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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 23 May 2015
14 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 23 MAY 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Crete from an Anzac An Australian-born Greek delves into the mesmerising beauties and mysteries of Crete BILLY COTSIS Crete can elicit different emotions for different people. To the Greeks, it's a symbol of uprisings and an indomitable spirit; to the Ottomans, a thorn in their side; to the Venetians, the jewel of their Mediterranean empire; and to the Germans, an almost impenetrable fortress. To the Australians and the New Zealanders, it is a place of remembrance and camaraderie. FRIDAY ARRIVAL Upon arrival in Heraklion, I was greeted by an array of taxi drivers who mistook me for a Cypriot, probably due to my entrepreneurial 'good looks'. I shared a taxi with a foreign woman who spoke Greek but had little experience of the Cretan dialect. "Are you a foreigner?" she asked the driver, who gave her a puzzled look. She continued, "your Greek sounds broken." After swearing in his ‘broken Greek’, the driver carefully explained that Crete is not Athens, "our life, the people and the culture is different here". Indeed, like most of Greece outside Athens, there is always a degree of difference. However, in Crete it is particularly noticeable. I had always wanted to see Crete, and whilst Heraklion is not the place I would recommend to a first-time visitor, it was my introduction to something I will never forget. There is a certain warmth in the people that greets the visitor in this city, which is near the Palace of Knossos and the mythical Minotaur. At the hotel, upon being asked what part of Cyprus I was from by the reception staff, I duly produced my Aussie passport and was met with a glowing response. "Ah, you are from Australia, why didn't you say so? We can offer you a discounted rate on your room." TAKING IN THE LOCAL SIGHTS The next day I met up with my koumbaro (best man) George Manetakis, whose father is from Crete. Within five minutes we had hired a car and made our way to the first beach full of beach bars that we could find. As a ritual I normally visit the newsstand to buy tsigara and a newspaper. Something caught my eye that I had noticed in Heraklion. The shop was full of books on the Battle of Crete. Everywhere I turned they seemed to be selling books either by the famous author, Nikos Kazantzakis, or this important battle. At the counter I was once again asked about Cyprus, to which I once again replied I was from Australia. The man at the counter beamed with pride as he mumbled something about the Battle of Crete. It seemed as though I was struggling to understand his Greek, and as George was just about to interpret, it dawned on me that in 1941, Australians, along with other British Dominion troops and Greek soldiers, fought the Germans in a landmark battle, a battle which nearly turned the course of the war. CHANGING THE COURSE OF HISTORY The Battle of Crete and the battle for Greece which began with Mussolini's defeat by Greek forces in late 1940 arguably changed the course of the war, and confounded allied war strategists who had all but given up on Greece. Indeed, the actions of the Greeks led Winston Churchill to declare to the UK parliament, "Greeks do not fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks", in reference to the fact that Hellenic forces held out the Italians and Germans over the colder months of 1940-1941. Whilst most of continental Europe was occupied by the Nazis, the Greek forces fought bravely, despite being outnumbered and fighting with weapons from a bygone era. Hitler had to delay his Russian offensive to deal with the Greeks, and in the process gave precious time to Stalin to twist the fortunes of war to his advantage by preparing for battle during the following year's brutal winter months. By May 1941, mainland Greece was overrun by the Germans, and they needed only two weeks to secure their stranglehold over Crete. The invasion, which was launched on May 20, was no cakewalk, however, for the German casualties were far greater than those of the Allies. Incoming airborne paratroopers were gunned down by waiting Allies and the local population. The first day's battle was intense and German casualties so high that Hitler became reluctant to use paratroopers to invade enemy territories thereafter. Had the Allied Commander, General Freyburg of New Zealand, launched a counter attack on day two of the battle, the Germans (according to historian Antony Beevor) would have been defeated. History tells us that poor leadership ensured that this did not happen and Crete would ultimately be lost, but not without the heroics of Allied troops and the local population. AUSTRALIAN FORCES The Aussies were represented by the Australian 19th Brigade Group and the Artillery Battery unit. Almost 40 per cent of Australian troops that fought across Greece during 1940-1941 were either killed or taken prisoner. Prime Minister Robert Menzies had said that the fight in Greece and Crete "was a great risk in a good cause". Throughout the battle and the subsequent resistance, Cretans were ferocious in the defence of their island, displaying a sense of patriotism that has always been the hallmark of Crete throughout their history. A case in point is their 21-year resistance against the Ottomans, which ended in 1669, as well as resistance to Arab and Venetian invaders during medieval times. The Australians and the Kiwis earned undying praise for their tenacity and courage. When the Royal Navy pulled out as many of the Allies from Crete as it could on May 30 and 31, hundreds of Australians were left behind, and in true Anzac Australia and New Zealand students honour fallen Anzacs of the Battle of Crete in Souda. PHOTO: WWW.DET.WA.EDU.AU Commonwealth war graves at Souda Bay, Crete.
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