80 years ago, Australian soldiers gave their lives in the defence of Crete, and researchers are still finding clues of their heroism, writes Michael Sweet.
It’s a wet spring day on the north coast of Crete when I’m shown the well. The red earth close to the beach is soft underfoot, as my local guide, local Battle of Crete researcher Dimitris Skartsilakis, leads the way across a scruffy piece of open land, sandwiched between the nondescript apartment blocks and rent-rooms that litter this part of Rethymno’s coastal strip.
A bulldozer lies idle beside the foundations of a new building, windblown tamarisk trees and bamboo punctuate the landscape, and underfoot a green carpet of bermuda buttercup and leafy stumps of sea daffodil cling to life in the sandy soil.
“Look out for bullet shell-casings”, says Skartsilakis as we pause to take in the scene. “This is where the front line was. The Germans were over there” he adds, pointing to a perimeter fence and a line of houses thirty metres away. “And the Australians, there.”
He gestures in the opposite direction, to a ridge, hiding a narrow dry river-bed some fifty metres away. This gash in the landscape, less than five metres across, is sunk below the surrounding field by not more than the height of a man. When the rains come, the water from the hills to the south leaches down to the seashore, but more often it’s as dry as a bone.
The Australian troops who were here in 1941 call these ditches ‘wadis’, an arab word they brought to Crete from their time in Libya. The wadis, which run south to north to the sea, east of the town of Rethymno, make natural trenches. Because of the events that took place here on 27 May 1941, this wadi, and the ground nearby has a remarkable story to tell.
The battle for Rethymno fought between 20 and 28 May 1941 was exceptional in many respects. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell, Australian forces deployed with Greek Army units here held the German invaders of Crete to a stalemate. Campbell’s battalions – the 2/1st and 2/11th, drawn from Sydney and Perth respectively, comprised around 1,300 troops, and they defended the only Allied sector to successfully withstand the onslaught of Goering’s elite paratroops.
That is until overwhelming German reinforcements landed in western Crete at Maleme, tilted the balance of power.
Today the battlefield site has few obvious markings to give the merest hint of the bloody conflict that occurred here. A few kilometres east of the town of Rethymno, the old coast road has a few clues: a bridge over a shallow river bed is signposted ‘Wadi Bardia’ – the name given to the creek by Australian troops recollecting their successful exploits in Libya against Italian forces, before being sent on what was to be a doomed mission to Greece.
On the 27 May 1941, this was the frontline on the western edge of the Australian positions, as Colonel Campbell clung to his mission: to deny the Rethymno airfield to the enemy. The airstrip, running east-west parallel to the shore, was overlooked by high ground at its eastern edge.
When the German paratroops swung down from the sky on the afternoon of 20th May, the Australians had fought tenaciously and ferociously, first annihilating hundreds of the invaders as they fell, or immediately after they landed, and then holding the Germans who had managed to survive and established themselves in isolated strongpoints to the airfield’s east, west and southern perimeter.
The story of the battle for Rethymno is one of savage attacks and counter-attacks, of close-quarter fighting, and a battlefield that for seven days was the scene of a deadly and unremitting arm-wrestle. Despite air support, the German paratroops clung on precariously as Campbell’s strategy, and his commanders’ tactics, held them at bay.
Between May 22 and May 26 the Australians repeatedly attacked the German positions west of the airfield at Perivolia, and east of the aerodrome near the village of Stavromenos, and by May 27 the Australians had taken hundreds of prisoners.
At the village of Adhele, away from the front lines, a hospital was set up with German and Australian doctors working together. Conditions were grim, with parachute silk used for bandages and little or no anaesthetic available.
One insight into the vicious events that unfolded as the Australian and Greek forces wrestled to contain the enemy at Rethymno, was the massacre of dozens of civilians by German troops on May 23 and 24, not far from the 2/11th’s forward positions.
Civilians in Perivolia and Misiria, villages, now suburbs of Rethymno town, had taken part in the defence of their neighbourhoods from the first day.
The reprisal was the Germans’ message to the local population: fight us, and we will kill not just your fighters, but your mothers, wives and children. Reportedly witnessed from one of the four strategically vital hills held by the Australian forces, the high ground overlooked the aerodrome and the Misiria area. From the hill it’s believed artillery of the Australian 2/3rd Field Regiment fired on the beach to stop the carnage.
Every day of the battle for Crete would be fateful in its own way, but May 27th has a special significance. On that day, the commander of Allied forces in Crete, Major General Bernard Freyberg, received confirmation to proceed with the evacuation of Allied troops by the Royal Navy from the south coast village of Chora Sfakion.
Near Souda Bay, Australian and New Zealand troops launched their last and legendary counter-attack, a brutal bayonet charge at 42nd Street; and at Rethymno, one tragic action – by an Australian platoon, would become synonymous with the Australian story in Crete, and an example of sacrifice as poignant as any in the Anzac legend.
On the morning of 27th May, near Perivolia, infantry of the 2/11th Battalion were lined up in a wadi opposite the German line. There was a problem. Their commander, Colonel Ralph Honner, was told a platoon was missing; It was presumed to have gone beyond the German line. A rescue mission was needed, but before an attack could have any chance of success, covering fire would be needed from a position in the no-man’s-land directly between the Australian and German lines.
Honner turned to Corporal Tom Willoughby, and eight members of his platoon to do the job. All from Western Australia, Willoughby and his men were given the task of mounting a Bren gun at a stone well about fifty yards forward of the Australian positions. Thirty yards further, dug in, were the Germans.
On the signal, with the rest of the company giving firing cover, Willoughby rose from the wadi and charged. The Germans opened up with withering machine gun fire.
Ralph Honner’s account recalls what happened next: “Willoughby had covered more than half the ground to the well before he fell. Then the Bren gunner went down. The next man, picked up the gun, carried it a few more paces, until he too was cut down. And so it went on, the weapon being relayed, man after man falling, until it had almost reached the well in the hands of the last runner. But he too was hit. As he went down, he knelt over the gun, guarding it, even in death.”
When the action came to its dreadful conclusion, the attack to find the missing platoon was called off. Honner was told that the platoon was safe; Willoughby and his men had died in vain.
Along with Willoughby, the men who fell that May morning, were Arthur Dowsett, age 24, a farmer and outstanding race cyclist from Wandering; Charles Brown, age 36, a builder from Perth; Colin Elvy, age 24, a farm labourer from Narlingup; Francis Green, age 33, a miner from north Perth; George McDermid, age 27, a fireman from East Fremantle; Ron White, age 29, from Pinjarra; and John Fraser, a plasterer, age 19.
This achingly sad story is one of many actions, by Australian, New Zealand, British and Greek troops – and Cretan civilians – during the battle of Crete, where conspicuous bravery was common, often ending in the ultimate sacrifice. But there is something about the Willoughby platoon narrative that resonates so powerfully.
In Crete you don’t need to look far to unearth bullets and other small relics. Scratch the surface literally and they’re there, resting and rusting where the major actions were fought. But to calculate accurately one small location of significance, such as the well, is serious battlefield archaeology. It takes time, often money, and perseverance.
Skartsilakis started collecting Battle of Crete memorabilia as a child, inspired by his grandmother’s stories of the Battle and the Resistance. Today his collection of eight thousand photographs of the conflict is one of the largest in the world. He’s spent thousands of euros in the process, much of it on photograph albums of German army veterans who fought in Crete.
We walk on further, across the scrub. An ancient dry stone wall, almost sunken into the ground is to our left. Skartsilakis gestures to a low stone enclosure, less than a metre high, its four walls less than half a metre thick. “This was a water cistern,” he says.
And there, a couple of metres away on the beach side, mostly hidden by overgrown weeds, is a circular opening in the ground. “This is the well of the Willoughby story,” he adds. “I’m a thousand per cent sure.” We stand in silence for a few seconds. It feels longer.
It’s always a deeply emotional, humbling experience to be in the exact spot where such an action took place. Only later, when Skartsilakis shows me his photographs of the same area during the battle, taken by a German paratrooper, and the cross-referencing he has done with the official war records, that I understand what makes him so sure.
In one photograph, a knocked out Matllda tank, in another, a crashed Junkers 52 troop carrier, German paratroops dug in, and nearby, a low stone water cistern. All pieces of the battlefield that faced those young men of the 2/11th Battalion on the morning of the 27 May 1941.
The place shown to me also fits exactly a simple sketched map of the battlefield, drawn by Ralph Honner after the war, and included in his definitive 2007 biography Ralph Honner – Kokoda Hero by Peter Brune.
There is now a pressing need to ensure the well location is protected and the site marked in some way. Tourism development runs apace on this north coast of Crete and it will not be long before holiday accommodation is built here. It’s prime real estate.
Crete is not short of memorials to the hundreds of Allied soldiers who died in its defence in 1941, and the thousands of Cretans who were killed in the battle and during the Occupation that followed.
But something, a modest, simple mark, reminding us of the young men from Western Australia who fought and fell here, and the circumstances of their sacrifice, would be fitting.
The British WWI poet Rupert Brooke (who died in the Mediterranean just days before he was to take part in the Gallipoli landings in April 1915), wrote of “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”. This forgotten foreign field in Crete is a place that is forever Australia.