Greece Anzac story ‘overlooked’

They bore the name Anzac, and many had fought in Gallipoli a few decades years earlier.


They were told that this time, they would be victorious.

“The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty-six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success,” said General Thomas Blamey in 1941 as he announced the formation of a new Anzac Corps.

What awaited was a grim repetition of history.

“(They were) probably having a moment of deja vu, because again they were in another diversion, and facing a suicidal mission and fighting against unequal odds,” says historian Dr Maria Hill, author of ‘Diggers and Greeks’.

For the second time, Anzacs were caught by surprise due to leadership decisions over which there is still much controversy.

The 6th Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division were evacuated to Crete as German troops invaded in a pincer action that saw Greece and Yugoslavia fall.

But on May the 20th, 23,000 German troops landed on the island – half of them by parachute.

“The sad thing about that campaign is that the Allies outnumbered the Germans three to one, and they really shouldn’t have lost Crete,” Dr Hill says.

The campaign bore ‘uncanny parallels’ to the slaughter in Turkey a generation earlier, according to Peter Ewer, author of ‘The Forgotten Anzacs’.

The ‘second Anzacs’ made up 83 per cent of prisoners of war taken by German and Italian forces, according to Dr Hill.

More than 6,000 Australians spent the next three or four years in Nazi camps, suffering hunger and deprivation on top of the trauma of battle, she says.

They came home shell-shocked and jittery, and told of nightmares that plagued them for the rest of their lives.


In the decades after the war – until as late as 1982 – the government of Greece tracked down every Anzac who had served in the campaign, and awarded them a special medal.

But Australia’s defence force forbade diggers from wearing theirs, as it wasn’t an Australian honour.

Veterans of the campaign lobbied defence ministers to recognise them, but were rebuffed, says Dr Hill.

Few veterans remain alive today, but their descendants and supporters have signed an online petition in their thousands, urging the government to award them a posthumous medal.

Dr Hill – who began the petition – says many more signatures are needed before the Defence Department will consider the proposition.

“You basically need a federal minister to champion the cause,” she says.

Watch: Dr Hill explains the significance of the Greek service medal awarded to the second Anzacs.

SBS has contacted the Defence Department for comment, and has been assured of a reply in the coming days.


The story of the Greek campaign was not wholly one of loss.

Anzac troops formed such enduring bonds with Greek villagers, who in some cases helped escaped prisoners of war to hide from the Nazis for years.

They risked execution if they were found out, and the Nazis frequently reminded them of this via air-drops of threatening pamphlets over villages suspected of harbouring Allied escapees.

Xanthoula Papadopoulos was 14 when the local shepherd brought a bedraggled Australian soldier to her family’s home in a small village in north-eastern Greece.

Bert ‘Slim’ Wrigley had escaped a German camp in Thessaloniki and walked for days. His feet were bleeding, and he was starving.

Xanthoula’s father found him a hiding place and brought him food and medicine until he was strong enough to make the treaccherous trek up Mount Olympus to British military headquarters.

Her father was later sent to a prison camp, where after a year he was executed for his political views.

The family knew no more of Slim until the late 1940s, when they discovered his address written on a scrap of paper in their photo album.

Having studied to be a teacher, Xanthoula’s English was good, and she struck up a correspondence with him on behalf of her family.

Slim sent help as her family struggled through post-war, fascist-controlled Greece.

He was battling his own demons – scarred by the trauma of his time as a Nazi prisoner, Xanthoula recalls.

“He couldn’t settle anywhere, he went up to Queensland, back and forth (it was) very hard after what he went through to pick up a normal life again,” Xanthoula says.

In 1951, Slim sent Xanthoula a letter asking her to marry him.

Listen to Xanthoula tell her story:



Resolving that she wouldn’t accept if she didn’t like him after arriving, she travelled to Melbourne, where she has now lived for 60 years. She turned 86 two days before Anzac Day.


Slim had learnt to speak fluent Greek, and after joining the Commonwealth Police, became known throughout Melbourne’s huge Greek community.

He became involved in migrant affairs, helping others escape to Australia and guiding them through the bureaucratic process once they arrived.

He passed away recently.

Other Greeks who knew diggers during WWII came to Australia for reasons other than love. Many were sponsored by those they’d helped during the conflict.

While there are no exact figures on how many people came to Australia as a result of the Anzac campaign in Greece, Dr Hill has heard many such stories.

Another veteran became known around Melbourne for his fluency in Greek and skills at making feta cheese. He sponsored Greeks who had helped him to come.

Commander of the 2/2nd Australian Battalion, Sir Frederick Chilton, brought out several members of the Mourtzakis family, whose descendants still speak fondly of him.


Dr Hill draws a parallel between the diggers who served in Greece and those in Afghanistan today.

She says the Greek people loved the Australians for being friendly and deeply respectful of their culture.

She believes the Defence Department could use that experience as the basis for further training in cultural interchange in Afghanistan, where Australia’s mentoring task force deals closely with Afghans.

Comments are closed.