Why didn't the Germans invade Malta?

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 11 Aug 2005 02:20

Thanks to both Jon and Shrek.

FWIW, Weinberg in his compendious A World at Arms provides the same version as Shrek, albeit with less detail. He also lays stress that after the near debacle of Crete, Hitler was very leery of airborne attacks on defended islands. He might not have found it encouraging also that most of the forces required for the operation would be Italian.

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edward_n_kelly
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Post by edward_n_kelly » 30 Aug 2005 02:52

My feeling is it was a classic case of short term tactical opportunism (egged on by Rommel) versus a longer term and more appropriate attitude (the Italian Commando Supremo) - secure your rear and your logistics before bounding ahead.

To quote FM AP Wavell:

"The more I see of war, the more I realize how it all depends on administration and transportation...It takes little skill or imagination to see where you would like your army to be and when; it takes much more knowledge and hard work to know where you can place your forces and whether you can maintain them there."

and

"...that strategy and tactics could be comprehended in a very short time by any reasonable human intelligence, but it was the principles and practice of military movement and administration - the "logistics" of war - that was of prime importance...."

(Both came from Wavell, General Sir Archibald, "Generals and Generalship The Lees Knowles Lecture for 1939". Times Publishing, London, England, 1941.)

Edward

PS The Germans were to suffer problems anywhere they went in Europe as they were never able to secure their rea and their logistics from partisans or allied air power until it became intolerable.

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Post by Kokoda » 01 Mar 2006 12:45

From what I have read, Malta was virtually on its last legs when many of the Luftwaffe squadrons that had inflicted so much damage were reassigned to the attack on Russia.
The RAF on the island was virtually non-existent.
After the evacuation of Crete, the operational stength of the Mediterranean Fleet was drastically reduced.
The British army garrison on Malta comprised mainly AA gunners.
In other words, the island was 'ripe" for invasion - but Hitler became totally absorbed in Operation "Barbarossa".

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edward_n_kelly
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Post by edward_n_kelly » 02 Mar 2006 04:27

Kokoda wrote:From what I have read, Malta was virtually on its last legs when many of the Luftwaffe squadrons that had inflicted so much damage were reassigned to the attack on Russia.
The RAF on the island was virtually non-existent.
After the evacuation of Crete, the operational stength of the Mediterranean Fleet was drastically reduced.
The British army garrison on Malta comprised mainly AA gunners.
In other words, the island was 'ripe" for invasion - but Hitler became totally absorbed in Operation "Barbarossa".
Malta was "on its knees" twice - both times due to the pressure from the Axis air attacks against their supplies (rather than damage to its infrastructure). Both periods when the striking forces from Malta were much reduced in their ability to interdict the Axis supply lines. On both occasions the Luftwaffe was withdrawn for other duties and Malta revived.

RAF was never "non-existent' in its ability to resist except for the period before the first Hurricanes. There were periods when they had to husband resources because of supply problems (and turnover of pilots and other aircrew was high).

Mediterranean Fleet could not have interfered with an invasion of Malta except for the period when the cruiser squadron was active there. They could and would have made life likely for support forces with the submarines based there and at either end of the Med though.....

Hmm - see this thread for some discussion on Malta's Garrison Malta Garrison 1942. I would have said that the split was likely to be about 40/60 in numbers (an infantry battalion was about 800 personnel while an AA Regiment was about 250-300 max). The ratio of "teeth to tail" would have been fairly high due to the removal of "non-essential personnel", retraining as replacements of those in situ (rather than import them with the risk that that entailed). In addition as a peacetime base it would have relied on civilian infrastructure for many of the tasks handled by the Army/RN/RAF in the desert.

Edward

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Post by Jon G. » 04 Mar 2006 10:52

Kokoda wrote:From what I have read, Malta was virtually on its last legs when many of the Luftwaffe squadrons that had inflicted so much damage were reassigned to the attack on Russia.
The RAF on the island was virtually non-existent.
After the evacuation of Crete, the operational stength of the Mediterranean Fleet was drastically reduced.
The British army garrison on Malta comprised mainly AA gunners.
In other words, the island was 'ripe" for invasion - but Hitler became totally absorbed in Operation "Barbarossa".
Malta was on its heels, if not quite on its knees, by March 1941 after Fliegerkorps X had been operating against the island with about 400 aircraft since January 1941. Fliegerkorps X was withdrawn from Sicily in March 1941 not to participate in Barbarossa, but to contribute to the upcoming German campaign in the Balkans and Greece, and later participate in the attack on Crete. In the spring and summer of 1941 the Luftwaffe's main effort in the Mediterranean lay in the eastern part. Arguably Malta's position was greatly worsened by Rommel's capture of Benghazi, which meant virtual isolation of the island. It was thought that the future major supply route to North Africa would be from Salonika.

The next time Malta was in crisis was in March-April 1942 after a renewed bombing offensive, this time waged by Fliegerkorps II as overall part of Luftflotte 2, with a roughly similar strength to what Fliegerkorps X had been operating with the year before. The infrastructure of Sicily had been improved which meant that the Axis air forces could fly more sorties against Malta than they had been capable of the year before - 2,200 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta in March 1942, and no less than 6,700 tons in April.

However, just as the year before, most of the German aircraft were withdrawn after Malta had been virtually eliminated as a naval and air base - parts of Fliegerkorps II were sent to Russia for Fall Blau, other parts were sent to the eastern Mediterranean, and most of the remainder - four Gruppen of fighters and stukas - was sent to North Africa to support Rommel's final push for the Nile. Only 150 aircraft remained in Sicily - insufficient to keep the island subdued.

Edit: Typos
Last edited by Jon G. on 05 Mar 2006 07:26, edited 1 time in total.

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 04 Mar 2006 14:36

Jon G. wrote:It was thought that the future major supply route to North Africa would be from Salonika.
Now that's interesting. Could you expand on that, Jon? That would seem to be an out-of-the-way route to take, since it would involve moving supplies by train to Salonika first and then a longer sea route to anywhere in NA west of Tobruk. It also passes closer to the main RN base at Alexandria, which must have added urgency to the capture of Crete.

Michael

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Post by Jon G. » 04 Mar 2006 15:56

I should qualify my above statement to say Greece rather than just Salonika - Piraeus was also a port to consider.

The Royal Navy's main Mediterranean base was in fact Malta prior to Italy's entering the war on the Axis side :) The RN voluntarily abandoned Malta as its primary base due to its proximity to Italy and instead went to Alexandria which was more out of the way, but also had poorer facilities.

According to Matthew Cooper in The German Air Force 1933-1945 Luftwaffe general Hans Geisler maintained that the 'natural' German supply route to North Africa was via Greece and Crete, and consequently the Luftwaffe's main Mediterranean effort was switched to the eastern Med in March/April 1941. It's worth noting that Greece is closer to both Benghazi and Tobruk than Naples is, and that Taranto was apparently deemed unsuitable as a port of embarkation after the Royal Navy's attack on that port in November 1940.

The Italians disagreed with Geisler's views. They wanted Naples-Tripolis to remain the principal supply route, and eventually they had their way, no doubt due to the lack of German shipping in the Mediterranean. I think that part reason for the German decision to take Crete rather than Malta was to retain full operational independence by avoiding too close cooperation with the Italians.

A vulnerability of the Greece-North Africa route that you hint at was that it was heavily dependant on a single-track railroad from Belgrade over Nish to Salonika. This railroad was subjected to very frequent sabotage by Yugoslav and Greek partisans which reduced its usefulness as a supply route - but Geisler couldn't really know that in May 1941.

It should be remembered that the German emphasis on the eastern Mediterranean in 1941 only really makes sense when viewed in a pre-Barbarossa light. In the brief period of time from the Balkans campaign until the start of Barbarossa the Germans could still have tried forcing a decision in the Mediterranean. If they had been able to push all the way to the Nile there would have been no need to capture Malta. It would have been starved into submission.

IMO, Crete was the right invasion target for an offensive Axis Mediterranean strategy, but this strategy was never seen through to a successful conclusion. By 1942 when it was clear that the Med was a secondary theater of war, invading Malta would have been the natural choice.

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Post by Michael Emrys » 04 Mar 2006 16:27

Thanks, Jon.
Jon G. wrote:I should qualify my above statement to say Greece rather than just Salonika - Piraeus was also a port to consider.
Yeah, that's usually the one I hear mentioned in this regard.
A vulnerability of the Greece-North Africa route that you hint at was that it was heavily dependant on a single-track railroad from Belgrade over Nish to Salonika.
Right. Even though I didn't emphasize that point, I have to wonder if that line could supply an entire army even if unsabotaged.
IMO, Crete was the right invasion target for an offensive Axis Mediterranean strategy, but this strategy was never seen through to a successful conclusion.
There were a number of reasons to take Crete. It's usually reported that uppermost in Hitler's mind was to hamper or even prevent British bombing of Ploesti oil. But it also occurs to me that possession of the island was key to any possible Axis move against the Middle East via Syria. Even though such a move doesn't appear to have been seriously contemplated, it would be useful to make the British think it was.

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Post by Jon G. » 05 Mar 2006 08:05

Hi Michael,

Arguably this is side-tracking the subject a little, but I think it's valid enough to ask why the Germans chose to take Crete as part of the answer to why they didn't try taking Malta.
Michael Emrys wrote:...
A vulnerability of the Greece-North Africa route that you hint at was that it was heavily dependant on a single-track railroad from Belgrade over Nish to Salonika.
Right. Even though I didn't emphasize that point, I have to wonder if that line could supply an entire army even if unsabotaged.
I don't think the rail line itself would have been the worst bottleneck. Whatever reached Greek ports by rail would have to disembark by road in North Africa. By way of comparison southern Italy - upon whose rail net Naples depended - was also under-developed as far as railroads go.

From Schlieffen and onwards the rule of thumb seems to have been that a single rail line is sufficient to support a corps; at a pinch it might be enough to supply even a full army too. The very same Salonika-Nish-Belgrade rail line had been used to support the Allied advance on the Balkans in WW1. Geisler may simply have reversed the flow of events as it were, and by spring 1941 there were still German hopes of persuading Turkey to join the Axis camp.

The Greece-North Africa route was used for Axis shipping supplying forces in North Africa. Although minor in importance compared to the Naples-Tripolis route, the British still considered it an important interdiction target. It was planned to blow up the rail line between Salonika and Athens as part of the preparations for Montgomery's offensive at El Alamein. The SOE was late off the mark in blowing up the rail line (it only happened on Nov 25th 1942, too late to directly affect events at Alamein), amongst other things due to inter-rivalry between Greek resistance movements. Apparently the SOE earned Montgomery's eternal distrust because of this delay.
There were a number of reasons to take Crete. It's usually reported that uppermost in Hitler's mind was to hamper or even prevent British bombing of Ploesti oil. But it also occurs to me that possession of the island was key to any possible Axis move against the Middle East via Syria. Even though such a move doesn't appear to have been seriously contemplated, it would be useful to make the British think it was.
Yes, protecting Ploesti from British bombing strikes is often mentioned as the main reason why Hitler decided to take Crete rather than Malta. I think he had a similar obsession with the Crimea for the same reason. But that only makes sense as a basically defensive precaution taken prior to Barbarossa, and in any event the first Allied bombing raids on Ploesti were launched from Benghazi.

For the Germans, Crete could also have been a stepping-stone on the way to Cyprus and from there to the Levant. However that would have taken active Vichy and probably also Turkish cooperation, and the Germans weren't really masters of coalition warfare to put it mildly.

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Post by Bronsky » 14 Mar 2006 13:50

A few points which I didn't see addressed:

1. Supply routes to North Africa.

As Jon wrote, supply to NA partly ran from Greece / Crete e.g. the bulk of the air effort staged from there, due to distance. Regarding railroads, it's worth remembering that most of the time the bottleneck was port capacity in Africa followed by lack of materials to ship. Except in buildup periods, the limit very seldom was the ability of the RR system to shift goods to the ports.

2. Sardinia/Corsica vs Sicily in 1943.

According to the planners around the time of Casablanca, it was recognized that Sardinia could be done more quickly than Sicily, necessitating 4 divisions instead of 7-8, so it could be done earlier. The problem with that operation is it was utterly worthless, except as a possible stepping point toward Italy. So it had the following flaws from the US point of view:
a - it committed the Allies to an Italian campaign,
b - it telegraphed that intention to OKW which meant that when Sicily would be attacked - and it would have to be at some point - there would be no strategic surprise,
c - it achieved nothing.

Whereas capturing Sicily didn't necessarily involve a follow-up Italian campaign (Marshall hadn't fully experienced the dark side of the Force by then, i.e. Churchill), it immediately cleared the Med to Allied shipping, and it made Sardinia and Corsica either irrelevant or untenable.

3. Interdiction of Malta

It's worth bearing in mind that keeping Malta suppressed - both in 1941 and in 1942 - came at a high cost in Axis planes, not to mention fuel & supply consumption. That's one of the reasons why it was never planned to keep Malta permanently under attack. Only the Americans could afford that in the Pacific and call it an economy of force effort, aimed at letting Rabaul wither on the vine for the greater glory of MacArthur's strategic genius...

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Post by Jon G. » 16 Mar 2006 12:16

Bronsky wrote:...capturing Sicily didn't necessarily involve a follow-up Italian campaign (Marshall hadn't fully experienced the dark side of the Force by then, i.e. Churchill), it immediately cleared the Med to Allied shipping, and it made Sardinia and Corsica either irrelevant or untenable.
It's my impression that it was the shipping argument which eventually won the Americans over at Casablanca. Some 225 ships were released as a result of the re-opening of the Mediterranean sea lane. Several other offensive initiatives were shot down due to the lack of shipping. With more shipping released for use outside of the Med Brooke could sell the invasion of Sicily to the Americans as a means to ends achieved elsewhere, outside of the Mediterranean Sea.

As you infer, the Americans never cared much for a Mediterranean strategy, except for the landing in southern France intended to relieve the main invasion in northern France. In fairness to Churchill I don't think he had quite envisioned the Italian meat grinder as how the Med campaign should proceed after Husky, but rather something along a replay of the Entente campaign in the Balkans in WW1. For one thing the unconditional surrender declaration laid down at Casablanca turned out to be difficult to translate into practical policy in relation to Italy, even when the Italians themselves wished to discuss peace terms.
3. Interdiction of Malta

It's worth bearing in mind that keeping Malta suppressed - both in 1941 and in 1942 - came at a high cost in Axis planes, not to mention fuel & supply consumption. That's one of the reasons why it was never planned to keep Malta permanently under attack. Only the Americans could afford that in the Pacific and call it an economy of force effort, aimed at letting Rabaul wither on the vine for the greater glory of MacArthur's strategic genius...
I haven't been able to find exact Luftwaffe/RA losses for the 1941 interdiction campaign against Malta, but they appear to have been fairly light. I don't think it was as much the cost in planes and material that caused the 1941 bombing campaign to be stepped down, but rather the Germans' shift of attention from the central Med to the eastern Med, where the losses in planes and men did become very high. After all, if the Axis had been able to press on to the Nile and the Levant in 1941, Malta would have been a mere annoyance, to be starved out at leisure.

The situation was naturally different in 1942. Malta was no longer a target that could be bypassed on the way to the Middle East, but rather the target itself. Cooper dismisses Kesselring's claim that only eleven planes were shot down during the 1942 interdiction campaign and then proceeds to record that '...By the middle of May, some 500 aircraft had been rendered inoperable owing to bad landings on poor airfields, collisions and general wear and tear...'; overall not such a poor loss rate for a total of 11,819 sorties in the peak period from March 20 to April 28. The short distance from Sicily to Malta meant that Axis aircraft could fly up to three sorties per day.

The crowning achievement to such an effort would of course have been C3/Herkules, but as we know Rommel had things his way instead. In both the 1941 and the 1942 bombing campaigns against Malta there is a certain lack of consequence on the Axis' part.

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