This was the German combined airborne and amphibious seizure of the Greek island of Crete (20/31 May 1941).
The battle of Crete was unique inasmuch as it was the first strategic operation based primarily on the use of airborne forces, among the first times in which the Allies made significant tactical use of ‘Ultra’ intelligence provided by decipherment of the German communications enciphered by Enigma machines (but limited in use as it had been translated by linguists not military men, and therefore contained many ambiguities and wrong assumptions), and the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.
Lying some 100 miles (160 km) to the south of mainland Greece, Crete is the largest Greek island, and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is located in the southern part of the Aegean Sea separating the Aegean from the Libyan Sea. The island is long and narrow, with an east/west length of 160 miles (260 km) and a maximum north/south width of 37 miles (60 km) narrowing to a minimum of 7.5 miles (12 km). Crete has an area of 3,219 sq miles (8336 km²), and its coast has a length of 650 miles (1045 km). The island is defined by high mountain ranges extending from west to east and constituting the White mountains rising to a height of 8,045 ft (2452), the Idi range rising to a height of 8,058 ft (2456 m) at Mt Ida (Psiloritis) and the Dikti mountains rising to a height of 7,047 ft (2148 m). These mountains provide Crete with valleys, fertile plateaux, cave complexes, and a number of gorges which are both steep and deep.
'Merkur' (i) was undertaken in the aftermath of ‘Marita’ as elements of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s 12th Army mopped up in Greece and the bulk of the German forces used in the Balkan operations ('Unternehmen 25' and 'Marita') was shifted to the north for the delayed start of ‘Barbarossa’ against the USSR.
The German fear was now, in the first days of May 1941, that if left in British hands Crete would provide the Royal Navy with a number of harbours from which to raid the German-held mainland and islands of Greece, and might also become an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ from which increasingly heavy British bomber attacks could be mounted on the oilfields at Ploieşti in Romania, which supplied a decisive and irreplaceable proportion of Germany’s vital oil supplies.
Limited numbers of British troops had arrived on the island of Crete in 'Action' and 'Assumption' after the Italians had started their ‘Emergenza G’ invasion of Greece on 28 October 1940, thereby freeing the 5th Cretan Division for service on the mainland but themselves undertaking little of the infrastructure improvements which could have bolstered the island’s defences and facilitated movement. Though ‘Emergenza G’ was repulsed, the subsequent German intervention in ‘Marita’ drove the 57,000 surviving British troops from the mainland, and while the British ‘Demon’ evacuated many of these to Egypt, some were delivered to Crete to bolster the island’s 14,000-man garrison, and others were redirected from Egypt in ‘Scorcher’, which was the Allies' first realistic attempt to create a defence of Crete.
At the outset the Allies had the numerical advantage and a major naval superiority, while the Germans possessed the advantages of air supremacy, experienced troops riding the morale crest as a result of their successes during the war’s early period, and greater operational mobility, which allowed them to concentrate their forces more effectively. By May 1941, the Allied defence of Crete comprised some 11,450 Greek troops: these comprised three battalions of Hypostrátegos Georgios Papastergiou’s 5th Cretan Division left behind when the rest of the formation had been transferred to the mainland; the battalion-sized Cretan gendarmerie; the local-defence Heráklion Garrison Battalion consisting mostly of transport and logistics personnel; and remnants of Hypostrátegos Napoleon Batas’s 12th Division and Hypostrátegos Christos Karassas’s 20th Division which had escaped to Crete and been reorganised under British command. There were also cadets from the gendarmerie academy and recruits from the recruit training centres in the Peloponnese, who had been transferred to Crete to replace the trained soldiers being sent to fight on the mainland.
The British and commonwealth troops comprised the original garrison supplemented by 25,000 men evacuated from the mainland. The latter were the typical miscellany resulting from a contested evacuation: essentially intact units under their own commanders, extemporised units hurriedly grouped under on-the-spot leadership, and a complete mix of leaderless stragglers. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment. The most important of the formed formations and units were Major General B. C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division (less the New Zealand 6th Brigade and divisional headquarters, which had been sent to Egypt), Brigadier George A. Vasey’s Australian 19th Brigade and Brigadier B. H. Chappel’s British 14th Brigade. The Allied land forces on the island totalled 15,000 British, 11,450 Greek, 7,100 Australian and 6,700 New Zealand troops, but of these 40,250 men, only about 30,000 possessed any real fighting capability. The armour available to them was just 16 obsolescent Cruiser Mk I tanks, and there were mere 85 or so pieces of miscellaneous artillery of various calibres. On 30 April Freyberg was appointed commander of ‘Creforce’, as the Allied forces on Crete were now designated.
The Germans began to position themselves for an offensive against the island with constant air attacks, and this eventually forced the RAF to remove its surviving aircraft from the island’s airfields to Alexandria in northern Egypt, so giving the Luftwaffe total air supremacy. Adolf Hitler and the professional leadership of the German armed forces appreciated that the island remained a threat and, they felt, would therefore have to be taken. On 25 April, Hitler signed his Führerweisung Nr 28 ordering the invasion of Crete.
As Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, based at Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt, retained control of the seas around the island, the outcome of an amphibious assault, which would have been the obvious answer to Germany’s strategic problem, would be quickly decided by an air/sea battle, and this was deemed too risky an undertaking as the Germans and Italians lacked in the Aegean Sea and the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea the naval forces which would have been needed for the effective escort of a substantial invasion fleet against the efforts of a Mediterranean Fleet which had been mauled during the Greek operations but was still a potent foe.
General Kurt Student, commanding the Luftwaffe’s new XI Fliegerkorps responsible for airborne operations, suggested that his airborne force should undertake the task. The idea was immediately attractive to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who ordered Student and Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe chief-of-staff, to approach Hitler with the concept. The German leader gave his agreement, with the sole stipulations that ‘Merkur’ (i) be undertaken with the forces currently available to the XI Fliegerkorps (Generalmajor Wilhelm Süssmann’s 7th Fliegerdivision as the parachute formation and Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Luftlande-Division as the air-landing formation) by the middle of May, this date being fixed so that the forces involved could then be shifted to the Eastern Front for the forthcoming ‘Barbarossa’.
In overall command of ‘Merkur’ was Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, commanding Luftflotte II in the Balkans, and with Löhr’s support Student was able to secure the use of Generalmajor Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision, which was already in Greece, instead of the 22nd Luftlande-Division, which was stuck in Romania without adequate transport. However, Löhr refused Student the full capability of General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps as the air support element for the operation, for this powerful tactical air formation was earmarked for imminent movement to the north for use in ‘Barbarossa’.
'Merkur' (i) was to be the world’s first large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had had by now developed considerable basic experience in parachute and gliderborne assaults with their smaller-scale use of such forces during the ‘Weserübung’ and ‘Sichelschnitt’ invasions of Norway and the Low Countries, as well as the 'Hannibal' (ii) seizure of the Corinth Canal bridge on the mainland of Greece within ‘Marita’. The Germans could therefore call on about 14,000 airborne troops and 15,000 mountain troops. ‘Merkur’ (i) was now developed on the basis of the employment of Fallschirmjäger (parachute) troops to seize and hold key points of the island, including airfields onto which supplies and reinforcements could then be flown. The XI Fliegerkorps was to co-ordinate an attack by the 7th Fliegerdivision, which would insert its paratroopers by parachute and glider, followed by air-landed troops once the airfields had been secured and then by mountain troops delivered by air and sea.
The assault was initially scheduled for 16 May, but was then postponed to 20 May, and once the decision had been reached the Germans moved with great speed and vigour, the 7th Fliegerdivision and 5th Gebirgsdivision being concentrated swiftly on the airfields from which the transport aircraft of the XI Fliegerkorps would operate. Under the command of Generalmajor Gerhard Conrad, this transport force amounted to 500 Junkers Ju 52/3m transport and glider-tug aircraft, and 72 DFS 230 assault gliders. Tactical support would be furnished by some 280 level bombers, 150 dive-bombers and 180 fighters of the VIII Fliegerkorps.
By this time, Allied commanders had become aware of the impending invasion through the ‘Ultra’ decrypts of intercepted German communications. Freyberg was informed of the German battle plan, and started to prepare a defence based near the airfields and along the north coast on the erroneous assumption that there was also to be a major seaborne component in the initial assault. However, he was seriously hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and was faced with the reality that even the lightly armed paratroopers would be able to manage about the same firepower as his own now poorly equipped troops, and possibly more.
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr intelligence service, originally reported that there were a mere 5,000 British and commonwealth troops on Crete, and no Greek forces. It is not clear whether Canaris, who had an extensive intelligence network at his disposal and was of part-Greek extraction, was misinformed or was attempting to sabotage Hitler’s plans. The Abwehr also predicted that the Cretan population would welcome the Germans as liberators as a result of their strong republican and anti-monarchist feelings. While it is true that Eleftherios Venizelos, the late republican prime minister of Greece, had been a Cretan and support for his ideas was strong on the island, the Germans seriously underestimated the depth of the Cretans’ patriotic feelings. In fact, King Georgios II and his entourage had escaped from Greece via Crete with the help of Greek and commonwealth soldiers, Cretan civilians, and even a group of prisoners released from captivity by the advancing Germans.
The intelligence department of the 12th Army had more sanguine expectations, but still believed the British and commonwealth forces to be considerably fewer in number than they actually were, and also underestimated the number of Greek troops who had been evacuated from the mainland.
Löhr was convinced that the island could be taken with two divisions, but nonetheless decided to keep Generalmajor Ferdinand Schörner’s 6th Gebirgsdivision in Athens as a reserve, and the course of events revealed this to have been a wise move.
A major problem with the Germans’ airborne procedures was that most of the men’s individual weapons were dropped in canisters instead of with the men as they jumped. This contrasted strongly with the procedure in most other nations’ somewhat later airborne forces, which routinely jumped with personal weapons strapped to the jumper. While this German practice facilitated exit from the aircraft and prevented loss and damage to the personal weapons, it left the paratroopers armed only with their sidearms and fighting knives in the critical few minutes after landing. The poor design of the standard German parachute compounded the problem: the parachute harness had only a single riser connecting the man to his canopy, and thus the parachute could not be steered. Soldiers therefore could not direct themselves toward their weapons canisters during descent. Even the 25% of the paratroopers armed with sub-machine guns as they jumped were at a distinct disadvantage given this type of weapon’s limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were killed or wounded while attempting to reach their units’ weapons canisters.
On the other side, the Allies’ only anti-aircraft defences comprised a mere one light anti-aircraft battery with 20-mm cannon, and even this single battery was divided between the two airfields. The guns were carefully concealed, often in nearby olive groves, and some were ordered to hold their fire during the initial assault so that they would not immediately reveal themselves to German fighters and dive-bombers.
The Allies also lacked adequate numbers of Bren gun carriers and trucks, which could otherwise have provided the extra mobility and firepower needed for rapid-response teams to hit German airborne units before they had a chance to dig in.
The British had nine Matilda Mk IIA infantry tanks of B Squadron, 7th Royal Tank Regiment, and 16 Light Tank Mk VIB vehicles of C Squadron, King’s Own Hussars. In common with most British armour of the time, the Matilda vehicles lacked HE general-purpose ammunition for their 2-pdr guns, which could therefore fire only armour-piercing shot ineffective against infantry; the light tanks were armed only with machine guns. The tanks also had numerous maintenance problems, and their engines were worn out., so they were therefore used as mobile pillboxes to be brought up and dug in at key points. In the end many of the British tanks were lost to the rough terrain, not in combat.
There was much debate in the German high command about the operational plan for Crete. There was general agreement that Máleme should be the primary objective of the assault phase, but there was a measure of argument about the concentration of strength there and thus the smaller strengths to be deployed against secondary objectives such as the lesser airfields at Heráklion and Rethymnon (Rétimo). The air and sea commanders, Löhr and Admiral Karlgeorg Schuster, heading the Admiral ‘Südost’ command, favoured a heavier concentration against Máleme, but Student wanted to disperse his paratroops more widely. Máleme had several advantages: it was the island’s largest airfield, usable by the air force’s heavy transports delivering reinforcements; it was close enough to the mainland to be covered by Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters; and it was right on the north coast, so seaborne reinforcements could be brought in quickly.
The German plan began to develop faults as a result of its total misappreciation of the Allied strength on Crete, which the Germans had known to be some 6,000 men in December 1940 but which had now risen to an effective total of some 30,000 men: in addition to the original 6,000-man garrison, there were now also some 21,000 men of the New Zealand 2nd Division and the Australian 6th Division evacuated from Greece, 5,000 commonwealth reinforcements from Egypt, and 8,000 men of two weak Greek divisions. This amounted to some 40,000 men, against which Student could pit some 8,100 of the 14,000 airborne troops of the 7th Fliegerdivision and the 15,000 mountain troops of the 5th Gebirgsdivision.
Where the Germans had decided advantages, however, was in the element of surprise, the quality of their troops, and the Allied forces’ almost total lack of heavy weapons: the Allied artillery comprised a few captured French and Italian guns and some obsolete British weapons, all without transport, and as noted above there were just nine elderly tanks left in running order. All 35 British aircraft had been destroyed or evacuated before the beginning of ‘Merkur’ (i).
Even without any realistic intelligence of Allied strengths and dispositions, the primary German problem was a lack of adequate airlift, so Student planned to move his airborne forces in two lifts to capture the airfields at Máleme, Rétimo and Heráklion, as well as four other objectives in northern Crete, so that the 5th Gebirgsdivision could then be flown in for the inland development of these three air-heads pending the arrival of seaborne reinforcements (the rest of the 5th Gebirgsdivision from the island of Mílos) with heavier weapons.
Löhr objected strongly to an assault which was so dispersed in tactical terms, and asked for a single initial stroke. This forced Student to compromise on three main objectives for the two initial airlifts. In the first, to be launched during the morning of 20 May, Generalmajor Eugen Meindl’s Gruppe ‘West’ (otherwise known as ‘Komet’) would take Máleme airfield (plus the Tavronitis bridge and Hill 107 commanding the airfield) using most of Major Walter Koch’s 1/Luftlandesturmregiment, while Süssmann’s Gruppe ‘Mitte’ (otherwise known as ‘Mars’) seized Caneá and Souda slightly farther to the east with Oberst Richard Heidrich’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment, the rest of Meindl’s Luftlandesturmregiment, one battalion of Oberst Alfred Sturm’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment and support units. The Gruppe ‘Mitte’ was to be reinforced by the seaborne arrival of Oberst Willibald Utz’s 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment.
In the second lift, to be launched during the afternoon of 20 May, the rest of the Gruppe ‘Mitte’ (comprising two battalions of the 2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment under Sturm) was to take Rétimo and its airfield, while Oberst Bruno Bräuer’s Gruppe ‘Ost’ (otherwise known as ‘Orion’) was to take Heráklion with Bräuer’s 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment and one battalion of Sturm’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment to open the way for the seaborne arrival of the 5th Gebirgsdivision (less the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment) under Ringel, who would then assume local command.
With hindsight it is possible to see that the German effort was still too dispersed, and allowed for no airborne reserve in Greece for deployment as the tactical situation on the island developed. In this last respect, however, delays in Greece created such a reserve just as it was needed at Máleme.
The final plan was ‘Merkur’ (i), and for this the German forces earmarked a force totalling 750 gliderborne troops, 10,000 paratroopers, 5,000 airlifted mountain troops, and 7,000 seaborne mountain troops. The German airborne doctrine was based on parachuting small numbers of forces directly onto airfields held by the Allied forces. The first German airborne elements to land were to capture the perimeter and any anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider.
Freyberg was aware of this tactical concept after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However, he was countermanded from Alexandria by General Sir Archibald Wavell’s Middle East Command, which felt that the invasion was doomed to fail now that the Allies knew what to expect and presumably desired to keep the airfields intact for the return of the RAF’s aircraft once the German effort had been defeated. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some of their transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether or not a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference to the final outcome. The gliders, were, of course, designed to be expendable and consequently their pilots were even more daring in their landing choices.
On the Allied side, Freyberg had seen that a German assault was imminent, though he envisaged this as being primarily a seaborne operation, and had thus disposed his forces along the north coast of Crete in carefully selected positions. The British, Australian and New Zealand battalions were based on good infantry units, but were lacking in overall cohesion as many units had only recently arrived from the Greek mainland, and lacked heavy weapons, air-defence capability, adequate motor transport and, perhaps most importantly of all, the communications network which would have allowed them to operate as a whole rather than as individual brigades.
During the morning of 20 May the British minesweeper Widnes was sunk in Souda Bay: the vessel was later refloated by the Germans, repaired and commissioned as UJ 2109.
Heavy air attacks then prefaced the arrival of the German airborne assault in the morning of 20 May, when Meindl’s Gruppe ‘West’ landed from 08.00 with a fair degree of accuracy, but met a determined resistance by Brigadier J. Hargest’s New Zealand 5th Brigade of five battalions. The New Zealanders had placed too scattered a force on Máleme airfield, which was therefore taken by the Germans, but then managed to pin the assault force and inflict heavy casualties on it.
Other German paratroopers landed near Caneá which, like Máleme, was a secondary airfield built to support the island’s main air base at Heráklion.
Gruppe ‘Mitte’ also landed with fair accuracy, but was hotly engaged by the Greek 2nd and 8th Regiments and the two other brigades (the 4th and 10th) of the New Zealand 2nd Division, temporarily commanded by Brigadier E. Puttick, as it tried to push down Prison Valley toward Caneá, which was held by Major General E. C. Weston’s force of Royal Marines, army units and the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation. The men of Gruppe ‘Mitte’ were mauled notably heavily by the New Zealand 4th and 10th Brigades.
The Allied defence was now fully aware of what the Germans were doing, and when the first part of the second lift began in the afternoon after delays caused by bottlenecks on Greek airfields, the defence was waiting for it.
This second German airborne wave arrived in the afternoon, one group landing at Rétimo at 16.15 and another at Heráklion at 17.30. The defence was fully alert and inflicted heavy casualties of the Germans. Thus the second part of Gruppe ‘Mitte’ failed to take Rétimo and its airfield against the defence of Lieutenant Colonel Ian R. Campbell’s Australian 19th Brigade. A similar fate befell the men of the Gruppe ‘Ost’ at Heráklion, where considerable casualties were inflicted by the men of Chappel’s 14th Brigade.
Of the initial German forces, therefore, the majority had been mauled by Allied forces placed near the airfields: many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds of landing. The Germans who did land were killed almost to a man by the defenders. However, a number of German troops had landed off-site near both airfields, as is common in airdrops, and set up defensive positions to the west of Máleme airfield and in Prison Valley of the Caneá area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, their presence meant that the defenders had to redeploy to face them. Greek police forces and cadets were also in action, with the Greek 1st Regiment (Provisional) defeating an attempted incursion into Kastelli by Major Castell’s 95th Gebirgsaufklärungsabteilung. Meanwhile, the Greek 8th Regiment and elements of the Cretan forces severely hampered movement by the 95th Gebirgsaufklärungsabteilung on Kolimbari and Paleochora, where Allied reinforcements from North Africa could be landed if necessary. Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with a savagery unexpected by either side.
In Greece Student realised that the situation was very nicely balanced, for he knew of the failure of the Gruppe ‘Ost’ at Heráklion, feared a similar result for the other part of the Gruppe ‘Ost’ at Rétimo even he had heard nothing as a result of radio failure, and understood that the Gruppe ‘Mitte’ force at Caneá had been halted. Student thus appreciated that all must now be gambled on the partial success of the Gruppe ‘West’ at Máleme, where at least an airfield was in German hands even if dominated by the position of the New Zealand 22nd Battalion on Hill 107.
As night fell, the Germans had secured none of their objectives and, based as it was on attacks against four separate points to make maximum use of surprise rather than on one concentrated attack, the risky plan appeared to have failed. Toward the evening of 20 May, the Germans at Máleme were slowly pushing the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. The commanders on Crete decided to throw everything into the Máleme sector during the following day.
During the night of 20/21 May an attack by six Italian motor torpedo boats on Vice Admiral E. L. S. King’s Force ‘C’, comprising the Australian light cruiser Perth and five British warships, in the form of the light anti-aircraft cruiser Naiad and the destroyers Kandahar, Nubian, Kingston and Juno, was unsuccessful. The destroyers Jervis, Ilex and Nizam undertook a gunfire bombardment of the Axis airfield on the island of Scarpanto.
On 21 May 17 Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers of the III/Stukageschwader 2 attacked the light cruiser Ajax and five Cant Z.1007bis bombers of the 50o Gruppo Bombardamento Terrestre sank the destroyer Juno. Both ships belonged to the Mediterranean Fleet, much of which had been at sea since 15 May in the expectation of German action. At this time the Mediterranean Fleet comprised the battleships Queen Elizabeth, Barham, Warspite and Valiant, fleet carrier Formidable, cruisers Gloucester, Fiji, Ajax, Dido, Orion, Perth, Naiad, Phoebe, Calcutta and Carlisle, cruiser minelayer Abdiel, destroyers Napier, Nizam, Kandahar, Kelvin, Kipling, Kingston, Kimberley, Kelly, Nubian, Juno, Janus, Jervis, Jackal, Isis, Imperial, Ilex, Hero, Hotspur, Hereward, Hasty, Havock, Griffin, Greyhound, Decoy, Defender, Stuart, Voyager, Vendetta and Waterhen, sloops Auckland and Flamingo, and netlayer Protector: during the fighting of the Cretan campaign all of these ships were involved.
On 21 May the first German motor sailing flotilla of some 20 craft left the Greek mainland under escort of the Italian torpedo boat Lupo, and toward 24.00 Rear Admiral I. G. Glennie’s Force ‘D’, comprising the cruisers Dido, Orion and Ajax, and the destroyers Janus, Kimberley, Hasty and Hereward, located and attacked the German convoy 20 miles (32 km) to the north of Caneá and scattered it. Determined action by Lupo ensured that only 10 vessels were sunk and 297 of the 2,331 men of the 5th Gebirgsdivision were lost, but this first attempt at a seaborne landing was completely disrupted.
In the morning of 21 May it was found that the New Zealand 22nd Battalion had mistakenly withdrawn during the previous night, although it continued to pour artillery fire into the area. This gave the German forces control of the airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby, and during the evening Ju 52/3m transport aircraft started to land units of the 5th Gebirgsdivision. The troops whose aircraft managed to land moved straight from their transports into combat, but many of the aircraft were hit by artillery fire and littered the airfield.
Realising that Máleme was now the key to holding the entire island, the defence organised for a counterattack by two New Zealand battalions on the night of 21/22 May, but fears of a German seaborne landing meant that a number of units which could also have taken part in this attack were held back, although the possibility of a German seaborne landing was removed by the strong British naval presence, which arrived too late for the plans to be changed. The force attacked at night, but by this time the original paratroops had set up defensive lines, and the newly arrived mountain troops proved difficult to dislodge. The attack slowly petered out, failing to retake the airfield.
This was the decisive moment, for Student began to pour reinforcements into Máleme from 17.00 on 21 May. The New Zealanders counterattacked but failed, and now realised that the position of the whole of the New Zealand 5th Brigade was no longer tenable. The brigade thus retreated toward Caneá, leaving the Germans in control of Máleme and a sizeable air-head centred on it. The Germans were now able to attack Caneá with a concerted effort by the Gruppe ‘West’ and Gruppe ‘Mitte’, and when the Germans took Galatas on 25 May Freyberg appreciated that the battle for Crete had been lost as Caneá must now fall into German hands, together with the excellent anchorage at Souda Bay, which would allow German seaborne reinforcements to flood into the island.
On 22 May Force ‘C’, now comprising the cruisers Naiad, Calcutta, Carlisle and Australian Perth, together with the destroyers Kandahar, Nubian and Kingston, located and attacked the second German motor sailing flotilla. As a result of the skilful action of the escorting Italian torpedo boat Sagittario and a steady stream of attacks by the Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Hauptmann Kuno Hoffmann’s I/Lehrgeschwader and Major Hackbarth’s III/Kampfgeschwader 30, as well as the Dornier Do 17 bombers of Oberst Herbert Rieckhoff’s KG 2, the convoy lost just two craft, while Carlisle and Naiad were damaged by bomb hits. Force ‘C’ then turned away to join Rear Admiral H. B. Rawlings’s powerful covering group which, during the afternoon of this day, was heavily targeted by the Ju 87 dive-bombers of Oberstleutnant Paul-Werner Hozzel’s StG 2, Ju 88 bombers of Hoffman’s I/LG 1 and Major Walter Ennocerus’s II/LG 1, and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter-bombers. The aircraft of I/LG 1 and some fighter-bombers of Major Alexander von Winterfeldt’s III/Jagdgeschwader 77 achieved several damaging near-misses on the battleship Warspite, Ju 87 dive-bombers sank the destroyer Greyhound, and a combination of Ju 87 dive-bombers and Ju 88 bombers sank the cruiser Gloucester, which was lost with 45 officers and 648 members of her crew. Two Bf 109 fighter-bombers of the I/LG 2 hit the cruiser Fiji so effectively during the evening that she had to be abandoned, Kandahar and Kingston rescuing 523 survivors. In the air attacks, the cruisers Carlisle and Naiad were hit yet again, and the battleship Valiant was slightly damaged.
By this time the British high command in London had also come to appreciate that the continued Allied retention of Crete was impossible and therefore decide to cut the Allied losses. Thus a withdrawal from Sfakía on the south coast was ordered, and during the next four nights 16,000 troops were taken off by ship for movement to Egypt. During this time, in the night 22/23 May the destroyers Kashmir, Kelly and Kipling undertook a gunfire bombardment of the airfield at Máleme, and the destroyers Decoy and Hero took the king of Greece and his party on board for evacuation. On 23 May the I/StG 2 located Kashmir and Kelly as they returned in the evening and sank them, Kipling rescuing 279 survivors. Fighter-bombers of the III/JG 77 sank MTB-67, MTB-213, MTB-214, MTB-216 and MTB-217 of the British 10th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla in Souda Bay.
Smaller numbers of men were evacuated from Heráklion, but these ships were attacked en route by German dive-bombers and suffered serious losses. The Germans pushed the British, commonwealth and Greek forces steadily south, using aerial and artillery bombardment followed by waves of motorcycle and mountain troops. The garrisons of Souda and Beritiana in Souda Bay fell gradually back along the single road to Vitsilokoumos, just to the north of Sfakía. About half way there, near the village of Askifou, lay a large crater nicknamed ‘The Saucer’, which was the only location in this rugged terrain flat and wide enough to support a large-scale air drop. Troops were stationed about its perimeter to prevent a German airborne force from landing to block the retreat.
At the village of Stilos, the New Zealand 5th Brigade and the Australian 2/7th Battalion held off a German mountain battalion which had begun a flanking manoeuvre but, despite their greater numbers, were forced to withdraw for lack of air and artillery support. Fortunately, German air assets were being concentrated at Rétimo and Heráklion, and the Australians and New Zealanders were able to retreat down the road safely in broad daylight. The general retreat of the brigade was covered by two companies of the 28th (Maori) Battalion under Captain Rangy Royal, who had already distinguished themselves in a ferocious bayonet charge to keep ‘42nd Street’ (a section of road between Souda and Caneá) open when it was threatened by German mountain troops. When the main unit was safely to the rear, the Maoris in turn made their own fighting retreat of 24 miles (39 km).
Thus, Colonel R. E. Laycock’s ‘Layforce’ commando detachment was the only major unit in this area to be cut-off and unable to retreat. ‘Layforce’ had been sent into Crete via Sfakía when it was still hoped that large-scale reinforcements could be brought into Crete from Egypt and so turn the tide of the battle against the Germans. The battalion-sized force was split up, with a 200-man detachment under Laycock stationed at Souda to cover the retreat of the heavier units. Laycock’s men, augmented by three of the remaining British tanks, were joined by the men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, who had been assigned to guard the Souda docks and refused to believe that a general evacuation had been ordered. After a day’s fierce fighting, Laycock decided to retreat under cover of night to nearby Beritiana. He was joined there by Royal and his Maoris, who took up separate defensive positions and eventually made their fighting retreat. But Laycock and his force were cut-off by superior German forces near the village of Babali Khani. Hit by dive-bomber attacks, the ‘Layforce’ detachment was unable to get away, although Laycock and his brigade major were able to escape by crashing through the German lines in a tank. Most of the other men of the detachment and their comrades of the 20th Heavy AA Battery were killed or captured.
During the evacuation Cunningham, commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, was determined that the ‘navy must not let the army down’.
While most British heavy equipment was destroyed, the soldiers being evacuated handed their ammunition to the Cretans who were staying behind to resist the Germans. Meanwhile the commander at Heráklion, Campbell, was also forced to surrender his force. Rétimo also fell, and on the night of 30 May German motorcycle troops linked with Italian troops who had landed on that day in the Gulf of Mirabella. The Italian commander in the Dodecanese islands group had volunteered the services of his men as early as 21 May, but the request had to pass through German channels to Göring, who finally authorised the move when it became clear that the German effort was not moving ahead as quickly as planned.
On 1 June the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakía surrendered, although many took to the hills and caused the German occupation problems for years.
During this time British naval efforts continued round the island. On 25 May Vice Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell had put to sea from Alexandria with the battleships Barham and Queen Elizabeth, carrier Formidable and nine destroyers in order to attack the airfield at Scarpanto on which was located by the III/StG 2, and on 26 May Formidable’s aircraft attacked the airfield. During their return, Formidable and the destroyer Nubian were attacked and severely damaged by dive-bombers of the II/StG 2, the carrier having to be sent to the USA for repairs that lasted into December of the same year. On 27 May Ju 88 bombers of the LG 1 damaged the battleship Barham with one hit and several near-misses.
Up to this time the British limited consideration had been given to the possibility of of a reinforcement of the Allied forces on Crete, but now all efforts were concentrated on the evacuation. On 28 May, while on passage to the evacuation, the cruiser Ajax and destroyer Imperial were damaged by bombs: Ajax was out of service for a year. During the night of 28/29 May some 4,700 troops were embarked at Sfakia and Heraklion. Imperial was abandoned when her rudder was disabled, and she was sunk by Hotspur. On 29 May the destroyer Hereward was sunk by aircraft of the III/StG 2, Decoy was hit and Ajax was struck once more. The cruisers Dido and Orion were badly damaged, and of the 1,100 troops embarked on Orion 260 were killed ad 280 wounded. During the night of 29/30 May another 6,000 men were evacuated.
On 30 May the cruiser Perth and destroyer Kelvin were damaged by aircraft of the LG 1. During the night of 30/31 May 700 troops were evacuated. On 31 May the destroyer Napier was hit by bombs. During the night of 31 May/1 June Force ‘C’ made a last effort with Phoebe, Abdiel, Jackal, Kimberley and Hotspur to evacuate troops from Sfakía, where there were still some 6,000 men of whom 4,000 were taken off.
On 1 June the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Coventry, despatched from Alexandria to meet Force ‘C’, were located by two Ju 88 bombers some 115 miles (185 km) to the north of Alexandria, and Calcutta was sunk by an aeroplane of the II/LG 1, Coventry rescuing 255 survivors out of 372.
In all, 17,000 troops were evacuated from Crete, but the total British loss was 15,743 soldiers and 2,011 naval personnel. By 1941, an estimated 500 British and commonwealth troops remained at large on Crete together with larger numbers of Greeks, who were more easily able to blend in with the local population.
Allied commanders were now increasingly worried about the possibility that the Germans would make use of Crete as a springboard for further operations in the area, possibly a seaborne invasion of Egypt in support of the German/Italian forces attacking to the east from Libya. However, these fears were soon put to rest when ‘Barbarossa’ started and it became clear that ‘Merkur’ (i) had been defensive rather than offensive in concept. Losses among the German paratroops meant that the Fallschirmjäger arm was never again used in its intended airborne role, which eliminated this weapon from more widespread use on the Eastern Front.
Although ‘Merkur’ (i) had been successful in terms of capturing the island from the Allied forces holding it, the German losses, in aircraft as well as men, were so great that Hitler steadfastly refused to authorise any other major airborne operation, including the proposed ‘Herkules’ for the capture of Malta, which could have been an invaluable strategic prize for the Axis.
Ironically, the use of paratroopers in force impressed the Allies. The very high rate of German airborne casualties was hidden from Allied planners, who scrambled to create their own large airborne divisions after this battle.
A vigorous resistance campaign was instituted almost immediately after the fall of the island and remained active until 1945. This campaign necessitated a garrison of some 50,000 personnel at its peak, and these were troops who could have been used to far better effect in other theatres. The Germans admitted losses of 6,698 men during the Cretan campaign, and there are some 4,500 German graves at Máleme alone, all German graves on Crete having been transferred to a single place after World War II. Allied soldiers claimed to have buried 900 German corpses in Rétimo and 1,250 bodies at Heráklion by the fifth day of the battle. German losses may thus have been considerably higher than admitted: these latter figures are 2,124 killed, 1,917 missing, 2,640 wounded and 17 taken prisoner. Unofficial estimates put the number of German dead at 4,900 and that of the wounded at 11,200 for a total of 16,100. Thus the XI Fliegerkorps had suffered something in the order of 55% casualties among its men, and had also lost some 200 invaluable transport aircraft within an overall total of 370 aircraft lost or damaged.
The losses among the Allied land were: British 791 dead, 268 wounded and 6,576 taken prisoner; Australian 274 dead, 507 wounded and 3,079 taken prisoner; New Zealand 671 dead, 967 wounded and 2,180 taken prisoner; and Greek 426 dead, between 800 and 850 wounded, and 5,255 taken prisoner. There were also 3,000 Greek civilian dead, and the Royal Navy lost 1,828 dead and 183 wounded as well as nine ships sunk and 18 damaged. In overall terms, therefore, the Allies lost 3,390 dead, 2,750 wounded and 17,090 taken prisoner. The RAF had lost 46 aircraft.
Many Cretans were also murdered by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation which followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children.