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Greece and Crete

Hellenic-Australian Memorial Park, Rethymno

The Hellenic-Australian Memorial Park at Rethymno, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Battle for Crete was dedicated on 19 May 2001.

The design for the memorial symbolically represents the Greek people fighting side by side with Australians during the battle for Crete in 1941.

The two flanking pillars, clad in a rough-surfaced local limestone, represent Greek soldiers and civilians, while the Australian forces are portrayed by the central pillar clad in a polished black granite from South Australia. All three pillars are equal in size and height.

The landscaped setting for the memorial provides a tranquil environment where visitors can pause and reflect on the sacrifice of those remembered and honoured at this place.

Information panels use photographs and maps, together with Greek and English text, to explain the history of Australian involvement in the Greek and Crete campaigns.

The memorial is located at the corner of Igoumenou Gavrill Avenue and 44th Syndagmatos Street, Rethymno.

Greek and Crete campaigns 1941

[Source: the information panels at the Hellenic Australian Memorial Park, Crete.]

In March and April 1941 the British sent over 58,000 servicemen and women to the defence of Greece and of these 17,125 were Australians of the 6th Division, AIF. The force as a whole suffered over 2,500 dead, 3,400 wounded and over 25,000 taken prisoner. Australian losses were 594 dead, 1,001 wounded and 5,132 Prisoners of War.

For the Greek people the war was a disaster. An estimated 540,000 Greeks perished during the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation of 1941-44. They died of hunger, were shot in reprisals and during guerrilla operations or, if they were Jews, they died in concentration camps in Germany.

During and since the Second World War close bonds of friendship have existed between Greece and Australia. Hundreds of servicemen not evacuated by the main force were helped by the Greek people, at great personal risk, to escape from the mainland and from Crete. After the war, hundreds of thousands of Greeks made their homes in Australia where today they form one of the largest native-born Greek communities outside Greece.

Greece February – March 1941

'We cannot leave Greece in the lurch'
Robert Gordon Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, 1941.

On 28 October 1940, Italy declared war on Greece. An invading Italian army was soon driven back and Great Britain began sending Greece military aid. Adolf Hitler, the German leader, concerned that British bombers might use bases in Greece to attack oilfields in Romania vital to Germany's war effort, ordered an invasion for the spring of 1941. In February 1941 Greece accepted the offer of a British expeditionary force, known as Lustre Force, to resist the coming German onslaught.

British Royal Navy convoys, bringing Lustre Force from Egypt, began arriving in Greece in early March. The force was composed primarily of the Australian 6th Division, AIF (Australian Imperial Force), the 2nd New Zealand Division and the British 1st Armoured Brigade. In late March, a major threat to the convoys emerged when a sizeable Italian naval force entered Greek waters. On 28-29 March, at the Battle of Matapan, this force was beaten back by the British Mediterranean Fleet. With the British fleet at Matapan were the Australian warships HMAS Perth and HMAS Stuart.

German invasion April 1941

The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty-six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success
Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, Australian commander in Greece.

The German invasion of Greece began on 6 April 1941. Crossing the border from Bulgaria into Thrace, enemy tanks reached Thessaloniki within days, despite Greek resistance. Other German armoured units swept into southern Yugoslavia, turned south and entered Greece from the north.

On 10 April the advancing Germans met a combined Australian, British and Greek force at Vevi. In often freezing conditions, this force held back the advance while other Australian, British and New Zealand units withdrew to new positions along the Aliakmon River. At this point, the Australian and New Zealand divisions were brought together (for the first time since they had fought on Gallipoli in 1915) into a combined Anzac Corps.

By mid-April, the strength of German armour, infantry and air force pressing upon the Aliakmon position was so great that a further withdrawal was made to the Thermopylae Line. As this move proceeded, Australians and New Zealanders prevented an enemy breakthrough from the Mount Olympus area. On their way south, soldiers and civilians alike suffered greatly from the dive-bombers of the German air force.

Withdrawal from Greece April 1941

Abandoned trucks on every side - the awful sense of complete desolation everywhere
Sister Sylvia Duke, Australian nurse.

Even as the Australians and New Zealanders began digging in at Thermopylae, the decision was made to evacuate Greece. Greek confidence was waning and it seemed that nothing could stop a full German occupation of the country. On 24 April 1941 the Greek government left Athens for Crete and preparations were well under way to remove Lustre Force from the Greek mainland.

Between the nights of 24 and 29 April, ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet arrived at various locations east and west of Athens, and at three beaches in the Pelopenese. From there troopships and warships - among them HMAS Perth, Stuart, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen - embarked over 50,000 soldiers. They were taken, often under enemy air attack, to Crete or Egypt. During the evacuation rearguard actions fought by Australian, British and New Zealand forces delayed the enemy at Brallos Pass, Thermopylae, Erithrai, Corinth and at other places. On 27 and 28 April, German troops entered Athens and by the end of the month the whole of mainland Greece was in their hands.

Maleme May – June 1941

One chap stood up in the trench and said 'The place is alive with parachutists’
Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus, Australian soldier.

After the evacuation of mainland Greece, the British determined that Crete should be held. The Germans planned an airborne invasion by paratroopers and the defence of Crete centred upon denying them the airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklio. If one of these places fell, the Germans could reinforce their position rapidly by air transport. The defence of the airfields was in the hands of three separate forces composed of British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek soldiers.

On 20 May 1941 the Germans dropped paratroopers in and around all three airfields. At Maleme, many of them were killed even before they landed but the paratroopers took the western end of the airfield. After seven days of hard fighting, during which the Germans consolidated their position, the British were driven back.
The British force now made its way over the mountains to Sfakia to evacuate. Australians (the 2/7th and 2/8th Australian Infantry Battalions, the 2/3rd Field Regiment and the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion), New Zealanders and British Royal Marines covered the withdrawal. Between 28 May and 1 June, the British Mediterranean Fleet embarked over 10,700 soldiers.

Rethymno May 1941

Many paratroopers landed in our gun position and were all killed
Private Bill Halliday, Australian machine gunner.

At Rethymno, the German paratroopers came down in an area mainly defended by Australians supported by a Greek battalion and local policemen. Initially the Germans had some success on one of the main defensive positions overlooking the airfield - Hill A. On the morning after the landing elements of the 2/1st Australian Infantry Battalion forced the Germans from Hill A and along the coast into the village of Stavromenos. Here they held the local olive oil factory, until driven out by a combination of shelling from the 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment and an assault by the 2/1st Battalion.

The other main paratroop landing was to the west of the airfield around the village of Perivolia. Here, the Germans rallied and withstood determined attacks by the 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion. Despite the German hold on Perivolia, the paratroop landing was a failure and the action was an Australian and Greek victory. Unfortunately, the order to evacuate to Sfakia never reached Rethymno and the force there had ultimately to surrender. Some Australians took to the mountains where they were sheltered by local people before escaping by small boat and submarine from the south coast of Crete.

Heraklio May 1941

Heraklio was one large stretch of decomposing dead
Captain Paul Tomlinson, Australian medical officer.

Of the three German paratroop landings on Crete, that at Heraklio proved most costly. Many German transport planes were shot down by the anti-aircraft defence which included the 7th Battery, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Hundreds of German paratroopers were killed either before they landed or shortly thereafter by men of the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion and other British and Greek units.

The town of Heraklio itself was virtually destroyed by German bombing due to the determined resistance of the local Greek garrison. Eventually, the local population was forced to abandon the town.

Despite the initial defeat of the landing, the Germans were able to fly in reinforcements to the west of Heraklio. German strength was increasing and they were preparing for a major attack on the defenders. On 28 May warships of the British Mediterranean Fleet evacuated the British force of over 4,000 men. In the daylight hours of 29 May, as the rescue convoy made for Egypt, it was dive-bombed a number of times. Over 800 men were killed.

Convoys and dive bombers March – June 1941

Once again the AIF is saying from the depths of its heart, thank God for the Navy, who have twice saved our lives and succoured us into safety Australian soldier.

The British operations in 1941 in Greece and Crete depended on the sailors, warships and merchant transports of the British Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, Egypt. The Australian warships that played a major part in these events were the light cruiser, HMAS Perth, and the destroyers HMAS Stuart, Napier, Nizam, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen. The main role of the fleet was the safe conveyance to and from Greece of Lustre Force and guarding the sea approaches from enemy naval attack. During the operations on Crete the fleet also prevented seaborne reinforcements from reaching the German paratroop force on the island.

The greatest danger facing the warships was attack by dive bombers. On 30 May, eleven men died when a bomb hit HMAS Perth as it was evacuating over 1 000 soldiers from Sfakia. Over the period of the operations on Crete, the British Mediterranean Fleet lost three cruisers and six destroyers and a number of other ships were damaged. Over 2,000 sailors were killed.

Greece and Australia 1841 – 1945

They find themselves in a country that might be a piece of Australia towed across the world Kenneth Slessor, official Australian war correspondent Greek campaign.

In March and April 1941 the British sent over 58,000 servicemen and women to the defence of Greece and of these 17,125 were Australians of the 6th Division, AIF. The force as a whole suffered over 2,500 dead, 3,400 wounded and over 25,000 taken prisoner. Australian losses were 594 dead, 1 001 wounded and 5,132 Prisoners of War.

For the Greek people the war was a disaster. An estimated 540,000 Greeks perished during the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation of 1941-44. They died of hunger, were shot in reprisals and during guerrilla operations or, if they were Jews, they died in concentration camps in Germany.

During and since World War 2 close bonds of friendship have existed between Greece and Australia. Hundreds of servicemen not evacuated by the main force were helped by the Greek people, at great personal risk, to escape from the mainland and from Crete. After the war, hundreds of thousands of Greeks made their homes in Australia where today they form one of the largest native-born Greek communities outside Greece.

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