The Battle of Crete began on May 20, 1941, when German forces began a massive airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete during WWII. Thousands of German paratroopers (called Fallschirmjäger) landed on Crete, where they encountered tenacious resistance from Greek troops assisted by Allies from Britain, New Zealand, and Australia – and determined Cretan citizens. Though German forces suffered appalling losses on the first day, they later captured a key airfield, allowing a flood of German reinforcements and supplies to arrive. After days of intense fighting, Allied troops retreated to the south coast, where the British Royal Navy evacuated many to Egypt. Those left behind surrendered to Germany on June 1st. The Battle of Crete resulted in a German victory but came at a steep cost. Germany never launched a major airborne mission again.
In April 1941, Germany invaded the Greek mainland. After the fall of mainland Greece, Allied armies moved to Crete to reinforce the garrison on the island. The British Royal Navy dominated the sea, preventing German forces from attempting an amphibious assault on Crete. Germany responded with aerial bombing raids.
Hitler realized that if Allies held on to Crete, it could threaten Axis powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. He approved an invasion plan known as Operation Mercury. It would include 750 glider-borne troops, 10,000 paratroopers, 5,000 airlifted infantry troops, and 7,000 seaborne troops. One of the first goals was to capture Maleme Airfield. This would allow Germany to bring in additional reinforcements and supplies.
As Nazi officials planned the invasion, they were unaware that Allies had intercepted German intelligence from decrypted messages from the Enigma machine. Allies knew about Germany’s invasion intentions and began to make defensive preparations.
On the morning of May 20th, the invasion began. Allies were ready and waiting as thousands of paratroopers dropped from the skies. They became targets, with many dying before reaching the ground. German losses were huge, and by the end of the first day, it appeared that Allied troops would successfully repel the invasion. However, a series of communication failures and tactical errors allowed Germany to take Maleme Airfield on the second day of fighting, and the tides began to turn in Germany’s favor.
German troops pushed forward with a strong offensive while Allies put up a tenacious defense. Joining Allies was a strong civilian resistance force. The determined civilian defense surprised Germany and later led to brutal reprisals.
After days of punishing losses, Allies retreated across the mountains and towards the south coast. Over the next four nights, the Royal Navy evacuated some 10,500 troops to Egypt. Some of those troops died en route to Egypt during a Luftwaffe attack. On June 1st, most of the remaining soldiers surrendered to Germany. A small minority fled into the mountains and joined the local resistance.