Jim Carstairs’ Cretan odyssey

The diary of James De Mole Carstairs, an Australian officer in Nazi-occupied Crete, offers unique insight into the relationship between Allied soldiers and their Cretan protectors

The diary of Lieutenant James De Mole Carstairs, who fought in the Battle of Crete, and who led a large group of Allied soldiers off the island in late 1941, is to be published in Crete next month as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.

[The diary] is the only detailed account by an officer who led a large group to an evacuation organised by the British secret services. It is also one of the few records that specifies individuals in the Cretan Resistance who he relied on during his journey.

Produced by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies, in Greek and English, the project is a collaboration between the prestigious Historical Museum of Crete (IMK) in Heraklion and co-editors myself and Ian Frazer, working alongside Cretan historians Claire Mitsotaki, Costas Mamalakis and Denise Alevisou.

The book will be the seventh in the Testimonies series produced by IMK that relates diverse individual accounts from the Greece and Crete campaigns in WWII and the Nazi occupation. Previous titles in the series include testimonies of archaeologist and Tasmania-born secret agent Tom J. Dunbabin and Resistance fighter George Tzitzikas.

Of the hundreds of Allied soldiers who avoided capture after the Battle of Crete, few diaries have been identified, let alone published, which record in detail the soldiers’ relationships with the communities who sheltered them and the Resistance. The diary of James De Mole Carstairs, an officer of the 2/7th Battalion AIF, is such an account.

It was in 1982 that Carstairs, then in his late sixties, decided to write his memoirs, and the chapter detailing his experiences in Crete in 1941 drew on handwritten notes made at the time, along with later recollections. Researcher Ian Frazer first came across a copy of the chapter in the library of Anzac House in Melbourne, with the assistance of librarian Fred Platt, in 2011, but it was only in early 2015, after identifying and contacting Carstairs’ family, that publishing the diary became a reality.

Having read the manuscript, the Historical Museum of Crete saw an opportunity to present what is a remarkable historical record; one that details not only the day-to-day travails of a soldier on the run in Crete, but the relationships he formed with partisan leaders and the responsibility he shouldered for safeguarding more than 80 men who were eventually evacuated because of his resourcefulness.

Lieutenant James De Mole Carstairs was born in Melbourne in 1914. PHOTO: CARSTAIRS COLLECTION

Carstairs’ diary is unique in many respects. It is the only detailed account by an officer of his unit’s actions during the Battle of Crete, who then evaded capture and led a large group to an evacuation organised by the British secret services. It is also one of the few records that specifies individuals in the Cretan Resistance whom he relied on during his journey, which began in Chora Sfakion immediately after the Allied surrender and ended at an isolated beach due south of Heraklion five months later.

Keeping a diary in such circumstance was of course fraught with danger, and Carstairs was careful to keep his handwritten notes – along with sketches (he was an accomplished artist) – not only safe from the Germans, but also from British intelligence in Cairo after his evacuation.

Of all the hideouts mentioned in his diary, it is his time at the village of Vafes, 20km south east of Chania, and the protection offered there by the Vandoulakis family, that presents some of the most profound insights in the journal.

Adopted by Evangelos Vandoulakis, a former Greek Army officer who joined the Resistance immediately after the Allies’ defeat, the friendship between the two men, established over the three months Carstairs stayed in the village, evolved into a remarkable bond.

‘Vi’, as Evangelos was called by Carstairs, continued to offer support when other villagers at Vafes, fearful of German reprisals for harbouring Allied soldiers, turned against the Australians. Vi continued to help Carstairs and his men right up until their evacuation.

Before leaving Vafes in September 1941, Carstairs left his handwritten notes with the Vandoulakis family, who duly cemented them in a cavity behind the wall of their property. After the war Vi sent them to Australia.

An extract from the thank-you letter Carstairs left with the Vandoulakis clan reflects the depth of their relationship.

“Leaving you … does not say that we will forget. We can never do that. We owe you a very great personal debt. May God grant us in the years to come, some chance of helping your countrymen in some way, so that we may repay a little of what we owe …”

The Vandoulakis element of the Carstairs diary is not only poignant, but extraordinary for the fact that Carstairs relates some of the earliest resistance activities of a family who later played a crucial role in sustaining British secret agents such as Xan Fielding, who made Vafes his base in 1942.

Evangelos Vandoulakis drawn by Carstairs. PHOTO: CARSTAIRS COLLECTION

A second family, in the province of Rethymno, and crucial to Carstairs’ fortunes, was the Harokopos family of Patsos, who also played a significant later role in the Resistance, at the northern end of the Amari Valley.

In October 1941, about two weeks after he arrived at Patsos, Carstairs met two British secret agents who asked him to help organise the next evacuation of Allied soldiers roaming around the Amari.

It is likely these individuals were Captain Jack Smith-Hughes, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, and Ralph Stockbridge, an ISLD (Inter-Services Liaison Department) wireless operator.

By September 1941 SOE in Egypt faced a serious dilemma in planning evacuations. Submarines had been used for the first major evacuations at Preveli in July, but due to their limited availability, by autumn there was an urgent need for alternative craft. SOE Para-Naval Section took up the challenge and by October had allocated two small vessels to the Crete operations; a former British trawler, HMS Hedgehog, and a smaller motorised caique, HMS Escampador. The two vessels became key to supplying the resistance and extracting evacuees in the months ahead.

Carstairs relates how, after spending about four weeks at Patsos, by November he was told to move to a holding area close to the south coast. A key figure in arranging this was the famed resistance leader Kapetan Petrakogiorgis, based in the village of Magarikari, who controlled the area where the Amari Valley joins the Messara Plain.

It was this area that became the vital route, not only for Carstairs, but for scores of later evacuations and insertions of agents and supplies for the resistance, linking villages in the Amari with landing beaches on the coast.

In his diary, Carstairs relates details of how he conferred with the resistance leader, giving a unique insight into the workings of such relationships. This period was a fraught time for Carstairs, and his journal records how his leadership skills were sorely tested.

He faced enormous challenges. They began with leading more than 80 men safely from Patsos to Magarikari (a three-day trek), keeping them secure and fed when they got there (for at least three weeks), and then making another, even more gruelling three-day trek to the coast.

“Up again over high plains again. Another valley, close shave from two Jerries nearby.  A silent invisible line of eager  men moving through the night…” Handwritten note written by Carstairs in November 1941 on the eve of his escape from Crete. PHOTO: CARSTAIRS COLLECTION

The final leg involved crossing the Messara Plain, heavily-garrisoned by the Germans, and then up and over the towering Asteroussia mountains, to the isolated beach of Treis Ekklisies, 60km due south of Heraklion. This is where Carstairs’ Cretan odyssey reached its dramatic conclusion. In the dead of night on the 26/27 November, HMS Hedgehog embarked 90 passengers, almost all of which were the group Carstairs had led.

The nominal roll for the voyage to Alexandria identifies 28 Australians, 28 New Zealanders, 11 British, 11 Cypriot, four Greeks and eight others. One of the passengers was Evangelos Vandoulakis who Carstairs had smuggled on board.

After his war service, Carstairs returned to Australia and farmed in Victoria. In May 1991 he returned to Greece for the 50th anniversary of the Greece and Crete campaigns. In Crete he rekindled his precious friendships with the Harokopos clan and the Vandoulakis family. He died at the age of 93 in 2007.

The Carstairs Diary shines light on a chapter of the Crete story in World War II that remains largely untold. It’s a multi-layered narrative which reveals profound insights into the bonds created between Australian soldiers, civilians and partisans, along with the workings of the British secret service in Crete. Above all, it’s an extraordinary adventure story based entirely on fact.

The Carstairs Diary, published by the Society of Cretan Historical Studies, will be launched at the Historical Museum of Crete in Heraklion on May 23.

* Michael Sweet is a corresponding member of the Society of Cretan Historical Studies.