I spent a while this afternoon in the Souda Bay War Cemetery. Sometimes I just like to go there to sit and stare across the many neatly lined graves to the sea of Souda. I am too young to actually remember the war because I wasn’t born until 1946, but from what I have read, heard and seen on some newsreels, I have a good idea what happened here.
British and allied troops, New Zealanders, Australians and others were being rescued from the mainland of Greece and being brought to Souda by the Royal Navy. The British Expeditionary force on the mainland had been overrun by the German forces and those who could manage to get onto Naval ships were luckier than most.
Most of the battleships and destroyers had large red crosses on their decks to show that they were acting as hospital ships carrying wounded men. But this did not bother the Germans who continued to shoot at and bomb the British ships from the air. Some never even made it to Souda Bay. Eventually there were up to thirty British naval ships in Souda still being bombed and blasted by the German luftwaffe.
It is guessed that up to twenty of these ships are still there, sunk in Souda Bay. The men who could get off of the ships managed to climb up the sides of the bay and escape to olive groves wherever possible. It was a scene of absolute chaos and so many people died. More were to die in May 1941 when the German forces attacked the island of Crete, again by air.
After the war, all of the bodies that could be found, recognisable or unrecognisable, were brought back to Souda Bay to be laid to rest in this superb cemetery, gifted to the War Graves Commission by the Greek people. Each body has a stone, some of the stones have names, but so many just say ‘ A British Airman’ or ‘A New Zealand Soldier. Some of the stones have the names of famous people like John Pendlbury, curator of Knossos who joined up to defend Crete and died valiantly in 1941.
But today I saw the stone that had the name of a New Zealand Maori soldier who died fighting the Germans during the invasion of Crete. Just by the stone, a little wooden cross lies in the earth and beside that a photograph of him before he left New Zealand to come so far to fight people he had maybe never even heard of.
The photograph meant that someone, his parents, a brother or sister had also travelled this far. To pray for him and leave this small memento of his life cut drastically short by war. Today I looked right into his eyes and I felt desperately saddened by their terrible loss.