When Greece said No

first_img‘Italian attack launched on Greece follows rejection of ultimatum’, the headline read.“Greece and Italy are at war. It is reported from Belgrade that Italian troops have entered Greece at many points from Albania and that an Italian naval force is attacking the Greek island of Corfu. A message from Sofía confirms other reports that fighting has broken out on the Greco-Albanian frontier. Some messages say that 200,000 Italians are taking part in the first onslaught.”With this cover page story, Melbourne newspaper The Argus was published on Tuesday 29 October 1940. Miles away, on the European frontier of World War II, fighting had began after the Greek Cabinet, under General Metaxas, rejected an Italian ultimatum. At 3.00 am on the morning of Monday 28 October, 1940, Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador to Greece, delivered an ultimatum from Benito Mussolini to Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas. Il Duce demanded that Metaxas allow the Italian army free passage to enter and occupy strategic sites in Greece unopposed. Metaxas delivered an unequivocal response in French – “Alors, c’est la guerre”.The brief phrase, ‘Then, it is war’, was quickly turned into the laconic ‘Oxi’ – the Greek for no – by the citizens of Athens. Before the ultimatum had even expired, at 5.30 am the Italian army poured over the Greek-Albanian border into the Pindos region of Northern Greece, where they met unexpected resistance.Within six months, the Germans would raise the swastika over the Acropolis. Despite Greece’s ultimate fall to Axis powers, Metaxas’ response resulted in a fatal diversion and delay for the Axis powers.Oxi Day to this day remains a source of pride and admiration for Greek people.But how did the Australian media of the time portray the Italian attack on Greece, and more so the courageous and crucial ‘No’ of the Greek people? With a significant Greek diaspora scattered all around the continent – that according to media reports of the time counted over 16,000 Greeks – it was the Australian media that brought to Greek expatriates news about the events in their homeland. Newspapers were saturated with the events from the fronts of World War II, and in the week preceding 28 October words like ‘Greece’, ‘Italy’, ‘Albanian border’ had prevailed after the conflict on the Albanian-Greek border, allegedly initiated by Greek soldiers. The weeks that followed brought Greece to the cover pages of almost all Australian press. From Hobart to Darwin, from Perth to Brisbane, cover pages of the biggest newspapers in all states had Greece in their headlines:The Argus, Melbourne, 29 October 1940:Italian attack launched on Greece follows rejection of ultimatum – Troops cross frontier, navy shells Corfu – Metaxas seeks British helpDaily News, Perth, 28 October:Greece at war with ItalyThe News, Adelaide, 29 October:Battle Rages on Albanian border – 200,000 Italians in land attack – Bombs on AthensThe Examiner, Launceston, 30 October:Greece in the war – King of Greece assumes army leadership – People courageously accept warThe Courier Mail, Brisbane, 29 October:Italian troops march into Greece – Naval clash off Corfu reported – Aid from BritainMussolini’s advisors had assured him that the invasion of Greece would take no more than two weeks – Greece was a small country with a correspondingly small army. This, however, failed to happen. Immediately after it had been announced that Greece had rejected the ultimatum, the Greek government appealed to the British government for assistance, in accordance with the British government’s undertaking of April 17 that if any action was taken that threatened Greek independence it would feel bound to lend all the support in its power.Having entered the war in 1939 after the invasion of Poland, and against Italy and Germany, as part of the British Commonwealth war effort Australia had come under attack for the first time in its post-colonial history.The British involvement and the aid it provided for Greece served as a way to localise the content for the Australian readers. The rhetoric and the language throughout the press was in favour of Greece and the ‘courageous’ Greek people: ‘Greece forced into war’, ‘Italy invades Greece’, ‘Axis strikes at Greece’, ‘stubborn Greek fighters’, ‘unbroken Greek lines’, ‘Greeks fight grimly’.On page 6 of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, on 31 October, Greek soldiers are praised for their fierce resistance while the Italian success was minimised.“Memories of the campaigns in Norway, Holland and Belgium should warn the public against easy optimism based on the early fighting on the Greek Albanian border. Although the Italians may have advanced at some points, the weight of evidence is that the Greeks are resisting fiercely and, on the whole successfully.” On page 5 of the Queensland Times, on 29 October, in the article entitled ‘Will Fight to Death’, says Metaxas, Italians are described as ‘invaders’. The message from the King to King George of Greece appeared in its entirety in almost all newspapers – amongst those, on the cover page of Adelaide paper The News. “In this hour of Greece’s need, I wish to say this to the heroic Greek nation and to my cousin George, King of the Hellenes: we are with you in this struggle; your cause is our cause. We are fighting against a common foe […] Long live Greece and her leaders. Long live the King of the Hellenes.”Launceston’s Examiner, on the cover page dated 30 October, re-emphasises the courage and determination of Greek people, supported by the writing of the British The Times.“The Greek population has accepted the situation courageously and in Egypt organisation of an army of 20,000 Greeks has begun. In the midst of attacks by land and air the behaviour of crowds in Greek cities has reflected the confidence with which the Italian challenge has been accepted. The Times’ Athens correspondent says the Greeks are meeting the war with a smile, but the smile has a twist of anger. Greece has the sympathy and moral support of the civilised world, which has revolted at the spectacle of yet another crime against small nations.”The support of the Australian press for the Greeks is evident on page 2 of the Goulburn Evening Post, 29 October, with the use of explicit and clear-cut language.“There is no excuse for the attack on Greece, and it is the fervent hope of all lovers of liberty that the Italians will suffer bitterly for the attack,” it wrote.Interestingly enough, not rare are the articles that through magnifying the Greek past and history attempted to give more credibility to their unequivocal support of Greece in war.“The first democracy was born in battle. The strong, proud people who in the fifth century BC routed the armies and navies of Darius and Xerxes at Marathon and Salamis created in the world a new kind of government while their strength and pride in victory were fresh and powerful,” page 7 of Daily News, Perth, read. Or The Sydney Morning Herald:“The Independence of Greece for which Byron gave his life and Britain fought one of history’s most decisive naval battles, once again becomes a cause enlisting the support and intervention of the British people.”Greek Community and warIn his historical book Australians and Greeks, volume III, Hugh Gilchrist looked at the way Australia’s Greeks viewed and prepared for World War II.“Australia’s Greeks had watched events in Europe with increasing anxiety. Their attitude to the Metaxas regime, as might be expected, had been divided,” Gilchrist wrote.Campaigns to raise funds to buy aircraft also divided Australia’s Greek communities. However, the majority of Australia’s Greeks were supportive of Britain and the Allies. “A fund in aid of the Greek air force, backed by Greece’s Consuls, by the Greek Orthodox Archbishop and by Phos, but opposed by the Greek Left, raised about £800 (to which Antony Lucas, Greece’s Consul in Melbourne, contributed £500). Another fund, launched in Sydney by Ethnikon Vima, had by October 1939 raised about £2,555 in aid of the Royal Australian Air Force.”When Greece declared war on Italy, public opinion in Australia changed overnight, noted Gilchrist. “The mainstream press, until then equivocal about the Metaxas regime, warmly praised Greece’s resistance to Italian aggression; and, when Australian troops in North Africa defeated an Italian army in February 1941, Greeks and Australians felt united in a common cause.” With many of the meeting minutes of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria dated to 1940 missing, not much was said about the crucial October day. While unfortunately there is no direct reference to the events of the 28 October 1940, on 3 November 1940 it was noted that ‘a service was held at the Community’s church The Annunciation of Our Lady. Prayers were recited for the success of both Greeks and Allies in the War. After the service the parishioners marched to the Shrine of Remembrance and placed a wreath’.On 26 November 1940, ‘Greek funding opened’, for the support of the Greek war efforts under the auspices of the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne Cr Frank Beaurepaire and the Greek Consul, A.J.J. Lucas. Earlier that year, on 9 July 1940, the community meeting minutes recorded that ‘over 100 Greek shop owners of Victoria contributed their day’s takings to the war effort’.While the invasion of Greece was making the cover pages of the Australian press, articles were written about Greek communities around Australia willing to go back and fight for their homeland. On 30 October 1940, Cairns Post wrote:“Greeks in Sydney tonight held parties to express relief that the uncertainties of the last month had ended. They were, however, not unmindful of the situation, especially as many of them have relatives in Greece. At the Athenian Club, the meeting place of the Greek community, the customary pastimes were suspended whenever a news bulletin was broadcast. When the first announcement was made that Greece was at war, a group of young members at the club shouted “Zito O Polemos” (“Hurrah for the War”) and drank a toast to General Metaxas and Britain.”On the same day, Brisbane’s Courier Mail ran an article with headline ‘Greeks here keen to fight at home’. “Many Greeks in Queensland offered yesterday to return to Greece to fight with the army. After the first batch of inquiries had reached him the Consul for Greece in Queensland (Mr Christy Freeleagus) sent the following telegram to the Royal Consul-General for Greece (Mr E. Vrisakis) in Sydney: ‘Several of our countrymen have expressed to me their wish to return to Greece and join the colours. Please advise instructions.’ He received this reply in the afternoon: ‘Please express on behalf of the Royal Greek government congratulations to Greeks offering to enlist and ask them to await instructions.’ Mr Freeleagus said that the war activities of the 3,000 Greeks in Queensland, which included 600 in Brisbane, would depend on the arrangements made between Greece, Britain, and Australia.”The article continued to say that every member of the Greek community on the North Coast was ‘delighted and proud’ when the news of Greece’s decision to resist the Italian demands was announced.Mr A. Crethar, a prominent Greek businessman of Lismore, was quoted as saying that “every Greek would do everything possible to assist in hastening the victory which all knew would come. A conference of Greeks on the North Coast would be held, to discuss what practical assistance could be given to relieve distress caused by bombing, and to plan other means of helping the mother country”.In the article ‘Greeks in Sydney – Expression of Relief’, published on 30 October at Townsville Day Bulletin, it was noted that there were 16,000 Greeks in Australia, 8,000 of them in Queensland. Enthusiastic about the strengths of Greek soldiers and their discipline, the article went on to say that Greece had the largest merchant fleet in the Mediterranean and one of the largest in the world, and that there were 1,000,000 Greeks in Egypt.*Sources: Australians and Greeks: Volume III: The Later Years, by Hugh Gilchrist, published by Halstead Press; Victoria Lord – The Ultimate History Project; Trove – National Library of Australia. Facebook Twitter: @NeosKosmos Instagramlast_img read more