By Anastasios G. Christian
On May 20, 2019, the world will commemorate the 78th anniversary of the Battle of Crete; a battle fought by brave souls that undeniably changed the course of history for the free world. It is a day to reflect and to be proud of our ancestors and the sacrifices they made so that future generations could live in peace and prosper from their freedom.
Hitler’s strategic plan was interrupted by a small island in the Mediterranean. It was Germany’s first and last airborne assault. As a result of the Battle of Crete and the heavy casualties the Nazi’s sustained, Hitler’s master plan to invade Russia before the coming of winter had to be postponed. The delay caused thousands of Nazi soldiers their lives as they were not prepared to survive the harsh Russian winter.
I am certain that I speak on behalf of many who have ancestors that survived the horrid years of Nazi occupation in Crete and grew up listening to first-hand stories of survival. The stories are priceless and are part of our proud history that we must all preserve by passing them along to our children and our children’s children.
I recall sitting in a kafenio drinking Tsikoudia (a grape-based pomace brandy of Cretan origin that contains 40% to 65% alcohol by volume) in our village of Gonies, Crete fifteen years ago listening to old veterans describe the events of April and May 1941. Many of the Cretan men had been called to the mainland of Greece as part of the Greek Army to fight against the Italians in Albania. Following the Greek Army’s surrender to Germany on April 24, 1941, Cretan men attempted to find their way back to Crete. They took their weapons, made their way back to the coast, and hitched a ride on boats bound for Crete. Some made it back quicker than others. These veterans did not get back to Crete until after the May 20, 1941 Nazi invasion. When they arrived in Crete, they hiked on foot approximately 50 kilometers through the mountains back to Gonies. Once there, they reunited with their families and formed a local resistance group called the Goniani Andartes.
I also remember walking with my Father through the mountains surrounding Gonies as he explained how he and two other young men were captured by Nazi soldiers that occupied the village. All three eventually escaped their captors. He took me to a former Nazi air defense artillery position that was located in the mountains behind the village. I listened as he described how the Nazi soldiers towed their artillery guns behind trucks on the dirt road/trail that winded its way from Heraklion to Gonies. Cretan men and women that remained in the village were put to work building the artillery position. Remnants of the position are still visible today.
My Grandmother (Yia-Yia Vasiliki Tsagkarakis) use to tell us the story of how Nazi soldiers came knocking on her door one evening searching for my Grandfather (Papou Dimitri Tsagkarakis). My Grandfather, who had previously fled to the mountains to join the local Goniani Andartes, had snuck down to visit his family under the cover of darkness and was in the house. When the door opened, my Grandfather squatted down behind a stack of fire wood to avoid being seen by the soldiers. One soldier looked around and when he didn’t see anybody he fired a few rounds from his machinegun into the wood pile. He was satisfied no one was there and departed. Somehow my Grandfather avoided being shot and soon thereafter quickly departed for the mountains to rejoin the Goniani Andartes.
For centuries the Cretan people have been known to be fierce fighters and proud defenders of their land. Their bravery and courage is equal to that of the most deserving heroes throughout world history. But freedom and heroism is not achieved without a cost. In resisting the German invasion on Crete, our ancestors paid a heavy price. Thousands of Cretans were executed and killed during the three-and-a-half years of occupation. Despite their heavy losses, the Cretan soul was never conquered. Men, women and children fought and resisted with courage and bravery as they faced death every moment of every day.
The Cretans who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom should inspire all of mankind and bring hope to all. We should honor their memory by never forgetting the Battle of Crete.