Revealing Rethymno’s sacred Anzac ground

New research is shedding light on Crete’s ‘Australian battlefield’

It’s been a wet spring so far, and the waterlogged earth to the east of Rethymno town is soft underfoot. I’m with Dimitris Skartsilakis, the young owner of a local bakery business. Dimitris has taken an hour away from work to show me something, something important.

Close to the beach, north of the coast road to Platanias, we pick our way across a piece of scruffy open land, sandwiched between the nondescript apartment blocks and rent rooms that litter this part of the coastal strip. An earth mover lies silent beside the foundations of a new building, a few bushes, a smattering of bamboos, but there’s little else to see on the ground we’re walking, save the wild grasses clinging for life in the sandy red soil.

German paratroops dropping east of Rethymno on 20th May 1941. Photo: © D.Skartsilakis collection.

“Look out for shell-casings,” he says as we stop to get our bearings. “This is where the front line was. The German paratroops were over there.” He points to a line of houses perhaps 30 metres away, “and the Australians, there.” He gestures in the opposite direction, directly east, to the low ridge of a dried-up river bed 50 metres away. The diggers used to call these ditches ‘wadis’, an arabic expression they brought to Crete from their time in Libya.

“And so the weapon was relayed, man after man falling, until it had almost reached the well in the hands of the last runner. But he too was hit. As he went down, he knelt over the gun, guarding it, even in death.”

On 27 May 1941 this was the north west edge of the Australian positions, as Colonel Ian Campbell, the young Aussie commander clung to his mission: to defend Rethymno and its aerodrome come what may. The airstrip, not much more than a flat field running east-west parallel to the shore, was overlooked by high ground at its eastern edge.

When the German paratroops swung down from the sky on the afternoon of 20 May, the Australians, supported by Greek army units, had fought tenaciously, holding the Germans east and west of the airfield. Seven days later, with their communications cut, little food and no hope of reinforcement, Campbell’s men were on their own. But they were still taking the fight to the enemy.

Every day of the battle for Crete would be fateful in its own way, but May 27 has a special significance. On that day, the commander of Allied forces in Crete, Bernard Freyberg, received confirmation to proceed with the evacuation and the outgunned Allied troops in the west could begin their slog over the White Mountains to Chora Sfakia; near Souda, defiant Australian and Kiwi troops launched their last and legendary counter-attack at 42nd Street; and at Rethymno, one desperate, tragic action – by one Australian platoon, would become synonymous with the Anzac story in Crete – an example of heroism as poignant as any in the pantheon of Anzac history.

Australians captured during the battle of Rethymno leave the battlefield. Photo: © D.Skartsilakis collection.

On the morning of 27 May, near the seaside village of Perivolia, just east of Rethymno, infantry of the Australian 2/11th Battalion were lined up in a wadi opposite the German line. There was a problem: Their commander, Ralph Honner, was told a platoon was missing, presumed to have gone beyond the German line. A rescue was needed. But before an attack to break through the German positions could have any chance of success, covering fire would be needed from a position in the the ground in front of the Australians.

Honner turned to Corporal Tom Willoughby, and eight members of his platoon to do the job. All from Western Australia, Willoughby and his men were given the task of getting a Bren gun to a well some 50 metres forward of the Australian line. Thirty metres further beyond that, dug in, were the Germans.

On the signal, with the rest of the company firing from the ditch, Willoughby charged. The German paratroops opened up with withering machine gun fire. Willoughby had covered more than half the ground to the well before he fell. Then the Bren gunner went down. The next man, picked up the gun, carried it a few more paces, until he was cut down. And so the weapon was relayed, man after man falling, until it had almost reached the well in the hands of the last runner. But he too was hit. As he went down, he knelt over the gun, guarding it, even in death.

When this desperate action came to its awful conclusion, the planned attack was called off. Shortly after, Honner found out that the missing platoon was safe.

German paratroops landing on Crete in May 1941.

Along with Tom Willoughby, the men who fell that morning, were Arthur Dowsett, age 24, a farmer and outstanding race cyclist from Wandering; Charles Brown, age 36, a builder from Perth; Colin Elvy, age 24, a farm labourer from Narlingup; Francis Green, age 33, a miner from north Perth; George McDermid, age 27, a fireman from East Fremantle; Ron White, age 29, from Pinjarra; and John Fraser, a plasterer, age 19.

This achingly sad story is of course one of many actions, by Australian, New Zealand, British and Greek troops – and Cretan civilians – during the battle of Crete, where conspicuous bravery was common, often ending in the ultimate sacrifice. But there is something about the Willoughby platoon narrative that resonates powerfully.

I’ve been looking for the site of the well for nearly a decade. It’s how I met Dimitris; we share a passion for the story. In Crete you don’t need to look far to unearth bullets and other small relics. Scratch the surface (literally) and they’re there, resting and rusting where the major actions were fought. But to calculate accurately one small location of significance, such as the well, is serious battlefield archaeology. It takes time, often money, and perseverance.

Skartsilakis started collecting Battle of Crete memorabilia as a child, inspired by his grandmother’s stories of the Battle and the Resistance. Today his collection of 8000 photographs of the conflict is one of the largest in the world. He’s spent thousands of euros in the process, much of it on photograph albums of German army veterans who fought in the Battle of Crete.

We walk on further, across the scrub. An ancient stone wall, almost sunken into the ground is to our left. Dimitris gestures to a low stone enclosure, less than a metre high, its four walls less than half a metre thick. “This was a water cistern,” he says. And there, a couple of metres away on the beach side, mostly hidden by overgrown weeds, is a dark circular opening in the ground.

“This is the well of the Willoughby story,” he adds. “I’m 1000 per cent sure.” We stand in silence for a few seconds. It feels longer. It’s always an emotional, humbling experience to think one is in the exact spot where such an action took place. But it’s only later, when Dimitris shows me his photographs of the Rethymno battle at what appears the same area, taken by a German paratrooper, and tells me about the intense cross-referencing he’s done with the official war records, including original maps from unit diaries, (in Australia and Germany), that I understand what makes him so sure.

In one a broken-down Matilda tank, in another a crashed German Junkers 52, German paratroops dug in along their forward line, and nearby, a low stone water cistern. All pieces of the battlefield that faced the men of the 2/11th Battalion on the morning of the 27th May 1941.

Dimitris is planning a book of his research on the battle of Rethymno. His 2016 exhibition The Battle of Rethymno – Unknown Photographic Evidence that ran during the Battle of Crete 75th anniversary events is the only occasion the images have been seen in public. Displayed with remarkable 3D graphics of the battle site produced by Nikos Valasiadis, no project has provided greater insight into ‘the Australian battlefield’ in Crete.

The book, with updated research, and his latest findings on the Willoughby story (initially to be produced only in Greek) will be even more potent. There are plans to ensure the location is safeguarded and the site marked. If this is the ground where those young men fell, then this is surely a corner of a foreign field that is forever Australia.