An Afternoon at Maleme

We’d been dumped in the middle of nowhere after getting on the wrong bus. We were hot and tired, and sought shade and water in a tiny roadside shop. At the next table, four locals were getting drunker and louder by the minute. I was starting to regret the last-minute decision to visit Maleme and our unwillingness or inability to plan ahead. Better organised travellers would have planned the trip even before leaving NZ, the transport, the accommodation, the insurance – they would have hired a car, had maps for the glovebox and made a proper day of it, setting out early and well-prepared.

But this was a holiday, and we were determined to leave ourselves open to the sorts of experience you find more easily when you’re improvising, making it up as you go along. We’d done well this way on mainland Greece, managing to spend a lot of time interacting with the locals and inflicting our limited Greek on them. We were happy to continue this casual approach to visiting Crete, and somehow a certain level of chaos and confusion seemed appropriate given my father’s experience 70 years before. And I’m sure the old man would have scoffed at any false reverence or talk of a ‘pilgrimage’.

In 1941 he had been evacuated to Crete after a short, messy campaign in mainland Greece. As he told it, his time there seemed to consist mainly of a rapid advance northwards to meet the invading German forces, then a disorderly and hurried retreat back to the south. The New Zealanders spent a lot of time hiding beneath the olive trees from the German dive-bombers that terrorised their withdrawal. From mainland Greece they were evacuated to Crete, landing in Suda Bay after abandoning much of their equipment, guns and ammunition.

My father’s short time in Crete was mostly spent in the Xania region. The New Zealand troops’ involvement culminated in a brutal battle for the airfield nearby at Maleme. The Germans knew that if they could take the airfield, the whole of Crete was likely to fall. The New Zealanders’ failure to hold or retake Hill 107 which overlooks the airfield is seen as the turning point of the battle. The failure has been blamed on poor leadership, but the defence of the island seems to have been doomed from the beginning by chaotic communication and lack of resources.

As for us, we had arrived in Souda Bay on the northern coast of Crete at 5.30 am the day before on the overnight ferry. We staggered off the ferry in the pre-dawn,  sleep-deprived and without a place to stay. Even in the grey half-light it was clear we had exchanged the rubbish-strewn streets of strike-bound Piraeus for an over-developed resort strip which runs along the northern coast of Crete. But in the old Venetian quarter of Xania, which was to be our base for the next few days, it was easy to turn our backs on the ugly part of town and forget it.

The next day we explored the old part of town, never straying far from the beautiful little enclosed harbour with its stone breakwater and romantic lighthouse. Then, late in the afternoon and on the spur of the moment, we decided to head to Maleme, with no maps or other info to guide us except a bus timetable. As it turned out, even the bus timetable had been misleading: that’;s how we ended up in run-down roadside café. By the time we somehow managed to connect with the right bus to Maleme, then start the 30 minute walk to the crest of the hill, the sun was already well down in the sky.

Halfway up the hill, we noticed a small sign which was totally unexpected – it pointed the way to a Minoan tomb (tholos) right in the heart of this World War Two battleground. We followed the short track which led through the olive trees, away from the road, to an impressive site – a short stone-lined passage into the side of the hill, leading under a massive lintel to a rectangular burial chamber. Across the centre of the lintel is a fracture which runs right through the thickness of the rock – apparently the result of a direct hit from a bomb during the battle in 1941.

The tholos must have been the family tomb of a wealthy person, perhaps even a king. The massive slabs of rock were designed to impress and well as protect the dead and their precious grave goods. In contrast, the cemetery on top of the hill is almost suburban in its neatness and order – seemingly endless rows of small brass plaques, each a memorial to a named German soldier or, occasionally, zwei unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten. The Germans took the hill but only their dead occupy it now.

The hill is a heartbreaking place – on the slopes the 3,000-year old tomb, empty now and looted, and above that the vast German cemetery. Before we left we stood with our backs to the sun and looked out over the deep blue bay and the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, back in Athens there was rioting, fire-bombings and the threat of widespread strikes. The next day we were forced to change our plans and abandon Crete in a hurry – it seemed appropriate somehow.