Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Battles Long Ago: Crete 1941

Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury) / The Battle of Crete


Dates: 20 MAY-1 JUN 1941
This month I am purely indulging myself. The battle in question was neither decisive nor even particularly crucial, and its impact on the course of the Second World War was fairly negligible other than for the men and women it killed. But I was a paratrooper whilst I was on active service, and the German invasion of Crete is perhaps the ultimate airborne operation.

Conceived as a demonstration of the capabilities of the German airborne forces and largely the result of relentless lobbying by GEN Kurt Student it was so costly that it soured the Wehrmacht permanently on large-scale airborne assaults even as it motivated the Allies - who saw it as a vindication of the possibilities of the "vertical envelopment" principle - to expand and equip their own parachute and glider forces.

So I don't intent this particular post to illustrate a larger lesson or say anything about war in general or WW2 in particular. I'm just letting my inner Jumpin' Junkie out for a walk.

With that, then; the Battle of Crete or, as it was known to the German armed forces; Unternehmen Merkur

Forces Engaged: British Empire -, Commonwealth and Allied Forces, Crete ("CREFORCE") The defense of the island of Crete was a somewhat haphazard business, in part because the British leadership had not planned to defend Crete, and in part because once determined to make a fight of it the British were in no position to properly organize and supply their defenders. The third, and probably the most critical, difficulty was that the defenders were not truly outfitted and planned to defend the island; they were, instead, the remnants and survivors of the lost campaign for the Greek mainland. We'll talk about that in a bit.

The major ground force element was 2nd New Zealand Division.


The outfit had been evacuated from Greece fairly intact, although it had lost nearly all of its heavy weapons. On Crete it consisted of three brigades and an artillery regiment. Two of the brigades, 4th and 5th, were in fairly good shape; 4th included three regular NZ infantry battalions and an artillery battery, 5th four NZ battalions as well as a Greek regular infantry regiment and assorted attachments. Only the 10th Brigade showed the effects of Greece; it consisted of a composite battalion, the divisional cavalry, and two Greek regiments, one (8th) badly understrength.

CREFORCE also had three other large subordinate elements:

14th Infantry Brigade, a largely British regular unit that included in its total of about 6,100 infantry:
2nd Battalion, The Leicestershire Regiment (637 all ranks)
2nd Battalion, The York and Lancaster Regiment (742 all ranks)
2nd Battalion, The Black Watch (867 all ranks)
2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion (550 all ranks)
1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (strength not recorded)
7th Medium Regiment, RA (450 all ranks - the 7th RA had lost its cannons in Greece and was deployed as infantry)
3rd Greek Regiment (656 all ranks)
7th Greek Regiment (877 all ranks)
Greek Garrison Battalion (the rear detachment of the 5th "Crete" Division; 830 all ranks)
19th Australian Infantry Brigade, assigned strength about 5,600, including 8 fieldpieces:

#6 Battery, 2/3rd Field Artillery Regiment, RAA (90 all ranks, 4 x captured Italian 100mm guns and 4 x U.S. 75mm guns)
2/1st Australian Infantry Battalion (620 all ranks)
2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion (650 all ranks)
2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion (strength not recorded - probably about 500 all ranks)
2/8th Australian Infantry Battalion (strength not recorded - 400-500 all ranks)
4th Greek Regiment (1,300 all ranks)
5th Greek Regiment (1,200 all ranks)
Gendarmerie Privates School (916 all ranks)

The 19th had arrived from the Greek mainland in poor condition, badly mishandled and without most of its equipment including radios, heavy weapons, and all its vehicles. While the infantry contingents had been brought back up largely to strength with the Greek units the 19th was not a sturdy unit.

The third element was the so-called "Mobile Base Defense Organization" or MBDO, including:

15th Coast Regiment, RA
"S" Royal Marine Composite Battalion,)
1st Battalion, The Rangers, The King's Royal Rifle Corps - (later designated 9th Battalion, The King's Royal Rifle Corps (The Rangers)
102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, RA (from the Northumberland Hussars) - no cannon, equipped as infantry)
106th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA (Lancashire Hussars)
16th Australian Brigade Composite Battalion (350 all ranks - from 2/2nd and 2/3rd Australian Infantry Battalions
17th Australian Brigade Composite Battalion (270 all ranks - from 2/5th and 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalions
1st "Royal Perivolian" Composite Battalion (strength nor recorded - collection of individuals and small unit remnants)
2nd Greek Regiment (930 all ranks)
2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Marines

CREFORCE HQ included the following:

C Squadron, 3rd The King's Own Hussars (50 all ranks, seven Mk VI light tanks)

B Squadron, 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (roughly 40 all ranks, nine Matilda heavy tanks
1st Battalion, The Welch Regiment (roughly 550 all ranks)

Royal Air Force -

British air assets available on 20 MAY were minimal and had been throughout the Greek campaign (the Army remarked that "RAF" stood for "rare as fairies"...)

The bulk of the operational RAF squadrons had been withdrawn to Egypt by mid-May; with no effective way to alert the air defenses to incoming German raids from the nearby Greek mainland the RAF chose to withdraw out of German bombing range. A small group of RAF pilots and ground crew - apparently about several hundred all ranks from 33, 80, and 112 Squadrons RAF - remained (largely at Maleme) with something like 20 to 24 assorted Hurricane, Brewster Buffalo, Gloster Gladiator, and Fairey Fulmar aircraft. While the Hurricanes were still first-line aircraft in 1941 the others ranged from obsolete to antique, and with no repair and maintenance facilities on Crete even minor deficiencies would make aircraft unserviceable. This extract from the Operational Record Book of 80 Squadron give you a good feel for the conditions of RAF service in Crete:
"...80 Squadron was transferred to Crete. However due to shortage of Hurricanes the squadron was required to leave only four pilots on the island, the remainder being evacuated to Egypt in a 267 Squadron Lockheed Lodestar. These four, Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower, Pilot Officer Vale, Flight Sergeant Rivalant and Sergeant M. W. Bennett, joined others of 33 Squadron to form a composite unit with seven Hurricanes (V7181, V7461, V7761, V7795, V7800, V7826 and W9297). One of these had an irreparable hole some ten inches in diameter through the main spar of one wing, but was still to be used due to small numbers available; the pilots agreed to take turns flying it, although it was feared that any tight turning would probably result in the wing breaking off."
Quite. Regardless of the heroic efforts of pilots and ground crews most of the remaining mission-capable aircraft were destroyed on the ground or shot down within the first several days of the fight.

Although the RAF tried to support CREFORCE flying out of bases in Egypt or Malta the Luftwaffe had total effective air superiority over Crete.


Royal Navy -

British naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean were substantial but, as we will see, the real problem was that by 1941 it was painfully obvious that warships could not operate within reach of enemy aircraft without their own air cover. The RAF and the Royal Naval air arm could not provide that to any real effect in May 1941, and, as we'll see, the RN suffered for it.


RN units involved in the Battle of Crete in one way or another included two battleships, 11 light and anti-aircraft cruisers, and 26 destroyers.

The forces directly engaged in the defense of Crete totaled roughly 40,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (of which perhaps a quarter or so had little or no actual combat value) as well as some surprisingly large number of Cretan civilians.

The CREFORCE commander was MG Bernard Cyril Freyberg, also commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the 2nd New Zealand Division.


Axis Powers: Germany - Luftflotte IV

Fliegerkorps XI - Luftwaffe Ground Units

The plan for Operation Mercury called for seizure of the island of Crete by airborne assault of the island's north shore airfields and the harbor at Canea. To accomplish this the two initial assault waves consisted of parachute and glider infantry with attached engineer and artillery support of the 7th Fliegerdivision and the Luftlande Sturmregiment, roughly 12,000 troops all arms.
The ground assault was further divided into three geographical groups:

Gruppe West (Maleme - first wave)

Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment (LLSR, roughly 1,800 all ranks with attachments)

1st Battalion (-) (glider); 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Battalions (parachute)
(Note; No. 1 and 2 Companies, I/LLSR were detached)
1 Company (MG), 7th Fliegerdivision
Composite Battalion (In the "comments" section Brian pointed me to an older Osprey publication that suggests that this unit was composed of several individual companies - probably including #4 and #12 from 1 Fallschirmjäger Regiment (FJR) as well as elements of II/FJR 2 - that were left behind in Greece on 20 MAY due to transport losses in the first wave airdrops that morning. Thanks, Brian!)

Gruppe Mitte (Chania - first wave)

Fallschirmjäger Regiment 3(+) (roughly 1,500 all ranks plus attachments)
1st, 2nd, 3rd Battalions (parachute)
1 and 2 Companies, LLSR
Regimental troops included:
Signals Platoon
Pioneer (Combat Engineer) Platoon
Infantry Gun Company (6 x 7.5 cm GebG 36 mountain howitzer)
14th Panzerjäger (antitank) Company (6 x 3.7cm PaK 36 antitank guns)

Divisional troops:
2nd Company, Fallschirmjäger Flak Battalion (4 x 20mm cannon)
7th Engineer Battalion
7th Artillery Battalion (2 batteries; 1st with 6 x 7.5 cm GebG 36, 2nd with 6 x 7.5cm Leichtgeschütz 40, an early recoilless gun)
7th Machine Gun Battalion
7th Anti-tank Battalion
FJR 2 (-) (Retimo - second wave) (roughly 1,000 all ranks)
1st, 3rd Battalions (parachute), regimental troops as FJR 3

Gruppe Ost (Heraklion - second wave)

FJR 1 (+) (roughly 2,000 all ranks with attachments)
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions (parachute), regimental troops as FJR 3
2nd Battalion, FJR 2
7th Anti-aircraft Battalion

Heer (Army) Ground Units -

5th Gebirgsdivision (Mountain Division, roughly 15,000 all arms)
85th Gebirgsjäger Regiment
100th Gebirgsjäger Regiment
141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment
(each regiment - three infantry battalions, signals, pioneer, light gun, and AT companies as FJR 3)
95th Artillery Regiment (2 batteries, 12 x 7.5cm GebG 36 mountain howitzer)
95th Anti-tank Battalion
95th Reconnaissance Battalion
95th Engineer Battalion
95th Signal Battalion
Luftwaffe, Fliegerkorps VIII - Air Units

Air Carrier Units (approximately 150 Ju-52 transports):

Kampfgruppe zur besonderen Verwendung (Battle Group for special purposes i.e. "Transport Group") 1 - 4 squadrons (staffeln), each with 12 x Junkers Ju 52 aircraft plus 5 HQ (stabs) aircraft - total 53 A/C
KGzbV 2 (as KGzbV 1)
KGzbV 3 (as KGzbV 1)

Fighter Units:

Jadgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 77 (-) 2 Gruppen (II and III), probably about 80-100 Bf 109E fighters

Bomb/Light Attack Units:

Kampfgeschwader (Attack Bomber Wing) 2 probably roughly 80 to 120 x Do 17Z
1(k)Gruppe, Lehrgeschwader (Demonstration Wing) 1 - roughly 50 x Ju 88A and He 111G medium bombers
Sturzkampfgeschwader (Dive Bomber Wing) 1 - each StKG probably fielded roughly 50-80 aircraft, so the total German dive bomber strength over Crete would have been about 150-250 Ju 87R aircraft.
Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 - as StKG 1
Sturzkampfgeschwader 77 - as StKG 1
Zerstörergeschwader ("Destroyer" - heavy fighter/light bomber) 26 - probably about 50-60 Bf 110C & Bf 110D

Axis Naval Forces: The German Navy had virtually no strength in the Mediterranean.

The Italian Navy, while beginning the war as perhaps the strongest single naval organization in the Inner Sea, had been badly knocked about by the Royal Navy during 1940 and 1941. The only Italian naval units known to have been present around Crete in May 1941 are the 1st and 16th Torpedo Boat Squadrons (Italian torpedo boats in 1941 were effectively small destroyers or similar to a USN destroyer escort, DE), 14th MAS (Motoscafo armato silurante, basically the Regia Marina's version of a PT boat), 13 minesweepers and a few submarines. We'll meet one of these - the torpedo boat Lupo - again in our story, but for the most part the Axis navies did little to help capture Crete.

The lack of effective warship strength was the primary reason that the German military command organization - the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW - green-lighted Student's otherwise too-risky airborne assault.

So. Roughly 38,000 to 30,000 light infantry troopers (with light or very little artillery and no armored support), about 150 transport aircraft, 80 gliders, 100 fighter aircraft, and 400 attack and bomber aircraft under Generaloberst Alexander Löhr

(It's worth noting here that although Löhr was the overall force commander the genius and driving force behind Unternehmen Merkur was Generalleutnant Kurt Student, the "father of the German airborne" and then commander of 7th Fliegerdivision. Student was technically responsible only for the tactical operation of the airborne portion of the assault, but pretty much every source that discusses this engagement makes it clear that Merkur was Student's baby, and if it had failed - and when it proved costly - Student was the one with the turd in his pocket.)
The Sources: The usual voluminous official records kept by industrialized nations fighting modern technological warfare, with the caveat the many of the German records did not come through the Soviet invasion and occupation particularly well. Still, many German records of the period were captured, including those of the Luftwaffe.

For example, the "von Rohden collection" on file in the National Archives is said to include operational records and reports of:
"...air-drop deliveries of supplies to the Stalingrad garrison; German Air Force participation in the Spanish civil war; 4th Air Force participation in the invasion of Crete; combat, experience, and activity reports of several Air Force commands and units; monthly activity reports of the Italian Armistice, Commission; and report of General Kurt Student to Goering, November 1942, on the future of paratroop and airborne operations."
So you get the idea.

However, I should note that this does not mean that we know everything about what happened on the island of Crete in May, 1941. Airborne operations are intrinsically chaotic, the airborne operation on Crete was particularly lethal, and many of the people who should have been keeping records of the action were killed, or wounded, or were just too busy to bother being arsed to keep track of who was doing what.

On the British and Commonwealth side you had a lot of the same problems plus the issue of the defenders having to evacuate the island and leave pretty much everything but the clothes they stood up in behind.

Suffice to say that while there is more than enough potential for minor confusion and uncertainty over the events of May, 1941, the general outline is fairly well agreed on.

As always with the Second World War, Crete has been analyzed and written to death; secondary sources are almost too numerous to list here. Or, better yet, you can look at the references in the decently-written Wiki entry for the Battle of Crete; the author(s) appear to have done their research fairly well.

However, the resources on the Internet are surprisingly slim. Aside from the Wikipedia entry, I found a handful of websites useful and informative.

The "New Zealand History Online" has a well-written, if obviously slanted towards Kiwi activities, account of the events of May.

Another similar site covers Australia's contributions to the war; the "Army" site has four chapters (10-14) that cover Crete, and are clear and informative - the maps are especially valuable.

One site of interest is the "Airborne Invasion of Crete, 1941" which reprints a U.S. War Department publication dated October 1941. It gives a nice picture of what the U.S. Army thought were the lessons to be learned from Crete.

A fella who goes by "Arnhem Jim" has a nice little post about two subjects dear to both of my hearts; airborne soldiers and field artillery - specifically, the troopers and arms of Fallschirm-Artillerie-Abteilung 7, the paratroop redlegs that jumped into Crete. Well researched, and illustrated with some terrific personal snapshots taken by one of the arty officers of the unit.


Another good source for German airborne artillery is this board at the Axis history forum where someone going by Raúl M has some information culled from German websites as well as more good photographs of the parachute artillerymen...

The Campaign: To get to Crete you have to go through Greece.

That seems exceptionally obvious, but to the German leadership the distance from the Greek border to the top of the Peloponnese seemed like a damn long way to go to claim a bunch of rocks, sheep, and bad-tempered Hellenes that would then have to be beaten down every so often to keep them.
The reasons for the German invasion of Greece that had to, inevitably, lead to an attack on Crete, seem with 20-20 hindsight exceptionally poor.

The usual citations are:

1. To rescue his Italian ally, which had invaded Greece in late 1940 and had been promptly handed its ass,
2. To counter British troop movements onto the Greek mainland and secure the "southern flank" of the coming invasion of Russia, and
3. To pursue the larger strategic plan of securing the eastern Mediterranean and closing off British access to its Indian possessions and the East.

The Italians do seem to have been Germany's drunken and stupid little brother in the Forties; they got Germany into more trouble than they helped it out of, and Greece may have been the nastiest of the lot.

But although the Italians had been thoroughly bitchslapped trying to invade Greece there's a significant difference between "being a shitty invader" and "defending mountainous and largely undeveloped terrain". It seems to me that the Italians would - with, perhaps, some minor German logistical and troop support - have been able to hold the Albanian border just fine; the Greek Army had no real capability for power projection.

The whole "The British are coming!" theme is often played, but it pretty much gets the timing all wrong. Papagos (1949) states that "...if they had not marched into Bulgaria, no British troops would have landed in Greece. Their assertion was merely an excuse on their part to enable them to plead extenuating circumstances in justification of their aggression against a small nation, already entangled in a war against a Great Power." The British had enough to worry about trying to hold Malta and Egypt and dealing with Axis forces in North Africa. For all that the British PM seemed to enjoy farkling about in the Balkans the British General Staff knew something of their own military position, and it didn't permit romantic expeditions across the Corinth Canal.

The single real logical reason for an invasion of Greece, and then Crete, would seem to be as part of a larger scheme to reduce the British position in the eastern Med and Near East.

But, frankly, the real capability to do that seems - even to a biased observer - beyond the Axis powers. Germany was still, even in 1941, a continental power whose strength lay in its army and airforce. Italy had a decent-sized navy but the events of 1940 and early 1941 showed pretty clearly that in a straight-up fight between the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy the Italians would get whipped.

Papagos (1949) lays out another strategic rationale: "German intervention would have taken place firstly because the Germans had to secure the right flank of the German Army which was to operate against Russia according to the plans already prepared in autumn 1940..."

Again, this seems to make an unreasonable assumption that the British would have been able to intervene effectively in the Balkans. The combination of the vile terrain, long logistical tether, and the distance from their objectives would seem to make success of such an intervention unlikely, at best.

The single most logical reason, at least to me, for the German invasion of Greece is the Hitler and the German military leadership had, by early 1941, concluded that they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

They just wanted to bail the Italians out. They wanted to take a slap at the Brits. They wanted to nail down the Greek peninsula.

In other words, they fucked up.


So thousands of people ended up dead, maimed, raped, homeless, terrified, miserable, and generally fucked over because Hitler and his commanders were a bunch of arrogant pricks who screwed the pooch.

Sounds kind of like a lot of other wars, when you think about it.

The story of the Greek Campaign is, for the Allies, just goddamn ugly. The linked website has a good quote and I can't do better, so I'll just repeat it:
"The campaign was hindered by poor communications between the Greek and British commanders, the primitive road and rail system in Greece, the difficult terrain, and the speed and success of the German advance. On the first day, the Germans made a devastating air attack on Piraeus; the Allies lost the initiative and never regained it. Yugoslavia capitulated quickly, cutting the Greek supply route to its forces on the Italian front. Within a week, General Wilson's forces were in retreat."
Yep.

Once the Greek mainland fell Crete was pretty much sure to get the chop. The U.S. Army official history says:
"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."
At least, that was the plan.


But looking south into the wine-dark sea just gave two of the three German armed services a pain in the giggy.

The Luftwaffe was all about seizing Crete from the air, but the Kriegsmarine had no real force in the eastern Med and knew something about the RN the flyboys didn't seem to care about - that the damn Brits would do their damndest to sink anything floating that approached their remaining bases. And the Heer, the German Army, was unenthusiastic about the notion of fighting a bitter battle across forbidding terrain at the end of a long supply line, not to mention the issue of having to commit its mountain troopers to the fight when they would be desperately needed for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union.

In Germany the saying went; Führer befiehl, wir folgen! So when on April 25 the Leader ordered an invasion of Crete the only option for all the German services was to salute and move out smartly.

The actual text of "Leader Directive 28" begins:

Directive No. 28
'Operation Mercury'

1. As a base for air warfare against Great Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean we must prepare to occupy the island of Crete ('Operation Mercury'). For the purpose of planning, it will be assumed that the whole Greek mainland including the Péloponnèse is in the hands of the Axis Powers.

2. Command of this operation is entrusted to Commander-in-Chief Air Force who will employ for the purpose, primarily, the airborne forces and the air forces stationed in the Mediterranean area.

The Army, in co-operation with Commander-in-Chief Air Force, will make available in Greece suitable reinforcements for the airborne troops, including a mixed armored detachment, which can be moved to Crete by sea.

The Navy will take steps to ensure sea communications, which must be secured as soon as the occupation of the island begins. For protection of these communications and, as far as is necessary, for the provision of troopships, Commander-in-Chief Navy will make the necessary arrangements with the Italian Navy.

You'll note is that the CINC Air Force is given overall command; this was to be a Luftwaffe show, and in the Nazi German scheme of things power was all about grabbing and taking it. A victorious airborne attack would snatch political power and military repute for the wing-wipers and Der Dicke - "Fatso" - Goering wasn't about to let some dirty nasty leg snatch any of it back. The capture of Crete would be the glory of the German air arm.


Interlude: the Hunters From The Sky

The notion of using aircraft and parachutes to jump infantry soldiers over the enemy's defenses pretty much dates from the invention of aircraft and parachutes. While the Italians had formed bodies of airborne troops in the Twenties the first serious airborne infantry organization was put together in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

It isn't all that surprising when you think about it. Most of the other Western mechanized armed forces exited World War 1 with a fairly well established hierarchy that controlled military planning and policy. You had your armies, and your navies, and your air forces, and that was all fine. This notion of flitting soldiers about in the sky and kicking them out behind enemy lines...well, that was all well and good for people who didn't have real armies. But wars were won - as the trench fighting in France had shown - by whoever had the heavy cannon, the tanks, and the masses of leg infantry.

The Soviets, though...they had broken with the past in a most dramatic fashion, and had nothing to lose trying out any sort of goofy idea, like hucking a guy out of a "perfectly good" airplane.
(FDChief here. Just wanted to note briefly that something like 51% of all USAF Class A mishaps - that is, a problem where the aircraft is a total writeoff - happen on takeoff and landing. So by getting off half way you reduce your chance of augering into the fucking runway by 25%. Just sayin'.)
The only problem was...well, the way the Sovs came up with to get their guys from the air to the ground was kind of...sketchy.



Yeah.

The entire notion of having two dozen guys wander around on the top of a Turpolev bomber and then sliding them off the wings when they get to the drop zone?

Pretty much defines "fucking stupid".

The German Army looked at this whacky Soviet aerial nonsense and wanted nothing to do with it. But the head of the German Air Force went to the Soviet maneuvers in 1936 and saw that same stuff and thought he could make something out of it. He transferred a unit of Berlin coppers - seriously; one of Fatso Goering's first positions in the Nazi leadership was the head of the Prussian police - to the infant Luftwaffe and set up a paratrooper school at Stendhal that opened in January.

The big thing that made the Fallschirmjäger - literally "Parachute Hunters" but more accurately "Parachute Light Infantry", since although the original 18th Century light troops may have been actual hunters and woodsmen by the 20th the term jäger meant "light infantryman" in Armyspeak - work is that Luftwaffe solved the single most difficult problem that had confronted paratroops up to that point; how the hell to get the out the damn airplane.

The unteroffizier in the snapshot to the left gives you the clue.

The thing is, most of the other air forces - the air arms of the British, French, and the United States armies - wanted aircraft that could shoot things and blow shit up; fighters ("pursuit") and bombers.

The notion of flying bulk supplies around was, militarily, like Lord Chesterfield's description of keeping a mistress; the pleasure was transient, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable. Trucks were cheaper, trains even cheaper and their utility well established. So when these nations looked around for a big flying bus to carry paratroopers around what they found they had was...mostly bombers.

It was the genius of the German airborne forces that they figured out that you didn't need to jump from a bomber if you had a nice big, slow, converted civilian airliner with a passenger door.
For Germany this was the Junkers Ju 52, "Tante Ju", a classic interwar trimotor; boxy, slow, but capable of flying low and slow enough to get parachutists out the door without blowing out their 'chutes when they opened - the problem with exiting a fast-flying aircraft.

So the German airforce combined their nice, slow, capacious converted airliner with the nice wide passenger door with a very simple device that allowed the jumper to forget about worrying about opening their parachute themselves. The "static line" was just that; a rope, cord, or guy that was fixed to a cable inside the aircraft on one end and to the top of the parachute in the soldier's backpack on the other.

With a static line hooked up all you had to do was walk out the open door into the air 500 feet above the ground and you could be confident that your parachute would open without having to worry or think about it.

Well, most of the time, anyway.

Then you drifted quickly to the ground, gathered up your equipment and arms, and moved out smartly.

Ah, there. Did you catch that?

The part about "gathered up your arms and equipment"?

Now that was a problem.

Actually, the German paratroops had three major problems that they really didn't understand until Crete; two technical and one tactical.

One of the technical problems was the design of the German parachute.

The Luftwaffe used three types of parachutes for airborne troops in WW2; the RZ1, RZ16 and RZ20. This page has a good summary of the 'chutes and their characteristics. The RZ1 and RZ16 were, apparently, widely disliked because the harness was difficult to get out of and the chute itself seems to have a nasty opening shock; the RZ20 was easier on the body and easier to get out of and the German troopers who jumped into Crete were largely equipped with it. All three, however, suffered from the same design flaw: the lines that connected the skirt of the parachute canopy, the shroud lines, all connected to an attachment point in the center of the back of the pack tray.


That seems like a silly, simple thing, but it made a huge difference to the German 'troopers journey from the exit door of Tante Ju to the ground.

First of all, because of the way you hung from the canopy you couldn't steer it. You were a helpless wind dummy, going where ever the breezes took you, like this joker here:

The other problem this presented was the controlling the 'chute on landing in any sort of wind other than a gentle zephyr was damned deadly difficult. One of the most frightful hazards of military parachuting is that your drop zone - the place you're supposed to land - is often less than level and that's assuming you actually land on the drop zone; the fucking Great Waldo Pepper at the controls of your aircraft is often too busy ducking flak or avoiding other aerial Sunday drivers to be arsed worrying whether you're actually where you're supposed to be. Half the time you're lucky to be in the same time zone as where your operations order says you're supposed to be.

So as often as not you're landing in a howling gale in a pile of jagged rocks, and the first thing your parachute want to do is inflate and drag your ass to death on said rocks. The simple solution is to attach the parachute to the harness by a set of quick-release buckles that allow you to reach up and "cut away" the damn windsock.

But you can't do that if the thing is in the center of your back. So there was that.

The other technical problem, which may have been in some way related to the parachute rigging, was that the German soldiers didn't jump with their personal weapons. No rifles, no machineguns, the ratelo didn't have his radio, the medic his aid bag, the mortarmen didn't have any of the parts of his mortar; the Jungen had nothing but a pistol and a jump knife.

All this other stuff was dropped in an Abwurfbehälter; a "dropping container" that appears to have been slung underneath the troop carriers (or any convenient transport or bomber aircraft, as with the He11 bomber below).
The idea was that the plucky fallschirmjäger would leap up from his landing spot, tear open the Abwurfbehälter (which, of course, had floated to the ground within arm's reach), snatch out his bullet-launcher and sally forth to slay Untermenschen.

As any trooper who has actually stepped out the jump door knows perfectly well this happens about once every thousand jumps, and that one's in some fucking Hollywood movie. Typically your ass is hanging 40 feet up in a tree, the whole battalion is scattered all over hell, and fucking Billy Mitchell over there has gone and dumped all your equipment in a bottomless fucking swamp a dozen miles away.

Glider troops were better off in that they had their rifles and crew-served weapons with them. But gliders had their own issues, as we'll see.

The third problem was more serious than the other two, but it was tactical and we'll get to that when we get to the actual events of 20 MAY, 1941.

I don't want to sound like these guys were the military equivalent of the kids in the special classroom.

The Hunters from the Sky were all volunteers, tough, strong, well-trained in small-unit tactics and taught to be innovative and self-sufficient. They also had - when they got to them - a higher percentage of automatic weapons that the typical 1941 leg infantry outfit. A lot of them carried the ubiquitous "Schmeisser" MP-40 machine pistol; not a sniper's weapon by any means but when your tactics were designed to get you in close to, practically on top of, your enemy how much sniping do you need? What it did was put a lot of lead out quickly and the enemies who faced the paratroops testified to how nasty these handy little weapons were.

But this was the German paratrooper as he stood in May, 1941: "...as nimble as a greyhound, as tough as leather, as hard as Krupp steel."


The Engagement: Before the storm 1 - the Germans plan

There were two huge external influences on Unternehmen Merkur, one from the past and the other in the future.

The past event was the history of the previous WW2 German airborne operations. These consisted of company-sized jumps in Denmark and Norway, and somewhat larger (up to battalion-sized) airborne assaults in Belgium and Holland. These had been planned as jumps right on top of the objectives, usually bridges or airfields, or, as in Belgium, on top of a fixed fortification.

That's important, and you should remember it; the Luftwaffe had learned a lesson from their early-war successes, and the lesson was "The closer to the objective the better!" Actually right ON the objective was thought to be the best; the idea was that it caught the enemy completely by surprise and allowed the furor of the Parachute Hunters to roll them over before they had a chance to twitch.

The other event was the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, already in the preliminary stages in May, 1941. As the Wiki entry notes, Hitler "...made it very clear that the forces used were primarily airborne and air units that were already in the area. Furthermore, units committed for the attack on Crete but earmarked for Barbarossa were to conclude operations before the end of May at the latest."

Barbarossa - the invasion of the Soviet Union - had priority. One thing that meant was that the 22nd Air Landing Division, which would have been the natural reinforcement for the paratroopers, was diverted to guard the oilfields at Ploesti in Rumania. This was the sort of thing that gigged the planning for Mercury from the get-go and helped contribute to how the operation went on the ground.


The German commanders also had a major disagreement on how that ground should be taken. Löhr, (the overall commander, remember) and the Kriegsmarine guy, ADM Schuster, wanted to put everyone into Maleme and then, once the airfield was secured fly in the 5th Mountain and roll up the island west-to-east.

MG Student, on the other hand, wanted to do things the old-school fallschirmjäger way; he wanted to drop his paratroops all over hell in order to sow surprise and confusion, attacking the airfields at Maleme, Heraklion, and the Chania/Rethymnon area.

Both sides had points; Maleme was the largest airfield and attacking there in strength would allow the German troops to quickly overwhelm the defenders, get an airhead and then fly in enough heavier troops to feel confident against any counterattack.

On the other hand, the Cretan terrain was appalling, and the notion of fighting all the way down the mountainous island was enough to make the hardiest gebirgsjäger more than a little nervous.

The two sides couldn't settle their differences - you get the strong feeling that Löhr and Student really didn't like each other - so finally the Reichsmarshall himself had to step in and settle them. The compromise plan put the strongest German force - the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment and attachments - in Maleme but allotted smaller forces to the others.


This, in turn, led to another logistical problem.

There weren't enough transports to drop all of 7th Fliegerdivision in a single wave. So the plan had to include a morning drop at Maleme and Chania, a return trip to the airfields on the Greek mainland, and then an afternoon jump on Rethymnon and Heraklion. This would necessarily add to the complexity of the operation - the airfields were, frankly, crap; primitive, largely bare dirt runways with hellish logistics. Refueling would be difficult, major repairs impossible. Any of the transports that were badly damaged would have to either fly as-is or be written off and their troopers left behind.

Meanwhile the German airforce hadn't come up with a way to ferry or drop really heavy weapons, so any armor and heavy artillery would still have to come by sea, regardless of the hazard of the Royal Navy.
Before the storm 2 - the British prepare

The biggest problem facing the British commander, Freyberg, was that he had excellent intelligence that was, in fact, confusing and in parts outright dead wrong.

For the first time in WW2 the British cryto boffins had released signals intelligence gained by the Ultra decryption program to a tactical headquarters, giving the plan for Mercury in tremendous detail. But the redactions and editing done by Blechley Park had the effect making the amphibious part of the operation seem larger and more dangerous than it was. Freyberg was, not surprisingly, more worried about a heavy force landing on his coast than a bunch of lightly-armed paratroopers floating down on his airfields. His defensive dispositions, therefore, were aligned in both directions, and his instructions to his subordinate commanders were heavily weighted with advice not to be distracted by the German penchant for dropping parachutists all around; the beaches had to be defended.


What didn't help is that for all that Freyberg had about 40,000 bodies at his command not all of them - in fact not really all that many of them - were actually useful for defending the island. The U.S. Army publication explains that:
"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 Greek and Cretan soldiers were mostly inadequately armed recruits. The armor consisted of eight medium and sixteen light tanks...(t)he artillery was composed of some captured Italian guns with a limited supply of ammunition, ten 3.7 inch howitzers, and a few antiaircraft batteries."
Freyberg divided his forces around the four most likely assault points; the airfields at Maleme, Rethymnon, and Heraklion, and the harbor at Suda Bay. This left him with no mobile reserves at all.

The RAF had been chased off the island by mid-May, save for a handful of fighter aircraft and a gaggle of ground crew and support guys. Freyberg had requested permission to tear up his airfield runways, since the RAF weren't really using them but was refused, supposedly because his superiors in Egypt felt that "...the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the RAF's return once the island was secure." (Wiki, 2014).


The strongest of these defensive laagers was around Maleme, where the bulk of the 2nd New Zealand Division was posted. The 5th Brigade was headquartered in the town of Platanias with the bulk of the brigade's regular infantry battalions (21st, 22nd, and 23rd NZ Infantry) posted around Maleme airfield itself. The division engineer battalion was strung out along the coast from there to Platanias where the 28th (Maori) Battalion was located.

4th Brigade was centered around the area north of "Prison Valley" and west of Chania, with three regular infantry battalions, the 18th, 19th, and 20th.

10th Brigade was spread out between the two; the "Composite Battalion" and the 6th Greek Infantry just north of Prison Valley and the Divisional cavalry battalion and the 8th Greek Infantry south of the valley near Lake Aphya.


The New Zealanders were rather surprisingly optimistic about taking on the German invaders. They felt they'd been badly mishandled in Greece proper and that this would be a chance to even the score; they were dug in, they were ready, and all they lacked was some Steinlager to toast the ass-whipping they planned to lay on the Huns.

And then the sun came up on the 20th of May.


The Storm Breaks

"Then from out of the sea came a continuous low roar. Above the horizon there appeared a long black line as if of a flock of migrating birds. It was the first aerial invasion in history approaching. We looked spellbound"

That's how one of the New Zealanders defending Maleme described the first wave of German soldiers approaching the airfield. The transports swept in from the north at about 400 feet and the first parachutes - white, black, camouflage, pink...the 'chutes were color-coded by rank or type - spilled out.


The hours between dawn and about 0800 had been the usual aerial hate; bombing and strafing courtesy of the German aircraft that had been making the daily run at Crete. The first indication that this would be a day different from the others preceding it was the appearance of the transports and the parachutes opening over western Crete.

The drop zone plan was classic fallschirmjäger; the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment (less its 1st Battalion) would descend on Maleme airfield, whilst the 3FJR and I/LLSR would drop or glide in over the coastal strip between Platanias and Chania to block off any attempt to reinforce the Maleme defenders from the east.


As a plan it might have worked had the defenders been ignorant of the probability of airborne assault. In operation it was a complete fucking nightmare.
Antiaircraft fire tore into the transports and even when it didn't destroy or damage aircraft and kill troopers had the effect of forcing the pilots to evade and scatter their paratroops. And though it did manage to shoot down some - although I cannot find a good source for hard numbers the defensive fire doesn't seem to have knocked down more than a handful or so - it seems that many of the Ju 52s that returned to the Greek airfields were damaged, more than a trivial number badly.

For at least two German infantry units the jump itself was fatal. III/LLSR was put out of the troop doors directly over the New Zealand 21 and 23 Battalions east of Maleme airfield and were shot to pieces either in the air or immediately upon landing. Near Chania III/3FRJ was similarly destroyed descending on top of 18 and 19 Battalions.


The map above gives you a notion of how scattered the actual German DZs were; the troopers that managed to land, recover their weapons containers, and form up landed too far to seize their intended objectives, the ones that landed on the objectives were killed, wounded, or captured before they could recover their weapons or form up.
"The easiest sort of warfare in the world. If they landed where you were or within range of where you could get to they were just sitting ducks, they had no chance. (W)hile they're in the air - gliders and paratroops in the air - oh, they're the easist things in the world to bring down." (1LT Charles Upham, 20th Battalion)
Unfortunately for the New Zealanders their already-stretched defenses hadn't stretched far enough. The better part of two German battalions - II/LLSR and IV/LLSR (which included most of the regiment's heavy weapons) - had landed west of the dry Tavronitis River and were forming up there. The only defenders on that side of the airfield were the NZ 22nd Battalion centered around a conical hilltop that overlooked both the airfield and the dry wash; Hill 107.
The 22nd NZ Battalion was a good outfit and its commander, LTC Andrew, was a tough and resourceful officer. But they and he had a number of problems that they couldn't solve with guts and resource.

The unit had fought through the Greek retreat and had no heavy weapons, transport, or radios. Their defensive sector was too large for the shrunken companies, and was littered with physical difficulties, from the dead ground to the west to the "RAF Camp" on the airfield to the north, which was "...large and rather disorderly (and contained) several hundred men, many of whom were unarmed (and) rather militant in their insistence that they were not combat troops." (Sadler, 2007)


Slowly at first, and then more steadily through the morning the surviving parts of I, II, and IV Battalions of the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment kept working their way around the western defense of Maleme.
German air assets hammered the defensive positions on Hill 107, but both attackers and defenders got stuck into each other at close quarters and wouldn't let go, and the New Zealanders managed to hold on through the day.

To the east of Maleme, between Patanias and Chania, two parachute battalions - I/3FJR and II/3FJR - managed to avoid falling onto the gunsights of 4 Brigade by landing in what was called the "Prison Valley" the low swale southwest of the Prison of Aghya. This structure, sturdily built as you can imagine, had been left unposted and was quickly taken by the attackers as a strongpoint.


Though the paratroops were unable to advance any distance from their DZ the NZ 10th Brigade troops around them - the 6th and 8th Greek Battalions and the "Composite" Battalion - were clumsily unable to put together an assault to destroy the fallschirmjäger, and the mere presence of the German troops in Prison Valley further strained the British defenses.

To the west and east of the Maleme-Chania sector things went about as badly as they could for the attackers.

Far to the west a single parachute detachment, about 70 troops under a lieutenant, was dropped near the port town of Kastelli. Unfortunately for these poor bastards the town was defended by an entire Greek infantry outfit - nominally a regiment but only about 500-600 or so (a battalion-size-worth) were actually armed - as well as the normal compliment of homicidal Cretans. These folks fell on the Germans and butchered them with everything from rifles and machineguns to knives and stones.

Twenty wounded prisoners were later released when the island fell.
To the east the afternoon assault on Rethymnon was a complete clusterfuck. The attack plan was for III/2FJR to drop on the village of Perivola and storm the town of Rethymnon. Regimental HHC and reinforced company were tasked with seizing the airstrip, whilst I/2FJR was to drop about two miles east and march to join MAJ Sturm and HHC on the airfield.

Well, the drops weren't too badly off, but they were also right on top of the troops of 19 Australian Brigade.


This time the Allied AAA gunners shot 15 of the 160-odd German transports out of the sky. The drop on the airfield was a slaughter; the defenders of 2nd Battalion, 11th Australian Regiment, shot the parachute-hunters in the air and as they landed; only a handful survived more than half an hour. Only the larger group to the southeast - 10 and 11 Companies, III/2FJR - managed to form up and attempt to assault "Hill A" that overlooked the airfield. But by noon on 21 MAY the fight on the eastern side of Rethymnon was pretty much over: MAJ Koch and the survivors of I/2FJR had pulled back to an olive oil plant and forted up. On the western side the remnants of III Battalion had done something similar in Perivola.


The paratroopers were still in action, but the objective, and the engagement, was lost.


The Allied problems with radio communication meant that the defenders of furthest east objective, Heraklion, weren't alerted until a larger-than-usual Luftwaffe aerial hate commenced at about 1600hrs. But that did the job; when the transports showed up about an hour later the AAA fire was heavy and another 15 or so Ju 52s went down, many with their troop loads still aboard.

The Heraklion drop was, like Rethymnon, seriously harmed by the transport losses of the morning; as many as 600 troopers of 1FJR and II/2FJR never left Greece on 20 MAY. The Australian history notes the problems the 7th Fliegerdivision had just getting on the ground in Crete:
"The aircraft carrying the II/1FJR arrived in dribs and drabs, the last contingent being two and a half hours late. Several machines crashed in flames and many riflemen were killed in the air "because of the configuration of the ground, which necessitated jumping at 200 metres" — a relatively long descent.

In the easternmost group of this battalion, landed in East Wadi, all the officers except CPT Burckhardt, the commander, were killed during or soon after the landing. His west group (CPT Dunz) landed at the western edge of the airfield (in and round Buttercup Field and the barracks) and "was destroyed within twenty minutes". Only five men succeeded, by swimming along the coast, in rejoining Burckhardt, whose battalion was virtually destroyed, losing 12 officers and 300 men killed and 8 and 100 wounded.

Of the I/1FJR, destined for Gurnes, only one company was landed at the right time ; two others landed three hours late and the fourth did not leave Greece that day.

The III/1FJR was landed west and south of Heraklion "late and far extended" .

Of II/2FJR, two companies had to be left behind for lack of aircraft, and the depleted battalion landed in an undefended zone nearly two miles west of Heraklion."
By nightfall on 20 May the II/2FJR was destroyed, II/1FJR was scattered and combat-ineffective, but the I/1FJR had assembled to the east and III/FJR to the west.
Throughout the night and into the following day both units tried to attack towards the airfield with little success. Even with considerable air support the fallschirmjäger were too lightly armed to dislodge the dug-in British regulars.

By midnight Student was staring at what looked to be a disaster. Chania, Rethymnon, and Heraklion were not taken and looked to be untakeable. The airhead at Maleme was not strong enough to begin flying in the mountain troopers. The waterborne reinforcements had been driven off. Of the four battalions of the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment one (III/LLSR) was destroyed, and another (I/LLSR) widely scattered. Two more parachute battalions: III/3FJR and II/1FJR were effectively destroyed. With only light artillery and mortars the attackers were little better armed than the defenders; a counterattack in strength could wipe out most of the LLSR and 3FJR around the Maleme/Chania region and Unternehmen Merkur would be finished.


The Wind Changes

What saved the German invasion was the British chain of command.

Throughout 20 MAY LTC Andrews commanding 22nd NZ Battalion was screaming for help. II/LLSR and IV/LLSR that had landed to his west were working their way around the flanks of Hill 107, their artillery and mortars and the everpresent air support were hammering his positions on the hill itself. Andrews traveled all the way to 5 Brigade headquarters to beg for support from 21nd and 23rd Battalions.

Brigadier Hargest, 5 Brigade commander, refused, claiming that both units were heavily engaged. This was not true; after destroying III/LLSR they had hardly fired a shot.

Historical opinion seems to be that Hargest, and his superior, Freyberg, were mesmerized by the supposed threat from the sea. Certainly any sort of daylight attack or major movement would have been virtual suicide by Stuka. But it is unclear why these officers didn't understand the danger of allowing the German forces full use of the island's major airfield.

Denied reinforcements Andrews ordered a local counterattack by elements of his C Company supported by the two heavy Matilda tanks. The tanks were plumbers' nightmares; one had no ammunition for its main gun and a jammed turret that wouldn't turn, while the second managed to get itself high-centered in the dry wash of the Tavronitis. The Luftlande boys, who had rather sensibly run away from the metal monster they couldn't hope to fight, promptly turned around and hustled C/22nd back to their start line.

That was that for LTC Andrews. He returned to his brigade commander and warned that he would have to retreat from Hill 107 if he could not be supported.

"If you must, you must." was BG Hargest's reply, and with that the battle for Hill 107, and Maleme, and Crete, was lost.


22nd NZ Battalion exfiltrated east out of their positions during the night, reforming east of 21st Battalion east of the airfield. By 0700 21 MAY the Ju 52s were landing on Maleme airstrip. The runways were still under fire, but one CPT Kleye from Student's staff, made the run in and out of Maleme and reported that the far western edge of the strip was in dead ground to the New Zealand troops east of the field and could be used to bring in the 5th Gebirgsdivision.
Student ordered the LLSR units to attack east to secure the remainder of the airfield, dispatched an ad-hoc parachute battalion led by COL Ramcke to jump in to Maleme, and loaded one of 100th Mountain Regiment's battalions onto transports bound for Maleme. By the evening of 21 MAY the airhead was solidly lodged in western Crete.

That night the Royal Navy's "Force D" - three light cruisers and four destroyers - intercepted the makeshift seaborne invasion force; about 2,000 troops from 5th Gebirgsdivision aboard a gaggle of twenty or so small Greek light freighters called caiques and some tramp steamers escorted by a single small Italian destroyer, the Lupo.

In a brutal midnight encounter Force D destroyed 10 of the vessels in this flotilla and scattered the remainder. About 800 of the German mountain troopers were killed by fire or drowned in the Agean.


The Lupo fought ferociously -
"At 22:34, the Lupo launched two torpedoes from the aft apparatus, but the change of course caused the weapons to miss their target. A minute later, the Lupo sighted an enemy cruiser and immediately after fire was opened. The torpedo boat launched the two remaining torpedoes against the British cruiser. Immediately after, the torpedo boat veered left and opened fire while the very precise British fire reached the boat various times. Damage was not too serious, but two sailors (Orazio Indelicato and Nicolò Moccole) were killed and another 26 wounded. While the torpedo boat was dodging to the left, another cruiser passed just a few meters from her stern. At that point, the Lupo, nicknamed "the luckiest ship in the fleet", took advantage of the confusion amongst the British and ran away."
- but the planned reinforcements for the airhead would not arrive by sea.

It didn't matter. The defenders tried one real counterattack, a two-battalion night attack on 22 MAY, that was bombed, strafed, and shot apart barely short of the eastern edge of Maleme Airfield.
Even though the defenders' scratch artillery were still taking the runways under fire the airfield at Maleme was in full operation by the afternoon of 22 MAY. The cost was tremendous; dozens of transports were wrecked and aircrew killed, mountain troopers shot and killed or wounded before setting foot on the ground. But the German soldiers kept coming.


With the mountain troopers arriving in strength and taking the lead from the decimated fallschirmjäger and the constant bombing and strafing of the Luftwaffe tac air units the Commonwealth forces had no other real option but to try and save as much of their soldiers as they could.
Obviously there's lots more to the story of the Battle of Crete. The defense of "42nd Street", the stand of the 8th Greek Regiment at Alikianos, the nightmarish slog over the central mountain spine and down the Imbross Gorge where the road ended, where the tough Maoris of 28th NZ Battalion overran the 141th Gebirgsbattalion...but the story of the paratroops and their desperate battles for the north coast and, therefore, my story, were done.

The retreat south and east took another week and cost thousands of lives but was merely delaying the inevitable. Once Maleme was lost, once the 5th Mountain began pouring in, even with the growing withdrawal of much of Luftflotte IV for their start positions for Barbarossa couldn't save the British defense of Crete.

There's so much more to tell, and you can read it in any of the standard accounts of the fight. I haven't even touched on the hellish fight for the seas around Crete, where the Royal Navy lost eight warships (the light cruisers HMS Gloucester and HMS Fiji and six destroyers (HMS Kelly, Greyhound, Kashmir, Hereward, Imperial and Juno) and some 2,000 lives.
For all that the Royal Navy never gave up. Warships managed to evacuate several thousands from the tiny south coast port of Sfakia, about another 4,000 from Heraklion, between 28 and 31 May. The remnants, roughly 17,000 in all, had all surrendered by the first day of June 1941.


The invasion of the Soviet Union was almost exactly three weeks away.
The Outcome: German grand tactical victory


The Impact: I use the term "grand tactical" above with intent; the capture of Crete lead to none of the strategic gains that the German leadership had speculated or the British had feared. With the opening of the Eastern Front the Aegean and the eastern Med had become a military backwater. Indeed, perhaps the single most significant impact of the invasion of Crete was turning it into a huge prison camp for German soldiers, as many as 75,000 by the end of the war. The "impact" of Crete, therefore, was really very minor in the strategic sense.

Crete - which might have been the beginning of the end for the British defense of the Suez - instead marked the end of the beginning of the German drive to dominate the Middle Sea. The vast immolation of the German armed forces that was the Eastern Front had begun, and once the bottomless maw that was Russia had opened Crete, and the rest of the Med for that matter, was just a sideshow.

For all the desperation of the last week of May, 1941, the assault on Crete was a very minor part of the larger war. Had it not been for the novelty of the notion of an invasion from the sky it probably would rate little more than a footnote in the history of the Greek/Balkans campaigns of spring, 1941.

The other great impact of Operation Mercury was purely internal and within the German military and was the deconstruction of the myth of the fallschirmjäger and the end of the heady days of Naxi conquest.

From having been one of the most visible and striking elements of the "lightning war" of 1939 and 1940 the paratroops now seemed to Hitler and his OKW to be a fragile anachronism, an expensive but easily breakable toy. Outside of small-unit operations the Luftwaffe was never again allotted an airborne mission. In fact, by 1944 the German "paratroops" were no longer even jump-qualified. Units of fallschirmjäger fought everywhere from Italy to France to Berlin wearing the green smock and the diving eagle but as straight-leg infantry, not as paratroops. After Crete the Wehrmacht had no time, resources, or stomach for indulging Student's passions.

Ironically the Allies took much the opposite lesson from Crete; they saw the potential for airborne troops to broaden the tactical depth of invasion beachheads and disrupt and delay the Axis counterattacks on the landing zones. By 1944 the existence of the First Allied Airborne Army stood as organizational testimony to the siren call of the idea of an airborne carpet to victory. The continued existence of a complete American airborne division even today suggests that the notion has never been completely killed in the minds of the soldiers who look back at the canopies opening over Crete.

The Allied airborne units learned some valuable tactical lessons from Crete, as well.

Allied parachutes were suspended from the shoulders, not the pack tray on the back, making the parachute at least slightly steerable. Allied paratroops also jumped with their issue weapons, including light machineguns and 60mm mortars, so that they would be able to provide effective fires almost immediately upon landing.

Most importantly, the concept of "vertical envelopment" was highly modified. No Allied airborne operation would ever be planned to drop directly on an enemy-held objective. Mission plans would identify drop zones close by but out of direct fire range of enemy, and the airborne troops would assemble on the DZs and then move out on foot to their objectives.
Of the German assault forces over 6,500 were casualties; of that number over 3,300 were killed or died of wounds, most of them from the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment and 7th Fliegerdivision. Many of the young men who had jumped into Oslo, Eban Emael, and Holland jumped into Crete and never left.

Touchline Tattles: As you can imagine, I have no lighthearted tales or amusing anecdotes from Crete. The tale of the massacre of the German airborne is a Wagnerian one, dark, troubled, and full of long, sorrowful passages.

Perhaps the best symbol of this is the tale of the Evil Bird.


While they held Crete the German occupation forces built a memorial to the paratroops that died during the invasion. It was on a hilltop just west of Chania and was from the get-go a very German sort of denkmal, a "place to think about" something. The physical form was a big-ass stone monolith topped by a diving eagle, the symbol from the Nazi-era parachutist's badge, the Fallschirmschützenabzeichen.

The Cretans who survived the occupation, which, I should add, was savage beyond the normal run of Nazi-era occupations outside the Soviet Union, forebore to destroy this thing, and it remained standing very much as it was in 1942 for over half a century, known to the locals as the "German bird" ,Γερμανικό πουλί or Germaniko pouli. Those residents with, perhaps, longer or more vivid memories referred to it as Κακό πουλί, Kako pouli; the Evil Bird.

So this monument stood, largely forgotten but for the occasional aging German visitor, by the road west of Chania for half a century. But Nature is sometimes less forgiving than Man and in the winter of 2001 a severe storm smashed down almost all of the eagle, leaving just the stone pedestal. And in the ensuing fifteen-odd years since then the suburbs of Chania have grown up around the pedestal, stealing what was left of its monumental nature.

Today it appears that the old Fallschirmjäger-Denkmal is a gathering place, scriptorum, and, probably, urinal for the usual urban layabouts who have scrawled their imprecations on the face and taken a hammer to the inscription. The result is as you see it, a rather sad testimonial to the young men who came such a long way on such a fool's errand to leave their youth and strength on the rocky island in the wine-dark sea.


And if that's not a sad enough comment on the fleeting nature of military "glory" I cannot think of a sadder one.

13 comments:

Syrbal/Labrys said...

When we lived in Bavaria, as editor of the military newspaper at our little post, I was introduced to the head of the local German veterans organization. His older brother was one of the mountain troop "Jaegers" who ended up in the Aegean Sea. He was there for more than two days!

FDChief said...

No doubt. My understanding is that the 5th Mountain stayed on duing occupation duties until October 1941. Not something I would have enjoyed; apparently the Cretan hillbillies were some fairly vicious and homicidal types.

Leon said...

"Indeed, perhaps the single most significant impact of the invasion of Crete was turning it into a huge prison camp for German soldiers, as many as 75,000 by the end of the war."

Don't you mean a prison camp for Allied soldiers?

Good read, I think you should indulge yourself some more and write about battles you find interesting.

FDChief said...

Leon: Nope. German.

The Germans stuffed the place with a garrison of over three divisions-worth of occupation troops, whose only contribution to the war effort was beating the Cretan civilians into submission every time they killed one of the occupiers, which was fairly often.

These guys were as much "out of the war" as if they'd been behind the wire in Arizona. Crete was a prison for those German soldiers, whose uselessness was demonstrated when the Germans and Italians withdrew from the Greek mainland without even attempting to rescue their island garrisons. They just sat around on their ass until the British bothered to send an officer - and it was the guy who had surrendered the Commonwealth troops left behind at Sphakia in May 1941, nice touch, Brits - to tell the their war was over...

Brian said...

Fantastic job of research, analysis and illustration as always, Chief.

The 22nd Luftlande did withdraw from Crete late in 1944, almost too late but soon enough to participate in the rear-guard action as Army Group F withdrew towards Italy and Austria. They surrendered near Sarajevo at the end of the war.


As for the composite battalion, I'm not sure about that, here is a scan of and Osprey book (Battle Orders 4: German Airborn Divisions) that gives a pretty complete OOB for the 22nd and 7th for their campaigns - look aroudn page 60 for the composition of LLSR: http://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/history/military_history/Osprey%20-%20Battle%20Orders%20004%20-%20German%20Airborne%20Division%20Blitzkrieg%201940-41.pdf

FDChief said...

Brian: Thanks for the link. Between that and several other sources I think that the "Composite Battalion" is meant to be the 4th and 12th Companies from 1FJR that were dropped around Maleme on 21 MAY; Student "got" that securing the airhead was crucial and that Gruppe West needed the extra bodies. He scraped together the units from the second wave what had been left in Greece because of transport losses on 20 MAY and they jumped in west of the Tavronitis to reinforce the LLSR.

Brian said...

I think you're probably right on that, Chief.

Many, many thanks for your work and detailed research on this and other pieces. You should write magazine articles! I can put you in touch with an editor, they pay 5-6 cents a word but it's more than what you're making right now...and they publish my stuff, so it's a dead cert they'd go for yours!

Don Francisco said...

Awesome post chief, be indulgent more often! Best telling of that story I've read. What's your next one?

FDChief said...

Thanks, guys. I'm humbled. And Brian, you got yourself a credit in the post - I edited the "Forces Engaged" section to reflect that information you found for me. Thanks again.

Next...hmmm. I'll have to look, but I think I want to do the 1453 Siege (and Fall) of Constantinople for June.

mike said...

good scoop Chief. I look forward to June.

Was wondering why you no longer cross post of link to these great write-ups of yours over on MilPub? That site needs to be occasionally rescued from our dabbling over there. After you stopped cross-posting your monthly battles, I would once in awhile link to them, but gave it up as I thought perhaps I was stepping on your toes. Gomenasai if that was the case

FDChief said...

So desu ka, mike. No problem. I just felt kind of self-conscious touting my little blog over there; that's not really the point of MilPub, and frankly I figured that after a while those people who read the 'Pub and are interested in military history would figure out that those battles posts would pop up here every so often...

I'd be honored if you had something here you want to link to. Your DBP post made me think that I hadn't dealt with that little fracas and really should, it was a fairly critical even in the history of SE Asia and of France. May of 2015, then...

David Stubbs said...

The post says there was no way of warning of the air attacks coming from Greece, but this is not correct. Despite what one website (http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/41592-air-commodore-grigsons-evacuation-of-greece-report/ ) says the RAF had 2 AMES (Air Ministry Experimental Stations) set up on Crete; one at Maleme and one at Heraklion and these had been giving warnings since the fall of Greece. Source is Air Historical Branch report by Gp Capt Beamish and the AHB's RAF Narrative The Campaign in Crete, May 1941. I am writing an article on the RAF contribution and would like to use the range map at the beginning of your piece. Is that okay?

David Stubbs said...

With regard to the New Zealanders epithet for the RAF 'rare as fairies', the often implicit suggestion that the RAF lacked fighting spirit and the ensuing RAF hate in Alexandra after Greece and Crete fell is interesting, particularly considering RAF casualties were proportionally four times as high as those of the British Army in the Greek campaign (C. Buckley, Greece and Crete 1941, p.142) (Playfair, Mediterranean and the Middle East, pp.88-90). Perhaps we should not forget the RAF arrived to fight in Greece in early November 1940, almost four months before the Army arrived and that the Australian Brigade's performance in the Monastir Gap - when routed by the Liebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Regiment without air support until later in the battle - should have been subject to greater scrutiny. That said Hinsley suggests Wilson was using ULTRA to make withdrawals in order to avoid his W-Force being destroyed or taken prisoner.