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Ceremony marks 68th anniversary of Battle of Crete

21 May 2010

The 69th anniversary of the Battle of Crete was marked by a wreath laying ceremony at the National War Memorial in Wellington on Thursday 20 May which was attended by veterans of Crete, dignitaries, politicians, members of the Cretan community, and military personnel. 

The ceremony began with the mounting of the RNZAF catafalque guard and arrival of the official guests in the Hall of Memories.

Rear Admiral David Ledson delivered the prologue saying that as at Gallipoli in 1915 – and in just a month before the Battle of Crete in what is called ‘the Greek campaign’ – New Zealand and Australian soldiers stood alongside each other in the Mediterranean – many miles from their homes in the Pacific.

“Similarly, the courage, determination and resilience of individual soldiers was not enough to overcome the shortcomings of their commanders in what today is called ‘the operational art of warfare’. “

He also talked about the role of the Navy in the mass evacuation off the island saying, “There is no doubt that the sailors involved in the evacuation displayed tremendous courage and fortitude in the face of relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe in getting some 16, 500 men off Crete.

He said that he could not omit the huge role played by the people of Crete who resisted the Germans and supported the Allied troops.

“… if we are to tell the story of the Battle of Crete in its many dimensions – then we need to account for the casualties among the population of Crete.

“One Cretan source says that 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children were killed by the Germans. German records estimate that 3,474 Cretans were executed by firing squad and at least a further 1,000 were killed in ‘massacres’ in late 1944.

“By either measure, the cost of war to the citizens of Crete was too, too high.”

He concluded by saying that from this terrible experience a bond was formed between our two countries.

“The strongest bonds between people come from shared emotional experiences – and so as we gather here today we commemorate the sacrifices of soldiers, sailors and citizens in the defence of Crete – and we celebrate, especially, the respect and friendship between the people of New Zealand and Crete that has grown out of those terrible days of World War II.” 

The Right Honourable Sir Peter Blanchard, representing the Governor General, delivered an oral history reading from the diary of Private Thomas Foley, 19 Battalion remembering his role during the first days of the Battle for Crete. 

Among the wreaths laid was one by Phil O’Neil, representing New Zealand veterans who served in Crete. Wreaths were also laid by Minister of Defence, The Honourable Wayne Mapp, Rear Admiral Jack Steer, and Helena Giorgiakakis and Mihali Hunter, representing the youth of Greece. 

Warrant Officer Jerald Twomey delivered the ode in Maori and Air Vice-Marshall Robin Klitscher delivered the ode in English.

The national anthems of New Zealand and Greece were played by the Royal New Zealand Air Force Brass Ensemble.

Children from the Cretan community then offered attendees poppies to lay on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

The Battle for Crete in May 1941 was one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War. Over 7500 New Zealanders, along with British, Australian and Greek troops, assisted by Cretan civilians, tried to fight off a huge German airborne attack. They almost succeeded.

It was a heavy defeat for the Allies. Over 3500 men were killed, and 15,000 captured. There were 671 New Zealanders among the dead, and 2180 were taken as prisoners of war. Some escaped from captivity, taking to the hills and eluding capture for the rest of the war. Cretan civilians took huge risks feeding and helping these men.

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