The Battle of Crete in heavenly Hania

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Sunday, April 9, 2006

Crete's second city, the sublimely named Hania, followed a similar path of development to Iraklio over the millenia. It was an important Minoan palatial town called Kydonia that was destroyed in the apocalypse of 1,450BC, and since then pretty well everyone from Hellenes and Romans to Venetians and Turks had a presence here due to Crete's very central position within the Mediterranean.

One major twist of fate for the two cities was in very recent times. Up until 1971, Hania was the capital of the island and when the Germans were looking for a strategic air base for their Mediterranean, Persian and North African theatres in WWII, Crete was their number one choice. To capture the island they had to subdue the capital so a short but destructive air, sea and land war ensued that was fought in May 1941 around Hania and the west of Crete. It was remarkably costly for both the Axis and Allies.

At first glance you would wonder why the Germans actually wanted the place - it's a rugged, sparsely vegetated lump of rock that would be difficult to do anything constructive with. As you drive along the winding northern coastal road, mile after mile of mountain range slides by to the south, and only very thin strips of relatively flat, reasonably fertile land pass by on the coast to the north. Still, an airport isn't that big so these small patches of flat ground attracted them and maybe some of the semi-barren mountain tops also featured in plans for the obligatory Nazi war lair.

Hence my main reason for deploying to Hania - to see the Battle of Crete Museum and associated War Cemetery at neighbouring Souda Bay. Of course when I arrived and had to run to the museum in full pack to make it before the 1pm closing time, where I found the gate barred and a 'Closed for Renovation' sign posted on the door. The desolation of the site evidenced that little renovation had happened for a long time leaving me frustrated and disconsolate - how could they forget an event of this magnitude after so short a time? I lugged my gear into the centre of town and found a room.

Hania itself is still said to be Crete's prettiest city and you can see why. The spring atmosphere and bay festivity perked me right up. Most of the new town is modern enough but the districts ringing the old harbour are filled with narrow laneways and old buildings that exude charm.

These parts of town were heavily bombed in the invasion so many buildings are still skeletons of their former selves, adding to character of the place and providing a lot of potential for future growth.

Deciding to make the most of it I set off to explore further and soon enough found a great little Naval Museum on the western foreshore. The ground floor provides a fascinating overview of ancient naval history throughout the Mediterranean; dozens of intricate scale models of vessels from Neolithic times, through Minoan, Greek and Roman bireme and triremes, to the massive galleons of the great age of exploration five hundred years ago. Uniforms, statues, maps and nautical gear festoon the walls in a superb display.

Upstairs is the main event however, covering the modern age of shipping and a number of rooms dedicated to all aspects of the Battle of Crete (thank goodness, I knew they couldn't have completely forgotten it). Whilst not nearly as comprehensive as the El Alamein museum back in Egypt, it was a good compromise and certainly made my day. The battle itself is a little difficult to understand, but here is a potted history from what I can gather.

Some say that the British knew of the impending invasion of Crete from cracked Enigma ciphers in early May 1941, but it wasn't until around May 20 that around 28,000 British, New Zealand and Australian troops were on the ground to support 14,000 Cretan defenders. Many of these Commonwealth troops had been withdrawn from a valiant but failed defence of mainland Greece, whilst others were hastily rushed from the Egyptian front shortly before the May 20 invasion. Apparently the Cretans had no real weapons except some ancient rifles and for the majority, pitchforks, clubs and knives, so it was a pretty unorganised land defence all around.

Hitler expected a neutral stance to be taken by the Cretans against his invasion, but wanting to secure a swift victory he sent a vanguard of crack paratroopers who were dropped over a 120km area along coastal strip from Hania to Iraklio. One thing the Allies did have was anti-aircraft capability, resulting in over 200 Luftwaffe planes being shot down. The first wave of paratroopers were annihilated due to fierce allied resistance, many before they hit the ground. However poor logistics, the terrain and subsequent waves of ground, naval and air support ensured that by May 31, most of Crete had been subjugated.

In eleven days the Allies lost 8,000 troops killed in action and then had to evacuate 15,000 troops from the south coast of Crete just before the island fell. 5,500 troops remained - the vast majority of which were taken as prisoners of war. Twenty two of the 54 vessels in the Allied Mediterranean Fleet were sunk or severely damaged in the confrontation.

Over the course of the war the Cretans and remnants of British forces continued to mount fierce guerilla campaigns from the mountains, including the abduction of a German general in 1944, all of which resulted in harsh reprisals. All up the Greeks lost 8,500 defenders and civilians, whilst the Germans lost 5,500 of their 23,000 men stationed here - many of which were crack troops which was to be a telling blow for future campaigns in Persia and North Africa.

All massive numbers for this largely forgotten episode in the greatest war mankind has known. The Axis gained a costly air base and the Allies had delayed their advance at even greater expense, so it was a pyrrhic result for both sides.

Some of the Allied dead (maybe 1-2,000) are buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay whilst the Germans lie in their own cemetery at Maleme, the site of the air field in question.

Two things surprised me greatly about the Allied cemetery, apart from the 3 kilometre walk each way with no signs to guide you. One was the number of Kiwis buried here - one third to a half of the graves were New Zealanders. However British, Australian and New Zealand ranks all suffered greatly, each losing up to a half of their contingent in dead or prisoners of war - quite a horrific casualty rate.

The other is the number of graves of Unknown Soldiers contained within. I'd estimate at least twenty percent are marked as such and it makes you wonder how so many become unidentifiable. It must take some grisly misfortune to destroy dog tags on a body but it seems to have happened with monotonous regularity in the Crete conflict. If anyone can explain this macabre detail I'd greatly appreciate an explanation, so please post a comment or send an email.

Next entry -> Volcanomania at Santorini

Where Darwin Went Wrong...

I'd almost forgotten this little blighter which I met for the first time in Azraq Oasis, Jordan.

The Ostrich is an enormous, ungainly beast that lays huge eggs and seems to do little but gawp around the place, peck at food and occasionally attack the wretched tail feathers of his gangly companions. Apparently they stick their head in the sand a lot too, but I never saw it happen.

What do they do that's useful? Well I hear that their meat is quite tasty and you could certainly make a mean omelette if one did lay an egg. I've also heard rumours that they can run extremely fast (might be confusing this with the Emu however) and that they can disembowel you with one flick of their very sharp and pointy claws.

Which is probably the one and only reason why this bizarre creature has survived through the ages. With so many things going against the Ostrich it is surprising it hasn't gone the way of the Dodo long ago.
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Dionysus on

If Crete's role in WWII interests you, there is a small privately owned museum on the road to Chora Sfakia, in a place called Askifou. It's only about 30k from Hania and it's worth seeing.

The museum was started just after the war by a twelve year old boy who collected anything left by any of the soldiers during the war. As time went by, locals who found artillery shells, rifles, tank tracks or anything really brought them to him, and although the museum gets no official funding, it's still run today by the boy's son (now probably about fifty himself), the 'bot' himself died about three years ago.

He doesn't speak English, but he will give you some written information in English about his collection, and try to tell you bits in a kind of 'pidgin' English.

It's a scruffy, but interesting collection and you will find things here that you won't see anything else.

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