A Cretan mystery revealed

The identification of two wrecks in western Crete sheds new light on a vital chapter of the ANZAC story during the 1941 Greek campaign

It’s nearing the end of the tourist season in Phalasarna. The handful of beach restaurants that cater for the day-trippers will be shutting up shop soon and this sleepy, isolated village will revert to its main occupation – an agricultural outpost in a far-flung corner of north west Crete.
As you approach the town from high ground to the south, vast rows of tented greenhouses stretch out below as far as the eye can see. This is a fertile place and not just for the fruits of the earth.
Beneath its surface, Phalasarna has for millenia held its secrets close. Dating back to Minoan and Phoenician times it was an important city-state and maritime centre. The Romans destroyed it in 67 BC and only in the 19th century was it rediscovered.
Sydney archaeologist Dr Michael Bendon first visited Phalasarna four years ago, working with the celebrated Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki who first excavated its ancient port.
Classical archaeology under the Cretan sun is hot and dusty work, and it was while taking a cooling swim in shallows nearby that Bendon first came across relics of a more recent kind. Locals said that it was a wreck from WWII but seemingly knew little else.
“Just below the surface was the remains of a huge vessel, over 50 metres long. People thought it was just a heap of old rubbish,” says Bendon.
Intrigued and eager to find out more, he was introduced to 93-year-old Giorgos Katzouraki – a Phalasarna resident since childhood. Katzourakis’ memories began to put the first pieces of a remarkable puzzle in place.
In late May 1941 the Battle of Crete was lost. Exhausted Allied troops, harried by German ground forces and the Luftwaffe, were attempting to make their way south in the hope of evacuation. In Phalasarna probably on the night of May 30th, two ships arrived under cover of darkness.
Giorgos Katzourakis remembered the night well. ”We didn’t know what they were. Were they German? Were they English?” he told Bendon nearly seventy years later.
As daylight broke that May morning, German planes searching for Allied forces on the run spotted the two ships. One headed to open water in an attempt to split the attacking Stukas. The other stayed put.
”The bomb falls on top of the boat and it catches fire,” said Katzourakis, who recalled seeing soldiers and crew of the ship that had moored close to land, disembark before it was hit.
Asked if those passengers included Australians, Katzourakis was admanant. “Yes,” Katzourakis said. ”Australians came through.”
Katzourakis then told Dr Bendon that shortly after the ship was struck, he saw smoke rising at sea to the north, the direction which the second vessel had taken. It sounded as if it too had met its fate at the hands of the German bombers.
After hearing Giorgos Katzourakis’ revelations, the Sydney archaeologist used every spare moment at Phalarnasa to carefully record the remains of the submerged vessel close to the ancient harbour site, taking photographs and measuring its dimensions.
He returned to Crete to resume his self-funded research in the spring of 2009, and was able to locate the exact position of the second wreck – the ship that had headed north, which lay at a depth of 20 metres. The following year Bendon was able to dive the site and begin to make detailed measurements.
Meanwhile, he continued his research on land and online. He poured over internet forums, read-up on the Battle of Crete – obsessively searching for a clue to the identity of the two wrecks.
He scoured official records in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, searching for something – anything, to reveal what exactly the two craft were, and why their days had ended at Phalasarna.
Then the breakthrough came. In 2010 he was sifting through archives in Kew, London when he came across a vital reference in a 1948 edition of the London Gazette:
”Nothing is known of the fate of … landing craft tank A6 and A20 [in the Middle East],” it said. ”It is presumed that they were sunk by enemy air action on passage.”
Finally he had identified two possible vessels. Armed with the names, he compared their dimensions (detailed in their original engineering plans which he found in the archives of Glasgow University, to the measurements he had taken in the waters of Phalasarna.
They matched. Now he could piece together their remarkable stories.
Beside the ancient harbour at Phalasarna are the remains of Allied LCT (Landing Craft Tank) A6, and to its north in deeper water, rests the rusting hulk of LCT A20 – two ships that symbolise some of the most poignant and dramatic events in the doomed Greek campaign of WWII.
Identification of the vessels enabled Bendon to locate their war records, crew and deployments. By piecing together extracts from veterans’ diaries alongside official records, the remarkable adventures of the A6 and A20 could finally begin to be told.
“The connection of these vessels to Anzac history is astounding,” he says. “Thousands of Australian and New Zealand lives were saved because of the sheer load of men these vessels could carry.”
By late April 1941, the Allied campaign on mainland Greece had turned into a rout. British and Commonwealth troops up against Hitler’s elite Panzer divisions, without air cover, had been outgunned and out-fought.
All that remained was to evacuate as many as possible from the mainland by ship; most to Crete, to be used in the island’s woefully prepared defences, and the more fortunate to safety in North Africa.
With the Luftwaffe having destroyed the major mainland ports, embarkation from smaller coastal villages and beaches was the only hope.
On the night of April 25-26, LCT A6 dropped its ramp on the beach of Megara, not far from Corinth, to embark hundreds of Australian and Kiwi troops who just days before had been attempting to hold the Thermopylae Line in northern Greece.
“The A6, built to carry less than 400 passengers would have had around 900 soldiers on board that night and then it got them to Souda Bay in Crete,” says Bendon. In total, some 30,000 Allied troops were taken off the mainland in April and early May 1941. Many in vessels like the A6.
As the ANZACS disembarked at Souda Bay, the A6 would have moored close to LCT A20 which had suffered engine problems and had not taken part in the evacuation from the mainland.
Meanwhile, the Allies prepared for the invasion of Crete itself, which they knew was only days away. On May 20 1941, the Battle of Crete began and within 48 hours had effectively been lost.
Despite heroic resistance, six days into the battle the Allies were in retreat, funnelling south to the south coast for another desperate evacuation.
With Souda Bay likely to fall to the Germans at any moment, on May 28, remaining shipping was ordered to leave the bay and make for Sfakia. The LCTs A6 and A20 were two of the last to leave the stricken naval base.
As they headed west, records show that the A6 picked up dozens of stranded New Zealanders, and almost certainly Australian troops separated from their units.
“They would tie-up during the day, put camouflage nets over, and only move at night,” says Bendon, who located a member of the Royal Navy crew of the A6 – Lieutenant John Sutton, still alive in the UK.
“From what I’ve found out, both vessels were likely to have been bombed on May 30th 1941, and the A20 almost certainly made a run for it.”
“I want to close a chapter in Australian history,” Dr Bendon told Neos Kosmos this week.
“My research has been photographic and diagramatic recording. There’s been no excavation and no disturbance, but over the years I’ve noted a great deal of deterioration at the sites and it’s not all due to natural pressures.
“I want to look at ways to protect these wrecks. We’ve also located a Stuka buried in the sand. There’s so much more around there that I haven’t been able to get to. The puzzle’s not complete just yet.”
Michael Bendon would like to hear from veterans of the 1941 Greek campaign or members of their families who may have knowledge of the A6 and A20 and similar vessels used in Greece in 1941. Dr Bendon can be contacted at cheersmichael@hotmail.com