Merkur

A Junkers Ju 52 3mg4e moving supplies in preparation for Operation Mercury [Merkur ].

The most eminent weakness during the preparation of Merkur was the misjudgment of the numerical strength and the combat value of the forces mustered for the island’s defense. The occupation of the island by the 14th British Brigade and some air-defence units immediately after the begin of Italy’s attack against Greece had clearly been recognized by the Germans. Approximate figures for the forces of the British expeditionary corps which had been evacuated from the Greek mainland, also existed although it remained unclear how many of its troops were on Crete. It was also known that the soldiers of the expeditionary corps had left all of their heavy weapons behind on the Greek mainland. The transports, which in the first two weeks of May had entered Souda Bay and had departed again, had been estimated to be involved in the continuation of the evacuation process. In particular Generaloberst Löhr, the overall commander for Merkur and his chief of staff, Generalmajor Korten, had rated the strength of the Commonwealth troops on Crete as low. They had been strengthened in their perception by an appreciation of the situation by Admiral Canaris for the higher commands in Athens in early May, which had stated that the majority of Commonwealth troops had already left Crete and that the Cretan authorities were awaiting the Germans, in order to disarm the remainder should these not have left the island by then.

The essential reason for the erroneous estimate of the enemy situation on Crete has to be seen in the incapability of the German air reconnaissance to lift the veil on the dispositions of the defenders. During the preparation phase of the German attack, these had executed their movements almost exclusively in the hours of darkness, had masterly camouflaged their positions and had restricted the fire of air-defence guns at the airfields to but a few guns. It was first of all the insufficient performance of the air reconnaissance for all of the main initial objectives of the parachute force that an inaccurate picture of the enemy was generated there. Student seems to have relied on this information as he did not urge Luftflotte 4 to intensified air reconnaissance efforts. For Heraklion and Rethymnon, despite his negative experience from the landings around Den Haag in the previous year, this incorrect picture evidently let him accept the direct parachute assault option against the airfields. The losses were therefore considered acceptable compared to the anticipated achievements. The situation was quite different for the drop zones south-east of Maleme and the heights at Galatas. Here air reconnaissance had almost completely failed to detect the extensive and densely occupied positions of the enemy, into which III./SturmRgt. and the majority of III./FschJgRgt.3 were dropped with disastrous results.

At the end of this examination it should, however, not remain unnoticed that the air-reconnaissance may not always have been flown with the highest degree of determination. Serving as justification for this position are the facts that only four reconnaissance aircraft had been lost during the preparation for and execution of Merkur and that the direction of withdrawal of the main force of the enemy had remained undetected for almost three days.

Almost all studies about the battle for Crete rightfully comment on the extraordinarily high losses of the German parachute force. After correction of the by far exaggerated data in the initial documentation of the former enemy, based on a year-long elucidation by the Bund Deutscher Fallschirmjäger, it is now possible to state with a high degree of certainty that 3,162 soldiers of the German parachute force lost their lives in the battle for Crete. About 2-300 probably died additionally of their wounds in medical installations after their evacuation to the Greek mainland.

In the German military-historical literature, the valuation of these losses, depending on the intention pursued by the publication, ranges from the certainly wrong statement that they have caused the decline of the Fallschirmtruppe in its role as desired by Student to the rather precarious reflection, measured only by the overall losses of the enemy and the results of undertaking Merkur. Most of these examinations have their merits, adding pieces to the overall mosaic and thereby contributing to the final verification of the fatal losses among the German paratroopers. Regarding the magnitude of these, none, however, has actually come to the conclusion that reliance on incomplete and faulty intelligence as to the strength, morale and dispositions of the enemy, paired with an overassessment of the own fighting abilities and a certain amount of recklessness of the commanding officers for Maleme, Heraklion and Rethymnon had resulted in operation plans whereby about one third of the initially assaulting forces were dropped over areas with exceptionally strong defences. The parachuting of the two companies of FschJgRgt 2 and of parts of FschSanAbt 7 west of the Platanias on 21 May has to be added to this mistake. None of the more story-telling German descriptions of undertaking Merkur has also explained, how ignorance or disregard of the command principles for the attack, as laid down in number 323 of the then valid doctrinal Field Manual H.Dv. 300/1 – Truppenführung, which also applied for the use of parachute forces after landing, led to the dividing of the troops for the simultaneous seizure of two objectives at Heraklion and Rethymnon and the removal of almost one-third of the attacking force at Maleme from the direct influence of the task force commander. The most appalling effect of the deficiencies and faults during the planning and execution of the initial parachute assaults, therefore, was the loss of between 1,200 and 1,400 soldiers of the parachute force on landing without any tactical achievement. These numbers alone constitute a marked difference to the overall losses of 1,133 men in the reinforced 5.Gebirgs-Division – 321 killed, 324 missing (most of them at sea) and 488 wounded.

Student’s decision to employ Sturmgruppen Altmann and Genz for the neutralization of enemy air-defence positions outside the operation area of Kräftegruppe Heidrich proved to be rather pointless. As these groups had to come down in enemy-occupied terrain and, unlike Sturmgruppen Braun and von Plessen, were not backed up or relieved by paratroopers landing straight after them close by, they stood little chance of survival. Why these first-rate shock troops had not been used to initiate the assault against the heights at Galatas or to take out the air-defence weapons around the airfield at Heraklion and thus fulfil the same role as Sturmgruppen Braun and von Plessen at the airfield at Maleme, remains a mystery which can only be seen in conjunction with Student’s inappropriate ‘oil drop tactics’. It cannot be completely excluded, however, that Student, with the employment of Sturmgruppen Altmann and Genz, had yielded to an explicit request from VIII.Flieger-Korps, which had been worried about the heavy air-defence batteries around Souda Bay. There is, however, no doubt at all that the use of ‘oil drop tactics’ in an area where almost nothing was known about the enemy and which led to the annihilation of Kampfgruppe Mürbe, was the fault of General Student.

General Student’s decision to employ all parachute troops, who on 21 May could be gathered in the area around Athens, together with the SturmRgt. for the seizure of the airfield at Maleme, was his only viable option in the light of his picture of the general situation on Crete in the night 20/21 May. To rush all the paratroopers who had been left behind to Heraklion for the seizure of its airfield would have had little chances of success, as the division of the forces against two objectives and the disaster for the reinforced II./FschJgRgt.1 on 20 May had left Kräftegruppe Bräuer with but one parachute infantry battalion opposite the heavily-defended airfield.

However it was not Student’s decision to place the main effort on Maleme which deserves to be accentuated, but rather the courage and the leadership qualities of subordinate commanders, particularly those of Oberst Ramcke and Generalmajor Conrad. The unbroken aggressiveness of the leaders and soldiers of the reinforced SturmRgt. was fundamental to the success of Student’s decision. Despite heavy losses on 20 May the Regiment had wrested the western side of the airfield and the foot of Hill 107 from the enemy and had persistently continued to attack or to hold out in isolated positions. Nowhere on Crete was the education of the men of the parachute force for independent, determined action according to the intention of their superior leaders expressed stronger than during the fighting for Hill 107 and the airfield at Maleme. Nowhere, too, was the superiority of the German command principle “Führen mit Auftrag” (mission-oriented command and control) over the command method of the defenders, which was based on the continuous steering of all activities through the chain of command, more evident than at Maleme. Accustomed to hold fast on existing orders until the arrival of new ones, the commanders of the 5th (NZ) Brigade between Maleme and Platanias on 20 and 21 May had waited to see whether their proposals for further actions would be transposed into orders by headquarters. Always one step behind actual events, neither Brigadier Puttick nor Major General Freyberg were able to act in time. The absence of a counterattack from all units of the 5th (NZ) Brigade in the early morning of 21 May, independent of its outcome, should be regarded as the decisive failure of the superior commenders of CREFORCE in the battle for Crete, despite the gallantry of the troops.

The argument that the entire length of the northern coast of Crete had continued to make the protection against German sea-landings necessary even after the situation around Maleme had become critical appears unconvincing as a justification for the hesitant and piece-meal reaction of the commanders affected. During the preparation of the Germans for Merkur, Middle East Command had been very well aware of the more than meager possibilities of the enemy to conduct a sea landing on Crete in the face of the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet, all the more, as support by strong naval forces of the Italians could be discounted. The efforts of the command of Admiral Süd-Ost prior to the start of Merkur to put together sea transport forces from the few suitable Greek ships certainly had not escaped the Allied intelligence services. Admiral Cunningham could plan on the basis that the slow German sea transports would also have to sail in the hours of darkness. However during this time they could be attacked by his naval units without the threat of interference by the Luftwaffe. He had directed his forces accordingly. Yet Freyberg had not totally relied on the capabilities of the British Mediterranean Fleet or had not been convinced of them in time. As a consequence he had ordered cover of the entire coastal strip between Maleme and the entrance into Souda Bay against sea landings. This order was strictly adhered to even after 20 May and after the attempt of a German seaborne-landing had already been repulsed. As is now understood, this attitude contributed to the failure of the last chance to turn the tables at Maleme. It should, however, not escape the reader’s attention that Major General Freyberg’s plans for defending Crete did include the British Mediterranean Fleet, as he had deployed no troops to the eastern area of the island as it was to be be protected by naval assets. It was here where Italian forces from Rhodes landed in considerable strength after they had skillfully utilized the protective umbrella of their own and German air forces.

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