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ZHSS8220 Fighting the Second World War
ZHSS8221 Development of the Art of War
ZHSS8222 The European Warfare State
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ZHSS8225 Australian Military History
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ZHSS8227 Civil Wars
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Army June 23, 2011
ON MARCH 19, 1941,
the first Australian
soldiers from the 6th
Division's 16th Brigade
began disembarking in Piraeus, the
ancient port of Athens.
With the New Zealand Division
and a British armoured brigade,
the 6th Division formed a British
Commonwealth force designated
"Lustreforce" (or "W Force" by the
The Germans invaded main-
land Greece on April 6. The inva-
sion was swift and overpower-
ing. The German forces included
armoured divisions and specially
trained mountain troops, while the
Luftwaffe dominated the skies. The
campaign quickly became a series of
dramatic delaying actions and with-
The experiences of the 2/2nd
Battalion are illustrative of the cam-
In late March the 16th Brigade
left Dephni and travelled north to
Verria Pass, near Mount Olympus.
After about a week, on April 10,
the battalion received word that the
Germans had broken through and
the brigade's position was being
abandoned. They had to withdraw
Whatever could not be carried
-- ammunition, extra rations and
stores -- was buried or destroyed.
Leaving at 9pm on April 12, the
2/2nd Battalion trekked more than
50km along frozen, snow-covered
mountainous tracks. A bitterly cold
The brigade was now ordered
to hold the narrow, steep-sid-
ed Pinios Gorge (also known as
Tempe Gorge), south-east of Mount
Olympus, and about 8km east of the
village of Tempe. A New Zealand
battalion was on the eastern flank,
blocking the Germans from enter-
ing the valley; the 2/2nd Battalion
was in the centre, closer to the river,
while the 2/3rd Battalion was on the
western flank. They were also sup-
ported by New Zealand artillery.
The Germans hit the defenders
in force on April 18. German infan-
try and tanks attacked and fought
through the New Zealand battal-
ion while German mountain troops
suffered heavy casualties from the
2/2nd Battalion as they tried to cross
A renewed mid-afternoon
German attack threatened to encircle
the 2/2nd Battalion, and by 6pm the
battalion's positions had collapsed.
With Greek resistance collaps-
ing, on April 19 senior British
commanders decided to evacuate
Lustreforce. The evacuation began
on April 24 and over five consecu-
tive nights, from among the 58,000
men who had been landed weeks
earlier, more than 50,000 Australian,
New Zealand and British troops
were evacuated. Those left behind in
now-enemy-occupied territory were
faced with the difficult choice of
surrendering or trying to make peril-
ous escapes to Egypt and Palestine.
Their journey was only possible
because of the generosity and brav-
ery of the Greeks who fed, guided
and protected the Australians.
For the fortunate members of
Lustreforce evacuated from main-
land Greece in April, their ordeal
was not yet over. Many were sent to,
or ended up on, the island of Crete,
including about 8500 Australians.
They were soon to become involved
in an even more desperate defence.
Crete was a valuable prize
in the battle for control of the
Mediterranean. It was defended by
a weak and poorly armed force cob-
bled together from the men evacuat-
ed from Greece. They had few heavy
weapons or armoured vehicles and
no aircraft. Nevertheless, these men
and the Cretans, who fought fero-
ciously, inflicted heavy casualties on
the Germans, who began an airborne
invasion on May 20.
After 10 days of desperate fight-
ing, the island fell to the Germans.
German losses were so severe that
they never again mounted a major
airborne operation against enemy-
As on mainland Greece, the cam-
paign ended with daring evacuations
by sea. This time, however, only
about half of the men, 16,500 from
about 33,000, were rescued. More
than 2600 British, Australian and
New Zealand soldiers were killed in
Greece and Crete, nearly 3500 were
wounded and more than 25,000
became prisoners of war.
The campaigns cost the 6th
Division dearly. Three hundred and
twenty Australians were killed in
Greece, 494 were wounded and
2030 captured. On Crete, anoth-
er 274 men were killed with 507
wounded and 3102 taken prisoner.
This is an abridged version of the article
"The Grecian Disaster" by military historian
Dr Karl James, published in Wartime issue
54 by the Australian War Memorial in April.
A one-year subscription to Wartime (four
issues) costs $56. Subscribe online at www.
On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of
Greece and Crete, Australian War Memorial
historian Dr Karl James describes the
fighting as one long withdrawal for the Allies.
Steeped in history: Australian soldiers take in the view from the top of the
Acropolis in Athens in 1941 (top). Members of Australia's Federation Guard,
from left, Pte Denny Lang, Lt Luke Haitas and Pte Dylan Pardon (above)
recreate the photograph.
Original by George Silk. Recreation by Cpl Janine Fabre
Fighting withdrawal: The Aliakmon bridge was demolished by Allied
forces during their withdrawal from Greece.
Photo provided by the Australian War Memorial
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