Tag Archives: Souda Bay

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, 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”