Ancient history

First day

Last updated:2022-07-25

Nearly 3 million liters of gasoline are needed for the operation, but three days before it begins, we learn that the expected tanker is blocked by wreckage in the middle of the Corinth Canal. We are going to look for clearance divers in Kiel to clear the passage. Then the gasoline is put into 200-litre cans, and, at departure airfields, it is pumped by hand into the Ju tanks. 52.
Although rustic, the Ju. 52, however, needs relatively flat ground to take off at full load:local labor is requisitioned to clear dirt tracks, summarily groomed. When the second wave takes off on May 20, the cloud of dust raised by the planes will rise up to 150 m!
Operation "Merkur" is therefore ready. Student recalls, one last time, the main lines in front of his officers. "The plan was obviously his personal plan," said F.A. von Heydte, commander of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, later. He imagined it, fought against powerful opposition to get it accepted, and then worked it out to the smallest detail. All of us felt that this pldn had become like a part of himself, of his life. He believed in it and only lived for him and in him. »

The afternoon of May 19 is devoted to new briefings; they are held in the luxurious salons of the Hotel de Grande Bretagne in Athens. Officers see to the distribution of ammunition, the distribution of maps to section leaders and the verification of jump equipment. The stewardship hasn't forgotten the beer and schnapps, so the morale of the troop is high throughout the eve of the big day.
In the island, the morning of May 20 is rather cold. The German machines are exact, as always, at the rendezvous of 7 o'clock for the morning raids. Half an hour later, new attacks on Chania and La Souda Bay upset the usual routine. Above the few Bofors guns of the air defense, the sky seems to be covered with clouds of planes. Ju. 88, then Ju. 87 copiously watered the objectives, followed by Me. 109 which completed the work in skimming flight, with machine guns.
At 8 o'clock, there was a sudden silence. In the smoke of the fires, through the clouds of dust raised by the explosion of the bombs, the first gliders suddenly appear, a few meters from the ground. They transport the men of the 1st assault regiment, whose mission, in Maleme, is to neutralize what remains of the anti-aircraft artillery and to seize hill 107, a small hill overlooking the airfield. Some gliders land exactly at the foot of this hill, others in the dry bed of the coastal river Tavronitis.
In Chania, gliders land in a nearby valley, called the Prison Valley ( the only prison on the island) and on the very positions of the heavy anti-aircraft batteries on the Akrotiri peninsula. Losses on landing are significant; they are due partly to the reactions of the defense, partly to the bad choice of the field. The valley of the Prison, chosen from aerial photos, turns out to be strewn with blocks of rock on which many gliders crash.
So the second wave of paratroopers is dropped, even before the last gliders came to rest.
For Lieutenant Thomas, of the 23rd New Zealand Battalion, the spectacle was more unreal than worrying. These dozens of multicolored corollas gently swaying in the deep blue sky of Crete have, at first sight, nothing very threatening.
Hardened by the Greek campaign, the men of 23' battalion quickly realize that this multicolored ballet is not made for the simple pleasure of the eyes. The men dangling from the ends of the parachute lines certainly have no benevolent intentions and, at the moment, they seem strangely vulnerable; you should take advantage of it.
The shooting intensifies and the mannequins suspended from the corollas shake under the impact of the bullets before collapsing, abandoned by the wind. Even after landing, the paratroopers remain vulnerable for quite a long time:they are entangled in their harnesses and, above all, only have to retaliate with their individual weapons, submachine guns and pistols, the range of which is too short, giving a clear advantage to enemy fire. English infantry. A fairly large number of hunters from the 1st Assault Regiment were thus shot down before they could make use of the heavy weapons still locked in their containers.
The first assessment is however in favor of the Germans. The majority of the men of the first wave managed to regroup quite quickly, and even to form units of some size.