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War oral history programme

Page 6 – Notes and questions, Greece/Crete

Greece/Crete — April–May 1941

There was a row of Germans standing behind us. They all had automatic weapons whereas we only had old .303s. We had no hope of doing anything. They were shouting at us to surrender. We had no option.

Colin Burn, 18 Battalion, in Megan Hutching (ed.), A unique sort of battle: New Zealanders remember Crete, 2001

Before you interview any veterans of this campaign, we recommend you read our Guide to recording oral history.  

Background notes

The brief Greek campaign was the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force's (2 NZEF) first major operation in the Second World War. It was a baptism of fire. The New Zealand Division was part of a force sent to northern Greece in early 1941 to meet the possibility of a German attack.

When the Germans struck, in April 1941, the Allied line was quickly outflanked and the Allies were forced into retreat. As they pulled back to the south the New Zealanders were harried by German air attacks. Most of the division was among the 50,000 Allied troops evacuated from Greece at the end of April. But nearly 2000 Kiwis were among the 14,000 left behind.

New Zealand casualties in Greece

A total of 291 were killed, 387 were wounded and 1862 were taken prisoner.

The final act in the battle for Greece took place on the island of Crete. Many of the New Zealanders evacuated from the mainland landed on the island, and their commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, was soon appointed to command all the British forces there.

The Battle for Crete began with a German airborne invasion on 20 May 1941. Hundreds of German paratroopers landed from an armada of transport planes. Crucial mistakes by New Zealand commanders in the key sector at Maleme opened the way for the Germans to seize Maleme airfield and bring in reinforcements. With German air power unchallenged, these troops soon turned the tide the German way. The Allies pulled back, and eventually most made their way over the White Mountains to the small port of Sfakia on the south coast.

New Zealand casualties on Crete

A total of 671 were killed, 967 were wounded and 2180 were taken prisoner.

The Royal Navy conducted yet another successful evacuation, despite suffering heavy losses to German bombers. Most of the New Zealanders on the island were taken off, but about 2000 were among those who remained to be taken prisoner.

Learn more about the Battle for Crete on NZHistory.net.nz.

Questions

These questions are suggestions only. You can choose those that are relevant to your interviewee, and add your own, too.

Background questions

  • Could you tell me your name, date of birth and place of birth (don't forget to spell out names)?
  • Tell me a little about your life before the war (parents, school, childhood, early working life).
  • Did either of your parents serve in the First World War? (If so where? Did they talk about it? What did they tell you?)
  • Where were you when you heard about the outbreak of war? What were your feelings?
  • What were your reasons for enlisting (joining up)?

Life in the army

  • What unit were you assigned to? What was your rank? What training did you have in New Zealand?
  • When did you leave New Zealand?
  • How did you get to Egypt? Did you have a send-off before you left? What was life on board ship like?
  • When did you reach the United Kingdom/Egypt? Describe your arrival.
  • How easy or difficult did you find adjustment to army life? (discipline? officers?)
  • Describe your living conditions. (Ask about such things as food, accommodation, alcohol, leave activities and sport.)

Greece

  • How did you arrive in Greece? Where did you arrive? Describe your arrival.
  • Where were you posted? How did you get there? What were your duties?
  • What was it like being in battle for the first time?
  • Defence of Greece has been described as a series of rearguard actions. Is that a fair description in your experience? (Reasons?)
  • Where did your unit abandon its equipment?
  • Was Anzac Day observed in Greece? (Describe the feelings and general morale.)
  • Describe your evacuation from Greece. What did you take with you? What was it like climbing aboard transports? Did you experience attack by Luftwaffe?

Crete

  • What was your physical shape at that time?
  • What were your expectations regarding Crete?
  • Describe discipline on the march from Chania/Heraklion to camp. Were you allowed to set your own pace? Why?
  • Where did you camp?
  • Was there a curfew? (Reasons?)
  • How was morale at this stage?
  • What kit did you have (plates, knives, tools, transport, blankets)?
  • What rations did you have?
  • What preparations for battle did you make? What training did you receive at that time?
  • Did you have any contact with Cretans before 20 May? If so, what? What was their reaction to you?
  • Did they fight the Germans with you?
  • What contact did you have with Cretans after retreat? What contact did you have with them after evacuation?
  • What was the state of communications (before 20 May and after)
    • between HQ and your battalion?
    • between battalion HQ and your unit?
    • between units?
  • Did you know what was going on?
  • What was the countryside like? (Between Maleme and Chania there is a series of ridges running to the sea separated by narrow and deep gullies.)
  • What effect did this have on the way you fought?
  • What weapons did you have with you when you arrived in Crete?
  • Did you get any more after you arrived? Where did you get them from?
  • What was your reaction to air attacks before 20 May?

The German airborne invasion

At Maleme there was 45 minutes of bombing, then about one hour of quietness; at 7:50 a.m. the Luftwaffe bombed for an hour, then Junkers and paratroops arrived.

  • On May 20, when the paratroopers started to arrive, where were you?
  • What did you see?
  • Can you remember what your thought? Can you remember what you felt? (powerless?)
  • How did you react?
  • What happened to you?
  • Can you remember the sirens on the Stukas? What was their effect?
  • What other sounds can you remember (anti-aircraft guns, bombs, machine guns, rifles, grenades, arrival of gliders)? Describe these.
  • What were the paratroops carrying?
  • Someone wrote that the fighting on Crete consisted of 'a lot of bayonet work'. Is this your experience? Can you tell me about that? What were your feelings at that time?
  • Can you tell me your feelings about killing?
  • What were other men's reactions to killing?
  • Did you talk about it with each other afterwards?
  • What did you do about taking prisoners?
  • Did you search bodies? Why? What were you looking for (tobacco, identification)?
  • Describe your experiences over the next few days.
  • Were you involved in counter-attack at Maleme? If so, describe what happened and what you did.

After the invasion

  • Were you involved in other combat on Crete? If so, describe this.
  • What was the fighting like compared with Greece?
  • How did you get food during the battle? What sort of food was it? Did you get water?
  • Did you have confidence in your immediate commanders?
  • Was there a feeling among the men that the defence was being mishandled by senior officers?
  • Were such views expressed in the days after the battle, or is it something you’ve come to later?
  • Were you wounded? How? What happened to you then?
  • Were your friends/mates wounded? How did you cope with them/what did you do?
  • What sort of supplies were there for wounded? Water?
  • What did you do with your dead mates?
  • Did you have to walk/fight through places where corpses lay? Can you remember the smell?

The retreat

Retreat route: 40 miles total, inland to Vryses, then a climb to a saddle at 2500 feet marked by ruins of a Frankish castle keep, dips into small plain of Askifou, sharply down to the sea

Describe your experiences on the retreat over the mountains to Sfakia:

  • What things were left behind?
  • How much food and water did you have?
  • How much sleep did you get? Were there people falling asleep while marching?
  • Organisation: Were officers able to keep command? Were there difficulties keeping units together? Why?
  • Were you scared? Were others around you scared?
  • What can you remember of going through Imbros Pass?
  • Would you rest? How often?
  • How was morale?
  • Were tempers short? If so, how did this show itself?

The evacuation

Describe the process of your evacuation:

  • Was there any panic? How was this dealt with?
  • What’s your opinion of the navy?
  • Did you expect that you would be evacuated?
  • What were your feelings when you knew that you weren't going to be evacuated?
  • Were you making plans to escape into the hills? What happened after the surrender? (Were you machine-gunned from the air while waiting to go back to Chania?)
  • Describe the march back to Chania.
  • What were your feelings at that time?
  • Why was Crete lost? Do you think anyone was to blame?
  • What’s your opinion of the air force?

Arrival in Alexandria

  • Describe your journey there (what ship, food on ship, crowding, bombing by Luftwaffe).
  • What do you remember of your arrival in Alexandria? What were your feelings?
  • Were you met by Peter Fraser? What was your reaction to that?
  • Describe what you did after your arrival.
  • How did you get clean? What was that like?
  • How did you fill in time while in hospital convalescing?
  • Were you restless? Were you over-tired? Were you thinking about battles?
  • Did you believe at that time that the Germans could be stopped?
  • Army life after Crete – where were you posted next?

North Africa suggested questions

If taken as a prisoner of war (POW)

POW suggested questions

The end of the war

  • Where were you when you heard that the war had ended?
  • What was your reaction?

Returning to New Zealand

  • How did you get back? When?
  • How long did it take?
  • When you arrived in New Zealand, who met you?
  • Were you given a community reception?
  • How did it feel to see your family again?
  • Did New Zealand seem different to you after your time away?

After the war

  • How was your health?
  • Did you ever experience nightmares?
  • How long did they continue after the war?
  • Do you still ever have them?
  • Did you drink much alcohol after the war?
  • When did you go back to work? Describe how it felt to be back at work.
  • Did you feel as though you had anything in common with people who had not been fighting?
  • Did you join the RSA on your return? (Reasons?)
  • What level of involvement did you have?
  • Did you join the Crete Veterans' Association or the ex-POWs Association? (Reasons?) How were these different from the RSA?
  • What was your attitude towards conscientious objectors?
  • What did the battle for Crete mean to you at the time?
  • What does that battle mean to you now?
  • Why do you think it is so well remembered by those who fought there?
  • What did you do on Anzac Day? Has that changed over the years?
  • What does Anzac Day mean to you?
  • What are your feelings about war in general?
  • What is the impact of your war experiences on your life?

How to cite this page

Notes and questions, Greece/Crete, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/from-memory/notes-and-questions-greece/crete, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated