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An Evzone from Crete, WW II Hero

Nikos Peroulakis, & son Angelo at the Monument at Alikianou
Nikos Peroulakis, & son Angelo at the Monument at Alikianouauthor

An “Evzone” is a Greek soldier who is member of what was the most elite military fighting unit in the Greek military, formed from top members of the military branches. Evzone recruits were required to meet strict standards, both physical and mental, just one of which is that they are required to be at least six feet one inch tall. Until after World War II, the Evzones were for all practical purposes the Special Forces of the Greek army, and also served as the Presidential Guards, which are the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Flag Guards, and at President’s residence. Sometime after the war, the elite Special Operations Evzone units were re-designated as Mountain Raiding Companies (i.e. Special Forces), and the Special Forces are no longer designated as Evzones to my understanding. Today, the Evzones are the specialized Presidential Guards wearing the traditional palace guard uniform.

It was an Evzone, at the time when they were still Greece’s Special Forces, Konstandinos Koukidis, who was the Guard of Honor of the Greek Flag on the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis when the Germans occupied Athens in 1941.
As the Germans climbed the Acropolis to raise the Nazi swastika flag, Koukidis was forced to lower the Greek flag, but then he wrapped himself in it and jumped off the Acropolis cliff to his death. He refused to allow the Greek Flag to fall into the hands of the enemy. However, many months before this heroic sacrifice by Koukidis and the terrible occupation of Athens by the Nazis, the heroic effort by the Greeks in turning back the invading fascist Italians at the northern border with Albania took place.
Evaggelos Peroulakis was born in the village of Vatolakos, Chania, Crete in 1910. Vatolakos is a small farming village near Alikianou, in the foothills of the White Mountains. It is in an area with lush with productive fruit and olive trees. There, he grew to be a palikari, a term which is hard to translate into in English with one word, but in its truest sense means a young man who is strong, athletic, masculine, God-fearing, honest, brave, patriotic, and of good character.
Like all Cretans, Vaggeli Peroulakis carried the undying desire for freedom permanently engraved inside his soul, burned there by the hundreds of years of continuous struggle by the people of Crete against foreign occupation: by the Muslim Saracens, the Venetians, the Muslim Ottoman Turks and their Egyptian vassals, and the Nazi Germans. He was recruited from the Greek army to be an Evzone around 1928, although records are too scarce to be certain of the date. After undergoing the rigorous Evzone training regimen, he served for two years as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens. He returned to Vatolakos around 1930 or 1931.
There, he married his love, Argyro Varypatakis, and they had six children, the oldest of which is Nikos Peroulakis. Nikos is a charter member of the Pancretan Association of America (PAA) Chapter named in honor of his father, the Evaggelos Peroulakis/ Mikis Theodorakis Association of Cretans of the Mahoning Valley, Ohio. Argyro Varypatakis’ mother was the sister of PAA President Ted Manousakis’ father. President Manousakis knew Vaggeli Peroulakis well, and when he learned that the chapter had been named after him, he sent the following note to this author:

“Congratulations on an excellent choice for the chapter name. Peroulovaggelis, as we used to call him, was a stand-out person in the village; the most dedicated of family men, the hardest of workers, and an example for the community. He was married to my first cousin, Argyro, so we were certainly family. But more so, Vaggeli was my childhood mentor, and the one individual whom I tried to emulate every day of my formative years. It warms me to see that this incredible man is recognized by our PAA community.”
–Ted Manousakis, PAA Past President.

When the Italians invaded Greece through Albania on October 28, 1940, Vaggeli was returned to military duty in a Cretan unit, and immediately sent to the Albanian front. The winter of 1940-1941 was bitter cold, and in the high mountains of northern Greece and southern Albania the snow and cold were unbearable. Peroulakis and the Greek soldiers endured frostbite, ragged clothing, wounds and meager supplies. Shoeless, heroic Greek women also suffered frostbite and exhaustion carrying food and supplies on long treks to their hero fighters in the mountains, and suffered again carrying the wounded and dead back down to the villages. In spite of these conditions, they inflicted blow after blow on the invading Italian fascists and won the very first victory of World War II for the Allies against the fascist Axis powers.
Evaggelos Peroulakis was promoted to the rank of sergeant in Albania, because he was a natural leader. To achieve NCO status such as this in the Greek army was a tremendous achievement for a farmer from a small village, who did not have a formal higher education. His fortitude, strength and courage held his unit together, fighting and pushing back the fascists. They rested only when there was a rare lull in the battle, in flimsy tents with little food, enduring the constant, bitter cold winds.
On one occasion, a Cretan soldier, Nikolaos Daskalakis suffered a very severe case of frostbite in his extremities. He told his fellow Greeks to leave him to die there, but Peroulakis refused, and instead, recruited two other soldiers and organized a rescue. Daskalakis was carried to one of the tents, where Sergeant Peroulakis administered first aid, which included warming and rubbing the afflicted extremities and persuading the soldier to sip on cognac to help warm him. In another incident, a horse soldier named Kostis Vounakis, who was delivering food to his fellow Greeks, had his horse literally collapse and die from the cold. Vounakis lay in the snow slowly freezing to death not far from his horse, and was nearly dead when Sergeant Peroulakis found and rescued him.
Later, Vaggeli Peroulakis was severely wounded in the forehead and had to be evacuated from the battlefield, first to a makeshift first aide tent, then later to a hospital. While he was recuperating, he saw two of his fellow villagers walk past, George Theodorakis (who had baptized his son Nikos) and Pavlos Galanakis, who were happy to greet him, not having known of his fate after his wound. After they exchanged greetings, Theodorakis and Galanakis left and bought cigarettes back for Sergeant Peroulakis.
Shortly afterward, he was evacuated to Crete, and was present there on May 20, 1941. On that fateful day, the Nazi German Paratroopers began falling from the sky like demons of death upon the Cretan people in Hitler’s airborne invasion of Crete. For the first time in the war, however, Hitler’s soldiers experienced civilian resistance. The freedom-loving Cretans, along with their British Commonwealth allies, devastated the Nazis by inflicting an unheard of casualty rate on them of over 40% of the initial glider and paratrooper force of about 15,000 Germans (approximately 6,000 casualties, killed and wounded) in just the first two days of the invasion. It was the first and last time Hitler used paratroopers in a mass invasion.
On the day of the invasion, Vaggeli Peroulakis had taken his son Nikos, then age six, with him to the family orchard to work. They were there on May 20th when they heard the German fighters, bombers and transports approaching. Nikos recalls that his father kept him safe by leading him, running and dodging from tree to tree to escape the bombs and strafing of the Germans.
A major battle occurred at the town of Alikianou immediately after the Nazi invasion, in which all the local Cretan soldiers, including Sergeant Peroulakis, took part. In this battle, a small, hastily assembled Greek regiment held off the German army that outnumbered them 7 to 1 for several days, allowing the escape and subsequent evacuation of thousands of British soldiers from the south of the island, who would otherwise had been trapped, killed or captured. Professor Tony Kocolas writes of this epic battle:

“[the British had made the]…mistaken assumption that the location [Alikianou] was not that important and there would be no major German assault in that sector. The 8th Greek Regiment was commanded by Colonel Peter Karkoulas; the battalion officers were Major John Valegrakis and Major George Vamvakis.
“Contrary to British expectations, the Germans concluded that Alikianou was very important, and were going to take the village and the surrounding foothills. A German Battalion was to push aside the Greek resistance and take the position. The Germans suffered a rude awakening. As expected, within a couple of hours the 8th Greek Regiment ran out of ammunition. The brave men of the 8th Regiment, mostly local Cretan recruits, solved their ammunition problem with several fearless bayonet charges against withering fire. The Greeks captured enough German firearms and ammunitions to continue the fight for several days. Additionally, the brave people of Alikinou fell on the German invaders with anything that could be construed as a weapon. The Greek battle cry was ‘The German Will Not Pass.’
“…After seven days of epic resistance, the Greek forces at Alikianou were finally dispersed by an overwhelming assault that included the support from the German Air Force. It was not until May 27, 1941 that German forces could advance into positions that had been held by the 8th Greek Regiment.”

During the ensuing occupation by the Nazis, Sergeant Peroulakis lived and fought in the mountains with the other resistance fighters. He would only return to his home in the village when his wife would signal to him that the coast was clear by taking down the large white sheet that she kept hanging in the yard when Germans were present. Like many other Cretans, at great risk to themselves, Sergeant Peroulakis and his family provided food, supplies and bedding straw to many British Commonwealth soldiers on the run to escape the Germans,.
The Nazis were infuriated by the heroic Greek resistance at Alikianou, as well as by the strong Cretan civilian resistance, and engaged in mass murder of civilians from the area villages in reprisal. When these Nazi massacres of Cretan civilians took place, Vaggeli Peroulakis was with the resistance fighters in the mountains. Of course, the “brave” Germans only murdered civilian non-combatants: mostly older men and male children too young to fight; a total of 197 were murdered. There were two massacres comprising what are known as the Alikianou massacres. (from Wikipedia):

2 June 1941
On 2 June 1941, Alikianou was surrounded by German forces. 42 male civilians were marched to the church yard and shot in groups of ten in front of their relatives. On the same day and during similar operations, 12 and 25 civilians were respectively executed in the nearby villages of Ayia and Kyrtomado.

1 August 1941
General Alexander Andrae, who succeeded General Kurt Student as the Commander-in-Chief of Fortress Crete, continued Student's campaign of retaliations. Two months after the first executions, the Germans gathered 118 civilians at a bridge over the Keritis River near Alikianou and shot them after forcing them to dig their own graves. Twelve of those killed were from Alikianou whereas the rest came from the nearby villages Fournes, Skines, Vatolakos, Koufo, Prases, Karanou, Lakkoi, Orthouni, Nea Roumata and Hosti.

The father of Sergeant Peroulakis’ wife Argyro, George Varypatakis, as well as his brother John Varypatakis, were among those murdered by the Germans on August 1, 1941. They were both in their 60’s, and were rounded up by the Germans at gunpoint with other doomed villagers at the Saints Peter and Paul Church at Vatolakos, loaded into the back of a truck and taken to Alikianou to their doom. Peroulovaggelis’ cousin Stylianos Peroulakis , age 51, was also among the doomed.
Nikos Peroulakis, then a young boy, recalls his Uncle George waving to him with his sariki (“patseta” as Nikos refers to it), which is the traditional black headband worn by Cretan men, as he was being taken away. Today, a monument stands near the spot where these massacres took place, engraved with the names of the victims, including Vaggeli Peroulakis’ brother-in-law, father-in-law, and cousin.
Later, as the Germans realized they were going to lose the war and were preparing to withdraw from Crete, things calmed down somewhat in the village. The Nazis who had been posted in Vatolakos were withdrawn to Chania, and life began to return to normal.
One of Nikos’ memories of his father during this particular period was that when he was taking a load of oranges to Chania with a horse and wagon, a German truck ran him off the road causing the cart to overturn and knocking Vaggelis into a river bed. Some local children helped him load the oranges back into the wagon.
Evaggelos Peroulakis was well known in the region for his mantinades, the rhyming four line couplets that Cretans sing or recite to celebrate, or to mourn, or to remember. Many of these mantinades are created spontaneously. Vaggeli was the subject of a magazine article titled “Of Struggle and Romance - The Mantinades of Crete”, written by Helen Frangedis-Mondloch, which appeared in the March 1995 issue of The World and I magazine. His son Nikos today knows many of them, and we are privileged to hear him sing them on festive occasions.
After the war, Sergeant Peroulakis was posted in Vatolakos as a guard to prevent any possible trouble by communists. However, for the most part, Crete was spared the brunt of the vicious civil war of Greece. A proud supporter of Eleftherios Venilzelos, he continued to cast write-in votes for the Great Ethnarch for many years after Venizelos’ death in 1936.
Evaggelos Peroulakis lived in Vatolakos with his family for the remainder of his life, and passed away there in 1998 at age 88.