Do.17Z-2 Unit: 1./KG 2 “Holzhammer” Serial: U5+BH Tatoi, Greece, May of 1941.
Greece was quickly overwhelmed by the Germans, leaving the British-garrisoned island of Crete as the cork in the bottle. A seaborne invasion was projected, but no adequate troopships were available. The solution adopted was an airborne landing, using paratroops and gliders. Operation ‘Mercury’ commenced on 20 May.
The assault began on 20 May, led by the Dorniers of I and II/KG 2 and the Heinkels of II/KG 26. They were followed by the Stukas of StG 2. For an air landing to succeed, the defences had to be suppressed, and to a degree this was a failure. While German airborne and mountain troops eventually captured the island, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Losses in men and transport aircraft were tremendous, and the German airborne forces were never again used in anger.
The real significance of the battle for Crete was, however, the confrontation between aircraft and ship which ensued. The Germans tried to reinforce their beleaguered airborne troops by sea, but the convoy was intercepted and broken up by British surface forces on 22 May. But this put the latter within bomber range, and they were attacked by the Ju 88s of I/LG I, led by Kuno Hoffmann. The cruisers Gloucester and Fiji and the destroyer Greyhound were sunk, and the cruiser Naiad was badly damaged by a near miss. Dorniers from Herbert Rieckhoff’s KG 2 joined the fray, causing more damage to Naiad, while a direct hit was scored on the cruiser Carlisle. Later that day the battleship Warspite was damaged by a direct hit. Fijri’s end was unusual: she was sunk by two 250kg bombs from Bf 109 Jabos of I/LG 2. In June Hoffmann was awarded the Ritterkreuz, mainly for this successful action, while in July Rieckhoff received the same award. Among the other pilots who took part was future Ritterkreuz winner Gerd Stamp.
On the next day three destroyers were caught by Stukas of Hubertus Hitschhold’s I/StG 2, which sank Kashmir and Kelly with direct hits. At this point the only British carrier in the eastern Mediterranean, HMS Formidable, entered the lists, launching a strike against the Ill/StG 2 airfield on the island of Scarpanto, east of Crete, on 26 May. The carrier was located quite fortuitously by II/StG 2, led by Walter Enneccerus. Based in North Africa, this unit was actually looking for troopships. Equally fortuitously, the carrier was caught recovering aircraft, and was in a poor position to launch fighters to defend herself. Two direct hits by 500kg armour-piercing bombs, and a near miss which caused underwater damage, put Formidable out of the fight. She followed Illustrious to the United States for a refit.
By 29 May British forces were evacuating Crete. With no air cover, the Royal Navy was vulnerable. Two more destroyers were lost to air attack, this time by StG 77, and two cruisers were badly damaged.
If the dive bombers seemed notoriously ‘dead-eye’ in these anti-shipping operations, one thing must be borne in mind. Taking into account the numbers involved, direct hits were scored by far less man one in ten of the bombs dropped—even against large targets like aircraft carriers!