The battle for the Island of Crete was a short, but violent affair. Its air component was, and its still is, one of the lesser known aspects of this campaign. In November 1940, and after months of internal discussion, the first British Royal Army detachments began to arrive on the Island. The first installation to be set up by the newly arrived British was the Marine Naval Base Defense Organization (MNBDO) based at Suda Bay in the northern west part of the Island. The newly formed defense organization was manned by an all British detachment utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft systems. At that early time, no permanent Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron was assigned to the Suda Bay base, or Island for that matter. Nut this did meant that the British were air deprived on Crete. Stationed at Suda was the Fleet Air Arm No. 805 squadron with its complement of Fairey Fulmars, Gloster Sea Gladiators and Brewster F2A Buffaloes.
As the overall situation in Europe began to deteriorate for the Allies, the RAF Air Staff concluded that an efficient air defense of Crete was out of the force’s realm due to the more pressing need of securing the British Home Island from the ever more daring German Luftwaffe’s raids. This does not meant that the RAF abandoned the air defense of the Island, but no effort to bolster the over stretched RAF Middle East Command were made during the last part of 1940 or the spring of 1941. With an ever increasing operational scope area, the Command was original responsible for air operations in and around Libya, Syria, Iraq, Abyssinia, Somaliland, and the Western Desert, then in the winter 1940, the RAF expanded the Command’s converge area to include the whole of Greece, the island of Malta and parts of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea; the Command became the most active air unit of the RAF outside the one defending the Homeland. Although bigger in scope and responsibility, the RAF was slow to augment it with top of the line aircraft and supporting systems. Much of the Command’s air inventory centered on a few obsolete Hurricane Mk Is and a short supply of P-40Bs, both of which were inferior in all aspects to the new Spitfire Mk VB being held exclusively for the defense of Great Britain.
By the end of April 1941, the No. 805 began air operations attacking German and Italian airfields on Rhodes and Scarpanto as well strafing German shipping vessels going in and out of the Aegean Sea. Early that month, the RAF Fighter and Bomber Commands transferred several units of Blenheim Mk Ifs, Hurricanes and Gladiators for air operations in Crete. Because of the infusion of more fighter-type of aircraft, the Luftwaffe was forced to shift its axis of attack, from bombing Allied, more specifically, British shipping; they now will concentrate its main effort in the destruction of all British airfields on the Island. From that moment on, all of the Luftwaffe’s assets in the Greece Theater of operations were diverted to Crete. Swarms of He 111H3s, Do 17Z-2s, Bf 109Es and Bf 110Cs began to pound allied air and naval installations all along the Island since the beginning of May. By the middle of the month, with the allied air and ground situation in Crete deteriorating by the day and with a new phase in the air war over Continental Europe drawing an ever bigger piece of the RAF’s assets, the British Army High Command decided to pull the plug on all offensive air operations in the area. The decision was followed by a total withdraw of all airplanes from Suda and the smaller airfields.
Meanwhile, the Germans, who began to plan the invasion on April 1941, had accelerated their pace. Although there were some opposition the very concept of invasion. In fact, several Germans middle commanders expressed reservations about redirecting precious resources to an endeavor they considered secondary in importance. Nevertheless, the plans were drawn up. As it was devised, 22,750 elite German airborne troops would be employed in the assault. Most of them would be parachuted along the northern coast of the Island. Heraklion, Rethimnon and Maleme were the areas selected by the Germans. Following the parachute troops was the air transport element of the force which consisted of Junkers Ju 52/3m4s. The whole undertaken would have the distinction of being the largest airborne operation the world has ever seen, that was until June 6th 1944 and the invasion of Occupy France.
Operations began in mid May 1941 with a massive German bombardment of British, Commonwealth and Greek forces entrenched all along the road from Kastelli to Sitia. Junkers Ju 87B-2s from the I/Stukageschwader No. 2, commanded by Oberstleutnant Oskar Dinort, joined Heinkel He 111H-3s from Kampfgeschwader 26 and Junkers Ju 88As from III/Kampfgeschwader 30 in the saturation bombing of allied position that lasted until May 20th, the day the airborne assault commenced. In the wee hours of the morning, DFS 230s gliders originally assigned to land its troops at Maleme and Canea missed their landing zones and instead landed near the fortified 5th New Zealand Brigade stationed on Hill 107. A similar fate was encounter by parachutes from the III/FJSTR who landed atop a British held post at the rear of the town of Heraklion. Almost 400 German airborne troops were killed in action around the by now, deserted town in just seven hours. Ferocious opposition was also encountered by the invaders at Galatas and the northern side of Canea. It was a fight the Germans did not envisioned when the planned the attack. But a sudden and unexpected event changed the invader’s fortunes the next day. During the night of the 20th, the NX 5th Brigade, which so stubbornly held back repeated German attempt to take the strategic hill, decided to abandon their advantageous position during the late hours of the night paving the way for a consolidation of German forces and resources around the Hill.
With a secure foothold on the Island, the Fallschrimjager elements on the ground were boosted by troops from Generalleutnant Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision. With such an overwhelming force converging on the British overstretch defensive line; the order was giving on the 25th to retreat towards the small village of Sfakia located in the south part of Crete. After five days of brutal, delaying fighting, most of the British and New Zealand forces were evacuated from Sfakia. When the fighting ended on the 31st, the Germans were in full control of the Island, except for a few spots around Pirgos and Leapetra where Greek defenders fought a valiant but unsuccessful guerrilla-type of war.
As the fighting was raging on the Island, the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was use to support, at first, the defender’s positions and later on, to evacuate the war weary troops. During the retreating operation, the HMS Formidable was the only air asset employed by the RN. Her full complement of 18 Fulmar Mk Is were employ in covering the evacuation beach head. This lack of support from the Navy, and the relative small and obsolete RAF’s contribution to the campaign only augmented the state of despair felt through the Allied ranks during the invasion. Because, if was true that the Germans airborne troops were having a hard time securing the Island, the Luftwaffe was having a field day against the RAF and Navy. Overall, Luftwaffe aircraft shotdown 39 RAF planes while at the same time, the force’s bombers wreaked havoc with the vaunted Royal Navy at Crete. The British navy came away from the battle with three of its top armed cruisers and six destroyers sunk. A battleship, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and eight escort destroyers were badly damaged. On the ground, near 15,000 British and Commonwealth troops were either capture or killed. Meanwhile, the German loss 1,990 and had 2,320 troops missing during the operation. On the air, the Luftwaffe’s field day came with a price. The brave British pilots, flying obsolete fighters and medium range bombers took out almost 200 (198) German planes, most of them Ju 52/3ms.
In the end, Operation Merkur, although successful in the mater that the Germans were able to consolidate their southern flank, took longer than expected thus pushing the starting day for the most grandiose military operation of all time, Operation Barbarossa, for a full moth. A month that would cost the Wehrmacht dearly in the winter ahead.
– Raul Colon
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books, 2004
The illustrated Guide to Naval Aircraft, Francis Crosby, Hermes House, 2008
The Second World War, Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press International, 2000