Monday, December 30, 2013

German intelligence failure or British deception success?

General Student and others had complained after the capture of Crete that their intelligence about the defenders greatly underestimated their strength. This was especially true of Heraklion. There, the defenders included the 14th Infantry Brigade, consisting of three regular British infantry battalions, one Australian battalion of about 500 men, the 7th Medium Regiment fighting as infantry, and three Greek battalions with many untrained men. The commander of the 14th Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Chappel, was in overall command at Heraklion. Brigadier Chappel's plan was to have his men dug in with overhead cover. This not only concealed their presence, but also protected them during the bombing attacks. At this time, the Germans assumed that bombing infantry would automatically disrupt or destroy them, although this was not the case. Given that the German information about the troops on Crete, including Heraklion, was from aerial reconnaissance, the effective concealment was probably the reason for the German intelligence failure. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A bad day for paratroops: 20 May 1941 at Heraklion

Due to the problems with getting aircraft over Keraklion on time and in sufficient numbers, the German paratroops suffered heavy losses. The II/1st Battalion was dropped in small numbers, scattered geographically and in time. The last men dropped were two-and-a-half hours late. Several of the transport aircraft were shot down and burnt on impact. Many of the men were killed during the descent, because they had to be dropped at 200 meters because of the terrain. In the east, they were dropped on the East Wadi. They lost all the officers but the battalion commander. He was able to gather sixty survivors under his command. The western group only had five survivors. The battalion lost 12 officers and about 400 men killed. Another eight officers and 100 men were wounded. The I/1st Battalion was dropped to the east and occupied the wireless station. Due to the shortage of aircraft, one company of the battalion was left in Greece on the first day. Two battalions landed west of the position and one moved up near the town of Heraklion and then backed off to the ridge just to the west of town. Another battalion was landed further west, but half of its companies were left in Greece, also due to the shortage of flyable transports. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The power of the Bofors 40mm Light AA gun

The defenders of the Heraklion airfield on 20 May 1941 had well-sited Bofors 40mm light anti-aircraft guns. There were three troops of four guns each. Two were Australian and one was British. They also had troops who were dug in with overhead cover. The Ju-52 transport aircraft flew from airfields in Greece. They approached at low altitude and then climbed high enough to drop their paratroops and then would descend again and fly back to Greece. One problem was that the light anti-aircraft guns were so well-sited that they were able to shoot down fifteen transports of the approximately 240 that were seen. In some cases, the ground was such that the transports had to drop the paratroops from a higher altitude, which was dangerous for paratroops due to the long time in the descent. Many of the transport aircraft were hit by the Bofors guns but were only damaged. After the initial attack, the airfields in Greece had many damaged Ju-52 aircraft scattered about. Another factor which inhibited air operations was that there was a great deal of dust in the air at the Greek airfields and this effected fighter, bomber, and transport aircraft operations. Refueling was slowed and this delayed the arrival of reinforcements at Heraklion. Thi sis based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Attackers at Heraklion on 20 May 1941

The Germans apparently underestimated the strength of the defense at Heraklion on Crete in May 1941. They attacked with four battalions of paratroops. The German commander was Colonel Brauer. He had all three battalions of the 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment, of which he was commander. He also had one battalion from the 2nd Regiment. He also had some detachments, including a machine-gun anti-aircraft unit. General Student, the famous paratroop commander and commander of the XI Air Corps, complained later that his intelligence officer had underestimated the strength of the defenders at Heraklion. The British and Greek defenders (counting Australians in the mix) consisted of eight battalions. The anti-aircraft fire at Heraklion had been very effective and had done great damage to the fleet of transport aircraft. As many as 600 paratroops were left in Greece due to lack of transports. The plan had been to drop the four attacking battalions at geographically separated locations. One was to take the airfield, one to take the town of Heraklion, one to capture the wireless station to the east, and one to provide cover from reinforcements coming from the west. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

21 May 1941 at Heraklion

At the start of 21 May 1941, the main concerns at Heraklion were the Germans in the town and the Germans to the east of the defended area by the airfield. The Germans had attacked with four battalions of paratroops, but they were inadequate to deal with a larger Allied force. The Australian Official History refers to the defended area around the town and airfield as a fortress, and this was a very strong defensive area, if not a fortress. General Student later complained that his intelligence unit greatly underestimated the strength of the defenders. During the course of the day, the British had helped the Greeks to clear most Germans out of the town. The Greeks had to rearm themselves with captured German weapons, because they were running out of ammunition for what they had prior to the attack. We can see that Heraklion was the most strongly held of the airfields in the north of Crete. That was largely due to the presence of Brigadier Chappel and the 14th Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The aftermath of the attack on Heraklion on 20 May 1941

The attacking paratroops not only dropped in the fortress area around Herkaklion, but also to the west and to the east and southeast. There was a bombing attack at 7:20pm on 20 May 1941 and then the defenders could see paratroops dropping to the east, outside of the defended areal. There was pretty desperate fighting happening, where no quarter was asked or given on either side. The German force at the Buttercup Field was cleared by 9:30pm on 20 May. This was near the shore and the airfield. In the west, the Greeks were fighting in the streets of Heraklion against German paratroops who had landed nearby. By 21 May, the defenders felt confident that they had defeated the attack. The defenders had armed themselves with captured German weapons and ammunition. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The initial attack at Heraklion on 20 May 1941

The air attacks started on the defenders of Keraklion on 19 May 1041. A group of German aircraft made a strafing attack in the morning with another attack with fewer aircraft in the evening. On 20 May, the air attacks started early and continued. Word arrived at 11am of paratroops being dropped near Suda Bay. A heavy bombing attack began at 4pm. By 5pm, the defenders could see Ju-52 transports approaching from "the north and north-east". The men counted 240 transport aircraft dropping paratroops and supplies. The aircraft approached at about 100 feet over the water and then climbed to 250 feet to drop their cargo. The defending anti-aircraft artillery shot down at least 15 transport aircraft. There were mishaps such as the paratrooper caught on the tail and carried out to sea behind the aircraft. There were also cases where the parachute failed to open and the men fell to their deaths. The defenders thought that they had killed at least 200 men either as they descended or as they hit the ground. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why the battle for Heraklion in 1941 is interesting

We have seen the unfortunate outcome at Retimo, where Lt-Col. Campbell surrendered most of his remaining force to the Germans on 29 May 1941. Lt-Col. Campbell was a newly promoted battalion commander who was thrust into the overall command role at Retimo airfield on Crete. Campbell was a regular Australian officer. He was greatly distracted from the overall command role by concern about his own battalion. To some extent, he was also the victim of the overall command problems on Crete. In retrospect, the highly respected General Bernard Freyberg did not do a very good job of commanding the overall operation. To some extent, the job was hampered by communication problems. The excuse that was used for not communicating key information with Campbell at Retimo was about ciphers. That left Campbell ignorant of what was happening on the rest of Crete. The larger force at Heraklion was commanded by a British brigadier, Brigadier Chappel, commander of the 14th Infantry Brigade. To some extent, his force was better equipped with anti-aircraft artillery which allowed them to shoot down Ju-52 transport aircraft on 20 May. We are about to examine in detail the battle for Heraklion which seems to have had a better outcome with the troops withdrawn from Crete. This is based on information from Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The 14th Brigade

The 14th Brigade was a British infantry brigade that had fought in the Great War. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the brigade's battalions provided garrisons in the Middle East. The 14th Brigade, at the time of the battle for Heraklion, was part of the 8th Infantry Division. The battalions assigned to the 14th Brigade, as mentioned, were the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch, the 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, and the 7th Battalion, The Royal Leicestershire Regiment. The Brigade acquitted itself well at Heraklion against German paratroops and was evacuated from Greece to Egypt. The 14th Brigade became part of the 70th Division in North Africa. The brigade's most notable service in North Africa was in the breakout from Tobruk. The brigade was transferred to India after that. Brigadier Chappel commanded the 14th Brigade at Heraklion and then for another year in North Africa. This is based on the information available from the 14th Brigade Wikipedia page.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The units at Heraklion at the time of the German attack on 20 May 1941

Volume II of the Australian Official History has a note on page 280 that gives the details of the force defending Heraklion at the time of the German attack on 20 May 1941:

Headquarters, 14th Infantry Brigade
2/Blackwatch with 867 officers and men
2/York and Lancasters with 742 officers and men
2/Leicester with 637 officers and men
2/4th Australian Bzttalion with about 550 officers and men
7th Medium Regiment with about 450 officers and men armed as infantry
a detachment from the 3rd Hussars with six light tanks (apparently Lt.Mk.VIb tanks)
a squadron from the 7th RTR with two infantry tanks (probably Inf.Mk.II)
234 Medium Battery with 13 field guns
two troops of the 7th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Battery with eight 40mm Bofors AA guns
one troop of 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery with four 40mm Bofors AA guns
two sections of C Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery with four 3 inch AA guns with some 2pdr AA guns
a section from 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers
a detachment from 189 Field Ambulance
one Greek garrison battalion
3rd Greek Recruit Battalion
7th Greek Recruit Battalion

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Heraklion, leading up to the attack on 20 May 1941

The defense of Heraklion seems to have been well-organized and was on alert, expecting a German attack by air. They had a "heavy tank", presumably Inf.Mk.II Matildas, at opposite ends of the airfield. The six light tanks, presumably Lt.Mk.VIb tanks, were sited to the southeast. The artillery was not to fire on the airfield until ordered to do so. The anti-aircraft guns were allowed to fire as they thought necessary. The other troops were to stay hidden, so as to not disclose their positions prior to the attack. The Germans launched bombing attacks on Heraklion starting on 12 May 1941. A very small number of British aircraft, a Gladiator and several Hurricanes, occasionally operated from Heraklion. The defending troops were dug in and had overhead protection. The air attacks helped to build confidence that they were well-protected. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Heraklion on Crete in May 1941

A very large infantry force with very little artillery defended the port and airfield at Heraklion on Crete in May 1941. There were three regular British battalions, the 2/4th Australian Battalion, and the 7th Medium Regiment fighting as infantry. There were also three Greek battalions that were of low capability as they were essentially recruits. The Greeks included a Greek garrison battalion and two recruit battalions. In addition, there were 13 old field guns, 14 anti-aircraft guns, two infantry tanks, and four light tanks in the defense. The commander was Brigadier Chappel. The anti-aircraft guns included twelve Bofors 40mm guns. There were located around the airfield. The artillery consisted of what were apparently Italian guns: nine 100mm and four 75mm. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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