Australians Defend Greece Against Nazis

Germans and Italians attack Greece in early 1941.
At the request of the Greek government British and Commonwealth troops are sent to bolster the Greek Army.

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In early April 1941, Australian troops embarked for Greece from Alexandria in Egypt.

Comments Charles McCain: While nominally an independent kingdom at the time, Egypt was under the control of the British Empire, partly because the British had to protect the Suez Canal, a key strategic choke point for the British Empire. In addition to tens of thousands of troops stationed in Egypt to protect the Canal, Middle East Command and numerous other British organizations were headquartered in Egypt which also served as a massive supply base and staging area for British forces.

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3 March 1941. Australian troops in transit to Greece muster for life-boat stations in an emergency drill.

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An Australian Army 18 pounder Mk IV field gun and a No 27 Mk I Limber, being towed by an LP No 3 or 3A artillery tractor through the Verroia Pass, Greece. The gun tractor is packed with soldiers and the gun traverse platform is visible stowed on top of the limber. Australian infantrymen are also visible trudging up the hill in the background. Early April 1941.

From the Official Australian World War Two history site:

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March 1941. Athens. Greek soldiers on leave from Albanian [where they had been fighting off Italian troops] show Diggers (slang for Aussie troops) the sights. 

“In March 1941, Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, with the concurrence of his Cabinet, agreed to the sending of Australian troops to Greece. Both Menzies and the Australian commander in the Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey, felt that the operation was risky and might end in disaster. But Menzies, like the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, felt that Greece should be supported against German aggression and that the defence of Greece was a ‘great risk in a good cause’.

 

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March 1941. Athens. Australian soldiers newly arrived in Greece to relieve units of the Greek Army in the north met with an enthusiastic welcome from the new comrades in arms. Most of these Greek soldiers now in Athens are convalescing from illness contracted during the present Albanian campaign. 

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March 1941. Athens. All good friends together. Greek soldiers on leave from Albania do their best to make the Australians welcome. There is a new optimism evident in Athens since the arrival of our troops who are being welcomed like honoured guests. As far as our men are concerned their general opinion is that Greece is the finest country in the world– bar one. (contemporary caption)

In Greece, the Australians joined with a New Zealand and British force to defend the country against a threatened German invasion. Hitler was concerned that if Greece became a British ally then oilfields in Romania, on which Germany relied for her fuel, might be open to air attack from Greece. As the Germans were planning an invasion of Russia for June 1941, they could not allow such a threat to their essential oil supplies.

 

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Infantrymen from the Australian 2/2nd Battalion after crossing the Aliakmon River on ferries during their retreat from Northern Greece following the German invasion of the country

The 6th Division arrived in Greece in early April 1941 and on 6 April the Germans began their invasion of Greece. Despite their efforts, the Allied force, together with Greek units, was unable to halt the rapid German advance down central Greece towards Athens. After a month of intensive fighting, the Allied force was evacuated from the Greek mainland on British and Australian warships and British transports.

 

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Members of the Australian 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment resting, 13 April 1941, after their withdrawal from the Vevi area. The unit suffered heavy losses in the first German attacks on Australian positions in Greece.

Some soldiers were taken back to Egypt but many were put ashore on the island of Crete. Here, with Greek troops, they formed ‘Creforce’ and prepared to meet the Germans, who came on 20 May 1941 in the shape of a major paratroop landing at three different places along the north coast of the island. Despite vigorous opposition to the Germans, the Allied force had eventually to be withdrawn, once again by British and Australian warships.

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Exhausted Allied forces were evacuated from Crete and returned to fight in the North African campaigns in June 1941. Troops here are being transported on S.S. Lossiebank

Greece and Crete were costly operations. About 39 per cent of the Australia troops in Greece on 6 April 1941 were either killed, wounded or became prisoners of war.

More than 450,000 Greeks died during the next four years of German occupation, nearly 25,000 of them executed for assisting the allies.”

 

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April 1941 Souda Bay, Crete. Australian troops evacuated from Greece arrive in Crete aboard a Royal Navy armed trawler. 

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April 1941. Souda Bay, Crete. On arrival at Crete after evacuation from Greece troops proceeded across the fields away from the harbour, the playground of German dive bombers. (contemporary caption).

Photographs and historical essay in quotations courtesy of the official history of Australia in World War Two Australian Government Official World War Two history site

 

Comments Charles McCain:

Italian troops invaded Greece on 28 October 1940. On 10 November 1940, the Italians retreated, having been thrown back by the Greeks. Then the Italians appealed to the Germans to help them. A very confusing time. The Greeks appealed to the British to help them.

British occupied Egypt was a key strategic point for the British because of the Suez Canal. Although Egypt was under threat by German and Italian troops in North Africa, Prime Minister Churchill believed the British Empire had to come to the aid of Greece.  So British and Commonwealth troops in Egypt were sent to Greece.

This is one of Churchill’s most controversial decisions of World War Two. Yet given the British Empire was the only remaining great power fighting Nazi Germany, from a geo-political point of view Churchill had to send troops to Greece to maintain British credibility in the world. A large percentage of troops sent to Greece were ANZACS–that is Australian and New Zealand troops–an acronym first used in World War One.

It is important to remember that the Japanese did not attack Pearl Harbor and British possessions in the East until 7 December 1941 and the US did not come into the war until that time. So war was only raging in the West and not in the Pacific and the East.

 

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British troops disembarking in Egypt 1940. 

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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