An emotional retracing of his father’s wartime journey in Crete has left Raglan resident Graham Hubert with a deep appreciation of what it meant to be an Anzac on the other side of the world.
He and wife Barbara’s recent overseas trip also took in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but it is the reception they got as New Zealanders in the Grecian island that left the most indelible impression. “The Crete people just love Kiwis,” says Graham.
No sooner had the couple arrived in Souda Bay — a big deep-water harbour where 70-odd years ago Graham’s father Harry had first set foot on Cretan soil as sergeant of the 2 1 Battalion — than they were struck by an “absolutely beautiful” Anzac memorial not unlike that of Gallipoli in Turkey which, says Graham, people still flock to two generations on.
The 2 1 Battalion had been deployed to Crete’s Maleme airport because, explains Graham, Hitler deployed paratroopers in huge numbers to take the airfield. From the airport the battalion was told to withdraw 10 kilometres further on to the small village of Galatos.
“My father retreated to this place seriously injured with shrapnel wounds in his liver,” says Graham. And he says Harry always spoke highly of the Cretans because they looked after the Anzacs — dressing their wounds, washing their clothes and providing them with food, all after dark so as not to attract the attention of the German paratroopers.
When Graham and Barbara got to Galatos in their rental car they were directed to the local coffee shop and saw for themselves just how significant the Anzacs, especially the Kiwis, were to the town’s history.
“The whole shop was like a museum,” says Graham, with poppies and photos of Kiwis, smiling, under the olive trees. It was then, Graham says, he realised how important the Anzacs had been. He added a few of the 20 poppies he’d brought with him to the shop’s collection. Others he’d left at Gallipoli in Anzac Cove and the rest at Souda Bay and Maleme.
Graham’s daughter had also done a similar trip some years earlier when Harry was still alive. His father would’ve liked to make the trip himself, says Graham, but his mother wasn’t keen.
It was actually not until after Harry’s death five years ago that the family found all his war medals wrapped up in greaseproof paper.
“He never wore them, he was not proud of it (his war effort), though he did what he had to do — for the Commonwealth,” says Graham.
Graham’s found his own personal pilgrimage very emotional, he adds. Being there “it really hits you”, he says.
From Galatos the battalion had walked and trucked through the White Mountains to the other side of the island of Crete, says Graham, and was evacuated to Egypt where his father was hospitalised for a time before fighting in the Battle of El Alamein.
After leaving Crete the Raglan couple experienced three other of the Greek Islands — the romantic part of the trip, says Barbara — of which Santorini was “heaven”.
Other highlights included an early morning hot air balloon trip over Cappadocia in Turkey where they floated above what’s known as the land of the fairy chimneys because of its “amazing” rock formations.
They explored the caves of Petra in Jordan where people once lived. And Graham got to float in the Dead Sea in Israel while Barbara was busy taking photographs for the Chronicle.
In Egypt “everything was a highlight”, they say, from the Great temple of Abu Simbel, to the hundreds of pyramids, to their own camel-riding experience. “I’m glad I did it,” says Barbara, “but it was a funny sensation.”
As Graham says, the camels walk with an “unusual gait” which makes for a somewhat unusual motion. And they grunt and groan. Also, adds Graham of his own learning curve, he never knew until then that the camels in Egypt have one hump while those in Turkey have two.
Travelling on through Israel the couple found the country’s culture, religion and politics very interesting.
Both are now happy to be back in Raglan with the green grass and the chorus of birdsong that greets them each morning.