Between May 20th and June 1st, 1941, British, New Zealand and Greek forces fought tenaciously against elite units of the German parachute arm on Crete. The allied forces led by General Bernard Freyberg possessed advanced warning of the German plans and when the initial Fallschirmjäger jumped into hot clear skies on May 20 they were shot to pieces. By the end of the first day, Allied forces remained in control of all of the major German objectives and for the first time in perhaps the entirety of the Second World War, the Allies seemed poised to claim a decisive victory against exclusively German forces. Flash forward to June 1st and the last remaining Allied forces on the island surrendered. Despite having staved off the initial German landings the British had once again been defeated and forced to evacuate their units in what was becoming a frustrating trend for the British army early in the war.
The frustration felt by Freyberg and the entirety of the British senior command all the way up to the prime minister must have been overwhelming. To say Freyberg had foreknowledge of the coming assault is itself an understatement. Freyberg was receiving information in real time on the exact movements of German airborne force in Greece from the very moment Merkur (Operation Mercury as Hitler’s directive outlined) was sanctioned on April 26th. And on the morning of May 20th he and his entire command knew exactly where and with what strength the German forces would be landing. The element of surprise was the chief advantage bestowed on airborne forces during the Second World War. Once that advantage was lost, parachutists became nothing more than elite infantrymen armed with light weapons. As long as British forces retained control of Crete’s airfields, the Germans could not air lift men and supplies onto the island.
Of course, as historian John Keegan points out in his examination of Crete, foreknowledge of the German plan did not level the capabilities of the opposing forces arrayed on the island following the initial German airdrop. While Freyberg retained the initiative on the first day of the battle (and unlike his German counterpart Kurt Student was in close proximity to the actual battlefield) his forces lacked mobility and wireless sets. With so many threats developing at once as the Germans continued to feed fresh troops into the battle zone by air, Freyberg’s ability to retain control his troops defending the island’s airfields eroded quickly. Conventional wisdom, of “not reinforcing a failure,” didn’t prevail in the German camp. Student had something to prove at Crete. He was willing to throw the entire German 7th Air Landing division into the waiting British guns to demonstrate the still very novel power of airborne warfare. Student decided to concentrate his remaining waves of paratroopers on Maleme airfield on the western side of the island just as the New Zealanders charged with its defense abandoned the strip for higher ground overlooking the airfield. It was a crucial mistake that gave Student the room to deploy more troops and deliver desperately need supplies. By the third day of the battle it was very clear to Freyberg that the evacuation of his forces was simply a matter of time.
In hindsight it’s easy to pin the loss at Crete on Freyberg’s shoulders but the limitations of his forces, scattered across the length of the island without much mobility or ability to stay in communication with him, were far more consequential than any impact Freyberg had to effect the outcome of the battle. What’s shocking about Crete is that despite ample foreknowledge of what would come, Freyberg could not turn the information he was receiving through Ultra into victory.
The Ultra organization upon which Freyberg had relied on for the decryption of German messages had, although no one quite knew it at the time, scored its first major victory of the war. The information that the British army on Crete received had a direct strategic impact on the battlefield despite the final outcome of the battle. It would not be the last time that the British would receive information that would directly impact the battlefields of Europe. Perhaps one of Ultra’s greatest triumphs came almost exactly three years later in Normandy. As the Germans massed their armored forces for a counterstroke against the allied beachhead shortly after D-Day, British Traffic Analysis located the headquarters of Panzer Group West, containing the staff that was intended to lead the German armored reserves as they entered the Normandy battlefield. One can imagine the shock felt at la Caine on the evening of June 10th as Allied planes filled the skies and annihilated the headquarters of one of the key forces entering the battlefield. In all, thirteen German staff officers were killed and the commander of Panzer Group West, Leo Geyr von Schweppenberg, was wounded and transferred to Paris. The Allied airmen touching down in Britain that June night could not have known the direct impact they’d had on the battlefield as the German counterstroke was first postponed and then finally called off.
Later in August 1944, Ultra decrypted and forewarned of a German counterattack that was planned to cut off and isolate the American spearheads that had just broken out of the Normandy battlefield. As the Germans moved the remainder of their armored reserves west towards Mortain and the Atlantic coast at Avranches, the Allies adjusted their point of attack east towards the rear of the entire German 7th Army in Normandy. In three days, the German counterattack was broken by allied airpower and the stage was set for the decisive Allied victory a week and a half later as the jaws of their forces snapped shut around the retreating German forces at Falaise. The information provided by Ultra allowed Eisenhower and Montgomery to make the key adjustments to their battle plans, and exploit a poorly timed German offensive that ultimately sealed the fate of the entire German 7th Army in France. Falaise remains the greatest triumph of the Western Allies in Europe only to be matched at the very end of the war against Nazi Germany with the encirclement and destruction of German forces in the Ruhr.
When I was reading about Ultra’s vast strategic impact on Allied decision making, I thought a lot about how information is used and consumed by ultimate teams. Right now there is a wealth of footage available to teams for scouting purposes. It is something teams actively seek out whether simply to win the arms race of talent by increasing visibility, highlight a particular player, or scout an opponent. Game film doesn’t resolve the limitations of teams in the same way that accurate military intelligence is no substitute for the actual fighting capabilities of two opposing forces. It is however a force multiplier for teams to use to their advantage. What I find most interesting about the recent developments with the pure volume of film and analysis available to teams is how its has directly impacted the decision making of coaches. Take a look at UNC during their 2015 championship. The leadership of UNC knew that they would be meticulously scrutinized throughout the regular season and simply did not run their zone looks until nationals. Denardis’ decision was clearly motivated by the degree to which Darkside’s offensive and defensive looks were scrutinized and broken down in several articles the previous season. The teams UNC faced at nationals in 2015 knew far less about UNC’s defensive systems than UNC knew about their opponents’. That’s a scary advantage for any team to have at the biggest tournament of the year and it’s a testament to the patience and trust that team shared throughout the season. At any point UNC could have decided to run its zones to stave off defeat at Queen City or Centex or Easterns. It’s one of the great examples of strategic deception in college ultimate, and a very important lesson in strategic patience.
Game film is very much like Ultra. It’s not the game breaking tool that delivers victory to every team that uses it, but in the hands of a even the the most novice player, it can change how adjustments are made and how a team or individual player reacts to an opponent. It has a clear impact on choices teams make on matchups and what kind of defensive looks they run. It’s not a substitute or crutch for teams that lack the capability to compete at a consistently high level, but it can level the playing field for the underdogs. In the time scale of ultimate’s first forty plus years the fact that there is so much film available now provides a tremendous opportunity that didn’t exist back in the twilight years of VHS. The luxury of being able to scout your opponent well in advance of playing them is certainly not novel to sports. It certainly still seems a bit novel to ultimate. The fact that there are so many teams that still lack access to footage of even just themselves playing shows just how far the sport still has to come.
On a closing note, there are certainly no shortage of Bernard Freybergs walking around in the ranks of ultimate coaches and captains, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s something else to take away from the story of Crete; the Germans lost 4,000 men taking the island and 220 of 600 transport aircraft. They would never again launch a major airborne operation on a similar scale during the remaining four years of the war. The island became a useless outpost that tied down German forces rather than a gateway to victory in the Eastern Mediterranean. And as for Freyberg, he continued to command the New Zealand forces in the British 8th army to victory. Erwin Rommel would ultimately label them “the best soldiers he met in the Second World War: resilient, hardy, self confident, they had little opinion of any soldiers but themselves.”
Recently I listened to Matty Tsang’s interview on Ultiworld’s Sideline Talk podcast. The eight time national championship coach talked about one routine in particular that has never ended; his adherence to the rule of scouting every single team at a tournament. How he managed to do this in Sarasota, with fields spread out over a large complex is beyond me but then again perhaps Tsang’s ability to collect and use the information in front of him has something to do with the eight club championships to Fury’s name.
For this post I relied heavily on the work of Sir John Keegan, renowned British military historian who lectured at RMA Sandhurst for 26 years. His analysis of Crete and the impact of Ultra during the entire war can be found in The Second World War. For Normandy and the impact of Ultra on that particular campaign I referred to Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy.