Kiwi soldier finds love amid tragedy
Warrant Officer II Ned Nathan was a soldier in the 28th Maori Battalion during World War II. After being wounded badly twice, he was forced to hide from the German Gestapo on Crete. It was here that he met his future wife in a unique love story. Stuff's Michael Fox tells their story based on official archives and an interview with their youngest son Evan Nathan.
Ned Nathan was wounded twice in a losing battle – forced to swim to shore when a boat evacuating wounded soldiers was sunk.
Things were looking bad for the New Zealand soldier. He collapsed in exhaustion and disappointment, weakened by his wounds when he crawled to the evacuation point only to find the troop ships disappearing over the horizon.
Then he met the woman who was to become his wife - Katina, a local Cretan who helped nurse him back to health.
The story of Ned and his saviour Katina is perhaps one WWII's greatest love stories. But their son Evan Nathan says his parents were just normal types, although he acknowledges their story is pretty Mills and Boon - one the family was repeatedly approached by writers and film makers to tell.
"They were a very, very good combination.... they were certainly very devoted to each other," he told Stuff.
Of Te Roroa, Ngapuhi and Ngati Whatua descent, Ned was a Warrant Officer with the 28th Maori Battalion when he was seriously wounded in the eye and hip during the unsuccessful counter attack on the Maleme aerodrome in Crete in 1941.
Originally from Dargaville, he was being evacuated to Egypt for treatment when the barge he and several others were on was bombed off Castelli and sunk.
Ned, aged about 21, was the only man to make it to shore alive.
Hiding from a German patrol, Ned struck out for the evacuation point at Sphakia a few miles away, covering the distance in a short time, he told an official historian in 1946 before returning to New Zealand.
However, disappointment awaited him as he rounded the cliff, only to see the last ship disappearing over the horizon and a large number of British troops surrendering to German soldiers.
Ned told the interviewer he collapsed due to his injuries and "bitter disappointment".
But then his fortunes changed.
"Hours later, I woke up to find myself gazing in to the most beautiful pair of eyes I have ever seen," his document reveals.
Hovering above him was his future wife, Katina, a Cretan villager whose uncle also happened to be a doctor.
The pair nursed Ned back to health and hid him from the Gestapo.
Soon fluent in Greek, Ned eventually grew boldened enough to walk freely among the Germans while helping Katina, who was aged about 25 at the time, on the family farm.
"Matters reached the stage when I mingled with the Jerry soldiers freely, and with disdain, I drank with them, told them stories, too," documents from Archives New Zealand reveal.
"My lady friend Katina was always afraid. We were deeply in love then."
His freedom was not to last. The Gestapo found him and a fellow Kiwi, Helensville man Joe Angel, in the cave where they were hiding at the time.
After being interrogated and released twice, Ned said he came to believe they were being informed on.
The Gestapo tried to beat the name of their benefactors from the pair, but Ned refused to yield. "We were made of better metal than that."
After his recovery, Ned was taken to Stammlager 344, a prison camp in Germany, where he asked Katina to wait for him "and never for a moment doubted her sincerity."
Eventually, his injured eye began to fail and he was deemed unfit for active service and was sent to England where he worked repatriating prisoners of war.
"I had not forgotten my Katina," he told the interviewer.
The interviewer writes that here "the young lady [Katina] snuggled in closer to her lover, and bestowed a deserving kiss on his cheek" while he waited for fully five minutes until Cupid had had his way."
Ned was eventually granted permission by Major-General Howard Kippenberger to head to Crete and the pair were married in two separate ceremonies to allow for their separate faiths - for Ned the Church of England and for Katina the Greek Orthodox Church.
Evan Nathan - the couple's youngest son
Sitting in Gloria Jean's cafe on Lambton Quay around 70 years later, Ned and Katina's youngest son Evan, 59, recalls his loving parents.
Their unique story was well known, with several approaches about turning it into a film and documentary rebuffed, with Katina eventually growing tired of the interest.
Evan says that growing up, it never seemed all that special, but they had grown to realise how unique it was.
"We were aware of all of that but that was their story so it was no big deal for us."
"It was just mum and dad's story."
Recalling reading the transcript upon which this story is based, Mr Nathan called it "pretty Mills and Boon".
"Mum was a very, very touchy and affectionate persona and I can picture them but at the time when I read it I went 'oh geez'."
Katina was a "really gentle soul" while Ned, a former Porirua City councilor and community leader, was a "hard-bugger, physically and emotionally".
Ned was the more forceful personality, impulsive and demanding, while Katina, in a traditional Cretan wife mould, was a huge influence on his life, Evan said.
Evan credits his mother with an unusually tight bond in the family, saying the school teacher and daughter of an Greek Orthodox priest instilled in them a unity and devotion to each other.
He says he wasn't surprised by the bravery shown by his father when he refused to name his benefactors in spite of being tortured.
Aside from being in love with Katina, the Kiwi troops were eternally grateful to the Cretan villagers for saving them, and knew the risk involved and the punishment they would face should the Gestapo find out.
"(He would've thought) these buggers had laid their lives on the line for me, well I'm not going to betray that loyalty."
He said his dad wasn't huge on talking about the war, except for when he was with fellow veterans.
"We used to just sit on the floor and soak it all in. We'd fall asleep wake up and they were still going."
However, while he never seemed to be affected by it, he began to open up more about it later in life.
The gratitude extended beyond their time in Crete. Evan said Ned worked to help the local Cretan and Greek communities in New Zealand after the war, and regularly sent packages of clothing back.
The couple returned to Crete for about eight months in 1957 and saw how disadvantaged some of the villages were, further inspiring his desire for utu - or reciprocity.
The pair's story was eventually captured in a book, Ned and Katina, a true love story, released late last year by author and family friend Patricia Grace.
Ned Nathan died in 1987 while Katina passed away in 1996.