A PIECE OF AUSTRALIA
The AIF arrives in Greece, March–April 1941
They find themselves in a country that might be a piece of Australia towed across the world. The Greek spring with its white and piercing light, its floods of sun, its clean sharp water and, above all its exiled eucalypts, is closer to home than anything they have seen since they left Fremantle. 23
As the troopship MV Cameronia headed across the Mediterranean for Piraeus in April 1941, the men of the 2/6th Battalion AIF were briefed by Captain ‘Bully’ Hayes on the nature of the country they were going to defend. In the words of Lieutenant Jo Gullet, Hayes had read the available ‘literature and did his manful best’:
They [the Greeks, were not], as most of us might have thought, exclusively engaged in the fish and chip business. They had a splendid military tradition and they were currently belting the hell out of the Italians, but in times past they had also thrashed the Turks and also the Persians. The Turks were only next door, but how the hell they came to be fighting the Persians he could not say … They had other claims to our respect. Greeks it appeared were very strong on culture. They had invented democracy f’instance and the Olympic Games too … Soon you would see their wonderful old buildings. The Parthenon f’instance. Something to do with their religion. A sort of church. Damn near two and a half thousand years old, so we must expect it to be in a rather clapped-out condition, or so the sailors said. Well, that’s government departments for you. Same in Greece as anywhere else … There was no point in asking him any questions because we now knew as much about Greece as he did himself. We believed him. 24
As the 2/6th left the Cameronia, their commanding officer, Colonel Hugh Wrigley, determined that his unit would not straggle in a rag-tag fashion through foreign streets towards its camp. They were inspected, fallen in properly and with the battalion band playing Waltzing Matilda, they marched through Athens, as ‘Jo’ Gullet recalled, ‘not a little pleased with ourselves’.
In Greece the Australians were made to feel welcome and at home. It was spring and as units either marched or drove through the streets to their camp at Dafni, crowds waved and threw flowers into the road. On leave they had their pictures taken, visited the Parthenon and met the guardsmen of the crack Greek regiment – the Evzones. Kenneth Slessor felt that there was a ‘perceptible affinity’ between the men of the AIF, the ‘Argonauts of the southern world’, and the Athenians who were the ‘descendants of an age-old race whose monuments overshadow them’. Soon the city bars and cafes were crowded with Australians eating and drinking with Greek civilians and soldiers:
In all those places where the Australians meet Greek fighting-men straight from the front line, you see them clustered together, exchanging broken conversation. 25
Keen interest was displayed in the local beer, wine and spirits. In a letter home Sergeant Robert Robertson, HQ 1st Australian Corps, provided a detailed account of what was readily available in the Athens tavernas:
Much time had been spent on the transport discussing what type of alcohol would be available and at what cost. But the results surpassed our wildest dreams. It was abundant, it was cheap. Beer brewed from the mountain streams was glorious and always served very cold at 18 dracma or 10 pence Australian the bottle. Koniak, a fierce form of brandy, could be bought at 50 dracmas the bottle or 2 drachs a nip. The same applied to ‘Ouzo’ … Proclamations posted in Athenian cafes stated that the sale of Ouzo was forbidden to members of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces … The plonk merchants were in heaven and the resultant effects were not in the interest of the army. 26
The Australian commander, Lieutenant General Blamey, met the King of Greece, George II, who spoke English fluently and with whom he sat chatting and smoking for 20 minutes:
The King [said Blamey] struck me as an easy and friendly man … eager and quick to respond and remarkably youthful in his manner. He … said how delighted he was to have the Australians in his country, since his dad had always admired them and had followed their deeds closely. 27
But beneath the initial colour and euphoria none could escape the fact that this was a nation at war. Athens was a city of women, children and old people, as most of the men of military age were at war in the mountains of Albania, and life was hard:
Everything was grey and the people undernourished … casualty lists were read from the corners and it was touching to hear the women crying and screaming. 28
During their brief interlude in Athens the men of the AIF were prepared for war. As Private Charles Robinson of the 2/2nd Field Ambulance recalled:
In the morning we were issued will forms and filled them out sprawling under the olive trees. No one could ever accuse the army of subtlety! 29
Soon the Australians were hurrying north to meet the anticipated German invasion. They journeyed through a spectacular landscape of mountains and river plains with place names out of ancient history and legend – Thiva (Thebes), Mount Parnassus, Mount Olympus. Everywhere, as they moved through the countryside in railway wagons or in military vehicles, there was the same warm welcome:
People lined the track cheering, smiling, and calling ‘goodbye’. Little did I realise the significance of this when a young despine (Greek girl) threw me a bunch of wild flowers, and with a wistful look in her eyes, called … goodbye! 30
As the 6th Australian Division’s fighting units began arriving at Piraeus from mid-March 1941, planning for the defence of Greece by the British force commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Sir Henry ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, and the Greek commander, General Alexander Papagos, was well under way. It was clear that the initial German attack would be across the Greek–Bulgarian border in Thrace, but there was a real danger that German units would also strike through south-eastern Yugoslavia and then turn south and enter Greece via the Monastiri Gap and the Florina Valley. If the Greek and British forces were too far forward towards the Bulgarian border then they could be outflanked from the rear by this German movement through southern Yugoslavia. Consequently, it was decided that the British would hold a line from the sea through Mount Olympus, stretching north to Veria and then bending west towards Florina: the so-called Vermion–Olympus Line.
On Sunday, 6 April 1941, Lieutenant General Blamey learnt that from that day Lustre Force would be on its own. The Germans had attacked in Libya, driven the British back, and it would now be impossible for Wavell to send the 7th Australian Division or the Independent Polish Brigade to Greece. At 5.30 am on that same day in Athens, the German Ambassador, Prince Erbach-Schönburg, presented a note from his government to inform the Hellenic Government that Germany was at war with Greece. The Greeks were given no time for comment, for also at 5.30 am units of the German 12th Army moved into Greece across the Bulgarian border and into southern Yugoslavia.
As the German campaign in Greece opened, they dealt their enemies a severe blow. On the night of 6 April 1941, Able Seaman Patrick Bridges, RAN, was aboard HMS Hyacinth in Piraeus, Greece’s premier port and an essential link in the British supply line back to Egypt. He recorded the destruction of Piraeus by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in his diary:
Sunday April 6, 1941: Mass air attack here tonight. Hit 1 ship full of TNT, which burnt for 4 hours then blew up. A sheet of the ship’s side tore through our bridge and killed Lft Humphrey. Ship broke away from the jetty and we had to abandon it. We pulled it back and tied up and then run the gauntlet through blazing oil and burning ships and magnetic mines with only half a ship’s company.
Monday April 7, 1941: Piraeus is still burning furiously. Sky is black with oil smoke and ammunition and dynamite is still exploding. Both our skiffs are holed. Bridge and boat deck are either wrecked or burnt. Great lumps of steel and shrapnel all over the deck. Drifting wreckage all over harbour. 1 plane came over to see damage … Waiting for raiders now. 31
The ‘ship full of TNT’ was the merchantman Clan Fraser, and the blast as it blew up was felt kilometres away throughout Athens. After the raid, which devastated Piraeus, only five of the port’s twelve berths were useable, dozens of small service craft had been destroyed, many skilled workers had been killed and many others quit their jobs.
By 9 April 1941, despite gallant resistance from the border forts on the Greek–Bulgarian border, Greek forces in the north-east were facing defeat. Hitler’s Panzers of the Second Armoured Division had swept round the western end of the Greek line near Lake Doirani and down the valley of the Axios River towards Thessaloniki, threatening to cut off Greece’s Eastern Macedonian Army. At 1.00 pm on 9 April, the Greek commander in eastern Macedonia capitulated. In southern Yugoslavia the German 40th Corps drove through the hapless Yugoslavs. The SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division now turned south towards Greece. Coming through the Monastiri Gap on 10 April, the division crossed into Greece and took Florina. At this stage, German progress was somewhat hampered by muddy roads that had also been cratered by British and Australian demolition units and repeated attacks by small numbers of RAF fighters and bombers. By 10 April, however, tanks of the German 9th Armoured Division and infantry of the ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division were pressing on towards Vevi and the Vevi Pass.
23: Kenneth Slessor, official Australian correspondent, Athens, 30 March 1941 in Clement Semmler (ed), The war despatches of Kenneth Slessor, Queensland University Press, 1987, p. 140 (hereafter Slessor despatches)
24: Henry ‘Jo’ Gullet, Not as a duty only – An infantryman’s war, Melbourne, 1976, pp. 40–41
25: Slessor despatches, ‘Arrival in Greece’, Athens, 30 March 1941, p.140
26: Letter, Sergeant RG Robertson, 19 May 1941, 2DRL/1304, AWM (hereafter Robertson letter)
27: Slessor despatches, ‘Blamey and the King of Greece’, Athens, 1 April 1941, p. 141
28: Bob Holt, quoted in Margaret Barter, Far above battle – The experience and memory of Australian soldiers in war, 1939–1945, Sydney, 1994, p. 83 (hereafter Barter, Far above Battle)
29: Charles Robinson, Journey to captivity, Canberra, 1991, pp. 65–66 (hereafter Robinson, Journey to captivity)
30: Sergeant Vic Hill, 2/4th Battalion, quoted in White over green –The 2/4th Battalion with reference to the 4th Battalion, Sydney, 1963, p.105 (hereafter White over green)
31: Patrick Bridges, diary, 1941, in private hands (hereafter Bridges diary)