The War Graves of Crete, Maleme

I am standing on a hillside, in a field of red daisies, just above the village of Maleme, on the north coast of Crete. To the east, olive groves stretch for miles, wrapping around clusters of white stone houses and blue-domed churches. To the west is a straggle of villages. Luxury seaside resorts sprawl among them, their terra cotta courtyards and bright swimming pools mirror the impossible colours of the Cretan sand and sea. Just below me is a bank of grey-green olive trees and beyond it a strip of flawless blue sky meets the fabled azure of the Aegean Sea. It’s a postcard perfect Cretan vista.

The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete
The German graveyard at Maleme, Crete

But all around me are grim reminders that the world is not perfect. To my right stand three grey crosses and at my feet are two small white plaques. On the other side of the field are another three crosses and behind me three again. Neatly spaced and hidden among the daisies, lie 4, 463 more plain white plaques.  This is the resting place of the Fallstirmjager, or hunters of the sky, the German paratroopers who dropped from the sky one fateful day in May 1941, to take possession of Crete. Barely visible through the trees is a strip of parched earth. Rusted, twisted remnants of metal and chunks of broken concrete lie among the weeds at its fringes.  This is Maleme airfield,  the first objective of the German invasion

At the gate of the Cemetary, display boards tell the story of that invasion. Code named Operation Mercury, it was to be a surprise attack, followed by a swift and easy conquest.  It was not. The Allies were waiting for them here  on Hill 101, the very hill where they are now interred.  Many of the Fallstirmjager were picked off as they floated through the sky. Others were mown down as they hit the ground or as they ran for shelter in the olive groves. Others, who landed near villages, met their deaths at the hands of local Cretans desperate to defend their homeland. It is a profoundly sad story – a story that highlights the horror, the tragedy and the pointlessness of war.

In the hills of Crete

If grand hotels, restaurants, bars, discos, souvenir shops, traffic and sunseekers have colonised the coastline of Crete from Chania to lands end, in the hills, the villages remain untouched by any of the trappings of modern tourism and life is simple and peaceful.

Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete
Selling Olive Oil from the back of a truck in Crete

The perfect way to explore the Cretan hinterland is on the little train. It chugs and grinds slowly but steadily up the steep, winding, narrow and dusty roads through the olive groves, past humble stone farm houses, beehives, tiny family churches and graveyards.

The little train seems ungoverned by any timetable, or by any schedule of stops. It pulls up at house by the roadside and a small boy brings quartered oranges for the passengers to try. It pulls in again at a track where a farmer sells olive oil from a truck. It stops at a village high in the hills and we buy fresh orange juice at the Kafeneon. On a back wall hangs a photo of a soldier. One the many young men, the sons, the brothers, husbands and fathers who went away to fight on the mainland leaving old men, women and children to defend Crete against the German invasion in 1941. Every house on the island has a photo like this and a story to go with it.

We wind back down another hillside on another road fringed by olives and oranges. It was down these roads that villagers, old men, women and even children marched, armed with ancient weapons, sticks, bats and even kitchen knives to defend their homeland. It was up these roads, a few short weeks later, that the Allied forces fled in retreat. It was up these roads that the Nazis raced in pursuit.

There is no trace now of the ravages and the debris that disfigured this landscape in the aftermath of the World War II. Orange groves and olives roll down the valleys and wrap around the villages. The countryside is beautiful, harmonious, perfect. But still, the Battle of Crete and remains clear in the collective memory of this country. It will never be forgotten.

Next post; The War Graves of Crete