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Crete Revisited September 2009

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Crete Revisited September 2009

Crete 2009

As part of our overseas holiday last year, Ann and I visited Crete, primarily because of the role the 2nd / 3rd played in the crucial battle for Crete in 1941. Ann’s father (Jim Paton, 9th Battery) was not a member of the 7th Battery which was so heavily involved in the Battle for Crete, but he had served as President of the Association for 25 years, and for this reason alone, we both wanted to visit Crete.

The Battle for Crete is well documented (just enter Battle for Crete into Google and see what comes up) and is described in detail in the Regiment’s history “On Target”. The Battle for Crete has also been the subject of numerous articles in “Take Post” over the years –all issues of which are accessible on the web site. Colin Bragg – Honorary Secretary

Crete – The Island

Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands, located in the south of the Aegean Sea. It is comprised of four prefectures: Chania, Heraklion, Lassithi and Rethymno. The island has mountainous landscapes, a coast with many beautiful beaches and rocky coves, beautiful towns, charming villages and harbors, excellent food and historic ruins like the Palace of Knossos from the Minoan Civilization.

The Battle For Crete – A Brief Summary

In May 1941, 7 Battery of the 2nd / 3rd Light anti-Aircraft Regiment was directly involved in the largest German Airborne operation of the war. It was to be the first and last time in history that an island was taken by airborne assault.

An interesting aside is that Hitler signed Directive Number 28, ordering the invasion of Crete, on Anzac Day 1941.

Afterwards, Crete was dubbed the graveyard of the Fallschirmjager (German Parachutists); they suffered nearly 4,000 killed and missing in the assault. It was also the first time the Germans had encountered stiff partisan activity, with women and even children getting involved in the battle.

A total of 500 JU-52’s and 70 DFS-230 light assault gliders were used to drop 8100 men Crete – 1,860 men at Maleme (Airport), 2,460 men at Hania, 1,380 men at Rethymno and 2,360 men at Iraclion (Heraklion).

Crete was chosen because of the British airfields on the island. Securing Crete would be tantamount to driving the British out of the Eastern Mediterranean and the first step towards Cyprus and the Egyptian Delta.

One major problem was the lack of transport aircraft as there were not enough to ferry all of the forces across in one go. There would have to be two waves, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, leaving enough time for the aircraft to return from Crete, refuel and return to the island.

The allied troops on Crete (3 British Battalions, 2 New Zealanders Brigades, 8 Greek Battalions and 6 Australian Battalions) had been aware of the impending assault through Enigma intercepts. The Germans had been provided with inaccurate intelligence and dropped into stiff resistance of nearly three times the amount of men they were expecting.

The Battle for Crete lasted for approximately ten days with heavy casualties on both sides. However, the Royal Navy was able to embark some 16,000 men and return them to Egypt (including 90 men from 7 Battery).

The majority of the 16,000 were evacuated from Sphakia with a smaller number withdrawn from Heraklion.

Subjected to severe losses and constant harassment by German aircraft, the Royal Navy performed the evacuation over a period of four nights.

Crete – A Tourist’s Perspective

We flew into Heraklion Airport from London (via Athens) late in the afternoon and checked into the Galaxy Hotel in down town Heraklion.

Heraklion is the capital of Crete. The weather was warm, and shorts and sandals were the order of the day.

The first impression was one of a city that was undergoing massive reconstruction, until we discovered that the authorities have a rather quaint planning law that allows people to build a house or a commercial building in stages, depending on what they can afford at the time. Each time you have saved enough money for the next stage of construction, you get an additional planning permit for that stage.

For this reason, many buildings in Heraklion have been completed to the ground floor level and have reinforcing rods projecting into the sky from the top of the completed ground floor – ready for the next level.

Our local Government By-Laws officers would have a field day in Heraklion! Cars and motor bikes seem to be able to park wherever they can find a space, which often means they park on the footpath, facing in the wrong direction.

The footpaths themselves are a major health hazard as it was rare to find a stretch of level pavement anywhere in the CBD. Many footpaths have trees growing out of them or the branches from adjacent gardens growing over the foot paths – walking down town required eyes in the front, back and sides of your head.

This situation was made even worse during peak hour when the traffic was wall to wall, with everyone looking for somewhere to park so they could have a meal in one of the many cafes and restaurants.

The port of Heraklion is a fascinating place with its ancient fort, mediaeval Moorish mosque, the incredibly crowded local fishing boat berths and the constantly active inter-island ferry terminals.

Ferries range in size from massive car carrying ferries to the “Flying Cats”, which are very fast catamarans and which we used to travel to Santorini and Paros when we left Crete.

Churches are one item that are not in short supply on Crete, and there are many old and beautiful churches throughout the island.

Between our hotel and the port, we discovered the markets, where all sorts of merchandise, souvenirs and food could be purchased. There was also an incredible choice of places to eat, with many placing an emphasis on an amazing range of fresh fish – understandably so as Crete is an island.

The number of wild cats was amazing! Whether walking down the main street or through one of the parks, there were cats – all of them skinny and I suspect all of them hopeful – none of them were friendly.

It was whilst we were on one of our walks down town that we discovered (by accident) a magnificent memorial, presented to the people of Greece by the Returned Services League of Australia and the New Zealand Returned Services Association, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Greek Mainland and Crete.

The memorial, made from beautiful stone, features a central column with bronze statues. The perimeter of the memorial is defined by walls made from the same stone, into which are inset the most incredible raised bronze reliefs, each depicting aspects of the Battle for Crete.

Rethymno and Stavromenos

On our second day, my brother Robin and his wife Gail, who had been holidaying in Italy and Turkey (including a visit to Anzac Cove), joined us.

Being someone who was experienced in driving on the “wrong side of the road”, Robin was appointed driver of our hire car for a tour of the island.

It was our intention to visit the Rethymno memorial, the Suda Bay Cemetery and Maleme Airport, where the 7th Battery was actively engaged during the Battle for Crete.

Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the Rethymno memorial and the distance to Maleme and Suda Bay meant we were unable to visit these places.

We did however locate the memorial at Stavromenos, which commemorates “The Courage of Australian, Greek and British Servicemen and Cretan Patriots Who Fought and Fell In Battle Near This Place Between 20th And 30th May 1941”

The memorial again comprises a tall column with a perimeter wall, on which plaques recognizing those engaged in the action are attached.

On each side of the column are well maintained Bofors guns. Sadly the memorial itself was in need of maintenance, but its location overlooking the Aegean Sea compensates.

Our driving tour took us to several Cretan villages clinging to the mountainous terrain and we enjoyed afternoon tea in the beautiful village of Spili. Similarly, our tour took us to small villages on the water’s edge. At one of these villages, it was only after we had walked down to the beach that we realised we had accidentally wandered onto a nudist beach – we didn’t join them.

The Palace of Knossos

We spent a day at the Palace of Knossos, which even in its ruined condition, is an impressive structure. To start with, it is massive and a whole day is necessary to tour the ruins properly.

Some work on the restoration of the Palace is being undertaken, but it can never be fully restored given the sheer size of the complex and the extent of the damage.

It is thought the palace was demolished by a huge tsunami some 4,000 years ago and it is further claimed it was the same volcanic eruption that created the magnificent and famous caldera on the island of Santorini that caused the tidal wave that ruined the Palace of Knossos.

Coincidentally, we went to Santorini after we left Crete, so were easily able to link the two physical aspects of the eruption of the volcano.

In Conclusion

We enjoyed our time on Crete, and despite some of the challenges, we enjoyed exploring the history and ruggedness of the island, the charm and beauty of its villages and the friendliness of the people.

We were moved that the contribution of the Australian Infantry Forces, including the 2nd / 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, is so widely recognised and acknowledged throughout the island, and that we were able to visit and appreciate the memorials at Heraklion and Stavremenos.