The road to Koustagerako

A remote mountain village in Greece with a strong ANZAC connection

I didn’t shoot the German – I only pulled the trigger. God guided the bullet.

Crete – the big island – is full of stories. From the mythological to the modern, its past is connected to the rest of the world through literature and war.
Koustagerako is a remote mountain village, near the southern Cretan village of Sougia, a village rich in history and connected to the Anzacs. And Kostas Paterakis, now living in Doncaster, has urged me to visit his village.
As the road rises from the plain around the beautiful Venetian town of Chania, you are immediately struck by the imposing dominance of the White Mountains that stretch across this part of Western Crete.
The clouds seem to glide along their pinnacles, which reach up from the valleys and ravines below. The road winds through what the Cretans call the rizo, or foothills. The steep hills are at once almost barren rock, and then one descends into a valley with pine trees and sunlight that could be a scene from the Austrian Alps.
Of course, you need to be careful of the wildlife. While you can come across the rare Cretan Kri Kri (or wild goat), the roads can suddenly fill with the chime of bells as goats search for nourishment by the roadside.
As I enter the little village of Kambanos, my car is brought to an abrupt halt. There are cars parked everywhere and people walking slowly in their best clothes. A funeral is taking place and I have to respectfully nudge my way forward.
The surrounding hills show the signs of centuries of cultivation. With terraces cut into the bare hills, carefully utilising the little soil and water available, olive groves stretch up into the clouds.
The story of Crete is written in myth and history. From the child Zeus’ sanctuary atop Mount Ida to escape his murderous father, through to the tales of King Minos and the bull-man, the mythological and the physical are always present on Crete. Further to the East are the Minoan palaces of Knossos.
But Crete’s modern history is rich too. Whether it is resisting the attacks of pirates, the Venetian and Ottoman occupiers, each town and village has a story to tell in patriotism and vigilance. The village of Koustagerako, sitting in the shadow of the White Mountains, is famed in this story. It gave birth to Georgios Kandanoleon, the leader of the rising against the Venetian occupiers in 1527. And the villagers rose against the Ottoman Turks in 1821, playing its role in the long fight for Cretan and Greek independence.
At the beginning of my journey, passing through the orange groves of Skinnes, it is hard to envisage the horrible, lice and dysentery-ridden prisoner-of-war camp established here by the Germans for their captured Australian foes in 1941.
Over 6,500 Australians and 7,750 New Zealanders, along with British, Greek and other Allied troops, came to Crete in May 1941 to defend the island against the expected German invasion after the fall of Greece in April. This is not the place to recount the stories of Anzac and Greek camaraderie and bravery on the battlefields of Greece. But the affection the Anzacs received in mainland Greece in 1941 was a harbinger of an even greater welcome from the Cretans.
The battles in Crete are famous if ill-fated. The defences of Maleme, Rethymnon and Heraklion are well known. From time to time one reads of the brave attacks at Galatas and the Anzacs charge at Suda’s 42nd Street as well as the navy’s fight against overwhelming German air superiority.
Less know by Australians is the help and support received by Anzac soldiers who remained on the run as the campaign ended or who escaped from the appalling German prison camps on the island.
Around 1,000 Anzacs and some British soldiers were on the run in Crete after the Allied surrender. Dr Ian Frazer’s excellent book, On the Run, recounts the tales of these enterprising and brave soldiers who opted to return to the fight rather than accept defeat and surrender.
But their survival depended on the active support of Cretan civilians, as well as the Cretan resistance movement, or andartes, that grew up almost immediately following the German invasion. Many towns and villages have brave and compelling stories from this period.
I have chosen to come to Koustagerako, high in the mountains above Sougia. For the bravery of this village is legendary. The day I visit is also one when some of the relatives of the Anzacs who were aided here during the war have returned to re-dedicate the memorials of the town. One of the relatives of these Anzacs is Colleen Donohue, whose father was Private Charlie Hunter, one of the organisers of the last evacuation of Allied soldiers from Crete, at nearby Tripiti.
On 8 May, I met Carol and her husband Neil at the memorial plaque made by her family and supported by the Cretans near the village square. Late in July this year there will be a formal unveiling of this important recognition of the help of the villagers for Charlie and his comrades.
The drive up to this remote village could be described as not for the faint-hearted. The two-lane road rapidly reduces to little more than a car’s-width, with hair-pin bend following hair-pin bend. But as you rise up the valley side, the views are spectacular.
One can imagine the thousands of Allied soldiers trudging across southern Crete – mostly heading for Hora Sfakion to the east. Tired and exhausted, with their greatcoats and kit the winding uphill roads must have seemed daunting.
Yet these same roads and valleys would prove a godsend for those on the run and wanting to continue the fight. As one looks up from the road to the heights above, one can imagine how these isolated roads provide the perfect locations for ambushes – as they have done for centuries.
In this village, three Australian soldiers – Jack Simcoe and Frank Ezzy along with Charlie Hunter – were protected for many months before their evacuation from nearby Tripiti beach on the night of 7-8 May 1943, the last major evacuation from Crete. Some 52 Allied soldiers were gathered from the surrounding villages and evacuated that night. 70 years later, on 7 May 2013, Ian Frazer and documentary filmmaker John Irwin led a group of relatives of some of these evacuees at a moving unveiling of the new memorial at Tripiti to the evacuation and support of the Cretan people.
The bravery of this village, its people and its andartes in opposing the occupation and supporting the Allies would become a legend in the story of the Cretan resistance. It was the home of one of the legends of this resistance – the five Paterakis brothers.
Its support for the many Anzacs on the run in Crete is famous, the village becoming in the words of Ian Frazer “an Anzac club”. For weeks the villagers provided food and assistance to the Anzacs in the area waiting to be rescued and guided the soldiers down the steep mountain paths to the Tripiti beach. It’s famous ‘water cave’ or nerospili provided a hideout for many allied soldiers throughout 1942-43. Anzacs like Lieutenant Len Frazer, Corporal Ned Nathan, Private Charlie Hunter and the famous Kiwi Gunner and SOE Agent Dudley Perkins – better known as Kapitan Vasili – were all made welcome, no matter the risk to the villagers.
But the occupier took terrible retribution throughout Greece. Villages and towns throughout Greece were destroyed, their inhabitants murdered by German troops angered at the lack of cooperation they received across Greece.
And so with this little village. The Germans were thwarted in their attempt to kill all the women and children by the brave action of Kostas Paterakis. From high above the village square, on a rocky outcrop, at a range of 400 yards, he shot the German machine gunner about to execute the assembled female villagers – the men having escaped into the surrounding mountains. The German execution squad fled. As Neil Donohue recounted, Kostas’ son Michael has quoted his father as saying: “I didn’t shoot the German – I only pulled the trigger. God guided the bullet.”
While four women and a young girl had been shot, most escaped into the mountains, where they watched the destruction of their beloved village – along with nearby Livadas and Moni – by the Germans on 2nd October 1943. But their resistance to the invader continued until the liberation. Some of the village men were taken as forced labourers, some dying in Mathausen Concentration Camp in Austria.
Every 25th November, the villagers commemorate this resistance in the festival of Agia Ekaterini, in the beautiful church built in remembrance of the andartes and the protection afforded by St Catherine.
When I drive back through the winding mountains to Chania, I think of these brave villagers. Their story symbolises the bond that exists between Australians, New Zealanders, Crete and Greece – forged in war and commemorated in peace.