28 April 2011
Will Fowler looks at the Battle of Crete May 1941 and its wider implications ...
The German attack on Crete between May 20-23rd, 1941 code named Unternehmen Merkur (Undertaking Mercury) was a unique battle. On April 25th Hitler issued Directive No 28 stating: “As a base for air warfare against Great Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean we must prepare to occupy the island of Crete.”
The island was held by 28,000 Imperial troops reinforced by Greek battalions and Cretan irregulars who brought the total garrison strength up to 42,500. Though the Allied forces were very poorly equipped they had a unique asset, ULTRA decrypts had given their commander Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, appointed on May 5th, a complete breakdown of the German plans.
For the capture of the island the Germans committed 13,000 paratroops of the 7th Air Division under Leutnant-General Kurt Student and 9,000 men of the 5th Gebirgsjäger Division under Major-General Julius Ringel with Colonel- General Alexander Lohr in overall command. They were supported by 500 fighters and bombers, 500 transports and 80 gliders.
The first air attacks on the island began on May 15th and in the light of the Luftwaffe’s overwhelming superiority after four days Freyberg ordered the remaining RAF aircraft to fly to Egypt. The daily air attacks, known to the soldiers as the “Morning Hate” reached a crescendo just before 06.00 on May 20th when bombers and fighters concentrated on the AA guns sited around the airfields as well as any identified infantry positions.
Freyberg knew where the proposed drop zones were located in Crete but was under orders not to compromise his ULTRA intelligence by appearing to exactly second guess the German moves and as a cover also positioned troops on the coast. He was aware that seaborne reinforcements were part of the German plan but though he was concerned to reinforce the Maleme area he was overruled.
The island garrison lacked sufficient radios and so headquarters had to rely on runners, dispatch riders and fi eld telephones – all vulnerable to air attack. There were few tanks and these were battered veterans of the fi ghting in North Africa. Artillery consisted in part of captured Italian guns for which sights had been improvised with matchsticks and chewing gum. The soldiers even lacked digging tools and were obliged to use their helmets to construct positions.
Operation Merkur divided the island into four drop zones, from west to east – Maleme, Canea, Retimo and Heraklion. For lack of suffi cient transport aircraft the island was attacked in two waves in the morning and the afternoon of May 20th. Some 500 tough reliable Ju52 three-engined transport aircraft were available in the XI Air Corps commanded by Generalmajor Conrad. The Corps consisted of Geschwader 1, 2 and 3 making up ten transport groups. They flew from airfields at Tanagra, Topolis, Dadion, Megara, Corinth, Phaleron and Elevsis.
The first wave, Group West under Generalmajor Eugen Meindl, landed in the Maleme/Canea zone. They were spearheaded by the 1st Assault Regiment in DFS230 gliders who landed to the west of Maleme airfield and around Suda Bay to neutralise any AA guns that had survived the air attacks. This prepared the way for the paratroops.
In the afternoon Group Centre under Generalmajor Süssmann landed at Retimo and Canea/Suda and Group East under Generalleutnant Julius Ringel, spearheaded by paratroops of FJR 1 and a battalion of FJR 2, who seized the airfield at Heraklion. This allowed the bulk of the 5th Gebirgsjäger Division to be flown in by Ju52s.
Bad luck dogged the Germans from the outset of the attack. The glider carrying Lt General Wilhelm Süssmann crashed on an island off the Greek mainland and Major General Meindl was critically wounded shortly after landing. The German had also underestimated the physical difficulties of fi ghting in Crete and the size and determination of the garrison. The olive groves provided excellent camouflage for the defenders and the terraced hillsides reduced much of the effect of bombing.
The German airborne attack philosophy was to jump directly onto the objective – even though this ran the risk of incurring heavy casualties. When they jumped the men were lightly armed and had to collect heavier weapons from containers that were parachuted with them. In the short time that men were in the air on their parachutes they were easy targets for the Allied riflemen below.
The gliders came in so low and slow that the defenders could fire right into them killing all the occupants before they had even hit the ground. Even those that landed with the soldiers alive hit rocky, terraced terrain and broke up killing or injuring the occupants.
In the afternoon the second wave flew into disaster. In just one hour a force of 1,500 Fallschirmjäger was reduced to 1,000 men in small scattered groups being hunted and trapped. At Retimo, troops of Group Centre in the second wave were trapped in an olive factory under siege by the British and Australian forces. Dust now shrouded the airfi elds in Greece and in the chaos the Luftwaffe released aircraft that arrived at Heraklion in relays and so were easy targets for the well-camoufl aged defenders.
By the end of the day 40% of Student’s assault force was either dead, wounded or prisoners of war...