Tuesday, July 31, 2012

More men escape from Greece

Some of the men who escaped from Greece joined together on the island of Skyros. On 10 May 1941, Lt-Col. Chilton joined up with the men already on the island. The Greek people rendered great aid to the men. There were now Germans on the islands of Chios and Mytilene, so there were low-flying aircraft to avoid. They eventually arrived in Turkey near Smyrna. There were already a group of 18 men there being cared for by Colonel Hughes, an Australian who knew his way around in Turkey. The men dressed in civilian clothes and were told to say that they were "English civilian engineers". They took the train to Alexandretta. From there, they sailed for Port Said on a Norwegian tanker. The tanker, the Alcides, also had another 250 passengers. They included 66 Norwegians who had crossed into Russia to escape the Germans. More soldiers from Greece had managed to reach safety. Some Australians and New Zealanders were going to walk to Turkey, but were taken by friendly Greeks to Skiathos and then to Skopelos. They eventually were able to sail to Cesme in Turkey, arriving in early August 1941. From there, after being quarantined, they were sent to Syria. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The New Zealanders on Crete in 1941

About three weeks separated the end of the Greek Campaign and the German invasion of Crete. New Zealanders played an important role in the latter battle. They also took losses there. 671 New Zealanders were killed in the battle and over 2,000 were taken prisoner at the end. New Zealand losses in Crete were much greater than their losses in Greece. They had lost not quite 300 killed and about 1,800 captured at the end in Greece. A New Zealander who had been evacuated from Greece, General Freyberg, commanded the Allied troops on Crete, replacing a British officer who had commanded the defenders prior to the end of the battle in Greece. He commanded a force of some 42,000 troops. Of these, about 7,700 were from the New Zealand Division. The men withdrawn from Greece had left their artillery and many other weapons there. The idea was that the weapons would only complicate the withdrawal and not having them would allow more men to be carried by small ships, which were mostly destroyers.

The battle for Crete lasted 12 days and ended with the evacuation of most of the defending British and Commonwealth troops to Egypt. At the beginning of the German attack, the battle looked to be winnable for the British. Command failures allowed the Germans to fly in enough troops to win the battle. The initial attackers were paratroops and glider-borne troops. They were strongly attacked by the defenders and took many losses. We will explore the operations in greater detail, as we proceed through the Australian Official History. This piece draws on the New Zealand history of the operation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

More men escape from Greece

After the last withdrawals by destroyer from Greece, there were still some large, organized groups of men left. Many were British, but some were Australian. One such group was the 2/2nd Battalion commanded by Lt-Col. Chilton. They had been cut off from the rest in the Pinios Gorge. Chilton had not been with the group, but Major Cullen, of the Headquarters Battalion, along with some New Zealanders, marched to near Kartisa on the coast, hoping to find a ship to pick them up. Eventually, the Greeks ferried them to Skiathos. They were only ten miles from Turkey, but did not want to be interned there. Several ships eventually took two groups of men to Crete, where they disembarked on 5 May 1941. Some 97 men, who could not be accommodated on the ships, were left on Chios. The group eventually grew to 133 men. They eventually sailed to Chesme in Turkey. The Turks were friendly to the Allies, even though they were neutral. There were men who had experience in Turkey, who helped arrange transportation. Meanwhile, Lt-Col. Chilton and a few men marched to the southwest. The group grew in size over time. They eventually reached Skyros by boat. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The focus on the island of Crete at the end of April 1941

Prior to 30 April 1941, there was already an island commander and British troops on Crete. With the close proximity of Crete to Greece, the island was a natural place to take troops evacuated from Greece. They were transported by sea to Suda Bay, in the northwest corner of Crete. The troops from Greece were practically unarmed, as those who were armed had only their personal weapon and many had been embarked on destroyers and cruisers without any arms.

The string of disasters that started with the battle in Greece, the battle for Crete, and then the disastrous Operation Battleaxe in June 1941 eventually cost General Wavell his job as theater commander. The British had great culpability in the string of disasters, as they had lied to the Australian Prime Minister, saying that General Blamey had approved of the operation and then liked to General Blamey, telling him that the prime minister, Mr. Menzies, knew of the operation and approved of it. This seems to have been the standard operating procedure, and it deserves to be condemned. The CIGS in Britain had opposed the operation and was overruled by Churchill. On story puts the blame for Greece squarely on Churchill. He was said to have ordered Anthony Eden to Greece to make the arrangements, while the Australian Official History tends to blame Anthony Eden and would say that Churchill went along with his young foreign secretary.

As we continue the story, we will shift the focus to Crete, where even before the end of operations in Greece, Hitler had ordered that Crete be taken. He gave the order, apparently, on 25 April 1941. The battle for Crete was pivotal, as it sold the Allies on the use of airborne troops while it discouraged the Germans from any further airborne invasions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Germans at the end in Greece

After the withdrawal from Thermopylae and Brallos, German advance on Athens progressed rather slowly. It was only on 27 April 1941 that German troops from Corinth arrived at Athens. The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler division moved south from Yanina starting from 26 April. They left the 73rd Infantry Division at Epirus to accept the Greek surrender. The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler moved to Patras on 27 April and held back while the more orderly embarkation of British and Commonwealth troops occurred. The exception was the 5th Panzer Division, which pushed rapidly south into the Peloponnese. They reached the embarkation ports of Argos, Navplion, and Tripolis during the day on 28 April. By the night, they were in Kalamata. At that point, the 5th Panzer Division and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler were in the Peloponnese, the 2nd Panzer Division and 5th and 6th Mountain Divisions were near Athens and Lamia. The 9th Panzer Division was in Thessaly. The 73rd Infantry Division was near Grevena and Yannina. The 72nd Infantry Division was near Katerini. The 50th Division was near Salonika. The 164th Infantry Division was in Eastern Macedonia, near the Aegean and possibly in the islands. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The losses in Greece

After the end of the campaign in Greece, the Germans announced that their losses in the 12th Army were 1,160 men killed, 3,755 men wounded, and 345 were missing. The total strengths of British and Commonwealth forces in Greece were:
British army: 21,880
Palestinian and Cypriot: 4,670
British RAF: 2,217
Australian: 17,125
New Zealand: 16,720
The losses were as follows:
          Killed    Wounded    Prisoners
British         146         87       6,480
British RAF     110         45          28
Australian      320        494       2,030
New Zealand     291        599       1,614
Palestinian &    36         25       3,806
This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The next phase: the move to Crete

As we have mentioned, some 50,000 troops were evacuated from Greece in late April 1941 as the situation there collapsed. We believe that the collapse in Greece has hastened by the nature of the staff work done by Group W, under the command of General Wilson. General Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand Division (later called the 2nd New Zealand Division) ended up as senior officer present in southern Greece as the Germans pushed deeper to the south. The troops consisted of the New Zealand Division, the 6th Australian Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade, or the remnants thereof. Most of the troops were removed by cruiser and destroyers (it seems), although some were removed by transport. The original plan was to have the transports embark the troops, in part from quays or using landing craft from the beaches. As the pace of the collapse quickened, the last troops were removed mostly by warship. Since cruisers could take larger numbers, they played a key role. From Greece, some were lucky enough to arrive in Egypt, but most were dumped at Suda Bay without anything but the clothes that they wore and with what small arms that they had carried out of Greece. Since Crete was the logical next German target, something had to be done. There were about 42,000 British and Commonwealth troops on the island of Crete. A British officer had been told that he was in charge of Crete, but General Wavell replaced him with General Freyberg, newly arrived from Greece with about 7,700 men from the New Zealand Division (two brigades). The third New Zealand brigade had ended up being sent to Egypt. The next part of the story will deal with preparations to defend Crete, the actual German attack, and the unfolding story of the battle for Crete. The fall of Crete ended up being messier than even that of Greece and left the Allied position in the Mediterranean Sea in an even more precarious state by the summer of 1941. The result was that General Wavell was sacked by Mr. Churchill and a new set of commanders was put in charge. Sadly, the results were little better.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Greek Campaign: was it necessary?

A claim was made that Great Britain was obligated by treaty to defend Greece against a German attack. Certainly, Anthony Eden, Churchill's foreign minister took that obligation seriously. He apparently convinced the prime minister of the necessity to put troops into Greece. General Metaxas, the Greek dictator thought that the British expedition would be a strategic blunder, which it turned out to be. General Metaxas died suddenly, so he was not able to influence the decision. The Australian government and senior commanders were opposed to the operation. The decision to go into Greece had grave consequences. First, an approximately 50,000 man force was expended. They withdrew most of the men from Greece, many going to the island of Crete. Crete was soon invaded and there were further losses. The most damage was done to the navy. From April 1941 until late June, there were heavy losses in cruisers and destroyers. These losses came at a time when they were very damaging. This was at a point when Churchill wanted to run the Tiger Convoy to Egypt with tanks. There was an escalating need to keep Malta supplied, and convoys run through the Mediterranean were still more efficient than running then around the Cape of Good Hope. So yes, the campaign in Greece was a mistake. The mistake was compounded by putting General Wilson and his staff in charge, as neither was up to the task they were given. The operation could have been better executed if as requested, the Australians had been given control with General Blamey in charge.

Friday, July 06, 2012

More about HMAS Perth

As we have seen, the Captain of HMAS Perth was responsible for not approaching Kalamata when some 6,000 troops could have been embarked. He commanded a group consisting of two cruisers and six destroyers. This was in late April 1941. The Perth had only been in Australian hands since the summer of 1939. The Perth had been HMS Amphion, which as a modified Leander class cruiser with 8-6in guns. Almost immediately after being commissioned as an Australian ship, there was a mutiny of some sixty sailors. As these things go, a seemingly small issue blew up into a confrontation. New York police even gathered on the pier in preparation to intervene. In the even, the captain at the time, Harold Farncomb, was able to defuse the situation. The Perth was to go to Australia, but the start of the war delayed that trip until early 1940. The Perth was employed as a convoyer until late 1940 when she was dispatched to the Mediterranean to replace HMAS Sydney, a sister-ship. By April 1941, the Perth was commanded by Captain Bowyer-Smith. He showed unusual lack of initiative or perhaps even courage and did not go into Kalamata when there was the one opportunity to embark the troops and save them from German prisoner-of-war camps. Admiral Cunningham and Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippel tried to salvage the situation, but the navy was only able to retrieve less than 1000 troops. This is based on widely available information about the Perth and the situation at Kalamata in late April 1941.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The navy still tried to get troops from Kalamata after 28-29 April 1941

The great Admiral Cunningham ordered Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell to pick up troops who might be on the coast south of Kalamata after the night of 28 to 29 April 1941. The destroyers succeeded in picking up over 900 men the next two nights, including 700 from the island of Milos. There was one Australian hospital left in Greece. The Germans took the hospital on 27 April, but let them continue to provide care. They ultimately started to take equipment and rations, however. On 7 May, the hospital was moved on German orders to Kokkinia. Through May, the Germans kept the hospital in operation and allowed men to join as well as new patients. The hospital continued to function and treated wounded from Crete through May. The operation began to wind down by the fall and the unit was ultimately moved to Germany in December. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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