Operation Mercury

By way of a change………a WW2 battle.

1st June 1941….Operation Mercury, the German airborne assault on Crete, is brought to a successful conclusion.

 

This defeat was the latest in a serious of military humblings endured by the British Army at the hands of the Wehrmacht, in the opening two years of WW2.

In that time British soldiers had stood toe-to-toe with the Germans in Norway and France in 1940 and in Greece in the summer of 1941. On each occasion, they had been swept aside and forced to flee to the nearest coastline and await collection by the ships of the Royal Navy.

British troops being evacuated ……from Dunkirk

……Norway

…and Greece

It appeared that the quality of British Generalship, the entire command and control system and even the performance of their front line troops was being completely outclassed by the those of the Germans.

 

Performance

When you look in detail at the Battle for Crete the question which arises is…. was the British performance really that poor or was that of the Germans so outstanding. One view is that the Germans simply went about the business of warfare in their normal fashion and when circumstances dictated that they needed to find another gear, said gear was found and immediately engaged. And in exactly the same manner, the British and their Commonwealth allies, went about the business in THEIR own fashion and, as had become the case with them, were completely defeated and in fairly short order.

There is very little in the way of positives to be taken by the British from the entire episode. Outnumbering the invading force by a factor of 4 to 1 and lavishly supplied from the outset with invaluable intelligence in the form of Ultra intercepts, the General commanding, Bernard Freyberg, took one of the most advantageous defensive positions in the history of warfare and handed victory to his enemy in just a few short days.

Seventy six years later those aspects of the battle given prominence in the historical record remain pretty well unchanged. Firstly that Hitler was so dismayed by the extent of the casualties suffered by the Fallschirmjager that he expressly forbade any subsequent similar efforts for the remainder of the war. Secondly that the British Balkan adventure, first into Greece followed by Crete, dislodged the German timetable for Barbarossa to the extent that the Germans failed to take Moscow before their invading thrust was eventually parried, thus paving the way for ultimate allied victory.

 

It’s rare to come across any subsequent account of these events which seeks to analyse the principal reasons for the British defeat in the face of what are generally deemed to be highly favourable circumstances…….as is so often the case with British involvement in either World War.

In this case those reasons aren’t hard to find and even a cursory examination of events allows the reader to form their own conclusions.

The German airborne landings were made at four points along the northern coast of the island. And while all met with similar initial lack of success it is at the western most of these, Maleme airfield, where the entire outcome of the Battle of Crete was decided.

 

The Key Commanders

There were a small number of key commanders on each side whose performance over the next 48 hours would largely determine the final outcome of the Battle.

For the Allies these were:  Major General Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealand veteran of the Great War who had participated in the Gallipoli landings and had become the youngest General in the British Army. He had led the 2nd New Zealand Division during the Battle for Greece and been given command of all Allied forces on the island prior to the German attack.

General Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Crete garrison

Acting Major General / Brigadier Edward Puttick who had taken over command of the 2nd New Zealand Division. Brigadier James Hargest, commanding the 5th New Zealand Brigade.

Brigadier Hargest, commanding 2nd New Zealand Division

And finally Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew, another WW1 veteran who commanded the 22nd New Zealand Battalion and had the principal responsibility for the defense of the crucial airfield at Maleme

For the Germans the key men were General Kurt Student who led all German airborne forces. Brigadier Eugen Meindl who commanded the Storm Regiment which landed in the Maleme Sector at the outset of the battle and General Julius Ringel , commander of the 5th Mountain Division which landed at Maleme on the second day.

 

The Attack Begins

It was at Maleme, at 7.30 on the morning of 20 May, that the Luftwaffe’s Storm Regiment, under the command of Brigadier Eugen Meindl dropped by parachute and glider.  Some forty gliders landed to the west of the airfield on the dried up bed of the River Tavronitis which they intended to then use as the start line for their subsequent attack.  The paratroopers were dropped a little to the east of the airfield where they landed right on top of the New Zealand 5th Infantry Brigade.

German fallschirmjaeger landing on the 1st morning

There ARE criticisms which can be levied at the Germans in this battle, despite their swift and conclusive victory. The failures of intelligence and photo reconnaissance regarding the true extent and dispositions of the Allied forces are the greatest. Prior to the British evacuation of Greece the garrison strength in Crete was around 10, 000 men. German intelligence believed that all the evacuated troops had been taken to Alexandria in Egypt. They had, however, been conveyed, to a man, to Crete. So the Allied strength on the morning of the attack was in the order of 42, 000 men, some four times greater than the attackers had expected to encounter. And they were attacking with a force of less than 10,000.

The paratroopers leapt from the Junkers carrier craft at a height of only around 300 feet. The casualties inflicted on them and the aircraft by the dense crowds of allied riflemen were devastating.

 

The German landing areas (photo credit WalkingTheBattlefields)

 

Over 1800 Germans were fed into the Maleme sector on this first morning with almost half of them being killed or wounded. The attacks which were happening simultaneously at the other three landing sites: Heraklion, Rethymno and the Ayia Valley met with similar results.

 

Brigadier Meindl who had dropped by parachute rather than glider moved at speed and sent his I Battalion under Major Koch directly against the western flank of the airfield defences while Major Stenzler’s II Battalion was sent on a flanking movement in an attempt to take the key Allied strongpoint, Hill 107, from the rear. Within an hour, however, Meindl had been wounded twice and would play no further part in the action.

Hill 107, Maleme airfield. The schwerpunkt of the Battle for Crete

The diligent Fallschirmjaeger officers continued to press home their attacks. Colonel Andrew’s area of responsibility – the airfield and Hill 107 – comprised some five square kilometres of very uneven and heavily overgrown terrain. He had two companies deployed. C Company on the airfield and D Company defending the eastern side of the Tavronitis river bed due west of Hill 107. Neither was equipped with radio. Andrew had two Matilda tanks ready for action but hesitated to play his trump card too early.

 

Just before 11 am he contacted his commander, Brigadier Hargest, situated some 4 miles east along the coast to say he had lost contact with both his forward companies. He received no response. Within an hour the Germans brought their mortars and a light field gun into action against Andrew’s hard-pressed troops. He continued to press Hargest for aid in the form of reinforcements but was told all those available were engaged with the enemy.

At 5pm the Colonel decided to utilise his two tanks with a small number of supporting infantry. This was a short-lived episode best not dwelt on, whereby one tank crew discovered very quickly that not only were they carrying the wrong ammunition for their gun but that their turret could not traverse properly. The second vehicle, left to go forward alone, found its belly stuck on a boulder on the river bed and was abandoned by its crew.

 

At this point Colonel Andrew informed Hargest of the failure of his armoured counter-attack and his continuing inability to establish any contact with his forward companies.  Furthermore he stated his intention, if not immediately reinforced, of withdrawing from his position on Hill 107. Hargest reply “If you must, you must”  encapsulates in one short sentence the collective shortcomings of the allied commanders in this, as in so many other WW2 battles: confusion, uncertainty, a complete absence of initiative: utterly lacking in the basic qualities of military leadership which were being demonstrated so ably by the enemy they were facing.

 

Sat in his command post on the lee side of Hill 107 it seems Andrew was either afraid to go and look through his binoculars in an attempt to ascertain what was happening with is two forward companies, or the thought did not occur to him. Hargest, similarly, sat shackled to his command post buffeted by developing events and apparently powerless to interfere in them.  At this point both Andrew’s companies, whilst considerably reduced by casualties in the fierce fighting, were still resisting strongly: C on the airfield and D on the edge of the Tavronitis river bed.

 

End of the First Day

And so night fell. Overall the German attack had failed to capture every single one of their objectives across the four landing sites. They had taken terrible casualties and in each location fully expected an Allied counter attack which would bring the battle to a swift and conclusive end.

 

At Maleme they had only 57 unwounded troops capable of fighting. The loss of battalion, platoon and company commanders had been particularly heavy.

General Freyberg’s failure to launch a counter attack at this point is, from the allied perspective, probably the most troubling aspect of the battle. It’s possible that with Brigadier Hargest having his overwhelming leadership failure in the Maleme sector, Freiberg had simply been misled over developments there. But it would seem that he showed little interest in the Maleme sector as he continued to obsess over the possibility of an impending German seaborne attack at several miles further east at Cannea.

Apologists for Freyberg maintain that in order to preserve the critical secrecy of Ultra, Freyberg simply erred on the side of caution and did not confide in his fellow officers lest the source of his intelligence were revealed. As he seemed to completely ignore the intelligence he was fed immediately prior to and during the early stages of the battle. This is an interpretation of the facts which is barely believable.

 

Hill 107 Is Given Up

And now occurred the key developments which would see the British yield their position on Hill 107 thus their hold on Maleme airfield and with it their hold on the entire island of Crete.

 

Sometime before midnight Colonel Andrew in his command bunker near the top of Hill 107, a position which commanded the Tavronitis river bed and the critical airfield, finally succumbed. Dismayed, no doubt, by the non-appearance of the requested reinforcements, perturbed by Brigadier Hargest’s unhelpfulness, still out of contact with C and D companies, although his lack of initiative in overcoming this last problem, remains a puzzle to this day, and feeling the pressure from Stentzler’s flanking attack to the rear of the hill, he decided to withdraw from his position.

 

He NOW sent runners to both forward companies, but only to advise them of his imminent withdrawal rather than simply to secure a sit rep, and radioed his intention to Hargest. His commander, once again, felt that this information merited no reaction on his part other than to advise Freyberg in turn that the situation at Maleme airfield was “quite satisfactory”. It’s almost unbelievable.

 

The runners failed to get through to either company. Both of whom, while battered, were still stoutly resisting the efforts of Meindl’s men to force their line. Captain Campbell of D company and his sergeant-major took it upon themselves to carry out a reverse recce on their own battalion headquarters, finding it abandoned and them with it. Somewhat shaken at this he then felt that HE had no choice but to withdraw his men in turn.

 

Captain Johnson of C Company only discovered that his battalion commander had bugged out in the early hours of the morning. Doubting that a counter attack would be mounted in daylight and believing that his men would not be able to hold their position for another 24 hours he led them silently back to New Zealand lines.

Dawn found the Falschirmjaeger in full possession of Hill 107 and no New Zealand troops within the airfield perimeter

 

Student Acts

But General Kurt Student, sitting in his command post in the ballroom of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens knew nothing of this. He knew only that none of the mission objectives had been met by nightfall on day one and that casualties were in the order of 40 percent. He knew also that his immediate superiors General Lohr of IV Air Fleet and Field Marshall von List of XII Army were aware of the situation.

Not all was lost, however. With Hill 107 in German hands he had his toe-hold. He needed to know if the Tavronitis end of the Maleme runway was accessible for troop-carrying Junkers. With exactly that element of resourcefulness wich was absent on the Allied side, he despatched a Captain Kleye from his staff in the early hours of that 2nd morning. Kleye carried out the test landing successfully. Student immediately ordered General Ringel to prepare to fly in with his 5th Mountain Division.

 

General Julius Ringel, commander of 5th Mountain Division

 

After preliminary bombing runs during the morning and early afternoon of the 2nd day Ringel’s Division began landing at Maleme. Each aircraft pausing briefly to disgorge its occupants before immediately taking off again. And they continued to maintain this at a rate of twenty planes per hour. Observing this from his Command Post several miles away at Cannea, Freyberg concluded that the Germans had decided to evacuate the surviving attackers. His self-delusion was complete.

 

With substantial numbers of German troops now assembling in the Maleme sector there could now only be one outcome to the Battle. And despite managing to finally put together a counter attacking effort the garrison was doomed.

 

Evacuation….Again

There then followed yet another chaotic forced march to the beaches. This was now the established trademark of the British Army when fighting Germans on foreign shores. The last Royal Navy ship departed from the southern shore on 1st June, having rescued all but 5000 of the survivors of the garrison. For the most part the evacuation process had been carried out in a disciplined manner. Although it was noted by some New Zealand troops as they climbed aboard their rescue ship, that some of the British Commandos who had landed later on the island to facilitate the evacuation, had managed to get themselves aboard before them.

 

In short, Freyberg’s entire defensive operation had been a disasterous failure. Outnumbering the german attack force by a factor of four to one, with regular ULTRA feeds as to German intentions and with, for the most part, experienced and gutsy troops at his disposal, the island had been lost in some ten days.

 

His reward for this dreadful performance was further command positions! It was Freyberg in charge at Monte Cassino in 1944 who, having repeatedly failed to dislodge German troops (including some of the very same fallschirmjaeger who had fought at Crete) decided that bombing the 800 year old abbey to matchwood was the thing to do. The fact that the Germans were not in the abbey prior to its destruction but then flooded into the wreckage where they continued to hold the British at bay, comes as no surprise.

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