By Pierre Kosmidis
The rapid advance of the German forces, during “Operation Marita” led to the evacuation of Allied forces from mainland Greece, which began on 24 April 1941 and as a result over 50,000 Allied troops were taken to Crete over five successive nights to live and fight another day.
Lieutenant Commander Nigel C. Willmott described his experience in a report, published on Sunday, May 18, 1941.
Lt. Cmd Willmott was in charge of the evacuation of Allied forces from the eastern shores of Attica and his ordeal at sea reminds us of Homer’s Odyssey.
A number of small, isolated groups and individual Allied soldiers who had been cut off from the retreat were left behind in Greece. Many of these escaped largely owing to the bravery of the Greek people who assisted them.
They remained on the island for less than a month. In a brief, savage campaign, the Australians inflicted heavy losses on the German paratroopers.
One German battalion lost more than two-thirds of its men. Another rearguard action by the 2/7th Battalion, AIF, and the New Zealand Maori battalion left 280 German dead and allowed the retreating forces to reach the evacuation point in Suda Bay.
HMAS Perth was hit while carrying members of the AIF back to Egypt. The British admiral in charge of evacuation called it “a disastrous period in our naval history”.
Although 15,000 men were evacuated by ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, some 12,000 Allied troops, including 3,000 Australians, were left on Crete and most became prisoners of war of the Germans.
As in Greece, some made daring escapes. Many were sheltered by the people of Crete. The war cemetery at Suda contains the graves of 139 men of the AIF and the RAAF.
BATTLE OF GREECE – Losses
In the fighting for Greece, British Commonwealth forces lost 903 killed, 1,250 wounded, and 13,958 captured, while the Greeks suffered 13,325 killed, 62,663 wounded, and 1,290 missing.
In their victorious drive through Greece, List lost 1,099 killed, 3,752 wounded, and 385 missing.
Italian casualties numbered 13,755 killed, 63,142 wounded, and 25,067 missing.
Having captured Greece, the Axis nations devised a tripartite occupation with the nation divided between German, Italian, and Bulgarian forces.
The campaign in the Balkans came to an end the following month after German troops captured Crete.
Considered a strategic blunder by some in London, others believed that the campaign was politically necessary.
Coupled with late spring rains in the Soviet Union, the campaign in the Balkans delayed the launch of Operation Barbarossa by several weeks.
As a result, German troops were forced to race against the approaching winter weather in their battle with the Soviets.