The invasion of Crete: The Reputation of the Wehrmacht is at Stake
- Published: 25 January 2011 25 January 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
The plan is stupendous. It could only be realised if the German air force could solve the secret of winning a campaign across the sea without supremacy of the sea.
– DAILY TELEGRAPH, MAY 21st 1941
We have finally demonstrated that a fleet within range of the Luftwaffe cannot maintain the sea if weather permits flying.
– WOLFRAM VON RICHTHOFEN
Rising out of the Aegean some 180 miles south of Athens, Crete is the last great island in the Greek archipelago. This barren, mountainous island, 160 miles long, is dominated by ranges intersected by a handful of valleys carrying mountain tracks. Its people for the most part live in the north, where the steep mountains gently taper into a narrow coastal plain. Here too lies the island’s only infrastructure – a main road, three airfields and the only port of any note. But Crete’s topography belies its importance in the late spring of 1941. By air Tobruk is less than two hours’ distant, Alexandria less than five. Crete dominates the eastern Mediterranean, both for air forces and naval units. In May 1941 Britain and Germany realised the island’s importance. The former was prepared to defend it to the last man, the latter was equally determined to seize it.
Germany’s military leaders had recognised Crete’s importance long before their troops marched into Greece in April 1941. As Benito Mussolini’s troops lined up on the Albanian border ready to invade Greece in late October the previous year the planners at Hitler’s headquarters had begun to mutter about occupying Crete. [KTB OKW 25/10/40, 28/10/40] The Duce’s mis-adventure immediately provoked fears that the British would rush forces into Greece and Crete. [KTB Skl, 28/10/40] The fears were well founded. Three days after Italian troops attacked Greece, the first British air and ground units began arriving on Crete. In British hands, the island could prove to be a thorn in the flesh. The RAF could range at will against Romanian oil fields, and Churchill could use Crete as a staging ground for operations in the Balkans. But, the Wehrmacht’s strategists, wondered
if the English were driven from Crete the Constanza-Corinth-Italy sea route – vital to the Axis – would be secured, the British fleet would be thrown out of the Aegean, British influence in the Middle East would be noticeably weakened and the Luftwaffe would have an excellent base for attacks against Egypt and the Suez Canal. [12 AOK im Balkan Feldzug, Annex. IWM AL 679]
Senior naval officers were the strongest advocates of seizing the island. Two months before Italy’s failed attempts to occupy Greece, Eberhard Weichold, the Kriegsmarine’s liaison officer in Rome, had told his superiors in Berlin:
A weighty problem in the eastern Mediterranean is the possibility of occupying Crete. Possession of Crete appears even more important to the British – from Crete they could cut the Libya-Italy route which supplies the offensive against Egypt and rule it out. [Weichold to Skl, 1/9/40. Author’s papers]
Weichold believed seizing Crete was possible, but only if the Axis powers were “willing to take a certain risk”. [KTB Marine Verbindungsstab Italiens, 10/9/40. Baum, p.60] The Navy could press all it wanted for the occupation of Crete; it didn’t have the means to carry out such an operation, and the Italians refused to consider it. Instead it was the Luftwaffe which began to look to the Mediterranean for further conquests and prestige. Fliegerkorps X moved to Sicily in December 1940 and was followed a few weeks later by Luftflotte 4 beginning its build-up for the campaign in the Balkans. Now Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring took interest. Anxious to avoid a war with Russia, the Reichsmarschall proposed his own Mediterranean strategy to drive the British out of the continental sea: first Gibraltar, then the Balkans and North Africa. [Göring, p.308] In late January 1941 he summoned his trusted parachute commander Kurt Student for a vague outline of his ideas. When he left, the general had no clear directives, but he began looking at the Mediterranean and opportunities for his paratroopers, or fallschirmjäger, to strike.
Generalleutnant Kurt Student made his name with the daring assaults in the West in May 1940 but he had joined the Prussian Army as an ordinary infantry officer aged 20 in 1910. Before the outbreak of war Student volunteered for pilot training and acquitted himself with distinction during four years of war, rising to command a fighter squadron on the Western Front. Student remained with the armed forces after Germany’s defeat, when he found himself with no air force to serve in under the Versailles Treaty. Instead, he was posted to the Army’s gliding school and commanded an infantry battalion. In the years preceding the Second World War, the Brandenburger showed he was an advocate of the air arm, but not necessarily airborne troops and paratroopers. But a steady stream of high-profile posts eventually led Student to be appointed commander of the newly-raised 7th Flieger Division in 1938, Germany’s first airborne forces unit. The timing was apt; the Germans had recently opened their first parachute school and the Russians had experimented with mass drops. To Kurt Student the paratrooper had great potential. “An adversary could never be sure of a stable front because paratroops could simply jump in and attack it from the rear, where and when they decided,” he wrote after the war. The key was surprise, then fright and panic. “Pounce down and take over before the foe knows what is going on.” [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.13] The fledgling paratroop force was put on alert in the summer of 1938 during the Czech crisis, and even when the Munich Agreement diffused the situation, Göring ordered his paratroopers into action with a mock landing on Czech fortifications. The exercise obviously impressed the Luftwaffe’s Commander-in-Chief. By the end of 1938 he had promoted Student to Inspector General of Airborne Forces, and ordered the raising of a second airborne division, 22nd. But training the new units was painfully slow. When war came in September 1939 Student had only one parachute regiment fully operational. The Phoney War gave him a breathing space to train and devise plans for the use of his new force in the war in the West – the seizure of the Belgian fort of Eben Emael, and strategic points in Rotterdam and Holland. Kurt Student led by example – he flew into Holland on May 10th 1940 with his troops. His trusted staff officer Heinz Trettner remembered that Student had worked out the plan to the last detail. “He handed over his notes to his staff who only had to add in the frills, like the enemy situation, flanking formations, supply and so on.” [Barnett, Hitler’s Generals, p.477] Student was also fearless and led from the front, which made his men revere him. “He wanted to give a good example,” Trettner wrote. “He found his way into impossible situations. He paid no attention to random shots that flew around and seemed to be surprised when those who were with him threw themselves under cover.” [Barnett, Hitler’s Generals, p.478] In Rotterdam, this bravery bordering on recklessness cost Student dearly. He was shot in the head on May 14th and never fully recovered; for the rest of his life he was dogged by slow, hesitant speech.
When Student returned to duty in January 1941 he found Germany’s strategic position had shifted dramatically. In the summer of 1940 the paratroopers could expect action against Britain with drops around Folkestone to support the seaborne landings for Seelöwe. By the beginning of 1941 there were a myriad of possibilities in the Mediterranean – the French fleet at Toulon, the Suez Canal, Malta, Cyprus, Gibraltar and Crete, especially Crete.
Student began working on invasion plans for three objectives in particular – Gibraltar, Malta and Crete. The Rock was ruled out because its terrain was unsuitable for paratroopers and gliders; it also needed Spain’s participation and Franco’s demands for joining the Axis were too great. Malta remained a firm favourite with the Luftwaffe General Staff and Crete offered good prospects for an airborne assault. Germany wanted both, but taking both islands was beyond the Wehrmacht’s capabilities. The choice was not Crete and Malta, but Crete or Malta. Hitler’s staff favoured Malta ahead of Crete. Malta could offer opportunities for the war in the Mediterranean than “could ever be offered by Crete”. [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.198] But the Führer baulked at the prospect of taking Malta from the air, convinced the operation was more difficult than it appeared. [Raeder-Hitler, 18/3/41. FCNA, p.185] He was also sceptical that Crete could be taken, but the campaign in Greece resurrected the idea. With the Greeks about to surrender, on April 21st Student and Jeschonnek, Luftwaffe Chief-of-Staff, arrived at Hitler’s command train Amerika to convince the Führer that Crete could be seized, and seized by airborne forces. “The island could and should be taken through the air,” Student told him. “Crete’s too big for this,” was Hitler’s initial response – but he was soon won over. The airborne general expanded his plans for Crete. Surprise was the key – vital points would be taken to paralyse the defenders. Still the Führer was cautious. He had one eye on the forthcoming campaign against Russia. “The attack should take place as quickly as possible,” Hitler told Student. “Every day earlier is a profit, every day later a loss.” Student’s presentation persuaded the Führer that the conquest of Crete would make “a fitting conclusion” to the Balkan campaign. [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.199; MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.61] Four days after the discussion Hitler confirmed his decision with his twenty-fifth directive of the war. The German armed forces were to occupy Crete, under Göring’s command. But there was a strong caveat; the invasion, dubbed Fall Merkur – Operation Mercury, would not be allowed to delay the invasion of Russia. [Directive No.28, 25/4/41] The officers of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine played out their plans of the previous year for Seelöwe. Air power would be substituted for lack of sea power. “The task is to achieve momentary command of the sea around Crete through the air,” the Naval Staff wrote. [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.205] As it had done in the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe assured the Navy that it would dominate the skies. “Once we command the air, we can throw into Crete whatever we want.” [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.206] Merkur was very much the Luftwaffe’s show.
In the first two weeks of May 1941 the airfields around Corinth and Piraeus buzzed with activity. Fuel, ammunition, food and bottled water were stored ready for the assault. The Ju52 airfields were around 200 miles from the northern shores of Crete; the bases for the fighters and bombers on the southern tip of the Greek isthmus were just 100 miles from the island. The build-up was completed in little more than a fortnight, an achievement all the more remarkable given the severe logistical constraints facing Student and his men. Piraeus was at the end of a long logistical chain stretching back to Berlin. Poor roads, railways and Greece’s mountainous terrain, plus the strains of the Balkan campaign, all worked against preparations for Merkur. Delays forced the postponement of the operation from May 16th to 20th. The paratroopers began arriving by train from Germany on the ninth, bivouacking near the airfields; they had no idea why they had been sent to the shores of the Aegean. On the airfields of southern Greece they worked feverishly to ready their weapons in temperatures reaching 41°C in the shade. Finally, on May 19th there was a feeling something was in the air, as fallschirmjäger Anton von Roon noted in his diary: “The men knew they were going into action, but where? There was talk of Crete. There had been something about it in the press, that Crete was next.” [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.43-4] At mid-day the veil of secrecy was lifted, as the paratroopers were read their orders: “Fliegerkorps XI will capture by storm the three usable airfields upon Crete – at Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion, and will then be reinforced by further formations and mountain troops both from the air and by sea.” [Stewart, p.142]
The senior commanders had already been briefed personally by Student at his headquarters in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens two days before. Battalion commander Freidrich von der Heydte remembered the briefing well, and Student’s belief in Merkur. “It was his own, personal plan. He had devised it, had struggled against heavy opposition for its acceptance, and had worked out all the details. He believed in it and lived for it and in it.” [von der Heydte, p.40] Student had two Fliegerkorps at his disposal – the strike arm of von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII and his own transport corps Fliegerkorps XI, totalling almost 1,300 aircraft. The former would soften up the defences, the latter would bring in the paratroopers and gliders. Student picked five drop zones split into two groups – Gruppe West and Gruppe Mitte. The key to seizing Crete was seizing its northern shores. On the morning Merkur was unleashed West would take the airfield at Maleme on Crete’s western tip, Mitte would seize the Cretan capital Canea and Suda Bay – the only suitable port the British could re-supply their forces. On the afternoon of the first day the second wave of Mitte would fly in and take the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. From their bridgeheads the assault force would sweep across Crete’s northern coastline, then south to the port of Sfakia. Student’s plan was not without its critics, however. Luftflotte 4 commander Alexander Löhr wanted the landings confined to the west of the island to prevent the forces being scattered; Göring overruled him. But Hitler was successful in including his insurance policy in Merkur, a seaborne landing. The 13,000 men of 7th Flieger Division would be followed on the first day by 5th Gebirgs Division coming by sea to Maleme, and on the second day of the invasion to Heraklion.
After the plan came the intelligence report, far less comprehensive, and among the shoddiest assessments ever crafted by Foreign Armies West. Aerial reconnaissance of the island had been notoriously difficult – the defenders went to ground whenever the Luftwaffe appeared overhead. Estimates of troop strength varied between 15,000 and 100,000. The General Staff guessed. Merkur’s intelligence officer, one Major Reinhardt, told the officers gathered at the Grande Bretagne to expect to encounter “the remnants of two or three Greek divisions” plus a Commonwealth force “of divisional strength”. [von der Heydte, p.43] Gun batteries were thought to be around Suda Bay, Heraklion and Maleme, but they were well camouflaged. Aerial reconnaissance reported that “the island appeared lifeless”. [Stewart, p.89] With some concern, Halder had noted just four days before the launch of Merkur that there was still “no positive information available on conditions in Crete” or “the difficulties likely to be met”. [KTB Halder, 16/5/41] Major Reinhardt could offer no firm intelligence to the officers huddled around him in the Grande Bretagne. What was certain was that the enemy would resist. “The British were determined to defend Crete and to hold it.” [Luftflotte 4 report, undated. PRO AIR 20/7700] But Student’s staff gravely misjudged the attitude of the Cretan population. The civilians, Major Reinhardt continued, could be expected to be “sympathetic towards a German attack”. [von der Heydte, p.43. Similar comments can be found in Luftflotte 4’s report. PRO AIR 20/7700] Reinhardt discounted the warnings of OKH in their own assessment of the peoples of Greece and Crete. “The Cretans are regarded intelligent, hot-tempered, brave, excitable as well as obstinate and difficult to govern,” a General Staff appreciation warned on March 31st. “In the event of an invasion we must take into account determined resistance by the civilian population.” [Author’s papers]
Despite his reservations about the lack of intelligence, Kurt Student had faith in Merkur. “All preparations for attack on Crete were complete,” he wrote later. “Leaders and troops had been carefully indoctrinated in their tasks and stood ready at the airfields, ready for action. The command reckoned on a swift and decisive success.” [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.275]
Some 200 miles to the south on the island itself General Bernard Freyberg knew the Germans were coming. For a month intelligence reports had been pouring into the New Zealander warning of the massive German preparations on the Piraeus isthmus. Freyberg had arrived on Crete at the end of April and charged with the island’s defence. The men he found had for the most part only arrived days before, evacuated from Greece. As at Dunkirk heavy equipment had been left behind, and the retreat and defeat left the troops severely demoralised. Now Greeks, Australians, Britons and New Zealanders waited on Crete to be drummed into a fighting force. Winston Churchill left Crete’s new commander in no doubt about his new task. “The island must be stubbornly defended,” the Premier insisted. “It ought to be a fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops.” [Churchill to Wavell, 28/4/41. Connell, i, p.448] Freyberg took the matter in hand immediately with an order of the day:
If he attacks us here the enemy will be meeting our troops on even terms, and those of us who met his infantry in the last month ask for no better chance. We are to stand now and fight back. I am confident that the force at our disposal will be adequate to defeat any attack that may be delivered on this island. [Freyberg order of the day, 30/4/41. Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.228]
In British hands Crete could be used as an airbase to attack Romania’s oilfields or act as the springboard for a drive into Greece and the rest of the Balkans. London’s Daily Telegraph summed up the island’s importance to strategy in the Mediterranean:
Crete is a mighty bulwark of our seapower in the entire Mediterranean. Crete is a resting place between Europe, Africa and Asia. It is more important to the eastern Mediterranean than both Malta and Sicily combined. [Daily Telegraph, 21/5/41]
There was no doubt the Germans were coming. British decoders had cracked the Luftwaffe’s cipher and read most of the crucial messages and reports which chattered away on the teletypes of Luftflotte 4 in the last week of April and first days of May 1941. As early as April 27th, London was warning that the Germans would attempt to take the island “by a combined air and seaborne operation”. [Raugh, p.210] By May 6th, Freyberg knew the Germans intended to seize Maleme, Retimo, Heraklion and Canea; he knew massive preparatory raids on Crete’s defences were planned; and he had a fair idea the invasion would be staged on or shortly after May 17th. [OL 2167, 2340 Hours, 6/5/41 and OL 2/302, 1745 Hours, 13/5/41. Author’s collection] But his makeshift force – Creforce – for all its strength in men, some 24,500 Commonwealth troops and 10,000 mainly demoralised and disorganised Greeks, lacked equipment, especially air cover. Crete was defended by no more than 36 Gloster Gladiators and Hurricanes, only half of which were operational; Fliegerkorps VIII alone disposed 716 aircraft including 433 bombers and 233 fighters. Freyberg demanded fighter cover and protection from the Royal Navy. “Force here can and will fight, but without full support from navy and air force cannot hope to repel invasion,” he warned Middle East commander Archibald Wavell. [Freyberg to Wavell, 1/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.243] The general’s greatest fear was not Student’s paratroopers, rather a seaborne invasion combined with air drops. “Am not in the least anxious about airborne attack,” he told Churchill. “Have made my dispositions and feel can cope adequately.” His troops were “most anxious to renew battle” with their enemy “whom we hammered whenever we met him in Greece”. [Freyberg to Churchill, 5/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.246] Wavell shared Freyberg’s growing confidence. He reported to London that “given a little more time I am certain we could make our position here a relatively strong one”. [Wavell to Churchill, 11/5/41. Connell, i, p.454]
The preliminaries to Merkur opened on May 14th as the Luftwaffe began softening up Crete’s defences. The defenders had nothing to counter Richthofen’s bombers circling above the island besides a handful of anti-aircraft guns and a few fighters. Ships, guns, airfields, camps, depots and communications were all singled out by Richthofen’s onslaught. “With each day that passed,” one New Zealand officer recalled, “the tension seemed to be screwed tighter, until the sky, for all its radiant spring blue, seemed to press down, vibrating with the noise of engines and anti-aircraft fire.” [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.161] The British fighters withstood Fliegerkorps VIII’s assault for four days. But by May 18th only five aircraft were operational, and the RAF reluctant decided to abandon Crete. The following morning the three Hurricanes and two Gladiators took off for Egypt. They would not be back.
General Freyberg spent these final days before the German invasion touring Crete’s defences. “The visits have encouraged me greatly,” he reported. “Everywhere all ranks are fit and morale is now high...I do not wish to seem over-confident, but I feel that at least we will give an excellent account of ourselves. With the help of the Royal Navy I trust that Crete will be held” [Freyberg to Wavell, 16/5/41. Author’s papers] In London, Churchill too awaited the coming battle with confidence. “I should particularly welcome [the] chance for our high-class troops to come to close grips with those people under conditions where the enemy has not got his usual mechanical advantages,” he declared. [Churchill to Wavell, 14/5/41. Gilbert, vi, p.1088] Early on May 19th the teletype machines chattered away again; the assault on Crete would be unleashed the following day. [OL 12/370, 0155 Hours, 19/5/41. Author’s papers]
In the final hours of daylight on May 19th the paratroopers began packing up and loading their equipment on to trucks, then climbed on board themselves for the short drive to the airfields. Morale was high. The Wehrmacht had swept all before it in two years of war; the paratroopers had proven themselves in Holland and Belgium and most recently at Corinth. Crete seemed no different. “We reckoned that such a small island wouldn’t be a problem for us,” Martin Pöppel remembered. [Pöppel, p.54] A fellow experienced paratrooper noted in his diary on the nineteenth: “We were told today that our next objective is Crete. According to the briefing, the invasion will be easy. It is expected that at the end of the first day of battle we shall have achieved a favourable decision. Those of us with experience have other thoughts.” [Lucas, Storming Eagles, p.82] For many fallschirmjäger, Crete would be a baptism of fire. Von der Heydte later wrote: “The soldiers of the regiment were young – the average age of those in my battalion was not much more than 18. Without exception they were volunteers. Any of three motives had induced these young fellows to volunteer for the parachutists: idealism, ambition or adventure.” [Von der Heydte, p.25] Officers like von der Heydte put the young paratroopers through rigorous training on the drill ground. But the German fallschirmjäger still laboured under some serious difficulties. The parachutes themselves were unwieldy and impossible to control. Student forsook control lines on the chutes so his men had both arms free to fire their pistols as they descended. Rifles and machine-guns were too bulky for the jumpers to carry – they were dropped in containers at the same time as the men leapt out of their aircraft. The gamble was that the fallschirmjäger would reach the weapons cache before the stunned enemy could. The jumps themselves were also hazardous – accurate drops were only possible at heights of 400ft or below, exposing paratrooper and aircraft to the ground fire. The mood that final night was melancholy. The fallschirmjäger sang songs of home. “For most of the men it would be the first parachute jump,” Pöppel recalled. “Only a few, such as myself, knew what death in action was really like. Maybe many realised, even had a premonition, that they might be killed. No-one commented on it.” [Pöppel, p.54] On the airfields around Corinth and Piraeus they found an armada of transport aircraft waiting for them. “We were greeted by the ear-splitting roar of 120 air transports as they tested their engines in preparation for the take-off,” von der Heydte wrote. “Through clouds of dust we could see red glowing sparks flaring from the exhausts of the machines, and only by this light was it possible to discern the silhouettes of our men.” [von der Heydte, p.50] Few men slept that night. “All of us are thinking of home, of parents, friends and fiancées,” Pöppel noted. “Even the toughest soldiers can dream.” [Pöppel, p.54] They waited anxiously for the first flicker of dawn, when the lumbering Ju52s would begin rolling down the runways. At 4am on the twentieth sun began to glimmer beyond the horizon. On the airfields the controllers flashed their torches and the Junkers began to gather pace, before rising slowly into the air, some carrying paratroopers, others towing gliders. Destination: Crete.
As the mist cleared over Crete in the early morning light on Tuesday May 20th it revealed a beautiful, clear day. It was, one New Zealander noted in his diary, a “usual Mediterranean summer day”. [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.280] Shortly after 6.30am the calm over Maleme airfield was shattered as first Fliegerkorps VIII’s twin-engine bombers then stukas pummelled the New Zealand defenders. “The noise was indescribable,” one wrote. “The ground shuddered under us. We lost count of time.” [MacDonald, The Lost Battle, pp.169-70] In the bombers’ wake came the Ju52s hauling the first glider assault wave. The attack by Gruppe West was intended to seize the airfield and secure the western tip of Crete by capturing four key points: Hill 107 dominating Maleme, the town of Kastelli, coastal anti-aircraft guns and lastly the hills and valleys to the south and east of Maleme. On the Travonitis river delta north of Maleme, the first gliders swooped down and their men quickly seized the anti-aircraft guns, but Hill 107 proved a far tougher obstacle. The German glider men were quickly pinned down by the airfield’s defenders. Far to the west, in the town of Kastelli another German battalion was mauled on landing, this time by Greek forces – joined by the local population in an armed uprising. Worse still was to come on the slopes south of Maleme, where Luftwaffe reconnaissance had failed to pick up New Zealand troops dug in. As the first German paratroopers leapt out of their Ju52s they were raked with machine-gun fire. All the officers were killed or wounded, weapons caches and containers landed among the enemy and those paratroops who did land alive were unable to form an effective fighting force, pinned down by the New Zealanders’ fire. Of the 600 paratroopers in the battalion, 400 were dead. [Bekker, p.191] Merkur was not running according to plan.
To the east Gruppe Mitte’s assault was faring no better. The gruppe was charged with the task of taking the island’s capital, Canea, and the port of Suda, but was dogged by ill luck from the outset. Its commander, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süssmann was killed in a glider crash before he even reached the island. The remaining glider forces were either mauled during or after landing. The Germans nevertheless achieved one of their first objectives – anti-aircraft positions around Canea, but failed to storm the anti-aircraft guns overlooking Suda Bay. Next came the paratroopers, an hour later. “While fire from German aircraft is unleashed, penetrating British defence positions and bombs shatter trenches, tents and buildings” a propaganda account of the drop recorded, “an equally formidable load drops from the Junkers aircraft – German parachute troops. They are Germany’s most daring of her very best troops.” [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.67-8] So much for the propaganda, the reality was very different; the Ju52s were scattered by flak fire and the jumpers were met by volleys of small arms fire. At Galatas, southwest of Canea, the paratroopers “were practically all killed, either in the air or soon after”. [Davin, p.142] Only further south did the fallschirmjäger experience any success that morning. Major Freidrich von der Heydte, commanding a battalion dropped near a Italian prisoner of war camp in the appropriately named Prison Valley, found the only opposition came from anti-aircraft guns. As he came down next to the main road to Canea, von der Heydte noted the atmosphere was almost serene. “It was remarkably quiet, almost peaceful. Apart from the drone of the homing aeroplanes, there was no sound – no human voice, nor even a rifle shot.” [Heydte, p.62] Through the morning his battalion, and an ad hoc unit of mis-dropped paratroopers began moving down the valley towards Galatas. In the distance, they could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and the boom of shells and anti-aircraft guns. [Heydte, p.67] The lie of the land was nothing like intelligence reports suggested, not a valley with gentle slopes, but a narrow bottom surrounded on all sides by dominating heights. The noise of battle von der Heydte heard was his neighbouring battalions and companies pinned down by the enemy around Galatas. They attempted to storm the heights, but were mowed down. To the south, in the prison camp his men had seized, the new commander of Gruppe Mitte, Oberst Richard Heidrich realised his situation was grave. With 7th Flieger Division’s commander, Süssmann, dead, Heidrich found himself in charge of the widely-scattered units in Prison Valley. He realised he had to seize the two hills which hung over Galatas – Pink and Cemetery Hills – if the Germans were ever going to take Canea. Throughout the morning his threw his scant forces up Pink Hill; two assaults were bloodily repulsed before Heidrich conceded defeat. Far from being demoralised, the Commonwealth forces were “fully fit for action and fought with extreme courage and tenacity”. [Fliegerkorps XI report, cited in Stewart, p.484] Heidrich could not sustain his attacks. He signalled Athens: “After heavy casualties in fighting, the attack on Canea is discontinued.” [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.297]
In Athens, Kurt Student had thought Merkur was running according to plan. Through the morning there had been scant information from either gruppe around Maleme or Canea. But when all but seven of the Ju52 transport aircraft which had hauled or dropped the first attack wave returned to their bases, Student took it as a sign that the assault had succeeded. The Junkers had arrived back over their bases between 9 and 10am, but as Fliegerkorps XI’s account of the battle records, the situation on the airfields quickly became chaotic.
Due to dust clouds on the overcrowded airfields, which could not be subdued even using all available fire tenders, and also aircraft being shot up, a number of crashes occurred on landing rendering the runways unserviceable. Re-fuelling also took longer than estimated. [Luftflotte 4 report, undated. PRO AIR 20/7700]
Still Student ordered the second wave in – drops far to the east of the bogged down gruppen at Maleme and Canea, to seize the coastal towns of Retimo and Heraklion. Delays in preparing the transport aircraft meant the two regiments of fallschirmjäger arrived over their dropzones an hour after fighters and bombers had softened up the towns’ defenders. By the time the Ju52s appeared overhead, the Commonwealth forces had recovered and were prepared. Martin Pöppel leapt with his regiment – 2nd Fallschirmjäger – east of Retimo, where he found the New Zealand defenders had pulled back. The enemy was the least of the German soldiers’ worries, however. “The heat is almost 50 degrees and we’re all breathing heavily,” Pöppel wrote. “We just have to get acclimatised to it. Clearly our leaders were well aware of the heat, but we’ve been sent into battle in full uniform with para jumping overalls as well. Absolutely bloody crazy.” [Pöppel, p.55] The regiment gathered its scattered forces and moved westwards towards Retimo and its airfield. It was soon halted in its tracks. As at Canea, the defenders dominated the heights and brought fire to bear down on the German forces. [Pöppel, p.55] The attack came to a halt.
Along the coast at Heraklion, the horrors were far worse. As the fleet of Ju52s carrying the assault group – a regiment reinforced with a battalion – the anti-aircraft guns opened fire. Some of the aircraft simply exploded in mid-air, troops jumped out as their chutes caught fire and plummeted to the ground, more still were killed as they floated gently to earth. “The sky was lit up by German parachutists who became balls of flame as they leapt from aeroplanes set on fire by anti-aircraft fire,” one British soldier recalled. “Many were burnt to death as they fell.” [Crete Eyewitnessed, p.78] Those which did land tried to regroup and take Heraklion’s airfield and the town itself. Both assaults failed; the attack on the airfield cost 420 casualties. As night fell the exhausted German fallschirmjäger dug in and waited for morning – and reinforcements – to mount renewed attacks.
Far to the west, in Prison Valley, the New Zealanders had counter-attacked von der Heydte’s battalion that afternoon, but the Germans dug in and held out. On the heights to the north Richard Heidrich sent a battalion led by Leutnant Karl Neuhoff up Pink Hill in a last bid to break the enemy’s stranglehold. Neuhoff’s men got half-way up the slopes before the New Zealanders opened fire. “The enemy had held fire with great discipline,” Neuhoff later said. “He had allowed us to approach well within effective range before opening up. Our casualties were extremely heavy and we were forced to retire leaving many dead behind us. This attack cost us approximately 50 per cent casualties, about half of whom were killed.” [Davin, p.143n3] Heidrich finally conceded defeat and ordered his men to dig in. “Without possession of the commanding heights of Galatas,” Fliegerkorps XI concluded, “further attack against Canea was unthinkable.” [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.305]
Only on Crete’s westernmost tip was there any glimpse of success that May 20th. Confused skirmishing had continued throughout the afternoon and evening. The Luftwaffe swarmed overhead and drove the New Zealanders off the important height Hill 107 while on the ground German forces seized the western part of Maleme airfield. “If the enemy had made a united all-out effort in counter-attacking during that night,” Student later said, “the very tired remnants could have been wiped out.” [Davin, p.182]
The mood in Athens and on the Luftwaffe airfields in southern Greece that night was sombre. “Depressing rumours were circulating about huge losses by our paratroopers,” one Junkers pilot recalled. “It was even said that Merkur might have to be abandoned.” [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.100-01] Kurt Student’s initial satisfaction had turned increasingly sour as May 20th progressed. The first confused and incomplete reports of success had given way to concern and alarm. By nightfall he still had no clear picture of the situation on Crete. There was no contact with his men at Retimo, Heraklion was not secure, the troops at Canea were pinned down far from the town and at Maleme there were confused reports which suggested the airfield was in German hands. The key, he knew, was to seize an airfield. But which one: Maleme, Heraklion or Retimo? Student plumped for Maleme, where his men at least had gained some sort of foothold. On May 21st reinforcements would be thrown into Maleme and Crete “would have to be rolled up from the west”. [Stewart, p.253] He later recalled:
It was not an easy decision to take. The airfield at Maleme was very small. Relying on this single tiny airfield as the base for an airborne operation employing 500 heavy transport planes was analogous to staking everything on a single card. But there was no alternative. Maleme was to become the centre of gravity of the operation. [Kühn, German Paratroops in World War II, p.96]
As darkness fell upon the island itself, General Freyberg reported on the battle’s progress. His men still held the airfields at Retimo, Heraklion and Maleme, but he warned that the “margin by which we hold them is a bare one – it would be wrong of me to paint [an] optimistic picture”. In severe fighting, “large numbers” of German paratroopers had been killed. “Everybody here realises vital issue and we will fight it out.” [Freyberg to Wavell, 2200 Hours, 20/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.254]
The first sign Student was gambling on Maleme came at first light on May 21st. Two aircraft carrying ammunition landed, one on the beach and one on the airfield, followed by reinforcements parachuted in. The bolstered attackers now set about consolidating their position, protected overhead by the Luftwaffe which hounded the Commonwealth forces. “We began to dread the stukas,” one defender wrote. “One by one, in leisurely fashion, they peeled off, screaming down in a vertical dive, air brakes extended, siren wailing, to release their bombs with deadly accuracy.” [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p. 206] The air assault still failed to subdue the defenders, but it was too late. Student was already throwing his last paratroopers into the fight for the airfield. The men were led by one of his best officers, Bernhard Ramcke; but Ramcke’s bravery would count for little amid faulty intelligence. Half of Ramcke’s 550 troops landed on top of tough New Zealand troops who cut them down. Ramcke himself landed safely, gathered what was left of his battalion and began moving on the airfield. There he found Student had played his second hand of the day.
The landing ground was still not secured, but Student gambled. Two Ju52s had successfully landed that morning and taken off. In the late afternoon, he decided it was time to throw 5th Gebirgs Division into the thick of the fight. Despite the threat of artillery shelling the transport planes to bits, Kurt Student decided to “force an air landing” at Maleme with 800 crack mountain troops. [Stewart, p.265] Around 6pm the Ju52s began arriving over Maleme; they flew into a maelstrom of fire, as one Propaganda Kompanie reporter wrote:
Heavy artillery fire covers the landing ground. Brown fountains of earth leap up and shower the machines which have already landed with earth, smoke and dust...We can’t get down here. Shall we have another try on the landing strip? Out of the question. Obstacles everywhere. English and German aircraft lie mixed with one another along the runway. [Stewart, pp.265-6]
Some of the Junkers received direct shell hits and disintegrated; others coming into land careered into the wrecks strewn on the runway. Twenty transport planes were destroyed, but 100th Gebirgs Regiment was down among the paratroopers. By nightfall the attacking force at Maleme was some 1,800 men strong. They seized – and held – Maleme and its airfield. Student’s gamble had paid off, but his position was far from secure. “The situation appeared to be balanced on a knife-edge,” 5th Gebirgs Division recorded that night. “A heavy concentrated British counter-attack would force the defenders to fight for their lives.” [KTB 5 Geb Div, 21/5/40]
While Student staked everything on Maleme, his troops to the east, in Prison Valley and around Retimo and Heraklion, hung on to their precarious positions. There were no reinforcements, only fresh supplies dropped overhead. Many of the drops never reached the fallschirmjäger on the ground; Greek and British forces used captured swastika recognition flags to cause the Ju52s to drop caches over them, not the Germans. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 22/5/41] Nevertheless, as von der Heydte later, wrote: “The men’s morale was still good. They were living for the present and left consideration for the future to their officers.” Those officers were anxious, despite the air drops, about ammunition, and not least Commonwealth inactivity. “The worst enemy is boredom,” von der Heydte says. “The day does not seem to pass. All watches appear to have stopped. Minutes become hours. There is nothing to do but wait.” [Heydte, pp.101-02] What was the enemy doing? Nothing. The fighting in Prison Valley was on May 21st little more than a skirmish. But at Retimo the Allies did counter-attack, and all but over-run the dispersed German paratroopers. What was left of the attack force was forced to head for the hills and cover. To the east at Heraklion, it was the Germans, not the rag-tag of Greek and Commonwealth forces who seized the initiative. The bold commander there, Oberst Bruno Bräuer, was determined to storm the small airfield after a Luftwaffe bombing raid. For six hours Bräuer and his men battered away at the defences. The attack almost succeeded. Almost. It fell short of the airfield and got no further than the edge of the harbour in Heraklion itself. For a week, Bräuer would go no further; in fact he would go back. The Commonwealth forces counter-attacked and forced the Germans to pull back, but when they were asked to surrender on May 23rd, the response was emphatic. “The Wehrmacht is charged with the conquest of Crete and will execute this order.” [MS B-646]
In Berlin, Adolf Hitler was torn between following the sortie of his new flagship Bismarck and the fighting on Crete. News on the first two days of battle was scant and what there was far from encouraging. When the invasion almost foundered on May 20th he ordered the OKW communiqué prepared withheld. [TB Goebbels, 22/5/41] The German media remained silent, but British newspapers were less reticent. Within 24 hours of the first paratroop landings, the London Times was warning: “A German defeat here on Crete would mean to the German prestige a severe and presently quite disastrous setback.” [Times, 21/5/41] In the House of Commons Winston Churchill left the British people under no illusions about the importance of the battle: “The island will be defended to the last man. The reputation of the Wehrmacht is at stake.”
Throughout May 21st Bernard Freyberg had followed the fighting closely, but unlike his opposite number Student had never wanted to risk everything on a single card – wiping out the bridgehead at Maleme. Intelligence warned the New Zealander that the Germans would come by sea that night, and the general had no intention of committing his reserves without being prepared to mop up a beach invasion at Canea. [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.212] He need not have worried himself.
Merkur had called for two invasions of Crete – one by air, one by sea. The latter would bring the heavy equipment the Junkers were unable to carry, and 4,000 troops of 5th Gebirgs Division. In landing from the sea, the Germans faced the same dilemma they had faced the previous summer when the invasion of Britain loomed large. With no true landing craft, the Army had to commandeer Greek fishing boats, or caiques, and steamers to ferry the mountaineers and weapons from Greece to Crete. As with Seelöwe the Luftwaffe would make good the lack of German sea power, for the Royal Navy was sure to intervene to halt the seaborne landings. But 5th Gebirgs Division commander Julius Ringel was anxious. “The ferrying operation was crazy. Anyone who had anything to do with Merkur felt uneasy about it to say the least, and those who actually had to go by boat regarded it with horror. Officers and men alike all said that they would rather fly to Crete than risk going by sea.” [Kühn, German Paratroops in World War II, p.65]
The first convoy of caiques set sail from the island of Melos late on May 20th, protected by an Italian destroyer and intent on landing at Maleme. Through the night the boats slowly ploughed the waves. The 75-mile journey was painfully slow, for the caiques could manage little more than six knots. By 10am on May 21st the flotilla was still 25 miles short of Maleme, in full view for all to see. Faulty Luftwaffe reconnaissance suddenly reported the British Mediterranean fleet steaming towards the seas north of Crete. There could be no thought of a landing in the face of overwhelming naval superiority. The convoy turned about and headed for Melos. For two hours contradictory reports poured into Admiral Karlgeorg Schüster, naval commander in the eastern Mediterranean. The British fleet was approaching, then it wasn’t and finally at mid-day Schüster ordered the caiques to turn about again and head for Maleme. No British warships appeared and the comforting umbrella of the Luftwaffe swarmed overhead, but the journey south was still excruciatingly slow. By nightfall, the flotilla was still 15 miles short of its destination. But on the British destroyer Dido at 10.30pm the radar flickered into life. The Royal Navy had found the convoy.
The first the Germans knew the enemy was close was when the sky was lit up by parachute flares, then searchlights sweeping the waves, and finally the flash of gun barrels in the distance. There was an inevitably about the unequal battle which followed, as one mountaineer remembered:
We knew that our slow-moving tubs could not outrun them. We were all crammed together on the deck. We stood on deck facing outwards and our boat rocked violently as the whole sea was a turmoil. Destroyers raced about creating huge waves which threw our boats about while above them our stukas dived down dropping bombs. [Lucas, Alpine Elite, p.74]
Mountaineer Oswald Jahnke recalled:
Our ship was illuminated by the fire and the lieutenant told us to put on our lifejackets and remove our heavy, nailed boots. Barely had we done this when we were caught by the searchlights. Our officer called: “Good luck boys!” and ordered our first rank to jump into the sea. All this happened in less than five minutes. [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.239]
Another gebirgsjäger wrote:
The ship’s sails stand out white like a magnesium torch lit up by a beam from a searchlight. This is followed by a broadside. Shells come screaming at us; there are hits, steel splinters, wrecked timbers, yells from the wounded.
A fresh hit sets the ship alight. Some men are thrown overboard by the blast from the detonation. Some had already jumped. The ship sinks with a huge tongue of flame.” [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.122-23]
In the dark the British made no attempt to pick up the scores of German troops bobbing around amid the wreckage and on life rafts. Worse still for the soldiers, the Royal Navy swept among the battered caiques, its crews in some cases firing at the shipwrecked mountaineers. The order had been given that no German soldier should reach Crete by sea. The British fleet was in no mood to disobey the order. One mountaineer remembered:
Some jäger were run down by the ships. One body I saw had shocking damage caused to it. There was lots of rubbish in the water and lots of German soldiers, chiefly gebirgsjäger, all of whom seemed to be dead. [Lucas, Alpine Elite, pp.57-8]
All the time the Italian destroyer Lupo harried and darted around the enemy ships, and when daybreak arrived and the Royal Navy had gone she began picking up survivors. For all the Italian Navy’s failings in the war at sea to date, the destroyer performed her duty. She took 18 six inch shells, but fired off at least one salvo of torpedoes into the dark. [Luftflotte 4 Meldung, author’s personal papers] Luftwaffe float planes joined in the search and rescue. The convoy had ceased to exist; the toll of life could have been far greater, however. It had set sail carrying 2,331 men; more than 2,000 survived. But the caiques never reached Crete. With the water still churned by the chaos of battle, a second flotilla of caiques was steaming south behind the first wave which had been routed. Shortly after 10am on May 22nd the British fleet which had scoured the sea north of Crete for the invasion force finally came across boats crammed with German troops. But there was no routing this time; some caiques were sent to the bottom, but most fled north. The Royal Navy did not follow them, for in broad daylight the Luftwaffe dominated the skies. Since 6am it had been harassing the British task force. The morning had been tough – near misses, minor damage to two cruisers, but worrying for the Royal Navy its ships were running perilously low on ammunition.
The morning was merely a foretaste of the battering the Royal Navy would receive that afternoon. The Germans came in near continuous waves, 300 aircraft – Ju87s, He111s, Do17s, Ju88s, even Me109s. The flagship Naiad pulled out of line after 36 near-misses all but crippled her; the cruiser Carlisle took a direct hit on her bridge. Then the battleships Warspite and Valiant were singled out for attack, as Ju88 pilot Gerd Stamp remembered:
None of us had ever seen battleships before. It seemed as if they were firing all their guns simultaneously. They made for the open sea southwest of Crete. They put a tremendous fire barrage. [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.127-32]
Stamp and his comrades hit Warspite, knocking out her 4in and 6in batteries. Warspite’s executive officer remembered the damage wrought.
There was a huge hole in the deck. The starboard battery was full of flames and smoke, in among which the cries of burned and wounded men could be heard. The calm blue afternoon seemed unreal after the dark and smelly carnage below. [Recollections of Sir Charles Maddon. Author’s papers]
Valiant escaped with minor damage but the destroyer Greyhound was not so lucky. She disappeared in a ball of flame and smoke as at least one bomb from a stuka penetrated her deck and exploded the forward magazine. Just 40 men survived. The destroyers sent to rescue them came under attack themselves as survivors were strafed in the water. Now two anti-aircraft cruisers joined the fray, although their anti-aircraft ammunition stocks were running low and the sky was “black with planes”. [Cunningham to Pound, 30/5/41. Cunningham Papers, p.416] Gloucester suffered a number of hits in quick succession and heeled over, her companion Fiji made a run for home, wherever home might be, but was spied escaping by an Me109 fighter-bomber. The aircraft scored a single hit, and left her listing heavily. Three more bombs finished her off. Towards dark she rolled over and sank, taking more than 200 of her 780 crew with her. It was Fliegerkorps VIII’s final victory that day.
With dawn on May 23rd the air assault resumed. The two destroyers Kashmir and Kelly were steaming away from Crete when 24 Ju87s pounced on them. Kashmir was hit and sunk within two minutes; Kelly was struck by a single bomb as she made 30kts, turned turtle and sank after 30 minutes. As the crew of both destroyers struggled for life in the water they were strafed by the circling Junkers. It was the final act of the first battle between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Navy off Crete.
From afar, Wolfram von Richthofen followed the battle with growing satisfaction:
The British take hit after hit. Ships sink and burn...They are struck down, burn and sink; some limp along with a list, others with a trail of oil, to get out of this hell. Flight units that have flown the whole day, bombed, reloaded with time for naught else, at evening begin to let out triumphant shouts of joy...I have the secure feeling of a grand and decisive success. We have finally demonstrated that a fleet within range of the Luftwaffe cannot maintain the sea if weather permits flying. [KTB Richthofen, 22/5/40. Cited in Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.341]
Back in Alexandria, Admiral Andrew Cunningham had concluded that his ships could not hold the sea in the face of the Luftwaffe and ordered his battered forces home. His ships had lost the “trial of strength” with the German air force:
“I am afraid that in the coastal area we have to admit defeat and accept the fact that losses are too great to justify us in trying to prevent seaborne attacks on Crete. [Cunningham to Admiralty, 23/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.259]
London overruled him, and ordered to keep his fleet off Crete to provide a flow of reinforcements for the land battle. The Admiralty forbade any warship to disengage for at least two more days “even if this results in further losses to the fleet”. [Admiralty to Cunningham, 23/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.259] Churchill was furious at what he saw was Cunningham’s unwillingness to take risks. “Cunningham must be made to take every risk,” he said. “The loss of half of the Mediterranean fleet would be worthwhile in order to save Crete.” [Colville diary, 25/5/41. Gilbert, vi, p.1095] Cunningham responded with an order of the day to his men:
The Army is just holding its own against constant reinforcement of airborne enemy troops. We must not let them down. At whatever cost to ourselves, we must land reinforcements and keep the enemy from using the sea. There are indications that enemy resources are stretched to the limit. We can and must outlast them. Stick it out. [Cunningham to all ships, 24/5/41. Cunningham Papers, p.409]
But privately, the admiral knew he could not continue to sustain the losses the Luftwaffe was inflicting. Crews were beginning to show signs of “cracking up”. [Cunningham to Pound, 30/5/41. Cunningham Papers, p.417] By May 26th he was warning London that the constant air attacks could “cripple the fleet”. He continued:
In three days two cruisers and four destroyers were sunk, one battleship is out of action for several months, and two other cruisers and four destroyers sustained considerable damage. We cannot afford another such experience and retain sea control of the eastern Mediterranean. [Cunningham to Admiralty, 26/5/41. Cunningham Papers, pp.411-12]
For all its losses, the Royal Navy had fulfilled its duty in preventing reinforcements arriving by sea. But by air forces continued to arrive at Maleme throughout the twenty-second. Three more battalions of mountaineers arrived, finally led by their divisional commander Julius Ringel. The 51-year-old was now in charge of Merkur. Just two days into the invasion of Crete, Kurt Student had fallen out of favour, as the general later recalled, because of “the great losses on May 20th” and possibly because he “did not possess the proper qualifications of a leading commander” [MacDonald, Last Battle, p.210] Student had intended to go to Crete in person to command the attack, and now Fliegerkorps VIII’s commander von Richthofen demanded that Ringel be sent to take “a firm hand” of the fighting on the island. That afternoon, heavily escorted, Ringel was flown into Maleme. “The impression now is that things will get cracking with necessary energy, clarity and decisiveness,” Richthofen noted in his diary. [KTB Richthofen, 22/5/41. Cited in MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.226] Ringel had already seen his mountaineers sent by sea suffer heavy losses, and thought little of the whole invasion operation, branding it a “suicidal adventure”. [Kühn, German Paratroops in World War II, p.64] But now his task was clear: secure Maleme, seize Suda Bay, relieve the paratroopers at Retimo and Heraklion and finally occupy the whole island. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 22/5/41. AL 1044] It was by no means as easy as that, as one of his battalion commanders wrote that evening. “The exhausted troops think back upon the uncertainties and anxieties of their day upon the island and wonder what the morrow will bring. But nobody mentions the torturing question which tugs at every heart: ‘Shall we be able to hang on?’” [Stewart, p.330]
The question was answered the following day, May 23rd, and it was the New Zealanders who provided the answer. Fearing they would be trapped between German forces at Maleme and Prison Valley, six battalions began pulling out. Still, as Ringel later wrote, “each square mile of terrain was only give up after considerable losses had been sustained”. [MS B-646] But the withdrawal left him and his men in undisputed control of the western tip of the island and its airfield, which was now out of enemy artillery range.
In London, Churchill was convinced Freyberg’s morale and determination were flagging. “The whole world is watching your splendid battle on which great events turn,” he signalled the New Zealand general. The Germans’ losses “must be severe” and they could not continue their exertions indefinitely. “The Crete battle must be won.” [Churchill to Freyberg, 23/5/41. Churchill, iii, p.260] But Freyberg’s men were worn out, withdrawing eastwards. “Mile after mile we trudged,” one New Zealand lieutenant reported. “Everyone was tired. Those who could bear the strain better carried rifles and bren guns of those who were fatigued.” [Davin, p.263]
To compound their agony, Julius Ringel was ready to break out of his foothold around Maleme and seize the rest of Crete. Suda Bay was his first objective and he was confident his mountaineers could take it. But after five days on the island the Germans were beginning to show signs of exhaustion. By day temperatures reached 40ºC and 45ºC. “The lack of drinking water, heavy uniforms, excessive baggage, heavy weapons, lack of any roads and difficult desert-like terrain made life unbearable,” Ringel wrote – and yet his men still showed “excellent spirit”. [MS B-646] To the east in Prison Valley, von der Heydte was not so confident.
The meagre rations, coupled with the unaccustomed heat, was undermining [the men’s] resistance more than they realised. The faces of some of them had grown taut, almost shrunken, their eyes lay deep in their sockets. [von der Heydte, p.130]
The mountaineers had been trained for Crete’s rugged terrain, but not for its heat, which drained the troops of energy and rapidly decomposed the dead. “The mountains were forbidding and dreadful,” one gebirgsjäger remembered. “There were no paths, not even animal tracks along which we could have moved. There was nothing.” [Lucas, Alpine Elite, p.73] He continued:
The area was a desert of mountain peaks. It was as hot as a desert and about as lifeless and inhospitable. Our rucksacks dragged on our backs and the ammunition cases seemed like lead. Many fell out with a sort of heat stroke or exhaustion and lay there almost paralysed. Night was bitterly cold and we lay shivering in our tents.
I remember Crete as the place of black corpses. The bodies, left lying for days in the hot sun, had all turned black and had swollen. Most of them were covered with greenbottles and the stink of decay was everywhere. [Lucas, Alpine Elite, pp.73-4]
All the same Ringel ordered an attack on Galatas, the last line of defence before the Cretan capital of Canea. Through the twenty-third and twenty-fourth, the German troops moved into position. They found a scene of slaughter as they came across their comrades who had jumped on May 20th, only to land almost on top of New Zealand troops. Battalion commander Walter Gericke remembered:
Among the boughs of the olive trees could be seen the white silk of the parachutes with their tangles of twisted cords. Dead parachutists, still in their full equipment, hung suspended from the branches swinging gently to and fro in the light breeze. Everywhere were the dead…Here and there among the debris lay a dead Englishman or New Zealander. All alike, without regard to nationality, had turned black in the burning heat. Around them buzzed the fat blue flies. [Stewart, p.352]
Such were the horrors of the struggle for Crete – but the battle was far from won. Gericke and his comrades would have to summon up the strength for another assault up the heights around Galatas, where attacks earlier in the week had been bloodily repulsed. This time the Germans had air support. At 4pm on May 25th the stukas arrived overhead to pound the enemy positions. The New Zealand troops were hidden by “an inferno of dense smoke and lightning-like explosions”. [MS B-646] Then the mountain troops slowly made their way up the heights which dominated the town. By dusk the hills had been taken, and the mountaineers began clearing out Galatas itself, house by house. The New Zealanders “defended themselves like bulldogs”. [MS B-646] In the darkness, the town changed hands at least twice before the New Zealanders defending finally withdrew for good. By dawn Galatas was in German hands. For good. But the night’s battle had been bitter, as Ringel recalled:
The rising sun shone on a gruesome picture. Many brave soldiers, friend and foe, were lying in the streets, on the heights and in the gardens, countless weapons and equipment covered the streets and demolished tanks were standing around alongside the roads. [MS B-646]
5th Gebirgs Division’s diarist celebrated a “noteworthy success”. Canea and Suda Bay were within the Wehrmacht’s grasp – and the fall of both meant the fall of Crete. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 25/5/41. AL 1044]
At last, Germany’s propaganda machine believed it could report to the public the invasion the free world had known of since the twentieth. The OKW communiqué trumpeted that operations on Crete were going “according to plan” – the west of the island was in German hands, the Luftwaffe dominated the skies and the Royal Navy had been driven away. [OKW Communiqué, 25/5/41]
With Galatas secure, Ringel could drive on Canea. But the British forces were not going to let the mountaineers simply walk into Crete’s capital, as one who encountered a strongpoint wrote:
With hand grenades and bayonets the yellow shadows spring out of their holes and defend themselves. They won’t surrender. Nearly 50 cover with their bodies this last bulwark before Canea. Only four men, pale and shattered, are taken as prisoners. [Stewart, pp.420-1]
The enemy, 5th Gebirgs Division concluded late on May 26th, was “offering fierce resistance everywhere”, making “skilful use of the country and every method of warfare” – snipers, machine-gun nests, booby traps. Resist as they did, however, Canea was nevertheless encircled. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 26/5/41] The scene was set for the final act.
Bernard Freyberg knew his men could not hold out at Canea or Suda Bay, and conceded the battle for Crete had been lost. His troops had reached the limit of their endurance and could not resist any more after seven days of continuous bombing and were “past any offensive action”. “No matter what decision is taken,” Freyberg reported, “our position here is hopeless. A small, ill-equipped and immobile force such as ours cannot stand up against the concentrated bombing with which we have been faced during the last seven days.” The only hope was that some of his forces could be evacuated by sea. [Freyberg to Wavell, 26/5/41. Connell, i, p.470] But Britain’s Prime Minister refused to accept defeat and order the island’s defences bolstered. “Victory in Crete essential at this turning point in the war,” he signalled on May 27th. “Keep hurling in all aid you can.” [Churchill to Wavell, 27/5/41. Connell, i, p.471] Churchill had a point; Crete’s commanders believed their men had lost their nerve. One marine commander reported:
In the last war, troops endured much greater dangers and casualties incomparably greater than those inflicted by air action, yet in Crete air action produced a state of nerves in troops which seriously interfered with operations. [PRO ADM 234/320]
In the second week of the battle it was too late to steel the nerves of the beleaguered defenders and too late for Field Marshal Wavell to send aid, too late at any rate to save Canea.
When von der Heydte and his men advanced on the capital early in the afternoon of May 27th they found British outposts deserted, but then he was attacking from the east. “Not a single shot was fired,” the battalion commander later wrote. “It was an eerie feeling, making our way through the ruins towards our objective. The streets were strewn with debris. The smell of oil and wine, so typical of any Greek town, mingled nauseatingly with the acrid stench of burning and the sweetish odour of decomposing bodies.” [von der Heydte, pp.162-3] Resistance in the west of the capital was barely any stiffer, but the town was not quite so deserted. The paratroopers and mountaineers found stragglers, refugees, troops preparing to flee Crete milling around. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 27/5/41. AL 1044] They also found Canea had been ravaged by a week of battle. “The houses are burnt black where the fires have raged, and the great bomb craters have made the streets almost impassable,” one paratrooper wrote. “Thick clouds of smoke rise from a burning oil installation. And over all hangs the burning heat. Pitilessly the sun blazes down.” [Stewart, p.422n84] At 3.45pm the swastika was hoisted over the square in the heart of Canea. An hour or so later the town’s mayor offered its surrender. [MS B-646] Back in Athens, Field Marshal List rattled off a brief message of congratulations: “Bravo Ringel. Congratulations and good wishes to the mountaineers.” [12 AOK im Balkan Feldzug, Annex, p.5. IWM AL 679]
The battle was only partially won however; there was still the possibility of a mini-Dunkirk on Crete. Even before German troops marched into Canea, Wavell conceded it was no longer possible to stem the tide of defeats. His men simply could no longer withstand enemy air power. “Such continuous and unopposed air attack must drive stoutest troops from positions sooner or later,” he told London. “We must recognise that Crete is no longer tenable and that troops must be withdrawn as far as possible. It has been impossible to withstand weight of enemy air attack, which has been on unprecedented scale and has been through force of circumstances practically unopposed.” [Wavell to Churchill, 27/5/41. Connell, i, pp.471-2; Churchill, iii, p.262] At 3pm the evacuation of all Commonwealth forces still fighting in Crete – 32,000 men, plus 10,000 Greek troops. As at Dunkirk, the prognosis did not look good. Churchill told his military leaders to “face the prospect of the loss of most of our forces there”. [War Cabinet Meeting, 10.30am, 27/5/41. PRO CAB 65/22]
The weary Commonwealth forces now faced a retreat over the mountains which were the backbone of Crete to the southern port of Sfakia. These men who had trekked through Greece for the waiting ships of the Royal Navy endured the same humiliation through Crete. General Freyberg remembered an “endless stream of trudging men” winding along the mountain roads. “In the main it was a disorganised rabble making its way doggedly and painfully to the south. Thousands of unarmed troops, without leadership, without any sort of discipline.” [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.404]
To the north the Germans moved eastwards to relieve the men who had held out at Retimo and Heraklion for more than a week. Bolstered by a handful of panzers, the mountaineers thrust first to Retimo but for two days they were held up by dogged resistance from Australian troops. But by May 29th the resistance was crumbling; the next morning it melted away and Retimo was Germany’s. Heraklion had already fallen. Ships had pulled out the last defenders on the twenty-eighth, leaving the paratroopers free to walk into the town. But the port had been heavily booby-trapped, supply dumps destroyed, vehicles blown up. The policy of scorched earth worked well. “Roads were wet and running from burst water pipes,” one Australian officer remembered. “Hungry dogs were scavenging among the dead. There was a stench of sulphur, smouldering fires and pollution.” [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.283] He and 4,000 comrades escaped, but their journey to Alexandria was fraught with danger. At first light on the twenty-ninth the task force of cruisers and destroyers was set upon by the Luftwaffe. The destroyer Hereward, packed with 450 troops, was sent to the bottom; the cruisers Dido and Orion were next singled out for attention. Both were severely damaged by the air attacks, but somehow made it back to Alexandria. One in five of the troops the task group had rescued from Heraklion had been killed on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
For Ringel the issue now was to cut off the stream of Commonwealth troops heading for Sfakia. Aerial reconnaissance told him the enemy was in headlong retreat. But his men never overhauled the enemy, who set up defensive blocks on the sole mountain road leading to the small southern island town. As at Dunkirk, the troops waited on the beaches for salvation. After the mauling of the Heraklion evacuees, the Admiralty held out little hope for the evacuation of the troops at Sfakia. “It appeared that our efforts to rescue the army from capture might only lead to the destruction of a large proportion of the troops,” the official report on the naval battle for the island reported. [PRO ADM 234/320] On the first night of the evacuation – May 28th-29th – 744 men were picked up. The next night the haul was greater, some 6,000 troops rescued almost without hindrance from the Luftwaffe. The evacuations continued until early on June 1st. At 3am on the first, the last of the Royal Navy ships weighed anchor and headed south. They would not be back. There were still some 6,500 Commonwealth forces waiting to be picked up, but the men holding the perimeter around Sfakia could hold on no longer and Cunningham was unwilling to continue to risk his diminishing fleet in Cretan waters. At 9am they raised the white flag; the men in the hills above the port held on until mid-afternoon, then gave up. The gebirgsjäger marched down the steep road into Sfakia exhausted, as one Propaganda Kompanie reporter noted:
Suntanned and parched, their uniforms in rags, caps flattened and caked with sweat and mud. Our mountaineering boots are patched up with insulating tape and leather straps, soles are worn through, nails torn out from jumping and falling. Arms and legs are grazed. Every group has its wounded and yet we carry on with unheard of élan. We no longer feel the heat and have overcome extreme exhaustion. [Crete Eyewitnessed, pp.247-8]
That evening Generaloberst Löhr could report to Berlin: “Mission completed. Crete is clear of the enemy.” [MS B-646] Hermann Göring followed with his own order of the day: “You have proved to all the world the Führer’s words: ‘There are no longer any unconquerable islands.’” [Author’s papers] Privately, the Reichsmarschall told Löhr: “Victory on Crete is once again proof of invincible National Socialist fighting spirit. It is a wonderful feeling to be the Commander-in-Chief of such heroic men.” [Fernschreiben Görings an Löhr, 3/6/41. KA Wien, Nachlass Löhr, B521, folio 18]
For all it lasted only 12 days the battle for Crete was the most ferocious fought in the West to date. The fighting had been bitter, but there was a brutal edge to the killing. Combat on the very first day of battle was characteristic of the bitterness of the struggle for the island. As they dangled from their parachutes the German troops fired their machine-guns indiscriminately at anything which moved on the ground. “Such action hardly invited lenient treatment,” General Freyberg wrote. When many of the fallschirmjäger landed in Prison Valley and were overwhelmed by the New Zealand defenders, they raised the white flag. In many cases the Commonwealth troops continued fighting. Only a handful of prisoners were taken; two battalions reported killing 184 German troops – just 12 were captured. [MacDonald, Lost Battle, p.185] Worse still, the Germans complained, British troops had worn Wehrmacht uniforms and used swastika flags to mis-direct air drops. But the brutality the German troops reported was not reserved to the Commonwealth forces. For the first time in the Second World War the invaders encountered hostile civilians not prepared to let the Nazis overrun their island. The paratroopers who landed around the western town of Kastelli on the twentieth were met by an angry mob of Greeks who knifed and clubbed some of the fallschirmjäger to death. Kastelli was no anomaly. Across Crete civilians were picking up guns and rifles and shooting at the Germans. By May 23rd, reports of an armed uprising had reached higher authorities. There was talk of “civilian snipers who were mutilating dead and wounded”. Julius Ringel would not tolerate “these bestial hordes” and ordered “taking hostages and carrying out reprisals” to put down the uprising. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 23/5/41. AL 1044] The mountaineers issued a warning to the Cretans:
The Greek population, in civilian or German uniforms, is taking part in the fighting. They are shooting or stabbing wounded to death and removing rings from them, and also mutilating and robbing corpses.
Any Greek civilian taken with a firearm in his hands is to be shot immediately, as is anyone caught attacking wounded…
Civilians are to be informed that if acts of hostility against the German Army take place hostages will be shot immediately.
The villagers in the area are to be informed that 10 Greeks will die for every German. [5 Geb Div proclamation, 23/5/41. Stewart, p.316]
Ringel was as good as his word. After a protracted fire-fight for the western town of Kastelli on the twenty-fourth, the ruins finally fell to the Germans who then rounded up 200 men and shot them. The same day the bodies of engineers were found mutilated in the village of Kandanos. Ringel’s war diary blandly remarks that “reprisals were carried out”. [KTB 5 Geb Div, 24/5/41. AL 1044] The reality was far more brutal. Mountaineers moved in, killed all 180 villagers, then burned their homes to the ground.
The policy was reinforced by Kurt Student on the last day of May:
It is clear that the civilian population, including women and boys, have taken part in the fighting, committed acts of sabotage, mutilated and killed wounded soldiers. It is therefore about time that all incidents of this type are challenged, by carrying out reprisals and punitive actions which must be executed with exemplary terror.
The following reprisal measures are to be taken:
3. Burning villages to the ground.
4. Extermination of the male population in the area in question.
The reprisals would be carried out summarily, Student told his troops. “There is no need for military tribunals to cast judgement on beasts and assassins.” [Student order, 31/5/41. Author’s collection]
The incidents which prompted Ringel and Student to order reprisal actions were also the subject of inquiries by the Wehrmacht Untersuchungstelle – investigations branch. Its officials upheld the immediate findings of 5th Gebirgs Division. “The British and Greek soldiers as well as the civilian population may all be guilty,” the branch reported after extensive interrogation of witnesses. “Many parachutists were subjected to inhuman treatment or mutilated. Greek civilians participated in the fighting as franc-tireurs.” [de Zayas, pp.155-6] Nor, the branch concluded, were the atrocities confined to the fighting on land. “Shipwrecked soldiers were shot at,” investigators reported of the sinking of the caiques on May 21st-22nd. “Soldiers swimming in the water with life vests or paddling their lifeboats were fired upon and many killed or wounded.” [de Zayas, p.157] 5th Gebirgs Division commander Julius Ringel was furious at the Royal Navy’s conduct during the battle. “The rescue of the shipwrecked which we expected of the British did not take place,” he later wrote. “Even pneumatic rafts and soldiers drifting in the water were shot at.” [MS B-646] These same reports are, of course, silent on the actions of the Luftwaffe off Crete, when drowning Royal Navy sailors were strafed repeatedly by aircraft. British reports and memoirs bulge with recriminations. As the crews of Kashmir and Kelly waited for salvation early on May 23rd, they were subjected to “the usual hail of machine-gun bullets”. [Cunningham, p.373] But the same British accounts, like their German counterparts, gloss over the mauling of mountaineers who had jumped from their caiques, shot in the water or drowned by the churning of propellers as the British fleet steamed through the floating wreckage. In Crete both sides committed atrocities. The struggle for the island was not a great testament to humanity.
The price Germany paid for her new conquest was high, greater than the campaign in the Balkans – 3,352 dead and missing, 143 Ju52s destroyed and 120 more damaged. The price the British paid for defending Crete was also high – on the ground 4,051 dead and 11,835 prisoners; plus 1,828 men lost at sea, three cruisers and six destroyers.
The Royal Navy in particular took stock of its heavy defeat. “There is no hiding the fact that we have been badly battered,” Admiral Cunningham wired London. He continued:
I would not mind if we had inflicted corresponding damage on the enemy, but I fear we have achieved little beyond preventing a seaborne landing in Crete and the evacuation of some of the Army there.
I suppose we shall learn our lesson in time that the Navy and Army can’t make up for the lack of air forces. [Cunningham to Pound, 30/5/41. Cunningham Papers, p.416]
One Royal Navy officer, whose cruiser Orion arrived in Alexandria a twisted mess of metal, reported to London that the air attacks had been more than most men could endure.
The effect on the mind and nerves of continual exposure to air attack in addition to ordinary action at sea [is] the same sort of thing as shell-shock...The nerves of well-disciplined, intelligent and courageous officers and men can give way because the strain of the fight has been too great for them. [Collins to Admiralty, 15/8/41. PRO PREM 3/109]
The lesson of air power against naval power had been taught in Norway a year before, but not heeded. Admiral Cunningham now found three-quarters of his fleet either sunk or crippled. Besides the warships lost, nine more were out of action for between three and 17 months. In the long and proud annals of the Royal Navy, the 12 days of the battle for Crete proved “a disastrous period in our naval history”. [Cunningham, p.390]
The battle as a whole was bad for Britain. The public were critical that the island was lost, and lost so quickly. “There is a strong feeling that the loss of Crete could have been avoided,” the official monitors noted. “Once again ‘our men’s heroism’ is thought to have been thrown away by lack of equipment and unjustifiably inadequate preparation.” [Weekly Home Intelligence Summary, 28/5/41-4/6/41. PRO INF 1/292]
The German people, on the other hand, were naturally euphoric. They talked about Crete’s capture with “ pride and satisfaction”. [SD Meldung No.192, 9/6/41] Germany’s general were no less euphoric. Field Marshal List proclaimed “a new and glorious page was added to the history of the German Army” in Crete [12 AOK im Balkan Feldzug, Annex, p.8. IWM AL 679] and Luftflotte 4 commander Alexander Löhr declared on June 5th that “we stand ready for new tasks”. [AOK 12, Abt Iia, 5/6/41. GASWW, iii, p.552] But initial German euphoria quickly gave way to concern about the mauling the paratroopers in particular received. Student’s paratroopers had born the brunt of the losses on Crete – more than half the German dead. Not surprisingly, then, it was the paratroop general who bore the brunt of the criticism for an invasion which had very nearly miscarried. It was criticism – bad planning, inadequate intelligence, heavy losses – which Kurt Student accepted. “Crete conjures up bitter memories,” he wrote a decade later:
I miscalculated when I proposed this attack, and my mistakes caused not only the loss of very many paratroopers, but in the long run led to the demise of the German airborne arm which I had created. [Kühn, German Paratroops in World War II, p.131]
That was the enduring legacy of Crete, not the ability to command the eastern Mediterranean. A month after the campaign ended, Student collected his Ritterkreuz from the Führer. Hitler praised the fallschirmjäger for their bravery; but they would fight no more. “Crete has shown that the day of the paratroops is over,” he told Student. “Paratroops are a weapon of surprise and the surprise factor has been overplayed.” [Kühn, German Paratroops in World War II, p.132] Save for a handful of special operations Germany’s fallschirmjäger would spend the rest of the war fighting on the ground.
The ordinary paratroopers already knew their day had passed. They looked among the temporary graveyards of Crete at the resting places of comrades who leapt to their deaths. “They were almost all young men – 18, 20, 22 years old,” Martin Pöppel remembered. “Our proud paratroop unit never recovered from the enormous losses sustained on Crete.” When he jumped on May 20th he had expected an easy victory. Instead, in his words, the invasion of Crete became “an enormous and bloody task”. [Pöppel, p.54] Crete had been a soldier’s battle, won against a superior enemy by willpower. “This episode was not a glorious chapter in the history of our supreme leadership,” Pöppel wrote. “It was a glorious chapter in the history of each and every fighting man, whether he was a paratrooper, mountain infantryman, flyer or sailor.” [Pöppel, p.67] Fallschirmjäger Adolf Strauch kept a diary throughout the battle. He closed it mournfully: “We paid dearly four our victory. Every third man had been killed, every second man had been wounded. Our victory was no victory.” [Lucas, Storming Eagles, p.94]
When Student toured Crete in early June he found the men who had been filled with high hopes just two weeks before were a shell of their former selves. “Some of the battalions had lost all their officers, and in several companies there were only a few men left alive,” von der Heydte wrote. “The troops had been inexperienced in parachute warfare. The training of the officers had been none too thorough and their personal bravery had not proved sufficient compensation for their lack of knowledge.” Student had gambled in Crete, from the moment he drew up his plans, and the gamble had paid off. But officers like von der Heydte realised the writing was on the wall. “We had encountered for the first time an enemy who was prepared to fight to the bitter end on a battleground which favoured him,” he later wrote. “On this occasion things had gone well with us, but it seemed almost a miracle that our great and hazardous enterprise had succeeded.” [von der Heydte, pp.180-1] Even Hermann Göring realised the toll Crete had exacted on his Luftwaffe. “The air force is overextended,” he told Hitler as the battle for the island drew to a close. “Has had no respite since the war began.” [Irving, Göring, p.326]
Crete figured large in Hitler’s grand strategic design in the Mediterranean and Middle East in the summer of 1941. The island, he said, occupied “a special position from which the air war in the eastern Mediterranean is to be prosecuted in conjunction with operations in North Africa”. Crete would be turned into a fortress and staging ground in the Aegean. Its build up was the Wehrmacht’s “most urgent task in the southeast”. [Directive No.31, 9/6/41] But that was as far as it went. For two months the small island in the Aegean had dominated German military strategy and then her military activity in the Mediterranean theatre. The Naval Staff in particular had great hopes for their new conquest. The attack on Crete had coincided with the sortie of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Atlantic; the two operations had stretched the Royal Navy to the limit, Raeder and his staff believed. Now it was time to drive the nail into the coffin. From Berlin the Naval Staff urged its Balkan commander, Karlgeorg Schuster, to act decisively. It signalled Schuster:
It is important to take advantage of the strategic situation and our and Italian naval forces, the German and Italian air forces, as well as all other possibilities, which arise from the occupation of Greece by Italian forces, and to harness them for a [single] goal and through an offensive, co-ordinated attack by all forces suitable for this snatch the initiative from the enemy. [Skl 1 Skl Im, I Op 692/41 gKdos Chefs 24/5/41]
The Naval Staff believed the strategic balance had shifted in the Axis powers’ favour. But the Italians refused to play a more offensive role in the Mediterranean. Instead, their warships sat “inactive in harbours waiting for the day of the decisive battle by the battleships”. The Navy’s diarist continued:
The Italian Admiralty clearly has failed to recognise the change in the situation at sea as a result of the occupation of Greece and Crete, as well as the domination of the Adriatic and Aegean, and the opportunities for operations in the eastern Mediterranean which are now urgent military demands. The English position in the eastern Mediterranean can only be dealt a blow if we now maintain the initiative, keep the enemy by the throat and continue to harass, threaten and harm him in the eastern Mediterranean. [KTB Skl 12/6/41]
But neither Italy nor Germany maintained the initiative in the eastern Mediterranean. They did not have the forces. It was a problem which bedevilled Axis strategy. The goals outstripped the means. Crete had been seized as a potential airbase and springboard for the drive on the Suez. The great strategic goal was never realised. The Luftwaffe found its resources stretched in Africa, France, Germany and mostly Russia and Greece’s infrastructure, especially its railways and shipping space, were in no way sufficient to turn Crete into a vast supply dump. In April, the OKW Operations Section had written prophetically:
Once the Eastern campaign is under way, elements of Fliegerkorps X left behind in the Mediterranean would be so fully tied down to convoy escorting and combat support in Libya that maintenance of air control over the wide reaches of the eastern Mediterranean would fall out. [Ansel, Hitler and the Middle Sea, p.198]
Like Norway a year before the occupation of Crete was never fully exploited by Germany’s military leadership. The island Germany had paid for so dearly in blood became a backwater.
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