Pilgrimage to Crete
by W.E. Welbourne

reviewed by John E. Roper

“The head of the Antoniadou family finds Arthur unconscious in a patch of melons. At an enormous risk to himself and his family, Mr. Antoniadou carries Arthur back to the safety of his home.”

On January 10, 1940 the first convoy of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops sets sail for Egypt to support the Allied efforts during World War II. Among the soldiers is a young sapper, or combat engineer, named Arthur, who is determined to return to Australia in one piece. However, after some initial success the ANZAC forces are defeated in Greece and retreat to the island of Crete. Arthur is captured and becomes a POW on June 1, 1941. He manages to escape three times, twice in Greece and a final time from a German work camp in Czechoslovakia in 1945. Finally, six years after following the call to battle, Arthur is able to realize his goal of returning home whole and unharmed.

Intrigued by his Uncle Arthur’s stories of his war exploits, in 2014 the author decides to follow in the young sapper’s footsteps and see for himself the places he has heard about. Along with his travelling companion, Avril, they arrive in Greece, where they meet Rachel, who had been 15 when her father found and rescued Arthur after his first escape. After visiting several spots in Greece, they board a ship and tour various ports of call in the Mediterranean including Sicily, Malta, Crete, Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey. Flying out of Istanbul they land in Budapest and begin their exploration of cities such as Bratislava, Vienna, Nuremberg, and Prague before heading back to Australia.

Welbourne has a keen eye for detail and writes well of his experiences. Much of the appeal of his book is in the wealth of historical information he offers about the places he and Avril visit. This and the plethora of pictures he includes from the locations they see make for a colorful travelogue.

Bill Welbourne, who publishes under the name W.E. Welbourne, is familiar with travel writing. He recently authored Cruising the Latin Tapestry, his thoughts on touring South America. However, Pilgrimage to Crete is something entirely different because it’s also personal. With it, he follows the tracks of a World War II uncle who was captured by the evil Germans during the World War II Battle of Crete.

Although Welbourne’s publisher may list this as a military history book, it is far more of a historical travelogue instead. It’s a travelogue because Welbourne gives us detailed descriptions of everywhere he went. He tells us what he ate, where he slept and also some of the crazy places he had to drive to. He has a keen eye for detail, and helps those of us that aren’t blessed with the opportunity to travel the world with wonderful mental images of where he has been.

History is obviously a passion of Welbourne’s. For instance, his chapter titled The Holy Land includes his thoughts on an Ernie Rae lecture about Palestine during the time of Jesus, as well as another lecture about the Crusades from Professor Jonathan Phillips. These inclusions reveal just how much Welbourne wanted to make this journey an educational experience as well. Yes, we learn much about his uncle and his various travails. However, it was almost as though Welbourne utilized this trip as an excuse to do a little historical and geographical discovery on his own.

Each chapter in his book also has a date attached to it. Welbourne wants us to feel like we’re making this trip right along with him. While in The Czech Republic, in a chapter of the same name, Welbourne is careful to point out some of the churches and important landmarks along the way. Once again, if you’re expecting a World War II book, you’re going to get so much more.

In addition to Welbourne’s writings, this book also includes a few helpful maps. One is a pilgrimage route map, which gives a visual to Welbourne’s writings. Another is a sketch map of the prison work camp at Mahrisch Trubau (Moravska Trebova), which was drawn from memory by a survivor and details the horrible place where Welbourne’s uncle Arthur was held during the war.

Certainly after taking this journey and writing about it, Welbourne has come a long way from the boy who — admittedly, didn’t even know he had an uncle that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

This book’s most poignant moment involves the description of how Arthur jumped a train in Greece to escape from the Nazis. He was found unconscious in a patch of melons by the Antoniadou family, a group of Good Samaritans. Arthur continued to write to them after the war, and in 1991 was even able to visit them. This family continued to write to Arthur’s widow, Jean, even after his death in 2002. Welbourne, too, is able to visit the family that was so kind to his uncle.

Touching moments like these are what make Pilgrimage to Crete greater than some of its genre categorizations. This is the story of how men survived great conflicts while also making lifelong friends. It may make you want to brush up on your World War II history. Moreover, it may just give you the urge to do a little world traveling on your own.