On This Day May 20, 1941: Nazis Launch First Ever Airborne Invasion of Island Fortress Against Crete


For the first time in history, an invading force used the air as its medium to invade an island fortress. The Nazis called it Operation Mercury but to the rest of the world, May 21, 1941 would be the start of the epic Battle of Crete, one of the most decisive battles of all of World War II.

Thousands of elite paratroopers were dropped on the island on the morning of May 20th which locals referred to as “umbrellas falling from the sky.” Waiting for the invading Germans were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and British troops who had fled from the Greek mainland when it was overtaken by the Axis— and a restless local population that would fight until the end to defend its land.

Elderly villagers were only armed with pitchforks and kitchen utensils— and muskets that hadn’t been used since Crete’s last revolution against the Turks a few decades earlier. Thousands of Germans lost their lives in the early days of the battle— many even before they hit the ground as locals shot them out of the sky or killed them as they dangled from olive trees in their parachutes.

Numerous Nazi officials would later admit that they weren’t expecting this kind of resistance, nor had they encountered such a ferocious backlash from a local population anywhere else in Europe.

The Battle of Crete caught the world’s attention with headlines about the invasion and resistance making front page news everywhere. On July 28, 1941, The London Times reported that “500 Cretan women have been deported to Germany for taking part in the defense of their native land.”

The Battle lasted for 10 days and the Nazis eventually won— but the resistance lasted until the very last day of the occupation several years later, causing a blow to the Nazis who were forced to divert valuable resources to the island which were intended for other battles throughout Europe.


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