Reassessing Operation Merkur: The Significance of the Battle of Crete, May 1941

by Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou,
Associate Professor of History, Salem State University


Lecture Presented at Hellenic House
American Hellenic Institute
Forum Commemorating the Battle of Crete
Washington, D.C.
May 16, 2011

May 2011 marked the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Crete, one of the most extraordinary and significant operations of the Second World War. The now legendary airborne assault against Crete marked the culmination of the German campaign to conquer Greece and Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941, an invasion Hitler had not originally anticipated but was forced to launch because of Mussolini’s shocking failure to defeat the Greeks in the fall of 1940. Indeed, when the Italians invaded Greece from positions in Albania at the close of October 1940, world opinion was justified in believing that Greece would be quickly vanquished and occupied. The modestly armed and somewhat antiquated Greek army was greatly outnumbered and had to divide its forces along two fronts, defending against a possible invasion from Bulgaria in the northeast while facing the Italians along the Albanian border in the northwest. Conversely, the more modern and well-equipped Italian military enjoyed comparatively limitless reserves of manpower and material. Yet, the Greeks overcame these crucial disadvantages by effective concentration of force, tactical deftness, and extraordinary will—in short, with stubborn determination the Greeks outmaneuvered and outfought the Italians. Led by General Alexandros Papagos, the Greek army stopped the Italian advance, counterattacked, and drove the invaders back deep into Albania. To Mussolini’s dismay, and the world’s surprise, within a few weeks, Rome’s Greek venture had turned into a humiliating fiasco, marking the first Axis military defeat in Europe, the first victorious Allied campaign anywhere in Europe.

In response to the Italian disaster, Hitler ordered the German General Staff to prepare an operational plan for a German offensive against Greece. Although Hitler had not wanted to go to war against Greece, he now saw no means of avoiding such action. Larger strategic imperatives demanded that the Greeks, whom Hitler and the German military held in high esteem as soldiers, had to be neutralized. Hitler concluded that the success of his impending invasion of the Soviet Union would be jeopardized if the Axis Powers’ southern flank in the Balkans was not secure. He was determined to deny the British possession of bases in Greece, from which they could menace the Ploesti oilfields in Romania, an invaluable resource which was essential to the Germans’ war effort.


Read more about the AHI Forum Commemorating the Battle of Crete

Greece’s dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, had been careful to coordinate Greece’s defense with Britain while adroitly resisting pressure from London to accept a deployment of British troops and grant the Royal Air Force (RAF) basing concessions in northern Greece, actions which Metaxas understood would provoke Berlin. However, following the death of Metaxas in January 1941, Greece’s new Prime Minister, Alexandros Koryzis, proved to be less cautious than his predecessor in negotiating with the British. For his part, Churchill concluded it was necessary to make some demonstration of support for the only country outside the British Commonwealth which was resisting the Axis, and so, despite the misgivings of his commanders in the Middle East, he ordered the dispatch of approximately 60,000 troops to Greece. Placed under the command of General Henry Maitland Wilson, most of the combined British and Commonwealth forces were deployed in north-central Greece, ostensibly as a strategic hinge linking the bulk of the Greek army, which was tied down in the northwest fighting the Italians in Albania, and the Greek forces deployed against the Bulgarians along the “Metaxas Line” of fortifications in the northeast. Although the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was motorized, well equipped, and backed with considerable armor, artillery, and air power assets, it was inadequate in size to resist the impending German attack.

As a consequence of the deployment of the BEF in northern Greece in March 1941, the initial German plan for only an offensive against Greece—one which was limited to securing a strategic position in northern Greece from which the Germans could safeguard Ploesti, and to rescuing Mussolini from his calamity in Albania—was expanded to a campaign for the conquest and occupation of Greece outright. The Germans launched their invasion of Greece, along with a massive attack against Yugoslavia, on April 6, 1941. Taking advantage of the Yugoslav army’s rejection of General Papagos’ repeated overtures to coordinate a unified Greek-Yugoslav defense, German armored formations, from positions in Bulgaria, rapidly advanced across southern Yugoslavia, then turned south into Greece near Florina, and pushed towards Kozani, a maneuver which effectively outflanked the BEF concentrated along the “Aliakmon Line” of defenses west of Thessaloniki, while it simultaneously isolated the Greek army in Albania. As the main BEF force demonstrated the effectiveness of its modern motorized units by fleeing from the Germans at breakneck speed for ports and evacuation in southern Greece, Greek forces and rearguard British detachments offered stiff, albeit hopeless, resistance in the face of overwhelming German military might. Impressed by the bravery and pride of the Greeks, Hitler ordered his Balkan front commander, Field Marshal Wilhelm List, to release from captivity all Greek soldiers taken prisoner as soon as an armistice should be signed.

Neither Greek bravery nor British arms could, however, stop the German advance. Athens was occupied by German troops on April 27. Meanwhile, the evacuation of the BEF from the Greek mainland had begun on April 24 and continued for six days. Although enormous amounts of heavy weapons and vehicles had to be abandoned during the British retreat, the operation succeeded in evacuating more than 50,000 troops, most of which were transported to Crete. On April 25, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete.

Even before the outbreak of the war, British and German military planners had recognized the strategic value of Crete. With the onset of the Desert War in Egypt and Libya and other threats to Britain’s position in the Middle East, the importance of Crete was magnified. Crete’s strategic potential was enormous, especially to the British. If the island’s three airfields were transformed into full-fledged air bases and the port facilities of its excellent natural harbors, especially Suda Bay, expanded and modernized, air and naval units operating from a well-defended Crete could dominate the air over, and the sea lanes throughout, the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus Hitler resolved to deny the British control of Crete.

On April 30, the British-born New Zealand army general and legendary hero of the First World War, Bernard Freyberg, was appointed commander of all Allied forces on Crete. Freyberg’s force comprised roughly 15,000 British, 10,000 Greek, 8,000 New Zealand, and 7,000 Australian troops. Despite its not inconsiderable size, Freyberg’s force was saddled with serious deficiencies. The chaotic nature of the BEF’s retreat and evacuation from the mainland had resulted in the loss of significant amounts of equipment and had produced disruptions of unit cohesion. As a result, more than 10,000 of the Allied troops were without weapons. Although several units were intact and fit for combat, much of the overall force was made up of remnants from fractured formations, disorganized and disheartened, hurriedly thrown together into ad hoc units. Most units lacked sufficient basic supplies, heavy support weapons, and had very limited ammunition. Freyberg’s force lacked transport vehicles, which were crucial for mobile, rapid responses to enemy attacks and advances. Moreover, the Allied force was acutely handicapped by the lack of armor and artillery—the Allied force had only 6 heavy tanks, the collective equivalent of only one regiment of artillery, and a mere 68 anti-aircraft guns, which were clearly not sufficient to defend the 160-mile length of Crete from east to west. Above all, the RAF had virtually no presence on Crete. On May 1, the RAF had 35 operational aircraft on the island, half of which were obsolete biplanes. Through the first half of May, the RAF’s operational force had been reduced to seven planes, all of which were withdrawn to Egypt on May 19, leaving the Allied ground forces with no air support whatsoever to face the impending German assault.

The German attack on Crete, codenamed Operation Merkur (Mercury), had been planned by General Karl von Student, commander of the XI Air Corps and the architect of the Luftwaffe’s airborne forces. Since the British enjoyed naval supremacy, Operation Merkur called for an airborne attack. The Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, saw in Student’s operational plan an opportunity to rehabilitate the reputation of the German air force after its failure to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, and enthusiastically presented the proposal to Hitler on April 21. Since the capture of Crete had not figured in Hitler’s original plans for Greece, he was initially hesitant but eventually approved the project. Nonetheless, Hitler’s directive authorizing the operation, made it clear that the execution of Merkur must not conflict with preparations for Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union—his all-consuming fixation and the culmination of his expansionist ambitions. Above all, Operation Barbarossa, whose launch date was adjusted early in April from May 15 to June 22, was not to be delayed by the attack on Crete. As a result, Operation Merkur would have to be launched before the end of May, or else it would be cancelled. This meant that German action would have to be quick and decisive.

Once Hitler approved Merkur on April 25, General Student, who would remain the driving force of the operation, quickly assembled his invasion force in mainland Greece. In all, 22,000 troops made-up the assault force. The brunt of the attack would be carried out by the Luftwaffe’s 10,000-man 7th Airborne Division, consisting of four regiments (one assault and three parachute regiments). The air assets assigned to Operation Merkur consisted of 600 troop transport planes, 80 gliders (carrying light tanks, field artillery pieces, and other heavy weapons), 280 medium and heavy bombers, 150 Stuka dive-bombers, and 200 fighter planes.

Student’s plan was straightforward and daring. Three of the 7th Airborne Division’s four regiments would be dropped against the three respective towns on the north coast of Crete, from west to east, Maleme, Rethymno, and Heraklion, where airstrips were located. Once captured, these airfields would be used for the landing of heavy equipment and 5,000 mountain troops. The Airborne Division’s fourth regiment would be dropped in the area of Chania and Suda in order to secure the two towns’ harbors in preparation for the arrival of 7,000 seaborne troops. The focal point of the attack would be Maleme, west of Chania, assigned to the division’s vaunted 1st Assault Regiment. Although Student expected that his initial strike force would be outnumbered by the defenders, he was confident that the combination of the element of surprise, the high quality of his troops, and the Luftwaffe’s total air superiority would produce victory.

Starting at 5:30 on the morning of Tuesday, May 20, a violent, massive German air attack degraded the Allies’ already paltry air defenses and bombed troop concentrations around the island’s airfields. At 8:00 a.m., the first wave of German airborne troops began to descend onto their targets. The German losses in the first few hours of the attack were appalling. At Maleme, the 1st Assault Regiment parachuted and glided into a sector defended by the Fifth New Zealand Infantry Brigade, the First Greek Provisional Regiment, and the 300 cadets of the Greek Evelpidon Officers Academy. The New Zealand and Greek troops laid waste the Germans whose casualties were so heavy they were unable to make any progress towards Maleme. The assault regiment lost half its men and achieved nothing. The three parachute regiments directed against Chania-Suda, Rethymno, and Herakleion also suffered tremendous casualties and failed to secure their objectives. No landing strips had been captured, Chania, Suda, Rethymno, and Herakleion remained in Allied hands, and the airborne troops in the Germans’ four drop zones remained isolated and were unable to establish contact with each other.

By mid-day, the key German attack at Maleme had stalled and the entire operation seemed to be on the verge of collapse. However, the New Zealand commanders at Maleme failed to recognize the extent of their own troops’ success, while General Freyberg at his headquarters in Chania lacked a clear picture of the situation which would have enabled him to react effectively as commander. Because of poor assessments of the German forces’ strengths and dispositions, and because of communication disruptions caused by the Luftwaffe’s unrelenting bombing and strafing, Freyberg was unable to prevent several of his subordinates from making a series of tactical blunders that turned near victory for the Allied forces into disaster.

The defense of Crete was breached on the evening of May 20. Colonel, L.W. Andrews, commanding the key New Zealand battalion engaged at Maleme, decided, after an initial counterattack failed to break the Germans, to regroup his forces on the hills overlooking the Maleme airfield and prepare for a concerted push with additional troops the next day. However, the withdrawal of the New Zealand troops enabled the Germans to capture the landing strip. From his headquarters in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, Student seized this opportunity and ordered reinforcements of men and weapons to be crash-landed onto the airstrip. Consequently, on the afternoon of May 21, the first wave of Student’s mountain troops, carried in 40 transport planes, violently, but successfully, landed under fire at Maleme. The Germans now had sufficient numbers of troops to consolidate and extend their position at Maleme.

Although the German forces at Maleme began to regain momentum, their seaborne invasion force, which left in two convoys from Piraeus and Thessaloniki, respectively, on the night of May 21, was intercepted by elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The British ships inflicted heavy losses on the invasion flotilla, forcing the Germans to abort their mission. The following day, however, the Germans had their revenge. Luftwaffe dive-bombing sorties wreaked havoc on the British fleet. On May 22, the Germans sunk two cruisers and two destroyers, and damaged one battleship. During the following week, two more cruisers and two more destroyers were sunk, while one aircraft carrier, one battleship, four cruisers, and three destroyers were severely damaged and withdrawn from operation.

Meanwhile, on Crete, the Germans regained the initiative and the battle began to turn their way. During the early hours of May 22, Student began pouring more reinforcements onto the airfield at Maleme. Freyberg launched a desperate counterattack on May 24 to regain the Maleme airfield but it was unsuccessful. After the failure of the counterattack at Maleme, the Allied position began to deteriorate rapidly. Control of the Maleme airstrip had rescued the Germans from defeat and now made their impending victory possible. When the German units which were concentrated in the Maleme sector resumed their attack, the Allied forces were driven relentlessly eastward, losing one defensive position after another. Faced with a constant stream of fresh German troops and defenseless against the overwhelming power of the Luftwaffe, it was clear to Freyberg that any continued attempt to hold Crete was futile. Thus, on May 27 the order was given to withdraw from the island.

On the night of May 28 most of the 4,000-strong British garrison in Heraklion was evacuated by sea. The British commander of the garrison had neglected to inform his Greek counterpart of the impending evacuation, leaving the Greek forces in Heraklion largely on their own. Meanwhile, the main Allied force concentrated in the area of Maleme-Chania-Suda began a long retreat southwards across the mountains to the small fishing village of Sphakia on Crete’s southern coast. Dug in to defensive positions in and around the village of Alikianos, southwest of Chania, the 8th Greek Provisional Regiment repulsed a series of German attacks over several days, thus enabling the primary British and Commonwealth column to retreat to Sphakia. To the east of the Greeks, a secondary Allied column was protected by a New Zealand rearguard battalion that also blocked the German advance. Over four nights, more than 18,000 British and Commonwealth troops were evacuated from Crete. Another 18,000 British, Commonwealth, and Greek troops were not evacuated and remained to fall prisoner. Included in this number was the entire Australian garrison of Rethymno, which because it was out of communication with Freyberg never learned of the retreat. On June 1, the German forces reached Sphakia, and captured 5,000 Commonwealth troops, a veritable rabble, which had been left behind on the beach at bayonet point by the last British units to be evacuated.

The Battle for Crete was an unmitigated disaster for the British. Half of the surviving Allied force was captured by the Germans. More than 4,000 troops had been killed and 3,000 wounded. The Royal Navy lost 2,000 sailors killed, as well as crippling losses of major ships, which resulted in its withdrawal from the Aegean. The battle for Crete was, in fact, the costliest British naval engagement of the Second World War.

The Battle of Crete should not have been an Allied failure. The Greek and New Zealand troops, in particular, fought with exceptional ferocity. Yet neither the bravery of individual soldiers, nor the tenacity of the Allied troops as a whole could make up for the shockingly poor leadership of the British and Commonwealth commanders, whose bungling, blunders, and inertia doomed the defense of Crete.

Even before the German invasion of Greece, Churchill had expressed the view that Crete might one day become a key point that must be held at all costs. However, Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, failed to accept Churchill’s view and instead ignored Crete. In November 1940, as the Greeks were fighting the Italians in Albania, it was agreed between Athens and London that the British would assume responsibility for the defense of Crete. Nevertheless, Wavell did not take this obligation seriously. Reflecting Wavell’s neglect of Crete, his appointment of General Freyberg to take command of the island’s forces was his seventh change of commanders in five months. None of the previous commanders had been in their post long enough to have had any effect in preparing the island for war. When Freyberg arrived in Crete on April 30, he was confronted by an astonishing lack of preparation. No attempt had been made by the British to build field works or strong points where defenses were required, no beaches were obstructed against potential amphibious landings, no aircraft pens had been built to protect planes, no attempt to improve communications had been undertaken, and no attention to defense needs had been given in the location of fuel and supply stores. Finally, like Wavell himself, no commander before Freyberg had even bothered to prepare a plan of defense for the island.

The hopelessness of Freyberg’s situation was compounded by his own mistakes. Remarkably, the details of Operation Merkur were known to the British before the German attack began, but were ignored. Thanks to a breakthrough by the intelligence branch Ultra, the British were able decipher the Germans’ encrypted messaging code, Enigma. As a result, the British possessed the German’s exact battle plan. However, in order to protect Ultra’s secret breakthrough from even Freyberg, Wavell did not reveal to him the actual source of the intelligence. Instead, this vital information was presented to Freyberg as filtered data from spies operating in occupied Greece. Proceeding from skepticism and caution, Freyberg was thus reluctant to accept the validity of such reports and he was equally dismissive of Greek intelligence officers who presented him with actual captured German documents that confirmed the precise plans for an airborne invasion. Indeed, he thought an airborne attack to be impossible, and so he positioned his forces to face an amphibious invasion. Had Freyberg deployed his forces, especially in the Maleme sector, to thwart an airborne attack rather than a beach landing which never took place, the Battle of Crete would probably have ended on the same day it began.

The Germans ultimately succeeded on Crete not because of the supposed brilliance of their operational plan, but because of the British command’s negligence and failure to act competently. In a real sense, the Germans were victorious because the mistakes they made were not as numerous or appalling as those made by the British. Operation Merkur was certainly daring and audacious but it was also far from perfect. Wildly inaccurate intelligence, dispersal and isolation of forces across four objectives rather than their concentration in one sector, and a basic recklessness, produced enormous casualties and nearly cost the Germans the campaign. Indeed, in the final analysis the Battle of Crete was a highly ambiguous, Pyrrhic victory. Hitler was displeased with the operation, which produced more proportional losses of soldiers and planes than any of his previous conquests, from Poland to France. With 4,000 dead and 3,000 wounded, most from the assault and parachute regiments, Hitler decided that large, independent airborne operations should not be repeated. Reflecting both the intensity of casualty figures and Hitler’s consequent resolution about the operational fate of airborne warfare, Karl von Student famously described the Battle of Crete as “the graveyard of the German paratroopers.”

Despite their hard-fought victory, the Germans did not take advantage of their conquest of Crete. Hitler, like Wavell, albeit for different reasons, ignored Crete once the island was under his control. As a result, he squandered an incomparable strategic opportunity. From Crete, with sufficient forces, Hitler was in a position to establish air superiority over the Eastern Mediterranean, complete the destruction of the British Mediterranean Fleet begun by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Crete, occupy Cyprus and Malta, disrupt, if not seize, the Suez Canal, and deliver a decisive blow against the British Empire in the Middle East. Hitler’s shortsightedness about the immediate strategic potential of Crete could be attributed to his prioritization of the invasion of the Soviet Union. The place of Crete in German war planning was formalized in Fuhrer Directive Number 30, issued on May 23, while the Battle of Crete was still raging. This Directive made it clear that the decision to launch an offensive to break the British position in the Eastern Mediterranean would be determined only after Operation Barbarossa and the destruction of the Soviet Union.

Despite Hitler’s decision to draw the line at Crete, as it was, the German war machine, using a new, innovative form of warfare, had been seen once again to triumph against the perpetually humiliated and retreating British. The Battle of Crete was, indeed, unprecedented in the scope of its use of airborne forces. Airborne troops had been used by the Germans earlier, in Belgium, Norway, and elsewhere, but all of those actions involved small parachute units operating as support elements for conventional ground forces. In the case of Operation Merkur, and for the first time in history, a major campaign was conducted by an independent, large-scale airborne force. The Germans and the Allies drew different conclusions from Operation Merkur. While Hitler decided that the airborne invasion of Crete was far too costly to risk repeating, it spurred the British, and soon the Americans, to create entire divisions and eventually parachute corps, which would play a major doctrinal and operational, if not always successful, role, in the Allied campaigns in Sicily, Normandy, and the Netherlands.

The Battle of Crete was unprecedented for another respect—it was the first time German troops encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population. Throughout the battle, Cretan villagers, often armed with only makeshift weapons or captured German firearms, joined in the fighting against the German invaders. As an ominous portend of the sort of brutality that would soon become characteristic of the German occupation throughout the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet territories, the Germans reacted to Cretan resistance with savagery and indiscriminate violence. On June 2, the first day after the end of the Battle of Crete, a German paratrooper force, acting under orders from General Student, took hostage and executed 60 villagers from Kondomari, a village outside Maleme. The following day, June 3, the village of Kandanos, near Chania, was razed and 180 of its inhabitants were shot. These reprisal killings were the first in a long series of atrocities that would blacken the Germans’ reputation in Crete. Indeed, before the end of the German occupation of the island in 1944, the occupation forces would kill 4,000, and according to some estimates as many as 7,000, Cretan civilians. Clearly, in the final analysis, the most important consequences stemming from the success of Operation Merkur were those which would affect the people of Crete—namely, foreign occupation, deprivation, terror, and death.



(Posting date 16 June 2011)

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