Monday, February 06, 2006

Lesser Moments of Hesitation: Up the Crete Without a Paddle

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

Crete, May 1941. Greece has fallen to the naughty Germans, and General Freyburg (local lad made good) is the new commander for the island, taking over from General Wavell. Despite Crete being one of Churchill's pet interests for the past six months, saying that it would a crime if it fell to the Germans, Freyburg finds that Wavell has done sweet fuck all in preparing the island for battle - some of which could be excused due to the paucity of resources.

There are many things in Freybourg's favour. He is on an island - which saved Britain less than a year ago, and naval superiority. He has a good 45,000 men, and strong local support. Best of all, through Ultra intercepts, Freyburg knew the German battle plan, and was able to position his troops accordingly. For the Germans, although their troops were better, and better supplied with air superiority, they were under the misapprehension that there were only 5,000 British troops on Crete, and also suffered from that incomprehensible but common conceit that they would be welcomed as liberators.

The Germans launched Operation Mercury, their paratroop attack, on the morning May 20th, and it was a disaster. They Germans were heavily mauled and failed to take any of their objectives (the airfields), but that night and the next day a lesser moment of hesitation gave the island to the Germans. There is a phrase called "the fog of war", which refers to how messy and confusing battle is to all concerned. Communications break down, troops get isolated from their units, Generals don't know what is happening at the front line and when the enemy does something unexpected the front line troops don't know what the generals want them to do.

During the first night of the 20th, a fog of war event took place. There were some New Zealand troops overlooking Maleme airfield on a vital strategic spot called "Hill 107", they had been fighting all day, and their last attack with some of the only few tanks on Crete had failed. The defenders on the airfield had no radio. The only radio was at the command post, which was out of sight of the airfield. And out of sight of the airfield, thinking the Germans had broken through, and without any sign of reinforcements, the Command Post ordered a withdrawal from the hill.

You might think, no problem, the British probably ploughed up and mined the runway to make it unuseable. Unfortunately - in a classic case of stupidity - they didn't. On the morning of the 21st, a German Junkers 52 landed and took off again from Maleme airfield - proving that it was safe to bring troops in, which the Germans started doing. But still, all was not lost for the British, if their counterattack - planned for the morning of the 22nd - went well. But it didn't. Freyburg could have used 6,000 troops in his counterattack, but he held many back including his best regiment, the 1st Battalion Welch. Why?

In the afternoon of the 21st, Freyburg received the following telegraph:

"Personal for General Freyburg

On continuation of attack Colorado [Crete], reliably reported that among operations planned for Twenty-first May is air landing two mountain battalions and attack Canea. Landing from echelon of small ships depending on situation at sea."

Not too long afterwards, Freyburg sent out the following order…

"Reliable information. Early seaborne attack in area Canea likely. New Zealand Division remains responsible coast from west to Kladiso River. Welch battalion forthwith to stiffen existing defences from Kladiso to Halepa."

See what happened? Freyburg misread the two sentences in the order to him, mentally ignoring the fullstop. The thought that "attack Canea" referred to an attack by German paratroopers from the South-West or by air missed him. All Freyburg saw was "Canea" and "Landing", and so he stretched his reserves accordingly, meaning not only that his counter attack on the 22nd was too small, but also that the Germans could bring in an endless stream of reinforcements and take Crete.

Freyburg hesitated, and lost. It was a lesser hesitation, with no impact on the outcome of the war (we won), but a cliché prover nonetheless.

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