Parachutes over Crete:
Battle for Maleme Airfield

German plans for an airborne invasion of Crete began on 25 April 1941, eight days after the British began to withdraw their Force W, the ill-fated ground troops who had tried to prevent the fall of Greece to Axis forces. German planners quickly ran through multiple variations, but all of them included the quick seizure of Maleme airfield.

As the westernmost airfield on the island, Maleme was the closest to the Greek mainland and also to the island’s capital at Canea and the deep-water anchorage at Suda Bay. The Germans lacked the airlift capacity to assault all three major airfields on Crete simultaneously, and Maleme would be the only airfield attacked in the first wave.

The invading force would be led by Maj. Gen. Eugen Meindl, with the four battalions of his 1st Air Landing Assault Regiment, an independent Luftwaffe outfit. Reinforcements from the 5th Mountain Division would land from transport planes after the airfield had been secured.

Defending the area, the New Zealand 5th Infantry Brigade had its own three battalions plus the division’s additional infantry battalion, the 28th “Maori” Battalion recruited from New Zealand’s native people. The brigade and its new commander, James Hargrest, also had the assistance of British anti-aircraft gunners. Additionally, parts of the under-strength Greek 1st, 6th and 8th Infantry Regiments had been stationed in the area, and though nominally under the command of the British CREFORCE headquarters headed by New Zealand Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg in practice there would be little inter-Allied cooperation. The New Zealanders would also have the unexpected assistance of the armed and angry Cretan civilian population; thanks to generations of blood feud and vendettas, most Cretan households owned firearms and the will - often enthusiasm - to use them.

Following preliminary air attacks, German gliders began landing at 0800 on 20 May 1941. Two companies brought their craft down in the dry bed of the Tavronitis River, capturing a key bridge and eliminating a battery of British 40mm anti-aircraft guns. Things did not go nearly as well for the parachute landings, some of which came down nearly on top of the New Zealand defenders.

German paratroopers land on Crete.

While the defenders would later claim to have killed many paratroopers as they drifted down under their silk, post-war analysis showed this not to be the case. A man under a parachute may feel utterly helpless, but is actually a very difficult target to hit. Instead, the Germans were slaughtered as they tried to arm themselves.

German paratroopers did not jump with any weapons beyond their sidearms. Mortars, machine guns and even rifles went into special weapons cannisters, which were carried under the wings of their Ju52 transport planes just like bombs. When planes dropped their troops, they also cast loose the weapons containers, which the just-arrived paratroopers would recover and open.

According to the New Zealand Army’s after-action reports, the arming process took place fairly quickly, with almost every platoon recovering their cannister within ten minutes. But during those few minutes, they suffered horrific losses as troopers died seeking their cannisters or trying to hand out the weapons within.

Meindl’s 3rd Parachute Battalion came down almost on top of the New Zealand defenders, who cut them down in swathes before they could even reach their weapons. While the Kiwis dealt with those unlucky troopers, the other two battalions landed somewhat further away, hidden by dust clouds raised by German air attacks and aided by the diversion caused by the 3rd Battalion’s sacrifice.

By afternoon the paratroopers and Kiwis fought for control of Hill 107, which overlooked the vital Maleme airfield. The Germans had taken the crest, but could not eject the defenders from the rest of the high ground. A counter-attack supported by a pair of tanks failed to make headway, and New Zealand communications broke down, leaving the battalion commander on the hill unaware that reinforcements were on their way. The brigade commander having given an equivocal endorsement (“if you must, you must”), the battalion pulled back from the hill under cover of darkness.

Handed Hill 107, the Germans could bring transport planes onto Maleme airfield as soon as the runway had been cleared, without threat of direct fire from the high ground. Several planes landed on the beaches, bringing ammunition and evacuating the wounded including Meindl himself. But the one plane to attempt a landing on the airstrip itself met with artillery and machine-gun fire; the New Zealanders would have to be pushed farther back before the mountain troops could land. With none of the other assault groups showing good chances of taking an airfield, Gen. Kurt Student, the German airborne corps commander, decided to drop what he called “the whole mass of the reserve” on Maleme.

Student had gambled on landings in four widely-separated sectors, landing all of his glider troops and most of his paratroopers. His reserve’s “whole mass” totaled three parachute companies and another of anti-tank gunners fighting as infantry (German anti-tank guns of 1940 would not survive a parachute drop and had to be landed by aircraft). They would land on either side of the airfield, to reinforce the Air Assault Regiment (now commanded by Col. Bernhard Ramcke) and to envelop the New Zealanders by landing behind them. Once the airfield had been secured, mountain troops could be landed by aircraft as well as heavier weapons for the paratroopers.

Freyberg had made clear a policy of immediate counter-attack against German landing zones, but 5th Brigade commander James Hargrest had set up his command post well away from the airfield and left the decision to his battalion commanders on the spot. They met at about 3 a.m., and decided to re-organize rather than attack despite the presence of two fresh battalions. That hesitation would allow the Germans to retain the initiative despite the relatively lengthy process of organizing new parachute drops and re-organizing their own shattered battalions.

After a quiet morning, the Germans launched their attack in the mid-afternoon. The German command repeated the error of landing atop the enemy - apparently so few survivors of 3rd Battalion’s had made it back to report the slaughter that the generals had no idea how badly the landing had gone. The force dropped to the east of the airfield met the same fate, but those fortunate enough to join their comrades to the west linked up successfully.

The German attacks managed to drive back the machine-gun platoon that had been firing on the airfield, but the Kiwis held most of their line. A 40mm anti-aircraft gun captured by the Germans and dragged into their front line was knocked out in turn by an air-dropped 81mm mortar that had drifted into the New Zealand lines and been captured by the Kiwis. New Zealand artillery continued to fall on the airfield, but the Ju52 transports landed there anyway as well as the beach, bringing in a badly-needed fresh mountain battalion.

The New Zealand counter-attack at Maleme.

That night the New Zealanders finally launched a counter-attack, following a confused attempt to execute a complicated plan involving shifting New Zealand and Australian battalions about. It came off late, and the attackers ran into scattered remnants of the disrupted German parachute landings, which further slowed the advance. The sun had risen by the time they attacked the airfield; the Germans were ready and threw them back. By now a Ju52 landed every three minutes to disgorge still more mountain troops.

By the 23rd, Maj. Gen. Julius Ringel of 5th Mountain Division had arrived to take command, and launched a two-pronged attack. The paratroopers, reinforced by mountain troops, would advance along the coast toward the landing zones around the area known as Prison Valley and the anchorage at Suda Bay. A force of three mountain battalions would make a flanking move through the rough terrain to the south.

The flanking move might have destroyed the New Zealanders, but stuff resistance by the understrength and poorly-armed Greek 8th Infantry Regiment, bolstered by mobs of enraged Cretan villagers, held up the advance long enough for the Kiwis to retreat in good order. The Germans believed that the Cretans had mutilated their wounded - at least some of the outrages may have been committed by wolves or birds - and instituted brutal retaliation.

By the afternoon of the 24th, Ringel’s troops had linked up with the paratroopers trapped in Prison Valley. The Battle for Crete was entering another phase, one leading inexorably to another hasty Allied withdrawal.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of the Iron Dog.