Battle of Crete: Greece sacrificed much for the greater good

Maria Hill looks at the real reasons as to why Diggers who fought and died in Crete against the Germans are not remembered in Australia.

Greece – currently the pariah of Europe was sacrificed for the greater good in 1941. It seems that no-one has a kind word to say about Greece as a result of the debt crisis, yet nearly 70 years ago this small country withstood the might of the German forces considerably longer than its larger and more powerful neighbours.

<p>It seems ironic that while the Greek and Crete campaigns, where Australians fought alongside their Greek allies are ignored, the commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign has resulted in Turkish soldiers being embraced as worthy opponents. – Dr Maria Hill auhor of <em>Diggers and Greeks</em></p>

The Greeks suffered immensely for their involvement in the war particularly on Crete. In their most critical hour, when the Greek people were desperate for munitions and supplies, the British were falling over themselves to offer armaments to Turkey in a desperate bid to woo them into a war against Germany.

Turkey did not succumb to the temptation, having learnt from the First World War. It emerged from the Second World War relatively unscathed unlike Greece that underwent a brutal occupation leading to widespread famine and death that remains relatively unknown in the West.

Crete was abandoned and exposed to the horrors of Nazi occupation by British delay in supplying much needed equipment to the island and its failure to prepare the island when it had the opportunity to do so. General Archibald Wavell – Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Theatre of War was fearful of losing further material in Crete that he desperately needed to fight the war in North Africa and Syria.

This however does not excuse his actions that forced Australian troops into using their tin hats to dig trenches, particularly when one realises that the Allies outnumbered the Germans on Crete – a vital fact often ignored by writings on the Crete campaign The British had deployed 31,200 troops to Crete while the Greek government had sent a further 25,000 new recruits from the mainland.

This added to the island’s original garrison of 5,300 bringing the total of Allied troops on Crete to 61,800. This is not what the Germans had expected as they descended like sitting ducks from the sky nor the resistance they encountered from the locals.

Only 23,000 troops had been allocated to the invasion of Crete by the Germans, with 10,000 of these to be dropped by parachute. So why was Crete lost? It was certainly not because of the superiority of the Germans forces deployed to Crete.

British ineptitude, in not establishing secure lines of communication on the island relying instead on Crete’s archaic telephone system that was destroyed on the first day of the attack to run the campaign, played a significant part in losing Crete.

The fact that the New Zealand Commander of the Crete Campaign Bernard Freyberg did not heed top-secret Ultra advice that provided him with the date, time and location of the attack also contributed to the failure of the campaign.

Instead he insisted on preparing the island for a sea and air attack leaving the vital airfield at Maleme inadequately defended. Brigadier Vasey and Lieutenant-Colonel Cremor, the Australian officers on Crete, also believed that Freyberg had ‘bungled his task.’

What also contributed to the loss of Crete was the incompetent New Zealand officer Brigadier Hargest in charge of the defence of the critical airfield at Maleme.

Had he conducted a more aggressive campaign by quickly counter attacking on the evening of 20 May – the first day of the attack, to regain control of the airfield Crete may have been held.

Instead, Hargest, in the words of one official historian, “sat like a man bemused when the fate of the invasion … balanced on a knife edge.”

The Greeks had left the defence of the island in British hands and were badly let down with their forces inadequately used. Had Hargest positioned 1st Greek regiment along the Tavronitis River, a vital ground left undefended, the result of Maleme might have been different.

The Greek troops would have delayed the Germans at the decisive point in the battle instead of sending them to Kastelli a strategically unimportant fishing village.

It seems ironic that while the Greek and Crete campaigns, where Australians fought alongside their Greek allies are ignored, the commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign has resulted in Turkish soldiers being embraced as worthy opponents.

While forgiving your enemies is commendable, not remembering your allies in those dark and terrifying days of 1941, is not. The battle of Crete and the campaign in Greece are not ‘ethnic’ commemorations.

They are not owned by any one group or organisation and its to the great credit of the Cretan people of Australia that these battles that were fought to defend democracy and Greece, are remembered at all.

What should not be ignored is that the two campaigns belong to all Australians and to the Greek people who fought alongside them and deserve greater recognition on Anzac Day because they are Australia’s ‘Second Gallipoli’, yet this is rarely mentioned.

They are Australia’s ‘Second Gallipoli’, yet this is rarely mentioned.

Let’s get involved next year – for the 70th anniversary of the campaigns, in raising public awareness and ensuring that we have a greater attendance at the commemoration ceremonies in 2011.

Dr Maria Hill is a Visiting Fellow UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy and a Professional Historian. She wrote Diggers and Greeks: The Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete