German paratroopers landing on Crete
Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 141-0864
70 years ago: The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta; Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης) was a battle during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code-name Unternehmen Merkur ("Operation Mercury"). Greek and Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.
After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered appalling casualties and none of their objectives had been achieved. The next day, through miscommunication and the failure of Allied commanders to grasp the situation, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans, enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the defenders. The battle lasted about 10 days.
The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects: it was not only the first battle where the Fallschirmjäger ("parachute rangers") were used on a massive scale, but also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history; the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code; and the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.
The German forces met fierce resistance on the island of Crete, where the elite Fallschirmjäger suffered almost 7,000 casualties. In light of the heavy casualties suffered by the elite 7th Flieger Division, Adolf Hitler forbade further airborne operations. This decision eliminated the option of a massive airborne invasion of the Soviet Union and further expansion in the Mediterranean saving Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, and the Suez Canal from airborne invasion.
General Kurt Student, who directed Operation Mercury and was the commander of the Fallschirmjäger, would dub Crete "the graveyard of the German paratroopers" and a "disastrous victory." Acting as the temporary commander of the island, immediately after the surrender of Crete on 31 May 1941, Student issued an order for a launching of a wave of brutal reprisals against the local population with the Massacre of Kondomari and the Holocaust of Kandanos being typical cases.
Executed Cretan civilians at Kondomari, Crete, 1941
Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 101I-166-0527-04