It is an overcast late afternoon at Maleme airfield in Crete. The place is packed with local Greeks. They are here for the annual service to remember the Battle of Crete. Included is a re-enactment of the day in 1941 when the Germans opened their airborne invasion. But the few dozen parachutists now floating down over the airfield bear little resemblance to what actually happened on that fateful day.
The records tell of a beautiful spring Mediterranean morning. However the sunny blue sky was soon darkened. Not with cloud. But with hundreds of German aircraft dropping thousands of paratroopers. The sky was literally full of the invading enemy. Nothing on this scale had ever been seen before.
The New Zealand division had been tasked with defending this part of the island. But they were ill-prepared. In the months prior they had been driven out of mainland Greece by the Nazi blitzkrieg and evacuated to the island of Crete. They had left behind or lost much valuable equipment. They had little air-cover and had been constantly strafed by German aircraft for weeks. And now they awoke to this.
It was a mesmerising sight. But in a moment the Battle of Crete was upon them. It was a battle in which they fought ferociously. In the first hours and days the Germans were easy targets as they floated to earth, or struggled out of landed parachutes or crashed gliders. Their forces were decimated. Indeed such were their losses that Hitler never again ventured a major airborne assault. But eventually they took the strategic Maleme airfield and were able to fly in reinforcements directly. From that moment the battle for the New Zealanders was lost. They fought valiant rear-guard actions in the Cretan villages and olive groves (Galatas and Forty Second St) but were again evacuated from Greek soil some weeks later.
The Battle of Crete may have been lost – but the Greeks haven’t forgotten.
As the crowd disperses from the airfield my wife and I notice a stooped elderly woman. She is carrying a small New Zealand flag. It is a welcome sight in a far off land and so we make our way over. “We like your flag.” Suddenly she is animated – “I love New Zealand! I love New Zealand!” And in moment we are transported with her back seventy-eight years. In a mix of Greek and broken English she tells us her story of how as a little girl she also awoke to the shadow of war that morning. Looking up and waving her arms at the sky she exclaims – “Poly aeroplano! Poly aeroplano!” Many aeroplanes! The sight is clearly burned into her memory. As is her gratitude for those came from so far away to fight for her and her people.
We listen intently. Then she kisses my wife enthusiastically on both cheeks, and disappears into the crowd with her flag. And we move on from Maleme humbled, and with our hearts warmed by such gratitude and love for our nation, so far from home.
Anzac Day 2022