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LAURENCE REES: Of course, you've also written an extremely powerful book about the Battle for Crete. How would you categorise that encounter?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Crete was an extraordinary battle because it was the very first time a major island had actually been assaulted by paratroopers and, in fact, captured by paratroopers, the only time, ever. The Germans had no idea of the size of British and commonwealth forces on the island and in fact they very nearly lost the battle. Largely thanks to Ultra we knew where they were coming. In fact, even well before Ultra it was quite easy to identify the main dropping zones. The brigadier who was in charge seven months before actually identified every single dropping zone that they were going to use. So when the Germans did come down in many cases they were massacred in the first waves by the Australians at Retimno and the British 14th Infantry Brigade at Heraklion. They won their battles there, but the trouble was the key was at Maleme. The Germans got a foothold there and a counterattack was not launched properly by the New Zealanders, though the New Zealanders fought magnificently. But the trouble was that their commander General Freyberg had misread the Ultra signals and he somehow convinced himself that there was an amphibious invasion coming. In fact, these were just actually reinforcements in some Kayaks which were being brought in, not an amphibious invasion. So he held back because he was a soldier of the First World War and he could not imagine that an island could be attacked and captured by an airborne assault alone.

As a result, the fatal delay of putting in that counterattack, and not actually having garrisoned Maleme sufficiently in the first place, was the key for the battle. Once that happened the Germans were able to bring in the mountain division and then they were able to roll up the island. But the Germans themselves recognised what a disaster it was. In casualties they lost nearly 50 percent of their parachute division on the first day, or certainly by the end of the second day. Hitler had always been rather skeptical about the operation but he’d - in a rather lordly way - allowed Goering to mount it because Goering was thrilled with his elite paratroop troops and wanted to show what they were capable of.

Hitler, one must remember, was always concerned about the Romanian oilfields. If the British had held onto Crete it would have been very difficult to support and supply with the Royal Navy in those exposed waters, but if they had held onto Crete just think what a brilliant forward air base it would have been for bombing the Romanian oilfields in, say, ’43, when the Wehrmacht would have needed that fuel so desperately. So there was that strategic element, but the Germans realised that a major airborne assault was liable to be destroyed on the ground unless it could be reinforced almost immediately. The British, and to a certain degree the Americans, thought, well, to capture a whole island with just one division like that is an astonishing achievement, and so they certainly took the opposite view.

But those airborne tactics were not properly thought through. Later on in the war, with the Normandy landings, there they were used correctly because they could be reinforced very rapidly from the beaches and they were. But then Browning wanted to start dropping some of his airborne troops well behind German lines during, for example, the break out in Operation Cobra, and Bradley quite rightly rejected it. Bradley knew perfectly well that, as he said, if you have a moral obligation to rescue paratroop troops on the ground that messes up all of your strategy. And then there’s Arnhem - the idea of dropping them so far away, when there was no guarantee of your relief troops coming through rapidly enough, leaving aside the fact that they happened to drop on a couple of SS Panzer Divisions who weren’t expected to be there. Even allowing for that, it was still a very, very risky venture and an astonishingly risky venture for Montgomery himself, when one thinks of his normal caution.

LAURENCE REES: Why did he do it then?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think that Montgomery wanted to take the risk at Arnhem simply because that would have given him the momentum and perhaps the clout to be able to demand that he gets at least another American army under his army group. And that all the resources would be put behind him to then power through to Northern Germany. But as Patten and everybody else pointed out, the trouble with that strategy was that there were too many big rivers to cross up there, and that’s absolutely true, which is why a Central Germany objective was actually much more to the point.

LAURENCE REES: So Arnhem was Monty’s ego?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Arnhem, to a large degree, was Monty’s ego and it was an astonishing mistake for somebody of his caution.