The age of the paratrooper arrived with the Second World War. For a brief yet significant period until the rise of the transport helicopter, paratroopers were the only effective way to launch airborne invasions, bypassing defensive lines on land and hostile fleets at sea. The first great paratroop invasion, and one which proved the decisive yet costly power of aerial landings, was the German invasion of Crete in May, 1941.
An invasion of Greece by German and Italian troops drove the British out by the 11th of May, 1941, making up for Italy’s previous failed invasion. But the British retained control of the large island of Crete and its airbases. Hitler was preparing to invade the Soviet Union, while at the same time continuing his war against the British in North Africa. Crete was important for both campaigns.
Only 200 miles from the British base at Tobruk in North Africa, Crete defended supply lines to Africa. If it could be taken, then it would be harder for the British to maintain troops in the one land theatre where they were successfully fighting the Axis.
The Cretan airbases lay within striking distance of the Rumanian oilfields, which provided vital fuel for German troops. The invasion of Russia, though intended to secure oil supplies in the long term, would temporarily deprive the Germans of Russian fuel as trade ended. The British bombers had to be kept from those oilfields.
The Allied forces on Crete were led by General Bernard Freyberg. A distinguished veteran, he had been wounded 27 times in the First World War. But following a series of quick command changes, he took over the island just three weeks before the Germans arrived, giving him little time to prepare for a defence.
Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg VC, commanding officer of the British forces on Crete, gazes over the parapet of his dug-out in the direction of the German advance.
The largest group of soldiers on the island was a 17,000 strong British force. Alongside them were 10,300 native Greeks, 6,500 Australians, and 7,700 New Zealanders, who would play a vital role in the fighting to come.
Bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed most of the RAF aircraft on the island, and the rest were withdrawn to safety in Egypt. All Freyberg had to defend the skies were 68 anti-aircraft guns – less than one for every two miles of the length of Crete.
Early on the 20th of May, 1941, the first German troops approached the island. Supported by 500 bombers and fighters, 500 transport planes and 72 gliders soared over Crete.
Some of the landings were a success. Landing around the Máleme airfield, ( Bruno Bräuer) they took Tavronitis Bridge from the New Zealanders. The 1st Company of the 3rd Parachute Regiment seized and spiked an Allied anti-aircraft battery.
Others were less successful. Many of the paratroopers landed among enemy troops and as a result suffered heavy casualties. Entire units were wiped out. Starting on the night of the 28th, the Allies were evacuated through the small port of Sphakia. 8,800 British, 4,704 New Zealanders and 3,164 Australians made it off Crete. 11,835 remained behind as prisoners of war.
The Germans had succeeded but at a cost unacceptable to Hitler. 3,714 men were dead, 2,494 wounded – more losses than in the entire Balkan campaign. The Fuhrer forbade further paratroop invasions. But Crete was now his, and the invasion of Russia could go on. More than 1700 British, Commonwealth and Greek soldiers were killed and 15,000 captured during the Battle for Crete. There were 671 New Zealanders among the dead, and 2180 Kiwi prisoners of war.