I read three books concerning Crete this month. First, Swallows Dance by Wendy Orr, set in the Bronze Age. Then I read in tandem both a novel and a history on what happened from 1941 to 1945 to the Cretan population, and to others caught up in the invasion and occupation, including soldiers and resistance fighters of Crete, Greece, Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand (ANZACS).
An innocuous title, thought I, as I selected The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming for a holiday read. Well, it starts quietly enough with young Penelope George in Scotland mainly concerned to avoid being married off by her status conscious mother. But in her search to find her own identity in life, she takes up nursing training, then accepts a chance to join her sister in Athens.
An idyllic time follows for Penelope but as Italian and then German forces invade Greece, she is caught up in a malestrom of war. As she turns 21 she makes hard choices, the courage and cost of which not one male in the story seems to appreciate.
Through this fictional story of her endurance and trials, and those of her friend, Yolanda, and of her love for the infuriating Bruce Jardin, we are taken through the horrors endured by this island. But what, thought I, as I read on, totally engrossed, of this olive tree? All becomes clear eventually.
The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming, published by Simon and Schuster 2013, was inspired in part by Johanna Stavridi, a nurse honoured by the Hellenic Red Cross for her courage and work.
Anzac Fury: The Bloody Battle of Crete 1941, by Peter Thompson, published by William Heinemann 2010, concerns, as you’d expect from the title, the fighting itself during the invasion, particularly that of the ANZACS*. But so we can make sense of it all, Thompson takes in the wider scenario beginning with the fighting in North Africa and the whole Mediterrean.
He describes ordinary fighting men and the astonishing things they did (through use of surviving diaries and letters), and he goes into the personalities and motivations of the commanders and politicians, whose decisions cost so many so much.
*Note for non-Australasian readers:
The term ANZAC was coined in 1915 to denote the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that fought in the disaster known as Gallipoli, a campaign conceived by a Mr Churchill. Turkish, French and British troops died there too in huge numbers, yet the event has a special place in the histories of Australia and New Zealand. Both were new, small countries that had only been self governing for 13 or 14 years. Both suffered shocking losses there that shook the national psyches. The day the troops landed, 25 April, is a day of Remembrance.
When, 26 years later, the troops of these nations were shipped to the hopeless cause of defending Greece, again due to the decisions of Mr Churchill, they were highly conscious that Gallipoli was not far away.
Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.