Crete, Eastern Mediterranean · May 20, 1941

With the start of marathon German oper­a­tions against the Soviet Union, code­named Operation Bar­ba­rossa, a month away, Adolf Hitler needed to en­sure that his Roma­nian oil supplies in and around Ploiești would not come under bomber attack from sta­tion­ary bases in the East­ern Medi­ter­ranean. The most likely source of those attacks was the island of Crete, lying sev­eral hun­dred miles south of Greece (see map). Just three weeks before, 50,000 out of nearly 60,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth sol­diers and air­men had escaped Ger­man cap­ture in Greece for the safety of Brit­ish-held Crete and Egypt in a Dun­kirk-like evac­u­a­tion. On this date in 1941 the first of 23,000 German para­troopers descended from a cloud­less sky onto Crete, garri­soned now by 45,000 Allied men (which included 9,000 Greek troops). Oper­a­tion Mer­kur (Mercury) was the last phase in the Axis Bal­kans cam­paign (Yugo­sla­via, Greece, and Crete) and also the first time in his­tory that an entire inva­sion force was deployed from the air. Ger­man Fall­schirm­jaeger captured Maleme Air­field in bitter fighting on May 20–21, 1941, which allowed Ger­man sup­plies and rein­force­ments to be flown into Crete, though not with­out losing scores of planes and landing craft to Allied and parti­san resis­tance. Maleme was the turning point in the battle for Crete. Even so, Ger­man air­borne losses were mas­sive enough—one in four killed or missing (Crete was dubbed the Fall­schirm­jaegers’ grave­yard)—that Hitler for­bade any further large-scale para­chute opera­tions in the future, telling the opera­tions com­mander, Maj. Gen. Kurt Student, that the sur­prise factor had now been exhausted and the day of mass jumps was over. Narrowly viewed, Crete’s sei­zure gave the Axis an advan­ta­geous posi­tion in the East­ern Medi­ter­ra­nean for the next four years. From the per­spec­tive of the big pic­ture, the Axis Bal­kans adven­ture had set back Hitler’s Bar­ba­rossa time­table by weeks. Hitler told more than one confi­dent that if his Ital­ian part­ner, Benito Mus­so­lini, hadn’t invaded Greece and needed Ger­man aid to un­do the fiasco, the entire war, at least on the East­ern Front, would have turned out differ­ently. “We could have anti­ci­pated the Rus­sian cold by weeks and con­quered Lenin­grad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalin­grad,” he lamented.

Battle of Greece and Crete, April–May 1941

Greece and Crete, 1941–1945

Above: Greece and Crete during Axis occupation, 1941–1944. Map depicts the German, Italian, and Bul­garian occu­pation zones.

German paratroopers over Crete, May 20, 1940 German paratrooper and transport glider, Crete, May 1940

Left: Taken by a British combat photographer on May 20, 1941, this photo was edited for propa­ganda pur­poses to show a black smoke trail from a damaged German Junkers Ju 52 trans­port. Ger­man para­troopers suffered heavy casual­ties with­in the first hours of the inva­sion. Some 400 of the III Bat­talion’s 600 men were killed before the end of the first day. Ger­mans suffered an est­imated 6,000–7,000 casual­ties during the Battle of Crete, which lasted from May 20 to June 1, 1941.

Right: A Fallschirmjaeger and a 10-man DFS 230 trans­port glider in Crete. The British Navy based at Alex­an­dria, Egypt, retained con­trol of the waters around Crete, so Hitler was forced into an air­borne inva­sion if he wanted to snatch Crete for the Axis. The Luft­waffe lost heavily in the fight for Crete: 220 air­craft were de­stroyed out­right and another 64 were written off due to damage, for a total of 284 air­craft lost, with sev­eral hun­dred more damaged to varying degrees. These losses were later to im­pact nega­tively on Ger­man attempts to defend Stalingrad.

Captured Germans on Crete, May 1941 Captured British soldiers, Crete, May 1941

Left: Captured German troops on Crete, late May 1941. Many Ger­man troops in the Crete inva­sion were not trained in air­borne assaults and suf­fered as a con­se­quence. The Brit­ish and Amer­i­cans, how­ever, were im­pressed enough by the poten­tial of air­borne assault forces that they began to build and train their own air­borne divi­sions, which they used spec­tac­ularly in their inva­sions of France and Germany in 1944–1945.

Right: British soldiers surrender to Ger­man para­troopers. From a disas­trous start, the Germans recovered dramat­ically. By June 1 all but 500 of Crete’s defenders had sur­rendered. Crete proved a Pyrrhic vic­tory bought at the price of future Ger­man air­borne oper­a­tions. The Brit­ish Medi­ter­ra­nean is­land fortress of Malta, at just 117 sq. miles, would have been a mag­net for a Ger­man air­borne inva­sion, but Hitler would not coun­te­nance such a thing after talking high casualties on Crete.

1944 Office of Strategic Services Documentary: Battle of Crete, May to June 1941