This week: Crete 1941

Nationalmuseet – National Museum of Denmark from Denmark, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons German mountain infantry assembled by their aircraft, before their departure to Crete, 1941.

The daring German capture of Crete in May-June 1941 is not often mentioned alongside more celebrated military upsets, such as the battles of Carrhae (where a small but highly mobile force of Parthian horsemen overcame seven Roman legions in 53 BC) or Agincourt (where Henry V’s depleted English army famously triumphed over the cream of the French aristocracy in 1415).

But still, there were many levels on which Operation Merkur (Mercury) – as it was codenamed – was a victory against the odds.

In pitting a relatively small and lightly armoured force of elite Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) against a well-established Allied defensive force supported not only by tanks and artillery but also by a fiercely committed Cretan resistance, the German high command was trying something completely new: the first mainly airborne invasion in military history.

And what’s more, in another first, the significant use of intelligence decrypted from German messages sent via the Enigma machine meant that the Allies even knew what was coming.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, a series of tactical blunders and a disastrous failure of leadership – not least on the part of the British commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg – was to turn what should have been a predictable Allied triumph into an unlikely German victory.

In a special two-part feature in the new issue of Military History Matters, Neil Faulkner introduced the events of 20 May-1 June 1941, looks at the history of the German division that was to transform airborne operations, and offers a detailed account of the 13-day battle itself.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives in search of more about Crete during the Second World War: Taylor Downing looked back on Ill Met By Moonlight, the classic 1957 movie set during the German occupation of the island; while Nick Hewitt analysed the little-known Dodecanese Campaign of 1943 to understand how the British managed once again to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Meanwhile, on this week’s edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Taylor Downing also talks to Calum Henderson about Operation Mincemeat, the new film of Ben Macintyre’s best-selling 2010 book about the rather more successful British plan to convince the Germans that Allied forces were planning to invade Greece rather than Sicily in 1943.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on unlikely victories against the odds. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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