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.



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.



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…


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.



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.



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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Enjoy the show...

George Levrier-Jones

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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

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.

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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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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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.


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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.

Admiral Yamamoto led the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. However, Yamamoto was an interesting character who clashed with other, more bellicose, factions in Japan. Here, Kevin K. O’Neill tells us about his life.


Seventy-three years ago, on a day that has lived in infamy, America was attacked by Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a devastating surprise attack. One of the masterminds of this attack was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan’s combined fleet. Portrayed in the American press as the chief perpetrator of this nefarious gambit, Yamamoto was successfully demonized in the American mind by newspapers and magazines. Such slander is a tool of war as old as the business but with the passage of time a more realistic summation of Yamamoto’s character is in order.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.


Born Isoroku Takano in 1884, to a Nagaoka samurai clan, Isoroku was adopted into the Yamamoto clan in 1916 to keep the clan name alive, a common practice of samurai clans with no male heirs. By that time Yamamoto had already graduated form the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904, served as a line officer during the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905, returned to the Naval Staff College in 1914, and been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1915. Yamamoto went on to study at Harvard for two years with several subsequent American postings allowing him to tour America and become fluent in the English language. It was during this time in America that Yamamoto gleaned his understanding of American production and logistic capability. Showing foresight, Yamamoto shifted his specialty from gunnery to naval aviation.

In the 1930s the Army and Navy of Imperial Japan were at odds with each other over national doctrine. This animosity was fanned by politics turbulent enough to, after an assassination attempt in 1930, give the Japanese eleven Prime Ministers in as many years before the Army Officer, Hideki Tojo, became Prime Minister in 1941. The Army’s nationalistic outlook, a mix of ‘bushido’ and European fascism termed ‘Showa Nationalism’ by historians, was fueled by many things. Two of these were lingering resentment over the treatment by the ‘Black Ships’ of Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, and the indignation over the Japanese ‘racial equality’ proposal being rejected by the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. One of the main bones of contention between the bellicose Army and the more pragmatic Navy was whether or not to join the German-Italian Axis powers in what was to become the Tripartite Act.

Admiral Yamamoto, previously against aspects of the Japanese aggressions in China, was also against the Tripartite Act, recognizing that it would almost certainly lead to open conflict with the United States. Well aware of the age old military tenet that it is easier to start a war than to end one, Yamamoto, against public opinion and to the ire of the Army, sounded the alarm over America’s production abilities saying that the Japanese Navy could “run wild in the Pacific for 6 months… after that, I have no expectation of success.” This realistic viewpoint, considered weak and unpatriotic by the Army and an increasing number of the Navy power players, led to Yamamoto being removed from his position in the Navy Ministry to sea duty as the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, where he was held in high esteem.



After Tojo was appointed Prime Minister, Yamamoto, knowing war was imminent, went into patriotic obedience with the mindset of giving America a heavy blow, drawing battle lines, and suing for peace. The first of these blows came at Pearl Harbor, but while the rest of Japan was celebrating the ‘decisive’ victory Yamamoto was in deep melancholy over the fact that not a single American aircraft carrier was touched and that, due to bureaucratic lag, the declaration of war was delivered late to the Americans, making Pearl Harbor a sneak attack that would harden American resolve. Yamamoto tried again to hit the Americans hard then sue for peace with the plan of securing Midway Island and swatting American aircraft carriers.

Midway was a sure Japanese victory on paper, but there were problems such as the lack of security making the plan an open secret discussed publicly in teahouses. One Japanese pilot received a letter from a foot soldier relative fighting in China wishing him good luck at Midway. Other tricks of fate, including the submarines sent to detect American aircraft carriers being placed incorrectly due to a typographical error, thwarted the Japanese fleet. American intelligence work and gambits, the heroism of the torpedo squadrons, and shipboard fire fighting capabilities helped tip the balance. The Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered from their losses at the Battle of Midway.

As the Japanese were pushed back further and further during the battle for the Solomon Islands and ensuing loss of Guadalcanal, their morale suffered. Yamamoto, against strong vocal protests by his staff, insisted on going on morale boosting visits to forward areas. With the Japanese secret codes broken, the US Navy knew the details of these visits. President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to “Get Yamamoto”. On April 18, 1943, Yamamoto was shot down during an aerial ambush. Killed outright by .50 machine gun fire the 59 year old Yamamoto was found thrown clear of the crash site in his seat, still upright, with head bent as if in deep thought, his katana still clutched in his white gloved hand. Boosting the morale of the Americans and demotivating the Japanese, Roosevelt’s decision to go after Yamamoto is hard to question when viewed from the mindset of the times.

Sadly for the Japanese people Yamamoto never got his chance to keep the, or sue for, peace with the Americans. Roughly 90% of Japanese casualties occurred after his death as the Japanese fought tooth and nail against the advancing allies. One can only wonder what might have happened in the mid-twentieth century had the forces of bellicose nationalism listened to Isoroku Yamamoto, a true warrior who knew the price of aggression.


Now, click here to read our article on how World War II stereotypes of Japan linger on to this day.

Reference: The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire by John Toland.