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63rd Commemoration of the Battle of Crete

63rd Commemoration of the Battle of Crete

Speech to mark the 63rd Commemoration of the Battle of Crete 6.30pm Friday, 14 May 2004 - WELLINGTON

Mihi in Maori and English to guests, including:

· Mayor of Hania, Kiriakos Virvidakis

· Greek Ambassador His Excellency, Evangelos Damianakis

· Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph

· My Parliamentary colleague Mahara Okeroa

· Ladies and Gentlemen

It gives me great pleasure to have you all here this evening. Especially the veterans from the campaign and the Greek and Cretan people who had to live through that terrible time in our joint history and the aftermath of that bloody battle on your soil.

No reira nau mai, haramai, tena rawa atu tatou katoa.

I also want to briefly mention one of my own whanaunga who took part in the battle, survived it, but who was one of the 1800 or so kiwis who were captured and had the misfortune to spend four years as a prisoner of war. I'm referring to Sir Henare Ngata from my own Ngati Porou iwi who lives in Gisborne and who we invited to attend tonight, but because of his age and health he felt he was not able to come.

Engari tena koe, te Papa Ta Henare.

Sixty-three years ago we knew very little about each other but because of a war, which had broken out on the opposite side of the world to our country - that was about to change.

In April 1941 allied soldiers including Pakeha and Maori New Zealanders were part of the force trying to prevent the German invasion of Greece. They failed. They were outnumbered, but fought their way out to an orderly retreat and evacuation. Some of the evacuees were taken to safety in Egypt. But about 42,000 ended up on Crete. They were made up of New Zealand, British, Australian and Greek troops.

The allied command decided that those troops should be used to defend Crete, and that they stood a chance of beating the Germans.

The dry facts of history show that that was not so.

The battle for Crete began on the 20th of May 1941. It started with the biggest airborne attack the world had ever seen, with German paratroops and glider borne troops landing on the island in their thousands.

At first the allies did very well and the Commander of the German airborne troops began to fear a humiliating defeat. But the allied troops were outnumbered and eventually outgunned.

The battle lasted for 12 days and according to some military historians was the most dramatic that New Zealand troops have fought in.

The benefit of hindsight always allows shortcomings to be identified, but no one could criticise the bravery of the Cretans and Greeks who fought for the homeland and the soldiers who tried to help them.

Just over 7,700 New Zealanders took part in the battle for Crete; 619 of them were Maori.

Of the Maori 244 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

But those are the sad facts, and the one thing I know about my uncles who went away to the war and came back, is that they seldom talked about the bad times. Instead they talked about the good times, the humorous and sometimes mischievous things that they got up to.

And tonight I'd like to end my korero with something good and very positive that came out of the battle for Crete, which will unite our people forever.

I am talking about the remarkable tale of what happened to Ned Nathan from Taitokerau, who was one of the soldiers in those dry statistics.

Ned was wounded, very badly. So much so that his cousins who were in action with him reported that he had been killed.

But Ned wasn't going to go that easily. He woke up on the battlefield surrounded by dead and dying men, and somehow he got to an aid station. They patched him up as best they could and marked him down for evacuation to Egypt. This all took a few days but I'm trying to keep the story short.

Eventually he was loaded onto a ship at Suda Bay and it set off for Egypt, only to be sunk by a German bomber. He saw the bombs coming and simply rolled off the ship into the sea.

He made it to shore with other wounded and after several days of hunger, thirst and depravation he was tended by a local doctor and some of the doctor's family.

One of those who cared for him was Katina Toraki. He fell in love with her and held that thought for the next few months while he evaded the Germans on the island, before being caught and sent off to a prisoner of war camp.

He held that thought for a further 3 years while he was in prison, and suffered such ill health that he was repatriated to England. He'd lost the sight in one eye and his injuries included a broken jaw and machine gun wounds.

But the moment he was well enough he sought permission to return to Crete.

He left England on a ship on which he'd scrounged a ride on V J Day, and arrived on Crete shortly after letters he'd written to Katina had reached her. He wasn't sure what his reception would be. He had harboured these feelings for the young Cretan woman all these years, but he had no idea apart from a hunch, of how she might feel towards him.

Well in this room tonight we have evidence of what happened next. Ned and Katina married, and their three sons - Alex, Manos and Evan - are here with us.

Sadly their parents are not.

Maori soldiers got on well with the people of Crete. Ned always spoke of the debt he owed the people who looked after and fed him, during his time as a fugitive. But he also respected his hosts. He learnt their language, and that gave him a freedom Pakeha soldiers didn't have. His complexion too helped, allowing him to walk around and mix with the locals. And as I've already said he not only fell in love, but after the war rather than head home to Taitokerau, he headed to Crete.

So here we are tonight brought together by something tragic that happened nearly sixty-three years ago. Our people met in a time of war, but from that not so good start, we've forged links, which in some cases have resulted in shared mokopuna and whanaungatanga.

There can be no stronger bond than that.

Kia ora tatou.


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