This fact alone would have made the island a target for the Germans, but there were other good reasons for a German assault. Crete was a key to the Aegean Sea. It could be used as an air base for attacking British positions in North Africa and for protecting Axis Mediterranean shipping, especially oil supplies. It might even become a stepping stone on the route to the Suez Canal. More important, Adolf Hitler saw its capture as necessary to secure his vital southern flank against air attack (especially on the oil fields of Ploesti) before he launched Operation barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
British Major General Bernard Freyberg commanded the British corps on Crete, centered on the 2nd New Zealand Division. The Allied garrison numbered some 27,550 men and was, in fact, a mixed group of British, Australian, New Zealander, and Greek forces. Most had only recently arrived, and the defenders were hardly a cohesive force. Equipment—even basic weaponry—was in short supply. Air support was provided by several dozen aircraft only. Unlike the Germans, the British did not have air bases within fighter range of the island, which left the Luftwaffe free to operate virtually unopposed, especially since the defenders had few antiaircraft guns.
The German plan for the invasion, code-named Operation merkur ( mercury), centered on parachute drops on the three main airfields of Máleme, Heráklion, and Rétimo. The Germans planned to hold these and local beaches, especially Suda Bay, until reinforced. Freyberg had been alerted by ultra intercepts as to the German invasion plans, and he established defensive positions at these obvious targets, but lack of transport meant his divided forces could not provide support for one another. The ultra information also worked against the defenders, as Freyberg did not know that the naval assault was only a small one, easily turned back by the Royal Navy, and he therefore allocated considerable assets to protect against that threat—assets that would have been used to far better purpose to defend the vital airfields.
On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched merkur. The operation ultimately involved some 22,000 soldiers—paratroops and mountain forces—and was supported by more than 500 combat aircraft, 700 transport planes, and 80 gliders. The Royal Navy halted the seaborne invasion. Airborne forces at Rétimo were crushed by the few tanks available to the British, and the landings at Heráklion were also defeated. The key to the battle, however, proved to be at Máleme and nearby Canea and Suda.
Luftwaffe bombing at Máleme was particularly effective, and the attackers arrived before the defenders had regained their equilibrium. The British were also surprised by the use of gliders, which landed significant numbers of troops. The fighting was desperate and in some doubt for a time, but the Germans were able to bring in just enough resources to beat off the British counterattacks; the Luftwaffe then ferried in additional supplies to the German troops. Suda Bay became untenable for the British, and the Germans began to land reinforcements. On 24 May, Freyberg informed London that German seaborne landings could not be stopped without completely unacceptable naval losses that would put the entire eastern Mediterranean at risk. Three days later, with the Germans expanding their area of control and Italian troops landing at Sitia on the eastern end of the island, the British ordered an evacuation.
The Royal Navy was able to evacuate almost 18,000 men, at a cost of 2,011 casualties. In naval operations around Crete, however, the Royal Navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers and had a number of additional ships significantly damaged, including an aircraft carrier. Allied personnel losses were 1,742 dead, 2,225 wounded, and 11,370 captured. The Germans won a victory but at high cost. They lost 220 aircraft and had another 150 damaged, and their casualties totaled some 6,700 (3,300 dead), although certain British sources reported much higher totals.
The German attack on Crete was audacious and innovative. Hitler, however, refused pleas by Generalleutnant (U.S. equiv. major general) Kurt Student that the airborne forces next assault Malta; indeed, he removed Student from command of operations on Crete during the battle. In effect, the Battle of Crete was Germany's last real airborne operation of the war, for the German forces that participated were used as elite infantry thereafter. Ironically, the Allies then embraced paratroop operations. Fred R. van Hartesveldt
Bennett, Ralph F. Ultra and Mediterranean Strategy, 1941–1945. New York: William Morrow, 1989.; Freyberg, Paul. Bernard Freyberg, VC. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991.; Kiriakopoulos, G. C. Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941. Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1997.; MacDonald, Callum. The Lost Battle: Crete 1941. New York: Free Press, 1993.; Simpson, Tory. Operation Mercury, the Battle for Crete, 1941. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.
Fred R. van Hartesveldt