BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
FORGOTTEN ANZACS: The campaign in Greece, 1941, by Peter Ewer
, August 2, 2008
Absorbing and moving accountFORGOTTEN ANZACS: The campaign in Greece, 1941
by Peter Ewer
(Melbourne: Scribe Publications)
Hardcover: 432 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95Most Australians are familiar with the World War I exploits of the Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli in 1915. Few are aware that the famous Anzac acronym was resurrected in World War II. For just over a couple of weeks during April 1941, the Australian Sixth Division and the New Zealand Second Division on the Greek mainland constituted once again an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
In January and February 1941, the Sixth Division, under the overall command of the British General Wavell, won a series of comprehensive victories - Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi - against Italian forces in Libya. At the beginning of April it was sent at Churchill's behest across the Mediterranean to oppose the impending German invasion of Greece.Abortive incursion
Hitler's aims were to pull Mussolini's chestnuts out of the fire following Italy's abortive incursion into Greece from Albania; to deal with a recalcitrant Yugoslavia; and to generally consolidate Nazi hegemony over the Balkans and Romania's oil-fields prior to the invasion of the USSR.
A composite force consisting of Australian, New Zealand and British units, led by General Maitland Wilson, took up positions on Greece's northern border in support of the Greek army. By the end of the month it had been driven back to the south coast, from where it was evacuated to Crete.
There the Australians served under New Zealand's Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg. During May, German airborne forces took over the island, and once again most of the Australians were evacuated.
Ewer, in common with most commentators, believes that the Australians should never have been sent to Greece. Had they stayed in Libya and proceeded to capture the port of Tripoli, Rommel's Afrika Korps would have been denied entry, and the war in North Africa would not have dragged on for another two years.
The counter argument, that the Greek diversion delayed, and thereby doomed, Hitler's invasion of Russia, is not tenable. Churchill's motivation in helping Greece was to uphold Allied prestige, particularly in the eyes of America, but Ewer demonstrates that this could have been achieved in other, more practicable ways.
Ewer enumerates tactical as well as strategic shortcomings of the campaign. Allied armour, unlike its German counterpart, was dispersed instead of concentrated. Conversely, Allied machine-guns were concentrated in dedicated units in anticipation of a repetition of trench warfare, instead of being dispersed amongst the infantry. The Allies did not co-ordinate the use of aircraft with ground operations as the Germans did so effectively.
Ewer has a tendency to pigeon-hole leaders as heroes or villains. The former include Admiral Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, and the Australian army commanders McKay, Rowell, Lavarack, Vasey, Allen and Savige. The latter comprise largely the aforementioned Wilson, Australia's then prime minister Menzies, and the AIF's commander-in-chief General Blamey.
He is a little more nuanced and ambivalent about Lieutenant-General Freyberg, a figure of integrity, decency and courage who nonetheless mishandled the defence of Crete after the responsibility was dumped in his lap.
Ewer's bête noire
is Churchill, whom he manages to present as an irresponsible incompetent, cocooned from battleground reality in a miasma of cigar smoke and brandy fumes. He seems to forget that of the three World War II democratic leaders best-known to Australians, neither of the left-wing academics' icons, Curtin and Roosevelt, had ever seen war. Only Churchill had ever personally participated in armed conflict.
Ewer also gets it wrong when it comes to Greek politics. He quite rightly condemns the quasi-fascist monarchist stream in modern Greek history, personified by the early World War II dictator Metaxas and the collaborationist General Tsolakoglou, and culminating decades later in the appalling colonels' regime of 1967-74.
On the other hand, he is very naïve about the Greek communists, who worshipped in Stalin a dictator who already, by 1941, had killed more victims than Hitler ever did.
He describes the impression made on Allied soldiers by the noble generosity and courage of the Greek people, including the resistance movement, which included many communists. At a grass-roots level, these comrades were no doubt sincere patriots with little ideological sophistication or knowledge of the Soviet Union. But their party leaders knew better.
Churchill had an impeccable record when it came to the Soviet Union. He had attempted to "strangle it at birth" with a British intervention in 1918, and coined the expression "Iron Curtain" in 1946. He supported Stalin after 1941, but only in the face of the more pressing Nazi threat, commenting that, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons".
Greek Stalinism would have been at least as bad as Greek fascism, and almost certainly a sight worse. Both ideologies constituted a betrayal of the modern Greek liberal democratic tradition represented by the great Cretan republican, Eleutherios Venizelos. Churchill, pace
Ewer, was quite right to send in British troops to forestall a possible communist coup in 1944.
Others beside Churchill who were not sucked in by popular British pro-Soviet hysteria after 1941 included figures as diverse as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was part of a commando unit which precipitately embarked from the southern Cretan evacuation port of Sphakia, in defiance of orders to remain as a rearguard. He incorporated this experience into his Sword of Honour
trilogy, perhaps the only great piece of fiction to emerge from World War II.
My father, like Waugh, joined up at the age of 35 on the outbreak of hostilities, and his unit, the 2/7 Battalion, was also ordered to operate as a rearguard at Sphakia. Unlike Waugh's commandos, they did their duty, and were left behind. Most of them, including my father, spent the rest of the war in German POW camps.
The British authorities, as Ewer points out, did not issue any medal for the Greek campaign, but the Greek government did. Many years after my father's death, my mother was summoned in his place to the Greek embassy in Melbourne and presented - along with a kiss on each cheek! - with a medal and certificate commemorating the events of 1941.
The campaigns on the Greek mainland and on Crete might have been ill-conceived, ill-planned and ill-commanded, but all those who fought and suffered in the ultimately victorious struggle against fascism are worthy of being remembered, whether their efforts resulted in success or failure in the short-term.
Peter Ewer deserves the thanks of all Australians and New Zealanders for writing this absorbing and moving story before the participants (a number of whose accounts he incorporates into the narrative) have all disappeared.
His editor, on the other hand, deserves to have a very heavy computer dropped on him from a very great height. I counted 12 typos, and 14 errors of vocabulary, syntax and grammar.