Since late 1940, Germany had been working diligently to gain as much of the Balkans as possible. Having decided to invade the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler sought, by pen or sword, to protect the area’s backside…the Mediterranean Sea. Using the pen and the Tripartite Pact, he gained Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. With the sword, Hitler rescued Mussolini’s troops and captured Greece. All that remained was the island of Crete (not this Crete…this Crete).
Most of the Allied forces in the area (the British, Australians, and New Zealanders) had evacuated Greece at the end of April and sought refuge on Crete. About this time, Allied codebreakers started reading messages involving possible action against the island, but as the last major Allied stronghold in the Mediterranean, it didn’t take a scientist to determine where the next blow would fall. So General Bernard Freyberg started laying out his defenses, concentrating the roughly 40,000 troops on the northern end of the island and its three key airfields.
His opponent, General Kurt Student, planned his initial attacks (with about 23,000 soldiers) for several points along the northern coast, using paratroopers in an effort to surprise the defenders and capture the airfields. At that point, reinforcements could be easily landed to finish the operation, code-named Mercury.
As the sun ascended on May 20, 1941, the German paratroopers descended…and everything started going wrong. The New Zealanders and Australians were crack shots, killing many soldiers before they even landed, while those on the ground ran into withering gun and mortar fire. Casualty rates in many units exceeded 50%, and several regiments were wiped out nearly to a man. That first day had the look of certain defeat for the Germans.
But late in the evening, difficulties in communication actually led the Allied troops to make a key decision which, in all likelihood, cost them the battle. The forces around Hill 107, near the Maleme airfields, sensed the Germans gaining strength. Unable to communicate with the others due to broken equipment and with his troops severely reduced, they decided to concede the Hill (and a part of the Maleme airfield) and pull back to a more defensive position.
It was all the opening the Germans needed. They captured the Hill the next day and, possessing the high ground, captured Maleme as well. With the ability to land fresh forces, it was just a matter of time until Crete was in German hands. But German paratroop losses were so heavy that Hitler would not again assualt a defended target using airborne troops.
Recommended Reading: Campaigns of World War II Day By Day – Ok, we’ve been hanging out for a few months and I think we’re friends, so I’ll let you in on one of my secrets. This book has been essential to me. I’ve got three or four different “timeline” books, but this is one of the best.