The British had occupied the island of Crete when the Italians had invaded Greece on October 28, 1940. After the German intervention in Greece, the 57.000 allied troops in that country were chased from the mainland of Greece.
The Royal Navy evacuated many of them, some to Crete to bolster its 14,000-man garrison. By May 1941, the defense consisted of 10.000 men in 11 Greek militia battalions.
The British expanded their defense to 30,000 men, though in many cases the men lacked heavy equipment. Because of constant bombings from mainland Greece, the R.A.F. withdrew its planes to Egypt. leaving the Luftwaffe with air superiority.New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg was appointed commander of the British, Greek, Australian and New Zealand forces on the isle of Crete on April 30.
Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. From Crete, the Romanian airfields were within range. Also, with Crete in British hands, the Axis south eastern position would never be safe, a vital necessity before starting Operation Barbarossa.On April 25 Adolf Hitler signed the directive No.28 ordering to take Crete.
On the morning of May 20, German paratroopers landed at 08.00 near Maleme and Chania to take the vital airfields. The next wave landed at Rethimnon and Heraklion.
The landings were preceded by 3 hours of heavy bombing, which put most anti aircraft guns our of action. German landings were hampered by heavy losses. At Maleme, the paratroopers jumped into heavy infantry fire.
The German paratroopers were unable to recover their heavy weapons, which had landed with separate parachutes. At Cania the Germans suffered many jump casualties due to the very rocky terrain.
The next wave of the airborne landing took place at about 16.00 at Rethimnon and Heraklion. Its purpose was to seize the local airfields. These groups ran into even heavier infantry fire than the group at Maleme.
General Freyberg refused to commit his reserves. Towards the evening of May 20, the Germans at Maleme were slowly pushing back the British from Hill 107, which overlooked the all important airfield.
In the following night, Royal Navy vassals penetrated into the waters north of Crete, forcing back the first German naval convoy. But on May 21, Axis planes scored several hits on the British ships.
Nevertheless, British vessels intercepted the axis convoy at 23.00 hour around Cape Spaha, sinking several vessels. But on May 22, an all out attack by the Luftwaffe drove away the British ships.
On May 22, the Germans landed additional troops on the beaches of Maleme and west of its airfield. At 16.00, enough control had been established to enable parts of the 5th Mountain Division to land at the airfield.
To this end the Luftwaffe provided the paras with continuous close air support. From that point on, the Germans were able to constantly fly in additional weapons and troops.
The Germans captured the island in 10 days, but at heavy cost. 6,600 German soldiers, including one in four paratroopers, lay dead on the battlefield.
The Allied soldiers were evacuated by the Royal Navy during four desperately dangerous consecutive nights between 28 and 31 May. About 17,000 escaped; probably more were killed, captured or went missing.
The invasion got known as the first airborne invasion in history, but that honor goes to the German paratroop assault on the Hague on May 10, 1940. Hitler was so shocked by German losses, that he never approved of a third large airborne operation again.
Ironically, the allies took up the lessons and put them to good use at the Normandy invasion.
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