75 years ago, 20 May 1941, the battle began on Crete (in German documents, Operation Mercury) was a strategic landing operation of the Third Reich. The operation was a direct continuation of the Greek campaign and ended with the defeat of the Greco-British garrison and the occupation of Crete. Germany gained control over the communications of the eastern Mediterranean. Operation Mercury entered history as the first major operation of the airborne troops. Despite the heavy losses, the German paratroopers were able to accomplish the tasks assigned to them and ensure the landing of the main forces of the Wehrmacht.
The logic of the war pushed the Third Reich to seize the Balkan Peninsula. The Balkan states were supposed to become either satellites of Germany or lose their independence. The Balkans were of great military-strategic and economic importance: important communications took place here, there were large military contingents, there were important natural resources, as well as human resources. Through the Balkans, Britain (and in the future, the United States) could deal a serious blow to the German Empire. Domination over the Balkans meant control over the eastern Mediterranean, access to the straits and Turkey and further to the Middle and Near East. Therefore, Hitler could not leave the Balkans without his attention. Before the start of the war with the USSR, which had already been decided, Hitler wanted to get a calm rear in the Balkan Peninsula.
Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria became allies of the Third Reich. Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey remained. Greece was the enemy of Italy, with which she fought. And Mussolini was Hitler’s closest ally. Turkey leaned toward Germany, although it was previously an ally of Britain and France. As a result, most of the war the Turks kept friendly neutrality towards Germany and could even stand on its side if the Wehrmacht took Moscow, Stalingrad and broke into Transcaucasia. Yugoslavia at first also leaned towards Germany. However, 27 March 1941 in Belgrade, there was a palace coup and the government, which went on an alliance with Berlin was overthrown. Angry Hitler gave the "green light" to the beginning of the operation not only against Greece (the Marita plan), but also to Yugoslavia.
On April 6, 1941, German troops attacked Yugoslavia and Greece. In aggression, Germany was supported by Italy and Hungary. Bulgaria has provided its territory as a springboard for the Wehrmacht to strike at Yugoslavia and Greece. Romania served as a screen against the USSR. The Yugoslav government, which pursued a “flexible” policy in the prewar years, did not prepare the country for defense. In addition, the Serbs did not expect the blow of German troops from Bulgaria. The defense collapsed: on the first day the Germans occupied Skopje, and the next day tank and motorized units defeated the Yugoslav troops in Vardar Macedonia, cutting off the escape route to Greece. The Yugoslav war plan provided for a departure to Greece in the event of an unfavorable development of events, according to the scenario of the First World War. On April 9, the city of Nis fell, in the north Zagreb was captured. The nationalist underground has intensified, in particular the Croatian Nazis - Ustashi. On April 13, the Nazis broke into Belgrade. The Yugoslav government fled to Greece, and from there to Egypt, under the wing of the British. On April 17, the Yugoslav army surrendered.
In a similar scenario, an operation took place in Greece. In the Greek military-political leadership there were pro-German and defeatist sentiments. The Greek command concentrated the most powerful forces on the border with Albania. Thus, the main forces of the Greek army were constrained by the threat from Italy. The appearance of German troops in Bulgaria and their entry into the Greek border in March 1941 put the Greek command in front of the difficult task of organizing defense in a new direction. The arrival of the British expeditionary corps from Egypt by the end of March could not have significantly changed. British forces were not enough to seriously change the strategic situation. Taking into account the new situation, the Greek command hastily formed two new armies: "Eastern Macedonia", which relied on fortifications of the Metaxas line along the border with Bulgaria and "Central Macedonia". However, the Greeks did not expect the Germans to attack them through the territory of Yugoslavia.
The Greek troops, supported by strong fortifications, withstood the strike of the Wehrmacht from Bulgaria. But at this time, the Wehrmacht’s tank units, advancing through Yugoslav Macedonia along the Strumitsa valley, bypassing the Dojran lake, made a detour, crossed the Bulgarian-Yugoslav border, and through the almost uncovered 9 April Greek-Yugoslav border, reached Salonika. So, the Germans had already taken 9 April Thessaloniki, and went to the rear of the army "Eastern Macedonia", cut it off from other Greek armies. The Army "Eastern Macedonia", with the permission of the High Command, capitulated. The rest of the army began to retreat to the new lines of defense, but there they could not resist. Greek defense collapsed. The British began to evacuate, throwing heavy weapons and equipment. In the Greek military-political leadership, a split arose: some suggested capitulation, indicating that the position of Greece was hopeless, others called for the continuation of resistance. The most powerful army of Epirus, where among the generals were strong Germanophile sentiments, 20 April signed a surrender and 23 April confirmed it. The Greek government fled to Crete, and then to Egypt under the protection of the British. 25 April, the Germans occupied Thebes, and 27 April - Athens. By the end of April 29, German troops reached the southern tip of the Peloponnese.
Thus, Germany and Italy occupied the southern part of the Balkans. However, this did not give the Germans control over the eastern Mediterranean. The British had to take away the islands, and the first step was the capture of Crete.
Choosing a strategy
The British occupied the island during the Italian-Greek war of 1940 and began to create an air force base there. The island is of strategic importance, as it is located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. As a result, the British Air Force and Navy received a good base. And from Crete they began to threaten the supply of German-Italian forces in Africa. In addition, Germany at this time was preparing to attack the USSR. And the British air forces in Crete potentially posed a threat to the Axis countries, in particular the oil fields of the Romanian Ploiesti. Calculations of the Russian campaign were based on blitzkrieg, and there were unacceptable disruption of fuel supplies to the armed forces and industry of the Third Reich. Hitler wanted to eliminate the threat to the empire's oil base.
True, there was a debate among the German military leadership about where to strike first. In particular, many insisted on the need to first capture Malta, which was located directly on the sea route between Italy and Libya. Here the British posted their Aviation, submarines and warships in every way to impede military traffic from Italy to Africa. The British presence in Malta dealt a powerful blow to German-Italian communications. Rommel's corps in North Africa was in danger. With the loss of Malta, the British lost control of the central Mediterranean. In addition, the British garrison in Malta was relatively weak, as its supply was hampered by the fact that the English convoys carrying goods to the island were constantly attacked by Italian air and naval forces.
Thus, to continue the campaign to conquer North Africa and establish control over the Mediterranean, the capture of Malta was simply vital. Therefore the commander of the German fleet Admiral Raeder and some senior commanders objected to the Cretan operation. The capture of Malta, they convinced Hitler, is "an essential precondition for the successful course of the war against Great Britain in the Mediterranean." Several officers of the German General Staff, who saw danger from the British forces in Malta, after the transport transporting goods for Rommel went down, together with Jodl and Keitel urged Hitler to immediately begin the operation to capture this island. In their opinion, the British Air Force in Crete could be neutralized by Luftwaffe attacks. German airfields were now very close in Greece, and Luftwaffe aircraft could easily bomb British air bases in Crete.
However, Hitler has already made a decision. All his decisions were subject to the same goal - to crush the Soviet Union. Therefore, the struggle with Britain faded into the background, although the Third Reich in alliance with Italy had every opportunity to take up in the Mediterranean region (Crete, Malta, Cyprus, Suez, Gibraltar, etc.). Führer’s Order No. 28 of 25.04.41 put an end to the dispute: “Successfully complete the Balkan campaign by occupying Crete and using it as a stronghold for air war against England in the eastern Mediterranean (Operation Mercury)).” The Fuhrer wanted to eliminate all the danger emanating from the British air and naval forces in south-eastern Europe. With the British troops in Malta, in his opinion, can be sorted out with the help of the Luftwaffe. The capture of Crete had to be completed before the invasion of Russia began.
According to a number of researchers, it was a strategic mistake of Hitler. As B. Alexander notes: “Having made this decision, Adolf Hitler lost the war. The attack on Crete practically guaranteed a double catastrophe for Germany: firstly, it turned the Mediterranean campaign into a mouse romp aimed at achieving secondary or even PR goals, and secondly, it turned the full power of the German military machine against the Soviet Union at a time when Great Britain remained undefeated, and even received direct support from the United States of America (Hitler’s “10 fatal mistakes”).
Wehrmacht had incomplete information about the forces of the enemy on the island. The head of the Abwehr (military intelligence) Canaris initially reported that there were only 5 in Thousands of British soldiers and the absence of Greek troops. As a result, it was believed that the entire British expeditionary force from Greece was evacuated to Egypt, although part of it was transferred to Crete. It is strange that Canaris, who had a developed network of intelligence sources in Greece, was incorrectly informed. It is possible that he planned to sabotage the landing plans in this way, since he was de facto working in the interests of the British Empire.
The intelligence of 12 of the German army, which also studied the defense of the island, was also mistaken. The 12 Army Intelligence drew a less optimistic picture than Canaris, but it also significantly reduced the number of the garrison and troops evacuated from the mainland (15 thousand people). The commander of the 12 Army, General Alexander Löhr, was convinced that two divisions would be enough for a successful seizure of the island, but left the 6 Mountain Division as a reserve in Athens. Moreover, the Germans for some reason thought that the inhabitants of the island sympathized with them and would not wait for the British to be expelled from Crete. As a result, the underestimation of the patriotism of the Greek population left the Nazis sideways. No less mistaken was the view that the enemy was demoralized by the defeat on the continent. The British and Greeks were ready to fight for the island and were not going to flee. Thus, the German command underestimated the enemy, his readiness to fight and the number of troops. No particular resistance was expected.
True, the British also made a number of misses. The commander of the British forces in the Middle East, General Wavell, and the Minister of War, contrary to Churchill, were generally against the stubborn defense of Crete. They were afraid of great losses, as the German air force could freely bomb the British forces on the island. However, Churchill insisted that additional units of the British army arrived on the island. British intelligence has received information about the impending invasion thanks to the German negotiations, decoded under the project "Ultra". The commander of the British forces on the island, General Bernard Freiberg, was informed about plans to land the German troops and took a number of measures to strengthen the defenses around the airfields and on the north coast of the island. But because of the decryption errors, the British were waiting mainly for the naval landing of the enemy, and not for air. The British have not yet realized the role of the Airborne Forces in World War II. The Allied High Command also rejected Freiberg’s proposal to destroy airfields in order to prevent the reinforcements from being brought in if they were captured by German paratroopers.
German paratroopers parachuted to Crete under enemy fire
The forces of the parties
Third Reich. The command of the operation was assigned to the commander of the 11 airborne corps, General Kurt Student. The plan envisaged the seizure of airfields by a separate airborne assault regiment and the 7 th aviation division (15 total thousands of fighters), followed by the transfer of the 22 th airmobile division there, which was distinguished, despite the high losses during the seizure of Holland. Well trained, battle-hardened parachutists were the elite of the German armed forces.
Due to the shortage of aviation gasoline, the operation scheduled for May 16 was postponed for four days. In addition, the 22 Division this time was not doing their job - protecting the oil fields of Romania. And they did not have time to transfer it to Greece. Therefore, for the operation, Student was given everything they found: three regiments of the 5 Mountain Division, a reinforced regiment of the 6 Mountain Division (the rest of the division was in reserve), 700 of the machine gunners-motorcyclists of the 5 Panzer Division, sappers, anti-company companies - 14 thousand bayonets. They, like heavy weapons, had to be delivered to the place of transport aircraft and naval convoys, for which the Greeks seized 63 small vessels. The cover of the convoys laid on the Italian Navy. The operation was provided by three regiments of special-purpose military transport aviation. Air support was provided by the 8 th Luftwaffe air corps consisting of 280 bombers, 150 dive bombers and 150 fighters.
Thus, the landing was planned to be landed by gliders, thrown out with parachutes, landed from transport aircraft on the airfields already captured and landed from ships.
From the beginning of May, German aviation began regular raids to weaken the defense of the island, bombed convoys with weapons, equipment and supplies for Crete. As a result, the Germans practically blocked the sea route by mid-May. Of the 27 thousand tons of military cargo, only 3 thousand tons reached the place. In addition, German aviation practically knocked out the British aviation component on the island (40 aircraft). The surviving several British aircraft were sent to Egypt the day before the assault, otherwise they were doomed. The island was left without air cover, which greatly weakened the Greek-British forces. Thus, the Germans received complete air superiority. The Luftwaffe aircraft constantly bombed the alleged positions of British troops, but the camouflage of the units stationed on the island was so good that they suffered only minor losses.
Commander 11 Airborne Corps Kurt Student
Britain and Greece. 30 April 1941 was appointed Major General Bernard Freiberg as commander of the Allied forces in Crete. Under his leadership there were more than 40 thousands of Greek, British, Australian, New Zealand soldiers and several thousand local militias. Total about 50 thousand people.
The Greeks fought with the remnants of 12, 20 divisions, 5 of the Cretan division, Crete gendarmerie battalion, Heraklion garrison (number to battalion), cadets of military academies, training regiments and other scattered units. The number of Greek troops was 11-12 thousand people. British forces in Crete consisted of the island’s garrison (14 thousand people) and units of the British expeditionary force evacuated from Greece, numbering up to 15 thousand people. The core of these troops was the 2-I New Zealand Division (7500 people), the 19-I Australian Brigade (6500 people) and the 14-I British infantry brigade. There were also selected units — the battalion of the Leicester Regiment and the 700 of the Scottish mountain riflemen.
Knowing the most likely landing sites of the enemy, the commander of the island’s garrison skillfully strengthened the defense of the airfields and the northern coast. All important areas were equipped with firing points, rationally positioned and camouflaged anti-aircraft batteries (the German air reconnaissance never discovered them). They had orders not to open fire on the bombers, but to wait for the landing. The defenders equipped many anti-landing barriers, false lines of defense and air defense positions. They planned to bring all 3 airfields into complete disrepair (they still didn’t have their own aviation) to prevent the Germans from using them, but the high command forbade it, believing that everything was done to repel the landing force.
However, although the British and Greeks outnumbered the Germans and prepared for defense, the garrison of Crete had many problems that greatly weakened the combat capability of the allied forces. There were many soldiers, but there were many recruits among them, often they were scattered units (Greek troops). They lacked weapons, equipment and experienced commanders. The troops were mixed, they needed time for a new organization, regrouping. The Greek troops on the island transferred a large and better part of the heavy weapons to the continent. The big problem was the lack of ammunition - in some parts there were only 30 cartridges per soldier. Therefore, the Greeks were placed in the eastern sector, where no significant German forces were expected to attack.
Affected by the lack of heavy weapons and technology from the British. British expeditionary forces, who evacuated from Greece, fled, throwing heavy weapons. The British fleet did not have time to replenish the garrison’s reserves, since its actions were paralyzed by German aircraft. As a result, only a few stationary and 85 captured Italian guns of various calibers, almost without ammunition, were armed with the garrison. Having disassembled some guns for spare parts, assembled 50 suitable for firing guns. From the armored vehicles there were 16 old Cruiser MkI, 16 light Mark VIB, 9 medium tanks Matilda IIA 7 of the Royal Tank Regiment and 4 of the Hussars of His Majesty. Matilda's 40-mm guns were mostly equipped with armor-piercing shells that were ineffective against infantry. The engines were worn out, there were practically no spare parts. Some tanks were sent for parts, most just dug in as a pillbox on important areas. Thus, the mobility of armored vehicles was lost. 50 anti-aircraft guns and 24 searchlights divided between aerodromes were used as air defense systems. In addition, the Allied forces in Crete did not have sufficient mobility for the transfer of troops, transport was not enough to be necessary for a quick reaction to the attack of a large enemy landing. Also, the Allies did not have air support.
Allied Forces Commander Bernard Cyril Freiberg
To be continued ...