I am standing on a hillside, in a field of red daisies, just above the village of Maleme, on the north coast of Crete. To the east, olive groves stretch for miles, wrapping around clusters of white stone houses and blue-domed churches. To the west is a straggle of villages. Luxury seaside resorts sprawl among them, their terra cotta courtyards and bright swimming pools mirror the impossible colours of the Cretan sand and sea. Just below me is a bank of grey-green olive trees and beyond it a strip of flawless blue sky meets the fabled azure of the Aegean Sea. It’s a postcard perfect Cretan vista.
But all around me are grim reminders that the world is not perfect. To my right stand three grey crosses and at my feet are two small white plaques. On the other side of the field are another three crosses and behind me three again. Neatly spaced and hidden among the daisies, lie 4, 463 more plain white plaques. This is the resting place of the Fallstirmjager, or hunters of the sky, the German paratroopers who dropped from the sky one fateful day in May 1941, to take possession of Crete. Barely visible through the trees is a strip of parched earth. Rusted, twisted remnants of metal and chunks of broken concrete lie among the weeds at its fringes. This is Maleme airfield, the first objective of the German invasion
At the gate of the Cemetary, display boards tell the story of that invasion. Code named Operation Mercury, it was to be a surprise attack, followed by a swift and easy conquest. It was not. The Allies were waiting for them here on Hill 101, the very hill where they are now interred. Many of the Fallstirmjager were picked off as they floated through the sky. Others were mown down as they hit the ground or as they ran for shelter in the olive groves. Others, who landed near villages, met their deaths at the hands of local Cretans desperate to defend their homeland. It is a profoundly sad story – a story that highlights the horror, the tragedy and the pointlessness of war.