The outcomes of battles throughout history have often turned on strategies that had already been discredited, lessons never learned that cost lives and prolonged wars. Robert M. Citino reveals a striking example of such an ill-considered strategy in our Winter 2010 cover story, “Dead on Arrival,” describing the German airborne operation to seize Crete in 1941 and the Allies paradoxical response. After rolling through the Balkans in a matter of weeks, the Germans were bent on finishing off that campaign by securing Crete so they could divert their energies east, to the invasion of Russia. Operation Mercury was their bold plan to drop thousands of elite Fallschirmjäger onto Crete’s three key airports, taking them by surprise; then airlift in regular troops to mop up—the first invasion carried out almost entirely by air.
The result was incontrovertible: The island defenses collapsed, and 13,000 Greek and Commonwealth soldiers (nearly half the Allied force) were taken prisoner.
Hitler and his airborne chief, Kurt Student, however, instantly recognized that such an operation—massive use of paratroops and glider-borne troops—should never be repeated. They had achieved the dreamed-of airborne ops objective, “vertical envelopment,” but the cost was incredibly high: more than half of the 12,000 elite, irreplaceable paratroops of the 7th Flieger Division were taken out by Commonwealth soldiers in the “turkey shoot” that preceded the German success.
Astonishingly, what Hitler had seen in an instant was lost on Allied commanders. Citing the Nazi success on Crete, the Allies immediately went about building an entire airborne corps, recruiting a special breed of soldier with, as Clay Blair wrote in Ridgway’s Paratroopers, “nerves of steel” and an unusual degree of “daredeviltry.”
American paratroops fought well and tenaciously. But as in Crete, the airborne ops that deployed them into the battlefield were often flawed at best, resulting in failed missions and unacceptably high casualty rates. As Citino points out, the now legendary drops in Sicily and Normandy were saved only by the sheer manpower with which the Allies could bolster those attacks.
We did learn the lesson of Crete eventually. In Korea, the U.S. Army severely limited its drops, and by Vietnam, troop insertions via helicopter had virtually replaced parachute and glider drops. The broader lesson—that it is critically important to adjust strategies and operations based on an objective and careful cost-benefit analysis—was learned over time, and remains as valid today as it was in Crete 1941.