Friday, February 9, 2018

May 20, 1941: Invasion of Crete

Tuesday 20 May 1941

Crete 20 May 1941
German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) drop on Crete, 20 May 1941.
Anglo/Iraq War: In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20 May 1941 decides to support Free French General Catroux in an invasion of Syria. As the War Cabinet minutes state, he decides that "It was worth taking a chance which might come off, rather than watch the Germans establishing themselves in Syria."

British Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell transfers the 7th Australian Division (Major General John Lavarack) from Mersa Matruh, Egypt to Palestine. This is a key step in preparing for an invasion of Syria, which the Luftwaffe is using as a transit point for operations in Iraq.

RAF planes attack the Luftwaffe planes based at Mosul, while the Luftwaffe bombs Habbaniya. There are dogfights over Fallujah, just occupied by the British. Four of Habbaniya's Gloster Gladiators tussle with four ZG 76 Bf 110s. One of the Gladiators is damaged and the German (future night fighter ace) Martin Drewes takes credit for a victory.

Luftwaffe General Hellmuth Felmy takes command of Sonderstab F, which controls air operations in Iraq. He is not the overall commander of German operations in Iraq, though, which are projected to include ground troops.

Crete 20 May 1941
 The 1st Fallschirmjäger artillery regiment, 7 Kompanie, Crete, 20 May 1941.
European Air Operations: It is another quiet day on the Channel Front, with no major raids. The Luftwaffe engages in some aerial reconnaissance in support of Operation Rheinübung, the sortie into the Atlantic by battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen. The British continue to dig out from the May Blitz which recently ended.

East African Campaign: During an appearance in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill describes the recent victory over the Italians at Amba Alagi in Abyssinia. He is careful to give credit to local army commanders Generals Cunningham and Platt, who he says "discharged so well the task assigned to them by the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, Sir Archibald Wavell."

Battle of the Atlantic: Today is one of the big days of the war for the U-boat fleet, though it is little remembered. Attacks in multiple areas inflict a great defeat on the Allies at sea.

Convoy HX-126, heading west to Liverpool from Halifax, is spotted by Wolf Pack West around 160 miles south of Greenland (220 miles southeast of Cape Farewell) and comes under attack by several U-boats. While largely forgotten because several other high profile events are taking place (such as the Bismarck mission and the invasion of Crete), this is one of the epic wolfpack battles of the war. As with all major wolfpack battles, details are sketchy, and who sank what on which day is often unclear and subject to further research.

At 04:58, U-94 (Kptlt. Herbert Kuppisch), on its seventh patrol out of St. Nazaire and which recently survived depth charging by escorts of OB 318, torpedoes 4718-ton British freighter Norman Monarch in the starboard side. All 48 men aboard survive, taken aboard the designated rescue ship Harpagus. However, their day is not over yet.

It is unclear if U-109 (Kptlt. Hans-Georg Fischer), on its first patrol out of Kiel, knows that the 5173-ton Harpagus is a rescue ship, but in any event, it is fair game. Fischer spots the Harpagus trying to catch up to the convoy after picking up the survivors from the Norman Monarch. He pumps a torpedo into the Harpagus and sinks it. There are 26 deaths from the survivors of the Norman Monarch and ultimately only 22 crewmen survive that ship to see another day.

U-556 20 May 1941
U-556, seen here coming alongside battleship Tirpitz.
At 14:48, U-556 (Kptlt. Herbert Wohlfarth) strikes HX-126. He sinks three ships in rapid succession (again at 14:50 and 15:16):
8740-ton British freighter British Security
5995-ton British freighter Cockaponset
4974-ton British freighter Darlington Court.
These will be U-556's final three victories, as it will be sunk on its next mission.

At 18:17, Kuppisch in U-94 strikes again against Convoy HX-126. He torpedoes a 6128-ton Norwegian tanker, John P. Pedersen. There are 37 survivors and one death. The tanker requires two more torpedoes, at 18:50 and 19:20, to finally sink.

At 17:29, U-98 (Kptlt. Robert Gysae), on its second patrol out of Lorient, also gets in on the action against Convoy HX-126. He torpedoes and sinks 5356-ton British freighter Rothermere.

Italian Glauco-class submarine Otaria (Lt. Commander Giuseppe Vocaturo) torpedoes and badly damages 4662-ton British freighter Starcross several hundred miles west of Ireland. The crew abandons ship, and the Starcross is scuttled. Survivors are picked up by Canadian destroyer HMCS St. Francis, a former US (USS Bancroft) Clemson-class destroyer.

At 21:24, U-138 (Oblt.Wolfgang Lüth), on its fourth patrol out of Lorient and operating about 155 miles northwest of the Butt of Lewis, torpedoes and sinks 8593-ton British tanker Javanese Princess. Some accounts state this took place on 15 May, but the 20th seems more likely. There are 57 survivors (including some passengers) and one death. Survivors are picked up by HMS Faulknor, Lincoln Assurance (a tug).

U-103 (Viktor Schütze), on its fourth patrol out of Lorient and operating off Freetown, torpedoes and sinks 3575-ton Egyptian freighter Radames. There is one death. Some sources place this sinking on 25 May.

At 16:44, U-111 (Kptlt. Wilhelm Kleinschmidt), on its first patrol and operating near U-138, hits 13,307-ton British tanker San Felix. The San Felix develops a list to starboard but escapes further damage in a rain squall. It makes it to St. John's and is repaired.

Crete 20 May 1941
One of the seven Junkers Ju 52s shot down over Crete today, 20 May 1941.
Completing an arduous journey to which they were not suited, the last of four Italian coastal submarines, Perla, completes its journey to Bordeaux, France from Massawa on the Red Sea. The submarines are too small to carry enough supplies for lengthy journeys, and the sailors become malnourished on the trip around the Cape of Good Hope, but they complete the journey rather than surrender. The submarines now join the other Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic.

German freighter Dresden arrives in Bordeaux with prisoners captured by raider Atlantis from the Zamzam.

German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen reach the Norwegian coast, and the accompanying minesweepers are sent back to base. Aerial reconnaissance shows that the Royal Navy Home Fleet remains at anchor at Scapa Flow, Scotland. Pursuant to Operation Rheinübung, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen continue northward along the Norwegian coast to Bergen. At 13:00, neutral Swedish seaplane-cruiser Gotland sights the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and reports this (through circuitous means) to the Royal Navy.

A major USN Neutrality Patrol leaves Bermuda. It includes aircraft carrier USS Wasp and heavy cruiser Quincy (CA-39). This is Task Force 2 and it will cover over 4000 miles (6500 km) on its two-week patrol.

Convoy HX 128 departs from Halifax and BHX 128 from Bermuda.

Royal Navy sloop HMS Landguard (Lt. Commander Rowland E. S. Hugonin) is commissioned.

Destroyer USS Barton is laid down.

Crete 20 May 1941
Operation Mercury, 20 May 1941.

Battle of the Mediterranean: Unternehmen Merkur - Operation Mercury - commences. It is treated lightly by the Wehrmacht, almost as an afterthought to Operation Marita, and Adolf Hitler spends little time on it. The operation is directed by General Kurt Student in the King George Hotel in Athens and is exclusively a Luftwaffe operation (though reinforcement of the initial lodgement by sea is contemplated). The British know the Germans are coming from their Ultra decrypts, but there remains a gap between knowing the invasion is coming and being able to stop it.

The Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) of the 7th Flieger Division board their Junkers Ju 52 transport planes and DFS 230 gliders on mainland Greece around daylight and beginning dropping on Crete around 07:15-08:00. The drops are in the three battlegroups (Kampfgruppen) East, West and Center. There are several airfield objectives, as the plan is to seize at least one airfield and then sluice reinforcements into it to create a defensible bridgehead. One of the failings of the plan is that sea reinforcement is difficult not just because of the presence of the Royal Navy, but the lack of good landing sites. The targets are Maleme airfield and Chania in the west, Rethymno in the center, and Heraklion further east. Group West has the highest number of attacking troops. Overall, Luftwaffe transport losses are lighter than expected (seven are shot down).

Crete 20 May 1941
German Fallschirmjäger troops prepare for the mission to Crete.
The first landings are at Maleme, where many Fallschirmjäger land west of the airfield and form up for an advance on the airfield and Chania. The 21st, 22nd and 23rd New Zealand battalions in the vicinity respond quickly, and the Germans take heavy casualties. Some Junkers Ju 52s land on the airfield itself, and the surviving Germans (many planes are destroyed immediately) form a small perimeter at the southern end of the field. An Allied counterattack by the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion makes some progress but ultimately fails because of command confusion which results in no reinforcements being sent. As the day progresses, the Germans west of the field advance and take Hill 107, which overlooks the field. However, the field itself is still raked by Allied fire and unsuitable for normal use.

Crete 20 May 1941
Fallschirmjäger at Crete, 20 May 1941. Odds are good that this is a composite or otherwise doctored photo prepared for propaganda purposes.
In the afternoon, the second tranche of transports drop waves of Fallschirmjäger at Rethymno and Heraklion. The Germans attack Rethymno at 16:15 and Heraklion at 17:30. The Heraklion defenders - 14th Infantry Brigade, the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion, and the Greek 3rd, 7th and "Garrison" (ex-5th Crete Division) battalions - respond quickly, and the Germans essentially surround the field without penetrating it. The attackers have even less success at Rethymno and wind up spending more time trying to evade capture than secure the airfield.

As the day ends, the Germans are in the best shape at Maleme, but even there they have not secured the airfield. During the night, General Student decides to concentrate his entire effort on Maleme and basically leaves the other forces to fend for themselves. He bases this decision on a report that a Ju 52 flown by Captain Kleye managed to land at the airport while only subject to small arms fire. While the planes may be destroyed, this may be a way to get reinforcements to the island.

Crete 20 May 1941
Fallschirmjäger on Hill 107 overlooking Maleme airfield, 20 May 1941.
On the other side, General Bernard C. Freyberg authorizes a pullback at Maleme during the night, leaving Hill 107 uncontested. Freyberg makes plans for a set-piece attack on the 21st using the handful of British tanks available on the island. The entire invasion and control of Crete now depend upon who can concentrate the most force at one point: Maleme airfield.

The RAF and Luftwaffe battle over Crete, neither side using its airfields (the RAF withdrew to Alexandria on the 19th). The Luftwaffe sinks minesweeper HMS Widnes at Suda Bay (later salvaged by the Germans as UJ.2109). In addition, 353-ton armed trawler Kos XXIII is badly damaged and ultimately written off.

One of the air casualties is Flt. Lt. Montague T St. John "Pat" Pattle of RAF No. 80 Squadron, who has dozens of confirmed victories (the exact number of his actual victories is subject to debate but likely is somewhere around 30-40).

Crete 20 May 1941
Crete, 20 May 1941.
The Royal Navy has Force A-1, including battleship HMS Warspite, west of Crete. Force B is west of Cape Matapan but en route to join Force A-1. Force C, with two light cruisers, is in the Kaso Strait. Force D, also including light cruisers, is in the Antikythera Strait. Force C comes under air and motorboat attack, without results.

Italian 52 ton freighter Padre Eterno and 194-ton freighter Aghios Georgios spotted by Force A-1 and sunk by gunfire.

Italian destroyer escort Curatone is operating in the Gulf of Athens when it hits a mine and sinks.

Italian 5165 ton freighter Zeffiro and 4856-ton Perseo hit mines just off Cape Bon. The mines are newly laid Italian mines. The Zeffiro sinks, and the Perso is badly damaged.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Urge fires a torpedo at Italian destroyer Alpino (thought to be a tanker) near Lampedusa (midway between Malta and Tunisia) but misses.

German troops occupy the island of Antikythera, near Crete.

Another mission to ferry planes to Malta, Operation Splice, reverses its feint into the Atlantic from Gibraltar and heads into the Mediterranean. HMS Ark Royal and Furious carry 48 planes for the island.

Crete 20 May 1941
Fallschirmjäger of the 3./FjSR having just been dropped about one kilometer from the Tavronitis bridge, Maleme sector, Crete, 20 May 1941.
Second Lieutenant Roy Farran (in command of "C" Squadron of the 3rd King's Own Hussars) earns the Victoria Cross for actions near Canea. He manages to block a key road with tanks and has his men shoot a group of Fallschirmjäger who have captured a group of 40 hospital patients. See below for a darker side of this incident.

General Freyberg reports to Middle East Commander General Archibald Wavell:
At dawn on Tuesday, powerful German forces began heavy assault on Crete. Large numbers of paratroops jumped onto the island, and according to reports received so far, airborne troops have landed in transport aircraft. British and Greek units have engaged the enemy. A number of German paratroops have been killed and captured. The battles are continuing.
Wavell has limited options to help on Crete, as he already has a full commitment of the Royal Navy and RAF.

Winston Churchill announces the invasion in the House of Commons in the evening, saying:
The third matter is not yet known to the House. For the last few day our reconnoitring aeroplanes have noticed very heavy concentrations of German aircraft of all kinds on the aerodromes of Southern Greece.... It is now clear that these concentrations were the prelude to an attack upon Crete. An airborne attack in great strength started this morning, and what cannot fail to be a serious battle has begun and is developing.
Churchill may be correct in stating that he knew about the German preparations for the invasion due to reconnaissance aircraft, but he is careful not to mention the real source of his information: the Ultra decrypts.

Churchill elaborates on the invasion in a statement:
After a good deal of intense bombing of Suda Bay and the various aerodromes in the neighborhood, about 1,500 enemy troops, wearing New Zealand battle-dress, landed by gliders, parachutes and troop carriers in the Canea-Maleme area.
It is unclear why Churchill states that the Fallschirmjäger are wearing Allied uniforms, which would be a violation of the rules of warfare. What is clear now is that they were not, so either Churchill is misinformed or he is lying to the House of Commons intentionally for some reason.

In Malta, there are more Luftwaffe attacks. They damage Luqa airfield, damaging the control tower and destroying Beaufighter on the tarmac. There is one death.

Crete 20 May 1941
A Junkers Ju 52 comes in low over Crete, avoiding artillery fire (but exposing itself to ground fire), 20 May 1941.
Battle of the Indian Ocean: German raider Orion turns toward home. It will have to round the Cape of Good Hope, and South Africa is a British ally, so this is a dangerous trip. This will be a leisurely journey. The Orion carries a Japanese floatplane, which it acquired from supply ship Münsterland on 1 February.

Anglo/US Relations: US Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Shoshone (CGC-50) is transferred to the Royal Navy as HMS Landguard. This is the ninth transfer of USCGC vessels pursuant to Lend Lease.

Royal Navy submarine HMS Truant departs from Gibraltar to refit in the United States at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

German/Venezuelan Relations: The LA Times reports that German diplomats have been expelled, though on very cordial terms.

London artillery girls 20 May 1941
May 20, 1941. Ack-Ack Girls, members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), run to action at an anti-aircraft gun emplacement in the London area when the alarm is sounded. (AP Photo)
War Crimes: Second Lieutenant Roy Farran, who as described above wins the Military Cross for actions today near Canea, later writes that his troops encountered some Fallschirmjäger attempting to surrender. Farran claims to have ordered the surrendering Germans shot. He claimed that this was done on the spur of the moment.

Spy Stuff: Japanese Ambassador to the US Kichisaburō Nomura reports to Tokyo that the US is reading their coded messages. However, he claims that the most important diplomatic codes are still secure - when in fact they are not.

POWs: Polish Lieutenant J. Just, a prisoner of war of Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle, temporarily escapes but is quickly recaptured.

Winston Churchill, during his remarks in the House of Commons, refuses to comment on Rudolf Hess.

British Government: Prime Minister Churchill takes questions in the House of Commons. Among other things, he refuses requests to appoint a Minister of Civil Defence or a minister devoted to the development of military armored formations.

German Government: Apparently completely unconcerned about Operation Mercury, Adolf Hitler drives down to Munich to spend two days at his old apartment there - and not at nearby Berchtesgaden. What he does during such solitary visits is not known. His next meeting will be on the 22nd.

Queens New York 20 May 1941
Powell's house at the intersection of 195th Street and 58th Avenue, Queens, New York, May 20, 1941. (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)
China: The Chinese manage to shoot down an A6M Zero in fairly good condition near the city of Chengdu, north of Chungking (Chongqing). Marine Corps Major James McHugh gets drawings and data on the plane and passes them along both to the Navy Department in Washington and (much later) to Flying Tigers commander Claire Chennault. The Chinese drawings and analysis are good as far as they go, but the Zero's tail has been destroyed and this part of the fuselage remains a mystery to the Allies.

The Japanese launch the Jidong Operation. Its goal is to capture the eastern part of Hebei Province.

Chinese Communists form the CCP Central China Bureau.

Holocaust: Germany bans emigration of Jews from France and Belgium in anticipation of an imminent broader solution to their situation (which is not specified). While this obviously is ominous, at this time it may still mean their transport to newly captured territories in the East for use as slaves rather than outright extermination.

American Homefront: The LA Times reports that the mother of Desi Arnaz, who is a US citizen at least since marrying Lucille Ball on 30 November 1940, is told that she must return to Cuba (which she has left for Mexico) in order to emigrate to the United States with a quota number. The Arnaz family is not welcome in Cuba since Fulgencio Batista seized the family's properties in the 1930s. Note that Arnaz did not mention this in his autobiography "A Book" (1976), where he states that the family fled to Miami.

Young Women's Republican Club 20 May 1941
The Young Women's Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut has a "smoker" party on 20 May 1941 to show that they enjoy wild parties just as much as men do (photo and story were in the 16 June 1941 Life magazine).

May 1941

May 1, 1941: British Hold Tobruk
May 2, 1941: Anglo-Iraq War
May 3, 1941: Liverpool Hammered
May 4, 1941: Hitler Victory Speech
May 5, 1941: Patriots Day
May 6, 1941: Stalin In Command
May 7, 1941: May Blitz
May 8, 1941: Pinguin Sunk
May 9, 1941: U-110 Captured
May 10, 1941: Hess Flies Into History
May 11, 1941: The Hess Peace Plan
May 12, 1941: Tiger Arrives Safely
May 13, 1941: Keitel's Illegal Order
May 14, 1941: Holocaust in Paris
May 15, 1941: Operation Brevity
May 16, 1941: Blitz Ends
May 17, 1941: Habbaniya Relieved
May 18, 1941: Croatia Partitioned
May 19, 1941: Bismarck at Sea
May 20, 1941: Invasion of Crete
May 21, 1941: Robin Moore Sinking
May 22, 1941: Royal Navy Destruction Off Crete
May 23, 1941: Crete Must Be Won
May 24, 1941: Bismarck Sinks Hood
May 25, 1941: Lütjens' Brilliant Maneuver
May 26, 1941: Bismarck Stopped
May 27, 1941: Bismarck Sunk
May 28, 1941: Crete Lost
May 29, 1941: Royal Navy Mauled Off Crete
May 30, 1941: Sorge Warns, Stalin Ignores
May 31, 1941: British Take Baghdad


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