Ex-servicemen hailed in Crete as heroes

New Zealand soldiers in Crete, 1941. Photo supplied.
New Zealand soldiers in Crete, 1941. Photo supplied.
Were the New Zealand veterans who visited Crete recently treated shabbily? Not so, writes Robin Klitscher, the immediate past-president of the Returned and Services' Association.

In the series of articles and opinion pieces that have appeared in the media about the recent visit by New Zealand returned servicemen to Crete, I have no argument whatsoever with propositions that the level of financial support from the Government for significant occasions of this kind does need to be reviewed. It should be brought more generously into line with modern realities, including considerations of the age and health of the veterans concerned.

I am disturbed, however, by a second strand running though this material. It implies that this particular visit lacked substance or otherwise fell short of standards, or of appropriate attention to the veterans themselves. Throwaway lines suggesting that the veterans had to sort out their own accommodation, or that they were left out on a limb in other ways, have been typical.

Such implications are simply not true. Their trip entailed two full weeks in Crete, not just a couple of days in capital cities as would have been the case had it been subordinate to or part of a formal Ministerial train. The pace and purpose of an official schedule also needed to be considered.

For many good reasons the trip had been planned independently of Government and in meticulous detail, including accommodation, local transportation, medical support, social support and much other necessary detail by a committee working over two years, inspired and led by former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast.

She also led the tour itself, and very ably so. Her organising committee included some of our most well-versed historians on the Battle of Crete, and several New Zealand citizens of Greek origin. These brought intimate knowledge respectively of the campaign itself, and of the art of achieving objectives in modern Greek and Cretan society.

The travelling group's company - I was among them - included family of the veterans themselves, descendants of other veterans of the campaign, and others having various connections with the signal events of 70 years ago. Importantly and necessarily, two doctors, nurses, and a professional tour manager travelled with the group, full-time. There were four veterans of the battle and more than 50 supporters in total.

The veterans were able to go to places of great meaning to them, free of the restraints of officialdom, and flexibly paced to suit their needs on any given day. They were taken to places that were out of the public eye in 1941 and are still out of it now, notwithstanding that they have a significance to New Zealand and to the nexus with Crete that is less well understood by New Zealanders than it ought to be. The trip's title, "Enduring Legacy", was no accident.

The main battles of May 1941 were fought along the north coast of the island of course. But that was just the beginning for many. The drama then spilled over the high central mountains to the very steep slopes above the south coast and the small, rocky beaches from which the incomplete evacuations took place at great peril. This is where events were finally played out, both immediately and in the ensuing several years. And it is where our veterans had met and matched the greatest tests of their lives.

After the main official ceremonial in the capital Hania (which is twinned with Wellington), this is where we took our veterans to re-visit. This is where they were able once again to mingle with the civilian communities that had sustained them, and their fellows, at great risk and with astonishing generosity.

Looking back, this is where they wondered at their own survival, and shed tears for lost comrades. And this is where others in the party were able to gain compelling insights into what their fathers and grandfathers had been through, and what we owe them.

All of this was done with a thoroughness, an intimacy, a sense of contact with the Cretan people who had also been actors 70 years ago, that simply could not have been achieved had the tour been left in the hands of formal bureaucracies or been shaped to the activities of senior government representatives. Indeed I doubt that the bureaucrats, Greek or New Zealand, could have organised it at all.

Hints that our veterans were somehow relegated to a lesser class, or had to suffer inferior accommodation and the hassle of self-help, are false. They received the warmest of welcomes everywhere they went.

Everywhere they were treated as heroes, with great respect, with equal dignity, and with surpassing generosity. The warmth was particularly evident in several small mountain villages in the south. Nobody in the group that I know of felt at any time that our veterans had been treated dismissively in any way by anybody. Quite the contrary; the welcome everywhere was overwhelming, and the level of understanding of what these old soldiers represented and why they had come back was sobering.

Kerry Prendergast and her committee did outstandingly well both in planning this New Zealand venture, and in carrying it out. If Australian commentators did not see evidence of all this it is not because these very positive things did not happen, but because they were looking in the wrong places for the wrong things.

If there are arguments to be had about sources and levels of funding - and there are - then let us have them by all means. But let us not sully them by innuendo that this particular venture came up short, either in its purposes or in its execution. To imply that it was anything less than a rewarding success for the party of veterans, organisers and followers would be false. If the price of success in an argument about money was to require acceptance of suggestions that Enduring Legacy was a failure, or even a disappointment, that would be a very poor bargain indeed.


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