Military history


Airborne Battle: Crete

The Balkan Campaign, save for its brevity, had been a conventional operation of war in every respect. Even the breakneck speed of the German advance, now that Blitzkrieg in Poland and France had accustomed the world to the Wehrmacht’s methods, seemed rather a revelation of the developing pattern of modern warfare than a further instalment of the military revolution that Hitler’s generals had instituted. Indeed, it had been less revolutionary than the victory of 1940. The sheer disparity in quality between the Wehrmacht and its Balkan opponents, who had furthermore brought defeat upon themselves by the perverse ineptitude of their defensive arrangements, was all the explanation necessary for the catastrophe which had overcome them.

The Balkan campaign might have ended on that note, with the hoisting of the swastika flag over the Acropolis in Athens on 27 April as a fitting symbol of a triumph of the strong over the weak. But it did not: even as the cost of the campaign was counted – 12,000 British casualties (of whom 9000 were prisoners), uncounted Yugoslav and Greek dead, against a mere 5000 German killed, wounded or missing – and its spoils were divided – Yugoslav Bosnia, Dalmatia and Montenegro given to Italy, South Serbia and Greek Thrace to Bulgaria, the Vojvodina to Hungary, Croatia to the puppet Croatians of the Ustashi movement – Hitler was lending an ear to those in his circle who argued that the Balkan campaign was incomplete and urged that Germany’s victory should be crowned by a descent upon Crete by the one largely untried instrument of Blitzkrieg, Germany’s airborne army.

Germany was not the first advanced state to have created an airborne force. That cachet belonged to Italy, where the idea of strategic bombing had also been born. As early as 1927 the Italians had experimented with the delivery of infantrymen directly to the battlefield by parachute. The technique had then been taken up by the Red Army, which by 1936 had sufficiently perfected it to demonstrate at large-scale manoeuvres held in the presence of Western military observers the dropping of an entire regiment of parachutists and the subsequent airlanding of a whole brigade; this spectacular operation was made possible by the Red Air Force’s development of transport aircraft large enough to hold complete units of fully equipped soldiers.

The Red Army’s primacy in airborne tactics was to be severely retarded, however, by Stalin’s great military purge of 1937-8, of which forward-looking officers were the principal victims. Its airborne units survived, and were to mount a number of operations in the Second World War, notably on the river Dnieper in the autumn of 1943, but they were never accorded the independent and decisive role their advocates had hoped for them. In Germany, however, the concept of airborne operations was taken up enthusiastically by the Wehrmacht’s new generation of military pioneers. As in France, where military parachute training was deemed an airforce activity, it was the Luftwaffe which was constituted the directing authority. In 1938 General Kurt Student, a flying veteran of the First World War, was appointed Inspector of Parachute Troops and shortly afterwards was given command of the first parachute division, designated 7 Flieger. It was this division which provided the units used in Norway and Holland in 1940. By 1941 its associated units, constituting Student’s XI Air Corps, stood ready to extend the German conquest of the Balkans deeper into the Mediterranean area.

Hitler’s closest military advisers, the operations officers of OKW, were anxious that XI Air Corps should be used to capture Malta. When asked to advise whether Crete or Malta was the more important objective in the Mediterranean, ‘All officers of the Section,’ General Walter Warlimont recalled, ‘whether from the Army, Navy or Air Force, voted unanimously for the capture of Malta, since this seemed to be the only way to secure permanently the sea route to North Africa.’ Keitel and Jodl, their chiefs, accepted their conclusions; but when on 15 April they confronted Student with this opinion he overcame them. He had already decided that Malta was too strongly garrisoned and defended to yield to an airborne assault. Crete, on the other hand, with its ‘sausage-like form and single main road’, offered an ideal target to his parachutists; moreover, he argued, they would be able to reach out towards the other Mediterranean islands required by German strategy-makers – not only Malta but also Cyprus – and thereby consolidate an impregnable land-sea position intermediate between Fortress Europe and Britain’s increasingly tenuous foothold in the Middle East.

Goering, who saw in Student’s plan an opportunity to rehabilitate the reputation of the Luftwaffe after its failure to overcome the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, warmly endorsed his subordinate’s conception and on 21 April presented it to Hitler. Since the capture of Crete had not figured in his original plans, Hitler was initially resistant but eventually agreed to lend it his support and on 25 April issued Führer Directive No. 28, codenamed Merkur (Mercury) for the Crete operation. Student, who was to remain the driving force of the operation throughout its inception and course, at once arranged for 7th Airborne Division to be brought to Greece from its training centre at Brunswick; he also persuaded OKH to let him use one of the divisions earmarked to garrison Greece, the elite 5th Mountain, and to lend him some of the light tanks from the 5th Panzer, which were not needed for Barbarossa. The mountain division was to provide a follow-up force, transported in local craft under Italian naval protection. The airborne division, consisting of three parachute and one airlanding regiment, was to storm the island by direct assault, flying in a fleet of 600 Junkers 52 aircraft, some of which would also tow eighty gliders carrying light tanks and the manpower of the 7th Division’s spearhead, I Battalion of the 1st Assault Regiment. An air force of 280 bombers, 150 Stukas and 200 fighters would cover and support the operation. In all, 22,000 soldiers were to be committed; command of the whole campaign was to be under General Alexander Löhr’s Fourth Air Fleet.

Student’s plan was straightforward. He intended to use each of his three parachute regiments against the three towns on the north coast of the island, from west to east Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion, where airstrips were located. Once captured, these would be used for the landing of heavy equipment and as bases to ‘roll up’ the British defences along the single road which ran along the island’s 170-mile length. At Maleme, which he had decided should be his Schwerpünkte, he intended to commit the 1st Assault Regiment, which would crash-land in gliders directly on to the airfield. Although he expected to be outnumbered by the defenders, he was sure that surprise, the high quality of his troops and the air superiority assured by the Luftwaffe’s overwhelming strength would subdue them in a few days of brutal action.

His judgement that his force was superior in quality to the British garrison was correct. Major-General Bernard Freyberg, its commander, was a fire-eater, a legendary hero of the First World War in which he had won the VC commanding a battalion of the Royal Naval Division on the Somme, after an equally gallant – and romantic – passage of arms at Gallipoli. There he had been among the party which had buried the poet Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros and later, on lone reconnaissance, he had swum the Hellespont, as Leander had done in legend and Lord Byron in reality a hundred years before him. Winston Churchill had christened him ‘the Salamander’ in tribute to his fire-resisting qualities.

Few of Freyberg’s troops on Crete in the summer of 1941, however, matched his robustness. One brigade of regular British infantry had been brought direct from Egypt to garrison the island and was what the Germans called kampffähig – ‘combat fit’. The rest were fugitives from the Greek fiasco. Two brigades of the 2nd New Zealand Division – with which Freyberg, who had spent his youth in New Zealand, had a special affinity – were intact and also one Australian brigade. The rest of the 40,000 troops on the island were remnants, disorganised and many of them disheartened. All, moreover, lacked essential equipment. ‘Crete’, wrote the New Zealander Charles Upham (who was to end the war as a double VC), ‘was a pauper’s campaign, mortars without base plates, Vickers guns without tripods.’ A handful of tanks and a regiment’s worth of artillery had been brought to the island; but the defenders lacked most essential heavy equipment and, above all, aircraft. On 1 May there were only seventeen Hurricanes and obsolete biplane Gladiators on Crete, and all were to be withdrawn before the Germans arrived. Worst of all, the British defenders could not count on local assistance. Since the 5th Cretan Division had been mobilised for war against the Italians and had been captured on the mainland, the only Cretan soldiers left on the island were recruits and reservists, with one rifle between six and five rounds per rifle.

The role of Ultra

Crete nevertheless might and perhaps ought to have been held; for, unbeknown to the Germans, their intentions were betrayed to the British well before the first parachutists had emplaned. The whole logic of an airborne operation was thereby compromised from the start. Like the proponents of armoured warfare and strategic bombing, the military parachutist pioneers had conceived their operational theory in reaction to the trench warfare they had witnessed in the First World War. It was the self-betrayal of the effort needed to mount a trench-breaking offensive which had affronted them: the laborious assembly of men and material, the ponderous and protracted process of preliminary bombardment, the agonised inching forward across no-man’s land through barbed-wire barriers and earthwork zones. The bombing enthusiasts had reacted to that spectacle with the argument that high explosive was better delivered against the centres of production from which the enemy’s artillery and machine-gun defences were supplied. The apostles of armoured warfare had argued – and in 1939-40 demonstrated – that deep defences were best overcome by launching against them a weapon impervious to the firepower the defenders deployed. The military parachutists proposed an intermediate but even more arresting alternative: to overarch ground defences by airpower which would deliver aggressive infantrymen at the soft spots immediately behind the enemy’s front, his headquarters, communication centres and supply points. It was a brilliantly daring leap of strategic imagination; but its success rested on the precondition that the enemy remain unaware of the stroke poised against him – otherwise the parachutists committed to deliver it would suffer the same (if not worse) fate as the infantrymen of the trenches going over the top against the enemy alerted by the preliminary bombardment. Their helplessness during descent, the necessary lightness of the equipment they would use to fight if they survived, doomed them to undergo appalling losses against defenders who had been warned of their approach.

The British defenders of Crete had been warned. Ultra, the intelligence source derived from the interception and decryption of enemy ciphers by the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley, had hitherto yielded little information of value to the conduct of ground operations between the British and the Germans. Until the end of the campaign in France, Bletchley had had great difficulty in breaking the cipher ‘keys’ used on the German Enigma ciphering machine through which the different Wehrmacht headquarters communicated. The difficulties were in part intrinsic – the Enigma machine was designed to confront an eavesdropper with several million possible solutions to an intercept – and in part those of any experimental enterprise: Bletchley was accumulating procedures which hastened the process of breaking but had not yet systematised them. There was another difficulty: Bletchley’s success depended chiefly upon the exploitation of mistakes made by German Enigma machine operators in encipherment procedure. German army and navy operators, perhaps because they were drawn from old-established signals services, made few mistakes. It was the younger Luftwaffe which provided Bletchley’s listeners with the bulk of their opportunities; but, though ‘breaks’ into the Luftwaffe key considerably assisted the Air Defence of Great Britain to resist and deflect bombing attacks during the winter blitz of 1940-1, they were of less use in opposing the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the ground campaigns in Greece and North Africa.

Crete, however, was to be a Luftwaffe campaign. Thus the vulnerability of its ‘Red’ key, as Bletchley denominated it, to British decryption on a regular, day-to-day basis and in ‘real time’ – at a speed, that is, equivalent to that at which German recipients of Enigma messages deciphered them themselves – was to compromise the security of the parachute operation from the outset. On 26 April, for example, the day after Hitler issued his Merkur directive, two intercepted ‘Red’ messages were found to refer to Crete: the Fourth Air Fleet mentioned the selection of bases for ‘Operation Crete’, while its subordinate VIII Air Corps asked for maps and photographs of the island. Thereafter the warnings accumulated almost daily. On 6 May Ultra revealed that German headquarters expected preparations to be completed by 17 May and outlined the exact stages and targets of the German attack. On 15 May it detected that D-Day had been postponed from 17 May to 19 May. And on 19 May it warned that 20 May was to be the new attack date and that the German parachute commanders were to assemble immediately with maps and photographs of Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion. All this information, disguised as intelligence collected by a British agent in Athens, was transmitted in ‘real time’ to Freyberg, who thus, on the morning of 20 May, knew exactly when, where and in what strength Student’s parachutists and glider infantry were going to land.

Between foreknowledge and forestalment, however, there always yawns the gap of capability. That predicament was Freyberg’s. Against an attacking force whose defining characteristics were mobility and flexibility he opposed a defending force almost totally bereft of the means of movement. Its units were in the right place, but, should one be driven from any of the vital airstrips, it could not be replaced; the Germans would be enabled to land reinforcements and heavy equipment and the battle for the island would probably be lost in consequence.

Defending Maleme airstrip were the 21st, 22nd and 23rd New Zealand Battalions. New Zealanders were to be reckoned by Rommel, on his experience in the desert campaign, the best soldiers he met in the Second World War: resilient, hardy, self-confident, they had little opinion of any soldiers but themselves. When on the early morning of 20 May they brushed themselves clean of the dust thrown up by the Luftwaffe’s preparatory bombardment and cocked their weapons to resist the parachute assault they knew must follow, they harboured no sense of the harshness of the battle to come. Lieutenant W. B. Thomas of the 23rd Battalion found his first sight of the German parachutists ‘unreal, difficult to comprehend as anything at all dangerous’:

Seen against the deep blue of the early morning Cretan sky, through a frame of grey-green olive branches, they looked like little jerking dolls whose billowy frocks of green, yellow, red and white had somehow blown up and become entangled in the wires that controlled them. . . . I struggled to grasp the meaning behind this colourful fantasy, to realise that those beautiful kicking dolls meant the repetition of all the horrors we had known so recently in Greece.

Lieutenant Thomas’s sense of unreality was understandable. He was witnessing the first purposeful parachute operation in history. The Germans’ earlier jumps, in Norway and Holland, had been small-scale, lightly opposed and strongly supported by conventional ground forces. The Sprung nach Kreta was a true leap into the unknown, the pitting of pioneers in a military revolution against forces they could overcome only by their own unaided effort. Student’s men were in a sense primitives: the British and American equivalents, already training for future parachute operations of their own, would regard their equipment and technique with horrified incredulity. The Germans had no control over their descent; they jumped from their Junkers 52s, in groups of twelve, their parachutes opened by static line, but were then suspended by a single strap attached to the harness in the middle of the back. Slipstream and wind carried them indeed ‘like dolls’ to their landing, from the shock of which their padding, helmets and rubber boots were supposed to protect them. Those not injured by the impact – and jump injuries were numerous – then collected their weapons from parachuted containers, assembled in squads and moved to the assault. The glider infantry of the 1st Assault Regiment, crash-landed in groups of fifteen, reinforced them with heavier equipment.

Student’s theory of airborne assault took no account of Cretan terrain or New Zealand tenacity. The harsh and broken ground around Maleme injured many of his parachutists as they landed and pulverised a high proportion of the gliders; the New Zealanders dealt pitilessly with the survivors. They shot the enemy in the air: ‘You’d see one go limp and kind of straighten up with a jerk and then go limp again, and you knew he “was done for”.’ They shot them as they landed, so that next day a visiting staff officer to 23rd Battalion found ‘bodies everywhere, every ten-twelve yards. One stepped over them as one went through the olive groves.’ Sixty New Zealanders released from a field punishment centre in Maleme, where they were serving time for minor military offences, killed 110 Germans in the first hour of the assault.

The losses suffered by the German parachute battalions around Maleme in the first hours of 20 May were truly appalling. One company of III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment, lost 112 killed out of 126; 400 of the battalion’s 600 men were dead before the day was out. Only a hundred men of the glider-borne I Battalion survived its landing unwounded; II Battalion also suffered heavily. IV Battalion, led by Captain Walter Gericke (who would survive to command the West German army’s parachute division as a NATO general), alone preserved the bulk of its strength. It and the survivors of the other three struggled throughout the day of 20 May to assemble their remaining strength, fight off the remorseless New Zealanders and move towards their objective, the Maleme airstrip. They made no progress; in the 21st New Zealand Battalion’s area the parachutists who fell in the streets of the village of Modhion were attacked ‘by the entire population of the district, including women and children, using any weapon, flintlock rifles captured from the Turks a hundred years ago, axes and even spades.’ They helped to add to the 1st Assault Regiment’s casualties, which by the end of the day included two battalion commanders killed and two wounded, together with the regimental commander. The 1st Assault Regiment, which regarded itself as the Wehrmacht’s elite, had by nightfall suffered much – perhaps 50 per cent losses – and achieved nothing.

Its sister regiments, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute, directed against Heraklion, Retimo and Suda respectively, all on the north coast, also suffered heavily on 20 May. In one or two places, airborne assault achieved its intended suprise: near Suda, Crete’s main port, ten glider infantrymen who landed close to an artillery regiment killed 180 gunners who lacked small arms to defend themselves. Elsewhere, though, it was generally the Germans who were slaughtered. The 3rd Parachute Regiment, landing just east of the 1st Assault Regiment around Canea and Suda, arrived directionless; their commander, Süssmann (who also commanded the division), had died in a glider crash on take-off. Its I Battalion, led by Baron von der Heydte, an untypical parachutist by reason both of his undisguisedly aristocratic disdain for Nazism and of his marked intellectuality – he was to write a remarkable memoir of the Cretan campaign and end his career as a professor of economics – got down relatively unscathed. Its III Battalion, however, was almost wiped out during the day’s fighting, justifiably in the view of the New Zealanders, whose senior medical officer had been shot, with many of his patients, by members of this battalion during their initial assault. Its II Battalion attacked a feature defended by the New Zealand Division’s logistic troops; Company Sergeant-Major Neuhoff describes the results of his encounter with the petrol company of its Composite Battalion: ‘We advanced to attack the hill . . . we proceeded, without opposition, about half way up . . . suddenly we ran into heavy and very accurate rifle and machine-gun fire. The enemy had held their fire with great discipline and allowed us to approach well within effective range before opening up. Our casualties were extremely heavy, and we were forced to retire leaving many dead behind us.’ Yet their opponents, as the New Zealand official history records, were ‘for the most part drivers and technicians and so ill-trained for infantry fighting’.

Student, who had not yet left his rear headquarters in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, remained all day in ignorance of the fate his cherished division had suffered. Far into the night of 20/21 May he sat at his map table, as von der Heydte recalled, ‘waiting and waiting for the news which would bring him confirmation that he had been right in proposing the attack on the island to Goering a month previously. Everything had seemed so simple in prospect, so feasible and so certain. He had thought that he had taken every possibility into consideration – and then everything had turned out contrary to plans and expectations.’ The truth – as I. M. D. Stewart, the medical officer of the 1st Welch Regiment, a veteran and the most meticulous historian of the campaign, later recorded – was that he had ‘dissipated’ his airborne division ‘in scattered attacks about the island’:

Thousands of its young men now lay dead in the olive groves and among the buttercups and the barley. His glider troops and four of his parachute battalions . . . had been shattered, reduced within the space of fifteen minutes to a few dozen fugitive survivors. Other battalions had suffered little less severely. Yet he still had not captured an airfield. Now he had left only his tiny airlanding reserve. If these few hundred men should fail on the morrow [21 May] the only possible relief for the Division would have to come by sea.

On the evening of the first day of the first great parachute operation in history, therefore, the advantage appeared to have passed decisively to the opposition – an ill-organised force of under-equipped troops almost bereft of air cover and supporting arms. Yet, despite all the agony Student’s men had suffered and all the mistakes he had made, on 21 May he would succeed in recovering the initiative and turning the battle to his advantage. How so? The explanation, one of Freyberg’s staff officers was to reflect ruefully in the aftermath, was the absence of ‘a hundred extra wireless sets’; for the defenders had failed to recognise the extent of their own success and had failed to report it to Freyberg’s headquarters, which in turn had failed to radio the orders to recoup and regroup. Next morning Winston Churchill reported to the House of Commons that the ‘most stern and resolute resistance’ would be offered to the enemy. Meanwhile Freyberg lacked that clear picture of his battle which would allow him to react as commander. He communicated with the New Zealanders defending the Maleme airfield – Student’s Schwerpunkt – through the headquarters of 5 Brigade; the brigade in turn communicated indirectly with its battalion commanders; and Lieutenant-Colonel L. W. Andrews, the commander of the crucial battalion, 22nd, mistakenly believed that his brigade commander planned to support him. A brave man – he had won the Victoria Cross in the First World War – he decided on the evening of 20 May, after an initial counter-attack supported by two of the only six heavy tanks on Crete had failed, to regroup on high ground overlooking the airfield for a concerted push the next day, and this regrouping inadvertently conceded the vital spot to the Germans and so rescued them from the inevitability of disaster.

While Andrews took the wrong decision for good reasons, Student was arriving at the right decision for bad reasons: he had no ground for thinking that fresh troops would fare any better at Maleme than those already dead. Indeed, the universal military maxim, ‘never reinforce failure’, should have warned him against committing his reserve at that point. He nevertheless decided to do so. On the afternoon of 21 May his last two companies of parachutists fell among the New Zealand division’s Maori battalion and were slaughtered – ‘not cricket, I know,’ wrote one of their officers, ‘but there it is.’ At the same time Student’s airlanding reserve, the spearhead of 100th Mountain Rifle Regiment of the 5th Mountain Division, began to crash-land in Junkers 52s on the Maleme airstrip from which Andrews had withdrawn his defending 22nd Battalion the previous evening. ‘Machine-gun bullets tear through the right wing,’ wrote a war correspondent aboard. ‘The pilot grits his teeth. Cost what it may he has to get down. Suddenly there leaps up below us a vineyard. We strike the ground. Then one wing grinds into the sand and tears the back of the machine half round to the left. Men, packs, boxes, ammunition are flung forward . . . we lose the power over our own bodies. At last we come to a standstill, the machine standing half on its head.’

Nearly forty Junkers 52s succeeded in landing on the Maleme airstrip in this way, bringing 650 men of II Battalion, 100th Mountain Rifle Regiment. The mountain riflemen, like Student’s parachutists, also regarded themselves as an elite, and with justification. While the New Zealanders struggled to come to terms with the new threat, the mountaineers were moving to consolidate the German position at Maleme airfield, with the intention of extending their foothold next day.

Some of the mountaineers’ reinforcements were meanwhile approaching Crete by ship. They were to suffer an unhappy fate; but so too were the ships of the Royal Navy which intercepted them. The Alexandria squadron easily overcame the Italian escort to the fleet of caiques and barges carrying the remainder of 100th Mountain Rifle Regiment towards Crete, causing 300 of them to be drowned; but during 22 May the Luftwaffe inflicted a far more grievous penalty on the British ships and crews. The battleshipWarspitewas damaged, the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji sunk, together with the destroyers Kashmir and Kelly – the latter commanded by the future Earl Mountbatten of Burma. This was not the end of the navy’s losses; before 2 June it also lost the cruisers Junoand Calcuttaand the destroyers Imperial and Greyhound, which were sunk, and suffered damage to the battleship Valiant, the aircraft carrier Formidable, the cruisers Perth, Orion, Ajax and Naiad and the destroyers Kelvin, Napier and Hereward. When the tally was taken, the Battle of Crete, though less shocking in its effect on British morale than the future loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse was to prove, was reckoned the costliest of any British naval engagement of the Second World War.

Student gains the upper hand

Ashore, meanwhile, the battle had begun to run irreversibly the Germans’ way. The New Zealand counter-attack to recapture Maleme airfield failed in the early hours of 22 May; throughout the day Student, with brutal recklessness, directed a stream of Junkers 52s at the airfield. Those that crashed on impact, as many did, were pushed off the runway for the next arrival. Meanwhile the Luftwaffe operated overland in overwhelming strength, shooting and bombing anything that moved. ‘It is a most strange and grim battle that is being fought,’ Churchill told the Commons that afternoon. ‘Our side have no air . . . and the other side have very little or no tanks. Neither side has any means of retreat.’ The truth was that the British had no tanks that counted and no means of moving, while the Germans were accumulating growing numbers of fresh, first-class soldiers to manoeuvre against the defenders.

Freyberg now decided to withdraw eastward and regroup for a counter-attack. However, this regrouping was composed not of a single unit but of the bulk of his best troops, the New Zealanders and the regular British battalions. The withdrawal conceded yet more vital ground to the parachutists and mountain riflemen around Maleme, who were growing steadily in numbers. On 24 May they were repulsed from the village of Galatas, then took it, then lost it again to the New Zealand counter-attack Freyberg had planned as his decisive riposte; but it could not reach as far as Maleme, into which the Germans had now crowded almost the whole of the mountain division. When the Germans resumed their attack the British were driven relentlessly eastward, abandoning one position after another.

On 26 May, Freyberg told Wavell, commanding in the Middle East, that the loss of Crete could only be a matter of time. Next day Wavell decided on evacuation before the dominance of the Luftwaffe made that impossible. The garrison of Heraklion, against which the parachutists had made no impression, was taken off on the night of 28 May. The garrison of Retimo, which had also resisted all attacks, could not be reached by the navy and had to be abandoned. During 28-31 May the main force left its positions east of Maleme and began a long and agonising trek southwards across the mountains to the little port of Sphakia on the south coast. It was a shaming culmination to a benighted battle. The minority of troops which actually fought kept together as best they could; those who had left Greece disorganised now lost all semblance of unity. ‘Never shall I forget the disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of the masses on the move,’ wrote Freyberg, ‘as we made our way slowly through the endless stream of trudging men.’ When he and the rest of his broken army reached Sphakia they sheltered under the cliffs waiting for the navy to rescue them under cover of darkness. The navy suffered heavily in the attempt but by 1 June had succeeded in taking off 18,000 troops; 12,000 remained to fall prisoner to the Germans and nearly 2000 had been killed in the fighting.

These figures confirmed, if the evidence were needed, that Crete had been a catastrophe. It had entailed the loss of two formed divisions of troops, New Zealand, Australian and British, urgently needed to fight the burgeoning war in the desert against Rommel’s expeditionary force. It had also added unnecessarily to the roll of humiliation which Hitler had inflicted on the British Empire, most of all because both he and his enemies knew by what a narrow margin his parachutists had been rescued from defeat. Had Maleme not been abandoned on the second day, had Freyberg’s counter-attack been launched two days earlier, the parachutists would have been destroyed in their foothold, the island saved and the first definitive check to Hitler’s campaign of conquest imposed in a blaze of spectacular publicity. As it was, the German war machine had been seen once again to triumph, in a new and revolutionary form, in the very centre of Britain’s traditional strategic zone, and against a principal instrument of its overseas power, the Mediterranean Fleet.

Yet, not only with hindsight, Crete could also be seen as a highly ambiguous victory. ‘Hitler’, Student recorded, was ‘most displeased with the whole affair.’ On 20 July he told his parachute general, ‘Crete proves that the days of the paratroopers are over. The paratroop weapon depends upon surprise – the surprise factor has now gone.’ He had refused to allow the German propaganda machine to publicise the operation while it was in progress and he now set his face against mounting operations of the same type in the future. Crete had killed 4000 German soldiers, most from the 7th Parachute Division; nearly half the 1st Assault Regiment had died in action. Gericke, who had come across the dropping zone of its III Battalion on 23 May, was appalled by the evidence of what had befallen it. ‘Frightful was the sight that met our eyes. . . . Dead parachutists, still in their full equipment, hung suspended from the branches [of the olive trees] swinging gently in the light breeze – everywhere were the dead. Those who had succeeded in getting free from their harness had been shot down within a few strides and slain by the Cretan volunteers. From these corpses could be seen all too clearly what had happened within the first few minutes of the battle of Crete.’ Not only the men but the whole structure of the airborne force had suffered disastrously; 220 out of 600 transport aircraft had been destroyed, a material loss quite disproportionate to the material advantage gained. The seizure of Crete had not been and would not prove essential to German strategy; a successful attempt on Malta, desired by OKW, would by contrast have justified any loss suffered by its mounting. The occupation of Crete, moreover, would involve the Germans in a bitter anti-partisan campaign, their conduct of which would blacken their name and lay the foundations of a bitter hatred of them not erased in the island to this day.

The British and Americans, both energetically raising parachute divisions, drew from Crete a conclusion different from Hitler’s: that it was that particular form rather than the underlying principle of airborne operations which had proved unsound. In their great descents on Sicily, Normandy and Holland, they would eschew Student’s practice of launching parachutists directly on to an enemy position in favour of landing at a distance from the objective and then concentrating against it. In Sicily and Normandy they would also risk large-scale airborne offensives only in co-ordination with a major amphibious assault from the sea, thus distracting the enemy from a concerted response against the fragile military instruments of parachute and glider. In Sicily and Normandy this careful reinsurance was to justify itself. In Holland, in September 1944, when they abandoned caution and essayed a Crete-style assault of their own, the disaster which overtook Montgomery’s parachutists was to prove even more complete than that suffered by Student’s. In the broad if not the narrow sense, therefore, Hitler’s appreciation of Operation Merkur was correct: parachuting to war is essentially a dicing with death, in which the odds are loaded against the soldier who entrusts his life to silk and static line. There is a possibility that a combination of luck and judgement will deposit him and his comrades beyond the jaws of danger, enable them to assemble and allow formed airborne units to go forward to battle; but the probability is otherwise. Of the four great parachute endeavours of the Second World War, two – Sicily and Normandy – managed to evade the probabilities, two – Crete and Arnhem – did not. The demise of independent parachute forces since 1945 is the inevitable outcome of that unfavourable reckoning.

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