The fall of Crete took place in May 1941. The battle for Crete – ‘Operation Merkur’ – was unique in that it entailed the use of the greatest number of German paratroopers in the whole of World War Two. The fall of Crete reinforced in the mind of the Wehrmacht the value of the paratroopers it had. Hitler, however, was shocked by the number of losses and at the end of the campaign to capture Crete, he ordered that paratroopers should no longer be used to spearhead an attack on a major target.
Crete had great strategic importance in the Mediterranean. It has a central position in the Aegean and it is the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean. The harbour at Suda Bay was the largest in the Mediterranean Sea and an ideal base for naval operations. Control of the island was desirable to both the British and Germans. For the British, it would give them even greater control of the Mediterranean and consolidate their control of the northern end of the Suez Canal. British bombers could also use the airfields to bomb the oil plants at Ploesti in Rumania. The Germans could use the base to attack British shipping in the area and disrupt the British use of the Suez. Crete could also be used as a stopping off point for men heading to the North African theatre of war.
In 1941, Crete was a relatively primitive island. Roads were poor and transport was difficult. There was only one main road the crossed east to west across the island – and this could only take one line of traffic at a go. The ‘roads’ that ran north to south off of this road were no more than dirt tracks. Bridges along the roads could not take vehicles that weighed more than seven tons. The three rail lines on the island had no strategic value. The main road ran across the north of the island with airports coming off of it as did the three main harbours on the island – all in the north. A ‘normal’ attack on the island would be fraught with dangers as the terrain inland was extremely rugged while large areas of the island were covered with olive groves which would give troops many places to hide in.
After Italy had invaded Greece, Britain occupied Crete with a unit of brigade size. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief in the region, had pressing problems elsewhere and could not commit more troops to the island. Seemingly constant changes to senior officers on the island did little to create any consistency of policy regarding defence of the island. In March 1941, command of the island passed to Major-General E C Weston. He asked Wavell for three brigades to be based on the island. However, the British were facing difficulties in North Africa and Wavell simply could not spare the men. Therefore, Crete’s commanding officer had to command an island he believed was not properly defended.
After the withdrawal of British and Commonwealth troops from Greece in April 1941, 25,000 men, mainly from New Zealand and Australia, disembarked at Suda Bay. They had their own weapons but little else.
On April 30th 1941, Wavell flew to Crete to meet with Weston. Wavell informed Weston that he was being relieved of his command and being replaced by the New Zealander Major-General Freyberg, whose men had landed in Suda Bay. Freyberg accepted the command but with reluctance.
Freyberg had taken on a difficult task. There was a general agreement that the island would be attacked by the Germans in the near future. There was an agreement that the island was insufficiently defended. Freyberg had 30,000 British troops and 11,000 Greek troops under his command. He also had to look after 15,000 Italian prisoners-of-war. Freyberg estimated that he needed between 20,000 tons and 30,000 tons of supplies each month. These supplies would have to be brought in by ships, which would make easy targets for German bombers.
Freyberg was given some help by Wavell. Twenty two tanks were sent to the island with their crew; an infantry battalion of the 2nd Leicesters was sent and 49 artillery guns were made after cannibalising 100 sent by Wavell (many of which were in a poor state of repair). Though these armaments were well received, the tanks were very thinly spread over the 160 miles wide island. On May 19th, Freyberg ordered any plane off of the island as he believed that they would suffer serious losses despite the bravery of the pilots. However, by doing this, he did leave less well-defended the air bases which he did need to control.
The Germans had assembled a fearsome force to attack Crete. The paratroopers had at their disposal 500 transport planes, 75 gliders, 280 bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance planes. In total, they had 10,000 men who could be dropped by parachute and they had a total attack force of 22,500 men.
The attack came on May 20th 1941. It was codenamed ‘Operation Merkur’. Paratroopers were landed at Heráklion, Rétimo, Máleme and Canea – all on the northern coastline. Control of Máleme was vital to the Germans as it would give them the control of the airfield that was based there.
The Germans had many advantages over the defenders, but one major advantage was that they came with good radios so they were able to communicate with each other once they had landed. As a comparison, Colonel Andrew, commander of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, had just one working radio and his biggest weakness was never knowing how well his battalion was performing or where exactly they were.
However, the Germans did not get everything their own way. Men from the New Zealand Army did a great deal of damage to the III Parachute Battalion killing about 200 before they had even landed. The cover from olive trees was excellent, as was the visibility the New Zealanders had. However, the lack of communications led the New Zealanders into believing that they were enjoying success elsewhere. Brigadier Hargest of the Fifth Brigade had assumed that all units were enjoying the same success as the 23rd were. As he received no information to counter this, he assumed that the German landings had been successfully countered. To an extent, at this stage in the German attack, this was reasonably true. The Germans had landed as planned at Canea – but had suffered severe losses at the hands of the 4th NZ Brigade. By the end of May 20th, the Germans had not had the success they had expected and had suffered far greater losses than they had anticipated. The same was true for the landing at Rétimo – the Germans came up against strong resistance from the 2/1st and 2/11th Australian Battalions and had suffered heavy losses. The Germans experienced the same at Heráklion. By the end of May 20th, the Allied defenders had good reason to be confident and Freyberg sent a reasonably upbeat message to Wavell about his progress on Crete. However, he did not know about developments at Máleme on the west of Crete. Had he known what was going on here, he would probably have sent a more sombre note.
The Germans, commanded by General Student, had not expected such set backs. Only at Máleme was there any glimmer of hope for the Germans as it seemed as if they had captured a landing field. Student decided to send all his remaining paratroopers there in an effort to actually capture the airfield. By May 21st, he had succeeded in his objective and the Germans were free to land their planes at Máleme.
The British planned to bomb the airfield at 01.00 on May 22nd and launch a counter-offensive against the Germans at Máleme at 02.00. In fact, it started at 03.30 – ninety minutes late because units moving to the area were delayed in their approach. The attack was ground down by small pockets of well hidden German paratroopers who fought tenaciously.
|“Went on meeting resistance in depth – in ditches, behind hedges, in the top and bottom stories of buildings, fields and gardens beside the drome. There were also mines and booby traps which got quite a few of us. We did not know that they were there.”Captain Upham, 20th Battalion|
Despite heroics, the British counter-attack failed – there simply had not been enough men to it or enough waves of attacks to severely occupy the German paratroopers. Also, the attack had received no air support. As a result, the Germans could continue to use the airfield to fly in reinforcements and supplies – including three battalions of mountain infantry. Faced with growing German opposition, the men of 5th Brigade involved in the fight for Máleme, withdrew east on May 24th.
With Máleme occupied, the Germans could land fighter planes to support the advance of their troops. The overall commander of the Germans on Crete, General Ringel, decided to consolidate his troops on May 23rd before moving on. By May 24th, he was ready to move from west to east across the island but inland as the British held defensive positions long the coastal region. For Ringel, such a move inland into mountainous terrain proved of little concern as he had two battalions of mountain infantry at his disposal – men trained to operate in such terrain.
On May 24th, the Germans launched a number of heavy attacks on the British lines. The British used old trenches that were 2200 metres in length – far too long to be defended in depth. They were also open to mortar fire and the Germans fire was accurate.
Freyberg asked Wavell for RAF support. Some was sent but not enough to change a deteriorating situation. However, commandos were landed at night to give support. By the end of May 24th, Freyberg was already contemplating defeat. He knew that his men were without transport and artillery and that the Germans were making relentless progress around his southern flank. At Galatas, for example, Freyberg had one ‘battalion’ of 400 men who, at one point, only had 10 mortar bombs to face the Germans. In comparison, the Germans at Galatas, had six battalions of mountain infantry with as much air and artillery support as was needed.Wavell was asked for reinforcements but where could he get them from and how could they get to Crete with the Luftwaffe so dominant in the air?
Despite all the efforts by the New Zealanders at Galatas, the town fell to the Germans on the 25th May. The soldiers from New Zealand who survived the battle claimed that the fighting was the most fierce New Zealanders faced in the whole of World War Two. With Galatas taken, the British had very little with which to protect Suda Bay – the only way any form of supplies/reinforcements could get in to help them.
As the Germans advanced, the communication between British commanders on the ground became more and more dislocated. This led to troops being withdrawn by their local officers when Freyberg had sent out the order to hold their line. Or troops were sent forward to engage the Germans, only to find other Allied troops had withdrawn when they were expected to be at that position. By May 26th, Freyberg was informing Wavell that an evacuation was the only option – and he could not even guarantee that all his men could be evacuated. Though the British continued to put up resistance, the command structure was breaking down due to the continual advance of the Germans.
|“There was only one main road of withdrawal and along it were moving all the troops – organised units, scattered parties and confused rabble. Communication had broken down.”D M Davin, New Zealand Army|
On May 27th, the withdrawal of Allied troops from Suda Bay to Sfakia in the south of the island started withcommandos and 130 men from the Maori Battalion covering their rear. Freyberg’s plan was to evacuate 1000 men from Sfakia on the night of the 28th, 6000 men on the 29th, 3000 men on the 30th and another 3000 on the 31st May. However, the Royal Navy did not have enough ships in the area to meet these figures, so men were left behind. However, though Crete with its strategic importance had fallen to the Germans, even General Kurt Student admitted that Crete had been “the graveyard of the German paratroopers”. British and Commonwealth troops had fought ferociously on the island and the casualty figures for the Germans were high. Of the 22,000 men involved in the German assault, over 7,000 men were lost. Such an attrition rate was unacceptable to Hitler and after Operation Merkur, he ordered that all future attacks involving the paratroopers of Germany should be part of an infantry attack.