Battle of Crete

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.[11] 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.[12]

Battle of Crete
Part of the Battle of Greece and the Mediterranean theatre

German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) landing on Crete, May 1941
Date20 May – 1 June 1941 (13 days)
Result Axis victory
 United Kingdom
 New Zealand
Commanders and leaders
Bernard C. Freyberg Kurt Student
Walter Koch
Francesco Mimbelli
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] (4,000 ground troops, 2,000 sailors)

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:[9]

  • 321 KIA
  • 488 WIA
  • 324 MIA


  • 284 aircraft lost, 125 damaged[10][c]
  • 1 Italian destroyer damaged
  • 1 Italian torpedo boat damaged
Over 500 Greek civilians executed by Axis soldiers

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,[13][14] and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.[15] 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.[16] In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form airborne-assault and airfield-defence regiments.