The attack of the German troops over Crete was the first full airborne invasion with the use of paratroopers and infantry carried by gliders. We must specify that the Allies defended the island for 13 days until June 1, 1941 when the Germans fully conquered the island. After this time, the struggle against the invaders was continued only by the Greek resistance. The Allies were “impressed” by the potential of paratroopers and they began creating their own airborne divisions.
A German “redemption”?
It all started on May 20, 1941 when Operation Mercury (codename of the German invasion of Crete) was on going. The Germans had used smaller airborne troops during the invasion of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, etc. The main objective of the Operation Mercury was to conquer the key points of the island which would have been used to transport resources and supplies.
The British commanders were informed about the German invasion over Crete. Therefore, they prepared defensive positions near airports and along the northern coast of the island. On the other side, General Freyberg asked for permission to destroy all the airports in the island, but his request was rejected because in a case of victory, the Germans couldn’t use them. Moreover, Admiral Canaris reported that there were only 5,000 British soldiers and the population of Crete will enthusiastically welcome the arrival of the German soldiers.
The German forces were divided into three battle groups: Mars, Comet, Orion. It consisted of 14,000 paratroopers and 15,000 mountain troopers. The doctrine of the German airborne troops was based on the parachuting of some important supplies directly at the airports. The Germans used colored parachutes after a certain code to distinguish parachuted supplies. This practice allowed the parachutists to be quickly launched from the airplanes, but basically let them unarmed in the first few minutes after landing. Because of this, in the first day the Germans suffered very large losses in the early hours, without succeeding in achieving any of the proposed goals.
After the first few hours, the Allies had the advantage of numerical superiority and naval supremacy. Instead, the Germans were airborne and enjoyed more mobility on the ground which allowed them to concentrate their forces more effectively. During the next day, the Germans managed to conquer Malele in western Crete, which allowed them to bring new troops on the island. Moreover, the Germans managed to break the defensive lines from Heraklion, conquering the docks, but they faced Greek counterattacks. Several German units were used as “human shields” by the Greek resistance.
The Germans asked for immediate surrender and threatened with harsh retaliations. But this “declaration” didn’t stop the Greeks. They participated in battles to defend their island with various types of weapons (including old rifles from the First World War, improvised weapons or agriculture tools). However, the civilians quickly replaced their weapons with light weapons from the Germans. Even more, the Greeks didn’t stopped only attacking isolated paratroopers, but they also participated in the counterattacks of regular troops.
This was the first time during WWII when the Germans met with a generalized and violent resistance from the civilians.
The cold shower
After overtaking the shock of those actions, the German paratroopers reacted back with greater violence. They didn’t respect any of the Geneva Conventions rules. They just killed any civilian they met on their way. After they took control over the Maleme airport, the Allied forces organized a counterattack, because as the historians say, the Maleme airport was the key to defend the entire island.
Failing to take back the control over strategic points of the island, the British commanders ordered the evacuation of all allied troops starting with May 27. For four nights, 16,000 soldiers were evacuated to Egypt, and approximately 1,000 Australian, New Zealand and Greek soldiers remained to defend the withdrawal of their comrades. Most part of them were taken prisoners, injured or killed. On June 1, 1941, the Germans were celebrating a huge victory, they completely conquered Crete.
The loss of Crete, especially due to the British inability to identify the strategic importance of airports, was a cold shower for the London government. As a result, the Royal Air Force (RAF) received responsibility for defending its own air base. To accomplish this new task, in 1942 was created the RAF Regiment. On the other hand, because of the heavy losses suffered by Germans paratroopers, Adolf Hitler banned any large-scale air operations.