The U.S. Coast Guard played a key role during World War Two. Here, Daniel L. Smith tells us about the varied and important role the service played in saving lives and contributing to the US and Allied Powers’ war efforts around the globe.

You can read a few of Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here) and Medieval jesters (here).

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The naval history of World War II is propense, given the size of the war and participation of nations involved. And more often than not, the United States Navy offers a huge and understandingly repetitive presence over the naval history of WWII. More often than not however, it is the United States Coast Guard’s selfless service and true expense that is lost in that large shadow. As an Honorably Discharged U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, I wear a Coast Guard “Excellence” Ribbon, as well as the 9/11 Transportation Medal for service in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. With experience in rough seas, law enforcement, and search and rescue – I am pleased to share this story about the U.S.C.G. in WWII.

In November of 1941 the Coast Guard went from the Treasury Department to the Department of the Navy; so perhaps this was why the histories of WWII usually look past or only shortly mention the Coast Guard’s priceless role in the great event. The United States declared war after the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, and spent four years and eight months in the fray of internal and external conflict. It was this catalyst that the Coast Guard’s accountabilities to its service to country extended significantly, being valued more than just search-and-rescue, and law enforcement; now it was seen completely integrating militarily.[1]

The Coast Guard was actually involved in some very significant events in World War II. How effective were they? Seaman John Cullen, for instance, was walking the beach performing routine night patrol on the 13thof June of 1942. During his walk Seaman Cullen observed four Germans landing ashore, on a saboteur mission code-named Operation Pastorius. Seaman Cullen of the U.S. Coast Guard was actuallythefirstAmerican who came into contact with the enemy on the shores of mainland USA during WWII.[2]Another incident, CGC Icarus (WPC-110), a 165-ft patrol boat that once had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, put a German U-352 under water on 9 May 1942, off the south coast of Charleston, South Carolina.[3]The Icarus crew took on 33 prisoners that day. They were the first German nationals taken in combat as prisoners by any U.S. armed force.[4]

During the entire length of WWII, U.S. Coast Guard elements sent 12 German and two Japanese submarines to the bottom of the ocean, and would end up capturing two German warships. Finally, Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro was the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It was at the 2ndBattle of the Matanikau, Petty Officer Munro was tasked with leading the extraction of 400 United States Marines that had been beaten and overrun on the Japanese island. Munro used a 7.62 mm deck-mounted machine gun aboard his “Higgins Boat” to direct a suppressing fire against the Japanese positions as the other recovery boats took on the beaten and battered American Marines. He would end up selflessly putting himself between heavy fire from the Japanese forces and the U.S. Marines – leading the ten landing craft and saving all five-hundred U.S. Marines, including 25 wounded, all escaped.[5] 

 

A DRIVING FORCE

The United States Coast Guard wasand continues to remain to be the most professional, elite, and underappreciated service out of the 5 branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. In WWII history, evidence suggests the U.S. Coast Guard was more involved than the history books lead on. So, justhow effective was the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II? Admiral Chester Nimitz highly praised the valuable and selfless performance of Coast Guard men and women in World War II by stating: “I know of no instance wherein they did not acquit themselves in the highest traditions of their Service, or prove themselves worthy of their Service motto, ‘Semper Paratus’—‘Always Ready.’”[6]

It was back in 1837 that the Coast Guard went even further with the order to save lives and property. The main functions of the service were no longer just law enforcement related, but now relied upon as the saviors of life and property with maritime safety taking up an equally important role. For a branch of service that has less peopleserving in it than the New York City Police Department, it always seems it is the U.S. Coast Guard that always stands out at the end of their long days. The Coast Guard has been involved in every single one of our nations wars at sea –along the side of their Navy counterparts. These brief aforementioned illustrations stand as evidence to the examples of the Coast Guard, its crew, and its mission capabilities. Of course, all of this centered around being a 5thmilitary branch of service, with all privileges entitled. 

There is another historical event that would equal silenceto the incredible effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s mission capabilities. Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro, is the aforementioned Coast Guardsman who would equally compare in this quiet and unpromotedglory in while their service. Its interesting in part to think about just howunrecognized the service is. Proof? Half of my recruit training company didn’t even know the Coast Guard was a seagoing service when asked about it by the Company Commanders.[7]If recruits are naïve about the mission, is it unreasonable to assume that the general public wouldn’t have an idea of Coast Guard’s mission effectiveness? Of course not.

The mission effectiveness pre-dating our modern era is apparent when looking back in the historical entries. The Revenue Cutter Service (as it used to be known) was re-named United States Coast Guard in 1915, after the U.S. Government observed justhoweffective they were as a wartime andnon-wartime entity.[8]It is amazing that with such successes in the field and low publicity, both publicly and within the other four military branches, the Coast Guard still continues to remain the mostunderappreciated branch of the services. 

 

UNDERAPPRECATED, MOST EFFECTIVE

Overall, the Coast Guard performed valiantly with statistics of their own military accomplishments during WWII. 12 submarines were sunk in the Atlantic Theatre by Coast Guard Cutters, Coast Guard Anti-Sub Planes, and Coast Guard-crewed naval vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard documented that from 1941, to the end of the war, Coast Guard crews had served successfully on board Navy attack transports (APs & APAs) and with personnel to spare. They continue on to say, “It was an obvious choice to let the Coast Guard continue to assist in manning various ships of the ever-increasing Navy fleet. They readily took to all of the various types of landing craft utilized by the Navy, including the Landing Craft Infantry, Large, or LCI(L)s, beginning in 1943.”[9]

Technologically, the Coast Guard headed a cooperative effort between scientists and the U.S. Navy, to develop the Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) system. The Coast Guard stated that, “Pulse transmission of radio waves permits LORAN to measure the time a signal travels. This allows an infinite number of lines of position to be placed over the Earth’s surface by radio. Using special charts and a simple receiver, a plane or ship could determine its general location within a few miles by longitude and latitude. LORAN is the first use of electronic navigation, precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS).”[10]

In June of 1942, legislation in the Executive Branch changed the face of the U.S. Coast Guard forever sealing their fate as a military service. Further, the presidential decree allowed for the centralization of the Coast Guard as the premier multi-mission branch of service. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office:

“The President delegates port-security to the Coast Guard. Responsibilities included: Control of anchorage and movement of all vessels in port; Issuance of identification cards and the supervision of access to vessels and waterfront facilities; Fire-prevention measures including inspections, recommendations and enforcement; Firefighting activities, including use of fireboats, trailer pumps and other extinguishing agents; Supervision of the loading and stowage of explosives and military ammunition; Boarding and examination of vessels in port; Sealing of vessels' radios; Licensing of vessels for movement in local waters and for departure; Guarding of important facilities; Enforcement of all regulations governing vessels and waterfront security; Maintenance of water patrols; General enforcement of federal laws on navigable waters and other miscellaneous duties.”[11]

 

Handling and piloting these small boats in the rough surf is most certainly a specialized skill. Additionally, this type of emphasized skillset was not common among men in the Navy. Not guys in the Coast Guard though. Many of the coxswains (small boat handlers) had learned this skill from pushing boats through the surf at coastal lifesaving stations. Coast Guard small boat handlers were actually only at lifesaving stations. Most were highly seasoned small-boat handlers, as this proved valuable to the service. Maneuvering landing craft through strong currents, reefs, sand bars and heavy surf, is what these lifesavers excel at. Further, their aid to amphibious operations during the entirety of the war is infinite. 

 

RISING UP

The experience of these surfmen were priceless during amphibious operations. The Coast Guard's surfmen acted as trainers and coaches to the U.S. Navy small boatmen trying to learn the complexities of controlling craft in the rough waters and heavy seas. During the early period of WWII, thousands of Coast Guard and Navy personnel were skilled and apt to handle landing craft in preparation for the beaches.

Part of that landing craft mission was landing troops at D-Day, but, given the sheer size of the operation, the Navy and Army asked that the Coast Guard also provide a flotilla of ships to rescue Americans stranded in the water. The Coastie’s punctually rose-up to complete the challenge, pulling from their daily experience in saving lives for over a century. The Coast Guards Cutters and other small-craft went to war on D-Day. They were literally behind the first wave of landing craft hitting the beaches of Normandy. They had been told to stay two miles away from the shoreline, but most of the Coastie’s took their craft closer to shore where they could rescue more lives. 

The United States Coast Guard pulled over 400 men out of the water that day. One small-boat named "Homing Pigeon," manned by the Coast Guard, rescued 126 lives in one day.[12]It was the Coast Guard Cutters Eastwind and Southwind that would end up capturing the Nazi vessel Externsteine off the coast of Greenland doing weather and supply duty after a brief fire-fight with nobody killed. The Coast Guardsmen gave the newly captured Nazi ship the name USS Eastbreeze and placed 37 men on board to man the vessel. Eastbreeze would end up sailing to Boston where the U.S. Navy renamed her USS Callao. Nazi supply vessel Externsteine was the only enemy ship captured while at sea by any U.S. naval forces during World War II.

What was the scope of the Coast Guard’s rescue operations in WWII? A thorough examination of the United States military’s records in the European phase of the war will reveal just how operationally effective the small services were outside of battle. 4,243 servicemen and merchant mariners were saved, and of these 1,658 survivors were picked up from being torpedoed along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. 810 souls were saved in the North Atlantic, and in the Mediterranean 115 saved. Further, 1,660 were saved from rescue cutters from the English Channel at D-Day. The fact is almost four and a half million fighting soldiers would embark by ship, to fight the enemy in Europe and Africa. Of all who were deployed , 3,954 were lost at sea.

 

THE TOUGH KEEP GOING

Over the course of World War Two, the U.S. Coast Guard remained completely active with the remaining landing forces until Japan surrendered. Other operations that contributed to the Coastie’s efforts were mine-sweeping off the coasts during occupation. At the finish of major military operations in the Pacific, the soldiers., sailors, and airmen being ferried home by the Coast Guard would come to know the last ride home as… “Magic Carpet” rides. These rides home would have to have been one of the most relieving moments of any war wearied serviceman. 

The Coast Guard contributed as much as any other branch of service to the war effort as part of the amphibious forces in the Pacific theatre of war. The men of this nation's smallest branch of service, – smaller than the N.Y.P.D. to be exact – proved as heroic and valiant as the men in the other branches. The Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, in 1946, would stand on the podium and publicly state that during the war the United States Coast Guard "earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of service." 

The fact of the matter is…“Their experience in operating in all types of surf conditions as well  as on the high seas made the Coast Guard crews a valuable addition to the Allied invasion fleets.”[13]The United States Coast Guard continues to be the most elite branch of service operational today, also making the Coast Guard statistically, the best the five branches of military has to offer. The truth is that for being the most underappreciated branch of service; the men and women of the Coast Guard display their moraland ethicalprinciples in the line of duty.[14]They truly were mission effective in WWII.

 

 

What do you think of the US Coast Guard in World War Two? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at complexamerica.weebly.com.


[1]Bishop, Eleanor C. 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co. https://archive.org/details/printsinsand00bish_0.

[2]Walling, Michael G. 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=31947742&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[3]Ibid., pp. 204-207.

[4]Ibid., p. 208.

[5]Quesada, Alejandro de. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online. p. 97.

[6]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (monograph 7).

[7]“USCG Basic Training Experience, Delta-162” Daniel L. Smith, 2002.

[8]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 17)

[9]"U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Aug/08/2001789793/-1/-1/0/LCIS.PDF.

[10]"Time Line 1900's - 2000's." United States Coast Guard (USCG) Historian's Office. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.history.uscg.mil/Complete-Time-Line/Time-Line-1900-2000/.

[11]Ibid.(USCG) Historians Office.

[12]Christy, Gabe. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/60-coast-guard-cutters-saved-400-men-d-day.html.

[13]"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-personnel-notebook/2018/01/whats-in-the-coast-guards-secret-sauce-for-high-retention/.

[14]"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014. https://allhands.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/02/05/from-the-homefront-top-10-things-we-wish-people-knew-about-coast-guard-life/.

Sources

Alejandro de Quesada,. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online.

Arch A. Mercey and Lee Grove, eds. Sea, Surf, & Hell: The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945).  pp. 12-14.

Eleanor C. Bishop, 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co. https://archive.org/details/printsinsand00bish_0.

"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014. https://allhands.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/02/05/from-the-homefront-top-10-things-we-wish-people-knew-about-coast-guard-life/.

Gabe Christy. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/60-coast-guard-cutters-saved-400-men-d-day.html.

Ken Wiley,. 2007. Lucky thirteen: D-Days in the Pacific with the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II. Philadelphia: Casemate. http://books.google.com/books?id=CIrxAAAAMAAJ.

Michael G. Walling, 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=31947742&site=eds-live&scope=site.

U.S. Coast Guard, Historian’s Office, “World War II” www.uscg.mil/history/WW2Index.asp

 "U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://media.defense.gov/2017/Aug/08/2001789793/-1/-1/0/LCIS.PDF.

U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 1-30)

"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/dod-personnel-notebook/2018/01/whats-in-the-coast-guards-secret-sauce-for-high-retention/.

Whether Sweden was truly neutral in World War Two has been the subject of much debate over the years. Following past articles on the role of Spain (here) and Switzerland (here) in World War Two, Kaiya Rai presents the arguments for both sides – how Sweden assisted both Nazi Germany and the Allied Powers.

A Swedish soldier during World War Two.

A Swedish soldier during World War Two.

Sweden, during the Second World War, declared an official policy of ‘non-belligerency,’ meaning that the nation itself was unattached to either the Allied Powers or the Axis Powers. Since the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden had attempted to maintain this policy of neutrality. In those wars, over a third of Sweden’s land was lost, including new Russian control of Finland, and these losses, alongside a coup d’état against Gustav IV, former King of Sweden, meant a new foreign policy of non-belligerency was formed, namely the Policy of 1812. Whether the Swedes, and even the government themselves, steadfastly adhered to this policy is questionable, however, especially in the years 1939 to 1945.

One key feature of Sweden’s lack of neutrality in the Second World War is closely linked with its long history with Finland. Finland was a ‘co-belligerent’ with Germany, meaning that it engaged in the war as support for Germany, due to its nations’ alliance. Evidence points to Finland under Swedish rule from the late thirteenth century, starting with Swedish crusades to Western Finland, securing Swedish rule over the nation and creating a Swedish province. Their rule collapsed on September 17, 1809 as a result of the Finnish War, where, under the conditions of the Treaty of Fredrikshavn, Finland became a semi-independent Grand Duchy under Russian rule with the Tsar as Grand Duke. But, even with the lack of rule over Finland, Sweden still supported the nation, and managed to indirectly help its cause a number of times during the course of the Second World War, undeniably leading to support for Nazi Germany and its allies in the process.

 

Support for Axis Powers

As opposed to its official government policy, when called to fight in Finland, as many as 8,000 Swedes volunteered, and in response to German pleas for volunteers against the Soviet Union, around 180 Swedes joined the German Waffen-SS. It was always the individuals’ choice to enlist; however, the government also helped in ways such as sending food, ammunition, weapons and medicine to Finland during conflict. While the number of Swedish volunteers was comparatively small compared to some other nations, the country’s willingness to help in the war effort surely points to its obvious lack of neutrality. Even if official government policy stated the country was in a non-belligerent position, the actions of people in a nation are what ultimately reveal the true nature of the attitudes, and these undeniably show Swedish refusal to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

Another concern for Sweden during the war was trade. At the beginning of WW2, an agreement had been signed by Sweden, the United Kingdom and Germany, in order to sustain vital trade, but Swedish shipping began to be attacked. As a result, trade with Britain reduced by about 70%, and it increased with Germany, culminating in 37% of Swedish exports being to Germany alone. The battle of the Atlantic was what caused Swedish trade to be blocked, but a few vessels, known as ‘lejdtrafiken’ or ‘the safe conduct traffic,’ were allowed through to the United States (until their entrance into the war), and some neutral nations in Latin America.

This leads onto arguably the biggest point concerning Swedish support for the Axis Powers, and why historians are still debating Swedish neutrality during WW2: the iron ore trade. Germany used this ore in its weapon production, and trade form Sweden to Germany eventually became so large that ten million tons of iron ore per year was shipped to the Third Reich. The government did not interfere with the trade because of its official policy of neutrality. British intelligence had identified German dependency on this production of ore, and estimated that Germany’s preparations for war could end in disaster if there were to be a delay in exports. Therefore, the Allies planned to seize the iron ore deposits by using the Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939 as a cover. They planned to gain Norwegian (the ore was shipped through harbors in Norway to reach Germany) and Swedish permission to send expeditionary forces to Finland, under the pretense of helping the Finnish, and once there, they would take control of the northern cities to gain access to the ore and deny German access to it. However, the Norwegians and Swedes realized the danger of allowing an expeditionary force to be sent across their nations and so refused to allow it. Sir Ralph Glyn had even claimed that if iron ore exports were stopped, an end to the war would have been imminent, showing the Allies’ belief in the importance of Swedish trade to Germany, and so eluding to the lack of neutrality of Sweden during the Second World War.

A final point regarding support for the Axis Powers in WW2 concerns Operation Barbarossa, the German plan to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Germans asked the Swedes to allow German armed forces to be transported by train through Swedish land, from Norway to Finland. There was huge controversy surrounding what the government should do, and the political debates around the issue became known as the ‘Midsummer Crisis.’ This was the first point in the war where the Swedish government itself, as opposed to simply the people, was asked to reject its foreign policy of six hundred years. The four party coalition that ruled Sweden was in disagreement, with the Conservative and Agrarian parties, the Swedish Foreign Office and Gustaf V all wanting to grant Germany permission. In opposition, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party wanted to adhere to their foreign policy. In the end, permission was granted to Germany, and thus, the Swedish government showed opposition to its country’s long-held foreign policy.

 

Support for the Allies and opponents of Germany

Firstly, intelligence played a huge part in Swedish support for the Allies, as military intelligence was shared between them. Due to its ‘neutral’ stance, Sweden was able to gain physical access to Germany, which was useful for both Swedish and Allied intelligence, and the Polish resistance was assisted as employees at factories acted as couriers for messages. Moreover, German telegrams passed through Swedish-leased cables, allowing the Swedes to intercept them, and due to Arne Beurling breaking the cypher code in summer 1940, the messages were understood and the Polish resistance movement conveyed these to the Allies. Another example is when the German battleship Bismarck set off to attack the Atlantic convoys, Swedish intelligence informed the British. In addition, Swedish businessmen, diplomats and emissaries actively spied for the Allies in cities such as Berlin.

Secondly, militarily, Sweden assisted the Allies. They helped to train soldiers, originally refugees from other European nations, and allowed Swedish airbases to be used in the last two years of the war. On June 13, 1944, a V2 rocket being tested by the Germans crashed in Sweden and they exchanged its wreckage with Britain for Supermarine Spitfires. In another instance, the Swedish merchant navy, totaling around 8,000 seamen, found itself outside the Baltic and from May 1940, was loaned to Britain. The Allies began preparing to liberate Denmark and Norway in 1945, and they wanted Sweden involved and so the nation began preparing for ‘Operation Save Denmark,’ where they were to invade Zealand from Scania. Sweden then planned to assist the Allies in the invasion of Norway, and whilst this was not necessary in the end, US planes used Swedish military bases during the eventual liberation.

Finally, an integral part of what creates doubt around Sweden’s policy of ‘non-belligerency,’ was its part in hosting and assisting refugees and Jews who were being persecuted by Hitler and the policy of the Final Solution. Sweden became a place of refuge for these people, and nearly all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were brought to Sweden after the order to deport all Danish Jews in 1943. Norwegian and Finnish Jews also fled to Sweden and many stayed there after the war, too. While this shows a lack of neutrality, with its open defiance to Germany’s cause, ironically, it was Sweden’s policy of neutrality that allowed Jews to seek refuge there, as Germany wouldn’t invade the country. Alongside this, many were working to try and persuade German leaders to treat the Jews more humanely, such as King Gustav V of Sweden. Moreover, diplomats such as Count Folke Bernadotte, who contributed to saving over 15,000 prisoners from concentration camps, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews, and Werner Dankwort, who secretly helped Jewish children to escape to Sweden inside wooden crates, were able to use their statuses to communicate with the German government and pass information back to Sweden.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think it is safe to state that Sweden was only in name, a neutral country during the course of the Second World War. It did aide both sides, however, which is perhaps what has led to the debate surrounding the reality of its neutrality. Arne Ruth argues that “Sweden was not neutral, Sweden was weak,” and Winston Churchill believed that Sweden “ignored the greater moral issues of the war and played both sides for profit,” although this could perhaps be discredited due to the evidence that points to the country’s immense help in saving so many victims of the Nazi regime. We must also consider that WW2 was indeed a ‘Total War,’ and so was there ever any real possibility of any nation within Europe being completely neutral during the period?

 

Do you think Sweden was neutral in World War 2? Let us know below…

Disastrous warfare, lethal weaponry, brave soldiers, French beaches; these are perhaps just a handful of things that come to mind when one thinks about the Second World War - and rightly so. Since the Armistice of the War on August 14, 1945, we have repeatedly paid homage to a generation of predominantly young male soldiers that rescued Europe from Hitler’s fascist clutches. The following article will attempt to uncover the tragically short but eventful life of an altogether different war-hero (but a hero nonetheless), the man that Marvin Minsky called ‘the key-figure of our century’; Alan Mathison Turing. Analysis of Turing has tended to focus on his scientific advances and the role of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in hastening the end of the war. Yet Bletchley stands as an archetype for a more undervalued aspect of British life: eccentricity. Jon Hill explains.

Alan Turing.

Alan Turing.

Early Life

Born in London on June 23, 1912, Turing spent much of his childhood under the care of an old army couple whilst his parents spent most of their time in India due to his father’s work with the civil service. At school, he was never one to follow strict principles, spending much of his time in advanced mathematics to the neglect of his work. Turing’s school head teacher ironically claimed ‘if he is to stay here he must aim at becoming educated’. According to Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges, his academic life changed when he met Christopher Morecambe, a future love interest who helped him become more communicative with his peers and more focused on his studies. Following Morecambe’s early death, Hodges suggests that Turing became even more determined to focus his analysis into his notorious machines. Before he left school, he had rather unintentionally won the respect of his peers for his own peculiar methods.

In 1931, he entered Kings College, Cambridge, as a mathematical scholar, where he enjoyed a more welcoming atmosphere, and was awarded a fellowship at 22.

 

Making of the Digital Computer

Turing made his most significant contribution to the age of computers in 1935, when he began his investigation into mathematical logic that would lead to the creation of the ‘Turing Machine’. His paper ‘An Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem)’ spawned the idea that a machine could be used to compute anything that a human mind could. In effect, Turing had created the first modern day computer, revolutionizing human activity in the process; every keyboard stroke you make owes something to Turing’s work.

The ‘Turing Machine’ was subsequently used by engineers at the University of Manchester to build the world’s first working digital computer in June 1948. For his work in Computer Science, the ‘Turing Award’ was established in 1966 - the highest accolade in the computing industry.

 

Wartime Work

In 1939, Turing was headhunted by the government to head the Bletchley Park cipher-breaking mission to crack Nazi encryption. Then, working day and night, Turing and his team oversaw the creation of the ‘bombes’ – the machine built to crack the ‘Enigma code’ in order to enable the government to read German naval signals. Every German U-boat carried an Enigma machine to receive operational orders. To stop them, Enigma had to be broken. This quiet mathematician’s code-breaking endeavors were quite literally a matter of life or death for millions. By 1941 the code had been cracked, thanks, in large part, to this quiet, unassuming, gay man, who wore a gas mask for his allergies, and chained his teacup to a radiator to ensure its safe-keeping.

For his wartime services he was awarded an O.B.E by King George VI in 1946. According to Churchill, Turing made ‘the single greatest contribution to the Allied forces victory in the Second World War.’

It is hard to imagine that such a peculiar group would be amassed by the British government today. Yet the undeniable eccentricity at Bletchley was key to its success. The mission brought together a distinctive cocktail of mathematicians, linguists, cryptanalysts, crossword geeks and other boffins, but left alone in a space to flourish, they experimented their way to greatness.

 

Betrayal and Death

Although Turing enjoyed popularity in his private life and at Walton Athletics Club (where he was very successful and almost qualified for the 1948 Olympics), the eccentric genius which made him a wartime hero was not as appreciated in peacetime. In 1952, when reporting a burglary to the police, he naively admitted to a relationship with a man. He was subsequently arrested for ‘gross indecency with males’, one of 1,600 men who had been convicted in 1952 alone. Instead of a prison sentence, Turing was ordered to undergo psychoanalysis and a year’s treatment of estrogen injections.

Turing’s homosexuality was not completely secret. Many of his friends and peers at Bletchley and Cambridge endeavored to keep his relations covert, which, according to I.J Good, was just as important to the war effort as the code-cracking mission itself; ‘if the security people had known he may well have been fired and we would have lost the war.’

On June 7, 1954, Turing was found dead at his home, with a cyanide poisoned apple confirmed to be the cause of death. The investigation stated it to be a suicide, although many Turing experts have ruled it to be an accident. With no suicide notes, no prior symptoms of depression, his regular trips abroad, and his knowledge of British intelligence, some have even suggested that he was deemed too much of a national security risk and was subsequently murdered with the knowledge of the government.

 

Legacy

It seems to me that Turing’s life (and death) is a reminder of much that was terrible about the twentieth century. His genius was suppressed by an embarrassing education system; he was used by the government to make one of the largest contributions to human survival in recent history, before being swiftly sidelined while lesser scientists took his work onto ‘the next level’; he was not only persecuted but tortured for his homosexuality and was allegedly condemned as a ‘risk’.

Bletchley Park now stands as not only a code-breaking museum, but also for the triumph of the outsider. Turing’s posthumous pardon in 2013 stands as a beacon of hope for a suppressed generation of gay people, made to suffer for the prejudices of others.

In his 1937 paper on computer machines, Turing stated ‘the human memory is necessarily limited.’ Turing’s legacy stands as a reminder that one should not allow their memory to become limited. The age of tolerance should remember Turing as a necessary sacrifice made by a man far ahead of his time. And for that, he deserves to be considered as one of the greatest men in human history.  

 

Do you agree with the author that Alan Turing was one of the greatest men in human history? Let us know below…

Sources

Ben Macintyre, ‘Bletchley Park: a fitting memorial to our enigmatic nature.’ Times (London, England), 22 August 2008.

Ben Macintyre, ‘The genius Britain betrayed.’ Times (London, England), 14 July 2006.

‘Codebreaker’, directed by Clare Beavan and Nic Stacey (2011).

M.H.A. Newman, ‘Alan Mathison Turing, 1912-1954.’ Royal Society, vol 1 (1955), pp. 253-263.

Richard Morrison, ‘The war’s forgotten hero.’ Times (London, England), 22 August 2008. 

Switzerland had a curious position during World War Two. It was officially a neutral country, but that neutrality was not always strictly maintained. Here, Laura Kerr considers how neutral Switzerland really was and how helpful it may have been to Nazi Germany…

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Switzerland. Three things come to mind: watches, chocolate and neutrality. And for good reason. Firstly, Switzerland is home to both Rolex and Omega which can boast the titles of ‘first watch on the moon’, ‘James Bond’s official watch since 1995’, and the watch of choice for both the American and British armies during World War One. However despite its truly fascinating watch history, that is not the aspect of Switzerland that I am focusing on today.

Switzerland is the longest standing neutral nation in the world and has not taken part in a war since 1505. Its official stance of non-involvement had been decided during The Congress of Vienna in 1815, in which major European leaders met to discuss the nature of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.

Up until World War Two, Switzerland upheld her stance of neutrality rather admirably. But despite not engaging in combat during the war, Switzerland’s so called ‘neutrality’ has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, with particular emphasis on border controls, banking and trade with Nazi Germany.

 

Hitler’s decision not to invade

The first question that needs to be answered to fully understand Switzerland’s position during WWII, is why Hitler did not invade the country while trying to establish the Third Reich. Hitler described Switzerland as a “pimple on the face of Europe” and both its geographical location and culture would seem like a clear target for the Nazis.

A good way to summaries Hitler’s reasoning not to invade Switzerland is simply ‘risk versus reward’. At the prospect of a German invasion, the Swiss improved and invested heavily in their ‘National Redoubt’ (The Swiss National Defense Plan). Along with the tough terrain and modern machinery, this didn’t make the Swiss a particularly easy target.  Not only was the risk high, the reward wasn’t tremendously great for Hitler either. Switzerland and Germany already had a beneficial trading partnership which helped Germany’s war effort. Additionally, the neutral but infamous Swiss banks made Switzerland useful to the Nazis.

There’s little doubt that once the Allies had been defeated, Hitler would have mobilized an attack on Switzerland (a planned invasion was named known Operation Tannenbaum). But as it was, his attention and resources were preoccupied on bigger enemies so any attacks on Switzerland had to wait.

Nevertheless, by 1940 Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis powers and the Nazis occupied France, making it increasingly difficult to stay clear of the Second World War. It is the ways in which Switzerland allowed and in some ways, assisted, Nazi Germany which makes her “neutrality” so questionable.

 

Border control

After the Nazis gained power in Germany, many racial minorities attempted to flee to avoid persecution. Switzerland, a neighboring but impartial nation seemed a clear destination choice. As well as an agreement of neutrality, Switzerland had also pledged to be an asylum for any discriminated groups in Europe. They had taken in Huguenots that had fled from France in the 16th century and was an asylum for many liberals, socialists and anarchists from all over Europe in the 19th century. However, this wasn’t exactly upheld during WWII.

In fear of angering Hitler and prompting an invasion, Swiss border regulations were tightened. They did establish internment camps which housed 200,000 refugees, of which 20,000 were Jewish. Importantly though, the Swiss government taxed the Swiss Jewish community for any Jewish refugees they allowed to enter the country.

In 1942 alone, over 30,000 Jews were denied entrance into Switzerland, leaving them under the control of the Nazis. In an infamous speech, a Swiss government official stated “our little life boat is full.” Although the prospect of leaving Jewish civilians to certain death under the Nazis is unthinkable, there are arguments in Switzerland’s defense. Switzerland was a small country (with a population of roughly 4 million) which was completely surrounded by Nazi troops and nations under Hitler’s control. In comparison, the USA (arguably the safest nation for fleeing Jews) repeatedly rejected Jewish refugees and only accommodated approximately 250,000 people between the years from 1939 to 1945; tiny compared to its size. Historians today estimate that the USA could have easily accommodated over 6 million refugees.

But that is not the only controversy when it comes to Swiss border control. It was the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police, Dr Heinrich Rothmund, who proposed the idea of marking Jewish passports with a red ‘J’, and which became an important method of discrimination adopted by the Nazis. The Swiss government wanted to know and control the amount of Jews entering Switzerland but it led to a measure that made fleeing from the Nazis even harder for Jews.

Interestingly, on the March 8, 1995, the Swiss government made an official apology for their involvement with the Nazi Party, in particular their role in developing the ‘J’ stamp.

 

Banking

To this day, Swiss banks are known for their secretive but successful policies that created one of the strongest economies in the world. They were massively important during WWII, especially to high-ranking Nazis, and became another way in which Swiss neutrality was questioned.

But why were they so important?

Until 1936, the Swiss Franc was the only remaining freely convertible currency in the world. Therefore both the Allies and Axis Powers sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank and relied heavily on its economic stability. The German national currency was no longer a means of payment in international markets which meant the Nazis relied on Swiss banks in order to buy war machinery and commodities from other countries.

But if the banks accepted gold from both sides, then surely they are still technically neutral? Although that may be the case, it is the type of gold and the secretive way in which it was handled which has caused massive controversy in recent years. For over 581,000 Francs worth of ‘melmer’ gold taken from Holocaust victims was sold and kept by Swiss banks. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Swiss banks struggled with what to do with the gold, whose rightful owners had been killed in the awful genocide.

 

Trade

Prior to WWII, Switzerland had relied heavily on trade with Germany to build a strong and economically powerful nation. It was an industrialized country with virtually no raw materials, experiencing the same economic depression that was felt throughout both Europe and America. When World War Two commenced, Switzerland worried that any non-cooperation would lead to a cease in vital trade and even more significantly, an invasion. As it was completely surrounded by Nazi controlled countries, the Swiss had two choices: cooperate with Nazi trade policies or fight against them.

Between the years of 1939 and 1945, roughly 10,276,000 tons of coal was transported from Germany to Switzerland and provided 41% of Switzerland’s energy requirement. This demonstrates how the Swiss were keen to stay on good terms with Germany to continue their vital trade.

One thing Switzerland provided to the Nazis in return for important materials was access to the railway that ran through Switzerland and connected Italy and Germany. In the event of an invasion, the Swiss army planned to destroy vital tunnels and bridges, immobilizing the railway for years and making transportation between Italy and Germany nearly impossible. To uphold their neutral stand, Switzerland’s governments laid down restrictions on what could be transported over their railway. The Swiss would only allow sealed boxes to pass through without checking their contents, in exchange for raw materials and trade. Officially, the Swiss banned any transportation of people (troops) or war goods over their railway, but the extent to which this was upheld is very questionable.  

 

So, despite its attempts, Switzerland struggled to remain truly neutral during the Second World War. In fairness, World War Two was a ‘Total War’ which made it hard to remain impartial for almost every nation. It is the type of involvement, however, that is interesting and less well known to people studying history.

The extent to which a country remains neutral during times of armed conflict goes beyond their lack of involvement in armed combat. A country can only be considered neutral if they demonstrate no bias in business, social and economic activity.

Was Switzerland neutral? Arguably not.

But the extent to which they ‘helped’ the Nazis is a much more complex matter.

 

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Hello All,

Dwight D Eisenhower was US President throughout much of the 1950s, and lived an extraordinary life before then.

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Eisenhower was so much more than a 1950s Cold War President. In spite of the fact that he led the US during the period when the Cold War was in full swing, Eisenhower had a great and long life before that. Indeed, in many respects Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment came before his time as President.

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George Levrier-Jones

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Hello All,

In this episode of Cold War People, we look at the life of one of the most important men of the 20th Century, Joseph Stalin.

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He presided over one of the most brutal regimes in history and many millions of people died as a result of his policies and actions. But, the changes he made to the Soviet economy ultimately allowed the Soviets to overcome Nazi Germany in World War 2. In this episode, we look at Stalin the man, and ask how he came to be such a bloody tyrant.

Enjoy the podcast!

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George Levrier-Jones

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Hello All,

Hot on the heels of our book release, we’re back with our brand new series, Cold War People.

This series will look at the lives of some of the most important people involved in the Cold War. We will provide interesting, introductory overviews of them rather than necessarily looking in detail at their involvement in the Cold War.

Episode 1 - Churchill_v2.jpg

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And the first episode looks at one of the most important men of his age, Winston Churchill. The British war-time leader played a key role for the allies throughout World War 2, and in the war-time conferences when the Allied Powers were deciding how the post-war world would look. But, there was so much more to Winston Churchill than that. He had a long and distinguished career before then.

Enjoy the podcast!

George Levrier-Jones

PS – the next episode will be on Joseph Stalin.

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Episode 2 of itshistorypodcasts.com's series on the Cold War is out now. It looks at Cold War events in post-war Europe..

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The period saw World War II coming to a close. Europe and many parts of the world were coming out of the most devastating war in their histories. Only two countries had the power and ability to support a recovery – the USA and the USSR. The old European powers were shadows of their former selves.

We're glad that you've decided to come and join the past..

George Levrier-Jones

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Episode 1 of itshistorypodcasts.com's series on the Cold War is available now.

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It provides an introduction to the Cold War and answers a range of questions, including who the major groups involved in the Cold War were and just where the Cold War got it's name from.

Happy listening!

George Levrier-Jones

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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.

 

Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

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.