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 Nazi Germany

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Australian soldiers in North Africa looking over a  JU 87D dive bomber from  StG 3, 3rd Dive Bomber Wing shot down in the Western Desert.(Photo courtesy of the collection of the Australian War  Memorial).

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 as “flying artillery.” Nonetheless, with a fixed undercarriage the plane 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 war 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, South Africa and others) to send troops to bolster the British Army. The dominions complied with the proviso they could get their soldiers back if they needed them.

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

Photo by P. W. Kendall courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

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 except the most 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 to be the toughest fighting troops in the British Empire.

 

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

(photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial)

We forget that at the beginning of World War Two there was only one super power: the British Empire. Without the massive help which came from all colonies of her Empire, Britain would have had difficulty staying in the war until the USA came in.

The Royal Navy and the Evacuation of British Troops from Crete – Part 2

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British Troops Fight a Desperate Rearguard Action in Greece While Falling Back to the Coast

Bundesarchiv photo showing New Zealand and British troops who were compelled to surrender during the bungled effort to stop the German invasion of Greece. This is April 1941. When the general retreat of British and Commonwealth troops began, units tried desperately to reach the coast so they could be taken off by the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, thousands were captured by the Germans.

When British and Greek troops failed to hold Greece against the German invasion, the Royal Navy had to evacuate tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops from open beaches off the Greek mainland. As you might imagine, this is a lot more difficult to do than board troops off of docks and piers. While ports were certainly in operation, they were under fierce air attack by the Germans. Plus the British troops often could not get through to a Greek port. They could only get to the coast itself. As in Lord Nelson’s day, many of the soldiers had to be taken off the beaches by Royal Navy cutters which were large boats rowed by a crew of eight to ten.

The Royal Navy was not able to rescue them all as the above photograph testifies. Many of the soldiers were British and Commonwealth troops from New Zealand and Australia. Many British and American generals believed that aside from the elite British units such as the Brigade of Guards, British Commonwealth troops fought better and harder than the average British division conscripted for the war. As these evacuations continued with the Commonwealth troops putting up a stronger fight than the British divisions, there was widespread fear in the upper ranks of the British Government and military that British infantry did not want to fight.

Nazi Germany’s Attack on Greece – The map above will give you an idea of how the British Army retreated down the Greek mainland and subsequently were lifted off to Egypt or Crete.

[Images courtesy of World War 2 Today and Wikipedia.]

A Great Anti-War Film

Mark Lee in the 1981 Peter Weir film Gallipoli.

Gallipoli was one of the first which established the Australians as film makers to be reckoned with. When first released it was a sensation in Australia and New Zealand and is shown each year on ANZAC Day, a time or remembrance for those who died in the battle.

I would note here that if you have seen the movie, the order to the ANZAC forces to attack into withering machine fire given in the movie by a British general who is a haughty, upper-class snob who is condescending to the Australian troops, was, in reality, given by an Australian general.

In The Australian of 21 April 2012, film critic Evan Williams writes:

The film’s climax was the Battle of the Nek, fought four months later, in August 1915, nearby on the Gallipoli peninsula. The result, in any case, was a masterpiece, one of the great anti-war films, and a key work in the revival of the Australian film industry.

Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) are best mates, caught up in the wave of patriotic fervour that swept Australia during World War I. With a screenplay by David Williamson (widely criticised for its anti-British sentiment), Weir uses the first part of the film to establish the optimism of his young lives before demonstrating how quickly and pointlessly such lives can be snuffed out. The sequence that haunts me is the arrival of the landing craft in the early dawn darkness, lights bobbing on the water like part of some ghostly funfair. The cinematography was by Russell Boyd…

DVD cover of Gallipoli.

While Mark Lee was on the original movie poster, a now famous Mel Gibson in a suggestive photo replaced him for the DVD cover. According to the International Movie Database:

At the time of filming, Peter Weir felt that his young star, Mel Gibson, was ‘full of beans and really with no grand career ambitions’.

[Source: The Australian. Images courtesy of The Australian and Amazon.]