It was a very asymmetrical battle. The German assault force was formed entirely of airborne troops – parachutists, glider troops, and then, once an airfield had been captured, air-lifted mountain troops. All comprised heavily armed elite formations, but they had no tanks and only light-calibre artillery. On the other hand, they had massive air support – in particular, frequent sorties by Stuka dive-bombers – and the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority.
This was the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. The Allied forces facing them comprised New Zealand, Australian, British, and Greek regular infantry, along with some British infantry-support tanks, plenty of artillery, and the active support of improvised bands of Cretan irregulars. The Royal Navy enjoyed unchallenged maritime supremacy in the waters around the island.
The story that unfolded between 20 May and 1 June 1941 is rich in lessons. The German invasion of Crete was the first major operation undertaken wholly by airborne forces (two flotillas of amphibious troops were destroyed or dispersed by British naval action). It was a leap into the unknown and involved enormous risk. Several times in the first few days of the fighting, the Germans were within a whisker of defeat and annihilation.
It was a collision of two military elites: German airborne and mountain troops versus New Zealanders and Australians. It also heralded the ferocity of the later Cretan Resistance, for Greek regulars, Cretan gendarmerie, and Cretan civilians played major roles in the May 1941 fighting. The German paratroopers in particular had been lionised as military supermen. They met their match on Crete.
The Battle for Crete should have been an Allied victory. The Germans were outnumbered and outgunned by their opponents, and the men they were up against were at least their equals in close-quarters infantry combat. The problem – almost the only problem – was the Allied high command.
Allied tactics were static and sluggish. Allied generals were defensive-minded, rarely showed initiative or aggression, and lacked confidence in their men. When they did act, they pulled their punches, failing to attack in full strength, failing to follow up success.
For our special this issue, MHM Editor Neil Faulkner analysed the Battle for Crete. In the first part, he looks at the history of the German 7th Airborne Division and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of airborne operations. In the second, he offers a detailed commentary on the 13-day battle for the island.
This is an extract from a special feature on the Battle for Crete from the latest issue of Military History Matters.