On the night of 7 May 1943, fifty-one British and Anzac soldiers gathered above Tripiti Gorge, a remote and uninhabited corner of western Crete, for a rescue that was two years overdue. As they made their way in the darkness from Nerospili cave above the beach to the water’s edge, they quietly bade farewell to their friends – the Cretans who had fed and sheltered them for so long.
There would have been handshakes, powerful embraces, and probably tears. It was the last chapter of a remarkable story; the Cretan people’s courageous efforts to protect Allied soldiers on the run. Seventy years later, that last evacuation is being marked for the first time. The commemoration will take place next week with the unveiling of a bronze plaque at the entrance to the gorge, still as wild and windswept today as it was in 1943, and at villages which gave the soldiers sanctuary.
Around 30 direct descendants of the soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK are due to be present at the gorge ceremony. They will include the daughters of two of the 15 Diggers who left Crete that fateful night – Privates Charlie Hunter and Jack Simcoe.
Children of the 14 Kiwis taken off will be there too, joining local families and dignitaries for the memorial’s commemoration. The plaque – with a Greek and English inscription telling of the historic events of 7 May 1943 – will sit on a stone plinth at the mouth of the gorge made by Sougia’s Yiorgo Gentikakis – otherwise known as ‘Captain George’. As the Greek flag is pulled away to reveal the bronze at midday on Tuesday, another rich layer in the story of the Anzacs and Crete will be marked for future generations.
The Battle of Crete which ended on 1 June 1941 saw more than 5000 Anzac troops left behind after their courageous stand against the invading German forces. Most faced immediate imprisonment, but around 1000 soldiers went ‘on the run’, either evading capture, or escaping later from makeshift POW camps.
Some 450 made it off the island – either through incredible individual journeys, or – in the majority of cases – by evacuations organised by the Royal Navy who spirited them off to the coast of North Africa. Most were picked up by ships or submarine from Crete’s southern coast within a year of the island’s fall, with Preveli being the most famous evacuation point. But for a small band of men, deliverance from Nazi occupied Crete had to wait. And wait they did, witnessing two long summers and winters, until May 1943. Almost two years after the last shots in the Battle of Crete had been fired, finally, they had escaped.
That so many soldiers stayed on Crete for so long and how they survived is one of WWII’s great adventure stories. By the time the last evacuees made it to the Allied HQ for the Middle East in Cairo, the battle for Crete was history, but as the island’s resistance against the Germans continued, secrecy about their experiences was paramount. But the soldiers never forgot, and neither did their Cretan saviours. All through their ordeal, the troops owed their safety to Cretan families – who at great risk to themselves – ensured their well-being right up until that last fateful moonless night, when they waded out to the waiting Royal Navy motor launch.
The Tripiti project’s organisers – historian Dr Ian Frazer and film maker John Irwin – who have travelled from New Zealand to Crete to co-ordinate the anniversary events – told Neos Kosmos that the commemoration is as much about the sacrifices made by those who helped the soldiers, as it is about the perseverance and endurance of the fugitives they protected.
“Remembering Tripiti is an important opportunity to pay tribute to all who took part,” said Dr Frazer.
“There were those who tried to get off the island and failed, those who were successful, and those who had to wait longest to get away.
“By doing this we hope their stories of two years of endurance and evasion, and the stories of those who sheltered and protected them, will be better understood.”
John Irwin, who is making a documentary on the part played by Cretan women during the island’s occupation, said the anniversary “represents the first formal expression of gratitude to the people of Crete from the families of the Tripiti evacuees, on behalf of all escapers and evaders and all Australians and New Zealanders”.
Memorial services between May 4 and May 8 commemorating the evacuation will also take place at Kousteryerako and other Selinou district villages which were involved in preparations for the escape.