Saturday, 31 January 2009

Operation Mercury (1941)

Crete, whilst in Allied hands was a valuable air base for raids on Axis targets in Southern Europe, or to support the Balkan Front. The Allied forces consisted of 30,000 British troops, 11,000 Greek troops encumbered by 15,000 Italian prisoners of war.  Hardware was scarce with only 16 light tanks and 49 field guns. The core of the force was made up of the 6th Australian Division and the 2nd NZ Division. 

Operation Mercury - May 1941
Crete in Axis hands meant that the Allied bases in the eastern Mediterranean, and the use of the Suez Canal, could be exposed to greater pressure from the Luftwaffe. The attack by Fliegerkorps X1 and V111 would be the biggest German paratrooper assault of the war. The two corps had at their disposal about 500 transport aircrafts, 150-dive bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance planes. There were 22,750 men - 75 by glider, 10.000 by parachute, 5,000 by transport aircraft and 7,000 by sea. The first attack was Maleme with a second at Rethimo and Heraklion respectively.

Axis War Cemetery at Maleme
The key to the success of the German "Operation Mercury" was the strategically important airfield at Maleme "Point 107" which overlooked it.

On May 21st, the day after the initial assault the airfield fell and a British counter attack was repulsed by the defending German paratroopers. Maleme Airfield is now used by the Greek Airforce but it is possible to get a panoramic view from the German cemetery which is located on top of a hill known asPoint 107. The cemetery contains 4,466 fallen German servicemen.
Commonwealth War Graves at Suada Bay
On May 24th, General Ringel organised his forces for the main German attack. Withdrawal of the Allied 5th Brigade allowed the completion of a defensive line from Staliana to Khania. After an unsuccesful attack on the 25th May, the Germans eventually entered Perivolia and Galaria. General Freyburg ordered the final withdrawal to Sfakia. The Germans learnt of the proposed Allied evacuation and entered Chania on May 27th, gaining control of Suada Bay where there is now a stunningly situated CWGC cemetery. 
Youngest Casualty
Trench Picket
Oldest Casualty
The British / Commonweath troops fought a last rearguard action north of the White Mountains during the final week of May and on the 28th the British evacuated Heraklion. Overnight on May 29th/30th the Allied rearguard maintained the Stafkia beach-head. The Rethimo garrison was obliged to surrender to the Germans and the last evacuations were made on the 31st May.

Battlefield walking in the sun can be hard work. For a more comfortable look at a WWII relic it is possible to hire a boat from Chania and snorkel over the decaying remnants of a ME110 which is 'belly up' on the sea floor a few hundred metres from land.

An ME110 'in the drink'
This particular trip had a particular poignancy as the day we arrived, '9/11' unfolded. We were in a public bus and people started receiving texts. The first as I recall was that the "Pentagon has been bombed".  The bus driver was listening to the commentary on a local football game. He wouldn't be persuaded to switch channels and so it wasn't until we got to a bar with TV that the awful scale of this disaster became apparent.

The Battle of Verdun (1916)

From 1998 - Our trip to Verdun coincided with the French Victory in the World Cup. Having re-read Alistair Horne's 'The Price of Glory' recently my wife and I subsequently spent a few days exploring the Verdun battlefield staying in the town the night of the world cup final.

It was fascinating exploring Douaumont, Vaux, etc with the aid of a torch and Horne's account of specific actions. We were less successful in finding the German heavy artillery positions deep in the woods to the east of Gremilly although I did stagger out of the sodden undergrowth with a standard issue French army water bottle.

Anyway in the evening we joined several thousand french locals in the local sports hall watching the final on a big screen. I had intended to spend the evening walking around the Verdun citadel and then visiting the massive memorial which dominates the town centre.

We did get to the memorial, with six french kids standing in the back of the convertible I was driving, two of whom were waving huge national flags. The centre of the town was chaos - flares,flags,singing,traffic at a standstill and car horns sounding.

The monument had become the centrepiece of all of the festivities and the 100 or so steps leading up to the top were covered in patriots waving flags and setting off flares. The square below was a sea of ecstatic faces. Looking back I would have expected the whole thing to have seemed incongruous but at the time this display of national fervour in this place seemed very appropriate.

Viva La France ! Viva Zidane ! But oh, what a headache in the morning!