Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Action on Crete

The Allies wanted to hold the island of Crete as the site of an air base from which bombing raids against the Ploesti oilfields, vital to the German war machine, could be launched. However, the demands of other fronts left Crete weakly garrisoned by just 35,000 men (British, Commonwealth, and Greek troops), poorly armed and subject to noncohesive command. Moreover, the harsh, mountainous terrain of Crete impeded defense. Artillery and air support were virtually nil.

On May 20, German paratroops of Fliegerkorps 11, under General Kurt Student, landed at both ends of Crete. The Allies responded by broadcasting defenders across the island, spreading them thin. For their part, the Germans had underestimated the size of the island’s garrison and had to call for reinforcements from the island of Milos. The troop transports were either dispersed or sunk by British air and sea attacks. Despite this blow to the attackers, the paratroopers managed to take the airfield at Maleme, which quickly turned the tide hopelessly against the defenders.

On May 26, Lt. Gen Sir Bernard Freyberg, in command of the garrison, reported that his position was untenable. After securing permission to evacuate, he ordered a retreat on May 27 to Sphakia while troops at Heraklion were quickly evacuated by British warships. The defenders of the Retimo airfield were cut off and captured. In the meantime, the main force, at Sphakia, fell under heavy air attack, and the evacuation ships were pummeled. Three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk, and 17 other vessels were damaged. By May 30, the evacuation had to be aborted, leaving 5,000 men still on the island. Most of these were doomed to capture, but a small body escaped to join the Cretan resistance and were active until the German withdrawal from Crete in 1944.

After the Allied evacuation, Italian troops were sent to occupy the eastern Cretan provinces of Siteia and Lasitho while German troops held the rest of the island. Total losses at the Battle of Crete were 1,742 British, Greek, and Commonwealth troops killed, 2,225 wounded, and 11,370 captured. Royal Navy losses were some 2,000 men killed and 183 wounded. Losses to the Germans testified to the ferocity of the Allied defense: 7,000 were killed. Viewed by Adolf Hitler as a Pyrrhic victory, the Battle of Crete persuaded him to ban further Airborne Assaults as too costly, and, for the rest of the war, the Germans never launched another major paratroop operation.
The fight for Crete, the biggest operation of German airborne forces actually employed from the air, was over. It was as if a revolution had occurred, and no one has described that better and in more precise terms than Major General J. F. C. Fuller: 

Of all of the operations of the war, the attack from the air on Crete was by far the leader when it came to audaciousness. Neither before or afterwards was something similar attempted.
It was not an air attack but rather an attack from the air. The fighting was also not decided in the air. Instead, it was decided on the ground and without the support of a land army.
Its most salient feature was the aerial transport and the lifting of an army in the air. Just like the Battle of Cambray in 1917, this attack signaled a revolution in tactics.

The fighting on Crete, which also turned out to be the main aerial employment of the airborne corps in the entire war, was legitimized, in the final analysis, by this praise. But the consequences that Crete had for the German airborne corps were so important and so decisive that this operation had to be presented in great detail. Let us examine some of the consequences of this operation. 

It is difficult for me to write about the Battle for Crete. For me, as the commander of the German air-landed forces that conquered Crete, this name is a bitter memory. I miscalculated when I recommended this attack, and this not only meant the loss of many paratroopers, who were my sons, but also, in the end, the death of the German airborne force, which I had personally created. 

That was the conclusion drawn by Student after the war. What happened after Crete? Crete was considered a grandiose victory of the airborne corps. It was also, at the same time, the defeat of the same. Once again, Student: 

On 19 July, on the occasion of the presentation of the Knight’s Cross recipients for the Crete Operation at the Führer Headquarters in Rastenburg, Hitler said to me: 

“Crete proved that the days of the airborne corps are over! Airborne forces are a weapon of surprise. Your surprise factor has since worn out.” 

He had the highest words of praise for the performance of the men. Over the next few months, I would feel the greater import of those words of Hitler’s, when the airborne forces were sent to Russia as ground forces.

Some of the airborne forces still on Crete and others returned to their peacetime garrisons on Germany, where they were greeted with great jubilation, when the war with the Soviet Union started.

For instance, the III./FJR 1 heard the special report concerning the start of Barbarossa as it was crossing the Danube south of Budapest on its way to the Wildflecken Training Area, where the entire regiment was to be given some rest and be reconstituted.

The General Staff of the Army and the Führer Headquarters as well seemed to focus on the losses sustained in the taking of Crete. The Reich Air Ministry was shocked by the amount of transport aircraft that had been shot down or crash landed, even though the considerably smaller operations over Holland had cost more machines. But the loss of 143 Ju 52’s, not including 8 that disappeared without a trace (presumably lost at sea) and 121 damaged aircraft was a number that cut to the quick.

Soon there were more than enough advice givers who attempted to convince Hitler that the employment of airborne forces was something akin to a lottery. Hitler allowed himself to be convinced by this whispering campaign, especially since he also considered the losses at Crete too high and did not want to initiate another operation that was so doubtful. He directed that the paratroopers were to be employed in the Soviet Union on the ground.

That might have worked well if the entire airborne force had been employed as an organic whole. Instead, however, the forces were split up into small contingents and employed piecemeal on different parts of the front.

Further reading: Beevor, Antony. Crete: The Battle and the Resistance. Denver: Westview Press, 1994; Forty, George. Battle of Crete. Hersham, U.K.: Ian Allan, 2002; Shores, Christopher, Brian Cull, and Nicola Malizia. Air War for Yugoslavia Greece and Crete 1940–41. London: Grub Street, 1993; Willingham, Matthew. Perilous Commitments: Britain’s Involvement in Greece and Crete 1940–41. London: Spellmount, 2004.

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