The Martin Place Cenotaph on Saturday 16 April played host to a thousand members of the Greek and broader community who came to pay their respects and to remember one of the legendary campaigns in modern history, 75 years ago.
What made this day special was the coming together of representatives from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and Greece to remember the heroes of a joint Greece – Allied defence of Crete. The Commonwealth Government have identified the Battle of Crete as one of significance during the Centenary of ANZAC commemoration events.
The day commenced with six ‘Evzones’ – soldiers of the Greek Presidential Guard, the highest level of military guard in Greece – marching through Sydney to join the ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.
This was the first ever appearance of the guards in Australia, adding a sense of aura to the occasion. The guards visited Sydney as guests of the Hellenic Club Sydney, who had to secure special permission from the Greek Prime Minister. The guards marched with a Sydney police escort, stopping traffic as they marched from the Grace Hotel (York Street) to Martin Place, where the official memorial service was held. The Evzones also appeared in Martin Place on the 20th, 21st and 22nd for a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the Sydney Cenotaph. This was also a historic moment for Greek – Australian relations.
Graham Athaunaseris, Chairman of the Cultural Committee of the Hellenic Club Sydney told Neos Kosmos, “The Battle of Crete was one of the key conflicts of the Second World War.”
His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley, Governor of New South Wales attended this ceremony, placing the first wreath. There were approximately 100 wreath layers consisting of official representatives of the NSW and Australian Parliaments, Consulates General , Australian military officers and Anzac families and schools. Surviving Anzacs of the Anzac Centenary that served in Greece and Crete were also present.
Underlining the sense of this historic occasion, Lieutenant General Konstantinos Gkatzogiannis, Chief of Staff of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff, addressed the gathered public on behalf of a grateful Greek nation.
Secretary for the Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete & The Greek Campaign, Nick Andriotakis told Neos Kosmos:
“1686 Anzacs were killed defending Democracy Freedom and Greece. Over half of them were never recovered or their names identified. They lie in the sacred soil of which holds all the defenders of Greece from Leonidas to the Anzacs and beyond.”
Most Australians that fell during battle in Crete are buried in the British and Commonwealth War Cemetery at Suda Bay, on the northern coast of Crete. The memorial that stands in honour of the Australians is called Stavromeni. The Cemetery has received visits from thousands of Australians over the years and it is one battle that is commemorated in Crete, and by the Australian, New Zealand and British Embassies every year.
The sombre and special occasion came to a fitting conclusion with the playing of the Australian and Greek National anthems by the assembled military band.
This commemoration is just one of the many planned events to remember the Battle of Crete. A further 12 events have been arranged including the annual Battle of Crete Ball, Ramsgate RSL sub-Branch Annual Anzac Dinner which commemorates the Battles of Greece and Crete at Ramsgate RSL which was held on 22 April and the Exhibition, “Anzacs in Greece THEN and NOW.” The exhibition will continue until 30 September at the National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour.
Changing the course of history
The Battle of Crete and the battle for Greece which began with Mussolini’s defeat by Greek forces in late 1940 arguably changed the course of the war, and confounded Allied war strategists who had all but given up on Greece. Indeed, the actions of the Greeks led Winston Churchill to declare to the UK Parliament: “Greeks do not fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks”, in reference to the fact that Hellenic forces held out the Italians and Germans over the colder months of 1940-1941. Whilst most of continental Europe was occupied by the Nazi vermon, the Greek forces fought bravely despite being outnumbered and fighting with weapons from a bygone era. Hitler had to delay his Russian offensive to deal with the Greeks, and in the process gave precious time to Stalin to twist the fortunes of war to his advantage by preparing for battle during the following year’s brutal winter months.
By May 1941, mainland Greece was overrun by the Germans, and they needed only two weeks to secure their stranglehold over Crete. The invasion, which was launched on May 20, however was no cakewalk; for the German casualties were far greater than the Allies. Incoming airborne paratroopers were gunned down by waiting Allies and the brave local population. The first day’s battle was intense and German casualties high. Hitler became reluctant to use paratroopers to invade enemy territories thereafter. Had the Allied Commander, General Freyburg of New Zealand, launched a counter attack on day 2 of the battle, the Germans (according to historian Antony Beevor) would have been defeated. History tells us that poor leadership ensured that this did not happen and Crete would ultimately be lost, but not without the heroics of Allied troops and the local population.
The Aussies were represented by the Australian 19th Brigade Group and the Artillery Battery unit. Almost 40 per cent of Australian troops that fought across Greece during 1940-1941 were either killed or taken prisoner. Prime Minister Robert Menzies had said that the fight in Greece and Crete “was a great risk in a good cause.”
Throughout the Battle and the subsequent resistance, Cretans were ferocious in the defence of their island displaying a sense of patriotism that has always been the hallmark of Crete throughout their history.
ANZAC troops earned undying praise for their tenacity and courage When the Royal Navy pulled out as many of the Allies from Crete as they could on May 30 and 31, hundreds of Australians were left behind, and in true ANZAC spirit, took it upon themselves to form part of the resistance.
The Cretans, at risk of certain death from the Germans, would shelter and protect Australians fighting in the resistance. The bonds that were forged would never be broken.
My Kombaro knows this to be only too true. His next door neighbour in Sydney as a kid was an Australian veteran of the battle. He, like many others, was stranded in Crete after the evacuation and was kept safe by the Cretans, who also ensured his safe passage off the island. George recanted to me the story of when his father first met this grateful World War Two veteran: “Upon hearing of our Cretan roots, he told him: ‘I owe my life to the people of Crete. If there is anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to ask’.”
It should be noted that over 25,000 people across Greece would go on to be executed by the Nazis for helping or sheltering Allies during the German occupation.
At one stage, during the Cretan occupation there were approximately 75,000 Nazis on the island. It is truly a testament to the inhabitants of Crete and the ANZACs who continued the fight against such overwhelming odds.
The 75th anniversary, just like every anniversary moving forward, will never forget the heroism of the people who fought to protect Crete, Greece and liberty.
“Anzacs in Greece THEN and NOW” exhibition on now at the National Maritime Museum, 2 Murray Street Darling Harbour, Sydney
For more information head to www.anzacsofgreece.org
This article originally appeared in Neos Kosmos on 20 April 2016.