The people you meet in Crete; Dimitrios

Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete
Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete

Just beyond the gate to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, at Souda Bay, sheltered behind a hedge, is a makeshift cafe. There’s a little fat squat, round shouldered caravan and in the shade of a tree, a couple of plastic picnic tables. A man leans on from the open window in the side of the caravan.

“Come in! Come in!” he shouts cheerfully. “Beer! Coca! Come on! Come on!”

We turn in through hedge. It would be churlish to decline. The man settles us quickly at a table,  then joins us with a round of Mythos.

This is Dimitrios. He’s thin, rangy, with sparse grey hair, small sharp eyes, a smile that never fades andand endless fund of stories. Born and raised around Chania, he was a boy when war broke out. He remembers the days when the Allied forces gathered on the island and the morning when the sky filled with German paratroopers. He lives in the house up the hill now. It was his wife’s family’s house. During the war it was requisitioned by the German Commander. When the Commander was kidnapped and smuggled off the island, by the Cretan Resistance, his pistols were left behind and they remain, to this day, Dimitrios tells us with a laugh, under his bed!

As a young man, Dimitrios was a seaman. He travelled the world, even to New Zealand! He sees many New Zealanders here. They come to visit the graves. They all come to his cafe too.

“Ah Maleme!” says Dimitrios, as a tiny white goat trots out from behind the caravan,   “Some New  Zealand girls gave her that name. They came to see their Uncle over there!” and he gestures away over the hedge towards the graves that lie in neat ranks beside the sea.

The War Graves of Crete, the villages

In villages all over the island, lie the graves of the Cretans who gave their lives in the brief but bitter Battle for Crete and in the long, dark, dreadful years that followed it.

A village church, Crete
A village church, Crete

When the Nazi paratroopers dropped down on Crete in May, 1941, most of the able bodied men of the island were away fighting on mainland Greece. Undeterred by the impossible odds they faced, every remaining man, including old men and youths, armed themselves with whatever weapon they could find – ancient rifles, hunting knives, spades and sticks – and sprang to the defence of their villages.

At strategic Kastelli Hill this band of citizen warriors, with their makeshift weapons, held the invaders at bay. When the Allies were defeated and the order to retreat was given, a small force of young Cretans, Gendarmes and cadets drove the pursuing Nazis back and safeguarded their escape. Their bravery and heroism led  Winston Churchill to remark  “Hence we shall not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”

So determined was the resistance of the Cretan citizens, that when Crete finally fell, on May 29,  4,000 paratroopers had lost their lives and it had taken the Nazis longer to conquer this small island than it had to occupy the whole of France.

For the people of Crete the war against the Nazis did not end with the Allied evacuation.  They refused to accept the conquest, and a fierce resistance movement arose in the villages and  mountains. The Nazis responded brutally; there were mass executions and villages were burnt to the ground but the Cretan people never gave in.  At one point there were 75,000 Nazi toops on Crete, but they never quelled the resistance. .

Over 8,500 Cretan men women and children had lost their lives before the Nazis were driven from their land.