Monday, 2 January 2012

Greece and Crete: Australians in World War II

Published by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 the book deals with the brief stay of the AIF in both these countries, including the evacuations, in 1941. My father, Ken Moses, was not well enough to travel with the 2 / 4th Battalion when they were sent to Greece but he was on one of the ships that formed the convoy that evacuated the troops from Greece to Crete in April 1941. The story of the Australian involvement is largely told through first hand accounts of those who survived the experience. Photographs are from the collection of the Australian War Memorial. The book is also available online on the DVA website where individual chapters can be downloaded. The chapter 'Remember this is War' provides an account of the evacuation of Crete.

At the end of 1940 Mussolini's Italian forces had entered Greece but by December the Italians had retreated to Albania. Hitler then planned to occupy Germany. The RAF had employed Gladiators and Hurricanes against the Italians. In February 1941 meetings between the Greek Prime Minister and the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, discussed the forces that Britain could supply to assist the defence of Greece. Three infantry divisions were initially promised. These divisions consisted largely of Australian and new Zealand troops stationed in the Middle East. The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, was consulted about the plan and although concerned about the outcome of the expedition he eventually recommended to the Australian War Cabinet that two Australian divisions should go to Greece. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey also expressed his doubts as he felt that the Germans would employ a larger force to invade Greece. Never the less the Australians and New Zealanders were sent by Britain to Greece.

Between 4 March and 18 April 58,500 men and women plus equipment were ferried to Greece in convoys, often bombarded by enemy aircraft. On 12 April the Australian and New Zealand divisions in Greece once again became the Anzac Corps. After landing the troops initially had some success as they moved into Greece but the before long the power of the larger German force gained the upper hand and by mid April the British troops were retreating back to the coast. Between 20 April and 29 April the British and Allied navies evacuated the soldiers from Greece to Crete. On May 4 thanksgiving church services were held in Crete.

Hitler now had control of Germany so his attention now moved to Crete to prevent air strikes against his forces being made from the island. The next stage of the battle was the sending of German paratroopers to Crete. A major task of the Anzacs was to defend the airports, particularly in norther Crete. There was initially some success but towards the end of May the decision to evacuate was once again made with the troops able to get to the waiting ships taken back to Egypt. Some of the troops left behind were taken prisoner while others hid in the mountains protected by the local population.

Much has been written about this short episode in World War II including Crete: the battle and the resistance by Antony Beevor. Maria Hill in her book Diggers and Greeks has written an account of the relationship forged between the Greeks and people of Crete towards Australians as a result of the attempt of the Anzacs to assist the peoples of these countries. White over green: the 2 / 4th Battalion and reference to the 4th Battalion also includes a section about the involvement of the battalion in Greece and Crete.

2011 was the seventieth anniversary of the campaign in Greece and Crete. The Shrine of Remembrance had an exhibition to commemorate the event - Greece,Crete and Syria: the AIF in the Eastern Mediterranean 1941.

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