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Battle of Crete

German Paratroopers over Crete

The Battle of Crete, codenamed Operation Mercury, was a battle fought between Fallschirmjäger  (German paratrooper) forces and supporting Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica units against British Commonwealth ground forces, Greek militias and the Royal Navy. The confrontation began on May 20, 1941 and ended on June 1, 1941, resulting in a German victory.



The buildup to the battle began on April 25th 1941, when Adolf Hitler - ignoring opposition from senior personnel[1] - issued orders for an airborne invasion of Crete.[2] The island was strategically important to both sides, due to its location 335 miles from Alexandria and 450 miles from the Suez canal.[3] As a prelude to the invasion, the island came under heavy German air attack on May 15th, which prompted the removal by Great Britain of their aircraft from Crete on May 19th, without rendering the airfields inoperable.[4]

The Battle

At dawn on May 20th, 1941, a German force consisting of 22,750 paratroopers and glider-borne units landed on Crete's northwestern coast - the first time an entire invasion force was moved by air. Defending the island were 28,000 British troops, augmented by two Greek divisions totaling 14,500 men. During the first day of fighting, the Germans suffered heavy casualties,[3] with the DFS 230 troop gliders overshooting their assigned landing areas, coming down on Hill 107 next to positions held by the 5th NZ Brigade, who quickly neutralised the attackers. In addition, 400 of the 600 paratroops of III/FJStR were also lost, while heavy casualties were also inflicted against the attackers at Rethimnon and Heraklion.[1] However, some of the pressure on the Germans was relieved by a second wave (including supporting Italian fighters and bombers) landing around Heraklion and Retino in the east.

On 21 May, the Germans captured the airfield at Maleme, fighting off a British counter-attack.[3]That day, supporting Italian CANT Z.1007 Alcione (Kingfisher) bombers direct hits on the British destroyer, HMS Juno, which exploded and sank southeast of the Aegean island, allowing German naval reinforcements forces to conduct their landngs unopposed.

On 22 May, four British warships in action around Crete were put out of action - the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji were sunk, and the battleships Warspite and Valiant were damaged. The next day, the Royal Navy retaliated with a bombardment of Maleme.

During the night of 24/25 May, alerted by British ULTRA of a planned landing at Sitia in the east by Italian reinforcements from the Dodecanese, HMS Ajax, HMS Dido, HMS Kimberley and HMS Hotspur patrolled Kaso Strait, but sighted nothing.

On 25 May, British naval forces in the area were further depleted when the carrier Formidable was damaged by Stuka dive bombers.[5]

On 26 May, with the German attack around Galatas stalled and the Fallschirmjäger units suffering heavy losses, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring requested Mussolini to commit air force, naval and army units to Crete and thus take some of the pressure off the German invaders. Mussolini immediately agreed, and two days later a reinforced Italian regiment from the Regina Division, with supporting units, landed near Sitia in the eastern part of the island. By the end of the month, Italian reinforcements reached Ierapetra on the south coast, linking up with a German detachment.

On 27 May, the Italian Army Regina brigade (protected by the Regia Marina destroyer Crispi and the Spica-class destroyer-escorts Lira, Lince and Libra), lands behind British lines at Sitia Bay, slipping past HMS Ajax, HMS Dido, HMS Kimberley and HMS Hotspur, forcing the British 14th Infantry Brigade to issue orders to abandon Herakleion. 

That day, New Zealand Major General Bernard Freyberg was given permission to evacuate all British Commonwealth troops from Crete, a decision complicated by the surprise landing of the Italian amphibious force on the east of the island.[6]

Despite the defeat on land, the Royal Navy was able to evacuate approximately 14,800 men and return them to Egypt. Subjected to severe losses and constant harassment by the Lutfwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, the British performed the evacuation during four nights.

On 28 May, Italian SM.84 bombers crippled the British destroyer HMS Imperial (later scuttled) and damaged the cruiser HMS Ajax.

On 29 May, Luftwaffe attacks badly damaged the cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Orion and crippled HMS Hereward, that was scuttled when Italian fast attack-craft approached to deliver the coup de grâce with torpedoes.


  1. 1.0 1.1 World Aircraft Information Files Aviation Partwork. Midsummer Books Ltd. File 356 Sheet 3 (War In The Air:Balkans - The Invasion of Crete)
  2. Goralski, Robert. World War II Almanac 1931-1945. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. 1981. ISBN 0 241 10573 0 Page 156
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Goralski, Robert. Page 160
  4. Goralski, Robert. Page 159
  5. Goralski, Robert. Page 161
  6. Goralski, Robert. Page 162
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