SIXTY-EIGHT years after World War II ended, it’s surprising any military secrets still survive.
By May 1941, the fierce Battle of Crete had been lost. After a heroic resistance, the besieged Allies were in full retreat across the Mediterranean island. Wave after wave of enemy aircraft had strafed and bombed them.
The brutal victory had required the largest German airborne attack in the war, involving more than 22,000 men, a third of whom, mainly paratroopers, became casualties.
Crete became the graveyard of these airborne forces while the British Royal Navy had three cruisers and six destroyers sunk, and 16 more ships including an aircraft carrier badly damaged.
A month earlier in the face of a Nazi invasion of mainland Greece, the outnumbered Greek and Commonwealth forces, numbering about 40,000 men, retreated south to the island of Crete.
Then the British, Australian and New Zealand troops had to be evacuated again, being ferried out to waiting warships under continuous heavy bombing by German aircraft.
Fast forward now to Crete more than six decades later. Sydney archaeologist Michael Bendon was working in the ancient seaport of Phalasarna, in north-west Crete, in 2008. It was far from the theatres of war in 1941 at Maleme and Heraklion (both vital airfields), Rethymnon and Sphakia, to the extreme south of the island.
For Bendon, it was hard, exhausting work under the burning Cretan sun, helping excavate this ancient harbour town destroyed by the Romans in 67BC and now about 100metres inland.
Founded as early as 6BC, this lost city of antiquity was only rediscovered by the outside world in the 19th century.
During a break, Bendon took a dip in the inviting aquamarine waters and stumbled across a modern puzzle.
To his amazement, just below the surface on the sandy bottom was a a World War II shipwreck, 52metres long. But its identity was unknown.
He soon discovered there was a second nameless ship lying further out in waters at a depth of 20metres. He was intrigued and it became the start of a five-year investigation.
All he could discover was that two ships had arrived under the cover of darkness in May 1941 only to be dive-bombed in daylight by German Stuka fighters.
Directly hit by bombs, both ships sank, apparently without any crew being killed.
Bendon later returned to Crete on self-funded research, interviewing villagers and diving at the mystery sites to take measurements. In London, he trawled through war records and diaries trying to find clues to the ships’ identity.
His breakthrough came in 2010 in the London archives at Kew, when he discovered both were of British origin and listed as lost ‘‘somewhere in the Middle East’’.
The rusting, unnamed hulks were the remains of Landing Craft Tank (LCT) A6 and LCT A20 of the type that saved thousands of Australian and New Zealand lives in the Mediterranean campaign.
“They were once secret vessels. No official photographs were ever taken as they were the first of their kind,” Bendon said.
“The vessels were prototypes proposed by and developed by Winston Churchill. These were British tank landing craft Mark 1.”
Bendon said each LCT craft carried up to 900 soldiers (more than double a normal passenger load) from Greece to Souda Bay in Crete in April 1941.
And now, the archaeologist is keen to find a Newcastle World War II veteran in his 90s from Australia’s 2/4th Battalion to interview about the evacuation from Greece in the hope that the veteran can shed fresh light on the episode.
“I think it quite likely he came off Greece in one of these actual LCTs [the A6]. In wartime, the retreating soldiers weren’t being loaded from wharves, they would wade out to the waiting vessel, or it would run right up on the beach to load, or drop off 600 to 800 soldiers,” he said.
Bendon discovered that the missing LCTs he found at Phalasarna had been on their way from Souda to Sphakia to help evacuate Allied troops when they were destroyed.
He plans to publish a book based on his research and had already penned 60,000 words.
“It’s to be called The Forgotten Flotilla, with a subtitle something like ‘Anzacs and their landing craft of WWII’ and meant for a general audience.”
And Bendon already has a keen ally, a man he found in England.
“I’ll call him John. He’s the 94-year-old actual Royal Navy commander of the LCT A6. A lot of books now about the Crete campaign use the same WWII pictures, but John has got a lot of his own.
“I also tracked down some wartime German newsreel of an LCT being attacked at sea. John went crazy after seeing it. He said, ‘That’s my ship’. I doubt it, but it could well be the A6.
“John said he took the Allied rearguard soldiers off Crete in 1941, some 600 men, but then had to take them to another island and hide them, to come back later because of the risk of being bombed by German planes in daylight at sea.
“The New Zealanders also smuggled two village girls off Crete disguised as soldiers during evacuation. They were afraid of German reprisals against them if they’d stayed.’’
Bendon said he also found a World War II Stuka aircraft buried in the sand in the sea off Phalasarna.
“I haven’t had time to get to it yet. There’s also a Messerschmitt fighter lost in the sea off Maleme where a propeller blade and cowling were found. The local divers know what’s there, but can’t dive unless there’s an archaeologist with them,’’ Bendon said.
“And each year, the 1941 battle is still commemorated over in Crete. In fact, the governor of Crete has invited me to be the keynote speaker at its May 2014 ceremony.
“I was speaking to an official about it and he said: ‘All we need now as well is a book to help us remember’. And I said something like: ‘Funny you should mention that’.’’