Crete: The Battle and the Resistance

In my Christmas stocking was the traditional gift card for Indigo. This year i saved it for the annual family trip to a local Indigo store instead of ordering something online Christmas night as in previous years. After scanning the history section a bit I narrowed it down to a book on Erwin Rommel and Crete by Antony Beevor. I went with Crete and breezed through it quickly.

About fifteen years ago I read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and enjoyed the academic history mixed with anecdotes, the personal stories of those involved, and how everything fits into the larger events. In both Stalingrad and Crete the terrible events are combined with some of the humour and absurdity of the time.

In Stalingrad there is part of a pamphlet German soldiers passed to each other on how to behave on leave in Germany, including a reminder dogs in Germany don’t have bombs on their back and don’t talk about the battle or everyone will want to come. In Crete negotiations near the end of German occupation became stuck on a few points so the British offered to settle things in a football match, the attending Orthodox Priest offered to referee.

Beevor not only gets soldiers’ often morbid humour, he was a soldier, but he humanizes legends and villains without harsh or apologetic. He recognizes there is good and bad people on both sides in the war, praises when things were done well and criticized when things should have been done better. I would recommend either Stalingrad or Crete to people who want the history without it being tied up in jingoism or ideology.

A few things stood out for me in Crete, beyond the humour and personalities. The biggest lesson to be learnt from the battle for Crete is communications is vital. The total lack of communications on the Allied side during the airborne assault allowed the Axis forces a critical airfield to move in reinforcements. With cut land lines and a shortage of radios the Allied commanders should have been moving forward to get a first hand account of events. Instead they waited at headquarters for a messengers.

With months to plan for the defence of Crete it should have been an Allied victory but inertia, failure to complete roads or facilities, and a lack of surveys of potential air or sea landing areas were contributors to the initial Allied defeat. When the misunderstanding of key intelligence is added into the situation it is no wonder the initial confusion lead to a route. Axis intelligence was worse which was helpful in the long run.

The battle of Crete is a prime example of how the ‘Mr Peas can’t touch Mr Potato’ approach to inter service relations can create opportunities to the enemy. The strategically oriented RAF was a liability to Allied strategy because they had no capability to win tactical domination over a strategic island. The Royal Navy and Greek Navy did well with the resources they had but the lack of tactical fighters left them vulnerable to tactical bombers. Air services that can’t win a tactical air battle in support of the wet and dry services at a strategic point should be all disbanded in disgrace.

RAF ground personnel and more surprisingly Allied Army REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother…you get the point) had little to no infantry skills or training. Not only do noncombatants (civilian contractors included) consume resources but they require combat units held back to protect them, thus reducing offensive or counter-offensive capability. Every uniformed member of every service, with the exception of medical or clergy, should pass an annual infantry skills test, including launching assaults, or be dishonourably discharged. Heinz Guderian in his book Panzer Leader mentions the Tenth Motorized Infantry Division sending their Bakery Company out to block a Soviet encirclement attempt. There was a composite battalion of REMFs on Crete that fought well but deserved some additional training for their own protection.

The battle and resistance on Crete shows how officers not having a homogenous background is beneficial. The archaeologists, travel writers, adventurers, play boys, and business people could see beyond the staff trained, Great War experience blinders many of the long service officers had. Even the traditional Classics training of the British tradition worked out in Crete as it was a shorter step from Ancient Greek to the Modern Greek. The nucleus of the Special Operations Executive predated the war giving time to recruit some of the characters mentioned in the book.

Sorry if this got ranty, I will have the 2014 have read list added to the page soon. Happy New Year!!!

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