Can I now say welcome to our veterans…welcome…welcome…welcome and thank you for being here.
To our Greek and Cretan friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Today – the 20th May 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the German airborne invasion of Crete.
It was an invasion unlike any other in history.
It was the day the Germans swooped from the sky in their thousands – in military history’s first aerial invasion.
An allied commander at the time described it as:
“A spectacle that might have belonged to a war between the planets. Out of the unswerving flying fleet came tumbling lines of little dolls, sprouting silken mushrooms that stayed and steadied them, and lowered them in ordered ranks into our consuming fire. And still they came, till all the fantastic sky before us was filled with futuristic snowflakes floating beneath the low black thundercloud of the processional planes – occasionally flashing into fire as if struck by lightning from the earth. [Quote from Ralph Honner, company commander with 2/11th Battalion from his vantage point under the olive trees east of Retimo].
It was the day the Second World War came to Crete to fight over 11 days in what became an epic struggle.
The German commander General Kurt Student wanted to prove to Nazi command that an airborne invasion could be successful and devastating.
The Allies had just been defeated in Greece, they were battle weary and many had left their equipment behind.
Major –General Bernard Freyburg, commander of the NZ Division and newly appointed commander of the Garrison wrote:
“It was not unusual to find that men had no arms or equipment, no plates, knives forks or spoons, they drank from bully beef or cigarette tins. There was no transport and not tools for most of the Battalions.”
Most were intent on the simple necessities of food and sleep.
For Australians and New Zealanders and their UK counterparts, Crete would be a battle against military privation as well as against the Germans.
A primitive and unreliable communication network and a shortage of heavy weapons, and trained personnel would also work against them.
Poorly-armed and with minimal or no air or naval support, the soldiers faced an enemy fresh from victories across Europe.
The German paratroopers– were highly trained and highly motivated.
Many of the Allies were battle-hardened and expert in infantry – and so the Germans met a gritty and resolute Allied force, determined to repel the airborne assault.
For ten days the paratroopers, and the elite mountain troops that were sent to reinforce them were hunted by the Australian, New Zealand, British, and Greek soldiers.
Fighting was savage and bloody and local Cretans joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand.
In some cases, civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and many German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island.
This was the first occasion in the war that the Germans encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population.
Men fought to the death in solitary duels or major engagements; their bodies cluttered the narrow streets of the towns or lay among the olive trees and creek beds of the countryside.
A field ambulance officer later recalled:
"A sickly, sweet smell drifted through the area getting stronger until one could taste it in the mouth. The smell was of the dead. I can still taste it. Once it is with you, you never forget it!"
Australian ships played a significant role in thwarting replenishment missions to assist the German forces and safeguarding the sea approaches.
But it was not enough….
German reinforcements were swift and numerous.
Within days, an Allied retreat was ordered and only Rethymno – with which communication was broken—was still an Allied stronghold.
Battle of Rethymno
Although they were out of communication and nearly out of food and ammunition the Australians were determined to deny the town’s vital airstrip from the invading Germans forces.
The 2/1st Battalion at Rethymno, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell, and 2/11th led by Lieutenant Colonel Ray Sandover, held its ground for 9 days from 20 May.
On 29 May due to the failure of communications, two Australian battalions failed to receive the order to evacuate and strong German advances forced them to surrender or chance escape.
Many took the latter option.
Allied soldiers only survived due to the assistance and compassion of the Cretan people – who risked death to do so.
I now want the chance to recall a story from one of our veterans, Norm Maddock OAM from Melbourne.
Norm Maddock was with the 2/7th Battalion and they were captured by the Germans. He was in a compound. He broke out of that compound and he along with 20 of his comrades stole a barge.
They got on that barge thinking they’d be in Alexandria the next day. They filled it with stolen fuel but unfortunately the fuel was the wrong fuel.
They drifted for 9 days, only 11 survived until north Africa.
They landed in Bug Bug in north Africa where they were found by 7th armoured Division of the United Kingdom Army.
This is one of many stories that we are getting from our veterans.
What Norm has told me was that he would not have survived… he would not have survived… had it not been for the people of Crete.
Hence the story which is told a number of times by veterans….they know when they were harboured by the Cretan and Greek community….,civilians lives were in very great danger.
Civilians were prepared to put their lives on the line so that our allied men could survive.
For that we give them thanks.
We collectively will never be able to repay that debt.
We need to remind ourselves that of the Allied British forces here, 797 were killed in action, 263 were wounded, 6,576 were POWS.
Of the Australians 274 were killed in action, 507 were wounded and 3,102 were takes as POWS.
Of our New Zealand comrades 271 were killed in action, 967 were wounded, and 2,108 were POWS.
This is an extraordinary sacrifice.
It parlours in significance when you contemplate the sacrifice made by the people of Crete and Greece, where almost 500,000 people died as a result of the war.
We are here to pay homage to the sacrifices that our soldiers made as part of our national story.
We are here to thank them for their contribution to our nation’s security.
We also want to acknowledge our allied brothers, and for the work they did for us to secure us, but most importantly we want to thank the people of Crete.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Minister Snowdon: Alice Plate 0400 045 999
Department of Veterans’ Affairs Media: 02 6289 6203