Australia’s media on the outbreak of the Greco-Italian War
On the morning of Monday 28 October, 1940, The Daily News in Perth ran this headline on their front page “Greece at war with Italy“. “Greece is at war with Italy” the report started. “An official statement issued in London stated that Greece has rejected an ultimatum delivered by Italy at 3 am demanding the cession of certain strategic points in Greece. Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas announced that he regarded the ultimatum as a declaration of war.”
And the rest -as they say- is history. But to Greeks, this chapter of Greek history is steeped in pride, resolution, tenacity and courage. It was a time when Greece literally said ‘no’ to an invasion, and subsequently, ‘yes’ to war.
General Metaxas– who came to power after staging a coup on 4 August 1936 – had just three hours to reply to Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. In the early morning hours of 28 October, 1940, Metaxas rejected the ultimatum from the fascist dictator and rumour has it that he replied with a single word: “OXI!” – meaning “NO!”, marking the beginning of the Balkan campaign of World War II. Italian forces invaded Greece, the Greek army counterattacked and forced the Italians to retreat.
In 1940, newspapers all over Australia were dominated by the happenings of World War II. ‘Germany’, ‘Hitler’, ‘Allies’, ‘war’, ‘British army’, ‘troops’ were words that were splashed on the front pages of newspapers from Adelaide to Cairns. That year, the war may have been physically far from Australians, but it was incredibly close to home emotionally. Soldiers from Australia were leaving to fight with the allies, people had loved ones still living in Europe, all affected by the war, and – at the time – Greeks living in Australia were turning to the Australian media for news on their homeland and the men who were fighting.
From Monday 28 October, 1940, and throughout the week, Greece’s involvement and the Balkan campaign dominated the war reports, with the Greek war campaign often appearing on front pages all over Australia.
One of the reasons Greek reports were so prominent was the determination in which the Greeks fought. Though Italians outnumbered them by more than two-to-one, the Greeks astonished the Italian generals with their courage, their strategic knowledge, their tenacity and their artillery’s precision. Greek forces had six mortars for each division against the invader’s sixty. Greeks were outnumbered and under resourced, yet drove the Italian forces back deep into Albania.
Greece’s victory provided a rallying cry for the demoralised British and other European nations in their war against Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the axis powers. It gave Australia and the allies the boost they needed in the war – and that made headlines.
Greek soldiers were often reported in Australian media as courageous, with headlines such as “Greek lines unbroken”, as appeared on the front cover of The Courier Mail, in Brisbane, on Thursday 31 October, 1940. This report came with the subhead “Italy claims successes”. They were an assertion that the Greeks were standing strong and defending their borders through a mountain attack and that the Italian’s were ‘claiming’ victory.
According to the Australian media, the Italians were liars and the Greeks were strong. The rhetoric of the language used in this report was overwhelming in its support of the Greek army. But so too were many reports of the time. They were anti-Hitler, and incredibly supportive of the Allies.
The first line in the article begins by calling the Italian soldiers ‘invaders’. “The invaders claim to have secured further local successes, but the Greek authorities insist that the Greek lines are unbroken.”
This style of reporting is echoed in an article entitled “Greek fighting resolutely” in the Northern Times, dated Thursday 31 October, 1940. “Lines unbroken” was in bold as the subhead of the article.
But the report itself couldn’t confirm what was actually happening in Greece with the third subhead stating “situation obscure”. It says communication received from Italy was that they had not launched their main attack and were claiming success, whereas at the same time, Greece was stating that their lines were unbroken. By looking at the heading you would assume that Greece was successful against the Italians yet the content of the article states that no one could confirm either way what was going on. The reporting again portrays the Greeks as strong soldiers who are defending their lines. The title “Greeks fighting resolutely” sums up the steadfast nature displayed by the outnumbered Greek soldiers.
A page five article in Western Australian newspaper Kalgoorlie Miner, dated Thursday 31 October, 1940, re-emphasises the Greek determination of the time. The report, entitled “Greek Patriotism” consists of just two sentences – but two sentences that define the sheer determination of the Greek race, and an Anglo description of soldiers in foustanellas. “A flood of telegrams from Crete and all parts of Greece has assured General Metaxas of the people’s determination to fight to the death.” “Greece’s kilted troops are in action against the Italians.”
The British involvement and the assistance they provided the Greek army was peppered throughout many reports to localise the content for the Australian readers, many of which at the time in Australia were of British descent. Queensland newspaper Worker ran with this headline on Tuesday 29 October, 1940 “British aiding Greeks to resist Italian invasion”. The article went on to describe the developments with Greece’s involvement in the war, which were dramatically changing not daily, but hourly. “Within six hours the British fleet had occupied the vitally strategic island of Crete and also a small island with an aerodrome off Corfu. British and Italian ships clashed within a few hours off Corfu. Every help without reservation will be given by Britain to Greece.” Yet, in the eleven paragraphed article, there was no mention at all of the Greek troops, until the seventh paragraph which only mentions that the “Greek fleet has been assembled at Salonika”.
One of the more interesting articles at the time was found on the front page of The Canberra Times on Wednesday 30 October, 1940. “World reactions to war on Greece” was the title, and following was a blow-by-blow account of how different countries reacted to the situation in Greece. The first country to have their say was the Commonwealth’s Canada, who said they would “gladly accord whatever assistance may be within their power to Greece”. The United States followed by stating they would also support Greece in this campaign. Russia was next stating that their communication relating to the situation in Greece was done in consultation with Greek, British and American forces. Australia’s comments on how they reacted to the war in Greece was to show their support for the British army engaging in the battle.
This is where it gets interesting – Japan, part of the axis powers of the time. The Japanese army said that while they were under an obligation to help Italy, the country should maintain a “calm attitude”. But one Japanese newspaper The Asahi, goes a step further to belittle Greece with this comment: “Greece does not retain a trace of ancient Greece’s greatness and her end is forgone without the aid of Germany and Japan.”
Reports from Egypt stated that the Greeks throughout Egypt – which at the time stood at over 100,000 – had organised a 20,000 strong army and were at the time unsure if they would travel to Greece or fight alongside Britain in Egypt. “Greeks in Egypt were carried away by news of the Athens air raids alarm and crowded onto balconies shouting ‘Long live the King; Long live Metaxas; Down with Italy”, ended Egypt comments.
Turkey begins their comments by stating that they hadn’t been officially requested for help from Greece. Even though the country at the time was busy preparing for their 17th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, the Turkish government made this chilling statement: “We are passing through a test of fate demanding clear hearts, strong confidence and complete cooperation to death. “We prefer the hell of war to dishonourable peace.”
– By Penni Pappas