Crete: A pilgrimage through the battlefields

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles visits Crete on the 70th anniversary of the famous battle in which his father fought, and finds its links with NZ are still strong.

The tranquil vilage of Sfakia, Crete. Photo / Jim Eagles
The tranquil vilage of Sfakia, Crete. Photo / Jim Eagles

No guns were firing when we assembled quietly at the bottom of the steep road to the hilltop village of Galatas on the storied island of Crete.

Seventy years before, when one of the most distinguished actions in New Zealand military history took place up this very street, the air would have been thick with smoke and shrapnel.

But as we prepared for our foray into the town, the only threat we faced was from the vehicles grinding their way up the narrow, winding road, lined with the small, multi-storey, white-washed cottages so typical of the island.

The road suddenly cleared of traffic, an instinctive consensus seemed to be reached that the time was right, and off we went, following the route taken by several hundred New Zealand soldiers - including my father - who with fixed bayonets and raw courage swept the Germans out of Galatas, inflicting on them one of their first defeats of World War II, and in the process arguably saving the New Zealand Division from annihilation.

Of course there were no battle-hardened Nazi troops waiting for us at the top but rather the warm hospitality of the local Cretans who have never forgotten the bond forged between them and the Kiwi soldiers during the dark days of World War II.

Among them were people like Ageliki Yeroyianna, one of a group of girls who gave bread and milk to wounded Kiwi soldiers lying in the village streets all those years before; or Mikis Moumoutjis, who took me by the arm to see a street sign for "Neozilandon Polemiston", pointing to it and then to me as if to confirm that the title "Street of New Zealand Warriors" was for my father and his comrades; or Alexandra Vasilomanolakis, now in a wheelchair, who as a fleet-footed 15-year-old took food to soldiers being hidden by her family in local caves.

In fact you could say the whole of Galatas was waiting for us because later, after the 70th anniversary ceremony at the New Zealand Memorial, the village issued a collective invitation to all the New Zealanders on the island to join them for a feast.

It was all deeply moving and I spent quite a bit of the time with suspiciously sparkly eyes.

I was on Crete on a pilgrimage seeking insights into what happened here in May 1941, trying to get a feel for the unfolding of this battle which looms almost as large in our history as Gallipoli, and hoping too for some understanding of its effect on my father, who went to war as an uneducated freezing worker with few prospects but returned as an officer and a gentleman who was able to become general manager of the old Auckland Education Board.

Most of our group were on similar quests. There was only one Battle of Crete veteran in our party, 92-year-old Peter Curtis from the 6th Field Ambulance, for whom the return represented a sort of completion.

"Initially I wasn't quite sure why I came," he said towards the end of the trip. "But when I entered the gate at Souda Bay Cemetery [where many of the New Zealand dead lie] I knew why. I felt a great sense of... it's hard to put into words... but words like brotherhood and togetherness spring to mind... and there was a great upwelling of goodwill."

Shortly after returning to New Zealand Peter died, and in a message to other members of our group his family said the trip to Crete was "undoubtedly a highlight of his life. Going back to Crete after so many years definitely closed the circle for him and he was genuinely at peace and content. After being at Souda Bay, he said more than once that he was ready to rest in peace."

But the rest of us were the children or grandchildren of those who fought here, men who if they did return home were inevitably changed by the experience but rarely talked about it, and our needs were different to Peter's.

Greg Osborne, general manager of Tempo Holidays and himself the son of a Crete veteran, who organised the trip I was on, put it this way: "The previous commemorations were primarily about the veterans. But with their passing, things have changed. This is for us.

"It's an opportunity for us to try to understand how our fathers and grandfathers were shaped by what happened on Crete and how they became the people they were."

We had assistance. Our group included two military historians, Dr Mark Wilson and Staff Sgt Boris Beach, who provided a background briefing on the overall battle and then discussed what happened at each of the sites we visited.

In addition, Boris searched the records to find out what our family members' units did on Crete - in my father's case, A Company, 18th Battalion - so that as well as attending the various commemoration ceremonies we could follow in their footsteps.

Our ferry reached Souda Bay just as the sun appeared above the horizon and tried to force its light through a bank of black clouds, probably about the same time as the 18th Battalion arrived on April 29, 1941, on the frigates HMS Ajax, Kimberley and Kingston after the chaotic retreat from mainland Greece.

When I came here with my parents for the 50th anniversary of the battle we flew into Heraklion Airport but arriving by ship seemed a much more appropriate way to start my pilgrimage.

As we approached the wharf there were frequent flashes of lightning from a storm nearby, a reminder of what conditions would have been in war time - the port littered with the wrecks of ships destroyed by the Luftwaffe, some probably still burning.

And across the harbour we could dimly see the tall cross and rows of headstones of the Souda Bay War Cemetery where 1500 Allied dead, including 447 New Zealanders, lie buried.

On the previous visit with my parents I walked round the cemetery with my dad, stopping occasionally as he recognised a name, putting a supportive arm round his shoulders. He unexpectedly came across the grave of a close friend and said, "Ah, old Shorty, so this is where he ended up."

This time I explored the graves on my own, noting not only the seemingly endless rows of young New Zealanders buried here, but also how many of them were not identified, because their identity tags were made of boiled leather, not metal, and disintegrated in the ground.

Many of our group were looking for family members. When they were found, some placed small tributes - mostly poppies, a few kiwis, silver ferns and small flags - on headstones and stood in silent reverie. A family group gathered before the grave of a lost father and grandfather, put their arms round each other and quietly wept.

The Kusabs boys, originally from Rotorua, selected one of the unmarked New Zealand graves, hung it with a medal, sang a song and offered a prayer. Andrew, the oldest, explained why. "Our mother's brother, our uncle, died on Crete at 42nd Street but his body was never found. We decided to adopt one of the unknown Kiwis as our uncle and pay our respects."

Later we went to 42nd Street, so named because it was built by the British 42nd Engineer Field Company, where I learned that the Kusabs' uncle had died in another famous bayonet charge which, as at Galatas, disrupted the German advance long enough to allow the Allies to retreat.

The charge was sparked by a Maori soldier who, seeing troops of the Mountain Regiment emerge out of the olive groves, picked up a bren gun and using it as a patu performed a haka as the prelude to a ferocious attack which sent the Germans fleeing.

The olive trees are mostly still flourishing today and we stood in front of them while the sons and grandsons of those Maori Battalion soldiers performed another haka in their honour.

Afterwards the Kusabs looked somberly across the red soil and thought about the uncle who may still lie beneath. "This is where it happened," said Andrew. "It's good that we could come here. I feel we've helped lay his spirit to rest."

The best place to understand what took place in the Battle of Crete, why the Allies lost, and why the Germans never again attempted a parachute invasion, is Hill 107, near the town of Maleme.

I've read several books on the battle but nothing made it all so clear as standing on that hill, now the site of the German War Cemetery, looking down at the Maleme Airfield and listening to military historian Mark Wilson explain the ebb and flow of the fighting.

The German parachute troops were severely mauled as they assaulted Crete on the morning of May 20. Even 50 years on, my father, who was stationed further down the coast on the outskirts of the city of Chania, still registered disbelief as he talked of how easy it was to shoot the parachutists as they drifted down.

The German cemetery holds 4465 graves - nearly double the Allied casualties - and some 2000 of those died on the first day of the invasion. At the end of that first day the German commanders feared that a counter-attack would wipe them out. But it never came.

Instead, indecisive leadership and muddled communications saw New Zealand troops withdrawn from Hill 107. That allowed the Germans to capture the airfield and land troops and supplies, and as a result Crete was lost.

I'm no military strategist but I've played enough war games with my grandchildren to see that Hill 107 dominates the airfield. The shattered Germans would not have been able to believe their good luck when, on the morning of the second day, they found it undefended.

Reminders of that crucial episode are still plentiful today. The long rows of German grave markers lie peacefully under a blood-red carpet of ice plant. While we were there a party of Germans arrived, on a similar quest to our own, and there was much handshaking and the odd exchange in bad English and worse German.

On the plain below, the small airfield is now used primarily for training Greek Air Force paratroopers and I watched from on high as a steady procession of small planes and even a couple of gliders took off from its runway.

Beside the entrance to the cemetery stands Cafe 107 which offers, with its coffees, icecreams and snacks, a small museum on the conflict including, set in concrete outside, a British field gun and the wing of a German aircraft.

Further on, an old Bailey Bridge built as part of the wartime effort, only recently superseded by a modern concrete structure, still stands astride the Tavronitis River, these days decorated with a couple of large unexploded bombs.

The British refusal to allow the bridge to be demolished as part of the preparations for invasion was just one of the many acts of stupidity which lost the Battle of Crete. It now serves as an appropriate memorial both to the fighting and, more importantly, to the links which developed between Kiwis and Cretans as a result.

I was paying my respects to the old cemetery which gave its name to another of the key points in the battle - Cemetery Hill - when an elderly man approached.

Was I from New Zealand? Yes. A smile. "I have a story."

In fact he had two. His English was not great but I gathered that he was now 82, so in 1941 he would have been 12, and he still lived at what was then his grandmother's and father's farm on the next knoll along the ridge.

The story he wanted to tell seemed to involve Cretans being lined up by the Germans to be shot when two New Zealanders - presumably soldiers left behind after the evacuation - emerged from the trees and in the ensuing gunfight the locals escaped.

After a pause he told another story, of how his family had cared for four English soldiers and he took food to their hiding place, because as a young boy he was not watched so closely by the Germans, until his father was able to lead them into the hills to link up with an escape route.

Then we got to the point. "The English never came back to say thank you. But the New Zealanders came back and back and back. That is why ..." Then he burst into tears. After a time he recovered. "I cannot say what I want to ..." and burst into tears again.

I put my hand on his shoulder and told him, "Your face says it for you. Thank you."

Galatas has almost been swallowed up by the city of Chania today but fortunately the village centre itself remains much as it did in May 1941 when it became the focal point of the defensive line designed to allow an orderly retreat by the New Zealand Division.

The big white-washed Church of St Nicholas still commands the village square and the perimeter is still lined with little shops and cafes, many of which still carry their wartime bullet holes. In a tiny lane nearby you can see the remains of a British reconnaissance tank incorporated into a garden wall.

But the most moving reminders of the war are the many signs of the enduring link between Galatas and New Zealand.

The New Zealand Memorial occupies a prominent place in the square. Opposite is the Street of New Zealand Warriors. Many buildings fly New Zealand flags whose tattered state suggests they haven't just been hung for us. On a corner beside the church is a small Battle of Crete museum.

Looking with pride at this evidence of affection in which New Zealand is held in this far-off corner of Europe I couldn't help wondering why it should be so?

The answer, according to George Bikoyiannakis, the local cafe proprietor who set the museum up, is quite simple. "Seventy years ago you New Zealanders came from the other side of the world to fight shoulder to shoulder with us against the Germans who were invading our country. That was amazing, it was important, and we do not forget."

Looking up at the White Mountains from the coastal plains where most of the fighting took place, it seems unbelievable that troops exhausted by days of intense fighting and with little food or water could possibly have crossed them.

But that is what they did, retreating from Maleme and Galatas, Chania and 42nd Street, they climbed 750m to the Askifou Plateau, where my father's unit fought a rearguard action against more of the Mountain Regiment troops, dragging their tired bodies 250m higher to the ridgeline, then descending down the rugged Imbros Gorge to the coast and the little fishing town of Sphakia.

We made the journey by bus, allowing us to enjoy the spectacular scenery with its snowcapped limestone mountains, occasional lush green valleys, quaint villages and crumbling Turkish forts.

At the summit, near the little village of Imbros, we bought icecreams at a roadside stall and looked down on the twisting, turning road to the coast below, noting nervously the wrecks of several cars, two of them at the very point where the road once ended, so the retreating Kiwis pushed their few surviving vehicles off the cliff to deny them to the enemy.

The final descent was through a harsh, stony landscape reminiscent of the volcanic slopes of Rangitoto. It was scary on the newly built highway. It must have been hellish to those battle-weary soldiers scrabbling down a rough track on foot.

Then, as now, Sphakia was a little coastal village, with a cluster of white-washed cottages gathered around a small harbour, though these days there are also quite a few cafes to cater for the booming tourist trade.

At the entrance to the town there's a memorial to local resistance fighters executed by the Germans, its grim message emphasised by a collection of skulls.

Down by the harbour there's another memorial, this time commemorating the extraordinary evacuation of 16,000 Allied troops who were somehow rowed in small boats out to a fleet of warships, and the safety of Egypt.

My father's 18th Battalion was ordered to form a perimeter around the beach to try to preserve some order amid the panic. On the night of May 30 - just 11 days after the German attack began - they were ordered to leave their positions and take the boats out to the awaiting warships.

About 5000 men were left behind - some to surrender to the Germans, others to flee into the hills to continue the fight - and as the last boats left those gathered on the beach apparently sang "Now is the hour that we must say goodbye ..." to their departing comrades. We stood beside the memorial and did the same.

Afterwards, at one of the harbourside cafes, I had a Mythos beer and tried a Cretan delicacy, a sweet cheese pie with local honey - yummy - and my wife went for a swim in the warm sea.

Looking out at that harbour, where Dad's Battle of Crete adventure ended, I thought about what he had gained from the experience... and what I had learned from following in his footsteps.

I definitely have a better appreciation of how the battle unfolded. More importantly, I think I've got some understanding of just how big a challenge those inexperienced Kiwi soldiers faced on Crete, the magnificent way they rose to meet it and the confidence they gained from the experience.

My father found more. He never lost a certain diffidence over his lack of education. But his war gave him confidence in his abilities and revealed that despite his humble beginnings he was a natural leader. By the time he left Crete his life was changed forever.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates provides daily services from Dubai to Athens with connections from its three daily flights from Auckland. Currently, fares are from $2765 return (inclusive of all taxes).

Getting around: To find out about touring Greece, see Tempo Holidays.

* Tempo Holidays will be running another Crete pilgrimage in 2016 for the 75th anniversary. During the intervening years small group pilgrimages will operate based on the level of interest shown. For more details or to show interest, email Greg Osborne at: g.osborne@tempoholidays.com.

Jim Eagles visited Crete with help from Emirates and Tempo Holidays.

- NZ Herald

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