Why don't New Zealanders like the British

May 1941 Attack from the air - as German paratroopers take Crete

The Greek king Pyrrhos I of Epirus, the 279th BC BC wins an extremely lossy victory against the Romans, the sentence is ascribed: "One more victory and we are lost!" A success that was bought too dearly has since been considered a "Pyrrhic victory". It is not known whether Great Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill was thinking of this when he decided at the end of April 1941 to defend Crete against the Germans. In any case, he informed the Commander-in-Chief for the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, that he saw the opportunity to inflict considerable losses on the German paratroopers in the battle for Crete.

British troops in a desolate state

Wavell himself is less optimistic. The remaining 30,000 men of the British expeditionary force on the Greek Mediterranean island are in a desolate state. While fleeing from the Wehrmacht, the British left all their heavy weapons in the southern Greek ports. But things are also bad for the British associations in Egypt, where Wavell has its headquarters. A German-Italian lightning campaign had driven them from Libya shortly before. The Commander-in-Chief of the "Middle East Command" would rather have Crete evacuated and throw the forces that have become free on the beleaguered Libya front.

Outpost to defend Egypt

But Crete wants to keep the tour in London. The island, located around 100 kilometers south of mainland Greece, is an important outpost for the defense of Egypt and thus the Suez Canal. In addition, advances into the Aegean Sea and southeastern Europe are possible from the 260 kilometer long Mediterranean island. The British are sure that the Wehrmacht will attack the island. British intelligence reports that the German paratroopers who captured the bridge over the Corinth Canal on April 26th have not withdrawn from Greece. In addition, around 250 transport aircraft will be relocated from Germany to Plovdiv in Bulgaria at the same time.

Luftwaffe generals convince Hitler

In fact, as early as April 21, leading representatives of the air force convince, among them the creator of the German parachute force, General der Flieger Kurt Student, Adolf Hitler, to take Crete through airborne and paratrooper units. The fact that the Air Force generals are so vehemently advocating the removal of Crete also has reasons for prestige. In 1940, their armed forces suffered a major setback over Great Britain ("Battle of Britain"). Student himself also wants to prove what exploits his paratroopers are capable of.

However, Hitler is initially skeptical. He fears a delay in the planned attack on the Soviet Union in June. It was precisely for this reason that he had previously refused to capture Malta, from where German supplies for North Africa are threatened. With their argument that bomber units of the Royal Air Force from Crete can attack the oil fields of Ploieşti in Romania, which are essential for the German fuel supply, the air force generals run open doors to Hitler. The German dictator absolutely wants to avoid the risk of his armored troops running out of fuel in the east.

Directive on the "Merkur Company"

With directive No. 28 on "Operation Merkur", Hitler ordered Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring's air force to capture Crete on April 28th. Luftflotte IV under Colonel General Alexander Löhr is tasked with preparing and carrying out the operation. Students XI. Fliegerkorps a special large formation available for such operations. Its core is the 7th Air Division with 15,000 paratroopers. In addition, there is an airborne storm regiment, which has cargo gliders for the silent landing in the operational area.

More than a thousand transport and combat aircraft

More than 500 Ju 52 transport aircraft are available for the air transport of the paratroopers. In addition, Students Airborne Corps has its own reconnaissance squadron. For the airborne battle for Crete, the XI. Fliegerkorps reinforced by mountain troops from the 5th Mountain Division, who are to be brought in by air and sea transport. 280 bombers, 150 dive bombers, 140 fighters and 40 reconnaissance planes are to prepare, support and secure the attack.

The start of the attack is postponed

Nevertheless, the Crete operation was not a good star from the start. Because of the planned attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler initially demands that operations begin by mid-May. In view of the major problems in gathering the necessary troops and equipment in time in structurally weak and war-damaged Greece, the start of the attack has been postponed to May 20th. But even this point in time is far too early for a highly complex airborne company, which primarily depends on good preparation and high precision.

Enemy reconnaissance misses 30,000 defenders

In addition, German enemy intelligence is also failing. You miss the fact that the British can completely reorganize their troops in Crete and equip them with heavy weapons. The corresponding shipments from Egypt are landed in the Cretan ports overnight. The numerous new anti-aircraft artillery positions, machine gun nests and buried tanks remain perfectly camouflaged from the German reconnaissance aircraft during the day.

The "Creforce" troops from the British, Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks do not agree to a "violent reconnaissance" of German fighter planes. They react as cautiously as possible to attacks and maintain their camouflage. Until shortly before the start of the invasion, the Germans assume only 12,000 defenders in all of Crete. In reality there are 42,000!

Attackers hopelessly outnumbered

When the airborne battle for Crete began on the morning of May 20, 1941, the roughly 5,000 to 6,000 German paratroopers of the first wave who landed in the west of the island were faced with almost 29,000 "Creforce" soldiers. At least the men of the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment, who go down with their gliders west of the Maleme airfield in a dry river valley, can get stuck in their landing zone. However, they are far from taking the airfield, their actual combat mission. The British defensive fire is just too strong.

Paratroopers land in British positions

For the paratroopers who are landing south of the then island capital Chania at the same time by parachute, it looks even worse. Quite a few of them end up directly in the British positions, which means certain death for many. It looks a bit cheaper for the hunters who land at Chania by cargo ship. They have their heavy infantry weapons on hand and do not have to retrieve them from dropped weapon cases. But even with them the losses are high. A fulfillment of the contract to take Chania and the port of Souda Bay is out of the question for them either.

Goering calls for an attack on the broadest front

In this critical situation, reinforcements should have been flown in immediately. Had it been up to the air fleet chief Löhr, who is responsible for operations planning, that would have happened too. Löhr originally wanted to concentrate all available forces on paratroopers, transport, bomber and fighter planes on the western part of Crete with the most important airfield Maleme and the large landing port in Souda Bay. Luftwaffe boss Göhring and paratrooper boss Student, on the other hand, pleaded for all important points on the island to be captured from the air at the same time. However, such a broad-based operation could not have been secured with the planned air force.

Three landing points as a compromise

A compromise was reached to also occupy the airfields of Rethymnon in the center and Heraklion in the east of Crete in at least a second wave of attacks on May 20th. At these two locations, however, the operation is even more chaotic than in the west. Because the combat and transport aircraft have to be refueled with hand pumps before the second approach to the field airfields in southern Greece, the take-off times are delayed by hours. In addition, the first aircraft to take off whirl up the dust-dry runways in such a way that the take-off of later aircraft is considerably delayed.

Time delays are fatal

So it happens that far too much time passes between the bombing of the British positions and the dropping of the paratroopers. In addition, due to the time delays, the paratrooper groups of the second attack wave are not dropped off together, but only individually. Their losses are therefore even higher than those of the first wave. Every second paratrooper landing near Rethymnon and Heraklion in the afternoon falls during the jump or in the first few minutes of the battle. Those who survive unharmed have enough to do with defending themselves. Taking the airfields there is out of the question.

New Zealanders are withdrawing

It is different in the west with the paratroopers of the air storm regiment at Maleme airfield. An attack on the dominant heights initially fails due to the stubborn defense of the New Zealanders there. However, due to a lack of communication links, the local New Zealand commander gains the false impression that his men are far too weak to survive another air strike by German bombers the following day. He therefore pulls them back three to four kilometers to the east on Chania. This is the only reason why men of the Air Storm Regiment can follow up and take parts of the Maleme airfield during the night.

Mountaineers land in Maleme

This makes the situation at Maleme the most promising. Air fleet chief Löhr and the two corps commanders Student and Richthofen therefore decide to drop paratroopers as reinforcements west of Maleme on May 21. With their help, it finally succeeds in clearing the airfield. The first transport planes with mountain fighters can land on the airfield in the late afternoon. Because the landing area is still being shelled by the British, numerous machines break. By evening more than 80 destroyed and damaged Ju 52s were lying on the airfield. The number of soldiers lost, however, remains low.

British counter-offensive ends in a hail of bombs

The leadership of the "Creforce" recognizes the danger posed by the conquest of Maleme by the Germans. On the night of May 22nd, she tries to recapture the airfield with a counter-offensive. When the German bombers were able to intervene again at first light, the British attack collapsed completely. The British have no chance against the German air superiority. With the help of the more and more numerous mountain fighters and other airborne troops flying into Maleme, it is possible in the following days to relieve the paratroopers trapped near Chania and Rethymnon and to push the British back further and further.

Half of the British manage to escape

Nevertheless, the British manage to withdraw the bulk of their "Creforce" forces fighting in western Crete via the Lefka Ori mountains unmolested to the south to Hora Sfakion. From there, 13,000 soldiers will be transported to Egypt over four nights by June 1st. The nearly 5,000 Australians standing east of Rethymnon, however, were taken prisoner by Germany on May 30th. The 8,000 or so British at Heraklion will be loaded onto ships on the night of May 28-29, some of which, however, will be sunk by German fighter planes east of Crete at daybreak.

6,000 paratroopers dead, missing or wounded

Nevertheless, about half of the Empire's troops managed to escape from Crete. Around 3,500 British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek soldiers are killed or wounded in the fighting over the island. 17,000 become German prisoners of war. Logically, the German winners hardly lost any prisoners. However, the XI. Fliegerkorps around 6,000 dead, missing and wounded. Most of them are paratroopers. A good half of the experienced officers of the parachute force fell in the airborne battle for Crete. In addition, more than 185 of the 500 Junkers transport machines of the Parachute Corps are lost.

Crete is a "Pyrrhic victory"

Regardless of this, after the end of the fighting on June 2nd, Luftflotten chief Löhr announced: "True to the oath we took to the Fuhrer and Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, we are ready for new tasks." But at least new tasks in the sense of large airborne operations will not work until the end of the war.

Crete is a "Pyrrhic victory" for the German parachute weapon. Many of the most experienced paratroopers have died on the Mediterranean island. The troops will never recover from this loss. Although the XI. Fliegerkorps even had a whole parachute army in 1944. But their relatives are de facto only real paratroopers by name. In any case, the Wehrmacht will never again dare to undertake large airborne operations like on Crete until 1945.

An inglorious chapter of the German parachute troops was opened during the fighting for Crete. Because many Cretan civilians take part in combat operations against the German invaders, General Student and other troop leaders order the toughest retaliatory measures during the fighting. According to a criminal order issued by Students on May 31, 1941, the troops attacked by "irregulars" are to "exterminate" the male population in the affected areas and destroy all houses. According to recent research, the reprisals resulting from the occupation of Crete have killed almost 9,000 people by the end of the war.

Vogel, Detlef: The intervention of Germany in the Balkans. In: The German Reich and the Second World War, Volume 3. Ed. From the Military History Research Office, Stuttgart 1984, pp. 417-511.