demolition charges. A few minutes later, this was followed up by some 200 Ju52s that dropped two battalions of parachute infantry (one each end of the bridge) that quickly overwhelmed the defenders after a short but sharp battle. Almost as a last act, a British Bofors gun fired at the engineers on the bridge and actually touched off some disconnected explosives that seriously damaged the bridge. This meant that a number of Allied troops were cut off and captured but a larger number had escaped and were evacuated to Crete, not Egypt as the Germans guessed.

German Preparations

Unfortunately, it took time to assemble the necessary men and equipment which were scattered all around Europe and as a result, D-Day for the operation was put back until 20 May, enabling the confused defence of Crete to be put into some sort of order. During this time, the German planning was split between General der Flieger Alexander Löhr (Commander, Luftflotte IV) who wanted a single concentrated drop to seize the airfield at Máleme, followed by a build up of additional infantry and heavy weapons. Such an approach might allow the British to reinforce the island and launch a sustained defence of the island. The second plan was put forward by Generalmajor Kurt Student (Commander, Fliegerkorps XI) who wanted to make no less than seven separate drops, the most important ones being around Máleme, Canea, Rethymnon and Heraklion. Such a plan would enable the Germans to seize all the main strategic points at the outset, so long as there was minimal resistance on the ground. In the end, Goering imposed a compromise solution between these two different approaches. There would be two main drops, one in the morning around Canea and the airfield at Máleme, the other in the afternoon against the airfields at Heraklion and Rethymnon.

These drops would be undertaken by the 7th Flieger Division (Generalleutnant W Süssmann), of three parachute regiments (1st under Oberst Bruno Bräuer, 2nd under Oberst Alfred Sturm and 3rd under Oberst Richard Heidrich) each of three battalions with divisional artillery, engineers and signals, as well as the Luftlande Sturmregiment (Airborne Assault Regiment – under Generalmajor Eugen Meindl) that had four battalions (three parachute and one glider) and supporting assets. These had a combined strength of just over 8,000 men. The Luftlande Sturmregiment would capture Máleme airfield by first landing three glider detachments from the 1st Btn (on an AA position near the mouth over the Tavronitis River, next to Hill 107 near Máleme airfield and on a bridge over the Tavronitis River) and then the remainder of the regiment (three battalions) would parachute in and surround the positions of the 5th New Zealand Bde east of the airfield. The 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment, with two Glider detachments from the 1st Btn, Luftlande Sturmregiment as well as airborne engineer and AA units, would jump into Prison Valley and develop an attack north-east under the command of the divisional commander, Generalmajor Süssmann. The 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment (less the 2nd Btn) would land near Rethymnon with the 1st Btn attacking the airfield and the 3rd Btn attacking the town itself. The 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment along with the 2nd Btn, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment would land around Heráklion in a slightly dispersed manner as the Germans were unsure as to the extent of the defensive perimeter around the one good airport on the island. Here the disadvantages of the compromise can be seen as Student clearly wanted to put the weight of the attack on Heráklion, and if it was considered to be that important, why attack it in the second wave?

The assault force would be reinforced by the 5th Gebirgs Division (14,000 men under Generalmajor Julius Ringel) with three regiments of infantry (85th Gebirgsjäger Regiment under Oberst Krakau, 100th Gebirgsjäger Regiment under Oberst Utz and the 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment under Oberst Jais from the 6th Gebirgs Division), one artillery regiment (95th Gebirgs Artillery Regiment under Oberstleutnant Wittmann) as well as artillery, anti-tank, reconnaissance engineer and signals assets. It would move to Crete by both air and sea. The 5th Gebirgs Division in fact, replaced the 22nd Luftlande Division, which was the natural choice to reinforce the paratroopers, as the division had been trained for airlanding operations in support of the 7th Flieger Division, but was at the time, guarding the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania and would have had a very difficult time in moving to the necessary airfields. However, Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) had light weapons and were well suited to moving by air transport. They would be given close air support by Fliegerkorps VII under General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen. While this was a powerful force, both Löhr and Student correctly perceived the experimental nature of the operation and the inherent dangers of relying solely on a combination of infantry and air support without tank and substantial artillery support. Added to that was the chaos that existed in the Balkans after the campaign and the fact that large numbers of troops were now withdrawing to concentrate for Barbarossa. The Germans were only able to get the 7th Flieger Division and fuel to the airfields around Athens at the last moment. The Germans correctly determined that the operation had the best chance of success if they managed to get the maximum strength deployed as quickly as possible.

The Allies Prepare

This of course was a fortunate stance to adopt, as the Germans had badly underestimated the Allied strength on the island. The defence of Greece and Crete was one of the many operations General Sir Archibald Wavell (Commander-in-Chief, Commonwealth Forces Middle East) had been forced to undertake with inadequate resources all around his theatre. There were acute shortages of aircraft, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and even basic supplies that made his job even more problematic, a situation made worse by the evacuation from Greece where much of the infantry had lost their organic heavy weapons, had caused many units to become disorganised, and had severely shaken their morale. Even communications proved to be nearly non-existent with the lack of a properly functioning radio network. Still, the forces on the island numbered some 32,000 Commonwealth troops and 10,000 Greek soldiers, a lot more than the German intelligence estimate of 10,000 Commonwealth troops and the remnants of ten Greek divisions. The Allied order of battle from east to west is as follows:

At the last moment, Major General Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealander who had fought at both Gallipoli and on the Somme, was placed in command on Crete on 30 April and discovered that virtually nothing had been done to solidify the defences on Crete since the autumn. Freyberg immediately set to work at improving the situation on Crete but given that the date of the German attack was rapidly approaching could not do all that he had wished. Indeed the British had a far better picture of what German intentions were than the Germans had of Allied dispositions. From the end of April, a stream of ‘Ultra’ intelligence, decrypted by the code-breaking office at Bletchley Park, indicated that the Germans were very near to launching an all-out airborne invasion of Crete with the emphasis being on the capture of the airfields and then following that up with air transport of reinforcements, with some coming by sea. This information was passed along to Freyburg, but its impact was diluted, as to protect the Ultra secret Freyberg was told that the information had come from ‘highly placed spies in Athens’. Further confirmation came when a Bf 110 crashed in Suda Bay and was found to have the map case and operational order for the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment and a summery of the whole operation. Unfortunately, it was the Greeks who uncovered it, and the British command, despite it confirming their own intelligence, decided it was a ruse. It also did not fit in with their preconceived ideas and Freyberg thus continued to concentrate on the seaborne part of the operation with his units spread along the coast. The defenders failed to concentrate on defending the airfields, failed to put them out of use (the RAF, convinced it would eventually return in strength, prevented it) and held only a small reserve in the event the Germans captured an airfield. The scene was set therefore for one of the most daring uses of airborne troops in history with the Germans invading with a completely inadequate idea of what they were facing and the Allies looking in the wrong direction.

Battle in Joined

Before dawn on the 20 May, Ju52s on Greek airfields such as Megara, Corinth and Tanagra fired up their engines and started to take off. After the first few, the dust storms that have been caused on the dry, untarmacked runways played havoc with the carefully planned timetable as it took time for the clouds to settle again. Eventually however, the Ju52s gathered and then headed for their objective. Unfortunately, General Süssmann, who was in a glider and due to drop as part of the first wave, was killed when his glider separated from its towrope and crashed on the island of Aegina. Before the main body of the first wave had reached the coast of Crete, Fliegerkorps VII had started to soften up the defences of the island and the glider companies had started to land. The initial glider landings around Máleme proved relatively successful and the Fallschirmjäger managed to capture the bridge over the Tavronitis, knock out the anti-aircraft positions and secure an area on the outskirts of the airfield. The 3rd Btn, Luftlande Sturmregiment started dropping at this point and landed right on top of parts of the 21st and 23rd New Zealand Btns, suffering badly as a result, some being killed as they dropped (tests done later in the war refuted Australian claims to have killed many Fallschirmjäger while they descended as it took an average of 340 rounds by a trained marksman to achieve a hit at 150m – it rose to 1,708 at twice that distance) and many being killed as they searched for weapons containers. The 4th Btn landed west of the Tavronitis and the 2nd Btn landed east of Spilia, both relatively intact but quickly engaged by forces in the vicinity. Meindl collected the glider troops around his HQ and dug in on the airfield’s perimeter and ordered two companies from the 2nd Btn to take Hill 107, the key to Máleme airfield.

In the central sector, 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment had landed well but rather dispersed and with strong resistance from Allied forces in the area (chiefly the 4th and 10th New Zealand Bdes). The glider detachments landed and completed their objective to knock out AA batteries (at high cost) and moved south to join the main body. The Engineer Btn had a rough reception from the 8th Greek Regt around Episkopi. Two battalions however, captured the village of Agia and set up the regimental command post, being joined by the divisional command post that had landed nearby. By midday, things were looking bleak for the Germans with only the objective of the bridge over the Tavronitis being secured. Casualties were mounting quickly, especially amongst the commanders, and many pockets of Fallschirmjäger were pinned firmly in place. None of this was known to Student who ordered the second wave to commence deployment. The aircraft had to be refuelled by hand which led to a delay, and therefore a disconnect opened up between the arrival of the air support and the arrival of the second wave of Fallschirmjäger. The dust was again a problem and so the aircraft had to take off in small groups with the Fallschirmjäger being delivered in penny packets. The 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment (less the 2nd Btn) dropped into an area held by the 19th Australian Bde and the 4th and 5th Greek Regts. However, the combination of planning with incomplete information and a wildly dispersed drop actually counted for the Germans as the 3rd Btn (Hauptmann Weidemann) landed away from enemy positions, formed up and headed west towards their objective of Rethymnon, but unexpectedly ran into fierce resistance from civilians and armed police and so were unable to take the town. Two companies of the 3rd Btn (Major Kroh) dropped onto the 2/1 Australian Btn while the remainder of the 3rd Btn gathered themselves and moved westwards to support their comrades in taking Hill A that overlooked the eastern end of the Rethymnon airfield. They dug in but faced numerous Australian counterattacks from the 2/1 Australian Btn under Lt Colonel Campbell. The regimental HQ with Oberst Sturm landed between the two on top of the 2/11 Australians and 4th Greek Regt with many being killed or captured. The 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment with the 2nd Btn, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment dropped around Heráklion and suffered the most of all the formations dropped that day. They dropped onto the 14th Infantry Bde area with the 1st Btn dropping to the west and southeast of the airfield and caught in a crossfire between 2/Leicesters, 2/4 Australian Btn and 2/Black Watch, the 3rd Btn dropping to the west of the town and started to move eastwards, part of the 2nd Btn, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment (the other part still in Greece) landing way to the west and unscathed and the 1st Btn landing way to the east untouched. The 1st Btn eventually gathered itself and moved westwards to join up with the 2nd Btn. Meanwhile, the British under Brigadier Chappell were looking to be reinforced by the 1/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who had landed at Tymbaki on 19 May and counterattacked into Heráklion, driving out the 3rd Btn who had managed to fight its way into the harbour.

By the end of the first day, the Fallschirmjäger were just about hanging on by their fingernails and had Freyburg used his superiority in men and material to counterattack, he might have driven caused the entire operation to collapse, or appreciating the significance of the fighting around Máleme, reinforced the airfield to prevent what would happen next. This however is a criticism in hindsight as at the time, the situation must have been deeply worrying for Freyburg who had been getting reports of huge numbers of enemy Fallschirmjäger dropping all along the north coast of the island and all his garrisons under attack simultaneously – a picture which Student, despite the maxim of concentration, had wanted to give. Even so, Student was in a difficult position. As far as he could ascertain, things had gone badly just about everywhere. Heráklion had held, and there was no news, which meant bad news, from Rethymnon. There was no secure point of entry open to the Gebirgsjäger anywhere. However, many of the Allied AA and field artillery guns had been silenced and those that remained were concentrated in the east and Fliegerkorps VII were effectively pounding the Allies by day, disrupting any daylight counterattacks. The only possible opening was in the west at Máleme where the Luftlande Sturmregiment had a small hold on both the western end of the runway and at the foot of Hill 107. To test if aircraft could land there, Student sent a staff officer, Hauptmann Kleye, on a Ju52 who landed at dawn on 21 May. Luckily, the ground to the northwest of the runway was dead to most of the New Zealanders except a few right at the top of Hill 107. Kleye was thus briefed on the situation and took off again. After this, six aircraft landed on the runway at 08.00 to unload ammunition and supplies that were badly needed by the Fallschirmjäger. After this, the stream of Ju52s became steady with the Gebirgsjäger from the 100th Gebirgs Regiment starting to arrive. At this point, Student decided that his maximum point of effort would be switched from Heráklion to Máleme with Meindl being evacuated and replaced by Oberst Bernhard Ramcke. His remaining Fallschirmjäger would be dropped west and east of the airfield to respectively, reinforce Ramcke and take the defenders in the rear. Unfortunately those dropping to the east dropped onto the New Zealanders and suffered serious casualties, although the survivors fortified the village of Pirgos on the road between the airfield and Canea. The remainder dropped without incident and after reinforcing the infantry at the foot of Hill 107, assaulted it, only to find the defenders had withdrawn.

A Stroke of Luck

What the Germans feared most at that point was a strong local counterattack to force them away from Máleme airfield, certainly there were enough forces in the area with the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 28th (Maori) New Zealand Btns. Unfortunately for the defenders, the continued air bombardment, the surprise at a novel form of warfare, the absence of good communications and the presence of pockets of the 3rd Btn, Luftlande Sturmregiment which were still active and intent on making a nuisance of themselves, all tended to pin the defenders to their positions and made the flow of information and orders very difficult so making rapid reaction impossible. Instead, the defenders pulled back and a ponderous counterstroke initiated which involved the two New Zealand battalions who were to conduct it being replaced by two Australian battalions, who were redeployed from around Rethymnon. The counterattack started late and managed to get to the perimeter of the airfield after being held up by the Germans fortified in Pirgos. The commanding officer of the 22nd New Zealand Btn, Lt Colonel L W Andrew VC had been wary of his mission to defend not only the airfield but quite a wide area around it as well so that in order to defend it he was forced to spread his companies out so that they could not support each other and he had no reserve. He had attempted a counterattack to retake the western end of the runway (and prevent the adventurous landings of the Ju52s) but it had failed. With only little help coming from the brigade in the form of two companies, he decided to withdraw to shorten his perimeter to prevent his companies being overrun one at a time, his battalion already suffering with the continued German pressure. This effectively handed the battle to the Germans as direct fire could no longer be brought down on the airfield and the Germans could start to reinforce the Fallschirmjäger with the 5th Gebirgs Division. However, this process would start only slowly as there was still sporadic indirect fire coming down on the airfield.

At sea, the continued presence of a large number of Royal Navy ships had, until the Ultra revelations, seemed inexplicable in the face of complete Luftwaffe air superiority, but it is now known that signals intelligence had warned the British that the initial force from the 5th Gebirgs Division (3rd Btn, 100th Gebirgs Regiment) were on their way to reinforce the Fallschirmjäger. The convoy had left Piraeus harbour on the 19 May and had reached the island of Milos the next day where they rested. It left Milos that evening as the second group left Piraeus. At around 23.00 it was located by a Royal Navy force of three cruisers and four destroyers just as it rounded Cape Spatha and despite the valiant efforts of an Italian destroyer, sank the majority of the convoy with heavy casualties. The 3rd Btn ceased to be an effective fighting force with around 250 survivors being picked up from the water although a group of around 100 managed to make it ashore with their weapons. Later that day another Royal Navy force (four cruisers and three destroyers) located the second convoy at dawn but that managed to retreat while the Luftwaffe distracted the British ships who had to withdraw under the increasing pressure of German air attack. Later that day, the Luftwaffe mounted a major offensive against any British ships that could be found and sank two cruisers and four destroyers, as well as damaging three more ships.

Recognising the seriousness of the situation at Máleme, Freyburg decided to launch a major night attack to drive the Germans from the airfield but because he was still worried about a seaborne invasion, failed to quickly commit two of the New Zealand Btns (18th and 20th) and instead launched a complex plan to move an Australian Btn to relieve the 20th that would then move forward to reinforce the 28th. Freyburg turned the operation over to Brigadier Edward Puttick who failed to concentrate additional forces to support Hargest. The Australians arrived late and so the operation did not begin until 3.30am and so most of the action took place during the day when the Luftwaffe was in a position to intervene. The New Zealanders also ran into the remnants of the 3rd Btn that were hiding in the rough ground to the east of the airfield and so the attack completely bogged down. By this time, the afternoon of the 22nd, the Germans were rapidly reinforcing their forces on Crete with the 5th Gebirgs Division under Generalmajor Julius Ringel, despite the continued artillery fire on the airfield. The 5th New Zealand Bde thus pulled back from its forward positions at Piragos, barely a mile from Máleme. From this point on the Gebirgsjäger would assume a greater proportion of the fighting. Ringel divided the German forces at Máleme into three kampfgruppe (battlegroups) – KG Schätte (based around the 95th Gebirgs Pioneer Battalion) was to defend Maleme and gently expand westwards to capture Kastelli. KG Ramcke (the reinforced remnants of the Luftlande Sturmregiment) was to move to the sea and then advance eastwards along the coast while KG Utz (1st and 2nd Btns, 100th Gebirgsjäger Regiment and 1st Btn, 85th Gebirgsjäger Regiment) was to trek eastwards over the mountains in the hope of outflanking the Allied positions.

The Tide Turns

This plan was put into operation the next day 23 May. KG Utz moved into the mountains and by the afternoon had been stopped at the village of Modi where the New Zealanders had established a blocking position. Fierce fighting erupted over the Modi position and the New Zealanders were forced to pull back as elements of the Gebirgsjäger outflanked them. This meant that the covering artillery had to withdraw to a more secure position and so Máleme airfield was finally free of Allied artillery. KG Schätte, in its advance towards Kastelli, came up against fierce but uncoordinated resistance from armed civilians that included women and children. While fighting the regular Allied troops was hard enough, fighting the Cretans was even worse as they had no qualms about mutilating any German dead or wounded that fell into their hands. Eventually, the Germans announced that for every tortured German found, ten Cretans would be executed, but this appears to have little effect.

By the 24 May, the Germans were now being reinforced on a huge scale and had been resupplied to the point where they could begin to adopt conventional tactics supported by tactical air power and their own artillery. To the Allies’ surprise, the Germans had brought artillery onto the island. This was unheard of in 1941, artillery being thought of as too cumbersome and heavy for airborne operations. The Germans had managed it by deploying one of the first recoilless guns seen in Europe. The recoilless gun had been invented by an American naval officer, Commander Davis during the First World War, and was very basic. Davis reasoned that if two guns were placed back to back and fired simultaneously, the recoil from both would cancel each other out. He made a gun with a single central chamber and two barrels facing in opposite directions. One barrel carried an explosive projectile, the other an equivalent weight of grease and lead shot. When the central cartridge was exploded the two projectiles were sent down their barrels at identical speeds making the entire mechanism free from recoil. The explosive shell went to its target while the wad of grease and shot disintegrated in the air. The Davis gun was purchased by the British and experiments undertaken to see if it could be used as an anti-submarine weapon but the war ended before the trials were completed. The German Rheinmetall company continued to experiment with the idea and eventually reduced it to a much simpler form. Reasoning that recoil could still be counterbalanced if the ejected ‘countershot’ was smaller but faster they found that the shell could be counterbalanced by a stream of gas moving at very high speed through a nozzle in the gun breech. The LG40 was of 75mm calibre, weighed 320lbs and fired a 13lbs high explosive shell to a range of 6.8km. The conventional 75mm gun of the German Army weighed 2,470lbs and fired the same shell to a range of 9.4km. Thus the recoilless rifle allowed virtually the same firepower as a conventional artillery piece with two-thirds the range but one eighth the weight.

The Beginning of the End

On the 25 May, the decisive part of the battle for Crete began. The Germans had reached the New Zealand blocking position at Galatas and attacked it. After some bitter fighting, the New Zealanders were eventually ousted from the village by the Germans who were in their turn ousted by a counterattack. The New Zealanders however, were too weak to hold and withdrew during the night, allowing the Gebirgsjäger to occupy the village and open the way for an advance on Canea. The Germans continued their advances and on the 27 May the decision was taken to evacuate the Allied force on Crete and so the garrison made preparations to withdraw southward. The Germans failed to realise what was happening and continued to press their attacks against Canea with two fresh Gebirgs regiments that had been flown in by air. To the southwest of Suda, the Australians and the New Zealanders mounted a series of counterattacks to keep the Germans off-balance and cover the withdrawal.

On the 28 May, 85th Gebirgsjäger Regiment, that had been sent across the mountains to cut the Canea – Rethymnon road ran into a blocking position at the village of Stilos manned by the 23rd New Zealand Btn supported by artillery and tanks. The battle raged back and forth but a small Gebirgsjäger force managed to outflank the New Zealand position and capture the bridge on the main coast road just south of Kalami. Having captured the bridge, the charges were rapidly removed, as the bridge was vital for the Germans eastward movement. Artillery and mortars were brought forward and after taking care of the tanks they silenced the Allied artillery too, forcing the New Zealanders to disengage and retreat south. Also on the 28 May, another kampfgruppe, KG Wittmann was sent along the coast road to relieve the many pockets of Fallschirmjäger that had held out all this time on the road to Heráklion, a number of which had been reinforced by small drops on the 23 and 24 May. Once there it would combine with the Fallschirmjäger and capture the airfield. KG Wittmann managed to advance some three miles beyond Suda but was stopped by a party from ‘Layforce’, a unit of British commandos that had landed at Suda on the nights of the 24 – 26 May. Together with two New Zealand Btns they held up the German advance for a while, but the Germans managed to force them to withdraw and make contact with 85th Gebirgsjäger Regiment who were then fighting around Stilos. The two groups resumed their advance eastward, meeting the main body of Layforce accompanied by a company of Australian infantry. After bitter fighting, the Germans turned the Allied flank by moving across the mountains and so Layforce withdrew during the night. The Germans again resumed the advance and reached Rethymnon during the early afternoon of 29 May. No further advance was considered possible until armoured cars and artillery were brought up as the Australians still held positions in the mountains to the south. Meanwhile the garrison at Heráklion was evacuated at a cost of two destroyers and the Germans still surrounding the town, finding no resistance, occupied it on the 29 May.

The next day saw the arrival of the heavy artillery for the Germans and the start of the bombardment of the Allied positions on the heights surrounding Rethymnon. The troops in these positions had not received the order to withdraw and so saw no way out of their position except by surrendering. Some 700 Allied troops were captured along with a number of Fallschirmjäger who they had taken prisoner. KG Wittmann moved off once again and made contact with firstly, a group of Fallschirmjäger from the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment at 09.00 and then at midday with a patrol form the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment who had been dug in near Heraklion. The kampfgruppe then took possession of the airfield where it was joined by a small Italian force that had been landed at Sitia the previous day and then advanced to the village of Ierapetra on the south coast at 22.00. They encountered few Allied troops, because the main evacuation was in fact taking place on the south coast at Sphakia with the Allied forces actually withdrawing to the south and not the east as the Germans had originally assumed. The Germans, once they had found that the Allied forces were nowhere in sight in the eastern half of the island, immediately began moving south on 29 May (those to the east moving on the 30 May) to bring the battle to an end. The advance was led by the two battalions of the 100th Gebirgsjäger Regiment who reached Keres but were halted by a determined rearguard action. The advance continued on the 30 May as the rearguard withdrew but was checked again at the Imbros Pass. The Germans kept up the pressure however and by the evening of 30 may were less than three miles from Sphakia with the remainder of the island totally in German hands. The last Allied troops, of which around 14,500 had been evacuated, were lifted off early on 1 June, with General Freyburg leaving on 30 May by flying boat. The remaining Allied troops were ordered to surrender at 09.00 on 1 June, leaving the Germans in control of Crete.

Conclusion

The Battle for Crete was a German victory but a costly one. Out of an assault force of just over 22,000 men, the Germans suffered some 5,500 casualties, of which 3,600 were killed or missing in action. Almost a third of the Ju52s used in the operation were damaged or destroyed. The Allies suffered almost 3,500 casualties (of which just over 1,700 were killed) and almost 12,000 were taken prisoner. The Royal Navy suffered 1 aircraft carrier, two battleships, six cruisers and seven destroyers badly damaged and another three cruisers and six destroyers sunk with the loss of over 2,000 men. The RAF lost some forty-seven aircraft in the battle. Exactly how many Greek soldiers and Cretan civilians died during the fighting will never be known.

As a result of the huge losses suffered by the Fallschirmjäger in Crete, it was forbidden by Hitler to mount any large-scale operations in the future and apart from a few small-scale operations, mainly served as elite infantry for the rest of the war. While many considered this a typical Hitler mistake, one must consider the heavy casualties suffered by the Allied airborne forces in Normandy and the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Large airborne forces are no longer seen in Western military forces and those that remain tend to be focused towards intervention and rapid deployment operations and so one wonders in Hitler’s decision has not some merit after all. The Gebirgsjäger who were drafted into the operation at the last moment performed admirably, as they did throughout the war. The fact that the operation was undertaken just three weeks after the fall of Greece is a testament to the flexibility, ingenuity and determination of the Germans who had to overcome immense logistic difficulties. However, the German operation had been placed in serious risk from the start by hasty planning (Student should have landed the Fallschirmjäger farther away from the airfields, concentrated on one or two points and brought the convoys over during the day when the Luftwaffe could have covered them adequately), overconfidence, an overestimation of the local population’s sympathies with the invaders, inadequate intelligence and poor reconnaissance. The proper objective for the Fallschirmjäger was probably Malta, with Crete and Cyprus to follow, as Malta was the key to the central Mediterranean and to the narrow bottleneck that Allied east – west traffic and Axis north – south traffic had to pass to supply their respective forces in North Africa. Taking Malta could have resulted in Rommel and the Afrika Korps being in the Nile delta and on the banks of the Suez Canal. Finally, it delayed the start of Operation Barbarossa by some six weeks, although the exact impact of that cannot be quantified as a delay to the proposed 15 May start date would have been necessary anyway due to the late spring rains and thawing of the winter snow.

British operations on Crete were hampered by the poor shape many units found themselves in after the campaign in Greece, indecision, misunderstanding, a lack of information (at least when the fighting started) and poor communications in the chain of command, both on Crete itself from Crete to Egypt. The order to Freyburg to preserve the airfields for the future use of the RAF (which they never did) proved to be an example. The importance of the Ultra intercepts was diluted by not revealing the exact source of the information to Freyburg who continued to focus on the threat of an amphibious attack. There was no clear-cut plan of defence, and what was undertaken was done so at the last minute. The defence of the island was improvised and with the British at full stretch in the rest of North Africa and the Middle East, the men and material necessary for the defence of Crete could not be spared. None of the commanders involved at the higher levels of command came away with laurels (with the exception of Cunningham who appreciated the impact of airpower on naval power and the strategic consequences for the Allies of a British defeat at Crete and the possibility of a shift in the naval balance of power in the Mediterranean) and showed too little aggressiveness, as their appreciation for the situation always lagged behind events, something that never hindered the Germans as their leaders led from the front. There was also considerable interference with Wavell’s command from London, specifically Churchill, that was recorded by Major General Sir John Kennedy, Chief of Operations for the General Staff, saying “I don’t see how we can win the war without Winston, but on the other hand, I don’t see how we can win it with him.” (Baldwin, 1977, p. 42)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Crete, 1941: Germany's Lightning Airborne Assault, Peter Antill, Operation Mercury, the German airborne assault on the island of Crete in May 1941, was the first strategic use of airborne forces in history. The assault began on 20 May, with landings near the island's key airports, and reinforcements the next day allowed the German forces to capture one end of the runway at Maleme. By 24 May the Germans were being reinforced by air on a huge scale and on 1 June Crete surrendered. This book describes how desperately close the battle had been, and explains how German losses so shocked the Fuhrer that he never again authorised a major airborne operation. cover cover cover
Battle for Crete, John Hall Spencer. A valuable reprint of one of the classic accounts of the German invasion of Crete. Hall Spencer has produced a book that combined a clear overview of the battle, from the moment the British decided to intervene in Greece, to the final evacuation from Crete, while at the same time using eye witness accounts to bring us right down to the level of the individual platoons and soldiers fighting around the crucial airfields on Crete. As a result the course of the battle becomes much clearer, as do the reasons for the Allied failure to hold Crete. One of the best accounts of an individual battle I have read. [see more] cover cover cover
Crete: the Battle and the Resistance , Anthony Beevor cover cover cover
The Fall of Crete, Alan Clark cover cover cover
Battle for Crete , George Forty cover cover cover
Great Battles of World War II, Hogg, Ian, Blandford Press, Poole, 1987 cover cover cover
cover The Oxford Companion to Military History, Holmes, Prof Richard. (Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001. cover cover cover
Alpine Elite, Lucas, James, Jane's Publishing, London, 1980. cover cover cover
cover Storming Eagles, Lucas, James., Arms and Armour Press / Guild Publishing, London, 1988. cover cover cover
German Paratroopers , McNab, Chris. , Aurum Press, London, 2000. cover cover cover
The Battle for Crete , Pack, S W C. , Ian Allen Ltd, Shepperton, 1973. cover cover
Hunters from the Sky , Whiting, Charles. , Corgi Books, London, 1975. cover cover

Books not on Amazon

Buckley, Christopher. Greece and Crete 1941, HMSO, London, 1977.
Croix, Philip de Ste. Airborne Operations, Salamander, London, 1978.
Hetherington, John. Airborne Invasion: The Story of the Battle for Crete, Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1944.
MacDonald, Callum. The Lost Battle - Crete 1941, Macmillan Publishing, London, 1993.
Miller, Keith Nicholls, Mark and Smurthwaite, David. Touch and Go - The Battle for Crete 1941, National Army Museum, London, 1991.
Simpson, Tony. Operation Mercury - The Battle for Crete, 1941, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1981.
Stewart, I. The Struggle for Crete: A Story of Lost Opportunity, Oxford University Press, London, 1966.
Thomas, David. Nazi Victory: Crete 1941, Stein and Day, New York, 1972.

Journal / Magazine Articles

Baldwin, Hanson W. 'Crete - Where Both Britain and Germany Erred' in Defence Journal, September / October 1977 (Volume 3), pp. 34 - 47.
Bell, Brig (Retd) A T J. 'The Battle for Crete - The Tragic Truth' in the Australian Defence Force Journal, May / June 1991, pp. 15 - 19.
Cunningham, Admiral Sir Andrew B. 'The Battle of Crete' published as a supplement to The London Gazette of Friday 21st May 1948 on Monday 24th May 1948. Original dispatch to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty dated 4th August 1941.
Falvey, Denis. 'The Battle for Crete - Myth and Reality' in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Summer 1993, pp. 119 - 126.
Murray, Williamson. 'Crete' in The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Summer 1991, Volume 3, Number 4, pp. 28 - 35.
Robinson, Charles. 'The Spirit of Anzac' in the Australian Defence Force Journal, May / June 1991, pp. 11 - 14.

Websites

The Battle for Crete
The Battle for Crete, 1941
German Fallschirmjager 1936-1945

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How to cite this article:Antill, P. (20 July 2002), Operation Mercury: The German Invasion of Crete, 20 May-1 June 1941, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_crete.html

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