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 oil supplies in and around Ploiești, Roma­nia, where he had sent a German “mili­tary mis­sion,” would not come under Allied 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 Axis-occupied 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. Other than the rock citadel of Gibral­tar located at the southern tip of the Iberian Penin­sula, Crete was the last Allied hold­out in the northern Mediterranean.

On this date, May 20, 1941, the first of 23,000 German para­troopers descended from a cloud­less sky over Crete, garri­soned now by 45,000 Allied men (which included 9,000 Greek troops). Oper­a­tion Mer­kur (Mercury) was the final 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 under hostile fire. 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 (native Cretan) resistance.

Maleme was the turning point in the battle for Crete. By Day 5 much of the Allied resis­tance had been broken, the Luft­waffe having knocked out most of the island’s guns and anti­air­craft wea­pons on the first day. 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. Con­se­quently, Hitler took his elite para­troopers out of Barba­rossa’s plans as well as other poten­tial oper­a­tional sur­prise deploy­ments; the para­troopers instead were used as elite infan­try regi­ments on the Eastern Front and in Italy. On the flip side, British, Common­wealth, and Greek defenders were forced to evac­u­ate Allied terri­tory for the second time in a month, leaving another 17,497-plus men in German capti­vity and over 4,100 dead on the battle­field. The only com­forting news—this from an Allied per­spec­tive—came out of the North Atlantic Thea­ter in late May, cour­tesy of the Royal Navy, which reported the sinking, with heavy loss of life, of the newly constructed German battle­ship Bismarck, repu­tably the most heavily armed and deadly war vessel in the world.

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, though the delay spared the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) from having to cope with the foul Russian Ras­pu­titza, the season of Spring mud. Never­thel­ess, 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 Euro­pean 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. In mid-1941 the Germans made pri­soners of the Anglo-Greek garri­son on the island, which might have afforded the Royal Navy safe harbors from which to harass the Axis south­eastern flank as well as provide a launch plat­form for Allied air attacks on Axis targets to the north, in partic­u­lar Roma­nian oil­fields. Notwith­standing the shel­lacking the Royal Naval had given the Ital­ian fleet at Taranto (Novem­ber 11, 1940), after the fall of Crete British war­ships exercised dubious control of the Eastern Mediterranean for several years running.

Operation Merkur (Mercury): German paratroopers over Crete, May 20, 1940Operation Merkur (Mercury): 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, including air­borne com­mandos of a German Army out­fit, the Branden­burgers assigned to the Abwehr (mili­tary intel­li­gence), as the men hit the ground. 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.

Operation Merkur (Mercury): Captured Germans on Crete, May 1941Operation Merkur (Mercury): 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 island fortress of Malta, which lay roughly in the middle of the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea 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.

Battle of Crete, May–June 1941. Silent German Footage