The Strategic Importance of Crete (278K)
The seizure of Crete, effected by the Germans between 20 May and 1 June 1941, constituted the first major military operation that was executed by airborne forces acting independently of regular ground forces. After having achieved local air superiority, the attacker was able to airland a strong ground combat force that eventually defeated the numerically superior garrison defending the island. With his overwhelmingly superior naval forces, the defender intercepted seaborne convoys that attempted to land supporting elements, equipment, and supplies. During the decisive phase of the operation, the attacking air force routed the defender's naval forces, thereby isolating the island garrison. In this trial of strength, air power won a decisive victory over a naval force maneuvering in restricted waters.
Even though some of the conditions that prevailed in Crete may not recur during future airborne operations, many lessons may be learned from the German invasion of that island.
Immediately after the Italian surprise attack on Greece in October 1940, the British occupied Crete and garrisoned the island with approximately one brigade in addition to some Greek units. They improved the three local airfields and the harbor installations at Suda Bay, where they established a naval refueling base. During the German invasion of Greece, Crete was at first the main supply base for British operations in the Balkans and later the collecting point for most of the troops evacuated from Greece.
To the Germans, possession of Crete was of great strategic importance. (Map 6) As long as the British held the island, they were able to maintain naval and air superiority in the eastern Mediterranean; Crete could serve as a springboard for British landings along
the Balkan coast; and it was a potential air base from which the Romanian oil fields could be attacked. With Crete in Axis hands, the Greek mainland and the sea lanes across the Aegean would be safe. Quite apart from the boost to Axis morale that the capture of the island was bound to produce, Crete would be an ideal jumpoff base from which Germany could conduct offensive air and naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean and support a ground offensive against Egypt and the Suez Canal.
For these reasons it was not surprising that the German Fourth Air Force, which had been committed in the Balkans under the command of General Loehr, became interested in the seizure of Crete. On 15 April General der Flieger (Lieutenant General) Kurt Student, one of Loehr's subordinates and commander of XI Air Corps, submitted to Goering a plan for capturing Crete. On the same day the Army High Command transmitted to General Jodl a plan for the invasion of Malta that had been under consideration for some time. On 20 April, after a conference with General Student, Hitler decided in favor of invading Crete rather shall Malta, and five days later Directive No. 28 was issued under the code designation Operation MERKUR.
According to this directive the necessary preparations were to be made to occupy Crete, which was to serve as a base for future air operations against the British in the eastern Mediterranean. Goering was to assume overall command and tile XI Air Corps, under the designation of airborne Corps, was to execute the operation with the support of the other air force Units committed in the Mediterranean theater. The Army was to provide suitable units to reinforce the airborne corps, including an armored combat team that was to be seaborne. Moreover, the Army was to make available the occupation forces which would be needed to relieve the airborne troops once the seizure of the island had been accomplished. The Navy was to be responsible for securing the sea lanes and was to contact the Italian Navy for this purpose as well as for the procurement of the necessary shipping space. Every available means of transportation was to be used to move the airborne corps, including the 22d Division, to its assembly areas, but these movements were not to interfere with the assembly of forces for Operation BARBAROSSA. Finally, antiaircraft units under Twelfth Army jurisdiction were to be employed to provide antiaircraft protection for the German troops in Greece and Crete.
At the time this directive was issued the Axis campaign in the Balkans was drawing to a close. Ample ground forces were avail
able in the southern Balkans, but a major obstacle stood in the path of the seizure of Crete. British naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean remained uncontested and a seaborne landing in Crete could not be effected until the British fleet had been destroyed or at least driven out of the Aegean. The initial invasion would therefore have to be executed by airborne forces. Almost single-handed, the Luftwaffe would have to neutralize the enemy's air and ground de: tenses, airland and drop the German assault troops, defeat the British naval forces, and support the ground operations by airlifting supplies.
These tasks were facilitated by the availability of a number of airfields in Greece and on the Italian-held Dodecanese islands, which were at ideal distances for bombing operations. On the other hand, the British air bases in Egypt were too remote to provide adequate protection and logistical support for the forces defending Crete.
Whereas the Luftwaffe envisaged the invasion of Crete with full confidence, the other two services maintained a reserved attitude. Unable to participate in the operation with its own bottoms, the (German Navy was all the more skeptical because of the manifest weakness of the Italian Fleet. On the other hand, the (German Navy welcomed this opportunity for the possible defeat of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Army's lack of enthusiasm was based on the assumption that the British would defend to the bitter end this key position in the Aegean since it protected their flank in North Africa and at the Suez Canal. Moreover, there was a very real danger that too high a percentage of first-class troops might be diverted to a secondary theater of war. In view of the impending invasion of Russia, such commitments had to be avoided if at all possible.
The island of Crete is approximately 160 miles long and varies in width from 8 to 35 miles. (Map 7) The interior of the island is barren and covered by eroded mountains which, in the western part, rise to an elevation of 8,100 feet. There are few roads and water is scarce. The south coast descends abruptly toward the sea; the only usable port along this part of the coast is the small harbor of Sphakia. There are hardly any north-south communications, and the only road to Sphakia which can be used for motor transportation ends abruptly 1,300 feet above the town. The sole major traffic artery runs close to the north coast and connects Suda Bay with the towns of Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion. Possession of the north coast is vital for an invader approaching from Greece, if only because of terrain
Map 7: The Seizure of Crete (Operation Merkur)
conditions. The British, whose supply bases were situated in Egypt, were greatly handicapped by the fact that the only efficient port was in Suda Bay. The topography of the island therefore favored the invader, particularly since the mountainous terrain left no other alternative to the British but to construct their airfields close to the exposed north coast.
At the beginning of the German invasion of Crete, the island garrison consisted of about 27,500 British and Imperial troops and 14,000 Greeks under the command of Glen. Bernard C. Freyberg, the commanding general of the New Zealand division. The original garrison, numbering approximately 5,000 men, was fully equipped, whereas the troops evacuated from Greece were tired, disorganized, and equipped only with the small arms they had saved during the withdrawal. The Cretans offered their assistance to the defenders of their island, even though they had suffered heavily from air raids and most of their young men had been taken prisoner during the Greek campaign. The Greek and Cretan soldiers were mostly inadequately armed recruits. There was a general shortage of heavy equipment' transportation' and supplies. The armor available to the defenders consisted of eight medium and sixteen light tanks and a few personnel carriers, which were divided equally among the four groups formed in the vicinity of the airfields and near Canea. The artillery was composed of some captured Italian guns with a limited supply of ammunition, ten 3.7 inch howitzers, and a few antiaircraft batteries. The construction of fortifications had not been intensified until the Greek campaign had taken a turn for the worse.
General Freyberg disposed his ground forces with a view to preventing airborne landings on the three airfields at Maleme, Retimo, and Heraklion and seaborne landings in Suda Bay and along the adjacent beaches. He divided his forces into four self-supporting groups, the strongest of which was assigned to the defense of the vital Maleme airfield. Lack of transportation made it impossible to organize a mobile reserve force.
During May 1941 the British air strength on Crete never exceeded thirty-six planes, less than half of which were operational. When the German preparatory attacks from the air grew in intensity and the British were unable to operate from their airfields, the latter decided to withdraw their last few planes the day before the invasion began.
The British naval forces defending Crete were based on Suda Bay, where the port installations were under constant German air observation. During the period immediately preceding the invasion
intensive air attacks restricted the unloading of supplies to the hours from 2300 to 0330. The British fleet was split into two forces: a light one, consisting of two cruisers and four destroyers, was to intercept a seaborne invader north of Crete and a strong one, composed of two battleships and eight destroyers, was to screen the island against a possible intervention of the Italian fleet northwest of Crete. The only aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean waters was unable to provide fighter cover for the forces at sea or the island defenders because it had suffered heavy fighter losses during the evacuation of Greece.
The British expected an attack on Crete. Their countermeasures were based on the assumption that an airborne invasion could not succeed without the landing of heavy weapons, reinforcements, and supplies by sea. By intercepting these with their Navy, they hoped to be able to decide the issue in their favor.
General Loehr, the commander of Fourth Air Force, was put in charge of executing Operation MERKUR (For the chain of command, see p. 142). His task force consisted of the following units:
The Naval Commander Southeast, Admiral Schuster, had no German naval units under his command. The 63 motor sailers and 7 freighters with 300-ton capacity each, which were to form two convoys, were to be escorted by Italian destroyers and motor torpedo boats. The transport vessels had been captured during the Greek campaign and were assembled at the port of Piraeus. The motor sailers were
[Figure 33. German motor sailer three miles southwest of Cape Spatha]
to carry one battalion of the 6th Mountain Division, the service elements and such equipment of 7th Airborne Division which could not be airlifted, and the pack animals and equipment of 5th Mountain Division, as well as rations and ammunition. The cargo vessels were loaded with tanks, antiaircraft and antitank guns, heavy equipment, ammunition, rations, and other supplies.
The sole German Army division trained for air landings, the Ad Division, was unable to participate in the invasion of Crete because it could not be transferred in time from Romania, where it guarded the oil fields near Ploesti. The absence of these specially trained troops was all the more regrettable because the division taking their place, 5th Mountain Division, had no practical experience in airborne operations. Even though the mountain troops gave an excellent account of themselves during the fighting on Crete, their commitment had all the characteristics of a daring improvisation.
Initially, the Luftwaffe had two invasion plans under consideration. The first one, submitted by Fourth Air Force, called for airborne landings in the western part of the island between Maleme and Canea and the subsequent seizure of the remaining territory by an eastward thrust of all airlanded troops. This plan had the advantage of enabling the invader to concentrate his forces within a small area and achieve local air and ground superiority. On the other hand, its execution might lead to extensive mountain fighting during which the enemy would remain in possession of the Heraklion and Retimo airfields in the east. The second plan, submitted by XI Air Corps, envisaged the simultaneous airdrop of parachute troops at seven points, the most important of which were Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion. This plan had the advantage of putting the Germans in possession of all strategic points on the island in one fell swoop. A mopping-up operation would do the rest. However, the plan involved great risks because the weak forces dropped at individual points would be dispersed over a wide area and the tactical air units would be unable to lend support at all points at the same time.
The plan of attack which was finally adopted by Goering was a compromise solution. Some 15,000 combat troops were to be airlanded and 7,000 men were to be seaborne. On D-day the 7th Airborne Division was to land in two waves, the first one in the morning at Maleme airfield and near Canea, the second one in the afternoon near the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. The VIII Air Corps was to provide strong tactical air support during the landings. At H-hour the first groups of gliders, carrying one battalion of assault troops
each, were to land at Maleme airfield. The airlanded troops were to neutralize the remaining ground defenses and protect the descent of the parachute troops. Additional groups of gliders were to come in at fifteen-minute intervals and consolidate the gains made by the time of their landings. The combat team that was to land at Maleme was to consist of one regiment of assault troops reinforced by parachute infantry, one battery of parachute antiaircraft artillery, and one parachute medical platoon. A similar procedure was to be followed near Canea where the gliderborne troops were to land on the beaches. The commander and stall of the 7th Airborne Division were to establish headquarters near Canea.
At H plus 8 hours the second wave was to jump over Retimo and Heraklion without the assistance of gliderborne forces. Each group was to consist of one parachute combat team composed of infantry, antiaircraft artillery, engineers, and medical personnel. The four groups, separated by distances varying between ten and seventy-five miles, were to establish contact at the earliest possible moment. On D plus 1 the mountain troops were to be airlifted to the three airfields, which would meanwhile be cleared of all enemy forces. The naval convoys would land at the same time at Suda Bay and any minor ports that would be open to shipping.
The assembly of all units that were to participate in Operation MERKUR took place within a little less than two weeks. In evaluating this performance, it is necessary to remember the poor road and difficult terrain conditions in Greece. The truck transportation available, including nonorganic transport columns provided by Twelfth Army, was very limited, and the situation was aggravated by the fact that supplies had to be hauled from bases in Austria, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Greek railroads could not be repaired in time, and coastal shipping had to carry the main supply load. This task was complicated by the shortage of vessels, the insecurity of convoy routes, and the generally low port capacities. Aviation gasoline was the principal bottleneck because the tanker fleet was too small, and some of the tankers that had formerly been available had been lost during the Balkan campaign. The shortage of gasoline gave rise to all the more anxiety because an adequate supply was essential for an operation in which planes were to play such an important role. In his report of 8 May the Twelfth Army quartermaster stated that traffic congestion, railroad demolitions, makeshift road repairs, and mined harbors in Greece proved more of a hindrance then than during the military operations. The solution of the logistical problems
[Figure 34. Mountain troops preparing for airlift to Crete]
caused some delay and resulted in the postponement of D-day from 16 to 20 May.
The dive bombers and single-engine fighters were based on recently constructed airfields on the islands of Milos and Skarpanto as well as in the Peloponnesus. Twin-engined fighters were to fly from Rhodes and other fields within a 200-mile radius of Crete. The bases for long-range bombers and reconnaissance aircraft were in the Athens and Salonika areas as well as in Bulgaria. The troop carriers were to operate from a number of fields near Athens and in southern Greece. On D minus 1 the islands of Kythera and Antikythera were seized to secure the approach routes to Crete, and antiaircraft batteries were hastily installed at both places.
The 7th Airborne Division was moved by rail from Germany to Arad and Craiova in Romania and from there by truck via Sofiya and Salonika to the airfields in southern Greece. The mountain troops had participated in the Greek campaign and were given special training in airborne operations.
These troop and supply movements did not pass unobserved. On the last few nights preceding D-day, the British were able to bomb the assembly areas, but caused little damage. However, the element of surprise-so important in any airborne operation-could not be maintained. British agents in Greece transmitted accurate information on the German build-up and left little doubt as to the next German objective.
Early on the morning of 20 May waves of dive bombers and low flying fighter planes subjected the Maleme, Canea, and Suda Bay areas to the heaviest bombing and strafing attacks hitherto experienced by the seasoned troops manning the defenses. Most of the antiaircraft guns were put out of action and the defenders were forced to seek shelter. Bombs were dropped at the approaches to the airfields to put the telephone lines out of order.
At 0800 the first gliders, each carrying twelve men, landed near the airfield and on the beaches near Canea. At the same time approximately 2,000 parachutists jumped in waves of 200 each at fifteen minute intervals. Two of every three parachutes in each wave carried containers with weapons and supplies. At Maleme, the parachute troops jumped into strong enemy fire from infantry weapons, em-
placed in positions built into the hills south of the airfield. Many of the paratroopers were killed during the descent or shortly after landing. Because of the concentrated enemy fire most of the men were unable to recover the weapons containers and had to rely on the pistol, four hand grenades, and large knife they carried. One battalion of the assault regiment landed too far to the east among olive groves and vineyards near Maleme and was greeted by murderous machine gun and heavy weapons fire. Casualties were very heavy, and the medical platoon that had set up a first aid station in a farm house was overwhelmed by the constant influx of seriously wounded men. The gliders would have been completely destroyed by enemy fire, had they not been covered by clouds of dust which formed as soon as they touched ground.
The commander of the 7th Airborne Division, Generalleutnant Major General) Wilhelm Suessmann was killed during the approach flight, while Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Eugen Meindl, who was in command of the Maleme group, was critically wounded shortly after landing. Both the Maleme and Canea groups were therefore without their commanders.
The success of the Maleme operation depended on the quick capture of the airfield so that reinforcements could be landed without delay. To achieve this the British forces had to be dislodged frown Hill 107 which dominated the airfield and the surrounding terrain. The remnants of the initial force launched simultaneous attacks on the hill and the airfield at 1500. Despite heavy opposition and a devastating fire from the British antiaircraft guns emplaced near the airfield, the attackers captured the northern and northwestern edge of the airfield and advanced up the northern slope of Hill 107. Suddenly the attackers heard the noise of motors and saw two British tanks charging across the airfield into their rear. Firing all their weapons, the tanks spread terror among the Germans, until the latter were able to move up two antitank guns whose fire neutralized the British tanks. Throughout this episode British artillery and machine gun fire continued with undiminished intensity. Two German transport planes tried to land on the airfield toward evening but machine gun fire prevented them from doing so.
The Canea group? which was to capture the village of Suda and the town of Canea and eliminate the British command staff located in that area, landed on rocky ground and suffered many jump casualties. The few men who were not wounded attempted to gather weapons and ammunition and establish contact with their comrades. Here the German paratroopers were opposed by New Zealanders who engaged
[Figure 35. Maleme Airfield with Hill 107 in Background.]
them with small arms and heavy weapons fire from olive groves offering perfect camouflage for snipers and machine gun positions. The isolated German elements made little headway against the well-entrenched enemy forces.
Meanwhile, the German command in Greece assumed that the operation was progressing according to plan because all troop carriers with the exception of seven returned to their bases. On this assumption, which was proved erroneous only after several hours had passed, the troop carriers were readied for the afternoon landings at Heraklion and Retimo. Because of a delay in the refueling, these planes arrived too late over the designated drop points and the paratroops were therefore without direct fighter and bomber support. One parachute combat team in regimental strength jumped over each of the two points between 1500 and 1630. Running into very heavy British fire, the parachutists suffered even more casualties than at Maleme and failed to capture the airfields, towns, or ports. Some of the troops landed at the wrong points because the troop carriers had difficulty in orienting themselves. After they touched ground the Germans found themselves in an almost hopeless situation. Surrounded by greatly superior enemy forces, they struggled for survival. Their signal equipment had been smashed during the airdrop and they were therefore unable to establish contact with the nearest friendly forces. Although they were completely on their own and faced by an uncertain fate, they were determined to hold out to the end in the vicinity of the two airfields so that they would tie down the enemy forces and thus assist their comrades in the western part of the island.
Air reconnaissance and radio messages had meanwhile rectified the erroneous picture of the first landings in western Crete. By the evening of 20 May not a single airfield was securely held by the Germans. The most favorable reports came from Maleme, where the defenders were falling back from Hill 107 and their perimeter defenses around the airfield which, however, was still under British artillery fire. Moreover, parts of the field were obstructed by crashed aircraft and gliders. Thus, no field was available for the airborne landing of the 5th Mountain Division which was scheduled for the next day. Canea was still in enemy hands and the isolated troops landed at the four drop points had so far been unable to form airheads, let alone establish contact among themselves. While the attacker had run into unexpectedly strong resistance and had failed to reach the objective of the day, the defender was surprised by the fury and strength of the onslaught.
During the night of 20-21 May a British light naval force broke through the German aerial blockade and searched the waters north of Crete. Admiral Schuster thereupon decided to call back to Milos the first naval convoy, which was approaching Crete under escort of an Italian destroyer. At dawn on 21 May German planes sighted the British ships and subjected them to heavy air attacks. One destroyer was sunk and two cruisers damaged. At 0900 the waters north of Crete were cleared of enemy ships and the convoy was ordered to continue its voyage in the direction of Maleme. During the day German dive bombers based on Skarpanto and Italian planes flying from Rhodes scored several hits on British ships returning to Crete waters, thereby preventing them from intercepting the Axis convoy. The German troops on the island were anxiously awaiting the arrival of artillery, antitank guns, and supplies, but poor weather conditions so delayed the convoy that it could not reach the island before darkness.
When it finally came around Cape Spatha at 2300, the convoy was suddenly confronted by a British naval task force which was on the way to Suda Bay to land reinforcements and supplies. The British immobilized the Italian escort vessel and sank most of the motor sailers and freighters. Many German soldiers, most of them mountain troops, were drowned. The majority of the shipwrecked, however, were picked up by sea rescue planes. The second convoy, which had meanwhile reached Milos, was recalled to Piraeus to save it from a similar fate. No further seaborne landings were attempted until the fate of Crete had been decided.
On the morning of 22 May, VIII Air Corps started an all-out attack on the British fleet, which was forced to withdraw from the Aegean after suffering heavy losses. The battle between the Luftwaffe and the British Navy ended in the victory of German air power, which from then on dominated the air and waters north of Crete.
On the morning of 21 May a few planes were able to make crash landings on the beaches near Maleme and bring in badly needed weapons and ammunition to the assault troops in that area. Enemy artillery fire interdicted any landing on the airfield proper. It was therefore decided to drop additional parachute troops behind the enemy positions dominating the airfield.
Oberst (Colonel) Bernhard Ramcke--who later served under Rommel in North Africa and defended Brest after the Normandy inva-
[Figure 36. Airborne Landings west of Maleme]
sion--assembled 550 paratroopers who had been left behind on the first day and formed a reserve battalion. He was ordered to jump west of Maleme airfield and assist in clearing the British positions in its vicinity. Mountain infantrymen already seated in their transport planes were hastily unloaded and immediately replaced by Ramcke's men. In the early afternoon four companies of parachute troops jumped from low altitudes above the vineyards near Maleme. The two that were supposed to land behind the enemy lines descended directly into well-camouflaged enemy positions and were almost completely wiped out. The other two joined the assault troops which, by 1700, succeeded in dislodging the enemy infantry from the town of Maleme and the hills surrounding the airfield. The airdrop was effectively supported by tactical air force attacks on enemy defenses. Throughout this fighting, however, the dive bombers were unable to silence the British artillery pieces which were particularly well camouflaged and which, in order not to uncover their position, held their fire whenever German planes were in sight.
Troop carriers with the 5th Mountain Division troops began to land at Maleme airfield at 1600, even though the field was still under intermittent artillery and machine gun fire. Low-flying planes kept the defenders' fire to a minimum and the landings proceeded without major losses. A captured British tank was used as prime mover to clear the airfield of burned-out and damaged planes. As soon as the landing strip was cleared, planes came in and left without interruption.
From that point on reinforcements and supplies kept pouring in and the fate of Crete was sealed. Little by little the entire 5th Mountain Division was flown in. Even more important to the attack forces were the artillery pieces, antitank guns, and supplies of all types, which had been missing during the initial stage of the invasion and which were now being airlifted into Maleme.
On 22 May Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Julius Ringel, the commander of the 5th Mountain Division, assumed command of all the German forces in the Maleme airhead. His first task was to establish contact with the Canea forces and to clear the western part of the island of enemy troops. For this purpose his mountain troops used the same tactics they had employed so successfully at Mount Olympus and Thermopylae. By climbing along paths that were not even real trails and over heights previously considered to be unscalable, the mountain troops, loaded with everything they needed to fight and supply themselves, broke their own ground as they advanced and then attacked the enemy in the flank or rear at points where he ex-
[Figure 37. Disabled British tank near Canea]
pected them the least. They had no mules and were therefore forced to handcarry their heavy weapons and ammunition across the rugged terrain. Throughout the struggle for Crete they adhered to the motto that sweat saves blood. In their heavy uniforms the mountain soldiers withstood days of scorching heat with temperatures rising up to 130· F. and nights when the mountain air at altitudes ranging up to 7,000 feet was so cold that they were unable to sleep.
On D plus 5 the mountain troops outflanked the British positions east of Maleme, and on the next day they entered Canea, the capital of Crete, and occupied Suda Bay after a forced march across the mountains. During this fighting the British offered strong resistance and showed no signs of willingness to give in. They made very skillful use of the terrain and delayed the German advance by sniper and machine gun fire. Some of their positions were protected by wire and mine fields. Armed bands of Cretans fought fiercely in the mountains, using great cunning and committing acts of cruelty such as mutilating dead and wounded German soldiers.
The air-ground coordination of the attackers occasionally failed to function during these days. At 1310 on 26 May, for instance, Dornier planes subjected elements of the 85th Mountain Regiment to a heavy bombardment, although the latter had laid out Swastika flags and fired white flares. The air attack continued until 1400 and had a very detrimental effect on the ground troops' morale.
While the struggle for western Crete was raging, German reconnaissance planes reported that a few British planes had returned to Heraklion airfield on 23 May and that reinforcements were arriving by sea in the eastern part of the island. If complete air superiority over Crete was to be maintained by the Luftwaffe, the return of British planes en masse had to be prevented by all means. It was therefore decided to reinforce the German troops in the Heraklion pocket by dropping hastily assembled parachute units. They were to take possession of the airfield and, until relieved by approaching ground forces, prevent the landing of British planes. Four companies of parachute troops were formed at Maleme and dropped in the vicinity of the Heraklion pocket west of the town. Immediately after landing on 28 May, the parachute units contacted the embattled pocket force and launched a concerted attack against the British positions, eliminating several enemy strongholds with the support of dive bombers. After regrouping his forces during the night the German commander at Heraklion set out to capture the town and the airfield early on the next morning. At daybreak the German troops closed in on the British positions. Not a shot was
[Figure 38. The struggle for Heraklion Airfield]
fired. British naval vessels had evacuated the Heraklion garrison during the preceding night.
By that time British resistance had crumbled everywhere. German supplies and equipment were landed at SudaBay without interference from enemy naval or air units. On 29 May motorized reconnaissance elements, advancing through enemy-held territory, established contact with the German forces in the Retimo pocket and reached Heraklion the next day. A small Italian force that had landed at Sitia Bay on the eastern tip of the island on 28 May, linked up with a German advance detachment two days later.
On 28 May General Freyberg had ordered the bulk of the British ground forces to fight their way back to the south coast of Crete so that they could be evacuated to Egypt. Since this plan was not immediately recognized by the German command, only a weak force consisting of a reinforced mountain battalion was committed to launch a pursuit in the direction of Sphakia, while the main body of German troops continued its eastward thrust. It was not until 31 May that additional forces were diverted to the south to drive toward Sphakia.
After repeated encounters with enemy rear guards, the German forces reached the south coast of the island on 1 June. The struggle for Crete was thereby terminated. Despite the long delay in the issuance of evacuation orders, the British Navy was able to embark approximately 14,800 men and return them to Egypt. Subjected to severe losses and constant harassment by German planes, the Navy performed the evacuation during four nights.
The figures for German casualties suffered in the Crete operations remain a matter of conjecture. Whereas German after action reports give total losses varying between 3,986 and 6,453 men, Winston S. Churchill states that more than 4,000 graves have been counted in the area of Maleme and Suda Bay and another thousand at Retimo and Heraklion.* In Churchill's opinion the Germans must have suffered well over 15,000 casualties in killed and wounded. Part of the difference may be explained by the fact that the British estimated the number of men drowned in the sinking of the first convoy at 2,500 men. Actually, only two battalions had been embarked on vessels in that convoy and the air-sea rescue squadron apparently rescued most of the shipwrecked. In a recent study on German losses in Crete,
*Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1950), p. 301.
[Figure 39. the first mules have arrived in Crete]
British military historians seem inclined to accept the highest German figures as correct.*
Some 350 German planes, more than half of them troop carriers, were lost or damaged.
The British were able to evacuate 14,800 out of a garrison of 27,500 men. Left behind were also the 14,000 Greek troops, either dead or captured. The Royal Navy suffered nearly 2,000 casualties and crippling losses which resulted in its withdrawal from the Aegean.
In view of the particular circumstances that surrounded the German seizure of Crete, its success should not be taken as proof for the contention that the airborne invasion of an island is the ideal solution in any similar situation. Comparisons with other theaters of war, for instance the British Isles, are misleading. The invasion of Crete was in a category by itself, but a number of lessons with general validity for similar operations can be learned from the German experience. In general, the success of an airborne operation against an island will depend on the following factors:
a. Control of the air above the island is essential for the successful execution of airborne landings. During the Crete operation the British had practically no aircraft based on the island and were unable to improvise effective air cover from North Africa because of the long distance between the air bases in Egypt and the fields on Crete.
b. Control of the sea around an island is next in importance. The invader's navy must be able to provide full protection for the convoys that have to bring up tanks, heavy weapons, and supplies of all types. During the attack on Crete, British naval units cut off German seaborne transportation and thereby delayed the progress of the ground offensive, which in turn enabled the British to evacuate considerable forces to Egypt. German reinforcements, supplies, and-above all--tanks, artillery, and antitank guns could not be brought to the island by sea when they were most needed. The warning given by the German Navy before the start of Operation MERKUR-not to send naval convoys to Crete before the waters around the island had been cleared of the enemy--had been justified.
* German Casualties, Crete 1941, Enemy Documents Section, Historical Branch, Cabinet Office, April 1952.
c. The command channels regulating interservice cooperation must be clearly defined and unity of command over both airborne and seaborne forces must be firmly established. During the invasion of Crete, the German command organization was unified, and for the first time an air force general was in overall command of air, ground, and naval forces. General Loehr, the commander of Fourth Air Force, set up his headquarters at Athens in close proximity to Twelfth Army and Navy Group South headquarters, which were instructed to give him all the support he needed. The command structure for Operation MERKUR was as follows: (chart)
In contrast to the simplicity of this command organization, the British ground and air force units were under independent local commanders who in turn were subordinate to the respective service commanders, Middle East, stationed in Egypt. The naval commander sailed with the fleet. All three service commanders, Middle East, reported through their ministries to the War Cabinet in London and received their orders from that source. To add to the confusion, General Freyberg, the New Zealand commander of the ground forces, also reported to his govern-
ment half way around the world whenever he felt that this was necessary or in the interest of his country.*
Prime Minister Churchill sent messages directly to General Freyberg and intervened when he believed that his influence and encouragement would be of benefit. Thus, on 27 May, at a time when the fate of Crete was no longer in doubt and the local commander was preparing orders for withdrawal, Churchill telegraphed to the commanders-in-chief, Middle East: "Victory in Crete essential at this turning-point in the war. Keep hurling in all you can."**
d. The element of surprise is essential to the success of an airborne operation which involves great risks under any circumstances. To achieve surprise, it is particularly important to maintain the secrecy of the offensive plans until the last minute. This will never be fully accomplished but several measures may be taken to deceive the enemy at least with regard to the exact time for the start of the attack. For example, whereas the logistical preparations at the jumpoff airfields for troop carriers and gliders may be accomplished well ahead of time, the airborne formations proper should be moved in as late as possible. The presence of parachute troops should be kept secret by restricting movements to and from the airfields of departure. Also, the enemy must be prevented from flying reconnaissance missions over the staging areas.
e. Other important factors are the intensive collection of intelligence and proper dissemination of information obtained. The terrain of the potential landing areas must be thoroughly reconnoitered by low-flying planes, aerial photography, and agents. By the time the parachute troops descend, the main enemy nests of resistance and defensive weapons must have been neutralized or the rate of jump casualties will be abnormally high.
German air reconnaissance during the period preceding the invasion was inadequate and the intelligence picture presented by the Luftwaffe did not correspond to the actual situation on the island. The British had succeeded in concealing fortifications and camouflaging their gun positions. Dummy flak positions were extensively bombed, while the real ones were not discovered. Some British positions were erroneously marked as artesian wells and the prison on the road to Canea was thought to be a British ration dump. Apparently, Twelfth Army had
*Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance, pp. 274-75.
*Ibid., p. 295.
[Figure 40. Airborne landings over the north coast of Crete.]
more accurate information local agents. But, in the firm belief that the British intended to evacuate the island immediately after the first airborne landings and that the garrisons consisted of only 5,000 combat troops, the Luftwaffe refused to consider mole realistic estimates of the enemy preparations.
f. Airborne tactics must be flexible. After the seizure of Crete the Germans learned from captured documents that the British had studied the German operation orders pertaining to the airborne invasion of Holland in 1940 and held used the information for troop training purposes and for the construction of fortifications. Since the Germans had not changed their tactics the enemy defense system proved entirely adequate during the first stage of the invasion. Had the Luftwaffe adopted different tactics, such as limiting the number of initial objectives to one or two, it could have achieved a greater concentration `'f forces. Moreover, the first waves of parachute troops jumped over the three airfields and landed amidst the concentrated fire of all defensive weapons the enemy had emplaced neat each one of them. The purpose of landing on top of the objective, instead of near it, was to immediately paralyze the principal defense centers. This plan failed in each instance and its execution involved heavy casualties.
To make matters worse the troops jumped at the wrong points in most instances. Some Units were dropped ten miles too far east. This was all the less comprehensible because the drop points had been clearly identified and the flying crews thoroughly briefed. Some of the pilots dropped the paratroopers in the wrong place and from too high an altitude so as to escape the enemy's ground fire. Their conduct jeopardized the success of the operation.
In any event a strong and w-ell-integrated defense system almost be overcome by landing on top of it, unless it has previously been smashed by continuous bombing attacks. Far better results can be obtained by jumping at a distance from the objective, which must subsequently be reduced by customary infantry tactics. For this purpose the paratrooper must receive infantry training.
g. Strong reserves, including flying formations, must be readily available so that any initial success, achieved wherever airborne landings have taken place, can be immediately exploited. Or, if unexpected difficulties arise, as in the Crete operation where the British fleet suddenly intervened, these reserves must be capable of immediate effective counteraction.
[Figure 41. Antitank gun, attached to five parachutes, is dropped over Crete]
h. Individual soldiers must carry light machine gulls, recoilless rifles, rocket launchers, etc., during the descent in case they are forced to fight before recovering their paracrates. The containers dropped by the (Germans often fell into the enemy positions and were picked up by British troops who used the weapons and ammunition against the Germans, inflicting heavy casualties on them with their own weapons. Moreover, some of the containers fell into gullies and deep stream beds and could therefore not be recovered.
i The troops must be issued appropriate uniforms. The German paratroop uniform proved unsuitable for the hot climate of Crete. During combat many men suffered from heat prostration. Every movement on the battlefield involved terrific physical efforts, and the efficiency of the troops was thus considerably impaired.
In evaluating the defender's performance General Ringel, who was in command of German ground operations during the crucial battle for Canea, made the following statement: "The enemy's stubborn defense could have led to our defeat, if he had grasped the situation from the very outset and had made use of all his available forces and resources."
Because of its daring execution and the novel techniques employed, the airborne invasion of Crete may be considered an historic military achievement. However, its many deficiencies, most of which are to be attributed to insufficient preparations, gave the operation all the characteristics of an improvisation. Despite the success achieved, the high cost of the seizure of the island led Hitler to lose confidence in airborne operations.
The possession of Crete proved of little offensive value to the Axis Powers because subsequent developments in the overall situation prevented them from exploiting their success. To the Germans Crete was not a stepping-stone to Suez and the Middle East, but rather the concluding part of the campaign in the Balkans.
One of the first effects of the Russian campaign, which started only twenty-one days after the cessation of hostilities in Crete, was the withdrawal of German air power from the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, after October 1941 the shortage of trained ground forces compelled the (German command to commit trained airborne and parachute units as infantry in Russia. General Student therefore seems to have been justified in stating in a post-war interrogation that "Crete was the grave of the German parachutists."