General der Flieger Student hurried back to Berlin from the Semmering and with the staff of XI.Flieger-Korps commenced planning for the conquest of Crete, despite the fact that they still lacked a definitive directive. Meanwhile, the force under Generalleutnant Süßmann in Bulgaria became involved in Marita. Probably as a result of Hitler’s fear that the Corinth Canal could be blocked by the enemy, the OKL, the OKH and Armeeoberkommando 12/AOK 12 on 22 April, were tasked by the OKW to examine the possibilities for an operation by parachute troops against the Isthmus of Corinth. As the OKH and AOK 12 had beforehand reported about the importance of the canal and the only bridge which crossed it for the operations of ground forces and had spoken in favor of a parachute-assault against it, the decision was made on this very day, to go along with its execution.
The OKW directed the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe to commence with preparations. The aim of the operation was the seizure of the bridge across the Corinth Canal so as to enable the troops of 12.Armee to quickly enter the Peloponnese. A task beyond this aim, in particular the blocking of the Isthmus against forces of the British expeditionary corps, withdrawing from the north, had not been laid down explicitly, as the seizure and retention of the only bridge across the Corinth-Canal would anyway lead to this blocking.
The commander-in chief of Luftflotte 4, Generaloberst Löhr, issued the order for the execution of the operation still on 22 April and tasked with it Detachement Süßmann which was available on short notice. The overall control of the operation was assigned to General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen, commanding the VIII.Flieger-Korps. The general was strongly opposed to it as he considered the engagement of his flying formations against the anticipated evacuation operations of the British expeditionary corps as a priority and saw detrimental consequences for the supply of his corps in the temporary loss of the air transport formations, but had to accept the decision taken by the highest command level. However he determined that the airborne assault by Detachement Süßmann was to be conducted only after the Heer had seized Thebes, which was only 60km away from the Corinth Canal. Prior to the commencement of the planning process for the airborne operation, the situation in the Greek theatre of war had developed as follows:
After hard fighting and with considerable losses, the defense of northern Greece undertaken by Australian and New Zealand forces was overcome by parts of the reinforced 5.Panzer-Division and the 6.Gebirgs-Division. However the skillfully fighting defenders had managed to escape the danger of an impending envelopment of their left flank by mountain and motorcycle-infantry with the majority of their forces. The German command had remained ignorant of the decision of the British commander-in-chief Middle East, General Wavell, made known to the King of Greece on 21 April, to evacuate the British expeditionary corps from the Greek mainland. The Germans had clearly perceived withdrawal movements but had remained in the dark about the further intentions of the enemy, in particular, whether, protected by the Gulf of Patras, the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronian Gulf, he would continue the defense on the Peloponnese. Therefore the air operations of VIII.Flieger-Korps were initially directed against this region. During the afternoon of 23 April VIII.Flieger-Korps succeeded in destroying most of the still operational British Hurricane fighters on the airfield at Mykene (the remaining six aircraft were transferred to Crete the next day), allowing it to achieve unrestricted air superiority over southern Greece. It now could direct its efforts against the evacuation of the British expeditionary corps, which in fact had commenced in the night 24/25 April. However this task turned out to be complicated as the embarkation of the troops of the enemy took place simultaneously at several locations, sometimes away from ports and always during the hours of darkness. Moreover, the troops assembled for embarkation disciplined themselves so skillfully during daytime that they were seldom detected from the air.
At noon on 25 April the advance detachment of the 5.Panzer-Division entered Thebes. Thereby the precondition for the airborne-undertaking of Detachement Süßmann, as determined by General der Flieger Frh. von Richthofen, was achieved. South of Thebes, at Tatoi, a New Zealand brigade group once more blocked the advance of 5.Panzer-Division but was forced to retreat during the course of 26 April. Covered by the rearguard actions of the New Zealanders, an Australian brigade group of almost 6,000 men was embarked at Megara, about 30km away from Tatoi, during the night 25/26 April. By the morning of 26 April nearly all of the troops which had been designated for embarkation from ports on the Peloponnese, among them three brigade groups, had been brought across the Corinth Canal. In the night 25/ 26 April General Wilson, the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary corps, had moved his headquarters to Myli, about 45km south of Corinth and, despite the losses of large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies, had expressed his satisfaction about the present course of the evacuation operation. The German 12.Armee, after resistance around Thebes was broken, had been directing the efforts of its most forward troops towards Athens, about 25km away.
Immediately upon the receipt of the mission to seize the bridge across the Corinth Canal by a parachute assault, Detachement Süßmann commenced with preparations for this operation. The staff of FschPiBtl.7 and two of its companies were summoned to Plovdiv from Dessau-Kochstedt as reinforcements. For their transfer, two provisional squadrons were formed from the Ju 52s placed at the disposal of the parachute-schools. As the distance from Plovdiv to the Isthmus of Corinth was beyond the range of the Ju 52, Larissa, located in the Thessalian Plain, was chosen as the jump-off base for the parachute assault. A transfer of the paratroopers by land to the base had to be excluded because of poor road conditions, the lack of motor transport and the probable short reaction time between the receipt of the order and its execution. The transfer by air, however, also posed considerable problems. In the meantime two air transport groups had been diverted to the support of the German forces in North Africa, quite a number of transport aircraft still remained detached to VIII.Flieger-Korps and the combat readiness of the Ju 52 formations had decreased due to overuse. Thus, only about 140 transport aircraft were available for the undertaking against the Corinth Canal. This meant that the parachuting of the complete Detachement Süßmann in one single flight was not possible. In addition to that restriction, the stores of aviation fuel on the airfield at Larrissa, also used by units of VIII.Flieger-Korps, were insufficient for multiple flights of the air transport formations to Corinth and allowed for the employment of only one air transport group for a resupply mission after the landing of the assault force. Even for the return flight of the Ju 52s from Larissa to their bases in Bulgaria, fuel had to be brought along.
During the morning of 25 April the order for the parachute assault on the morning of 26 April arrived at the command of Detachement Süßmann. General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen repeatedly had expressed his opposition against the undertaking and had justified it with the strained air transport situation and his view about the priority of the employment of his forces against the British evacuation fleet. Göring, however, took the side of Generalfeldmarschall List, who had requested the execution of the airborne mission.
Generalleutnant Süßmann delegated the direct command of the parachute assault to the commander of FschJgRgt.2, Oberst Sturm. As the preparations of the detachment had been completed for the greater part by the arrival of the execution order, the transfer of the elements planned for the actual parachute assault commenced without delay early in the morning of 25 April. Nevertheless this action took up valuable time until late in the evening, so that the last air transport squadrons touched down on the totally crammed airfield at Larissa in the darkness. There was almost no time for the rest or supply of troops, as final arrangements for the start of operations still had to be completed. At this time, the following units had arrived on the airfield: staff and signals platoon of FschJgRgt.2, I./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Kroh), II./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Pietzonka), one-third of 13./FschJgRgt.2 (guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt.2 (anti-tank), 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 (less one platoon), the parachute engineer platoons Häffner and Brohm and half of 1./FschSanAbt.7. 3./FschArtAbt.7 was to follow in gliders with three guns. The remaining parts of Detachement Süßmann were initially to stay behind at Plovdiv-Krumovo.
In the course of the evening of 25 April Generalleutnant Süßmann moved with his forward command element to the command post of VIII.Flieger-Korps, which since 24 April had been in the seaport of Volos, about 45km south-east of Larissa. Against his instructions, Süßmann retained the two squadrons formed from the Ju 52 of the parachute schools, as they were urgently required to deliver aviation fuel from the Plovdiv area to Larissa. The tactical leaders of Gruppe Sturm were instructed about the terrain in the operational area as precisely as possible by means of maps and aerial photos. The intelligence produced the following picture.
The hub of the operation area was formed by the Corinth Canal, which was cut into the rocks of the Isthmus at its most narrow part, 6.4km in width. Built between 1881 and 1893 it connected the Saronian Gulf in the south-east with the Gulf of Corinth in the north-west. It was cut into the rock of the Isthmus up to 60m deep with almost vertical walls. It was 24m wide at its top and 21m at sea-level. The depth of the water was 8m. The villages Isthmia and Kalamaki were located on either side of its southern entrance. About 3km from its northern entrance the canal was crossed by its only bridge, a solid steel construction, being traversed by the road and railway line leading from Athens along the coast of the Saronian Gulf via Megara to Corinth on the northern coast of the gulf named after this town. North of these lines of communication and east of the canal the terrain descended from the 1,300m high Gerania Mountains, to the coast of the Saronian Gulf. Another road led from the settlement of Loutraki, located at the Gulf of Corinth, about 4km north of the bridge, toward the bridge-site. The town of Corinth with its about 20,000 inhabitants was built on the flat beach of the Gulf, a good 3km west of the bridge. Here, the road divided. One arm bypassed an airfield about 4km west of the town and led along the northern coast of the Peloponnese to Patras, on the Gulf with the same name. The other arm turned to the south and, bypassing the ruins of ancient Mykene, led through mountainous terrain to Argos, a town about 35km south of Corinth, then to Myli, on the coast of the Argolian Gulf and from there across the Peloponnese to the sea-port of Kalamata on the Messenian Gulf. Another airfield was located some distance south-west of Mykene. At Argos, a division of the road ran to the sea ports at Navplion and Tolon on the northern shore of the Argolian Gulf. Only a short distance west of the road division at Corinth, a mountain ridge with central massifs of more than 2,300m high rose steeply south of the coastal road and stretched toward the west.
On 25 April bombers and fighters of VIII.Flieger-Korps massively attacked the anti-aircraft positions of the enemy which had been detected in the vicinity of the Corinth Canal. Immediately after the decision to evacuate the Greek mainland, the command of the British expeditionary corps had concentrated its remaining anti-aircraft forces – 8 cannon 7.9cm, 8 cannon 3.7cm and 16 Bofors cannon 40mm – for the protection of retrograde movements, but also against possible German airborne attacks, on the Isthmus of Corinth, along the road to Argos and on the nearby airfield. Initially only the remainder of the 4th Hussars Regiment from the British 1st Armoured Brigade had been tasked with the surveillance of the northern coast of the Peloponnese, including the Corinth Canal on, a length of 110km. It had consisted of 12 light Mark VI tanks, six Bren Carriers and one armored car. On 24 April the New Zealand 6th Field Coy of engineers was summoned from Thebes and prepared the bridge across the Corinth Canal for demolition. Moreover it assembled some boats for the construction of ferries at the southern entrance of the canal, in case that the bridge was destroyed prematurely by the enemy.
On this day the command of all troops deployed at the canal was given to Brigadier Lee. His sector of responsibility included the terrain on either side of the canal and the areas around Corinth and Argos. He had been instructed to be prepared for German air-landings on the two airfields which were located in his sector. In the evening of 25 April, Brigadier Lee, who had retained some of the troops on their way toward the south and who had also received some reinforcements, in addition to the 4th Hussars and the air-defence elements, had at his dirposal: Three companies and two platoons from the Australian 2/6 InfBn, B-Coy/19th (NZ) InfBn, 6th (NZ) Field Coy and one platoon from the British 7th Armd Div Field Sqn. At about 0230hrs on 26 April C Squadron from the Cavalry Regiment of the New Zealand Division, still equipped with a few wheeled armored cars and reinforced with the remainders of the Bren Carrier platoons from the 22nd and 28th (NZ) Infantry Battalions, also arrived.
Brigadier Lee formed the so-called Isthmus Force for the direct defense of the bridge across the Corinth Canal. It was composed of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion, 6th Field Coy, one platoon of 122nd Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, the British engineer platoon and C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry. The force was placed subordinate to the commander of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion. This officer positioned one of his infantry platoons in the Gerania mountains, about 7km north-west of the bridge and deployed the remaining two platoons of his company in the hilly terrain about 500m north of the bridge. A company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion was also positioned in the area immediately east of the bridge. However the commanders of the two forces deployed east of the canal were not informed about each other’s presence. C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry was in the process of setting up positions about 2km west of the western bridge ramp. In the immediate vicinity of this ramp four heavy anti-aircraft guns were being positioned. Some of the 37mm and 40mm guns were dispersed in positions around the bridge. Others were set up further to the west and south-west. 6th Field Coy prepared positions about 500m south of Corinth. Two of its squads, foreseen as demolition teams, were kept standing by about 1km north of the bridge, near the western bank of the canal. In the buildings between Corinth and the northern entrance of the canal the 4th Hussars established their command post. A company of 2/6 Infantry Battalion moved into a position on the slope about 3km south of Corinth, just north of the small village Examilia. The remainder of 2/6 Inf, the staff, one company and two platoons, together with a few heavy and some Bofors air defence guns, were deployed for the protection of the airfield near Mykene.
For direct defense along the Corinth Canal and the immediately adjoining terrain, Brigadier Lee had 900 soldiers from the expeditionary corps at his disposal. A considerable number of Greek soldiers, who had not felt bound to the capitulation arrangements of their high command, were also present some distance east of the canal, in the settlements south of it and in the area around Patras. Joint combat operations with the expeditionary corps, however, had not been planned.
On 26 April Gruppe Sturm took off for the parachute undertaking against the Isthmus of Corinth from the airfield at Larissa between 0430 and 0600hrs.
Oberst Sturm had organized his assault force in three sub-groups (Untergruppen):
Untergruppe Pietzonka, with II./FschJgRgt 2, 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-), two anti-tank-guns from 14./FschJgRgt 2 and parachute engineer platoon Häffner. Missions: to seize the canal-bridge and to prevent its destruction; subsequently to protect against Corinth, to seize and retain the airfield west of Corinth and to seize the area at the northern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.
Untergruppe Kroh, with I./FschJgRgt 2 (less 1st Company), half of 13./FschJgRgt 2 (2 recoilless guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt 2 (anti-tank) and parachute engineer platoon Brohm. Missions: to block the defile 4 km east of Kalamaki, to seize Kalamaki and the area north of the eastern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.
Untergruppe Regimental Staff, with the staff and the reinforced signals-platoon of FschJgRgt 2, 1./FschJgRgt 2 and half of 1./FschSanAbt 7. Mission for 1./FschJgRgt 2: to assemble as reserve in the drop-zone of the sub-group west of the canal; protect toward the south and south-west.
The approach-flight of the air-transport formations – KGr z.b.V. 102 with Untergruppe Pietzonka, KGr z.b.V. 60 with Untergruppe Kroh, I./KG z.b.V. 1 with 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-) and half of 14./FschJgRgt 2, I./LL-Geschwader 1 with Untergruppe Regimental Staff – was conducted across the Pindus Mountains in a height of more than 2.000m. The most forward section consisted of six Ju 52, towing the gliders with the 54 men of Leutnant Häffner’s reinforced 2nd platoon of 3./FschPiBtl7 aboard. It was to land at both ramps of the bridge 12 minutes ahead of the first wave of the paratroopers and to take possession of it. South of the Pindus mountain range the air transport formations, except the six towing aircraft, descended to 30m above the surface of the Gulf of Corinth and flew protected from observation by the morning haze over the water toward the east. The gliders unhooked the cables of the towing aircraft at about 20km distance from the objective at 1,200m height and commenced the dive. The Ju 52s with the main force aboard ascended to parachuting height in the vicinity of the drop zones and reduced their speed.
During the time of the approach flight of Gruppe Sturm, combat aircraft of VIII. Flieger-Korps attacked identified positions of the enemy on either side of the Corinth Canal. Only Me 110 fighters with machine-guns and dive bombers, due to their capability of hitting targets precisely, were used, to prevent an unwanted destruction of the bridge by bombs going astray. Some of the air-defence guns around the canal were thus put out of action and the crews of the remaining weapons, as well as the infantry in their field positions, were forced to take cover.
The six gliders with Häffner’s platoon aboard came down on either side of the bridge at about 0610hrs, coming in as air attacks ceased, and hidden against observation until the very last moment by the haze and the smoke from the impacting bombs. Five of them touched down about 100-200m from the bridge. The sixth glider, attempting a landing on the western ramp of the bridge, crashed into its foundation block. Both the pilot and the medical sergeant behind him were hurled onto the road. The remaining eight soldiers were stunned and injured by the impact, and initially unable to join the fighting although they managed to leave the glider. The crews of the other gliders fought through to the bridge site, taking only a few losses from scattered fire by the totally surprised defenders. Here, a number of them neutralized the few guards at the bridge and commenced to remove the explosive charges from the steel framework and cut the ignition cables, while others prevented the crews of nearby anti-aircraft guns from occupying their weapon pits, which they had left during the air attacks.
Shortly before 0640hrs the first wave of Gruppe Sturm was dropped – 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt 2 and engineer platoon Brohm east of the canal; 5th and 6th companies of II./FschJgRgt 2 west of the canal.
West of the canal 5./FschJgRgt.2, under Oberleutnant Thiel, reinforced with a heavy machine-gun platoon from the 8th Company, was dropped first. With just the weapons on hand the paratroopers seized the railway station near the bridge, three air-defence positions nearby and a number of motor vehicles that had been abandoned by their drivers and passengers during the air attacks on the road to Corinth. Thereby a considerable number of enemy soldiers were captured. Subsequently the company set up positions along a perimeter around the western ramp of the bridge, at about 1km distance. 6./FschJgRgt.2, commanded by Hauptmann Schirmer, was dropped two minutes after 5./FschJgRgt.2. Its 1st Platoon under Leutnant Teusen put four light anti-aircraft guns out of action and set up for the close protection of the engineers working on the bridge immediately west of it. The other two platoons of the company advanced against the column of motor vehicles on the road toward Corinth, which had not been attacked by 5./FschJgRgt.2.
The staff and the signals platoon of II./FschJgRgt.2 jumped as part of the first wave of the battalion. Hauptmann Pietzonka suffered a double fracture of an ankle on landing and was carried to his command post, which was being established a short distance from the canal. Here, he tasked Hauptmann Schirmer with the tactical command of the battalion. During the mopping-up actions in the drop zone of the force around the command post, the battalion’s orderly officer, Oberleutnant Dohmes, was killed. Leutnant Schallnas from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 with his command section, jumped with the battalion-staff and shortly thereafter met the same fate.
East of the Corinth Canal, in the area of operations of I./FschJgRgt.2, Brohm’s parachute engineer platoon jumped first. Its mission was to seize the road and railway bridge about 4km east of Kalamaki and to prevent its destruction. However it was dropped incorrectly and came down in the defile about 10km north-east of Kalamaki, immediately on the shore of the Saronian Gulf. One of its squads landed in the water, whereby one soldier was drowned and two weapon containers were lost. Three other men were injured on the landing ground. Nevertheless, without further losses, the platoon overcame a number of Greek soldiers who had fired at them during the landing and captured 20 of them. Subsequently, platoon Brohm cleared the village of Aghia Theodori on the coastal road about 10km north of the canal from Greek stragglers. There it was joined by the 3rd Platoon of 2./FschJgRgt.2 under Leutnant Kühne. Together the platoons now advanced along the coastal road toward a barracks in the village of Kineta, about 6km further to the east. When this was found abandoned they moved on in the direction toward Megara. However by now they were continuously involved in firefights with Greek stragglers. Just west of Megara they successfully removed the explosive charges from a railway bridge. It was at this time that both platoons were ordered to fall back into the defile west of the village of Aghia Theodori and to act as combat outposts for Untergruppe Kroh. On the way to the new location the parachute engineer platoon unexpectedly became involved in a firefight with troops of the British expeditionary corps that were advancing from the east. Before it was able to disengage the platoon lost two killed and four wounded.
The 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt.2, except two plane loads, were correctly dropped east of the canal together with the battalion-staff. The paratroopers first cleared the drop zone and then advanced toward the canal. Enemy infantry, to the strength of about a company, which were positioned east of the bridge, were quickly overrun and most of the soldiers of B Coy, 19th (NZ) Infantry Battalion were captured. The subsequent attack against a hill to the north met with stronger resistance.
While the fighting on both sides of the canal was ongoing and the parachuting of Gruppe Sturm continued, the engineers of Häffner’s platoon completed the removal of explosive charges from the bridge structure. These were piled on the bridge, to be carried away afterward. At this moment, at exactly 0700hrs, the bridge blew up in a tremendous explosion and plunged down into the canal. Several engineers who were still working on the bridge, and a military war correspondent, Sonderführer von der Heyden, who had accompanied the engineer platoon, were instantly killed. Some of the men from Teusen’s platoon, located in protective positions close to the western ramp of the bridge, were injured by steel splinters.
Despite the loss of the bridge the paratroopers continued with their missions. West of the canal, parts of the 5th and 6th companies that were advancing further to the west, come across the remainder of C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry and the assigned two Bren Carrier platoons east of Corinth. As these were still in the process of recovering from the preceding air attacks they were surprised by the sudden onslaught of the paratroopers. Eight to ten of the armored vehicles were destroyed or captured in the first minutes and most of their crews were taken prisoner. However about 40 of the New Zealanders, with two armored cars and five Bren Carriers managed to escape toward the south along a sunken road, unobserved by the attackers. When this road ended at a deep ravine the vehicles were pushed over, denying them to the enemy. Their crews were later found by Greeks and conveyed across the mountains to Navplion. The company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion, which had been positioned north of Examilia, was not drawn into the fighting and was able to retreat on its own toward the south.
7./FschJgRgt.2, after the landing, dispatched two platoons against Corinth. On the way to the north-western entrance of the Corinth Canal the third platoon encountered some resistance from field positions and buildings along its western bank. Nevertheless the platoon succeeded in overrunning the command post of the 4th Hussars and capturing most of its personnel. In the meantime 8./FschJgRgt.2, two platoons from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 and two anti-tank-guns, that were the remaining parts of Untergruppe Pietzonka, also landed safely west of the Corinth Canal and secured their drop zones. The two anti-tank guns set up firing positions south of the road leading from the blown bridge toward Corinth. Hauptmann Pietzonka now assigned two-thirds of the 7th and 8th companies, one anti-tank gun and one light anti-aircraft gun to Hauptmann Schirmer with the mission to build a protective screen against the town. However the mission was quickly overcome by events, as the 6th and 7th companies from II./FschJgRgt.2 had already entered the outskirts of Corinth. Leutnant Rühle from 6th Company penetrated the town in one of the Bren Carriers, of which 6th and 8th companies had captured one each in working condition, despite the fact that it was occupied by a considerable number of troops. He managed to get hold of the town’s mayor and the Greek military commandant of Corinth and to escort them safely to Hauptmann Schirmer. After a short exchange of views with the latter the two Greek authorities declared themselves willing to hand the town over to the German officer in charge. They were then brought to the regimental command post, which had been set up at a road junction about 1.5km west of the destroyed bridge after the Regimental Staff had landed at 0730hrs. At 1100hrs Oberst Sturm met the two Greek officials and requested the unconditional surrender of Corinth by 1300hrs or else it would be attacked by dive bombers. The bluff worked and the Greek mayor surrendered the town unconditionally. Its occupation by German troops was arranged for 1300 hrs.