Published: May 7th 2009May 6th 2009
Wednesday 6th May
In search of Uncle Dan
The principal reason for coming to Crete was to search for some history of where my late Uncle Dan fought with the 18th Infantry,NZ Expeditionary Force in the disastarous Battle of Crete in May 1941.
My mother always spoke fondly of her brother Dan,who had a mop of auburn/ginger hair just like I used to have, and it was for her more than anything that we have made this pilgramige to Crete as it was one place she would have liked to visit had she been able.
Uncle Dan joined the army shortly after he was married in September 1940 as WW2 moved into a more involved state.Within 2 months he was on board a ship bound for more intensive training in war in Egypt.I don’t think he knew when he left NZ that his battalion would be committed to the disastarous Battle of Crete but so it was to be .His army records show that soon after he arrived in Crete he was to be killed in action in the early days of the German airborne invasion.Again,as in WW1 at ANZAC Cove NewZealanders and Australians were thrown into a battle that could
never be won against an overwhelming and more prepared opposition on foreign soil.
The battle for the island which stands in a strategic part of the Mediteranean was brief and bloody with both sides losing thousands of lives many of whom were never either found or identified.Uncle Dan was one of the unidentified bodies and he is remembered by a plaque in a cemetery in Athens which we will visit next week.
In the meantime we wanted to visit the Battle of Crete museum that is in Herkalion and so after our usual breakfast of delicious Greek yogurt and bread and tomato we walked the short distance into the old part of the city which was built behind massive walls from the time the Venetians occupied Crete.
We located the museum fairly easily after taking instructions from a shopkeeper.The museum was a little disappointing in that it contained a lot of photographs and writing in the form of letters about the Cretian and German involvement but not a lot about the army from downunder and interestingly almost nothing at all about the army(the English)who set the island up for the battle in the first place.The only person in attendance in
the one room museum was a Greek guy whose command of the English language was as poor as we have come across on this trip.So we left empty handed and frustrated by the lack of information we thought we might have been able to glean.
However a website that details the battle comprehensively may prove of more use when we get down to the area in Western Crete,near Chania,that we think Uncle Dan was killed.His war records and death certificate do not actually say where he was killed just the date which was in the midst of the most fierce fighting as the allieds tried to repel the Germans who daringly parachuted into the battle.
After the museum we walked further up the hill to the town square and took in the views back over the harbour and the wall that we could follow as it snaked its way in a circular fashion enclosing the old city.
An elderly lady offered some assistance as we were studying the town map.She obviously thought we wanted to visit the grave of a famous Cretian writer which was marked on the map and with the help of a younger woman who joined in the instructions we were directed on further along the rim of the wall to “the new gate” and to find some small stairs that would take us up on top of the wall.
As we found on our walk the massive wall had several gates that traffic flowed through between the old and new parts of town.After a small diversion we found the new gate and the steps and were soon on top of the wall which gave commanding views over the city to the port.It appeared as though the city council had at some time recently thought that a walkway with trees and flowerbeds would be a good addition to the top of the wall.But no one had ever finished it off.Perhaps they had run out of money when the Athens Olympic games had swallowed up many millions of Euros the country didn’t have.
Anyway we found the grave site neatly laid out.The famous Cretian turned out to be Nikos Tzarsanataki (?)who wrote many books including Zorba the Greek and died in 1957.Is is that long since Anthony Quinn did that famous dance???!!!
We walked on further around the wall taking in sights to the harbour and south to the mountains,some still with snow,that rise up above behind but not that far away from the city.The area along the top of the wall was the same all the way we walked,preared for planting but not finished.Off to the side and in one place below the wall was a very smart looking athletics track with stand and lush green grass in the middle.It gave the appearance of not being that well used although that may have been because summer was still to arrive here.
At a planned point we came down off the wall and walked towards what looked like the main shopping street of the old city.It was here that a French woman stopped Gretchen and asked directions to the port.In her usual well knowing style she pointed out on our map how to get to the port and the woman thanked her in French and went on her way.Perhaps,I kidded Gretchen she could get a job as tourist advisor in the city of Heraklion !!!
We stopped for a gelato ice cream which served as lunch and continued onto a church in the middle of a square just off the main street.The inside of the church was as many are in this country beautifully decorated.One of the walls where the priests do their bit from was covered in golf leaf.The high ceiling was painted in scenes from the bible and over the chairs where the parishioners sat was a huge chandelier type object.The chairs were constructed so that you sat bolt upright obviously designed so that you paid attention during the service !!
While we sat admiring the inside of the church an elderly woman who looked very local came in crossing herself as she walked.She stopped at each of several images and kissed them still crossing herself as she went.She either hadn’t been to church for sometime and was making up for it or she was a very devout parishioner. Travel certainly opens ones eyes as to how people worship.
Then it was down to the old port and alomg the seawall to the Venetian Fort a very solid structure built in 1520 to protect the city from invading forces.During the Ottoman period the city was in muslim rule and a mosque with a sole minaret was added to one corner of the fort.The minaret still stands to this day.
The walk in the sun had taken it out of us so we headed home for a coffee and a use of the internet to book our tickets for the crossing to Ireland in early June after we pick up the car.
Our hotel room has a good size balcony with chairs and table facing west so we enjoyed the warm afternoon sun supping on our €0.50 beers and planning our move for dinner.
We had seen a tavern not far from the hotel but when we got there it looked a bit dodgy so we walked on thinking there would be another close by.Not so!! And after 20 mins or so of walking we ended up back in the main square and chose one of the many sidewalk restaurants that were open.The waiter was a very friendly guy and after our meals of Moussaka and Squids he brought us with his compliments a plate of apple,kiwifruit and banana plus two shots of what he said were schanps.Gretchen approached hers with caution while I thought the best attack was down the throat in one go as the stuff had a potent smell.Fortunately it didn’t seem to have the effect we thought it might and we retraced our steps back home and to bed.