Sunday, March 6, 2011

Paratroopers Over Crete

The German invasion of Crete was very famous because it the first primarily airborne invasion of a territory. Crete is an island in the Mediterranean. The British Navy ruled the Mediterranean. The Germans needed a new way to attack Crete. Ultimately this new method was looked on largely as a failure, but the lessons learned from the invasion would later be used against the Germans throughout the war.

Paratroopers were the spearhead of the German invasion of Crete. Crete is an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. It was a crucial base for British naval and supply operations in the Mediterranean, especially for the North African theater. British naval superiority in the Mediterranean made a large scale invasion of Crete quite risky. To bypass the British naval advantage, the Germans used paratroopers to attack Crete. Although the island was successfully taken by the Germans, it was a faulty strategy to attack Crete with exclusively paratroopers because it was too costly and inefficient expense of men and materiel.

Paratroopers are not meant to provide the core of large scale military operations. Their purpose is to act as quick strike units ahead of a larger force. Often time paratroopers are tasked with blowing up rail lines, communication lines, or bridges. The most famous paratroop operation of the war was the German invasion of the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael. A small unit of German Fallschirmjäger (elite paratroopers) landed gliders on top of the fort and around the fort to knock out the defensive guns and bridges that threatened the German blitz through Belgium. Since airborne invasions were so new, the Allies were caught by surprise. A force of roughly 500 Germans was able to defeat a force nearly twice that size, while also conquering a fort that was thought to be impenetrable.

Success bred hubris for the Nazis. Rather than taking the lesson that paratroopers are best used in small scale, quick operations, the senior Luftwaffe commanders believed the success of the Eben-Emael could be replicated on larger scale attacks. Crete was not a fort with only 1000 defenders. Rather it was an entire island with tens of thousand of troops. Nazi opposition comprised of the Commonwealth, Greek, and Cretan partisan troops. Past success of German paratroopers combined with German air superiority made Nazis confident they could bypass British Naval Superiority and overcome Crete’s defenses.

The flaw in the Nazis invasion of Crete was the failure to understand that paratroopers were not common infantry. They were superior. Paratroopers required more training than infantry because they conducted special tasks. The Fallschirmjäger used in the invasion were elite units that worked best in small operations. Infantry are meant for large scale operations because they require less training and there are more of them. Therefore infantry are more expendable. Units with large amounts of training are not expendable. Training costs and time associated with training are too valuable. Thus infantry have a comparative advantage in conducting such large scale operations versus elite paratroopers. Losses in infantry units can be easily absorbed because those units are replaceable. Losses in the Fallschirmjäger were not easily replaced. Therefore expending Fallschirmjäger was a costly endeavor for the Nazis.

Airborne units are subject to the elements more so than most units. Air currents can blown airborne units off target. Such occurrences were prevalent throughout WWII. Amphibious landings on the other hand are relatively more direct and reliable for getting units to their targets. An exclusively airborne invasion was a risky endeavor because if enough units were to become scattered it left those units highly susceptible to Crete’s defenses. Furthermore communication among scattered units is extremely difficult to maintain. The only way the island could have been taken was with a concerted effort that required effective communication and coordination.

Unfortunately for the British Commonwealth forces, and Greek units, communication was even worse on their side. Counterattacks were not effectively coordinated. Superior force numbers could not overwhelm the specialized German units. Fallschirmjäger were able to regroup and capture airbases required for resupply. Part of the confusion on the British side resulted from believing a sea borne invasion was still on its way and needed to be accounted for. Thus maximum counterattacks could not be mounted against the airborne German units.

The attack was not easy for the German paratroopers though. Since Crete was a small island it was hard for paratroop units to land behind enemy lines and outflank the enemy. Paratroopers in Crete became more like frontline units. Yet the airborne units were not properly supplied to act as frontline units. The German paratroopers were supplied with lighter artillery pieces because this was all airborne operations could accommodate. Furthermore the means of supply for the paratroopers was flawed. Rather than letting the troops jump with their rifles and MP 40 submachine guns, the paratroopers were to jump with only handguns, knives, and grenades while the rest of the weapons would simultaneously be parachuted in. The idea behind this was to prevent the paratroopers from losing their weapons in the jump. This plan failed and battles sprung up over paratroopers trying to recover their gear. The light artillery pieces used by the paratroopers were insufficient for taking the island. Thus the Nazis had to devise complex parachuting schemes to land heavy artillery pieces, while the German Navy drew up risky plans to land heavy artillery on the island.

The German air superiority held the battle together for the Nazis. Allied defenses could be bombed. This helped balance the lack of proper weapons for the paratroopers. Air superiority also meant a constant stream of resupply for the paratroopers. Eventually poor coordination and the prospect of a unending supply of German paratroopers proved too much for the British. The key defensive city of Heraklion was captured by the Germans and this sealed Crete’s fate.

In assessing the flaws in the German paratroop invasion of Crete it is important to see how the invasion fits into the Grand Strategy of the Nazis for WWII. The Invasion of Crete occurred in late May early June of 1941. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, took place in late June. The German attacks on Greece and subsequently Crete were a distraction for the Germans. The distraction of capturing these two would have grave implications for Operation Barbarossa. The invasions delayed invasion of Russia forcing it to begin ever closer to the for middle Russian winter. Nazi high command should have recognized not only was this the main theater, but the only theater the Nazis should have diverted complete attention towards.

Furthermore to determine the success of the German invasion, the implications of the victory must be analyzed in the cold, calculated manner Eisenhower used in assessing whether the Philippines should be immediately invaded after it was captured by Japan. His analysis was one, does taking that objective win the Allies the war, and two does not taking the given objective lose the Allies the war. If both answers are no, such an invasion should be avoided. Therefore did taking Crete tip the balance of the Mediterranean in the Germans favor. No. Would have not taking Crete lost them the war in the Mediterranean. The answer is no as well. Other factors were at play. The British still held Malta and Gibraltar as key naval, air, and supply bases for the Sea. Also neither the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) or Luftwaffe were able to assert control over the Mediterranean after the airbases in Crete were captured.

In addition the motif for Britain’s struggle and success in the war was living to fight another day. The British were able to use their navy to evacuate their troops from Crete as they had at Dunkirk and in Greece. Eventually Britain’s naval superiority ensured that they could continue to supply their campaign in places like North Africa while the German units would often have to rely on scrounging together materiel or hope to capture Allied supply bases. Crete was a costly endeavor and became magnified by the fact that losses were exclusively among airborne units. Hitler decided never to use airborne units in such attacks for the rest of the war, while the Allies learned from the mistakes of the Germans. When the final invasion of Europe did come paratroopers were a key part of the Allied invasion. The Allies figured out how to beat the Nazis at their own game, sealing their fate.