A Breda gun crew of HMAS Perth rests after a full day of returning fire from German fighter aircraft during the evacuation of Allied troops from Sfakia, on the southern coast of Crete, 30 May 1941.
The cradle of civilisation
The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone
I dream’d that Greece might still be free …
[Lord Byron 1]
In 1821, after centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks, the people of Greece rose in rebellion. To the British, Greece represented the cradle of European democracy, literature and civilisation, and this rebellion was seen as the righteous insurrection of an oppressed people. But what lent additional lustre to the Greek struggle was the support of a young English poet, Lord Byron, who in 1823 offered his services to the Greek insurgents. Byron died in Greece in 1824, and a few years later, with British and Russian help, Greece became an independent kingdom.
During World War II Greek independence was once again threatened. In October 1940, seeking to make Italy the master of the eastern Mediterranean, Benito Mussolini’s armies invaded Greece, only to find themselves beaten back by the Greeks. Unfortunately for Greece, this setback for his Italian ally made the German leader, Adolf Hitler, turn his attention to the possible danger to Germany’s ambitions from the Greeks, particularly if they should seek support from Britain. In March 1941, British support became a reality when a military expedition called ‘Lustre Force’, which included Australian troops, was dispatched to Greece from Egypt.
On 29 March, on his way to defend Greece and all it stood for, Lieutenant John Learmonth, from western Victoria, watched from the deck of a troopship as it sailed up the Greek coast towards Piraeus, the port of Athens. Like Byron before him, Learmonth sensed the enduring significance of this ancient landscape steeped in myth and legend:
A number of pretty little islands have been visible on our starboard quarter since daylight this morning. I have forgotten what little ancient history I ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed in these seas. I wonder did the Sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. Thousands of years ago men have sailed these seas to go to war, and we sail them today for the same purpose. 2
John Learmonth was one of more than 60,000 British and Dominion servicemen and women who fought in Greece between November 1940 and May 1941, among them some 17,000 Australians and 16,700 New Zealanders. What circumstances had brought these men and women from half a world away to the aid of the Greeks?