Thursday, May 28, 2015


It was the spring of 1942 before General der Flieger Student could tackle the task of rebuilding his decimated airborne forces. The first formations were returning from the East, where they had been badly battered. Von der Heydte's battalion was sent to the Döberitz-Elsgrund Training Area, where it was redesignated as an instructional battalion. Experiments were conducted with night jumps and descents on wooded areas. Efforts were also undertaken to allow the paratroopers to jump with their main small arm instead of having to retrieve one from a weapons container. Trials were also conducted starting in May of that year with a new generation of gliders such as the Gotha Go 242.

There was a purpose to all of those efforts. Von der Heydte's battalion was earmarked for the initial assault on Malta, where it would jump into the British antiaircraft defenses six hours before the main body arrived and take them out of commission.

The attack plan for Malta and several other operations had recently been discussed in Rome. Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring had summoned Student to Italy's capital. Student saw Generalmajor Ramcke there as well, as the latter had been sent to Italy to help train that country's fledgling airborne corps. The airborne division "Folgore" and the air-landed division "Superba" were being formed and trained in accordance with German doctrinal principles.

Together with Ramcke, Student worked out the first draft for an assault on the island fortress. In theory, command and control of the operation was under the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian forces, Colonel General Cavallero. By involving the Italians in this way, the Germans hoped to secure access to all of the Italian fleet to support the operation.

Ramcke and Student came up with an operation that was broken down into four parts:

Part One: After a surprise landing by gliderborne forces from von der Heydte's battalion on the antiaircraft batteries of Malta and the subsequent elimination of them, the main body of the paratroopers and air-landed forces will arrive as the advance guard under the personal command and control of General Student to the south of La Valetta on the high ground there. It will establish a broad landing zone on the island and attack the airfields and city of La Valetta in rapid, decisive action.

Part Two: Seaborne landings of the main body of the attack forces south of La Valetta, which will advance in conjunction with the airborne forces from that area.

Part Three: In order to deceive the enemy and divert his attention, there will be a deception operation against Marsa Scirocco Bay.

Part Four: The safety of the seaborne transports is the responsibility of the Italian fleet. The securing of the air space is the responsibility of Luftflotte 2. The formations of that tactical air force will conduct massed attacks on the airfields and antiaircraft positions on Malta prior to the airborne landings, defeat the enemy's air forces and paralyze the enemy's antiaircraft defenses.

For the operation, 12 of the Gigant transporters were available for planning purposes. The Me 323 had six engines and were able to take a complete Flak platoon or 130 fully loaded soldiers in one lift.

The operations received the codename Unternehmen "Herkules" and lived up to its name, both in size and ambition. The chances for success were good, better than those on Crete had been. The point of debarkation for the identified forces was Sicily. The II. Flieger-Korps of General der Flieger was earmarked to support the airborne forces. In addition, the entire Italian Air Force was designated to support the operations. Mussolini also promised the use of all of the Italian Navy, including its capital ships.

The Italian airborne division "Folgore" was based in Viterbo and Tarquinia and under the command of General Frattini. Thanks to the help received from Ramcke, he was able to imbue the fledging Italian airborne force with true airborne spirit. The air-landed division "Superba" was also a formidable combat formation. In addition, there were four well-equipped Italian infantry divisions to be added to the mix. That was a force that outnumbered the one used to take Crete by many fold.

In the middle of these preparations, a telegram summoned Student to the Führer Headquarters in Rastenburg. Student had just arrived, when Generaloberst Jeschonnek, the new Chief-of-Staff of the Luftwaffe, greeted him with these words: "Listen to me, Student. Tomorrow morning you'll have a hard audience with the Führer. General der Panzertruppe Crüwell from the Afrika-Korps was just here. With regard to the esprit de corps of the Italian forces, he had delivered a shattering verdict. As a result, the Malta Operation is in danger, since Hitler doubts the resoluteness and devotion of the Italians more than ever."

Despite that, Student hoped to be able to convince Hitler. In front of a large audience, Student presented the final plans for "Herkules" the next day. Hitler listened attentively and asked a number of questions. When Student finished his presentation, Hitler aired his opinion.

After the war, Student said the following:

A torrent of words flowed from Hitler: "The establishment of one of the bridgeheads with the airborne forces has been assured. But I guarantee you the following: When the attack starts, the British ships at Alexandria will sail out and also those from the British fleet at Gibraltar. Then see what the Italians do: When the first radio messages arrive about the approach of the British naval forces, the Italian fleet will run back to its harbors. The warship and the transporters with the forces to be landed will both head back. And then you'll be sitting alone with your paratroopers on the island."

Student was prepared for just such an objection.

He stated: Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring has taken that eventuality into consideration. Then the English will experience what happened to them a year before on Crete when Richthofen came in and sank a portion of the Alexandria squadron. It will probably be even worse for the enemy, since Malta is within the effective range of the Luftwaffe. The air routes to Malta from Sicily are considerably shorter than those from Greece to Crete were. On the other side, the distances for the British naval groups are twice as far as those to Crete. Malta, mein Führer, can thus become the grave of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

Hitler could not make up his mind. With the specter of Crete still haunting him, he vacillated. Malta most certainly should have been a priority in the larger sense, since the British 10th Submarine Fleet operated from the island, which was responsible for sinking so much Axis shipping bound for Africa.

But, in the end, he decided against it, and even Student's assurances that even in the worst case the airborne forces could take the island all by themselves, because Malta had already been badly battered by the German aerial attacks. In the end, Hitler decided: "The attack against Malta will not take place in 1942."

As a result of this decision, Hitler cancelled an operation that would have lent an entirely new face to the overall conduct of the war in the Mediterranean and would have decisively influenced the war in Africa in favor of the Germans.

Monday, May 18, 2015

SYRACUSE - Peloponnesian War

SYRACUSE: PLEMMYRIUM (413) Peloponnesian War
The Spartan general Gylippus commanding the Syracusans had been touring the various cities of Sicily soliciting reinforcements. He returned to Syracuse with his recruits and encouraged the Syracusans to try their fortune in a sea battle. When the fleet was ready, Gylippus led out all his infantry by night with the intention of attacking the three Athenian-held forts on Plemmyrium. This was a headland which projected northward to form the southern jaw of the mouth of the Great Harbour. The Athenians had fortified it and had a mooring at its base. The citadel was on the northern promontory which formed the opposite jaw. While Gylippus was marching to the forts, the 35 Syracusan triremes stationed in the harbour were sailing up against the Athenians, while another 45 from the smaller harbour, which was on the seaside of the city, were sailing round to threaten Plemmyrium from the open sea. The Athenians manned 60 ships. They sent 25 into the Great Harbour and 35 to the harbour mouth to deal with the 'outsiders'. Meanwhile the Athenians in Plemmyrium were distracted by the naval battle and were taken off guard by Gylippus, who attacked in the early morning and seized all three forts. The Syracusans did not fare so well at sea. The 'outsiders' forced the Athenians back and then entered the harbour but in an undisciplined manner. Without any order they presented an easy prey to the Athenians, who proceeded to worst both them and the hitherto successful 'insiders'. They sank 11 Syracusan ships and lost 3 of their own. Against that, the loss of the forts was a major disaster because they were used as depots and were full of stores of every kind. In addition, they had provided protection for incoming convoys. In the opinion of Thucydides, this loss was the principal cause of the impending deterioration of the Athenian army.

SYRACUSE: HARBOUR (413) - Peloponnesian War
By this time virtually the whole of Sicily, except Acragas [Agrigento], had joined the Syracusans and supplied them with troops. On the Athenian side, Demosthenes and Eurymedon were on their way, also with considerable reinforcements. In the meantime the Syracusans had modified their ships, shortening and strengthening their prows in the same way as the Corinthians had just done (Erineus, above). They were now keen to make a combined land and sea attack before the arrival of the Athenian reinforcements. On the first day of engagement nothing much was achieved. The two armies confronted each other around the walls but did not go into action. On the water, the Athenians put out 75 ships against the Syracusans' 80 but they did no more than spar. On the following day there were no hostilities, but on the third day the Syracusans again went into action by land and sea. Once again the two sides did no more than spar with each other until late in the day, when the Syracusans sent a message to the city officials asking them to bring the market to the harbour with provisions for sale. When the Syracusans backed water to the jetty, they gave the impression that they were retiring from the confrontation. Instead, after a quick meal, they again manned their ships and caught the Athenians unaware and in confusion. When the Athenians rallied and charged the enemy, they were met head on by the reinforced prows of the Syracusan vessels. Even more damage was done by a lot of small Syracusan boats which slipped under the Athenian oars so that missiles could be hurled at the sailors at pointblank range. When the Athenians fled to their anchorage, seven of their ships had been sunk and many had been disabled.

SYRACUSE: HARBOUR (413) Peloponnesian War
The Syracusans had received further reinforcements while the Athenian situation was getting worse every day. They prepared to sail away, but this was prevented by an eclipse of the moon. The soothsayer said that willy-nilly they would have to wait for thrice nine days. The Syracusans were determined to force a naval battle and sailed out with 76 ships. The Athenians opposed them with 86 vessels. Eurymedon, commanding the Athenian right wing, detached his ships and made a wide encircling sweep. The enemy, however, defeated the Athenian centre and then attended to Eurymedon, whom they caught in a narrow bay. He was killed and all his ships were destroyed, after which the rest of the fleet was forced ashore. Gylippus, seeing this, took part of his army to the shore to destroy the crews as they landed. Fortunately for the Athenians, their Etruscan allies also saw this and charged, driving Gylippus' vanguard into the marsh of Lysimeleia. More Syracusans and allies appeared but the Athenians drove them back after a successful engagement. They managed to rescue many of their ships but 18 were captured.

SYRACUSE: HARBOUR (413) Peloponnesian War
The Syracusans were now determined to capture the whole of the huge Athenian force and put an end to their campaign. To this end they blocked up the mouth of the Great Harbour with a line of ships broadside on, barring any escape. The Athenians decided to put everything they had got into a sea battle and managed to man about 110 ships, with large numbers of archers and javelin throwers on board. Demosthenes and his colleagues embarked and sailed straight for the barrier blocking the mouth. The Syracusans and their allies had already put out with about 75 ships under Gylippus and Pythen. Part of their fleet guarded the barrier; the others were stationed all-round the harbour perimeter ready to attack the enemy from all sides. With a total number of almost 200 ships in the harbour, the ensuing action filled the whole arena. Never before, as Thucydides says, had so many ships fought in such a confined space. It was not a matter of ramming the enemy but of colliding with him and being bumped into at the same time. Consequently, much of the fighting was hand to hand on the decks, amid a bedlam of shouting which made orders inaudible. The action continued for a long while in this vein, but eventually Athenian resistance was broken and they were forced back to the shore. Their ships were abandoned wherever they beached and the crews fled to their camp. In spite of their defeat the Athenians still had more serviceable ships than the enemy, but the crews were so demoralized that any attempt to make a break-out by sea was out of the question. Two days after the disaster the whole Athenian and allied force started to make its way inland, subjected to continual harassment. Nicias and Demosthenes and their respective parties got separated and both surrendered. The two generals were ultimately executed. The Athenian expeditionary force had been destroyed in toto.

Mediterranean in the Age of Sail

The combined English and Dutch fleets line up at the start of the attack on Gibraltar. (Unknown artist)

The actions of official navies in the seventeenth-century Mediterranean are difficult to characterize. Historians often view official actions as different in kind from corsairing raids. That is a problematic approach, given the relationships among official navies, licensed corsairs and aggressive merchants. It would probably be more accurate to think of a continuum of behaviors that included piracy, privateering, state-sponsored corsairing, aggressive trade and naval rivalry. The lines between these activities were especially blurred in the seventeenth century, with individual European powers participating in a wide range of activities, depending on their changing interests.

In 1612 the Dutch signed a capitulation with the Ottomans, gaining permission to trade with the Levant. They also dealt in coastal trade around the Mediterranean, in competition with the Italians. In 1620, in the early years of the Thirty Years War, an English squadron was sent to the Mediterranean to cut the links between Spain and Austria. England also sent a fleet against Algiers, trying to curb the activities of the corsairs, culminating in a treaty in 1622.

By the 1630s fleets of sailing ships were common in the Mediterranean and figured in several confrontations between France and Spain during the Thirty Years War. Treaties in 1648 and 1659 ended large-scale hostilities and ratified the altered power relations among European powers. The Dutch officially gained their independence from Spain, which lost its dominant position to France on the continent. England, though still in turmoil from its civil war, made a bid for a greater international role during Cromwell’s Protectorate. In 1655 England sent fleets against both Tunis and Algiers, securing a renewal of her treaty with Algiers. In 1658 threats of force against Tripoli and Tunis led to treaties with those two powers as well. England officially became a Mediterranean power as the result of a marriage pact that Portugal arranged with the exiled Charles Stuart: if he were restored as King of England and married Catherine of Braganza, Portugal would give him a large dowry and the port of Tangiers. The agreement came to pass with the restoration of Charles Stuart as Charles II.

During the long reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) France actively expanded her maritime forces. From the 1650s on the so-called ‘maritime’ powers—Holland and England—also built large fleets to counter the French threat. The Mediterranean became one venue in an on-going struggle for seaborne dominance. European states adopted a battle-fleet strategy first on the high seas and then in the Mediterranean from the late 1680s. Until then, individual states continued to force the Barbary corsairs to sign truces, accept tribute payments and accept trade. Historians sometimes present this strategy as a war against the Barbary corsairs, designed to achieve a ‘peaceful infiltration’ of the Mediterranean through trade. It is better understood as a broad and often militarily based campaign to gain commercial advantages over rivals.

The corsairing states were willing to accept forced truces, at least for a time, as long as the terms did not include all of their potential targets at once. The Ottoman sultans, likewise, accepted truces and tribute payments when it suited their interests, but did not renounce the traditional bases of their relations with the outside world: holy war (jihad), periodic attacks (ghawz) and the sponsorship of Muslim corsairing. Viewed by outsiders, their behavior was considered capricious and duplicitous and drove many northern Europeans into fits of self-righteous indignation. The most realistic (or the most cynical) among them recognized that they were all playing variations of the same game, even if they chose to define the rules differently. Venice had understood this for centuries, and continued to do what it could to preserve its trade, alternately making deals with the Ottomans and fighting them alone when necessary in intermittent warfare from 1644 to 1718.

The 1670s and the early 1680s were punctuated by a series of small but dramatic confrontations in the Mediterranean. An English attack on Algiers in 1671 and a war in 1677–82 forced renewals of treaties and tribute payments; the same happened in Tripoli in 1676. The French were also inclined to use force and were able to dominate the western Mediterranean until the late 1680s from their base at Toulon. The Dutch lacked the firepower of their rivals and generally preferred to buy their way in, arranging treaties with all three North African powers in 1682. Only in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century would large battle fleets be able to restrict the depredations of the corsairs by force.

Away from the Mediterranean, in the late seventeenth century, the Ottomans again tried to gain control of central Europe, mounting an all-out siege of Vienna in 1683. An international force led by King Jan Sobieski of Poland turned back the Turkish Army and, many have argued, finally ended the Ottoman thrust that had begun in 1453. In western Europe wars spawned by the territorial ambitions of Louis XIV shaped the remainder of the seventeenth century. In the War of the League of Augsburg in 1688–97 the actions of French naval forces finally convinced England of the value of a permanent Mediterranean base. With William of Orange as King of England after 1688, Dutch and English naval forces co-ordinated their efforts to thwart the ambitions of Louis XIV.

In the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13) most of Europe joined an alliance to block the accession of a French Bourbon to the throne of Spain. Although the alliance eventually gave up that goal, the English fleet captured Gibraltar in 1704, establishing a base for its future strategy in the Mediterranean. Although the Atlantic seaboard and beyond had become the focus of European struggles for dominance, the Mediterranean continued to be a venue for political, commercial and naval rivalry into the modern age.