In late May wild poppies are brilliant splashes of red on the hillsides of Crete, and fallen mulberries stain the roadsides of the villages. The first of the season’s tourists have already started to crowd the coastal resorts and toast themselves on the beaches. At a small park in Rethymnon, on an everyday Friday morning, a group of elderly Australian men with medals on their chests draw themselves to frail attention at a simple black marble pillar and remember what they experienced here 65 years ago.
Dan Bowden is 96 now, and he first came to the island as a gunner on the HMAS Perth. His travelling companions, Jack Dihm and Tom Picot, were members of the 6th Division, which was dispatched from North Africa to the snow-covered passes of northern Greece in early April 1941 as part of the ANZAC forces committed by Churchill to defend the country from German invasion.
Pushed off the mainland by the speed and strength of the German advance, the depleted Australian forces joined the pell-mell British retreat to Crete. Exhausted and armed only with the rifles they carried, they were immediately deployed into the olive groves along the northern coast to await the inevitable invasion. The Luftwaffe, meanwhile, was pounding the docks of Hania and Iraklion to rubble and filling the harbour at Suda Bay with burning ships.
The Germans arrived on 20 May, not by sea as anticipated, but from the sky in wave upon wave of paratroops. This was the first major airborne invasion in history and the elite Nazi regiments at its spearhead paid a high price for the experience. Easy targets as they descended, they were slaughtered in their hundreds before they reached the ground.
Those who survived met stiff resistance, both from Allied troops and Cretan civilians. But the defenders were hampered by a lack of aircraft and artillery, confusion at command level, the abominable behaviour of some British officers and the loss of the airfield at Maleme, which allowed rapid enemy reinforcements. Cause and blame are still contested, but the defence of Crete quickly turned to retreat and then to rout. There was no time to encode one Australian unit’s orders to fight its way out. The signal simply instructed them to “Bogin, hopit”.
Some were cut off and surrounded; some found places on ships, prey to Stuka dive–bombers; others headed south across the precipitous spine of the island to the tiny harbour at Sphakia, where the Royal Navy evacuated the battered remnants of the British, Greek, Australian and New Zealand forces under cover of night. After the loss of two destroyers and four cruisers, it was forced to abandon the remainder to German captivity.
Nearly three hundred Australians were killed on Crete and ten times that number were shipped to POW camps in Europe. Hundreds escaped or eluded capture and were aided by the Cretans, who suffered terrible reprisals as a result.
In Dikestiria Square, next to the football stadium in Rethymnon, three Orthodox priests in black robes and white silk stoles chant a Byzantine prayer. Beside the Hellenic–Australian memorial cenotaph, incense smoke rises from upturned helmets cradled in tripods of crossed carbines. The band plays a raggedy flourish, the honour guard snaps to attention, jet fighters fly overhead and senior officers from the Hellenic services lay wreaths. In turn, Dan and Jack and Tom and a handful of other veterans, none under 86, teeter up the steps and do likewise.
The band, sounding like it’s recovering from a long night in a taverna, plays the Greek national anthem and ‘God Save the Queen’. They are heard out in solemn silence, officials and officers rigid. But at the first bars of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, a low noise begins to rise from the old Australian codgers. They are faintly mouthing the words. It is an unexpected and tear-inducing moment, and it is impossible for onlooking compatriots not to join in. Together, we mumble the national mumble.
Then it’s onto the bus, and through the midday traffic to the monument on Misiria Beach. The tour group, privately organised, includes Jennifer Choice from Cessnock. Her father, whose medals she wears, never spoke of his time in Crete, she says. He was a machine-gunner. He died when she was 12.
Other sons and daughters, middle-aged now, have also come to remember what their fathers and uncles experienced. They gladly make room on the half-empty bus for me and a pair of young English military-history buffs. There is no valorisation of war, just a good-natured amusement at the red tabs, gold braid and flamboyant saluting of the British defence attaché, Colonel Mark Blatherwick, MBE, GM. Already a firm favourite is the senior Greek naval officer who wears his white uniform rolled to the elbows and performs his wreath-laying duties with relaxed insouciance.
The monument at Misiria Beach is much grander: a Winged Victory in bas-relief surmounting the names of 111 Cretan resistance fighters executed on this spot by the Germans. A class has been turned out from the primary school next door to sing a song and wave little flags, and a Cretan veteran in traditional dress stands atop the steps. Again prayers are prayed, wreaths laid, the anthems played. The area is ringed with resort hotels, and half-naked tourists wander up from the beach to see what’s going on.
Then it’s up the road to Stavramenos, defended by the 1300 Australians of the 2/1 and 2/11 battalions. In the days before the invasion, they were allowed down from their hiding places in hillside vineyards to swim. Sent in groups of ten and twenty to avoid aerial reconnaissance, they were instructed to sneak back to their positions without being seen. This enabled them to identify dead ground and likely routes of attack.
Well led and under strict discipline, the Australian soldiers met the enemy with a fierce counterattack, downing many incoming aircraft and killing many Germans. They took the German commander prisoner, captured orders and signal manuals, used prisoner-medics to treat the wounded of both sides, and besieged the remnant invaders in an olive-oil factory. Had the example of their commanders, Colonel Campbell and Major Sandover, been followed elsewhere, the invasion would have failed.
Beyond an archway, at the end of an avenue of pines, stands a plinth between two AA guns, and a wall with brass plaques bearing the colour flashes of the units who fought here. The priests have been reinforced with a bishop, and a tall, bushy-bearded Greek veteran stands with the Australians. After the service, there are small pastries and glasses of raki.
In the next three days, there will be similar ceremonies amid the roses of the Commonwealth war cemetery at Suda, and at Preveli Monastery, whose monks hid many who avoided the German net and aided their escape to Egypt by submarine. The Kiwis have come, too, including old men of the lethal Maori Battalion. And there may even be more private commemorations at the German war cemetery on the slopes above Maleme, where the dead are interred by rank, three deep beneath symmetrical rows of stark, flat marble slabs. Hitler sent more than six thousand German soldiers to their deaths on the island.
The Battle of Crete does not feature highly in Australia’s national memory. It lacks the epic plasticity of Gallipoli and the Thermopylae-like simplicity of Kokoda. No cricket teams visit to pay tribute; no corporate executives cross the White Mountains as a team-building exercise; its name is not invoked when prime ministers farewell our latest contribution to international order.
Yet it was here that Australian troops were greeted with flowers and wine, fought as part of a multinational force pitted against an unequivocally evil enemy, and earned the gratitude and esteem of the inhabitants. And it is here that the graves of their long-fallen mates are still tended with honour.
Perhaps Crete was too messy, too encumbered with overtones of imperial subordination and futility to fit easily into soundbites and pat formulae. Or perhaps it is simply that the men who experienced it saw no reason to valorise their involvement.
Perhaps, for those who were here, it was a bit too much like war.