German paratroopers are landing on the island of Crete under enemy fire. May 20, 1941
80 years ago, German troops invaded Crete. Strategic Operation Mercury became one of the brightest amphibious operations of the Second World War. The Germans captured the island by airborne assault.
Despite heavy losses, the German Airborne Forces were able to fulfill the assigned tasks and ensured the landing of the main forces. As a result, the Third Reich established control over the communications of the Eastern Mediterranean. Crete was an important base for aviation и fleet... From here it was possible to control the airspace over the Balkans, control traffic in the eastern Mediterranean.
Operation "Marita" ended with the complete defeat and surrender of the Greek army. The Greek king George and the government fled to Crete, then to Egypt. On April 27, 1941, German troops entered Athens. On April 30, the Germans reached the southern coast of Greece. The country was occupied by German and Italian troops. The puppet Greek state of General G. Tsolakoglu, controlled by the Third Reich, was created.
The British managed to take out most of their expeditionary force. Part of the troops landed on Crete, and the Greeks were also evacuated there. It was closer to the ships that carried out the evacuation to unload them here than to take them to Palestine or Egypt. Besides, they were more needed here. The island was a strategic foothold that threatened the positions of the Reich in the Balkans. From here, the British Air Force could keep objects, communications in the Balkans, and threaten the Romanian oil fields. The British navy and air force controlled traffic in the eastern Mediterranean. Also, the British from Crete could strengthen the attacks of the communications, through which they supplied the German-Italian grouping from Libya.
Already during the Italian-Greek war in 1940, England occupied Crete and replaced the Greek garrison needed for the war on the mainland. The supply of the garrison on the island was carried out through a convenient port in the Gulf of Souda, which at the same time became a naval base. It was located in the north of the island and was connected with the airfields of Maleme, Rethymnon and Heraklion by the only normal road that ran along the northern coast. In the rest of the island there were mainly trails suitable for horse-drawn transport.
Hitler recognized the importance of Crete. In order to close the British entrance to the Aegean Sea, to ensure sea communications from Greece to Romania and Bulgaria, to seize airfields from which the enemy could attack the oil fields of the Romanian Ploiesti, the Fuhrer decided to seize Crete. The main blow was planned to be delivered through the air. It was an original operation, elements of which the Nazis experienced in Holland and Belgium. Airborne landing operations of such a scale in Europe have not yet been known. It could only be carried out if a number of favorable circumstances coincided. Suddenness and speed. It was impossible to let the enemy come to his senses and gain a foothold on the island. It was impossible to transport the landing force by sea, the British fleet dominated there.
A damaged German transport plane Junkers U-52 crashes to the ground during a landing in Crete. The second plane (in the background) successfully dropped paratroopers, whose parachutes are visible on the left.
Wrecked German transport aircraft Junkers Ju-52 at the Cretan airfield Maleme
Among the German high command, not everyone supported the idea of the Cretan operation. Many initially proposed to seize Malta, establishing control over the central Mediterranean. This operation was supposed to be carried out by Mussolini. But Duce did not dare to abandon the fleet and air force to storm Malta. The capture of Malta made it possible to strengthen the supply of troops in North Africa, the Axis countries gained control over the central Mediterranean, which significantly worsened the position of the British in Egypt and the Middle East.
Therefore, the commander of the German fleet, Admiral Raeder and other high-ranking commanders were against the operation in Crete. The capture of Malta was more important. The high command, led by Keitel and Jodl, suggested that Hitler immediately begin the Maltese operation. The British in Crete could be neutralized by the actions of the German Air Force from the territory of Greece. Luftwaffe aircraft could easily bomb targets in Crete.
But the Fuehrer had already made a fatal decision for the Reich. All his instructions at this time were subordinated to the main goal - to defeat the Russians. Therefore, the struggle with England faded into the background. Although the German Empire, together with Italy, had every opportunity to capture not only Crete and Malta, but also Cyprus, Egypt, Suez and Gibraltar. Hitler's order No. 28 of April 25.04.41, XNUMX put an end to this dispute:
"Successfully complete the Balkan campaign by occupying Crete and using it as a stronghold for an air war against England in the eastern Mediterranean (Operation Mercury)."
German transport aircraft Junkers Ju.52 (Ju.52) heading for the landing site in Crete
German transport aircraft Junkers Ju.52 (Ju.52) make a landing on Crete
Forces of the parties. Germany
For the operation, the Germans used a large number of aircraft: up to 500 transport aircraft, 80-100 gliders, 430 bombers and 180 cover fighters (8th Aviation Corps of General von Richthofen). The distance from the German air bases established on the mainland to Crete ranged from 120 to 240 km and did not exceed the range of the Luftwaffe. The distance to British air bases in Egypt and Malta was from 500 to 1000 km. As a result, the Germans gained complete air superiority, which became their main trump card. The British could only carry out raids at night and with small forces. British bombers could not fly during the day, since the range of the fighters did not allow them to accompany the bombers. It was too dangerous to let the bombers go without cover.
The British could not locate large air force forces in Crete, since they were not there, and they did not begin to expose other directions. The small forces of the British Air Force on the island (about 40 vehicles) could not withstand the enemy. When the constant German air raids on Crete began, in order to prepare the landing operation, the British lost almost all of their aviation. The last British planes, in order to avoid their death, were transferred to Egypt. The British also stopped supplying and transferring additional artillery by sea to Crete in order to avoid losses of transports from German aircraft. The German Air Force almost blocked the naval supply. The Luftwaffe also struck at possible positions of the enemy ground forces. But they were well camouflaged, so the losses of the allies on land were minimal.
The conception of the German operation provided for the capture of three airfields on the island by the forces of shock groups of the parachute troops for airlifting the main landing forces. By the end of the second day, it was planned to land an amphibious assault and bring heavy weapons. The operation involved: the German 7th Airborne, 5th Mountain Rifle Divisions, separate units and subunits. A total of about 25 thousand soldiers. The operation was commanded by the founder of the German Airborne Forces, the commander of the 11th Airborne Corps, Lieutenant General Kurt Student. About 4 thousand people, 70 ships took part in the amphibious assault. Plus the forces of the Italian amphibious assault - about 3 thousand people, 60 ships. Part of the Italian Navy and Air Force - 5 destroyers and 25 small ships, more than 40 aircraft.
Commander of the 11th Airborne Corps Kurt Arthur Benno Student with soldiers in Crete
At first, the British command did not want to defend Crete at all. The Germans had complete air superiority. Allied forces in Crete could have suffered heavy losses. But Churchill insisted on a tough defense of the island. And the garrison was strengthened.
The Allied forces on the island were commanded by Major General Bernard Freiberg. There were about 9-10 thousand Greeks on the island, evacuated from the mainland. Parts of the 12th and 20th divisions, battalions of the 5th Cretan division, the garrison of Heraklion, the gendarmerie battalion, training regiments, cadets of the military academy and other units. Many soldiers were demoralized by the catastrophe at home. Local, training units and militias were poorly armed and trained. They did not have heavy weapons, they were abandoned in Greece. The lack of ammunition was a big problem.
British troops consisted of a garrison of the island - about 14 thousand people, and units evacuated from Greece - about 15 thousand people. The core of the British group was the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 19th Australian Brigade and the 14th British Infantry Brigade. In total, the allied forces numbered about 40 thousand soldiers. Plus several thousand local militias.
The British fleeing Greece abandoned almost all their heavy weapons and equipment. Almost no new ones were brought to the island. As a result, the Allies were armed with about 25 tanks and 30 armored cars, about 100 field and anti-aircraft guns. From the sea, the troops could be supported by the Mediterranean squadron of Admiral E. Cunningham: 5 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship, 12 cruisers, more than 30 destroyers and other ships and vessels. The fleet was deployed north and west of the island.
Thus, the British command relied on the fleet. The powerful fleet had only by its presence to thwart all the enemy's plans for the landing. Obviously, this is connected with the absence of the Air Force in Crete, the refusal to strengthen the garrison with heavy weapons, especially artillery and air defense systems. The allies on the island did not have a strong air defense (only one light battery), which could disrupt the airborne assault or bleed it. There was little artillery. The existing tanks were technically worn out, most were used as pillboxes. The infantry did not have transport for a quick transfer to the enemy landing sites.
Ships of the British Navy, burning at the naval base in Souda Bay, after a raid by German aircraft
Evacuation of British soldiers from Crete
The head of the German military intelligence (Abwehr), Admiral Canaris, told the high command that there were only 5 thousand British soldiers in Crete and there were no Greek troops. The Germans believed that the British had evacuated all troops from Greece to Egypt. The head of the intelligence also noted that local residents would welcome the Germans as liberators, given their republican and anti-monarchist sentiments. At the same time, the Abwehr had a good network of agents on the island and could not but know about the true state of affairs. With this in mind, Canaris, in fact, worked for the British Empire, he simply substituted the Wehrmacht. The landing operation was to end in complete collapse. Hitler, disappointed by the actions in the Mediterranean, had only to go to the East.
The intelligence of the 12th German army, which occupied Greece, had more objective data. However, it also significantly understated the size of the British garrison (15 soldiers) and the Greek forces evacuated from the mainland. The commander of the 12th Army, General A. Lehr, was sure that two divisions would be enough for the Cretan operation, but left the 6th Mountain Division in reserve in the Athens area. Thus, the Germans did not know the real forces of the enemy, they downplayed their number and fighting spirit. And they almost fell into a trap.
Column of British prisoners under the escort of German paratroopers in Crete
German soldiers in a British armored personnel carrier Universal Carrier No. 11552 captured in Crete
The Germans were fortunate that the enemy also made a number of reconnaissance and planning failures. The British had an advantage in numbers and even armament over the German paratroopers. The amphibious weapons were just making their first steps. Only a quarter of the German paratroopers had compact machine guns. Others had carbines. They, along with light machine guns and ammunition, were dropped separately from people, in special containers. Light cannons, mortars and other equipment were also dropped. The containers were uncontrollable, blown away by the wind. As a result, the paratroopers (except for machine gunners) were armed only with pistols, hand grenades and knives. Paratroopers had to look for containers with weapons and ammunition, break through to them with battles, and suffer heavy losses.
The British, if they had prepared in advance precisely for the airborne assault, had a complete advantage over the weakly armed and small enemy. From radio intercepts and intelligence data on mainland Greece, the British knew that the Nazis were preparing an amphibious operation. Air reconnaissance noted the concentration of the German air force on airfields located on the mainland and on the islands, which indicated the preparation of a German operation. The British command received data from the decrypted German negotiations. Therefore, the commander of the Cretan group, Freiberg, took measures to strengthen the defense of the airfields and the northern coast of the island.
However, a strange confusion ensued. The British are accustomed to fighting at sea and thought in "naval" terms. We read the "landing" and decided that the sea! They began to strengthen the surveillance and defense of the coast. They removed troops from the interior regions, transferred them to the coast, and hastily erected field fortifications. General Freiberg formed four groups of troops: in Heraklion, Rethymnon, at the Gulf of Souda and in Maleme. Freiberg also proposed destroying the airfields to prevent the Germans from transferring reinforcements to them if they were captured. The high command rejected this offer, which turned out to be correct.
To be continued ...