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Battle of Crete

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"To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime." — Winston Churchill, The Second World War.

The Battle of Crete began on the morning of May 20 1941, during World War II, when Germany launched an airborne invasion under the code name Unternehmen Merkur (or Operation Mercury). The operation was successful in terms of taking the island from the Allied forces holding it, but the victory was so costly that the Germans never again launched a major airborne mission.

Contents

Prelude

Allied forces had occupied the island of Crete when the Italians had invaded Greece on October 28, 1940. Though the Italians were initially repulsed, the subsequent German intervention drove the 57,000 Allied troops from the mainland. The Royal Navy evacuated many of them, some to Crete to bolster its 14,000-man garrison.

By May 1941, the defense consisted of 10,000 men in 11 Greek militia battalions, the original British garrison, and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation — there were substantially intact units under their own command, scratch units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an Army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment.

The key formed units were the New Zealand 2nd Division (less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters, which had been sent on to Egypt), the Australian 19th Brigade Group and the British 14th Brigade. Allied armour resources consisted of 16 obsolescent Cruiser Mk I tanks. There were approximately 85 artillery pieces of various calibres — many of them captured Italian pieces without sights.

On April 30, Major General Bernard Freyberg — a British general commanding the New Zealand forces — was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete.

Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. From Crete, the Romanian oilfields were within range. Also, with Crete in Allied hands, the Axis south eastern position would never be safe, a vital necessity before starting Operation Barbarossa. The Germans responded by starting a constant bombardment of the island, which eventually forced the Royal Air Force to remove its planes to Alexandria, giving the Luftwaffe air superiority over the island. However the island remained a threat, and would have to be taken eventually.

On April 25, Adolf Hitler signed Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete. The Royal Navy's forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault would be quickly decided by the nature of an air-versus-ship battle, making it a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on.

This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had used parachute and glider-borne assaults on a much smaller scale in the invasion of France and the Low Countries, and Norway. The intention was to use Fallschirmjger (Luftwaffe paratroopers) to capture key points of the island, including airfields that could then be used to fly in supplies and reinforcements in the usual way. The XI Fliegerkorps was to coordinate an attack by the 7th Air Division, which would insert its paratroopers by parachute and glider, followed by the 22nd Air Landing Division once the airfields were secure. The assault was initially scheduled for 16 May; it was postponed to 20 May and the 5th Mountain Division replaced the 22nd Division.

By this time, Allied commanders had become aware of the invasion through Ultra intercepts. General Freyberg was informed of their battle plan, although in some roundabout terms in order to hide the nature of the data, and started to prepare a defense based near the airfields. However he was seriously hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and was faced with the reality that even the lightly armed paratroopers would be able to manage about the same firepower as his own troops.

German airborne doctrine was based on parachuting in a small number of forces directly on top of enemy airfields. This force would capture the perimeter and any local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider. Freyberg was aware of this after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However he was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria. They felt the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the RAF's return once the island was secure. This may have been a fatal error.

Day one, May 20

At 8:00AM on May 20 German paratroopers landed near Maleme and Chania, secondary airfields built to support the island's main airbase at Heraklion. Of the initial forces, the majority were mauled by Allied forces placed near the airfields, in particular many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing. Those who did land were wiped out almost to a man by the Greek and Commonwealth defenders.

Ironically a number of German forces had landed off-site near both airfields, as is common in air drops, and set up defensive positions to the west of the Maleme airfield, and "Prison Valley" in the Canea area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, they were in place and the defenders had to deploy to face them.

Greek police forces and cadets were also in action, defeating a German incursion at Kastelli, and severely hampering German movement at Kolimbari and Paleochora.

Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with a savagery unexpected by either side. In one notable incident, an elderly Cretan beat a German parachutist to death with his walking stick. This was not an isolated case, and many Germans met their end by knife or club in the Cretan olive groves and villages. Once they had overcome their shock at such unprecedented resistance from a civilian population, the Germans reacted with equal ferocity.

A second German wave arrived at 4:00PM afternoon, attacking Rethimnon and Heraklion. As with the earlier actions, the defenders were waiting for them, and inflicted heavy casualties. As night fell, none of the German objectives had been secured. The risky plan — attacking at four separate points to fully use surprise rather than concentrating on one — seemed to have failed, although the reasons were unknown to the Germans. Towards the evening of May 20, the Germans at Maleme were slowly pushing back the New Zealanders from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. The commanders in Crete decided to throw everything into the Maleme sector the next day.

Day two, May 21

The next morning it was found that the New Zealand infantry battalion defending the airfield on Hill 107 had mistakenly withdrawn at night, although they continued to pour artillery fire into the area. This gave the German forces control of the airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby. That evening Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft started flying in units of the Fifth Mountain Division. These troops moved into the line as soon as their planes landed, many of which were hit by artillery fire and littered the airfield.

Day three, May 22

Realizing that Maleme was now the key to holding the entire island, the defending force organized for a counterattack by two New Zealand battalions on the night of May 21st/22nd. Fears of a sea landing meant that a number of units that could have taken part in the attack were left in place, although this possibility was removed by a strong Royal Navy presence which arrived too late for the plans to change.

The force attacked at night, but by this time the original paratroops had set up defensive lines, and the newly arrived mountain troops proved difficult to dislodge. The attack slowly petered out, failing to retake the airfield. From this point on the defenders were involved in a series of withdrawals to the eastern end of the island, in an attempt to avoid being flanked by the oncoming German forces.

Withdrawal, May 28th to 31st

Command in London eventually decided the cause was hopeless, and ordered a withdrawal from Sfakia. Over the next four nights 16,000 troops were taken off to Egypt. A smaller number was withdrawn on a separate mission from Heraklion, but these ships were attacked en-route by Luftwaffe dive bombers and suffered serious losses. On 1 June the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakia surrendered, although many took to the hills and caused the German occupation problems for years.

During the evacuation Admiral Cunningham was determined that the "navy must not let the army down", when army generals feared he would lose too many ships Cunningham said that "It takes three years to build a ship, it takes three centuries to build a tradition".

Outcome

Allied commanders were worried about the Germans using Crete as a "springboard" to further operations in the area, possibly a seaborne invasion of Egypt in support of the German/Italian forces operating from Libya. However these fears were soon put to rest when Operation Barbarossa opened, and it was clear the German operation was defensive in nature.

Losses among the German paratroops meant that the fallschirmjger were never again used as airborne troops, which eliminated this weapon from use in Russia. Given the poor communications and airbase defenses in Russia at the time, this can be considered a very serious setback, as it is likely paratroop operations would have been highly effective.

In addition, a vigorous resistance campaign was instituted almost immediately after the fall of the island, and remained active until 1945. This campaign necessitated a garrison of some 50,000 personnel at its peak - troops who could have been used to great effect in other theatres.

Casualties

The Germans admitted losses of 6,200 men: 3,714 dead and 2,494 wounded. Today however, there are around 4,500 German graves at Maleme alone. Allied soldiers claimed to have buried 900 German corpses in Rethimnon and 1,250 corpses at Heraklion by the fifth day of battle. German losses may have been considerably higher than admitted. Winston Churchill claimed the Germans must have suffered well over 15,000 casualties and Admiral Cunningham felt that 22,000 had become casualties. Christopher Buckley in the book "Greece and Crete 1941" gave a cautious estimate of 16,800 casualties.

The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an equal number wounded, and an enormous number captured (12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greeks). There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Navy. A total sum of 3,579 dead and 1900 wounded.

A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire and died fighting as partisans. Many Cretans were murdered by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation that followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children.

Further reading

Beevor, Antony. Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray Ltd, 1991. Penguin Books, 1992. Pbk ISBN 0-14-016787-0 Boulder : Westview Press, 1994. LCCN 93047914

Buckley, Christopher. Greece and Crete 1941, London, 1952. Greek pbk edition (in English): P. Efstathiadis & Sons S.A., 1984. Pbk ISBN 960-226-041-6

Clark, Alan. The Fall of Crete, Anthony Blond Ltd., London, 1962. Greek pbk edition (in English): Efstathiadis Group, 1981, 1989. Pbk ISBN 960-226-090-4

Elliot, Murray. Vasili: The Lion of Crete, Century Hutchinson New Zealand Ltd., London, Australia, South Africa. Greek pbk edition (in English): Efstathiadis Group S.A., 1987, 1992. Pbk ISBN 960-226-348-2

Harokopos, George. The Fortress Crete, subtitled on cover '1941-1944' and within 'The Secret War 1941-1944' and 'Espionage and Counter-Espionage in Occupied Crete', Seagull Publications. Greek pbk edition/English translation: B. Giannikos & Co., Athens, 1993. Translation and comments by Spilios Menounos. Pbk ISBN 960-7296-35-4

Kokonas, N.A., M.D. The Cretan Resistance 1941-1945, forwarded by P. Leigh Fermor and others. London, 1993. Greek pbk edition (in English): Graphotechniki Kritis, Rethymnon, Crete, Greece. Pbk ISBN 960-85329-0-6

Lind, Lew. Flowers of Rethymnon: Escape from Crete, Kangaroo Press Pty Ltd, 1991. ISBN 0-86417-394-6

MacDonald, C. The Lost Battle - Crete 1941, MacMillan 1993 ISBN 0-330-61675-8

Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation 1941-44, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993. ISBN 0-300-05804-7

Moss, W. Stanley. Ill Met By Moonlight: The Story of the Kidnapping of General Karl Kreipe, the German Divisional Commander in Crete, The MacMillan Company, NY, 1950

Psychoundakis, George. The Cretan Runner: His History of the German Occupation, English translation and introduction by Patrick Leigh Fermor. London, 1955. Greek pbk edition (in English): Efstathiadis Group S.A., 1991. Pbk ISBN 960-226-013-0

Thomas, David A. Crete 1941: The Battle at Sea, Andre Deutsch Ltd. Great Britain, 1972. Greek pbk edition (in English): Efstathiadis Group, Athens 1980

cs:Invaze na Krtu da:Slaget om Kreta de:Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta fr:Bataille de Crte ja:クレタ島の戦い

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