Next Wednesday, the Greek Australian Memorial in Melbourne and the Anzac Memorial in Sydney will be the focal point of commemorations of Hellenic National Day. On 28 October 1940, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s forces invaded officially neutral Hellas, having received a firm ‘NO’ to his demands to occupy strategic ports and islands around the Ionian and Aegean Seas. The events have been discussed at some length. How did the Australian media report on the heady events of October and November 1940, the days when an utterly unprepared Hellenic state fought – and defeated – the Nazis’ key ally? How do those events remain relevant in 2015?
Under the headline ‘Italy’s flagrant aggression’, Melbourne’s The Age opened its coverage of the invasion with the following:
‘A small mountainous country, with long indented coasts and many islands, Greece has for years sought by agreements and treaties to promote good relations with her neighbours while carefully avoiding the least provocation to the Axis powers.
Actually, the country has been too poor to indulge revisionist ambitions, and too much immersed in domestic affairs to show more than a self-protective concern for foreign affairs.’
(30 October 1940, page 8)
Reading the newspapers of the time – available online thanks to the National Library of Australia – the main target for Mussolini’s men was the coast of Epirus and the best port in south-eastern Europe, Thessaloniki. What evolved into the ‘Greek Campaign’ of 1941, concluding with the Battle of Crete in May, began as the struggle ‘between the invading Italian forces and the British Navy’, according to Brisbane’s The Telegraph (29 October 1940).
This key port in the last war is likely to be one in the present campaign. It was through this centre that the Allied forces in the last war struck upwards into the Balkans in the campaign that resulted in the overthrow of Bulgaria, and carried the war towards Constantinople.
The strategic island of Kerkyra (Corfu), across from the heel of the Italian peninsula, was ‘in an ideal position for use by the British fleet’. While the first Australian troops landed in Hellas in March 1941 – they joined their New Zealand comrades to form the Second Anzac Corps the following month – the Royal Australian Navy had an active presence in Hellenic waters from July 1940.
The ill-fated HMAS Sydney (originally named the HMS Phaeton) patrolled the waters around Crete and Kythera for some time. During the Battle of Cape Spada (Crete’s north-western extremity), the Australian light cruiser damaged the high-speed light cruisers Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni (the latter sinking with the loss of 121 lives). HMAS Sydney remained on duty around the Aegean until January 1941, but was not involved in another major engagement.
A few days after the initial assault, Perth’s The West Australian informed its readers: ‘GREEKS ATTACK – ENEMY REPULSED IN EAST – ADVANCE INTO ALBANIA – ITALIAN PRESSURE IN EPIRUS’. According to Italian communiqués, their forces were ‘attempting to drive down the coast in Epirus towards Yanina’, mentioning ‘bombing raids’ against the Epirote capital. Indeed, ‘one Rome statement claims that the advance has reached Yanina’. (4 November 1940, page 7).
The reality on the ground was very different. The fascist advance on Florina ‘(with Salonika as the ultimate object)’ had already been stopped by the Hellene defenders, with a counter-attack underway.
Similarly, while I recall my grandmother’s stories of hearing the Italian air-raids on Ioannina, about 20 kilometres away, the city would not fall to the Axis for more than six months.
Australian media outlets often quoted the statement of the Hellene Ambassador to London in November 1940. M. Simopoulos declared that:
“Hellenism united throughout the world is fighting today for its freedom and independence. Hellas has not survived for thousands of years to become anybody’s serf now. We are proud that our country finds itself in this struggle by the side of a great, heroic nation fighting for a common ideal, and as the King of Britain said to our King, ‘Your fight is our fight’.” (The West Australian 4 November 1940, page 7)
The longer the Hellenic resistance to the Axis invasion lasted – let’s not forget the fascists were assisted by Albanian collaborator units in their initial assault – the more gushing the praise of Hellenism became.
The 21 December 1940 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly features a large photograph of the ‘Dancing Guardsman of King of Greece’ under the headline ‘THEY CAN FIGHT, TOO!’ The Evzones are described as ‘magnificent specimens of a race counted among the most handsome in the world. They have long been famed for their dancing, but it is their fighting the world admires just now’.
Such admiration was far from universal in Australia, as attested by the anti-Greek riots in 1930s Kalgoorlie.
RELEVANCE TO 2015
The articles in the Australian media on the failed attempt to conquer Hellas in October 1940 number in the thousands. Literally. Reading even a handful of them, such as those here, illustrate a few key points.
First, so little has changed in Hellenic society. One has only to listen to the media from Athens to understand just how ‘immersed in domestic affairs’ society in the Greek state remains.
Second, these articles, cartoons, photographs and drawings demonstrate how deeply intertwined Australia and Hellenism have been throughout the 20th century.
Australians (of Hellenic background and otherwise) served in Hellas (from Macedonia to Crete, from Epiros to Megisti) in every conflict fought there in the last century – Balkan Wars (1912-1913), World War One (1914-1918), World War Two (1939-1945), Civil War (1946-49) – serving in either military or humanitarian roles.
Hellenes and Australians served alongside each other in the South African War (1899-1902), the Korean War (1950-53), the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. At no time have Australians and Hellenes fought against each other.
The Anzac legend has deep roots in Hellenic soil and water; it was on Lemnos, around Thessaloniki, around Thermopylae, on Crete, and elsewhere, that Anzacs fought ‘for a common ideal’.
This shared heritage should be used by history and language educators, by politicians and lobbyists, by individuals and associations, by clergy and laity, to promote Hellenism and the Hellenic ideals every single day. These ideals are shared by all Australians and are great segues to promoting Hellenic education in all its forms: language, history, culture.
If we – Australian Hellenes – do not undertake this, then who will?
* Dr Panayiotis Diamadis lectures in Genocide Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and teaches history at a Catholic college in Sydney.