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The Battle of Crete: A campaign ignored

Dr Maria Hill asks why do Australian and Greek authorities ignore the significance of the Battle of Crete?

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Australian soldiers. Battle of Crete.

Some of the many Australian soldiers who took part in the Greek campaign in 1941.

The campaign on Crete lasted ten days and led to the capture of over 3,000 Australian soldiers, the death of over 6,000 civilians and the burning of Cretan villages to the ground, forcing the Cretan people to live in caves for many years after the war.
18 May 2009

The organising committee for this commemoration, at least in Sydney, is concerned that soon there will be no event to remember the Australian soldiers and their Greek allies who fought in these campaigns, held on or around the May 20, the day the German paratroopers invaded Crete, now, 68 years ago.

It appears with the aging of the veterans that attendance is fizzling out and without strong support from the Australian public and the Greek and Australian governments it will cease to be commemorated. Cost cutting measures have impacted on the remembrance of this campaign.

And while thousands of Australians attend dawn services at or about Gallipoli, with funds and enormous publicity directed at this event, very few people are aware that a commemoration takes place every year in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, attended by high ranking Greek generals, to remember the fallen of the Greek and Crete campaigns.

Why is this the case, when like Gallipoli, the Australian campaigns in Greece were ‘defeats’? Why don’t they deserve public recognition?

Passers by at the cenotaph in Martin Place in Sydney remain oblivious to what is being commemorated because there are no banners identifying the ceremony.

It appears that it is left to the veterans and their organising committee to find the funds to do so and not the City of Sydney Council. If this is the case, one wanders if the 90-year-old veterans are also required to supply the banners for Anzac Day as well.

It is a sad testimony to the Australians who fought on mainland Greece in April 1941 and later on Crete that so little public attention is afforded this commemoration.

What makes the omission even more striking, is that the Greek and Crete campaigns resulted in the capture of 83 percent of Australian troops taken prisoner by the Germans and Italians.

It exposed the Greek people and the Australian soldiers to unceasing German bombardment by ‘Stuka’ planes fitted with high pitch screeching devices aimed at instilling terror in the hearts of their victims.

Most soldiers only just managed to escape with their life, remarking that the evacuation from the Greek mainland made Dunkirk seem like child’s play.

Later, most of these soldiers were on the front line again, this time on Crete without equipment, arms and ammunition and ordered to defend the island.

The campaign on Crete lasted ten days and led to the capture of over 3,000 Australian soldiers, the death of over 6,000 civilians and the burning of Cretan villages to the ground, forcing the Cretan people to live in caves for many years after the war.

As the elite Cretan V division had been deployed to the Greek mainland to fight Italians on the Albanian front, only raw Greek recruits from the mainland, old men, women and children were left, alongside the Cretan police and the Anzac troops, to defend the island.

Although the Allies had a greater number of troops on Crete than the Germans, they lacked the guns and bullets needed to fight a war.

Poor planning and preparation on the part of the British meant that the Aussies and their Greek allies were placed in an impossible situation.

The Allied Commander New Zealand General, Bernard Freyberg, was in charge of the overall defence of the island. Unfortunately, he did not heed the top-secret advice he was given that told him when and where the German attacks would take place.

As a result the airfield at Maleme on the western side of the island near Chania was lost on the first day, opening the way for a German land attack.

Whereas the Australian officer Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell in charge of defending the airstrip at Rethymnon, located between Chania and Heraklion, implemented a brilliant strategy, he was forced to surrender because his ran out of ammunition and supplies.

And the irony is that while the Australian defence of Rethymnon remains relatively unknown and unrecognised in Australia, on Crete Ian Campbell was made an honorary citizen and has streets named after him and the Australian fighters.

Why is it that, some campaigns get enormous media coverage while others receive very little? Kokoda, for example has taken over from Gallipoli as the most important campaign of World War Two, but is it?

Who decides what we commemorate?

The attention that Gallipoli and Kokoda receive in the History curriculum particularly in New South Wales would certainly account for much of their popularity.

One Australian veteran told me that the reason Greece and Crete is neglected apart from not being studied at schools, is that the British and Australian governments were ashamed of these campaigns.

This is not surprising, as it must have been a major embarrassment to them, particularly when the public discovered in 1941 that Australia had agreed to Britain’s request to deploy Australian troops in a campaign that had no chance of success and in another without adequate equipment, supplies and air cover.

And subsequently exposed the Greek people to the most ruthless occupation of their country, resulting in the starvation and death of over 300,000 civilians. Is it any wonder that the Australian campaigns on the Greek mainland and in Crete remain forgotten?

After all, no-one wants their dirty laundry aired in public, even seventy years on; but isn’t that all the more reason for greater scrutiny and remembrance?

Dr Maria Hill is Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales. She is currently researching and writing a book on the Greek and Crete campaigns that is due to be published by UNSW Press in March 2010 entitled Diggers and Greeks: the Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete.

Maria is happy to hear from anyone interested in talking to her about their own or a family member’s experience in the Greek and Crete campaigns and can be contacted via her website at: http://www.mariahill.com.au

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