How Darwin was betrayed

The man who knew: Richard Williams in 1916 as Commander No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. Photo: AWM A04556

“The planes came in from the south-east, and I looked up and they appeared to me like a cemetery, the white underbellies … coming across the blue sky. We fired and were terribly disappointed because the shells fell behind and below the planes. The fuses were powder fuses, which they found out later didn’t last long in the tropics. It was a big shemozzle the whole lot of it. The communications between the air force, the Americans, the army and the navy was non-existent.”

JACK MULHOLLAND
Anti-aircraft gunner, Darwin.

ON THE morning of February 19, 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Williams finished a leisurely breakfast at the elegant, colonial-style Hotel Darwin on the town’s Esplanade. The 52-year-old former Royal Australian Air Force chief was on the last leg of a journey from his posting in London home to Melbourne.

A few minutes before 10am, as he waited for the local RAAF commander to join him on the hotel’s palm-fringed lawns, Williams reached for his 8-millimetre cine camera to record the scene: a bright blue sky, an anti-aircraft gun emplacement across the road – waiting for an attack that everyone in Darwin knew was imminent. As he did, waves of high-flying Japanese bombers appeared overhead, releasing bombs that glinted silver in the sunlight as they fell. Williams dived for cover in a concrete gutter, and it was from that dusty vantage point that he witnessed an attack he had foreseen for so long.

Exactly what went through the former RAAF chief’s mind as the raiders went about their deadly business, picking off targets at will, one can only guess. Williams was the RAAF’s pre-war commander who had drawn up detailed plans to realise a national air defence capability – plans that had been ignored.

More than 30 years would pass before the stoic, deeply loyal public servant shared his views publicly on what had occurred under Australia’s northern skies that day. ”No steps had been taken to form even one fighter squadron … we had nothing with which to effectively oppose them,” were his perfunctory comments in his pointedly titled 1977 autobiography, These are facts.

The bombing of Darwin by Japan on February 19, 1942, killed at least 274 people and injured hundreds more (famously, more bombs were dropped than on Pearl Harbour). Until now the narrative has largely been one of courageous improvised defence – acts of heroism in a battle against overwhelming odds – counterpointed by a breakdown in military discipline that led to some servicemen going AWOL immediately after the raid.

Less well documented, however, was the catastrophic failure of public policy that left Australia so vulnerable to attack 70 years ago – a failure, argues historian Dr Peter Ewer, stemming largely from Australia’s slavish adherence to Britain’s imperial defence strategy, and the refusal of successive pre-war governments to heed the advice of their most expert military adviser.

Ewer has spent 12 years uncovering how Williams’ advice was ignored, and the prescient air chief eventually sent into exile, undoing plans that would have given Darwin a fighting chance. ”There’s a lot of populist drum-beating about Darwin … but there are deep questions of public policy that have not been explored in the years since the event,” he says. ”And we have been diverted from the most important issue of all: the cause of the most significant national defence failure Australia has ever experienced.”

Ewer’s contention of a catastrophic failure of government is shared by others, including senior military figures and analysts. The bombing of Darwin ”was a situation in which Australia should never have been placed”, says Air Marshal George Jones, who took on Williams’ role as RAAF chief later in 1942, ”and I have always felt that those responsible were never properly called to account for it”.

In his book Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal, Ewer argues that the virtually unopposed attack on Darwin was the result of a series of ill-judged political decisions that left Australia effectively undefended in the opening phase of the Pacific war. He maintains that historians since have been reluctant to delve into the topic, revealing an enduring aversion to grappling with a painful truth. ”Given the descriptive interest in the bombing of Darwin, I find truly amazing the absence of a debate about why Australia was so unable to defend itself,” he says.

The level of disarray is made clear through the testimony of those on the ground that day.

RAAF Sergeant Lionel King was 18 years old when he sheltered in a slit trench at the RAAF base as the bombers struck. ”We were up there with virtually no defences,” King related 65 years later. ”I know it’s an embarrassment to the government at the time … this is why they imposed strict censorship. When you hear that the anti-aircraft gunners were using World War I ammunition, army regiments had five rounds per rifle. We as an air force unit had nothing, not a rifle. Darwin was caught completely unprepared.”

Central to Ewer’s thinking is a need to re-appraise the career of the ”father of the RAAF”, Richard Williams, who forecast the air attack that devastated Darwin 16 years before it took place. How Williams was undermined, depriving Australia of its most prescient defence planner, is key, says Ewer, to understanding what did and didn’t happen in Darwin in 1942.

BORN in 1890, in South Australia, Williams was the son of a copper miner whose family had migrated from Cornwall. His military career began at 19 when he enlisted in the South Australian Infantry Regiment before joining the army.

In 1914, he became the first graduate pilot of Australia’s inaugural military flying course at Point Cook in Victoria. Two years later, as commander of No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, he was deployed to support the allied advance on Palestine.

His actions in the Middle East are the stuff of legend. Awarded the DSO for gallantry, the young aviator’s duties included providing air support for Lawrence of Arabia’s irregular forces fighting the Turks.

”Williams’ work in Palestine is little known, but he was a world-leading pioneer of air power, and he understood how to apply engineering and technical solutions to the tactical problems he faced,” says Ewer.

With the formation of the RAAF after WWI, the young wing commander was appointed its first chief of air staff in 1921. Four years later he drafted a paper titled ”Memorandum regarding the air defence of Australia”, which became a blueprint for the RAAF’s structure as an independent service.

From the outset, however, Williams was on a collision course with key political leaders. Rather than integrate the RAAF into Britain’s imperial defence system, he took as his starting point the need to secure mainland Australia, identifying a force structure needed to fulfil the role – 30 squadrons with 324 aircraft. The advice was ignored by successive governments who allocated the lion’s share of spending on the navy, in line with imperial defence agendas.

In September 1926, Williams began a remarkable voyage. He climbed into the seat of a fragile De Havilland biplane on the Point Cook runway where he had learnt to fly, and began a 16,000-kilometre round trip to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He wanted to see for himself the topography of the islands and sea routes that would be crucial in defending Australia in a future war. The voyage, made two years before Charles Kingsford Smith first flew across the Pacific, would inform his thinking on Australia’s defence for the rest of his life.

By contrast, as the war with Japan drew closer, Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist government, and then James Scullin’s Labor administration, looked for comfort to ”Fortress Singapore” – the cornerstone of Britain’s imperial defence for Australia. By the 1930s, the Singapore Strategy, based on the notion of British naval power, reigned supreme, despite its many dissenters in the Australian military, including Williams.

Dr Alan Stephens, official historian for the RAAF, supports Ewer’s contention that the politicians of the day got it wrong. ”I blame the politicians and the fact that we were focused on naval defence. In the inter-war years we put something like two-thirds of our defence spending into the navy. When war started in the Pacific, the navy was of very little use to us.

”It was obvious in the 15 years before the war that the way to stop a potential invader was by air power. We simply didn’t give priority to that aspect of our defences, and we should have.”

Stephens notes that Williams was ”a prickly, puritanical kind of person, which a lot of people found annoying, and he made a lot of enemies over the years. He was highly intelligent, extraordinarily demanding, and he stood up for his beliefs against great opposition.”

What made Williams unique, Ewer says, was his ability to combine strategic vision with detailed technical awareness. In 1933, Williams visited Britain to find an aircraft with an amphibious capability that could meet the RAAF’s needs for maritime reconnaissance. He found it in a plane for which the Royal Air Force showed a distinct lack of interest – a single-engine amphibian known as the Seagull. Williams set about modifying the design and contracted 24 production examples. Within months, the RAF had ordered 168 of the modified planes and renamed it the Walrus. It would go on to play an important role in both air forces.

Three years later, an aircraft developed far from the aviation industries of Australia’s ”mother country” would prove the most controversial procurement under Williams’ leadership. In early 1936, to the astonishment of British defence planners and their Australian acolytes, the RAAF recommended Australia’s newly formed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) build an American-designed aircraft to be known in Australia as the Wirraway.

Immediately the Australian government faced British objections, most of which rested on the alleged harm it would do to equipment standardisation between the RAF and RAAF.

”The Wirraway was an outstanding example of pioneering technology transfer between the United States and Australia,” says Ewer, but he adds that Williams’ insistence on promoting the national interest above Australia’s traditional ties with Britain created ”huge political tensions”.

The Wirraway would eventually go into production at CAC’s Fishermans Bend factory in Melbourne, but the political backlash would eventually bring down Williams and set back by years Australia’s ability to build combat aircraft suitable for its own defence. ”His commitment to an independent national interest eventually was too much for empire loyalists in the Australian government to take,” says Ewer, ”and there’s no doubt that they set out to discredit him.”

In late 1937, Archdale Parkhill, defence minister in the Lyons government, lost his seat at the general election and with it Williams lost his political protector. Immersed in procurement plans, Williams’ attention was increasingly being diverted by a growing political crisis over the accident rate in the RAAF. In February 1936, an RAAF plane at an air show in Tasmania had killed two civilians. A year later, a cross-country flight by the RAAF was blighted by five accidents, in one of which a pilot died. Though investigations of these and other cases confirmed either pilot error or technical failure as the likely cause – and the crash rate was no worse than the RAF’s – Williams’ political enemies saw an opportunity.

In April 1938, under fire from the Labor opposition which used the accident rate to attack the Lyons administration’s defence credentials, the government announced that former RAF chief Air Marshal Sir Edward Ellington would be invited to ”inspect” the Australian air force and ”report on its preparedness”. Ellington’s private secretary later vouched that his boss, who had risen through the RAF as an administrator and who had no operational experience, ”knew little about aviation”. Williams would later share his conviction that the instigator of the Ellington review was the Lyons government’s treasurer, Richard Casey.

The same year, Williams produced what would be his final assessment (as RAAF chief) of Australian air defence needs. He specified three possible passages a Japanese naval fleet made up of aircraft carriers would take to carry out an attack – a direct attack on Darwin was one. To counter the threat, Williams proposed the establishment of land-based aircraft at the vital northern port and went on to craft design specifications for a more powerful, armed version of the Wirraway to do the job. Again his plans would not be acted upon.

On January 16, 1939, the government released a statement accepting the recommendations of the Ellington report, which criticised the RAAF’s accident rate, discipline and training. The announcement added that the RAAF’s chief of staff ”could not be absolved from these criticisms”. Williams learnt of the judgment when reading the newspaper the next morning. “This was the government’s method of communicating with me,” he would later write tersely. The same day the Australian Defence Ministry told him that, having accepted the report, it was, ”politically expedient for the government to send you to England at the present time”. Exiled on attachment to the RAF in Britain, Williams left the stage.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation that had so raised the hackles of the British was deliberately sidelined and the Australian government poured its manufacturing resources into building a British-designed bomber – the Beaufort – under the terms of a deal with Britain.

At the outbreak of war in Europe, Air Vice-Marshal Charles Burnett – a British officer in semi-retirement who had been Williams’ junior commander in Palestine – was appointed his successor. Burnett’s advice to the government was that there was ”a continuous lessening of the probability of an attack on Australian territory by Japan, and therefore the possibility of carrier-borne aircraft operating against this country is remote”.

In April 1940, on Burnett’s recommendation, the Australian war cabinet cancelled Williams’ plans for a national fighter defence force. ”Burnett was the most disastrous figure in the history of the RAAF,” says Ewer, ”and his ineptitude cost lives at Darwin.”

Burnett’s technical incompetence was certainly notable. After Williams’ axing, the RAAF received a full briefing on the new technology of radar. Two complete radar sets were delivered to Australia. The first, which arrived in September 1940, was sent to Sydney University as a research curiosity, because ”no practical use” could be found for it. The defenders of Darwin 18 months later received no effective warning before the bombs fell.

In December 1941, two weeks after the Pacific war began with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the first combat aircraft to be designed and built in Australia first appeared, not in the skies but on the drawing board. It was all much too late. The Boomerang, a protege of the Wirraway, would not see operational service until 1943.

Under Burnett’s watch, the RAAF concentrated on the newly introduced Empire Air Training Scheme to train Australian pilots to resource the RAF in Europe. ”To do so, Burnett cleaved the RAAF in two,” says Ewer. ”As a result, after two years of war, the RAAF faced its greatest trial with no fighter aircraft, no heavy bombers and no radar equipment.”

The subsequent royal commission failed to look into the policy decisions that had led to the lack of defence, concentrating rather on the breakdown in military order. Justice Charles Lowe’s report concentrated on the lack of co-ordination between civilian and military authorities, the delay in warnings on the day itself, and the lack of leadership in the panic that followed.

”It was over and done within six weeks, and as soon as the Curtin government received the report, cabinet ordered that it be suppressed,” Ewer says. ”Look at the extent of the official American reflection on Pearl Harbour. There was a congressional inquiry still issuing reports in 1945 for public record. It was still being investigated. The comparison couldn’t be any more extreme.”

Williams was to spend most of the war overseas. After secondment to the RAF, he headed the RAAF’s office in London before a posting to Washington. At war’s end he was forcibly retired and appointed Australia’s director-general of aviation. He was knighted the year before his retirement in 1955. Sir Richard Williams, KBE, CB, DSO, died aged 89 in Melbourne on February 7, 1980, and was given a full air force funeral.

His autobiography gives the only glimpse of his frustration at his treatment at the hands of his political masters. ”There were times when I believed I was being treated inequitably,” he wrote with typical understatement, ”… not by my own ministers but by prime ministers, both Liberal and Labor …

”I wondered what had been gained by my graduation at the army and the RAF staff colleges as well as the Imperial Defence College – or indeed by obtaining a first-hand knowledge of this continent and its adjacent islands. For neither Liberal nor Labor government sought training, knowledge or experience of this sort in those appointed [RAAF] chief of staff during the war.”

Historian Alan Stephens believes that if Williams had been backed, the course of history could have been very different. ”If he’d been given full political support, by early 1942 we could have had a strong anti-maritime air force that would have made an attack by Japan totally unfeasible.”

In 2005, Williams’ Australian Flying Corps wings were carried into space on the space shuttle Discovery by Australian-born astronaut Dr Andy Thomas. Four years later, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation was launched to strengthen Australia’s national security by ”advocating the need for forward-looking policies which take full advantage of the potential for air power to shape and influence regional security”.

”These are worthy tributes to the best military strategist Australia has ever had,” Ewer says, ”but an even better one would be for us to inquire into the lack of national self-confidence that blighted our pre-war defence planning and which contributed to the awful trauma of Darwin.”

Michael Sweet is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

Dr Peter Ewer is the author of Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal (New Holland) and Storm over Kokoda (Pier 9).

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A wanted man positions himself on the frontline

Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club – Julian Assange’s pied-à-terre in London.

The wood-panelled members’ lounge of the Frontline Club is a warm and inviting space, perched above the icy streets of Paddington in west London. Two Chesterfield sofas take centre-stage in this convivial watering-hole for journalists working in, or passing through, the British capital.

Today, the lounge is busier than usual for an afternoon in early December. Camera crews from Danish, German, Italian and Swedish TV channels are preparing to interview the Frontline Club’s founding director, Vaughan Smith. Just hours earlier, Smith had made public the fact that Julian Assange had been using the club as a base, and that on Assange’s arrest, he offered Frontline as the bail address for the WikiLeaks founder. As the crews position their lights and tripods, Smith arrives. Smiling, in a dark suit, the man who was an award-winning cameraman himself, is at ease, familiar with the processes of news production that are unfolding around him. Smith speaks with the voice of a man talking from the heart, deliberately and passionately.

I begin by asking why he chose to take such a prominent stance in assisting Assange. ”I got very worried about the manner in which certain things were happening, which suggested political pressure,” says Smith. ”For example, the Swedish court case where the charges were dropped because of not enough evidence: he requests to leave Sweden, is allowed to leave, and the charges reappear. Little things aren’t right.” Reflecting on the trip he and Assange made voluntarily to Kentish Town police station the previous day (where Assange handed himself over), Smith was surprised to find a video crew inside. ”The police decided to let in a crew. It’s a bit odd isn’t it?”

Smith is perplexed by the refusal of the London court to grant bail, and what might have influenced that decision. ”I’m not a legal expert but there seemed to be a good case for bail. I saw Assange make the decision to hand himself in. He was basically saying: ‘Look, I said I was going to do it, so I must.’ And he did. He wouldn’t have done that if he was then going to run.”The practical appeal of the club to Assange and his team is clear: cosy attic bedrooms, available to club members at modest rates for central London, each with free Wi-Fi, widescreen televisions, power showers and a place for a laptop. ”It’s not an organisation that needs a head office. We went into the relationship on the basis that Assange wanted a venue for a press conference,” says Smith. ”He wanted to meet journalists in what he thought was a safe venue.” Was a deal cut to place WikiLeaks here, or to give it preferential treatment? ”No, nothing like that,” says Smith. ”It was their choice to use us as a venue. We’re a club full of journalists who like the company of interesting and well-informed people.”

With a certain irony, Smith talks about Assange’s need to keep his own communications discreet while at the club. ”He didn’t advertise where he was,” says Smith, who  believes the press ”sexed up” the notion of Assange in hiding, to Assange’s detriment. ”He was at the club for a large part of the time when people thought he was hiding out. Journalists were meeting him but still there were these stories. According to his legal counsel, the police knew where he was but didn’t call him in. He wasn’t a fugitive but he was presented as one, and that didn’t help his bail case. He was at the police station within nine hours of hearing the police wanted to speak to him.”

Smith is careful to reinforce that the club is an independent organisation with 1500 members, to which he is answerable. ”Overwhelmingly there’s been a positive response to what we’ve done. Some members would like us to take up a proactive support, but I’m not sure we can do that. We stand for transparency. We set up the club to represent our idea of independent journalism. … I am not saying that every WikiLeaks release is desirable. I’m saying that if one is able to stand back as I’ve tried to do, and think ‘could this impact the world in a good way?’ I believe it can, though I accept it may take time to see that.” I’m keen to probe deeper into Smith’s views on whether the release of the US embassy cables presents problems for citizens, who need governments to be able to conduct foreign relations behind closed doors. Does he have sympathy for that point of view?

”I do. But you can look at this in several ways. I’m not saying this is not troubling. It is in many ways. But what is also troubling is the manner in which we’ve gone into two wars [Afghanistan and Iraq]. Fundamentally I don’t believe it is a journalist’s job to hold onto information and not leak: it’s the governments’ job to do better at looking after their secrets.” How convinced is Smith that the allegations made against Assange in Sweden are politically motivated? ”I’m very suspicious. I do not believe that our country’s, and perhaps others’, legal structures are robust enough to withstand the intense pressure that we’re getting. Oddly, the leaks reveal that. If Julian Assange is made into a martyr then it’s not going to help the causes of his critics. The rule of law needs to be seen, very clearly, to work.”

As the other journalists in the room mill around beside us, Smith shares a last insight before being ushered to another interview. ”There’s a very interesting relationship between the media and Julian Assange. With WikiLeaks, Assange has effectively put up a huge, vast mirror. In it, journalists are looking at themselves, and we’re not all liking what we see. It’s a time to think about our trade. We need to have a bit of courage.”

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.