On May 20, 1941, the German Army launched against the Island of Crete an attack on an unprecedented scale by air-borne forces, consisting of nearly 800 bombers and fighters, 500 to 650 transport planes, and 75 gliders. The RAF could give no opposition. The 37,500 British and Greek ground troops had to contend, unaided, against about 35,000 German air-borne troops, backed by overwhelming air support. The attack began with a heavy dive-bombing raid, which was closely followed by parachute landings at Malemé, at Candia (also called Heraklion), and at Retymno and Canea. At Malemé, parachute and air-landing troops, aided by the diversionary effect of those landed elsewhere, captured the airport and cleared the way for a steady stream of air-borne reinforcements from German bases in Greece. About 60 to 80 percent of the attacking parachute troops were killed, but because the British lacked any air power whatever, they were unable to check the flow of planes and gliders. German troops continued to swarm into the island, and finally the British were forced to evacuate.
a. Preparatory Phases
The preparation prior to the air-borne attack was divided into three distinct phases:
The First Phase, May 1-10: Extensive reconnaissance, primarily photographic, accompanied by light dive-bombing and machine-gunning attacks, was carried out for about 10 days.
The Second Phase, May 10-17: This was made up of daylight bombing and machine-gunning attacks on an ever-increasing scale, both in frequency and intensity. Thrusts were made at communications, and probing attacks to locate antiaircraft, troop concentrations, and defensive positions.
The Third Phase, May 17-19: Intensified bombings were made in an effort to interrupt supplies and reinforcements, and to affect morale. Airdromes were heavily and frequently bombed and machine-gunned. German observers made daily air reconnaissance to obtain photographs, in order to study the defensive dispositions of troops and the locations of guns and slit trenches.
b. Beginning of the Actual Attack, May 20-22
As soon as the thorough reconnaissance was completed and the supply lines had been broken and resistance battered, the air-borne troops were ready to attack. At the beginning of the attack, shortly after dawn, the bombardment of the key objective area, which was Malemé airdrome, took place. This was to silence antiaircraft batteries and to prevent the use of roads leading to the airdrome.
c. Landing of Glider-Borne and Parachute Troops
Immediately following this attack, gliders were landed in the area. Directly following the gliders, transports circled the airdrome and the parachute troops were dropped in waves of about 600 each. Positions which could not be overcome by the parachutists were indicated by flares and were then attacked by dive-bombing and machine-gunning.
d. Exploitation by Air-Landing Troops, May 23-31
Even before the defenses had been thoroughly broken, troop transports were
landed carrying air-infantry troops, mountain units, and auxiliaries, such
as motorcycle detachments. After the key objective area was taken and
strengthened, parachutists were dropped in other areas and then the
troops were spread out from one area to the next in order to make
contact and increase the hold. After the establishment of such areas, new
objectives were attacked in the same manner and eventually contact was made
between each sector.