In 1941, Germany set its sights on the strategically important island of Crete. Any country that controlled the airfields of Crete could send airplanes into Greece and the Balkans, and keep an eye on Turkey’s important city of Istanbul—a place that was filled with much international intrigue during the war.
To take Crete, the Germans would need to defeat the British and Greek troops that were defending the island. The task of the German forces would be even more arduous, however, because British intelligence had already warned the defenders of Crete that an attack was imminent. In response, the Allies readied their defense on the island’s coastline, waiting for the Germans to arrive.
Germany’s General Kurt Student led the planning for the attack on Crete. He decided to attack the island using a combined invasion force of Italy’s navy and the German Luftwaffe. The ultimate objective of his plan was to use airborne paratroopers to seize the airfields of Crete at Maleme, Rhethymnon and Herakleion, where more reinforcements could be flown in to secure control of the island.
When the plan was put into action, it did not go smoothly. The Italian Navy took a beating from the Britaish ships, and the German planes carrying paratroopers (and towing gliders) were also heavily damaged. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe aircraft flew inland and dropped their paratroopers in range of the Allied airfields. While the Allied defenses were still focused on the coast, the German airborne infantry captured the airfield at Maleme. With an airfield secured, the Germans flew in reinforcements and weaponry, allowing them to take other parts of the island. Realizing that Crete was lost, the Allied defenders withdrew.
Even though the Allies lost the strategically important island of Crete, they gained something even more vital—a respect and understanding of the power and utility of airborne warfare.
- Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 (Volume II), edited by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber et al. Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.