In 1941, Nazi Germany launched a successful invasion of the Greek island of Crete. But what if this had been unsuccessful? In this article, Nick Tingley examines how it could have seriously impacted the German invasion of Russia – and may have even changed the course of World War Two itself.

Italian marines after landing on Crete in May 1941.

Italian marines after landing on Crete in May 1941.

Operation Tidal Wave

In the midst of the dark sea is a land called Crete, fair and fertile, surrounded by the waves.

-       Homer, The Odyssey


In the early hours of a June morning in 1942, Maleme airfield was a hive of activity. For the first time since the failed German attempt to capture Crete in 1941, American bombers rolled up to the airstrip and their crews began their final preparations for a great attack, codenamed “Operation Tidal Wave”. Finally, a flare was launched into the sky and the rows of bombers began to race along the strip before leaping up into the sky. Once in the air, they were joined by escort craft from the nearby airfields of Heraklion and Rethymnon, and soon the bomber force began to turn north and disappeared away from the island. Their targets were the nine Ploiesti oil refineries in Romania that, under continuous air attack from the island fortress, soon became unusable for the Axis powers.

As the bombers disappeared into the distance, the commander of the Allied ground troops on Crete, Major-General Bernard Freyberg VC, watched with satisfaction. As he watched, his mind returned to the two weeks in May 1941, when the determined soldiers of “Creforce” successful beat back a large German airborne invasion and showed the world that the Allies would not be defeated by Nazi Germany.


Operation Mercury

Unfortunately for Freyberg this was not the case. A year earlier, on the morning of May 20, 1941, the Germans launched an airborne invasion of Crete, codenamed Operation Mercury. Whilst the Germans had suffered heavy casualties, enough to convince Adolf Hitler that the German military should never again conduct a large-scale airborne operation, the 40,000 men of the Allied defense were soon overwhelmed and Crete became the latest possession of the Third Reich.

The capture of Crete was perfect for the German military machine. Not only did it mean that the Balkan flank was secured only a few days before the invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, was launched, but it also allowed the Germans to create a staging point to allow for easy troop movement between Europe and North Africa. From the airfields, the Germans were able to launch significant convoy strikes on ships travelling between Egypt and the Allies’ other island possessions in the Mediterranean: Malta and Cyprus.

For the Allies, it represented a significant blow to their morale. The Battle of Crete had depended largely on the Allies holding the island’s airfields but disorganization and an unclear defensive plan had led to the airfields being captured and the Allied troops being overrun and forced to evacuate to Egypt. But the capture of Crete was more than just a military embarrassment; there was also a considerable fear that the Germans might use Crete as a staging point for an invasion of Cyprus or Egypt to support the German and Italian forces that were operating out of Libya further to the west. It was only when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa that it became clear that this was not the intention.

In Crete itself, the invasion and occupation led to a civil uprising amongst the civilians who lived there. For the first time in the war, the German Army encountered widespread resistance from the civilian population, with thousands of civilians taking up arms against their German invaders. During the first few months of the occupation, the Germans routinely executed male civilians in reprisal for the deaths of German soldiers. In the Massacres of Kondomari and Viannos alone, the death toll exceeded 500.


The Barbarossa Question

The Battle of Crete is one of the more interesting what ifs to have come out of the Second World War. For decades, historians have placed differing amounts of weight on the importance of the battle. For some, the capture of Crete was incidental and, had the battle gone the other way, would have made very little difference to the outcome of the war. Others have suggested that Crete was vitally important and point to its strategic location as the main reason for its importance.

One of the key subjects that is always discussed when talking about the Battle of Crete is the impact it had on Operation Barbarossa. Some historians are keen to point out that Barbarossa was launched shortly after the Battle of Crete was won and make the suggestion that the invasion of Russia might not have gone ahead at all if Crete had not been captured. To discover whether this is indeed the case, we must examine several links between Operation Barbarossa and Operation Mercury: Hitler’s intentions towards both operations, the troop units that both operations shared, and the impact that the units used in the Battle of Crete made on the invasion of Russia.

Hitler authorized the invasion of Crete in April 1941, making it clear that he wanted to use units that were already in the area as they were used during the invasion of Greece. He also stated that any units involved in the operation that had already been earmarked for Barbarossa should conclude their missions by the end of May so that they would be available for the invasion of Russia. In doing this, Hitler had made his position completely clear – Barbarossa was the priority and, if the invasion of Crete could not be launched in time, Operation Mercury would not go ahead at all.

This would indicate that, in Hitler’s view at least, the inevitable capture or destruction of troops from a failed attempt to take Crete would have implications on Barbarossa. Hitler had made himself completely clear and by putting emphasis on his orders to have the units returned in time for Barbarossa, we can begin to suggest that a failed attempt on Crete may have had far greater implications for the German army than one might first think.


The Deployment of Troops

One of the things that the invasion of Crete did for the Germans was to help secure the Balkan flank. With Crete and, more importantly, its airfields in German hands, Hitler felt confident of launching the invasion of Russia without fearing a flanking attack through Greece. However, if the invasion had failed, and the units had been lost, this could have been quite a different story.

The three main units that were involved in the German attack on Crete were the 7th Flieger Division, the 5th Mountain Division and the 8th Air Corps. The 7th Flieger Division were the main thrust of the attack and were dropped across Crete with the simple task to secure the airfields so that the 5th Mountain Division could follow. The 8th Air Corps operated from Greece, providing aerial support for the troops on the ground.

In order to accurately determine how the loss of these units would have affected Barbarossa, we must address two scenarios. In the first, the 7th Flieger Division land on Crete but fail to take the airfields meaning that the 5th Mountain Division would never join the battle. In the second, the airfields are taken but an Allied counter-attack overruns them leaving both divisions to their fate. In the first scenario, the 7th Flieger Division would be all but destroyed meaning that it would not be available for Barbarossa, however the Mountain Division would have survived.

But would this have made a vast difference to Barbarossa? In reality, whilst both units survived the battle, the number of German casualties was so high that neither unit took part in the opening stages of Barbarossa. The 7th Flieger Division would not return to full strength until September 1941 and the 5th Mountain Division would not end up on the Eastern Front until April the following year. In fact, out of the three main units, only the 8th Air Corps was ready to take part in Barbarossa and was swiftly returned to the Eastern Front to conduct pre-emptive strikes in June 1941.

Even so, an Allied victory on Crete would have had a profound impact on the deployment of German troops in the region. If the Allies had held Crete, it is almost certainly true that Germany would have had to redeploy troops to protect the Greek coast against a possible Allied attack there. This would have meant rushing some of the units intended for Barbarossa down to Greece. In addition to this, the Allies would have still had three fully functioning airfields as the Germans would have left those intact to help supply their invasion. In order to combat the potential British attacks that may have followed, it is almost certain that the 8th Air Corps would have remained in Greece to conduct regular operations to knock out the British Air bases. It may have even been the case that, because of the threat from an Allied Crete, more aerial units would be moved down to Greece to help protect the convoys of supplies that travelled between Europe and Libya.


A Different Tidal Wave

In reality, it seems unlikely that an Allied Crete would have had much of an impact on the war in Russia. Whilst some inconvenience may have been caused to the Germans, their air power would have been more than enough to suppress the forces there, at least until the arrival of the Americans the following year. However, the main difference may lie in one of the most unknown operations in the Second World War – Operation Tidal Wave.

In June 1942 and August 1943, American bombers were sent from Egypt and Libya respectively to bomb the oil refineries at Ploiesti in Romania. One of the largest producers of crude oil in Europe, Ploiesti is estimated to have supplied 35% of the Axis oil supplied in 1943 and the Americans wanted it destroyed. However, the mission itself was a failure. The initial attack in 1942 did little damage to the refineries and only alerted the Germans to the vulnerability of the area. During Operation Tidal Wave, the following year, the Germans had drastically improved their air defenses, an improvement that led to the loss of 55 American bombers.

One cannot help but wonder that, had the bombers been able to launch from Crete, and had been escorted part of the way by fighters that could be launched from there as well, the result might have been quite different. If this attack had happened in the summer of 1942, and had resulted in fewer losses, the Allies might have been able to completely obliterate the Axis’ primary source of crude oil. At a time when the defense of the Soviet Union hung in the balance, this would have come as a tremendous blow to the German military machine and may well have caused it to come grinding to a halt.

As well as that, with the Allies achieving victory in North Africa, the Germans would have been forced to consider the idea of an Allied invasion of Europe through Greece and would have had to prepare defenses accordingly. This would have inevitably taken a huge amount of pressure off the Russians in the east and the D-Day landings in the west. It may have even ended the war that much sooner.


In the end, we will never know what would have happened had the Allies held on to Crete. But it is always important to remember that Crete was only a sideshow for the main event that was the invasion of Russia. Crete was the battle that Hitler was prepared to lose. That, in itself, speaks volumes.


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You can also read Nick’s previous articles on what if D-Day did not happen in 1944 here and what if Hitler had been assassinated in July 1944 here.