May 20th in German History: The German Invasion of Crete

Bundesarchiv Bild 141-0864, Kreta, Landung von Fallschirmjägern.jpg
German paratroopers land on Crete.

In 1941, the German Reich was still ascendant in Europe. While it had failed to gain air supremacy over Britain, it had followed up its successful invasion of France with the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. In Africa, Germany was winning as well, and the Battle of the Atlantic threatened to end in defeat for the Allies. Germany would gain yet another victory in late May. On May 20th, 1941, 10,000 German paratroopers landed on the island of Crete.

Greece had joined the Allies in October of 1940 following the Italian invasion. Although the Greek Army was numerically inferior to the Italian one and possessed insufficient equipment, it was able to hold the Italians and then proceed to push them back into Albania. It would be almost a year before in, April of 1941, the Germans in Operation Marita invaded Greece and overran the mainland. However, many Greek islands remained under Allied control. The most important of these was Crete as British ships could operate from its ports and British bombers could strike the Romanian oil fields from its airbases. Many of the 57,000 Allied troops that had been evacuated from Greece were based on Crete, bringing the total size of the island’s garrison to over 42,000. Hitler was worried about the threat to the oil fields, and the Luftwaffe wanted a victory to repair their reputation before the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thus on April 25th Hitler ordered the invasion of Crete. Over one thousand aircraft ranging from bombers to fighters to transports were dedicated to the invasion along with two divisions. Although the Allies did outnumber the Germans two to one, the Allies mostly lacked heavy equipment, had very little air cover, and were still disorganized from their defeat in Greece. The 10,000 German airborne troops were supplemented by 7,000 amphibious and 4,000 mountain troops. On the morning of May 20th the invasion began with the dropping of airborne German troops. Initially the Germans suffered heavy casualties and seemed likely to fail but on the 21st of May they took Maleme Airfield and were able to fly in reinforcements. The Allies were disorganized and failed to effectively communicate and were forced from the north of the island. In the waters around Crete the British Navy took heavy losses trying to prevent German landings. The Royal Navy would lose 19 ships in the battle. The Germans were able to land fresh troops with equipment while the Allies had trouble resupplying their forces. By the 28th of May the Allied forces had started to evacuate the island. Nearly half of the garrison would escape the island while the rest would either be captured or join the Cretian resistance.

The Battle of Crete was certainly a German victory. It took a major naval base and airbase from the British and was a further blow to morale. However, the victory was not without its downsides for the Germans. The Germans suffered over 5,000 casualties, many of them among the elite airborne troops. Further, they lost 280 aircraft, many of them the expensive transport planes. This had the effect of discouraging the Germans from future airborne operations. Hitler decided to use paratroopers as infantry, which wasted their potential. The Allies, in contrast, we’re impressed by the use of paratroopers and would use them to great effect on D-Day. Further, the loss of Crete would not result in any long-term strategic difficulties as the Allies were able to use Malta as an air and naval base instead. The Fall of Crete was, like so many German victories in 1941, overstated in its importance.

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