Operation Mercury

The German invasion of Crete 21 May 1941 stands as a landmark in the history of airborne warfare. Up until that point, airborne operations had been used mainly in a tactical and operational context to seize key objectives in advance of the ground forces, such as the seizure during the Balkan campaign of the bridge over the Corinth Canal on the 26 April 1941, and the seizure of the Belgium fortress of Eban Emael on the 11 May 1940. The German invasion of Crete (codenamed Operation Merkur, or Mercury) has been the only strategic airborne operation aimed at attacking and occupying such an important target. The operation was the brainchild of Generalmajor Kurt Student, the commander of the airborne arm (the Fallschirmjäger) who believed that the paratroopers could operate in their own right and not merely be used to support the Wehrmacht.

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Student was suggesting that German air-borne forces should seize the island about 160 miles long by 35 miles wide, cut off from the Greek mainland by a broad stretch of sea. If that were not bad enough, the terrain’ was extremely tough, dominated by four mountain ranges so that movement over the extremely bad roads would be slow and difficult. And finally, since the British Navy would ensure that any follow-up by water-borne troops would be difficult if not impossible, the whole success of the attack would depend upon the German paras capturing the island’s four airfields quickly, and retaining them.

The invasion of Greece was not   in Hitler’s playbook but on November 18 1940 Mussolini surprised everyone with a move against Greece; his ally, Hitler, was caught off guard, especially since the Duce had led Hitler to believe he had no such intention. Even Mussolini’s own chief of army staff found out about the invasion only after the fact!

At their meeting in Obersalzberg, Hitler excoriated Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano for opening an opportunity for the British to enter Greece and establish an airbase in Athens, putting the Brits within striking distance of valuable oil reserves in Romania, which Hitler relied upon. It also meant that Hitler would have to divert forces from North Africa, a high strategic priority, to Greece in order to bail Mussolini out. Hitler considered leaving the Italians to fight their own way out of this debacle—possibly even making peace with the Greeks as a way of forestalling an Allied intervention.

Unfortunately, it took time to assemble the necessary men and equipment which were scattered all around Europe and as a result the day for the operation was put back until 20 May, enabling the confused defense of Crete to be put into some sort of order. During this time, the German planning was split between General der Flieger Alexander Löhr (Commander, Luftflotte IV) who wanted a single concentrated drop to seize the airfield at Máleme, followed by a build up of additional infantry and heavy weapons. Such an approach might allow the British to reinforce the island and launch a sustained defense of the island. The second plan was put forward by Generalmajor Kurt Student  who wanted to make no less than seven separate drops, the most important ones being around Máleme, Canea, Rethymnon and Heraklion. Such a plan would enable the Germans to seize all the main strategic points at the outset, so long as there was minimal resistance on the ground. In the end, Goering imposed a compromise solution between these two different approaches. There would be two main drops, one in the morning around Canea and the airfield at Máleme, the other in the afternoon against the airfields at Heraklion and Rethymnon.

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Before dawn on the 20 May, Ju52s on Greek airfields such as Megara, Corinth and Tanagra fired up their engines and started to take off. After the first few, the dust storms that have been caused on the dry, untarmacked runways played havoc with the carefully planned timetable as it took time for the clouds to settle again. Eventually however, the Ju52s gathered and then headed for their objective. Unfortunately, General Süssmann, who was in a glider and due to drop as part of the first wave, was killed when his glider separated from its towrope and crashed on the island of Aegina. Before the main body of the first wave had reached the coast of Crete, Fliegerkorps VII had started to soften up the defenses of the island and the glider companies had started to land. The initial glider landings around Máleme proved relatively successful and the Fallschirmjäger managed to capture the bridge over the Tavronitis, knock out the anti-aircraft positions and secure an area on the outskirts of the airfield. The 3rd Btn, Luftlande Sturmregiment started dropping at this point and landed right on top of parts of the 21st and 23rd New Zealand Btns, suffering badly as a result, some being killed as they dropped and many being killed as they searched for weapons containers. The 4th Btn landed west of the Tavronitis and the 2nd Btn landed east of Spilia, both relatively intact but quickly engaged by forces in the vicinity. Meindl collected the glider troops around his HQ and dug in on the airfield’s perimeter and ordered two companies from the 2nd Btn to take Hill 107, the key to Máleme airfield.

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By the end of the first day, the Fallschirmjäger were just about hanging on by their fingernails and had Freyburg used his superiority in men and material to counterattack, he might have driven caused the entire operation to collapse, or appreciating the significance of the fighting around Máleme, reinforced the airfield to prevent what would happen next.  The situation must have been deeply worrying for  Major General Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealander who had fought at both Gallipoli and on the Somme, now in command on Crete who had been getting reports of huge numbers of enemy Fallschirmjäger dropping all along the north coast of the island and all his garrisons under attack simultaneously – a picture which Student, despite the maxim of concentration, had wanted to give. Even so, Student was in a difficult position. As far as he could ascertain, things had gone badly just about everywhere. Heráklion had held, and there was no news, which meant bad news, from Rethymnon. There was no secure point of entry open to the Gebirgsjäger anywhere.

At this point, Student decided that his maximum point of effort would be switched from Heráklion to Máleme with Meindl being evacuated and replaced by Oberst Bernhard Ramcke. His remaining Fallschirmjäger would be dropped west and east of the airfield to respectively, reinforce Ramcke and take the defenders in the rear. Unfortunately those dropping to the east dropped onto the New Zealanders and suffered serious casualties, although the survivors fortified the village of Pirgos on the road between the airfield and Canea. The remainder dropped without incident and after reinforcing the infantry at the foot of Hill 107, assaulted it, only to find the defenders had withdrawn.

The Tide Turns

This plan was put into operation the next day 23 May. KG Utz moved into the mountains and by the afternoon had been stopped at the village of Modi where the New Zealanders had established a blocking position. Fierce fighting erupted over the Modi position and the New Zealanders were forced to pull back as elements of the Gebirgsjäger outflanked them. This meant that the covering artillery had to withdraw to a more secure position and so Máleme airfield was finally free of Allied artillery.

By the 24 May, the Germans were now being reinforced on a huge scale and had been resupplied to the point where they could begin to adopt conventional tactics supported by tactical air power and their own artillery. To the Allies’ surprise, the Germans had brought artillery onto the island. This was unheard of in 1941, artillery being thought of as too cumbersome and heavy for airborne operations. The Germans had managed it by deploying one of the first recoilless guns seen in Europe. The recoilless gun had been invented by an American naval officer, Commander Davis during the First World War, and was very basic. The LG40 was of 75mm calibre, weighed 320lbs and fired a 13lbs high explosive shell to a range of 6.8km. The conventional 75mm gun of the German Army weighed 2,470lbs and fired the same shell to a range of 9.4km. Thus the recoilless rifle allowed virtually the same firepower as a conventional artillery piece with two-thirds the range but one eighth the weight.

On the 25 May, the decisive part of the battle for Crete began. The Germans had reached the New Zealand blocking position at Galatas and attacked it. After some bitter fighting, the New Zealanders were eventually ousted from the village by the Germans who were in their turn ousted by a counterattack. The New Zealanders however, were too weak to hold and withdrew during the night, allowing the Gebirgsjäger to occupy the village and open the way for an advance on Canea. The Germans continued their advances and on the 27 May the decision was taken to evacuate the Allied force on Crete and so the garrison made preparations to withdraw southward. The Germans failed to realize what was happening and continued to press their attacks against Canea with two fresh Gebirgs regiments that had been flown in by air.

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The advance continued on the 30 May as the rearguard withdrew but was checked again at the Imbros Pass. The Germans kept up the pressure however and by the evening of 30 may were less than three miles from Sphakia with the remainder of the island totally in German hands. The last Allied troops, of which around 14,500 had been evacuated, were lifted off early on 1 June, with General Freyburg leaving on 30 May by flying boat. The remaining Allied troops were ordered to surrender at 09.00 on 1 June, leaving the Germans in control of Crete.

The Battle for Crete was a German victory but a costly one. Out of an assault force of just over 22,000 men, the Germans suffered some 5,500 casualties, of which 3,600 were killed or missing in action. Almost a third of the Ju52s used in the operation were damaged or destroyed. The Allies suffered almost 3,500 casualties (of which just over 1,700 were killed) and almost 12,000 were taken prisoner. The Royal Navy suffered 1 aircraft carrier, two battleships, six cruisers and seven destroyers badly damaged and another three cruisers and six destroyers sunk with the loss of over 2,000 men. The RAF lost some forty-seven aircraft in the battle.

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As a result of the huge losses suffered by the Fallschirmjäger in Crete, it was forbidden by Hitler to mount any large-scale operations in the future and apart from a few small-scale operations, mainly served as elite infantry for the rest of the war. While many considered this a typical Hitler mistake, one must consider the heavy casualties suffered by the Allied airborne forces in Normandy and the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Large airborne forces are no longer seen in Western military forces and those that remain tend to be focused towards intervention and rapid deployment operations and so one wonders in Hitler’s decision has not some merit after all.

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The Paratrooper-Cenotaph was built near the former capital Chania.

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Published in: on May 21, 2017 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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