It was sunny but cold, last month in Crete – what the locals call “ilios me dontia”, sun with teeth. I sat on the beach at Sfakia on the south coast of the island. Around me a toddler played among the stones while taverna owners were applying final licks of paint in preparation for the new tourist season.
My late father sat on the same beach in May 1941. Around him there was chaos and despair. Evelyn Waugh, who was there too, later captured the scene in the novel Officers and Gentlemen: “The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere. Some were quite apathetic, too weary to eat; others were smashing their rifles on the stones, taking a fierce relish in this symbolic farewell to their arms.”
This tiny harbour is the finish to the story of the Battle of Crete, which started 70 years ago on Friday, May 20 — a significant anniversary that will be commemorated across the island. There are few veterans left now, but strands of the narrative may still be picked up among the rocks and wild flowers of the beautiful western end of Crete.
I had long meant to do this journey, to discover what my father – and thousands of others – went through. He himself hadn’t been the best source as he wouldn’t say much about it. And then he died, with the story largely untold.
To help me uncover it, I enlisted the services of a Briton who has been a resident of Crete for 25 years and offers guided tours of the key sites. For Tim Powell, tourist guide, musician and lover of all things Cretan, the Battle of Crete was characterised by the heroic resistance of the civilian population. “This ‘insurgency’ led to a declaration that for every German soldier killed, 10 Cretans would be executed — which of course did nothing to stop them,” he said.
He started the story at the end, the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay where the main anniversary commemorations will take place. The 1,500 headstones memorialise some colourful characters, none more vivid than John Pendlebury, an archaeologist with a glass eye who was operating in Crete as a secret agent when he was killed on May 22 1941.
The battle and its aftermath of guerrilla resistance threw up a cast of such chaps — suave British secret agents, brave Cretan warriors, even a monocle-wearing German aristocrat — whose deeds are recorded in some compelling accounts. Ill Met by Moonlight, for example, recounts the kidnap of the German General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944, masterminded by the secret agent (and future travel writer) Patrick Leigh Fermor.
But the Crete campaign also included many ordinary soldiers and civilians whose names and actions remain unrecorded and for whom the experience was far from glamorous. One of them was my father, a lance sergeant in the Northumberland Hussars, who was evacuated to Crete from Athens towards the end of April 1941 after mainland Greece fell to the Nazis.
He dug in with a force of about 21,000 combat-ready British, Australian, New Zealand and Cretan soldiers to defend the island. The Germans launched their attack on May 20 in wave after wave of paratroop drops by parachute and glider. What followed was a series of military blunders on both sides in which the Allies managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The key fighting took place around the airfield at Maleme, and Hill 107 above it, to the west of Chania. Since 1974 Hill 107 has been the site of the German War Cemetery on Crete, the last resting place of 4,465 soldiers of whom nearly 2,000 were killed on that first day.
Many fell not to soldiers but to civilians. “The Germans had never seen something like this in Europe,” explained George Bikoyiannakis, the owner of the Café Plateia in the village of Galatas near Chania, the site of fierce fighting. “These people were fighting with farming tools. Even broomsticks. They would tie kitchen knives to them and use them as spears.”
George runs a little museum next to the church that commemorates the heroic efforts of locals and New Zealanders to defend the village. The Kiwis are remembered in the name of a street, Neozilandon Polemiston, which means “Road of the New Zealand Warriors”. Down a narrow alley, a garden gate has been fashioned from an old piece of British Matilda tank.
The civilian resistance — by women and priests and as well as men young and old — offended the Nazis’ sense of how war should be waged and their commander, General Kurt Student, ordered reprisals to be carried out “with exemplary terror”. The sites of these massacres are marked by monuments across the island, some of them displaying the skulls and bones of victims behind glass.
At Alikianos a marble column and canopy bear witness to one of the bravest feats of the Battle of Crete, in which 850 lads of the locally recruited 8th Greek Regiment held out for a week against German onslaught. More than 200 villagers, ranging in age from 14 to 80, were subsequently shot in reprisal.
“The Germans were surprised because the women didn’t turn away,” said Powell. “They watched their husbands and sons being executed.” The significance of the action at Alikianos is that it bought the Allies time to organise the evacuation of Crete. On May 27, realising the island was lost, the Allied commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg, ordered his forces to retreat south across the Levka Ori, the mountains that form the snowy spine of Crete, to an embarkation point on the southern coast.
My father and his fellow Geordies abandoned the ground they held around Chania and joined the exodus. The route they took, with little or no food, in rotting boots, under frequent attack from Stuka dive bombers, was nicknamed the Via Dolorosa. Today you can drive it in your little Nissan or Peugeot hire car.
In 1941 it was a dirt track that ended in the five-mile-long Imbros Gorge. A Stuka was shot down as it came in for the attack here. Its propeller is one of the prize exhibits in the war museum at Askifou, which lies on the Via Dolorosa. Walking the gorge myself, I tried to imagine the Stuka screech my father once remarked on, but all I could hear was goat bells.
His reward for reaching Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships evacuated 16,000 men over four nights, was to be told there was no room for him. He would have to stay behind and wait to be captured. All told, 5,000 Allied troops didn’t make it off Crete. None of those left behind was above the rank of lieutenant colonel.
One eyewitness talked of the “damnable and disgraceful scramble for priority, a claim to the privilege of escape based on rank and seniority”. Evelyn Waugh thought it a shameful episode. My father didn’t mention it.
After sitting on the beach at Sfakia I sat down for lunch at one of those spruced-up tavernas and ordered a plate of gigantes, butterbeans in tomato sauce. Then I remembered that butterbeans were my father’s favourite thing to eat. He would have appreciated a plateful as he sat twiddling his thumbs just a few feet away, waiting to be captured.
He spent the next four years, from the ages of 20 to 24, in various POW camps in Germany, but he took it all on the chin. The only bit I can remember him grumbling about was having to march the 50 miles back over the mountains, along the Via Dolorosa, after being taken prisoner. He said he could have done without that.
By Nigel Richardson – First published in The Telegraph