The Greek campaign saw soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom support local Greek forces. It was an ill-planned, disastrous and short campaign, lasting only 27 days.
On the 6 April 1941, German forces attacked and Allied forces were immediately outnumbered. Lacking in both aircraft and armour, the Allies and the local Greek forces were too poorly equipped to resist the German invasion. At times they were able to slow the onslaught and offer some successful local resistance. However, for most of the campaign, the Allies conducted a series of withdrawals towards the Peloponnesus peninsula.
An evacuation began on 24 April, where over 50,000 Allied troops were removed from fighting in Greece over five successive nights. Hundreds of others were cut off during the fighting. Many of these men made their way back to Allied lines in Crete or North Africa through Turkey or the Greek islands.
Crete’s position in the centre of the eastern Mediterranean made it a key strategic asset during the Second World War. Britain had established a garrison on the island in November 1940, but was unable to commit more troops to due to the pressure of operations in North Africa. This left the Allied forces in Crete ill-equipped and facing difficulties in defending the island. Most of the Allied force had arrived exhausted from the failed Greek campaign with little equipment and minimal weapons.
The island’s defence was based around three main areas—Heraklion and Retimo, both airfields, and the Canea-Suda bay area, which contained port facilities at Suda and an airfield at Maleme.
On 20 May 1941, almost 10,000 German airborne troops landed on Crete, with the objective of capturing the three airfields. Initially they suffered heavy casualties and were held at Retimo and Heraklion. By the night of 21 May, the Germans had taken control of Maleme airfield. This allowed large numbers of reinforcements to be flown in, where they began pushing Allied forces back towards Canea. On
27 May, evacuation orders were given and over 12,000 Allied troops were removed from Sphakia over four nights.
Efforts to get the evacuation message to the 2/1st Battalion and the 2/11th Battalion failed. The 2/1st Battalion surrendered, while 2/11th Battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Sandover advised his men to scatter and try to escape. Subsequently 42 members of the battalion reached Egypt.
Those who missed the evacuation and were not taken prisoner owed their lives to the Cretan people who helped them survive by providing food and places to hide.
The majority of the 6th Division was sent back to Australia to support the impending Japanese Invasion.
Australians who served
- More than 17,000 Australians were involved in the Greece Campaign
- Around 6,500 were involved in Crete
- Australian 6th Division including infantry, artillery, engineers, medical and other units
- 320 Australians died in Greece, 494 wounded and more than 2,000 were taken prisoner
- 274 Australians were killed fighting in Crete, 507 were wounded and more than 3,000 were taken prisoner
- Ordinary Seaman Ian Rhodes (Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve) – Conspicuous Gallantry Medal
- Phaleron War Cemetery (Greece) where 252 Australians are buried
- Suda Bay War Cemetery (Crete) where 197 Australians are buried