9 Monday, December 10. Brexit and Greek resistance
My beautiful Byron,
Today is a rainy wet Monday in California. You would not believe how much rain we have had this past week. After hearing all about drought and water economy for many years I am very happy that we have full reservoirs now.
Nick was just at Yaya’s house, looking after her, and we had a chat on Whats App. He had some views on Brexit. We are very much concerned on how this will affect you and your school friends. Especially as you are half Greek, like Nick. The English voting to ‘divorce‘ Europe is not something we want to see.
Years ago, in 1971, when I was ten years old, almost exactly your age, my dad sent me to Greece for six weeks. Uncle Elias, who was then a general in the Greek Airforce and the senior Greek military representative to NATO took me around Greece for six weeks, visiting many historical locations. I traveled from South Africa to Greece for this visit. I went on a Boeing 707. My dad dropped me at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg and I flew North for about 12 hours, where Uncle Elias collected me after I landed at Athens airport. I was so excited I can remember it to this day. It was my first trip on an airplane. Although I was an ‘unaccompanied minor‘ in those days that was quite normal. No one cancelled children’s trips on this pretext.
During that trip there is one event I remember very well, so much so that I have been back many times since that first visit in 1971, and which I have shown to your brother John.
That is the trip to Chania, in Crete. And from Chania, following the path the British Army took in Crete to escape after being roundly defeated after the German invasion there in 1941.
I have written about this profound experience for me as a ten-year-old, many times and I know it can get a little long winded. But it is a good story for you and one day I will take you on that same path Uncle Elias took me from Chania down to Sfakia.
That is if Michele O’Leary, Tom Amlot and Charlotte Adler ever let you, which I doubt based on their past conduct. So we may have to wait until you can emancipate yourself before we plan on visiting your heritage.
The German invasion of Crete began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when the commander chose a parachute surprise attack. At that time no parachute attacks had led any invading army. This was a new idea. Thousands of Nazi storm troopers fell out of the sky, jumping at the same time as their guns, which were in separate packages. Huge machine guns and lots of spare bullets.
Greek army troops and other Allied forces including British, Australian, and New Zealander’s, fought alongside the real heroes. The Cretan civilians, who were at that time a very well armed population. More guns per household in Crete than anywhere. (Because of their history with the Turkish invasion. Which is a another good story, but longer.)
This group of soldiers and civilians defended the island trying to avoid being occupied by the Germans in the way that Greece had been Months before. The Germans invaded mainland Greece very quickly and efficiently. Overwhelming force against determined, but hopelessly inadequate resistance. Now it was Crete’s turn for German aggression.
After one day of fighting it looked like they had killed enough parachuting Germans to defeat the attack. But then German superiority with technology and tactics conspired with some bad luck for the Cretans and the Allied soldiers.
They (we) experienced communication failures, no one knew what was happening and the leaders could not get their instructions to the fighting men. There was tactical hesitation, they did not realize the landing Germans were mostly under-armed, as their guns were in a separate package drop. In that delay in pressing the advantage, the German’s managed to get their guns in place, saw the weakness in the defensive line and counter attacked with tremendous efficiency. Imagine of we coudl go back in a time machine to taht first day. And tell the front line fighters. Go forward with all you have got. Kill every last German on Cretan soil right now. While you have the opportunity.
But they did not. The hesitated. And in that time, the opportunity passed.
The German soldiers had the best guns and the best training and the best leaders. Soon, Maleme Airfield in western Crete fell, enabling the Germans to land reinforcements and overwhelm the defensive positions on the north of the island. Many of our relatives were there fighting the German invaders, your great uncles, with their own guns, fighting to defend against the Germans and later, fighting and dying to enable to the retreating allies to flee to Sfakia for extraction by the British Navy.
Over half managed to retreat along the path I followed with Uncle Elias in 1971, to the southern tip of Crete, the village of Sfakia, which is where we come from originally. Waiting there were British Royal Navy ships ready to evacuate them to safety. The Cretan fighters though stayed. Their battle continued. How lucky was I to have an uncle able to tell me all the stories with all the precise details.
I went along the same path the retreating soldiers went along, and in my 1971 visit I met one of the original Cretan defenders, who had collected hundreds of guns and stuff from the war and started a museum. I got to chat with him for an hour and hear what it was like for him at the time. He was ten when the Germans landed, and I was ten when he was telling me the story, thirty years later. It was pretty cool. I remember it very well. Cretan people are very special. We have strong DNA.
The remainder of the Allies who were separated from the main group and couldn’t make it to Sfakia surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance. The story of the Cretan resistance is just awesome. Uncle Elias would stop at different locations where the battles occurred and he would share with me the names and dates and specific details of how our ancestors fought with enormous courage against overwhelming odds. Many who died dis so in order that the retreating British could escape. Every year after the war the survivors from that escape came back to Heraklion to on the anniversary of the first day of the attack, to give thanks to the Cretan fighter to whom they owe their lives.
Here’s some idea of the two opposing sides.
Remember 18,000 were British, whose ancestors are a part of the Brexit generation. There were fewer attacking Germans than defenders. But the Germans had better leaders and better hardware. And they routed the British. ‘Routed the British‘ appears in many great conflicts you will learn about in History. (The worst one being in Basra. 2007. By the treasonous Tony Blair.)
10,258 – 11,451
15,000 mountain troopers
150 dive bombers
80 troop gliders
The Greek and Cretan fighters did not have top of range guns and they had very little ammunition.
Greek troops were armed with Mannlicher–Schönauer 6.5 mm mountain carbines or ex-Austrian 8x56R Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifles, the latter a part of post-World War I reparations; about 1,000 Greeks carried antique Fusil Gras mle 1874 rifles. The garrison had been stripped of its best crew-served weapons, which were sent to the mainland; there were twelve obsolescent St. Étienne Mle 1907 light machine-guns and forty miscellaneous LMGs. Many Greek soldiers had fewer than thirty rounds of ammunition but could not be supplied by the British, who had no stocks in the correct calibres. Those with insufficient ammunition were posted to the eastern sector of Crete, where the Germans were not expected in force. The 8th Greek Regiment was under strength and many soldiers were poorly trained and poorly equipped. The unit was attached to 10th New Zealand Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General Howard Kippenberger), who placed it in a defensive position around the village of Alikianos where, with local civilian volunteers, they held out against the German 7th Engineer Battalion.
Though New Zealand general was an awful little man, Howard Kippenberger, who referred to the Greek soldiers as “…nothing more than malaria-ridden little chaps…with only four weeks of service.”
The Greek troops repulsed German attacks until they ran out of ammunition, whereupon they began charging with fixed bayonets, overrunning German positions and capturing rifles and ammunition. The engineers had to be reinforced by two battalions of German paratroops, yet the 8th Regiment held on until 27 May, when the Germans made a combined arms assault by Luftwaffe aircraft and mountain troops. The Greek stand helped to protect the retreat of the Commonwealth forces, who were evacuated at Sfakia. The defence of Alikianos gained at least 24 more hours for the completion of the final leg of the evacuation behind Layforce. The troops who were protected as they withdrew had begun the battle with more and better equipment than the 8th Greek Regiment.
The British had much better guns. I saw many of these in the museums I visited on my walks around there. Found by the local kids, and stored all these years for exhibit in private collections.
British and Commonwealth troops used the standard Lee–Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun and Vickers medium machine gun. The British had about 85 artillery pieces of various calibres, many of them captured Italian weapons without sights. Anti-aircraft defences consisted of one light anti-aircraft battery equipped with 20 mm automatic cannon, split between the two airfields. The guns were camouflaged, often in nearby olive groves, and some were ordered to hold their fire during the initial assault to mask their positions from German fighters and dive-bombers.
The Germans had the best guns. And tactics. I think the MP40 was the most effective. 9mm rounds.
The Germans used the new 7.5 cm Leichtgeschütz 40 light gun (a recoilless rifle). At 320 lb (150 kg), it weighed 1⁄10 as much as a standard German 75 mm field gun, yet had 2⁄3 of its range. It fired a 13 lb (5.9 kg) shell over 3 mi (4.8 km). A quarter of the German paratroops jumped with a MP 40 submachine gun, often carried with a bolt-action Karabiner 98k rifle and most German squads had an MG 34 machine gun.
The Germans used colour-coded parachutes to distinguish the canisters carrying rifles, ammunition, crew-served weapons and other supplies. Heavy equipment like the Leichtgeschütz 40 were dropped with a special triple-parachute harness to bear the extra weight.
German troops also carried special strips of cloth to unfurl in patterns to signal to low-flying fighters, to co-ordinate air support and for supply drops. The German procedure was for individual weapons to be dropped in canisters, due to their practice of exiting the aircraft at low altitude. This was a flaw that left the paratroopers armed only with knives, pistols and grenades in the first few minutes after landing. Poor design of German parachutes compounded the problem; the standard German harness had only one riser to the canopy and could not be steered. Even the 25 percent of paratroops armed with sub-machine guns were at a disadvantage, given the weapon’s limited range. Many Fallschirmjäger were shot before they reached weapons canisters. The Greek army, Allies and Cretan fighters enjoyed their best success int that first phase of the attack.
Sadly they did not know they held this advantage and did not press it. The winning leadership mentality was absent. As was the ability to communicate tactical decisions to the fighters.
Imagine how those Cretan people must feel now, hearing how much Britain wants to divorce the unified Europe they fought and died for. This Brexit idea.
History has taught us that we are better off being friends in a union with Germany. Whatever people might say about the UK divorcing Europe, those who died, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs and other pro allied Europeans, to help British people in the last war, would not agree that Brexit is a cool way to remember their sacrifice.
Certainly, being the son of a father who fought against the Nazi’s for 6 years from the beginning right until Hitler shot his wife in the head before ending his own life, I know my dad would not agree with the rubbish-people spreading this Brexit nonsense. That’s no way to say thank you.
The Battle of Crete was the first occasion where Fallschirmjäger (German paratroops) were used en masse, the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine, and the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population.
Due to the number of casualties and the belief that airborne forces no longer had the advantage of surprise, Adolf Hitler became reluctant to authorize further large airborne operations, preferring instead to employ paratroopers as ground troops.
In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form airborne-assault and airfield-defence regiments.
I wrote a blog about that not long ago and you can read that here. One day I hope to tell you more stories about this great part of your Greek DNA, from my many stories learned both by experience visiting the sites of the great battles, and by reading the accounts of people like Patrick Lee Fermor and the Cretan Runner. I hope we will one day visit the locations in Crete which left such an impression on me when I was ten.
But for the moment I am left to reflect on how exactly my father and our Cretan relatives, your direct bloodline would receive the story of how British family law members, Michele O’Leary, Tom Amlot and Charlotte Adler, have treated a Cretan boy. I say it is a shameful abuse that will become a part of the the rest of their lives. Certainly, none of those three would be wise to ever visit Sfakia and identify themselves.
In the meanwhile, I miss you,
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