I, Achilles Petrakakis, knowing death to be not far distant, take up my pen to write this account in the 79th year of my life, at my house in the village of Galatas on the island of Crete on the 17th day of May, 2007.
For days, that May of 1941, the sky had been full of German planes, Messerschmitts and Stukas, dive-bombing and machine-gunning the British positions. That morning the attacks had been especially heavy. I was pruning olive trees in our family’s grove when I heard the first sound of the German armada coming from the north. I had never seen so many planes. Ugly planes with bodies like railroad cars, some of them towing gliders. They were flying at about 400 feet, protected by German fighters. The roar of the planes was mind-numbing. Then men began jumping from the planes and the first parachutes appeared, white, blue, and yellow.
British anti-aircraft fire brought down many of the planes. I saw one coming down on fire; parachutists were jumping from the doorway but their parachutes were burning and they plummeted to the ground.
There was a British post at the other end of the olive grove, and the soldiers were shooting the parachutists as they fell. I saw my father dash out of the house with his old rifle—he had dug it up two days earlier—and join in the firing. A glider was coming in at about 300 feet. My father shot the soldier standing in the glider’s doorway. There was a mad scramble at the doorway, then the glider disappeared behind the houses at the other side of the village.
Everywhere the men of the village were attacking the parachute troops as they landed. Only a few of the Cretans had guns. The Metaxas government had ordered all guns surrendered two years before. Most men were armed with sickles, knives, hammers, whatever they could pick up. One elderly gentleman killed a German with his walking stick. The enemy were armed with Schmeisser tommy guns, some of them firing as they descended. Dropping the pruning saw, I ran toward my father. I had not gone a dozen paces when I heard a crashing of branches behind me. I turned and saw that a German had landed in an olive tree where he was entangled in his harness.
I quickly ran to the tree, and began to climb it. The struggles of the German became frantic. He was trying without success to untangle his gun from behind his back. Then I was face to face with him. Perspiration was pouring down his face. He was quite young. I drew my knife. “Bitte, bitte,” he cried to me. I raised the knife, and cut him free.
He fell to the ground, his gun falling a few feet away. I leapt down and grabbed the gun. I could not shoot him, now that I had failed to use my knife. My main thought was that my father would be ashamed of me. I motioned to the German to get up and to raise his hands. He was shaking, and stood up with difficulty. Then, walking three paces behind him, I took him to the British post.
There were dead Germans all around the machine gun position, their parachutes lying on the ground ruffled by the breeze. But there were also two live Germans, both wounded, lying nearby. The British will not shoot a man in cold blood. I knew all the British soldiers, my father had drunk with them at the taverna. And my mother would sometimes send me over with a bowl of goat stew or a bottle of wine. They had made a long fighting withdrawal from the Greek mainland, where they had lost many of their comrades and much of their equipment. They were weary and bedraggled, but their spirits were still high.
The parachute drop had ended now. The British officer removed the German’s dagger and told him to take off his boots and sit down.
The British took the gun away from me. I begged them to let me keep it but they did not understand my Greek, or pretended not to. They clearly did not think it suitable for a boy to have a tommy gun. I was only thirteen years old.
The German pointed to his chest and said, “Ich bin Gottfried Scholz.” He pointed at me and said, “Du?” I told him my name. He put his hands together and said, “Danke shön, Achilles.”
I ended there yesterday. Every morning and every afternoon I go to the taverna in the square for coffee. In winter by the stove, in summer outside under the plane tree. I see my great-grandchildren on their way to school and on their way back. In northern countries, they say people put their old folks away in institutions, something I cannot understand.
I headed back to my house, and found it had been turned into a dressing station. My older sister Elene and my two younger sisters were treating two wounded New Zealand soldiers, one of whom was black, the first Maori I had ever seen. I should say that Elene managed the household, as our mother had died five years previously. An elderly man, one of our neighbors, was lying on the sofa with a bloodstained bandage around his head. He beckoned to me. “Achilles, my boy,” he croaked, “I killed the Yermanos who shot me.”
My sister had the big trunk open and had taken out several sheets which she was tearing up for bandages.
“My God,” I said, “what are you doing Elene? That is your dowry!”
“What good is a dowry if we are all slaves?” she said.
The Germans, who had been separated when they landed, were now forming assault groups and retrieving the weapons canisters that had come down by parachute. We guessed that their object was to get control of Maleme airfield, a few miles to the west. Cretans nosed out individual Germans and killed them; the British took them prisoner. Then night came down and the fighting stopped.
It was a tragedy that there were so few Greek soldiers on the island. The Cretan Division had been sent to Greece the previous year when the Italians invaded, and it had been lost there when the Germans came to the aid of the Italians. Often during the battle, you would hear women say “If only the Division were here!”
Everyone knows now that the British and New Zealanders, who controlled the hill above the airfield, should have attacked that night and overrun the small body of German troops holding out near the field. Not only did the allies fail to take the initiative, due to foul-ups in communication they withdrew, enabling transports to land the next day bringing in German reinforcements. Maori soldiers, however, kept attacking all night. Those who witnessed these attacks spoke of bayonet charges to the tune of blood-curdling war cries.
Sporadic fighting continued the next day. The Germans were incensed that civilians had taken up arms against them. In Kondomari, a village to the west of us, the Germans herded the villagers into the square and picked out three or four dozen men. They accused the Cretans of mutilating captured Germans before or after killing them.
Among those selected was my cousin Manolis, not much older than me. His father had not been chosen, and he went to the officer in charge pleading to take his son’s place. The lieutenant looked at his sergeant and said, “Take both of them.” They were shot in the nearby olive grove.
The Germans had not yet advanced to Galatas, but an old man got through their lines to bring us news of the massacre. That made us more determined than ever to fight as long as we could. It was then that Captain Forrester came on the scene. He was a young British officer, wearing shorts and a yellow pullover; fair-haired, a real Adonis.
The Captain sent me and half a dozen other boys into the houses to call everyone together in the square, where he addressed them. The school teacher translated for him. “People of Galatas,” he said, “The Germans are holding a strong point one mile west of your village. We shall attack them. When I blow two short blasts on this whistle,” he demonstrated, “assemble in the olive grove at the bottom of Cemetery Hill. When I blow one long blast, we attack. Go to your houses and get the best weapons you have.” We call warriors such as Captain Forrester palikaris.
We scattered immediately. Father had found his old bandolier, which he wore across his chest. I grabbed a broom, broke off the brush, and used some twine to tie my knife to the end so it became a spear. Other people found pitchforks, clubs, or spades. The parish priest, Father Stephanakis, was with us, a rifle in his hand and an axe in his belt. There were some Greek soldiers who had rifles. A few of the villagers simply held big stones. But almost everybody had a knife.
The whistle sounded, and all of us, men, women and children, assembled in the olive grove. We could see the German post a hundred yards away. About a dozen soldiers with Schmeissers and a heavy machine gun.
Then, two blasts on the whistle, and with the British Captain twenty yards in front, no tin hat, revolver in his hand, we were over the wall and charging. I was screaming at the top of my lungs along with everyone else. The Germans froze, looked at this mob of two hundred people racing toward them, and broke and ran.
I was obliged to interrupt my writing at this point yesterday, as my daughter Angeliki (she is a school teacher) had been insisting for weeks that I go to the doctor. The doctor, a young woman from Athens, asked me how long I had been smoking and I told her, since I was ten. She said that with my heart I should be in hospital. “Are you in great pain?” she asked. Hospitals! Pain! The Athenians will never understand the Cretans.
Once the Germans had control of the airfield, they brought in transport after transport of troops. The British and New Zealanders were gradually driven back from their positions. The battle was fierce around my village of Galatas, which changed hands three times. Eventually, the order came for the soldiers to withdraw to the South coast, where British Royal Navy ships would pick them up and take them to Egypt. We gratefully seized the weapons they left behind.
My best friend tells me that the fight put up by the Cretans delayed the German invasion of Russia, which prevented Hitler from capturing Moscow before winter set in, which lost him the war.
The years began, the long years of the German occupation. My father left for the mountains to join the Antistasiati, the Resistance. I saw him several times during the war, as I would carry messages and supplies to the guerillas, the andartes, in the mountains. I wanted to join them, but they said I had more value as a courier. I knew the paths into the mountains and the hiding places, if not perfectly, at least better than did the Germans. My proudest moment in the war was when after I had delivered some supplies to the andartes, a kapetan said to me, “Go with God, palikari.”
My sister Elene also worked for the Resistance, and died in the prison at Ayia. I do not want to imagine how she died, but I know she was brave to the end.
Crete was occupied, but the Cretans were never defeated. A German patrol would go out into the country, where it would be ambushed and destroyed. The Germans would send a punitive force to the neighboring villages, which they would often find deserted. They would blow up or burn down the buildings with flame throwers and incendiary grenades, killing anyone they found. And the next patrol, it would be the same again.
What the Germans did not understand was that we had fought the Venetian occupiers and then the Turks, revolt after revolt, massacre after massacre, for almost seven centuries.
Through the last two years of the war, when everyone was starving, we kept the olive grove, and this was a mercy, as with inflation at a million per cent olive oil became the currency. The olive is the gift of God to our stony land. We also owned a small flock of goats, which were pastured on the slopes of Tembla Peak five miles south of us, guarded by a half-mad shepherd and his half-wild dog. This gave us a little meat and cheese, at a time when some of our neighbors were selling their gold teeth for food. The goats had another use. As the occupying troops got hungrier they became more corruptible. By 1943, the exchange rate for a goat was a hundred bullets or two hand grenades.
We gave up the goats a few years ago, but we still have the olives. A man who sells his land—even if it is only a few acres, it reaches down to the center of the earth and up to the zenith—such a man has lost his roots and his place in the world.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of Crete. There will be a big ceremony in Hania, and my best friend
At this point my father suffered a heart attack, from which he did not recover. The man he always called o kalyteros mou filos, my best friend, as the reader will have guessed, was Gottfried Scholz. Twenty years ago, he came to our house and my father recognized him immediately. Gottfried was by then a judge in a German court. After that, he visited in May every year. Each year, his Greek improved. He and my father would sit up late every night, drinking tsikoudia and exchanging experiences about the war. This year, Gottfried came in time for my father’s funeral. In my father’s memory, I have translated his story from the Greek in which he wrote.
Visual art by Ruben van Gogh