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Remembering Palestine from Greece

  • 22 May 2018


A little more than 77 years ago, Allied forces fighting in northern Greece were speedily overwhelmed by German strength, and so forced to withdraw from the mainland.

The campaign was very brief: the Germans invaded on the 6 of April 1941, and the decision to evacuate the troops was made on 17 April. The Allies' main task thus became that of engaging in delaying tactics in order to ensure that the removal to Crete was as effective as possible: roads had to be kept clear, and ships readied and put in place.

Some thousands of men escaped from Megara, Corinth and Nafplion, but thousands also found themselves at the end of the trail, in the south-western Peloponnesian port of Kalamata, where ships were coming to take them off so that they could, it was hoped, live to fight another day.

The Allied forces included many Australians and New Zealanders, who fought bravely along the Kalamata beach: they lost the beach, won it back, and then lost it again during the 28 and 29 April. Although approximately 9000 men got away, it has been calculated that about 8000 were taken prisoner. They were marched up the main street of Kalamata while the locals defied German rifle butts to cheer them and wish them well.

In these days of spring sunshine and early tourists, it is hard to imagine the battle, but for years now there has been a wreath-laying ceremony at a small memorial close to the waterfront. The dedication on the short marble column remembers those who fell or were taken prisoner, and those who escaped 'to fight again for the world to be free'. The flags of Greece, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are hoisted for these occasions, and in the past veterans from each country's services attended. Now their descendants come to represent them.

The service conforms to a set pattern. Kalamata's mayor and other dignitaries attend, as does the Bishop of Messenia and the vicar of St Paul's Anglican Church, Athens, along with an interpreter. National servicemen stand in serried rows.

There are prayers and readings followed by a recitation in English of the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen': 'They shall not grow old ...' Wreaths are laid by the representatives of the Allied countries, and by the veterans' descendants. Kalamata's brass band plays the national anthems, and the young soldiers sing the Greek one with great enthusiasm.


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