The Battle of Crete: The Landings

The reports that arrived at General Student’s 11th Air Corps HQ in Greece on the first night of the invasion of Crete painted a grim picture: Most battalions were at 60% casualties and two failed report at all (they were both effectively destroyed). One battalion vicinity of the Tavroniti bridge on the west side of the Maleme airfield had just 57 effectives. The 7th Fallschirmjaeger Division commander was missing (his glider crashed into the sea). The senior surviving officer in the division was a major. Most battalion commanders were now captains (and in one case a lieutenant), and one battalion commander was the former medical officer. None of the first day’s objectives were taken. The Cretan population was not friendly despite what the intelligence officers briefed. Ammunition was low, medical supplies nonexistent, and there was “a most distressing” lack of water. Commanders all reported that they were just waiting for the inevitable counterattack to sweep them from the island. The attack was doomed, and everyone wanted to cut losses.

Everyone, except Generalleutnant Kurt Student. As Germany’s, if not the world’s, foremost advocate for airborne warfare, he did not want the first divisional airborne assault in history labeled a failure. Against the recommendations of his staff, the requests of his subordinates, the advice of his peers, and even the orders of his superiors (General List told him to begin planning an evacuation), Student decided to continue attacking for one more day. If by dusk on the 21st he could not land a Ju-52 safely on an airfield, he would evacuate the island with the small flotilla of Greek and Italian merchant ships at his disposal.

The dawn capture of Hill 107 and the Maleme airfield electrified Student’s HQ. The fighting around Pirgos and the east end of the airfield was fierce (Andrew’s Bde Cdr sent up a Maori company from the 28th BN that night. They only made it to the town) but Student hoped at least the western runway was clear of direct fire. There was only one way to find out. He summoned a captain on his staff, one of the best young pilots in the Luftwaffe, and told him to fly to Crete, land, and personally report back. If he received any effective direct fire, the air landing of the 5th Mountain Division would be called off, and the 7th FJ evacuated.

The young pilot did so. Although the strip was mess, and he received scattered fire on the approach and artillery fire as he landed, there was no rifle or machine gun fire affecting the west end of Maleme airfield. The intrepid captain loaded some wounded and took back off. Student decided to continue the fight. Because of transport losses, he had a single battalion that was left behind from the day before and ordered them to drop on the airfield to secure it.

There was no Allied counterattack that day. By the afternoon, the Germans established a perimeter. At 1702, the first Ju-52 from Greece carrying 5th Mountain Division touched down on the west runway of Maleme airfield.

Despite heavy damage to the transports, twelve more fresh heavily armed men would arrive on the airfield every six and a half minutes, as long as there was daylight.

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