The Battle of Stalingrad from August 1942 to February 1943 was the largest battle of World War Two, and one of the largest in all history. It involved a major battle for the city of Stalingrad (modern-day Volgograd) between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Here, Joshua Potts tells us the role that snipers played in the battle.

Vasily Zaitsev, a key Soviet sniper, in December 1942.

Vasily Zaitsev, a key Soviet sniper, in December 1942.

The Battle of Stalingrad

In 1942, Hitler attempted to cut off Soviet communication and supply routes along the Volga River by launching a two-pronged attack on the oil-rich fields of the Caucasus and the city of Stalingrad. Since the previous Operation Typhoon had failed to take Moscow, the Germans decided to circumvent the Soviet expectation that they would attack the capital again and instead went for Joseph Stalin’s namesake city. Initially, the German Blitzkrieg tactic inflicted huge numbers of casualties in the city and gained Army Group South B an important advantage over the shocked Red Army. However, it wasn’t just the Wehrmacht who had tricks up their sleeves. 

Within several weeks, more and more troops were being committed to the Battle of Stalingrad and intense fighting had broken out in the streets. Both sides used underground sewers to work their way behind enemy lines, trying to eliminate resistance in the city. The 10,000 tonnes of explosive dropped by the Luftwaffe had already damaged the city and reduced its many weapons and farm-machinery factories to rubble, and the ensuing conflict within the city exacerbated the destruction.

 

Snipers

Both the Germans (and their allies) and the Soviets had deployed hundreds of professional snipers into Stalingrad, placing them behind fallen buildings and broken machinery. They picked on unsuspecting soldiers (and often civilians) from rooftops and windows, making sure to hide their optical scopes so that the sun wouldn’t reflect on the glass and give away their hiding places. 

Many of these master snipers had grown up in poor families or had previous training in their families. They were all expert marksmen, able to kill their targets with as few shots as possible. All Soviets strong enough to hold a rifle were ordered by Stalin to fight for their city. Therefore, many women and children were separated from their husbands and fathers as the men left to become snipers. By November 1942, over a million German troops were trying to defeat the Red Army in Stalingrad but the Soviets held out, continuing to reload their rifles and prime their sights, refusing to give in.

 

Vasily Zaitsev

Perhaps the Soviet Union’s best sniper was Vasily Zaitsev, who killed over three hundred Nazis during the Battle of Stalingrad. He was born into a poor family and grew up hunting wolves in the snow with his father and younger brother. Repeatedly, he was taught not to waste bullets and only use one per target, as they were expensive and precious where he lived. Zaitsev joined the Red Army in 1937 and by the time he volunteered to join the frontline, he had already reached the rank of Sergeant Major. He joined the 62ndArmy which was defending Stalingrad as part of a rifle regiment. 

His commanding officer immediately noticed his talent and tried to test his skill with a quick shooting challenge. He pointed out an enemy officer that was located about 2,500 feet away. Vasily took a single shot and killed the target using his standard-issue Mosin-Nagant rifle. 

Vasily Zaitsev’s partner was Nikolay Kulikov and his favourite tactic was a strategy called “sixes”. He would cover an area from three different directions, assigning both a scout and an experienced sniper to each post. Following the correct rules of a sniper – hiding in a variety of places and changing every few shots – he managed to achieve 225 verified kills within 7 days.

 

Vasily Zaitsev and Major Konig

Perhaps the most well-known sniper story in Stalingrad is the sniper duel between Vasily Zaitsev and Major Konig. The Germans were getting increasingly concerned about this undefeatable Soviet sniper who was just impossible to locate. Nazi High Command had ordered Konig, headmaster of “Berlin’s Sniper School”, to hunt down Zaitsev and kill him. The sources and accounts of the duel are probably highly biased or contain false information as they all come from either Zaitsev or the Soviet Army. There is also no documentation on the German side for which sniper by the name of “Konig” was sent to Stalingrad, nor for the existence of a sniper-training school in Berlin. Thus, many speculators believe that the tale was either modified, incorrectly recorded, or even entirely fake. 

It took little time for Zaitsev to hear about Konig’s arrival. A captured German POW had boasted that he would not survive for much longer, as the Nazis had sent in their best marksman. A journalist travelled around with Zaitsev as he searched for Konig, waiting for the perfect moment to get a first-hand account of the killing. At one point, as Zaitsev was waiting for his nemesis to appear, the journalist stood up to point out a moving figure in the distance. Konig instantly fired his gun and Zaitsev’s journalist companion fell back, dead. 

From this point onwards, Vasily Zaitsev continued with his partner, Kulikov. The duo attempted to locate Konig’s hiding place, and Kulikov fired a blank shot in order to catch his attention. He then raised a helmet as bait, trying to entice Konig into shooting at it. Sure enough, a rifle shot rang out, Zaitsev’s companion drew down the helmet as if the fake target had been killed, and Konig’s muzzle flash gave a rough idea of where he was hiding. 

At this point, Major Konig raised his head above a sheet of corrugated iron he was lying behind, wrongly believing that he had shot the Soviet Union’s best sniper and that his mission was complete. In response to his enemy’s location being revealed, Vasily took his shot and killed the foolish and unsuspecting German sniper. 

Konig dies, Zaitsev lives on. 

Vasily Zaitsev taught other snipers and was decorated with numerous prestigious awards, “Hero of the Soviet Union” and “Medal for the Defence of Stalingrad” to name a couple. The sniper duel was depicted in the generally-inaccurate 2001 film, Enemy At The Gates.

 

Female Snipers

It was not just the men who fought as snipers at Stalingrad. Hundreds of female snipers were trained to fight on the Soviet side, being taught how to aim and fire a rifle. One notable example is Tatiana Chernova. A character based upon her profile featured in Enemy At The Gates. Finding her parents dead in Belarus – killed by the Germans – after visiting to warn them of the danger, she furiously joined the Russian resistance. She was trained by the legendary Vasily Zaitsev and trekked through sewers to reach her post at Stalingrad. Although she had 24 confirmed kills, she never actually admitted to killing anyone. Instead, she preferred to use the phrase, “breaking sticks” or “I snapped X twigs”.  She left service when she stepped on a landmine which seriously injured her.

Another notable female sniper is Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was often called “Lady Death”. She left her work at Kiev University when the Germans launched their invasion. When given an audition and told to target two enemy Romanians, she took out both with ease.

Both male and female snipers played a crucial role in the defence of Stalingrad and inspired others to follow suit. They were the courageous, unrelenting, merciless killers of the Soviet Union that refused to give in until the end. The Battle of Stalingrad came to a close on February 2, 1943, after over five months of desperate conflict, with a Russian victory. The disastrous defeat for Hitler, drained the morale and supplies of his troops. Undoubtedly, the Soviet victory owed in part to the efforts of the brave Red Army snipers.

 

What do you think of the Red Army snipers? Let us know below.

Joshua Potts writes at The Augustus blog here.

Of the many officially neutral countries in World War Two, Spain was perhaps the country closest to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Here, Laura Kerr follows up on her article on Switzerland in World War Two, by considering whether General Franco’s Nationalist Spain was a friend of Hitler, or actually neutral between the Allies and Axis Powers.

Francisco Franco is the figure second from the right. Nazis Karl Wolff and Heinrich Himmler, and Spanish minister Ramon Serrano Suner also feature.

Francisco Franco is the figure second from the right. Nazis Karl Wolff and Heinrich Himmler, and Spanish minister Ramon Serrano Suner also feature.

Non-belligerent - A nation or person that is not engaged in a war or conflict.

Neutral - An impartial or unbiased state or person.

Spain’s official stance of non-belligerence during World War Two is best taken with a pinch of salt. While its reasons to stay uninvolved appear legitimate, in reality Spain was arguably the most involved out of all “neutral countries”.

“Non-belligerent” normally refers to a state or country that does not get involved in a war, normally resulting in their neutrality. Spain’s reason for not officially getting involved was, of course, the Spanish Civil War.

This was a bloody civil war fought from 1936-1939 between the Republicans and the Nationalists. From an ideological perspective, the Spanish Civil War could be considered a precursor to World War Two and almost foreshadowed the end to the fragile equilibrium established in Europe.

On one side you had the Republic government. They were largely liberals and fought against the conservative Nationalist rebels. The Soviet Union provided the Republicans with significant military assistance, although France and Britain were more wary about supporting them. The Republic also received volunteer International Brigades from Western Europe and the U.S. More broadly, many in Europe saw the Spanish conflict as a threat to the peace that had settled in Europe and wanted to prevent the spread of the Nationalists’ fascist-linked ideology.

The Nationalists’ rebellion started off as a failed military coup but resulted in their leader, General Francisco Franco, becoming dictator of Spain. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both provided military aid, not only to support the Nationalists but also as a military testing ground for new weapons they hoped to later use.

The rebels won in 1939 and General Franco was made Head of State. While General Franco leaned heavily ideologically to Nazi Germany and the Axis countries, he was careful to appease the Western allies for trading reasons.

 

Volunteers

The main way in which Spain entered World War Two was through volunteers. The side with which each man volunteered largely paralleled the side on which they had fought during the Spanish Civil War. Over 18,000 nationalist men volunteered to fight for the Axis Powers, on the condition they would be fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union rather than against the Western Allies. By doing this, General Franco assisted and repaid Hitler while maintaining peace with Western Europe and the U.S.

Conversely, as a result of losing the civil war, many of the Republicans went into exile and fled to refugee camps in southern France. At the outbreak of the Second World War, they joined French forces to fight against the Axis Powers. It is estimated that over 60,000 Spaniards joined the French resistance alone. Just over 1,000 Spaniards (largely the communist leaders) fled to the Soviet Union and fought alongside the Red Army after the invasion in 1941.

 

Non-belligerence

Diplomacy is where the term ‘non-belligerency’ is distinguished from absolute neutrality. While volunteers technically assisted both the Allies and Axis during World War Two militaristically, General Franco also provided the Axis Powers with both economic assistance and useful intelligence. In 1940, Franco signed the Protocol of Hendaya, which provided for close cooperation among the governments of Spain, Italy and Germany.

Furthermore General Franco and Hitler engaged in numerous talks discussing the possibility of active involvement in the war and the issue of Gibraltar. This was an area of Spain in British control that Hitler was keen to seize. However General Franco repeatedly refused entry to German soldiers, arguing that the United Kingdom and its colonies still posed a major threat to Spain. In these discussions, General Franco often demanded too much in return for active entry into the war. Whether this was simply desperation considering Spain’s war-torn state, or a way of delaying irreversible actions, it resulted in a lack of official action. Among his other demands, General Franco asked for a large supply of grain to feed its population, which Germany could not provide. Pressure to invade Gibraltar was only relieved in 1941 when Hitler focused his attention on the Eastern front by invading the Soviet Union.  After a meeting on October 23, 1940 to discuss details about the alliance between Spain and Germany, Hitler was famously quoted telling Mussolini: "I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again!” This suggests that despite ideological similarities, the two leaders had a hard time making definite agreements.

 

Allied Trade Pressure

Like most countries during World War Two, Spain was struggling economically. People were starving and it relied heavily on trade and imports to support itself. The Allies worked hard to ensure Spain could not afford to actively enter the war and used trading blockades and economic incentives to enforce that.

Portugal and Spain had long had an alliance, therefore Portugal provided Spain with the much needed grain to ease its food shortages. However, to put pressure on Spain, America and Britain reduced Spain’s access to oil. All told, considering its economic and social depression after the Civil War, entering World War Two would have led to economic pressure which could have effectively brought the country to a halt.

Great Britain also followed a policy of "building a network of mutual interests and creating the conditions, thanks to which any breakup between the two countries would mean a key loss for Spanish trade and industry.” This largely dictated Spanish movements towards the Western Allies during the war.

As a result of tactical trade blockades and other agreements, over the war Spain was inescapably dependent on the United States and Great Britain.

 

A cowardly ending

Despite its seemingly favorable views towards the Axis Powers in the early years of the war, General Franco changed his tune as Hitler’s indestructible façade began to slip and victory for the Allies seemed inevitable. It was only when this happened that Spain reverted back from ‘non-belligerence’ to true neutrality and began to act that way.

However, this quick change of tact didn’t mean they could escape the consequences of favoring the Axis. As a result of their cooperation with Nazi Germany, not only militaristically but also economically, Spain was isolated by the major powers in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Although Roosevelt had promised Spain would not suffer sanctions from the United Nations as a result of their alliance, the U.S. president died in April 1945, leaving Truman to take power, who was less forgiving of General Franco. That being said, with the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the US later saw conservative Spain as more of an ally against the rise of communism, rather than a threat.

In conclusion, while it is clear that Franco’s Spain did favor the Axis Powers of the war, it did not technically become involved in the war. Its conduct during World War Two combined flexibility on who her allies were with a desperation to survive. After such a damaging Civil War, Spain was not in the position to wholly side with either the Allies or Axis Powers. It begs the question, therefore, that if they had been a fit state, who would they have chosen? And does that make them any better?

 

Did you find this article interesting? If so, you can read about the Spanish Civil War in our book – find out more here.

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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The Red Ball Express was a supply line that was set up to ensure that the Allied troops who invaded France in 1944 were well supplied. It wasn’t just any supply line though; it was vital to the Allies’ advance against Nazi Germany in the latter months of 1944… Here, Greg Bailey tells this World War Two story.

A Red Ball Express convoy is waved on near Alenon, France. September 1944.

A Red Ball Express convoy is waved on near Alenon, France. September 1944.

Like the Pony Express, whose legend has lasted far longer than its short history, the Red Ball Express, the vital supply line across France supporting the Allies’ war-effort against Germany, has earned a well-deserved heroic reputation. The around-the-clock stream of truck convoys was as important as any battle fought in World War II.

The Red Ball Express was created on the battlefield to solve an unforeseen but welcome development. The planners of D-Day anticipated there would be enough supplies, primarily gasoline, to support the advancing combat units while engineers completed a gas supply line from the Normandy landing area to the rear of the combat area. For a time, as the Allies slowly fought their way through difficult hedgerow country, the supplies piled up. But after Bradley’s division broke through the German lines, General George Patton saw an opening and aggressively took it. He charged across France and the army soon began to run out of supplies. By mid August Patton had to slow down his advance for lack of fuel. The gasoline and other supplies his men needed were piled up far from the front. "My men can eat their belts” Patton said, "but my tanks gotta have gas."  The solution was a special unit running on designated roads to move the supplies. Borrowing the name from the railroads, the Red Ball Express was born.

 

The Express at work

The Red Ball Express only ran from the end of August to the middle of November 1944. Men and trucks from scattered units were hurriedly brought together.  During those few months the convoys running on the designated roads marked by red ball signs, hauled more than 400,000 tons of materials from the Normandy beaches to the ever changing front lines of the Allied campaign. The loads included ammunition, medical supplies and food but above all gasoline in five gallon jerricans that were needed to keep the fuel hungry tanks and other vehicles advancing toward the enemy. Patton called the operations of the Red Ball Express “our most important weapon.”

Patton’s most important weapon was a combination of one of the best examples of American ingenuity and one of the most shameful episodes of American history.  Although the army used several models of truck during the operations, the mainstay was the two and a half tom Jimmie. The Jimmie had a five-ton cargo capacity.  The no frills version of the civilian truck, the Jimmie, was designed to be easily and quickly assembled. With simple, interchangeable parts, during the Red Ball Express’ operations, mechanics were able to swap out engines and transmissions by the side of the road often under enemy fire. Tires were a problem, often flattened on the road by discarded C-ration cans.  Under these tough conditions, each Jimmie had a life expectancy of less than a year.

 

Valiance in the face of Discrimination

What really pushed the operation was the men driving and repairing the trucks Three quarters of the Red Ball Express personnel were African Americans serving in all black units with white officers over them, barred from serving in combat under the segregation laws of the time. The white troops lived in separate quarters and were kept away from their comrades during and after duty.  British Major General H. Essame said: "few who saw them will ever forget the enthusiasm of the Negro drivers, hell-bent whatever the risk, to get General Patton his supplies."

Despite the sting of discrimination the men charged with the vital supply mission went above and beyond. On an average day 83 transportation units operated almost 900 trucks on the network of roads closed to all other military or civilian traffic.  On paper the speed limit for the five truck convoys was 25 mph with each truck spaced out in 60 feet intervals. In reality drivers disabled the governors on the truck engines to exceed the posted speed limits and the trucks were sometimes overloaded above their five-ton capacity.

During the first days of the Express, as the front lines nearly ran out of supplies, drivers set out with maps torn out of the pages of the Stars and Stripes newspaper.  And while the route was a solid line on a map, in reality the roads were narrow and twisting, pock marked with battle damage, running through fields of dead livestock and hidden snipers. The trucks ran at night with obscured headlights soon called cats’ eyes. Along the roads drivers passed the remains of trucks wrecked in accidents or destroyed by enemy fire.

Indeed, although the Red Ball Express was officially a non-combat unit, drivers were drawn into battles. Some of the trucks were fitted with 50 caliber machine guns and all of the personnel carried rifles with them. In these battles, black drivers left their trucks and fought alongside white soldiers and then returned to their second class status behind the wheels of their trucks marked with bullet holes. Against these hazards the Red Ball Express pushed on, with drivers completing the average 600-mile round-trip with little or no rest.

 

The murkier side

There was a dark side to the operation. In his 2000 book The Road to Victory author David Colley tells how bottles of premium French wine were traded for far more valuable cans of gasoline. Prostitutes along the way accepted jerricans as payment.  A few fully loaded trucks disappeared into the Paris black market under the unchallenged story that the trucks were destroyed by enemy fire.

By November other supply lines including pipelines and secured ports and rail lines had taken over the task of the Express. The Red Ball Express trucks were using a great amount of fuel to deliver gas to the increasingly distant destinations. The Red Ball Express had completed its mission. Other operations ran on other routes but the Red Ball Express image lived on it part because of the red circles on the transportation units insignia.

 

Tributes

After the war the Red Ball Express was celebrated in the Broadway musical Call Me Mister. “Steam was hissing from the hoods when they showed up with the goods. But they turned around and went back for more.”  A wildly inaccurate film on the Red Ball Express was released in 1952 staring actor Jeff Chandelier leading mixed white and black crews on trucks through burring villages to delivery gas to the stranded tank crews. An equally inaccurate sitcom on the Express ran for a short time on CBS in the 1970s.

But perhaps the most sincere tribute was expressed by the simple words of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. After calling the Red Ball Express the “lifeline between combat and supply”, Eisenhower said:

To it falls the tremendous task of getting vital supplies from ports and depots to the combat troops, when and where such supplies are needed, material without which the armies might fail. To you drivers and mechanics and your officers, who keep the ‘Red Ball’ vehicles constantly moving, I wish to express my deep appreciation. You are doing an excellent job.

 

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Greg Bailey is a history writer from St. Louis. His book The Voyage of the F.H. Moore and Other 19th Century Whaling Accounts was published last year.

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.