Operation Mercury 20 May–1 June 1941

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Map Code: Ax01639

Both Britain and Germany considered Crete a vital strategic territory. Hitler saw that a firm hold on southeastern Europe would provide cover to the rear of an invasion into Russia, whilst the British wanted Crete as a base from which to launch attacks against the German eastern flank and North Africa. The invasion of Crete in May 1941 under Operation Mercury primarily involved parachute troops of the Fallschirmjäger, which landed in three main groups along the island, the greatest number of paratroopers used anywhere in World War II. Enigma intercepts meant that the British were aware of the projected invasion; German intelligence significantly underestimated the numbers of Allied troops on the island. The initial German attack on 20 May was repulsed with reasonable success, however a poorly timed withdrawal from Maleme Airfield allowed the Germans to gain a foothold. On 28 May, after fierce fighting, the Allies accepted that evacuation was inevitable, and troops made their way to Khora Sfakion in the south, where Royal Navy ships were waiting. However, there were not enough ships to transport the huge numbers of evacuees and after four nights many men were left behind and taken prisoner.

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