Saturday, May 20, 2006

On May 20th in military 1941

On May 20th in military history….in 1941. The Germans launch "Unternehmen Merkur" (Operation Mercury) to capture the Greek Island of Crete. After the Germans and Italians had captured Greece in April 1941, the next logical target was the island of Crete to where the Greek and English Commonwealth forces had escaped. Crete was strategically important because the Ploiesti oil fields were within bombing range. It could also be used by the Allies as a jumping off point for an invasion of the continent thru Greece. For these reasons, it was decided to invade the island.

Since the British essentially controlled the oceans around Crete, an amphibious assault was out of the question, but the Germans enjoyed air superiority, so to capitalize on this, an airborne/glider assault was planned. Air borne and glider troops would land at various strategic points around the island, including airfields, and then when the airfields were secure, reinforcements would be flown in. Up to that time, German airborne troops had conducted themselves very well, so the plan was expected to be successful. The German units assigned to the invasion were the 7th Air Division, the 22nd Air Landing Division and the 5th Mountain Division, about 43,000 men.

Defending Crete were about 9,000 Greek troops and around 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from Greece. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth troops were a kind-of-hodge-podge of intact units and stragglers. Because they had been evacuated from Greece, most of the units lacked heavy equipment.

The German plan called for three main airborne landings, Heraklion, Malame and the group of Chaina Souda, Prison Valley and Rethymon. Unfortunately, none of the landings accomplished what they had originally set out to do. The German paratroopers were badly mauled at every objective. One of the main reasons was that German paratroop doctrine called for the paratroops to jump without their weapons, which were dropped in canisters. When the paratroops landed, they were essentially unarmed and forced to seek out the canisters that contained their weapons. Up to that time, this had not been that much of a problem. Unfortunately, this was an accident waiting to happen and many of the German paratroops were killed by the defenders while searching for their weapons.

After the first day, things looked grim for the Germans. However, as is the case in war, mistakes made by the Allies enabled the Germans to turn the tide of battle. A New Zealand unit was occupying a hill above the airfield and which enabled them to control access to it. Unfortunately, during the night, they withdrew and this allowed the Germans to gain control of the airfield and allowed them to start bringing in reinforcements the next day. A counterattack by Commonwealth forces on the third day of the invasion did not dislodge the Germans, so with the Germans in control of an airfield and reinforcements arriving, the British decided to evacuate the island. British casualties were about 5,500 wounded and killed and about 12,300 captured. However, the Germans suffered (officially) 4,500 killed and wounded with another 2,000 missing in action (presumed dead). Unofficial British estimates were that the Germans lost 16,000 killed and wounded during this battle.

This was Germany’s paratrooper debacle of World War II. The victory was a Pyrric one as the Germans never again mounted an airborne invasion because of the casualties that they suffered. The Allies still had to learn the same lesson, which they did at Operation Market-Garden in 1944. Paratroops are ideally suited for being dropped into areas where there is not much in the way of enemy forces and major relief is expected in two days (read: Normandy). However, since they are essentially light infantry, dropping them in on top of prepared enemy forces (as what happened in Crete) or enemy armored forces (as what happened to the British at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden) just results in dead paratroopers.

Note (War-porn commentary follows. Ignore if it doesn’t "float your boat"): The Operation Market-Garden fiasco was the brainchild of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Not wanting General George Patton to take all the credit for the defeat of Germany (like he did in Sicily), he devised a plan where the British forces would cross the Rhine and drive into Germany and get all the glory. Unfortunately, his plan was totally "dorked up" and resulted in the loss of many British paratroopers. He also thought that the British would take Cane in two days after the Normandy invasion, but it took the Allied breakout during Operation Cobra in July 1944 to break the stalemate. Many years ago, before everyone was "surfing the /net", I was reading a Usenet group about World War II and someone had posted that the British guv-mint was looking for donations so that they could erect a statue of Montgomery, the hero of Normandy. I thought this was obviously flame-bait, but I posted back that maybe they were also looking for donations for a statue of Neville Chamberlain, the hero of the Sudenenland, since both places were British debacles.


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