It was a hot summer’s day in Crete in early June 2008, as we drove from Chania (pronounced “Harnia”) along the northern coastal road to Rethymnon, about an hours drive to the east where my uncle, David Deagon Gulbrandson, had fought the German and Austrian paratroopers in May 1941(1). Outside Chania we turned south to Sfakia which is on the other side of the White Mountains, nestled on the southern coast where he and several thousand men had escaped from Crete on allied naval ships. He had never returned to Crete although the towns of Rethymnon and Sfakia had always had a strange resonance in our family. A fellow soldier of his regiment, and later journalist, Lew Lind wrote of this in his “Flowers of Rethymnon” which was later made into a television film(2). I was surprised to be able to buy this in a bookstore in Chania.
During their retreat, the soldiers had little food or water and some had no boots. One day he shared a raw chicken as fires would have betrayed their position. His regiment and other men had fought bravely at the airfield at Rethymnon and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy paratroopers. Indeed, so severe were the German losses, that the German commander, General Student at one stage thought that the battle was lost. Hitler later told him that they could not afford another victory like Crete. Any German soldier later wearing a citation from Crete (Kreta) was held in great respect.
The 2nd/3rd Field Regiment had just fought an impressive defensive withdrawal in Greece through mountain passes against the overwhelming force including German armoured divisions. My uncle said they often fired at the Germans through open sights, as they were so close. The Greek and Cretan campaign delayed Hitler’s invasion of Russia by six vital weeks. His artillery regiment lost only two of their 25 pounder guns in the 300 mile retreat and in one 12 hour battle they fired 5,600 rounds as a rear-guard action to cover the withdrawing troops. They had to destroy all their guns in Greece before leaving for the defence of Crete where they were issued with Italian field guns captured in the successful Libyan campaign only a few months earlier. Unfortunately they all had their sights missing. Of the three airfields on Crete, Rethymnon was the only one where our forces still prevailed until they were ordered to withdraw. The Germans who had expected little resistance took very heavy casualties.
Ironically, I had been to my uncle’s funeral only the week before our trip to Crete which was to me, as an ex-serviceman, a personal pilgrimage. It is strange how a few momentous days in life can be so pivotal in defining the rest of it. And so it was with him. He didn’t talk about it much but I heard things in snippets like the stench of the bodies in the Cretan sun, the fighting at close quarters and the loss of mates. Of the thirty in his platoon, six left Crete alive.
He died on 23rd May 2008 age 95, the 67th anniversary of when the Battle of Crete was raging in 1941. He was born on 3rd January 1913. For three months he had tenaciously fought his last enemy, failing health and faecal incontinence from adhesions after bowel cancer surgery which had threatened to rob this very proud man of personal dignity. I do not believe the timing of his death was any coincidence. The battle started on the 21st May 1941. Perhaps even he was unaware of this, such is the subconscious mind. His funeral with flag-draped coffin was conducted by the RSL was on 30th May which ironically was the same day in May 1941 that he disembarked from Sfakia. Crete was symbolic of his life and this was his last disembarkation, to the chill sound of the bugle playing the Last Post beckoning him to join the shadowy ranks of those soldiers he had left on the battle field. The ghosts of the past had called him home.
After the fall of Crete, his family had received a telegram stating “MISSING IN ACTION”. However over the ensuing weeks, he and others had made their way across those barren 2,500 metre high White Mountains with precipitous scree slopes and down the Imbros Gorge, 300 metres deep, to disembark one night on the British destroyer, HMS Hotspur to Alexandria, 280 miles to the south across the Libyan Sea. Half of the 6,500 Australians on Crete spent the rest of the war in German POW camps, 274 were killed in action and 507 were wounded.
After Crete, he served in Syria and then against the Japanese in New Guinea at Aitape and Wewak. He even kept the 25 pounder shell which he said was the last one fired in anger in his theatre of the Pacific War. He later donated it to the Mooloolaba RSL along with his numerous service medals along with those from the European Union for his service in the Battle of Britain and from the Greek Government for the Greek Campaign and the Medal of the Town of Rethymnon.
As we drove across the rugged mountains in the hot June sun, the air was filled with the smell of wild thyme, the shrill of cicadas broken occasionally by the evocative tinkle of goats’ bells. I thought of what it must have been like as a soldier on foot with only the hope of freedom and the thought of home to spur you on with azure blue of the sea to the north and a resolve to continue the struggle against what appeared to be an invincible foe. Of all the theatres of war in which my uncle fought, it was Crete and its people which stood out as being special. He told me how he was helped by some Cretan partisans whose brave war of resistance lasted another four long years(3,4). As for many Australians, Crete and its people will always hold a special place in my heart. When we that night checked into our hotel in Rethymnon, the proprietor went out the back and came back with a proud gift for us Australians; a book on the Cretan Resistance written by his late father, Dr N.A. Kokonas MD who had fought in the Resistance(3).
Soon after the Declaration of WW2 my uncle had enlisted in the Army at Brisbane’s Kelvin Grove Barracks on 22nd October 1939 and was the nineteenth man in line that day. As result his service number was QX4019; the “Q” and the “4″ for Queensland and “19″ for the order of enlistment. He joined the artillery unit, the 2nd/3rd Field Regiment of the Sixth Division. In early 1940 they sailed in the SS Queen Mary, which had been converted to a troop ship and which was so fast that she could outrun German U-boats and without an escort. The Sixth Division became known as the “Thirty Niners”, and was then the cream of our fighting men. All were volunteers, six feet tall and over in perfect physical condition. His unit did more training on the new 25 pounders on Salisbury Plain during the Battle of Britain and were then sent to the Western Desert where they had many victories over the Italians.
He was proud of his Norwegian heritage (originally, “Gulbransen”), and visited Norway to see the family house. His grandfather, Edward, a seaman had come to Australia from Christiana (now Oslo) in the nineteenth century. On his mother’s side, were the Deagons from Somerset after whom the Brisbane bayside suburb, Deagon is named and also other yeomen, the Childs family, from Devon who emigrated to the Moreton Bay District, now Brisbane, in 1849 on the ship, the “Fortitude” after whom the inner city suburb, Fortitude Valley is named. They later become pioneers of the wine industry in Queensland and established the Childs vineyard, now the Nudgee Golf Course.
When we finally reached the tiny hamlet of Sfakia, at the bottom of an anxious trip down the winding unsealed mountain road with no guard rails we had lunch at an outdoor taverna over looking the tiny harbour. On the western side of the cove stood a monument flying four flags; Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand in tribute to those who made it to this isolated haven and to those brave sailors who took them to safety each night.
My uncle taught me bushcraft during those happy summers of my teens at his sheep station, “Moonya”, near a hamlet called The Gums, in the Maranoa where he lived for 21 years. He had won these 5,000 acres of wild brigalow country in a soldier-settlement ballot in the 1950′s, having owned a dairy farm called “Holsworthy” at Booroobin outside Maleny, after the war. His father had owned a sheep station called “Loobrook”, at Camp Station, near Tara which was sold because of the prickly pear plague when he was only 17. Before the war, after an education at the Toowoomba Grammar School, he worked as a jackaroo at Winton and Hughenden and I believe this toughness led to his surviving the war. Many times in the years before he died he had required major surgery which I thought would be the end of him but no.
His wife, Mona was equally tenacious and stood by him through thick and thin. He had been a Councillor for the Tara Shire, a member of the Lodge, and a life member of the Country Party and established the Air Sea Rescue at Hervey Bay. He died at Mooloolaba where he had retired.
He had many roles that space does not permit(5). His most lasting legacy to me was his strength and tenacity mixed with pride in himself and his country, his competence and a will to prevail against all odds, including crossing the White Mountains of life. He was born in 1913, the year before WW1 started and his life spanned all the great events of the twentieth century and beyond. I am proud to have been his nephew, to have taken a red poppy from his funeral to Crete and to have drunk a toast to him that day on the sandy cove of Sfakia.
He is survived by his wife, Mona and four children.
- Bishop, L. The thunder of the guns. A history of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment. 2/3 Field Regiment Association. 1998.
- Lind, L. Flowers of Rethymnon. Escape from Crete (1991) Kangaroo Press.
- Kokonas NA. The Cretan Resistance 1941-1945. Graphotechniki Kritis 1991.
- Beevor, A. Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1992) Penguin Books: England.
- Allen, RKA. Obituary: David Gulbrandson. The Courier Mail, page 103, 19-20July, 2008.