Military history of Greece during World War II
Greece entered World War II on 28 October 1940, when the Italian army invaded from Albania, beginning the Greco-Italian War. The Greek army was able to stop the invasion and was even able to push the Italians back into Albania, thereby winning one of the first victories for the Allies. The Greek successes and the inability of the Italians to reverse the situation forced Nazi Germany to intervene in order to protect their main Axis partner's prestige. The Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, and overran both countries within a month, despite British aid to Greece in the form of an expeditionary corps. The conquest of Greece was completed in May with the capture of Crete from the air, although the Fallschirmjäger suffered such extensive casualties in this operation that the Germans abandoned large-scale airborne operations for the remainder of the war. The German diversion of resources in the Balkans is also considered by some historians to have delayed the launch of the invasion of the Soviet Union by a critical month, which proved disastrous when the German army failed to take Moscow.
Greece itself was occupied and divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, while the King and the government fled into exile in Egypt. First attempts at armed resistance in summer 1941 were crushed by the Axis, but the Resistance movement began again in 1942 and grew enormously in 1943 and 1944, liberating large parts of the country's mountainous interior and tying down considerable Axis forces. However, political tensions between the Resistance groups resulted in the outbreak of a civil conflict among them in late 1943, which continued until the spring of 1944. The exiled Greek government also formed armed forces of its own, which served and fought alongside the British in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. The contribution of the Greek war and the merchant navies in particular was of special importance to the Allied cause.
Mainland Greece was liberated in October 1944 with the German withdrawal in the face of the advancing Red Army, while German garrisons continued to hold out in the Aegean Islands until after the war's end. The country was devastated by war and occupation, and its economy and infrastructure lay in ruins. Greece suffered more than 400,000 casualties during the occupation, and the country's Jewish community was almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust. By 1946, however, a vicious civil war erupted between the British and American-sponsored conservative government and leftist guerrillas, which would last until 1949.
Italy invades Greece
The Italian invasion from Albania on October 28, 1940, after making small initial gains, was stopped by the determined defense of Greek forces in the battles at the Elaia-Kalamas line and the Pindus Mountains. The unwillingness of Bulgaria to attack Greece, as the Italians had hoped, allowed the Greek High Command to transfer most of the mobilizing divisions intended for the garrisoning of Macedonia to the front, where they were instrumental in the Greek counteroffensive, launched on November 14. Greek forces crossed the border into Albania and took city after city despite facing a harsh winter, having inadequate supplies and facing Italian air superiority. By mid-January, Greek forces had occupied a quarter of Albania, but the offensive had come to a standstill before it had reached its objective, the port of Vlorë.
This situation prompted Germany to come to the rescue of its Axis partner. In a final attempt to restore Italian prestige before the German intervention, a counterattack was launched on March 9, 1941 against the key sector of Klissura, under Mussolini's personal supervision. Despite massive artillery bombardments and the employment of several divisions on a narrow front, the attack failed to make any headway and was called off after almost two weeks.
The German invasion
The long-anticipated German attack (Unternehmen Marita) began on April 6, 1941, against both Greece and Yugoslavia. The resulting "Battle of Greece" ended with the fall of Kalamata in the Peloponnese on April 30, the evacuation of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force and the complete occupation of the Greek mainland by the Axis.
The initial attack came against the Greek positions of the "Metaxas Line" (19 forts in Eastern Macedonia between Mt. Beles and River Nestos and 2 more in Western Thrace). It was launched from Bulgarian territory and supported by artillery and bomber aircraft. The resistance of the forts was both courageous and determined, but eventually futile. The rapid collapse of Yugoslavia had allowed the 2nd Panzer Division (which had started from the Strumica Valley in Bulgaria, advanced through Yugoslav territory and turned south along the Vardar/Axios River valley) to bypass the defenses and capture the vital port city of Thessaloniki on April 9. As a result, the Greek forces manning the forts (the Army Section of Eastern Macedonia, TSAM) were cut off and given permission to surrender by the Greek High Command. The surrender was completed the next day, April 10, the same day that German forces crossed the Yugoslav-Greek border near Florina in Western Macedonia, after having defeated any resistance in southern Yugoslavia. The Germans broke through the Commonwealth (2 div. & 1 arm. brig.) and Greek (2 div.) defensive positions in the Kleidi area on April 11/12, and moved on to the south and southwest.
While pursuing the British southwards, the southwest movement threatened the rear of the bulk of the Greek Army (14 divisions), which was facing the Italians at the Albanian front. The Army belatedly began retreating southwards, first its northeast flank on April 12, and finally the southwest flank on April 17. The German thrust towards Kastoria on April 15 however made the situation critical, threatening to cut the Greek forces' retreat. The generals at the front began exploring the possibilities for capitulation (to the Germans only), despite the High Command's insistence on continuing the fight to cover the British retreat.
In the event, several generals under the leadership of Lt.Gen. Georgios Tsolakoglou mutinied on April 20, and taking matters in their own hands, signed a protocol of surrender with the commander of the "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler" near Metsovo the same day. It was followed by a second in Ioannina the next day (with Italian representation this time) and a final one in Thessaloniki between the three combatants on the 23rd. The very same day in Athens, Lt. General A. Papagos resigned his office as Supreme Commander whereas the King and his government embarked for Crete. About the same time the Commonwealth forces made a last stand at Thermopylae before their final retreat to the ports of Peloponnese for evacuation to Crete or Egypt. German troops seized the Corinth Canal bridges, entered Athens on April 27, and completed their occupation of the mainland and most islands by the end of the month.
The Battle of Crete
The only Greek territory remaining free by May 1941 was the large and strategically important island of Crete, which was held by a strong Allied garrison. To conquer it, the German High Command prepared "Unternehmen Merkur", the largest airborne attack seen to date.
The attack was launched on May 20, 1941. The Germans attacked the three main airfields of the island, at the northern towns of Maleme, Rethimnon, and Heraklion, with paratroopers and gliders. The Germans met stubborn resistance from the British, Australian, New Zealand and the remaining Greek troops on the island, and from local civilians. At the end of the first day, none of the objectives had been reached and the Germans had suffered around 4,000 casualties.
During the next day however, through miscommunication and failure of the Allied commanders to grasp the situation, Maleme airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans. With Maleme airfield secured, the Germans flew in thousands of reinforcements and overwhelmed the western side of the island. This was followed by severe British naval loses due to intense German air attacks around the island. After seven days of fighting the Allied commanders realized that so many Germans had been flown in that hope of Allied victory was gone. By June 1, the evacuation of Crete by the Allies was complete and the island was under German occupation. In light of the heavy casualties suffered by the elite 7th Flieger Division, Adolf Hitler forbade further airborne operations. General Kurt Student would dub Crete "the graveyard of the German paratroopers" and a "disastrous victory."
Conquered Greece was divided into three zones of control by the occupying powers, Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. The Germans controlled Athens, Central Macedonia, Western Crete, Milos, Amorgos and the islands of the Northern Aegean. Bulgaria annexed Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, while Italy occupied the rest of the country. The Italians were thus responsible for the greater part of Greece, especially the countryside, where any armed Resistance might take place. Italian forces in Greece comprised 11 infantry divisions, grouped in the 11th Army under General Carlo Geloso, with a further division in the Italian colony of the Dodecanese Islands. The Italians adopted a rather relaxed attitude towards their security duties, but they were in part justified to do so. Until the summer of 1942, as the Resistance movement was in its infancy, they faced little real opposition and considered the situation to have been normalized. The Germans limited themselves during the first period of the Occupation to the strategically important areas, and their forces were limited. The German troops in southeastern Europe came under the 12th Army headed initially by Field Marshal Wilhelm List and later by General Alexander Löhr. In Greece, two separate commands were created: the Salonica-Aegean Military Command at Thessalonica and the Southern Greece Military Command at Athens, for the entire duration of the war under Luftwaffe General Helmuth Felmy. Crete was organized as a fortress ("Festung Kreta") garrisoned by the Fortress Division "Kreta", and after August garrisoned by the crack 22nd Air Landing Division. The Bulgarians occupied their own zone with an Army Corps, and, faced with active resistance from the local population, engaged from the outset in a policy of Bulgarization of the area.
After mid-1942, with the growth of armed Resistance, and the spectacular destruction of the Gorgopotamos bridge (Operation "Harling") by a force of Greek guerrillas and British saboteurs on 25 November, the Italian authorities tried vainly to contain the surge in acts of resistance directed against their forces. The guerrillas were largely successful against the Italians, allowing for the creation of "liberated" areas in the mountainous interior, including sizeable towns, by mid-1943. At that time, however, German troops began being moved into Greece. Elite formations such as the 1st Panzer Division and the 1st Mountain Division were brought into the country, both in anticipation of a possible Allied landing in Greece (a concept deliberately promoted by the Allies themselves as a diversion from the landings at Sicily) and as a guarantee against a possible Italian capitulation.
These forces, especially the experienced mountain troops, engaged in large-scale counter-guerrilla operations in the area of Epirus. Their operations were successful in that they reduced the threat of guerrilla attacks on the occupation forces, but their often brutal conduct and mass reprisals policy resulted in massacres of civilians such as that of Kommeno on August 16, the Massacre of Distomo, or the "Massacre of Kalavryta" in December. In anticipation of the Italian collapse, the German command structure throughout the Balkans was reorganized: Army Group E under Löhr took over in Greece, overseeing both German forces and the Italian 11th Army.
The Italian capitulation in September caused most Italian units to surrender to the Germans, although others, such as the Pinerolo division and the Aosta Cavalry Regiment, went over to the guerrillas, or chose to resist the German takeover. This resulted in brief but violent clashes between Germans and Italians, accompanied by atrocities against Italian prisoners of war, such as the massacre of the Acqui Division on Cephallonia, dramatized by the film Captain Corelli's Mandolin. In addition, British and Greek forces tried to occupy the Italian-held Dodecanese, but they and their Italian allies were defeated in a short campaign (see Dodecanese Campaign).
Throughout late 1943 and the first half of 1944, the Germans, in cooperation with the Bulgarians and aided by Greek collaborators (see below) launched clearing operations against the Greek resistance, primarily against the communist-controlled "ELAS", while coming into an unofficial truce with the rightist EDES. At the same time, raids by British and Greek special forces were increasing in frequency in the Aegean islands. Finally, with the advance of the Red Army and the desertion of Romania and Bulgaria, the Germans were forced to evacuate mainland Greece in October 1944, although isolated garrisons remained in Crete, the Dodecanese and various other Aegean islands until the end of the war in May 1945.
Greek collaborators & conscripts
As in some occupied European countries, a Greek puppet government was formed from the outset by the Occupation authorities, initially headed by General Georgios Tsolakoglou and later by Konstantinos Logothetopoulos. The forces this government had at its disposal were primarily these of the city police and the rural gendarmerie, which were relied upon to maintain and enforce order. However, the government was never able to extend its authority to all of the country, as on the one side it was never given free rein nor entirely trusted by its Axis overseers, nor was it popular among the people. As anti-Axis sentiment grew in 1942, its organs found themselves attacked by guerrillas and socially isolated. Except for isolated cases, such as the group of Colonel Georgios Poulos, only in 1943, with the appointment of the experienced politician Ioannis Rallis as Prime Minister, did the Germans allow any substantial Greek armed force to be recruited by the Athens government. These were the infamous "Security Battalions" (Tagmata Asfaleias), whose motivation, as in many other cases in occupied Europe, was primarily political: they fought exclusively against the communist-dominated EAM-ELAS resistance movement, which controlled most of the country. Their harsh and indiscriminate repressive activities against the population at large and their association with the Germans led to their being widely reviled, and in colloquial Greek they were known as Germanotsoliades (Greek: Γερμανοτσολιάδες, literally meaning "German Tsolias").
Greek Royal Forces in the Middle East
After the fall of Greece to the Axis, elements of the Greek armed forces managed to escape to the British-controlled Middle East. There they were placed under the royal government-in-exile, and continued the fight along the Allies.
In the face of the overwhelming German advance into Greece, several thousand Greek officers and soldiers were either evacuated, along with the Greek government, to Crete and then Egypt, in April–May 1941, or managed to flee, mainly via neutral Turkey, to the British-controlled Middle East. There they were placed under British command and re-equipped with British arms, complemented by volunteers from the local Greek communities, forming the "Royal Hellenic Army in the Middle East" (Βασιλικός Ελληνικός Στρατός Μέσης Ανατολής, ΒΕΣΜΑ).
Already on 23 June 1941, the 1st Greek Brigade began being formed in Palestine under Col. Ev. Antoniou. It comprised ca. 5,000 men in three infantry battalions, an artillery regiment (of battalion-size), and support units. An independent armoured car regiment (of battalion size) was also formed, but later incorporated in the Brigade's artillery regiment. The Brigade remained in training camps in Palestine until May 1942, where its command was taken over by Col. Pafsanias Katsotas. It was then transferred to Syria, before being deployed to Egypt in August. There it was placed under British 50th Division in the Nile Delta, and joined it in the Second Battle of El Alamein, where it suffered 89 dead and 228 wounded. A 2nd Brigade also began being formed in Egypt since 27 July 1942 along similar lines, but did not see action.
Both Brigades remained on guard duty in Egypt and Libya, where they became involved in the widespread pro-EAM mutiny in April 1944. Subsequently, both units were disbanded by the British, and their personnel interned in camps or used in non-combat duties. 3,500 politically reliable officers and men were formed into the III Greek Mountain Brigade under Col. Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos, on 4 June 1944. This unit was embarked for Italy in August and fought with distinction, particularly at the Battle of Rimini, where it earned the honorific Rimini Brigade. This loyal and battle-hardened unit would later be instrumental in the struggle between the British-backed government and the EAM-ELAS forces.
In September 1942, an elite special forces unit, the Sacred Band (Ιερός Λόχος), was formed, made up solely of officers and volunteers. Under its charismatic leader, Col. Christodoulos Tsigantes, it was attached to the 1st SAS Regiment, and participated in raids in Libya. In February 1943, the unit was placed under the orders of General Philippe Leclerc, and participated in the Tunisia Campaign. From May to October 1943, the Sacred Band was re-trained in airborne and amphibious operations, and for the remainder of the war it was employed in operations against the German garrisons of the Aegean islands. The unit was disbanded in Athens, on 7 August 1945.
The Hellenic Royal Navy suffered enormous casualties during the German invasion, losing over 20 ships, mostly to German air attacks, within a few days in April 1941. Its chief, Vice Admiral Alexandros Sakellariou, managed to save some of its ships, including the cruiser Averof, six destroyers, five submarines and several support ships, by evacuating them to Alexandria. The fleet was subsequently expanded by several destroyers, submarines, mine-sweepers and other vessels handed over by the British Royal Navy, until it became, with 44 ships and over 8,500 men, the second-largest Allied Navy in the Mediterranean after the RN, accounting for 80% of all non-RN operations.
Greek ships served in convoy escort duties in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. RHN ships also participated in the landing operations in Sicily, Anzio and Normandy, as well as at the ill-fated Dodecanese Campaign. A significant moment in the RHN's history was the acceptance of the Italian Fleet's surrender in September 1943, alongside the British Royal Navy. Two of the most notable Greek warships of the war were the destroyers Adrias and Vasilissa Olga. The large Greek merchant navy, likewise, contributed enormously to the Allied war effort from the first day of the war, losing over 2,500 men and 60% of its ships in the process.
When the pro-EAM April 1944 mutiny broke out, a large part of the Navy joined it. These ships were stormed by Greek officers loyal to the government-in-exile and recaptured. Eleven seamen were killed, others wounded, and many were subsequently interned. Thus, when the Navy returned to liberated Greece in October 1944, it was firmly behind the government of George Papandreou.
The few Air Force personnel that managed to escape eventually constituted the 13th Light Bomber and the 335th and 336th Fighter squadrons, operating under the Desert Air Force in North Africa and Italy, before being repatriated in late 1944.
13th Squadron was formed in June 1941 in Egypt as a naval cooperation unit, using the 5 surviving Avro Ansons of the former RHAF 13th Naval Cooperation Squadron. The Squadron was later reequipped with Blenheims and, later, Baltimores. 335 Squadron was formed on 10 October 1941, while 336 Squadron on 25 February 1943. Both were initially equipped with Hurricanes, mostly of the Mk. IIc type, until they were re-equipped with Spitfire Mk Vb and Vc in January 1944.
In popular culture
The Axis occupation of Greece, specifically the Greek islands figures in several English language books and films based on real special forces raids such as Ill Met by Moonlight, The Cretan Runner, fictional ones like The Guns of Navarone, Escape to Athena or They Who Dare and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a fictional occupation narrative. Notable Greek movies referring to the period, the war and the occupation are The Germans Strike Again, What did you do in the war, Thanasi? and Ipolochagos Natassa.
- Beevor (1992), p. 229-231
- "Greece - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-11-01.
- German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 4.II
- Mazower (2001), p. 106-107
- German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 4.III
- German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 5.II-III
- German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 7.III
- German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 8.III
- 13th Hellenic Light Bombing Squadron - A brief history
- RAF Squadron Histories
- Antony Beevor (1992). Crete: The Battle and the Resistance. United Kingdom: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-016787-0.
- Center of Military History (1953 – Reissue edition 1984-1986). German Antiguerrilla Operations in The Balkans (1941-1944) Washington DC: United States Army.
- Memorandum to the Note to the Greek Government, April 6, 1941
- Note of the Reich Government to the Greek Government, April 6, 1941
- The 1940 Epic
- Walsh, Matt (2007). THE BATTLE FOR GREECE AND CRETE (3rd ed.). Australia: Matt Walsh.
- Λαλούσης, Χαράλαμπος. Ο Πόλεμος του 1940-41 (in Greek).
- "Heroes fight like Greeks" Documentary by the Archives of the Greek Foreign Ministry.
- 1940-41: Greece, the First Victory a documentary by National Geographic, 2008