On this day in 1941, German forces attacked both Greece and Yugoslavia, and followed a month later with an attack on Crete.
The Allies, including Greek units, were inadequately prepared to resist the German attack, which was carried out on the ground by infantry, armoured and specialist mountain divisions.
On land and in the air, the British Commonwealth force found itself outnumbered and unable to deploy sufficient troops in any single area to halt the German advance.
By 20 April, it became clear that all they could do was disrupt and slow the German advance, and the Greek Government agreed for the force to be evacuated. Over the following five nights, more than 50,000 troops were evacuated from Greece by British and Australian ships. They left behind some 320 Australians who were killed and some 2,065 who became prisoners of war.
Tragically, Crete – a key strategic asset – fell in a similar way, with the Allies being overrun by the formidable German force.
In May 1941, an airborne operation codenamed Merkur (Mercury) saw some 9,500 German paratroopers land on Crete. While initially suffering heavy losses, the Germans managed to gain control of one of the airfields allowing further troops to be flown in.
Allied evacuations began shortly after, with around 16,500 troops successfully removed from the island. Sadly though, the British Commonwealth losses numbered more than 1,700 killed, more than 2,220 wounded, and around 11,370 taken as 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.
‘The service and sacrifice of these brave men will never be forgotten, and we also pay a special thank you to the locals who helped many of our troops survive,’ said Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester.
For more information about the Allied campaigns in Greece and Crete, visit the Anzac Portal.
Troops of the Australian 6th Division arriving in Suda Bay, Crete, having been evacuated from mainland Greece, May 1941.
German paratroopers landing in Crete, May 1941.