On this day in 1941, the German invasion of Crete began. Home to the ancient Minoans – Europe’s first advanced civilization – the Greek island occupied an important spot in the WWII battle for the Mediterranean: from its ports and runways, British air and sea forces dominated the region and threatened Romanian oil fields, an important part of the Axis war effort. After Germany’s failure to destroy Britain’s air defences in the summer of 1940, Hitler desperately wanted a new victory. In 1941, Panzers rolled into Greece and by the spring of that year, the country was under Axis control. But Crete remained in Allied hands, defended by over 40,000 troops Hellenic and Commonwealth troops. Armed with a brand new military capability – the elite fallschirmjägers, or paratroopers – Hitler ordered an airborne invasion of the island. Their mission, codenamed Operation Mercury, was to seize Allied airfields, enabling a much larger force of Gebirgsjägers (mountain troops) to arrive by transport aircraft and secure the island.
By 8 AM on May 20th, thousands of Germans were falling from the clear blue sky. At Maleme airfield, the defending New Zealanders picked fallschirmjägers out of the air with well-placed shots; the lucky few who made it to the ground were rounded up or shot on site. According to German doctrine, the paratroopers jumped without personal weapons; at Maleme, the crates containing their rifles had been lost due to parachute malfunctions. As a result, the majority of the attackers were killed or wounded in the first few hours as they struggled to find weapons. The three Von Blücher brothers, serving in different sectors, were all killed in the first few days. A series of Allied intelligence failures, however, resulted in key airfields being abandoned; the remaining Greek troops, although committed, ran dangerously low on weapons and ammunition. After several days of hard fighting, the Germans had gained a foothold on the island and soon, gebirgsjägers were blasting around on motorcycles, rapidly seizing key positions. Although the locals fought on – one old Cretan man beat a fallschirmjäger to death with his walking stick, and mobs of old women stabbed several others Germans to death with kitchen knives – the Allied troops were eventually forced to withdraw to the south. By May 28th, only 500 Commonwealth and Hellenic troops remained on the island, where they fled to the mountains alongside the Greek resistance.
After 13 days of brutal combat, Crete was firmly in German hands. The Allies had been evicted from the island, losing an important regional stronghold and suffering a massive reduction of their naval strength at the hands of German bombers. In retaliation for Crete’s resistance, the German occupiers massacred hundreds of locals for alleged “partisan behaviour”. But although Operation Mercury was a German success, it came at an incredible cost. According to fallschirmjäger commander Kurt Student, Crete was “… the death of the airborne force”. After the incredibly costly invasion – during which the attackers had lacked weapons and the element of surprise – Hitler became convinced that airborne invasions were a waste of men and resources. As the much larger invasion of the USSR began later in June of 1941, German airborne troops were kept firmly on the ground; any possibility of future airborne fallschirmjäger deployments was over.