New Zealand’s Official History of World War II: Where were the Cretan Women?

Martyn Brown revisits New Zealand’s official history of World War II to understand how and why Cretan women have been elided from the historical memory.

Peter McIntyre, The Blitz, Canea Crete area defended by New Zealanders, May 1941 (2014), Archives New Zealand.

Beginning in the 1940s, New Zealand undertook a massive post-war project of writing an official history of World War II. The Battle for Crete, which took place on the largest and most populous Greek island over 12 days in May 1941, included forces from New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and Greece. More than 2000 New Zealanders were taken as prisoners of war during the Battle for Crete, and more than 600 died. Some were sheltered in the hills by Cretans, who continue to remember these events today.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Battle for Crete became the centerpiece of national storytelling in New Zealand. As Dan Davin, the accredited historian of the volume on the battle, was told by the head of the official war history project in December 1947, the ‘Crete story … can be one of the heritages of our people.’

Despite the support and contributions of the Cretans themselves, the important role of women was omitted from both the New Zealand state narratives of the much-discussed battle as well as the subsequent Cretan resistance against the occupying German and Italian forces. This blog considers the way in which these women were expunged and details one current private initiative to place them in the historical record.

The Historical Significance of the Battle for Crete

By early 1941, the victorious Nazi war machine had conquered most of Western Europe. In March, its string of victories increased when it overwhelmed the Greek and commonwealth (mostly Australian and New Zealand) forces on the Greek mainland. However, it nearly suffered its first defeat of World War II when it attacked the Greek island of Crete, situated 160 km south of the mainland.

A Greek stamp featuring the Battle for Crete, illustrating armed Cretan women in the foreground, Cretan men, and invading German paratroopers. Image provided by the author.

Thousands of its elite airborne troops and overwhelming numbers of combat aircraft were met by poorly-armed Greek and Commonwealth soldiers as well as Cretan civilians, some just with axes and cleavers. The Germans were contemplating giving up, only deciding to continue when they successfully landed several transport planes on one of the island’s airfields. The Germans’ eventual victory meant the Cretans endured years of occupation.

The 1953 official New Zealand historical volume on the battle acknowledged the Cretans, especially how they assisted their soldiers to return to Allied controlled Egypt during the enemy occupation. It stated that, if discovered, the Cretans would face massive reprisals, ‘and all of them to incur a lasting debt to the generous courage of the Cretans who shared meagre supplies with them and risked burnt homes and slaughtered menfolk.’

According to historian Ian Frazer, who is co-author with Sean Damer of On the Run: Anzac Escape and Evasion in Enemy-Occupied Crete (Penguin, 2006) and one authority on the Cretan resistance, the number of allied soldiers on the run numbered up to 1000. But the point has to be made that, while the men may have been the primary victims for deliberate execution reprisals, this relegated the women’s contributions to the shadows.

The Battle for Crete: Women as Warriors, Mothers and Providers

Examining the New Zealand and British archives and newspapers reveals that Cretan women were considered far from being passive participants during their struggle for survival during the Battle for Crete.

I was first alerted to the forthright nature of Cretan women when I was researching my new book, Politics of Forgetting: New Zealand, Greece and Britain at War (2019), in London-based archives.

Just before the German attack on the island, local British representatives on Crete witnessed what happened when the commander of the Cretan army division arrived after leaving his troops to their fate on the mainland. He was met by a furious crowd in which women had played a ‘leading part,’ venting a particular fury: ‘Where are our sons?’ The Greek general was actually killed by the Cretans – but it was a retired policeman who did the deed.

The character of Cretan women also seeped into the New Zealand newspaper reporting at the time. On 10 September 1942, for example, Dunedin’s Evening Star carried a story based upon information from a relief official who could enter enemy-occupied Greece. During the battle, the article, ‘Guerrillas in Crete – Women’s Heroic Role,’ related:

10,000 to 15,000 women fought the invaders from rooftops. When their ammunition was exhausted the fiercer women jumped from roofs on to the Germans’ backs knifing them.

Another story showed how resistance took a humanitarian form. On 20 September 1945, the Otago Daily Times related the experiences of a veteran who had been captured on Crete and was temporarily held in a prisoner of war camp. The article, entitled ‘Harsh Treatment – Germans and Prisoners,’ emphasised:

Many New Zealanders and Australians owed their lives to the magnificent courage of the Greek women who braved the threats of the German guards to give bread eggs and fruit to the prisoners.

After the war, New Zealand war researchers had the benefit of interviewing many veterans who had been hidden – some for years until their escape – by the Cretans. Women were going to be included in the official history, as this segment from the draft version of the official1954 publication Escapes in Crete, held at the Archives New Zealand – Wellington, included this assessment:

‘One man discovered the interesting fact that women do most of the work in Crete; the men’s cry to their escaper guests was always ‘Let the women do it’, the men coping with the heavier outdoor work only, about a quarter, it was estimated, of the whole of the labour of running a Cretan farm and household. The women were generally more courageous than the men also.’

However, recollections such as these would never see the light of day. This section was deleted from the published version of the official New Zealand war history. Such was the depiction and concealment of the Cretan women in the public eye and the construction of historical memory.

A New Documentary Project

During the process of writing my book, I interviewed John Irwin, a New Zealand-based video documentary maker who focuses on the Australian and New Zealand experience in Greece during World War I and World War II.

Irwin, a producer at Wild Sweet Productions, New Zealand, is working toward rectifying this lack of awareness about Cretan women. Traveling regularly to Crete since 1989 – making a total of 21 visits – has offered him considerable insight into the experiences not only of New Zealand soldiers, but also of these women, during World War II.

His first documentary, In Rich Regard (Wild Sweet Productions, 1991), explored the experiences of the New Zealand veterans who had been hidden by Cretans from the occupying Germans. His current work in progress, Out of Their Own Hands: Women of Crete and the German Occupation 1941 – 1944, focuses on the experiences of the women of Crete.

An encounter in the western Crete village of Kandanos in 2006 was the catalyst for Irwin’s project. As he recalls:

‘I met and interviewed Vasiliki Sartzitakis, a formidable 90-year-old with great strength and personality. Her sincere and compelling stories of resistance activities and her family’s suffering in the occupation years had remained largely untold.’

The village had been razed to the ground by the occupying Germans in retaliation for the ambushing of a German unit by Cretan civilians during the Battle of Crete. Psychological barriers can impede the sharing of these women’s experiences, despite their physical bravery and overcoming adversity. ‘Occasionally,’ Irwin recalls, ‘women will allow us to record their stories but then become hesitant about granting permission to use the material (often because they’ve spoken frankly about that which has remained unspoken for so many years).’

‘With a focused and open dialogue,’ Irwin continues, ‘every testimony adds valuable insight into civilian trauma and the occupation experience, with constant examples of the resilience, generosity and courage demonstrated by ordinary women responding to extraordinary times to ensure the survival of family and community.’

Souda Bay War Cemetery, Crete, Greece, 2019. Photograph by Ввласенко. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Since the video-interviewing began, Irwin has recorded the wartime experiences of 30 Cretan women and 15 men. He is currently on Crete again. What helps with these oral interviews, including locating subjects, are the bonds that exist between Cretans and New Zealanders. This is based on the gratitude Cretans have for those who fought on their behalf and, in return, the debt New Zealand veterans feel they owe the Cretan villagers who fed and sheltered them during the occupation. It is not unusual for the children and grandchildren of New Zealand’s Cretan veterans to make their way to the island every May during annual commemoration events. They visit graves of family members and reconnect with Cretans who helped their forebears.

These entanglements between Greeks, especially Cretans, and the New Zealanders is something that was obvious during my New Zealand research. Letters to the government, veterans’ association and requests from New Zealand officers to assist with somehow compensating the civilians lasted for years. Inside the Wellington administration there were comments about how they knew, but could not measure, that there was a community-based dynamic with the Greeks.

However, there was sometimes disagreement in New Zealand, especially about how gratitude could be materially expressed. For example, should New Zealand establish a clinic for the children of Crete, and if so, where? Some wanted mainland Greece to have a humanitarian aid priority over Crete, which is the reverse ranking the state gives in its official war history.

Irwin also communicates the attitudes about generational differences. ‘The interviewees often commented on how pampered and disrespectful today’s generation are,’ he reflects:

‘I think there is a world of difference between wartime rural Cretan values and the values of their city equivalents today. The question is, how would today’s generation respond to crisis on the scale of a foreign invasion and occupation, something we can only speculate about.  (It’s a big topic because issues such as urban drift and lack of opportunities in rural village communities come into play. Arguably many of those who ‘subsist’ and work hard in rural villages today still share similar values).’

Such views are for sociologists and social psychologists to dissect. For a historian like myself, however, the wartime relationship between New Zealand and Greece, especially Crete, as well as the disparity between what is officially remembered and what is commemorated today, was much more complex. It involved state and international power relations, as well as similarities and contradictions amongst the New Zealand national leadership and popular political protests at home. Remarkably, the New Zealand official history of the war also omitted some aspects that could easily support its public projection as a small, idealistic nation seeking democratic reform in Greece.


Dr Martyn Brown is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at The University of Queensland. His book, Politics of Forgetting: New Zealand, Greece and Britain at War (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019), appeared last year. Brown has also co-produced a radio documentary on the mass Greek armed forces uprising of 1944, ‘Greek Passions in April 1944‘ (London Greek Radio, 2018).

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