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, May 20, 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 huge num­bers of air­craft (250 tri­motor Junkers Ju 52s) 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. On the flip side, British and Common­wealth forces were forced to evac­u­ate Allied terri­tory for the second time in a month, leaving another 10,000 men in German capti­vity. The only com­forting news—this from an Allied per­spec­tive—came in late May cour­tesy of the Royal Navy, which reported the sinking of the German battle­ship Bismarck in the North Atlantic with a heavy loss of life.

Narrowly viewed, Crete’s seizure gave the Axis an advan­ta­geous posi­tion in the East­ern Medi­ter­ra­nean for the next four years. From a big picture per­spec­tive, 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 the Mediterranean island of 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 spec­tac­u­larly. 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 117‑sq.-mile Brit­ish Medi­ter­ra­nean is­land fortress of Malta, just 538 miles west of Crete, would have been a mag­net for a German air­borne inva­sion, but Hitler would not coun­te­nance such a thing after taking high casualties on Crete.

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

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