In 1989, New Zealand filmmaker John Irwin travelled to Athens and Crete to visit former Greek classmates from the London International Film School. The visit ‘to see a couple of these mates’ changed his life. On Crete, he encountered two fellow countrymen. One was a veteran of the Battle of Crete who had escaped to Egypt on a small boat while the other was the author of the book ‘Vasili, Lion of Crete’. This is about the New Zealander Dudley Perkins who fought and died while operating with Cretan partisans during the German occupation. The Battle of Crete itself lasted from 20 May to June 1 1941. It was largely a massive assault by German elite airborne forces. They were nearly defeated by an under-armed allied force comprising Greeks, Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers. Cretan civilians were also directly involved fighting the invaders.
This chance encounter 32 years ago inspired Irwin to begin exploring the post battle human stories that were largely absent from many publications. To date he has visited the island fourteen times to continue a ‘harvest of oral histories’. He often adds these to recordings he makes of Australian and New Zealand veterans in their own countries as well as gathering photographs and other material. Irwin’s first documentary, In Rich Regard, was a co-production of New Zealand television and ERT1 in 1991. It looked at the connection forged between New Zealanders and Cretans during the enemy occupation when many villagers hid ANZAC soldiers who had evaded or escaped German captivity. The story followed two New Zealand veterans who returned to the island to ‘discover whether any of the villagers who had supported them had been killed, imprisoned or suffered on their behalf.’ None had, but the German policy of conducting reprisals against anyone who assisted the allied soldiers is a key theme in Irwin’s work. Irwin met Dr Ian Frazer and began a long-term private partnership to gather material on the Battle of Crete and the occupation. Frazer’s father was an Australian officer who was hidden on the island for one year. Ian co-authored On the Run- ANZAC Escape and Evasion Stories in Enemy-Occupied Crete. While he and Irwin still work on common areas, Irwin has a separate range of projects that have followed his first documentary. Projects for the Chania Prefecture included an exhibition of New Zealand soldiers’ photographs in 2012 and a documentary on the experiences of three young sisters who experienced the intense fighting at the village of Galatas during the battle. It was screened in Chania in 2017. Irwin has also initiated projects with Kalyves and Tsikaliara schools to encourage students to document their WW2 history.
The role of women in the battle of Crete and subsequent occupation is a particular passion. Irwin remembers filming Vasiliki Sartzetakis from Kandanos in 2006. ‘She started singing… she was crying. She was really expressing deep sorrow at tragic events.’ This recording is part of 30 hours of recordings that Irwin plans to draw on for his current project Out of their Hands – the Women of Crete 1941-1945.
Locating potential interviewees in Greece, Crete, Australia and New Zealand relies on building connections. With very few living participants, it is urgent work. But ‘these people are so grateful for your interest in their stories and want them recorded.’ Some simply need a camera and microphone to be placed in front of them. Irwin has found that Cretan women generally need no encouragement to provide ‘whole page answers.’ They are also less inclined to ’embellish and exaggerate’ as male Cretan males sometimes do.
Mr Irwin has expanded his work recently. In 2019, with historian Jim Claven, he produced the short documentary ‘Honouring George Devine Treloar’ for Litsa Athanasiadis of Pontiaki Estia. Treloar was an Australian army officer who led a humanitarian mission for Pontian and other Asia Minor refugees during the early 1920s. He has just finished a ‘A Lot of Time for the Greek’, a documentary for schools with author and historian Dr Peter Ewer. Using Dr Ewer’s extensive archive of recordings of WW2 veterans, the film tells the story of Australian soldiers experiences of the Greek Campaign and the Battle of Crete. As this year marks the 80th anniversary of those campaigns, it is a timely project. The Cretan Federation of Australian and New Zealand, under President Tony Tsourdalakis, sponsored the funding submission to the Victorian department of Premier and Cabinet.
A commitment to honouring and commemorating the WW2 ANZAC Greece relationship and keeping the stories alive underpins the work of Irwin and Frazer. Irwin also collaborates with Jim Claven and the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee and has recorded several of their memorial plaque dedications on mainland Greece. In 2013 Ian Frazer and Irwin organized the dedication of a plaque commemorating the final official evacuation in May 1943, at Tripoli on Crete’s south coast. The plaque pays tribute to the Cretan villagers who supported the 29 ANZACS and 20 other nationalities on the run for two years.
Financing film projects is an ongoing challenge. Small government and community grants and some private sponsorship helps but producing authentic, historically accurate and professional documentaries, requires the appropriate funding and specialist technical expertise. Greek to English translation of interviews is an essential but costly and time-consuming part of the process. But for Irwin, the struggle is worth it and harvesting stories and experiencing the culture, history and landscape of Crete is the best life he can imagine.
Dr Martyn Brown is an Honorary Research Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.