Over seventy years ago in a village in the north-west of Crete, a brigade of New Zealand soldiers, aided by staunch locals, held off an advancing German army. The gruelling battle lasted five days. Men suffering from exhaustion and dysentry on both sides fought and died in a constant exchange of attacks and counter attacks. The battle had played out on the streets of Galatas with exchanges of heavy machine gun fire and constant bombardments. The fighting was so brutal that New Zealand soldiers would later say it was the fiercest they had encountered during the war. Galatas was one of three main strategic points needed to win control of the island. However, like Greece, Crete would also be a disaster, and on the sixth night the New Zealander’s retreated to Suda Bay.
I didn’t know about this history when I found myself in this tiny village. I’d travelled to Crete to retrace the footsteps of the 28th Maori Battalion, and hadn’t come across any information Galatas and was soon to discover that this small unassuming village played a major role in the Battle of Crete. It was in the nearby village of Platanias that a local tour guide told me about a man in Galatas who ran a small private museum who might be able to help me with my research. Galatas looks no different to any other sleepy village on the island. As I pulled up outside a stately white church, I could see very little of evidence of the village’s dramatic history. The museum is housed in a small building adjacent to the church, which was used during the battle by villagers to shelter wounded New Zealand soldiers.
I met Giannis Psaromilikgos who along with wife met Rena Metaxaki run the museum and the village café. They are a warm and gregarious couple only too willing to share their knowledge. A passion for history seems to run in the family. As a boy, Giannis father collected mementos from the war. Later Giannis began building the collection, adding artefacts he would find on trips to the nearby mountains. Giannis is proud of his collection, an array of items from German, New Zealand and British soldiers, including artillery shells and handguns, as well as newspaper articles, photos and pictures. I notice a large poster drawing of a Cretan man in traditional dress. His arm is raised and hand clutches a rock in readiness to strike the head of a cowering German soldier. This man, Rena tells me, is the godfather of Giannis’ father.
The Germans had expected the Cretans, who were under mainland Greece, to welcome their arrival as liberators. However the Cretan people had suffered a long history of invasion and developed an obstinate sense of defiance against anyone they saw as a threat to their independence. They stubbornly resisted the Germans as they had done with previous invaders, but welcomed the Allies as potential saviours. The couple tells me of how villagers, lacking weapons fought the German’s with farming tools and actively aided Allied troops.
The bond between the Cretans and New Zealander’s is still very strong. I’m drawn to a photo of a young, fair-haired New Zealand soldier talking with a local man. Handwritten across the bottom of the photo are the words, “killed in Galatas…1941”. There are plaques from returned services clubs and New Zealand poppies attached to crosses bearing the names of loved ones. Some visitors have left notes of thanks. One is a handwritten note from a woman whose father had escaped capture into the nearby mountains, lived in a cave for two years before escaping to the Middle East. Stories, like this one shared on a scrap of paper, give Giannis humble collection a poignant human element.
We settle down for a drink at their café. On the wall are copies of photos from the Battle of Crete and a New Zealand Army ‘lemon squeezer’ hat. I come across another sad photo of a young German soldier lying wounded on a stretcher, his bloodied leg lying bare and his gaunt and listless face staring into the camera. It strikes me how young many of these men were. Over coffee, the couple tells me that the street I was standing on is named ‘Neozilandon Polemiston’, which translates to ‘Street of New Zealand Warriors’. Giannis also shows me a home down the side of an alley with a garden gate made from parts of a British tank. The metal has gaping shell holes, a result of German anti-tank guns.
While we talk two groups of visiting New Zealander’s stop by the museum. The last group leave the museum and make their way to the nearby war memorial. They take out a New Zealand flag and one of the men fetches his bagpipes from his car and starts playing. The scene is a little surreal. I think about how strange it must be to see foreign tourists pull up and perform impromptu commemorations, but Rena and Giannis view such gestures with endearment.
As I say farewell to my new friends, I think of how hospitable and welcoming they are. I think of what an idyllic life they have in such a beautiful place in the world. I think about the young men who died here. And I think of the deep and tragic scar that war and its horrors must have left on all involved.