The company Hercules or Operation Hercules was a planned sea - and airborne operation of the Axis powers in World War II . It envisaged the conquest of the island of Malta, located between Sicily and Libya and held by British troops, by German and Italian parachute and airborne troops as well as army forces. From the Italian side, the planning was carried out under the name "Operazione C3" .
At the beginning of the war, Malta played a decisive role in the Mediterranean theater of war as the only base of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in the central Mediterranean, from which the supplies for the Italian troops fighting British troops in Egypt from Libya could be severely disrupted . As early as August 1940, the head of the German naval liaison staff in Italy, Vice Admiral Eberhard Weichold , tried to interest the ally in an undertaking against Malta. In December 1940, a German air corps was stationed in Sicily to support the Italian Regia Aeronautica in its security tasks in the central Mediterranean. After the dispatch of the German Africa Corps under Erwin Rommel to North Africa in early 1941, securing the supply lines between Italy and Libya also became of immediate importance to the German armed forces . At the time of the Balkan campaign , the National Defense Department of the Wehrmacht Command Staff was considering an invasion of Malta as an alternative to the occupation of Crete ( Operation Merkur ). Support for this proposal came from Erich Raeder , Commander-in-Chief of the Navy . However, because of the greater importance of Crete from his point of view, Adolf Hitler chose the latter option. After the heavy losses of the German paratroopers on Crete, any further use of this elite force for air landings on a large scale was temporarily prohibited by him.
The plans against Malta received new impetus after the relocation of German Air Fleet 2 under Albert Kesselring from the Eastern Front to Italy in December 1941. This had become necessary due to the dramatic deterioration in the supply situation for the Axis troops in North Africa in the second half of 1941. Kesselring immediately took up an air offensive against Malta, in the course of which all airfields on the island were temporarily switched off. In the Grand Harbor of Valletta stationed Force K of the Royal Navy had disbanded in January 1942 after heavy losses, the submarines are withdrawn in April. At the same time, the supply of the island by British convoys in the first half of 1942 by air and naval forces of the Axis powers was largely cut off. The island defense commander, William Dobbie , warned that if supplies fail, the island will have to capitulate in the foreseeable future. This opened up the possibility for the Axis powers to take advantage of the temporary weakness of the island's defense to take possession of the island.
At a conference between Hitler and Mussolini in February 1942, an agreement was reached in principle on an operation against Malta. Such a proposal was welcomed in the German high command and by the commanders involved. In April Rommel spoke out in favor of carrying out the project before his planned summer offensive in North Africa ( company Theseus ). On 29./30. April 1942, the conquest of Malta was agreed between Hitler and Mussolini at the Berghof ( Obersalzberg ). With an instruction of May 4, 1942, the company was set for July 1942. However, contrary to Rommel's suggestions, Hitler made the execution dependent on the previous pushing back of the British 8th Army in North Africa and the conquest of Tobruk fortress . Only then should the aircraft from Air Fleet 2 withdrawn to support this operation return to Sicily and resume their attacks on Malta.
For the air landing phase of "Hercules", the German 7th Flieger-Division under the command of the XI. Air Corps ( Kurt Student ) as well as the Italian paratrooper division "Folgore" and airborne division "La Spezia" are planned. Their total strength was about 30,000 men. This was roughly the strength of the entire British garrison on the islands. These forces were to be reinforced in an amphibious landing phase by several Italian infantry divisions, supported by armored forces, with a total strength of a further 70,000 men. 500 Ju 52s and almost as many cargo gliders were available for the transfer . For the storm landings, in addition to around 50 marine ferries or Motozattera and a few sieve ferries, numerous smaller pioneer landing craft and assault craft were planned. Further supplies should then be brought ashore by means of passenger and cargo ships as well as ferries. Approx. 600 bomb and attack aircraft were planned for air support, supported by 200 fighters. The plan envisaged a total of four phases for the capture of Malta:
In the first phase , airborne forces with the strength of a reinforced battalion were to be landed between Wied iż-Żurrieq and Għar Lapsi . The aim was to build and secure a bridgehead and, if possible, to capture the Ħal-Far airfield . The air landing was to take place with cargo gliders at dusk, the approach was planned from the west over the open sea. Close air support should be provided by both the Air Force and the Regia Aeronautica.
After securing the bridgehead, parts of the Italian 125th La Spezia infantry regiment and a tank detachment were to be landed on the beach in the second phase . At the same time, an air landing south of the cities of Mdina and Rabat was planned. The aim of this phase was to strengthen the forces in the existing bridgehead in order to enable the subsequently planned breakout, as well as the establishment and securing of another bridgehead. To do this, the cities of Mdina and Rabat should be taken as soon as possible. The landing was planned as a jump landing this time.
In the third phase the breakout from the landing heads took place. The aim was to capture the airports to gain control of the air and to capture the area around the Bay of Marsaxlokk, including the port of Birżebbuġa , in order to be able to bring in further reinforcement forces. The forces from the southern landing head should act in the direction of Birżebbuġa and, if not yet taken, occupy Ħal Far and the airfield of Safi. Part of the forces from the northern bridgehead were to break out to the northeast and take the Ta 'Qali airfield, while the other part was to break out to the southeast and take Luqa airfield . The Mountain Infantry Division in reserve was to be landed in Safi and Ħal Far.
In the fourth phase , the remaining parts of the La Spezia regiment were to be landed in Birżebbuġa . The regiment, reinforced by armored forces, was to advance against Valletta from the south , while the airborne troops were to move towards Sliema from the west . The plan was to unite both parts in Floriana and then to take Valletta.
The core element of the plan was, on the one hand, the capture of the stretch of beach between Wied iż-Żurrieq and Għar Lapsi in the first phase, as this offered the only possibility for infantry and armored forces to land. Should the capture not succeed, it was imperative to take the airfield of Ħal Far in order to enable the mountain division to be introduced into the operation. The decisive factor in the third phase was the capture and protection of Birżebbuġa for the landing of the infantry and armored forces needed to storm Valletta.
The British supply of the island by sea had almost completely collapsed due to increased German-Italian air raids, so that in June 1942 fuel and food were only available for three weeks. However, the Royal Navy succeeded in moving some important supply convoys to Malta with the companies Vigorous and Pedestal in June and August 1942 , with great losses .
But even after the required successes of the German summer offensive against the British 8th Army in Libya and the conquest of Tobruk on June 21, 1942, Hitler did not consent to the initiation of Operation Hercules. On the one hand, Hitler hesitated because of the bitter experience of the Merkur company - the landing on Crete - and on the other hand, he probably mistrusted the promised Italian readiness for action. With the reference to Rommel's assurance that he could manage the advance to the Nile in spite of the British threat from Malta behind him, Hitler finally stopped the preparations for "Hercules" until further notice. The airborne units intended for Hercules were relocated to Africa from mid-July 1942 to compensate for Rommel's losses during the first battle of El Alamein . The final rejection came after the Allies landed in Sicily , which made all relevant considerations superfluous.
Due to the fact that Malta was not severely strangled and the withdrawal of considerable parts of German air units to other theaters of war, Malta recovered relatively quickly through further deliveries of weapons, ammunition and food. The supplies for the Axis troops stationed in North Africa were significantly disrupted by reinforcements from the Royal Air Force: from August to October 1942 around a third of all transports were lost; in October 1942 alone, for example, four tankers destroyed 66% of the fuel supply.
Failure to trigger the Hercules enterprise also devalued the occupation of Crete, which was carried out with high losses. The standstill of the German offensive at El-Alamein and ultimately the entire African campaign was thus also the receipt for the misjudgment of the strategic importance of Malta by the Axis powers.
With the Allied landing on Sicily in the summer of 1943, Malta came to the brink of war and Operation Hercules was no longer feasible for the Axis powers.
- Stephen LW Kavanaugh: Comparison of the Invasion of Crete and the Proposed Invasion of Malta , Fort Leavenworth, 2006.
- Charles Stephenson: The Fortifications of Malta , Osprey Publishing 2004, ISBN 1-84176-836-7 .
- see on this: War diary of the OKW, PESchramm (ed.)