Hitler had not initially intended to invade Greece. After his great triumph in the west, and following the refusal of the British to accept defeat and make peace, his thoughts turned to invading Russia, a plan long laid. Before the strike – Operation Barbarossa – he decided that it was necessary to lay the diplomatic ground by persuading or coercing the Soviet Union’s south-eastern European neighbours, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, to join his Tripartite Pact alliance. He already controlled most of Russia’s borderlands since, following the incorporation of Austria into the Reich in 1938, he had occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938 and conquered Poland in 1939. Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria acceded easily to membership of the Tripartite Pact: Bulgaria was a former German ally, Hungary had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Romania feared Russian power. Yugoslavia proved more difficult. The Regent, Prince Paul, agreed to sign the Pact. The day after its accession, patriotic officers staged a coup and reneged on the treaty. Hitler was enraged. He at once diverted troops deploying for Operation Barbarossa and on 6 April, nine days after the counter-revolution, invaded Yugoslavia from Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. He also launched from Bulgaria a simultaneous invasion of Greece, which remained staunchly anti-Nazi and had already allowed Britain to position forces on its territory.
Churchill at once sent troops from North Africa, to which Hitler had already despatched Rommel and the advanced elements of what would become the Africa Corps, to shore up his failing Italian allies in Libya. The British Expeditionary Force met the invading Germans far to the north in Greece, on the Bulgarian border, but were rapidly pushed southwards, the Greek army also retreating southwards on their western flank. On 26 April the surviving British, forced to abandon most of their heavy equipment, were taken off from southern Greece. Some were evacuated directly to North Africa, some, including large numbers of Australian and New Zealand troops, were landed on the Greek island of Crete, where Britain had already established a base.
Crete, the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, closes the southern exit from the Aegean, with its many archipelagos of smaller islands. Its people are famously warlike. The last of the major Greek populations to win freedom from the Turks, they are celebrated among Greeks for their fighting qualities and fierce spirit of independence. In 1940 the 5th Cretan Division had gone to the mainland to fight the Italians, whom Mussolini had unwisely committed to invade Greece from recently conquered Albania. The Italians had been defeated and repelled. In April 1941, however, the Cretan Division was still far away on the northern Greek border, while the Cretan homeland lay undefended, except by the disorganised collection of British, Australian and New Zealand troops which had come from North Africa or escaped from the débâcle of the British intervention on mainland Greece.
Hitler might have allowed Crete to wither on the vine. It was not essential to his strategy either against the Soviet Union or in North Africa. On the other hand, it commanded the sea routes of the eastern Mediterranean and was important for that reason to the British, who intended to remain. Suspicious of peripheral strategies, which he correctly regarded as wasteful of force, and all the more so when he was about to invade the Soviet Union, Hitler had opposed earlier suggestions from Göring that the capture of Crete, together with Cyprus and Malta, would provide stepping stones towards the Near and Middle East. Göring persisted, however, and Hitler eventually gave in; part of the reason may have been a desire to compensate his air commander for the secondary role the Luftwaffe was to play in Operation Barbarossa. Göring, for his part, was less interested in strategic outcomes than in tactical participation. He had a full-strength parachute division available, which had not yet been used in an independent operation, and he yearned to show what it could do.
The 7th Parachute Division had come into being by a roundabout route. When in 1935 the militarised units of the German police were incorporated into the army, to swell its expanding numbers, Göring was allowed, as Minister President of Prussia, to retain control of one regiment of the Prussian Landespolizei, which he brought into the Luftwaffe as the Hermann Göring Regiment; that nucleus would form what during the Second World War would become the formidable Hermann Göring Panzer Division. In 1936, however, part of the regiment was separated to undergo parachute training, in imitation of developments in the Red Army. The army also formed a parachute battalion at the same time and, while neither individually flourished, they were suddenly deemed to be useful when in 1938 Hitler decided to attack Czechoslovakia if he could not browbeat France and Britain into granting concessions over the Czechs’ heads. France and Britain were browbeaten; but by then the idea had emerged of forming a complete parachute division for use in special operations. It was put under the command of General Kurt Student, a Great War fighter ace who quickly brought it to a high level of efficiency. Units of the division took part in the invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940 and then in those of Belgium and Holland in May.
In Belgium the glider-borne elements of the division achieved a spectacular success by capturing the fort of Eben Emael, which guarded a key bridge across the River Meuse, at almost no loss. In Holland things went less well. In Rotterdam and Dordrecht paratroopers seized and held two vital bridges successfully. At The Hague, both paratroopers and air-landing troops, flying in by transport aircraft, suffered heavy casualties on the ground. Losses among officers were 40 per cent, among soldiers 28 per cent, while aircraft losses exceeded two-thirds. Though Dutch resistance generally was quickly brought to an end, the airborne setback offered a warning, if heeded, that the new method of making war was beset by danger.
The warning was disregarded. On 24 April 1941, Hitler wrote a Führer Directive, No. 28, which laid down aims and objectives for Operation Merkur (Mercury). It began, ‘As a base for air warfare against Great Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean we must prepare to occupy the island of Crete . . . Command of this operation is entrusted to Commander-in-Chief Air Force who will employ for the purpose, primarily, the airborne forces and the air forces stationed in the Mediterranean area. The Army . . . will make available in Greece suitable reinforcements . . . which can be moved to Crete by sea.’
Hitler had originally proposed that, if a mission for the airborne troops were sought (the army had by now trained its 22nd Division as an air-landing division), the objective should be Malta. It was a much better plan than that laid down in Directive 28 but Student and, more important, Hitler’s operations officer, General Jodl, were against it. They argued that Malta’s small size and compact shape would allow the British defenders to concentrate quickly and decisively against airborne invaders; Crete’s long and narrow shape, by contrast, would in their judgement force the defenders to disperse, waste their efforts and so predispose the outcome in favour of the offensive. Hitler had concurred. Once he had written Directive 28 the die was cast.
During early May the 7th Parachute (formally Flieger) Division left its training areas in north Germany and began to move by train, a thirteen-day journey, to southern Greece. One of its regiments, the 2nd, had gone ahead to Bulgaria on 26 March and had taken part in the seizure of the Corinth canal. The division had an unusual organisation. Its three parachute regiments were composed, as was normal, of three battalions, but they were small, only 550 men each; there was also an engineer battalion trained, by German custom, to fight as infantry. In addition, however, the division also contained a fourth regiment, the Assault (Sturm) Regiment, of four battalions of troops trained to land and assault by glider. There was no divisional artillery and few support services. The parachutists, who were loaded in thirteen-man groups into the slow but steady Junkers 52 aircraft, dropped from low altitude (400 feet) on parachutes opened by static line. They carried only a pistol, their rifles and machine-guns being dropped separately in canisters which had to be recovered later. The glider troops emplaned their rifles and heavy weapons with them but had to take their chance of surviving a hard landing on unprepared ground.
Supporting the 7th Division was the 5th Mountain Division, chosen to substitute for the 22nd Air-Landing Division which it had been decided to keep in Romania for use in the Barbarossa operation. The 5th Mountain Division had suffered heavy casualties in Greece and had been reinforced by the 141st Mountain Regiment from the 6th Division. All, in the 85th, 95th and 100th Mountain Regiments, were elite troops, originally belonging to the Austrian army, incorporated into the Wehrmacht at the Anschluss in 1938; two of the 100th Regiment’s soldiers, Kurz and Hinterstoisser (of the Hinterstoisser traverse), had died in the celebrated failure to scale the North Face of the Eiger in that year. The Mountain Division was scheduled to follow the glider and parachute troops by force-landing in Junkers 52 aircraft on the Cretan airfields after they had been captured in the airborne assault.