VI: German Preparations
VI: German Preparations
All the features that made Crete valuable to the British made it desirable for the Germans to drive them out. Nor were there only negative reasons. As 12 Army Strategic Survey puts it: ‘If the English were driven from it the Constanza-Corinth-Italy sea-route—vital for the Axis—would be safe, the British fleet would page 80 be completely shot out of the Aegean, the British power in the Levant would be appreciably weakened, and our air force would have an excellent base for attacks on Egypt and the Suez Canal.’1
Indeed, on 26 October 1940, when the operations staff of the German High Command had first considered the implications of the expected Italian attack on Greece, General Jodl had taken the line that such an attack would certainly lead to a British occupation of Crete and that therefore the Italians should seize the island at the same time as they launched their invasion of the mainland. But there was no time for this to be attempted.2 And the day before, on 25 October, General Halder had supported the view that the desert supply problem could never be solved until Alexandria was a German base, and that this in turn depended on mastery of the Mediterranean and possession of Crete by means of air landing.3
The British occupation of Crete caused the Germans concern, for they now feared bombing attacks from Cretan bases on the Roumanian oilfields. Plans were therefore considered for occupying continental Greece and establishing air bases which could be used to counter those of the British; and by the end of the year these were extended to envisage an occupation of the whole of Greece. But in April 4 Air Fleet, which was responsible for the operations against Yugoslavia and Greece, had come to the conclusion that Crete itself was of such importance that it should be invaded. Conferences took place between the CGS of the German Air Force, the CGS of 11 Air Corps, and the GOC of 7 Air Division. And on 15 April as a result of these General Löhr,4 GOC 4 Air Fleet, submitted a plan to Goering who in turn submitted it to Hitler.5
2 General Greiner's Entwurfe, Vol. 1, p. 167.
3 General Halder's diary.
4 Col-Gen Alexander Löhr; then aged 56; C-in-C 4 Air Fleet; C-in-C 12 Army, 1942; C-in-C Army Group ‘E’, 1944; tried in Yugoslavia for complicity in mass murders of Yugoslav civilians and executed 27 Feb 1947.
5 Report by 4 Air Fleet. General Student claims credit for the idea of a parachute attack and says that Hitler was at first reluctant but was finally convinced. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the account given above; for the CGS of 11 Air Corps would naturally put forward the idea of his commander, General Student. See 11 Air Corps battle report and proceedings at the trial of General Student.
6 Col-Gen Kurt Student; then aged 51; GOC 11 Air Corps; C-in-C 1 Para Army, Feb 1944; C-in-C Army Group ‘H’, Nov 1944; foremost in developing parachute and air-landing techniques; badly wounded in Holland, 1940; organised rescue of Mussolini, 1943; tried at Luneburg and sentenced to 5 years' imprisonment; sentence quashed two months later.
On 25 April Hitler issued Directive 28: ‘An operation to occupy the island of Crete (Operation MERCURY) is to be prepared with the object of using Crete as an air base against Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean.’
At this stage 22 Airborne Division was to be used; but on 28 April it was decided that, to avoid delay to the invasion of Russia, a mountain division should be used instead. Seventh Air Division would supply the paratroops, and 11 Air Corps would be used as it was not required for the first stages of the invasion of Russia. The attack on Crete was to take place on 17 May, support would be given by 8 Air Corps,1 and a sea invasion would be launched concurrently with the aid of Admiral South-East.
There were difficulties, however. Greek airfields and ground organisation were inadequate and would have been so even without such damage as the withdrawing British force had been able to inflict. The trained units which would normally have been responsible for creating that efficiency on the ground without which efficiency in the air is impossible were earmarked for Russia. Fourth Air Fleet, therefore, was dependent on civilian and prisoner-of-war labour for much of what had to be done.
Then, again, the meagre Greek railways had been made useless by the Germans' own bombers or by the retiring British. Sea traffic was the only practicable alternative for supply; for the roads were poor and the bridges often blown, while all air transport that could be spared from Russia was needed for the attack itself. Even supply by sea was difficult. There was little tonnage, especially in tankers, and harbourage was inadequate.
The individual formations also had their problems. Eighth Air Corps was to provide fighter and bomber support for the attack. But while getting itself into a state of readiness it had other tasks: protection of supply ships, sea reconnaissance, and preparatory raids on Crete. Its success in these tasks was considerable, though perhaps less than might be expected when the British weakness in aircraft and AA is taken into account.
The Commander of 7 Air Division, Lieutenant-General Suessmann,1 had been sent to Bulgaria on 26 March along with the staff of the division. Under him was 2 Parachute Regiment which he was to have ready for an attack on Lemnos. This proved unnecessary, and in the event the regiment was used for the descent on the Corinth Canal on 26 April. By 2 May it was concentrated, with a battalion of 3 Parachute Regiment, near Corinth.
On 20 April the rest of the division was still in Germany, and so were the corps troops of 11 Air Corps. Advance elements left for Roumania within the next week and by 8 May the whole force was concentrated there. Thence it moved by road and under 12 Army command down to Attica, the last detachments arriving by 14 May. In Attica the troops were stationed about the airfields from which the invasion was to take off.
The normal infantry component—as distinct from paratroops—of 11 Air Corps, 5 Mountain Division and elements of 6 Mountain Division which were already in Greece, were allotted to General Student. These were stiffened by an armoured unit and a motor cycle battalion from 5 Armoured Division, by an engineer battalion and two AA units.
Under command of 11 Air Corps also were nine bomber groups specially adapted for transport duties and one for glider operations. These groups, after action in Greece or Yugoslavia, had been withdrawn to Germany early in May for refitting and reservicing. But by 14 May they were again concentrated round Athens with a total of about 500 serviceable Junkers 52.
While 4 Air Fleet and its two corps were busy with their preparations, the sea component of the invasion also had its preliminary measures to take. Admiral South-East's main task was to get together the vessels which would ferry arms, men, and supplies to the support of the troops landed by air. To this end he succeeded in assembling two flotillas of motor vessels or caiques which were to carry the first wave of heavy arms and supplies; two steamer flotillas which were to take further heavy weapons, tanks and AA; and a number of German and Italian minesweepers.
1 Lt-Gen Wilhelm Suessmann; then aged 50; served in Poland and in Norway, where he had to swim from the sinking Bluecher in Oslo Fiord; killed when his glider crashed on the island of Aegina, 20 May 1941.
The High Command had estimated that the battle would be of ten days' duration. Major-General Seibt, in charge of supplies at 11 Air Corps, accordingly planned for the provision of 2,500,000 gallons of fuel and lubricant, a sufficient quantity of rations, medical equipment, jumping gear, and the thousand and one other items required. All this had to be brought from bases in Germany, and as the troops moving south monopolised the damaged and difficult roads it was necessary to use sea transport for the last stages of the journey. It was not until 17 May that unloading at Piraeus was complete. Moreover, two of the fuel ships had to come from Italy and this was a further cause of delay. Only intense effort got the last of the fuel to the airfields on 19 May. The result was that the invasion date had to be postponed to the 20th.
German military and air intelligence had been active in this interim. As soon as the conquest of Greece was complete it became imperative that as much as possible should be found out about the garrison and defences of Crete. For this purpose two reconnaissance units of 8 Air Corps were ordered to keep continuous watch on shipping movements round the island, to discover what shipping was in the ports, and to locate the RAF stations. A third reconnaissance unit, from 11 Air Corps, was to ascertain the whereabouts of airfields, fortifications, artillery positions, and troop locations. At the same time agents were set to work to get similar information and prisoners taken in Greece were interrogated.
As a result the Germans built up the following picture. The garrison they appreciated to be the equivalent of a British division of two infantry brigades, one artillery regiment, and an unknown number of troops evacuated from Greece. Because shipping movements always took place at night, they could not decide whether troops were being evacuated or whether such movement as took place was connected with supply only. They seem to have suspected that some evacuation was going on.
The three main airfields were identified without difficulty, though the number of aircraft using them was overestimated. Anti-aircraft defences were considered to be strong round Canea, Suda Bay, and the airfields; but photographic reconnaissance revealed little in the way of fortification. Nor do the dispositions of the defending infantry seem to have been located with any accuracy.page 84
The attitude of the Cretan population was also of some interest. The High Command, with a characteristic German misjudgment of immaterial forces, was inclined to believe that the Greeks either sympathised with the Axis or, for the sake of better terms, would at least be neutral. According to 11 Air Corps an attempt was even made on 10 May to make contact with pacifist circles on the island through the intelligence service of Admiral Canaris.1 This does not seem to have succeeded; but even so the attitude of the Cretans as it was actually to reveal itself must have come to the enemy as something of a shock.
The plan that lay behind these preparations was not reached without argument. At first two alternatives were canvassed, one favoured by 4 Air Fleet and the other by 11 Air Corps. The first favoured concentration of both 7 Air Division and 5 Mountain Division on the Maleme-Canea sector. This would have the advantage that always goes with concentration of forces: it would mean that if the defence proved stronger than was expected there would be strength enough to deal with it; and it would enable 8 Air Corps to devote all its effort to the protection of the ground forces in a single area.
General Student, however, favoured simultaneous descents at the seven most important points, of which four were Maleme, Canea, Retimo and Heraklion. The advantage of this would be that, if the landings succeeded, the main centres of defence would have been seized.
There were, of course, disadvantages in both proposals. If the first plan met difficulties and the attack was held up in the hills, the defenders would have the opportunity to use their airfields in the east of the island. But the second plan had the weaknesses implicit in any dispersion of forces; and not only would the troops on the ground be divided into a number of different and widely separated groups which could not give one another mutual support, but the air effort of 8 Air Corps would be divided as well.
The High Command of the German Air Force finally adopted a plan which aimed to have the best of both. The Maleme-Canea sector would be occupied and consolidated during the morning of the first day, and in the afternoon the eastern sector—Retimo and Heraklion. In this way 8 Air Corps could bring its full weight to bear at one time in each sector, while all the airfields would be denied to the defence.
Available to carry out this plan were the following:
11 Air Corps. This consisted of a reconnaissance unit; ten groups of transport aircraft; the Assault Regiment; page 857 Air Division with its three parachute regiments and divisional troops; 5 Mountain Division with three mountain regiments (one from 6 Mountain Division); and corps troops consisting of an armoured battalion, a motor-cycle battalion, and two AA batteries.
8 Air Corps. This consisted of three groups of Dornier 17 bombers; two groups of Junkers 88 bombers; one group of Heinkel III bombers; three groups of Stuka dive-bombers; three groups of fighter-bombers; three groups of fighters; and two reconnaissance units.1
Admiral South-East. Under his command were two flotillas of motor vessels and two of steamers; two destroyers; twelve torpedo boats; speedboats and minesweepers.
Eleventh Air Corps had a total of about 22,750 men available for landing. Of these, 750 men from the élite Assault Regiment were to land by glider, 10,000 were to land by parachute, 5000 were to be airborne, and 7000 were to go by sea (2000 of them paratroops and the remainder from 5 Mountain Division). The various transport groups of aircraft gave a total of about 500. And in addition to these were 70 or 80 gliders with an appropriate number of Junkers 52 adapted to tow them.
To support these 8 Air Corps had a total of about 650 aircraft: 280 bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 90 twin-engined fighters, 90 single-engined fighters, and 40 reconnaissance aircraft.
The roles of the formations were laid down in accordance with the general plan. Eleventh Air Corps was to operate in two waves, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first wave was to occupy the airfield at Maleme and the defence positions round Canea and Suda Bay. The second was to seize the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. This would enable airborne troops to land on the captured airfields on the second day. The attacks on Canea and Suda Bay would neutralise the control of the defence at the centre and pin down any reserves concentrated there. Once the first paratroops had been landed they would be reinforced by further parachute descents, by landings from transport aircraft of airborne troops, and by seaborne troops. Eventually the whole 11 Air Corps would be ashore.
The preparatory attack by 8 Air Corps had already begun on 14 May with the object of destroying the RAF, silencing the AA batteries—especially the one on the cruiser York in Suda Bay— and preventing the movement of shipping. By 19 May this policy had been largely successful: the RAF had withdrawn its few aircraft and shipping could move only by night. Suda Bay was full of sunk vessels and much badly needed equipment had been lost.1 But the AA batteries were still in action.
For the main battle on 20 May 8 Air Corps had its timetable worked out with the greatest possible precision and detail. Fighters and bombers were to protect the approach of the transport aircraft, their unloading of paratroops and their return, against attack from the air. British ground defences were to be kept down and weakened by bombing, dive-bombing, and strafing until just before the first invasion wave arrived. And special instructions were issued for co-operation thereafter between ground forces and fighters. The whole complicated operation was worked out to the most meticulous standards of German staff planning.
|18 May||Corvette Salvia||Damaged by bomb|
|20 May||Minesweeper Widnes||Bombed and beached|
|22 May||8-inch cruiser York||Sunk by bomb (severely damaged by E-boats 26 March)|
|c. 23 May||A-S whaler Kos 23||Sunk by bomb|
In addition five motor torpedo boats were sunk by aircraft, destroyed, or beached in Suda Bay between 23 May and 2 June.
|29 Apr||Greek ship Konistra||3537 tons||Sunk|
|Greek ship Elsi||1433 tons||Sunk|
|3 May||British SS Araybank||7258 tons||Sunk (salvaged after war)|
|14 May||British SS Dalesman||6343 tons||Sunk (salvaged by Germans and recovered after war)|
|16 May||British SS Logician||5993 tons||Sunk (salvaged after war)|
|Greek ship Kythera||1070 tons||Sunk|
|Greek ship Nicolaou Ourania||6397 tons||Sunk|
|17 May||British tanker SS Eleonora Maersk||10,694 tons||Sunk (salvaged after war)|
|Greek ship Themoni||5719 tons||Sunk|
|27 May||Greek ship Antonios||1187 tons||Sunk|
The preparations for mounting this formidable assault took longer than was originally expected, and so the intended date of 15 May had first to be changed to 17 May and then to the 20th. By the evening of 19 May all arrangements were complete, the paratroops duly briefed were bivouacked not far from the aircraft which were to drop them next day on the other side of the water, the aircraft themselves were all in readiness, and only the dawn had still to be waited for.