Invasion of Crete (Operation Mercury)

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

German invasion

At dawn on May 20, 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 transported by air. Defending the island were 28,000 British Commonwealth troops, reinforced by two Greek divisions totaling 14,500 men. During the first day of fighting, the Germans suffered heavy casualties, with the German glider pilots overshooting their assigned landing areas, coming down on Hill 107 next to positions held by the 5th New Zealand Brigade, who quickly neutralized the attackers. In addition, 400 of the 600 paratroops of III/FJStR were also lost, while heavy casualties were also inflicted against the German paratroopers at Rethimnon and Heraklion. However, some of the pressure on the Germans was relieved by a second wave (including supporting Italian fighters in strafing missions[1])landing around Heraklion and Retino in the east.

On May 21, the Germans captured the airfield at Maleme, fighting off a British counter-attack. That day, supporting Italian CANT Z.1007 Alcione (Kingfisher) bombers direct hits on the British destroyer, HMS Juno,[2] which exploded and sank southeast of the Aegean island, allowing German naval reinforcements forces to conduct their landings unopposed.

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

During the night of May 24/25, 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 failed to intercept the Italian force.[3]

On May 25, Allied naval forces defending Crete were further depleted when the British aircraft-carrier HMS Formidable was damaged by German Stuka dive-bombers.

With the German attacks 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 reinforce the Crete operations and thus take some of the pressure off the German invaders. Mussolini immediately agreed, and within days a brigade-sized force from the Regina Division, with supporting units, is assembled and lands near Sitia in the eastern part of the island. By the end of the month, Italian spearheads reached Ierapetra on the south coast, linking up with a German paratrooper unit.[4]

Italian reinforcements

On May 27, the Italian Army Regina Division in the form of a hastily formed 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 the fortress of Herakleion.

That day, New Zealand Major General Bernard Freyberg was given permission to evacuate all British Commonwealth troops from Crete, a decision hastened by the surprise landing of the Italian amphibious force on the east of Crete.[5]

Evacuations

Despite the Allied 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 attacks by the Lutfwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, the British performed the evacuation during four nights.

On 28 May, Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.84 bombers crippled the British destroyer HMS Imperial (later scuttled) and damaged the cruiser HMS Ajax.[6]

On 29 May, Luftwaffe attacks badly damaged the cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Orion and crippled HMS Hereward. Hereward was scuttled when Italian fast attack-craft approached to deliver the coup de grâce with torpedoes.[7]

Notes

  1. "Together with Italian aircraft, Richthofen's formations thus attacked targets in the middle and eastern sectors (primarily near Rethimnon and Heraklion), but, contrary to plan, the transport aircraft did not follow them immediately. As a result, the paratroops of the second wave were often dropped unprotected and, because of the large dust-clouds at the Greek airfields, with considerable delays." Germany and the Second World War, Volume 3, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, p. 546, Oxford University Press, 1995
  2. "A single Italian Kingfisher scored precision hits on the lead enemy destroyer, HMS Juno, which exploded and sank southeast of the Aegean island, allowing German naval forces to make their landngs unopposed at sea." The Axis Air Forces: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe: Flying in Support of the German Luftwaffe, Frank Joseph, p. 33, ABC-CLIO, 2011
  3. "Also during the night of 24th-25th, in view of indications of a possible attempted landing at Sitia in the east by Italian forces from the Dodecanese, Ajax, Dido, Kimberley and Hotspur swept Kaso Strait, but sighted nothing." Australia in the war of 1939-1945, George Odgers, John Herington, Douglas Gillison, p. 350, Australian War Memorial, 1957
  4. "When the German attack around Galatas stalled and the attackers suffered high losses, on 26 May the Wehrmacht operation staff requested Mussolini to send army units to Crete and thus take some of the pressure off the German forces there. Mussolini immediately agreed, and two days later an Italian regiment, reinforced with armour and artillery, landed near Sitia in the eastern part of the island. By the end of the month these formations reached Ierapetra on the south coast without encountering significant resitance." Germany and the Second World War, Volume 3, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, p. 549, Oxford University Press, 1995
  5. "This decision came as a surprise to the garrison holding Herakleion, where Greek and British troops helped by the Cretan men and women formed into a militia had beaten off every attack and felt confident of holding out indefinitely. What the garrison of Herakleion did not know was that Italian troops from the Dodecanese were landing from boats in Sitia Bay on the east of the island and that it was only a matter of time before Herakleion would be completely surrounded and cut off." Wind of Freedom: The History of the Invasion of Greece by the Axis Powers, 1940-1941, Sir Compton Mackenzie. p. 236, Chatto & Windus, 1943
  6. "Italian SM.84 bombers damaged the destroyer HMS Imperial (later scuttled) and damaged the cruiser HMS Ajax on 28 May." Regio Esercito: The Italian Royal Army in Mussolini's Wars, 1935-1943, Patrick Cloutier, p. 71, Lulu Press, 2013
  7. "On 29 May German aircraft badly damaged the cruisers Dido and Orion (causing 540 casualties among the thousand soldiers crowded aboard Orion) and crippled Hereward, which was likewise loaded with troops. She was later scuttled in the face of an attack by Italian MAS boats." Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945, Vincent O'Hara, pp. 122-123, Naval Institute Press, 2009