In the footsteps of my father

The daughters of the first Aboriginal man commissioned as an officer in the Australian army – Reg Saunders, at his WWII hideaway in Crete.

As the European winter stretches south, the winds across the Aegean pick up and flights into Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport in Heraklion may be cancelled. There’s no such misfortune for Glenda Humes on this bright, crisp Cretan morning. The eldest living daughter of Reg Saunders, the first indigenous man to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army, has arrived in Crete. Alongside her are her grandchildren: Breanna, aged nine, six-year-old Summer, and William, aged four. Glenda’s sisters Dorothy and Judith from Queensland are here too, with husbands Russell and Rod. The hire cars are loaded up and the Saunders family heads west along the highway that skirts the northern coast of the island.

The Psiloritis mountains of central Crete soar above us as waves roll in on the deserted beaches below, now empty of summer tourists. ”We planned this trip a year ago,” says Judith, ”after we’d heard that some of the villagers who looked after dad were still alive. It was a chance to see what he had seen, to get an understanding of what he went through.” As the journey begins, Glenda reflects on how she first got to know about the Cretan family that hid her father and what it will mean to meet them. ”It was when I read Harry Gordon’s biography, written in the 1960s. Dad didn’t talk about his wartime exploits much. Just to be able to look them in the eye and say thank you will be a wonderful thing.”

But first we will retrace Saunders’s steps on Crete to the beginning. We’re making for Souda Bay near Chania, where Glenda’s father arrived with thousands of other Anzac troops on April 27, 1941. Just two weeks before, Saunders’s 2/7th Battalion had gone ashore in Athens, as part of Operation Lustre, the dispatch of British, Australian and New Zealand troops from North Africa sent to defend mainland Greece against Nazi aggression. While the campaign was a noble cause, the plan was doomed from the outset. Overwhelmed by German air power, armaments and force of numbers, Greece was lost. The 2/7th got as far as Larissa on the central plain before evacuating from Kalamata on April 25. Their destination was Crete – to bolster the defence of the strategically vital island. Bloodied but unbowed, the Anzacs disembarked at Souda Bay to fight one last battle – the Battle of Crete.

Reg Saunders and fellow members of the Australian 2/7th Battalion.

We drive on towards Rethymno, past Stavromenos and Perivolia – names synonymous with the story and sacrifices of Australians who fought for Crete in the last 10 desperate days and nights of May 1941. Soon the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains of the western side of the island, appear and the vast natural harbour of Souda Bay reveals itself. It is here that Saunders’s story, like that of all the Anzacs who came to Crete, began. And it is here where many of those who fell, remain to this day. We arrive at the Souda Bay Allied War Cemetery just a few hundred metres from the harbour where the troops first arrived. Among the 1527 graves lie 197 of the 274 Australians killed in the Battle of Crete; 447 graves are those of New Zealanders.

Nearby is where Saunders’s battalion took up its first position. In what was recognised later as one of many flaws in the deployments made in preparation for the German invasion, the 2/7th, an expert infantry battalion, was positioned at Georgioupolis, near the eastern entrance to Souda Bay. Its task was to defend a section of the north coast from a seaborne attack that never came. When the elite German paratroops appeared in the skies on May 20, Saunders and his fellow Diggers were spectators. In the days that followed, the 2/7th was moved to support a belated and unsuccessful counter-attack, but it would only engage the enemy seven days later, at a location known to the troops as 42nd Street.

Late in the morning of May 27, 1941, the German 141st Mountain Regiment advanced unknowingly towards hundreds of New Zealand and Australian troops dug in. Official records have been unable to confirm whether it was the Diggers of the 2/7th or the 28 Maori Battalion who began the action, but one story – one image – would forever symbolise the events that took place here. A young Maori rose from his position as machinegun fire tore the silver-green leaves off the olive trees. Knees bent, with one hand on hip and a clip of ammunition in the other, the Maori began to lead the ”Ka Mate” haka. As his ancient war cry rang out, the New Zealanders and Australians charged with long-bayonets fixed. It was a brutal affair. The Anzacs had taken a pounding from the air for weeks. What followed was terrifying retribution. Taken by surprise, the elite Nazi troops fled in disarray, only to be pursued by the charging Anzacs. Saunders was with a patrol that made the initial contact with the enemy. Revealing his innate compassion, he would remember years later the remorse he felt on his first kill. ‘‘I lined him up and I killed him. When I got there I was terribly sorry about it. He was a blond, blue-eyed bloke. His eyes were still open. I rolled him over to have a look at him and I thought ‘Jesus, you’re about the same age as me.’ I wish I could say, ‘Come on old fellow, get up and let’s get on with the bloody game,’ you know … thinking football.”

Minutes later Saunders was part of the charge. ”We were bolting along screeching at the tops of our voices. It was crazy, crazy … the most thrilling few minutes of my life. We stopped being ordinary blokes and became bloodlusted creatures … obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonet.” At 42nd Street some 300 German troops were bayoneted, shot or bludgeoned to death in the olive groves to the west of the lane. The 2/7th’s casualties were 10 killed and 28 wounded; 14 of the Maoris were hit. This rout was one of the few occasions in the Battle of Crete when the Germans were forced into retreat.

The country lane that was 42nd Street is today known as Tsikalaria Street. It is an unremarkable road dissecting a nondescript industrial suburb on the outskirts of Chania. Most of the olive groves are long gone, but a few fields of ancient trees survive. Not even the most modest sign, let alone a memorial, has been erected to the victors or vanquished at 42nd Street. Glenda and the family wander through one of the few remaining groves on the east of the road. Judith’s husband bends down. In the soft red earth among the overgrown weeds, he has found something – a battered brass shell-casing from a bullet that has been fired. Has it lain here for 70 years? (On the family’s return to Australia, analysis by experts at the Australian War Memorial confirms the casing is from a .303-inch Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, standard issue for the Allied troops on Crete.)

The charge at 42nd Street bought precious time for the Allies as the endgame of the Battle of Crete played out. The same day, the evacuation began in earnest. The the 2/7th was deployed to form a rearguard to protect the thousands of Allied soldiers making their way across the mountains to the south coast. That afternoon we take the same route, passing through villages connected by lanes still barely wide enough for two cars, which lead to the town of Vrisses, the resting point for the troops before their arduous ascent of the White Mountains. Beyond the mountains lay salvation; evacuation from a fishing village called Hora Sfakia. We spend the night in Vamos, a hamlet of gently rolling hills in the Apokoronas district; the next day Glenda would once again pick up her father’s trail, to the south coast and the water’s edge, where he found the ships had departed, leaving him and his mates behind.

Over four successive nights from May 28, 11,000 British and Commonwealth troops were evacuated from Sfakia to Egypt. The 2/7th was the last to arrive on the final night of the evacuation. Its senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Theo Walker, was on the barge that was to ferry the last group of soldiers to the waiting destroyer. When Walker saw his men were unable to board, he stepped off. For Saunders, like the thousands of other soldiers abandoned at the water’s edge in Sfakia, there was a choice; surrender or head to the mountains.

Beside the waterfront tavernas at Sfakia, Glenda looks out across the bay her father saw, as he watched the last ship depart into the darkness. ”When he had a choice to surrender or go bush, that was a very easy decision for him to make,” says Glenda. ”He’d grown up in the bush and would have been able to read the signs, and he would have shared that knowledge.” The next day thousands did surrender. More than 12,000 Allied troops who fought the Battle of Crete became prisoners of war – 5000 of those were Anzacs. Saunders was not alone. Hundreds of Allied troops had avoided capture.

After moving through the mountains in the weeks that followed the Allied capitulation, Saunders arrived at a village called Labini in the hills south of Rethymno. Of all the hideouts during his time on the run, it was at Labini that he stayed the longest, protected by a woman and her children. Twenty years later he would describe this remarkable matriarch. ”Vasiliki Zacharakis was the bravest woman I’ve ever seen … classical features and magnificent flashing eyes. She walked straight as a gun barrel and had courage to match. Never saw a woman with so much ruddy strength.”

It takes two hours to drive east along the south coast from Sfakia to Labini. Vasiliki passed away in 1992 but her children, Areti and her elder brother Yiannis, still live in the village. Both formed a close friendship with Saunders and have fond memories of the young Australian soldier they knew as Rengis.

A profound appreciation of the kindness and bravery shown by Vasiliki and her children stayed with Saunders for the rest of his life. ‘Their courage and generosity never ceased to amaze me. It went beyond being helpful to another human being. Sometimes I used to ask why they were doing it, and the answer boiled down to two reasons: they hated the Germans intensely, and as the Germans looted towns and wiped out whole villages this hatred became more intense. Second, they seemed terribly impressed by the fact that we had come so far to fight a war which concerned them more than our own people.”

Areti and Yiannis are now in their 80s. Areti keeps a simple home in the village; her brother is a shepherd. The reunion of the Saunders and Zacharakis families is to take place at Labini’s plateia, the small town square beside the Byzantine church of Panagia. It is the same square where Saunders, hiding in a tree, had witnessed the execution by a German firing squad of two Greeks who had helped the Allies. The people of Crete paid a dreadful price for their resistance. German records put the number of Cretans executed as 3474. A further 1000 civilians were killed in massacres in 1944. The true figures are certainly higher.

When Glenda and the family arrive at the square, Areti and Yiannis, along with their middle-aged children and teenage grandchildren, as well as a throng of other villagers, are already there. Glenda walks purposefully towards Areti with moist eyes. Words are unnecessary. Glenda and Areti embrace. Past and present bleed into one – a quiet, profound expression of thanks across generations, for sacrifice, courage and a kinship born in the storm of war. Saunders and Vasiliki’s daughters walk hand in hand as the celebration moves to Areti’s ancient two-room house in the labyrinthine alleyways that make up Labini. Raki, the fiery Cretan alcoholic spirit is offered. Glasses are charged and held high to exclamations of ”Eviva!”.

As the party continues, through the interpreter, Glenda discovers more about her father’s time in the village. ”We used to take him food and blankets, anything he needed,” says Areti. ”We taught him Greek. He was like a brother to us.” As the details of the relationship between Saunders and the Zacharakis family in 1941 are revealed inside the house, outside, 12-year-old Danae Perdikakis, Areti’s English-speaking granddaughter, is deep in conversation with Breanna. Danae is keen to know more about the life of a young Gunditjmara girl in Perth. ”Do you use Skype?” she asks.

A few kilometres away, on a hillside north of the village, is the church of Agios Ioannis Theologos where Breanna’s great-grandfather was hidden just outside Labini, in a ruined village called Lofia that was destroyed in Ottoman times. Still accessible only by foot, it was here the Zacharakis family would tend their flocks in the summer. Yiannis leads the way to the isolated church that Saunders shared with two other Diggers – George Burgess of the 2/3rd Battalion and Les ”Dodger” Vincent of the 2/1st, along with a New Zealander, Arthur Lambert of NZ 18th Battalion. The tiny chapel altar still holds the icons that looked down on the soldiers as they slept. Yiannis would bring them food each day prepared by his mother. Today his son Stratos has brought a Cretan picnic – loukoumades, the sweet Greek biscuits, and more raki. In the bright sunshine glasses are raised and more ”Evivas!” exclaimed. Glenda looks at the old bell in the belfry above with a glint in her eye. ”Let me ring that bell,” she says excitedly. ”This is the Saunders saying we’re in town!” The rich round tones ring out across the valley; the sound of a precious reconnection made across continents, cultures and time itself.

Vasiliki Zacharakis’ last resting place is in Labini’s small cemetery. Glenda and the family have arranged to meet Areti at the graveside. As they approach, Vasiliki’s daughter is standing beside her mother’s grave, hands clasped. She is talking loudly in Greek, addressing the grave. ”Siko mama – wake up mother. Rengis’s children are here. Why do you sleep? Siko mama – mother get up. They have brought you flowers.” There’s a shocking intensity to Areti’s invocation – a traditional Cretan way of expressing grief. Glenda consoles her and explains that they have come to thank her mother for what she did for Reg and the other soldiers. Glenda places a sprig of wattle beside the headstone and explains its symbolism. In Greek Orthodox tradition, Dorothy and Judith pass a casket of smoking incense in the sign of the cross above the wide family grave. Tears are shed and wiped. The last ritual of the stay at Labini is complete.

Within weeks of the fall of Crete, the British Special Operations Executive was tasked with assisting the Cretan resistance and organising the evacuation of the hundreds of soldiers who were hiding on the island. Saunders covered a large part of western and central Crete while on the run. The bush skills he had learned in the stringybark country of western Victoria served him well. Away from Labini he was constantly on the move, usually with others in small groups. They would split up and re-form, depending on where one or another felt the best chance of protection and escape lay. Saunders travelled much of the time with Burgess, Lambert and Vincent.

They moved on foot, mostly at night. They crossed and recrossed the mountains, lived in caves, scaled the desolate high passes; avoiding roads, they traversed the flat fertile plains taking shelter where they could. Shepherds would bring warnings of German patrols, news of a safe house in the next village, and occasionally, knowledge of gatherings of troops waiting above a beach, where in the dead of night an evacuation was due. Together they came close to getting away in January 1942, but the operation was cancelled because of rough seas. Soon after, Arthur Lambert was captured. Saunders finally left Crete four months later. From official records of operations in May 1942, the location for the evacuation that took Saunders off Crete, along with Burgess and Vincent and at least 30 other men, was due south of Heraklion, below the village of Krotos.

It is still a wild isolated place, accessible even today only with difficulty. We arrive at the beach late in the afternoon. The sun, low on the horizon, casts a rich yellow light and long shadows as the children play by the water’s edge. Their great-grandfather’s Cretan odyssey ended here. ”We’ve come full circle,” says Glenda quietly, looking out to sea. ”I was always close to my father, but I feel closer to him now than I’ve been for a very long time.” Summer and William throw stones into the waves that curl and break at their feet.

Breanna peers out to the horizon, protecting her eyes against the setting sun. ”I’ve seen my grandchildren grow on this trip,” says Glenda. ”To them, before we came here, my dad was just a picture on the wall, a painting in the War Memorial.” Coaxed into sharing the emotions experienced, Glenda brings to mind the ringing of the church bell. ”I wanted to ring that bell to let him know we’re here,” she says defiantly. ”I wanted him to know that his children and grandchildren are here, and we’ll yell it out to the hills and valleys of Labini. And we did.” Dorothy says she has felt joy and sorrow on this trip. ”What this journey has shown me, is that in times of need, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

Already Glenda is thinking about the next chapter in the story. ”Our granddaughters have connected and that’s really important. We know each other now and we won’t let go of that. I always knew they were kind people. But you don’t really know that stuff until you come here and you see it and you’re part of it. They just enfold you in their arms and keep you close. We’re coming back,” she says emphatically.

The connection created in wartime between Vassaliki Zacharakis, her children and Reg Saunders has lasted nearly seventy years. As the events of what occurred at Labini those years ago near the end of living memory, in 2010 their children have woven new strands to that eternal bond. Vasiliki and Reg are gone but their legacy remains, forever a reaffirmation of the power of unyielding courage and kinship.

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9 thoughts on “In the footsteps of my father

  1. Great reading thanks. i knew Arthur Lambert in New Zealand as he owned a local garage in my home town of Whangarei.

    Mike Smythe Queensland

  2. Hi there, My Father, Alf HAYNES was great mates with Reg and that’s him standing next to Reg whilst boarding the train. Dad thought a lot of Reggie and referred to him as a real gentleman.
    Russell HAYNES of Mount Martha Victoria.

  3. Hi – How can I buy a high res version of that lovely black and white photo entitled ‘Reg Saunders and fellow members of the Australian 2/7th Battalion’ ?

  4. I see your page needs some fresh posts. Writing manually takes a lot of
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