THE BATTLE OF CRETE
The Battle of Crete (German: Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta; Greek: Μάχη της Κρήτης) was a battle during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete with paratroopers and Gebirgsjäger under the code-nameUnternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury). Greek and Allied forces, along with Cretan civilians, defended the island.
After one day of fighting, the Germans, under the command of the Generals Kurt Student and Julius Ringel, had suffered very heavy casualties, and the Allied troops were confident that they would prevail against the German invasion. The next day Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the superior Germans, enabling them to fly in reinforcements and overwhelm the defenders. The battle lasted about 10 days.
The Battle of Crete was unprecedented in three respects: it was not only the first battle where the Fallschirmjäger were used on a massive scale, but also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history; the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from the deciphered German Enigma code; and the first time invading German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. Because of the heavy casualties suffered by the paratroopers, Adolf Hitler forbade further large-scale airborne operations. However, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to build their own airborne divisions.
Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians – men, women, children, priests, monks, and even nuns, armed and otherwise – joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient matchlock rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into Action.
In other cases, civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and several German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case, an elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines. In another, a priest and his son broke into a village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan Wars and sniped at German paratroops at one of the landing zones. While the priest would aim and shoot at German paratroopers with one rifle, his son would re-load the other.
The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms taken from the dead bodies of killed paratroops and glider troops. Their actions were not limited to harassment—civilians also played a significant role in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora, and the British and New Zealand advisors at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilian action also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion, and in the town centre itself.
This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time, it unbalanced them. However, once they had recovered from their shock, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity, killing many Cretan civilians. Further, as most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions and killed both armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.
Brothers von Blücher
Prominent among the German dead were a trio of Brothers, relatives of the famous German-Prussian Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the hero of the Waterloo.
The first to fall was Hans-Joachim Graf von Blücher (Graf = Count), who was attempting to resupply his brother, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Wolfgang Graf von Blücher, with ammunition when the latter and his platoon were surrounded by members of the British Black Watch. The 17-year-old Hans-Joachim had commandeered a horse which he attempted to gallop through British lines; he almost reached his brother’s position, and in fact was shot before his brother’s very eyes.
The same day, 21 May 1941, 24-year-old Wolfgang was killed with his whole platoon, followed by the younger brother, 19-year-old Leberecht Graf von Blücher, who was reported killed in action on the same day but whose body was never recovered.
Four weeks later the mother, Gertrud (Freiin Marschall) von Nordheim (widowed Gräfin von Blücher), who had lost her husband in 1924, was informed, that three of her four sons were killed on the same day in the Battle of Crete. Her forth son, Adolf Graf von Blücher, was released from duty and left the German navy (Kriegsmarine), to take care of the agricultural firm at home. Tragically he also died 1944 from a gunshot wound while stalking deer with a large hunting party in the vast forests of Mecklenburg.
For years afterward, Cretan villagers reported seeing a ghostly rider galloping at night down a road near the spot where Hans-Joachim was shot; yet until they were told the story of the von Blücher brothers, they had assumed that he was British. In 1974 Wolfgang and Hans-Joachim were reunited in one grave at the German War Cemetery on a hill behind the airfield at Maleme, Crete.