Last Sunday saw the gifting and unveiling in the heart of Melbourne’s Greek community of one of the most iconic photographs depicting the Hellenic link to Anzac.
The photograph was taken in March 1941 as the first Australian soldiers arrived in Greece as part of the Allied effort to join with Greece in its defence against the looming German invasion. It depicts Australian soldiers and Greece’s evzones atop Athens’ Acropolis. The original photograph is held in the Australian War Memorial and was taken by Australia’s famous war photographer Damien Parer.
The donation was a joint initiative of myself and Oakleigh State MP, Steve Dimopoulos. It was my pleasure to select this image as a symbol of the connection between Greece and Australia across both world wars. The framed archival photograph from 1941 was presented to Oakleigh Carnegie RSL located in Drummond Street.
The crowd assembled at Oakleigh’s historic RSL Hall to enjoy a special luncheon and witness the event. These included members of the local community and the RSL. Parliamentary and local government was represented, including Clare O’Neil, MHR for Hotham, the Mayor of Glen Eira Tony Athanasopulos and local Monash Councillor Stuart James. A number of RSL representatives were in attendance including Marcus Fielding of Camberwell RSL and RSL State Executive member as well as Ange Kenos, President of the Essendon RSL.
A number of local Greek community representatives were present, including Jim Saisanas of the Pan-Argoliki Brotherhood and enny Krasopoulaki of the Pan-Korinthian Association, as well as members of Melbourne’s Thessaloniki Association The White Tower. Lee Tarlamis OAM and Ms Christina Despoteris attended representing the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, along with Committee members Malcolm and Flora MacDonald, as did Tony Tsourdalakis, President of the Battle of Crete and Greece Commemorative Council. One of the day’s special guests was Shirley Devery, the daughter of Tom who served in Greece and Crete in 1941.
In addressing the assembly, I re-told the story of the Australians arriving in Greece in early 1941, of how they were welcomed by the locals and how the sunshine, clear blue water and smell of eucalypts reminded them of home. Enjoying a few days leave in Athens the diggers made their way to the famous sights of one of the world’s most historic capitals. Many made their way to the Acropolis, including the Australian war correspondent and poet Kennett Slessor. He found the experience and view incredible.
I explained how the scene that Damien Parer photographed was entirely impromptu, as he came across these young diggers from New South Wales on the sun-drenched peak of the Acropolis on that morning of the 25th March 1941. As his colleague George Silk wrote “we were just there to see the Acropolis.” The diggers were all from the Australian 2/2nd Battalion – Tom Cawley from Walcha, Peter Brown from Manly, Len Lennon from Inverell, Harry Townsend from Bexley and C. Foot from Debman. Damien’s photograph captures something of the swagger and confidence of both the Australian and Greek soldiers. They are not to be trifled with. And in days they would face the full force of the German invasion of Greece. Referring to this and other similar photographs taken by Damien and George Silk, Parer’s biographer Neil Macdonald has written that they had created “visual icons crystallising the way the Anzac and Greek legends merged in March and April 1941.”
Steve Dimopoulos stated how proud he was to be able to make this iconic gift to the Oakleigh Carnegie RSL. Growing up in Oakleigh, Steve spoke of his having learned the story of Australia’s involvement in the battle of Greece and Crete. In more recent years he has become increasingly aware of the strong local connections between Oakleigh and the Hellenic link to Anzac. And this photograph tells a thousand words – of philotimo and of mateship, of courage and bravery in the defence of freedom. He hoped that its display in the RSL would re-new awareness of Greece’s links to Australia’s Anzac story and the connection between Australians and Greeks across a new generation.
Accepting the donation on the behalf of the Oakleigh-Carnegie RSL, President Doug Pendergast stated that the local RSL was proud of its connection to Oakleigh’s Greek community and the Anzac connection to Greece. Doug pointed to the RSL’s historic honour roll board unveiled in 1922 which includes Private William Withers, a local Oakleigh boy, who fought at Gallipoli and who is buried on the Greek Island of Lemnos along with 148 other young Australians. He went on to stress that the Oakleigh Carnegie RSL was committed to reinforcing its links with the local Greek community which stretch back many years.
A particularly touching moment was when Mr Dimopoulos brought the framed photograph across to the table of Mr and Mrs Apostolos Zaparas. Mr Zaparas is a member and strong supporter of the RSL. He shared with us some of his family history, stretching back to the unification of Macedonia with Greece at the turn of the last century.
The beautifully framed image now hangs in pride of place in the bar of the RSL for all to see. Next time you visit Oakleigh for a frappe or souvlaki, pay a visit to the Oakleigh Carnegie RSL and toast the Anzacs and Evzones on the Acropolis with an ouzo or two!