May 20, 1941 - The German Airborne Assault on Crete
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 20, 1941. It is a clear, hot early summer’s day on the Greek island of Crete. At 0800, the first wave of several thousand German paratroopers descend on the Allied-held island. The first large-scale airborne drop in history will leave a murky legacy, and Operation Mercury causes so many German casualties that Hitler swears off airborne operations forever. The Allies, though, are taking notes.
In 1941, World War II appeared to have ground to a standstill for both the British and the Germans. The Germans had failed to defeat Britain in the Blitz, but Britain stood alone against the might of the Third Reich and had no real way to strike back at them. Winston Churchill was still trying to pull America into the war, but with no luck. He still wanted any way possible to stay in the fight against Germany, though, so when Italy invaded Greece the British quickly sent troops, tanks and equipment to prop up their sudden new ally.
This proved to be a mistake. In April 1941, the wildly successful tank, truck and dive-bomber road show that was “Blitzkrieg” staged its concert in Greece. The Germans overran Greece in days, and only through brave rearguard actions could the British evacuate their forces, including many Greek troops, off the mainland. Half of these evacuated forces went to Egypt to fight Rommel. The other half went to Crete.
Crete is Greece’s largest island, a big narrow rectangle lying midway between Greece and Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea. The seat of the Kings of Minos in ancient history, it had been fought over for centuries. The Allies occupied the island with British, New Zealand and Australian troops – about 30,000 of them – and 10,000 Greeks who had been saved from the German assault.
The German generals did not want to attack Crete, but Hitler considered it an important objective. Crete provided excellent harbors for the British Royal Navy and airbases for British bombers. In particular, Hitler was concerned about the Romanian oil fields, the source of almost all Germany’s fuel; he also wanted to take Crete as a possible springboard for invading Egypt. The big problem was that the Royal Navy dominated the seas around Crete.
The Italian Navy was not big enough to challenge the British, and there were no German forces in the Mediterranean. The only alternative was a completely airborne offensive.
Paratroops were still a relatively new idea in military spheres. The Soviets and Germans had both done large-scale experiments with paratroop units, and starting with the invasion of Poland the Germans had conducted small-scale assaults with high success. Most notable of these was the seizure of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium on May 10, 1940, the day of the German blitzkrieg into France. These attacks, though, had been mostly undertaken by small units of men, and they had not been tasked with such a large and dangerous objective as a massive enemy-occupied island.
Luftwaffe commanders, though, were confident. Hermann Goring, the obese, corrupt and egotistical Nazi leader of the Luftwaffe, was part of Hitler’s inner circle, being an old Nazi from the early days, but his stock had slipped when he failed to subdue Britain. Despite misgivings from Army generals, Goring was confident that he could take Crete. It would be the first time in history that a large-scale offensive had ever been attempted from the air alone, and success stood to raise Goring’s prestige immensely.
The Germans planned to use the paratroops of General Kurt Student’s 7th Flieger Division – elite Fallschirmjager (parachute-dropped hunters, literally) – to make the initial assault and seize multiple British airfields. With their capture, reinforcements and supplies could be flown in from German airbases in Greece, including the 5th Mountain Division. This was risky: unless the German paratroops seized the airfields, they would be cut off and probably wiped out. To reduce interference by the Royal Navy, the Italians positioned multiple submarines off the coast.
On May 20, the German paratroops climbed aboard their Ju-52 transports and headed for Crete. At 0800, the first wave jumped out of dozens of planes above Maleme Airfield and near Heraklion, one of Crete’s largest cities. The New Zealand troops holding Maleme responded quickly and resisted fiercely. The Germans took terrible losses in the initial assault. One paratroop company lost 112 of its 126 men, and a battalion lost 400 of its 600.
Greek forces soon arrived on the scene to help the New Zealanders, and when German gliders arrived to land heavy weapons they were shot up by mortars and machine guns.
Many paratroops missed their targets entirely, but managed to rendezvous after dodging Kiwi and Greek patrols in the hills. Some of these forces managed to draw the Allies away from the main landing site, and by evening on May 20 they had managed to take one of the hills overlooking the airfield. They were in serious trouble, though, as the Cretan population and Greek troops were hunting down any airborne troops in their midst. Even Greek police and local cadets were participating in the defense. Germans landed in other spots across Crete on May 20, as well, but failed to seize an airfield anywhere. Commonwealth and Greek troops put up heavy resistance, and it seemed on Day 1 like the attack had failed.
On May 21, though, a miscommunication in the New Zealand troops around Maleme Airfield, causing one of the battalions to withdraw mistakenly. This mistake allowed the Germans to take more of the critical high ground and ended up costing the Allies the airfield, as the Germans dug in and the German paratroop commander, Kurt Student, decided to focus his efforts on securing Maleme. That same day, a convoy of ships trying to bring reinforcements to the German paratroopers was intercepted by Royal Navy ships and nearly annihilated.
The New Zealanders made a counterattack to try and retake Maleme Airfield on the 22nd, but they were driven off by German reinforcements and Stuka dive-bombers. The Germans had secured the airfield, which meant that troops of the 5th Mountain Division were now arriving by air to reinforce the bedraggled assault force. Even though no German ships had made it to Crete – the Royal Navy continued to block and break up every convoy – the capture of Maleme Airfield proved to be the turning point of the battle.
The Allies began a difficult fighting retreat across the island in the face of aggressive German attacks and air support made possible by the capture of the airfield. The Luftwaffe began to make life difficult for the Royal Navy as well, as their bombers began to target British ships and transports. The critical airfield had not just let the Germans sustain their attack on Crete, but had made it impossible for the Allies to hold it. By May 23, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham reported to London that daylight operations could no longer continue. The question was no longer if the Allies could hold Crete; the question now became whether they could escape.
German and Italian convoys began to make it through the Navy screen, bringing tanks and artillery to support the paratroopers. They pushed the British, Commonwealth and Greek forces southward across the hilly countryside, trying to cut them off with mad races around the flanks with motorcycles and light tanks. Multiple last stands staved off the blitzkrieg, including Corporal Douglas Bignal’s four-man battle to the death at the Battle of 42nd Street. The Maori Battalion of Captain Rangi Royal overran a German Mountain regiment with almost no losses to buy time for the retreating forces.
As the Germans advanced, they exacted a terrible toll on the Greek civilians. Multiple massacres are recorded, including the destruction of several villages. The Cretan partisans that had risen up to fight the German assault wore no uniforms or insignia, so the Germans felt no need to take prisoners. On several occasions, entire towns were rounded up and summarily executed, for which some German leaders would be tried and hanged after the war.
By May 27, the British were preparing an evacuation of the force on Crete. Despite the danger posed to his ships, Admiral Cunningham decided to undertake daylight operations despite the risks in order to save the Allied force. During the next four nights, Cunningham and the Navy faced intense air attack at all hours as they worked feverishly to rescue whoever they could from the collapsing defenses. When the high command voiced its concerns, Cunningham said, “It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. The Navy must not let the Army down. The evacuation will continue.”
Though Cunningham lost 19 sunk and 22 heavily damaged, nearly crippling the Mediterranean Fleet in one of its most critical periods, the evacuation succeeded. Of the 22,000 who made it to the landing beaches, the Navy saved almost all of them. Many never made it – the Germans took 12,000 British Commonwealth and 5,000 Greek prisoners and inflicted 6,000 other casualties. The Allies had suffered heavy losses in the defense of Crete…enough to cause historians to criticize Churchill for trying to defend it in the first place.
Even though Germany had taken lighter losses, the results were shocking. The elite airborne units were virtually destroyed, with the airborne General Student saying after the war that Crete was the death of the German airborne force. Of the 22,000 men from their two divisions, the Germans lost almost 6,500, with the heaviest toll by far falling on the irreplaceable airborne units. Far worse in the long term was the loss of critical transport planes. Almost a third of Germany’s transport aircraft were wiped out in the Battle of Crete due to antiair fire and accidents; many of them were brought down by blasts from Royal Navy ships.
The Germans had won the Battle of Crete, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. They had done some things right: superior leadership, aggressiveness, and fighting ability had led their forces to victory over high odds. On the other hand, their failure to achieve surprise resulted in huge losses, and the complete failure of German intelligence almost killed the entire operation. Without spectacular air support and junior leaders’ initiative, the Germans would have lost the battle. For their part, the Allies failed to react quickly enough to the attack, suffering from poor communication and lack of good air support. If more Royal Air Force units had been on the island, the Germans never could have taken Crete.
For Hitler, though, Crete was a turning point. After the high losses among his elite units, Hitler forbade further large-scale airborne operations for the rest of the war, even telling Student that “the day of the paratrooper is over.” Apart from a few small-scale raiding missions, the Fallschirmjager – once the advance guard of the Blitzkrieg – would be used as elite ground-pounding infantry for the rest of the war, ultimately just another set of infantry divisions with different uniforms.
For the Cretans, the battle opened a long period of repression by German authorities, with fierce vengeance taken for the population’s resistance. Crete would see 3,000 of its population murdered by the Germans during their stay.
Even if Hitler put the kibosh on big airborne operations after Crete, the Allies had the opposite reaction. Within weeks, the British were building their own parachute training school, and as soon as they entered the war the United States were training their own paratroop divisions – the legendary 82nd and 101st Airborne. Death from above may have been forgotten by the Axis, but they would have cause to remember several years later.
On June 6, 1944, multiple German soldiers in the Fallschirmjager formations who had never jumped from a plane would look up and see the Allied airborne divisions coming down towards them. If you won’t use it, we will.