Operation Hannibal (ii)

(Carthaginian general)

This was the German airborne operation to seize the bridge over the Corinth Canal (26 April 1941).

To defend this area, and more particularly the bridge which provided the only route for Allied forces falling back to the Peloponnesian ports of Nauplia, Monemvasia and Kalamata from which they were to be evacuated in ‘Demon’ in the face of the Germany’s successful ‘Marita’ invasion of Greece, a miscellany of Allied units had been assembled, haphazardly and with no unity of command. In the earlier stages of the campaign eight 3.7-in (94-mm), eight 3-in (76-mm) and 16 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns had moved into position. Some of the last were in the immediate vicinity of the canal, while others were to the south along the road to Argos.

On 23 April, when it was feared that the German forces advancing from Ioánnina would soon approach the Gulf of Corinth, the Greeks had sent a small force to Navpaktos and their Reserve Officers Battalion to Patrai. Having similar worries, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, commanding the British forces in Greece, had sent the 4th Hussars to protect the southern bank of the canal and patrol the nearby shores of the gulf. With only 12 tanks, six carriers and one armoured car, the regiment, most of whose men were now operating in the infantry role, was responsible for a front of 70 miles (113 km). As a result, there were only four tanks in the immediate vicinity of Corinth.

On 24 April Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List, commanding the 12th Army tasked with the conquest of Greece, decided that the narrowness of the front and the state of the roads made it necessary for General Georg Stumme of the XL Corps (mot.) to control the advance, with General Eugen Beyer’s XVIII Corps under command. Stumme was ordered to break through to Athens and also to establish a bridgehead over the Corinth Canal.

To accomplish the latter objective it was decided to use the airborne troops originally grouped at Plovdiv in Bulgaria for an airborne assault on the island of Lémnos as part of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Süssman’s Gruppe 'Süssman'. Oberst Alfred Sturm’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment, reinforced to a strength of between 2,000 and 2,500 men, was to be delivered by Junkers Ju 52/3m transport aircraft to land and block the escape of British troops to either Crete or Egypt; a gliderborne company of the 7th Fallschirmpionierbataillon under the command of Leutnant Häffner was to land close to the bridge so that its engineers could prevent its destruction. The units were then concentrated in the area of Larissa in east central Greece, and were to make their attack on the morning of 26 April.

Up to this time the Luftwaffe had bombed Argos and Corinth, and strafed the road between them, but about 07.00 on the morning of 26 April the German aircraft systematically attacked the area of the Corinth Canal. The anti-aircraft defences responded with great courage, but before long many of the gunners had been wounded or killed, and all the guns had been destroyed.

At about 07.25 the Ju 52/3m transport aircraft arrived overhead, flying low in groups of three to drop the paratroopers and their supplies: the men of Major Hans Kroh’s 1/2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment came down on the northern side of the bridge, and those of Major Pietzonka’s 2/2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment on the southern side. At the same time gliders landed near the bridge, the men from one glider which halted near the southern end of the bridge rushing to clear the demolitions. They were cutting the fuses when the charges exploded, killing them all and wrecking the bridge, which dropped into the canal. Another source suggests that the engineers had not thrown the demolition charges into the canal as they were removed, as would have been prudent, but instead piled them on the bridge, where they were detonated by a round from a 40-mm Bofors gun.