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Author Topic: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941  (Read 366 times)

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HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« on: May 20, 2022, 06:55:20 AM »

In the spring of 1941, the German Blitzkrieg crushed the Balkans, rapidly overrunning Yugoslavia and Greece. The battered remnants of the defeated Allied armies evacuated to the island of Crete. Faced with the threat of air attacks from the Allied air bases on Crete and pressed for time, men and equipment on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union planned for June), Adolf Hitler decided to launch a lightning air assault to take Crete: Operation Mercury!

On 21 May 1941, German paratroopers, brave tough, battle-hardened and with esprit-de-corps second to none, formed the spearhead of Hitler's daring airborne assault. Hastily assembled, these elite troopers jumped into an unexpected maelstrom of fire and lead that decimated their ranks.

For the next eight days, the depleted airborne forces, bolstered by a reinforcing Mountain Division, were locked in a gripping life-and-death struggle against fierce resistance from the defending British, Greek, Australian and New Zealander troops.

When it was over, though Germany prevailed, over 7,000 German soldiers, including one in four paratroopers, lay dead on the battlefield. Operation Mercury was a German victory, but a Pyrrhic one at best. Adolf Hitler was so shocked by the heavy German losses on Crete that he never deployed his elite paratroops units again in a major airborne operation.

Today it is the anniversary of this important battle which delayed Germany attacking Russia later on teh 20 June 1941.

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Re: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« Reply #1 on: May 20, 2022, 07:25:20 AM »
Introduction


On 25 April 1941, Hitler issues Directive No 28 stating that "As a base for air warfare against Great Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean, we must prepare to occupy the island of Crete".The strategic position of Crete was of paramount importance for Germany to gain a strong foothold in south-eastern Europe. Thus, on the morning of 30 May 1941, the Germans launched the first large scale airborne invasion in history, under the codename "Undertaking Mercury-Unternehmen Merkur", on the Greek island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greek Forces (approximately 9,000 troops):

Following the Greek capitulation to Germany (10 April 1941), no organised Greek force was able to offer strong defence against the Germans. The island's V Infantry Division embarked for the Greek mainland, early November 1940, and its men distinguished themselves in a series of battles in Albania against the invading Italians, with great losses. Thus, the Greek garrison on the island composed of three Battalions left behind when the V Division had been transferred to the mainland; eight Battalions of recently drafted soldiers from the training centres in the Peloponnese, transferred to Crete, untrained and poorly armed; the Gendarmerie Academy (Battalion force); the Heraklion Garrison (mostly administrative personnel); the remnants of the 12th and 20th Infantry Rgt; the 300 Cadets of the Hellenic Army Academy* who on the morning of May 20th, upon hearing the news about the German assault on the island, mutinied, stole the Academy Colours and were transported to Crete on caiques (Greek fishing boats).

British and ANZAC Forces composed of::


1.   The 14th Infantry Bde HQ with: a detachment of the 3rd Hussars (six Mk VI light tanks) and a detachment of the 7th RTR (five A12 Matilda heavy tanks); 234th Medium Bty, RA (thirteen 75 / 100mm guns); 2/Leicesters; 2/Black Watch; 2/York and Lancasters; 2/4th Australian Infantry; 7th Medium Regt, RA (acting as infantry); 3rd Greek; 7th Greek; Greek Garrison Btn; and combat service support assets including a company from 189th Field Ambulance, RAMC and a section of 42nd Field Company. - Central Sector (Rethymnon / Georgeoupolis) under Brigadier George-Alan Vasey

2.   The Australian 19th Infantry Bde HQ (Lt Col I R Campbell commanding the Rethymnon Sector) with: a detachment of 7th RTR (two A12 Matilda heavy tanks); a section from 106th RHA (two 2pdr AT); X Coastal Defence Battery, RM (two 4in guns); 2/3 Field Regt, RAA (fourteen 75mm / 100mm guns); 2/1 Australian Infantry Btn; 2/7 Australian Infantry Btn; 2/8 Australian Infantry Btn; 2/11 Australian Infantry Btn; 2/1 Australian MG Company; 4th Greek Regt; 5th Greek Regt; and combat service support assets including B Company, 2/7 Australian Field Ambulance and a detachment of the AASC.

3.   Suda Bay Sector under Major General C E Weston, of the Royal Marines and the HQ Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (MNBDO) with: numerous AA units including 151st Heavy AA Bty, 129th Light AA Bty, RA, 156th Light AA Bty, RA, 23rd Light AA Bty, RM and the 2nd Heavy AA Regt, RM; 1/Royal Welsh Fusiliers; 1/Rangers (9/KRRC); Northumberland Hussars (acting as infantry); 106th RHA (acting as infantry); 2/2 Australian Field Regt (acting as infantry); a detachment from the 2/3 Australian Field Regt (acting as infantry); 16th Australian Infantry Bde Composite Btn; 17th Australian Infantry Bde Composite Btn; 1st Royal Perivolians (composite unit); 2nd Greek Regt; and numerous service support units such as 231st Motor Transport Coy, 5th Ind Bde workshop, 4th Lt Field Ambulance, RAMC, 168th Field Ambulance, RAMC and 606th Palestine Pioneer Corps.

4.   Maleme Sector (including Galatas) under Brigadier Edward Puttick
The HQ 2nd New Zealand Division with: a detachment of the 3rd Hussars (ten Mk VI light tanks) and a detachment of the 7th RTR (two A12 Matilda heavy tanks); Light Trp, RA (four 3.7in howitzers); 5th New Zealand Field Regt; Z Coastal Defence Bty, RM (two 4in guns); Section C Bty Heavy AA, RM (two 3in guns); 4th New Zealand Infantry Bde (Brigadier Inglis – 18th, 19th and 20th New Zealand Btns); 5th New Zealand Infantry Bde (Brigadier Hargest – 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 28th (Maori) New Zealand Btns, 1st Greek Regt (at Kastelli)); 10th New Zealand Infantry Bde (Brigadier Kippenberger – New Zealand Division Cavalry Detachment, New Zealand Composite Btn, 6th Greek Regt, 8th Greek Regt); and various service support assets including 5th New Zealand Field Ambulance, 6th New Zealand Field Ambulance, 7th British General Hospital and the New Zealand Provost Coy

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Re: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« Reply #2 on: May 20, 2022, 07:52:45 AM »

Operation Mercury divided the island into four drop zones: from west to east, Maleme, Canea, Rethymnon (Rethimmo) and Heraklion. For lack of sufficient transport aircraft the island was attacked in two waves in the morning and afternoon of May 20.

The first wave, Group West under General major Eugen Meindl, would land in Maleme/Canea zone. They would be spearheaded by the 1st Assault Regiment in DFS230 gliders who would land to the west of Maleme airfield and around Suda Bay to neutralise any AA guns that had survived the air attacks. This would prepare the way for the paratroops. In the afternoon, Group Centre under Generalmajor Suessmann would land at Rethymnon and Canea/Suda, and Group East under Generalleutnant Julius Ringel, spearheaded by paratroops of FJR 1 and a battalion ofFJR 2, would seize the airfield at Heraklion. This would allow the bulk of the 5th Gebirgsjager Division to be flown in by Ju 52s.

Bad luck dogged the Germans from the outset of the attack. The glider carryingGeneralmajor Wilhelm Suessmann crashed on an island off the Greek mainland (Aegina isle) and Major General Meindl was critically wounded shortly after landing. The Germans had also underestimated the physical difficulties of fighting in Crete and the size and determination of the garrison. The olive groves provided excellent camouflage for the defenders and the terraced hillsides reduced much of the effect of bombing.

The German airborne attack philosophy was to jump directly onto the objective - even though this ran the risk ofincurring heavy casualties. The British and American approach was to have a safe DZ away from the objective and so allow the paratroopers to form into a cohesive group - however, this ran the risk that the force would be intercepted before it reached its objective.

When they jumped the men were lightly armed and had to collect heavier weapons from containers that were parachuted with them. In the short time that men were in the air on their parachutes they were easy targets for riflemen below. On the ground the British and Anzac troops quickly established the most effective technique was to aim at the paratrooper's feet as he descended. One defender described it as being "like the opening of the duck shooting season in New Zealand".

The gliders came in so low and slow that the defenders could fire right into them killing all the occupants before they had even hit the ground. Even those that landed with the soldiers still alive hit rocky, terraced terrain and broke up, killing or injuring the occupants. Paratroops who landed at the little fishing port of Kastelli west of Maleme were killed by Cretan irregulars, men dressed in the traditional costume of baggy black trousers and high boots. Armed with knives, axes and hunting rifles they attacked these airborne enemies. When Crete was finally occupied the Germans shot 200 men from Kastelli for these "atrocities" Cretan armed band.



Following the German assault, the Cretans formed armed bands
under the guidance of the local Gendarmerie chapter and fought the Germans.

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Re: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« Reply #3 on: May 20, 2022, 08:42:45 AM »

In the afternoon the second wave flew into disaster. In just one hour a force of 1,500 Fallschirmjager was reduced to 1,000 men in small scattered groups being hunted and trapped. At Retimo, Group Centre in the second wave was trapped in an olive factory, under siege by the British and Australian forces. Dust now shrouded the airfields in Greece and in the chaos the Luftwaffe released aircraft that arrived at Heraklion in relays and so were easy targets for the well camouflaged defenders. On the morning of May 21 Piper Macpherson of the Black Watch climbed out of his slit trench at Heraklion and sounded reveille - the British and Anzac troops with their Cretan allies were confident almost cocky.

By the end of the day 40 per cent of Student's assault force was either dead, wounded or a prisoner. "Today has been a hard one," Freyberg cabled Wavell in Egypt. "We have been hard pressed. So far, I believe, we hold aerodromes at Heraklion and Maleme...Margin by which we hold them is a bare one, and it would be wrong of me to paint an optimistic picture. Fighting has been heavy and we have killed large numbers of Germans. Communications are most difficult".

Only at the western end of Maleme airfield did the paratroops manage to find cover and set up a viable base in the dried up riverbed of the Tavronitis. The key feature that dominated the airfield was the hill known as Point 107 that was held by the New Zealand 22nd Battalion commanded by Lt Colonel Les Andrew. Under heavy air attack and enemy probes he sent runners to his commanding officer Brigadier James Hargest requesting assistance.

Hargest promised a counter attack against the men in the Tavronitis but his men were pinned down by air attacks. Andrew attempted an attack with a tiny force of 40 men and two Matilda tanks but it failed, and only three men returned unwounded. A brave and experienced soldier, Andrew who had won the VC in World War I, was under intense pressure and without reliable communications. His battalion appeared to be in danger of being cut off so Andrew pulled back A Company on Point 107 and this gave the Germans their opening.

With an airfield in their possession, albeit under spasmodic artillery fire, they poured in reinforcements. On the first day aircraft landed 650 mountain troops and 550 more paratroops were landed. The Germans now prepared to "roll up" the island, pushing eastwards from their secure base at Maleme. In Athens Student took the tough but tactically sound decision to abandon the operations at Retimo and Heraklion. On May 20 1,500 and 2,000 men had been committed to these locations, and a day later only 120 men landed at Heraklion, while at the Maleme, Galatas and Suda Bay area 1,880 were parachuted in.


On May 22 this figure jumped to 1,950 and on the 23rd the Luftwaffe landed 3,650 men. On May 25 Student landed at Maleme. The airfield was littered with smashed Ju52s and to those who knew him the General looked tired and aged. He had witnessed the destruction of his creation, the 7th Air Division.



In the heat of a Greek spring Gebirgsjager, now wearing steel helmets,
advance eastwards as the attack rolls up the defences on Crete.

On May 22 Freyberg decided that he would have to pull his forces back on Suda to secure the naval base. In five days of hard fighting the paratroops had reached the outskirts of Canea and Freyberg had to face the fact that the battle of Crete was lost. He signalled Wavell: "From a military point of view our position is hopeless," and on May 27 London gave permission to withdraw.

He organised an evacuation initially from the better appointed port of Heraklion on the north coast, but was eventually forced to use the tiny south coast port of Sphakia. To cover these operations two Commandos commanded by Brigadier Robert Laycock and designated Layforce were landed at Suda Bay on the nights of May 23-24 and 26-27. Among their number was the writer Evelyn Waugh who was the formations intelligence officer. In his novel Officers and Gentlemen he described the fighting in Crete from an idiosyncratic and rather jaundiced viewpoint. "The Navy has never let the Army down," signalled Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. "No enemy forces must reach Crete by sea." On the night of May 21-22 a Royal Navy force commanded by Rear Admiral Irvine Glennie acting on ULTRA intelligence intercepted a convoy of 25 commandeered caiques - Greek fishing boats - escorted by the Italian destroyer Lupo. The Royal Navy sank several caiques and others turned back. They were carrying elements of the 5th Gebirgsjager Division with their vehicles, Flak and support weapons, as well as engineer and anti-tank units. A larger group of 35 vessels intended to support Group East on the second day returned to Milos but some boats did make landfall on the island.

These attacks came at a cost, and on May 21 the Royal Navy had suffered its first casualties when at dawn German aircraft sank the destroyer HMS Juno and damaged the cruiser HMS Ajax. A day later the losses mounted as the cruisers HMS Gloucester and Fiji were sunk along with the destroyer HMS Greyhound. Gloucester and Greyhound had been patrolling the Kithira Channel to the north-west of the island, on the look out for troop-carrying convoys.

On May 23 the destroyers HMS Kelly and Kashmir were lost, the former captained by Lord Mountbatten. On May 29 the destroyers HMS Imperial and Hereward were sunk off the north coast.

For the men making the fighting withdrawal to the south, it was a grim slog across the mountain spine of the Lephka (White) Mountains to Sphakia. The men at Retimo never received the order to withdraw and when German forces finally arrived in the area they found that 500 paratroops were virtual prisoners in the olive oil factory, surrounded by 1,500 Australian and Greek troops. In the olive groves and fields lay the bodies of over 700 Fallschirmjager.

At Retimo and Heraklion Australian and British forces had quickly learned how to confuse the Luftwaffe transports and bombers. They laid out captured swastika flags on their positions, stopped shooting when aircraft appeared and when the Germans fired green recognition flares, fired similar signals. On a number of occasions laying out captured recognition panels produced the prompt delivery of weapons, ammunition, rations and medical stores.

The evacuation of the garrison by the Royal Navy had been costly, but when it ended on June 1, 16,500 men had been saved. Cunningham was an inspirational leader for his crews: "It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It would take 300 years to rebuild a tradition."

However so severe were the losses at Crete that the Germans never attempted a major airborne operation again. Hitler declared to Student that: "the day of the paratrooper is over. The parachute arm is a surprise weapon and without the element of surprise there can be no future for airborne forces," and with these words he condemned this superb force to a ground role.

The Balkan campaign, forced on the Germans by Italian adventurism in Greece in 1940, had delayed the attack on the USSR by a critical two months. It had been scheduled for May 15 but would be launched on June 22.

The mud and snow of the winter of 1941 would not have stopped the Panzers outside Moscow, they would still have had eight weeks good going if they had attacked in May.


During the 10 days of fighting, 945 Anzac troops were killed and 4,794 captured. Greek losses accounted for ~700 KIA, 5,255 captured. Royal Navy losses accounted for ~2,000 KIA, 200 WIA. German losses accounted for 4,041 KIA and MIA (presumably dead), 2,640 wounded.


Over the years I spoke to many people about the battle of Crete, and I discovered that many Russian's didn't even knew/know about the Battle of Crete and how Russia was helped with the delay in Crete. The Germans soon discovered the bad effects of the Russian weather had on their Barbarosa invasion, which gave plenty of time for the Russians to change their plans  and prepare succesfully the defence of their country .  :thumbsup:
Why the sun does not shine on the Ex- British Empire Anymore? Because God never trusted an Englishman in the dark!

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Re: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« Reply #4 on: May 20, 2022, 03:39:09 PM »
Interesting stuff, I have read bits and pieces about Operation Mercury before. Thank you for filling in more information.

As a common courtesy can you link to the source please.
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Re: HISTORY LANE Operation Mercury 20 May 1941
« Reply #5 on: May 20, 2022, 06:09:49 PM »
Interesting stuff, I have read bits and pieces about Operation Mercury before. Thank you for filling in more information.

As a common courtesy can you link to the source please.

Sources: Ian Allan-Blitzkrieg, Balkans and N.Afica 1941-1942, Christopher Ailsby-Hitler's Sky Warriors, historyofwar.org-Operation Mercury

[9url=https://www.abebooks.co.uk/9780711029460/Balkans-North-Africa-1941-Blitzkrieg-0711029466/plp



Why the sun does not shine on the Ex- British Empire Anymore? Because God never trusted an Englishman in the dark!