On my final day in Athens, I paid a visit to the Phaleron War Cemetery. The cemetery is located in Alimos near the Port of Piraeus. Getting there was relatively easy – a half-hour tram ride from the city centre. Phaleron War Cemetery is the resting place for Commonwealth servicemen who died during the Second World War on mainland Greece. It also contains the Athens War Memorial. From the road, the cemetery seems unremarkable. Surrounded by high-rise apartments and fronted by a busy main road, it hardly seems like a peaceful resting place. Even the view to the port is obscured, amusingly by a local bar, although I got the feeling that many of the residents may have appreciated this view during their lifetimes.
However, once I passed through the cemetery gates, the noise from the road seemed to fade and it felt calm. Like most war cemeteries, the grounds are immaculately kept. There were two gardeners at work during my visit and wreaths from the recent ANZAC day service were still laid out. The Athens Memorial is a small but beautiful tribute. Made from Greek white marble and garden beds of bright red flowers are planted within it forming a striking contrast. There are six plinths upon which the names of the servicemen inscribed on both sides. 2029 soldiers are buried here including 215 New Zealanders and 172 Australians. Most of the fallen were moved here from various graves around mainland Greece after the war. The names of servicemen who died but whose remains were not recovered are remembered on the plinths.
One of those soldiers is Captain Harding Waipuke Leaf. Leaf was a larger than life character from the Ngapuhi people of Hokianga, New Zealand. I had read about him through my research and by most accounts he was well-liked with a tendency towards adventure and mischief. There are accounts of live crayfish being kept in his bathtub on the ship over to Europe, western bar style brawls and bravery in battle. Harding was with the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli. He survived the horrific battles at Chunuk Bair and was awarded the Military Cross. When the Second World War broke out some twenty years later, he enlisted again in the Maori Battalion. Such was his mana (earned prestige) amongst his people that he was considered a draw card for young Ngapuhi men to enlist. Leaf served during the defence of mainland Greece and was killed in action in Crete. He was 50 years old.
The campaigns of Greece and Crete were both disastrous. As with the Gallipoli campaign, the defence of Greece was noted as one of British Prime Minister Churchill’s failures and was highlighted for it’s high casualties of ANZAC soldiers. Churchill had responded to requests from the Greek government for protection against an Italian and German invasion. However, he was also motivated to unite Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey and, therefore, provide a Balkan defence for Russia. The Germans, however, viewed a Greek and Allied allegiance as a threat to their oil fields in nearby Romania and launched a swift invasion. The Allied defence was lacklustre due mostly to poor organisation, language difficulties and lack of resources such as artillery and vehicles. ANZAC troops fought a defence line to facilitate the massive retreat of over 50,000 troops to nearby Crete. In less than a month, Germany had captured Greece. ANZAC troops had sustained heavy losses and many were captured. 320 Australians were killed and 2,065 became prisoners of war. And more than 290 New Zealanders were killed and over 1,600 captured.
The graves of the ANZAC’s are to the left of the cemetery and the British to the very right. I strolled through the graves for an hour reading the epitaphs and paying my respects. Along my walk, I noticed a small area set aside for Indian servicemen. The Indian army served as part of the Commonwealth but stood alone as a fighting force. During the Second World War around 2.5 million Indian men served making it the largest ever volunteer army. Most were Sikh and Gurkha’s and earned themselves a fearful reputation as tough fighters. The Indian army fought for the British in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia. As per tradition, the remains of the men from this remarkable fighting unit were cremated before being laid to rest.
If you are ever in Athens, the Phaleron War Cemetery is worth a visit, to both appreciate the men who are here and to learn more about the history of Greece during this time.
Click here for information on Phaleron War Cemetery