assault from the sky

Chapter 3

Crete 1941

 'The German plan was fairly complicated and once again based on the one used in Holland, where it had only partially worked. Student planned to put down as many parachute assaults as he could, with the intention of seeing which one would succeed and then reinforcing that one quickly.  He did not anticipate much resistance, and once again the strength of the attack lay in the air-landed troops who would come in on the airfields captured by the parachutists. Despite the presence of the Air Assault Regiment, who were all engineers, there was no provision for making improvised airstrips away from the airfields proper. Yet it had been shown in Czechoslovakia that the Junkers could operate from open fields with little trouble. Student was, however, fixed on the capture of the airfields, and as was soon apparent, these were heavily defended. There were not enough transport aircraft to carry more than half the parachute force and tow the required gliders, so the assault was divided into two lifts, which would be about eight hours apart. For the first crucial hours only 4,300 parachutists would be fighting on the island, isolated entirely from their base, with only the light weapons that they could carry in their containers, but with the Luftwaffe giving close and continuous fire support. Against them they would have ten times their number, though in the actual battle areas the ratio would be less. Both sides would be fighting with roughly similar weapons, both would be foot-mobile, for the British had few trucks on the island, and both would be unaware of the strength and casualties of the other. As Student saw it from his headquarters in the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens it was a fair gamble, in fact a good one. The only chance he was taking was in attempting to get through at night with a seaborne flotilla to reinforce his troops, for he knew the narrow straits were continually patrolled by enemy warships as soon as it was dark. On Crete 20 May dawned clear, warm and bright, and with the sun came the first air attacks falling with a ferocity and duration that alerted the defenders to look for a reason, and the direction in which they looked was north. On the airfields around Athens the Junkers loaded up and took off in clouds of dust, causing the later pilots to lose their formation, and straggle.

   Student’s plan went wrong from the start. The assault parties in gliders who came in near Maleme airfield were in difficulties even before they landed. The parachutists fared similarly and that battle quickly stalled. Elsewhere the story was similar and none of the first day’s objectives were gained. At Retimo, Heraklion and Canea the parachutists were held down and rendered ineffective, suffering heavy casualties. The second lift was late, and the whole schedule went astray. Surprise was never actually achieved. Communications from Crete to Greece were all but non-existent so that Student had no idea what was happening, and pilots brought back contradictory reports. Chaos reigned on the makeshift airstrips as the second lift struggled to refuel the planes, load up their containers, and take off in the order dictated by the flight plan. Few did and the troops arrived on the drop zones in piecemeal batches, to be dealt with promptly by carefully sited defenders dug in around the perimeters. German intelligence reports had predicted glider landing zones where there were actually terraced hills, and gliders crashed hopelessly, killing their passengers and wrecking their loads…'

Training and Organization

'The backbone of any military force is always the men, and the Germans took particular care with the selection of their recruits. From the start both officers and men were treated alike in training, and there were no relaxations for anyone, whatever his rank. In the Fallschirmjaeger everyone took the same risks, and everyone faced the same tests. It was a useful yardstick that all the other airborne armies copied. All ranks were volunteers, coming from existing units, so that they were trained soldiers when they started. When the first volunteers were trained in 1936 the link with flying was so strong that the first batch of officers were put through the full pilot’s course, the normal Luftwaffe practice, before they ever approached the parachute school, but it stopped after that. In fact, the parachutists were looked upon as a sort of airborne marine force and just as marines live and fight alongside the navy, so did the Fallschirmjaeger live and fight alongside the Luftwaffe. On the forward airstrips in Greece they helped to refuel the planes, load the containers, hitch up the gliders, and even marshal aircraft around the perimeter, the sort of jobs that marines do without thinking, but which no other air force would have allowed for a moment.

That they were tough goes without saying. It was part of their training, and the Luftwaffe quickly caught on to the fact that by imposing a rigorous training regime and rejecting two-thirds, which was the usual failure rate, they automatically advertised themselves as an élite force. These parachutists were by no means the unthinking heel-clicking automatons that British propaganda tried to convey. They were self-reliant, aggressive, and capable of thinking for themselves at all times. Their training taught them that they were the pick of German youth, and until 1942 they undoubtedly were. The first three months of training were spent in refining their infantry skills and included unarmed combat and the use of enemy weapons. There was a considerable emphasis on physical training, marching and agility. In the latter half of the course the recruit learned aircraft drills and in particular, the unusual head-first dive that was used to leave the Junkers 52. At the same time the man was introduced to parachute packing.

After passing out from that they went for a short 16-day parachute course in which they actually packed their own parachutes and made six jumps. The course was highly compressed, and in retrospect must have needed later revisions, for there was too much to absorb in so short a time. After this the student received his parachute badge, a diving eagle surrounded by a wreath which he wore on his formal uniform, and he became a full member of a parachute unit. Curiously, he would not have done a night jump, nor would he have had much practice in such important requirements as rallying on the drop zone or packing containers. This had to come from his unit.'

Assault from the Sky is an eBook from Osprey's Digital series, and is available to download now!