Operation Merkur was the name given to the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. Operation Merkur was the largest Garman airborne attack of World War Two and one that was to prove very costly to the Germans. Control of Operation Merkur was handed over the General Kurt Student, an officer who had been closely involved in the Blitzkrieg attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940. Student, in particular, greatly believed in the military value of paratroopers.
German paratroopers gathered in Greece in preparation for the attack on Crete. Rather than concentrate all his considerable resources on one target and then broaden out his attack, Student decided to aim for four targets along the northern coastline. Originally, he had targeted seven different points in Greece but this was dropped when he believed that this would overstretch his men. Student’s four targets for Operation Merkur were:
1) the airfield at Máleme to allow for the constant reinforcement of his men
2) the island’s capital, Caneá
3) the town and airfield of Rétimo
4) the town and airfield at Heráklion
The first attacks were to take place on the morning of the 20th May. Student hoped and assumed that the professionalism of his men would swiftly overcome the British, Greek and Commonwealth troops on the island whom he assumed would be exhausted after their evacuation from Greece.
Merkur got off to a bad start when Student lost two of his leading commanders, General Süssmann (killed in an air crash) and General Meindl (severely wounded in the first hours of fighting). Student also found that the defenders were better prepared than had been anticipated and that the vital target of Máleme did not fall as quickly as was planned. By the end of Day One of Merkur, none of the four targets had been taken by Student’s men.
However, on the night of May20th/May 21st, British troops at Máleme, fearing that British troops on the vital Hill 107 were being encircled, withdrew from the airfield – leaving it for the Germans. This was the first and most vital success of Operation Merkur. By 16.00 on May 21st, the first units from the German Mountain Division were being landed. The Germans now decided to concentrate all their resources at Máleme while their forces at Caneá, Rétimo and Heráklion were ordered to hold defensive positions. Able to bring in supplies and reinforcements, it was only a matter of time before the next stage of Merkur was put into place – an advance against the Allied troops stationed at various points across the island. The fighting stopped on May 31st.
Operation Merkur had started with high hopes, even if it had been rushed into being as Operation Barbarossa was looming and the paratroopers were needed for this campaign. However, the campaign in Crete had been very costly for the Germans. Of the 22,000 men used in the attack, 7,000 had been killed or wounded – an attrition rate of 33%. Hitler found such a rate of loss unacceptable and ordered that the paratroopers be used as conventional infantry – as happened in Barbarossa. Those paratroopers who survived Crete, invariably died in the Russian campaign.