I am privileged to attend today a Symposium which will enhance knowledge and encourage further scholarship and research into the Second World War unique conflicts known as the Battle of Crete and Greek campaigns.
Australia has been a destination for immigrants from Greece since colonial times but our shared experience during the campaigns of 1941 added a new dimension to that relationship, a bond that we see in the faces of veterans when they return to Greece and Crete, and in the lives of Greek families who have made Australia their home.
The Allied campaign to prevent the German invasions of Greece and Crete in 1941 was marred by mismanagement, mistrust and misunderstandings. However, the legacy of the campaign has cemented the ties of friendship between the peoples of Greece and Australia that will last for as long as there is a memory.
In 1941 Greece was the last country in mainland Europe holding out against the fascist invasion. Since the Italian invasion in 1940 the forces of the British Empire, including Australia, had been supporting the gallant Greek resistance.
In this early phase of the war the people of this city were swept up in the enthusiasm of celebrating the victory at sea of Cape Spada, Crete, when the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney sunk a more powerful Italian cruiser and damaged another in July 1940.
Eight months later the RAN was again in action between the Peloponnese and Crete, part of the victorious British fleet that defeated the Italians at Cape Matapan.
While Australian sailors were in action in Greek waters and Australian airmen were serving in RAF squadrons supporting the Greek army on the Albanian frontier, the decision had already been made to send an expeditionary force of Australian, New Zealand and British troops to strengthen Greek defences as the threat of German invasion grew.
Lustre Force was the codename given to the tiny British Commonwealth Army that was dispatched from North Africa comprising largely of Australian and New Zealand infantry. As the threat emerged it became immediately apparent that the forces available were not adequate for the defence of the Greek mainland. British plans for the defence were at odds with Greek military and political aims. The Greeks wished to defend their frontier. The British insisted on withdrawal to shorten lines of defence that made use of the rugged countryside.
In hindsight, it appears logical that no Greek was ever going to accept giving away large tracts of their homeland without a fight just to withdraw to somewhere that was strategically more advantageous. The insensitive and inflexible British command would not consider debate.
On 6 April 1941 German armour and motorised infantry crossed the Greek frontier at several points. Greek frontier guards in fixed defences fought gallantly but were overwhelmed. Within days it became obvious to the defenders that they lacked the resources, the mobility and the means of communication to mount a credible defence against an enemy that was well coordinated, amply supplied with armour and motor vehicles and had almost absolute mastery of the skies.
Lustre Force attempted to withdraw to those shortened lines of defence but little had been prepared and it did not take the experienced German Army long to work out where the weak points were, exploit them and roll up these defensive lines from the flanks.
The Australians fought their first major action in Greece at Vevi Pass from 11 to 13 April 1941. In near blizzard conditions, the Dodecanese Regiment and the 21st Greek Regiment fought beside the 2/4th Battalion from New South Wales and the 2/8th Battalion from Victoria to hold the Pass.
In the sort of action that was to be repeated over the next fortnight, actions reminiscent of Leonidas and his Spartans, the Greeks and Australians tried to hold the German armour while the rest of the army fell back and attempted to build stronger defences further south.With minimal anti-tank weapons the fight was a very one-sided affair and after two days barely a third of the 19th Australian Brigade was left to fall back to the Aliakmon Line.
Tempe has been a Sydney location since the 1830s. Named for the valley at the base of Mt Olympus it must have only fuelled the sense of isolation felt by the men of the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd NSW Battalions as they tried to defend the gorge beside the Pinios River. Again they were outflanked, attacked from the air and forced back.
The next defensive position was Brallos Pass above the ancient battlefield of Thermopylae. When the Germans broke through this defensive line on the eve of Anzac Day 1941, British Commonwealth and Greek troops fought their way back to the coast where the Navy could take them away to the temporary safety of Crete or Egypt.
On 20 May 1941, Crete became the stage for the world’s first ever major airborne invasion.
The island was defended by a combined British Commonwealth and Greek army that had even less equipment, support, means of communication and mobility than Lustre Force.
The German airborne invasion centred around the capture of three airfields and the city of Canea (pronounced ‘Hun Yaar’).
The New Zealanders held the westernmost airfield at Maleme (pronounced (‘Mal ee me’). The British Held the airfield Iraklion (pronounced ‘Ee rak lee on’) on the north coast at the centre of the Island and between the two a combined group of Australian and Greek infantry units guarded the secondary airstrip, eight kilometres east of the port that Australians called Retimo.
A campaign on Crete was even more confused that that in Greece. It is a story of missed opportunities and fickle fortunes. After 10 days of fighting, the Germans had taken the island but at a cost so great that massed German airborne forces would never again be used in that role in combat.
For the Australian troops the campaign ended in retreat and evacuation, capture or escape and evasion. For Crete and its people, it was a bloody introduction to four years of occupation.
The 6th Australian Division, of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF), provided the Australian component of Lustre Force. It was the first infantry division raised in Australia to fight the Second World War. The division went to Greece with 17,125 men. By the end of the campaigns in Greece and on Crete more than a third of the division was killed, wounded or captured.
In Greece, the AIF losses were many – 320 killed, 494 wounded and 2,030 made prisoners of war. In 10 days on Crete another 274 were killed, 507 wounded and 3,102 captured.
While the Greeks endured an occupation punctuated by massacres at the hands of the Nazis, the AIF who got away from Greece and Crete spent the rest of the war fighting in another hemisphere, against an Asian enemy that threatened their very homeland.
Since the war, Greece and Crete have become places of pilgrimage for the Australians who fought there. Although the campaign on Greece and Crete were among the shortest in which the AIF were involved the memories of that land and its people have remained among the most powerful and most emotional for its veterans.
Despite recollections of defeat, Australian veterans have been proud to add Greece and Crete to the unit banners they carry on Anzac Day and to the memorials in city suburbs and country towns that remember their fallen mates.
In the seaside village of Stavromenos on Crete there is a street named “Ian Ross Campbell”, the name of the Australian from Sydney who commanded the Australian and Greek force that defended the airfield at Retimo.
It is in honour of those memories of Greek and Australian fortitude and to commemorate the hundreds of Australians who lie in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Phaleron, on the outskirts of Athens beside the sparkling waters of Suda Bay, we dedicate this seminar.
Opening speech delivered at a Symposium of the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Crete and Greek Campaign on 6 December 2012 by Charlie Lynn. Research for the speech provided by Mr Brad Manera, Manager and Historian at the Anzac Memorial