The Battles for Greece and Crete – a personal tragedy

Friday, 28 May 2021

'Reported missing'. For the Mann family, these dreaded words were the beginning of an agonizing wait to know the fate of their sons. What emerged was a story of heroism and tragedy on the sea.

2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the Battles for Greece and Crete, fought in April and May 1941. Of the approximately 17,000 Australian military personnel deployed to defend Greece and Crete against the German invasion, some 39% were killed, injured or captured.

This military disaster was also a personal tragedy for many Australian families, including that of Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir Frederick Mann and his wife Adeline. Both their sons – Lieutenant William ("Bill") Mann and Lieutenant James ("Jim") Mann – were reported missing a week apart.

Bill was eventually confirmed to be a POW, having been wounded and captured by the Germans during a fierce battle at the bridge over the Corinth Canal. However there was no official word about Jim. A barrister and former Rhodes Scholar, Jim had been serving with the 2/3 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment at Heraklion on Crete.

Seeking answers

In late August, the Defence Department received a report via the Greek Red Cross that Jim was dead. The Censorship Department also intercepted a letter from an Australian POW in Italy which mentioned that Jim had drowned at sea in late May during the evacuation from Crete. Defence considered these reports as 'valueless as confirmation of death' and the Mann family was not notified.

Meanwhile, Sir Frederick used his connections to find out more about Jim's fate. He telegraphed former prime minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was now Australia's High Commissioner in London. As a result, Sir Frederick was finally notified about the reports of Jim's death, with the caveat that the military did not regard them as authentic. Adding to the confusion, other reports suggested that Jim was actually a POW.

A heroic sacrifice

It was only in late 1941 that the Mann family received confirmation via the Red Cross that Jim had indeed perished at sea – in heroic circumstances. These were revealed in eyewitness accounts sent to Sir Frederick.

When the British Royal Navy evacuated Heraklion on 29 May 1941, Jim had managed to get aboard the HMS Hereward. Later the same day, the Hereward was attacked by German dive bombers. After the ship was abandoned, Jim was seen swimming from raft to raft assisting as many people as he could. He even gave up his own position on a buoy to another exhausted soldier, and refused to join two other soldiers clinging to a chair because he thought it would not hold them all. Jim was last seen drifting away in heavy seas. His body was never recovered.

The emotional rollercoaster that the Mann family, and others like them, must have experienced in the months after the Battles for Greece and Crete was expressed in The Australasian by a writer who knew Jim Mann personally:

We have hoped and prayed that many of those reported missing may be found and have rejoiced when word has come through in a short official notification, 'Prisoner of War' or 'Rejoined Unit', that another of our men was safe. Or, after a long period of waiting, came the final announcement that all hope had been abandoned …

Jim's brother Bill spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Germany, finally making it home to his family in late 1945. Though he went on to be a successful farmer, the legacy of the battles he fought remained with him for the rest of his life.

Bill and Jim Mann's records are just two of over a million World War II service records in the National Archives' collection. We're digitising these records over the next few years to make them easily available to all Australians.

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