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Crete, Greece: Ghostly soldiers on the Battle of Crete anniversary

To help me uncover it, I enlisted the services of a Briton who has been a
resident of Crete for 25 years and offers guided tours of the key sites. For
Tim Powell, tourist guide, musician and lover of all things Cretan, the
Battle of Crete was characterised by the heroic resistance of the civilian
population. “This ‘insurgency’ led to a declaration that for every German
soldier killed, 10 Cretans would be executed — which of course did nothing
to stop them,” he said.

He started the story at the end, the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay
where the main anniversary commemorations will take place. The 1,500
headstones memorialise some colourful characters, none more vivid than John
Pendlebury, an archaeologist with a glass eye who was operating in Crete as
a secret agent when he was killed on May 22 1941.

The battle and its aftermath of guerrilla resistance threw up a cast of such
chaps — suave British secret agents, brave Cretan warriors, even a
monocle-wearing German aristocrat — whose deeds are recorded in some
compelling accounts. Ill Met by Moonlight, for example, recounts the kidnap
of the German General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944, masterminded by the secret
agent (and future travel writer) Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But the Crete campaign also included many ordinary soldiers and civilians
whose names and actions remain unrecorded and for whom the experience was
far from glamorous. One of them was my father, a lance sergeant in the
Northumberland Hussars, who was evacuated to Crete from Athens towards the
end of April 1941 after mainland Greece fell to the Nazis.

He dug in with a force of about 21,000 combat-ready British, Australian, New
Zealand and Cretan soldiers to defend the island. The Germans launched their
attack on May 20 in wave after wave of paratroop drops by parachute and
glider. What followed was a series of military blunders on both sides in
which the Allies managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The key fighting took place around the airfield at Maleme, and Hill 107 above
it, to the west of Chania. Since 1974 Hill 107 has been the site of the
German War Cemetery on Crete, the last resting place of 4,465 soldiers of
whom nearly 2,000 were killed on that first day.

Many fell not to soldiers but to civilians. “The Germans had never seen
something like this in Europe,” explained George Bikoyiannakis, the owner of
the Café Plateia in the village of Galatas near Chania, the site of fierce
fighting. “These people were fighting with farming tools. Even broomsticks.
They would tie kitchen knives to them and use them as spears.”

George runs a little museum next to the church that commemorates the heroic
efforts of locals and New Zealanders to defend the village. The Kiwis are
remembered in the name of a street, Neozilandon Polemiston, which means
“Road of the New Zealand Warriors”. Down a narrow alley, a garden gate has
been fashioned from an old piece of British Matilda tank.

The civilian resistance — by women and priests and as well as men young and
old — offended the Nazis’ sense of how war should be waged and their
commander, General Kurt Student, ordered reprisals to be carried out “with
exemplary terror”. The sites of these massacres are marked by monuments
across the island, some of them displaying the skulls and bones of victims
behind glass.

At Alikianos a marble column and canopy bear witness to one of the bravest
feats of the Battle of Crete, in which 850 lads of the locally recruited 8th
Greek Regiment held out for a week against German onslaught. More than 200
villagers, ranging in age from 14 to 80, were subsequently shot in reprisal.

“The Germans were surprised because the women didn’t turn away,” said Powell.
“They watched their husbands and sons being executed.” The significance of
the action at Alikianos is that it bought the Allies time to organise the
evacuation of Crete. On May 27, realising the island was lost, the Allied
commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg, ordered his forces to retreat
south across the Levka Ori, the mountains that form the snowy spine of
Crete, to an embarkation point on the southern coast.

My father and his fellow Geordies abandoned the ground they held around Chania
and joined the exodus. The route they took, with little or no food, in
rotting boots, under frequent attack from Stuka dive bombers, was nicknamed
the Via Dolorosa. Today you can drive it in your little Nissan or Peugeot
hire car.

In 1941 it was a dirt track that ended in the five-mile-long Imbros Gorge. A
Stuka was shot down as it came in for the attack here. Its propeller is one
of the prize exhibits in the war museum at Askifou, which lies on the Via
Dolorosa. Walking the gorge myself, I tried to imagine the Stuka screech my
father once remarked on, but all I could hear was goat bells.

His reward for reaching Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships evacuated 16,000 men
over four nights, was to be told there was no room for him. He would have to
stay behind and wait to be captured. All told, 5,000 Allied troops didn’t
make it off Crete. None of those left behind was above the rank of
lieutenant colonel.

One eyewitness talked of the “damnable and disgraceful scramble for priority,
a claim to the privilege of escape based on rank and seniority”. Evelyn
Waugh thought it a shameful episode. My father didn’t mention it.

After sitting on the beach at Sfakia I sat down for lunch at one of those
spruced-up tavernas and ordered a plate of gigantes, butterbeans in tomato
sauce. Then I remembered that butterbeans were my father’s favourite thing
to eat. He would have appreciated a plateful as he sat twiddling his thumbs
just a few feet away, waiting to be captured.

He spent the next four years, from the ages of 20 to 24, in various POW camps
in Germany, but he took it all on the chin. The only bit I can remember him
grumbling about was having to march the 50 miles back over the mountains,
along the Via Dolorosa, after being taken prisoner. He said he could have
done without that.

  • A two-day Battle of Crete tours guided by Tim Powell may be booked through his
    website, www.spiritofcrete.com,
    or by emailing him at [email protected]
    The cost is €100/£88 per day plus expenses for groups of up to six.
    Other themed tours of the island are also available.
  • Nigel Richardson stayed in the beautifully appointed Villa Diktamos, located
    in a remote valley near the route of the evacuation march, within easy
    reach of the coast around Kalives. It is bookable through Pure Crete (01444
    881402; www.purecrete.com):
    from £680 per adult and £580 per child (based on a family of four) for
    seven nights, including direct return flight from Gatwick to Chania
    with Monarch Airways.
  • Further reading: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John
    Murray paperback, £9.99).

Jetsetting millionaire couple to divorce in British courts

Mr Vardinoyannis launched separate divorce proceedings in Greece.

Ruling against the husband at the High Court, judge Peter Jackson said moving
around was a feature of the family’s lifestyle – and now the Court of Appeal
has upheld the decision.

The ruling means the divorce battle, which has already run up legal costs of
well over £1 million, will go ahead in front of an English judge.

“Just as there are multinational companies, so this is a multinational
family,” the judge said.

“Their lives have not been tied down by mundane considerations such as
financial budgets, local connections, immigration restrictions or language
limitations.

“Instead, they have lived a protracted modern version of the 18th Century
Grand Tour, gravitating towards places where the international social set
gathers.

“The husband, in particular, appeared to struggle in evidence to
comprehend the concept of ‘home’ as applying to his family at all.”

Mr Vardinoyannis, who describes himself as a private investor, grew up in
Switzerland before attending university in the US and moving to London in
1994.

In 1996, family litigation netted him a “substantial personal fortune”,
Mr Jackson said.

His wife was born and brought up in Brazil, went to school in Switzerland and
America, university in Paris, then attended an art course in London and
worked in a gallery in New York.

After living in London for some years after their 2003 marriage, the couple
moved to Los Angeles.

They then moved to rented accommodation in Sao Paulo, which they used as a
base to travel to mainland Europe, England and Crete, where Mr
Vardinoyannis’ family owned a holiday home.

They returned to London with their two children in 2008, but the husband –
anxious to avoid UK tax liability, Mr Jackson said – moved to Gstaad, where
his wife and children visited.

In his appeal application, lawyers for Mr Vardinoyannis argued that the wife’s
frequent and lengthy trips abroad and the time she spent living away from
the UK meant she should not be allowed to pursue the divorce in Britain.

Rejecting the argument, Lord Justice Thorpe said: “A family such as this
in its travels about the world has to have some secure base.

“The days when affluent people moved from one hotel to another without
maintaining any residence anywhere are long gone.

“The reality is that the petitioner’s residence base was, throughout the
material time, in London.

“The requirement of European law does not stipulate for her presence, but
only for her residence here.”

The family home in Kensington has since been sold, but the former couple
remain in London, where they rent separate accommodation.