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Greek villager recalls how Anzacs saved him and others from execution during the Battle of Crete

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

By Kristian Silva and Kon Karamountzos

Tears were shed when Vassilis Papadopoulos met Susanna Bessell-Browne, the daughter of the soldier who saved his life.

Seventy-eight years have passed, but Vassilis Papadopoulos still remembers his mother's final words."If anyone survives this, please look after my children."

She gave him a kiss, and moments later was executed by German soldiers.

Mr. Papadopoulos, who was aged eight at the time, also watched his aunt and grandmother die from the machine-gun fire.

He believes he would have been next if it was not for Australian troops who saw what was happening and fired at the enemy from nearby hilltops.

The incident occurred during the Battle of Crete in 1941 in Mr. Papadopoulos's hometown of Rethymno.

German paratroopers landed on Crete on May 20, 1941

'We were waiting to be executed'

Speaking in Greek, Mr. Papadopoulos recalled how 30 men in his village were executed by the Germans and their remains torched. Women, children, and the elderly were then rounded up on a beach and made to wait in the hot sun before the execution orders came in.

"Those that had brothers, sisters, children, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands … we all started saying our farewells to each other," he told the ABC.

Then the firing began."The wounded were yelling out and we tried to help them but we couldn't do anything," he said.

"We held them, hugged them, and waited for them to die. We cleared the sand from their faces.

"We were waiting to be executed."

Australian troops were captured by the Nazis after being ordered to surrender.

Mr. Papadopoulos said the Australians up in the hills began firing at the Germans "with everything they had", eventually forcing them off the beach." The Australian soldiers are the reason I survived," he said."We owe a lot to Australia. Australians should be proud — proud of their patriots. They did their duty."

The heroic story emerges decades later

Mr. Papadopoulos, now 86, had not shared his story with anyone outside his island until a chance meeting with Australian Susanna Bessell-Browne in 2016, on the 75th anniversary of the World War II battle.

Mr Papadopoulos and historians from the Rethymno military museum believe it was Ms Bessell-Browne's father, Major Ian Bessell-Browne from the 2/3rd Field Regiment, who gave the order to fire on the Germans to save the villagers.

Ms Bessell-Browne, who has been documenting her father's military career, said she was "overwhelmed" when she heard the story for the first time.

She said her late father rarely spoke of the horrors of war and had never mentioned the incident.

Major Ian Bessell-Browne spent three years in prisoner-of-war camps.

"It's a very, very special story. It's a great privilege to meet someone like that," she said of meeting Mr. Papadopoulos."It was a very teary experience.

"My father always emphasised, 'It's not about me, it's not about me. I was part of the team'."


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