Forgotten Anzacs: The Campaign in Greece, 1941 by Peter Ewer – Book Review

Originally written as an oral history of the events of the Greek (and Cretan) Campaign fought in 1941, this revised edition provides an essential military and political narrative of the largely overlooked Greek and Cretan Campaigns of World War II: twin campaigns that involved the reunited ANZACs fighting side by side for the first time since the last Churchillian inspired fiasco at Gallipoli in 1915.
This revised edition begins somewhat in the style of an oral history neatly switching between mini-biographies Australian and New Zealand soldiers and the political and command context of the forces of both countries, their recruitment in their home countries and their journeys to the Middle East or England to answer the call of the Mother Country. The motivation for most of the soldiers going off to war was to have a big overseas adventure. They came from all walks of life but most had been in the militia to relieve the tedium of pre-war life and to add a few extra pounds to their depression era household budgets. There are descriptions of how the divisions were formed and unusually for an Australian book it deals with the formation and composition of the New Zealand force including the fearsome Maori Battalion. The ANZAC force began arriving in Egypt and Palestine for training in January 1940. Later shiploads were diverted to the mother land for home defence after the Fall of France in June 1940.
At this point the book moves seamlessly into high strategy interweaving it with front line action and personal experiences of the fighting men.
Afraid of missing out on the spoils of war, Mussolini declared war and decided to invade Greece while in North Africa the British crossed over into Libya to engage their new enemy. The Italian invasion of Greece was a complete failure as the Greeks pushed the Italians back and thus achieved the first successful land campaign for the Allies in the war. The 6th Australian Division began fighting the Italians in Northern Africa in January 1941 at Bardia and succeeded with modest effort the result being embarrassingly huge hauls of Italian prisoners and equipment.
To prop up Mussolini, in January 1941 Hitler moved his forces in to the Mediterranean area. Now things were about to get really serious for the Allies. The British, having failed against the Germans in France needed to impress the Americans about being genuine in fighting the Nazis on mainland Europe. Churchill for his own idiosyncratic reasons decided to fight them in Greece. In his own inimitable style he set about manipulating the Greek, Australian and New Zealand Governments to achieve this result. Central to this manipulation was the manifest lie that Britain could support this action – a lie because all along “Churchill knew that Greece was doomed, possibly along with any force he sent to aid the country, not least because his top military advisors had told him so.” Both the Australian Commander in Chief Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey and the NZ commander Major-General Sir Bernard Freyberg VC believed Greece was a lost cause but neither were consulted even by their own governments.
Through vignettes of individual soldiers and units, the story weaves through North Africa to Greece and then to the front line where the ANZAC and Greek forces awaited the crack German forces. This enemy promised a completely different kind of threat to that previously offered by the Italians. Experienced, battle hardened and bursting with confidence from their recent conquests in Poland, France, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and supported by the latest weapons and a surfeit of air power, self propelled artillery and panzers the German hordes posed a formidable threat. Facing them on the northern border of Greece was the large but woefully equipped and trained Greek Army, an inexperienced division of New Zealanders under Freyberg, the battle hardened 6th Australian Division under Blamey with some British support. They had modern equipment but no time to learn how to use them effectively. British tanks get a special mention for employing old style cavalry tactics and being picked off individually and squandered piecemeal. This particularly British disinclination to learn new tactics was a feature of most of the war through to the end of hostilities in North Africa. The few out of date airplanes provided by the British were simply overwhelmed. British high command had hoped that the rough terrain would make up for the inadequacies of the force – it didn’t.
The Germans sprang into action on 6 April 1941. While the Greeks fought magnificently on the border their resistance soon collapsed against the far better equipped and experienced Germans. The ANZACs were engaged on 8 April. The narrative provides a gripping description of the battle waged by the ANZAC s weaving in characters from both sides at most levels. In this battle many of the Australian generals that were destined to feature as part of Blamey’s core of commanders make an appearance. These include Mackay, Vasey, Savige along with some that only make it part way through the Pacific Campaign including Allen, Rowell, Herring and Clowe. The author highlights different branches including infantry, artillery and engineers. The latter carried out the all important and very dangerous destruction of roads, rail and bridges behind the ANZACs’ fighting withdrawal to slow the German onslaught. Special mention is made of the New Zealand artillery that excelled itself on several occasions. Most particularly on 24 April they decimated a German panzer column that tried to rush through a pass at the Molos Line. In their haste to claim the honour of planting a flag on the Acropolis and expecting ANZAC opposition to crumble, the Germans rushed on unsupported by their own artillery and infantry. Unaware that they were going to run an artillery gauntlet, the Germans lost 15 tanks and the Kiwis got away largely intact before the heavy German guns arrived.
A well described vigorous fighting withdrawal continued back to the beaches around Athens followed by an “ANZAC Dunkirk.” Blamey was ordered out by the British and made the unfortunate mistake of taking his son with him. As the Germans advanced the beach evacuation became more desperate. When the last ship sailed thousands were left behind to finish the war in POW camps. Those that escaped by ship were in for a gruelling trip by sea. Those that weren’t blown into the water by unchallenged German aircraft arrived at their destinations: the lucky ones went to Egypt and the unlucky ones went to Crete.
The hole in the middle of this otherwise very complete history of the Greek campaign is the capability and role of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey. The author perpetuates the fairly conventional myth that “Blamey’s claims to command of the AIF were modest given his lack of battlefield experience.” He and many others completely overlook the fact that Blamey was Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash’s chief-of-staff in World War I and as such was probably the most experienced and capable Australian for his command role in World War II. He was certainly of higher rank and had more men under his command during war time than any of the usual candidates offered as potential commanders. When it comes to describing Blamey’s role in the Greece campaign it is not mentioned that he planned for a fighting withdrawal and evacuation as soon as he landed, that he authorised the ANZACs to begin that withdrawal almost as soon as first contact was made with the Germans and then demanded that British Generals Wavell and Wilson concur and arrange evacuation accordingly. Had he not done so, ANZAC losses would have been total.
The German invasion of Crete got underway six months later. Having set Crete up almost as a holiday posting the British hadn’t prepared it for taking on survivors of the Greek Campaign or for the German invasion that followed. There were insufficient weapons on the island and Churchill refused to send over any from storage while at the same time playing his usual duplicitous game by assuring ANZAC governments that equipment was available while having no intention of sending it. Freyberg, who had refused the last flight out of Athens, arrived by ship and was made commander of the forces on the island. Despite the British intelligence informing him that the Germans would carry out airborne landings Freyberg was refused permission to mine the airfields: this would have catastrophic consequences for the German invasion and may well have foiled it. Expecting a sea borne element to the invasion which didn’t come, Freyberg also fatally divided his force and protected a key airfield with too few resources.
When the invasion came, many of the defenders “recalled that distant hum, like bees, growing louder as the dark spots on the northern horizon resolved themselves into hundreds of tri-motor Junkers transports, 80 of them towing DFS 230 assault gliders.” As the Germans landed the ANZACs dealt with them as best they could with the primitive weapons mix they had. Despite their poor weaponry, the ANZACs were battle hardened and organised and put up much stronger resistance than the Germans expected. Described through the eyes of ANZACs the paratroops and glider landings was fascinating, personal and gruesome. “The savagery of the defending fire naturally dislocated the German landings.” But because of the lack of equipment, intact airfields and Freyberg keeping reserves for a seaborne invasion, after days of ferocious fighting, the Germans got a toe hold on an airfield, and expanded it to take over the island. From then the Battle for Crete was all over but for yet another hurried imperfect incomplete evacuation.
There was a rush to the beaches on the south coast across mountainous terrain and down precipitous cliff paths. This time Freyberg and other senior officers flew out and because Blamey wasn’t with them, this evacuation attracted no criticism. The Royal Navy tried in vain to get all the men off, huge damage was done to the fleet and men aboard while the stragglers became POWs.  War ships and air craft carriers that may have helped against the Japanese invasion in 1941 were either at the bottom of the sea or being repaired.
Despite the losses, Churchill was well pleased with the results of Greece and Crete – “in a world of realpolitik, there is no point in complaining about Churchillian perfidy — he was, after all, looking after British interests. In his calculations, the men and women of Australia and New Zealand were resources to serve his purposes; only misty-eyed romantics like Menzies thought the British Empire of 1941 was a genuine Commonwealth of Nations in which the interests of one were the interests of the whole. The empire was run to protect and enrich Britain, not her ‘children’, and the selective manner in which information was provided to Canberra and Wellington about the Greek campaign was evidence of the fact.” The Australian government was not so sanguine and Prime Minister Menzies was forced to resign.

First published by Scribe Publications 2008 Paperback edition published 2009; reprinted 2011 Revised hardback edition published 2016. Kindle version available.
First published by Scribe Publications 2008 Paperback edition published 2009; reprinted 2011 Revised hardback edition published 2016. Kindle version available.

Contact Brent D Taylor about this article.

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