Hitler’s Airborne Elite and the Battle for Crete

Neil Faulkner introduces an elite Nazi strike-force and sets the scene for the epic Battle of Crete in May 1941.


It was a very asymmetrical battle. The German assault force was formed entirely of airborne troops – parachutists, glider troops, and then, once an airfield had been captured, air-lifted mountain troops. All comprised heavily armed elite formations, but they had no tanks and only light-calibre artillery. On the other hand, they had massive air support – in particular, frequent sorties by Stuka dive-bombers – and the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority.

This was the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. The Allied forces facing them comprised New Zealand, Australian, British, and Greek regular infantry, along with some British infantry-support tanks, plenty of artillery, and the active support of improvised bands of Cretan irregulars. The Royal Navy enjoyed unchallenged maritime supremacy in the waters around the island.

The story that unfolded between 20 May and 1 June 1941 is rich in lessons. The German invasion of Crete was the first major operation undertaken wholly by airborne forces (two flotillas of amphibious troops were destroyed or dispersed by British naval action). It was a leap into the unknown and involved enormous risk. Several times in the first few days of the fighting, the Germans were within a whisker of defeat and annihilation.

It was a collision of two military elites: German airborne and mountain troops versus New Zealanders and Australians. It also heralded the ferocity of the later Cretan Resistance, for Greek regulars, Cretan gendarmerie, and Cretan civilians played major roles in the May 1941 fighting. The German paratroopers in particular had been lionised as military supermen. They met their match on Crete.

The Battle for Crete should have been an Allied victory. The Germans were outnumbered and outgunned by their opponents, and the men they were up against were at least their equals in close-quarters infantry combat. The problem – almost the only problem – was the Allied high command.

Allied tactics were static and sluggish. Allied generals were defensive-minded, rarely showed initiative or aggression, and lacked confidence in their men. When they did act, they pulled their punches, failing to attack in full strength, failing to follow up success.

For our special this issue, MHM Editor Neil Faulkner analysed the Battle for Crete. In the first part, he looks at the history of the German 7th Airborne Division and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of airborne operations. In the second, he offers a detailed commentary on the 13-day battle for the island.

The Battle of Crete: 7th Airborne Divison

It was, in military historian Alan Clark’s words, ‘the very flower of the Third Reich’. Hitler certainly considered the 7th Airborne Division to be a military elite. He was obsessed by the very idea of paratroops (Fallschirmjäger in German), telling one of his senior commanders, ‘That is how the war of the future will be fought, the sky black with bombers, and from them, leaping into the smoke, the parachuting stormtroopers, each one grasping a sub-machine-gun.’

German paratroopers landing on Crete on 20 May 1941. Image: Alamy.

The Italians had pioneered military parachuting at the end of the First World War, when a group of Arditi (stormtroopers) were dropped behind Austro-Hungarian lines on a reconnaissance and sabotage mission on the night of 8/9 August 1918.

The Soviets then carried out manoeuvres using paratroops in the mid-1930s. Among the observers was Hermann Goering. The Nazis then embraced this ultra-modern way of war.

German rearmament was innovatory. As so often, the losers in war were more willing to learn lessons than the victors, and the Germans anyway were building from a very low base – the minimalist armed forces permitted by the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis embraced new technology and new doctrine to gain a qualitative advantage over the mass armies of their enemies.

Blitzkrieg – ‘lightning war’ – was the result. A combination of armour, airpower, mobile artillery, and motorised infantry were used to form spearheads, punch through the opposing line, and then push deep into the enemy rear. The mass of foot-slogging infantry and horse-drawn transport coming up behind would then fill the breach and guard the flanks.

Paratroopers in Rotterdam, 1940 – one of a series of successful drops.

Paratroops were part and parcel of Blitzkrieg. Their essential role was to seize key strategic assets like bridges and airfields in advance of the Schwerpunkt (the primary offensive blow).

An elite division

Paratroop training began as early as 1935, when Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe established a training school for a parachute rifle regiment at Altengrabow. To this were sent, among others, volunteers from Goering’s own personal guard unit.

The Wehrmacht followed suit in 1936, beginning to train its own parachute rifle regiment, but on 1 January 1939 the two forces were formally amalgamated and put under Luftwaffe command. Henceforward, Germany was the only country in the world where the recruitment, training, equipment, and operational command of paratroops was an air-force responsibility.

The reason was almost certainly political. Goering was not only head of the Luftwaffe, but also a senior Nazi. Conceived as one of the Third Reich’s military elites, Hitler wanted the paratroops under party control.

Major-General Kurt Student was transferred from the Army to the Air Force to assume command. When war broke out in September 1939, the 7th Airborne Division was still in formation, but paratroops were successfully used in Poland in September 1939, then again in Norway in April 1940.

It was in May 1940, however, that the Fallschirmjäger achieved their first spectacular success. The German invasion in the West involved crossing the southerly extension of Holland known as the ‘Maastricht Appendix’ in order to enter Belgium and begin a sweep down into north-eastern France.

The capture of Eben-Emael

The Albert Canal, guarded by the modern fort of Eben-Emael, was a potential blocking position just inside Belgian territory. Surprise was essential to prevent the Belgians blowing the two bridges over the canal, but surprise on the ground would have been impossible, since the Belgians would receive early warning of what was coming as soon as the Germans entered the Maastricht Appendix.

Bundesarchiv Paratroopers at Eben-Emael in Belgium, also in 1940. Only airborne troops could have succeeded in taking this well-defended fort.

The solution was to drop 500 airborne troops to capture the bridges and the fort. This they did. It was a detachment of just 78 parachute-engineers who took the fort. Dropping on top of it, they unloaded a new explosive from a freight-carrying glider and used this to blow up the armoured cupolas and casemates housing the guns. The garrison of 1,200 men – entombed beneath them – were then held in check for 24 hours until the arrival of the main German forces.

Wild rumours of widespread parachute drops circulated among the defenders. Had they all been true, they would have amounted to thousands of enemy paratroops at scores of locations in the rear. In fact, the operation at the canal and the fort was the only real one. The rest were either sightings of dummy parachutists – deliberately dropped to cause confusion and panic – or completely imaginary.

Here is one of the strengths of airborne troops: their effect on enemy morale. Because they can be dropped suddenly on flanks, in the rear, at critical locations, they can make defending forces acutely anxious, especially those in forward positions. After the fall of France in June 1940, fear of parachutists and glider-borne troops became an obsession in Britain, with frequent false reports and much effort devoted to obstructing potential landing-grounds and training local forces in resistance to airborne assault.

The Eastern Mediterranean

Because of its elite status, Hitler was reluctant to commit the Airborne Division to a major operation. It was the situation in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean in the spring of 1941 that forced his hand.
The British had been funnelling troops, tanks, and aircraft to the Middle East since the beginning of the war. Even when the invasion scare was at its height in the summer of 1940, Churchill was insistent that some of Britain’s scant military resources should be sent to Egypt. The British were concerned to defend their imperial communications and their access to Middle Eastern oil supplies.

The Germans were equally interested in oil – certainly that of the Ploes‚ti oilfield in Romania, and potentially that of Persia. But it was Italian failure that triggered their sudden intervention in the region in the spring of 1941 – an unwelcome distraction from Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia.

Bundesarchiv One of the many perils faced by airborne troops – landing in trees could kill or injure soldiers.

The Italians had crashed to defeat across the region – in Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, and Greece. Hitler entered the Balkans primarily to prop up his faltering Axis ally. In yet another Blitzkrieg campaign, the Germans overran both Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941.

Though it was an improvised offensive without clear objectives or proper preparation, it was executed with consummate Wehrmacht efficiency. This included the rapid defeat of a hastily assembled British expeditionary force sent to help the Greeks.

A curious mission creep now set in. Many of the British evacuees from mainland Greece were taken to Crete, joining a small British and Greek garrison already stationed there. The strategic importance of Crete was that it was, potentially at least, a platform for the projection of British airpower against the now Axis-dominated Balkans – and especially against the Ploes‚ti oilfield – and also a naval base where warships could be refuelled, resupplied, and refitted.

It was, in fact, an outer defence-work of the whole British position in the east Mediterranean – a barrier, that is, to some of Hitler’s wilder ambitions for an empire in the east, where the swastika might fly ‘over the minarets from Cairo to the Persian Gulf’. Possession of Crete would be especially useful as a German airbase.

Alamy Stock Photo Herman Goering with General Kurt Student, who was transferred from the Army to assume command of the Fallschirmjäger in 1938. Image: Alamy.

The importance of Crete

All very well, but Crete was an island and the waters around it were dominated by Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian Navy had been worsted in earlier encounters with Cunningham’s ships, and now spent most of its time in port. In particular, the Battles of Taranto (November 1940) and Cape Matapan (March 1941) had given the British maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean.

The only way for the Germans to get at Crete was through airborne landings to secure one or more airfields, then using these to bring in heavy forces and bulk supplies by air.

The Germans enjoyed overwhelming air superiority in the Aegean at the time, operating from a ring of airfields north of Crete. The Stuka dive-bomber was a particular threat to both British ground forces on the island and Cunningham’s ships attempting to prevent any German seaborne effort.

A personal factor here intruded. Goering – a hedonist, a charlatan, and a braggart – had emerged from the Battle of Britain and the Blitz with a diminished reputation. His Luftwaffe had been defeated by the RAF and the people of London. His claims for the Air Force’s capacity to win campaigns singlehanded had been exposed as bombast. Crete now offered an opportunity for redemption, for it could only be an exclusively Luftwaffe operation.

In this, he had the support of General Student, now commander of the XI Air Corps, who had not yet had the chance to command his own operation – and, in particular, to demonstrate the exceptional fighting power of his Fallschirmjäger.

The German paratrooper. A wartime illustration of a German paratrooper showing uniform and how they were armed and (below) in action.

Hitler was dubious. He took five days to make a decision. Even then, doubting success, he imposed a media blackout until a victorious outcome could be announced to the German public.

This was to be a first in the history of war: the use of airborne troops en masse to carry out a major ground operation, not as auxiliaries but as the main strike-force. The whole of the 7th Airborne Division, more than 12,000 men, would be committed, backed by the 5th Mountain Division, another 10,000 or so.

The assault force

German paratroops wore distinctive, cut-down, rounded helmets with thick rubber linings; these could be given canvas covers. Their uniform comprised a greenish-coloured overall or ‘bone sack’ made of cotton-duck canvas with their field tunic and equipment underneath. Trousers were field-grey. Padded rubber gloves, elbow pads, and knee pads provided protection in landing. The boots were rubber-soled and laced halfway up the calf.

They usually dropped armed only with pistol and dagger; they would collect their heavier weapons from containers after landing. Each section had eight men with tommy-guns (the Schmeisser), two with long-barrelled Mauser rifles fitted with telescopic sights, and a light machine-gun (Solothurn). Specialist support companies were armed with flamethrowers, anti-tank rifles, and heavy and light mortars.
Each Fallschirmjäger section packed two or three times the firepower of a regular section. But they needed to. Airborne troops face numerous hazards.

Drop zones can be missed. Dispersal can be wide and random. In the descent, whether arriving by parachute or glider, they are exceptionally vulnerable to ground-fire. They may come down in trees or water. If they land on firm ground without injury, they must get out of their harness, access their heavier weapons, get themselves under cover, and shake down into formation.

The paratroopers were lightly armed as they jumped from the Junkers Ju52s over Crete.

Even then, they remain a relatively light assault force, without artillery or armour. They cannot be expected to sustain an engagement with strong enemy ground forces for long. They will need both resupply and reinforcement, and, not least, support from tanks, field artillery, and regular infantry.

Given all this, the operation may never have been attempted had German intelligence reports been accurate. They were not. One estimate of British strength on the island put it as low as three battalions of infantry, and even the most pessimistic (from the German perspective) placed it no higher than two brigades of infantry, an artillery regiment, and an unknown number of troops evacuated from Greece and considered of doubtful fighting value.

Equally faulty were German assumptions about the attitude of the islanders. They anticipated ‘sympathy towards the Axis or, at least, neutrality for the sake of better terms’. In the event, the Greek regulars on Crete would fight with grim determination and the Cretans, who had a long martial tradition, would mobilise against isolated paratroopers and small detachments, sometimes shooting down the invaders with ancient firearms or even battering them to death with agricultural tools and other improvised weapons.

The defending force

More than 40,000 regular troops were stationed on Crete. They would still outnumber the attackers two to one even at the end of the battle. When it started, as the Germans struggled to build up their strength in successive air-drops, the defenders’ advantage in manpower and equipment should have been overwhelming.

Local fighters on Crete fought fiercely, often without modern weapons. Whereas the paratroops they opposed were well-equipped and armed with at least light- and sub-machine-guns.

Many of the defenders, moreover, were themselves a military elite. As well as 18,000 British troops and 11,000 Greeks, there were 8,000 New Zealanders and 7,000 Australians. Major-General Bernard Freyberg’s 2nd New Zealand Division, which would carry the main burden of the coming battle, proved to be gritty fighters who were easily a match for the German paratroopers in close-quarters combat.

For sure, many of the other troops, evacuees from the Greek debacle, were demoralised, lacking heavy equipment, often without officers and NCOs, and ill-provided with tents, meals, and other essentials once they reached the island.

Alamy Stock Photo By 1 June, 5,000 Allied troops had surrendered. Some 500 fled into the countryside but were soon captured. A few managed to escape in small boats.

But this was not decisive. The Battle for Crete in May 1941 is a clear example of defeat against the odds due to exceptionally poor leadership at senior command levels.

The simple fact is that Crete should have been a catastrophe for the Nazi military elite – what Churchill called ‘the very spearpoint of the German lance’. Instead, it was another ignominious failure of British arms, leading to yet another evacuation, leaving the population of the island, like their Greek compatriots on the mainland, victim to four years of fascist barbarism. •

You can read the second part, Neil Faulkner's analysis of the 13-day battle for the island, here.