World War Two: Australian Army in Greece

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 Australian Army Ford 4×4 artillery tractor towing a No 27 Mk I limber and an 18 pounder Mk IV field gun, which has just negotiated a stone bridge through the winding and steep Verroia Pass, Greece.  This particular vehicle, with the army registration number 9964 was transported to Greece  but was later abandoned when the Australian forces were evacuated.

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troops of Australian Imperial Force on a mountainous road in Greece 1940-41. (photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

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1941-04. GREECE – THE OCCUPATION OF POSITION IN GREEK MOUNTAINS CREATED TRANSPORT DIFFICULTIES NOT PREVIOUSLY CONFRONTED IN THE MID. EAST. TRANSPORT OFFICERS FOUND THEMSELVES DEALING IN DONKEYS AND MULES INSTEAD OF MOTOR VEHICLES. (photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

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18 April 1941.
The approach to Pharsala bridge from the north, after German aircraft had scored a direct hit on a truck loaded with ammonal.

 

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GREECE, 1941-04-12. AIR ATTACK WAS THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WHICH CONFRONTED THE MOVING OF TRANSPORT ALONG THE ROADS … WHEN POSSIBLE, ALL VEHICLES CARRIED A MAN ON THE RUNNING BOARD AS A LOOKOUT, AND THE HEAVIER TRANSPORT MOUNTED LIGHT MACHINE GUNS.

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KALAMATA AREA, GREECE. 1941-04-26 AUSTRALIAN TROOPS AWAITING EMBARKATION AT KALAMATA, ON THE 04-26. DURING THE WITHDRAWAL OF ALLIED FORCES FROM THE AREA.

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GREECE, 1941-04-13. TRANSPORT PASSING THROUGH THE VILLAGE OF PERDIKA DURING THE WITHDRAWAL FROM THE MONASTIER GAP. NOTE: IN SPITE OF THE INSISTENCE DURING TRAINING TO THE DISPERSAL OF VEHICLES DURING CONVOY, LITTLE ATTENTION WAS PAID TO THIS IMPORTANT FACTOR ALTHOUGH, DURING THIS PERIOD, THE GERMAN AIR FORCE WAS PARTICULARLY ACTIVE ALONG THE ROADS.

all photographs courtesy of the Australian War Memorial   Official Military History site of Australia

Thousands of Australians Killed Fighting Nazis

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 Australians who served overseas in World War Two were all volunteers.

Recruiting poster for the Australian Imperial Force showing civilian, uniform, rifle; holding Army uniform and rifle, newscutting referring to AIF’s fighting prowess in background. Australian soldiers in World War One had been ferocious soldiers. Often combined with New Zealand units and referred to as ANZACS.

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Australian soldiers in North Africa looking over a JU-87D shot down in the Western Desert.

The Stuka, as this plane was known, was already obsolete when the war broke out although it was used to deadly effectiveness in the Blitzkrieg against Poland and France as “flying artillery.” Nonetheless, with a fixed under carriage, the plane only averaged 240 miles per hour which meant it could only be employed if the Germans had full control of the air.

In the Battle of Britain, the Stukas proved so vulnerable to RAF fighters that they had to be withdrawn from service in the West.

 

Australian troops fighting with the British 8th Army made heroic contributions to Allied campaigns in North Africa, Crete, Greece and the Italian Campaign. According to the official Australian history of World War Two, 9,572 Australians were killed in action fighting against Nazi Germany (and Italy). More than twice that number, 17,501 were killed in action fighting the Japanese.

 

Many photos from the British campaign in North Africa were taken by Australians because Australian forces were employed in the Western Desert campaign as part of the British Eighth Army. Great Britain had appealed to the self-governing Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) to send troops to bolster the British Army.

The dominions complied with the proviso they could get their soldiers back if they needed them. Further, all the soldiers who served overseas were volunteers. As brutal as the war became, there was never a shortage of volunteers from the Dominions to fight the Third Reich.

While kept in separate units in the army, Aussies and Kiwis who joined the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy and were mixed in with everyone else.

 

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Australian soldiers on a wrecked German Ju 87B Stuka dive bomber, Libya, circa 1941

While still provoking controversy today, British generals considered Imperial and Commonwealth troops to be far better assault troops than the average British divisions. Actually, they considered them better assault troops than any British divisions with the exception of elite British forces such as the Guards Armored Brigade, composed of men from the Royal Household troops. (These are the soldiers who stand guard in redcoats at Buckingham Palace and other places).

The Australians were favored over all dominion troops except for the New Zealanders who were thought by many generals and policy makers in London to be the toughest fighting troops in the British Empire. Sadly, it was the very small Dominion of New Zealand which suffered the highest number of men killed in action as a percentage of their male population than any other Dominion or colony.

 

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Australian troops moving up to the front lines during the Battle of Tobruk

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An Australian light machine gun team in action during the Aitape–Wewak campaign, June 1945

(All photographs and the recruiting poster courtesy of the collection of the Australian War  Memorial).

The British 8th Army Wasn’t Entirely British

British 8th Army Defeated the German Afrika Korps in the Second Battle of El Alemein and became famous for this and subsequent victories.

 

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Two soldiers belonging to the Commonwealth and Allied forces aim at a German soldier surrendering atop his tank 25 October 1942 as a sandstorm clouds the battlefield at El Alamein (AFP)

 

The British 8th Army deployed in North African (and subsequently Sicily and Italy), defeated the Germans in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October – 11 November 1942).

This was the first significant land battle won by British forces in World War Two. So momentous was this victory that for the first time since the war had begun, church bells rang throughout the UK on the order of Prime Minister Churchill. Previous to this victory, church bells were only to be rung to signal that Great Britain was being invaded by the Germans.

 

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A British Bren gun is in action somewhere south of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. The weapon was a light machine gun developed in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the 1920s and named for that city.

 

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General the Hon Sir Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront with Major General Harding from an open car.

While usually associated with the ego-maniacal narcissist General Bernard Montgomery, the most over rated General in all of World War Two, British 8th Army and Montgomery came under the overall command of General Sir Harold Alexander (General Alex to his men) who commanded all British, Commonwealth and Imperial Forces in critical and vast Middle Eastern theatre. He set the parameters for Montgomery’s attack at El Alemein and reviewed all of Montgomery’s plans in detail. Alex and his staff made numerous suggestions and orders to Montgomery and his staff in the weeks before the battle.

Subsequently, he became Commander in Chief of all Allied Forces: ground, sea and air, which included the US 5th Army under General Mark Clark, in the Mediterranean.

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A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942. (photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

 

This was the standard British Army artillery piece in World War Two. The caliber was 3.45 inches. (This is a measurement of the internal diameter of the barrel). The piece was designed to fire 25 lb shells hence the name.

 

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Australian troops advancing at El Alamein

(photo courtesy Australian Broadcasting Company)

Despite the name, only 1/4 of the British 8th Army was comprised of actual British troops. Demonstrating the vast reach of Britain’s global empire, the remainder were Commonwealth and Imperial troops from Dominions and colonies including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, British India (which included all of present day Pakistan, Bangladesh and India), Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Cyprus, Gambia, the Gold Coast, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Palestine, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanganyika, and Uganda.

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British Imperial troops from East Africa training in Burma during the reconquest of that colony from the Japanese in 1944 and 1945. 

 

While we think of Great Britain as an island with 80 million people off the coast of Western Europe, at the beginning of World War Two the British Empire was the only “super power” in the world. The U.S. wasn’t even in contention.

In 1939, the British ruled approximately 1/4 of the surface of the earth and 1/4 of the world’s population which makes it the largest empire in Western history.  During World War Two, the British Empire played a critical role in ultimate victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In fact, the British could not have prosecuted the war without the massive numbers of men, the immense amounts of money given or loaned to Great Britain, and the natural resources they mobilized from their Empire. In 1942, Britain was running out of funds to continue their massive purchases of Canadian food, equipment, industrial machinery and raw materials. Such purchases had created a boom in the Canadian economy. So this would continue, the Canadian government simply gave the British one billion pounds. Australia made similar gifts.

 

Organized and administered by the Colonial Service and the British military, a vast coordination of effort in industrial, minerals and food production took place throughout the Empire. Entities such as the Middle East Supply Center, regulated imports and exports from that area so that the huge British Empire forces and 100 million plus civilian population of the area had enough food, for example.

 

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4th Indian Division in action, Tunisia, April 1943

 

 

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28 September 1941. Personnel from the King’s African Rifles (KAR) collect weapons surrendered by Italian forces at Wolchefit Pass, Ethiopia, following the end of the East African Campaign.

 

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Soldiers of the King’s African Rifles training in the Kenyan bush 1944

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Troops of Kings African Rifles manning a bofors anti-aircraft gun World War Two.

 

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Kenya Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. British and African anti-aircraft gunners in a Kenya minesweeper in World War Two.

 

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother accompanied by the guard commander Major R. Aikenhead, inspects a guard of honor of the Second Battalion the King’s African rifles at the great Indaba in the Matotos Hills, near Bullawayo, Rhodesia on July 8, 1957. Behind the Queen Mother is her private secretary, Lt-Col. Gilliatt. The Queen Mother wears a jacket and dress of white lace. Her white hat is trimmed with white and sapphire blue osprey feathers. (AP Photo)
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother accompanied by the guard commander Major R. Aikenhead, inspects a guard of honor of the Second Battalion the King’s African rifles at the great Indaba in the Matotos Hills, near Bullawayo, Rhodesia on July 8, 1957. Behind the Queen Mother is her private secretary, Lt-Col. Gilliatt. The Queen Mother wears a jacket and dress of white lace. Her white hat is trimmed with white and sapphire blue osprey feathers. (AP Photo)

Artillery Killed 50% of soldiers in World One and Two

 

British Artillery in action at Gallipoli

 

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A British 60 pounder Mk I battery in action on a cliff top at Cape Helles, Gallipoli, possibly in June 1915. The unit might be the 90th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, located forward of Hill 114. The gun has the inscription “Annie” painted on the barrel.

(photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

 

The industrial age gave generals the ability to pound their enemies with greater and greater artillery barrages. In both World War One and World War Two, over 50% of casualties were caused by artillery. I was reminded of this anew last night when I was reading The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich by Robert M. Citrano. These statistics from his book will give you a sense of the pace of escalation of shells fired in just a brief time frame:

…during the Russo-Japanese War (1904 to 1905), the Russian artillery expended an average of 87,000 rounds a month, seen then as an incredible figure. Less than a decade later, in the First Balkan War, the Bulgarian Army’s monthly rate had grown to 254,000 shells. By 1916, the French were averaging 4,500,000 rounds a month. During the week long battle for Messines Ridge (June 3—10, 1917), British guns fired 3,258,000 rounds.

[Source: The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich by Robert M. Citrano.]

In preparation for the First Battle of the Somme, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. This barrage had almost no effect on the German troops who were waiting out the massive artillery fire in very deep shelters.

On 1 July 1916, the young officers leading the troops blew their whistles at 0730 and the British troops “went over the top,” that is over the top of the trench. German troops, almost untouched by the artillery barrage, emerged from their dugouts, brought up the machine guns and mowed down the British soldiers. By the end of the day, British and Imperial troops had taken 60,000 casualties with 20,000 killed. (source BBC)

While the BBC website says 60 per cent of all officers in the attacking divisions were killed, I’m not sure that figure is correct since I have read in numerous academic histories that “only” 40% of officers were killed.

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Mark V 8 inch howitzers in action on the Somme, 1916. During the preliminary bombardment leading up to 1st July the British artillery fired more shells at the 16 mile length of trenches to be assualted than on the entire Western Front over the preceding 12 months.

(Photo courtesy of the 6th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment)

http://www.6throyalberks.co.uk/index.html