THE MEAT SHIELD

DIGGERS AND GREEKS by Maria Hill (UNSW Press), reviewed by Tony Maniaty

In the greatest conflict ever, failed Allied operations were subsumed into the thrust for absolute victory: Dunkirk might have been a dud, but D-Day was a bold success and Hiroshima the atomic coup de grace. Winning was everything, and wasted feints, pouring men into suicidal battles and hopeless rear-guard actions were all part of the cruel mix; thousands must die so that millions might survive, and victory be assured. Such grim logic, unassailable at the height of total war, breaks down over time. How vital were those losses to the outcome, how many staggering errors were glossed over in official and popular histories, and why, half a century later, are some of the worst still unchallenged?

 AUTRALIAN TROOPS IN GREECE, 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

AUTRALIAN TROOPS IN GREECE, 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

Maria Hill’s study of the doomed Australian campaigns in mainland Greece and Crete in the spring of 1941 goes to the philosophical heart of the matter: do individual lives, even individual nations, matter when everything is at stake? Did the War Cabinet in London, faced with the greatest conflagration the world had seen, and planning their military responses against Nazism on an equally historic scale, bear any responsibility to the fate of the Greek people, to Greek soldiers and partisans or to thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops despatched into near-certain defeat, with the high risk of death or capture? The meat shield, 'cannon fodder' in World War One parlance. How much of what transpired in those dark weeks was sacrifice, and how much was high-level ineptitude? And worse: how much was outright deceit? Exploring this contentious ground with substantial research, Hill - a Greek-born immigrant to Australia - delivers harsh verdicts against the British and Greek leaderships.

By late 1940, it was clear that the Italians alone could not conquer Greece. Hitler was furious that Mussolini had tried, fearing the outcome that soon transpired: Germany would have to deploy scarce divisions to finish the blotched job. The Greeks had fought hard for six freezing months, but they had not chosen to fight Italy and didn't want war with Germany, yet such were the convoluted times, and mess they found themselves in. On 6 April 1941, German forces swept into northern Greece - ten divisions, 100,000 men, nearly 1400 aircraft - and Greek resistance proved futile.

Why then did Churchill insist, eight weeks earlier, that more than 60,000 Allied troops - including 17,000-plus Australians - be shipped urgently from North Africa to mainland Greece to help defend the indefensible? Code-named ‘Lustreforce’, the British-led campaign carried an air of unreality from the outset. When the Australians stepped ashore in Athens in March, weeks before the Germans invaded, they found the German legation in the Greek capital still open for business, its swastika flag flying in the breeze. ‘This situation,’ Hill observes, ‘must have appeared ludicrous to the troops deployed to Greece to fight the Germans.’

Britain believed it carried more weight in Greece than it did, and sought to expand its political and commercial influence through the link between the British and Greek royal families, to a point where ‘the cornerstone of British policy in Greece was the monarchy’. Implying support in war proved unwise, a point noted by the British Chiefs of Staff committee as early as 1939: ‘It will be to our advantage for Greece to remain neutral as long as possible, even if Italy declares war against us. As a belligerent she will undoubtedly prove to be a liability...’ Churchill was undeterred: he wanted Greece dragged into a Balkan front, a base for air attacks on Rumanian oil fields supplying the Nazi war effort. The Greeks, like the neighbouring Turks and Yugoslavs, feared the consequences of a German invasion, and boldly attempted to play three cards - pushing London to provide military supplies to fight the Italians on the Albanian front; resisting British pressure to allow an Allied expedition to enter Greek territory; and hoping to keep a supercharged Germany at bay.

 ALLIED FORCES MOVE NORTH IN GREECE , 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

ALLIED FORCES MOVE NORTH IN GREECE , 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

This frantic stir of wheeling, dealing, and duplicity is well caught by Hill: the sense of foreboding in Athens is immense as a Nazi assault, bigger than anything the Allies can counter, becomes inevitable; the lethal consequences for not only Greece but also for the Allied expedition are obvious. Britain, as Hill suggests, was hoisted on its own petard: the government in Athens, fearing the worst, caved in and agreed to allow the Allies on its soil, and political frenzy soon turned to military disaster.

In all this, Australia was kept largely in the dark. Canberra relied heavily on cables from London regarding events in the Balkans but these, says Hill, omitted what British intelligence really knew. Attending talks in London on the Greek campaign, Prime Minister Robert Menzies cabled his deputy Artie Fadden that ‘the overwhelming moral and political repercussions of abandoning Greece’ (this was Churchill’s public stance) along with ‘the estimate made on the spot by our military advisers’ (dubious) had secured his vote.  Menzies more likely was playing politics, clinging desperately to his hopes of reciprocal British support in the likelihood of Pacific war with Japan. Canberra was worried about fortress Singapore, not outpost Athens.

Greece, as Australian military intelligence soon discovered, was crawling with fifth columnists, the result of Berlin’s open courting before the war. The Germans knew the country well and had support within key elements of the Athenian political class and military leadership - information and contacts that would help enormously in both the invasion and occupation. The Athens phone exchange was German-built and about 50 Germans were still working there. (Since most telephone communication went through the exchange, noted an Australian officer, ‘security was quite a problem.’) By contrast, Greece was largely a mystery to the Allies. They had no decent maps, only a handful could speak the language, the Allies had almost no experience of mountain warfare nor adequate clothing for it, and the Greek Army was exhausted and torn by divided loyalties. Many of its commanders, Hill claims, were defeatist: ‘The myth of German invincibility had affected Greek morale, as had their pro-German inclinations.’ 

As the Australian forces pressed north, the situation grew increasingly bleak. Entire regions were collapsing in the face of the Nazi assault. One Greek general signed an unauthorised armistice with German commanders, other units ‘packed up without reference to their GHQ’, the capitulation of the Greek army was imminent. Greek refugees, some close to starvation, were choking the roads. Yet many Greek troops fought bravely, in some cases ‘dying to the last’; militias and civilians supported the besieged Allies as the Luftwaffe strafed relentlessly in the absence of Allied air cover, rattling even battle-hardened Anzacs. ‘Thebes was badly plastered, Larissa was a pancake and Lamia in shambles,’ wrote a sergeant. The campaign had become a rout. Australia’s commander, General Thomas Blamey, was said to be almost in tears as he gave the order to retreat and evacuate.  

On Anzac Day, as Allied forces fled south to the Peloponnese, scrambling onto whatever craft they could find, the British Ministry of Information issued a message informing the dominion populations that all was going well. ‘(1) Excellent collaboration and harmonious relations between British and Greek people. (2) Admiration for Greece which her heroic resistance has evoked on the part of the British public.’  Three days later, Menzies wrote in his War Cabinet diary, ‘Winston says “We will lose only 5,000 in Greece”. We will in fact lose at least 15,000. W. is a great man, but he is more addicted to wishful thinking every day.’ A day later the campaign was over; the Germans had captured 7,000 men, and the vengeful Nazi occupation of Greece had begun. Hitler had triumphed.

GERMAN PARATROOPERS LANDING IN CRETE, APRIL 1941

Crete, and the forces sent to hold and defend it, would suffer the same fate. At sunrise on 20 May 1941, an armada of German planes flew over the island, dropping 10,000 paratroopers ahead of a major amphibious landing of German forces. Once again Australian forces, under British command, found themselves in the frontline without having been part of the planning. So too were the Greek forces and Cretan civilians; all, says Hill, ‘victims of British deception’, led to believe that adequate defences had been constructed when few had been put into place. On Churchill’s orders, Crete was to be a bastion against German advances into North Africa. In the evacuation of mainland Greece, 45,000 troops had fled to Crete, turning it into an operational zone and a prime German target. The stage was set for disaster, in Hill’s view, because of ‘British ineptitude and mismanagement’. (Even as Germany’s airborne invasion approached, ‘from 1300 to 1730 hours a siesta or rest period was indulged in by all officers...’) On the ground, German forces were outnumbered - but their air superiority gave them victory in just ten days. One Greek defeat had quickly followed another.

There were rare moments of glory. Hill singles out the Australian defence of Rethymnon airfield, valiantly held until surrender was inevitable, but everywhere German Stuka dive-bombers created hell for Allied troops already suffering ‘war neurosis’ - and for Cretan civilians, seemingly fearless as they hunted for Nazis, said one observer, ‘like Daniel Boon stalking Red Indians’. Desperation set in: to ward off hunger, Cretan women gathered ‘weeds by day and snails by night’, and in places the Allied evacuation was accompanied by the stench of rotting bodies and broken sewers.

Of the forces left behind in Greece and Crete, nearly 4000 Australians became POWs, but several hundred escaped in Crete, some joining partisan groups for the war’s duration and others working on behalf of British intelligence. These ‘stragglers’, officially listed as ‘missing in action’, found a new role among guerrilla fighters and the rural poor, and helped to generate a heroic legend in contrast to the bleak images of defeat framing their initial involvements in Greece.     

‘Debacle’ is a term too easily used in military history, but the Allied campaigns in Greece more than qualify. The obstacles were as obvious as the outcome; soldiers were despatched into zones of defeat where almost nothing of strategic value could be achieved. Some historians still argue that the Allied resistance in Greece, albeit inadequate, critically delayed Hitler’s assault on Russia in the bleak winter, a view endorsed by Stalin himself. But the trade-off, notes Hill, was a massive weakening of the Allied position in North Africa. Post-war, British commander General Archibald Wavell took the ‘grand design’ rationale, admitting ‘it may have been psychological and political considerations that tilted the balance in the end over military matters. To have withdrawn... would have been disastrous to our reputations in the USA and with other neutrals’. The official Greek history painfully underlines this cold stance: ‘...it was agreed that a British Expeditionary Force be sent to Greece, for the prestige of the British with little hope of a successful outcome of the operation.’

Diggers and Greeks is strong on information, but short on style. Hill is certainly no Antony Beevor, seamlessly weaving telling moments of conflict into a grand portrayal of the human condition. Her strength is research, and her telling of this extraordinary episode - as the campaigns turn to tragedy not only for the hapless Anzacs but also for the doomed Greeks they were sent to defend - is often as blunt as the Greek earth itself. But her view that Australia officially ‘neglected’ the Greek campaigns because they were failures (unlike, as she puts it, ‘the inspiration to Australian war mythology’ that Gallipoli has been) has echoes in the swift engulfment of Singapore and the capture of thousands of Allied troops barely one year later. The war was ultimately won, but the levels of mismanagement, delusion and deceit that created these catastrophes has defeated even the mythmakers.

This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian, April, 2010.