Today the road to the village square was quiet. Seventy-eight years ago it was a cacophony. The thud of boots, smashing glass, a clattering tank. The latter roared its way up this narrow lane between the houses. Behind it a band of Kiwi soldiers was enveloped in the smell of diesel and cordite. Gunfire and ricochets rained down on them. Bright flashes and explosions from grenades split the twilight. Then, it happened…
It was May 25th, 1941. The strategic village of Galatas in Crete had been captured by the Germans. They now threatened to cut the New Zealand division in half. The prospect of mass casualties or mass surrender loomed. In the face of the relentless German advance, panic began to break out. At that moment, a soldier lying in a ditch beside the Galatas road saw a figure standing in the middle of the road. Tracer bullets flew all around him from Junkers flying over. It was Colonel Howard Kippenberger. He bellowed at the troops – “Stand for New Zealand! Stand every man who is a soldier!” Courage returned to shrinking hearts. The line held. But the crisis remained.
Kippenberger knew the only way to avert disaster was to retake Galatas. He pulled together the soldiers he could find and put the mission before them. For the sake of their fellow New Zealanders it was time to fight – and it would be the fight of their lives. The village on the hill had to be recaptured.
They set off behind the one small tank available. At first they walked, trying to keep cover against the barrage of enemy fire coming from within the houses lining the road. Then it happened. From out of somewhere – a great roar rose up. It drowned out all else. Even the English tank driver could hear it over the din of his engine. A bone-chilling sound that rose and fell like rolling thunder. A battle cry! The New Zealanders had cut loose. Now they were running. Charging. Ferocious. They entered the village square. Bayonets fixed, they swarmed at the enemy.
The Germans broke. The fury of the New Zealanders was upon them. There was no time to reload. They piled out of windows and doors and ran. Many never made it. There was brutal hand to hand fighting in the street. Then it was over. Galatas was retaken. The streets were full of dead and wounded from both sides. The local Greeks did what they could to help them as night fell.
At the same time on a spring evening in May 2019, my wife Rachel and I walked up the same narrow road. As we turned into the square we found it occupied by a silent honour guard of Greek soldiers. They were waiting for the commemoration service to begin. Dignitaries and locals gathered. The New Zealand flag flew alongside the flag of Greece. And then the proceedings commenced, and they remembered. As they do every year.
And we joined them. Proud New Zealanders remembering our fellow Kiwis who had fought so courageously that day. They were not highly trained, elite troops. They were just ordinary Kiwis – farmers, accountants, lawyers, labourers. Yes, they had crossed the oceans to help defend Europe from the Nazis. But in that moment, backs against the wall, their hearts were ablaze with one goal. They rose up to fight for their fellow New Zealanders.
As our nation today faces so many challenges – may we be inspired to do likewise.
Anzac Day 2020