Appendix 9: Return Visits to Crete
By M. B. McGlynn
After the end of the war in Europe a New Zealand party headed by the GOC 2 NZEF, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, and Major-General H. K. Kippenberger, went to Crete to hold a memorial service. The party, numbering about a hundred, included all those still with the Division who had fought in Crete. The 28th (Maori) Battalion provided the Guard of Honour and 5 Infantry Brigade the band. In the party were Brigadiers W. G. Gentry (Comd 9 Bde), G. B. Parkinson, I. L. Bonifant (6 Bde) and C. L. Pleasants (5 Bde), Colonels T. C. Campbell (Comd 4 Armd Bde), D. J. Fountaine, and F. M. H. Hanson (CRE), Lieutenant-Colonels H. A. Robinson (20 Armd Regt), W. B. Thomas (ex-CO 23 Bn), A. S. Playle (18 Armd Regt), J. I. Thodey (21 Bn), R. Boord (24 Bn), G. P. Sanders (27 MG Bn), H. T. W. Nolan (4 Fd Regt), A. A. Angell (6 Fd Regt), R. W. Foubister (CR Sigs) and E. G. Lewis (ADOS), Majors W. H. Ryan (4 Armd Bde), F. L. H. Davis (21 Bn), J. D. McKerchar (HQ 2 NZ Div) and P. E. Coutts (ASC). The party came from Italy in HMS Ajax, the same ship that had evacuated so many from Greece in the spring of 1941. Forty more New Zealanders, all veterans of the campaign, flew from Egypt. Representatives of the Greek, British, and Australian forces were also present. In addition to the New Zealand guard of honour, there were guards of honour from HMS Ajax and from the British troops in Greece. The official party at the ceremony included Rear-Admiral Alexandris, representing the Prime Minister of Greece, Brigadier Kirwan (RA), representing General R. M. Scobie, GOC Greece, civil and military governors of Crete, the Bishop of Crete, and local authorities. Shipping shortages and hurried timetables prevented a similar memorial service being held on the mainland of Greece.
On 29 September 1945 the party landed in Crete. Widespread interest was aroused by the visit, and the people lining the roads and in the villages overwhelmed them in welcome. The party stopped at Galatas for lunch, also at Armenoi, and at each place there were speeches of welcome, toasts and presentations. The party went as far as Maleme, where they walked over the old battlefield. Several members visited the neighbourhood of Sfakia. At a special ceremony General Freyberg was presented with the Freedom of Canea.
Next day a memorial service was held in the cemetery at Suda Bay. The ceremony took place in ideal weather and was attended by about 15,000 Cretans. A great number travelled long distances on foot to be present. The senior chaplains conducted the memorial services and dedicated the
cemetery. Before the wreaths were laid on the central cross, General Freyberg paid tribute to the men who fell in the Battle of Crete:
‘History will do justice to the part they played. It will be belated justice. Gallantry in failure, no matter how great it may be, has tardy recognition. May 1941 was a difficult period of the war, certainly our most difficult. We had little equipment and no allies. Looking back on our long and eventful war, the fight to hold Crete was the hardest and most savage campaign of the New Zealand Division. ... The graves here are of men of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the British Army, the Royal Air Force, the Australian Imperial Force, the Greek Army and the gallant Cretan bands. Most of the graves are of men who had already faced a disastrous campaign in Greece, where they had been forced off the beaches under conditions similar to Dunkirk. When our badly equipped forces were driven from the Maleme aerodrome and the slopes west of Canea, the bodies of these men lay on the battlefields where they had fallen. We come, before we depart for our homes, in the name of the New Zealand Division and of the New Zealand Government and of the people of New Zealand, to lay these wreaths on their graves.’
Most of the villages which had helped soldiers also presented wreaths. To the people of these villages and to the others, both in Greece and Crete, who were unable to be present, the Prime Minister of New Zealand sent a special message of gratitude:
‘The Government and people of New Zealand remember with gratitude all the Greek people have done to help New Zealand soldiers who were left behind when your country was overrun by the German Army in April and May 1941. We are deeply conscious of New Zealand’s debt to the Greek nation for their gallantry and self-sacrifice in sheltering many of our men. We shall never forget all you personally and those associated with you have done for our men during the whole of this war from 1941 to 1945 both in Greece and Crete. We realise that you have clothed and fed our men when you were in want yourselves and that in doing so you suffered hardship and ran great personal risk. I send sincerest wishes for the happiness and prosperity of your country from your friends and comrades in New Zealand.’
General Freyberg, ending his address, told the people: ‘We men of the New Zealand Division will never forget you.’
On 8 July 1949 HMNZS Rotoiti, after exercising with the Mediterranean Fleet, paid a one-day visit to Crete. The ship’s company held a memorial service at the cemetery and messages from the Governor-General of New Zealand, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser, were read. In the short time he was in Crete, the captain was impressed by the high opinion held of New Zealanders: ‘the high respect and esteem with which New Zealanders are held in Crete cannot be believed until one meets the people there and hears from one and all their respect for them as fighters and as men.’