Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sadler's Operation Mercury, The Battle for Crete, 1941

Having an interest in the Marita-Merkur operation since the days of GDW's Europa game, of the same name, I pulled John Sadler's Operation Mercury from the shelf and packed it along with me on vacation. Coming in at slightly more than 200 pages, the book made a good read for a long flight.  With MMP's upcoming release of their treatment of the operation at the tactical level in Operation Mercury, I felt a pressing incentive to gain some background on the short Crete invasion in anticipation of the boardgame's release.

Sadler begins by laying the foundation for the situation and why the Balkans and later Crete played a role in early WWII operational planning.  His description of the geography over which the Germans would attack provides a good sense of the rugged terrain and the uniqueness of the island's infrastructure.  Crete's geography drove the direction of the campaign and Sadler's fine description enhances understanding.

Having ejected the allies from Greece, Sadler lays the case for the German invasion of the island after being pressed into action by Italy's invasion of Greece.  Having put down the groundwork for "why" the invasion, Sadler explains the "how" by providing a history of the Fallshirmjager arm and Student's championing of this asset.  One chapter is spent on Student's guidance of this air drop capability and his ideas on vertical envelopment of invasion from the air.  Very interesting stuff.

With the British suffering defeat after defeat in the early phases of the war, Sadler intimates that the defeat and evacuation of Crete was reminiscent of the glorious defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae.  Thermopylae?  Maybe not quite.  Having put up a vigorous resistance at the outset of the operation, Commonwealth forces retreated and evacuated the island almost as soon as momentum shifted to the Germans.  Left behind in their evacuation were their hard-fighting comrades, the Cretans.

While my expectations were for a non-partisan treatment of the battle, most of the narrative focused on the British and Commonwealth perspective.  The retelling of the battle emphasized the shooting gallery presented to the allies as the Germans descended helplessly from the air into the waiting sights of small arms.  With deficiencies in Allied AA and large caliber weapons, great heroics were witnessed as small arms fire tore apart, transport, glider, and paratrooper alike.  This was murder not war.  The destruction of the assaulting force was catastrophic in a loss of men and materiel.  While great feats of combat are prescribed to the Commonwealth, the actions of the Cretans, themselves, are under-represented. The exception to this is the courageous actions of the local citizens and militia gallantly led by British officers.  Standing out for the Commonwealth were the tenacious actions of the New Zealand Maoris.

When recounting the air drop, Operation Mercury primarily spends all of the action around the Maleme airfield.  Brutal combat continued around the airfield to deny the Germans a bridgehead until the Germans gained a toehold.  Once the airfield fell and German reinforcements began arriving, British  command ordered a retreat and evacuation of the island.  The theme, for me, was that the fighting spirit of the individual is steadfast only to be undone by incompetencies in higher command.

While MMP's Operation Mercury will likely offer many opportunities for scenario development and immediate translation to the gaming table, Sadler's Operation Mercury provides much fodder for scenario design itself.  As I read the battle accounts, thoughts kept turning towards developing small scale actions for Chain of Command in 28mm.  With early war British in the collection, visions of fielding German Fallshirmjäger or Gebirgsjäger naturally surfaced.  Jake has Fallshirmjäger so a game could be had straight away.  Scott may have some of these Germans too.  My 15mm early war collection could see action in this theatre as well.  Possibilities and opportunities abound. Operation Mercury has placed gaming this invasion onto my list of periods to see future action on the table.

6 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great project! If interested, here is the official history of the Maori Battalion: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Maor.html

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    1. Thanks for the link, Aaron. That will prove useful and interesting.

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  2. Something I have never understood is why the Germans thought Crete worth capturing. Surely it wasn't that valuable as a base compared to other islands like Malta. Perhaps it had to do with the desire to use the FJ? Sometimes having an elite force in being creates a pressure to justify its existence, regardless of the risks. The British Airborne and Market Garden come to mind.

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    1. Sadler credits the targeting of Crete (and Malta) to several factors:
      1. Leaving Crete in British hands would expose Axis ops in Eastern Med. to interference.
      2. Would secure Eastern Med. flank
      3. Bombers from Crete could strike the Romanian oil fields
      4. A build up of forces in the Balkans purportedly aimed for Crete could mask their intended ops in Barbarossa.

      To your last point point, Student would have agreed. Let's see what this elite force can accomplish!

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  3. This could be a very interesting project Jonathan!

    Christopher

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    1. Hi Christopher! Not sure I would classify this as a full-fledged project. I have many of the figures all ready to go. Reading the book did get me to thinking about translating some of the actions to the gaming table.

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