JTS Battles of North Africa 1941 – Invasion Crete!

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 0864 Kreta Landung von Fallschirmjägern
frontier wars 728x90 KS

On the morning of May 20, 1941, German paratroopers filled the skies over the Greek island of Crete, kicking off the first airborne focused invasion in military history.  Over the course of the next thirteen days, through a combination of sheer German moxie and bold offensive action on the one hand, and poor allied coordination, communication failures and tactical hesitation on the other, the fallschirmjägers would overcome great odds, and seize control of the important strategic isle.  Reliving this dramatic battle, Grogheads is locked and loaded aboard a Junkers Ju-52 and ready to jump with the elite German forces.  Together with John Tiller Software, join us for a Battles of North Africa 1941 After Action Report detailing the first scenario of the daring assault on Crete and the crucial airfield at Maleme.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 0864 Kreta Landung von Fallschirmjägern

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 0864 Kreta Landung von Fallschirmjägern

By: Craig H. Handler,

Although not the focus of the latest JTS release, Battles of North Africa 1941 ships with a generous number of scenarios covering the German airborne invasion of Crete. These scenarios cover the entire span of the nearly two week battle, and showcase the dramatic landings at Maleme and Heraklion, and the fighting around Canea, Retimo and Galatas.  The first scenario of the pack takes place in Western Crete at Maleme, and begins after dawn on the first day of the invasion.

Scenario Description

Scenario briefing

Success of the entire German operation hinges on a quick capture of three (3) airfields located at Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion.

Screenshot 2018 12 18 Operation Mercury

Operation Mercury – Map subject to copyright. All rights reserved.

Maleme is the most critical of the three due to its proximity to the capital, Canea, and to the deep-water port of Suda Bay.  It is also the largest of the three airfields, capable of supporting heavy transport aircraft.  For the plan, known as Fuhrer’s Directive 28, or more commonly, Unternehmen Merkur (Operation Mercury), to succeed; the airfield must be secured quickly so that Gebirgsjaegers of the 5th Gebirgs Division may fly in and rapidly reinforce the airborne troops who will already be fighting in pitched battle across the island.

W Maleme MAP

The plan of attack on Maleme – Map subject to copyright. All rights reserved.

The task of securing the primary objective of Maleme Airfield in the initial wave of the invasion falls to Kampfgruppe West, code name Comet.  Commanded by Generalmajor Eugen Meindl, the gruppe consists of  approximately 1,600 men, with 52 light guns and mortars formed from elements of Fliegerkorps XI and the 7th Flieger Division.  Opposing the fallschirmjägers and glider troops are mainly New Zealanders of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions, recently evacuated from the Greek mainland.  A mixture of Greek and British troops and Cretan volunteers round out the defense.

Our area of operations with the key objectives of: (i) the airfield; (ii) Hill 107; and (iii) the Royal Air Force Camp are highlighted on the scenario overview map.

Overview turn 1 OBJ

Turn 1 – Overview

A closer look at the primary objective zone and the terrain that will be fought over, minutes before the first paratroopers arrive over the airfield.

Turn 1 Maleme AF

Turn 1 – Pre-landing at Maleme Airfield

At approximately 0800 hrs, the unmistakable hum of German transport aircraft is heard over the target area. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of parachutes began to fill the sky.  Men of Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1, I Battalion under the command of Major Walter Koch land closest to the objective, just west of the airfield and nearly on top of the RAF Camp, which is sandwiched between the airfield and the strategic hill designated Point 107.  The hill provides a commanding overview of the airfield and securing it from any occupying defenders should be a priority.  The remaining paratroopers of the initial wave drift westward, landing in open fields depressingly far from the action, where they are most desperately needed.  Based upon the distance of their landing zones to the objectives, I anticipate they will not contribute to the fight for several turns. I will try to marshal them quickly and use National Road 90 to cross the Tavronitis Riverbed and reach the airfield to the east.

Turn 1 landings OBJ

Turn 1 landings and direction of action

The beleaguered troops who land closest the objectives are instantly taken under heavy fire.  They suffer staggering casualties within moments of their arrival over the island, not even having the chance to prepare their weapons and fire back at the enemy.  History tells us that the Germans suffered horrendous losses in the opening hours of the attack, some units sustaining nearly 80% casualties.  Many of the paratroopers were killed by the defenders while still drifting to the ground.  Likewise, the glider-borne troops were viciously mauled by accurate mortar fire, which fell upon them while trying to escape from their exposed gliders.  Major Koch was wounded during the battle with 2.Kompanie commander Hauptmann Gustav Altmann being taken prisoner of war and 3.Kompanie and 4.Kompanie commanders Oberleutnants Wulf von Plessen and Kurt Sarrazin both being killed in action.  On this day, our gruppe does no better, taking egregious losses by the end of turn 1.

End of turn 1 disposition

Turn 1 disposition – 94 men KIA

Turn 2 brings early success.  The first airfield objective point at the northwest end of the airfield is captured.  The spirits of our men are further lifted when fallschirmjägers of Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1, II Battalion arrive and begin dropping onto the island. These crack paratroopers under the command of Major Edgar Stenzler made history by capturing the Belgian Fort at Eben-Emael earlier in the war, and are considered the elite veterans of this new form of warfare.

Turn 2 arrivals

Turn 2 – Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1 arrives

Unfortunately, the arriving units continue to land substantially west of the objective, the transport pilots perhaps too cautious and weary of the allied bofors guns, which are positioned around the airfield. These troops are even further afield then the mis-dropped units who landed earlier in the morning, and as such, will have to regroup and move quickly east to have any appreciable impact on the battle. It comes as no surprise that Major Stenzler and all of his Kompanie commanders survived the battle relatively unscathed, although 7.Kompanie commander, Oberleutnant Barmetler is reported as having been wounded in action. This is in stark contrast to the command sections of the other units who landed closer to the action, who suffered extremely heavy losses.

Turn 2 landings OBJ

Turn 2 – Landing too far to the West

As the reinforcements begin arriving, I Battalion presses the attack on the western companies still defending the airfield.  Although the first objective fell after a fierce exchange of gunfire and a quick bloody assault, defending kiwi units are dug in well and offer stiff resistance.  Still, the early victory at the airfield appears to have improved upon German progress from the 1941 battle. Historically, by nightfall on the first day of the battle, the Germans had made only nominal progress in pushing some of the defenders off of Hill 107.  However, none of the initial objectives of the invasion had been achieved and the airfield remained firmly under allied control (although this situation was soon to change drastically to the advantage of the Germans).  Here, our men are pushing forward apace of their historical counterparts.  Of course, this is not without cost.

The second turn comes to an end with German casualties continuing to mount.

Turn 3 opens with deadly combat on the western end of the airfield and at the RAF Camp on the approach to the northern slope of Hill 107.  The defending Kiwis yield more of the western end of the airfield to the relentless German assault, and the RAF Camp, despite offering ferocious resistance will not hold out for long.

Turn 3 West AF falling OBJ

Turn 3 – The western end of the airfield is under pressure

By the end of Turn 3, the attacking Germans have sustained staggering casualties, totaling nearly four (4) times that of the defenders, but the aggressive action and typical German confidence in their own superior fighting prowess is somehow paying off.  More progress is made at the airfield and the RAF Camp is doomed; the defenders on the verge of collapse.

End of turn 3 heavy casualties

Turn 3 – High body count

In turn 4, I Battalion presses on with its assault of the RAF Camp, which is being bolstered by two Matilda II tanks from Detachment B, 7th Royal Tank Regiment. Our troops in I Battalion are only equipped with light anti-tank weapons, the few 75mm recoilless artillery pieces brought to the battle not yet in position.  For now, the lightly armed infantry will focus on the Camp and try to avoid the tanks until direct anti-tank support moves into position.  Historically, during the battle all of the tanks from 7th RTR were lost.

Meanwhile, our final reinforcements from Luftlande-Sturm-Regiment 1 arrive. This force is under the command of Major Otto Scherber.  Major Scherber did not survive the battle, and nearly all of his Kompanie commanders, including 10.Kompanie commander Oberleutnant Schulte-Sasse, 11.Kompanie commander Oberleutnant Jung and 12.Kompanie commander Oberleutnant Gansewig, were killed in action, as well.  The commander of 9.Kompanie, Hauptmann Rudolf Witzig was wounded in the battle, but made it off the island alive.

Turn 4 arrivals

Turn 4 – Major Scherber arrives

Major Scherber and his men land on the extreme eastern edge of the battlefield. Not ideal for supporting the attack on the prime airfield objective, but this does place his command in a much better position than those from I and II Battalions who landed far afield to the west. There are good roads leading north and east to the main highway and the paratroopers are in a good position to seize Maleme town and seal off any possible route of retreat by the defenders. If they make good progress, they may be able to participate in the assault on Hill 107, and/or exert pressure on the eastern end of the airfield.

Turn 4 landings east OBJ

Turn 4 – Team Scherber landing zones

By the end of turn 4, the RAF Camp has fallen, yielding to the Axis forces their first high value objective location. With the collapse of the camp, the airfield is now threatened from the south and Hill 107 is under attack from the north.  Furthermore, badly needed reinforcements from the west are organizing and are finally nearing the main line of resistance.

Turn 4 RAF Camp falls

Turn 4 – RAF Camp falls

Turn 5 begins and the early morning fog and clouds are beginning to clear. Visibility is improving and some of the German light artillery has been set up and is ready to lend fire support.  The guns will be used to soften up positions in the airfield and on the hill and to maybe take a few shots at those lurking Matilda tanks, although the threat presented by the Allied armor is yet to really materialize.

Turn 5 disposition

Turn 5 – Command report

No additional objectives fall during this turn, but the Germans are consolidating their gains in the west and trading heavy fire with nearby defenders.  Casualties continue to rise, but the allies have taken a beating too. Major Scherber continues to move north and has the town at Maleme under heavy fire.

Turn 5 casualties very heavy

Turn 5 – Casualty report

Turn 6 passes much as turn 5. Further maneuvering by German forces to consolidate gains and to tighten the noose around remaining key objectives. The northern side of Hill 107 is now under direct assault and defenders pinned in Maleme Town are taking heavy casualties from the unexpected approach of Major Scherber’s III Battalion.

Turn 6 disposition advancing on Hill 107 and town Maleme

Turn 6 – Advancing on Hill 107 and threatening the town

Casualties on both sides continue to rise. The butcher’s bill is high this day for both the Allies and the Axis, alike.

Turn 6 casualties

Turn 6 – Casualty report

Turn 7 sees the German positioning from the prior two turns paying off.  II Battalion is now arriving at the front lines and is finally in combat.  The weight of their arrival has permitted surviving elements of I Battalion to push on toward the center, and main objective of the airfield.  Hill 107 is under heavy assault from the north and south and Major Scherber’s men have entered the town to the east, which will soon fall under German control.  The German situation is most certainly improving, but the men are exhausted and time is running out.

Turn 7 casualties moving east on AF and taking the town OBJ

Turn 7 – Tactical maneuvering

Artillery support is now periodically falling on Allied positions and German 7.5cm pak 40s are targeting the Matilda tanks, but so far, having little effect.

Turn 7 poisitioning of guns

Turn 7 – positioning of the guns

As turn 8 commences, the town at Maleme falls to Major Scherber, his men taking no pause to enjoy the victory. The most mobile elements continue to speed through the town moving west on Highway 90 toward the airfield.  The remaining defenders on Hill 107 are scattering and will yield their strategic positions to the Germans in short order. I Battalion units with enough strength to push on are moving on the main airfield objective, supported by II Battalion units who have arrived from the west. German casualties are approaching 400 killed and wounded, nearly 30% of the attacking force. The toll on the allied defenders is grim, as well.

Turn 8 casualties town in hand

Turn 8 – Maleme captured, but heavy casualties overall

It is now turn 9 and the window for a German victory is rapidly closing, but the morale of the hard-pressed and bloodied units remains high and they can sense that success in within their grasp.  The remaining defenders on Hill 107 are killed and the German troops occupy the strategic position, using its elevated position to rain down fire on the airfield.  Points gained from taking control of the Hill gives Germany a draw, but there is still one final chance to achieve a victory.

Turn 9 North hill falls AF assault

Turn 9 – Hill 107 falls  and the final assault on the airfield begins

The majority of II Battalion is now in the fight, attacking targets occupying the main defensive positions securing the airfield.  The Allied defenders on the airfield are taking heavy disciplined fire from three sides, and sustaining steady casualties, significantly weakening the position which will soon be vulnerable to assault.

Turn 9 casualties misdropped units arrive OBJ

Turn 9 casualties misdropped units arrive OBJ

As turn 9 comes to a close, the Germans are almost in position to take the central defensive position at the airfield, which is now also under fire from Major Scherber’s units approaching from the east.

Turn 10 begins and a shwarm of four (4) Ju-87B Close Air Support aircraft are finally available for tasking. Although welcome, it is too late for them to play any true role in the attack.

Turn 10 CAS finally available too late

Turn 10 – CAS available too late to lend a hand

Still, the Stukas will be called in to dive on the Matilda tanks for one last chance to remove the threat, which thus far has been more psychological than actual.

Turn 10 CAS on tanks OBJ

Turn 10 – Air support on tanks

It is the last turn of the battle, and as such, the last chance for the fallschirmjägers to take the airfield and snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. After pouring high volumes of direct fire into the Kiwi positions, a combined assault force of I and II Battalion troopers moves in for a close assault on the main airfield objective.

Turn 10 main AF objective under assault OBJ

Turn 10 – Primary Airfield objective under direct assault

The assault succeeds! Although some defending units remain on the northern outskirts of the airfield, the primary objective of the mission is now mostly in German hands. In addition to control of the airfield, Hill 107, the RAF Camp and the town at Maleme have all been secured.

Turn 10 AF captured assuring victory of Operation Merkur OBJ

Turn 10 – Airfield captured assuring victory of Operation Mercury

History diverged from the experience of our scenario in that the Maleme airfield was captured by the Germans early on in the second day of the invasion.  This was made possible primarily due to allied miscommunication, poor decision making and tactical hesitation.  Indeed, on the evening of May 20, the 22nd New Zealand Infantry Battalion abandoned Hill 107, leaving Maleme Airfield virtually undefended.  Earlier in the day, the Germans were able to cut communications between two companies of the 22nd Battalion occupying the western edge of the airfield.  Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew VC, who was on the eastern side of the airfield lost contact with these “cut-off” units. The lack of communication caused Andrew to assume that the western most companies had been overrun. When his request for reinforcements from the 23rd Battalion was denied by his superior, Andrew withdrew under cover of the night in an effort to regroup.  However, Captain Campbell, the commander of the companies whose communications had been severed learned of the withdrawal the following morning, and then he too also withdrew.  In history, this misunderstanding is credited as resulting in the the loss of the critical airfield at Maleme and permitting the Germans to reinforce the invasion virtually unopposed.  Although there would be many more allied tactical errors, communication failings and poor coordinations of effort during the defense of Crete, the errors that led to the fall of the airfield at Maleme is likely the one most directly responsible for costing the allies the island.

Final German casualties in the scenario are 412 men killed or wounded, with the Allied death toll reaching 348.

Turn 10 final casualty report

Turn 10 – Final casualty report

An overview of the battlefield at the end of the scenario.

Final overview

Turn 10 – Final overview

The surviving units around the key objectives with the fog of war lifted.

Final AF

Turn 10 – German and Allied final positions exposed

The battle was not won by Germany until the very last turn of the scenario, but ultimately, the Grogheads were able to achieve a minor tactical victory. We’ll take it!


Victory…sweet, sweet victory.

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