The Anzac story of the church at Imbros

A new and important location reminding us of Anzac courage and humanity is revealed in the story of the Battle of Crete

Perched on the southern edge of the Askyfou Plain, the village of Imbros is the last hamlet you pass, before the road dives down the rugged mountainside to Chora Sfakion. Famous for its gorge, it’s a location that is etched into the story of the Battle of Crete. It was through Imbros in the last days of May 1941 that some 20,000 Allied troops trudged, defeated and exhausted, in the hope of evacuation from Sfakia.

Today, this sleepy village comprises a handful of tavernas and kafeneio, reliant on the hikers who come to tread the same stony route to the coast that the soldiers used 81 years ago. Before you enter Imbros from the plain, the road winds through a narrow valley, before the landscape opens, and on the left below the road, a small church is nestled in the bend.

I know this road well, as do most researchers of the Battle of Crete. Over the past 30 years, I’ve driven it more times than I can count, and passed the church, oblivious to its Anzac connection. That is until three years ago, when I came across a story of the events that took place here in late May 1941

It was online, an article in the May 1991 edition of the Australian Defence Journal, written by an Australian Battle of Greece and Crete veteran – Charles Robinson. What I read gripped me – a vivid, poignant account of how the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin became a medical dressing station during the Allied evacuation. I was determined to visit Imbros once more, and stop a while, to talk to locals about this wartime story.

Before I did, I was fortunate in finding a rare copy of Charles Robinson’s book Journey to Captivity, his remarkable account (published by the Australian War Memorial in 1991) of his time between enlistment with the AIF in 1940 and his return to Australia in 1944. There are few records as detailed and insightful of the experiences of a member of the 6th Division of the Second AIF – deployed first to Palestine, Egypt and Libya, and finally Greece.

In 2020 I took the road to Imbros again. Once passed the church, I headed for the nearest hostelry. Chrysoula Xiradakis and her family run the Xiras Taverna on the main street, and with typical Cretan filoxenia, they welcomed me warmly, fascinated to hear of a chapter in Imbros’s war story that is still largely unknown to the community today. After a short walk, past the water wells that surround the church, we were soon in the shaded courtyard at the entrance.

Chrysoula holds the key to this holy place (unfortunately many churches in Crete are locked when not in use these days) and showed me in. We stood in the half-light below the icons, the painted saints looking down, as they did on Robinson and his men in May 1941. With the air scented and still, in my basic Greek, I explained how a group of Australians and New Zealanders had made the church a place of healing and care, in the last desperate days of the Battle of Crete.

With nothing to explain this secret chapter of the church’s story at the site, and with Chrysoula’s encouragement, I vowed to return; next time with a text, in Greek and English, to reveal something of its wartime story, and to mark the actions of the young Australians and New Zealanders who were here, some 80 years ago.

On 7 May 2022, I was able to realise that promise. A framed bilingual text, explaining the Anzac connection, is now on the wall inside the church’s entrance; a modest memorial to Robinson and his Anzac medical team, their noble actions, and to the men they tended, some with mortal wounds, who died at this place.

Mike Sweet presents the plaque to the priest of the Panagia church, Steliios Karaiskakis, and the former mayor of Imbros, Yiannis Zervos. The plaque will be placed inside the church. Photo: Supplied

The story of Charles Robinson of the 2/2nd Field Ambulance, fellow medical officers ‘Skipper Dorney’ and Alan Pinkerton (‘Pinky’), and two Kiwi stretcher-bearers ‘Curly’ and ‘Jack’, is one of courage and humanity.

Robinson’s description of the New Zealanders is tantalisingly brief but rich: “Jack was an excellent cook, making rich stews of corned beef laced with onions and other vegetables donated by the villagers,” wrote Robinson in his memoir. “Young Curly who was about eighteen, thrived on hard work.”

Between 28 May and mid-June 1941, Robinson and his team, helped by German prisoners, tended to about 50 seriously wounded Allied soldiers, and some injured German troops, inside and outside the church.

When the last Allied rearguard unit left Imbros for Chora Sfakion on 30/31 May, with the German army closing in, the Anzacs stayed at the church to carry on their duties. Overrun by troops from the German 100th Mountain Regiment on 1 June, Robinson and his men were allowed to continue treating their patients. About two weeks later, the Germans closed the makeshift hospital and Robinson and his team became prisoners of war.

Charles Robinson 1914-1989. He visited Imbros, in 1962. Photo: Supplied

Shipped first to Thessaloniki, Robinson would spend until January 1944 as a POW in Germany, and was repatriated in an exchange of wounded troops and medical personnel. He was discharged from the army in April 1944. Keen to keep the precious links he had made as a POW with French prisoners, he contacted the Free French Movement in Melbourne. The organisation’s secretary was a Belgian woman named Jose Julai Verschueren. They married in September 1944 and would go on to have three children, Charles, Phillip and Nicole.

Ever the adventurer, Charles moved the family to England in 1947. He opened his own travel agency in London in 1954, and for 28 years he was able to indulge his love of travel. In 1962 he revisited Crete, spending a few short hours at Imbros, reflecting with villagers on the time he had spent there, and their shared experience of the Battle of Crete. In 1982 Charles Robinson returned to live in Australia. Seven years later, at the age of 75, he passed away.

Today in Imbros, they remember his name and those who were with him, back in 1941. There are plans for a museum in the village, and the Anzac story of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin will have pride of place.

*For further reading and Robinson’s own account of his time at Imbros, go to: