Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Evacuation memorial Sfakia Crete

Leaving our beachside camping ground we set out for Volos. A few people
chose to take the ferry and run down the eastern peninsula while the rest
went along the main road towards Athens.

We passed Thermopoli where General Vasey's Australian troops held the
German assault for two days. He was just one of a long list of commanders
who had held this narrow strip between mountain and sea against invaders.

We soon arrived in what was the chaos of Athens traffic to find our way to
the only camping ground in the city. Amazingly almost everyone arrived
unscathed and the GPS was praised far and wide throughout the night.

Early next morning Lang and I went by bus and train to the Acropolis and
had seen what we wanted just in time to greet the first of hundreds of
tour buses disgorging their hordes of tourists. Around lunchtime everyone
packed up and we headed down to Piraeus, the port for Athens. We were
booked on a 2000 departure ferry arriving in Heraklion Crete at 0530 the
next morning.

Unfortunately I had to become banker after half an hour at the ticket
window trying to sort out numerous changes to ferry bookings. They would
only take cash in one lump sum (of several thousand Euros) so I set up
office in the Chevrolet cabin while people peeled of wads of money and a
few of the boys stood guard.

Eventually they allowed us on board the ANEK Lines ferry to Crete. Despite
lots of shouting and hand waving by the ship's crew we soon had all the
vehicles snugly parked in corners of the vehicle deck, surrounded by semi
trailers. A few people booked cabins while others chose aircraft style
seats. I suspect there will be quite a few more cabins booked for the
return journey!

Driving in line off the ferry at Heraklion in the early morning light,
Lang led the way to two small pinnacle hills – called "The Charlies" for
obvious reasons by Australian soldiers defending the airfield below. It
only took an hour to round up the lost vehicles at the top of the hill
after the 3km journey.

Lang gave us a talk on the successful defence of Heraklion airfield by the
allied defenders from the German Paratroops then everyone drove down into
town to do shopping, refuel etc before meeting at a prearranged point in
two hours. Lang and I had completed all this administration in Athens
before departure so we went into the ancient Venetian port and had coffee
and toasted sandwiches on the waterfront.

There had been some comments about travelling in a military style convoy
instead of our free-running system so, to prove a point, Lang made Crete a
full convoy operation. Setting out from our Heraklion meeting point we
went up the old road to the west. We chose this as the more interesting of
the two, avoiding the new coast road. There was a continuos snapping of
cameras and oohs and aahs as we wound slowly up switchback roads through
the mountains. The views of snow covered peaks and glassy blue
Mediterranean Sea we absolutely spectacular.

Despite our Chev spending much time in second gear to allow the trucks to
keep up on the steep climbs we had several waits for convoy breaks and
people were discovery it was not an easy way to travel.

3 out of the 15 vehicles arrived at the lovely beachside restaurant to
talk about Colonel Cambel's brilliant defence of the Rethimnon airstrip by
his Australian troops (not far from where we sat). The other vehicles were
"somewhere" in Crete, no doubt enjoying themselves!

We arrived at a pretty olive-grove camp site in Chania to be greeted
during the next few hours by small groups of very high spirited, if
navigationally challenged, convoy members. Piling into the smaller
vehicles we all headed into town to the 1,000 year old port to have dinner
beneath a full moon at a waterfront restaurant. A number of vehicles had
unannounced tours of the city before arriving back at camp in top form.

Next morning we set off to look at the key battlefield of the Crete
campaign, Maleme airfield. Driving along a straight road for 15km we had
as many as 50% of the convoy arriving at Hill 107. While the tail enders
joined us the others waited in the lovely German war Cemetary on top of
the hill overlooking the airfield. Lang gave us a 30 minute overview of
the New Zealanders' savage battles with German airborne troops before we
returned to the vehicles to retrace our steps east.

Arriving at Souda Bay we found the war cemetary like all other
Commonwealth War Graves around the world, wonderfully laid out and
maintained. It is here several thousand allied soldiers, sailors and
airmen, killed in the Crete campaign are buried. A few of the women had
bought flowers and these were placed on both particular graves and the
main memorial.

By this time, even the most ardent convoy supporters realised we were in
trouble. A military style convoy requires high levels of established
procedures, discipline and common sense. We had been very successful up to
this stage with free running and all agreed it was the way to go, with
individuals and small groups stopping where they wanted to get the
absolute most out of the trip.

The Chevrolet set off to travel to Sfakia on the south coast and soon we
were in winding mountain roads, the likes of which we had never seen
before. Up and down thousands of feet with the vehicle occasionaly down to
first gear. The views were absolutely without equal but we were always
aware that this was the road tens of thousands of starving troops walked
while being straffed and bombed, to get to the evacuation point.

We wound down from the mountains directly into the tiny villge port of
Sfakia. Its harbour, no bigger than a football field evacuated thousands
of soldiers over 5 nights – all rowed out to destroyers and other ships.
They had to get away before light to avoid the German bombers who strongly
attacked sinking many ships and costing the lives of 2,200 sailors on top
of the thousands of soldiers who had already died.

We soon found out it was forty kilometres over more winding road to the
expected camping site. Lang, seeing a sign on one of the small whitewashed
hotels went in and negotiated a bulk deal with Stavros for thirty people
in waterfront balconied rooms for the same cost as the camp ground. Not
only that we got free drinks and 10% off all meals.

When the mob started filtering in, saw the absolutely clear water, tiny
village with its couple of hotels and waterfront tables, all thought of
camping went out the window. My suggestion that we move on instead of the
two planned nights here put me in serious danger of lynching.

There was some small worry about vehicle security but the local policeman
said crime was non-existant in the town. Lang asked the good-looking girl
in the bakery if we could use their next-door car park and as she was
Stavros's cousin she readily agreed.

The memorial to the soldiers evacuated from the port was looking a little
sad so Lang had Stavros's second-cousin ring the mayor (Stavros's uncle)
and within minutes two fellows arrived with ladders put new ropes on the
flagpoles and pulled up Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand flags.
All the vehicles were parked alongside for photos.