We take a historical look at the beginnings of OXI Day in Australia

OXI day in Australia

We take a historical look at the beginnings of OXI Day in Australia, and how the first Greek Australians dealt with the onset of WWII in their adopted nation

OXI day in Australia

Greek Australians marching in the OXI Day parade in Australia.

Today marks the anniversary of OXI Day – a day celebrated throughout Greece, and by Greeks of the diaspora – to commemorate the rejection by Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas of the ultimatum made by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on October 28, 1940.

Below is an excerpt from Hugh Gilchrist’s historical book Australian’s and Greeks volume 3, in which he looks at the way Australia’s Greeks viewed and prepared for World War II and the Australian governments response to help.


The Greeks in Australia
Australia’s Greeks had watched events in Europe with increasing anxiety. Their attitude to the Metaxas regime, as might be expected, had been divided. Of their three newspapers, Panellinios Kiryx (Hellenic Herald) had initially denounced it as Fascist-inspired; Ethnikon Vima (National Tribune) had voiced mild criticism of it; Phos (Light) had given it enthusiastic support. Dr Vrysakis had claimed that Greece was enjoying paternal government; but Australia’s left-wing Greeks remained adamantly opposed to the regime.

Campaigns to raise funds to buy aircraft also divided Australia’s Greek communities. 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.

Virtually all of Australia’s Greeks, however, were from the outset supportive of Britain and the Allies. In January 1940, long before anyone imagined that Australian troops would be involved in Greece, Panellinios Kiryx enthusiastically applauded the spectacle of the AIF’s 16th Brigade parading through Sydney streets, preparatory to service overseas.

This warm pro-Allied sentiment among Australia’s Greeks did not at first receive due recognition from some of Australia’s less educated citizens. Insults were sometimes hurled at Greek shop-keepers in the mistaken belief that the latter were Italian; and in June 1940 Greek shop-keepers in Melbourne gathered outside the Greek Consulate, seeking protection of their shops from what were described as “a few irate young Australians”.

In a radio broadcast Dr Vrysakis appealed to Australians not to lump all southern Europeans together, but to consider every Greek as being well disposed towards Australia. “To prevent confusion”, he added, “my compatriots have formed a Greek-Australia League, whose object is to strengthen the ties between our two countries”.

The League, said to have been founded in Sydney in May 1940, issued placards to Greek shop-keepers, bearing the words: “This is a Greek Shop”; but it appears to have done little else, and soon faded.

When Greece declared war on Italy, public opinion in Australia changed overnight. 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.


The Commitment to Greece

Repulse of the Italian invasion produced a temporary euphoria in Greece, but it became increasingly clear that a German invasion of the Balkans, as a prelude to an invasion of southern Russia, would not be long delayed; as early as September 1940 Australian newspapers were predicting an invasion of the Balkans in the following spring. Metaxas faced two questions: could Britain provide enough military assistance to Greece in her war against Italy without provoking a German invasion?; and, in the event of a German invasion, could Britain act with enough strength to repel it?

Soon after Italy’s attack, the question of military aid to Greece began to exercise the mind of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He cabled Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in Cairo: “Greek situation must be held to dominate all others now. Aid to Greece must be attentively studied, lest the whole Turkish position is lost through proof that England never tries to keep her guarantees”. Eden doubted that enough troops or air cover could be spared from North Africa for a decisive effect on the Greek situation. Metaxas felt that an inadequate British force would serve no useful purpose. A British offer to send specialist and technical troops was declined.

At the end of January 1941 Metaxas died, after a short illness, leaving Greece with a weak and indecisive parliamentary government. Churchill, however, heartened by Allied victories in north Africa, instructed the Allied commander in the Middle East, General Wavell, that the defence of Greece must be given priority, despite doubt whether the Greek government would accept a British offer of a substantial fighting force.

At this juncture Australia’s Prime Minister, Robert Mcnzies, arrived in Cairo, primarily to inspect Australian troops in Egypt. Not until 10 February was he informed by Wavell of what was proposed for the defence of Greece. On 18 February Wavell briefed the Australian force commander, Lieutenant-General Blarney, on the proposed operation, involving at least one Australian division. But Blarney failed to inform the Australian government until 8 March. Possibly he assumed that Menzies had agreed to Wavell’s proposal; but from the outset Blarney doubted the operation’s prospect of success.

In London on 23 February Menzies was briefed by Churchill. At that time Eden and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, were in Cairo, about to confer with the new Greek government, led by the Athenian banker Alexander Koryzis, on the prospects of an Allied defence of Greece. Even at this stage, however, the Australian government had not been told that its troops were to be deployed in Greece.

In London Menzies – as he wrote many years later – made it clear that the case for intervention in Greece, at a time when the position in Egypt and Cyrenaica, though currently satisfactory, was in its nature precarious, must be established. Although my colleagues and I were willing to be bold, we also wanted to be as prudent as possible. We were not in a war of local defence, but in a world war, the chances of which might take us into strange places.

In Canberra there was resentment at the lack of earlier consultation. Army Minister Percy Spender later wrote:
In the early part of 1941, when plans were in the making to send aid to Greece, scant consideration seems to have been given by Churchill and his advisers to whether what they were planning would meet with the approval of the Australian government. So-called consultation between London and Australia, despite the exchange of many cables, was not full and complete.

Although still dogged by doubts, the Greek government on 23 February agreed to the proposed Allied force. Menzies had been persuaded to agree to the planned operation. The Dominions Office cabled Acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden, seeking the Australian government’s formal approval. Menzies cabled Fadden, setting out the pros and cons, and recommending agreement, albeit “with some anxiety”. Churchill informed Eden that there was “no need to anticipate difficulties” from either Australia or New Zealand.

When the Australian War Cabinet received the Dominions Office cable on 26 February it had still not heard from General Blarney. It had, however, accepted Wavell’s and Dill’s assessment that, although the operation involved some risk, it would, if successful, have valuable political results in the Balkans and Turkey, and even in the United States, whereas failure to fulfil the British commitment to aid Greece could produce an adverse political outcome.

With many misgivings, War Cabinet agreed to Australia’s participation, while seeking specific assurances that the Allied force would be equipped with maximum striking capability, and that, if the venture failed and evacuation of the force became necessary, adequate evacuation plans should have been made in advance.

Blarney had an opportunity to voice his doubts when summoned by Wavell and Dill to a conference on 6 March; but, as he wrote to Spender, his views were not sought: “I felt that I was receiving instructions”. Reporting the Greek army’s poor equipment and the probability of insufficient air cover, he told Spender that, in view of the disparity between the opposing forces in numbers and training, the operation would be extremely hazardous.

But his views reached the Australian Government too late for effective consideration. On 5 March British, Australian and New Zealand troops began embarking from Egypt for Greece.

* This excerpt was taken from the book Australians and Greeks: Volume III: The Later Years, by Hugh Gilchrist, published by Halstead Press.


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