Next week marks 77 years since the extraordinary Battle of Crete – New Zealand's first major action of World War II. After 12 days of fierce bloody fighting against crack Nazi paratroopers, often at close quarters with bayonets fixed, 672 Kiwis were dead. A further 967 were wounded and more than 2000 taken as prisoners of war as the Mediterranean island fell into Hitler's hands. But the Cretans never forgot the men from Down Under who fought in their hour of need. Just three New Zealand veterans are believed to still be alive today. The Herald's Kurt Bayer spoke to them all.
IN THE GREY of dawn in May 20 1941, an ominous hum perked ears. Anthony Madden stopped chomping a hard tack biscuit that masqueraded as breakfast, to listen.
The soldiers knew the Germans were coming. Bombed and strafed for days, on the Greek island of Crete, their nerves were on edge. The humming got louder. The 20-year-old Takapuna truck driver nodded to his mate on sentry duty. They cocked their rifles. And waited.
Soon, the sky filled with black dots. Thousands of them. In the few remaining black-and-white photographs, haphazard snaps, they look like ink blotches from a leaky fountain pen. Hitler's elite Fallschirmjager or paratroopers.
"It was quite a sight. I suppose you could say it was exciting," says Madden.
The Kiwis started picking them off. Howard "Slim" Holmes, a Gisborne tailor, would later describe it as a "turkey shoot". Others, like "shooting fish in a barrel". Hundreds of Germans were dead before they hit the baked Crete soil.
The island was later called, "The graveyard of the Fallschirmjager", and led to Hitler declaring the paratroop experiment over. The Nazis' subsequent cries of war crimes fell on deaf ears. This was war, and the New Zealanders were well out-gunned.
The 2nd New Zealand Division – part of a Commonwealth force hastily deployed to help the Greeks defend against a German invasion – had been forced to withdraw south through Greece before regrouping on the large island of Crete. By the end of April, there were more than 42,000 British, Commonwealth and Greek soldiers on the island.
World War I hero Major-General Bernard Freyberg was in command of "Creforce" and, thanks to secret information obtained through deciphered German codes dubbed ULTRA intelligence by the Allies, knew of German plans for an invasion of Crete.
Still, things were precarious. They dug in around key points on the island - the airfields at Maleme, Retimo and Heraklion and the port at Souda Bay – they had little in the way of tanks, artillery and air support. Most soldiers only had their rifles.
Although the German casualties were high, they kept coming, and soon were getting organised on the ground.
And when Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Andrew, VC, ordered his troops off the hill above Maleme airfield, the Germans could hardly believe their luck.
Now 97, and living in Havelock North, Madden is heading to Crete for commemorations for the 77th anniversary of the battle.
THE DAY AFTER the German paratroopers first landed, more troops and artillery arrived. It was the death knell for the Allies' defence. In that key moment, "we blew a great opportunity", war historian and author Glyn Harper believes. Freyberg later apologised for the defeat, saying it wasn't the troops' fault.
In many ways, that first day of the battle was the end of Madden's war too.
After ferrying four German prisoners to a prisoner of war camp, he swung by the charming seaside village of Agia Marina. He'd enjoyed some relaxing hours there before the invasion and he wanted to retrieve his guitar, left at a cantina.
Parking his truck near olive groves, he traipsed up the narrow, winding cobbled streets to the bar.
But he paused when he caught a glimpse of a man standing in a doorway, wearing green trousers and holding a German Mauser rifle. He wasn't sure whether it was a German or a Greek policeman who had the same weapon, and similar trousers, so Madden called out, "Hey Greeko!"
"He stepped out and I saw it was a young German paratrooper," Madden says.
"He looked at me and I looked at him … he was just as startled as I was. We stood there like that for what felt like three seconds before, to give him his dues, he came to it before I did."
Remembering his brief training on the rifle range at Trentham, Madden threw his rifle forward, caught it in his left hand, and dropped to the ground in the prone position. The German fired a shot that missed and Madden tried to return fire, only to remember he'd been carrying it half-cocked, "always frightened the damn thing would go off and hurt somebody".
"By the time I had fully cocked it, he had got away two, maybe three shots at me, which had all missed, but he got me in the leg with his last shot. I got a shot away but it missed and he ran back into the doorway. One of his mates ran across the alleyway to join him and I had a snap shot at him as he went across the alley."
The bullet entered behind Madden's right knee. But lying exposed in the middle of the cobbled street, the pain hadn't yet hit. Adrenalin pumping, knowing he had to get out of there, he sprinted down the street and around a corner, fearing they would outflank him. He made it to his truck and raced back to Maleme.
At the regimental aid post, he was bandaged up and told, "You've got a homer, mate."
Madden was due to sail out on a hospital ship the following morning, but during the night's confusion, he missed the boat and was taken prisoner. He spent the rest of the war as a POW in Germany. After time with working parties sweeping Munich streets, he was released in 1945 and made the slow voyage to New Zealand.
TWO NEW ZEALANDERS won the British Empire's highest award for valour on Crete, the Victoria Cross, including the legendary Captain Charles Upham.
Blasted in the shoulder and shot in the foot, Christchurch-born Upham - who despised the Germans for disrupting his South Island farming endeavours - single-handedly "performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger", including raiding machine-gun nests with his beloved sack of grenades.
Dunedin-born farmer Sergeant Alfred Clive Hulme, father of the late world motor racing champion Denny Hulme, won his VC for stalking and killing 33 German snipers over eight days.
SOME OF THE most miraculous stories of bravery and derring-do came from those "left behind" in enemy-occupied Crete.
Hundreds of Kiwis, Australians and Brits lived for months – even years – in the hills around the island, evading the Nazis, living off the land and the generosity of the locals who put their lives at grave risk to help them.
William Bristow was one who preferred to take his chances rather than being a prisoner. After the fall of the island, the Pukekohe mechanic had walked for days across the rugged White Mountains without water to try to reach the escape ships. But having missed the boat, Bristow took off and hid in a cave with some like-minded Australians who were on the run with a suitcase of cash.
"It was chock-a-block, all tightly packed with notes which must have been in the vicinity of about a million dollars. It wasn't Egyptian money but could possibly have been Turkish or Greek currency. We took a bundle of notes each and bet with this in a game of poker in which I won quite well," Bristow says.
The poker party was interrupted by Germans strafing the caves. They hid the money and had no choice but to surrender.
Bristow was held in a camp at Souda Bay but soon got fed up with confinement. Men were going down with dysentery and the arrival of Hitler Youth guards had made life extra unpleasant.
After figuring out sentry patrol rotations, the resourceful former Territorial Army volunteer and Boy Scout snuck under the wire, and fled the POW camp. He took to the hills and lived on the run for months.
Evaders like Bristow foraged for grapes from local vineyards, scraped snacks of figs, mulberries and almonds, slept in olive groves and hillside caves, hiked rocky goat tracks, and stayed on the move. They hooked up with the Cretan Resistance, guerrillas, British Special Operations Executive agents and spies, and impoverished villagers offered food, olive oil, wine, goat's milk, clothes and medical supplies.
"If I saw a German helmet, I'd duck off the road pretty quick," Bristow says.
"And the locals gave us what they could. It was amazing, really."
By October 1941, with both the Germans and prospects of a long, hard winter closing in, and pressures on locals rising, Bristow felt he had to make a move.
"I heard about a bunch of jokers trying to pinch a boat," says the 99-year-old, now living in Takanini.
"I joined up with them. We managed to find a boat and get off the island and sailed to Egypt and I rejoined my unit."
After a stint in Syria, he returned to North Africa to take part in the decisive desert battle of El Alamein before spending the rest of the war fighting in tanks.
Cyril Henry Brant Robinson, known as Brant, wasn't so lucky.
After arriving on Crete with the advance party to set up camp, he was captured by the rampaging Germans on June 1 at Souda Bay.
"The worst thing about being taken prisoner is that you don't know how long it will last," says Robinson, who turned 100 in January and lives in Whangamata.
Force-marched for days without food and little water, despite Cretan locals trying to stash food in their passing hands, he was kept in a POW camp on Crete for seven weeks before being taken to Nazi Germany.
He was imprisoned at Stalag VIII-B Lamsdorf, opened in 1939 to house Polish prisoners from Germany's September 1939 invasion. He was later moved to Stalag 8B Teschen for three months, then Stalag 383 Hohenfels.
But by early 1945, with the Soviet armies storming towards Germany, Robinson was one of thousands of men forced to march west. Known variously as The March, The Long March, or Death March Across Germany, it led to hundreds dying, starving in the blizzards and sub-zero temperatures.
Robinson, however, counts himself lucky.
"We weren't so bad," he says.
"We only had to march for about three weeks while those who were further east had to start in winter and got badly frostbitten marching in the snow. We were quite lucky, with good weather, and the Red Cross was able to catch up with us and give us something to eat. So it could've been worse."
He was finally liberated by advancing American troops. And so began his long journey home.
Paul London, immediate past president of the New Zealand Battle of Crete Association, describes the Battle of Crete as World War II's Gallipoli.
"It was one of the first major battles we were in and it touched the lives of so many families back home here, either through casualties being killed, wounded or captured," he says.
"It's so important that we remember those who were there, especially as we still have at least three veterans alive today who are a touchstone to this historical occasion."