Friday, June 14, 2013

The Strange Failure of the Battle of Crete Relived

A very detailed and detached documentary film was shown locally this morning on The Battle of Crete in WW2.  This was of interest to me because my parents were involved in the evacuation of British troops to Crete during April 1941 and fled from Crete to Alexandria.

Operation Mercury

Alex Cairns, my father
My mother was a Greek living in Athens and met my father, who was then serving in the Royal Air Force in Signals.  They had a whirlwind romance and married in Athens.  After the wedding, my father was obliged to leave and join his unit while my mother, now a British civilian followed on as best she could.
 They were re-united on Crete and my father, despite his lowly rank, was allowed to leave with my mother when she was evacuated along with some officers and taken to Alexandria where an aunt of hers lived.  They had pity on the newly weds and so he was allowed to sit at mother's feet on the Sutherland sea plane that took them away!

It seems the RAF were not much use in defending Crete as most of the planes had been taken off the island and sent to Alexandria due to the constant German bombing which was already taking place in preparation for the air assault.   Thus the air force was evacuated quite quickly, leaving behind them all their possessions.  We lost some beautiful photographs of my mother (at the time an admired young actress and singer in Greece) and pictures of other important family members, as well as other papers and family possessions that were in my father's kit bag.
However, more importantly, they escaped safely to Egypt and later on I was born in Cairo.  Thus does Fate work.
with my mother, Diana, in Egypt
falling from the sky
dead parachutist

Operation Mercury was the German name for the invasion of Crete by airborne troops, a crack division of  testosterone filled Hitler Youth who had been trained into a brilliant force.  The idea was a daring one and the only airborne invasion ever made.  However, it went badly wrong because surprisingly the parachutes were poorly made.  And even more damaging, the supplies were sent down separately by parachute, and so the men were armed with a pistol and little else.  They made easy targets for the New Zealand troops defending the airfields.  Aiming for the legs so that they would catch the falling parachutists in heart or head, the Allied soldiers made short work of the invading force.  But what shocked the Germans even more was the passionate reaction of the Cretan civilians who issued forth from their villages and fields armed with anything they could find, bill hooks, scythes, walking sticks, clubs, old muskets from the Turkish wars.  Sadly the brutal reprisals, once the Germans captured the island were heavy, a whole region wiped out in retaliation.

General Freyberg
It seems with hindsight that the British with the help of the Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks could have won this battle but communication was almost nil and, as ever, many mistakes made.  Churchill's insistence on using veterans of WW1 like General Freyberg was certainly one mistake.  Freyberg was indeed a hero in that war but what he had witnessed then made his attitude cautious about sending in troops as cannon fodder.  Thus he may have held back when it was necessary to push forward.  But hindsight is full of blame for mistakes made in the heat and confusion and uncertainty of battle.

The saddest part of all this for me was the suffering of the Cretan population during the years of occupation.  They put up great resistance from the mountains but whole villages were wiped out, men women and children. Many of these villages have never recovered from these terrible times. These people are amongst the bravest and the help of the Greek soldiers in holding the enemy while the British army was hurriedly evacuated at last has been little recognised.  The Cretans, as well as the brave Maltese, should also have been awarded the George Cross for bravery in my opinion.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Thessaloniki: An Experience at the American College (Anatolia)

Life never ceases to have surprises.  Thanks goodness.  Mind you, no one wants unpleasant surprises and I've had a few of those as well of late.  But the invitation from the lovely American College in Thessaloniki earlier this year was a wonderful honour and I went there the last week in May to join a most interesting workshop organised by Maria Kyriakidou, the Assistant Principal.  It was called Art, Aesthetics and Power and there were nine speakers including myself.  Topics included several discussions on famous photographers such as Fred Boissonas, a Swiss pioneer of photography, Leni Riefenstahl and her film Olympia which she produced for Hitler's 1936 Nazi version of the Olympic Games, and Edward S. Curtis who photographed Native American  people.
Sioux maiden by Edward S Curtis

By this time the indigenous Americans were safely corralled in reservations and these pictures were staged to make it seem the Indians were still in their former free state.  All the same they are works of art and capture a time long lost. 

Greek village house by Fred Boissonas

Leni Reifenstahl

Other topics covered aspects of gender such as the importance of Mary Magdalene whom the Church denigrated as the repentant harlot and the story of Esmeray, a Kurdish transvestite from Kars.  The last talk was based on interviews and research made in Cyprus on gay, and transgender Cypriot people and 'normal' attitudes towards them.   Some other beautiful photographs of Thessaloniki and its architectural changes in the late 19th - early 20th century due to war, earthquake, fire also formed a most interesting discussion.

Old Thessaloniki
My own talk was on my first  book The Long Shadow which was mainly set in Salonika in World War One. Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale and all the other haunting names of the Western Front are well known events, lived over again and again in films and documentaries.  We conjure up pictures of slithering mud, cold trenches and other harrowing scenes of Western battle zones.  But who knows much about Macedonia and the freezing Vardar winds, the barren but beautiful mountains, the treacherous ravines and raging summer heat filled with malarial mosquitoes?  The troops entrenched in Salonika behind barbed wire barricades called it The Birdcage, hence the title of the talk The Barbed Wire Birdcage.  The Long Shadow is a novel that explores the events of the Salonika Campaign through the imaginary diary of a Red Cross nurse with true as well as fictitious events based on letters, diaries, magazines and books of that period.  We see Salonika as a fascinating, multicultural city described through the eyes of doctors, nurses and ordinary Tommies, many of whom laid down their lives there. 
Talking about the Struma Front
It has been a most enjoyable experience.  Thank you all at ACT for inviting me there.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.