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.
Student's XI Fliegerkorps (airborne corps) consisting of 11,000 highly trained, well-supplied and well-rested troops, soon prepared for the battle. The plan called for the airborne troops to take key airfields on Crete. More troops and supplies could then be flown to the island through the airfields to support the attack. On May 20, the Germans unleashed Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of Crete.
Hackett wrote: “The first wave of airborne troops took off for Crete from a complex of airfields in Greece following a powerful bombing attack along the north coast of the island. Things did not go well. The enemy was stronger and better prepared than expected. Incoming parachute troops were met by a storm of well-directed fire from the ground and many were hit in the air.”
The British defenders of Maleme airfield, at the western end of the island, held firm, and German commanders back in Athens contemplated calling off the operation. Student ordered his troops to stick to the plan and ordered more men into the battle for Maleme. A determined British counterattack didn't materialize until seven hours later, by which time the Germans had better prepared their positions, and it was thrown back. Hackett contends that had the counterattack come earlier, while the German generals were contemplating withdrawal, the Germans may well have pulled out.
Over the course of the next few days the other airfields fell to the Germans. By June 1, the British acknowledged that the battle was over and the island now lay in German hands. A total of 16,500 imperial troops had been evacuated by the Royal Navy, and the British had suffered roughly 13,000 casualties. German casualties amounted to approximately 6,000, with nearly 3,700 representing airborne troops. Among the wounded German paratroopers was Max Schmeling, heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1930 to 1932.
In addition to their loss in manpower, the Germans also lost 220 aircraft, with another 150 heavily damaged. Such losses were far beyond those projected for the operation, and Hitler lost his enthusiasm for airborne operations. The Führer remarked to Student after the battle, “The day of the parachute troops is over.”
With the heavy fighting in North Africa between Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and the British Eighth Army in 1942, the Germans considered an airborne operation against the British-controlled island of Malta, a key base for interdicting German supplies. After the costly victory at Crete, however, Hitler decided against it. Crete indeed proved the last major German airborne operation of the war.
The Allies, however, continued to develop their airborne elements, and British and American paratroops and glider-borne troops played roles in the 1944 battles of D-Day and Market-Garden. The effectiveness of these troops and their impact on the battles are still debated to this day.
Cody K. Carlson holds an M.A. in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, you can check out his blog at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org