The search for James Zampelis, the only Australian of Greek descent Killed in Action in Crete, 1941

Interviews, WW2, WW2 in Greece, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos and additional media submitted by Jim Claven and used by permission

On the morning of 24 May 1941 James Zampelis, an Australian of Greek descent, was assisting wounded men close to Mournies village in Crete. The Battle was raging and Ju87 Stuka dive bombers were pounding the Allied positions.

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A direct bomb hit killed James Zampelis and five of his comrades, while several other Australians were wounded.

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James, or Dimitris as he was known to his family and friends, was 28 years old when he was killed in action.

While James was first declared missing in action, he was later corrected to having been killed in action.

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The official records mention that James was buried by his comrades “500 yards south west of Mournies village”.

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The Official Casualty Report mentioning James Zampelis

James was one of over 600 Australians killed in action during the campaign in Greece and Crete and the only Australian of Greek descent.

The remains of many who were killed during the battles on Crete could not be located after the war.

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This was despite the best efforts of the Australian Graves Registration Units who undertook this task on Crete. Their names are memorialised on the remembrance walls at the Phaleron Military Cemetery in Athens.

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James Zampelis’ name at the Phaleron War Memorial

Yet the remains of these Australians – including James – lie forgotten where their comrades hastily buried them after the aerial attack.

Private James Zampelis was born in Melbourne – the son of Gerasimos Zampelis from Lefkada, one of the early Greek migrants to Melbourne – and enlisted into the 2/2nd Field Regiment in the Second World War, seeing service in the Middle East, Greece and Crete.

James and his unit served across the battlefields of Greece – from Veria, Servia, Larissa, Lamia and Brallos Pass and then to Crete and the titanic struggle that began with the German invasion in May 1941.

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Jim Claven during a presentation regarding James Zampelis in Melbourne’s Greek Centre

Thanks to the efforts of respected researcher and Historian Jim Claven, who holds both Bachelor and Masters Degrees from Melbourne’s Monash University,  the exact location of the final resting place of the five Australians who were buried in an unmarked grave close to Mournies village in Crete, including James Zampelis, is about to be identified.

Jim Claven, who has been researching the Anzac connection to Greece across both World Wars, provided www.ww2wrecks.com with detailed information on his efforts to locate the graves of the five Australian soldiers killed in action on May 24th, 1941: 

“In 2011 I became foundation Secretary of the Melbourne-based Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. This was a community-based organisation established to push for greater awareness for Lemnos’ role in the Gallipoli campaign and more broadly the Hellenic link to Anzac. As part of this role, I took on the responsibility to research Lemnos’ link to Gallipoli”, Jim Claven says and adds:

“There has been much discussion in Australia and some in Greece about finding the remains of James and his four other comrades who were killed with him outside of Mournies.

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Through my researches we have been able to identify the most likely location near Mournies where James and the others were killed and were most likely buried. We have matched the written records, Australian War Memorial maps of the battle site and contemporary google maps.

We feel reasonably confident of our research. Unfortunately though, at this stage, there are no specific plans to find the remains.”

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What are the latest developments regarding the final resting place of James Zampelis and his comrades? 

Given James’ significance as the sole Australian soldier of Hellenic background to have served and been killed during the Greek campaign, it would be appropriate for a renewed effort to be made by Greek and Australian authorities to locate his remains.

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There may be some support to do so from the Australian Ambassador to Greece.

I have discussed James’ story with him on many occasions and at the recent unveiling of the new 42nd Street memorial on Crete the Ambassador made specific reference to James Zampelis.

What was the feedback you received from his descendants?

The extended Zampelis family in Australia has been a strong supporter of my research. They are interested in supporting genuine attempts to locate his remains and to commemorate his service both in Australia and in Greece.

Peter Zampelis, the son of James Zampelis, in Melbourne, August 2016

James’ son is still alive and attended my presentation last year at Melbourne’s Greek Centre, along with many members of the extended Zampelis family.

What did initially push you to start looking for the ANZAC presence in Greece?

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“The Hellenic link to Anzac, recorded in memoirs and photographs of the nurses and diggers themselves in archives across Australia and overseas fascinated me by the cross-cultural interaction that these stories symbolised.

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But I was also aware of the lack of awareness of this interaction both in Australia and Greece. In the process, I have been able to enrich my own understanding of Greek and Australian history.

I have since extended my researches to cover the other campaigns that brought Greeks and Australians together. Some of the areas I have studied include:

  • WW1 – Imbros/Tenedos and Lesvos in the Gallipoli campaign, the Salonika campaign, the naval campaign in the Adriatic, the occupation of Constantinople and Smyrne;
  • During the inter-war period – the Australian welfare workers (ex-diggers and nurses) who came to Greece to help with the settlement of the Asia Minor refugees in Greece
  • WW2 – the Greek and Crete campaigns of 1941, the POW situation in Greece; the escapers and evaders; the Anzac involvement with the resistance on the mainland and Crete; the Aegean campaigns (1943-44).

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As a result of my researches, I have conducted field research across Greece, visiting battle sites (such as the 1941 Battle of Vevi) and other locations connected to the Anzac link to Greece. I have also conducted commemorative tours of Greece, with the participation of Australians and those of Hellenic background.

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In Australia, I have worked with others in the Committee to have erected the first memorial to the role of Lemnos in the Gallipoli campaign 

This commemorates the role of Australia’s nurses who served on the Island, the soldiers who served their and those buried there and the support of the Greek community.

The memorial is etched in both Greek and English. Along with other members of our Committee we have worked closely with both the Lemnos and Athens authorities in organising commemorative events, especially during the Centenary of Anzac in 2015.

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I also delivered a major address on the Lemnos link to Anzac at the Athens War Museum in 2015 and had an article published in the journal of the Hellenic Navy. I am also assisting the Australian Pontian community to have erected a major new memorial to the service of Ballarat’s Major George Devine Treloar  – a WW1 veteran and refugee worker who helped settle over 100,000 Asia Minor refugees in Greece in 1922-26. 

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I am also a member of the Melbourne-based Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Council. This Council works to ensure the annual commemoration of the Greek and Crete campaigns, bringing together Hellenic-Australians from across Greece as well as representatives from the general Australian community, including historians, politicians and the Returned Services League. The Consul-General of Greece is also part of this Council.

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I have organised a number of events during last year’s 75th anniversary of the campaign, represented the Council at events in Greece (Sfakia and Kalamata) and made a number of presentations  (James Zampelis, the Battle of Vevi and Thessaloniki’s WW2 POW camp).

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I have recently been commissioned to write a major new pictorial history of Lemnos’ link to Anzac. This will publish hundreds of photographs of Lemnos in 1915 never before published, placed in context by the words of the Anzacs themselves. This is scheduled to be published in August 2017.

Jim Claven during a presentation on James Zampelis
Jim Claven during a presentation on James Zampelis

I have also assisted many Australian families to preserve their Anzac relatives’ collections of memoirs and photographs of Greece. These incude the Lemnos collection of Sister Evelyn Hutt and the WW2 Greek collection of Private Syd Grant.

ANZACs are to this day very respected in Greece, especially in Crete, because of 1941. Many veterans kept coming back for decades, until their deaths and now many relatives are still attending the commemorative events. What is the most striking story you remember of your encounters with veterans or their relatives?

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There are so many stories that have been brought to my attention. There are a few that come to mind, symbolising the connection between Greece and Australia that has endured in the memories of many individuals in both countries that have been touched by the experience. Here are a few.

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The family of Sister Evelyn Hutt , a nurse who served on Lemnos in 1915, brought to me not only the great archive of photographs that she had kept covering her experience in WW1 – but especially a number of photographs of Lemnos and its villagers never before seen. Most importantly the family told me how Evelyn was affected by her experience of the Island and the soldiers she nursed. She never forgot Lemnos.

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The story of the family of Lee Tarlamis , the President of our Committee, who encapsulates the Hellenic link to Anzac in his own family. On his father’s side, Lee is descended from villagers of West Mudros (Tsimandria and surrounds) and on his mother’s side; he is related to a digger who walked the same villagers in 1915. An amazing story.

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The story of Private Syd Grant  who fought across Greece and Crete in 1941. He was helped by the people of the small village of Trachila on the Mani as he evaded the Germans after the fall of Kalamata in April.

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His daughter shared with me his collection of unique photographs and private memoirs. Syd never forgot the helps of the people of Trachila, returned to the area after the war and named his farm in Victoria Kalamata – in honour of the brave people who helped him.

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And of course, the story of James Zampelis. He first came to my notice when I saw his distinctive name on the Memorial Walls at Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens.

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This began a historical journey for my over 4 years. Since then I have met his descendents, written about him and made major presentations on his service. In many ways, the Melbourne-born James symbolises the strong link between Greece and Australia through Anzac.There are so many more, but these ones come to mind.

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Please tell us more about your books, research, articles. Where can anyone find more info on your work?

I have written extensively on the Hellenic link to Anzac.

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These include many articles published in the national Greek community newspaper in Australia (Neos Kosmos), a number published in the journal of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance (Remembrance), a major article on Lemnos in the Hellenic Navy journal, an article on Evelyn Hutt for the State Library of Victoria journal (the Latrobe Journal) and a number of articles for the UK-based Gallipoli Association Journal.

I have also written extensive articles for the journal of Victoria’s Thessaloniki Association The White Tower (The Anzacs in the Salonika campaign, on the 1941 Battle of Vevi , The Thessaloniki camp). 

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I have also given many presentations on the various aspects of the Hellenic link to Anzac, both in Greece and across Australia. The most important of these were delivered on Lemnos during the Century of Anzac; at the Athens War Museum; at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.

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Most of these publications are available on the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee website that I have created and maintain.

On a non-Anzac related vein, I have had my Master’s Thesis published. This was a study of modern British political history. I have also had published a historical pamphlet on early Australian political history.

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Australia is on the other side of the globe, yet many Greeks settled down under and started their new lives or were born to immigrants there. They have a deep sense of pride for Greece and Australia. Many of them served with AUS forces during WW2. Do you have any specific stories you would like to share with us?

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Well of course, the story of James Zampelis stands out.

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There are also many Greek-Australians who have come forward to me and shared there stories. Most of these involve their having witnessed the Anzacs in Greece in WW2 or those who helped them while they were on the run evading the Germans or Italians.

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Others – like Dr Peter Mangos, Peter Kanis and Olga Black (née Marmaras) – have told me stories of how as young children they were dressed in traditional Hellenic dress and took part in the large Greek Day fundraising events organised in Melbourne during WW2. One of these events held in February 1941 attracted 100,000 visitors and raised over 4,000 pounds to aid Greek war victims. An amazing story of Greek-Australian solidarity. This story should be better known.

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One of my own personal motivations has been to help Greece through appropriate commemorative tourism.

Lemnos had two major commonwealth war cemeteries, holding the remains of some 2,000 allied soldiers. It also has many locations directed connected to the time when the Anzac’s and the Allies walked the Island.

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Yet commemorative visitation is limited, an Anzac trail has not been created. This all despite the fact that tens of thousands of Australians (let alone other Allied countries) visit Gallipoli battlefields but are not encouraged to extend their visit to Lemnos and Greece.

I would love these problems to be overcome so that many more people can appreciate the history connecting Greece to Anzac.

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Greece has the advantage that Anzac commemorative tourism can extend into an appreciation of Greece’s rich cultural history itself.

The most important thing to build awareness in both Greece and Australia is to really create an Anzac trail throughout Greece, linking all the sites in Greece connected to the Anzacs.

This involves the identification of sites, the creation and erection of memorials (i.e. bronze plaques etc) and linking these with existing ones (i.e. commonwealth war cemeteries etc) in a tourism map (digital and physical) to aid the commemorative traveller in Greece.

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This would overcome the biggest drawback to realising an increased awareness of the depth of the Anzac link to Greece. And a limit on Greece benefiting from an increased interest in visiting these locations to which 100,000 of people are connected through the nurses and diggers in their families.

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I have developed detailed proposals on this initiative. One seeks to commit the Melbourne Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Council to assisting in the creation of new memorials across Greece and a commemorative tourism map linking all of these.