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Battle of Crete: 1941
Battle of Crete: May 1941
The fall of Greece resulted in a flow of refugees to the Greek island of Crete, strategically located in the center of the Eastern Mediterranean and within air strike distance of the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania. The refugees included the remaining British Commonwealth forces (including two New Zealand Brigades) who had tried to help the Greeks stop the German invasion. On 20 May 1941 the Germans launched Operation Mercury (Merkur in German), the first airborne invasion in history, attacking Crete. Over 13,000 paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers were augmented by another 9,000 mountain troops brought in by Junkers Ju-52 transports.
The assault began early in the morning of the 20th, with bombardments, strafing and landings directed against Crete's airports and coast defenses, particularly in the northwestern areas including Maleme, Hania, and Souda Bay. British ground forces battled the Germans for control of the airstrips and were initially able to destroy many of the attackers and hold the line even though the Luftwaffe had control of the airspace. British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham attempted to run a naval and air defense from his headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt.
On the second day, 21 May, ships carrying a wave of about 2,300 German reinforcements were sunk by British destroyers. The British continued to block the sea approaches for a few days, at great cost in ships, planes and men, but the Germans managed to seize the airfield at Maleme in northwestern Crete, driving British defenders off the strategic Hill 107, and began to reinforce heavily by air transport.
On May 25th, King George of Greece abandoned Crete, relocating to Cairo in a narrow escape from the German forces. By 27 May, Cunningham and staff made the decision to evacuate British troops on Crete by sea. Blacked out destroyers made daring midnight trips to southern Crete ports on 28-30 May rescuing about 16,000 of the 50,000 men who had reached Crete from Greece. However, many of the ships and their escort vessels were detected and engaged by German and Italian ships or the Luftwaffe. The British Mediterranean fleet suffered serious losses from the attempted defense of Crete and the evacuation runs, losing three cruisers, and six destroyers and sustaining heavy damage to other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Over 2,000 sailors were lost.
On 1 June 1941 Crete surrendered to the Germans. British Commonwealth soldiers remaining on the island evaded capture for a period of time, helped by courageous Cretan civilians. Eventually German troops had control, although partisans never gave up resistance, lasting until the end of the war.
Casualties were shocking on both sides of the Battle of Crete and the German airborne division in particular was decimated. As a result, Germany did not continue their interest in airborne assaults.
Recommended Book about the 1941 German assault on Crete
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