Cretan Journeys: The road to Sfakia

As the plane turns slowly and dips its wing in the final approach Chania’s airport, the view from a left side window reveals a stretch of water that is forever marked by the momentous events that took place here.

Suda Bay was the arrival point in April 1941 for thousands of Allied troops extracted from the mainland as the German occupation of Greece advanced.

Today the road from the airport takes you down the bay’s northern edge. Look out for a left hand turn, signposted to the Suda BayAllied War Cemetery, for here is the resting place of 1,527 British and Commonwealth service personnel who gave their lives during the Battle of Crete.

The fallen lie beside the fateful shore where they first disembarked. 197 are Australian and 447 are New Zealanders.

Like all the cemeteries maintained with loving care by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the white headstones stand in serried ranks upon a green grass lawn, stretching back, to a vanishing point in the distance. To walk the lines, or just sit awhile and contemplate, is a melancholy and moving experience.

Drive the national road a few kilometeres west, past Chania taking the exit to Tavronitis, and you’ll reach the village of Maleme. Above on the high ground, known as Hill 107, was where allied troops desperately shelled the strategically vital airfield as the German forces advanced.

Many of those German troops remain here. On the first day alone 1,856 were killed. The carefully-tended German war cemetery that looks out across the airfield today is the last resting place of 4,465 of the estimated six and a half thousand Germans killed in the Battle for Crete and during the island’s occupation.

The airfield and surrounding ground at Maleme is perhaps the most haunting of the Battle for Crete sites. It was here that the first German paratroopers and glider borne forces began the invasion in the early morning of May 20th 1941. And it was here that some of the cruelest fighting took place as the Germans wrestled the airfield from its defenders, mostly Anzac troops.

Maleme’s tranquility today belies the carnage and brutality that took place upon and around it. To the west of the strip, which is still intact and used by the Greek airforce, near the new coast road bridge, lies the old iron bridge across the Tavronitis river where  the first gliders came to rest. Long disused, the bridge is still there, its stone columns pock-marked with bullet holes, its iron work still bearing the violent scars of exploding shells.

With the Maleme airstrip lost, airborn reinforcements quickly bolstered the German advance and the allies were compelled to retreat, with Australian, British and New Zealand units engaged in heroic rearguard actions in the days after.

None more so than an action that took place just outside Chania. It’s not far, through the tatty outer reaches of the town to a nondescript road running south-east. Today it’s called Tsikalarion.

In May 1941 it was known as 42nd Street  to the soldiers. Here, as German forces pushed towards Suda Bay on the seventh day of the battle, Australian and Maori forces undertook a ferocious bayonet charge that pushed back the German advance, buying precious time for the thousands of Allied troops in their desperate withdrawal to the south coast.

If you rejoin the nearby E75 national road and head forRethymno, you cross the ground where the largest concentration of Australian forces defended a 50km line from Georgopouli and the beaches of Almiros Bay in the west, to beyond the Rethymno airfield in the east.

For the ten days that the Battle of Crete raged, here Australian and Greek forces defended their positions and counter attacked. Overpowered, outflanked and unable to join the evacuating forces heading for evacuation of the south coast, commanders had to offer their troops two options – head for the hills, or surrender.

On the night of 29 May 1941 troops took turns on the beach flashing the morse letter ‘A’ for Australia, in case Royal Navy ships might be on hand to save them. It was to no avail. Most of the Australian forces in this sector surrendered the next day to spend years in German POW camps.

At the Germans beseiged Rethymno, and further east, where an Australian battalion fought in defence of Heraklion, in the west the invaders pushed the Allies steadily east, before the defeated army began marching to the evacuation beach on the south coast.

At the village of Stilos, Australian and New Zealand forces, with British commandos, held off a German battalion while the allies funneled towards the village of Vrysses.

Today in Vrysses’ town centre, the sun paints a dappled light through towering plane trees to the river below. It was in the shade of these same trees, thousands of allied troops passed, heading up the single winding road that leads south over the mountains to Sfakia, the evacuation point. As you look up the road today you can almost see them still, footsore, thirsty, defeated and desperate.

The road to Sfakia crosses the Lefka Ori – the White Mountains of western Crete –  and then plummets to the coast. Over four nights in the last days of May 1941, some 16,000 troops were evacuated from Sfakia to Egypt, leaving 5,000 behind, most to become POWs.

On 1 June the allied surrender was taken by the Germans at the tiny village of Komitades nearby. Hundreds who were left behind refused to surrender and chose to go it alone. With the help of the Cretan people in some cases they avoided capture for years.

After the surrender, with Allied help, the Cretan resistance took the fight to the occupying forces. But the Germans exacted terrifying retribution: records put the number of civilians executed by firing squad as 3,474 during the course of the Nazi occupation, and at least a further 1,000 were killed in massacres in late 1944. Cretan sources put the actual numbers as much higher.

Like all locations that have experienced great heroism, courage and sacrifice, the vibrations of those events remain. More than 80 years ago Anzac, British and Greek forces, with the people of Crete, fought and fell for freedom.

The tell-tale signs of that heroic story are still there for all to find.

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