‘Right thing to do’: 100-year-old Les Cook on fighting in Battle of Crete and Greek Campaign

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*Les Cook speaks to The Greek Herald’s Giorgos Psomiadis, with the help of Rania Kalimeris.

100-year-old Leslie Cook is a true ANZAC who fought against Nazi troops in the Battle of Crete during World War II. He’s also served in a number of other different places around the world, including in North Africa, Syria, New Guinea, Australia, and Japan. To this day, despite his age, Mr Cook remembers with remarkable accuracy some of the most impressive details of the past.

“It wasn’t a choice [to go to war]. It was our responsibility to go. We were volunteers. When I enlisted, my manager in his farewell speech to me used the word ‘courage.’ It would have taken more courage on my part not to have gone because it was the right thing to do,” he tells The Greek Herald.

Leslie was born on 10 January 1923 in Aston Ingham, Herefordshire, England. He came out to Australia at the age of two and lived on a dairy farm in Gippsland, Victoria until the age of 14. He was enlisted at 17 in the 2nd AIF on May 1940 and joined the 2/14th AIF Battalion. With his first post being a signaller, he was sent to the Middle East. At the time, former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent troops from Alexandria to Greece.

Australian Troops at the Parthenon

“We landed in the Port of Piraeus on the 24th March 1941. Stayed in Athens a few days and then went up north as the Germans come down into Greece,” Leslie remembers.

Les, who during the war paid five shillings a day and was supplied with clothes and free travel, joined the Greek 12th Division, the 6th Australian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division (ANZACS). He went from Verria Pass to the Corinth Canal mainly via train and trucks.

“With the truck convoys, the Germans would try to break into the convoy and change the destination of the trucks. The windscreen of our trucks was double and one was smashed and a machine gun positioned so as to be able to shoot any intruder. Also, farmers would plough their fields and show where our position was with the way they tilled the land,” he says.

NZ officer Bernard Freyburg was commander of the Battle of Crete. Leslie says there were little arms and ammunition, Greek weapons were very basic, while Germans controlled the air completely.

“We were on our way home and Churchill wanted to send us back to Burma. The then-Australian Prime Minister John Curtin said no and brought us home,” Leslie says.

Greek wagons taking parts to build a bridge over a river.

The 101-year-old can remember the moment when, on the day of Hitler’s 52nd birthday, a plane wrote the number in the sky over Greece.

“We looked up and saw a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane with vapours coming out the back. We thought it was gas. We had been trained and had gas masks. We were trained to expect gas. We ran for our gas masks and it turned out to be a loyal member of the third Reich. The plane proceeded to climb up high and write the figure 52 in smoke in the sky. It was Hitler’s birthday,” Leslie explains.

After Crete, Leslie went to Damascus, Syria. He returned to Australia on February 1947.

“Returning home from the war I felt I hadn’t suffered greatly however, it was difficult to get acknowledgement of conditions and access to medical treatment,” he says.

Les was able to get a job in the Public Service and stayed until 1981. Veterans were given more opportunities than others. Today, he has three daughters. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, he used to ride his bike everywhere and until this day, he continues to go to the gym twice a week.

Les Cook with Rania Kalimeris.

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