Battle of Crete

Battle of Crete
Part of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of the Second World War
Bundesarchiv Bild 141-0864, Kreta, Landung von Fallschirmjägern.jpg
German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) landing on Crete, May 1941
Date20 May – 1 June 1941 (13 days)
ResultAxis victory
 United Kingdom
 New Zealand
Commanders and leaders
Dominion of New Zealand Bernard C. FreybergNazi Germany Kurt Student
Nazi Germany Walter Koch
United Kingdom:
10,258[1] – 11,451[2]
New Zealand:
22,000 paratroopers and mountain troops[3]
280 bombers
150 dive bombers
180 fighters
500 transports
80 troop gliders
Casualties and losses

~23,000 total casualties[4]

  • 4,000 to 6,000 killed[5]

British Commonwealth[6]

  • 3,579+ KIA, MIA
  • 1,918 WIA
  • 12,254 POW


  • 544+ KIA, MIA
  • 5,225 POW

Royal Navy:[8][b]

  • 12 fleet and 7 auxiliary ships sunk, 22 damaged

Royal Air Force:

  • 21 aircraft shot down
  • 12 aircraft destroyed on ground

5,894 casualties[4]Luftwaffe:[9]

(including aircrew losses)

5th Mountain Division:[10]

  • 321 KIA
  • 488 WIA
  • 324 MIA


  • 284 aircraft lost, 125 damaged[11][c]
  • 1 Italian destroyer damaged
  • 1 Italian torpedo boat damaged
Over 500 Greek civilians executed by Axis soldiers

The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta, also Unternehmen Merkur, "Operation Mercury," Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης) was fought during the Second World War on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany began an airborne invasion of Crete. Greek and other Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.[12] After one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties and the Allied troops were confident that they would defeat the invasion. The next day, through communication failures, Allied tactical hesitation and German offensive operations, Maleme Airfield in western Crete fell, enabling the Germans to land reinforcements and overwhelm the defensive positions on the north of the island. Allied forces withdrew to the south coast. More than half were evacuated by the British Royal Navy and the remainder surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance. The defence of Crete evolved into a costly naval engagement; by the end of the campaign the Royal Navy's eastern Mediterranean strength had been reduced to only two battleships and three cruisers.[13]

The Battle of Crete was the first occasion where Fallschirmjäger (German paratroops) were used en masse, the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine,[14][15] and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.[16] Due to the number of casualties and the belief that airborne forces no longer had the advantage of surprise, Adolf Hitler became reluctant to authorise further large airborne operations, preferring instead to employ paratroopers as ground troops.[17][18] In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form airborne-assault and airfield-defence regiments.


British forces had initially garrisoned Crete when the Italians attacked Greece on 28 October 1940,[19] enabling the Greek government to employ the Fifth Cretan Division in the mainland campaign.[20] This arrangement suited the British: Crete could provide the Royal Navy with excellent harbours in the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could threaten the Axis south-eastern flank,[21] and the Ploiești oil fields in Romania would be within range of British bombers based on the island.

The Italians were repulsed, but the subsequent German invasion of April 1941 (Operation Marita), succeeded in overrunning mainland Greece. At the end of the month, 57,000 Allied troops were evacuated by the Royal Navy. Some were sent to Crete to bolster its garrison until fresh forces could be organised, although most had lost their heavy equipment.[22] Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, sent a telegram to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Sir John Dill: "To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime."[23]

Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, German army high command) was preoccupied with Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and was largely opposed to a German attack on Crete.[24] However, Hitler remained concerned about attacks in other theatres, in particular on his Romanian fuel supply,[20] and Luftwaffe commanders were enthusiastic about the idea of seizing Crete by a daring airborne attack.[25] The desire to regain prestige after their defeat by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the Battle of Britain the year before, may also have played a role in their thinking, especially before the advent of the much more important invasion of the Soviet Union.[26] Hitler was won over by the audacious proposal and in Directive 31 he asserted that "Crete... will be the operational base from which to carry on the air war in the Eastern Mediterranean, in co-ordination with the situation in North Africa."[27] The directive also stated that the operation was to be in May[26] and must not be allowed to interfere with the planned campaign against the Soviet Union.[26] Before the invasion, the Germans conducted a bombing campaign to establish air superiority and forced the RAF to move its remaining aeroplanes to Alexandria.[28]

Other Languages
العربية: معركة كريت
azərbaycanca: Krit əməliyyatı
български: Битка за Крит
brezhoneg: Emgann Kreta
čeština: Invaze na Krétu
Esperanto: Batalo de Kreto
فارسی: نبرد کرت
한국어: 크레타 전투
Bahasa Indonesia: Pertempuran Kreta
Bahasa Melayu: Pertempuran Kriti
Nederlands: Landing op Kreta
português: Batalha de Creta
Simple English: Battle of Crete
slovenčina: Invázia na Krétu
српски / srpski: Битка за Крит
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Bitka za Krit
Tiếng Việt: Trận Crete