Battle of Crete: time to remember forgotten soldiers

Australian writers, Dr Maria Hill and Peter Thompson seek the truth over the role Anzacs and Greeks played in World War II.

Dr Maria Hill’s Diggers and Greeks and Thompson’s Anzac Fury are new books that pay homage to the Anzacs and Greeks in World War II, with a focus also on the bloody Battle of Crete.

<p>”The Aussies were conned into it by the British, they were told a lie that they had a chance of success” – Dr Maria Hill author of Diggers and Greeks.</p>

Over 5,000 Anzacs were taken prisoners of war by the Germans and Italians, and of the 60,000 British troops committed 30,000, mainly Anzacs, were evacuated after being routed by the Germans.

Greeks suffered immeasurably from starvation and the brutality of the occupiers, while those Diggers that were left behind in Greece and Crete worked with partisans in fighting the Germans.

Yet, one of the largest military campaigns undertaken by Australia is hardly mentioned by Australian governments.

“The Aussies were conned into it by the British, they were told a lie that they had a chance of success,” says Hill.

“They were not told the reality that they would lose all equipment and all men. General Blamey was not involved in the discussions and it was too late when he was aware of the terrible situation and wrote a letter to the Australian military authorities,” she adds

In different ways Hill and Thompson’s books redress successive Australian governments’ absence of recognition for the men who fought against the Germans in the Greek campaigns from 1941 onwards.

Hill examines the fact that “anything written about the Greek mainland and Cretan campaigns, would suggest that Greece was absent of Greeks”.

The British named Lusterforce of 62,532 troops consisted of British, Australian, New Zealand, Cypriot and Palestinian troops were sent to Greece to defend it against imminent German attack.

Thompson sees the failure of the British to secure Crete their main interest in fighting the Germans in Palestine.

“Greece was a terrible defeat for the Australians particularly after they did so brilliantly in the Western Desert, but Churchill and Eden decided to split the force in two and send half of the men to Greece,” says Thompson from his London office.

Thompson and Hill point to the terrible price the Greek people paid for their support of the Anzacs, and because of the pro-German sympathies of their military leadership.

Thompson’s Anzac Fury details the response of the Greek people who became great allies to the Anzacs.

“The Cretans risked all to hide, feed and look after the Anzacs, particularly in the face of brutal German reprisals,” says Thompson.

The campaigns were destined to be failures from the start. The Anzacs were kept in the dark by the British about Greece, they were never told the truth about the reality of Greece. The Anzacs had to be evacuated and many remained behind to fight with Greek partisans against the Germans.

“My book is controversial, neither the Australian nor Greek authorities like it that much,” says Hill. “It highlights the deceit by the British, the failure of leadership among the Australians and the Fascist pro German sympathisers in the Greek government and army.”

Thompson focuses on the arrogance of Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey as well as missed opportunities in Crete.

Hill examines the Greek state and its military leadership who tried to keep on-side with the Germans as well as the British.

Peter Thompson says, “Greek General Papagos and Metaxas did not want Allied Forces in the Balkans, particularly as the Bulgarians and Yugoslav leadership was pro-German.”

“The Greeks had defeated the Italians but were completely exhausted. No less important, Metaxas’ main focus was on defending the Albanian Greek border, not stopping a German advance,” Hill adds.

Both highlight the anti-German view of the Greek population and the exiled Greek leadership of the Venizelos.

“But, the Venizelists had been purged prior to the war,” says Hill. Anzacs were shocked to see, “fascist salutes by army officers with pro German attitudes.”

Hill and Thompson view this as a “second Gallipoli effect” due to the dishonesty of the British who cajoled the Australians and New Zealanders into the Greek campaign without consultation. Yet the Anzacs in Greece have been forgotten by Australian authorities unlike those veterans of Gallipoli.

“Gallipoli was not a battle that we wanted to celebrate when I was growing up,” says Hill, “but in the 1990s it was resurrected as a victory by John Howard when in fact it was a terrible loss”.

Hill’s and Thompson’s redress what they see as “an unfinished business.” As a teacher Hill became aware of the fact that “nothing has really been written about the Crete and Greek campaign.”

Thompson says, “the Greek campaign was a total disaster, we lost good men, and we fought brilliantly alongside with the Greek partisans and some of the army, but you need to ask the question, ‘why were we there?'”

He adds, “The Cretans were great allies, they looked after the Anzacs all through the war,” Hill agrees, adding, “The British never prepared the defences of the island properly, they were behaving like it was peacetime, General Archibald Wavell knew he had too many wars, and he was focused on North Africa”

In the end the Cretan campaign forced his demise and brought terror and havoc to the people of Crete and the remaining Anzacs.

– Diggers and Greeks: is published on UNSW Press

– Anzac Fury: is published by Random House