May 20, 1941 is one of the most important dates in the modern history of Crete. On this day, 81 years ago, the German army launched Operation Mercury, the aim of which was to capture Crete by the German airborne troops. From the very beginning, civilians also took an active part in the defense operations, heroically supporting the allied forces. Unfortunately, after eleven days of heavy fighting, the entire island was under the control of the German army, and the Cretans suffered terrible reprisals in retaliation. As one historian said: " The Battle of Crete played and still plays a special role in history, mainly due to the resistance of the inhabitants of the island ."
It also shocked, moved and inspired the world fighting against the Axis powers and made the greatest personalities of the time praise the resistance of the Cretans and the importance of this gigantic battle.
German jumpers over Crete on May 20, 1941 (photo source wikipedia.org)
This quick defeat of the Allied forces seemed almost improbable, because initially the victory in this game of war chess seemed to be on the side of the British. They started the game with a few more pieces on the board and, even more importantly, knowing the exact intentions of the opponent. Despite all these advantages, the battle for Crete was lost by them.
General Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Allied forces, thanks to the information provided by British intelligence, had the knowledge to predict the exact location of the landing of the German forces. The airport in Maleme was the key to opening the gate to Crete. The German generals were aware that taking over this patch of the island in the first hours of the attack would determine the success or defeat in this battle.
Although the British general knew the exact plans and intentions of the enemy, the incomprehensible tactical game undertaken by him seemed to contradict this. Knowing that the main attack of the landing of the German troops would be directed at the airfield in Maleme, the regrouping ordered by General Bernard Freyberg led to the diversion of part of the Allied forces to the defense of the coast. With this strange and little understood conduct, he lost the greatest advantage of surprise, which would have allowed to keep Crete in the hands of the Allies. However, even these inept tactical moves on the part of the British staff did not level the playing field for both sides. Still, the landing of German paratroopers was burdened with a very large margin of risk. Deprived of heavier support, light infantry forces could be easy targets for the Allied defences.
General Bernard Freyberg (right)
(photo source wikipedia.org)
The chaos during the first hours of Operation Mercury seemed to confirm this completely. The landing of the German troops began with a real slaughter, under many falling parachutes, the inert bodies of German soldiers swayed, dying without even touching the Cretan soil. What's worse, even those who managed to land successfully could hardly be called full-fledged armed forces. A significant part of the soldiers had only light hand weapons or personal equipment, which in practice meant that their only weapon was a bayonet. After the war, the commander of the German parachute corps in the Battle of Crete, Kurt Student, declared that Crete had become the "grave" of German paratroopers.
The decision of the German command that the paratroopers' armament would be dropped in separate containers turned out to be fateful. In practice, it turned out that finding them in a hostile area, where active resistance was put up by almost the entire civilian population, was a very difficult task. The specter of the defeat of the German landing seemed to hang in the air. This was the beginning of the Battle of Crete, the 82nd anniversary of which falls today, May 20.
If you are interested in this story, we highly recommend you to read Antony Beevor's publication " Krete: Conquest and Resistance " published by Znak publishing house, where you will find a description of the entire Operation Mercury and the wartime history of Crete. The good news is that the second edition of this book was released late last year and is now available in bookstores!
Other books describing those war times that we can recommend are " Crete 1941 " by Callum MacDonald and " Kidnapping in Crete. The True Story of the Abduction of a German General " by Rick Stroud.
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