The assault on Crete guaranteed two catastrophes for Germany

Wednesday, July 19th, 2023

Hitler decided to use his highly trained parachute and glider troops to seize the relatively unimportant island of Crete, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), but he refused to capture Malta, which lay directly on the seaway between Italy and Libya:

This absurd choice — made over the objections of Admiral Raeder, the navy high command, and elements in the OKW — marked Hitler’s final rejection of a Mediterranean strategy that could have brought him victory.


Once the Balkans had been seized by the Germans, Crete strategically fell into a twilight zone. For the British, long-range bombers based on Crete could reach the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, 675 miles north, but RAF bases on the island could be blasted by German aircraft a hundred miles away in southern Greece. For the Germans, occupation made no more sense, because aircraft based there would be farther from Cairo and Alexandria than planes in eastern Cyrenaica.

The situation was entirely different in regard to Malta. This small British-ruled island group (122 square miles), only 60 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles north of Tripoli, was a dagger sticking into Italian and German backs in North Africa. Here the British had based airplanes, submarines, and warships with the explicit purpose of interdicting traffic to Libya.


Officers examined the possibility of neutralizing Crete and Malta solely by air raids. But any successful bombing campaign lasts only as long as it is continued. The only certain way to eliminate a threat is to seize the ground with troops, and Admiral Raeder and the navy high command agitated for an assault on Malta. Capture of this island, they asserted, was “an essential precondition for a successful war against Britain in the Mediterranean.”

Raeder and his senior officers were trying to reverse a preliminary decision of February 22, 1941, when the OKW informed them that Hitler planned to delay the conquest of Malta until the autumn of 1941 “after the conclusion of the war in the east.” Thus Hitler was expecting to dispose of the Russians in a swift summer campaign, then turn back at his leisure and deal with the small problem of Malta!


Hitler’s final decision came on April 21, 1941, as the campaign in the Balkans was winding down. He decided to attack Crete, which was given the code name Operation Mercury. Malta would have to wait. Crete, Hitler declared, was more important. He wanted to eliminate all danger of British sea and air forces from southeastern Europe. British forces on Malta would be dealt with by the Luftwaffe. Furthermore, Barbarossa, the attack on Russia, was set for June 1941, and Mercury had to be completed before then.

With this decision Adolf Hitler lost the war. The assault on Crete guaranteed two catastrophes for Germany: it limited the Mediterranean campaign to peripheral or public relations goals, and it turned German strength against the Soviet Union while Britain remained defiant, with the United States in the wings.


  1. Jim says:


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