Eighty-two years ago, on May 20, 1941, the Battle of Crete began, codenamed Operation "Merkur". For the first time in the history of warfare, an operation to capture an island was conducted from the air and not from the sea, with the use of parachute and airborne troops.
Although during the Second World War Germany had already employed airborne troops in the Western Campaign, against Norway, Belgium and Holland, the invasion of an island, which extended over 250 km and was the fifth largest of the Mediterranean, with the tactic of the so-called "vertical outflanking" conducted by many thousands of men, represented an event that had never been seen before: a revolution in the art of warfare.
May 20 was a clear and silent day. At about 6.45am, a much larger than usual force of German dive bombers, destroyers and fighter-bombers appeared in the Suda-Maleme area and attacked the airfield and surrounding area, Canea, the anti-aircraft batteries and all the streets in the surrounding area.
Each anti-aircraft battery was attacked by two or three bombers, and many of them were put out of action. It soon became apparent to the defenders that this bombardment was not the "daily bombardment and strafing" to which the island had been subjected for some weeks, but the prelude to the long-awaited invasion.
The spectacle that presented itself to the eyes of the defenders was impressive. Later, New Zealander General Bernard Freyberg, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces (CREFORCE) made up of the British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek contingents present on the island, described it thus:
“[…] hundreds of planes, wave after wave, came towards us and upon reaching Maleme airport, when they were only a few hundred feet above the ground, as if by magic, white spots mixed with other colors suddenly appeared below of them, and clouds of paratroopers slowly floated in the air towards the ground”.
Crete: a strategic objective
After the heavy defeat inflicted on the Greek army and the British Expeditionary Force in April 1942, the whole of mainland Greece and the surrounding islands were occupied by German troops, except for the island of Crete, which the British still held together with the garrison Greek.
In fact, just after the Italian attack on Greece in October 1940, the British had immediately occupied Greece and garrisoned the island of Crete with a brigade and some units of the Greek army. Furthermore, to use Crete as a springboard for operations in the Balkans they had restructured the three local airports and port installations in Suda Bay
They subsequently made the island the rallying point for most of the troops evacuated from Greece.
For the Germans, conversely, it was necessary to occupy the island to protect the southern side of Germany from British attacks and to prevent enemy bombers from taking off from its airfields to attack the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, vital to sustain the effort war of Germany.
The possession of the island represented, therefore, both for the Germans and for the Allies an important strategic objective.
The decision to capture the island of Crete from the air was made on 21 April 1941, the same day as the capitulation of Greece, at Hitler's headquarters in Semmering in Austria.
The project was by the commander of theXI Fliegerkorps (XI Air Corps) General Kurt Student, who had submitted it the day before to the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe (Air Force), Reich Marshal Hermann Göhring and then, on his orders, to Hitler himself.
The Führer approved the operation, despite the objections of the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), Supreme Command of the Armed Forces and the Kriegsmarine (Military Navy), which instead supported the priority of an attack on Malta, but imposed that the attack from heaven was accompanied by an attack from the sea, because the operation did not have to stand on one leg.
Four days later, on April 25, Hitler issued "Directive 28": "An operation to occupy the island of Crete (Operation Merkur) must be prepared with the aim of using Crete as an air base against Great Britain in the Mediterranean Oriental".
The original plan devised by General Alexander Lohr, commander of the IV Luftflotte (IV Air Fleet), provided for a single launch of Paratroopers (German Paratroopers) on Maleme Airport and the surrounding area. As an alternative, Student proposed carrying out seven simultaneous launches on strategic points of the island, including Maleme.
In the end, the mediation plan proposed by the OKL (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe), Supreme Aviation Command and imposed by Göhring, prevailed, which envisaged attacking four main objectives, the three airports of the island and the most important port, in two waves with three assault groups.
The first wave in the morning on Canea and Maleme; the second in the afternoon, on the airports of Heraklion and Rethymno. While the following day a rate of the troops of the 5ᵃ Gebirgs division (5ᵃ Mountain Division), under the command of Major General Julius 'Papa' Ringel, would be airborne and landed at the three airfields.
According to the plan, 10.000 paratroopers were expected to be dropped; 750 men of the 12.000nd Battalion of the Luftlande Sturmregiment (Luftwaffe Airborne Assault Regiment)) would instead be transported by gliders; while of the XNUMX men of the 5ᵃ Gebirgs division, 5000 would be airborne and 7000 embarked on a flotilla of boats.
Admiral Schuster of the Kriegsmarine was responsible for the transport and disembarkation of troops and equipment, but had no German naval units under his command. His transport vessels were small caiques (Greek fishing boats) captured during the Greek campaign and assembled in the port of Piraeus. Two torpedo boats of the Royal Italian Navy were deployed to protect the caique flotilla, the Wolf and Sagittarius.
The parachute and airborne troops were supported by theVIII Fliegerkorps (air corps), commanded by General Wolfram von Richtofen, with bombers, destroyers and fighters.
On the morning of May 20, 1941, at the crack of dawn, Operation "Merkur" began, the assault on the island of Crete.
First to arrive on the targets were the fighters, destroyers and dive bombers of VIII Fliegerkorps, which pounded the enemy positions, before the paratroopers dropped and the glider-borne troops landed.
The operation was characterized from the outset by a series of incidents. The commander himself 7ᵃ Flieger division (7ᵃ Air Division) Lieutenant General Wilhelm Süssmann, who was to lead the assault on Maleme, was the victim together with members of his general staff of a fatal accident. The glider on which he was traveling had crashed on the island of Aegina, after a Henkel He 111 had severed the tow cable.
Tactical errors were also made due to the inefficiency of the German intelligence service. Which, among other things, ignored the fact that General Bernard Freyberg had been alerted by British intelligence (thanks to the device Incredibly deciphered German messages transmitted with the cipher machine Enigma) about the attack from the air by German forces.
Furthermore, the Germans, due to the errors of the secret services, had underestimated the strength of the defenders, erroneously estimated at 12.000 soldiers. In reality the defenders were 42.450, of which 32.150 between the British and allies, and 10.300 Greek soldiers.
These rectified data of the enemy forces were communicated just before embarkation to Major General Eugen Meindl, commander of the Luftlande Sturmregiment which had the mission to take Maleme airport. But by now it was too late to change the plan of attack.
Furthermore, the German secret services had also underestimated the determination of the Cretan population to defend their homes.
The Luftlande Sturmregiment's attack on the main objective, Maleme airport and the area to the west, was only partially successful. The paratroopers landed from gliders on the bed of the Tavronitis and captured the bridge over the river. However in the course of the action they suffered substantial casualties, including Major Franz Braun and Lieutenant Wolf von Plessen, who were killed.
The Germans then established themselves at the base of Altitude 107 which dominated the airport and the surrounding area. They also occupied part of the runway but not all of the airport, due to strong enemy reaction.
For the paratroopers who had landed southwest of Maleme, things were even worse. Most ended up on enemy positions, making them easy targets of intense enemy fire. A great many were killed during the descent, in violation of the Hague Conventions on the laws of war.
Others were slaughtered as soon as they hit land; while many who had landed unharmed, but equipped only with light weapons, were unable to defend themselves effectively due to the difficulty of recovering, under intense enemy fire, their containers of heavy weapons.
When General Meindl realized that the landing operations were going badly, he gathered all the forces at his disposal within the perimeter of the airport and ordered two companies to conquer Hill 107. Shortly thereafter Meindl was seriously wounded.
It fared little better, though their losses were high, for the paratroopers who landed from gliders southeast of Canea. However, although they were heavily armed and combat ready, this group of paratroopers also failed in their objective which was to capture Canea and the port of Suda.
Unaware of all this, Student had ordered the launch of the second wave from his headquarters at the Great Britain hotel in Athens.
The second wave of attacks in the afternoon on Rethymno and Heraklion will also prove to be a half-disaster. The planes took off with delays of up to 17 minutes in the succession of flights, due to slow refueling and poor visibility conditions on the runways, obscured by sand and dust raised at each departure or landing. This had led to the parachute drops taking place in small groups and not in masses.
The slowdown in launches also weakened the devastating effect of the bombardments on the positions of the defenders.
The parachute troops also meet strong resistance in these two locations, suffering higher losses than in the first wave. As in the case of the first wave, the paratroopers were dropped into the center of the enemy positions.
The colonel commander of the parachute regiment charged with conquering Rethymno, Alfred Sturm, was captured along with his officers.
By the end of the first day of fighting, about 3000 German paratroopers had landed, but none of their objectives had been fully achieved and they had also suffered appalling casualties.
However, i Fallschirmjager they had resisted and held some strategic positions, albeit with difficulty.
At this point, according to the English historian Peter Antill, "If Freyberg had exploited his superiority in men and equipment to counterattack, he could have derailed the entire German operation".
Meanwhile, for its part, theVIII Fliegerkorps he had persistently hammered the Allies throughout the day thwarting any counterattack.
In the night between 20 and 21 May, even sea operations were not crowned with success for the Germans. A convoy formed by 63 caiques escorted by the torpedo boat Wolf, which carried the first units of the 5ᵃ Gebirgs division in support of Paratroopers. she was intercepted by a Royal Navy force of three light cruisers Dido, Orion e Ajax and by four destroyers.
In the unequal battle, the British sank most of the convoy, despite the courageous intervention of the Wolf who faced the overwhelming enemy forces. The Italian torpedo boat was repeatedly hit by fire from the British ships, however she then managed to get away and save herself.
The next morning there was a response from the Luftwaffe (photo) which attacked the British naval squadron and sank two cruisers and four destroyers, as well as damaging three other vessels.
The turning point
That same night will happen the event that will change the fate of the fighting. The New Zealanders abandoned Altitude 107, as their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie W. Andrew, having lost radio contact with his forward companies which had already engaged the paratroopers, erroneously believed that they had been overwhelmed and, therefore, that he had no forces available to fight back the Germans.
However, the Germans only discovered it at the first light of dawn, when Dr. Heinrich Neumann, medical officer of the Sturmregiment, in the absence of other officers, formed a combat group to attack Quota107. The party reinforced by a parachute company encountered en route, engaged the defenders and after a series of skirmishes, captured the top of the hill and took control of it.
This action handed the battle over to the Germans, as the defenders could no longer pound the airfield from the air with direct artillery and machine gun fire.
Meanwhile Student, to whom reports continued to arrive from Maleme during the night, had come to the conclusion that in order to be able to send aid to his men who were resisting on the western edges of the airstrip and at the foot of Height 107, it was absolutely necessary to conquer the entire hill to allow aircraft to land in that sector of the airfield, out of sight of the defenders.
To test his hypothesis, Student sent a Ju-52 carrying Captain Kleye of his staff, which landed at dawn on May 21 on the western edge of the airfield unseen by the defenders, as that stretch was at a dead angle. . The officer returning from the mission reported to Student that, reassured, he sent planes with food and ammunition, of which the Paratroopers they urgently needed.
At 08, six aircraft with their cargoes of supplies touched down on the runway. These aircraft then also evacuated numerous seriously wounded, including General Eugen Meindl.
However, the main runway of the airfield was closed to German aircraft landing, as it was still under fire from enemy artillery.
At this point, Student made the further decision to move his main emphasis (point of best effort) from Heraklion to Maleme and entrusted the command of the Sturmregiment to Colonel Bernhard Ramcke, with the task of conquering Maleme. Ramke was parachuted into Maleme along with those paratroopers who had not been dropped the previous day, to lead the attack on the defenders of the airport.
This was a force of about 550 men forming four companies. The two launched east of the airport instead of descending behind the enemy lines fell directly on the enemy positions, suffering heavy losses. However, the survivors managed to settle in a village on the road between Maleme and Canea. The two companies' paratroopers dropped west in reverse did not meet strong resistance. This enabled Ramcke to proceed to reorganize the reconstituted Luftlande Sturmregiment, now known as Kampfgruppe Ramcke (Ramcke Combat Group).
Advance and Surrender
In the afternoon of May 21, the situation turned decidedly in favor of the Germans. The transport planes of the XI Fliegerkorp were landing in Maleme at the rate of 20 per hour landing troops of the 100th Gebirgsjager Regiment of the 5ᵃ Gebirgs division, despite the runway still being under intermittent enemy artillery fire.
A counter-offensive by the defenders was also repulsed on 22 May.
Meanwhile, General Ringel, appointed by Student as commander-in-chief of the German forces in Crete, organized his troops to launch the main land offensive.
The attacks concentrated on Canea and Suda Bay, which fell into German hands on 27 May.
Within days German troops had been able to penetrate deep into the British and Allied positions, forcing the defenders to retreat.
On May 28, General Freyberg ordered his troops to withdraw towards Sfakia in order to be evacuated. British headquarters was forced to announce troop withdrawals east of Suda Bay on 29 May, in the face of heavy attacks by German forces.
After a final counter-attack by a British rearguard north of the Lefka Mountains, Heraklion and Rethymno were evacuated.
On May 31, the last evacuation of Creforce troops from Sfakia to Egypt took place.
On June 1, British and allied troops surrendered.
The battle of Crete was over. The island came under German control until the end of the conflict.
Meanwhile, the course of the war had shifted the strategic interest from the Mediterranean theater to the eastern front. However, according to the military historian Karl Gundelach, for the Germans the possession of Crete, in addition to protecting the Ploesti oil fields from the southwest, had had the effect of blocking the Aegean to the British, safeguarding the important sea route Constanta-Bosphorus- Corinth-Italy.
The island, therefore, for the duration of the conflict had continued to represent a latent threat to Great Britain's positions in the Mediterranean and in the Near East.
The conquest of Crete holds a special place in military history, as it represents the first invasion and conquest of an island by attack from the air.
The tactic of the so-called "vertical outflanking" conducted with the use of troops equal to two divisions, was a revolution in military strategy, which offered lessons for the British and US airborne forces to learn.
The US military in a secret report of October 1941 will define the assault of Crete as a "operation that had the movement, rhythm, harmony of a masterful organ composition".
At this point it should be emphasized that one of the key factors in the success of Operation "Merkur" was the total aviation supremacy in providing support to ground troops and its impact on naval operations.
But another fundamental factor which, according to many scholars contributed to the victory of the German troops, was the practice adopted in the German armed force of the principle ofauftragstaktik (tactic of the assignment to be performed) that it also attributed the initiative to lower-ranking officers and the non-commissioned officers themselves. Which had allowed the fighters of Crete to carry out their tasks autonomously even if, as had happened during the battle, the commander of the 7ᵃ Flieger division and many officers had been killed.
This important principle of German doctrine had also been established in the so-called "Decalogue" of the paratroopers drawn up by Hitler himself: "You must fully understand the meaning of an operation, so that you can act alone in the event of the death of your commander".
Unlike the Germans, the British and allies practiced a centralized leadership, whereby if an order did not arrive from above, the same senior officers did not take any autonomous initiative.
However, for the Germans Crete would have been a "Pyrrhic victory", according to the famous definition of the British Prime Minister Wiston Churchill, due to the enormous number of victims: "over 5.000 paratroopers killed and a total of 15.000 losses in dead, missing and wounded". As the English statesman will write in his History of the Second World War.
But according to the majority of military historians it is now possible, on the basis of archival sources recently made available to scholars, to deem Churchill's assessments unreliable.
The most realistic estimates of German losses give us very different numbers. Out of an assault force of just over 22.000 men, the Germans suffered some 6.500 casualties, over half of which were killed or missing in action, and the rest wounded.
On the other hand, the balance of the British and allied forces was less heavy, with about 3.500 victims, of which just over 1.700 dead, and about 12.000 prisoners. The exact number of Greek soldiers and civilians killed will never be known.
The high number of victims probably induced Hitler to tell Student (photo) on July 19, 1941, during the granting of the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross) to twenty-five protagonists of the enterprises of Corinth and Crete, that: "Crete has shown that the time of parachute troops is now over; the weapon of parachuting depends on surprise and the surprise factor no longer exists".
And the Führer canceled mass launches.
The Allies, three years later, in the autumn of 1944 with Operation "Market Garden" would have denied Hitler's peremptory affirmation. But it should be emphasized that Operation "Market Garden", as opposed to Operation "Merkur", turned out to be a complete failure, a real disaster. There 1ᵃ Airborne Division British used in the assault was decimated, suffering losses in dead, wounded and missing considerably higher than those suffered by the Germans in Crete.
After Crete i Paratroopers they were employed as an elite infantry troop for the remainder of the war.
Meanwhile, it should be remembered that a month after the assault on Crete, on 22 June 1941, the same day as the invasion of the Soviet Union, a platoon of paratroopers from the Lehrregiment Branderburg zbV8002, a special operations unit belonging to the Heer (Army) and not to the Luftwaffe, was dropped on the village of Bogdanow near the East Prussian frontier.
Crete marked not only the end of mass airborne operations, but also led to the suspension for about two years, from 1941 to May 1943, of any airborne operation, even on a small scale.
Only in 1943 did Germany resume airborne activity and conducted seven operations until the end of the conflict, which however employed only a few hundred men in all, including some special operations. Such as, for example, in the summer of 1943, the liberation of Mussolini at the Gran Sasso and in May 1944, the attempted capture "dead or alive" of the head of the Yugoslav resistance, Marshal Joseph Tito at Drvar, by the SS-Fallschirmjäger-bataillon 500.
Student's fear that after Crete Hitler might decide to dissolve the specialty proved unfounded.
Operation "Merkur" had strengthened the myth of the success of the glorious German war machine in German public opinion. THE Paratroopers they were regarded as the best soldiers in the world and continued to attract the most gifted members of the military to their ranks Hitler Youth. New parachuting schools were set up, into which thousands of young volunteers flowed. It was reconstituted 1ᵃ Fallschirmjäger Division.
Hitler himself claimed that the Fallschirmjäger in combat had proved even superior to the Waffen SS.
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