On 20th May 1940 the Germans launched a daring airborne assault to capture the Greek island of Crete, having successfully pushed the Allies out of mainland Greece. The attack, known as ‘Operation Mercury’ involved 14,000 Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), 15,000 Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) and was supported by over 1,000 aircraft of all types. The seaborne phase of the assault was disrupted by the Royal Navy.
The island, measuring 3,200 square miles, was defended by over 11,000 Greek troops supported by 15,000 British and almost 14,000 Australian and New Zealand troops. The attack was part of Hitler’s plan to occupy Greek territory and allow the Luftwaffe to use the airfields on the island as bases, from where German aircraft could bomb Allied positions in North Africa to support the Afrika Korps and also to deny the Allies the opportunity to strike the Ploestri oilfields in the North.
For eleven days the fighting raged across the island with German troops being landed by gliders and dropped by parachute. Allied positions were bombed and attacked forcing them to realise that the island could not be held. The decision to evacuate as many troops as possible was taken and the last of these left on the 1st June, the Royal Navy had managed to take some 18,600 men off the island before it fell.
It had been a fierce battle during which the Allies lost around 4,000 killed with over 17,000 taken prisoner. The cost to the Germans was high, almost 6,700 killed and thousands more wounded, along with 284 aircraft destroyed and hundreds more badly damaged. After the operation Hitler decreed that no more such airborne operations would be mounted.