| United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders
| Bernard Freyberg
|| Kurt Student
|United Kingdom: 15,000
New Zealand: 6,700
Total: 40,000 (10,000 without fighting capacity)
14,000 paratroopers
15,000 mountain troopers
150 dive bombers
80 troop gliders
|Casualties and losses
370 aircraft destroyed or damaged
|1Total Greek casualties amounted to 1,250 killed and wounded
The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta; Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης) was a battle during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code-name Unternehmen Merkur (“Operation Mercury“). Greek and Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.
After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered very heavy casualties, and the Allied troops were confident that they would prevail against the German invasion. The next day, through miscommunication and the failure of Allied commanders to grasp the situation, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the 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 German paratroops (Fallschirmjäger) were used on a massive scale, but also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history;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.
Allied forces had occupied Crete when the Italians attacked Greece on 28 October 1940. Though the Italians were initially repulsed, subsequent German intervention drove 57,000 Allied troops from the mainland. The Royal Navy evacuated many of them; some were taken to Crete to bolster its garrison.
Possession of Crete provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could threaten the Axis southeastern flank.From the island, the Ploieşti oil fields in Romania, which were critical to the Axis war effort, were within range of British bombers. Given its strategic value, Winston Churchill would later quote a telegram he sent to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on 4 June 1940: “To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.”
The German army high command was preoccupied with the planned invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), and was against involvement. However, senior Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by a daring airborne attack. The desire to regain prestige after their defeat by the Royal Air Force over Britain in 1940 may have played a role in their thinking, especially before the advent of the much more important (and army-controlled) invasion of Russia.Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal, though the directive stated that the operation was to be in May. The secondary priority of the attack was underlined: Crete was under no circumstances to be allowed to interfere with the upcoming campaign against the Soviet Union. In advance of the land battle, the Germans launched frequent bombing raids against the island in order to establish air superiority. This air campaign eventually succeeded in its objective, forcing the Royal Air Force to move its planes to Alexandria.
At the outset of the land battle, the Allies had the advantage of naval supremacy and defending with relative numerical superiority, while the Germans had air superiority, more highly trained troops, and the momentum of an unbroken run of victories.
Order of battle
Major-General Freyberg, Allied Commander at the Battle of Crete
On 30 April 1941, a New Zealand Army officer, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC was appointed commander of the Allied forces on Crete.
By May, the Greek forces consisted of approximately 9,000 troops: three battalions of the 5th Division of the Hellenic Army, which had been left behind when the rest of the unit had been transferred to the mainland to oppose the German invasion; the Cretan Gendarmerie (a battalion-sized force); the Heraklion Garrison Battalion, a defence battalion made up mostly of transport and logistics personnel; and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions, which had escaped to Crete and were organised under British command. There were also cadets from the Gendarmerie academy and recruits from the Greek training centres in the Peloponnese, who had been transferred to Crete to replace the trained soldiers sent to fight on the mainland. These troops were already organised into numbered recruit training regiments, and it was decided to use this existing configuration to organise the Greek troops, supplementing them with experienced men arriving from the mainland.
The British Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original 14,000-man British garrison and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation—substantially intact units under their own command, composite units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment. The key formed units were the New Zealand 2nd Division, less the 6th Brigade and division headquarters; the Australian 19th Brigade Group; and the British 14th Infantry Brigade. In total, there were roughly 15,000 combat-ready British Commonwealth infantry, augmented by about 5,000 non-infantry personnel equipped as infantry, and one composite Australian artillery battery. On 4 May, Freyberg sent a message to the British commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, requesting the evacuation of about 10,000 personnel who did not have weapons and had “little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population”.However, few of these men had left Crete by the time the battle started.
A Fallschirmjäger and a DFS 230 glider in Crete.
On 25 April, Hitler signed Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete. The Royal Navy’s forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault would be quickly decided by the nature of an air-versus-ship battle, making it a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on.
This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion, although the Germans had used parachute and glider-borne assaults on a much smaller scale in the invasions of Denmark and Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and mainland Greece. In the last instance, German paratroops (Fallschirmjäger) had been dispatched to capture the bridge over the Corinth Canal which was being readied for demolition by the Royal Engineers. German engineers were landed near the bridge in gliders, while parachute infantry attacked the perimeter defence.
Mountain troops prior to their transfer to Crete
Mountain troops prior to their transfer to Crete
The bridge was damaged in the fighting, which slowed the German advance and gave the Allies time to evacuate 18,000 troops to Crete and an additional 23,000 to Egypt, albeit with the loss of most of their heavy equipment.
The intention was to use Fallschirmjäger to capture key points of the island, including airfields that could then be used to fly in supplies and reinforcements. The XI Fliegerkorps was to co-ordinate the attack by the 7th Flieger Division, which would insert its paratroopers by parachute and glider, followed by the 22nd Air Landing Division once the airfields were secure. The assault was initially scheduled for 16 May, but was postponed to 20 May, with the 5th Mountain Division replacing the 22nd Division.
By this time, Allied commanders had become aware of the imminent invasion through Ultra intercepts. General Freyberg was informed of the air component of the German battle plan, and started to prepare a defence based near the airfields and along the north coast. However, he was seriously hampered by a lack of modern equipment, and was faced with the reality that even lightly armed paratroopers would be able to muster about the same firepower as his own men, if not more. In addition, although the Ultra-derived intelligence that Freyberg received was very detailed, it was taken out of context and misinterpreted. While emphasis was placed on the airborne assault the German messages mentioned seaborne operations, which seriously affected Freyberg’s troop deployment, as he expected an amphibious landing, consequently detracting from the defence of the main German objective of the Maleme airfield.
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the German Abwehr, originally reported a mere 5,000 British troops on Crete and no Greek forces. It is not clear whether Canaris, who had an extensive intelligence network at his disposal, was misinformed or was attempting to sabotage Hitler’s plans (Canaris would be executed much later in the war for supposedly participating in the 20 July Plot). The Abwehr also predicted the Cretan population would welcome the Germans as liberators, due to their strong republican and anti-monarchist feelings, and would want to receive the “…favourable terms which had been arranged on the mainland…” While it is true the late republican prime minister of Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, had been a Cretan, and support for his ideas was strong on the island, the Germans seriously underestimated the depth of patriotic feeling on the part of the Cretans. In fact, King George II of Greece and his entourage escaped from Greece via Crete with the help of Greek and Commonwealth soldiers, Cretan civilians, and even a band of prisoners that had been released from captivity by the advancing Germans (see below).
German Twelfth Army Intelligence painted a less optimistic picture, but still believed the British Commonwealth forces to be much weaker than they actually were, and also underestimated the number of Greek troops who had been evacuated from the mainland. General Alexander Löhr, the theatre commander, was convinced the island could be taken with two divisions, but decided to keep 6th Mountain Division in Athens as a reserve. Events would prove this to have been a wise precaution.
The Germans deployed a new weapon on Crete: the 7.5 cm Leichtgeschütz 40 “light gun” (actually a recoilless rifle). At 320 lb (150 kg), it weighed only 1⁄10 as much as a standard German 75 mm field gun, yet had ⅔ of its range. It fired a 13 lb (5.9 kg) shell over 3 mi (4.8 km). Adding to the airborne units’ firepower was the fact that ¼ of them jumped with a MP 40 submachine gun, often carried in addition to a bolt-action Karabiner 98k rifle. Moreover, almost every German squad was equipped with an MG 34 machine gun.
The Germans used colour-coded parachutes to distinguish the canisters carrying rifles, ammunition, crew-served weapons and other supplies. Heavy equipment like the Leichtgeschütz 40 was dropped with a special triple-parachute harness designed to bear the extra weight.
The troopers also carried special strips of cloth which could be unfurled in pre-arranged patterns to signal low-flying fighters to coordinate air support and supply drops.
In contrast with most nations’ forces, who jumped with personal weapons strapped to their bodies, German procedure was for individual weapons to be dropped in canisters, due to their style of exiting the aircraft at low altitude. This was a major flaw that left the paratroopers armed only with their fighting knives, pistols and grenades in the critical few minutes after landing. The poor design of German parachutes compounded the problem: the standard German harness had only a single riser to the canopy, and thus could not be steered. Even the 25% of paratroops armed with submachine guns were at a distinct disadvantage, given the weapon’s limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were shot attempting to reach their weapons canisters.
After successive meetings, the Germans decide on the occupation of Crete. The transport of Greek and British forces from mainland Greece is scheduled for the second fortnight of April.
The Greek government resorts to Crete.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
Greek troops were armed with the Mannlicher-Schönauer 6.5 mm mountain carbine or ex-Austrian 8x56R Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifles, the latter part of post–World War I reparations. About one thousand Greeks carried the antique Gras rifle. The garrison had been stripped of its best crew-served weapons, which were sent to the mainland. There were twelve obsolescent Saint Etienne light machine guns and forty other light machine guns of various manufacture at the Greek troops’ disposal. Many of the Greek troops had less than thirty rounds of ammunition, and could not be resupplied by the British, who had no stocks in the correct calibres. This affected their placement in the battle; those with insufficient ammunition were posted to the island’s eastern sector, where the Germans were not expected in force. The Greeks made up for the lack of equipment with intensity of spirit; historian Christopher Buckley stated that “…some fought with extreme courage and tenacity.”
British Commonwealth troops used their standard Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and Vickers medium machine gun. The Allies had about 85 artillery pieces of various calibres, many of them captured Italian pieces without sights.
Anti-aircraft defences consisted of one light anti-aircraft battery equipped with 20 mm automatic cannon, split between the two airfields. The guns were carefully concealed, often in nearby olive groves, and some were ordered to hold their fire during the initial assault so that they would not immediately reveal their positions to German fighters and dive-bombers.
APRIL25, 1941 Landing in Crete of the New Zealand allies.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
Allied armour consisted of nine Matilda IIA infantry tanks, belonging to “B” Squadron, 7th Royal Tank Regiment, and sixteen Mark VIB Light Tanks from “C” Squadron, 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. In common with most British tank units at the time, the Matildas’ 2-pounder (40 mm) guns had only armour piercing rounds which were not effective against infantry (high explosive rounds in such a small calibre were considered impractical).
The tanks had numerous maintenance problems. The engines, especially, were worn and could not be overhauled with the limited resources available on Crete. Most of the tanks were therefore used as mobile pillboxes to be brought up and dug in at strategic points. One of the Matildas had a damaged turret crank that allowed it to turn clockwise only. In the end, many of the British tanks were lost to the rough terrain, not in combat.
The Allies did not possess sufficient Universal Carriers or trucks, which would have provided the extra mobility and firepower needed for rapid-response teams to attack paratrooper units before they had a chance to dig in.
Strategy and tactics
Map of the German assault on Crete
Hitler’s directive authorising the operation, Directive Number 28, made it very clear that the forces used were primarily airborne and air units already in the area. Further, units committed for the attack on Crete but earmarked for Barbarossa were to conclude operations before the end of May at the latest. Barbarossa was not to be delayed by the attack on Crete. This meant that the planned attack had to be launched within the allotted period or else it would be cancelled. Planning had to be rushed, and much of the German operation would be improvised, including the use of troops who were not trained for airborne assaults.
APRIL 28, 1941 The Prime Minister of Greece, Mr. Tsouderos, chairs a meeting at Chania between the leaders of the Greek forces and British officers. The meeting concluded with the issue of a reinforcement request to strengthen the defense of the island.
Though the German planners agreed on the necessity of taking Maleme, there was some debate over the concentration of forces there and the number to be deployed against other targets, such as the smaller airfields at Heraklion and Rethymnon. The Luftwaffe commander, General Alexander Löhr, and the naval commander, Counter Admiral Karl-Georg Schuster, favoured a heavier concentration against Maleme, to achieve overwhelming superiority of force. By contrast, Major-General Kurt von Student wanted to disperse his paratroops more widely, in order to maximise the effect of surprise. As a primary objective, Maleme offered several advantages: it was the largest airfield, capable of supporting heavy transports bearing reinforcements; it was near enough to the mainland to allow air cover from land-based Bf 109 fighters; and it was near the northern coast, so seaborne reinforcements could be brought up quickly.
A compromise plan by Hermann Göring was agreed and the final plan heavily emphasised securing Maleme first, while not ignoring the other Allied assets. It was codenamed Merkur, after the swift Roman god Mercury. German forces were divided into three battle groups, Centre, West and East, each with a special code name following the classical theme established by Mercury. A total of 750 glider troops, 10,000 paratroops, 5,000 airlifted mountain troops, and 7,000 seaborne troops were allotted for the invasion. The largest proportion of the forces were in Group West.
|Operation Mercury battle groups
|Gruppe Mitte (Group Centre)
||Major General Wilhelm Süssman
||Prison Valley, Chania Souda, Rethymnon
|Gruppe West (Group West)
||Major General Eugen Meindl
|Gruppe Ost (Group East)
||Colonel Bruno Bräuer
German airborne doctrine was based primarily on parachuting in a small number of forces directly on top of enemy airfields. This force would capture the perimeter and any local anti-aircraft guns, allowing a much larger force to land by glider.
Freyberg was aware of this after studying German actions of the past year, and decided to render the airfields unusable for landing. However, he was countermanded by the Middle East Command in Alexandria. They felt the invasion was doomed to fail now that they knew about it, and possibly wanted to keep the airfields intact for the RAF’s return once the island was secure, in what is held by some to have been a fatal error. It is not clear whether this is the case, for the Germans proved they were able to land reinforcements without fully functioning airfields. One German pilot crash-landed his transport on a deserted beach; others landed in empty fields, discharged their cargo and took off again. With the Germans willing to sacrifice some of their numerous transport aircraft to win the battle, it is not clear whether a decision to destroy the airfields would have made any difference to the final outcome, particularly given the number of troops delivered by expendable gliders.
APRIL 29, 1941 The commander of the Hew Zealand Division, General Prey Berg, arrives in Crete.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
Day one, 20 May
Captured German paratroopers under British guard
At 08:00 on 20 May, German paratroopers, jumping out of dozens of Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, landed near Maleme airfield and the town of Chania. The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd New Zealand Battalions defended Maleme airfield and its direct surrounding area. The Germans suffered heavy casualties within the first hours of the invasion. One company of the III Battalion, 1st Assault Regiment, lost 112 killed out of 126 men; 400 of the battalion’s 600 men were killed before the end of the first day.
MAY 20, 1941 German attack on Crete begins at 6:3O a.m. The Germans subject the towns of Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion to severe bombardment prior to dropping their elite parachutists. Local confrontations take place between German paratroopers and allied forces reinforced by the local population.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
Of the initial forces, the majority were mauled by New Zealand forces defending the airfield and Greek forces near Chania. Many of the gliders following the paratroops were hit by mortar fire within seconds after landing. Those glider troops that did land safely were wiped out almost to the last man by the New Zealand and Greek defenders.
A number of German paratroopers and gliders had landed off-site near both airfields by accident, as is common in airdrops, and set up defensive positions to the west of Maleme airfield, and “Prison Valley” in the Chania area. Although both forces were bottled up and failed to take the airfields, they were in place and the defenders had to deploy to face them.
Greek police forces and cadets were also in action, with the First Greek Regiment (Provisional) combining with civilians to rout a detachment of German paratroopers dropped at Kastelli. Meanwhile, the 8th Greek Regiment and elements of the Cretan forces severely hampered movement by the 95th Reconnaissance Battalion on Kolimbari and Paleochora, w
here Allied reinforcements from North Africa could potentially be landed.
MAY 21, 1941 The German concentrate their attack on Maleme airfield. German airfield land at Maleme in the evening carrying significant forces and material for the attack. The British fleet in the Mediterranean strikes a German convoy heading for Crete. Fifteen requisitioned vessels were sunk; their losses are still unknown http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
More German paratroops landing on Crete, dropped from Junkers 52 transports, 20 May 1941. Taken by a British combat photographer, the photo was edited for propaganda purposes to show a black smoke trail from a damaged Ju 52. Several were indeed lost by anti-aircraft fire during the airdrops but none were hit at the time this photo was taken
A second wave of German aircraft arrived in the afternoon dropping more paratroopers along with several more gliders containing heavy assault troops, with one group attacking Rethimnon at 16:15 and another at Heraklion at 17:30. As with the earlier actions, the defenders were waiting for them and inflicted heavy casualties.
MAY 24, 1941 The bombardment of the towns of Crete goes on. At Chania, the Germans gained the initiative. The allied forces at Rethymnon and Heraklion are determined “to fight to the end”.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
Heraklion was defended by the British 14th Infantry Brigade, augmented by the Australian 2/4th Battalion and the Greek 3rd, 7th and “Garrison” (ex-5th “Crete” Division”) Battalions. The Greek units were sorely lacking in equipment and supplies, the Garrison Battalion especially, as the bulk of its matériel had been shipped to the mainland with the division, but they would fight with distinction nonetheless.
The Germans pierced the defensive cordon around Heraklion on the first day, seizing the Greek barracks on the west edge of the town and capturing the docks; the Greeks counterattacked and recaptured both points. The Germans dropped leaflets urging surrender and threatening dire consequences if the Allies did not surrender immediately. The next day, Heraklion was heavily bombed. The battered Greek units were rotated out and assumed a defensive position on the road to Knossos.
By May 31st the total occupation of Crete was a fact and the withdrawal of the majority of the ally forces to Egypt marked the end of the Battle of Crete.http://www.explorecrete.com/history/battle-crete-chronicle.htm
As night fell, none of the German objectives had been secured. Of the 493 German transport aircraft used during the first day’s airdrop, seven were lost to antiaircraft fire. The risky plan—attacking four separate points to maximize surprise rather than concentrating on one—seemed to have failed, although the reasons were unknown to the Germans at the time.
Towards the evening of 20 May, the Germans slowly pushed the New Zealanders back from Hill 107, which overlooked the airfield. The Axis commanders on Crete decided to throw everything into the Maleme sector the next day.
Among the paratroopers who landed on the first day was former world heavyweight champion boxer Max Schmeling, who held the rank of Gefreiter at the time. Schmeling survived the battle and the war.
Dead paratrooper, Crete, 1941
Executed Cretan civilians at Kondomari, Crete, 1941
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. 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. 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. 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. In his book The Lost Battle, MacDonald argues that battlefield mutilations (attributed to the torture of injured Germans by civilians and vice versa) were more than likely a result of carrion birds and physical decay of corpses left in the extreme heat.
The escape of the king
The majority of Cretans were Venizelist Republicans—as were a significant number of mainland Greeks. In 1924, George II, King of the Hellenes had been deposed and exiled to Romania, only to return in 1935 after the collapse of republican government. The Germans regarded George as a hopeless Anglophile and an obstacle to their conquest of Greece, which they believed to be mostly anti-monarchist. After the king had escaped to Crete on 22 April and issued a defiant memorandum to the Germans, Hitler responded by attacking the king in a speech on 4 May. The British feared a propaganda coup if a sovereign monarch under their protection were to be captured.
The king was staying in a Venetian villa, Bella Capina, two miles southwest of Chania. Warned by British intelligence of the coming airborne invasion, he left for the house of Emmanouil Tsouderos, the prime minister, in a nearby village of Perivolia, on the day before the invasion began, but was forced to flee Perivolia the next morning. His entourage narrowly escaped capture. From the garden of Bella Capina, German paratroopers were seen landing in the area of the villa. As it turned out, they were members of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment, which was assigned to the Galatas sector, and had been dropped near the villa by mistake. An evacuation by the Royal Navy had already been arranged, with Colonel J.S. Blunt, the British military attaché to Greece, acting as liaison. A platoon of New Zealand infantry under Lieutenant W.H. Ryan was assigned as a bodyguard, along with a complement of Cretan gendarmes. The king was accompanied by his cousin, Prince Peter; Colonel Dimitrios Levidis, Master of Ceremonies; Prime Minister Tsouderos; and Kyriakos Varvaressos, Governor-in-Exile of the Bank of Greece.
The party had several close calls with both Germans and native
Cretans. A detachment was sent back for some papers left behind by Mr. Tsouderos; they returned to report the house was already occupied, meaning the Germans were by now aware of the king’s presence nearby. Lieutenant Ryan had the king remove his Greek general’s uniform, which was adorned with gold braid and other ornaments that were bound to attract attention. At one point, the group were pinned down by the rifle fire of Cretan mountaineers. Prince Peter shouted to them in Greek, and they replied “Germans also speak Greek and wear Greek uniforms”. Eventually convinced that the royal retinue were not German spies, they let them pass. That night, the evacuees rested in the village of Therisso. There, they were startled by a clamour at the doors, which turned out to caused by prison escapees released earlier in the day. Patriotism apparently overwhelmed any sympathy for their German emancipators and antipathy to the monarchist constitution, and the escapees left to forage for weapons instead of betraying their fellow fugitives.
Though forced to abandon their pack mules, and lacking proper clothing and equipment for mountain climbing, the entourage arrived safely at their rendezvous point. There, joined by members of the British diplomatic corps, they signalled HMS Decoy and were plucked from the shore, arriving in Alexandria on the night of 22 May.
Day two, 21 May
Overnight, the New Zealand 22nd Infantry Battalion withdrew from Hill 107, leaving the Maleme airfield undefended. During the previous day the Germans had succeeded in cutting off communications between the two western-most companies of the battalion and the battalion commander, Lt Col Andrews, who was on the east of the airfield. Andrews mistakenly interpreted the lack of communication as meaning his battalion had been overrun in the west. With the weakened state of the eastern elements of the battalion, and believing the western elements to have been overrun, Andrews requested reinforcement by the 23rd Battalion. This was denied by his superior, Brigadier James Hargest, on the grounds that the 23rd Battalion were fully committed repulsing parachutists in their sector. After a failed attempt at a counter-attack late in the day of the 20th with the eastern elements of his battalion, Andrews withdrew under cover of darkness to regroup, with the consent of Hargest. Captain Campbell, commanding the western-most company of the 22nd Battalion, out of contact with Andrews, did not learn of the withdrawal of the 22nd Battalion until early in the morning, at which point he also withdrew from the west of the airfield. This misunderstanding, representative of failings of communication and coordination in the Allied defense of Crete , cost the allies the airfield, and allowed the Germans to reinforce their invasion force unopposed. In Athens, General Kurt Student decided to concentrate his forces on Maleme on the 21st, as this was the area where the most progress had been made on the first day,and due to an early morning reconnaissance flight over the Maleme airfield that was unopposed by defending forces.. The Germans quickly exploited the withdrawal from Hill 107 to take control of the Maleme airfield, just as a sea landing took place nearby. The allies continued to pour artillery fire into the area as Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft started flying in units of the 5th Mountain Division at night. These troops moved into the line as soon as their planes landed, many of which were hit by artillery fire and littered the airfield. The Germans now had a foothold on Crete.
Crete: Attacking Fallschirmjägers
Failure to recapture Maleme
The New Zealand commander of Creforce, Major General Bernard Freyburg, realized that the Maleme airfield was key to the battle, and ordered an overnight counter-attack to retake the airfield on the night of the 21st. This decision was reached in the afternoon of the 21st, and relied on the 2/7th Battalion moving 18 miles north to relieve the 20th Battalion, who would participate in the attack. The 2/7th Battalion did not have its own transport, and getting transport to the Battalion was delayed due to the Luftwaffe air superiority in daylight hours. By the time the 2/7th Battalion had its transport and moved north to relieve 20th Battalion for the counter-attack, it was 11:30pm. The 20th Battalion then took 3 hours to reach the staging area for the counter-attack, its first elements arriving around 2:45 AM.The counter-attack was launched at 3:30am, and failed due to German air support by the Luftwaffe during daylight hours.
First landing attempt
Before midnight, Rear-Admiral Irvine Glennie‘s Force D, consisting of three light cruisers and four destroyers, intercepted a flotilla of reinforcements, escorted by a single Italian torpedo boat, the Lupo, successfully preventing their landing. The convoy, comprising around 20 caïques, was fiercely defended by the Italian ship. About 2/3 the 2000+ strong German force was saved due to the aggressive manouvres of the Italian naval commander, Francesco Mimbelli, against an overwhelmingly superior Allied naval force. About 800 German soldiers and two Italian seamen died in action, as well as two British sailors on HMS Orion.