A story of lost Opportunity
The story of the capture of the island of Crete by the Germans in 1941 is one of the more interesting ones in World War II, as it marked the dawn of a new era of major airborne operations and the end of it, at the same time.
It sounds so orderly and modern, using aircraft to drop crack soldiers onto an island far beyond the reach of normal operations, and wrest control of a vital island from the enemy. Like most military operations, the reality is a little more messy.
Planning…such as it was
When the German advance through the Balkans had driven the Commonwealth forces out of Greece, some of the evacuated units joined the garrison of the island of Crete. This island could be used as a platform for airbases to bomb inland targets. Their guess was there were only a few thousand defenders, demoralized by their defeats, to drive off.
These estimates were far off – there were some 30000 defenders of the island, some poorly armed and shaken up by defeats, but others resolute. The German plan relied on the airborne troops to take airfields and ports to allow other troops to be delivered by air and by ship. This latter would have to pass the gauntlet of the Royal Navy first. Most of the troops would be dropped in the first wave, and at all the airfields across the island. This left little margin for error and few reinforcements if the initial landings went badly. Aside from this small reserve, further troops would need an intact port or airfield to arrive.
The drop zones were right on top of the objectives, as if no resistance was expected. As it turned out, most of these areas were right in the middle of Allied troop deployments.
The defense had a number of problems – it was occupied with the dumping of innumerable refugees and troops from the evacuation of Greece onto its laps. Just getting them organized and fed was a challenge of sorts. On the other hand, the original garrison had not been very energetic before that – there were no improved positions guarding the airfields, or beaches, or ports. When information started to come in that the Germans were thinking of invading, most thought of this as primarily a naval attack. Still the airfields were not undefended.
On 21 May the Germans landed in daylight all over the island. The landings were a disaster, as the men landing on defending units were chopped up and wiped out. Since this was the first airborne defense, the need to attack the airborne units at once was not known and only the forces at Heraklion did so on their own initiative. Around the other airfields at Maleme at Retimo the Germans grouped up for attacks.
Also, the critical importance of the airfields was not known to the defenders. They thought that the troops could be brought in on flat beaches or fields. They did not know that the paradrop reserves were so low. They also imagined that naval invasions were an important factor that must be guarded.
Facing disaster, Student put all reserves at Maleme airfield and captured it. Once down, troops were landed at any cost to provide the forces needed to take the island, as the paratoops themselves were mostly fought out.
Once the lodgement was secure, mountain troops of the 5th Mountain Division were fed into the battle around Maleme and the defender’s position became critical. The German air force was able to maul the troops and interdict supply. Again, none of the defenders knew that by 22 June these planes would be needed in The defense could not be sustained and there were not the forces to reverse the situation.
An evacuation was ordered, that was aided by the pulling out of the German aircraft to prepare for the invasion of Russia. Still, about half of the forces in Crete were lost.
The Butcher’s Bill
The tremendous losses of the airborne troops meant that the Germans would never risk them in a drop. The lesson was that these troops could not survive for long in normal combat, so they could only be used if relief could be quickly. The Allies learned that same expensive lesson at Market Garden, when the rosy estimates of how soon the British could come up the road were found to be in error. The same result then was found – high quality troops destroyed. Then the Allies made sure to never risk them again, only using them as infantry, or in the comic Varsity airdrop.