The Battle for Crete

Page 10 – Battle for Crete commemorations

Soldiers from New Zealand, Australia, Britain and mainland Greece, along with Cretan civilians, fought unsuccessfully to repel German invaders during the Battle for Crete in late May 1941. Each year on the anniversary of the battle, locals, veterans and dignitaries gather in Crete to remember and honour those who participated in the fighting. 

Early commemorations

The battle was first commemorated at the end of the Second World War, when New Zealand soldiers returned to Crete in late September 1945 to hold a memorial service at the Suda Bay cemetery. The anniversary of the battle has since taken on a growing significance for New Zealanders.

In 1977 more than 100 Māori Battalion veterans and their whānau attended commemorations of the battle in Crete during a pilgrimage to Second World War battle sites and cemeteries around the Mediterranean. They were among a party of 600 men, women and children from Australia and New Zealand who received a huge reception in Crete. The veterans relived the conflict, revisiting places where they had fought and in some cases having moving reunions with Cretan guerrillas who had guided them through the mountains.

In 1981, the 40th anniversary of the battle, New Zealand was represented at commemorations in Crete by a small delegation led by Minister of Defence and Second World War veteran David Thomson. The delegation spent a weekend on the island, paying their respects at memorials. The veterans revisited the sites where they had fought.

Milestone anniversaries

Subsequent commemorations have witnessed an increased New Zealand presence in Crete.

Crete memorials in NZ

The Battle for Crete has been commemorated through the gifting of olive trees by the people of Crete to New Zealand communities in Whāngārei, Rotorua, New Plymouth and Christchurch, and in the creation of the Greek-NZ memorial in Wellington, the foundation stone for which was laid during a commemoration of the battle in 1991.

The 50th anniversary of the battle saw a New Zealand contingent led by Minister of Defence Warren Cooper, accompanied by members of the New Zealand Defence Force and 74 veterans, travel to Greece. After a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a street parade in Athens, the New Zealand party flew to Crete to participate in a week-long programme of events. Commemorative services were held each day at memorials around the island, veterans were hosted at an evening reception, and the New Zealand national team took part in a rifle competition with their Greek, Australian and British counterparts.

In addition, a foundation stone was laid for a memorial park at Galatas and a commemorative plaque to New Zealand and Australian soldiers – one of four placed at battle sites on mainland Greece and Crete – was unveiled at Hania by Opposition defence spokesperson Peter Tapsell. Official New Zealand Army Artist Ion Brown travelled to Crete for the 50th anniversary and later completed a painting based on a scene he witnessed during the commemorations.

Ten years later, Prime Minister Helen Clark led a New Zealand delegation to Crete for the 60th anniversary commemorations. She was accompanied by four secondary school students – the winners of an essay writing competition about the Battle for Crete – members of the New Zealand Defence Force and 20 New Zealand veterans of the battle.

The New Zealand group planted two pōhutukawa trees at Galatas as a symbol of the friendship between the peoples of New Zealand and Crete. Helen Clark also viewed a plaque marking the site where New Zealander Dudley Perkins was killed by German machine-gun fire while fighting alongside Cretan partisans in 1944. With her was Dudley’s younger brother Neville. The close of the commemorations was marked by a re-enactment of the German air invasion of Crete in which paratroopers dropped on Maleme airfield before a mock battle ensued.

Recent commemorations

More recent anniversaries have seen a decline in the number of veterans able to attend commemorations in Crete. For the 70th anniversary in 2011 a group of five made the journey alongside some 200 other New Zealanders. In 2016 four out of the 12 surviving veterans of the battle travelled to Crete for the 75th commemorations. They watched Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae unveil a memorial plaque to Anzac soldiers on 42nd Street. The question of who should fund veterans’ travel expenses to Crete has been raised recently. The government contributes a one-off sum of $2000 for veterans to attend ceremonies, meaning that they have to cover their own costs to make multiple visits to the island.

As the number of veterans dwindles, more family members and other New Zealanders are attending commemorations in Crete, maintaining the strong New Zealand link with the island. In 2014 some 85 Māori, including 30 secondary school students, were present at the 73rd anniversary commemorations. The numbers attending the annual New Zealand commemorations at the National War Memorial in Wellington are also likely to increase, especially on milestone anniversaries. 

How to cite this page

'Battle for Crete commemorations', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/the-battle-for-crete/commemorations, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jun-2016

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