Gallipoli 2002
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Gallipoli 2002

This is the story of a personal quest. It is the story of a son's search for knowledge of his father. But more than that, it is also a story of interconnecting circles linking Turkey, Ancient Greece, and two generations of Australians who answered the call to arms.

I have been invited to give a paper at an Australian History conference entitled "War and Peace" at Gallipoli in September this year. This invitation has given me a unique opportunity to make my own journey to the conference a historical event. It gives me the chance to trace my father's escape from Greece to Turkey in 1941. My father, NX1755 Corporal Leonard Irvine, was a soldier in a unit that was part of the Australian rearguard action in Greece in April 1941. These Australians, facing overwhelming odds, were forced to sacrifice themselves to the cause of delaying the German invasion long enough to allow other Australians to leave Greece and regroup elsewhere. After my father's unit was overrun, he was missing in action for four months. During that time some remarkably courageous Greek civilians managed to shelter him from the Germans and transport him from island to island across the Aegean Sea to neutral Turkey.

My own war service was in Vietnam in 1967-68. Like my father I served in an infantry battalion. My paper at the conference will add an Australian dimension to a new trend in Vietnam War history. A small but growing number of historians in the United States are finding links between the Vietnam War and Ancient Greece. To my knowledge I am the only Australian working in this area. The exact nature of my paper cannot be disclosed here, because it is the subject of a book I am writing, and it is an idea that will be given its first public airing at the Gallipoli conference.

When my father was alive he never spoke about his wartime experiences. I know about his escape from Greece because it is the subject of a paragraph in Australia's official Second World War history, written by Gavin Long. It appears on page 188 of the volume on Greece, Crete and Syria. My father was awarded a "Mentioned In Despatches", the lowest grade of decoration for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. When asked directly what this award was given for, he would play down his heroics in Greece, like a typical Australian digger. Instead, he would claim that when his battalion was regrouping in Palestine, he was put in charge of a latrine-digging detail, and they dug the best latrines in the Middle East!

The day after Anzac Day 2001, I visited the research centre of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. If Gavin Long was able to write about my father, then he must have had a source for his information, and the AWM research centre was the logical place to find it. To my stunned delight, I found the original letter, in my father's own handwriting, that he wrote to a senior officer in August 1941, outlining the details of his Greek adventure. It was necessary for all escapers from Greece to write letters of this kind, because information they had gathered on their travels was vital to Allied intelligence. Here is the full text of my fathers letter:

Dear Sir,

A brief account by NX1755 Cpl. L.J. Irvine of the escape of my party from Greece.

After the 2/2 Bn. was broken up, I, with a few others, found ourselves completely cut off from retreating towards Larissa, so we took to the hills and made for the coast. The battle took place on 18/4/41. We struck the coast at a small village called Koritza on 21/4/41. We rested for a day and then pushed on, making for Volos, crossing the Larissa plain that night. We passed through an enemy tank patrol that had come from Aya to cut off the escaping troops. Next morning the Germans followed our tracks along the beach but we evaded them. Enemy planes patrolled the coast all day and made it difficult to move. We reached a small village near Zogara, called Poiri, 25/4/41, where we learned the whole of Greece was taken. We waited a few days in the hope of getting a boat, eventually setting out on 30/4/41 to walk around Salonika and into Turkey.

Two days later we met a Greek who tried to advise us against our plan, but when he saw we were determined, he asked us to wait a few days and he would get a boat for us, that would take us to one of the islands, where we would be passed on, and eventually reach Turkey. We waited, and he did get us a boat which took us to Skiathos, on the night of 11/5/41. Skiathos was then occupied, so the people hid us until nightfall, when we were put in a small boat and taken to Skopelos, passing quite close to a German patrol boat on the way. Skopelos also was occupied by Germans but we were hidden by the Greeks. It was impossible to get a boat away for some time, the islands were constantly patrolled, both by sea and air, and benzine and oil was unprocurable, and all the serviceable boats were commandeered to take Germans to Crete.

Eventually we got in touch with a chap who had a letter from the British Consulate in Turkey, we were trying to contact him for some time. He took us to the island of Helonossis on 27/7/41, where we caught a larger boat on 31/7/41, which took us to Skyros, from Skyros to Chesme, 2/8/41, on the Turkish coast, where we were quarantined for 10 days. The Consul got to work in the meantime and arranged for our transportation through Ankara to Syria, and thence to Palestine. We went to Corps H.Q. at Alex, who sent us on here.

My party consisted of: Pte. Murphy, 2/2 Bn.; Pte. Edwards, 2/2 Bn.; Pte. Robb, 21st Bn. N.Z.E.F.

Cpl. NX1755 Irvine, L.J., H.Q.Coy, 2/2 Bn., A.I.F.

My father faced the invading Germans at Tempe Gorge, in the foothills of Mount Olympus. This was the very same battlefield on which the Ancient Greeks had faced the invading Persian Army centuries earlier. Gavin Long's volume on Greece, Crete and Syria contains a sketch made by an Australian officer, which shows that the Australians had a contingency plan, if necessary, to withdraw to Thermopylae for a final stand, just as the Spartans had done in the famous battle in 480 B.C. The similarities between the Persian and German invasions are the subject of an article entitled "Nochmals Thermopylae 480 BC - AD 1941 Parallels: Topographical & Tactical", by George J. Szemler and W.J. Cherf, in "Text and Tradition: Studies in Greek History & Historiography in Honor of Mortimer Chambers", (Regina Books, Claremont, California, 1999).

It is this link between my father's experience and the battles of Ancient Greece, and the series of connections it makes, that gives a deeper meaning to my quest to trace his footsteps, and ensures that it is so much more than just a son's search for knowledge of his father. I will be in Turkey, giving a paper which connects my own war service with Ancient Greece. I will be travelling to Greece, where my father's war service connects him with Ancient Greece, and took him on a journey to Turkey. There is a series of connections here: myself; Australian war service; Turkey; Ancient Greece; my father; Australian war service; Ancient Greece; Turkey. It is a circle of connections that will only be completed when I make this trip to Gallipoli.

I am indebted to the Australian War Memorial for their assistance in finding information about my father. To visit their website, click on the following link:

Australian War Memorial

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