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- John ('Jack') Frederick King
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- 18 September 2004
War Veteran Returns to Crete
2nd World War veteran John King (aged 87) returned to Crete — the scene of his most vivid war memories this summer with the help of the ‘Hero’s Return’ lottery fund. Sadly John’s wife Betty was not well enough to travel to Greece and remained in the couple’s flat in Wells; however John was accompanied by his two sons Roger and Chris who each joined him for a week.
John was a Lance Bombardier in the Royal Artillery in World War II. In 1940 he was posted to Souda Bay in Northern Crete. He helped man a 37 mm anti aircraft gun; initially one of the two installations to protect the British ships in the bay from enemy aircraft. However, in May 1941 — some 9 months after John’s unit was set up — the Germans invaded the island. It was a daring attack by airborne paratroopers who landed to the west and east of the island, preceded by a bombing campaign; the allies had no air defence after the 6 Hurricanes who were protecting the island withdrew to North Africa. The Germans by contrast had 800 planes over Crete. By 26th May the situation had become hopeless for the allies and the order was given to retreat. British troops were told ‘Every Man for himself!’ John and his friend walked along the north shore of Souda Bay having decided to travel south across the island. Eventually they found a deserted rowing boat; filled to overflowing the boat was rowed across the bay. Sadly there was no room for John’s friend Louis Glendy, John promised to return for him. Unfortunately the boat sank as it reached the south shore and John never saw Louis again. The men then started an epic march to the south coast of the island, a journey of some 40 miles over mountainous terrain. Enemy planes constantly bombed and fired on the road with the allied troops scattering to the left and right. During one such raid John, parched and hungry found an egg in a cornfield and devoured it. He avoided putrid water drawn from a well and the temptation of drinking alcohol from deserted Tavernas, which other men fell pray to. Eventually under cover of night John arrived at Chora Sfakion after 2 1/2 days marching. Final arrival at the coast was through a deep gorge, which was regulated by allied troops. John — by this time hardly able to walk — joined a group of ‘walking wounded’ soldiers who were allowed down the gorge. As they reached the seafront they were urged on by a sailor who told them the ship must leave dangerous waters by dawn. John was taken aboard the HMS Ajax and offered food and comfort. The ship managed to reach Alexandria despite airborne assaults from the Germans, which sank several ships including the troopship the Ajax was accompanying. Having escaped Crete John was in due course posted to the Suez Canal where he spent a number of months defending the Canal from enemy attack before retuning to England on compassionate leave after the death of his father.
The ‘Hero’s Return’ holiday to Crete was a great success, John and his son hired an English-speaking guide Anna to explore the Souda Bay area. John first visited the war cemetery where he was relieved to discover that his friend Louis had not been among the victims of the Battle of Crete. There were however dozens of other casualties from the Royal Artillery in the hundreds of neatly tended graves. Anna the Guide was able to introduce John and his son to a local Greek man Dimitris who well remembered May 1941; he said ‘It was not war it was madness!’. Dimitris had a high regard for the British and told tales of taking a wounded British soldier to the German hospital and said he had no regrets that the British evacuees had taken his mule. Anna, John and son Roger then explored the north shore of the bay where John’s gun instillation had been 60 years previously. However a NATO base meant that there were sections of the shore that could not be visited. Local knowledge indicated there had been 2 gun installations on the north shore; one near the village of Sternes and one near the village of Aroni. Anna talked at length to local man Anastasakis who was able to pinpoint the location of both sets of guns, which the party visited. All the evidence pointed to John having been based near Sternes where the longer established gun had operated. John was also able to visit the village square of which he has vivid memories. In 1941 he had found himself there during an air attack. He was pulled inside a door by a local man who took him to shelter in trenches in his garden. There John found a fellow British soldier with a serious head wound which John bandaged with his last field dressing. On this trip John was fairly confident he found the same door he was dragged inside.
The following day John and Roger visited the Naval Museum in the town of Chania at the head of Souda Bay. John recalls spending a period of the campaign as batman to an officer in the town, based in former Government buildings. At the Naval Museum there are several rooms dedicated to the ‘Battle of Crete’ in May 1941. John was able to stand next to a dummy in full British battle dress and view numerous contemporary photographs by war photographers. He was moved by poems written by serving soldiers about the carnage. He read contemporary newspaper cuttings including the Daily Telegraph from 21/5/41 ‘A German High Command communiqué said dive bombers sank ships in Souda Bay, set fire to a cruiser, attached aerodromes, destroyed 6 Hurricanes and put 6 gun batteries out of action’. John was particularly moved to see a photo of the HMS Ajax, which carried him to safety. Staff at the museum told John and Roger of the annual celebrations in Chania each May (15th — 21st) to commemorate the Battle of Crete. Many allied, German and Greek veterans attend to remember the dramatic events of the campaign. Many Greeks were executed by the Germans as collaborators after the successful invasion of the island.
Finally John and son Roger were able to drive much of the route the veteran took in May 1941 when he walked from Souda Bay to Chora Sfakion to make his escape. John well remembered walking the tortuous, winding mountain road in army fatigues and plimsolls (his boots having been destroyed in the bombing). At every rise he hoped to see the sea, but could only see the next rise ahead. John found the gorge by which he eventually descended to the south coast of the island (although the modern road takes another route) and caves where some of his comrades took shelter by the roadside until they were able to join the ship. He spent time staring out to sea where the HMS Ajax had been waiting to transport him and others to safety.
Reflecting on his holiday John said “I have found it very moving to revisit the dramatic events of May 1941, it has revived powerful memories of the most moving events of any life. I think it is very good use of Lottery funds to help war veterans visit the scenes of their active service and I hope people who read this account will realise what incredible sacrifices were may in World War II. I often reflect on the futility of war, but it is said that because the Germans lost so many of their crack paratroopers in the Battle of Crete, the invasion of Russia by the Germans was unsuccessful and the invasion of Britain by our enemies not possible”.
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