Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Diggers and Greeks

 The Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete


Maria Hill


 Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2011

Hardcover. xvi-479 pp. ISBN 9781742230146. $(Aus)59.95


Reviewed by Augustine Meaher

Department of Political and Strategic Studies, Baltic Defence College, Tartu (Estonia)



Maria Hill has correctly identified the Australian campaigns in Greece and Crete as being largely overlooked in Australia’s Second World War history. Hill attempts to correct this oversight by examining civil-military relations between the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and Greek civilians. Diggers and Greeks: The Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete is well illustrated with excellent maps and pictures, and it presents an engaging but overstated argument. The book is at its best when dealing with Australian-Greek interaction [127-194 & 262-373], and if the University of New South Wales Press had insisted on a more focused and economical book, Hill would have succeeded in producing an excellent one-volume analysis of the Australian role in the Greek campaign. Instead, Hill produced an unnecessarily long work that is excellent and insightful in places and seriously flawed in others.


Hill transformed her PhD thesis into a monograph but was unable to decide if she was producing an academic or popular history, and the result is a disappointing mixture. Her work retains many unnecessary PhD legacies such as conclusions at the end of each chapter and long block quotes from secondary sources. She also fails to place Greece in the Second World War into a European or global context, and thus makes sweeping and often unsupportable claims that reflect poorly on a good scholar. These would not be an issue if Hill had focused strictly on Greco-Australian civil-military relations, but she is determined to argue not only that the Greek campaign has been overlooked—which it has—but also that it was a major campaign of the war, which it most certainly was not.


Hill’s belief that the Greek campaign was a major event in the war is only possible if one ignores that the campaign was actually very short and that Greece was never strategically important to Great Britain. Ironically, Greece’s lack of strategic importance actually explains many of the flaws in the campaign that Hill unsuccessfully explains by resorting to questionable secondary sources such as David Day’s Menzies and Churchill at War. Hill fails to appreciate that the Mediterranean had been a French responsibility in pre-war planning, and that this, rather than cultural insensitivity or political intrigue, explains Britain’s lack of adequate information about Greece and the Greek military. Hill is all too quick to fall into the Australian habit of blaming Churchill for virtually everything that went wrong with the campaign, while the Greek government is portrayed as blameless, if largely incompetent. Hill also displays a shocking lack of knowledge about the limitations Australia accepted by opting out of the Statute of Westminster, which is essential to understanding the conduct of Australian foreign and defence policy prior to 1943.


Once Hill delves into Greco-Australian civil-military relations, however, Diggers and Greeks becomes a valuable source for future historians. She reveals that larrikinism was a key aspect of Australian life, and that Australian conduct in Greece was very different from Australian conduct in Egypt. Her argument that “The relationship that emerged between Australian soldiers and [Greek] civilians during the war was warm, sincere and enduring” [187] is well founded and helps to explain post-war Greco–Australian relations, especially the reception of Greek migrants in post-war Australia. Even more important is Hill’s discovery that “Australians were able to harness the goodwill of the Greek people because of the respect they had shown for Greek values and customs” [383]. This discovery provides a valuable insight into the Greek campaign, and Hill has collated excellent examples of civil-military relations in the field and their importance in military operations.


Yet, even when discussing civil-military relations in the field, Hill is prone to sweeping generalisations about how little the suffering of Greeks is acknowledged in the English literature. There are actually many books on the subject, most notably Hondros’ Occupation and Resistance: The Greek Agony, Hionidou’s Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, and Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece, but Hill only consulted the last of these. Such generalisations are expected in popular history, but in an academic history—which this book claims to and should be—they are inappropriate. They would have been avoided if Hill had shown a deeper knowledge of the Mediterranean theatre and the Second World War. Hill’s failure to consult Douglas Porch’s Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble is difficult to fathom. Porch’s arguments must be considered in any serious work on the Mediterranean theatre.


Despite its many flaws, Diggers and Greeks provides an excellent insight into the conduct of Australian servicemen in Greece and how they interacted with Greek civilians. Maria Hill correctly indentified the Greek campaign as one needing further research. Diggers and Greeks offers a valuable insight into the role of Australians in Greece, and numerous vignettes detailing one of the many campaigns in the Mediterranean. However, it is not the one-volume history of the Greek campaign that Hill correctly states we need. Future historians will have to place Hill’s arguments and evidence into the broader Mediterranean and Second World War story. She has provided a wealth of interesting examples that will enrich their work and ensure that Greek civilians are not excluded from accounts of the Greek and Cretan campaigns.



Cercles © 2011
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.