The German Invasion of Crete
"The German Army has been ordered to take the island. It will carry out this order"
Possession of Crete was of great strategic importance. For the British it was to maintain naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Suda provided the Mediterranean Fleet with a forward base 420 miles forward of Alexandria.
For the Germans, the island of Crete would provide an ideal forward base in which to conduct offensive air and naval operations and to support the ground offensive in Egypt. It's capture would also deny Allied aircraft potential bases for striking at Germany's Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
The staff of Luftflotte 4 - which had been committed to the Balkans under command of Alexander Löhr, conceived the idea of capturing the island and forwarded the plan to Göering at the time of the invasion of Greece. He thought highly of it but the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht would have preferred action against Malta.
On the April 20, after a conference with Generalleutenant Kurt Student (Commander XI. Fliegerkorps), Hitler decided in favour of invading Crete rather than Malta; and five days later Directive No. 28 (Operation 'Merkur') was issued. This was to be a Luftwaffe operation under the executive responsibility of General Löhr.
All units to take part in Operation Merkur were assembled within two weeks. But because of logistical problems this was postponed for a few days and the date of the attack was put back from May 16 to May 20.
The XI. Fliegerkorps of General Sudent was to be responsible for the actual assault on the island. It had ten air transport wings with a total of approximately 500 JU 52 transports and 80 DFS 230 gliders available to airlift the attacking forces from the airfields in Greece. The assault troops consisted of: The Luftlande-Sturmregiment (Generalmajor Meindl); the 7. Flieger-Division (Generalleutnant Süssmann), and the 5. Gebirgs-Division (Generalmajor Ringel), which had been bought in to replace the 22. Infanterie-Division which could not be transferred in time from Romania, where it guarded the Ploesti oil fields.
The absence of these specially trained troops (22. Infanterie-Division) was all the more regrettable because the division taking their place-5th Gebirgs Division-had no practical experience in airborne operations.
Initially, the Luftwaffe had two invasion plans under consideration: The first one-submitted by Luftflotte 4 - called for airborne landings in the western part of the island between Maleme and Canea, and the subsequent seizure of the remaining territory by an eastward thrust of all airlanded troops; This plan had the advantage of enabling the invader to concentrate his forces within a small area and achieve local air and ground superiority. However, it's execution might have lead to extensive mountain fighting, during which the enemy would remain in possession of the Heraklion and Retimo airfields in the east.
The second plan-submitted by XI Flieger-Korps envisaged the simultaneous air-drop of parachute troops at seven points; the most important of which were Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion. This plan had the advantage of putting the Germans in possession of all strategic points on the island in one fell swoop; A mopping-up operation would do the rest. However, the plan incurred great risk because the weak forces dropped at individual points would be dispersed over a wide area, and the tactical air units would be unable to lend support-at all points-at the same time.
Konteradmiral Karlgeorge Schüster had no German naval units under his command, being responsible for the organisation of convoys for landing further troops, and heavy equipment that could not be airlifted; (field guns, anti tank guns and panzers of Panzer-Regiment 31), ammunition, rations and other supplies. The transport vessels (small caiques) had been captured during the Greek campaign and were assembled in the port of Piraeus.
The island of Crete is approximately 160 miles long and varies in width from 8 to 35 miles. The interior of the island is barren and covered by eroded mountains which, in the western part, rise to an elevation of 8,100 feet. There are few roads and water is scarce. The south coast descends abruptly toward the sea; the only usable port along this part of the coast is the small harbour of Sphakia. There are almost no north-south communications, and the only road to Sphakia which can be used for motor transportation ends abruptly, 1,300 feet above the town.
The sole major-traffic artery runs close to the north coast and connects Suda Bay with the towns of Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion. Possession of the north coast was vital for an invader approaching from Greece-if only because of terrain conditions. The British-whose supply bases were situated in Egypt-were greatly handicapped by the fact that the only efficient port was in Suda Bay. The topography of the island therefore favored the invader; particularly since the mountainous terrain left no other alternative to the British, but to construct their airfields close to the exposed north coast at Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion.
The plan of attack which was finally adopted by Göering was a compromise solution. Some 15,000 combat troops were to be air-landed, and 7,000 men to be landed by sea. The first wave were to strike at H-Hour against two objectives:
Troops of the Luftlande-Sturmregiment were to be landed by parachute drop at Maleme airfield-in the wake of 3. and 4. Kompanie landing in the gliders; Fallschirmjaeger-Regiment 3 units were to drop near Canae-in the wake of the gliderborne 1. and 2. Kompanie of the Luftlande-Sturmregiment.
The second wave was to descend at H plus 8 hours on two other objectives; paratroops of Fallshirm-Jaeger-Regiment 2 dropping at Retimo, and those of Fallschirm-Jaeger-Regiment 1, at Heraklion. These forces were to link up from a distance of about ten to eighty miles apart as soon as possible.
On the second day, follow-up mountain troops were to be airlifted to the three airfields which were to have been taken on the first wave. While Admiral Schüster's convoys landed the bulk of them-plus heavy equipment and supplies-mostly at Heraklion, (the greater part of 5. Gebirgs-Division, the panzer battalion and a motorcycle battalion) and Suda bay, but also any minor ports open to shipping. Overhead-providing strong tactical support-would be the fighters and bombers of VIII. Fliegerkorps.
At the beginning of the German invasion of Crete, the island garrison consisted of about 27,500 British and Imperial troops and 14,000 Greeks under the command of Major-General Bernard C. Freyberg, the commanding general of the New Zealand division. The original garrison, numbering approximately 5,000 men, was fully equipped, whereas the troops evacuated from Greece were tired, disorganized, and equipped only with the small arms they had saved during the withdrawal.
The Cretans offered their assistance to the defenders of their island, even though they had suffered heavily from air raids and most of their young men had been taken prisoner during the Greek campaign. The Greek and Cretan soldiers were mostly inadequately-armed recruits. There was a general shortage of heavy equipment, transportation and supplies. The armor available to the defenders consisted of eight medium, and sixteen light tanks, and a few personnel carriers; which were divided equally among the four groups formed in the vicinity of the airfields and near Canea. The artillery was composed of some captured Italian guns with a limited supply of ammunition, ten 3.7 inch howitzers, and a few antiaircraft batteries. The construction of fortifications had not been intensified until the Greek campaign had taken a turn for the worse.
General Freyberg disposed his ground forces with a view to preventing airborne landings on the three airfields at Maleme, Retimo, and Heraklion; and seaborne landings in Suda Bay and along the adjacent beaches. He divided his forces into four self-supporting groups, the strongest of which was assigned to the defence of the vital Maleme airfield. Lack of transportation made it impossible to organize a mobile reserve force.
During May 1941 the British air strength on Crete never exceeded thirty-six planes-less than half of which were operational. When the German preparatory attacks from the air grew in intensity and the British were unable to operate from their airfields, the latter decided to withdraw their last few planes the day before the invasion began.
The British naval forces defending Crete were based on Suda Bay, where the port installations were under constant German air observation. During the period immediately preceding the invasion, intensive air attacks restricted the unloading of supplies to the hours from 2300 to 0330. The British fleet was split into two forces: a light one, consisting of two cruisers and four destroyers, was to intercept a seaborne invader north of Crete; and a strong one, composed of two battleships and eight destroyers, was to screen the island against a possible intervention of the Italian fleet northwest of Crete. The only aircraft carrier in the eastern-Mediterranean waters was unable to provide fighter cover for the forces at sea or the island defenders because it had suffered heavy fighter losses during the evacuation of Greece.
As is now known-through the monitoring and decoding of German Enigma traffic-the British forces were well aware from Ultra intelligence intercepts of the German intentions against Crete.
Their counter-measures were based on the assumption that an airborne invasion could not succeed without the landing of heavy weapons, reinforcements, and supplies by sea. By intercepting these with their Navy, they hoped to be able to decide the issue in their favour.
"......I do not wish to sound overconfident, but I feel that at least
we will give an excellent account. With the help of the Royal Navy, I trust
Crete will be held." Major-General Bernard C. Freyberg.
The First Wave:
Elements of the I. Battalion, landed their DFS 230 gliders west and south of the airfield at 7:15 am. The 3. Kompanie landed as planned at the mouth of the dried up river Tavronitis and secured the area. The 4. Kompanie and the battalion staff landed south of the airfield and between them suffered heavy casualties from the 22nd New Zealand battalion on Hill 107. Stosstrupp Braun landed nine gliders in loose formation within a few hundred meters of the Travronitis bridge; under heavy fire and many casualties, the air landing troops assaulted and secured the bridge. The III. Battalion became badly dispersed and dropped into the middle of the 5th New Zealand Brigade-where they were destroyed as a fighting force-within minutes.
The IV. Battalion dropped without too much difficulty just west of Tavronitis; It's 16. Kompanie had dropped south to gain control of the Tavronitis valley, coming up against bands of armed civilians.
The II. Battalion - which was intended as the regiments reserve
- parachuted as planned into the area east of the Spilia and encountered
no opposition. One reinforcement platoon had been dropped further west
near Kastelli, and came down amongst two Battalions of Greek troops and
large bands of armed civilians - the parachutists were almost annihilated;
the odds were too great for the thirteen survivors who had to surrender.
Their lives were saved by the intervention of a New Zealand officer in
charge of the Kastelli sector. The bodies of the missing were found
Generalmajor Meindl had parachuted in with his regimental staff in the IV. Battalion sector at 7:15 am, but he was seriously wounded by automatic fire and command of the regiment was passed on to Major Stentzler (Commander of II. Battalion).
A gliderborne assault by Kampgruppe Altmann (1. and 2. Kompanie of Luftlande-Sturmregiment) was to secure vital objectives near Canea, while the paratroops of Fallschirm-Jaeger-Regiment 3 dropped to the south-west of the town. The reinforced 2. Kompanie (under command of Altmann) landed on the southern part of the Akrotiri Peninsula north east of Canea in fifteen gliders, but losses were heavy; out of 136 men who landed-108 became casualties. The 1. Kompanie (under command of Oberleutnant Alfred Genz) - less one platoon-landed in nine gliders south east of Canea and captured the AA batteries. The group then withdrew southwards to join the other paratroops who had dropped there, as they were unable to link up with Kampfgroup Altmann.
Fallshirm-Jaeger-Regiment 3 landed too widely scattered to form
effective battle groups and were nearly all killed - before they reached
the ground - as they dropped into positions held by the 10th New Zealand
Brigade; they had come down in an area of countryside containing as many
as 15,000 men.
The Fallshirm-Pionier-Battalion dropped just north of Alikianou without too much difficulty. The combined efforts of the I. and II. Battalion succeeded in securing Agia, and the prison there was used as Headquaters for Oberst Heidrich and his regimental staff, who had dropped to the south-west of the village. Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süssman was to meet up with the staff of 7. Flieger-Division, who had landed in four gliders nearby, but the towing line on his glider broke shortly after take-off and he and the four man crew, crashing on the island of Aegina, were killed. During the day Fallschirm-Jaeger-Regiment 3. was unable to progress in the direction of Canea and the situation looked critical.
None of the prime objectives assigned to the first wave had been
secured by mid-day May 20. Hill 107 and Maleme airfield had not been taken
by Luftlande-Sturmregiment and Fallschirm-Jaeger-Regiment 3. was hemmed-in
around Agia in what was termed 'Prison Valley' with high casualties and
numerous commanders dead. Communications with headquarters on the Creek
mainland had been practically non-existent; headquarters under the impression
that the operation was going to plan. Problems with refueling the JU52's
and the dust on the Greek airfields was causing the second wave timetable
to become disrupted. This forced the second drop to fly in small groups
instead of en- masse.
The Second Wave:
At 3:00 p.m. Oberst Sturm's Fallschirm-Jäger-Regiment 2. - minus
most of its II. Battalion, which had been assigned to the attack at Heraklion-landed
at Retimo in a sector held by elements of the 19th Australian Brigade.
Many were scattered and some troops were dropped in the wrong place, with
many injured after landing on rocky ground. The I. Battalion (Major Kroh)
landed just east of the airfield and captured the vineyard covered hill
which overlooked it. The III. Battalion (Hauptmann Wiedemann) found himself
in a similar situation at the eastern edge of the airfield and both groups
decided to dig in.
It was decided that the foot-hold perimeter near Maleme was the
one position that could be exploited. Student decided to concentrate on
Maleme and employ the 5. Gebirgs-Division there instead of the Heraklion
sector. The new plan was to roll up the British and Dominion positions
from the west. This was a very risky decision as a counter-attack by Freyberg
would cost the gamble. Fortunately no counter-attack was forthcoming.
But the loses of men versus aircraft was deemed acceptable.
Oberst Utz (Commander Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100) was in Maleme with his staff by early evening. 650 mountain troops had reinforced the Maleme sector and at 6:00 p.m. Oberst Ramcke had landed to take command of Gruppe West to begin re-organisation.
The situation still remained serious for Gruppe Mitte near Retimo and Gruppe Ost near Heraklion as they faced some 7,000 allied soldiers. To the west of the airfield Hauptmann Wiedemann's III. Battalion had to dig-in near Perivolia just east of the town. The Germans managed to hold out for several days against determined counter-attacks by heavy artillery and armour.
The Failure of the Seaborne Reinforcement
A flotilla of 63 requisitioned vessels was put together to carry part
of the 5. Gebirgs-Division to the island; since there were not enough aircraft
to carry out both initial and rapid build up. Most of these commandeered
vessels were caiques (fishing boats dependent on a sail and a small auxiliary
engine). There were to be two flotillas-one to carry 2,250 mountain troops
to Maleme-the other to carry 4,000 men to Heraklion. On the night of May
19th the first flotilla had arrived at the island of Milos and anchored
there. A change of plan occurred on May 20th and both convoys were ordered
to sail to Maleme. At a pace of only 7 knots, the first convoy was attacked
by the British naval task force lead by Admiral Rawlings at around 11:00pm.
For two and a half hours the British hunted the caiques down, sinking a
large number of them. The second flotilla had set sail southwards from
Milos on May 22nd when at about 9:30am when they within range of
another naval task force. But due to Luftwaffe activity overhead Admiral
King broke off the attack in fear of a mounting air-attack. This second
flotilla was recalled to spare it the same fate as the first and
no further seabourne landings were attempted until the island was in German
Reinforcements and supplies were continually arriving on Crete and by 12:00pm the whole of I. Battalion of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100 had been bought in, followed by the II. Battalion, the I. Battalion of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 85 and then Gebirgs-Pionier-Battalion 95under Major Schatte. Divisional commander General Major Julius Ringel flew in and assumed command of all forces in the Maleme area, and organised the forces there into three battle groups: Kampgruppe Schaette was to protect the Maleme area from any western threat and push westwards to capture Kastelli; the second group, made up of paratroops under command of Oberst Ramcke, was to strike northwards to the sea to protect the airfield and then extend eastwards along the coast; and third under command of Oberst Utz, was to move eastwards into the mainland, partly with a flanking movement across the mountains.
As the three battle groups moved forward, I. Battalion (Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment
85) headed eastwards of Kampgruppe Utz and reached the village of Modi
in the afternoon-but encountered heavy defensive action by the New Zealanders.
The I. Battalion (Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100) had outflanked the position
by marching across the mountains to the south and after a very determined
defence, the village soon fell.
Gebirgs-Pionier-Battalion 95 had come under attack from armed civilians (including women and children) on the west of the island. These bands had carried out atrocities on the dead and wounded-some suffering appalling torture before dying. East of Maleme the III. Battalion of Luftlande-Sturmregiment had suffered badly form such incidents, especially during the first night on the ground when Cretan partisans had mutilated all the dead and wounded they could find-about 135 men in total. After this the Germans announced that for every soldier killed in this fashion ten Cretans would be shot in reprisal; the Luftwaffe dropping leaflets warning the population of the measures that would be taken against partisan activity.
During the day supplies were bought forward, and men landed at Maleme. About twenty aircraft were landing every hour-some carrying artillery, anti-tank guns and various heavy equipment. II. Battalion of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100-of which the remainder had landed in the morning - were sent eastwards to support Kampfgruppe Utz.
Generalmajor Ringel was able to regroup as more reinforcements landed on the island. During the night of 24th-25th Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100 gained contact with Oberst Heidrich's paratroops-surrounded in prison valley since the 20th. Gebirgs-Pionier-Battalion 95 had entered Kastelli to the west after air support from Stukas. On the 25th south west of Canaethe German troops comprised of Oberst Ramcke's paratroops on the left flank along the coastline; in the centre Kampfgruppe Utz with two Battalions of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100; and on the right the paratroops of Oberst Heidrich's regiment. Around Galatas in the afternoon fierce hand-to-hand combat raged between the mountain troops and the New Zealanders of the 10th New Zealand Brigade. The Germans succeeded in forcing their way into the village, but after a counter attack by two companies of the 23rd Battalion and the 5th New Zealand Brigade they were forced to lose ground. The next morning the mountain troops re-entered the village after the New Zealanders had withdrawn during the night.
More troops were thrown against Canea by Generalmajor Ringel as he deployed a battle group comprising of two battalions of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 141 (which had arrived on the 25th and the other on the 26th) under command of Oberst Jais on the right of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100. In front of Canea the mountain troops overcame a determined defence by British forces, and by afternoon the Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 100 had penetrated the town. Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 141 held-fast against counter attacks by New Zealand and Australian troops to the south west of Suda. This was actually rear guard action aimed at holding the Germans back, while the main body withdrew southwards towards Sphakia and the ships of the Royal Navy. When the Germans finally entered Canae and Suda bay, they found it deserted. Kampfgruppe Krakau had toiled trough the mountains further south and had flanked opposition and occupied the heights above Stilos on the 27th.
A blocking position of artillery and tanks pinned down the mountain troops as they approached Stilos at about 6:30am. The Suda-Sphakia road was vital for the push eastwards; defence of it-vital for the British. With the arrival of anti-tank grenade riflemen and artillery and mortars the situation was turned in the German's favor. Late on May 27th Gebirgs-Artillerie-Regiment 95 was ordered by Generalmajor Ringel to advance east to pursue the retreating enemy and move as quickly as possible toward Retimo and Heraklion, to relieve paratroopers cut off there.
Kampfgruppe Wittmann advanced at 3:50am-unchecked until just outside Suda where the road was cut by craters; a British commando unit had landed at Suda and had blocked the road. A flanking attack was mounted while mortars, anti-tank and mountain guns opened against the defenders. At midday, resistance was overcome and contact with elements of Kampfgruppe Krakau was gained-pursuit continued without interference as far as Kaina. Here, resistance was met with the main lay-force who staunchly held their ground. Kampfgruppe Wittman lacked good observation points for it's artillery, so had to wait for Kampfgruppe Krakau for support; the odds were turned in the German's favour by last light.
The pursuit continued on the 29th, and Retimo was entered at 1:00pm-contact with III. Battalion of Fallschirm-Jäger-Regiment 2 established. The 29th was spent clearing up Retimo and several hundred prisoners were taken.
The evacuation order of May 27th had not reached Allied troops in Retimo but Brigadier Chappel had received it at Heraklion and - except for the wounded - 4,000 men were embarked during the night of 28th 29th aboard ships under the command of Admiral Rawlings. When the paratroops closed in on the British positions at Heraklion early on the 29th, the airfield and town were taken without a shot being fired. At Retimo 700 prisoners were taken after surrendering to the bombardment of German artillery.
After a detachment was left to guard the prisoners, Kampfgruppe
Wittman resumed the march east at 7:30am. An hour later contact was made
with the eastern group of Fallshirm-Jäger-Regiment 2. At 11:45 am
contact was gained with a reconnaissance patrol from Fallschirm-Jäger-Regiment
1 which had been holding out in the Heraklion area since the afternoon
of the first day. The advance continued with a couple of tanks (which had
been landed by sea)-leading the way for safety.
MAY 29-JUNE 1
The German command had failed to realise that the British evacuation
was occurring south in the fishing village at Sphakia. Large forces had
not been sent south towards the port and this was not rectified until May
31. At 8:50am on the May 29th I. Battalion of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment
100 of Kampfgruppe Utz was sent southwards and that afternnon the II. Battalion
also moved-advancing until 6:00pm, when determined rearguard action was
encountered just north of Kares. The attack was resumed by the mountain
troops in the morning and further progress was made to reach a point about
two and a half miles from the coast. By the evening of May 30th the whole
of Crete, except the Loutro-Sphakia area, was in German hands.
General Freyberg left the island that evening in a flying boat-sent to Sphakia to take him off the island. The Royal Navy evacuated almost 15,000 men to Egypt, and as a result of the naval activity several ships were damaged and sunk. The Germans were unable to push down to the coast until 9:00am June 1st-when British rearguard forces surrendered; the war diary of the 5. Gebirgs-Division recorded that final resistance was overcome at 4:00pm in the mountains north of Sphakia.
The cost to the Germans of Operation Merkur was high. Of the 22,000 men committed for the operation approximately 6,000 were casualties. Key figures killed during the battle: Generalleutnant Süssmann, Major Braun, Major Scherber, and Oberleutnant van Plessen. The mountain troops lost 20 officers and 305 other ranks, killed in action; the missing-most of them drowned when the Royal Navy sunk the boats transporting them, numbered 18 officers and 488 other ranks. Of the nearly 500 transport aircraft involved, 271 had been lost.
The British and Dominion casualties were 1.742 killed, 1,737 wounded
and 11,835 taken prisoner.
Special thanks to Patrick Kiser for the original Period Postkarkte
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