On May 20, 1941, German paratroops began the invasion of Crete, the large Greek island that separates the Aegean Sea from the Eastern Mediterranean. The invasion ultimately proved so costly a victory that Germany never used major airborne operations again in the war.
The man most responsible for Germany's airborne troop development was Gen. Kurt Student. He commanded a fighter squadron during World War I, but after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles limited the German Army to 100,000 men and forbade military aircraft, Student found himself in a host of technical and logistical positions.
A Prussian junker, Student had no great love for Nazism, but his ability caught the eye of Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. When Adolf Hitler publicly unveiled the Luftwaffe in 1935, Student was ordered to head up technical training schools for the fledgling air force, with its airborne component his passion. He soon brought his skill to the development of paratroopers, glider-borne troops and an airborne doctrine.
In his essay, “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student,” (found in the book “Hitler's Generals,” Corelli Barnett, ed.,) Gen. Sir John Hackett wrote: “German airborne forces were almost the unique creation of this one man and were largely sustained by his continuing determination and drive, through a daunting succession of frustrations and disappointments. That the (German high command) could produce military operators like Kurt Student goes far to explain why the German Army, after a war which ended in total and crushing defeat, had to be recognized as the superior of any other army engaged in it.”
With Hitler's backing, Student's airborne forces became an important part of Germany's new military. Large-scale paradrop maneuvers took place in the summer in 1939, not long before the outbreak of World War II. In May 1940, Student's airborne troops played an important role in knocking out the Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael, bypassing its defenses by simply landing on its roof. The operation had largely been planned by Hitler himself, and with Student carrying out his Führer's design with efficiency and élan, the fortress fell quickly.
By May 1941, the German army was heavily invested in the Balkans and Greece. Hitler had been amassing troops for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, but his Italian ally had invaded Greece and received a proper thrashing. Hitler, disgruntled with the governments of Greece and its neighbors, and determined to back up his Axis partner, invaded the region.
After the initial Italian attack on Greece, the British had sent men and supplies. As Hitler's Wehrmacht steamrolled south, however, the British began evacuating their troops to Crete and Egypt, confident that Germany and Italy lacked naval troop transports with which to invade the Aegean island. New Zealander Gen. Bernard Freyberg commanded the imperial forces on Crete.
In his book, “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War,” historian Andrew Roberts wrote: “Major-General Bernard Freyberg, vc, nicknamed by Churchill 'the Salamander' because he had been through fire so often — wounded 12 times and winning four (Distinguished Service Orders) — was in command of the defense of Crete. He had 15,500 troops who had been evacuated (defeated and exhausted) from Greece, 12,000 troops from Egypt, 14,000 Greeks, little artillery, and only twenty-four serviceable fighter aircraft .”
The British were determined to maintain their position on Crete since a German presence on the island threatened their dominance of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Though initially believing that bombing raids were the worst the defenders of Crete would have to deal with, British Ultra intercepts of German secret codes indicated that the Luftwaffe was moving its airborne troops into Greece — an indication that they intended to take the island in an airborne operation. German control of Crete would also mean that Egypt and the Suez Canal would be vulnerable to German bombers.
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