World War II Mediterranean Islands: Crete


Figure 1.--Here we see a German parachute soldier during the battle for Crete (May 1941). We are not sure who the civilan in front is, perhaps a prisoner.

Crete is the large Greek island south of the mainland. A glance at the map shows the strategic importance of Crete. Air bases at Maleme and Heraklion and a naval base at Suda Bay are importabnt to controling the Eastern Mediterranean. The British after Mussolini attacked invaded Greece, occupied Greece (November 1940). This drew the attention of OKW to Crete because in brought the critical Ploesti oil fields within in range of British bombers. Fortunately for the Royal Navy, most of the key Mediterranean battles with the Italian Navy were fought before the Germans seized Crete. Greek, British and Commonwealth forces withdrawing from Greece after the stunning German campaign in the Balkans, attempted a stand on Crete. There they were reinforced by fresh New Zealand, British and Australian forces. Hitler ordered an airborn invasion of Crete. General Kurt Student's parachutists attacked (May 20). The ensuing battle linvolved 10-years of intense fighting. The German assault was daring, but very costly. In the period before Barabrossa, the Germans were still accustomed to largely light casualties. The Crete invasion nearly failed but the British after heavy fighting had to abandon Crete as well. The Allies retreated across the mountains to Hora Sfakion and other southern areas where they were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy (May 30). The invasion of Crete had two consequences. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that Hitler would never again allow a parachute assault. (Many military historians see the operation as aimed at the wrong island. Malta would have been a more strategically important prize.) The cost of taking Crete was a factor in Hitler hesitating to launch an assault of Malta. The Allies were so impressed with the German paratroopers that they formed their own parachute units that would play important roles, most prominatey to support the D-Day invasion. The Germans occupied the Island for 4 years. Luftwaffe seaplanes operated from Suda Bay. The primary Axis concern at the time was esorting supply convoys to the Afrika Korps. The Resistance with British support organized even as the British were withdrawing. As in the rest of occupied Europe, German reprisals were brutal. The mountains and caves offered hiding places. The monks in their monasteries protected the resistance fighters at enormous risk. The Resistance movement abduction the German commander, General Kreipe (1944). . The Germans withdrew from Crete with virtually no casualties as part of thir withdrawl from the Balkans (October 1944).

Geography

Crete is the large Greek island south of the mainland. A glance st the map shows the stratehic importance of Crete. Air bases at Maleme and Heraklion and a naval base at Suda Bay are important to controling the Eastern Mediterranean.

Italian Invasion of Egypt (September 1940)

Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after declaring war on Britain and France (June 1940), invaded Egypt in force. The aborted invasion of France (June 1940) achieved Mussolini nothing. As Italy had colonies to the west and south of British Egypt, the obvious next step was to seize Egypt and Suez. The great prize was of course the Suez Canal and the Royal Navy base at Alexandria. Egypt at the time was defended by only a small British force of about 30,000 men--the Western Desert Force. Mussolini ordered an invasion of Egypt from Libya, hoping to seize the Suez Canal (September 13, 1940). A huge Italian army moved a few miles into Egypt and then set up defensive positions after encountering nimimal Briish resistance. The British simply withdrew in good order. A huge Italian force set up a number of fortified perimiter camps around Sidi Barani, still 300 miles short of Cairo and the Canal. The Germans had offered to assist the Italians, including providing tanks. Mussolini rejected the offere as unecessary even though Italian tannks were small and lightly armored.

Italian Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini seized Albania while the world was focused on the NAZI dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (March-April 1939). Next after declaring war on the British and French (June 1940) and invading Egypt (September 1940), Mussolini without consulting Hitler invaded Greece from his new bases in Albania (October 28, 1940). The Greeks were greatly outnumbered, but within a month the Greek army had pushed the Italians back into Albania.

German Calculations

Hitler was furious when he learned of Mussolini's invasion of Greece. He was on his train, traveling to Italy after a fristrating meeting with Generalismo Francisco Franco. He had notbeen consulted. In factvhe never consulted Mussolini before his major actions, and Mussolini had time the invasion to return the favor. But even more importahtly, Mussolini's actions upset his carefully laid plans for the Balkans at the time he was beginning plans for Barbarossa. Hitler's attempt to conquer Britain had failed and he was turning his attention east. Mussolini's actions complicated his plans. The invasion of Greece had pushed a basically Fascist state into turning to the British. This destabilized what had been an essentially secure southern flank for the invasion of the Soviet Union into a potential military threat. Hitler was also unwilling to have his major Axis ally humiliated. An Allied Greece provided the potential for air bases that could threaten the Ploesti oilfields, Germany's major secure source of petroleum. (Under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (1939), the Societs were delivering oil to the Germans, but this was hardly secure and would of course end when the Germans invaded. Thus Ploesti was critical to the NAZI war effort. NAZI diplomacy had secured the cooperartion of (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria). Bulgaria was especially important because it bordered on northeastern Greece and was essential to allow the Germans to get to Greece.

British Occupation (November 1940)

The British with the consent of the Greeks, occupied Greece (November 1940). This drew the attention of OKW to Crete because in brought the critical Ploesti oil fields within in range of British bombers. Romania was to be an important participant in Barbarossa and Romanian targets besides Poloesti were within range of airfields on Crete. Hitler was particulary concerned. [Brown, pp. 101-02.] His effort to secure his southern flank in preparation for Barbarosa could be undone. More immeditely, Crete also provided the Royal Navy with needed harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. Fortunately for the Royal Navy, many of the key Mediterranean battles with the Italian Navy were fought while they still held Crete. Thus Axis airpower did not play a role in this critical point of the War. The Royal Navy used Suda Bay and a refueling pont, extending the range of the fleet operating out of Alexandria.

Mediterranean Naval Battles (1940-41)

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenge the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean . The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterrean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean was the small British bastion at Malta. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Aftrika Corps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis. The Mediterranean can not be viewed as entirely a naval war. The relatively small size of the Mediterranean meant that air power in particular could be borought to bear against naval forces and ground fotces seized naval bases as well as knocking two major powers (France and Italy) out of the War.

Axis Invasion of Greece: Operation Marita (April 1941)

Yugoslavia lay between the Reich and Greece. The Yugoslav coup rejecting the Axis provided the excuse for Hitler to order the attack. The NAZI attack began with the Luftwaffe terror bombing of Nelgrade (April 6). Unlike World War I, Yugoslav military resistance quickly collapsed, leaving Greece exposed. The Wehrmact called the invasion and occupation of Greece “Operation Marita. Unlike Yugoslavia, the Wehrmacht had to fight in Greece, primarily because Churchill had rushed troops from Egypt to support his Greek Ally. The British rushed a force including Commonwealth soldiers ( Australian and New Zealand) to Greece. The force was formed by weakened the Desert Army that was about to seize Italian-held Libya. The Greek-British forced were also quickly defeated. The Germans reached Athens and raised the swastika flag over the Acropolis (April 27). The 57,000 Allied troops in Greece has to evacuate. The Royal Navy evacuated the defeated Greek and British Armies. Some were taken to Crete to reinforce the 14,000-man garrison.

Battle for Crete: Operation Merkur (May 1941)

Major General Löhr as German armies were conquering Yugoslavia and beginning to move south into Greece submitted a proppal to Reichsmarschall Göring, Luftwaffe Commander, that Crete should be taken by the parachutte troops of Fliegerkorps XI led by General Kurt Student (April 6). Hitler with Yugoslavia and Greeks defeated issued Führer Directive No. 28 (April 25). It was the orders for Operation Merkur which envisioned the seizure of Crete by an air-sea invasion. Crete was seen as an important potenial air base to be used against the British in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greek, British and Commonwealth forces withdrawing from Greece after the stunning German campaign in the Balkans, attempted a stand on Crete. There were also 11 Greek militia batalions. There they were reinforced by fresh New Zealand, British and Australian forces. New Zealand General Bernard Freyberg was given command of thecforces on Crete (April 30). He commanded about 30,000 men, but they little heavy equipment. Most heavy arms had been abandoned during the Greek retreat. After securing Greece, the Luftwaffe began attacking the airfiekds on Crete. This forced the RAF to withdraw its squadrons to Egypt. Hitler ordered an airborn invasion of Crete. The planning planning was turned over to Göring and the Luftwaffe. Fliegerkorps XI assembled a force of ten bomber groups, 500 air transports (Ju-52s). The invasion force consisted of an assault regiment, parchutectroops, and reinforced mountain division. Admiral Schuster who commanded the Southeast Area was ordered to transport a second mountain division and heavy weapons by sea. [Brown, pp. 102ff.] General Kurt Student's parachutists attacked (May 20). The Luftwaffe had already achieved air superiority. The ensuing battle linvolved 10-years of intense fighting. The German assault was daring, but very costly. More than 4,000 Fallschirmjäger were killed during the fighting on Crete. In the period before Barabrossa, the Germans were still accustomed to largely light casualties. The Crete invasion nearly failed but the British after heavy fighting had to abandon Crete as well. The Allies retreated across the mountains to Hora Sfakion and other southern areas where they were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy (May 30). About half the garrison managed to escape. The invasion of Crete had two important consequences. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that Hitler would never again allow a parachute assault. (Many military historians see the operation as aimed at the wrong island. Malta would have been a more strategically important prize.) The cost of taking Crete was a factor in Hitler hesitating to launch an assault on Malta. The Allies were so impressed with the German paratroopers that they formed their own parachute units that would play important roles, most prominatey to support the D-Day invasion.

German Occupation (1941-44)

The Germans occupied the Island for 4 years. Crete did not, however, prove to be a major asset for the Axis. It would have earlier when the Italian Navy was trying to defeat the British Royal Navy, but these battles had already been fought and the Italian Navy decisively weakened by the time Crete was in German hands. Theoretically, Crete could have given the Axis the ability to support Rommel's Afrika Korps as well as engage the Royal Navy at sea as well as its main base at Alexandria. While Crete was located in the cental Mediterranean, the Royal Navy had already engaged the Italian fleet and seriously weakened it. The Luftwaffe was, however, not capeable of taking advantage of the opportunities presented. The Luftwaffe was in 1941 the strongest in the world. It was not, however, the emense air force the United States was beginning to build. Nor did it have a significant strategic component capable of long range operations. The Luftwaffe was a tactical air force and Crete was not close enough to Libya and Egypt to be able to provide significant tactical support to the Afrika Korps which entered the westetn Desert to bolster the faltering Italian army. In addition, furthest from Hitler's mind at the time was the Mediterranran. TheLuftwaffe was faced with the enormous job of destroying the Red Air Force as part of Barbarossa. Thus OKW was at the time concentrating forces, not disbursing them to marginal theaters. The Luftwaffe did deploy seaplanes to Suda Bay. The primary Axis concern at the time was esorting supply convoys to the Afrika Korps. The Resistance with British support organized even as the British were withdrawing. As in the rest of occupied Europe, German reprisals were brutal. The mountains and caves offered hiding places. The monks in their monasteries protected the resistance fighters at enormous risk. The Resistance movement abduction the German commander, General Kreipe (1944).

German Withdrawl (October 1944)

The Germans withdrew from Crete with virtually no casualties as part of thir withdrawl from the Balkans (October 1944). The island was occupied by the British. The focus of the War by this time was on the Allied armies closing in on Germany and Crete played no further role in the War.

Sources

Brown, David. The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean: September 1939-October 1940






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Created: 5:13 AM 7/24/2010
Last updated: 8:39 PM 10/9/2010