Op MERCURY: The German Invasion of Crete

Three RAF men from 8 Sqn stood on a gentle hill overlooking Maleme Airfield, Crete, in the same position occupied by their predecessors 71 years ago.
However, there all similarities ceased. We happened (due to an unserviceable aircraft and bad weather) to be in Crete enjoying the sea view; during WW2, the ground crews from 30 and 33 Sqns were fighting for their lives against German airborne forces. Over 6000 men would eventually perish in the Battle for Crete; why did this small picturesque corner of the Mediterranean see such bloodshed?

Italian forces invaded Greece in Oct 1940 but were met by fierce resistance. By Mar 1941, the fighting had reached a bloody stalemate in Southern Albania. German plans for the invasion of Russia were already well developed; concerned by this vulnerability on their southern flank, Hitler sent reinforcements; motorised elements of the SS soon forced the surrender of the Greek Army. The four British Commonwealth divisions, who had not reached the front in time to fight, were hurriedly evacuated to Crete, alongside Bristol Blenheims and Hawker Hurricanes from 30 and 33 Sqns. Both had suffered heavy losses defending against the Luftwaffe. Also involved in the fighting were the Gloster Gladiators and Hurricanes of 112 Squadron, among whose pilots was the future children’s author Roald Dahl, who later recorded his experiences in his autobiographical novel, “Going Solo”.

Hitler was still worried by the proximity of British bombers to the vital Ploesti Oilfields in Romania; additionally the location of Crete made it strategically important for resupplies to North Africa. Op MERCURY was launched by the Nazi High Command on 20 May. This was the first predominately airborne invasion in military history. The Germans had already established control of the air over Crete, with the surviving RAF aircraft from mainland Greece having continued south to Egypt. The Germans planned to drop paratroopers and gliders onto key airfields at Maleme and Heraklion, secure the areas, and allow heavy transports to land. The first day proved disastrous for the Germans. Allied positions on Hill 107, overlooking Maleme Airfield, destroyed German gliders as soon as they touched down, whilst most paratroopers were shot in the air. Standing on Hill 107 and facing the airfield, the importance of the terrain is abundantly clear. The airfield occupies a narrow strip of land, bounded by the sea to the North. Yet a misunderstanding meant that the New Zealand 22nd Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107 overnight, leaving the Germans free to land their Junkers JU52s on the runway on 21 May relatively unmolested. Having secured an initial foothold in Maleme, the German invasion was complete 6 days later.

The withdrawal from the hill by the 22nd Inf Bn would prove to be a tactical error with major strategic ramifications – had the German casualty rate continued unabated, it is likely that the invasion of Crete would have failed. The German casualties were so high that their paratroopers were not used again during the war. Yet the Allies learned two vital lessons from this loss – firstly that of organic, embedded airfield defence. It was not a coincidence that the RAF Regiment was formed in January 1942. Secondly, the Allies were so impressed by the airborne assault concept that they began training their own paratroopers.

The 4,544 German forces who lost their lives in Crete now are buried on Hill 107. The cemetery is well maintained by the German War Graves Commission, who relocated most of the Germans buried throughout the island to this site during the 1960s. Most of the Allied fatalities were eventually moved to Souda Bay Cemetery, although a small memorial to 30 and 33 Sqns stands overlooking the road west to Tavronitis.

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