As always, I had to do a great deal of research to bring the world of my story to life. Here are the seven most fascinating facts about the Battle of Crete that sadly ended up on the cutting room floor…
- The Germans invaded Greece in April 1941, and quickly overwhelmed the British, Australian and New Zealand forces. The Allies retreated to Piraeus harbour in Athens, to be evacuated to Crete. Peter Fleming, author and older brother of the now-more-famous Ian, managed to find a berth on a small steamship. It was bombed by the Luftwaffe and sank. The survivors put out a SOS message which was heard by an Australian officer named Rodney Bond, who rescued them and then navigated his way to Crete with only the stars in the sky and a child’s atlas to guide him. After the war, Peter was eating breakfast when Ian came in and said: ‘Peter, I’ve written a bloody good thriller, but I can’t get a name for my hero.’ Without lowering his newspaper, Peter replied: ‘Try Bond.’
- The German invasion of Crete on 20th May 1941 was the world’s first and only massed airborne assault. The German offensive - code-named Operation Mercury after the fleet-footed messenger of the gods - was meant to be a surprise attack, a swift victory, and an easy conquest. But almost four thousand Nazi paratroopers died in the first three days, one being clubbed to death by an old Cretan man wielding his walking stick. This was more Germans than had died in the war so far. Hitler never permitted another airborne invasion.
- General Freyberg, the Allied commander on Crete, knew the exact time and place of the planned German invasion thanks to the deciphering of the Enigma code by crypto analysts at Bletchley Park. It was the first time the German cipher was broken, but secrecy protocols meant that Freyberg could not fully use his inside knowledge. Apparently, he heard the roar of the approaching German planes as he was eating his breakfast and said, consulting his watch, ‘ah, they’re right on time'.
- The people of Crete fought against the invading Nazis with whatever weapon they could seize, including ancient rusty rifles, black-handled Cretan daggers, kitchen knives tied to broomsticks, garden forks, scythes, rocks, and their bare hands. Women fought alongside men, priests alongside communists. Civilians fighting to defend their homeland offended the Nazis' sense of how war should be fought. It led to cruel reprisals and mass executions after the battle was lost. General Alexander Andre, the German commander, said: ‘Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete.’
- By May 27, 1941, the Battle of Crete was lost after days of intense and bloody hand-to-hand fighting. The Allies were in retreat, the Germans in hot pursuit. A battalion of Australian and New Zealand soldiers were appointed as the rearguard, ordered to delay the enemy in any way possible. The Anzacs took up position on a hot and dusty country lane nicknamed, ironically, 42nd Street. The exhausted, tattered remains of the Allied army were being hunted down by an elite battalion of German mountain troops, well-fed and well-rested, who had just been flown in from the mainland. The sight roused the defending soldiers to anger. One of the officers of the Māori Battalion leapt to his feet and began to call out the words of the fearsome tūtū-ngārahu (haka performed in the moment of battle). His men joined him, shaking their fists and drawing their fingers across their throats. Then the Anzacs charged, some of them clenching their bayonets in bare hands. The Germans turned and fled.
Māori’s in Egypt
- Sir Arthur Evans was the British archaeologist who first excavated the ancient ruins of the palace of Knossos on a hillside in Crete. Knossos has been called the oldest city in Europe and had a sophisticated culture with one of the world’s first written languages, depictions of a Great Goddess with snakes writhing up her arms, the first known painting of a rose, and the world’s first flushing toilet. When Evans heard of the fall of Crete, he suffered a heart attack and, a few weeks later, died.
- The tattered remnants of the Allied forces retreated over the towering White Mountains, strafed with machine-gun fire by the Luftwaffe. Fifty-seven thousand men were evacuated, but almost seven thousand were left behind, most being taken prisoner. A few were hidden from the Germans by the brave people of Crete, at enormous risk to themselves. Among those evacuated were Roald Dahl, Lawrence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and my great-uncle.
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