Forging the Aussie Greek connection

October 23, 2010
THE landscapes and the peoples of Melbourne and Greece seem to have almost merged in some ways.

The cafes and lounges around Lonsdale St have the feel of Athens.


And many a rotary hoist can be found in Greek backyards whose owners have relatives Down Under.

But before the wave of immigration made Melbourne one of the world’s biggest “Greek” cities, our nations had forged a brotherhood in blood.

It came from April 1941, with the brave but ill-fated efforts of a poorly organised British-Anzac force to defend Greece from Nazi invasion.

Many Australians – some of Greek heritage – are unaware of this joint history. It belongs to heroic Greeks and forgotten Anzacs.

Next Saturday at the Melbourne Town Hall, the Greek community will honour “the contribution of the Hellenes to the Australian war effort in the 20th century”.

The origins go back to October 1940.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini looked to emulate Adolf Hitler, and saw an easy prey in Greece.

Unprovoked, he sent in his troops, only to get a profound shock – the Greek people rose as one.

The Italian army left in tatters.

The Greeks, under General Alexander Papagos, gave the Allies their first substantial land victory in World War II.

With Hitler coming to Mussolini’s rescue, Britain’s Winston Churchill thought he could build a “Balkan Front”, drawing Yugoslavia and Turkey in as allies against the fascists.

British and Australian troops were set to sweep Italy out of North Africa, but instead many were sent to Greece.

New Zealanders joined to create an Anzac force, as in Gallipoli in 1915.

Churchill’s wishful thinking was matched by poor planning.

The Australian Cabinet learned that our army commanders thought the expedition was doomed only after the troops were on their way.

When the Aussies got to Athens in March and April 1941, they accelerated a cultural exchange that has led to our modern links. First impressions resulted in some surprises.

A young infantry officer, Frank Reid, found no translator available.

The call went out for any Greek speaker among the Diggers. One sergeant came forward, sheepishly.

It transpired his real name was Christopoulos and he had enlisted under an anglicised name. Reid and his comrades were dumbfounded – “he looked like a bushman to us”.

But these forgotten Anzacs never stood a chance – without air or tank support, Hitler’s panzer tanks and dive-bombers chased them back across the Mediterranean, with heavy losses.

There were 594 killed in Greece and Crete, hundreds more wounded or taken prisoner. But they never forgot the hospitality of the besieged Greeks.

Don Stephenson, now of Bentleigh, tramped through a town to the evacuation beaches, to find an elderly woman at her front door, offering food.

It still moved him 60 years later: “Do you know how big you feel? All you’re worried about is getting out, and she’s trying to give you this bit of chicken.”

Dimitris Tsiaousis, who later emigrated to Australia, ran supplies to the Anzacs hiding in the hills after they had been bypassed by the Germans.

The cost was prodigious – Tsiaousis lost his father, mother and two uncles to ruthless Nazi reprisals against partisans. Tragically, this was typical of the immense suffering.

About 25,000 Greeks were executed.

The Nazi occupiers stripped the farm land to feed their army. By 1945, 400,000 Greeks had starved to death.

From post-war political turmoil, came the thousands of Greek migrants to Australia. Some of them brought memories of the Anzacs in 1941.

Kevin Price was an anti-tank gunner who fought the first of the battles on the northern border of Greece.

He came home to East Malvern, to find the local fish and chip shop under new management – of a Greek family, who witnessed that battle near their village.

This Anzac Day, the heroism of the Greeks and the sacrifice of the Australians deserves recognition.

Saturday’s event, staged by the RSL Hellenic sub-branch, is a great start.

– Peter Ewer’s book, Forgotten Anzacs, will be launched at the Shrine of Remembrance on Thursday

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