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. For instance 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 right and not merely be used to support the Wehrmacht.
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 one 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.
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 Freyberg 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 Freyberg, 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.”
Baron von der Heydte, who had fought with the 3rd Parachute Regiment at Crete, recalled his meeting with General Kurt Student, the German parachute commander, on 28th May 1941 in his book “Daedalus Returned: Crete 1941.”
General Student visited us almost immediately after the fall of Canea. Had fourteen days really elapsed since I had last seen him issuing orders in Athens?
He had visibly altered. He seemed much graver, more reserved, and older. There was no evidence in his features that he was joyful over the victory — his victory — and proud at the success of his daring scheme. The cost of victory had evidently proved too much for him. Some of the battalions had lost all their officers, and in several companies there were only a few men left alive.
. . . The battle for Crete was to prove the overture to the great tragedy that reached its climax at El Alamein and Stalingrad. For the first time, there had stood against us a brave and relentless opponent on a battleground that favoured him.
On this occasion, things had gone well with us, but it seemed almost a miracle that our great and hazardous enterprise had succeeded. How it did, I cannot say to this day. Success had suddenly come to us at a moment when, as so often happens in war, we had ceased to believe in the possibility of success.
My interview with General Student was brief and to the point. In answer to his questions, I concisely reported our experiences in the attack and told him of our losses.
When I had finished, he grasped me firmly by the hand and held it for a long time. “I thank you,” was all he said; but the grasp of his hand and those three short words were quite sufficient for me.