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Where the Flaming Hell Are We?

The story of Young Australians and New Zealanders

fighting the Nazis in Greece and Crete

 

Craig Collie

Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2023

Paperback      384pp    RRP: $34.99

 

Reviewer: Robert Dixon, January 2024

           

This book covers in much detail the experiences of individual troops in the period from March 1941 when Australian and New Zealand forces were ferried from Egypt to (mainland) Greece all the way through to the evacuation from Crete in May 1941, leaving a large number of troops behind (this occurred after the earlier evacuation from mainland Greece as well as Crete). This happened despite earlier assurances given in person by Churchill to the Prime Ministers of Australia (Menzies) and New Zealand (Fraser) prior to the commencement of the campaign that, should the expedition fail, all the Australians and New Zealanders, with the possible exception of the wounded, would be evacuated. Clearly this did not happen. The Australian War Memorial estimates that about 39 percent of the Australian troops sent to Greece were either killed, wounded or became prisoners of war by the end of the campaign. Given that context, his book is a very welcome addition to the literature on the ANZACs at war, especially since this campaign has not attracted the attention it deserves.

I enjoyed reading this book, but only after I realised that it is not intended to be a conventional military history. Instead, it is an account of the experience of individual soldiers in Greece and Crete set against a background of the key events of the campaign. To my mind a military history includes, amongst other things, a (critical) discussion of alternative strategies and their costs, the final selection of the strategy to be adopted, the organisation and number of the forces (land sea and air) deemed necessary for success and the role and location of individual units at various stages of the campaign and the outcomes resulting from their actions. This book does not focus on these topics, for example there is next to no mention of the names of any units apart from the ‘Australian Special Wireless Section’ (a unit aimed to intercept, locate, and decrypt the radio communications of the enemy). However, while in my view the book is not a military history, it does succeed in bringing the campaign ‘to life’ and is a marvellous example of what might be called ‘social history’. While most of the book is devoted to first-hand accounts of the ANZACs in Greece and Crete, the author also devotes two chapters to the lives of the troops camped in Egypt prior to their move to Greece and a chapter to the experiences of the troops ‘left behind’. There is also a chapter on the responses of senior officers and politicians on the Allied side to the disaster together with a discussion of the impact of the number of German casualties upon Hitler’s view of the future use of paratroopers. As we know, after Crete they were mostly used as ground troops.

The choice of title is most interesting. Taken at face value the title might seem to suggest that the troops fighting in Greece and Crete were often unaware of their geographic location, that they were often ‘lost’. But that is not what the title is about. The words actually express the frustration felt by troops who, lacking any air cover, are repeatedly attacked by enemy aircraft who have the skies to themselves. Around half-way through the book it is revealed that the words are taken from a poem titled ‘Isle of Doom’ written by an Australian infantryman, Private Laurie Ryan who was in Greece at the time and was being constantly bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe. In the poem Ryan gives us his reaction to a radio broadcast he heard of a speech by Churchill in which ‘portly Winston’ asserted that the RAF is ‘fighting hard’ in Greece.

Ryan’s brilliant response reads in part: 

‘And when we heard the wireless news 

When portly Winston gave his views 

“The RAF” he said “in Greece 

Is fighting hard to bring us peace” 

And so we scratched our heads and thought 

This smells distinctly like a rort 

For if in Greece the Airforce be 

Then where the flaming hell are we?’ 

The book is very detailed and is clearly the result of much thought and considerable research. Although our attention is drawn to the first-hand accounts given by many of the individual troops involved, the extracts from letters and diaries blend in very well with the authors description of the unfolding of the campaign as a whole. That ‘blending’ is very difficult to achieve yet the author succeeds. It is this, and not the subject matter alone that makes this an outstanding book.

With its focus on the experiences of individual ANZAC soldiers in Greece and Crete, the book makes it very clear how chaotic much of the campaign was and how easily desertion and other behaviours will arise during a withdrawal with the breakdown of communications and discipline. For that reason alone I think this is a book that should be read by anyone who might find themselves leading troops in a battlefield.

I have a few, relatively minor criticisms. Writing about Stukas the author says that ‘Sirens, mounted on the leading edge of [their] wings, produced a piercing scream as the bomber dived …’ The sirens were not mounted on the leading edge of the wings (although Collie is not alone in asserting that they were), they were actually mounted on the leading edge of the fairing around the top of the fixed undercarriage legs of the Stuka.

There is a brief mention of war crimes perpetrated by German forces in Crete, but although a number of sites are mentioned including the massacres at Alikianos (aka Alikianou) and at Kandanos, there is no mention of the massacre at Kondomari which was the first of them and nor is there any mention of the German units involved. Was it just one ‘rogue unit’? Were the massacres carried out by units of the German Army as well as the Paratroopers?

On the back cover of the book is a paragraph about the German invasion of Crete which contains the words ‘As the Nazis assault the island, they deploy a devastating new weapon of invasion-paratroopers-for the very first time …’  This is a very odd statement. To begin with, the text of the book itself contradicts these words as the author spends a number of pages discussing the attempts by the Germans to use paratroopers to capture intact a bridge over the Corinth canal a month before the Battle of Crete began. It is also the case that a year earlier German paratroops played key roles in the campaigns in Western Europe, most notably in Norway and Belgium. It would be more accurate to say in relation to Crete that  ‘they deployed paratroopers en-masse, for the very first time.’ 

The book is printed in a very reader-friendly font. It has nine useful maps but in each case instead of identifying the specific units present at various locations we see the words ‘Australian Bn’ or ‘NZ Bn’. The book has an eight-page index but many things which I’d have thought should be indexed are not. For example, while the text mentions the names of a number of RAN ships involved at various stages of the campaign, only one RAN ship (the light cruiser HMAS Perth) appears in the index. Fortunately, there are 20 pages of very helpful notes and a fourteen-page bibliography, both reflecting the enormous amount to time devoted to researching a topic like this. The book also includes 48 black and white photos which, taken together, cover all of the campaign.

Craig Collie is the author of a number of books, including the highly acclaimed The Path of Infinite Sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track.  He is a TV producer-director by background and was head of TV Production at SBS.

 

 

The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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