"Operation Lustre" Greece - April -June 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. 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 as Hitler sought to bail his Axis partner, Mussolini, out of trouble. he saw it as also having merit in effecting a broad pincer movement against the British in the Middle East and the Mediterranean in general.
The British, seeking to assist their last remaining ally in Continental Europe, formed and despatched an Expeditionary Force, code-named "Lustre", to Greece at Sir Winston Churchill's explicit order. The operation was mounted under the direction of Field Marshal Wavell in Alexandria. AIF troops began arriving in large numbers in Greece in late March 1941, part of a force of some 58,000 troops which required a mammoth naval effort.
Australian troops aboard a warship en route to Greece. AWM Image
During the build up, an Italian cruiser squadron attempted to interdict the convoy carrying the troops to Greece near Cape Matapan on the western end of Crete, on March 27-28, but it was mauled by the British and Allied fleet, losing three cruisers and two detroyers in what became known as the Battle of Cape Matapan (/explore/campaigns/133) (see related story).
"Lustre"s ground forces comprised the Australian 6th Division, under the command of Major General Ivan. G. Mckay, the New Zealand Division 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:
The 16th Brigade (/explore/units/2805) commanded by Arthur Allen (/explore/people/284782)
The 17th Brigade (/explore/units/2727) commanded by Stanley Savige (/explore/people/54018)
The 19th Brigade commanded by George Vasey (/explore/people/650625)
with the 2nd/1st Machine Gun Battalion (/explore/units/820) and the Divisional Artillery:
Missing from that sequence was the 18th Brigade, inclding the South Australian 2/10th Battalion. It had been re-allocated to the 7th Division but ultimately ended up in Tobruk.
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.
However, "Lustre" was understrength compared to its opposition, under equipped with armour and almost totally lacking in air support. Its capacity to mount an effective defence evaporated in the face of German panzers, planes, and numbers. The German invasion began on the 5th of April and was effectively complete by the 24th April when the Allied evacuation began.
Map illustrating the German axes of advance and key battles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Greece
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.
German armour and tactical air superiority made the outcome of the campaign inevitable. This painting depicts the action at Tempe Gorge (through which ran the Pinios River) on 18th April 1941 AWM ART 27544
- At Tempe Gorge 18th April 1941,, a composite grouping dubbed "Anzac Force" under the command of Brigadier Arthur "Tubby" Allen faced the advancing enemy, the Wehrmacht's 6th Mountain Division. "Anzac Force" was by comparison relatively small, consisting of two 2nd AIF battalions from the Australian 16th Brigade – the 2/2nd and 2/3rd – fighting alongside New Zealand forces consisting of the 21st Battalion, the 26th Battery of the 4th Field Regiment and 'L' Troop of the 7th Anti Tank Regiment. The defenders held out all day thus enabling forces to their rear to get away through Larissa, which was the German's objective. The 2nd /2nd Battalion was rendered largely ineffective as a result of this action. Many of its men took to the hills to continue the fight with Greek partisans. Others made their way south.
Australian troops posing for a shot with a principal means of transport in northern Greece. AWM London image
- On 24th April at Brallos Pass, the Australian 19th Brigade and their comrades in the 6th New Zealand Brigade were charged with holding Brallos Pass for as long as they could to allow other allied troops to withdraw from the Greek mainland. Brigadier "Bloody George" Vasey, commander of the 19th Brigade, famously instructed his troops: "Here we bloody well are and here we bloody well stay!" The fierce resistance of the Australians and New Zealanders stalled the German advance for an entire day, and destroyed 15 German tanks in the process.
The Thermopylae 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.
The evacuation fleet had to run the gauntlet of German air attack. AWM
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.
Some 26,000 troops evacuating Greece wound up in Crete, and Nazi attention shifted to how to take the historic and strategically key feature of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. See related campaign feature Battle for Crete (/explore/campaigns/134)
Gavin Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 1 (Army), Vol. 2, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1953
AWM - The Greek Campaign (www.awm.gov.au)
John Laffin 'Greece, Crete and Syria' / 'Australians at War' Time Life series 1989
Compiled by Steve Larkins Feb 2014 updated Jan 2020.