Eightieth anniversary of Battles of Greece and Crete

EXIT ALLIES: An Australian Army Ford four-wheel-drive artillery tractor tows a No 27 Mk I limber and an 18 pounder Mk IV in Greece, circa April 1941. Photo: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL
EXIT ALLIES: An Australian Army Ford four-wheel-drive artillery tractor tows a No 27 Mk I limber and an 18 pounder Mk IV in Greece, circa April 1941. Photo: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL

TWO courageous and often overlooked battles in which Australians served during World War II mark their 80th anniversary in April.

Allied campaigns in Greece and Crete ultimately ended in defeat in 1941.

The battle of Crete lasted just 13 days and claimed the lives of more than 1700 British Commonwealth troops, including 274 Australians, with 11,370 taken as prisoners of war.

The battle of Greece lasted about five months and claimed the lives of about 320 Australians, with a further 2065 troops taken as prisoners of war.

This Anzac Day will see the nation remember these battles and commemorate the loss of lives, along with those from other theatres of war in which Australians were killed or have served.

Crete was an interesting battle because it was the first mainly airborne invasion in military history.

It began on the morning of May 20, when a fleet of German aircraft flew over the 8450 square kilometre island. Allied forces defended the island, joined by Grecian and Cretan civilians.

Initial fighting instilled confidence in the Allies, who claimed a large number of German casualties. But events soured when, the following day, a number of tactical mistakes and miscommunications on the part of the Allies led to the Germans taking the all-important Maleme Airfield. There, the Axis powers dropped reinforcements and so grabbed a foothold on the north of the island.

Allied troops and many civilians were forced to a withdrawal on the island's south, allowing the Germans to join forces with the Italians (who had landed on Sitia).

About 500 Allies remained scattered around the island after the withdrawal and were able to thwart German troops for months afterwards. The Greek campaign involved Australian, British and New Zealand troops supporting Greek forces against a German invasion.

This was one of the most challenging battles of World War II.

The Allies were unprepared for the German attack and the British Commonwealth force found itself outnumbered and unable to deploy sufficient troops to halt the German advance.

Instead, they conducted a series of withdrawals which slowed the Germans, offering brave and sometimes successful delaying actions.

Ultimately the Germans captured Athens on April 27 (two days after Anzac Day), capturing 7000 Allied troops and claiming a decisive victory.

This led to Greece being occupied by German, Italian and Bulgarian forces.

"Today we remember the service and sacrifice of the ANZAC Corps and the Greek service men and civilians who assisted our troops in the defence of Greece and Crete," Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester said.

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