Soon after setting foot in Libya in February with just a Panzer division and a motorized infantry division, General Erwin Rommel (later nicknamed "The Desert Fox") trapped the 35,000 British troops in the Libyan port city of Tobruk. Technically he was under the command of Italian General Italo Gariboldi, and most of his troops were Italian, but Rommel and his Afrika Korps were the ones running the show. He was a master of deception, using trucks to kick up concealing dust as well as wooden dummy tanks to create the illusion of having greater numbers. The British figured the Germans would also be stopped cold, and made no attack on them, rather, letting the Germans come to them. The Germans did come, and during the spring of 1941 continuously routed the shocked British. With his lightning quick and unpredictable actions, he was the most feared man in North Africa. On 14 April he tried to take Tobruk, but he was barely held back. He tried again 2 days later, but this time without the help of the Italians, who surrendered the first chance they got. Frustrated that he did not have the proper reinforcements, Rommel called off the attack on 17 April. Both sides needed a break because of the horrible conditions in Libya: oven-like heat, sandstorms, plagues of insects, dysentery, unbearable thirst, and constantly being shot at took their tolls on the weary soldiers in the desert.
THE GERMANS SWEEP ACROSS THE BALKANS
Yugoslavia's place in the war was about to take a turn for the worse in the spring of 1941. Neighboring Bulgaria joined the Axis on 1 March, which added another southeastern European country on Germany's side, along with Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia. Yugoslavia, while politically divided, in general did not want to side with the Fascists. Because of the courageous victories earned by the Greeks and Albanians, who were defending their homelands against the Italian invaders, the Yugoslavs were encouraged to do likewise. On 27 March Yugoslav freedom fighters staged a coup that ousted the pro-Fascist leader Prince Paul and put the pro-Allied King Peter II into power instead. Since the Germans had time-sensitive plans to invade the USSR, Hitler worried that an Allied presence in Greece and Yugoslavia would jeopardize Army Group South, who was to take a prominent role in the upcoming invasion. He was also enraged that the Yugoslav people had rejected Facism and demanded that they change sides again, but Yugoslavia refused and were determined to fight if necessary.
Thus on 6 April 1941 the Germans stormed into Yugoslavia in
response to Italy’s plea for reinforcements, including 550,000 Axis troops from
Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria. The plan was to cut off Slovenia and
Croatia to the west and encircle the strongest
pockets of resistance in Serbia, with Bulgaria's help from the east.
Ambrosio's Italian 2nd Army would capture Ljubljana and move along the
Dalmation coast, while the Italian 9th and 11th Armies would move up through
Albania and capture Dubrovnik. From the north came the Hungarian
3rd Army and the German 2nd Army (under Weichs) while the German 12th
Army (under List) and its panzer detatchments took Skopje from the
With Croatia soon surrendering for a grant of independence and the rest
of the military poorly organized, Yugoslavia’s weak forces
buckled under the mighty Wehrmacht. By 12 April the swastika was
flying over Belgrade after being blitzed by the XLI Motorized Corps, 1st
Panzer Group (under Kleist) and XLVI Panzer Corps. They linked up with the Italians and pounded
Serbia and Bosnia from all sides as enemy resistance crumbled. Sarajevo fell on 14 April, and 3 days later an armistice was signed.
Armed to the teeth with their Panzer divisions, the Germans took roughly 100,000 Yugoslav prisoners, as well as capturing most of their weapons, although Yugoslav guerrilla forces continued to fight whenever they could. Fortunately, King Peter II was evacuated to England in exile. On the surface, the purpose of this march across Yugoslavia was to help the Italians in Greece and take it for themselves.
However, Germany also had a vested interest in the Balkans, especially Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Hungary's grain could feed German troops while its bauxite could be used to build airplanes; Romania had both grain and oil; Bulgaria offered valuable Black Sea ports for U-boats to prey on Soviet shipping. Several countries shared borders with the Soviet Union and could be used as a station for invasion, but perhaps most importantly they all had armies, even though they were weak, that could be used to throw against Stalin's defenses. Thus, by March Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had become occupied territories of the Reich. With their futher conquests of the Balkans, the Germans drove in with their Panzers and pushed back the British and Greek resistance. The Greeks and British tried to make a stand at the Mount Olympus line, but it was soon flanked. The Germans cut off the retreating Greeks and encircled them by 20 April, ensuring their defeat. The air war over Greece was brief but bloody. The Greek air force had a Blenheim squadron, Gladiator squadron and two Hurricane squadrons, but this could not match the Luftwaffe. Actually the Germans lost 164 planes and the British only 72, but they could no longer safely provide air cover. On 23 April Greek and British planes evacuated to Crete to fight another day.
Once Greece surrendered, the British knew they would have to make another Dunquereque-like evacuation in southern Greece. Germany and Greece signed a treaty behind the Italians’ backs which was very beneficial to the Greeks, since it let the defeated Greek army return home with honor. The Italians also wanted a surrender treaty, so after fighting with them for two more days, Greece also signed with Italy, although quite reluctantly because the Greeks knew in their hearts they had defeated the Italians. After the Germans overran key defensive positions, the British sensed the hopelessness of their struggle and abandoned their fortifications the night of 24 April. Thanks to the brave resistance of the Australians and New Zealanders at Thermopylae, the Germans were delayed long enough for Allied troops to escape off of the mainland. The next day the isthmus of Corinth was captured, but most of the British had fled beforehand, including Greece's King George. By the end of April, the Allies had been kicked out of Greece and Germany set their sights on the island of Crete, the last major Allied garrison in the Mediterranean. The British were able to evacuate approximately 45,000 troops, but lost 9,000 to capture and had 6,000 killed or missing. The Germans reported to have captured 300,000 Serbian and 200,000 Greek POWs while suffering comparatively low casualties because of the heavy support of their Axis partners.
THE SINKING OF THE BISMARK
After WWI, Germany was forbidden to have a navy, but during the 1930s they began building ships and strengthening their power at sea. Because they had to start from scratch again, the navy was the weakest element of the German military machine. Hitler envied the Royal Navy and with his "Z Plan," he began building several battleships to stand up to the British, who were depended on sea power for survival. After the outbreak of WWII, Britain’s life force was the supplies delivered from convoys abroad, which were constantly attacked by the Germans. Germany also faced isolation from other countries in trading, and Britain’s only hope was to blockade Germany’s trade with the outside world. They knew their navy would have to outgun the Germans if they were to survive.
When the German battleship Bismarck was built in August of 1940, she was the most powerful ship in the world, a 55,000 ton beast armed with eight 15 inch and twelve 5.9 inch guns. She set out to destroy British convoys in the North Atlantic, but was spotted by RAF reconnaissance planes and Britain’s old battleship Hood was sent out to intercept it. On 24 May 1941, the Hood and her shipmates met up with the Bismarck, but after only a few volleys the Hood was literally blown out of the water. Unbelievably, the ship sank in 2 minutes and only 3 men survived out of the original crew of 1420. This was a huge detriment to British morale, but they did injure the Bismarck, making her easier to find. Determined to avenge the Hood, they sent out "Force H": 1 carrier, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers in pursuit. Bismarck should have headed home for repairs, but for reasons not entirely clear, Admiral Günther Lütjens tried to escape from his predators.
On the Morning of 26 May the RAF discovered her 690 miles off the French coast, but the ships were low on fuel, so they had to dispatch 15 torpedo bombers to sink it. For half an hour under ferocious German AA fire the British pilots tried to hit the Bismarck with their torpedoes. Only 2 torpedoes hit the ship: one did no damage, but the other was a direct hit to the stern, taking out its steering mechanism. Later the Germans described it as a "100,000 to 1 shot," much like the shot that sank the Hood. The ship was paralyzed and the next day it was mauled by the Royal Navy, boosting British morale greatly. Out of the original crew of 2200, only 110 Germans lived to tell the story of the Bismarck. After this great loss, Hitler refused to deploy anymore battleships in the Atlantic and in disgust he replaced his Grand Admiral Raeder with Admiral Dönitz.
IRELAND CHOOSES NEUTRALITY
Without a navy and only 11,000 soldiers, the pre-war Irish worried most about a British attack, since just 20 years before they were fighting for their independence. When the war broke out, however, the new threat was Germany, who might want to use Ireland as a platform to invade Britain. The British urged them to join the Allies, and convinced them to build a small navy and air force and expanded their army to 2 divisions. Actually, 1 division was used to ward off a German attack, while the other was put in defense of a possible British attack. Ireland remained neutral, but in May of 1941 the Luftwaffe accidentally bombed 2 Dublin residence areas, destroying hundreds of homes. Eventually the Irish began to lean towards the Allied side and even sent 4,000 Irish volunteers to help the Allied cause.
AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
During the spring of 1941 Hitler told Finnish president Fisto Ryti that Germany and the Soviet Union would soon clash together, but insinuated that the Soviets would attack first. Finland saw Germany as the only power strong enough to stand up the USSR and a war between those powers would weaken both states, something that would be beneficial to the already weak Finnish army. The Finns had no love for the Nazis or their beliefs, but they wanted an ally who would help them regain their territory. In order to protect itself, Finland sided with the Germans, who then put 48,000 troops on their soil. The Germans then positioned troops in Norway to trick the British into thinking they would be invaded, which also fooled the Soviets. Still, all the signs indicated that Germany was planning some sort of Eastern invasion. Intercepted messages, troop positioning and spies would not sway Stalin into believing the Germans would invade his territory. Hitler’s goal was to crush out Bolshevism, which he equated with Jewry, and wanted to exterminate all the Slavic races. His plan was to take the Russian lands by force, starve out its occupants and use it for German purposes. Hitler wanted to use Finland as a launchpad to attack the northern USSR city of Leningrad, one of his primary targets of the war, and ensure that his Army Group North would have adequate protection from the Finns. He thought his army of Aryan soldiers would wipe out the weak Red Army, which was still recovering from Stalin’s genocidal military purges. Little did Stalin know that in the next year his people would be in the fight of their lives, drawing on the power of every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union.
THE SIEGE OF TOBRUK
On 30 April, with 15 Panzer divisions at his command, Rommel unleashed his fury on Tobruk. He punched through, but the Allies fought tenaciously, preventing the eventual German partial victory for 3 days. The Germans then conquered a significant foothold, but not the entire city, and it cost them over 1000 lives. Rommel’s superior, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, prevented him from further attacks. At the same time, the British received 238 tanks to reinforce their hold on Tobruk. Their ill-fated counter-attack in late May was only one of several disasters for the Allies, including problems in Greece, Crete, Syria and Iraq, plus further losses in Tobruk in mid-June. Although the British held Tobruk, with each passing day the Germans inched closer.
Crete is a mountainous island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, 260 km long and 20-50 km wide. With its airstrips at Máleme, Canea and Heráklion as well as a harbor at Suda Bay, Crete was an Allied Mediterranean outpost since Mussolini’s attack on Greece in 1940. Unfortunately, most of the garrison weapons and supplies were siphoned off for the doomed British presence on mainland Greece, and most of the 25,000 defenders on Crete were exhausted veterans of that campaign. The 3 infantry divisions, mostly Australians & New Zealanders, had only 5 anti-aircraft batteries, a handful of armored units and aircraft, and the few artillery units they had were immobile. The British were clearly at a disadvantage, but the way the Germans mishandled their interests in Crete evened the scales somewhat. German commanders felt the time was right to crush the British in the Mediterranean, to protect the Balkans while preparing for an attack on Egypt, which was essential in controlling the Suez Canal and other Middle East interests. If the Axis were to have any hand in the eastern Mediterranean, it would need a naval and air base, which meant Crete must be captured.
Hitler was convinced by his Luftwaffe commanders that Britain’s naval stronghold on
the Mediterranean could be bypassed with an airborne assault on Crete, and entrusted this
operation to General Alexander Löhr.
Dubbed "Operation Mercury," 13,000 airborne units, or Fallschirmjäger, would capture the airfields and surrounding areas, while 9,000 mountain troops, or Gebirgsjäger, would seize the high ground and reinforce the airborne gains. Unfortunately even with these two elite forces, all the equipment needed for the invasion was not ready. Hitler gave Löhr just 10 days to prepare his forces, and there were not enough Ju-52 air transports to deploy all the paratroops in one drop. Subsequent drops would increase the aircraft loss rate, and the short dirt runways meant the Fallschirmjäger would have to quickly capture and hold them or the mission would be lost. The runways could only accommodate one plane at a time, which would have to stop immediately, unload its troops, then take off at full throttle whilst dodging any crashed Ju-52s, leaving the dirt airstrip in a cloud of opaque dust. The aircraft themselves had to be specially modified and could only hold 12 cramped men at a time, which meant it took 4 hours to drop an entire battalion.
Even with the Germans’ weaknesses, the British knew the only way they could stop them was with naval superiority under Admiral Cunningham’s fleet: the aircraft carrier Formidable, 4 battleships, 11 cruisers, 30 destroyers and 3 assault ships. At the same time, the Germans knew the only way they could win Crete was with air superiority, so in the opening weeks of May they bombed Allied ships, but with very disappointing results. On 20 May they switched to bombing Crete itself to soften up Allied defenses, which alerted Captain Morse, Commanding Officer at Suda Bay of the impending invasion. By then there was little the Allies could do, as over 20,000 Germans aboard 500 Ju-52s towing gliders darkened the skies in history’s first airborne invasion. Although the Allied anti-aircraft batteries were neutralized, the Fallschirmjäger were hit mercilessly from remaining Allied defenses, killing many of them in their planes or in descent, shocking German commanders. Only 7 planes were lost in the first wave, but refueling problems delayed the second wave long enough for the Allies to muster up small yet concentrated defenses that cut the surviving Germans to pieces. By nightfall the dauntless Fallschirmjäger had secured a toehold on Crete, but a third drop was attempted the following day, hampered by a runway cluttered with impact craters and wrecked aircraft, rendering it useless. Because of the scarcity of Ju-52s, the Gebirgsjäger reinforcements were transported by sea in 63 ships, but were attacked by Cunningham’s fleet, sinking 10 transports and killing 800 German troops. Only 49 made it ashore, on life rafts.
The next day the transports tried again, this time with the Luftwaffe retaliating for hours with swarms of bombers amidst a hailstorm of AA fire, filling the sea with flaming oil, twisted blackened metal and charred bodies of sailors. The German planes took surprisingly low casualties, but both sides decided that they could not afford to lose any more ships and eventually they backed off of their naval engagements. Back on land, the Fallschirmjäger were all but destroyed at Canea and Heráklion, but managed to secure Máleme and its precious airfield. Their elite tactics and training paid off as they managed to flank Allied positions again and again, forcing them to withdraw and giving the Germans the break they desperately needed. Only through persistence and determination did the Fallschirmjäger and Gebirgsjäger hold off the resilient New Zealander counter-attacks long enough for reinforcements to trickle in. The Australians, British and New Zealanders put up stiff resistance, but were not trained in mountain warfare the way the Germans were, and could not defend against German Stuka dive-bombers, with the intense heat by day and bitter cold of night putting a strain on both sides.
By 25 May the Allies had retreated to Galatas, the last defensive barrier and last hope of containing the Germans. Allied defensive tactics, coupled with expert marksmanship and concealment held the Germans at bay for several days, inflicting dreadful casualties. German attacks were stopped and met with counter-attacks, which led to ghastly street fighting and hand-to-hand combat, but ultimately German firepower blasted down the defensive walls and forced the Allies to retreat. With both sides tired, hungry, thirsty and bloodied, the Germans captured the town and chased the Allies south, where many were evacuated, but approximately 12,000 were taken prisoner. By 28 May it was clear the Germans would capture Crete and all efforts were made to evacuate the survivors, but the Luftwaffe made every effort to stop them, strafing and bombing the escaping British ships day and night, which killed 1828 sailors but allowed 16,000 troops to make it safely to Egypt.
The failed campaign in Crete cost the British Navy 12 sunken ships and 14 damaged (including the Formidable), and cost the RAF 39 planes, while the defending ground troops suffered 1800 killed and 1800 wounded. The Germans lost 220 planes, had almost 150 damaged and had approximately 2000 killed, 2000 wounded and 2000 missing, causing Hitler to permanently abstain from another airborne invasion. Even though the campaign was a German success, the amount of men and material lost for such a small territorial gain was unacceptable. Crete did not become a German base to dominate the Mediterranean, and the thousands of men and transports lost in the campaign could have been used more wisely in the coming Russian campaigns. Hitler’s reward for the survivors: an embroidered campaign ribbon.