"Operation Lustre" Greece and Crete - 1941
Australian involvement in the ill-starred Greek Campaign was confined mainly to elements of the 6th Division, a number of RAN ships which were part of Admiral Cunningham's Eastern Mediterranean Fleet and RAAF squadrons and personnel attached to the Desert Airforce.
The campaign began with Italy's invasion of Greece on October 29 1940. Much to universal surprise, the poorly organised, equipped and led Greek Army managed to halt the Italian advance. The Italian invasion quickly bogged down which drew Nazi Germany in asHitler sought to bail his Axis partner, Mussolini, out of trouble and to affect a broad pincer movement against the British in the Middle East.
The British, seeking to assist their last remaining Ally left in Continental Europe, formed and despatched an Expeditionary Force, code-named "Lustre", to Greece at Sir Winston Chirchill's explicit request It was mounted under the direction of Field Marshal Wavell in Alexandria. AIF troops began arriving in large numbers in late March 1941 part of a force of some 58,000 troops which required a mammoth Naval effort.
"Lustre"s ground forces comprised the Australian 6th Division, under the command of Major General I.G. Mckay, the New Zealnd Divisdion under Major General Freyburg VC and the British 1st Armoured Brigade under Brigadier I.V.S. Charrington.
There were a total of 14 2nd AIF units, comprising three Brigades (16th under Brigadier Allan, 19th under Vasey and the 17th under Savige) comprising nine infantry Battalions (2/1st, 2/2nd, 2/3rd, 2/4th, 2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th, 2/8th, 2/9th and 2/11th) plus three Field artillery regiments and the 2/1st Machine Gun battalion. Missing from that sequence the South Australian 2/10th Battalion was part of the 18th Brigade which had been re-allocated to the 7th Division.
All up the fighting force comprised some 34,000 men with another 24,000 in logisitic support units. The fighting elements were despatched to the north eastern frontier of Greece, a mountainous region with poor roads and narrow defiles, including the famous Mount Olypus and the closer to Athens, the legendary coastal pass at Thermopolyae where the 300 Spartans had conducted their self-sacrificial defence against the invading Persian Army of King Xerxes in 480BC.
During the build up, an Italian cruiser squadron attempted to interdict the convoy carrying the troops to Greece on March 27-28, but it was mauled by the British and Allied fleet losing three cruisers, and two detroyers.
However, "Lustre" was understrength compared to its opposition, under equipped with armour and almost totally lacking much effective air support. Its capacity to mount an effective defence evaporated in the face of German armour, air support and numbers. Beginning on the 5th April, the German invasion was effectively complete by the 24th April when the Allied evacuation began.
While the Allied combat troops withdrew in good order as part of a coordinated fighting withdrawal, the same cannot be said for a lot of the services elements or much of the Greek Army. The British tanks and a significant proportion of the anti tank guns were put out of action and relentless German pressure continued.
Significant actions were fought along the Tempe Gorge and at Brallos Pass, and at the time the Brigade Commanders were confident of being able to hold their ground. But with their flanks collapsing their situation would become untenable and on the 22nd April, General Blamey (the Australian Force Commander) issued orders to withdraw ahead of evacuation.
The Thermopolyae Line became the fall back position. In the country's west, the Greek Army was collapsing. On April 24th, the Germans attacked just as the 19th Australian and NZ 6th Brigades were preparing to withdraw. They held their ground allowing those behind them to get away. Meanwhile further south the decision had been made to evacuate the Lustre force and on the evening of the 25th April most of the 17th and 19th Brigades was embarked from the southern port of Kalamata.
The Germans airdropped paratroops to cut off the Corinth Canal on the 25th but by then much of the force was heading to the southern beaches.
Fierce fighting took place in the port of Kalamata, with ANZACs distinguishing themselves in fercocious hand to hand fighting to keep the port operational and to allow the evacuation to continue.
Ultimately though, about 14,000 Allied troops were captured including 1614 New Zealanders, 6,708 British and 2,030 Australians. Small groups of men managed to evade the Germans and get away to safety by an array of means. Total Australian casualties in addition to those lost as PoW were 320 killed and 494 wounded. While these casualties were not heavy as a proportion of the deployed force (over 17,000 Australians alone) the campaign was essentially futile from the outset.
Attention then shifted to Crete.
AWM - The Greek Campaign (www.awm.gov.au)
More to follow.............Steve Larkins Feb 2014