Germany Invades Crete

Germany overwhelmed British Commonwealth and Greek defenses on Crete with an unprecedented airborne offensive, the largest glider and parachute assault attempted to that date.

Summary of Event

Lying about fifty-six miles southeast of the Greek mainland, Crete is the largest Greek island and occupies a strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1941, it had assumed critical importance as one of a series of Allied territories that included the British colony of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean, British-controlled Egypt and the Suez Canal at its eastern end, continental Greece, and the British island colonies of Malta and Cyprus. [kw]Germany Invades Crete (May 20-June 1, 1941)
[kw]Crete, Germany Invades (May 20-June 1, 1941)
Crete, Battle of (1941)
Operation Mercury
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Mediterranean campaign
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign
Crete, Battle of (1941)
Operation Mercury
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Mediterranean campaign
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign
[g]Europe;May 20-June 1, 1941: Germany Invades Crete[00250]
[g]Greece;May 20-June 1, 1941: Germany Invades Crete[00250]
[g]Mediterranean;May 20-June 1, 1941: Germany Invades Crete[00250]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 20-June 1, 1941: Germany Invades Crete[00250]
[c]World War II;May 20-June 1, 1941: Germany Invades Crete[00250]
Student, Kurt
Freyberg, Bernard Cyril
Göring, Hermann
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Balkan military campaign
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military]
Wavell, Archibald (first Earl Wavell)

After his armies successfully swept through much of western and central Europe, German führer Adolf Hitler had one overriding goal: the conquest of the Soviet Union. It was imperative, however, that his armies guard against any attack from Greece or Yugoslavia. Greece in particular posed a threat, as it was not only an ally of Great Britain but also a base for some fifty-seven thousand British and Commonwealth troops, including fourteen thousand on Crete. Hitler chose to attack both countries on April 6, 1941, crushing organized resistance in Yugoslavia in eleven days and in Greece in eighteen days. Allied troops and a number of civilians were hastily evacuated by ship from mainland Greece to Crete and Egypt in what was known as Operation Demon Operation Demon .

The commander of the Allied troops in Crete was a decorated veteran of World War I, Major General Bernard Cyril Freyberg. At the beginning of World War II, Freyberg had been appointed commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force and its combat component, the Second New Zealand Division. He had taken part in Operation Demon, landing with some fifteen thousand troops on Crete on April 29. Another twelve thousand landed a few days later. Freyberg expected to regroup his troops shortly in Egypt, but under pressure from British prime minister Winston Churchill and field marshal Archibald Wavell—the latter of whom was commander of the British army in the Middle East—he reluctantly agreed to remain. Besides his own forces, Freyberg also had about nine thousand Greek troops at his disposal, but he believed that he lacked the necessary arms, tranport, and air cover to mount an effective defense of the island.

After the conquest of mainland Greece, Lieutenant General Kurt Student and his superior, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, had proposed to Hitler that German forces attack Crete initially from the air. Their plan was to land 750 troops by glider and 10,000 by parachute in order to capture the airfields at the northern towns of Máleme, Rethymnon, and Iráklion, allowing the landing of conventional aircraft. It was to be the first large-scale airborne invasion in history and was codenamed Operation Mercury. Student himself supervised the invasion from German headquarters in the newly captured Greek capital of Athens, and he ordered heavy aerial bombardment of the island beginning May 1.

Ostensibly unaware of his enemy’s plans, Freyberg prepared his troops for possible invasion by both sea and air. Freyberg was later criticized for this action, as he had access to secret, albeit ambiguous, intelligence suggesting that the Germans would first attack by air. However, it was feared that preparations for this eventuality alone would have warned the Germans that their code had been broken.

The Germans opened their attack soon after 6:00 a.m. on May 20, 1941, with an hour of intense bombardment of the airfield at Máleme and the Suda Bay area to the east. This bombardment was followed by waves of gliders and paratroopers. In the chaotic hours that followed, both sides took heavy losses, with the Germans suffering four thousand casualties. Similar attacks took place farther east at the smaller airfields at Rethymnon and Iráklion that afternoon. A German convoy carrying arms and materiel also left mainland Greece on May 20, but it was intercepted by the Royal Navy during the night and largely destroyed. Naval action near the island continued throughout the following days, but German air power was to prove superior to British sea power.

Resistance on the ground by Allied troops and Cretan civilians was so effective that by nightfall on May 20, the Germans found themselves in an unexpectedly weak position. When informed of the situation, Hitler ordered Student to abandon the operation unless at least one airfield could be secured the following day. For their part, Freyberg and his officers seemed unaware of their advantage and failed to act on it. In fact, New Zealand troops were withdrawn during the night from a highly strategic position, Kazvakia Hill (also known as Hill 107), overlooking the Máleme airfield. As a result, the Germans were able to take control of the field the following day and to land several thousand fresh troops by plane. By the time Freyberg mounted a counterattack, the German lines holding the area had grown too strong.

Freyberg’s critics have charged that his failure to defend Máleme more aggressively cost the Allies the battle, but control of the other airfields remained undecided until May 29. Resistance in the Iráklion area was so fierce that on May 24 the Germans rounded up forty-two civilians—men, women, and children—for execution by firing squad. The same day, German planes ruthlessly bombed and strafed the defenseless capital of the island, Canea. These were the first of many atrocities committed by the Germans during their occupation.

Freyberg had begun a gradual withdrawal on May 26 toward the port of Sphakia on the island’s southwestern coast. Reviewing the grim situation the following day, Wavell notified Churchill that Crete could not be held any longer, and Freyberg ordered an evacuation beginning the night of May 28-29 from Khóra Sfakíon and other ports. The Royal Navy embarked between sixteen thousand and eighteen thousand troops for Egypt, although one of its ships was sunk by German fighters in the process and several more were damaged. As the Germans had already redeployed some of their air units for the projected invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Allied losses during the evacuation were significantly lighter than they might otherwise have been. The five thousand Allied troops remaining in Khóra Sfakíon surrendered on June 1, but Greek forces and some five hundred British and Commonwealth troops disappeared into Crete’s hills and mountains to form the core of a determined resistance movement.


The Battle of Crete involved the first large-scale airborne invasion in history. The Germans won the battle, but their victory was a near-disaster, exacerbated by their determination to win at practically any cost. Underestimating the strength of resistance, they suffered at least six thousand and perhaps as many as seventeen thousand casualties—more than they had suffered during the entire Balkan campaign. The cost discouraged Hitler from undertaking any further large-scale airborne operations.

In addition, the scale of continuing Cretan resistance forced Hitler to station tens of thousands of troops on the island, making them unavailable for other campaigns. Despite such heavy garrisoning, he failed to take advantage of the occupation by using the island as a base in connection with the Axis campaign in North Africa. He focused his attention instead on the Soviet Union, the invasion of which he had been forced to delay as a result of the drawn-out battle.

Out of some forty-eight thousand troops, the Allies suffered almost fifty-five hundred killed and wounded, losing more troops at sea than on land. Over twelve thousand Allied troops were taken prisoner. Nine large and sixteen small Royal Navy ships were sunk, and seventeen others were seriously damaged. After reviewing the battle, the Royal Navy was forced to acknowledge its vulnerability to concentrated air power, while the Royal Air Force quickly developed a plan to defend its bases from future attack. Crete, Battle of (1941)
Operation Mercury
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Mediterranean campaign
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign

Further Reading

  • Barber, Laurie, and John Tonkin-Covell. Freyberg: Churchill’s Salamander. London: Hutchinson, 1990. Biography of the Allied commander defending Crete.
  • Bell, Kelly. “Costly Capture of Crete.” World War II 14 (May 1999): 50-56. Succinct account with black-and-white and color photographs.
  • Forty, George. Battle of Crete. Hersham, Surrey, England: Ian Allan, 2001. Heavily illustrated analysis of the battle, supplemented with a useful chronology, glossary, bibliography, very detailed maps, and appendixes.
  • Kiriakopoulos, G. C. The Nazi Occupation of Crete, 1941-1945. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. Opens with a summary of the German invasion before proceeding to an analysis of the subsequent occupation.
  • _______. Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941. New York: F. Watts. 1985. Description written from the Greek point of view by an author of Cretan descent and drawing on firsthand Cretan accounts. Map, extensive bibliography.
  • MacDonald, Callum. The Lost Battle: Crete, 1941. New York: Free Press, 1993. Definitive, evenhanded account of the battle analyzing miscalculations by both German and Allied commanders. Map, photographs, good bibliography.
  • Thomas, David. Nazi Victory: Crete, 1941. New York: Stein and Day, 1973. Account by a retired Royal Navy officer emphasizing naval aspects of the battle. Photographs, appendixes, bibliography.

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