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For the 72 Million

The Invasion of Crete, May 20-June 1, 1941

The collapse of Greek resistance on the mainland and the evacuation of British Commonwealth forces left Cretan Commander New Zealand General Bernard C. Freyberg with the knowledge that the island would be the next logical strategic target. Crete’s geographic location put its three airfields within striking distance of the Rumanian oil fields, cut the Aegean off from the Mediterranean, and provided a base to strike at Italy, North Africa, and Greece.

Some 27,000 Commonwealth troops, mostly without heavy equipment and exhausted, joined the 28,000 already on Crete. They joined 19,000 Greek and Cretean defenders, mostly without equipment or training. Freyberg’s command was subjected to an enormous air bombardment that lasted for three weeks, which rendered the airfields unusable for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to fly combat or resupply missions. 700 German aircraft flew 300 sorties a day, strafing and bombing everything. Never present in sufficient numbers, the RAF pulled out on May 19, 1941, leaving Crete without air cover. The Royal Navy took heavy losses trying to resupply the garrison and then rescue them.

The next morning after the RAF left, 10,000 paratroopers landed on the three airfields and began to try to link up. Most of the first wave was killed of wounded as the British and Greeks opened up. 170 Ju—52 transports and most of the gliders were destroyed. 4,000 Germans were dead and 2,600 wounded.

But the Fallschirmjäger moved to their objectives against heavy resistance, and by May 31 General Freyberg was signaling that he needed to be withdrawn. The Royal Navy evacuated 18,000 men from Sfakia, leaving 13,000 behind. Three cruisers, six destroyers were lost, ending the Royal Navy presence in the Aegean. Aircraft carrier HMS Formidable was badly damaged.

The Germans never mounted another major airborne operation. The paratroopers fought well in Italy and Holland, but were delivered by train, truck or foot, just like other regular army units. Kurt Student’s forces were broken in their victory on Crete.

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