By Pierre Kosmidis
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Australia may be 13,575 kilometers away from Greece, but the bond between the two nations is strong and welded in blood and sacrifices. Greeks and Australians have been allies in all conflicts of the last 116 years.
Soldiers from Australia and New Zealand fought hard in mainland Greece and in Crete, during the chaotic days that followed Operation “Marita”, the invasion of mainland Greece and Operation “Merkur”, the invasion of the island of Crete, in April and May 1941.
Untold stories of sacrifice, heroism and despair are now coming to light, thanks to the efforts of the Joint Committee for the Commemoration of The Battle of Crete and The Greek Campaign, which forged the Greek Australian Alliance.
Of the 1,686 Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand) that were killed or lost in action in Greece in 1941 , 646 were Australians. They buried or memorialised in Greece in Phaleron, Athens , Rhodes and Souda Bay Crete .
Over 50 percent of them have never been found or are unidentified and are memorialised at the Athens Memorial. During the Gallipoli Campaign in World War One,148 Australians died of their wounds and are buried on the Island of Lemnos . There is also one Australian nurse buried in Thessaloniki, the only Australian Casualty from the Salonika Front in 1916.
www.ww2wrecks.com has reached out to Mr. Nick Andriotakis, BE (Hons), Secretary of the Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete and The Greek Campaign, in order to raise awareness on the role of Australians in Greece and the everlasting legacy of the sacrifices made against the Axis in World War 2.
What is the aim of the Greek-Australian Alliance? Please tell us the milestones since its founding.
The Greek Australian Alliance is the title of the booklet we produced. The booklet is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign edition of the Greek Australian Alliance . Greeks and Australians have been allies in all conflicts of the last 116 years .
Our committee is The Joint Committee for the Commemoration of The Battle of Crete and The Greek Campaign. The Joint Committee is a non profit organization that has been actively involved in commemorating the anniversary of the Anzac Battles of Crete and Greece for nearly 45 years.
The Joint Committee was formed in the late 1970s by the Cretan Association of Sydney & NewSouth Wales, the 2/3rd Field Regiment, the 6th Australian Division represented by Major General Sir Ivan Dougherty, Major General Ian Campbell, Major General Allan Murchison, Steve MacDougal, Bill Jenkins and Lew Lind.
Its aim was to commemorate the Australian campaigns that were fought on the Greek mainland and later on Crete and to honour the Australian soldiers and their Greek allies by keeping their memory alive.
For nearly 45 years this committee has been hosting a wreath laying ceremony on the anniversary of these campaigns, held at Martin Place, Sydney, on or around 20th May.
In 1979 the Greek Sub-Branch of the RSL were invited to join the committee and in 1980 their secretary Evangelos (Angelo) Efstratiadis OAM became its chairman.
In 2001 James Jordan, the current chair accepted the position.
Originally, the Joint Committee was also associated with the Federation of Naval Ships Association, Naval Association of Australia (NSW Branch); RSL Sub-Branch and National Serviceman’s Association (NSW Branch) and the New Zealand Sub-Branch of the RSL.
We have worked closely with The Returned Services League , Department of Veterans Affairs , the Government of the Hellenic Republic, Anzac families and the community to annually commemorate the anniversary of The Battle of Crete and The Greek campaign – The Second and final ANZAC campaign.
ANZAC is the most important aspect of modern Australian History . There were two Anzac campaigns firstly in Gallipoli in 1915 (used the Greek island of Lemnos as its headquarters, taring grounds and hospitals ) and then in Greece in 1941 .
The Anzacs of Greece is an important Australian Story that deserves to be known by all Australians and Greeks. Though it stands as the Second Anzac Campaign the Battle of Crete and Greece is not so widely known nor is the participation and contributions over the last 116 years of Greek Australians in the Australian Defence forces .
You have commemorated the Battles of mainland Greece and Crete in 1941. What were the highlights of these events?
The commemorations for the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of Greece and Crete in Sydney during April to June 2016 were an outstanding success. Nearly 1000 people attended the wreath laying commemorative service at the Cenotaph in Sydney .
His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), Governor of New South Wales laid the first wreath. This was followed by nearly 100 wreath layers comprising , surviving Anzacs, representatives from NSW , Local State and Australian Federal Parliaments, Consulates General , Australian military Officers , Government and community organizations , Schools , Anzac families and the general public .
We were honoured to have amongst us one of the few surviving Anzacs of Greece/Crete , 99 year old Australian Anzac Alf Carpenter , a national living treasure.
Alf is one a few surviving Anzacs within this Anzac Centenary. He was accompanied by his association members and enveloped by the 2/4th White over Green banner as he laid his wreath symbolically and emotionally displaying Anzac mateship and everyone spontaneously applauded. This set the tone for the ceremony and every Anzac family was applauded as they laid wreaths in memory of their Anzac Father /grandfather .
The Royal Australian Navy Catafalque Party and the Parramatta Lancers Band attended in support of the event and the prayers were said by Very Reverend Archimandrite Christodoulos Economou . His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), Governor of New South Wales delivered a detailed ,emotive and inspirational speech which is attached.
The service was also addressed by the Chief of Staff of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff Lieutenant General Konstantinos Gkatzogiannis who also participated in commemorations in other cities .
Due to the significance of the 75th Anniversary of the Anzacs in Greece the Greek Presidential Guard was brought to Sydney by the Hellenic Club –Sydney and supported by the Joint Committee.
They were given rare special permission by the RSL to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Sydney Cenotaph during the wreath laying service and on three other days for one hour . This drew large crowds and brought King and George Streets to a stop as they marched to the Cenotaph . The Greek Presidential guard last came to Sydney on the 50th Anniversary .
After the Greek Presidential Guard finished its duty with exemplary honour at the Sydney Cenotaph they marched in the Anzac Day Parade . They were greeted with a heartfelt applause by the Anzac day spectators . I was privileged to march being the Guard along with Dr Kyrimis Consul General of Greece and John Comino the President of the Hellenic Club Sydney .
Our collaboration with the National Rugby League paid off and Anzac Alf Carpenter was welcomed at the Anzac Day Game Roosters V Dragons in front of 40,000 spectators . He was announced as an Anzac Of Greece and Crete who just turned 99 years of age to rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
The giant Photographic Exhibition commemorating the Anzacs of Greece coincided with the commemorations and the Greek Presidential Guard’s stay in Sydney.
Other commemorative events included
• Memorial Service , Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Cathedral at Regent
• An Open forum discussion on Current Challenges for Greece in South East Europe by Lt General Konstandinos Gkatsogiannis at the Hellenic Club
• Unique Photographic Exhibition “Anzacs in Greece THEN and NOW’.
• The establishment of the Virtual War memorial and website which will give Anzac families an opportunity to upload stories , video, photos letters and other items of their Anzac ancestor . The objective of the virtual war memorial is to maintain and keep alive the memory of the Anzacs and Greek people who fought in the Battles of Greece and Crete in 1941. The original list consists of the 686 Anzacs buried or commemorated in Greece.
As an Australian of Greek descent,you obviously have double the pleasure and privilege to be associated with the Joint Committee. What are your personal thoughts and feelings about your ancestors who fought and died in the land of their origin?
I was born in Crete and migrated to Australia with my family when I was six years old so therefore my ancestors are all from Crete, however I can comment about the Australians that fought in Crete and how they and their families felt about this experience .
When I was growing up in Sydney there were many non- Greek Australian families who attended the Cretan dances or socialised and visited Cretans in their homes and vice versa .
The fathers of these families had fought in Crete and some of them were saved by the Cretan people until they escaped. Some of them could even speak Greek.
Meeting these people over time instilled in me a pride of being Greek for what the Greeks did at great risk to their lives to save and protect the Australians but also an admiration at the Australians for fighting in the defence of Greece and them and their families wanting to maintain that bond with Greece and Greeks in Australia so many years later.
When I was 18 years of age I was in the Cretan Dancing Group and we were told that we had to march in our traditional Cretan costume on Anzac Day , the most important Day for all Australians . Anzac Day is on the 25th April when all the surviving soldiers put on a suit and their war medals and marched with their fellow soldiers within their own military unit . The streets are lined with tens of thousands of people to applaud and commemorate these war heroes .
As we assembled at the beginning of the march route one man in a suit and wearing his medals called out to me “ You’re from Crete aren’t you son ? “ to which I relied rather softly “ Yes sir “ . He then said “ Come with me lad and stand next to me and march with me “ . So I went over and stood next to him .
One of the organising security Marshalls saw this and came over and said to me “ Sorry son you cannot stand here “ to which the Anzac replied “ Why not mate the boy is marching with me “ At this point the marshall explained that I had to go to the back and march with all the other Ethnics ( Immigrant groups ) .
The Anzac looked at him fiercely and said “ Mate! These people saved my life and the boy is marching with me !” At this stage an argument broke out but eventually rules are rules and I did go to the back .
That experience never left me and the facts have stayed with me vividly . With time, maturity and wisdom I realised some thirty years later after I had my own children and wondered what their future would be like , I thought about that unknown Anzac .
I realised that he was fighting for Greeks in 1941 and he was still fighting for them ( being me an immigrant kid ) some nearly 40 years later on Anzac Day in Sydney . That epiphany made me join the Joint Committee and inspired me to be able to educate and honour that unknown Anzac through the collective commemoration of all the Anzacs of Greece and Crete .
There is one other story I will also share with you though it happened on an earlier visit to Crete by an Australian couple and that left an impression on me and many people when I recount it .
After the war Anzac Richard (Dick) Plant who fought in Greece and Crete settled back into normal life getting married and had a family. On many occasions he would travel 40 km to do his target shooting at the rifle range from the northern suburbs of Sydney to the other side on the south .
On the way back he would visit the daughter of a Cretan guerrilla who he fought with in the partisans in the White Mountains of Chania . He called her his “Greek daughter “ .
In 1941 Dick was wounded and was supported by a fellow Anzac Lew Lind. They travelled at night over rough terrain until they found a village called Moni in Chania prefecture, where the Zorbazakis family took them in and nursed Dick back to health .
The two weary Anzacs then moved on after they were tipped off that the Nazis were coming . When the Nazis arrived they immediately saw that the Australians were gone and in retaliation burned the Zorbazakis home.
Many years later a documentary was made called “The Flowers of Rethymnon” which was adapted from the story written by Lew Lind carrying the same title .
Georgios Zorbazakis recounted the story about the burning of his house and he proudly said “……..they burned our house down , it was all we had, because we helped Lew and Dick . However we are proud of this sacrifice because this was our contribution to the war against the Nazis ….”
Dick and Lew came back from the war but their generation held back the atrocities and other stories of war and shielded their families from the horrors they witnessed .
Many of the Anzacs of Greece (about 9000) were captured and sent to Nazi Concentration Camps in cold northern Europe . Some were embarrassed at bring prisoners whilst others suffered post traumatic stress disorders and went undiagnosed .
One Anzac who was our neighbour had become an alcoholic who would often lament and cry about his dead brother left behind in Crete .
Lew Lind went on to find relief in the writing of his book and going to Crete on many occasions but also being around the Cretans in Sydney .
For Dick being around his Greek friends drinking tsikoudia eating Cretan food and talking in Greek about the places the villages and the caves and the families that supported him was a god send as it allowed him to release some of the pain and stress of the war .
I clearly remember meeting Dick when I was about 23 years of age and he stood out being the only Australian of non Greek heritage that could speak Greek .
In the final years of Dick’s life he suffered dementia and was nursed by his daughter Wendy . During this period Dick’s memory went back to the Battle of Crete and to the villages , the mountains and valleys and to the families that supported him .
He would continuously reveal details about the war in Crete to Wendy who had never heard these stories before from her dad . For her it was a revelation but also traumatic and shocking that here she was about 60 years of age and all these decades her father never confessed to her his experiences in Crete .
But here he was in her care and day after day he would speak at length about Crete 1941 and she would write down the details as the disease would allow him to freely speak , uninhibited .
A year or so later after I joined the Joint Committee I remembered Dick Plant and decided to locate his details online and contact him to invite him and his family to attend the annual wreath laying service .
To my disappointment Dick had passed away but I spoke to his wife who to my astonishment told me that in a few hours Dick’s daughter Wendy and her husband Bob were about to leave and go to Crete .
Wow , I thought what a coincidence but where was she going ? Who was she visiting and what were their plans and could I help them ? I felt the urge to contact them immediately and Wendy’s mum gave me her number .
Immediately I called Wendy and explained who I was and how I remembered her father Dick Plant and she told be the story of how she cared for him in his last days and how she wanted to go Crete to visit teh families and places he had recounted . I offered to assist her and asked her where she going to in Crete .
All she said to me was that she had the village name of Moni and the family name of Zorbazakis written down . I told her to give me her email and I would contact her before she got to Crete . After we ended our conversation I immediately looked up the Greek White pages online and found some contact numbers of the Zorbazakis family in Moni .
I called those numbers and spoke to a family member and mentioned who I was and the name Dick Plant . They shouted at me with excitement “ Dick , Dick is he alive ? “
I told them he had sadly passed away and that his daughter Wendy looked after him in his last years and that she was coming to Crete to see the house and the caves and meet the people that supported him to live . Wendy felt that it was important for her and for all her family to go back to Crete and reconcile Dick’s legacy .
They said “ please tell her to come we want to meet here .” I then immediately put the conversation details and contact details into an email and sent it to Wendy .
Thereafter I called her as she still had not left and told her that I had found the Village of Moni and the Zorbazakis family and how they were looking forward to seeing her . Wendy could not speak as her emotion overwhelmed her and she passed the phone to Bob and I told him that I will keep researching by speaking to Cretan families in Australia and in Crete and will email them all the contact details of the people and places they needed to visit .
Wendy found it very difficult to reply by emails over the following week . These emails started to build a picture of people and places that had been forever part of here fathers life . However there was also a sense of relief and she was pleased and grateful .
When Bob and Wendy arrived off the boat in Souda Bay over 30 Cretans from various families including the Zorbazakis family greeted them and took them to retrace the footsteps of Anzac Dick Plant .
The above experiences make me proud to be a Greek of Cretan descent who is also an Australian.
During the commemorations of the Battle of Crete in Greece, veterans and family members from Australia are visiting Crete; Greeks have the ANZACs in their hearts and the feeling is mutual. Do you have any specific stories to share with us?
There is one important story that occurred this year .
Anzac Captain Reginald Saunders, Australia’s highest decorated indigenous serviceman, was supported by the Tzangarakis family from the village of Labini in Rethymnon prefecture .
He evaded capture on Crete for almost one year until he finally escaped to Egypt. Captain Saunders served Australia even though Australia did not allow him and all Indigenous Australains teh right to vote until 1967.
Outside the army he was considered a second class citizen but in the army he earned the respect of all his men . The Cretan people saw him as fellow human being and risked their lives to support him .
Captain Saunders later served Australia again in New Guinea and in the Korean War. On 11th November – Remembrance Day 2015 Captain Saunders, was honoured at the Australian War Memorial with a new gallery bearing his name.
It was the first time a room at the national War Memorial was named after a person. The ceremony was witnessed by his extended family and members of the Cretan and Greek communities.
In May this year The 42nd Street Memorial plaque was unveiled in Chania, Crete, to commemorate the Battle of 42nd Street. Captain Reginald Saunders fought in this battle along with the Maori Battalion, who performed a haka before the onslaught against the Nazis.
The Saunders family along with journalist Michael Sweet and private donors from the Greek Australian community have been instrumental in the creation of this memorial. Please click on the link below
Many ANZACs fought and died on Greek soil. some of them were hastily buried in unmarked graves, such as in Vevi region. Do you have more details on these?
Of the 1,686 Anzacs ( Australian and New Zealand ) that were killed or lost in action in Greece in 1941 , 646 were Australians . They buried or memorialised in Greece in Phaleron, Athens , Rhodes and Suda Bay Crete . Over 50 percent of them have never been found or are unidentified and are memorialised at the Athens Memorial. During the Gallipoli Campaign in World War 1 ,148 Australians died of their wounds and are buried on the Island of Lemnos . There is also one Australian nurse buried in Thessaloniki , the only Australian Casualty from the Salonika Front in 1916 .