Invasion and Battle of Crete
Early on the morning of May 20, waves of dive bombers and low flyingfighter planes subjected the Maleme, Canea, and Suda Bay areas to theheaviest bombing and strafing attacks yet experienced by the seasonedtroops manning the defenses. Most of the antiaircraft guns were put outof action and the defenders were forced to seek shelter. Bombs weredropped at the approaches to the airfields to put the telephone lines outof order.
At 08:00 the first gliders, each carrying twelve men landed near theairfield and on the beaches near Canea. At the same time, approximately2,000 parachutists jumped in waves of 200 each at fifteen-minuteintervals. Two of every three parachutes in each wave carried containerswith weapons and supplies. At Maleme, the parachute troops jumped into the strong enemy fire from infantry weapons, emplaced in positions built intothe hills south of the airfield. Many of the paratroopers were killedduring the descent or shortly after landing. Because of the concentratedenemy fire, most of the men were unable to recover the weapons containersand had to rely on the pistol, four hand grenades, and large knife theycarried. One battalion of the assault regiment landed too far to the eastamong olive groves and vineyards near Maleme and was greeted by murderousmachine gun and heavy weapons fire. Casualties were very heavy, and themedical platoon that had set up a first aid station in a farmhouse wasoverwhelmed by the constant influx of seriously wounded men. The gliderswould have been completely destroyed by enemy fire, had they not beencovered by clouds of dust which formed as soon as they touched the ground.
The commander of the 7th Airborne Division, Generalleutnant WilhelmSuessmann was killed during the approach flight, while Generalmajor EugenMeindl, who was in command of the Maleme group, was critically woundedshortly after landing. Both the Maleme and Canea groups were thereforewithout their commanders.
The success of the Maleme operation depended on the quick capture of theairfield so that reinforcements could be landed without delay. To achievethis the British forces had to be dislodged frown Hill 107, whichdominated the airfield and the surrounding terrain. The remnants of theinitial force launched simultaneous attacks on the hill and the airfieldat 15:00. Despite heavy opposition and fire from the British antiaircraftguns emplaced near the airfield, the attackers captured the northern andnorthwestern edge of the airfield and advanced up the northern slope ofHill 107. Two German transport planes tried to land on the airfieldtoward evening but machine gun fire prevented them from doing so.
The Canea group, which was to capture the village of Suda and the town ofCanea and eliminate the British command staff, located in that area,landed on the rocky ground and suffered many jump casualties. The few men whowere not wounded attempted to gather weapons and ammunition and establishcontact with their comrades. Here the German paratroopers were opposed byNew Zealanders who engaged them with small arms and heavy weapons firefrom olive groves offering perfect camouflage for snipers and machine gunpositions. The isolated German elements made little headway against thewell-entrenched enemy forces.
Meanwhile, the German command in Greece assumed that the operation wasprogressing according to plan because all troop carriers with theexception of seven returned to their bases. On this assumption, which wasproved erroneous only after several hours had passed, the troop carrierswere readied for the afternoon landings at Heraklion and Retimo. Becauseof a delay in the refueling, these planes arrived too late over thedesignated drop points and the paratroops were therefore without directfighter and bomber support. One parachute combat team in regimentalstrength jumped over each of the two points between 15:00 and 16:30.Running into very heavy British fire, the parachutists suffered even morecasualties than at Maleme and failed to capture the airfields, towns, orports. Some of the troops landed at the wrong points because the troopcarriers had difficulty in orienting themselves. After they touched the ground the Germans found themselves in an almost hopeless situation.Surrounded by greatly superior enemy forces, they struggled for survival.Their signal equipment had been smashed during the airdrop and they weretherefore unable to establish contact with the nearest friendly forces.Although they were completely on their own and faced by an uncertainfate, they were determined to hold out to the end in the vicinity of thetwo airfields so that they would tie down the enemy forces and thusassist their comrades in the western part of the island.
Air reconnaissance and radio messages had meanwhile rectified theerroneous picture of the first landings in western Crete. By the eveningof 20 May, not a single airfield was securely held by the Germans. Themost favorable reports came from Maleme, where the defenders were fallingback from Hill 107 and their perimeter defenses around the airfieldwhich, however, was still under British artillery fire. Moreover, crashedaircraft and gliders obstructed parts of the field. Thus, no field wasavailable for the airborne landing of the 5th Mountain Division, whichwas scheduled for the next day. Canea was still in enemy hands and theisolated troops landed at the four drop points had so far been unable toform airheads, let alone establish contact among themselves. While theattacker had run into unexpectedly strong resistance and had failed toreach the objective of the day, the fury and strength of the onslaughtsurprised the defenders.
Seaborne Invasion (20-22 May)
During the night of May 20-21, a British light naval force broke throughthe German aerial blockade and searched the waters north of Crete.Admiral Schuster thereupon decided to call back to Milos the first naval convoy, which was approaching Crete under escort of an Italian destroyer.At dawn on May 21, German planes sighted the British ships and subjectedthem to heavy air attacks. One destroyer was sunk and two cruisersdamaged. At 09:00 the waters north of Crete were cleared of enemy shipsand the convoy was ordered to continue its voyage in the direction ofMaleme. During the day German dive bombers based on Skarpanto and Italianplanes flying from Rhodes scored several hits on British ships returningto Crete waters, thereby preventing them from intercepting the Axisconvoy. The German troops on the island were anxiously awaiting thearrival of artillery, antitank guns, and supplies, but poor weatherconditions so delayed the convoy that it could not reach the islandbefore darkness.
When it finally came around Cape Spatha at 23:00, a British naval taskforce suddenly confronted the convoy, which was on the way to Suda Bay toland reinforcements and supplies. The British immobilized the Italianescort vessel and sank most of the motor sailers and freighters. ManyGerman soldiers, most of them being mountain troops, were drowned. Sea rescueplanes, however, picked up the majority of the shipwrecked. The secondconvoy, which had meanwhile reached Milos, was recalled to Piraeus tosave it from a similar fate. No further seaborne landings were attempteduntil the fate of Crete had been decided.
On the morning of 22 May, VIII Air Corps started an all-out attack on theBritish fleet, which was forced to withdraw from the Aegean aftersuffering heavy losses. The battle between the Luftwaffe and the BritishNavy ended in the victory of German air power, which from then ondominated the air and waters north of Crete.
21 May-1 June
On the morning of May 21, a few planes were able to make crash landingson the beaches near Maleme and bring in badly needed weapons andammunition to the assault troops in that area. Enemy artillery fireinterdicted any landing on the airfield proper. It was therefore decidedto drop additional parachute troops behind the enemy positions dominatingthe airfield.
Oberst Bernhard Ramcke assembled 550 paratroopers who had been leftbehind on the first day and formed a reserve battalion. He was ordered tojump west of Maleme airfield and assist in clearing the British positionsin its vicinity. Mountain infantrymen already seated in their transportplanes were hastily unloaded and immediately replaced by Ramcke’s men. Inthe early afternoon, four companies of parachute troops jumped from lowaltitudes above the vineyards near Maleme. The two that were supposed toland behind the enemy lines descended directly into well-camouflagedenemy positions and were almost completely wiped out. The other twojoined the assault troops which, by 17:00, succeeded in dislodging theenemy infantry from the town of Maleme and the hills surrounding theairfield. The airdrop was effectively supported by tactical air forceattacks on enemy defenses. Throughout this fighting, however, the divebombers were unable to silence the British artillery pieces which wereparticularly well camouflaged and which, in order not to uncover theirposition, held their fire whenever German planes were in sight.
Troop carriers with the 5th Mountain Division troops began to land atMaleme airfield at 16:00, even though the field was still underintermittent artillery and machine gun fire. Low-flying planes kept thedefenders’ fire to a minimum and the landings proceeded without majorlosses. A captured British tank was used as the prime mover to clear theairfield of burned-out and damaged planes. As soon as the landing stripwas cleared, planes came in and left without interruption.
From that point on, reinforcements and supplies kept pouring in and thefate of Crete was sealed. Little by little the entire 5th Mountain Division was flown in. Even more important to the attack forces were theartillery pieces, antitank guns, and supplies of all types, which hadbeen missing during the initial stage of the invasion and which were nowbeing airlifted into Maleme.
On May 22, Generalmajor Julius Ringel, the commander of the 5th MountainDivision assumed command of all the German forces in the Malemeairfield. His first task was to establish contact with the Canea forcesand to clear the western part of the island of enemy troops. For thispurpose, his mountain troops used the same tactics they had employed sosuccessfully at Mount Olympus and Thermopylae. By climbing along pathsthat were not even real trails and over heights previously considered tobe unscalable, the mountain troops, loaded with everything they needed tofight and supply themselves, broke their own ground as they advanced andthen attacked the enemy in the flank or rear at points where he expectedthem the least. They had no mules and were therefore forced to hand-carrytheir heavy weapons and ammunition across the rugged terrain. Throughoutthe struggle for Crete, they adhered to the motto that sweat saves blood.In their heavy uniforms, the mountain soldiers withstood days of scorchingheat with temperatures rising up to 130 degrees F, and nights when themountain air at altitudes ranging up to 7,000 feet was so cold that theywere unable to sleep.
On D + 5 the mountain troops outflanked the British positions east ofMaleme, and on the next day they entered Canea, the capital of Crete, andoccupied Suda Bay after a forced march across the mountains. During thisfighting, the British offered strong resistance and showed no signs ofwillingness to give in. They made very skillful use of the terrain anddelayed the German advance by the sniper and machine gun fire. Wire and minefields protected some of their positions. Armed bands of Cretans foughtfiercely in the mountains, using great cunning and committing acts ofcruelty such as mutilating dead and wounded German soldiers.
The air-ground coordination of the attackers occasionally failed tofunction during these days. At 13:10 on May 26, for instance, Dornierplanes subjected elements of the 85th Mountain Regiment to a heavybombardment, although the latter had laid out Swastika flags and firedwhite flares. The air attack continued until 14:00 and had a verydetrimental effect on the ground troops’ morale.
While the struggle for western Crete was raging, German reconnaissanceplanes reported that a few British planes had returned to Heraklionairfield on May 23 and that reinforcements were arriving by sea in theeastern part of the island. If complete air superiority over Crete was tobe maintained by the Luftwaffe, the return of British planes en masse hadto be prevented by all means. It was therefore decided to reinforce theGerman troops in the Heraklion pocket by dropping hastily assembledparachute units. They were to take possession of the airfield and untilrelieved by approaching ground forces, prevent the landing of Britishplanes. Four companies of parachute troops were formed at Maleme anddropped in the vicinity of the Heraklion pocket west of the town.Immediately after landing on 28 May, the parachute units contacted theembattled pocket force and launched a concerted attack against theBritish positions, eliminating several enemy strongholds with the supportof dive-bombers. After regrouping his forces during the night the Germancommander at Heraklion set out to capture the town and the airfield earlyon the next morning. At daybreak, the German troops closed in on theBritish positions. No shots were fired. British naval vessels hadevacuated the Heraklion garrison during the preceding night.
By that time British resistance had crumbled everywhere. German suppliesand equipment were landed at SudaBay without interference from enemynaval or air units. On 29 May, motorized reconnaissance elements,advancing through enemy-held territory, established contact with theGerman forces in the Retimo pocket and reached Heraklion the next day. Asmall Italian force that had landed at Sitia Bay on the eastern tip ofthe island on 28 May, linked up with a German advance detachment two dayslater.
After repeated encounters with enemy rear guards, the German forcesreached the south coast of the island on 1 June. The struggle for Cretewas thereby terminated. Despite the long delay in the issuance ofevacuation orders, the British Navy was able to embark approximately14,800 men and return them to Egypt. Subjected to severe losses andconstant harassment by German planes, the Navy performed the evacuationduring four nights.