As the plane turns in its approach Chania’s airport the view from the left side window reveals a stretch of water that is forever marked by the events that took place here. Souda Bay was the arrival point in April 1941 for some 8,500 Australian troops extracted from the mainland as the German occupation of Greece advanced.
German records put the number of civilians executed by firing squad as 3,474, and at least a further 1,000 killed in massacres in late 1944. Cretan sources put the actual numbers as much higher.
All but 2500 were on the island when the invasion began on May 20, 1941.
Today the road from the airport takes you down its northern edge.
Look out for a left hand turn, signposted to the Allied War Cemetery, for here is the resting place of 1,527 British and Commonwealth service personnel who gave their lives during the Battle of Crete; 197 are Australian and 447 are New Zealanders.
The fallen lie beside the fateful shore where they first disembarked.
Like all cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the white headstones stand in serried ranks upon a green grass lawn, stretching back, to a vanishing point in the distance.
To walk the lines, or just sit awhile and contemplate, is a melancholy and moving experience, to honour their sacrifice, to thank them.
Drive the national road west past Chania, take the exit to Tavronitis, and you will reach Maleme.
Above on the high ground, known as Hill 107, was where allied troops desperately shelled the Maleme airfield as the German forces advanced.
Many of the German troops remain here. On the first day alone 1,856 were killed.
The carefully tended German war cemetery that looks out across the airfield is the last resting place of 4,465 of the estimated 6,500 Germans killed in the Battle for Crete, and during the island’s occupation.
The airfield and surrounding ground at Maleme is perhaps the most haunting of the Battle for Crete sites.
It was here that the first German paratroopers and glider borne forces began the invasion in the early morning of May 20, 1941.
And it was here that some of the cruelest fighting took place, as the Germans, wrestled the airfield from its defenders, mostly Anzac troops.
Maleme’s tranquility today belies the carnage and brutality that took place upon and around it.
To the west of the strip which is still intact and used by the Greek airforce, near the new coast road bridge, lies the old iron bridge across the Tavronitis river where many of the first German gliders came to rest.
Long disused, the bridge is still there, its stone columns pock-marked with bullet holes, its iron work still bearing the violent scars of heavy gun fire.
With the Maleme airstrip lost, reinforcements quickly bolstered the German advance and the allies were compelled to retreat, with units engaged in heroic rear guard actions in the days after. None more so than that which took place at 42nd Street.
It’s not far, through the tatty outer reaches of Chania and west of Souda, to a nondescript lane running south-east for not much more than a kilometre. Today it’s called Tsivalarion. In May 1941 it was known as 42nd Street to the diggers.
Here, as German forces pushed towards Souda Bay on the seventh day of the battle, Australian and Maori forces undertook a ferocious bayonet charge that pushed back the German advance and bought precious time for the allied troops in their desperate withdrawal south.
Take the E75 national road in the direction of Rethymno and you cross the ground where the largest concentration of Australian forces defended a 50km line from Georgopouli and the beaches of Almiros Bay in the west, to beyond the Rethymno airfield in the east.
For the ten days that the Battle of Crete raged, Australian and Greek forces defended their positions and counter attacked, with most of the actions taking place in defence of the airfield between Perivolia and Stavrommenos.
Overpowered and outflanked, and unable to join the evacuating forces heading to Sfakia, commanders had finally to offer their troops two options – head for the hills, or surrender.
On the night of May 29 troops took turns on the beach flashing the morse letter ‘A’ seawards in case Royal Navy ships might be on hand to save them, to no avail.
Most of the Australian forces in this sector surrendered on May 30 1941, although over 50 officers and soldiers eventually escaped to Egypt by submarine after months in the mountains.
At the same time as the Germans were besieging Rethymno and further east, where an Australian battalion fought in defence of Heraklion, in the west the invaders pushed the British Commonwealth and Hellenic forces steadily southward.
At the village of Stilos, Australian and New Zealand forces held off a German mountain battalion while the allies funneled towards Vrysses.
Today in Vrysses’ town centre, the sun paints a dappled light through towering plane trees to the river below, and it was in the shade of these same trees, thousands of allied troops passed, heading up the single winding road that leads south over the mountains to Sfakia.
As you look up the road today, you can almost see them still, footsore, thirsty, defeated and desperate.
The road to Sfakia, 43 kilometres beyond, crosses the Lefka Ori and then plummets to the coast.
Over four nights in the last days of May 1941, 16,000 troops were evacuated from Sfakia to Egypt, leaving 5,000 behind.
Some 500 chose to go it alone, and with the help of the Cretan resistance, avoided capture for years.
On June 1st the allied surrender was taken by the Germans at Komitades, just above Sfakia.
From that point on, with allied help the Cretan resistance took the fight to the occupying forces.
German records put the number of civilians executed by firing squad as 3,474, and at least a further 1,000 killed in massacres in late 1944.
Cretan sources put the actual numbers as much higher.
These appalling figures tell another heart-wrenching story of the war in Crete.
Like all locations that have experienced great heroism, courage and sacrifice, the vibrations of those events remain.
Sixty eight years ago Anzacs, British and Hellenic forces, with the people of Crete, fought against a ruthless aggressor. The tell-tale signs of that heroic story are still there for all to find.
Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Greece, Crete and Syria – Gavin Long
Crete – Battle ground Mediterranean. The Airborne Invasion 1941 – Tim Saunders.
Crete – The Battle and the Resistance – Antony Beevor.