He might have been foot sore and weary but Pilgrim Bandits, Kiwis to Crete’s Sam Cullimore said the trip was brilliant. ‘‘The local Cretan’s were amazing, they love the Kiwis and remember what they did for their villages and country.’’
Sam, along with former Ashburton man Bruce Blackburn and seven other injured former service personnel, walked the trail the Kiwis travelled as they evacuated during the Battle of Crete in World War II.
‘‘The track isn’t marked, there is no signage about the significance of it, a lot of it was walking along the road so this made it hard going, in some ways the eight kilometres where we walked on the original track were the easiest parts,’’ Sam said.
When the Kiwis escaped along this track 82 years ago it was at night to try to avoid being detected.
‘‘Many lost their shoes and had to walk barefooted, with little food, water or shelter, no maps, no escape routes,’’ and they did it a day quicker than the Pilgrim Bandits who covered the 86kms in four days from Maleme to Horon Sfakia through the Imbros Gorge.
‘‘While it was hard for us, we had it easy compared to those in whose footsteps we were trekking.’’
‘‘As far as we could find out we were the first group of people to officially walk the complete track, our feet were knackered and our eyes were opened.’’
The group spoke with mayor’s and other officials about how the track can be improved and how signage telling significance of the track is needed.
One of the commemorations they attended had a very strong tie to New Zealand and this was at 42nd Street. ‘‘The Allied Troops were evacuating, though at this point not officially, this party was like the rear guard and were meet by the Germans, a member of the 28th M-ori Battalion began performing the haka many joined in, this stopped the Germans and on finishing the haka the Allied Forces charged them with bayonets allowing others to escape.’’
Because of the Pilgrim Bandits visit, the mayor agreed to fund the maintenance of the 42nd Street memorial.
Along the way the group meet a local survivor of the Battle of Crete. ‘‘This lady came up to us at a commemoration event in Gallious, she was four at the time,she had been shot in the face by a German soldier, her shoulder injured, as she was being held by hair with her throat about to be slit, another German soldier came along knocked the knife out of the soldiers hand and pushed him down the stairs.’’
‘‘The Cretan’s took incredible risks to help hide and support the Allied Forces on the run and whole villages were massacred for assisting them,’’ Sam said.
They saw evidence of these massacres. The Jewish Americans paid for a memorial listing hundreds from the district who had been killed for assisting Allied Forces.
The trip included attendance at several commemoration events.
The group made three visits to the Commonwealth War cemetery at Souda Bay where over 1500 Commonwealth servicemen are remembered, including 672 New Zealanders.
One was a private visit, the other two for official ceremonies.
New Zealand was represented at the commemoration services by 2nd Secretary New Zealand Embassy (Rome) Emma Murphy and Aide-de-camp Wing Commander Steve Thornley.
At one of the ceremonies at Souda Bay, Sam laid a wreath on behalf of Pilgrim Bandits.
The wreath was not like those laid in New Zealand commemorations and consisted of large palm like branches, ‘‘which made it hard to carry or make stand,’’ Sam said.
At a private remembrance event for the Royal Air Force near Maleme Airport, Bruce laid a wreath.
At one ceremony two of the Pilgrim Bandit members who laid wreaths had family who had fought in the Battle of Crete.
As well as the trek and attendance at commemorations, the group also undertook some volunteering.
One of the locals who was assisting with their trip does Turtle Patrol and asked if any of them would like to join a patrol. ‘‘The turtles are Loggerhead Turtles and they come out of the sea and lay their eggs on the beach and then go back to sea.
‘‘We did join the patrol and our role was to put covers over the eggs to protect them as they are on beach that is popular with tourists.’’
The trip was emotional and at times a challenge, but was a once in a lifetime trip that none of them will ever forget.
Sam looks forward to his next outing with Pilgrim Bandits and in the mean time continues as a trustee, raising funds for their expeditions in New Zealand or overseas.