Battle of Crete

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German Fallschirmjäger landing on Crete, 20 May 1941; "Crete had great strategic importance in the Mediterranean. It has a central position in the Aegean and it is the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean. The harbour at Suda Bay was the largest in the Mediterranean Sea and an ideal base for naval operations. Control of the island was desirable to both the British and Germans. For the British, it would give them even greater control of the Mediterranean and consolidate their control of the northern end of the Suez Canal. British bombers could also use the airfields to bomb the oil plants at Ploesti in Rumania. The Germans could use the base to attack British shipping in the area and disrupt the British use of the Suez. Crete could also be used as a stopping off point for men heading to the North African theatre of war."[1]

The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta) was a battle on the Greek island of Crete in May 1941. It was to be the largest airborne operation of World War II.

History

The Greek were defeated and 57,000 Allied troops were evacuated by the Royal Navy, most of them were sent to Crete. The Germans knew that they had to conquer this enemy base with it's harbours in the eastern Mediterranean. The Wehrmacht thought the garrison was lightly equipped and that the civil population would be friendly. Little did they know that over 42,000 troops from the United Kingdom (18,047), Greece (10,258 – 11,451), New Zealand (7,702) and Australia (6,540) awaited them, dug in well with artillery covering the island. Only 15,000 paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) should be landed in three waves awaiting support from 14,000 mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger) within the next three day. Many of the German soldiers died, when their planes were shot down, others were shot while still floating to earth. Those that made it alive were suprised, how well preparded the enemy was, rich with supplies from the assisting Royal Navy. The commander of the 7. Flieger-Division, Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süßmann, never made it to Crete, his plane crashed on the island of Aegina. Only air superiority through the Luftwaffe and the bravery of the Fallschirmjäger, hardly having more than knives, pistols and grenades, made the difference between victory or death. Even the 25 % of paratroops armed with sub-machine guns were at a disadvantage, given the weapon's limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were shot before they reached their weapons canisters.

The Landing

It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete with paratroopers and Gebirgsjäger[2] under the code-name Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury). Greek and Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.[3]

After one day of fighting, the Germans, under the command of the Generals Kurt Student[4] and Julius Ringel[5], had suffered very heavy casualties, and the Allied troops were confident that they would prevail against the German invasion. The next day Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the superior Germans, enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the defenders. The battle lasted about 10 days.

The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects: it was not only the first battle where the Fallschirmjäger were used on a massive scale, but also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history;[6] the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code; and the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. Because of the heavy casualties suffered by the paratroopers, Adolf Hitler forbade further large-scale airborne operations. However, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to build their own airborne divisions.

Civilian atrocities

Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians – men, women, children, priests, monks, and even nuns, armed and otherwise – joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient matchlock rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into Action.[7]

In other cases, civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and several German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines.[8] In another, a priest and his son broke into a village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan Wars and sniped at German paratroops at one of the landing zones. While the priest would aim and shoot at German paratroopers with one rifle, his son would re-load the other.[9]

The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms taken from the dead bodies of killed paratroops and glider troops. Their actions were not limited to harassment—civilians also played a significant role in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora, and the British and New Zealand advisors at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilian action also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion, and in the town centre itself.

This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time, it unbalanced them. However, once they had recovered from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity, killing many Cretan civilians. Further, as most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions and killed both armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.

Brothers von Blücher

Gravestone, German War Cemetery in Maleme, Crete

Prominent among the German dead were a trio of Brothers, relatives of the famous German-Prussian Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher[10], the hero of the Waterloo.

The first to fall was Hans-Joachim Graf von Blücher (Graf = Count), who was attempting to resupply his brother, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Wolfgang Graf von Blücher[11], with ammunition when the latter and his platoon were surrounded by members of the British Black Watch. The 17-year-old Hans-Joachim had commandeered a horse which he attempted to gallop through British lines; he almost reached his brother's position, and in fact was shot before his brother's very eyes.

The same day, 21 May 1941, 24-year-old Wolfgang was killed with his whole platoon, followed by the younger brother, 19-year-old Leberecht Graf von Blücher, who was reported killed in action on the same day but whose body was never recovered.

Four weeks later the mother, Gertrud (Freiin Marschall) von Nordheim (widowed Gräfin von Blücher), who had lost her husband in 1924, was informed, that three of her four sons were killed on the same day in the Battle of Crete. Her forth son, Adolf Graf von Blücher, was released from duty and left the German navy (Kriegsmarine), to take care of the agricultural firm at home. Tragically he also died 1944 from a gunshot wound while stalking deer with a large hunting party in the vast forests of Mecklenburg.

For years afterward, Cretan villagers reported seeing a ghostly rider galloping at night down a road near the spot where Hans-Joachim was shot; yet until they were told the story of the von Blücher brothers, they had assumed that he was British. In 1974 Wolfgang and Hans-Joachim were reunited in one grave at the German War Cemetery on a hill behind the airfield at Maleme, Crete.

The Palais Blücher in Berlin was bombed in WWII and although restoreable it was demolished by the communists.

Aftermath

The victory of Crete reinforced in the mind of the Wehrmacht the value of the paratroopers it had. Hitler, however, was shocked by the number of losses and at the end of the campaign to capture Crete, he ordered that paratroopers should no longer be used to spearhead an attack on a major target.

"Paratroopers developed an elite image on both sides during World War Two. The British paras who fought with such bravery at Arnhem helped to cement this image even in defeat. The German Fallschirmjager’s attack on Crete did the same from the German perspective. [...] This was the first time that paratroopers were given the task of attacking and defeating a complete target. At the time, it was the largest airborne attack in history. Though the island was taken after heavy fighting and the attack passed into military folklore, the Germans took very heavy casualties (25%) and Hitler lost faith in this form of attack. On the orders of Hitler, German paratroopers were sent to Russia where they fought as ground troops. However, the British read more into this battle and with the support of Churchill, Britain soon had an airborne division."[12]

Literature

  • Richter, Heinz A.: Operation Merkur. Die Eroberung der Insel Kreta im Mai 1941, Rutzen, 2011, ISBN 978-3-447-06423-1
  • Nasse, Jean-Yves: Fallschirmjager in Crete, 1941: The Merkur Operation, Histoire & Collections, 2002. ISBN 2-913903-37-1
  • Guard, Julie: Airborne: World War II Paratroopers in Combat, Osprey Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1-84603-196-6, ISBN 978-1-84603-196-0
  • Comeau, M. G.: Operation Mercury: Airmen in the Battle of Crete, J&KH Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-900511-79-7
  • Nigl, Alfred: Silent wings, Savage death, 2007 USA ISBN 1-882824-31-8

References

  1. Fall of Crete, historylearningsite.co.uk
  2. Gebirgsjäger, in English Mountain Riflemen, is the German designation for mountain infantry. The word Jäger (lit. "huntsman" or "hunter") is the traditional German term for rifleman (often confused with skirmisher or light infantry, known as Fusiliers in Germany). The mountain infantry of Austria have their roots in the three Landesschützen regiments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The mountain infantry of Germany carry on certain traditions of the Alpenkorps (Alpine corps) of World War I. Both countries' mountain infantry share the Edelweiß insignia. It was established in 1907 as a symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Landesschützen regiments by Emperor Franz Joseph I. These troops wore their edelweiss on the collar of their uniforms. When the Alpenkorps came to aid the Landesschützen in defending Austro-Hungary's southern frontier against the Italian attack in May 1915, the grateful Landesschützen honoured the men of the Alpenkorps by awarding them their own insignia: the Edelweiß. Together with the Fallschirmjäger (Luftwaffe in World War II) they are perceived as the elite infantry units of the German Army.
  3. New Zealand History online
  4. Kurt Student (12 May 1890 – 1 July 1978) was a German Luftwaffe general who fought as a fighter pilot during the First World War and as the commander of German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) during the Second World War. He is also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves (German: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub). The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves were awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership.
  5. Julius Alfred "Papa" Ringel (16 November 1889 – 11 February 1967) was an Austrian-born German General of Mountain Troops (General der Gebirgstruppen). He commanded the 3. Gebirgs-Division, 5. Gebirgs-Division, LXIX Armeekorps, Wehrkreis XI and the Korps Ringel. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves.
  6. Maloney, Shane (July 2006). Bogin, Hopit. The Monthly.
  7. MacDonald, Callum (1995). The Lost Battle – Crete 1941. Papermac. ISBN 0-333-61675-8.
  8. MacDonald 1995, pp. 176–178.
  9. When Germans came down near the villages the Cretans were awaiting them. Their guns had all been seized by the authorities after a brief revolt two years before. With axes, spades, clubs, knives, stones, and bare Hands women and men fell on the enemy before they could release their parachutes. (...) Two hundred Greeks, a mob of women, children, and old men, yelling and screaming, armed with sticks and knives led by a fair haired English officer charged the Germans, who took one look and ran. (...) The day before, some German troops had dropped near to Kastelli, on the northeast coast, close to a strong battalion of Greek troops. Half of the Greeks had guns, for which they had three bullets each, but they attacked bravely, knifing the German troops and clubbing them with rifle butts. From: Unconquerable Crete, David Pratt, ISBN 978-0-9880351-0-2
  10. Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt; December 16, 1742 – September 12, 1819), Graf (Count), later elevated to Fürst (Prince) von Wahlstatt, was a Prussian Generalfeldmarschall (field marshal) who led his army against Napoleon I at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813 and at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 with the Duke of Wellington. He is honoured with a bust in the German Walhalla temple near Regensburg. The honorary citizen of Berlin, Hamburg and Rostock bore the nickname "Marschall Vorwärts" ("Marshal Forwards") because of his approach to warfare. A popular German idiom, "ran wie Blücher" ("charge like Blücher"), meaning that someone is taking very direct and aggressive action, in war or otherwise, refers to Blücher.
  11. Wolfgang Henner Peter Lebrecht Graf von Blücher[a] (31 January 1917 – 21 May 1941) was a highly decorated Oberleutnant der Reserve in the Fallschirmjäger during World War II. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross was awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. Wolfgang Graf von Blücher was one of three brothers who were killed during the Battle of Crete, all three of them on 21 May 1941.
  12. Paratroopers and World War Two, historylearningsite.co.uk