After their successful conquest of Greece in April 1941, the Germans turned their attention to the island of Crete. Its capture would give them a useful base in the eastern Mediterranean and deny its use to the British. Hitler was more concerned with his forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, but he approved of General Kurt Student's plan for a daring airborne attack using his elite Luftwaffe parachute and glider-borne forces.
There were about 40,000 British, Dominion and Greek troops on Crete, many of whom had been evacuated from Greece. 'Creforce', as it was known, was commanded by the New Zealander Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC. The mountainous island was difficult to defend and Freyberg had no aircraft – only a handful of tanks and few radios. Despite this, intelligence gave him ample warning of the German attack and he had powerful support from the Royal Navy. These two crucial advantages offered the possibility of winning a morale-boosting victory.
The German plan hinged on quickly capturing the airfields of Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion so that reinforcements could be flown in by air. But Freyberg misinterpreted his intelligence and placed too much emphasis on a seaborne invasion, which in reality was only a minor part of the German scheme. He deployed most of his troops to meet this threat and crucially left the largest and most important airfield at Maleme exposed on its western side.
Operation 'Merkur' (Mercury) began on the morning of 20 May, when German glider and parachute troops were dropped around Maleme and Chania in the west. Some landed among Allied defensive positions and suffered heavy casualties in hand-to-hand fighting. Others were shot in their harnesses before they even reached the ground. Later that day a second wave of parachutists descended around Rethymno and Heraklion. They too suffered heavy losses and many German transport aircraft were shot down.
By the end of the day, the Germans had gained none of their objectives. It appeared the operation had been a costly failure. But Allied communications had broken down and Freyberg and his commanders – still expecting an assault from the sea – made a crucial mistake. Instead of committing their reserves to an immediate counterattack against Maleme, they sanctioned a withdrawal, effectively giving up control of the airfield. This was the tipping point. On the second day the Germans threw everything at Maleme, with troop carriers landing and disembarking in the face of British artillery fire.
The battle continued for several more days, but as further German units arrived the British position became hopeless. On 27 May Freyberg ordered an evacuation. The Royal Navy, which had already lost ships to air attacks while engaging German troop convoys from Greece, now suffered further losses as it evacuated troops.
Crete was a humiliating defeat for the British. Almost 4,000 men were killed and over 11,000 more captured. Enemy air power had been decisive. But the Germans had been badly mauled too, with over 3,000 dead. Hitler declared that 'the day of the parachutist is over'. For the Germans it was – they would never again attempt another major airborne operation.