Between April and June 1941, Australian, New Zealand and British troops fought alongside Greek soldiers to resist the German invasions of mainland Greece and Crete.
The Greek campaign, considered poorly planned and ultimately disastrous for the Allies, lasted just 25 days. From the beginning, Allied forces were heavily outnumbered and too poorly equipped to effectively resist the German invasion. The campaign quickly became a fighting withdrawal from northern Greece to the south during which a few local successes slowed but could not halt the German advance.
Lieutenant General John Coates later wrote:
“In almost every Allied campaign in the early part of the war, the worst mistake of the politicians and strategists were moderated by the bravery, fighting qualities and sheer dogged determination of the troops. Greece was no exception.”
The evacuation from the Greek mainland began on 24 April, with more than 50,000 Allied troops embarked from beaches near Athens and the Peloponnesus over five successive nights. Some were taken to Egypt but many were sent to reinforce the garrison on Crete. Already exhausted after the campaign in Greece, they arrived with few weapons and little equipment.
The German invasion of Crete began on 20 May 1941, with paratroops landing at drop zones along the island’s north coast at Maleme, Canae, Retimo and Heraklion. Ralph Honner, a company commander in the Australian 2/11th Battalion, described the scene:
“[It was] a spectacle that might have belonged to a war between the planets. Out of the unswerving flying fleet came tumbling lines of little dolls, sprouting silken mushrooms that stayed and steadied them, and lowered them in ordered ranks into our consuming fire. And still they came, till all the fantastic sky before us was filled with futuristic snowflakes floating beneath the low black thundercloud of the processional planes - occasionally flashing into fire as if struck by lightning from the earth.”
Thousands of German airborne troops were killed before reaching the ground, or as they landed. For a time the battle’s outcome seemed uncertain, but the Germans gradually gained the initiative, particularly after capturing the airfield at Maleme on the second day, allowing reinforcements and equipment to be flown in. Despite stubborn Allied resistance the Germans prevailed and on 27 May, Crete’s defenders were ordered to evacuate the island. More than 12,000 Allied troops were embarked over four nights, though many were lost when the ships carrying them to Alexandria were sunk or damaged by German aircraft. The order to evacuate never reached the 2/1st and 2/11th Battalions or their Greek Allies at Retimo and they were compelled to surrender or to try and flee and avoid capture.
Many of the men who evaded captivity received help from the Cretan people, who at the risk of their own lives sheltered Australian troops. It was through the ill-fated campaigns in Greece and Crete that a lasting bond was forged between Australia and Greece.
75 years on, the friendship between our two countries has grown stronger as we continue to remember the bravery and determination of those who fought in Greece and Crete and the courage of the civilians who risked their lives to protect the Allied troops.
On Thursday 14 April 2016, a commemorative service will be held at the Hellenic Memorial on Anzac Parade to recognise the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of Greece and Crete.
For more information on the commemorative event and other services, visit the Anzac Centenary website.