Greek Armed Forces in the Middle East

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After the fall of Greece to the Axis powers in April–May 1941, elements of the Greek Armed Forces managed to escape to the British-controlled Middle East. There they were placed under the Greek government in exile, and continued the fight alongside the Allies until the liberation of Greece in October 1944. These are known in Greek history as the Greek Armed Forces in the Middle East (Ελληνικές Ένοπλες Δυνάμεις Μέσης Ανατολής).


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).

George II of Greece visits Greek soldiers in Netanya, Palestine, 1944

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 Colonel 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 Greek 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 3rd 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.


RHN Adrias entering the port of Alexandria at the end of a journey of 1,000 miles after losing her bow

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,[when?] accounting for 80% of all non-RN operations.

Greek ships served in convoy escort duties in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean (where it succeeded in destroying a few enemy submarines), 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. One destroyer and three submarines were RHN's casualties. 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.

Air Force[edit]

Greek pilots of the 335th Fighter Squadron at Dhekeila, Egypt (1942)

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 Light Bomber 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 initially reequipped with Blenheims IV, later Blenheim V and finally with Baltimores.[1] 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.[2]