Crete Airborne Operation of 1941
Crete Airborne Operation of 1941
(code name “Mercury”), actions by fascist German troops to capture the island of Crete between May 20 and June 1, 1941, during World War II (1939–45).
In planning the capture of Crete the fascist German command was pursuing the goals of depriving British forces of one of their important strongpoints in the Mediterranean Sea and establishing a base to give assistance to General E. Rommel’s Afrika Korps in their offensive against Egypt. The capture of Crete was to be carried out by landing massive airborne and marine groups with extensive air support.
The 4th Air Fleet (VIII and IX Air corps), commanded by Colonel General A. Lohr, was assigned to carry out the Crete airborne operation. The 7th Paratroop and 5th Mountain Infantry divisions and a regiment of the 6th Mountain Infantry Division were used as landing parties. The convoy movement and support of the sea landing were assigned to some of the forces of the Italian Navy. The fascist German forces were made up of 35,000 men, 430 bombers, 180 fighter planes, about 600 transport aircraft, and 100 gliders. After evacuation of the British Expeditionary Corps from Greece, British and Greek forces on Crete numbered 42,500 men (including 27,500 British, Australian, and New Zealand troops), commanded by General Freiberg. The distance from German airfields in Greece to Crete was 120–240 km, whereas the distance from British bases on Malta and in Egypt was 700–1,000 km, which eliminated the possibility of cover by fighter planes and gave German aviation complete superiority in the air.
On the morning of May 20, after aviation preparation in the Melambes, Khania, Rethimnon, and Iraklion regions, the parachute landing parties were dropped and were able to blockade the Iraklion-Rethimnon highway and prevent movement of British reinforcements to the northwestern part of Crete. The British command was unable to bring reserves into battle at the proper time and missed its chance to destroy the landing parties. On May 21 the Germans landed additional airborne parties and captured Melambes, after which the mountain infantry units began to arrive on transport aircraft. The German sea convoy with heavy guns and artillery was crushed by the British Navy.
On May 22–23, German aviation attacked the British ships and inflicted severe losses on them. After this the British Navy retreated to Alexandria. On May 27 fascist German troops occupied Khania. Under pressure from the fascist German troops who had gone over to the offensive, the British retreated with great difficulty across the mountains to the Bay of Sfakion on the southern coast and on May 29–30 were evacuated by sea. The Iraklion garrison was evacuated during the night of May 28. On May 31 the Rethimnon garrison surrendered.
The British lost about 15,000 men; one heavy and three light cruisers and seven destroyers were sunk; and three battleships, one aircraft carrier, six cruisers, and seven destroyers were dam-aged. Greek troops lost 14,000 killed and captured. The German troops lost about 17,000 men (6,600 according to German figures) and 200 aircraft. To a significant degree the major success achieved by the fascist German forces in the Crete airborne operation of 1941 was a result of the passivity of the British command, poor troop cooperation, and weak support by aviation and the navy.
I. M. GLAGOLEV