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"The German Air Attack on Crete" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following intelligence report on the German invasion of Crete in WWII was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 8, Sept. 24, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


In any study of defense against air-landing and air-borne attack, the more important lessons are those from Crete. The German conquest of this island in May 1941 is as yet the chief instance of success in a purely air-landing operation, against determined resistance, without the effective cooperation of forces employing surface transport either by land or sea. The usual primary objective of such operations is the capture of one or more airdromes through which air-landed troops can be poured in to swamp the local defense, and this has nowhere else been successfully done.


Crete is about 3,320 square miles in area, and of irregular, elongated shape, with an east-to-west length of 160 miles and a north-and-south width varying between 7 1/2 and 35 miles. Most of its surface consists of mountains whose upper slopes are snow-covered throughout most of the year. The highest peak rises to nearly 8,000 feet. As in most Mediterranean regions, the lower slopes are largely, although not wholly, deforested. The climate is of Mediterranean type, hot at midday, followed by an acute drop in temperature towards sunset and the nights are cold.

The population in 1928 was just under 400,000. Most of the people live in a narrow strip along the north coast, along which runs the main road of the island. This strip also includes the 3 principal towns which are (from west to east): Canea with about 27,000 people, Retymno with about 9,000, and Candia (also called Herakleion) with about 33,000. The 3 air fields were near these towns: at Maleme, on the alluvial fan of a creek on the north coast about 10 miles west of Canea; at Retymno (a landing strip); and at a point about 4 miles east of Candia. A small auxiliary field was being constructed in May 1941 at Kastelli-Hierapetra in the southeastern part of the island.

The only sheltered harbor for large ships, the fine natural anchorage of Suda Bay, is also on the north coast between Canea and Retymno and somewhat nearer to the former. The one south-coast anchorage showing on the Admiralty chart is the imperfectly sheltered roadstead of Sphakia, almost due south of Suda. The harbor at Candia is shallow and artificial, and there is no shelter for vessels either at Canea or Retymno (see Sketch No. 1). The air distances in statute miles going due east along the north coast are about as follows: from the west end of the island to Maleme, 14 miles; from Maleme to Canea, 10 miles; from Canea to Retymno, 25 miles; from Retymno to Candia, 35 miles; and from Candia to the east end of the island, 66 miles. Thus from Maleme to Candia the total distance is 70 miles.

[Sketch No. 1: Crete Map]
Sketch No. 1

This 70-mile north-central coastal strip was to be the combat zone. In it the small and fertile alluvial lower valleys are often covered with old olive groves affording good cover from air observation.


The position of Crete with reference to surrounding areas (see Sketch No. 2) made it easy for the Axis to attack, difficult for the British to hold, and important to both. On the recently conquered Greek mainland, the Greek islands, and the Italian Dodecanese Islands, the Axis had a large number of airdromes within easy flying range to the northwest, north, and northeast. The nearest, on the Greek mainland at Molaoi about 30 miles north-northwest from Cape Malea, is only about 93 miles from the northwestern point of Crete, and about 105 miles from Maleme. The field on the island of Melos is only about 93 land miles north of Suda, and that at Naxos about 135 miles northwest of Maleme. The fields in Rhodes the most distant of the Italian-owned Dodecanese Islands, are only about 220 miles east-northeast from Maleme. Numerous and well-established fields lay further back on the Greek mainland at Argos and Corinth in the southern part of Greece, and at Meneidi, Eleusis, and other fields near Athens.

By contrast, the British had to reinforce, if at all, over far greater distances: 240 miles from Tobruk to Maleme, 340 from Mersa Matruh, 460 from Alexandria, and about the same distance from Cyprus. Thus, even with equal air numbers the Germans would have had the advantage, and with their greatly superior numbers they had complete air supremacy.

[Sketch No. 2: Crete and Neighboring Countries]
Sketch No. 2

The importance of Crete to both sides lay in its geographical position. In British hands it furnished a base from which they could bomb the Roumanian oil fields, then the only natural source of oil for Germany. Furthermore, the island was a possible stepping-stone to the Balkan mainland, helped to prevent German isolation of Turkey, facilitated the movements of the British Mediterranean fleet, and correspondingly cramped not only operations of the Italian fleet but also all east-west coastwise shipping in Greek waters, since for the moment the Corinth Canal was blocked. With the island in German hands the situation would be reversed, and in addition Axis supply routes to Italian Tripolitania would be relieved from an additional threat.


The general situation in late April was that the British, having occupied Crete in November 1940 and having subsequently intervened on the Greek mainland with a force of less than 40,000 men, had suffered a defeat in which about a third of this force had been killed or captured and the remainder had been evacuated, most of them with very little equipment.

On Crete, there were about 37,500 British and Allied troops, most of whom had been evacuated from the mainland and had taken part in the campaign in Greece. British troops numbered 23,500; about 4,000 were Palestinian and Cypriot labor troops; and some 10,000 were Greek troops, including local militia. As a result of its heterogeneous character and loss of vital equipment (including even mess kits), this force was far weaker in fighting strength than the figures would indicate. Another difficulty was the fact that commanders in Crete had been so frequently changed (three times in April) that continuity in preparations for defense had been impossible. The last appointment of Major General Freyberg, came on April 28.

The ground defensive works had been improvised by the local British commanders with scanty means and according to doctrines that varied with the individuals concerned. Since it was evident that the airports would be the chief German objectives, defenses were chiefly grouped around the Maleme and Candia fields. A New Zealand brigadier afterwards said that the English officer responsible for the defense of Maleme had laid out too fixed and rigid a scheme, and one too easily visible from the air. By contrast, the defenders of the Candia-Herakleion field were better concealed and were flexibly disposed in depth, with most of them held out for counterattack.

General Freyberg's late arrival allowed him little time in which to rearrange the field fortifications. However, a German officer, describing the campaign, acknowledged the skill of the new British commander's troop dispositions, especially the concealment of the New Zealanders in the old olive grove near Aghya prison, about 8 miles east of Maleme and about 3 miles southwest of Canea. In general, Freyberg's leading idea was to protect the airfields and to deny them to the enemy, posting his troops so that the German parachutists, whose attack he correctly anticipated, must land on a defended area within striking distance of one of his detachments.

On or shortly after May 1, the British became certain that the Germans would soon strike. The opinion of the 3 British services was therefore asked as to whether Crete should be held. All 3 thought the chances slim. The RAF had only 42 serviceable planes on the island, and the British air strength in the whole Middle East was very limited. The Navy considered missions in Cretan waters without adequate air support to be suicidal. Freyberg said he would fight in any case, but thought the position hopeless without full air and naval support.

Against the 42 British planes, the Germans were about to attack with nearly 800 bombers and fighters, 500 transport planes, and 75 gliders. Thus, with the RAF strength negligible before May 19, and wholly absent after that date, the ill-assorted and ill-equipped 37,500 British and Greek troops on the ground were to contend unaided against about 35,000 German air-landing troops backed by overwhelming air support.

The naval aspect may be summarized by noting that the powerful British Mediterranean Fleet succeeded in preventing Axis small-boat landings during the decisive phase, but only at the price of losses so great that, had the fleet not been withdrawn, control of the Mediterranean might have passed to the Italians. The Royal Navy contributed to the ground action only in an indirect way by diverting German air strength; on the decisive day, May 22, there was a lull in the bombing of British ground forces because German bombers were attacking the warships.


The German Intelligence made mistakes which might have affected the outcome of the operations. Most serious was their idea that all British troops evacuated from Greece had gone to Alexandria rather than to Crete; this led to estimate of Allied strength on the island as 3,500--less than a tenth of the real numbers. Other German miscalculations were that no Greek troops were on the island, and that a considerable portion of the islanders were pro-German. Nevertheless, German energy and flexibility were to succeed in spite of a wholly inaccurate intelligence estimate.

The German attack, including preparations, falls into four clearly marked phases, which suggest a possible pattern of air-landing operations. First, reconnaissance and the establishment of air supremacy; second, air bombardment, including machine-gun strafing; third, seizure of one or more fields by air-landing attacks; and fourth, exploitation of the air-landing attack by pouring in air-landed reinforcements. The third phase is usually the decisive one. The phases interlock: reconnaissance continues through the operation, and air bombardment continues throughout both seizure and exploitation.

The timetable of the Cretan operations is as follows: organized British resistance on the Greek mainland having ceased approximately on April 30, phase 1 (reconnaissance of Crete), began on May 1 and continued for 10 days accompanied by light dive-bombing and strafing. On May 10, phase 2, that of heavy air bombardment, began and was most successful. Phase 3, that of air landings, was begun on May 20, ending late on May 22 with the clearing of Maleme airport and its neighborhood of the British. On May 23, phase 4, exploitation by normal air landings, was begun, and on the night of May 31 the last organized British evacuation ended.

For about a month before May 20 there had been a general German movement south. Transport planes and gliders gathered near Athens and Corinth. Special troops came by air, sea, road, and rail. Supplies and stocks of munitions were accumulated. Advance landing fields near Crete, on the Aegean Islands of Naxos and Melos, and in the Peloponessus at Molaoi, were hastily constructed.

Air photography on Crete began about May 1 and continued until May 10, accompanied by light dive-bombing and strafing. The German plan for the main attack was based upon abundant air photographs, and from them the assaulting troops were carefully instructed as to the terrain and British positions. German prisoners taken during the main attack were well provided with good sketch maps.

From May 11 to 17 inclusive, there was daylight bombing and strafing of increasing frequency and intensity. By May 18, German air action had reduced the serviceable British aircraft to three Hurricane fighters and three Gladiator fighters at Candia, and one Hurricane at Maleme. Since they were contending against odds of nearly a hundred to one, and seem to have had no good shelter on the ground, this tiny remnant was flown to Egypt on May 19--which happened to be the day before German air landings began.

The crews of the British antiaircraft guns suffered severely from lack of adequate concealment, most of them were driven from their gunpits after firing only a few rounds. Contemporary press reports spoke of one gunner who knocked down a number of German dive bombers by holding his fire until each had dropped its bomb and flattened out; thus the gunner did not give away his own position. Often, however, groups of three German pilots would dive on a British gun positions simultaneously from different angles, so that one or two of the group would be attacking the gun in the flank or rear while it was being aimed at the third.

From May 17 to 19 inclusive, air bombing and strafing were further intensified in order to break the defender's morale. Attacks on the Maleme and Candia airdromes were especially heavy and frequent. Heavy air attacks were also directed at the one good British debarkation point, Suda Bay, which became a graveyard of ships. During May 18 Suda was heavily attacked seven times by dive bombers with fighter support. The effectiveness of the air attacks on British shipping may be judged from the following figures: of 27,100 tons of supplies shipped from Egypt only 2,700 tons (10%) were successfully unloaded, 3,400 tons (12.5%) were sunk, and 21,000 tons (77%) had to be returned to Egypt because it was not practicable to unload them between 2300 and 0300--which was the only period when unloading could safely take place. At least 14 cargo ships were sunk at Suda.

Having thoroughly reconnoitered, interrupted supply, beaten down the slight air resistance, and partially worn down the ground defenders, the Germans attacked with airborne troops at dawn on May 20.


The dawn attacks of May 20 struck the Maleme-Canea area, especially at Maleme, where some defenders claimed the intensity of the 90-minute preliminary bombardment exceeded any artillery preparations of 1914-18. Gliders landed west of the airdrome under cover of the dust cloud raised by the air bombardments, and parachute troops promptly began landing behind them and on the airdrome itself. The New Zealanders made eight successful bayonet charges, but were constantly driven back by intense bombing and strafing, and during the night of May 20-21 withdrew one-half mile eastward. The airdrome however was still under artillery fire.

Also at dawn, 1,800 glider troops and parachutists landed southwest of Canea. Here, a New Zealand brigade with some crack Greek troops had been well concealed and entrenched among olive trees. The fighting in this area was intense, and a German officer states that the heaviest German losses occurred here. By nightfall all Germans in the area had been mopped up, except those in a strongly walled prison at Aghya, which they organized defensively, using the labor of the prisoners.

At Retymno, German parachutists landing at 1600 had been cleared from the airdrome but had held nearby, and had captured some field guns and two tanks.

Candia, also attacked at 1600 but ably defended in depth from well-concealed positions, held well, and all parachutists who landed within the airdrome perimeter were killed.

Astonished but not discouraged by the unexpected strength of the garrison and by their own heavy losses--the British estimated they had killed 80 percent of the parachute troops who had landed--the German High Command decided to throw in their whole air-landing strength.

In the attack phase which opened on this day, most of the offensive work on the ground was done by parachute troops. However, in this instance, such troops were preceded by the landing of glider troops.

The reasons of the Germans for having the first air-landed troops come in gliders were that the silent approach of the motorless planes might achieve surprise, and that if unmolested by the defenders these light aircraft would land safely on almost any terrain. Also, their passengers could leave them fully equipped and therefore ready for almost instant combat, whereas parachute troops on landing are at first nearly helpless, and remain below their full combat value for some time.

Parachutists are not only helpless while descending but also during the first half minute after landing. They are more or less helpless during the first two minutes and still very vulnerable throughout the first five minutes. If their arms containers are captured or covered by fire they cannot fight. Consequently prompt counterattack by the defenders, even when far inferior in numbers, is often successful.

On the other hand German gliders are vulnerable in the air because most of the ammunition, instead of being carried on the men or packed in strong and comparatively small containers as in the case of parachute troops, is packed together in the fore part of the glider where it will explode if hit, destroying both the ship and all on board. Moreover the slow speed of the glider as compared with a motored plane makes it comparatively easy to hit on the wing.

The mission of the glider troops was to cover the first parachute landings.

The first parachutists to land followed the gliders closely. The parachutists had the normal objectives of such troops--to seize airfields and to disrupt the defender's communications, thus preventing defensive movements and counterattacks.

The German parachutists who landed in Crete were organized not merely in single companies attached as advanced wards to normal air-landing divisions as in Holland, but in an organic "division"--we might call it a reinforced brigade--of three regiments.

Tactically the parachutists were light infantry with considerable small-arms fire power but with no heavy weapons and only a few medium-heavy ones. Their method was that of "vertical envelopment," divided into a holding attack and main attacks as in envelopments on the ground. The main attacks are intended to seize an objective; the holding attacks are made by smaller groups who divert the enemy from concentrating on the main attack and cut his communications in order to prevent him from counterattacking. On the ground, parachutists are relatively immobile since they have no transport except what they may be able to seize.

Thus the main attack against Maleme came from the west, the parachutists landing behind an advance guard of glider troops. Meanwhile, two smaller parachute groups landed farther east in rear of the defenders. Another main parachutist attack was aimed southwestward against the Galatos-Aghya position west and southwest of Canea, with a glider group and two small parachute groups landing in the defender's rear.

A German account claims that the British expected the main attack to fall upon Retymno and Candia, but there is no evidence of this in British accounts of their dispositions.


The second day, May 21, went somewhat in favor of the British except at Maleme. There, and on the nearby beaches, planes attempted in the morning of May 21 to land normally, or to crash-land, with troops, guns, and motorcycles. Heavy German losses resulted, especially from artillery fire, but at 1615, 500 fresh parachutists landed behind the airdrome defenders. On the same day, May 21, an attack by reinforced parachutists from Aghya against Galatos was repulsed. At Retymno the British counterattacked, cleared the airdrome, and retook their captured guns and tanks, but were unable to destroy other groups of parachutists who had cut the road both east and west, and had been reinforced. The town of Candia and its airdrome were held after bitter fighting, and only Maleme seemed insecure.


On the third day, May 22, two New Zealand battalions at Maleme attacked with bayonets and reached the airdrome after fierce fighting, but could not hold the airfield in daylight against 400 unopposed German dive-bombers and fighter planes. Fresh Germans continually landed.

Late on May 22 the turning point was reached. Despite the extreme fatigue of the troops--a number of units had made up to 20 bayonet charges--Freyberg decided on a last desperate attack to retake Maleme airfield. Before this attack could be made, however, reinforced German troops from Aghya succeeded in moving north and cutting the communications between the British defenders of Maleme and those in the Canea-Galatos area. Retreat of the Maleme defenders had to be ordered; Maleme field became a secure German operational base; the decisive phase of the attack ended; and the phase of German exploitation of victory began.


Throughout May 23 Retymno held. Shortages necessitated a 30 percent cut in rations, and medical stores were also insufficient.

On May 24 the Germans further intensified their air attacks, brought in fresh troops by air, and prepared to attack the Galatos position held by the New Zealanders. During the night of May 24-25, a commando force originally intended to lead a counterattack against Maleme was successfully landed at Suda by destroyer, but the situation had so deteriorated that this force had to be used as a rear guard. General Freyberg judged that his tired troops could not hold much longer. Nevertheless, when about 2000 on May 25 the Germans broke through the Galatos position of the New Zealanders and took Galatos village, two greatly fatigued New Zealand battalions charged with the bayonet and retook the village; General Freyberg considers this charge one of the great efforts in the defense of Crete.

From May 26 to the last naval evacuation from Sphakia on the night of May 31, the British mission was to save as many troops as possible. That they were able to save 14,580 (53 percent) of the British garrison of 27,500, was because German air attacks slackened. Continuation of intensive attacks, so British officers estimated, would have meant practically complete destruction of the British garrison.

The defenders of Candia were in control of the local situation and considered themselves victorious until ordered to evacuate on the night of May 28. The seizure of Maleme airdrome had been decisive. The loss of a single airdrome meant eventual defeat everywhere in Crete.


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