The attack on Crete in May 1941 stands as the single most defining action undertaken by the Fallschirmjäger during WWII. The island of Crete posed a problem for the Germans in the Mediterranean as it provided a base from which Allied bombers could strike the oil refineries in Ploiesti, Romania which supplied over half of Germany’s petroleum needs.
Codenamed Operation ‘Merkur’ (Mercury), the assault would utilize all available airborne forces with the exception of 22. Luftland-Division that had been sent to guard the Ploiesti. The attack began on 20 May 1941 and consisted of nearly 13,000 paratroopers and glider troops from 7. Flieger-Division (later renamed 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division) and the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment (LLStR) along with 9,000 mountain troops from 5. Gebirgs-Division transported in 502 Junkers Ju-52 and 85 DFS230 gliders. Unknown to the Germans, British intelligence had broken their Ultra code and was routinely reading German radio intercepts. The defenders knew they were coming. In addition, the German Abwehr had understimated Allied strenght on the island.
The attack force was separated into three battle groups named 'West’, 'Center’ and 'East’ and carried out in two waves. The first wave included LLStR from 'Group West’ and FJR 3 from 'Group Center’, descending on Maleme airfield and Canea with the transport planes then returning to pick up the second wave. The second wave was to involve an assault on the airfields at Rethymnon by FJR 2, also from 'Group Center’ and Heraklion by FJR 1 from 'Group East’. As the armada of aircraft flew over Crete, down below nearly 27,500 British and Commonwealth troops and 14,000 Greek troops had already been alerted by a series of large-scale dive-bombings attack carried out by some 280 bombers, 150 stukas and 200 fighters. As lumbering transports droned overhead leaving thousands of blossoming parachutes in their wake, soldiers on the ground began firing desperately and the fast as they could with the all weapons into the skies above.
By nightfall on the first day 'Group West’ had taken some of their objectives, but had still not secured the airfield at Maleme. Many German commanders had already been killed or injured, including Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süssman who was killed when his glider crashed and Generalmajor Meindl and Major Koch who were seriously wounded. The second wave suffered a setback right from the start. The time allowed for refueling was inadequate and the dust slowed down takeoff and landing operations resulting in them being committed to battle in small groups instead of one large wave as had been planned. To complicate matters even more, the Royal Navy intercepted the ragtag fleet of Greek boats carrying the first elements of 5. Gebirgs-Division and sent most of them to the bottom.
Despite numerous blunders made during the drops, the paratroops gradually seized their objectives after which they broke up and destroyed the strong enemy defense position that stretched nearly 260 kilometers. By 27 May, with most of the demoralized Allies having already retreated or evacuated from the island, the Fallschirmjäger captured the town and airfield at Heraklion without much resistance.
In spite of tremendous victory, Hitler was shocked by the losses. Afterwards, he told Student “Crete has shown that the days of the paratroopers are finished’ feeling that paratroopers are a weapon of surprise and the surprise factor had been lost. German losses were around 3,500 dead and missing compared to Allied losses of around 4,000 and another 17,000 prisoners. Although Student thought that Crete would serve as a starting point for bigger and bolder operations, the start of the Russian campaign in June 1941 had relegated the Mediterranean to lesser importance. Instead, over the next months the paratroopers would be utilize in ground operations as an elite infantry force rather than as an airborne assault group.
Operation ‘Merkur’ (Mercury), the massive airborne attack on Crete on 20 May 1941 consisted of nearly 13,000 paratroopers and glider troops from 7. Flieger-Division (later renamed 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division) and the Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment (LLStR) along with 9,000 mountain troops from 5. Gebirgs-Division. The armada of aircraft flew over Crete, down below near 27,500 British and Commonwealth troops and 14,000 Greek troops which had already been alerted by a series of large-scale dive-bombing attacks.
Four Fallschirmjäger Oberleutnants who were awarded the Knight’s Cross for bravery during the battle for Crete. From top left to right: Alfred Genz, Chef 1./LLStR; Karl-Heinz Becker, Chef 10./FJR 1; Andreas Hagl, Zugführer 2./FSJ 3 and Rudolf Toschka, Zugführer 1./LLStR.
Fallschirmjager unpacking Sanitäter gear, second wave, Malemes, Kreta, 20 May, 1941. So heavy was casualties just upon landing in Kreta, medical supplies were at a premium. In initial pictures of the first and second waves injured Fallschirmjager, you notice a lot of make shift bandages.
Oberfeldwebel Reideinger (left) was an artillery observer for the 1. Fallschirmjäger Artillrie Abteilung 7 Battalion at Canea, on 24.5.1941, Major Bode, commanding a battalion was killed. Hauptmann Schram (commanding the first battery) who took over. Under the tactical symbol “W” on the side-car one can read ABT SHRAM.
Fallschirmjager gathering prisoners and confering with their Kamerad.
The Fallschirmjager and the Gebirgsjager fought against overwhelming odds, unfortunatly at the cost of their boys. Something which haunted the officers of Unternehmen Merkur for the rest of their lives.