Every May we gather to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those who served in the battle of Crete, defending the Island from the German invasion in May 1941.
One of those we should honour is Gunner James Dimitri Zampelis. Among the 2,500 Australians of Hellenic heritage who served in the Second World War, James is the only one who was killed in action in the battle of Greece and Crete.
His story is that of thousands of other Australians who fought on Crete – and in the defence of the Greek mainland before that. It is the story of an ordinary man, who once walked the streets of Melbourne as we do, enjoying life- and where his Greek-born father had made his new home. A man like so many others who sailed overseas into harm’s way, leaving a worried family behind – including a young son. And like so many others their fears would be answered by his sad death on the beautiful but suddenly dangerous Island of Crete.
James and the Zampeli Odyssey
James was born in Melbourne on 22 December 1912, a new addition to the growing Zampeli family. He was the son of Gerasimos and Louisa Zampelis.
The Zampeli’s came from the village of Marantohori on the Island of Lefkada. When James’ father decided to migrate to Australia in 1900, he is said to have been the first to have done so from his village. After short stints in Kalgoorlie and Sydney, Gerasimos finally settled in his new home of Melbourne in 1903. At the time Melbourne had only a small Hellenic community, with the 1901 census listing only 181 Greeks living in Melbourne.
James’ mother was Louisa Elizabeth Sievers, who had married Gerasimos in Melbourne’s Greek Orthodox Church in 1910. Louisa and her husband would have three children – Helena arrived in 1911, followed by Dimitri (or James as he would be known) in 1912 and finally Harold Andrew in 1916. Sadly, when young James was only 7 years old his mother passed away, at just 28 years of age.
Like many Greek immigrant families, Gerasimos did not take long in establishing a new business for his family in Melbourne. After sponsoring his cousin Nicholas to follow him to Australia in 1924, they opened Nick’s Café at St Kilda’s big intersection, the then St Kilda Junction.
Young James was soon working as a waiter. And so began the Zampeli family’s long association with Melbourne’s hospitality industry.
From St Kilda to War
The Second World War broke out in early September 1939. Barely four weeks later, James went to the Army Recruitment Centre at the No. 7 Drill Hall in Chapel Street, East St Kilda, and joined up as Gunner Zampelis. He was 26 years old.
By this time, James had started a family of his own, adding his son Peter James Zampelis to the Zampelis presence in St Kilda. Separated from his wife Doris, James listed his son Peter as his next of kin on his enlistment papers.
It’s no surprise that when he was enlisted into the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment he was given the job of mess steward – a job he was eminently qualified for given his employment and family history!
James’ first experience of army life was months spent at training camps at Broadmeadows and Puckapunyal, near Seymour. But on 14th April 1940 James departed from Port Melbourne as part of the second convoy of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force – following in the wake of the Anzacs of the First World War.
The 2/2nd became one of Australia’s famous fighting units in the Second World War. With it, James would take part in some of the major engagements fought by the Australian Army in the Middle East, as well as Greece and Crete.
The unit was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Cremor who took a keen interest in the conditions experienced by his men. A former school teacher, he was affectionately known as “old bugger and blast” by James and his fellow diggers. One of the other officers in the unit was Captain William Refshauge, the Regimental Medical Officer, who would come to know James personally during the unit’s campaign in Crete.
James’ First Battle Honour Bardia
James arrived at the Kantarra Army camp in Egypt on 18 May 1940, the unit being incorporated into the artillery component of the famous Australian 6th Division commanded by Major General Iven Mackay. The unit’s routine of artillery training was ended with the Italian declaration of war on 11 June.
The 2/2nd took part in the defence of Egypt against the initial Italian invasion and in the famous Allied counter-attack led by Major General Richard O’Connor. The campaign resulted in the rout of enemy forces in Libya. One of the battle honours of the unit was its role, with the rest of the 6th Division, in the battle of Bardia in Libya.
This battle took place over three days in early January 1941, with the twenty-four guns of the 2/2nd taking part in the artillery bombardment of this heavily defended port and supply base. It was famously reported that some of the diggers advanced at the attack singing an Aussie parody of the popular song of the time – “South of the border, down Mexico way!”
The Australian success was hailed in Australia, compared to those of the First AIF in the First World War. Recruitment surged back in Australia in the wake of the news of the victory. Australia’s official historian of the Second World War noted the vital role of the artillery to the victory, its effectiveness and planning having “subdued the enemy’s fire at the vital time”.
While the battle was followed up by a rapid advance, often referred to as the “Benghazi Handicap”, James and the 2/2nd would not be able to take part in these fruits of their victory at Bardia. They were off to defend the land of his father – Greece.
James – An Anzac in Hellas
With the decision to send Allied troops to help in the defence of Greece, James’ unit along with the rest of the 6th Division embarked for Greece on 28 March 1941. The arrival of what would become over 17,000 Australians in Greece in 1941, would see Australian soldiers and nurses set foot on Greek soil for the second time in less than thirty years.
James was following in the footsteps of those Australians of the First World War who had served on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign, the sailors of the Corfu flotilla as well as the soldiers and nurse who served in the four year Salonika campaign.
The Australians received a warm welcome on their return to Hellenic soil. But the time for celebration was short. In late April, the Germans joined their Italian and Bulgarian allies in invading Greece.
Along with many of the other Australian fighting units, James and the 2/2nd were transported north from Piraeus all the way up the length of Greece to the Servia Pass in northwestern Macedonia. It was here that the Australians would confront German forces for the first time since 1918.
The story of James’ campaign in mainland Greece is that of the Second AIF. Short, dogged defensive actions, followed by strategic withdrawals through the mountains and valleys of central Greece.
The guns of the 2/2nd started their campaign in Greece on 16 April at the Servia Pass, continuing across the Aliakmon River defence line, then through Zarkos and Lamia – James and the 2/2nd were positioned to defend the withdrawal of the Allied troops.
It was at Brallos pass – above the plains of Thermopylae – that the 2/2nd made a stand. Like the famed 300 Spartans of Classical Greece, the Australian artillery stood at the mountain pass in the way of the massive German onslaught, keeping the way clear for the thousands of troops and civilians on their way to the south.
On the 21st April the guns of the 2/2nd held up the German advance across the Sperkios River in the valley below Brallos Pass. Holding their position until the 24th, the Australian gunners were subjected to sustained German artillery and aerial attacks – in one two hour period suffering some 165 aerial bombing attacks by 65 dive bombers and over another eight hours some 160 enemy artillery rounds. But due to camouflage and subterfuge, the Australian casualties were slight, with five killed and three wounded.
Many of the diggers from the 2/2nd at Brallos may well have been aware of James, and no doubt would have been swapping stories of their lives back in Melbourne’s inner southern suburbs.
Diggers like Sergeant LS Ingram, a former physical culture instructor from Albert Park, who was killed at Brallos. One of the surviving gunners of that engagement was Sergeant JH Lees, a butcher from nearby Prahran. The commander of the guns at Brallos, Captain JR Anderson, an accountant from Brighton, was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and leadership there.
After Brallos, James and the 2/2nd withdrew south over the mountains to avoid the German air attacks on temporary roads built by Australian engineers.
James arrived at Megara, south of Athens, during Anzac day 1941. After spending the day resting under olive trees, James embarked during the night on Allied transports headed for Crete. But despite having dragged their guns and ammunition over the length of Greece, they were forced to destroy their armaments to make room for more evacuated troops. James and his unit would face their next battle without their artillery.
An Anzac Death on Crete
When James arrived in Crete he would have witnessed an island preparing for war.
The large harbour at Suda Bay was full of Allied shipping – warships, troopships and supply ships. Already the Germans were preparing the ground for their coming invasion with bombing raids on this important harbour and other key installations.
James was first assigned to help at the harbour. The daily bombing had made it too dangerous for the local civilian labourers, so James and the 2/2nd joined in on 4 May.
Working alongside Australian engineers, they did a great job – only stopping to unload during air-raids. The 2/2nd even successfully salvaged several Bren gun carriers from a sunken ship in harbour with its upper deck under several feet of water.
Without their guns, the artillerymen of the 2/2nd were now given rifles and put into infantry roles. Over the coming days, as the German attack unfolded, James and his unit would form part of what was designated the Suda Brigade, commanded by the British Lieutenant Colonel AF Hely of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery.
The role of the Brigade was to defend the inner ring around Suda Bay and to act as a reserve. This lay along a stream which flowed through the village of Mournies, famous as the home of the famed Greek leader Venizelos.
The battle of Crete commenced with German paratroops landing over Maleme airfield on the morning of May 20 and it would rage over the Island until the evacuation by the Allies in June and be replaced by a four year occupation and spirited resistance by the Cretan population.
James’ war on Crete centred on this village of Mournies, with the rest of his unit. The Germans attacked the village on a number of occasions in the days following their landings but were repulsed.
On the morning of 24 May 1941 James was assigned to help Captain Refshauge with the wounded men at a sick parade in Mournies village itself.
On that morning the site was dive bombed. Whether this was in response to the attacks of the nearby 2/8th Battalion, or merely an attack on the Allied forces in Mournies itself is not clear.
Nevertheless, James and five others were killed and several wounded. Years later the now knighted Sir William Refshauge remembered James “as a good fellow who had been most helpful in tending wounded comrades at the parade which cost him his life.” He was 28 years old when he was killed.
James was first declared missing in action but later corrected to his having been killed in action. The records say that James was buried by his comrades “500 yards south west of Mournies village”.
James was one of the nearly 600 Australians killed in action during the campaign in Greece and Crete.
The remains of many who were killed during the battles on Crete could not be located after the war. This was despite the best efforts of the Australian Graves Registration Units who undertook this task on Crete. The names of these diggers are memorialised on the remembrance walls at the Phaleron Military Cemetery in Athens.
Yet the remains of these Australians – including James – lie forgotten in the soil where their comrades buried them in the lulls after the heat of battle.
Would it not be a fitting testimony to Australia’s honouring of its Anzac heritage – and its connection with Greece – that a renewed effort be made to locate James’ remains, buried south west of the village he died defending seventy three years ago?
Modern technology has delivered amazing results in the battlefields of Western France, such as Fromelles, delivering recognition and remembrance to lost diggers and their descendents. Moves are currently underway to locate diggers buried near Vevi in Northern Greece all those years ago in 1941.
James’ father became a proud Australian citizen in 1947 – six years after his son gave his life for Australia. As far as we know, James’ son Peter still lives in Melbourne.
James’ story is in many ways quintessentially Australian. The son of migrants, he joined up to defend Australia and saw service and sadly paying the ultimate sacrifice in the land of his father – a symbol of the enduring link between Australia and Greece.
Lest we forget.