CORPORAL HANS KREINDLER KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG. His transport had approached the island low and slow, slicing through a beautiful Mediterranean morning toward the drop zone 450 yards west of the village. That was when he heard the explosions and saw big white puffs in the sky, and bright streaks whizzing past the aircraft. A blast rocked his own Junkers Ju-52. This wasn’t how they’d briefed it before takeoff. “Light resistance”…“demoralized enemy.” They didn’t look so demoralized, he thought grimly.
No more time to think. He got the signal from the dispatcher and was out the door. The next 15 seconds would be the longest of his life. He remembered hearing a new sound. Thump! he heard. And then again, Thump! as bullets hit their targets, slamming into the bodies of other men in his 13-man stick. Already, he could see some of his comrades hanging lifeless in their chutes, descending to the island. Thump! Thump! It hadn’t even landed yet, but the 7th Airborne Division was already dying.
THE GERMAN WEHRMACHT continues to enjoy a high reputation as a fighting force, the finest professional army of modern times. Scholars, military professionals, and buffs alike obsess over its flexible system of command and control, its skill at combined arms, its meticulous planning, its drive, its aggression. But anyone who thinks that “German planning” is synonymous with excellence, or who thinks that any officer wearing a red stripe on his trousers (the simple, even spartan, indicator of membership in the elite German General Staff) could do no wrong should take a closer look at what happened on the Mediterranean island of Crete in May 1941.
Some of the finest minds in the Wehrmacht came up with just the sort of German operational plan that has been so beloved by military historians over the years. It was bold, aggressive, and pioneering. Yet the operation destroyed the division that carried it out. So high were the casualties in Operation Mercury that the German führer, Adolf Hitler—never one to spare the lives of the men under his own command—swore that he would never attack this way again. And while Hitler was wrong about a good many things in this war, it is hard to argue with his reasoning this time.
Nevertheless, the Allies would draw a very different lesson from Crete. James Gavin—who would go on to command America’s vaunted 82nd Airborne Division—was then a young infantry captain teaching in the tactics department of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He read the reports out of Crete, and years later he still remembered the excitement they stirred in him and others. Despite their heavy losses, the Germans seemed to have broken through into a “new dimension in tactics.” He decided, then and there, to become a paratrooper. Gavin wouldn’t be the only one to make that choice.
THE AIRDROP ON CRETE was the culmination of two developments, one long-term and the other short-term. The long-term development was the rise of the airborne arm before the war. Virtually every army in the world experimented with paratroops and glider-borne infantry during the 1920s and 1930s. In an era obsessed with restoring mobility to military operations, airborne troops seemed an ideal solution, using “vertical envelopment” to keep battlefields fluid and to prevent trench deadlock. In Germany, planners viewed the paratrooper (Fallschirmjäger) as yet another means to pursue their ideal of Bewegungskrieg (the war of movement) and to avoid the static positional warfare (Stellungskrieg) that had ground down the German army in World War I.
In the opening campaigns of World War II, paratroops helped to achieve those goals, although the operations were not without cost. Airborne forces played a crucial role in the economy-of-force invasions of Denmark and Norway (Operation Weserübung) in April 1940, for example, when two companies captured the Danish fortress of Vordingborg and secured the long bridge linking the Gedser ferry terminal to Copenhagen. It was a picture-perfect landing, and led to a bloodless capture of the bridge’s small garrison.
Another company landed at Aalborg, in the far north of the Jutland peninsula, seizing the two key airfields there to use as staging bases for the invasion of Norway. A company-sized drop at Dombås in Norway, however, ended badly, with the paratroops jumping directly into a Norwegian strongpoint guarding the railroad junction leading to Åndalsnes and Trondheim. They suffered heavy losses in the jump, found themselves surrounded by the Norwegians, and had to surrender four days later.
In the 1940 campaign in the west (Operation Yellow), the airborne again played a major role. Paratroops formed the spearhead of the drive into the Netherlands by Army Group B, led by Gen. Fedor von Bock. While they disrupted the Dutch defenses, once again there were problems. The landings around The Hague, intended to secure three airfields, ran into a storm of Dutch antiaircraft fire. Although they managed to seize their objectives, they could not hold them. The Dutch would take some 1,200 German prisoners in the course of the fighting there, just about the only POWs they took in this short campaign.
A bit farther to the south, glider-borne troops seized the mighty Belgian fortress of Eben Emael in a daring coup de main, landing directly on top of the fortification and destroying its heavily fortified guns with newly designed shaped charges. It was—and still is—a stunning achievement. They also took part, somewhat less successfully, in the great German panzer drive through the Ardennes Forest, landing at Nives and Witry on May 10, an operation known as the Niwi landing.
THE SHORT-TERM FACTOR leading to the airdrop on Crete was the unexpected campaign in the Balkans in April and May 1941, which arose out of Benito Mussolini’s ill-advised decision to invade Greece in October 1940. Thanks to the subsequent humiliation of the Italians at the hands of a poorly equipped but hardy Greek army, and the equally ill-advised British decision to rush assistance to the Greeks, the Balkans campaign was the “lightning war” par excellence. Conducting two simultaneous operations—Operation 25 against Yugoslavia and Operation Marita against Greece—the Wehrmacht ran over and around every defensive position in its path.
Yugoslavia, surrounded even before the first shot was fired, was incapable of putting up much resistance, and German casualties in the entire campaign numbered only in the hundreds; Greece wasn’t much more trouble, even with British intervention.
Gen. Friedrich List’s Twelfth Army carried out an end run around the major Greek fortifications of the Metaxas Line, hooking through southern Yugoslavia and thus unhinging any Greek attempts to make a stand to the north. The inadequate British intervention, consisting of Force W—two divisions (2nd New Zealand, 6th Australian), the 1st Tank Brigade, plus a small commitment of airpower—never did get a secure footing. One by one its defensive positions fell to direct assault or a turning movement: the Alíakmon Line fell on April 11, the Mount Olympus position on April 16, and the Thermopylae Line on April 24.
Throughout the campaign, the Commonwealth troops were under almost constant and unopposed attack by the German Luftwaffe, a problem that none of the Allied powers had yet solved. The defenders would evacuate Greece from ports in Attica and the Peloponnesus in the course of the next week. It had been another distressing experience for a British Expeditionary Force. (Wags began to joke that BEF stood for “Back Every Fortnight.”)
Indeed, so rapidly had the Wehrmacht overrun Greece that plans to utilize German airborne formations had barely kept up. Gen. Kurt Student, commanding Germany’s airborne arm, came up with one suitable mission after another, only to find that the ground forces had already overrun the intended position. Only once did he draw a bead on a target and hit it. On April 26, two battalions of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment dropped onto the Isthmus of Corinth. They seized the bridge over the Corinth Canal before the British could destroy it, and German engineers quickly cut the line to the detonator. Disaster followed when a lucky shot by a British antiaircraft gun set off the charge over the bridge anyway. The subsequent explosion dropped the bridge and killed most of the German paratroops crossing it, along with the German war correspondent filming the action. The chilling footage of this disaster survived.
The departure of Force W presented the Wehrmacht with a classic dilemma. As fast and as far as it had come, it had now run out of room. As in the west in 1940, it had reached its nemesis: the sea. There was no German navy to speak of, and Germany’s Italian allies were increasingly skittish about sailing off into dangerous waters, even ones in their own backyard. Not for the last time in this war, German ground forces appeared to have conquered themselves into an impasse.
But unlike their post-Dunkirk lull, the Germans decided to pursue. There was still one German force capable of continuing the advance and going after the beaten British and Commonwealth forces. Student now had an entire airborne corps under his command (XI Fliegerkorps), pairing a complete parachute division (7th Flieger Division) with an “airlanding” division (22nd Luftland Division), configured for air transport and ready to land at an airfield once the hunters from the sky had captured it.
General Student now saw an ideal opportunity for action, one that would aim high and establish the bona fides of the paratroop arm once and for all. The target was Crete. Seizing the island would help round up the demoralized and fleeing enemy; it would allow German bombers to launch raids against Alexandria (350 miles away), and perhaps even Suez (500 miles); and it would put a chink in the chain of British naval bases in the Mediterranean linking Gibraltar and Suez. It all seemed reasonable enough, and at an April 21 conference with representatives of the Luftwaffe, Adolf Hitler gave his assent. Four days later, on April 25, Führer Directive 28 would contain the outline for Operation Mercury, the airdrop on Crete.
AS WAS TYPICAL OF GERMAN OPERATIONS over the years, all this was done very quickly. For centuries, German planners and field commanders alike had favored the kurtz und vives campaign, a “short and lively” blow that hit the enemy hard and fast and left him too dazed to respond. The desired end-state was the Kesselschlacht, the “cauldron” battle that encircled and destroyed the enemy. It had worked well over the years, but the stress on maneuver often meant that other important aspects of war making—things like intelligence gathering, counterintelligence, transport, supply, and logistics—were given short shrift.
So it was with Crete. No one in the German high command had given the island much thought until April 1941, and now suddenly there were plans to conquer it.
Moreover, the operation had to be wrapped up quickly. Hitler already had his sights set on the great campaign in the east, Operation Barbarossa, to be launched in June. Directive 28 stated specifically that Operation Mercury was in no way to delay the start of operations against the Soviet Union.
Such a helter-skelter approach meant that there were loose ends aplenty. The 22nd Luftland Division, for example, was unavailable. It was in Romania, helping guard the Ploesti oil fields against any Soviet threat, and there was neither the time nor the available transport to bring it south. In its place was the veteran 5th Mountain Division. It was exhausted, to be sure, from the pounding march over the mountains in the recently concluded Greek campaign, but as always that left German planners unmoved. If the men were tired, they could rest after they had conquered Crete. The bigger problem was that the division was not configured for landing from the air, nor had it ever been transported by air.
Likewise, the haste in launching this operation meant that it would be impossible to gather enough transport aircraft to get the entire 7th Flieger Division to Crete at once. Even if all the aircraft had been available, the airfields and facilities in southern Greece were completely insufficient to hold and service them all. As a result, an already complex plan to land the paratroops in three groups—West, Center, and East, corresponding to the Maleme-Canea sector, the Suda-Retimo sector, and the Heraklion sector—had to cope with further complication.
Now the three groups would have to land in two separate waves, with the first landing in the morning and a second later in the day. Group West would be part of Wave 1; Group East part of Wave 2. Between these sites, however, Group Center would be split, with part of it landing in the morning and part in the afternoon. The prize for each of these groups was an airfield: at Maleme in the west, at Retimo in the center, and at Heraklion in the east. Once the paratroops had secured an airfield, the 5th Mountain Division would fly in and land, supplying the muscle to conquer the rest of the island.
It wasn’t necessary for all three airfields to fall, but it was absolutely imperative that one of them be controlled in the first 48 hours, the approximate hold-out limit for the lightly armed paratroops. Then, once a sizable portion of the coastline was in German hands, there would be a third phase, when a motley flotilla of motorized sailboats, Greek caïques, and, frankly, anything else that would float shipping the rest of the 5th Mountain Division to Crete. Needless to say, this was not a simple operational prospectus.
THERE WAS ONE LAST PROBLEM. The haste of the planning process made it impossible to establish an accurate estimate of Commonwealth strength on the island. Even by the usually low standards of German intelligence gathering, there was a serious undercounting. The Germans, with a force of some 22,000, expected to meet some 15,000 enemy troops on Crete. The actual number on the ground was more like 42,000, including the better part of two complete divisions: the 2nd New Zealand in the western sector of the island and the 6th Australian in the east. Even considering that 10,000 of these were poorly armed Greek troops, it was a still formidable force to defend a mountainous island that was only 140 miles long and just seven miles wide at its narrowest.
Despite all the ad hockery, improvisation, and misfires, Operation Mercury would turn out to be yet another military history milestone for the Wehrmacht: the first operation conceived, planned, and executed solely by parachute troops. It would be much larger than any previous German paratroop operation. Making the jump this time would not be a battalion or a handful of companies but the entire 7th Flieger Division, under the command of Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Süssmann. It would be assisted by a special assault detachment (Sturmregiment) of four battalions: three consisting of parachute troops and one of glider-borne infantry. Two regiments of the 5th Mountain Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Julius Ringel, were standing in Greece, ready to be flown to Crete once the paratroops had seized an airfield. Air support, in the form of Lt. Gen. Wolfram von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps, would be lavish: almost 300 medium bombers, 150 Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers; 100 Me-109 fighters, and about the same number of the twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110 fighter-bombers.
Off they went. At first light on May 20, 1941, the skies over Crete were suddenly filled with German transport aircraft. Paratroops landed up and down the length of the island, both by parachute and by glider. The three principal targets—the Maleme-Canea sector, Retimo, and Heraklion—were spread along 70 miles of the northern coast of Crete. [See map.] Student’s troops were landing everywhere, relying heavily upon the disruptive effect of airborne surprise. Student called it a “spreading oil slick,” with small groups inundating the countryside, then eventually forming up into a larger mass. Once again, as in Denmark and Norway, the Germans demonstrated their gift for solid staff work, and all of these widely dispersed landings were on time and on target.
THIS TIME THE DROP turned into a bloodbath. Since the airdrop was such a rushed affair, the Germans had made no real effort to disguise the buildup of their air assets in Greece. Using information gleaned from British intelligence intercepts, Commonwealth planners knew every detail of the German airborne plan well before it began. When the 7th Flieger Division landed, the defenders were ready. Every landing was made under heavy fire and suffered heavy losses—a paratrooper’s nightmare. Hundreds of men died before they even hit the ground.
At Maleme, the defending New Zealanders had honeycombed the gently sloping and terraced hills with machine gun nests and artillery emplacements. These now literally exploded into fire around the beleaguered paratroops.
A glider detachment under Maj. Walter Koch, meant to blaze a trail for the follow-on paratroops, was the first casualty. Defenders blew one glider after another out of the sky, and Koch himself soon went down with a head wound. New Zealanders virtually destroyed the 3rd Battalion of the Sturmregiment, 600 men under the command of Maj. Otto Scherber, east of Maleme. In the opening minutes of Operation Mercury, almost 400 would die, including Scherber himself. Officer casualties were especially problematic, leading to command-and-control problems from the outset.
General Süssmann, the divisional commander, never even made it to Crete; the wings of his glider tore off while still in Greek airspace and he was killed over the island of Aegina. Likewise, the commander of the Sturmregiment, Brig. Gen. Eugen Meindl, took a burst of fire in the chest. He would command his unit for the rest of the day, blood oozing from his wound, until he was evacuated from Greece on May 21.
As bad as the first wave had it, the second had it far worse: the paratroops in the later jumps at Retimo and Heraklion landed on fully alerted defensive positions. The phrase that comes to mind is “turkey shoot.” At Retimo, ground fire from the 2/1 Australian Battalion virtually destroyed two battalions of the 2nd Parachute Regiment under Col. Alfred Sturm. One Australian soldier described the greeting they gave the paratroops as “Empire Day, with everyone firing.”
The same thing happened at Heraklion; the sacrificial victim this time was the 3rd Parachute Regiment under Col. Bruno Bräuer. Here, hours of preparatory bombing by the Luftwaffe produced not a single casualty among the dug-in defenders of the 2/4 Australian Battalion. The raids did serve to announce the coming of the paratroops, however, and antiaircraft fire blew one transport plane after another out of the air. The Australians even had a handful of tanks at Heraklion, and several hapless paratroopers perished under their tracks. The Black Watch Regiment was defending near the Heraklion runway. Its regimental history describes the situation:
Every soldier picked his swaying target and fired and picked another and fired again. Many Germans landed dead, many were riddled as they hung in trees and telephone wires, some tangled with each other and fell like stones, one was cut up by another aircraft…
At both of these later drops, the surviving paratroops could do nothing but make a mad scramble off of their landing zones, head for the relative safety of the mountains, and wait to be relieved.
But things didn’t get much better for those lucky enough to survive the other landings. German intelligence failures now came home to roost. Virtually everything was wrong, from the number and composition of the defending Commonwealth forces to the attitude of the civilian population. Enemy strongpoints appeared on German maps as “artesian wells.” A position that was marked as “a British ration supply depot” on the road between Alikianou and Canea, a perfect target for paratroops, turned out to be a large walled prison.
The Greeks, barely considered in the German plan, fought well, as they had against Italy since the previous October. At Kastelli, the 1st Greek Regiment smashed a detachment of the Sturmregiment and killed the commander, Lt. Peter Mürbe. The Cretans, who were supposedly anti-British, joined eagerly in the defense of their homeland, taking potshots at the Germans, spearing wounded paratroopers, or mutilating the dead. (An uncounted number of Cretans would pay with their lives during German reprisals after the campaign.)
Moreover, this disastrous first day was taking place against the backdrop of a relentless timetable. It wasn’t enough for the paratroops to simply consolidate, a task that would have been hard enough under the circumstances; they had to move out and seize an airfield. Lightly armed for greater mobility (most jumped with only a pistol, four hand grenades, and a knife), paratroopers could not long sustain combat with ordinary infantry. Their small arms came down in separate canisters for them to retrieve after landing, but the landings had been under such heavy fire that the German jumpers never did get to most of their canisters. By the end of the first day, none of the three airfields on Crete was anywhere close to being in German hands.
Ultimately, it was the tangled nature of the Commonwealth command structure on Crete that rescued Operation Mercury. Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the force defending Crete (called Creforce) as well as the 2nd New Zealand Division, had only received his appointment on April 30, and he must have wondered what he had gotten into. The ragged remnants of the same units that had been dismantled by the Germans in Greece, Creforce was a disparate grouping: 17,000 British, a large number of Greeks (perhaps 10,000 to 12,000), some 8,000 New Zealanders, and more than 6,000 Australians. Given enough time to drill and work out acceptable command procedures, and with a victory or two under its belt, such a force might have become a well-oiled machine. That was not the case on Crete. One officer put it this way:
We were a motley collection. We didn’t know where our own people were; we didn’t know where the enemy were; many people had no rifles and no ammunition. If anyone fired at you, he might be (a) an enemy, (b) a friend, (c) a friend or an enemy who didn’t know who the hell you were, or (d) someone not firing at you at all.
Making the command situation even more chaotic was the presence of large numbers of Cretan irregulars fighting on the Allied side, some 16,000 Italian prisoners taken by the Greeks in the mainland fighting, and the king of the Hellenes, George II. Thousands of noncombatant Commonwealth troops also shared the island. These were depot and support formations, part of the logistical train for the failed expedition to Greece. Units like the Australian Army Service Corps Stevedore Company, the 1003 Docks Operation Company, and the Mobile Naval Base Defense Organization Maintenance and Labour Units were not going to aid materially in the defense.
They were mouths to feed, however, and their survival was absolutely essential to the future defense of Egypt.
Moreover, Freyberg could not simply plan to counter enemy paratroops. He also had to worry about landings from the sea. We may know today that Axis amphibious landings were a forlorn hope; Freyberg certainly did not. Having so many dissimilar forces assigned so many different missions left Freyberg unable to coordinate his response to the landings. Creforce units that observed German airlandings did their best, and in many cases shot them to pieces. But far too many units on Crete simply stayed in place, waiting for orders that never came.
While Creforce outnumbered the Germans, the imbalance in airpower more than offset that advantage. It is incredible that Prime Minister Winston Churchill could tell Freyberg to hold Crete to the last man and to turn the port of Suda into “a second Scapa,” then expect him to do that with three dozen aircraft, only half of which were serviceable at any one time. The British, however, needed to preserve their front-line aircraft for Egypt.
Freyberg had earned a reputation as a fighter in World War I, and had a Victoria Cross to prove it, but he could see that the situation here was probably irremediable. So he spent most of May attempting to turn his tattered force into an army, all the while observing the depressing spectacle of uncontested sorties by Richthofen’s squadrons turning northern Crete into an inferno. Once the battle started, it only got worse, as Creforce reserves found that road movement attracted Stukas.
German air superiority had a lot to do with the most famous—or infamous—event in the battle for Crete. The airfield at Maleme quickly became the focus of the fighting. When elements from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Battalions of the Sturmregiment formed up and headed for the field, they had come under heavy fire from a dominant height to the south, known to the locals as Kavsakia Hill but destined to go down in history as Hill 107. A Commonwealth infantry battalion, the 22nd New Zealand, held it firmly.
The first day saw a daylong, back-and-forth struggle for Hill 107. It was a confusing fight, without clear front lines, and with heavy losses on both sides. In the course of the day, the Germans fought with an increasing sense of desperation. The campaign, and the very survival of 7th Flieger Division, hung in the balance. The commander of the 22nd New Zealand, Lt. Col. L. W. Andrew, however, was feeling the same kind of pressure. His casualties had been heavy (about half of his unit), communication with his subordinate companies was intermittent, and the counterattack he launched late in the afternoon, spearheaded by two Matilda infantry tanks, had broken down as soon as it began. The struggle for Hill 107 was a classic example of an information-poor battle for both sides, and, typically, both felt that they were losing.
It certainly seemed that way to Student, as bad news poured into his headquarters at the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens. Not only had his men failed to seize an airfield but it wasn’t even possible to say that any of his forces had a secure airhead. Maleme, where German forces held about half the field, was the only place on the map where they were even close to success.
STUDENT NOW MADE A BOLD and risky decision: The next day, the 5th Mountain Division would begin landing at Maleme, whatever the situation there. His original plans had called for the first reinforcements to land at Heraklion, since it was centrally located on the island’s north coast. He now scrapped that plan in favor of ramming everything he could find into Maleme. He also decided to land the few reinforcements he had left—a mere handful of companies—to assist the Sturmregiment in its fight for Maleme airfield.
Just as Student was reaching his decision, the New Zealanders around Maleme were reaching one of their own. Believing the German force to be much larger than it actually was, having no contact with his neighboring battalions, and fearing that the long arm of the Luftwaffe would return in the morning, Colonel Andrew decided to withdraw from Hill 107. As we survey the situation today, his decision seems disastrous, but not incomprehensible. The New Zealand official history comments, fairly, on the “hard conditions in which he had to make his choice.”
[Andrew] had spent a most exacting day trying to control a battle where all the circumstances were inimical to control. Communications within his battalion had failed him almost completely; and outside it they had proved extremely bad. He and his HQ had been severely harassed by bombing and strafing throughout the day to an extent for which neither training nor experience had prepared them. The enemy attack itself was of a kind still novel and from the start induced the feeling—and the reality as well—of enemy all round the perimeter and inside it also. Then battle had begun with an enemy breach in the defence. The support he had expected and counted on from 21 and 23 Battalions had failed to materialise and this meant a radical departure from the original battle plan.
Indeed, Andrew had spent much of the day pleading for reinforcements from his commander, Brig. James Hargest of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, and threatening to withdraw from Hill 107 if they did not show up soon. Hargest had two other battalions that had more than held their own that day, but also had to be concerned about a seaborne landing east of Maleme and further airborne drops.
The official history says, charitably perhaps, that he “misread the situation.” That evening, Andrew’s 22nd New Zealand Battalion moved east, eventually linking up with its sister battalions, the 21st and 23rd.
EARLY IN THE MORNING on May 21, the Germans launched a last, desperate assault against Hill 107. Leading one of the columns was a first lieutenant, Horst Trebes. Leading the other was Dr. Heinrich Neumann, the chief regimental surgeon and now a de facto battalion commander. To the astonishment and relief of the Germans, the hill was empty.
There was still tough fighting this day, however, as Trebes, Neumann, and men like them, commanding improvised squads of surviving German paratroops, fought to push back the Commonwealth defenders from Maleme airfield. They succeeded only partially, and on the afternoon of May 21 the airfield was still within range of enemy artillery. Just 24 hours into the operations, Mercury was about to reach a dramatic climax.
Around 5 p.m., the first Ju-52s began to arrive. They had to run another gauntlet of fire, many aircraft being blown apart as they tried to land, others skidding off the short, 2,000-foot runway (just a “postage stamp,” one German report called it). Soon, the blazing wrecks of more than 80 aircraft and hundreds of dead bodies littered the airfield. Planes landed, disgorged their men and cargo, and immediately took off again. Gradually, enough aircraft made it safely down, either on the airstrip or directly on the beach, to deliver a battalion of the 100th Mountain Regiment under Col. Willibald Utz, and then elements of the 85th under Col. August Krakau. By nightfall, these units were in action, with their organic light artillery on and around the airfield. The next day they began slithering up the winding mule paths into the mountains to silence the British guns.
Although there was tough fighting left, the arrival of 5th Mountain Division had sealed the fate of Creforce. Through the rest of the campaign, the Germans were driving east out of Maleme. General Ringel was now in overall command of German troops on Crete, and he handled this part of the operation deftly, combining a series of direct thrusts along the coastal road by the paratroops with flanking maneuvers to the south by his tough mountaineers. As always in this phase of the war, these maneuvers took place under cover of nonstop bombing and strafing by Richthofen’s Stukas and Messerschmitts.
Commonwealth troops abandoned one defensive position after another, usually after the Germans had turned their positions. The New Zealanders put up one hard fight at the town of Galatas, between Maleme and Suda, on May 25. The Germans took the town, lost it to a Kiwi counterattack, and then took it back again the next morning. The New Zealanders even took prisoners here, including Cpl. Hans Kreindler (who earlier described his harrowing jump). He would be freed once his comrades had retaken the town, and would go on to survive the war.
Freyberg had by now decided to abandon the island. Over the next three days, his little army had to cross Crete’s mountainous spine under heavy air attack and with Utz’s 100th Mountain Regiment nipping at its heels, make for the tiny port of Sfakia on the southern coast, 40 miles away. Even the British official history called it a “melancholy” occasion.
Once at Sfakia, the British managed to carry out yet another evacuation under fire. It was the usual British combination, one that the Germans had run into before: a tenacious rear-guard effort, led by Col. Robert Laycock’s battalion-sized commando unit, known as Layforce; and the heroism of the officers and men of the Royal Navy, who carried out their mission while dodging—or failing to dodge—Luftwaffe bombs the entire time. Still, it was far from a complete success for the British. Some 16,000 Commonwealth troops managed to get away.
The Hellenic king escaped as well, after a few harrowing moments when German paratroops dropped just outside the villa sheltering him. Yet about 13,000 men fell into German hands, including virtually all the defensive garrisons in the eastern zones of Retimo and Heraklion. It was all over by May 31.
What are the lessons of Mercury? Friends of the airborne claim it was a clear demonstration of the power of the parachute arm. Student’s intrepid Fallschirmjäger, they argue, attacked and seized an island surrounded by hostile waters, held by defenders who outnumbered them by some three to one, and who knew they were coming.
Naysayers, however, point out its very high human cost. The Germans lost some 4,000 men killed and 2,500 wounded from a single, small division of just 12,000 men. These were elite soldiers, and expensive ones, moreover, with highly specialized skills and training. They could not be easily replaced.
This was the point of view of the one man on the German side who counted, Adolf Hitler. “Crete proved that the days of the parachute troops are over,” he told Student at a July 17 reception in honor of bearers of the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross). Paratroops had lost the element of surprise, Hitler said. Student, shaken by the loss of so many of the men he had trained personally, called Crete the “graveyard of the German airborne force.” Never again would the Wehrmacht launch a large-scale airborne operation.
The Allies, however, apparently learned the exact opposite lesson. Having lost Crete, they began to consider what other feats paratroops might accomplish. In the wake of Operation Mercury, they began to enlarge and upgrade their airborne forces, and to ready them for action. At the time of Mercury, for example, there was a lone American parachute battalion. Five months later, there were four. Once the United States had entered the war, those battalions quickly became regiments, then divisions, and eventually formed the world’s first paratroop corps, the XVIII Airborne.
HISTORIANS AND PUNDITS ALIKE have criticized Hitler’s verdict. It is one of those inexplicably bad führer decisions on which the issue of the war allegedly hung. But how wrong was he in this case? Certainly, the Allied experience with airborne landings would be mixed: a near fiasco on Sicily, where transports disgorged many of their paratroops into the sea; near chaos behind Utah Beach in June 1944, where only the weak nature of German opposition prevented a potential disaster; and finally, a real debacle at Arnhem in Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
About the catastrophic Soviet airborne drop at Kanev in 1943, perhaps the less said, the better. Suffice it to point out that it is probably not a good idea to wait to brief aircrews and paratroops on an airborne mission until they are already in the air, and that dropping an airborne force directly onto a panzer division is rarely a good practice.
Nor is it wise to carry out a drop without performing at least a rudimentary reconnaissance of hostile antiaircraft assets. For all these reasons, the Germans crushed the landings; the few Soviet airborne troops (desantniki) who survived found themselves scattered helplessly over an area 20 miles wide by 60 miles long.
What of Mercury itself, however? On one level, it showcased German operational skills. These included split-second timing, extremely close liaison between ground and air forces, the ease with which German infantry and gunners formed ad hoc task forces under fire, and Student’s leap into the breach opened by the evacuation of Hill 107. Such things had been seen before in German military history, and they would be seen again. The entire campaign was audacious, involving, as Student pointed out, “our one parachute division, our one glider regiment, and the 5th Mountain Division, which had no previous experience of being transported by air.” The victory on Crete was hard fought, but not undeserved.
There were problems here, however; warning signs for future German operations. The Wehrmacht’s intelligence before the drop had not been merely insufficient, it had been abysmal. The Germans grossly underestimated the size of the Commonwealth force on Crete. Counterintelligence had been altogether absent. The Germans had made no effort to hide their airborne buildup in Greece, and the British were able to predict with remarkable accuracy what was about to hit them.
The drop was so dispersed and scattered that it is impossible to detect a “point of main effort,” or Schwerpunkt, something that had traditionally been crucial to German military operations. They tried to be strong everywhere on Crete, and were strong nowhere. The final verdict: Any operation that requires heavily laden transport aircraft to land on an airstrip under direct fire of artillery has probably cut things just a bit too close.
Finally, what of those brave men who had the unenviable task of jumping into die Hölle von Malemes (the hell of Maleme)? For all the time and care and calculation that go into an airdrop, operational planning will never be an exact science, no matter who is doing it. This is true for a German operation like Mercury, planned on the fly in a matter of weeks, and it is also true for an Allied operation like Overlord, planned systematically by an army of technicians over a span of 18 months.
No military planner or staff officer wakes up in the morning and decides to foul things up on purpose. The complexity of military operations in the modern age, however, virtually guarantees that things can and will go wrong, often terribly wrong. Eighteen months of meticulous Allied planning really did, after all, result in a frontal assault by a single U.S. infantry division against a German infantry division dug into the bluffs of Omaha Beach.
So it was on Crete, where some very fine military minds put together a plan that caused many men—far too many—to jump to their deaths.
Robert M. Citino, a history professor at the University of North Texas, has written extensively on the German army. His most recent book is The Wehrmacht Retrreats (University of Kansas).