Operation Mercury - Crete, May 1941
Crete’s central Mediterranean location made it the perfect strategic base for both the Allies operating in the Balkans and the Germans fighting in North Africa.[i] Britain had therefore established a garrison of approximately 5,300 men on the island in November 1940.[ii] As the German’s overran the Allies on the Greek mainland, the sparsely defended island of Crete became increasingly vulnerable to attack.
On 24 April 1941, as Australian and New Zealand troops desperately held their ground at Thermopylae, the decision was made to evacuate the 'Lustre' force from Greece. Australian warships HMAS Perth, Stuart, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhenas part of a larger Royal Navy presence, managed to withdraw over 50,000 soldiers from the beaches of the Peloponnese and Athens.[iii] About 26,000 of the withdrawn troops, the majority of whom were ANZACs, were transported to Crete.[iv] The remainder ended up in Egypt.
Australian troops arrive safely in Crete after being evacuated from the mainland
Adolf Hitler signed Directive 28 on 25 April, ordering the invasion of Crete. He “was determined that Crete should not remain in the hands of the British because of the danger of air attacks on Romanian oil-fields”.[v] Capturing Crete would mean a Luftwaffe base could be established, with “far-reaching possibilities for offensive action in the eastern Mediterranean”.[vi] Winston Churchill too grasped the significance of the ensuing battle, “to lose Crete…would be a crime,” he relayed in a telegram to General Sir John Dill.[vii]
Creforce, as the Allied garrison became known, was commanded by New Zealand officer Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC. By May 19, Creforce totaled an estimated 42,547 men, made up of 18,047 British, 10,258 Greeks, 7,702 New Zealanders and 6,540 Australians.[viii] Among the Australian defenders were the 2/2nd and 2/3rd Field Regiments, the 2/1st, 2/4th, 2/7th, 2/8th and 2/11th Battalions, a 16 Brigade Composite Battalion (remnants of that Brigades defensive actions in Greece) and a 17 Brigade Composite Battalion, the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion and the 7th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.[ix]
While the garrison had gained personnel, it still lacked vehicles, artillery and heavy weaponry, much of which had been lost in mainland Greece.[x] From 1 – 20 May, the Royal Navy attempted to deliver 27,000 tons of supplies to Crete, but Luftwaffe resistance forced most ships to turn back, and only a tenth of the intended supplies reached the island. The Allies had only 85 artillery pieces, many of which were captured Italian weapons lacking sights.[xi] A single anti-aircraft battery was split between the airfields at Maleme and Heraklion, while 9 Matilda Tanks and 16 Light Mark VI Tanks, in poor mechanical condition from their extraction to Crete, made up the supplies for the British Tank Regiments.[xii] The British and Commonwealth troops were equipped with the standard Lee-Enfield, Bren and Vickers guns, but the Greeks, whose miscellaneous weaponry took different caliber ammunition, could not be supplied by the British. Several Greek soldiers had less than 30 rounds of ammunition remaining.
Australians of the 7 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery surround their Bofors 40mm rapid fire anti aircraft guns, one of the few heavy weapons that made it from Greece to Crete
Army Museum of South Australia
The Germans knew an amphibious landing would be incredibly risky with the Royal Navy patrolling Greek waters. Luftwaffe General Kurt Student, the pioneer behind the German paratrooper force known as the Fallschirmjäger, convinced Hitler his men could take Crete with the assistance of some airlanded troops.[xiii] The Fallschirmjäger had seen some success in Norway, Belgium and Greece,[xiv] but Crete would be their most extensive and important action of the war to date. The operation was codenamed ‘Merkur’ (Mercury). Hitler stressed that Operation Mercury was not to undermine the upcoming and meticulously planned Operation Barbarossa (the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union), and as such Mercury’s preparation was rushed and at times improvised.
German paratroopers and gliders fill the skies above Crete
Operation Mercury’s main objective was to gain control of Crete’s airfields, at which point further troops could be airlanded and the defenders could be overrun. Exactly how this would be achieved was contested within the German ranks. General Student wished to capitalise on the element of surprise his Fallschirmjäger troops provided by dispersing smaller forces across the entirety of the island, while others like Colonel General Alexander Löhr wanted to only target the largest airfield at Maleme.[xv] Eventually, it was decided the invasion force would be split into three battle groups, Groups Centre (codenamed Mars), West (codenamed Comet) and East (codenamed Orion). Comet, the largest group, would attack Maleme, while Mars would focus on Prison Valley, Chania Souda and Retimo (Rethymno) and Orion would land at Heraklion.[xvi]
Map of the German assault on Crete, positions as of 20 May
Created by United States Military Academy, updated by Wikipedia user Hoodinski
Operation Mercury began on at 0800 on 20 May 1941 when over 9,500 Fallschirmjäger troops began descending toward Maleme. The 21st, 22nd and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended the airfield, and inflicted copious casualties within the first hours of invasion. The German III Battalion lost 400 of its 600 men on the first day alone.[xvii] The 2nd/1st, 2nd/4th and 2nd/11th Australian battalions and 2,300 Greek soldiers[xviii] were stationed at Rethymno and provided staunch resistance, killing large numbers of paratroopers while still in the air and retaining control of the airfield.[xix] The chaos of the drop meant many paratroopers landed in the wrong location, with some landing in the ocean or even impaling themselves in thickets of native cane.[xx] The German’s Rethymno force, commanded by Colonel Alfred Strum, was approximately 1,700 strong, [xxi] and suffered upwards of 400 casualties on the first day.[xxii] Strum was taken prisoner a day after the landing.[xxiii]
Down the road at Heraklion, 550 Australians of the 2nd/4th Battalion were stationed alongside three Greek battalions and the British 14th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Brian Chappel. In total, Heraklion was defended by 7,000 men.[xxiv] The 2nd/4th were deployed on two hills known as ‘The Charlies’, overlooking the Heraklion airfield. The German 1st Parachute Regiment expected the defence of less than a battalion, but instead encountered seven when they began descending from Ju 52s into Heraklion at 1730.[xxv] The Australians reported being able to fire directly into aircraft doors as paratroopers began jumping. Just like at Rethymno the German forces were obliterated early, with 400 paratroopers killed by 1800.
A modern photograph of ‘The Charlies’ overlooking the airfield at Heraklion. Allied anti-aircraft guns decimated German Ju 52 overflights from this location
Kershaw, Robert - Operation Mercury: The German Airborne Invasion of Crete 1941
The Cretan civilians were also instrumental in defending Heraklion, attacking German troops as they entered the town. The German 1 Battalion were unable to regroup before nightfall, and the Cretan partisans used their intimate knowledge of the town to their advantage, attacking German stragglers and eliminating the equivalent of an entire platoon.[xxvi] Most of these Cretans were armed only with the equipment they could find in their kitchens and sheds.[xxvii] Mobs of armed civilians later joined in a Greek counter-attack against the Germans at Kastelli Hill.
A German paratrooper lies dead after being shot out of the air
Weixler, Franz Peter
While the stands at Rethymno and Heraklion were a defensive victory for the Allies, the capture of the Maleme airfield by the Germans proved the turning point of the battle.[xxviii] The Germans had cut communication lines between the companies defending Maleme, and Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew VC, commander of the 22nd Battalion in the east, considered the lack of communication from the west as a sign they had been overrun. After a request for reinforcements from the New Zealand 23rd Battalion was mistakenly denied, Andrew withdrew his troops in the early hours of 21 May.[xxix] The western company became aware of the withdrawal some hours later, at which point they also retreated. The Germans, now with unopposed control of Crete’s major airfield, quickly began landing substantial reinforcements.
Andrew has long been criticised for his decision to withdraw the 22nd Battalion, labelled as “incompetent” and a man who “lost his nerve”.[xxx] It was Brigadier James Hargest, commander of the 5th New Zealand Brigade which included Andrew’s 22nd Battalion, that ultimately gave permission for the retreat to begin. Prior to the campaign, Freyberg expressed concerns about the ability and experience of Hargest, who was still prone to shell shock attacks from his service in the first world war. Hargest sought permission directly from Prime Minister Peter Fraser to command in the Second
Multiple counter-attacks on Maleme were launched in the week that followed but were unsuccessful. Fears of an Axis sea landing meant defenders had to be left on the coast, leaving the Maleme counter-attackers undermanned. These fears were realised on 22 May when an Italian flotilla, escorted by the torpedo boat Sagittario, attempted to land further Axis troops on Crete. Three Royal Navy cruisers and four destroyers were deployed by the Allies, and their mere presence caused the Axis fleet to abort.
The Italian cruiser Bartolomeo is torpedoed by a British destroyer after she had been abandoned by her crew
Although the Royal Navy had deterred a sea landing, the Luftwaffe commanded complete tactical air superiority with no effective Allied fighter force to oppose them. Aircraft like Junkers Ju87 'Stuka' dive bombers an Ju88 tactical bombers that had been mauled in the Battle of Britain, had unfettered scope and inflicted heavy Allied ship losses and personnel casualties. The HMS Fiji and HMS Gloucester were both sunk on May 22, killing over 700 men.[xxxi] In total, 19 Royal Navy warships were sunk and 22 were damaged.[xxxii]. Ships ran low on anti-aircraft ammunition and fuel, and losses were horrendous. Sustaining the capacity to provide cover for the defence of the sea approaches and later the extraction of forces from Crete was cause for the gravest concern among the Royal Navy commanders. This lead to Admiral Cunningham's direction that the Royal Navy would not let the Army down, with his legendary quote that " it takes us three years to build a new warship, but it will take three hundred to build a new tradition", sending every available ship back into the fray.
On land, the Allies tried desperately to prevent the advance of the Germans, but were outnumbered and driven to a defensive position in Souda. By the 26th, Freyberg reported that the situation in Crete was hopeless and that his men had reached their limit. As it had been a month earlier on mainland Greece, evacuation was the only option.
Despite the performances of both Hargest and Andrew at Maleme, it is Major General-General Freyberg who most frequently blamed for the failure at Crete. Freyberg was obsessed with the idea of a German seaborne landing, and neglected to station sufficient troops at key airfields, most notably Maleme. This was despite reliable intelligence suggesting the Germans would target Crete by the air.[xxxiii]
Freyberg was always pessimistic about the chances of an Allied victory at Crete, and knew he had inherited a very difficult task from UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill thought Crete need to be “stubbornly defended”, even though advice from his Generals urged him to not to engage after already being soundly defeated on the Greek mainland.[xxxiv]
6,000 troops in the Souda area were the first to be evacuated from Sphakia on 28 May, and others were withdrawn from Heraklion in the following days.[xxxv] Heavy bombardment of Royal Navy ships leaving Crete forced the evacuation to halt on 1 June.[xxxvi] An estimated 18,600 men managed to escape the island, which left about 12,000 Commonwealth troops and thousands of Greeks stranded and facing capture.[xxxvii] Among them were the 2nd/7th and 2nd/8th Australian Battalions, who famously fought in the Battle of 42nd Street with the 19th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 28th New Zealand Battalions.[xxxviii] Also left behind were the 2nd/1st and 2nd/11th Battalions who had provided resistance at Retimo. These men were forced to surrender on 1 June and became part of the 12,254 Allied prisoners taken by the Germans.[xxxix] About 500 Allied soldiers fled to the mountains and were hidden by locals from German mountain troops for months. The 2nd/7th Battalion was able to be reformed from the men who evaded capture, and later fought in the Pacific against Japan.[xl]
The casualties from Crete were heavy on both sides. Although the German records are considered unreliable, it has been estimated by British historians that 1,990 Germans were killed, 2,321 wounded and 1,995 reported missing.[xli] The Allied casualties are displayed below, including a breakdown of Australian infantry unit casualties.[xlii]
Among these casualties were those of the Cretan civilians. These numbers were not official recorded, but they are estimated to be somewhere around 6,000.[xliii] Many of these casualties came from executions, carried out ruthlessly by the Germans who were angered by the local resistance that occurred during the invasion. Mass shooting were began immediately after Crete fell, with 195 men from the village of Alikianos and 60 from Kondomari killed from June to August 1941.[xliv] A further 180 villagers were killed when Kandanos was razed.[xlv] General Student, who had ordered the shootings, escaped prosecution despite Greeks attempts to have him extradited after the war.[xlvi] Thousands more Cretan civilians were killed and numerous villages destroyed in the years following as Axis powers continued to occupy Crete. German General Fredrich-Wihelm Müller, ‘The Butcher of Crete’, was tried an executed for his role in ordering the mass executions.[xlvii]
Crete remained occupied by Axis forces until the end of World War II. The capture of Crete, described by the New York Times as a “dress rehearsal,”[xlviii] gave the Germans confidence they could be successful in an eventual invasion of England. There was “no unconquerable island” for Germany according to Reich Marshall Goering.[xlix] That said, their success did not come without its consequences. The number of losses of aircraft and paratroopers in battle came as a shock to Hitler, who declared that the airborne force had lost the element of surprise and should be retired for the rest of the war. The Greek and Crete campaign also importantly upset Germany’s plans for Operation Barbarossa, allowing the Soviet Union a further six weeks of preparation.
[i] Australian War Memorial 2021, Crete Campaign, [online] Awm.gov.au, Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84659>.
[ii] Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign 2021, The Battle of Crete, [online] Anzacsofgreece.org, Available at: <https://www.anzacsofgreece.org/en/virtual-memorial/conflicts/1736-the-battle-of-crete>.
[iii] Department of Veterans' Affairs 2021 Greece and Crete, [online] https://www.dva.gov.au, Available at: <https://www.dva.gov.au/recognition/commemorating-all-who-served/memorials/memorials-europe/greece-and-crete>.
[iv] Australian War Memorial 2021, Greek Campaign, 1941, [online] Awm.gov.au, Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/greek_campaign>.
[v] Walter Warlimont, Deputy Chief of Operations Staff of the Wermacht testifying at Nuremberg Trials, 1948. Found at: <https://politismosmuseum.org/en/exhibitions-list/the-loss-of-crete-a-turning-point>.
[vii] Churchill, R & Gilbert, M 1983, Winston S. Churchill: Finest hour, 1939–1941, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
[viii] Davin, D 1953, The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, p. 480.
[ix] Long, G 1953, Second World War Official Histories: Volume II – Greece, Crete, Syria, 1st ed, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, p. 315.
[x] Australian War Memorial 2021, Crete Campaign, [online] Awm.gov.au, Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84659>.
[xi] MacDonald, C 1995, The Lost Battle – Crete 1941, Papermac, London.
[xii] Antill, P 2005, Crete 1941: Germany's lightning airborne assault, Campaign Series, Osprey Publishing, New York.
[xiii] Larkins, S 2104, "Operation Lustre" Greece and Crete - April -June 1941, [online], Available at: < https://vwma.org.au/explore/campaigns/10>.
[xv] Kavanaugh, Stephen (2010). Hitler's Malta Option: A Comparison of the Invasion of Crete (Operation Merkur) and the Proposed Invasion of Malta (Operation Hercules). Nimble Books.
[xvii] Keegan, J 2011, The Second World War, Random House, New York.
[xviii] Davin, D 1953, The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington.
[xix] Monteath, P 2019, ‘Australians in Crete in World War II, Journal of Modern Greek Studies (Australia and New Zealand) – Special Issue, pp. 143-162.
[xx] Beevor, A 1991, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray Publishing, London.
[xxi] Long, G 1953, Second World War Official Histories: Volume II – Greece, Crete, Syria, 1st ed, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
[xxii] MacDonald, C 1995, The Lost Battle – Crete 1941, Papermac, London.
[xxiii] Davin, D 1953, The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, p. 176.
[xxiv] Davin, D 1953, The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, p. 481.
[xxv] MacDonald, C 1995, The Lost Battle – Crete 1941, Papermac, London, p. 191.
[xxvi] Ibid, p. 195.
[xxvii] Beevor, A 1991, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray Publishing, London, p. 116.
[xxviii] Monteath, P 2019, ‘Australians in Crete in World War II, Journal of Modern Greek Studies (Australia and New Zealand) – Special Issue, pp. 143-162.
[xxix] New Zealand History 2012, The Battle of Crete, [online], nzhistory.govt.nz, Available at: <https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/the-battle-for-crete/the-battle-day-1-3>.
[xxx] Whose fault was failure on Crete? | Stuff.co.nz FIX THIS
[xxxi] Roskill, S 1957, War at Sea: History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series 4th ed, London.
[xxxii] Naval History 1947, British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1935–45, Naval-histories.net [online], Available at: <http://www.naval-history.net/WW2BritishLossesbyArea08.htm>.
[xxxiii] Holland, J 2015, The War in the West, Vol. 1, Bantam Press – Transworld Publishers, London.
[xxxiv] Invasion of Crete: The First (and Only) Major German Airborne Operation of World War II | The National Interest FIX UP
[xxxv] Australian War Memorial 2021, Crete Campaign, [online] Awm.gov.au, Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84659>.
[xxxvi] Moorehead, A 2009, The Desert War: The North Africa Campaign 1940–43, Penguin, Camberwell.
[xxxvii] Roskill, S 1957, War at Sea: History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series 4th ed, London, p. 444-446.
[xxxviii] Bell, A 1991, ‘The Battle for Crete – The Tragic Truth’, Australian Defence Force Journal, No. 88, May–June, p. 15–18.
[xxxix] Davin, D 1953, The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, p. 486.
[xl] Australian War Memorial, 2/7th Battalion - Second World War, 1939–1945 units, [online], Awm.gov.au, Available at: < https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U56050>.
[xli] Playfair, Major-General I.S.O, Flynn, Captain F.C, Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. 2004, The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941), History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series, Naval & Military Press, Canberra.
[xlii] All figures from Gavin Long’s Official Histories (Long, G 1953, Second World War Official Histories: Volume II – Greece, Crete, Syria, 1st ed, Australian War Memorial, Canberra) at pages 315 and 316. These numbers differ elsewhere, for example the Australian War Memorial cites 1,742 killed, 2,225 wounded and 11,370 Commonwealth troops taken prisoner.
[xliii] Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign 2021, The Battle of Crete, [online] Anzacsofgreece.org, Available at: <https://www.anzacsofgreece.org/en/virtual-memorial/conflicts/1736-the-battle-of-crete>.
[xliv] Kiriakopoulos, G 1995, The Nazi Occupation of Crete: 1941-1945, Praeger, Santa Barbra, p. 32.
[xlvi] Beevor, A 1991, Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray Publishing, London, p. 236.
[xlvii] Stein, S 1948, ‘History of the United Nations War Crimes Commission and the development of the Laws of War’, United Nations Commission, London, p. 524.
[xlviii] The New York Times, May 22, 1941.