New Zealand Stories at Souda Bay

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Souda Bay is located to the east of Chania in Crete. A turn off from a winding road leads to an olive grove where the Souda Bay War Cemetery is situated.  It’s the resting place for the majority of Commonwealth servicemen killed in the Battle of Crete during the Second World War.  The cemetery is surrounded by steep hills and directly overlooks the brilliant turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. Each grave is marked with a white gravestone and turned to face the sea.  There is a large white cross erected in the centre made from the same white stone.  The scene is breathtakingly beautiful, which seems at odds with what one expects from a cemetery.

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Entry to the Souda Bay Cemetary in Crete.

Like the Greek campaign, Crete was a disaster for the Allies. Following the fall of Greece, Allied troops evacuated to Syria and Alexandria.  Around 32,000, including 7,700 New Zealand soldiers, escaped to the nearby Crete expecting to be shipped across to their base in Alexandria. However, British command decided that the island was strategically important because of its three airfields situated along its north coast. The Allies were redesignated into a new fighting unit, ‘Creforce’ and tasked with defending the island. New Zealand Major-General Bernard Freyberg, who led the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), was placed at the helm.

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The graves of servicemen look out to the sea.

Defending Crete was always going to be a tough task. Modern equipment such as transport and machinery had been destroyed before the retreat from the mainland. There were no reinforcements and little air and sea support, as resources had been diverted to the fighting in North Africa. Despite this, the Allies, aided by locals, were determined to put up a strong defense. The Germans were also equally determined to take Crete. On May 20, 1941, thousands of airborne Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) were dropped onto the island in the largest airborne attack of the war. The clash that evolved resulted in the deaths of more than 1,700 Allied servicemen, including 671 New Zealanders. The Germans suffered huge losses – more than 6,000 were killed or wounded and their Luftwaffe (air force) lost more than 350 aircraft.

Souda Bay was the main shipping port located between Maleme and Rethymnon airports and played a main role in the battle. New Zealand soldiers held the area between Maleme airport and Souda Bay with support from the British and Australians. Souda Bay was bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe and a raid by Italian sea vessels sunk one freighter and damaged another.

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The grave of New Zealander Dudley Perkins.

On the day I visited the cemetery, there were also visitors from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The cemetery holds the graves of 1502 Commonwealth servicemen. The site was chosen after the war, and graves were relocated from various places around northern Crete. The graves of ANZAC soldiers are easy to spot because of their ubiquitous symbols of a fern leaf and rising sun. I make small talk with a New Zealander travelling with two Brits. They tell me that they frequently travel to Crete to hike in the mountains and came by to find the graves of two soldiers whose stories they had heard about from locals. One of the soldiers is New Zealander Dudley Perkins, also known as the ‘Lion of Crete’. Perkins was born in Christchurch. A clergyman’s son and art student, he enlisted to fight at the outbreak of war. Perkins was captured by the Germans in Crete and imprisoned. He escaped the prison camp and hid in the mountains for a year with the aid of local villagers, before being rescued by a submarine. Remarkably he returned to Crete as part of a special operations group and worked with Cretan resistance conducting guerrilla attacks on German troops.  He was shot and killed in an ambush, aged 29 years.

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A New Zealand flax planted at the foot of the graves of New Zealand servicemen.

Perkins tale is one of heroism, but many stories tell of heartbreak and loss. The cemetery holds 776 unidentified burials. As I walk around, I notice that the average age of the men buried here is 27 years old. Gravestones of Australian servicemen carry sad epitaphs from their family. I spy the grave of a young Maori soldier. Loved ones have visited him and left a photo him as well as a small glass jar filled with soil. A note says that the soil is from his home in New Zealand, carried to Crete by his whanau (family). As his body could not return home, a small piece of his home has been brought to him.

The Souda Bay Cemetary is located in the north-west corner near Chania, Crete.

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