This month will see the Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic address the US Congress, a visit that coincides with the 81st anniversary of the Greek campaign of 1941. In the audience will be a Senator with a unique connection to Greece – Senator Jon Osoff – whose grandfather took part in the Greek campaign of 1941 as one of the Australian soldiers who served there. He was Private Thomas Fenton and this article recounts his Greek campaign, including his part in the Allied victory at Rethymno on May 20, 1941 – a battle which saw Australians, British and Greeks fight side-by-side against the German invader in one of the fiercest engagements of the battle of Crete.

Our story begins in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs with the birth of Thomas in Yarraville in 1911.

At some stage he moved to Sydney and with the outbreak of the Second World War Thomas joined up at Drummoyne in Sydney in November 1939, becoming one of what became known as the Thirty-Niners, the first enrollment of Aussies in the Second Australian Imperial Force. He joined the 2/1st Battalion, known as the City of Sydney Regiment, and would rise to the rank of Warrant Officer (Second Class). The men are reported to have been cheered by the people of Sydney as they marched with the other 16th Brigade battalions as it made its way through the city to embark on the troopship Oxford on January 10, 1940.

After service in the Middle East, taking part in some of the major early Allied victories of that campaign, Thomas and the 2/1st departed for Greece as part of the Allied force sent to bolster its defence against the looming German-led invasion. Arriving at Piraeus in late March, Thomas no doubt enjoyed the sights and hospitality on offer in Athens during a few days leave, before the battalion moved north to take up their initial defensive positions.

Thomas’ campaign on the mainland saw him and the battalion advance to Veria, followed by their defensive withdrawal across central Greece. Their active service would see the unit earn battle honours for Mount Olympus and Brallos Pass. Towards the end of April, Thomas and the unit had been evacuated safely to Crete.

After a few weeks rest, Thomas and his battalion were in place to defend the airfield at Rethymno to the east of the main Allied defensive positions around Chania-Suda Bay-Maleme. Along with that of the Maleme and Heraklion airfields, the defence of Rethymno and its airfield would be pivotal to the success of the Allied defence of Crete against the anticipated German airborne assault. Thomas’ battalion commander – Lieutenant Colonel Ian Ross Campbell – led the defence force of Australian, British and Greek units. The Australians encompassed the 2/11th Battalion and the artillery of the 2/3rd Field Regiment as well as Thomas’ battalion.

At 4pm on May 20 Thomas would have seen the waves of German bombers attacking the defenders, followed soon after by the German air transports dropping some 1600 paratroops onto the defenders at the airfield. These paratroops included veterans of the battle of Corinth Canal fought on April 26. The Australians and other Allied troops opened up on the attackers, downing planes and killing many of the paratroops, “it was a slaughter” recalled Private Basil Avery of the 2/11th Battalion.

Thomas’ Battalion took part in one of the fiercest parts of the battle for Rethymno – the defence of what was known as Hill A. Despite a strong German ground attack which succeeded in securing the heights of the Hill, the Australians re-took the position in two assaults in the early hours of May 21.

One Australian soldier described the scene after the engagement, with “German and Australian dead lying everywhere.”

The Australians had removed the only Germans who succeeded in gaining higher ground and maintained their attacks along with their Greek allies on the only other significant groups of Germans located to the east and to the west at Perivolio, the Cretan Police units having stopped the German assault on Rethymno itself. The Germans had been denied in their aim of gaining the aerodrome or the coastal plain. In the end, 12 German planes had been brought down, 900 Germans killed and over 500 captured. The Allied commander on Crete, New Zealander General Freyberg on hearing of the Australian-led successes at Rethymno messaged Campbell “You have done magnificently.”

Yet victory has its cost, both for the soldiers engaged and civilians, a number of locals having been massacred by the Germans during the battle. Amongst the Allied losses were some 50-60 dead from Thomas’ Battalion , including 21 year old Private Ronald Exley Robinson from Paddington and 28 year old Lance Corporal Alexander Robert Browne from Surry Hills who both died on May 21, probably in the battle for Hill A. It has been my privilege to take part the annual commemorations held at Rethymno, with their impressive memorials, both in the town itself and at Stavromenos on its outskirts.

Success at Rethymno was not enough to turn the tide. German success at Maleme and the Allied retreat to Sfakia found Thomas and the undefeated Allies at Rethymno isolated and facing capture. As was the case in similar situations, Commander Campbell informed the troops of his intention to cease fighting and surrender on May 30, those troops who wished to escape could do so. Nearly 70 Australians who served at Rethymno were successful in reaching Egypt, including Colonel Ray Sandover, Private Basil Avery and Signalman Arthur Leggett of the 2/11th Battalion, while 16 of Thomas’ Battalion escaped. But Thomas was not one of them. He was one of the 450 Australians captured at Rethymno. Out of the thousand men that had sailed from Sydney, less than 100 men from the Battalion reached Egypt.

Thomas now experienced the world of the Allied prisoners in Greece. Initially confined in a local school, Thomas and the others captured at Rethymno were moved to hastily built enclosures erected south of Chania, with most Australians kept at one near Skines. Here they were kept in the sun and suffered infestations and disease from the conditions in the camp, denied access to the cleansing waters of the sea enjoyed by other Allied prisoners. Most probably he would have been transported by sea to Thessaloniki, sailing along the coastline of mainland Greece to avoid the attention of Allied submarines operating in the area. Soon they would have arrived at the harbour front, disembarked and been marched off to the POW camp established by the Germans in an old disused Ottoman-era Army camp. This would be the holding camp for all the Allied soldiers captured by the Germans during the Greek campaign.

The camp became infamous in the memories of those kept there. Crammed together in poor decrepit accommodation, fed paltry and poor rations, with access to limited and rudimentary medical supplies and treatment, disease spread amongst the prisoners. The random violence of some of the German guards, added to the death toll amongst the prisoners. For all these reasons the Australians remembered it as the Hell Camp of Thessaloniki. Some would stay for months, others only a few weeks, before being transported to other established camps in German-occupied Europe. Thomas’ daughter Heather tells me that in the camp her father slept on a wooden pallet, on the

underside of which he carved his name. When he was in the camp Thomas might have rubbed shoulders with some of the other Australians there, like 22 year old Corporal Herbert “Slim” Wrigley who was also from Thomas’ Yarraville.

Like a number of other Allied prisoners, Thomas could not stand to be incarcerated. Soon escape plots were planned and implemented. Some failed but others succeeded. Thomas was one of those who succeeded, making his way into the mountains and joining the resistance, in much the same way as Corporal Wrigley. However Thomas’ freedom did not last, he was informed on by collaborators and re-captured. No doubt the locals who helped him suffered terribly as a consequence of this. After his re-capture, Thomas was eventually transported to a POW camp in Austria, where he was finally liberated at the end of the war. After his liberation, Thomas was discharged on 24th October 1945 and eventually returned to Australia. It is back in Sydney that he married and became the father of daughter Heather.

The experience of Greece and its people – and no doubt of the valiant resistance to Axis occupation and the help he received on the run – made Thomas an ardent philhellene as Heather remembers. Like a number of Anzacs his experience of this support drove him to return to Greece after the war. He first returned with his family in 1956, visiting the former POW camp and the local villagers who had helped him. As Heather remembers, “he was accorded a hero’s welcome.” Throughout the 50s and 60’s the family returned to Greece, spending some seven years there, Heather even completing studies at a college in Athens. Thomas passed away in 1975.

And now we come to the US Congress connection. Aged 23 young Heather moved to the US and later married Richard Ossoff and lived in Georgia. In 1987 they had a son and named him after Heather’s Australian father – Thomas Jonathan Ossoff. Heather would go on to teach at the University of Athens in Georgia. And this is where the story gets truly amazing. For it was Thomas Ossoff who was elected as the senior Senator for Georgia in the United State Congress, a vitally important victory for the Democratic Party and the new administration of President Joe Biden. Senator Ossoff’s victory has been celebrated by many across the United States and reported in Australia for his Australian connection. But what is less well known is his connection to the Greek campaign and resistance through the service of his Australian grandfather. Thomas Fenton’s story links Yarraville and the bloody battle of Rethymno, and on to the floor of the US Senate. I hope that Prime Minister Mitsotakis is made aware of Senator Ossoff’s connection to Greece – so that Thomas Fenton’s service can be appropriately honoured in Washington.

Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and published author who has researched the Hellenic link to Anzac over both world wars over many years. The author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16 and the forthcoming Grecian Adventure: Anzac Trail Stories & Photographs – Greece 1941, he acknowledges the help of Thomas’ Fenton’s daughter Heather in the preparation of this article. He can be contacted via

US Senator Jon Ossoff, 2021. Photo: Public Domain
Stavromenos Memorial, near Rethymno. Photo: Jim Claven
The airfield and coast at Rethymno, looking from the former Australia positions on Hill A,
photographed June 1945. Photo: AWM Collection.
German plane wreckage at Rethymno, photographed June 1945. Photo: AWM Collection.
Retimo Battle Map, 2nd AIF, 2/1st Battalion War Diary, March-May 1941. Photo: AWM52 8/3/1