A contingent of people from the Western Bay of Plenty whose fathers and grandfathers fought in the Battle of Crete are making an emotional pilgrimage to the island that witnessed one of the most dramatic engagements of World War II.

Forty New Zealanders, including 11 from Tauranga and Omokoroa, travel to the Mediterranean island to join 75th anniversary commemorations next month of the battle that began with an airborne invasion by thousands of German parachutists.

The 12-day battle and its aftermath had etched itself into the memories of Kiwi families and the people of Crete.

"Even Crete children know about the history of the battle. They are the most amazingly warm and friendly people," New Zealand Battle of Crete Association immediate past president Deirdre Nottle said.


The commemorations were particularly memorable because it would be the last significant anniversary attended by the handful of veterans still fit enough to make the trip. The veterans, all aged in their 90s, were from Waipukurau, Morrinsville and Pukekohe.

Mrs Nottle said her father, Wilfred Jeffs, seldom spoke about his involvement in the battle. He died 27 years ago, before the age when veterans started to open up to families about their wartime experiences.

When she was a girl he used to tell her stories about the villages and villagers that became so important when he was forced to hide in the mountains from the Germans after missing the evacuation back to Egypt.

"I feel very close to him when I am over there," she said.

Her previous visits to Crete had seen her build up a huge admiration for the people and the land they lived in.

"Walk into any village and someone will come out with a story about hiding New Zealand soldiers."

Mrs Nottle said her father lived in caves with a lot of other New Zealand and Australian soldiers, with many eventually getting off the island thanks to boats and submarines, including her father.

She will be accompanied on the trip by husband Neil and daughter Kirsten. MrNottle's father became a prisoner of war in Greece before the Commonwealth forces were evacuated to Crete.

Also making the trip was Stewart Gradon of Tauranga.

His father was among the soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans, later surviving the infamous 650km death march from Poland to Germany in the face of the advancing Russians.

"He never talked to us about it. It was only when I discovered his diary that I found out the details."

The Crete commemorations begin with a big service at 42nd St on May 19, a very significant service for the 28th Maori Battalion. May 20 starts with a four flag raising ceremony on the waterfront at Chania, with a service at Galatas that evening.

The Souda Bay memorial service takes place on May 21, followed on May 22nd by the closing ceremony at Maleme, the airfield that was the target of the German attack in 1941. May 23 will feature a trip through mountain villages that suffered badly at the hands of the Germans for harbouring Commonwealth soldiers.

Losses at Battle of Crete:

* Commonwealth dead: 1700

* New Zealand dead: 671

* German dead: 6000

* Commonwealth captured: 15,000

* New Zealand captured: 2180