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Analysis of Hitler's Invasion of Crete

MG is a military specialist having spent quality time in the Indian Air Force. He is also an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College.



The battle of Crete is important as it brings to the fore the concept of airborne troops towards the success of a campaign. The invasion of Crete spearheaded by their paratroopers is well known and need not be recounted here. I will however discuss the strategic concept and its failure in the capture of Crete. It is a matter of surprise that Adolf Hitler who has shown some genius when he ordered the invasion of Norway in the teeth of the supremacy of the Royal Navy should have floundered so badly in the Mediterranean. In Norway, he had landed troops at five places against the advice of the General Staff and had won a facile victory. This touch seemed to have left him while planning the Mediterranean and North Africa campaign.

The Mediterranean has three important choke points. The first is Gibraltar which is an island on the tip of southern Spain and controls access to the Mediterranean. It is the most important strategic island as control of Gibraltar means control of the Mediterranean Sea. The second important point is Malta, another island midway between Italy and North Africa. This is an important point on the route from Gibraltar to the Suez Canal and also lies right on the route between Italy and North Africa. Its importance cannot be underrated. Crete would be in my opinion the third important point because it gives access from Europe to the Suez Canal in the Middle East but in terms of strategic importance, it ranks much lower than Gibraltar and Malta.

In 1941, when Hitler was planning the invasion of Russia to put into effect his dream of 'lebensraum' or living space for the German people, Benito Mussolini decided to do a Hitler and invaded Greece. The Italian Army was unable to beat the Greeks and suffered heavy casualties. Mussolini cut a sorry figure and the news of the debacle of the Italian army reached Hitler. In a meeting with the OKW, it was decided to help the Italians and at the same time, the general staff was able to convince Hitler that the island of Crete must be captured to give a springboard for the invasion of the Middle East.

The Wehrmacht swiftly overran Greece and plans were made for the invasion of Crete.


Strategic blunder

Crete is an island in the eastern Mediterranean and no doubt is an excellent springboard for the invasion of the Middle East and Suez Canal. It is however surprising that the general staff never thought or advised Adolf Hitler about the importance of capturing Gibraltar and Malta. All the resources which had been used for the capture of Crete had they been used for the capture of Gibraltar and later Malta the course of the Second World War would have been different.

As is well known the Fallschirmjager brigade that landed in Crete suffered heavy casualties and the battle would have been lost but for a last-minute intervention and guidance by General Student. The heavy casualties suffered by the Fallschirmjager deterred Hitler from making any further similar invasions.

The general staff is guilty of not having any strategic sense. Perhaps they were so focused on planning the Russian invasion that they failed to gauge the importance of Gibraltar and Malta. It was well known that the North African campaign of the Italians was a failure and they had been given a thrashing by the British army under Wavell and thousands had been taken POW. Germany would have to intervene but in case they were to be a success, the general staff should have realized that the capture of Gibraltar and the island of Malta was of vital importance. Yet nobody in the General staff had any comprehension of the importance of Gibraltar and Malta.

In 1940, after the battle of France, capturing Gibraltar would have been a cakewalk. General Franco was economically weak and the para-brigades which were used to capture Crete could have been used to capture Gibraltar. Even if there were heavy casualties the capture of Gibraltar would have sealed the Mediterranean to the British navy. The narrow strait of Gibraltar is the mouth to the Mediterranean Sea and if the Wehrmacht had taken Gibraltar they would have choked the Royal Navy completely. It is a surprise to military historians that Hitler and more important the OKW did not have any strategic sense to capture Gibraltar. After 1941 the momentum was lost and there was no chance of capturing Gibraltar after that.

Once Rommel had commenced his campaign in North Africa the importance of sealing Gibraltar and the capture of Malta was of paramount importance. The island of Malta was like a thorn in the supply lines of the Axis powers to North Africa and yet though a plan for its invasion was worked out it was never carried through because somehow Hitler had lost all enthusiasm for para invasion after Greece. He also had very little confidence in the Italian army which was supposed to make the assault on the beachfront.

Many historians now debate that the capture of Malta had no meaning and it was more important to have captured Gibraltar in place of Crete. Despite the casualties which would have been suffered by Germany yet the Mediterranean in effect would have become a lake of the Axis powers. Even 'Operation Torch' launched by the US forces would have been very difficult to sustain.


Pyrrhic victory

In hindsight, one can see that the invasion of Greece was in effect a pyrrhic victory because the Fallschimjager suffered very heavy casualties that they could not sustain. Infect the casualties were so heavy that the Germans never mounted any airborne operations on this scale during the remaining years of the war. Towards the end of the war, the paratroopers were utilized as ground forces.

One of the reasons that Hitler did not focus on the Mediterranean was his obsession with the invasion of Russia. By not recognizing strategic reality he proved himself to be a poor commander. There is also no record that any of the senior generals gave any proper advice to Adolf Hitler. In fact, the chief of staff General Halder noted in his diary that the Russian invasion is over in 15 days after the early victories.

In retrospect, the battle of Crete was a blunder. We are not aware as to what were the compulsions for the general staff and Hitler to have invaded Crete. Turkey, in any case, was not fighting on the side of the Allies and there was little danger from it. The capture of Crete therefore served no purpose.

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There are many ifs and buts in the history of the world and the Second World War but there is no bigger blunder committed by Hitler after the invasion of Russia than his failure to even think of the capture of Gibraltar. Had the Germans captured Gibraltar which was very possible in 1940 when England stood all alone against the Axis powers Hitler's dream of the conquest of India as envisioned by 'Operation Bajedor' with the help of Free India Legion and Subhas Bose could have become a reality.

One can safely conclude that Hitler did not have much strategic sense and he relied more on instinct and that alone is not a recipe for success. Even when the U-boat operations in the Mediterranean collapsed it did not dawn on the general staff that the reason was that they did not hold Gibraltar.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 29, 2020:

Flourish, Thank you, in my view, this was his biggest blunder and in case he had captured Gibraltar the UK would have been finished.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 29, 2020:

Other articles you've written have pointed out some of Hitler's other strategic blunders. How does this one compare?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 28, 2020:

Thanks, Tom, will try

tom on November 28, 2020:

sir can you get me the book fizaya pysche of pakistan airforce

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 28, 2020:

Peggy, thank you for your valued comments.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 28, 2020:

Tom, yes HItIer missed the bus in 1940 when he could have easily gone and captured Gibraltar as the USA was not in the war at that time and he had a pact with Russia. Later the reason for the U-boat failure in the Mediterranean was the British-base at Gibraltar and very few submarines could escape the British dragnet. If he had captured Gibraltar, Malta would automatically fall.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 28, 2020:

Often mistakes like this affect the outcomes of wars. Thanks for showcasing this aspect of WWII and the strategic role the capture of Gibraltar might have played.

tom on November 28, 2020:

giraltar and malta should have been captured,they were the key to mediterranean and north africa,norway tied down three lakh german troops,holding captured places a liaibility,.axis supplies locked by malta and gibraltar,1940 fine oppurtunity to capture them

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 28, 2020:

Pamela, your comments are so invigorating. Thank you.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 28, 2020:

I am glad that Hitler made so many blunders, and it sure sounds like Crete was one of them. It seem Mussolini made many errors in strategy also as I think you have mentioned that in some of your other articles. This is a another well-written article on WWII, MG.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 28, 2020:

Liz, yes, Thanks for commenting.In case Gibraltar had been captured it would have been a different story.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 28, 2020:

I was interested in your mention of Gibraltar. Its location on the end of a peninsula certainly gives it a strategic and contentious location. I was interested to see evidence of its role in World War 2 when we visited. It seems from your analysis, that Hitler's quest for world domination led him to overstretch his forces on too many fronts. I have seen a film many years ago based on the invasion of Crete.

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