New Zealand troops arrive in Greece

7 March 1941

New Zealand soldiers welcomed in Athens
New Zealand soldiers welcomed in Athens (Alexander Turnbull Library, DA-10632)

The Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s first campaign was to end in dispiriting defeat.

British forces were first sent to Greece in November 1940, following an unsuccessful Italian invasion the previous month. Four months later, elements of 2 New Zealand Division travelled from Egypt alongside their counterparts in British and Australian divisions in six ‘flights’ (convoys) that arrived in Greece between 7 March and 3 April. ‘W Force’, named for its commander, the British General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, was organised and despatched so rapidly that even senior officers in the first flight were not told of their destination until they were crossing the Mediterranean.

The New Zealanders quickly moved north to the Aliakmon Line, a naturally strong but unprepared defensive system between the Gulf of Salonika and the Yugoslav border. On 6 April German forces invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece, dramatically changing the strategic situation. The Aliakmon Line was soon outflanked.

On 11 April troops of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion were captured at Klidhi Pass – the first members of 2 New Zealand Division to be taken as prisoners of war. A German breakthrough the following day forced the British and their Greek allies to abandon the Mt Olympus–Aliakmon line. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Allies retreated hurriedly down the peninsula.

At the end of April more than 50,000 troops were evacuated, with many of them sent to garrison the island of Crete. By the end of the brief Greek campaign, nearly 300 New Zealanders had been killed and more than 1800 taken prisoner.

Jack Hinton won the New Zealand Division’s first Victoria Cross of the war for his actions at Kalamata, where he captured two German field guns and stormed two strongpoints before being taken prisoner.