When looking back at the Battle of Crete, age has not wearied 103-year-old World War 2 veteran Alf Carpenter. Carpenter served in the second Anzac Corps during the battle of Crete and at just 22, was a Sergeant Major in 2/4th Battalion when German paratroopers landed on the Greek island on May 20, 1941.
The ANZAC soldier vividly recalls the shock he and his soldiers had on their faces as the sky was painted black by thousands of parachutes as well as the hum and noise of the aeroplanes ahead.
“It was our job to stop the Germans,” he said. “With the paratroopers landing that was new for us. We were used to the enemy being on the ground, at ground level. But to see people coming at us from the sky was another thing all together. But we didn’t fire at them until they fired at us.”
Carpenter's reflections provide additional context to the events analysed in the SBS documentary Battle of Crete, which tells the story of the famous WWII battle. With the help of documentary footage from the day, CGI, expert contributors, and survivors, revisit the island of Crete and its battlefields to tell the story of this unique and bloody battle and its aftermath. The first episode (Sunday January 17 at 5:30pm on SBS) examines claims that New Zealand commanders made tactical blunders that lost control of a key airport in the second day of the battle, allowing the German forces to gain a crucial foothold on the island.
Carpenter had been deployed to Heraklion under the command of British Brigadier Chappell and it was his battalion’s job to defend the perimeter of the aerodrome. The veteran recalls just how difficult it was for the Australians during the battle of Crete as the German soldiers outnumbered the allies.
“Yes, we lost a few, that’s why we started firing at them that day,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of people there compared to what the Germans had. The Germans were well equipped, they were motorised, they could get faster to different places. We were just overcome by many more troops than what we had. But we did alright when we were there. We went in there unprepared. When I say unprepared, we had very little air force or any air force at all in the finish. We had to do all our own ground work and I am quite convinced that in our section at any rate we had no trouble holding our section.”
After 10 days of bloody battle Allied forces were forced to evacuate off Crete’s south coast in a dangerous operation that cost the lives of almost 1000 British seamen and Allied soldiers.
Australian digger Carpenter (who does not appear in the documentary), was also involved in one of many of the bloody and heroic rear-guard actions that helped slow down the German advance, before he and thousands of his fellow Australian soldiers managed to evacuate Crete.
“We got picked up at Heraklion on the Imperial which was a British Navy ship,” he said. “She got a near miss just getting out of Crete. Then we had to get on another destroyer which come along side us and we jumped from one ship to the other. Then when we got away a bit, they (the Germans) put a torpedo into the Imperial.”
Episode Two of Battle of Crete - Evacuation (Saturday 23 January, 5.25pm on SBS) delves into more detail about how Allied forces were forced to evacuate off Crete. Carpenter remembers how the 400-mile trip across the Mediterranean to Egypt was a perilous journey.
“We were lucky to get to Alexandria without any trouble,” he said. “We got bombed along the way but the Skipper used a zig-zaggy ship to miss the bombs coming from the dive bombers. There was a lot of Australians on there. When the other ship came along side us we had two lots of troops on board. You only had standing up room. But any bombers that came at us had all our ammunition thrown at them.”
Nick Andriotakis is the Secretary of the Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign. As a child he was told stories about how his then eight-year-old father took food to a Commonwealth soldier during the German occupation of Crete in 1941.
“He was given food by his parents to take to this soldier who was hiding in this cave which was above our village as he was trying to exist,” he said. “A lot of Cretans and other Greeks on mainland Greece supported the allied soldiers at great risk to their lives who they saw as heroes coming from a distant land to defend Greece against the Nazi invasion.”
From his time fighting in Greece Australian World War Two soldier Carpenter has a close bond with Greece, its soldiers and its people.
“I am a member of the Pan-Cretan Association of Australia and I am a life member of Greece and Crete Committee of Australia,” he said. “I’ve been back to Greece five or six times. They were very thankful for what we did and they treated us with nothing but hospitality. They looked after us very well indeed. And the Greek soldiers are very good fighting soldiers as well. I fought alongside them and there is nothing wrong with how they annihilated their enemies.”
Battle of Crete episode 1 airs on SBS Sunday 17 January at 5:30PM. Episode two airs on SBS Saturday 23 January at 5:25pm. Both episodes will be available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.