Tag Archives: Battle of Crete

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.

 

The War graves of Crete, Souda Bay

Out on the edge of the sea beyond Chania, set between the outstretched arms of two rocky cliffs, is Souda Bay Cemetary, the resting place of the 1500 allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives in battles to defend Hill 101, Maleme Airfield and Galatos. Among them lie those who were left behind to perish in prisoner of war camps or who fought with the Cretan Resistance and were executed alongside them .

The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay
The Commonwealth Cemetery at Souda Bay

Ranks of white gravestones stand to perpetual attention, on a parade ground of perfect green lawn. They look out beyond the trees, to where yachts blow across the impossibly blue water.   At the foot of each grave red roses and rosemary bloom. Carved on each headstone is a fragment of a story, a name, a rank, a serial number, a regiment, a religious symbol or the simple, poignant phrase,  “known only unto God”

Outside Souda Bay cemetery, in a small gatehouse, is a type of tabernacle, with a book, listing the names of all who are buried here. I recognise many – famous names, whose stories of bravery and heroism I know. I recognise family names  from home in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Outside this graveyard too, display boards tell the story of the  Battle for Crete – this time from the Allies side. Days before the German invasion, Allied intelligence had cracked the German enigma code and uncovered the operation they called Mercury, so they were prepared for the invasion. It should have been an easy victory, but it was not.  Broken supply and communication routes in the first crucial days saw the loss of Hill 101 and the Airfield at Maleme. After that, troops, already battle weary from their disastrous campaign in Greece, and depleted of ammunition could not hold back the onslaught.

As well as the story of the Allies, the boards tell of the bravery of the Cretan and the Greek people, who fought relentlessly for years to defend and free their land. The story ends with Winston Churchill’s tribute “From this day forward let it be said not that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”

The war graves of Crete, Galatos

The Graves of Galatos
The Graves of Galatos

Further back along the coast  from Maleme, a short way inland on another hill, is a small church surrounded by graves. Just below it, a row of stone monuments throw dark shadows in the dust and a line of puny trees struggles in the wind.

This is Galatos, where a battle weary band of  Cretans and New Zealanders, with one tank and little ammunition, roaring haka (war chants) from every region of Aotearoa, took the village of Galatos from the Germans. They cleared the way for the Allied retreat across the White Mountains and, for the lucky and the strong,  the evacuation from  Sphakia