The 'Battle of Crete', which was known to the Germans as 'Merkur' (i), was fought between German and Italian forces as a 'triphibious' undertaking against British Commonwealth and Greek forces for the Greek island of Crete (20 May/1 June 1941).
The battle began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when German forces began an airborne invasion of Crete, which was defended by Greek and other Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians. After only one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion, but on the following day, as a result of communication failures, Allied tactical hesitation, and German offensive operations, Máleme airfield in western Crete fell, enabling the Germans to land reinforcements and overwhelm the defensive positions in the northern part of the island, and the Allied forces then began to withdraw to the southern coast. More than half of the Allied troops were evacuated by ships of the Royal Navy and the remainder surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance. The defence of Crete also evolved into a costly naval engagement, and by the end of the campaign the Royal Navy’s strength on the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea had been reduced to just two battleships and three cruisers.
The 'Battle of Crete' was the first occasion on which the German Fallschirmjäger (paratroop force) was used en masse, the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence based on decrypted German Enigma machine messages, and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. As a result of the number of casualties and the belief that airborne forces no longer had the advantage of surprise, Adolf Hitler became reluctant to authorise further large airborne operations, preferring instead to employ paratroopers as high-quality ground troops. In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form airborne-assault and airfield defence regiments.
British forces had initially garrisoned Crete when the Italians attacked Greece in 'Esigenza G' on 28 October 1940, thereby enabling the Greek government to employ the Cretan 5th Division in the mainland campaign. This arrangement suited the British, for Crete could provide the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could threaten the Axis south-eastern flank, and the Ploiești oil fields in Romania were within range of British bombers based on the island.
'Esigenza G' was repulsed, but the subsequent German 'Marita' invasion of April 1941 succeeded in overrunning mainland Greece. At the end of the month, 57,000 Allied troops were evacuated by the Royal Navy. Some of these forces were sent to Crete to bolster its garrison until fresh forces could be organised, although most had lost their heavy equipment. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, sent a telegram to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill: 'To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.'
The Oberkommando des Heeres, or German army high command, was currently preoccupied with the planning of 'Barbarossa', the invasion of the USSR, and was largely opposed to a German attack on Crete. However, Hitler remained concerned about attacks in other theatres, in particular on his Romanian fuel supply, and Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by airborne attack. The desire to regain prestige after their defeat by the Royal Air Force in the 'Battle of Britain' during the previous year may also have played a role in the Luftwaffe’s thinking, especially before the advent of the much more important 'Barbarossa'. Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal and in his Führerweisung Nr 31 asserted that 'Crete…will be the operational base from which to carry on the air war in the Eastern Mediterranean, in co-ordination with the situation in North Africa.' The directive also stated that the operation was to be undertaken in May and must not be allowed to interfere with the planned 'Barbarossa'. Before the invasion, the Germans conducted a bombing campaign to establish air superiority and forced the RAF to remove its remaining aircraft to Egypt.
No RAF units were based permanently on Crete until April 1941, but airfield construction had begun, radar sites had been built and stores delivered. Equipment was scarce in the Mediterranean theatre and still more so in the backwater of Crete. The British forces had seven commanders in seven months. In early April, airfields at Máleme and Heráklion and the landing strip at Réthymno on the northern coast were ready and another airstrip at Kastélli-Pediádas was nearly finished. After the start of 'Merita', the role of the Crete garrison changed from the defence of the naval anchorage at Soudha Bay to preparing to repel an invasion. On 17 April, Group Captain George Beamish was appointed Senior Air Officer, Crete, taking over from a flight lieutenant whose duties and instructions had been only vaguely defined. Beamish was ordered to prepare the reception of Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers of Nos 30 and 203 Squadrons from Egypt and the remaining fighter aircraft from Greece, to cover the evacuation of 'W' Force, which in 'Demon' enabled the transfer of 25,000 British and Dominion troops to the island, preparatory to their relief by fresh troops from Egypt.
The Royal Navy tried to deliver 27,000 tons of supplies between 1 and 20 May, but Luftwaffe attacks forced most ships to turn back, and only 2,700 tons were actually delivered. Only about 3,500 trained British and Greek soldiers were on the island, and the defence devolved to the shaken and poorly equipped troops from Greece, assisted by the last fighters of Nos 33, 80 and 112 Squadrons and one squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, once the Blenheim bombers had been ordered back to Egypt. In the middle of May, the four squadrons had about two dozen aircraft, of which only about 12 were serviceable for lack of tools and spares. The unfinished airstrip at Kastélli-Pediádas was blocked with trenches and heaps of soil and all but narrow take-off and landing strips were blocked at Heráklion and Réthymno by barrels filled with earth. At Máleme, blast pens were built for the aircraft, and barrels full of petrol were kept ready for ignition by machine gun fire. Around each ground, a few field guns, anti-aircraft guns, two infantry tanks and two or three light tanks were sited. The three areas were made into independent sectors, but there were only eight 3-in (76.2-mm) and 20 Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns.
On 30 April, Major General B. C. Freyberg, a New Zealand army officer, was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete, generally known as Creforce. By May, the Greek forces comprised about 9,000 men: three battalions of Antistratigos Georgios Papastergiou’s Greek 5th Division, which had been left behind when the rest of the formation had been transferred to the mainland against the German invasion; the 2,500 men of the Cretan gendarmerie; the Heráklion Garrison Battalion, a defence unit made up mostly of transport and supply personnel; and remnants of the Greek 12th and 20th Divisions, which had also escaped from the mainland to Crete and were organised under British command. Cadets from the gendarmerie academy and recruits from Greek training centres in the Peloponnese had been transferred to Crete to replace the trained soldiers sent to fight on the mainland. These troops were already organised into numbered recruit training regiments, and it was decided to use this structure to organise the Greek troops, supplementing them with experienced men arriving from the mainland.
The British and Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original 14,000-man British garrison and another 25,000 British and Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were typically intact units; composite units improvised locally; stragglers from every type of army unit; and deserters. Most of them lacked heavy equipment. The main formed units were Major General E. Puttick’s New Zealand 2nd Division, less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters; Brigadier G. A. Vasey’s Australian 19th Brigade Group; and Brigadier B. H. Chappell’s 14th Brigade of Major General J. F. Evetts’s British 6th Division. There were about 15,000 front-line Commonwealth infantrymen, augmented by about 5,000 non-infantry personnel equipped as infantry and a composite Australian artillery battery. On 4 May, Freyberg sent a message to the British commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, requesting the evacuation of about 10,000 unwanted personnel who did not have weapons and had 'little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population'. As the weeks passed, some 3,200 British, 2,500 Australian and 1,300 New Zealander troops were evacuated to Egypt, but it became evident that it would not be possible to remove all the unwanted troops. Between the night of 15 May and morning of 16 May, the Allied force was reinforced by the 2/Leicester Regiment, which had been transported from Alexandria to Heráklion by the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji.
On 17 May, the garrison of Crete thus included about 15,000 Britirish, 7,750 New Zealander, 6,500 Australian and 10,200 Greek troops. On the morning of 19 May, these were augmented by a further 700 men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders transported from Alexandria to Tymbaki overnight by the transport Glengyle.
On 25 April, Hitler signed his Führerweisung Nr 28 ordering the invasion of Crete. As the Royal Navy retained control of the waters around Crete, an amphibious assault would have been a risky proposition, but with German air superiority assured an airborne invasion was selected. This was to be the world’s first major airborne invasion, although the Germans had made smaller parachute and glider-borne assaults in their 'Weserübung' invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, 'Gelb' invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France, and in their invasion of the greek mainland. In the last, Fallschirmjäger had been despatched to capture the bridge over the Corinth Canal, which was being readied for demolition by the Royal Engineers. German engineers landed near the bridge in gliders, while parachute infantry attacked the perimeter defence. The bridge was damaged in the fighting, which slowed the German advance and gave the Allies time to evacuate 18,000 troops to Crete and 23,000 to Egypt, albeit with the loss of most of their heavy equipment.
In May, General Kurt Student’s XI Fliegerkorps was moved from Germany to the area of Athens, but the destruction wrought during the invasion of Greece forced a postponement of the attack to 20 May. New airfields were built, and 280 long-range bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 90 Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engined fighters, 90 Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft of General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps were assembled, together with 530 Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft and 100 DFS 230 assault gliders. The Bf 109 fighters and Junkers Ju 87 single-engined dive-bombers were based on forward airfields at Molaoi, Melos and Karpathos (then the Italian-occupied Scarpanto), with Corinth and Argos as base airfields. The Bf 110 warplanes were based at airfields near Athens, Argos and Corinth, all within 200 miles (320 km) of Crete, and the bomber and reconnaissance machines were accommodated at Athens, Thessaloniki and a detachment on the Italian-occupied island of Rhodes, along with bases in Bulgaria at Sofia and Plovdiv, 10 of the airfields being of the all-weather type and between 200 and 250 miles (320 and 400 km) of Crete. The transport aircraft flew from bases near Athens and southern Greece, including Eleusis, Tatoi, Megara and Corinth. British night bombers attacked the areas in the last few nights before the invasion, and Luftwaffe aircraft eliminated the British aircraft on Crete.
The Germans planned to use paratroops and glider-borne troops to capture important points on the island, including airfields that could then be used for the aerial delivery of supplies and reinforcements. As the Germans' higher command formation for airborne forces, the XI Fliegerkorps was to co-ordinate the attack by Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süssmann’s (from 20 May 1941 Generalmajor Alfred Sturm’s) 7th Fliegerdivision, which would land by parachute and glider, followed by Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Division (Luftlande) once the airfields had been secured. The operation was scheduled to start on 16 May, but was postponed to 20 May with Generalmajor Julius Ringel’s 5th Geburgsdivision replacing the 22nd Division (Luftlande). To support the German attack on Crete, 11 Italian submarines took up positions off Crete or the British bases of Sollum and Alexandria in Egypt.
It had been only in March 1941 that Student secured the addition of an attack on Crete to the basic 'Marita' plan. Supply difficulties delayed the assembly of the XI Fliegerkorps and its Ju 52/3m transport aircraft, then more delays forced a further postponement to 20 May. The War Cabinet in the UK had expected the Germans to use paratroops in the Balkans, and on 25 March decrypts of Luftwaffe Enigma-coded radio traffic revealed that the XI Fliegerkorps was assembling Ju 52/3m aircraft for glider-towing, and British Military Intelligence reported that 250 aircraft were already in the Balkans. On 30 March, the so-called Detachment 'Süssmann', part of the 7th Fliegerdivision, was identified at Plovdiv. There was no indication of the operational targets of these units, but on 18 April it was found that 250 Ju 52/3m aircraft had been withdrawn from routine operations, and on 24 April it became known that Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had reserved them for a special operation. The operation turned out to be a descent on the Corinth Canal on 26 April, but then a second operation was discovered and that supplies, especially of fuel, had to be delivered to the XI Fliegerkorps by 5 May. A Luftwaffe message referring to Crete for the first time was decrypted on 26 April.
The British Chiefs-of-Staff were apprehensive that the target could be changed to Cyprus or Syria as a route into Iraq during the 'Anglo-Iraqi War' of 2/31 May 1941, and suspected that references to Crete were a deception, despite having no grounds for this, and on 3 May Churchill thought that the attack might be a decoy. The command in Crete had been informed on 18 April, despite the doubts, and Crete was added to a link from the Government Code & Cypher School to Cairo, while on 16 and 21 April intelligence that airborne operations were being prepared in Bulgaria arrived. On 22 April, the Allied headquarters in Crete was ordered to burn all material received through the 'Ultra' link, but Churchill ruled that the information must still be provided. When Freyberg took command on 30 April, the information was disguised as information from a spy in Athens. Remaining doubts about an attack on Crete were removed on 1 May, when the Luftwaffe was ordered to stop bombing airfields on the island and mining Soudha Bay and to photograph the whole island. By 5 May it was clear that the attack was not immediately imminent and on the next day, 17 May was revealed as the expected day for the completion of the German preparations, along with the operation orders for the plan from the D-day landings in the vicinity of Máleme and Khaniá, Heráklion and Réthymno.
Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr military intelligence service, originally reported that there were 5,000 British troops on Crete and no Greek forces. It is not clear whether Canaris, who had an extensive intelligence network at his disposal, was misinformed or was attempting to sabotage Hitler’s plans: Canaris was executed later in the war for supposedly participating in the 20 July plot. The Abwehr also predicted the Cretan population would welcome the Germans as liberators as a result of the locally strong republican and anti-monarchist feelings, and would want to receive the 'favourable terms which had been arranged on the mainland'. While Elefthérios Venizélos, 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 Cretan loyalty. King Georgios II and his entourage escaped from Greece via Crete with the help of Greek and Commonwealth soldiers, Cretan civilians, and even a band of prisoners who had been released from captivity by the Germans. The intelligence arm of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s 12th Army, which controlled mainland Greece, was altogether less optimistic, but nonetheless underestimated the number of British and Commonwealth forces and the number of Greek troops who had been evacuated from the mainland. Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, the theatre commander, was convinced the island could be taken with two divisions, but decided to keep Generalmajor Ferdinand Schörner’s 6th Gebirgsdivision in the area of Athens as a reserve.
Hitler authorised 'Merkur' (i) in his Führerweisung Nr 28, and the forces to be employed were to come from airborne and air units already in the area, and units intended for subsequent use in 'Barbarossa' were to conclude operations on Crete before the end of May. 'Barbarossa' was not to be delayed by the attack on Crete, which had to begin soon or it would be cancelled. Planning was rushed and much of 'Merkur' (i) depended on improvisation, this including the use of troops who were untrained for airborne assaults. The Germans planned to capture Máleme, but there was debate over the concentration of forces there and the number to be deployed against other objectives, such as the smaller airfields at Heráklion and Réthymno. Löhr, the Luftwaffe commander, and Vizeadmiral Karlgeorg Schuster, the Kriegsmarine commander, wanted greater emphasis to be placed on Máleme in order to achieve overwhelming superiority of force. Student wanted to disperse the paratroops more in order to maximise the effect of surprise. As the primary objective, Máleme offered several advantages: it was the largest airfield on Crete and big enough to accommodate operations by heavy transport aircraft, was close enough to the mainland for air cover by land-based Bf 109 fighters, and was near the northern coast so seaborne reinforcements could be brought up quickly. A compromise plan by Göring was agreed, and in the final draft, Máleme was to be captured first, while not ignoring the other objectives.
The invasion force was divided into the 3,840-man Gruppe 'Mitte' commanded by Süssmann with Prison Valley, Khaniá Soudha and Réthymno as its targets, the 1,860-man Gruppe 'West' commanded by Generalmajor Eugen Meindl with Máleme as its target, and the 2,360-man Gruppe 'Ost' commanded by Oberst Bruno Bräuer with Heráklion as its target: each of these Gruppen had a codename ('Mars', 'Komet' and 'Orion' respectively) tus adhering to the classical theme established by 'Merkur'. Totals of 750 glider-borne troops, 10,000 paratroops, 5,000 airlifted mountain troops and 7,000 seaborne troops were allocated to the invasion, with the largest proportion of the forces concentrated in the Gruppe 'West'. German airborne theory was based on parachuting a small force onto an opponent’s airfields to capture the perimeter and local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider. Freyberg knew this after studying earlier German airborne operations and decided to make the airfields unusable for landing, but was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria. The staff felt the invasion was doomed now that it had been compromised, and may have wanted the airfields intact for the RAF once the invasion had been defeated. The Germans were able to land reinforcements without fully operational airfields. One transport pilot crash-landed on a beach, others alighted on fields, discharged their cargo and took off again. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether or not a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference, particularly given the number of troops delivered by expendable gliders.
At 08.00 on 20 May, German paratroopers, exiting from a multitude of Ju 52/3m aircraft, landed near Máleme airfield and the town of Khaniá. The New Zealand 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions held Máleme airfield and the area round it. The Germans suffered many casualties in the first hours of their invasion: on company of the 3/1st Luftlande Sturmregiment lost 112 men killed out of a total of 126 men, and 400 of 600 men in the 3/1st Luftlande Sturmregiment were killed on the first day. Most of the paratroopers were engaged by New Zealanders defending the airfield and by Greek forces near Khaniá. Many gliders following the paratroopers were hit by mortar fire seconds after landing, and the New Zealand and Greek defenders almost annihilated the glider-borne troops who did manage to land safely.
Some paratroopers and gliders missed their objectives near both airfields and set up defensive positions to the west of Máleme airfield and in the so-called Prison Valley near Khaniá. Both forces were contained and failed to take the airfields, but the defenders had to deploy to face them. Toward the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. Greek police and cadets took part, with the Greek 1st Regiment (Provisional) combining with armed civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli. The Greek 8th Regiment and elements of the Cretan forces severely hampered movement by the 95th Aufklärungsabteilung on Kolimbari and Palaiokhora, where Allied reinforcements from North Africa could be landed.
A second wave of German transport aircraft, supported by Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attack aircraft, arrived in the afternoon, dropping more paratroopers and releasing further gliders containing assault troops. One group attacked at Réthymno at 16.15 and another attacked at Máleme at 17.30, where the defenders were awaiting them and inflicted many casualties.
The Heráklion and Réthymno sector was defended by the British 14th Brigade, as well as the Australian 2/4th Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and Garrison Battalions, latterly of the 5th Division. The Greeks in general, and the Garrison Battalion in particular, lacked equipment and supplies. The Germans pierced the defensive cordon around Heráklion on the first day, seizing the Greek barracks on the western edge of the town and capturing the docks. The Greeks counterattacked and recaptured both points. The Germans dropped leaflets threatening dire consequences if the Allies did not surrender immediately. On the following day Heráklion was heavily bombed and the depleted Greek units were relieved and assumed a defensive position on the road to Knossos.
As night fell, the Germans had secured none of their objectives. Of 493 German transport aircraft used during the paratrooper drop, seven had been lost to anti-aircraft fire. The bold plan to attack in four places to maximise surprise, rather than concentrating on one, seemed to have failed, although the reasons were currently unknown to the Germans.
Overnight, the New Zealand 22nd Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, leaving Máleme airfield undefended. During the previous day, the Germans had cut communications between the battalion’s two most westerly companies and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel L. Andrew, who was on the eastern side of the airfield. The lack of communication was assumed to mean that the battalion had been overrun in the west. With the weakened state of the battalion’s eastern elements and believing the western elements to have been overrun, Andrew requested reinforcement by the New Zealand 23rd Battalion, but Brigadier J. Hargest, commander of the New Zealand 5th Brigade, denied the request in the mistaken belief that the 23rd Battalion was busy repulsing paratroopers in its own sector. After a failed counterattack late in the day on 20 May, with the eastern elements of his battalion, Andrew withdrew under cover of darkness to regroup, with the consent of Hargest. Captain Campbell, commanding the westernmost company of the 22nd Battalion and out of contact with Andrew, did not learn of the withdrawal of the 22nd Battalion until a time early in the morning, at which point he also withdrew from the west of the airfield. This misunderstanding, representative of the failings of Allied communication and co-ordination in the defence of Crete, cost the Allies the airfield and allowed the Germans the unopposed capability to reinforce their invasion force. In Athens, Student decided to concentrate on Máleme on 21 May, as this was the area where the most progress had been made and because an early morning reconnaissance flight over Máleme airfield was unopposed. The Germans quickly exploited the New Zealanders' withdrawal from Hill 107 to take control of Máleme airfield, just as a sea landing was made in the same basic ara. The Allies continued to bombard the area as Ju 52/3m transports flew in units of the 5th Gebirgsdivision at night.
In the afternoon of 21 May, Freyberg ordered a counterattack to retake Máleme airfield during the night of 21/22 May. The Australian 2/7th Battalion was to move 18 miles (29 km) to the north to relieve the New Zealand 20th Battalion, which would then participate in the counterattack. The 2/7th Battalion had no transport, and vehicles for the battalion were delayed by German air attacks. By the time the battalion moved northward to relieve 20th Battalion for the counterattack, it was 23.30, and the 20th Battalion took three hours to reach the staging area, with its first elements arriving at about 02. 45. The counterattack began at 03.30 but failed because of German daylight air support.
An Axis convoy of some 20 caďque craft, escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Lupo, tried to land German reinforcements near Máleme. The light cruisers Dido, Orion and Ajax. and the destroyers Janus, Hasty, Hereward and Kimberley of Force 'D' under the command of Rear Admiral I. G. Glennie, intercepted the convoy before 00.00, and the convoy turned back after losing more than half of its vessels despite Lupo's defence. The attacking British force suffered only slight damage to the cruiser Orion as a result of 'friendly fire'. About two-thirds of the German force of more than 2,000 men was saved by the Italian naval commander, Capitano di Fregata Francesco Mimbelli, against an overwhelmingly superior Allied naval force. Some 297 German soldiers, two Italian seamen and two British sailors on Orion were killed. Eight caiques vessels were caught and sunk, while at least another six managed to get away, together with three Italian escorting motor sailing boats. Only one caďque and one cutter from the convoy reached Crete. The caďque landed three officers and 110 German soldiers near Cape Spatha, while the cutter arrived safely in Akrotiri, where her crew was engaged by a British army patrol and sustained heavy casualties. Of the German soldiers who landed at Akrotiri, only one managed to get through the British lines and join the German paratroopers already fighting for Khaniá. According to some sources, only one German officer and 35 men of the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment landed from the caďque that arrived in Crete.
The defending force organised for a night counterattack on Máleme by two New Zealand battalions, the 20th Battalion of the 4th Brigade and the 28th (Maori) Battalion of the 5th Brigade. A New Zealand officer present at the battle claimed a long delay ordering the planned counterattack turned a night attack into a day attack, which led to its failure. Fears of a sea landing meant that a number of units that could have taken part in the attack were left in place, although this possibility was removed by the Royal Navy, which arrived too late for the plans to be changed. The delayed counterattack on the airfield came in daylight on 22 May, when the troops faced Ju 87 dive bombers, dug-in paratroopers and mountain infantrymen. The attack slowly petered out and failed to retake the airfield, and this compelled the Allies into withdrawals to the eastern end of the island, to avoid being outflanked.
Cunningham sent Force 'C' (the light cruisers Naiad and Perth, the light anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta, and the destroyers Kandahar, Nubian, Kingston and Juno), under the command of Rear Admiral E. L. S. King, into the Aegean Sea through the Kásos Strait to attack a second flotilla of transports, escorted by the Italian torpedo boat Sagittario. The force sank an isolated caďque at 08.30, saving itself from an air attack that struck the cruiser Naiad as the German pilots tried to avoid killing their troops in the water. The British squadron was under constant air attack and, short of anti-aircraft ammunition, steamed on toward Milos, sighting Sagittario at 10.00. King made the 'difficult' decision not to press the attack, despite his overpowering advantage, because of his ships' shortage of ammunition and the severity of the air attacks. The transports were defended by a torpedo charge by Sagittario, which also laid a smoke screen and traded fire with the British force, trying to lure the latter onto a different course. Until 11.00, King was indeed unaware that a major Axis convoy was ahead of his force, and eventually, the convoy and its escort managed to slip away undamaged. Despite their failure to destroy the German troop transports, King’s ships had by their mere presence succeeded in forcing the Axis to abort the landing. During the search and withdrawal from the area, Force 'C' suffered many losses to German bombers: Naiad was damaged by near misses and Carlisle was hit. Cunningham later criticised King, saying that the safest place during the air attack would have been among the flotilla of caďque vessels.
While Force 'C' made its attack on the convoy, Force 'A1' (the battleships Warspite and Valiant, and the destroyers Greyhound, Griffin, Havock, Hero and Jaguar) under the command of Rear Admiral H. B. Rawlings, Force 'B' (the light cruisers Gloucester, Fiji, Orion and Dido, and the destroyers Decoy, Hereward, Hotspur, Imperial, Jackal and Kimberley) under the command of Captain H. A Rowley) and Glennie’s Force 'D' converged in the area to the west of Antikythera. Concerned about the level of anti-aircraft ammunition available following repeated air attacks, the combined force was ordered to report on its stock of high-angle ammunition at 09.31: of the cruisers, Ajax had 40%, Orion 38%, Fiji 30%, Dido 25% and Gloucester a mere 18%. Ajax, Orion and Dido were ordered to return to Alexandria with Glennie’s Force 'D' to reammunition, but Gloucester and Fiji remained with Rawlings’s Force 'A1'.
At 12.25 Force 'A1', stationed 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 km) to the west of Antikythera, received a request from King to support the damaged Naiad. Force 'A1' headed eastward into the Kythera Channel, making rendezvous with Force 'C' between 13.30 and 14.00. As the more senior admiral, King took command, and air attacks now inflicted damage on both forces. A bomb struck the battleship Warspite, and the destroyer Greyhound was sunk. King sent the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston to rescue survivors, while the light cruisers Fiji and Gloucester were ordered, at 14.02 and 14.07 respectively, to provide anti-aircraft support. Writing in despatches after the battle, Cunningham stated that King was unaware of the shortage of anti-aircraft ammunition in Gloucester and Fiji. At 14.13 King and Rawlings exchanged messages about the shortage of ammunition in the ships of both Force 'C' and Force 'A1', with Rawlings expressing concern about the orders given to Gloucester and Fiji. Following this communication, at 14.57 King issued an order to recall both Gloucester and Fiji.
Between 15.30 and 15.50, while attempting to rejoin Force 'A1', Gloucester was hit by several bombs and had to be left behind: the ship was then sunk, 22 officers and 700 other ranks being lost. The air attacks on Force 'A1' and Force 'C' continued: two bombs hit the battleship Valiant and one hit Fiji, disabling her at 18.45. A Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bomber dropped three bombs on Fiji, sinking her at 20.15; 500 survivors were rescued by Kandahar and Kingston that night. The Royal Navy had lost two cruisers and one destroyer, but had managed to force the invasion fleet to turn back. Royal Navy anti-aircraft gunners shot down five Ju 87 dive-bombers and five Ju 88 medium bombers, and damaged 16 more, some of which crash-landed upon their return to base during the night of 21/22 May.
Fighting against fresh German troops, the Allies retreated southward. Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla, comprising Kelly, Kipling, Kelvin, Jackal and Kashmir, was ordered to leave Malta on 21 May to join the fleet off Crete, and arrived after Gloucester and Fiji had been sunk. The freshly arrived destroyers were sent to pick up survivors and then diverted to attack a German convoy of about 50 vessels and caďques off Cape Spatha on the Rodopou peninsula of western Crete on the night of 22/23 May and then to bombard the German forces at Máleme. Kelvin and Jackal were diverted to another search while Mountbatten, with Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling was ordered to proceed to Alexandria. While the three destroyers were rounding the western side of Crete, they came under attack by 24 Ju 87 dive-bombers: Kashmir was hit and sank in two minutes, Kelly was hit and turned turtle soon after this and later sank. Kelly had shot down one Ju 87, and badly damaged another that crashed upon returning to base. Kipling survived 83 bombs, and recovered 279 survivors from the other ships. by this time the Royal Navy had suffered so many losses from air attacks that on 23 May Cunningham signalled his superiors that daylight operations could no longer continue, but the Chiefs-of-Staff demurred. German search-and-rescue aircraft and Italian motor torpedo boats spotted and rescued the 262 survivors from the German light convoy sunk off Cape Spatha.
After air attacks on Allied positions in Kastelli on 24 May, the 95th Gebirgspionierbataillon advanced on the town. These air attacks enabled the escape of German paratroopers captured on 20 May: the escapees killed or captured several New Zealand officers assigned to lead the Greek 1st Regiment. The Greeks put up determined resistance, but with only 600 rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammunition for 1,000 ill-trained men, they were unable to repel the German advance. Fighting with the remnants of the Greek 1st Regiment continued in the Kastelli area until 26 May, hampering German efforts to land reinforcements.
Despite the dangers posed by British naval forces, the Kriegsmarine made another attempt to supply the invasion by sea. On 24 May, Oberleutnant Österlin, who had led the Maleme Flottille, was ordered to deliver two PzKpfw II light tanks to Kastelli Kisamou. Österlin commandeered a small wooden lighter at Piraeus and arranged for the tanks to be lowered onto it. At dusk on the following day, the lighter was towed by the small harbour tug Kentauros out of Piraeus and then headed to the south in the direction of Crete. Reports of British naval units operating nearby convinced Schuster to delay the operation, and he therefore signalled Österlin to make for a small harbour on the German-occupied island of Kithira. At a meeting in Athens on 27 May, Luftwaffe Generals von Richthofen, Hans Jeschonnek and Löhr pressed Schuster to have the tanks delivered somehow before '… the Englander claws himself erect again'. One of von Richthofen’s liaison officers had returned from the island on 26 May, reporting that the paratroopers were in poor condition, lacking in discipline, and 'at loose ends'. He stressed the 'absolute and immediate need' for 'reinforcement by sea shipment of heavy weaponry if the operation is to get ahead at all'.
Schuster issued Österlin new orders to sail for the Gulf of Kissamos, on Crete’s western end, where a landing beach had already been selected and marked. Upon nearing the shore on 28 May, the lighter was positioned ahead of the tug and firmly beached. A party of engineers then used demolition charges to blew off the lighter’s bow, and the two tanks rolled ashore. They were soon assigned to the Vorauseilende Ablösung 'Wittmann', an advance force which had assembled near the Prison Valley reservoir on the previous day as an extemporised grouping comprised one motorcycle battalion, one reconnaissance battalion, one anti-tank unit, one motorised artillery troop and some engineers. Ringel gave orders for Oberstleutnant August Wittmann to 'strike out from Platanos at 03.00 on 28 May in pursuit of the British ''main force'' via the coastal highway to Réthymno' and thence toward Heráklion. Although they did not play a decisive role, the two tanks were useful in helping round up British troops in the Kissamos area before speeding eastward in support of the German pursuit column.
On the night of 26/27 May, a detachment of some 800 men from No. 7 Commando and No. 50/52 Commando, as part of Colonel R. E. Laycock’s 'Layforce', landed at Soudha Bay. Laycock had tried to land the force on 25 May but had turned back by bad weather. Although armed mainly with rifles and a small number of machine guns, 'Layforce' was to carry out rearguard actions to buy the garrison enough time to carry out an evacuation.
Troops of Oberst Maximilian Jais’s 141st Gebirgsjägerregiment blocked a section of the road between Soudha and Khaniá. On the morning of 27 May, the New Zealand 28th (Maori) Battalion, the Australian 2/7th Battalion and the Australian 2/8th Battalion cleared the road by a bayonet charge. The high command in London decided that the cause on Crete was now hopeless after Wavell informed Churchill at 08.42 on 27 May, that the battle was lost, and ordered an evacuation. Freyberg concurrently ordered his troops to begin a withdrawal to the southern coast for evacuation.
On 26 May, in the face of the stalled German advance, senior German officers requested Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader, to send Italian army units to Crete in order to help the German forces. On the afternoon of 27 May, an Italian convoy departed Rhodes with the intention of landing a brigade of Generale di Divisione Michele Scaroina’s 50th Divisione fanteria 'Regina', supported by 13 L3/35 light tanks. Italian participation in the battle of Crete was limited, and finally on 28 May, when the campaign had been decided in favour to the Germans and the Allied evacuation had begun, an Italian landing force approached the north-eastern coast of the island off Sitia. At 13.30 on 28 May, the Italians believed that a British naval force of three cruisers and six destroyers was steaming toward Crete’s northern coast in support of Allied troops, but the Royal Navy was in fact fully occupied evacuating the Allied forces from Crete. The Italians assumed that the Royal Navy force would be off Sitia, the planned landing site, by 17.00 and the commander decided that the slowest ship of the convoy would be taken in tow by Lince to increase speed, and Crispi was detached to shell the lighthouse at Cape Sideros. The 3,000 men of the division and their equipment were on shore by 17.20 and advanced to the west mostly unopposed, linking with the Germans at Ierapetra. The Italian troops later moved their headquarters from Sitia to Agios Nikolaos.
The Germans pushed the British, Commonwealth and Greek forces steadily to the south, making extensive use of air and artillery bombardment, followed by waves of motorcycle and mountain troops: the rocky nature of the terrain made difficult the employment of tanks. The garrisons at Soudha and Beritania gradually fell back along the road to Vitsilokoumos, to the north of Sfakia. About halfway there, near the village of Askyfou lies a large crater nicknamed 'The Saucer', the only place wide and flat enough for a large parachute drop. Troops were stationed about its perimeter, to prevent a landing that might block the retreat. On the evening of 27 May, a small detachment of German troops penetrated the Allied lines near the Imbros gorge, threatening a column of retreating and essentially unarmed Allied troops. The attack was held off by the only four men with weapons. Led by Corporal Douglas Bignal, the men sacrificed themselves to secure the withdrawal of the remainder.
Near Soudha, the New Zealand 5th Brigade and the Australian 2/7th Battalion held off the 141st Gebirgsjägerregiment, which had begun a flanking manoeuvre, and on 28 May, at the village of Stylos, the New Zealand 5th Brigade fought a rearguard action. The Luftwaffe was operating over Réthymno and Heráklion, and the brigade was able to retreat down the road covered by two companies of the Maori battalion under the command of Captain Rangi Royal, and the New Zealanders overran the 141st Gebirgsjägerregiment and halted the German advance. When the main unit was safely to the rear, the Maori battalion retreated 24 miles (39 km), losing only two men killed and eight wounded, all of whom were recovered. The battalion-sized 'Layforce' was the only significant unit in this area to be cut off. 'Layforce' had been sent to Crete by way of Sfakiá when it was still hoped that reinforcements could be brought from Egypt to turn the tide of the battle. The force was now divided, with a 200-man detachment under Laycock at Soudha to cover the retreat of the heavier units. 'Layforce' and three British tanks were joined by the men of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, who had been assigned to guard Soudha docks and refused to believe that an evacuation had been ordered. After a day of battle, Laycock ordered a nocturnal retreat to Beritiana, where he was joined by Royal and the Maori troops, who managed to fight their way out, but 'Layforce' was cut off near the village of Babali Khani. Laycock and his brigade major, Evelyn Waugh, were able to escape in a tank. Most of the detachment’s other men and those of the 20th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery were killed or taken prisoner. (By the end of the operation about 600 of the 800 commandos sent to Crete were listed as killed, wounded or missing; only 179 men got off the island.)
Between 28 May and 1 June, surviving Allied troops were embarked for Egypt, most being lifted from Sfakiá on the southern coast, where about 6,000 troops were rescued on the night of 29/30 May, but the force was attacked by Luftwaffe dive bombers on the voyage back and suffered many losses. About 4,000 men were withdrawn from Heráklion on the night of 28/29 May, on the next night 1,500 soldiers were taken away by four destroyers and during the night of 31 May /1 June another 4,000 men were lifted. About 18,600 men of the 32,000 British troops on the island were evacuated, but 12,000 British and Dominion troops and thousands of Greeks were still on Crete when the island came under German control on 1 June.
Colonel Campbell, the commander at Réthymno, was forced to surrender his contingent. Réthymno fell and on the night of 30 May, German motorcycle troops linking with the Italian troops who had landed on Sitia. On 1 June, the remaining 5,000 defenders at Sfakiá surrendered. By the end of the year, however, there were still some 500 Commonwealth troops at large on the island. While scattered and disorganised, these men and the partisans harassed German troops for a long period after the Allied withdrawal.
Cretan civilians joined the battle with whatever weapons were available, and most civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and several German paratroopers were knifed or clubbed to death in olive groves. In one recorded incident, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a paratrooper to death with his walking cane before the German had been able disentangle himself from his parachute. In another recorded incident, a local priest and his teenage son broke into a small village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan wars just before the start of World War I and sniped at German paratroopers at landing zones. The Cretans also used captured German small arms. The actions of Cretan civilians against the Germans were not limited to harassment: mobs of armed civilians joined in the Greek counterattacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora, and the British and New Zealand advisers at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilians also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heráklion and in the town centre.
The 'Battle of Crete' was not the first occasion in World War II in which the German troops encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population, as similar events took place during the invasion of Poland, but even so the actions of Cretan civilians initially surprised and later outraged them. As most Cretan guerrillas wore no uniforms or insignia, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints of the Hague Conventions and killed armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately. Immediately after the fall of Crete, a series of collective punishments against civilians began. Between 2 June and 1 August, 195 people of the village of Alikianos and its vicinity were killed in mass shootings known as the Alikianos executions. On 2 June, several male citizens from Kondomari were executed by a firing squad, the shootings being captured on film by a German army war correspondent. On 3 June, the village of Kandanos was razed to the ground and about 180 of its inhabitants killed. After the war, Student, who had ordered the shootings, avoided prosecution for war crimes despite Greek efforts to have him extradited.
The first resistance movement in Crete was established just two weeks after its capture. Throughout the German occupation in the years that followed, reprisals in retaliation for the involvement of the local population in the Cretan resistance continued. On several occasions, villagers were rounded up and summarily executed. In one of the worst incidents, some 20 villages to the east of Viannos and to the west of the Ierapetra provinces were looted and burned in September 1943, with more than 500 of the area’s inhabitants massacred. These massacres were among the worst of the Axis occupation of Greece. In August 1944, more than 940 houses in Anogeia were looted and then demolished with explosives. During the same month, nine villages in the Amari Valley were destroyed and 165 people killed in what is now known as the Holocaust of Kedros. All these reprisals were ordered by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, who was nicknamed 'The Butcher of Crete'. After the war, Müller was tried by a Greek military court, convicted and executed. Assaults on civilians with lower death tolls occurred in places such as Vorizia, Kali Sykia, Kallikratis, Skourvoula and Malathyros.
The higher command elements of the Luftwaffe were deeply shocked by the number of transport aircraft lost in the battle, and Student, reflecting on the casualties suffered by the paratroopers, concluded after the war that Crete had been the death of the airborne force. Believing airborne forces to be a weapon of surprise and had now lost that advantage, Hitler concluded that the days of the airborne corps were over and directed that paratroopers should henceforward be employed as ground troops in subsequent operations.
The 'Battle of Crete' delayed 'Barbarossa' albeit only indirectly. The start date for 'Barbarossa', 22 June, had been set several weeks before the Cretan operation was considered and the directive by Hitler for 'Merkut' (i) made it plain that preparations for 'Merkur' (i) must not impact 'Barbarossa'. However, many units assigned to 'Merkur' (i) were also intended for 'Barbarossa', and forced to redeploy to Poland and Romania by the end of May. The movement of surviving units from Greece was not delayed. The northward transfer of the VIII Fliegerkorps for 'Barbarossa' eased the Royal Navy’s evacuation of the defenders. The delay of 'Barbarossa' was also exacerbated by the late arrival of spring and floods in Poland.
The air operation impact of the 'Battle of Crete' on 'Barbarossa' was direct. The Luftwaffe’s considerable losses in 'Merkur' (i), specifically of transport aircraft, affected the capacity of air power operations at the start of the 'Barbarossa' campaign. Additionally, given the decimation of the German airborne arm in Crete meant that there were insufficient numbers of men qualified to carry out the large-scale airborne operations that were had been planned for the start of 'Barbarossa'. Furthermore, the delay imposed by the whole Balkan campaign, including the Battle of Crete, prevented the exploitation of the strategic advantages that the German forces had gained in the eastern Mediterranean. With the VIII Fliegerkorps ordered to Germany for refitting before Crete had been secured, significant command and communication issues hampered redeployment of the whole formation as the ground personnel was directly redeployed to their new bases in Poland.
The sinking of the German battleship Bismarck on 27 May distracted British public opinion, but the loss of Crete, particularly as a result of the failure of the Allied land forces to recognise the strategic importance of the airfields, led the British government to make changes. Only six days before the initial assault, the Vice Chief of Air Staff presciently wrote that 'If the Army attach any importance to air superiority at the time of an invasion then they must take steps to protect our aerodromes with something more than men in their first or second childhood.' Shocked by and disappointed with the army’s inexplicable failure to recognise the importance of airfields in modern warfare, Churchill made the RAF responsible for the defence of its bases and the RAF Regiment was formed on 1 February 1942. Allied commanders at first worried the Germans might use Crete as a springboard for further operations in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, possibly for an airborne attack on Cyprus or a seaborne invasion of Egypt, in support of Axis forces operating from Libya. 'Barbarossa' then made it clear that the occupation of Crete was a defensive measure to secure the Axis southern flank.
For a fortnight, British decrypts of German Enigma-coded signals traffic described the arrival of XI Fliegerkorps into the area of Athens, the collection of 27,000 tons of shipping, and the effect of air attacks on Crete, which began on 14 May. A postponement of the invasion was revealed on 15 May, and on 19 May the probable date was given as the next day, which was indeed the actual date. The German objectives in Crete were similar to those in the areas already being prepared by the British, but foreknowledge increased the confidence of the local commanders in their dispositions. On 14 May, London warned that the attack could come any time after 17 May, information which Freyberg passed on to the garrison. On 16 May the British authorities expected an attack by 25,000 to 30,000 airborne troops in 600 aircraft and by 10,000 troops transported by sea: the actual figures were 15,750 airborne troops in 520 aircraft and 7,000 ground troops by sea. Late decrypts reduced uncertainty over the seaborne invasion. The British mistakes were smaller than those of the Germans, who estimated the garrison to be only one-third of the true figure. The after-action report of the XI Fliegerkorps contained a passage recounting that the operational area had been so well prepared that it gave the impression that the garrison had known the time of the invasion.
The Germans captured a message from London marked 'Personal for General Freyberg' which was translated into German and sent to Berlin. Dated 24 May and starting 'According to a most reliable source', this said where German troops were on the previous day, which could have been from reconnaissance, but also specified that the Germans were next going to 'attack Suda Bay'. This could have indicated that Enigma messages were compromised.
Informed of the air component of the German battle plan, Freyberg had started to prepare a defence near the airfields and along the northern coast. He had been hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and thus the lightly armed paratroopers had about the same, if not more, firepower than the defenders. 'Ultra' intelligence was detailed but was taken out of context and misinterpreted. While emphasis was placed on the airborne assault, the German messages also mentioned seaborne operations: expecting an amphibious landing, Freyberg garrisoned the coast, and this reduced the number of men available to defend the airfield at Máleme, the principal German objective. The Germans had more casualties in the conquest of Crete than in the rest of the Greek campaign, and the losses suffered by the 7th Fliegerdivision were so great that this single formation of its type was not rebuilt.
It is difficult to measure the influence of intelligence gained during the course of the battle, because while 'Ultra' revealed German situation reports, reinforcement details and unit identifications, and because more intelligence was garnered from prisoner interrogations and captured documents, it was not known how rapidly the information reached Freyberg or how he used it. The German parachute warfare manual had been captured in 1940, and after the war, Student said that he would have changed tactics had he known this. Field signals intelligence was obtained, including bombing instructions and information from the XI Fliegerkorps' tactical code. Lack of air cover prevented much British air reconnaissance to the north of Crete, but on 21 May signals intelligence enabled an aeroplane to spot a convoy, which the Royal Navy then intercepted: 12 ships were sunk and the rest scattered, which led to a second invasion convoy being recalled. The second convoy was intercepted during the morning of 22 May, despite the cost to the Royal Navy of a daylight operation, and no more seaborne attempts were made.
The official German casualty figures are contradictory as a result of minor variations in documents produced by German commands on various dates, but a realistic estimate based on a compilation of sources estimated 6,698 losses, possibly excluding lightly wounded men. Reports of German casualties in British reports were in almost all cases exaggerated and are not accepted against the official contemporary German returns, prepared for normal purposes and not for propaganda. British official historians gave figures of 1,990 Germans killed, 2,131 wounded and 1,995 missing for a total of 6,116 men. It therefore seems likely that the Germans lost at least 12,000 men killed or wounded, and about 5,000 drowned.
The British official historians recorded 147 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and 64 damaged beyond repair by Allied action, with 73 destroyed as a result of extensive non-combat damage, for a total of 284 aircraft. Another 84 aircraft had repairable non-combat damage. Later historians have recorded an overall total of 220 aircraft destroyed and 64 written off due to damage, a total of 284 aircraft between 13 May and 1 June: 147 in combat, 73 non-combat, 64 written off and 125 damaged but repairable.
The British lost 1,742 men killed, 1,737 wounded and 11,835 taken prisoner from a garrison of slightly more than 32,000 men; and the Royal Navy lost 1,828 men killed and 183 wounded. Of a force of more than 10,000 Greek troops, 5,255 were taken prisoner. As noted above, many civilians were killed in the crossfire or died fighting as guerrillas. Many Cretan civilians were also shot by the Germans in reprisal during and after the battle. One Cretan source has placed the number of Cretans killed by the Germans at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children. German records put the number of Cretans executed by firing squad as 3,474, and at least 1,000 civilians were killed in massacres late in 1944.
The Luftwaffe sank the cruisers GloucesterFiji and Calcutta, and the destroyers Kelly, Greyhound and Kashmir between 22 May and 1 June. Italian bombers of the 41o Gruppo sank the destroyer Juno on 21 May and on 28 May damaged the destroyer Imperial beyond repair. The British also lost the destroyer Hereward on 29 May when she was attacked by Ju 87 dive-bombers.
Damage to the aircraft carrier Formidable, the battleships Warspite and Barham, the cruisers Ajax, Dido, Orion and Perth, the submarine Rover, the destroyers Kelvin and Nubian kept these vessels out of action for months. At anchor in Soudha Bay in northern Crete, the heavy cruiser York was disabled by Italian explosive motor boats and beached on 26 March, and was later wrecked by demolition charges when Crete was evacuated. By 1 June, the strength of the Royal Navy in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea had been reduced to two battleships and three cruisers, against an Italian strength of four battleships and 11 cruisers. For the British, the 'Battle of Crete' was the costliest naval engagement of the entire war.
Royal Navy shipborne anti-aircraft gun claims for the period between 15 and 27 May amounted to 'twenty enemy aircraft…shot down for certain, with 11 probables. At least 15 aircraft appeared to have been damaged.' Between 28 May and 1 June, another two aircraft were claimed shot down and six more damaged, for a total of 22 claimed destroyed, 11 probably destroyed and 21 damaged.