Re­search for a novel about an Aus­tralian sol­dier in World War II leads Gre­gory Day to a mem­o­rable en­counter on Crete

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

ON Mon­day, May 15 last year, as the peo­ple of Europe watched anx­iously to see if one or the other of the lead­ers of Greece’s po­lit­i­cal par­ties could cob­ble a coali­tion govern­ment from the chaos of the May 7 elec­tions, I sat in a very friendly and pro­duc­tive meet­ing on the ter­race of the His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum of Crete in Her­ak­lion with Costas Ma­malakis, the cu­ra­tor of mod­ern his­tory at the mu­seum. I was in Crete re­search­ing a novel, the main char­ac­ter of which is a sol­dier from Co­lac, Vic­to­ria, left be­hind on the is­land, as many were, when the Ger­mans oc­cu­pied Crete af­ter the no­to­ri­ously ad hoc, bloody, and non-lin­ear bat­tle in the spring of 1941. I’d heard a lot about Ma­malakis be­fore­hand, with re­spect to his en­cy­clo­pe­dic mind and his enor­mous col­lec­tion of rem­nant mil­i­tary hard­ware — the ‘‘ cut­lery of war’’ — that was strewn across Crete by both Axis and Al­lied troops dur­ing the bat­tle and its long af­ter­math.

Costas is a man of youth­ful en­ergy, not just for his spe­cial­ist sub­ject but for life in gen­eral. We got on well, and af­ter our ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion on the ter­race of the mu­seum, he did me the hon­our of in­tro­duc­ing me to an el­derly man, thin and tanned and with a fab­u­lously svelte mous­tache, the son of one of the most im­por­tant re­sis­tance lead­ers, or an­dartes, of the war. This gen­tle­man had been only a boy when his fa­ther was ex­e­cuted in front of his eyes by a Ger­man fir­ing squad for as­sist­ing left­over Al­lied troops at large on Crete. He re­mem­bers well his dad’s dis­tress as he shouted for the soldiers to take his lit­tle boy away so that his fu­ture would not be scarred by wit­ness­ing the ex­e­cu­tion. Alas, to no avail.

The three of us had a long meet­ing on the out­door ter­race of the mu­seum, with Costas trans­lat­ing for me, un­til even­tu­ally, af­ter the older gen­tle­man had de­parted with lots of hand­shak­ing and good hu­mour (es­pe­cially when I com­pli­mented him on his mous­tache), I told Costas that I was leav­ing Her­ak­lion the next day to head high up to the La­sithi plateau in the Dikti ranges, fol­low­ing the foot­steps of my fic­tional sol­dier, and then across to Cha­nia, where I planned to visit the Al­lied mil­i­tary ceme­tery at Souda Bay, par­tic­u­larly to see the grave of John Pendle­bury, the Bri­tish arche­ol­o­gist who helped or­ches­trate the Cre­tan re­sis­tance net­works and who has cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion for the past two years.

I asked Costas if there was any­thing else I should see in Cha­nia, the city where the first Ger­man para­troop­ers de­scended on the is­land. I wasn’t in­ter­ested in mon­u­ments as such, I told him, but some­thing that would best give me a taste of the at­mos­phere in that sec­tor of the is­land dur­ing 1941.

He thought about it for a long time and then sug­gested I visit Ho­tel Doma, an old build­ing east of the town cen­tre that had been com­man­deered first by the English as the Bri­tish con­sulate in 1939, and then by the


Nazis im­me­di­ately af­ter they took con­trol fol­low­ing their dra­matic and un­par­al­leled para­trooper in­va­sion.

Af­ter a rather in­trepid few days among the vul­tured heaths above the La­sithi plateau, the fol­low­ing Sun­day, May 20, I woke up in my 600-year-old Vene­tian ho­tel room on the har­bour in Cha­nia and set out with Costas’s mud-map in search of the place. It was a long Sun­day morn­ing walk through de­serted and unglam­orous parts of the town, un­til even­tu­ally, just be­yond the lo­cal soc­cer sta­dium, I spied a large, worn-out neo-clas­si­cal build­ing look­ing out over the wa­ter on Eleft­he­rios Venize­los Street. Mount­ing the cir­cu­lar sweep of stairs up off the street, I was im­me­di­ately con­fronted in the ho­tel foyer with the large and now rather bat­tered oval in­signia of the Bri­tish con­sulate on the fac­ing wall.

A young woman greeted me from the concierge desk, and also an im­pec­ca­bly turned out el­derly woman, who I pre­sumed to be a ho­tel guest. I was asked if I wanted a room but ex­plained I had come only to look at the build­ing for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons. Both women seemed be­mused by this but then I men­tioned some of the de­tails Costas had told me about the Bri­tish con­sulate, how it was co­man­deered by the Ger­mans as their head­quar­ters on the is­land, and the older woman nod­ded and said, ‘‘ I know, I know’’, or some such.

‘‘ And,’’ I went on, ‘‘ this morn­ing is the an­niver­sary of the in­va­sion, when hun­dreds of Fallschir­m­jager para­chutes sud­denly ap­peared like a mul­ti­coloured night­mare, drop­ping out of the dawn sky . . .’’

‘‘ Yes, yes,’’ the older woman replied with a very kind smile, ‘‘ I was here. On that day. You see, this is my house.’’ It turned out Ho­tel Doma was in­deed her fam­ily house, the house in fact where she was born, and that she was a young teenager on that spring day in 1941 when all hell broke loose.

I leapt back into my box, of course, blush­ing to the soles of my feet. Then, re­mark­ably enough, she asked if I’d like to join her up­stairs for a cof­fee. She could tell me all about it, she said. But first she would show me the gar­den.

I fol­lowed her through the small foyer and out into the sun­shine of a small walled gar­den, which, she ex­plained, used to be con­sid­er­ably larger, in­cor­po­rat­ing a vine­yard and ex­ten­sive grounds. Even so it was a beau­ti­ful space in the clas­sic Mediter­ranean style, with gyp­sum stonework and vivid flow­ers, plenty of shade and dapple, and a limpid, de­cid­u­ous air.

Off to my right I no­ticed a grey-haired woman pulling at weeds by the back wall of the house. I pre­sumed her to be staff, un­til Irene (we had in­tro­duced our­selves back in the foyer) ush­ered me across the gar­den to meet her sis­ter. Ioanna stood up from her weeds, less neat and tidy than Irene, her hair undyed and longer, and not so care­fully ar­ranged, but

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