Parachutes over Crete:
Battle for Rethymnon
In an effort to confuse the Allied defenders of Crete and spread them over a wide area, Maj. Gen. Kurt Student planned four separate airborne landing zones. The smallest of the landings would be at Rethymnon, often called by its Italian name of Retimo by the Australians charged with protecting it from the Germans. Rethymnon, a well-preserved Venetian-built town noted today for its topless beaches, was known in 1941 for olive oil and wine. Its strategic significance in 1941 stemmed from a small airstrip at the village of Pigi, about eight kilometers to the east of Rethymnon, that had been cleared in early 1941 by the Royal Air Force. It was no more than a gravel landing field with no facilities or ground crew, intended only for light aircraft.
Student gave the task to Col. Alfred Sturm of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, with two of his own battalions and plus a machine-gun company and a heavy weapons detachment from 7th Airborne Division. Aerial reconnaissance indicated that this would be plenty of force to seize the town and the airfield.
Aware that the Germans were scouting his positions, Lt. Col. Ian Campbell of the Australian 2/1 Infantry Battalion, in charge of the defenses, placed his camps amid the olive groves where they could not be seen and directed the troops to dig their trenches along the hillside terraces. That made them difficult to distinguish from the air, and the Germans bought the ruse. Sturm expected to face only light resistance from scattered Greek forces.
Campbell actually had two Australian battalions, his own and the 2/11 Infantry Battalion, two Greek battalions (the 4th and 5th) and an additional battalion of battle-hungry Cretan officer cadets from the Gendarmerie’s academy located just west of Rethymnon. The Australians had seen action in North Africa and Greece, while the Greek units had been formed a few weeks earlier from soldiers evacuated from the mainland plus fresh volunteers. Their men ranged from hardened veterans of the fighting in Albania against the Italians to raw teenagers away from home for the first time.
German paratroopers descend on Rethymnon, 20 May 1941.
Machine guns had been attached to Campbell’s battalions (Australian infantry units, like other Empire forces, did not have organic heavy machine gun platoons) as well as a battery of “bush artillery” - eight guns captured from the Italians in North Africa now manned by Australian gunners. Campbell had been issued no mines, and only a little wire. No anti-aircraft guns were stationed at Rethymnon.
While Campbell had sufficient troops, he did not have much ammunition for them: from the supply ships unloaded at Suda Bay in the weeks before the invasion he was allocated 3,200 rounds for each machine gun and 420 3-inch mortar bombs. No further supplies would be forthcoming. The Greeks appear to have had even less.
His opponent had veteran troops; the 2nd Regiment had carried out an airborne landing at Corinth a month earlier. But he had far too few of them for the task ahead: the two battalions had taken heavy casualties in that operations that had not been replaced, and even with the added support troops Sturm only had about 1,600 men. Adding to Sturm’s woes, when the assault came his men hit the silk hours after the first landings at Maleme. Campbell received no official word from Creforce headquarters, which seems to have lost interest in his command as soon as the German attack began, but his spotters saw 14 German transports, each towing a glider, on their way to either Canea or Maleme and he had time to alert all of his defenders.
Given the looming disaster at Maleme and the lengthy delay in getting Sturm’s men into the air, Student probably should have re-directed the two battalions to the main event. Instead they came on as planned after a brief aerial bombardment that panicked the Greek 5th Battalion but did no appreciable damage to the defenses.
Seizing an undefended secondary airfield might have looked like a good idea in case everything went wrong at the other locations, as seemed likely by the time Sturm’s men took to the air. The Ju52 transports came in right on top of the defenders, who shot down seven of them with Bren and Vickers fire and killed a great many paratroopers, mostly just after they’d hit the ground. Many of their weapons canisters fell into enemy lines, but that ended up mattering little: those that landed with the troops were more than enough to arm the survivors.
Despite their horrendous losses, including Sturm and his regimental staff all taken prisoner, the paratroopers rallied behind 1st Battalion commander Maj. Hans Kroh and fought the Australians for the vital Hill A overlooking the airstrip. The intermingled foes battled at short range with grenades and rifle butts.
“As one paratrooper leapt forward to fire his machinegun into the gun pit,” Australian Gunner Snowy Wilson wrote later, “the Australians, having little else to defend themselves with, fired the 100mm gun at point-blank range. The man vanished in a puff of smoke and flame.”
Thanks mostly to Kroh’s leadership, at the end of the day the Germans occupied half of Hill A, while the Australians clung to the other half. Meanwhile the parachute regiment’s 3rd Battalion, led by Capt. Ludwig Weidemann, landed to the west of the airfield. Two of his companies drifted down amidst the Australians, suffering terrible loses, while the other two hit the ground outside the village of Perivolia, where Weidemann led them toward the town of Rethymnon. The battalion of fanatical officer cadets met them along the way and drove them back into Perivolia.
On the morning of the second day, Campbell was determined to counter-attack and drive the Germans off Hill A. Kroh, equally determined, planned to attack at first light and take the vital hill for his own side. The Australians struck first; the Germans repelled them and then launched their own, much more successful attack. With his men barely hanging on, Campbell led a second attack that ejected the Germans from the hill. They retreated to an olive oil factory several kilometers to the east, and the Australians followed them.
Among the many prisoners taken by the Australians was one with a codebook, which 2/11 Battalion commander Maj. Raymond Sandover translated. His men laid out colored panels as the book directed, and German Ju52 transports obediently flew over to drop them food, water and ammunition for their captured Geman weapons.
Sandover, who spoke German, also interrogated Sturm. “I had his operation order, which he didn’t like,” Sandover wrote after the war. “He was a very frightened man! And he didn’t like me at all. He wasn’t very cooperative. He wanted to see whose Operation Order I had and I wouldn’t show him.”
One of Sturm’s staff officers had disobeyed standard practice and brought the orders with him. When it fell into Sandover’s hands, it revealed that there would be no further airborne landings to reinforce Sturm. The two battalions were all the Germans had, and the Australians could concentrate on wiping them out, which they proceeded to attempt.
Maj. Gen. Kurt Student speaks with a Panzer II crew outside Rethymnon.
The Australians eventually took the olive oil factory, only to discover that Korh and all his unwounded men had slipped away. They did not manage to make another attempt to capture the airfield. Weidemann and his force remained trapped in Perivolia under constant attacks by the Greeks and Australians. Finally, Weidemann was relieved by a column of motorcycle troops from 5th Mountain Division, reinforced by actual artillery (105mm howitzers rather than the 75mm recoilless popguns of the paratroopers) and tanks from the 31st Panzer Regiment, all landed at Kastelli on the far western end of the island.
With the Germans now heavily reinforced and including tanks, Campbell saw no point to further resistance. The Royal Navy answered none of his pleas for rescue, and Creforce none of his requests for instructions. Left alone with the decision, he surrendered his command but allowed anyone who wished to melt away into the hills to depart first; 52 Australians including Sandover as well as most of the Greeks did so.
The bitter fight for Rethymnon had cost the Australians 120 dead and the Germans at least 550 killed - almost exactly 10 percent of the Australian initial force and one-third of Sturm’s men. Greek losses are not recorded but must have been considerable as well. Campbell had held his ground, but his men’s defiance proved ultimately pointless once Maleme’s airfield fell and the Germans secured a port for their heavy equipment.
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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.