Greco-Italian War (28 October 1940 - 23 April 1941)
Greek soldiers walking in the snowy mountains of Pindos during the Greco-Italian War (from here)
The Greco-Italian War (Italo-Greek War, Italian Campaign in Greece; in Greece: War of '40 and Epic of '40), took place between the Kingdoms of Italy and Greece from 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941. This local war began the Balkans Campaign of World War II between the Axis powers and the Allies. It turned into the Battle of Greece when British and German ground forces intervened early in 1941.
In the mid-1930s, the Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini began an aggressive foreign policy and annexed Albania in the spring of 1939. World War II began on 3 September 1939 and on 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on the Allies, invaded France, British Somaliland and Egypt by September and prepared to occupy Greece. In the late 1930s the Greeks had begun the Metaxas Line opposite Bulgaria and from 1939 had accelerated defensive preparations against an Italian attack from Albania. In 1940, there was a hostile press campaign in Italy and other provocations culminating in the sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli by the Italians on 15 August, (the Christian Dormition of the Mother of God festival). On 28 October, Mussolini issued an ultimatum to Greece demanding the cession of Greek territory, which the Prime Minister of Greece, Ioannis Metaxas, rejected.
The Italian army invaded Greece on 28 October before the Italian ultimatum expired. The invasion began disastrously, the 140,000 troops of the Italian Army in Albania being poorly led and equipped, and having to cope with the mountainous terrain on the Albanian–Greek border and tenacious resistance by the Greek Army. By mid-November the Greek army had stopped the Italian invasion just inside Greek territory, and counter-attacked, pushing the Italians back into Albania, culminating with the Capture of Klisura Pass in January 1941. The Italian defeat and the Greek counter-offensive of 1940 have been called the first "first Axis setback of the entire war" by Mark Mazower, the Greeks "surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance". After reinforcing the Albanian front to 28 divisions, the Italians conducted a spring offensive in 1941, which also failed and by February there was a stalemate.
In the spring of 1941, the failure of the Italian counter-offensive and the arrival of British ground forces in Greece led the Germans to invade on 6 April. During the Battle of Greece, Greek and British forces in northern Greece were overwhelmed and the Germans advanced rapidly into Greece. In Albania, the Greek army made a belated withdrawal to avoid being cut off by the Germans, was followed up slowly by the Italians and surrendered to German troops on 20 April 1941 (then to Italy for propaganda reasons several days later). Greece was occupied by Bulgarian, German and Italian troops. The Italian army suffered 154,172 casualties from all causes and the Greek army about 90,000 losses. The economic and military failings of the Italian Fascist regime were exposed by the Greek débâcle and defeats against the British in Africa, which reduced the Italian fascist regime to dependence on Germany.
Battle of Greece
The Battle of Greece (also known as Operation Marita, German: Unternehmen Marita) is the common name for the invasion of Allied Greece by Nazi Germany in April 1941 during World War II. Concomitant to the stalled Greco-Italian War, it is usually distinguished from the Battle of Crete, which came after mainland Greece had been subdued. These Axis operations were part of the greater Balkan Campaign of Germany.
At the time of the German invasion, Greece was at war with Fascist Italy, following the Italian invasion on 28 October 1940. The Greeks joined the Allies and defeated the initial Italian attack and the counter-attack of March 1941. When Operation Marita began on 6 April, the bulk of the Greek Army was on the Greek border with Albania, then a protectorate of Italy, from which the Italian troops had attacked. German troops invaded from Bulgaria, creating a second front. Greece had already received a small, inadequate reinforcement from British Empire forces in anticipation of the German attack, but no more help was sent afterward. The Greek army found itself outnumbered in its effort to defend against both Italian and German troops. As a result, the Bulgarian defensive line did not receive adequate troop reinforcements and was quickly overrun by the Germans, who then outflanked the Greek forces at the Albanian border, forcing their surrender. The British Empire forces were overwhelmed and forced to retreat, with the ultimate goal of evacuation. For several days, Allied troops played an important part in containing the German advance on the Thermopylae position, allowing ships to be prepared to evacuate the units defending Greece. The German Army reached the capital, Athens, on 27 Aprila[›] and Greece's southern shore on 30 April, capturing 7,000 British Empire forces and ending the battle with a decisive victory. The conquest of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later. Following its fall, Greece was occupied by the military forces of Germany, Italy and Bulgaria.
Hitler later blamed the failure of his invasion of the Soviet Union, which had to be delayed, on Mussolini's failed conquest of Greece. This explanation for Germany's calamitous defeat by the Soviet Union has been refuted by the majority of historians, who have accused Hitler of trying to deflect blame for his country's defeat from himself to his ally, Italy. It nevertheless had serious consequences for the Axis war effort in the North African theatre. Enno von Rintelen, who was the military attaché in Rome, emphasizes from the German point of view, the strategic mistake of not taking Malta.
German drive on Athens
After abandoning the Thermopylae area, the British rearguard withdrew to an improvised switch position south of Thebes, where they erected a last obstacle in front of Athens. The motorcycle battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division, which had crossed to the island of Euboea to seize the port of Chalcis and had subsequently returned to the mainland, was given the mission of outflanking the British rearguard. The motorcycle troops encountered only slight resistance and on the morning of 27 April 1941, the first Germans entered Athens, followed by armoured cars, tanks and infantry. They captured intact large quantities of petroleum, oil and lubricants ("POL"), several thousand tons of ammunition, ten trucks loaded with sugar and ten truckloads of other rations in addition to various other equipment, weapons and medical supplies. The people of Athens had been expecting the Germans for several days and confined themselves to their homes with their windows shut. The previous night, Athens Radio had made the following announcement:
You are listening to the voice of Greece. Greeks, stand firm, proud and dignified. You must prove yourselves worthy of your history. The valor and victory of our army has already been recognised. The righteousness of our cause will also be recognised. We did our duty honestly. Friends! Have Greece in your hearts, live inspired with the fire of her latest triumph and the glory of our army. Greece will live again and will be great, because she fought honestly for a just cause and for freedom. Brothers! Have courage and patience. Be stout hearted. We will overcome these hardships. Greeks! With Greece in your minds you must be proud and dignified. We have been an honest nation and brave soldiers.The Germans drove straight to the Acropolis and raised the Nazi flag. According to the most popular account of the events, the Evzone soldier on guard duty, Konstantinos Koukidis, took down the Greek flag, refusing to hand it to the invaders, wrapped himself in it, and jumped off the Acropolis. Whether the story was true or not, many Greeks believed it and viewed the soldier as a martyr.
Evacuation of Empire forces
General Archibald Wavell, the commander of British Army forces in the Middle East, when in Greece from 11–13 April had warned Wilson that he must expect no reinforcements and had authorised Major General Freddie de Guingand to discuss evacuation plans with certain responsible officers. Nevertheless, the British could not at this stage adopt or even mention this course of action; the suggestion had to come from the Greek Government. The following day, Papagos made the first move when he suggested to Wilson that W Force be withdrawn. Wilson informed Middle East Headquarters and on 17 April, Rear admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman was sent to Greece to prepare for the evacuation. That day Wilson hastened to Athens where he attended a conference with the King, Papagos, d'Albiac and Rear admiral Turle. In the evening, after telling the King that he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him, Prime Minister Koryzis committed suicide. On 21 April, the final decision to evacuate Empire forces to Crete and Egypt was taken and Wavell—in confirmation of verbal instructions—sent his written orders to Wilson.
5 200 men, mostly from the 5th New Zealand Brigade, were evacuated on the night of 24 April, from Porto Rafti of East Attica, while the 4th New Zealand Brigade remained to block the narrow road to Athens, dubbed the 24 Hour Pass by the New Zealanders. On 25 April (Anzac Day), the few RAF squadrons left Greece (D'Albiac established his headquarters in Heraklion, Crete) and some 10,200 Australian troops evacuated from Nafplio and Megara. 2,000 more men had to wait until 27 April, because Ulster Prince ran aground in shallow waters close to Nafplio. Because of this event, the Germans realised that the evacuation was also taking place from the ports of the eastern Peloponnese.
The Greek Navy and Merchant Marine played an important part in the evacuation of the Allied forces to Crete and suffered heavy losses as a result.
On 25 April the Germans staged an airborne operation to seize the bridges over the Corinth canal, with the double aim of cutting off the British line of retreat and securing their own way across the isthmus. The attack met with initial success, until a stray British shell destroyed the bridge. The 1st SS Motorised Infantry Regiment ("LSSAH"), assembled at Ioannina, thrust along the western foothills of the Pindus Mountains via Arta to Missolonghi and crossed over to the Peloponnese at Patras in an effort to gain access to the isthmus from the west. Upon their arrival at 17:30 on 27 April, the SS forces learned that the paratroops had already been relieved by Army units advancing from Athens.
The Dutch troop ship Slamat was part of a convoy evacuating about 3,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops from Nafplio in the Peloponnese. As the convoy headed south in the Argolic Gulf on the morning of 27 April, it was attacked by a Staffel of nine Junkers Ju 87s of Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, damaging Slamat and setting her on fire. The destroyer HMS Diamond rescued about 600 survivors and HMS Wryneck came to her aid, but as the two destroyers headed for Souda Bay in Crete another Ju 87 attack sank them both. The total number of deaths from the three sinkings was almost 1,000. Only 27 crew from Wryneck, 20 crew from Diamond, 11 crew and eight evacuated soldiers from Slamat survived.
The erection of a temporary bridge across the Corinth canal permitted 5th Panzer Division units to pursue the Allied forces across the Peloponnese. Driving via Argos to Kalamata, from where most Allied units had already begun to evacuate, they reached the south coast on 29 April, where they were joined by SS troops arriving from Pyrgos. The fighting on the Peloponnese consisted of small-scale engagements with isolated groups of British troops who had been unable to reach the evacuation point. The attack came days too late to cut off the bulk of the British troops in Central Greece, but isolated the Australian 16th and 17th Brigades. By 30 April the evacuation of about 50,000 soldiers was completed,a[›] but was heavily contested by the German Luftwaffe, which sank at least 26 troop-laden ships. The Germans captured around 8,000 Empire (including 2,000 Cypriot and Palestinian) and Yugoslav troops in Kalamata who had not been evacuated, while liberating many Italian prisoners from POW camps.
For more details on this topic, see Axis occupation of Greece.
On 13 April 1941, Hitler issued Directive No. 27, including his occupation policy for Greece. He finalized jurisdiction in the Balkans with Directive No. 31 issued on 9 June. Mainland Greece was divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, with Italy occupying the bulk of the country (see map opposite). German forces occupied the strategically more important areas of Athens, Thessaloniki, Central Macedonia and several Aegean islands, including most of Crete. They also occupied Florina, which was claimed by both Italy and Bulgaria. Bulgaria, which had not participated in the invasion of Greece, occupied most of Thrace on the same day that Tsolakoglou offered his surrender. The goal was to gain an Aegean Sea outlet in Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia. The Bulgarians occupied territory between the Struma river and a line of demarcation running through Alexandroupoli and Svilengrad west of the Evros River. Italian troops started occupying the Ionian and Aegean islands on 28 April. On 2 June, they occupied the Peloponnese; on 8 June, Thessaly; and on 12 June, most of Attica. The occupation of Greece—during which civilians suffered terrible hardships, many dying from privation and hunger—proved to be a difficult and costly task. Several resistance groups launched guerrilla attacks against the occupying forces and set up espionage networks.
Battle of Crete
For more details on this topic, see Battle of Crete.
On 25 April 1941, King George II and his government left the Greek mainland for Crete, which was attacked by Nazi forces on 20 May 1941. The Germans employed parachute forces in a massive airborne invasion and attacked the three main airfields of the island in Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion. After seven days of fighting and tough resistance, Allied commanders decided that the cause was hopeless and ordered a withdrawal from Sfakia. By 1 June 1941, the evacuation was complete and the island was under German occupation. In light of the heavy casualties suffered by the elite 7th Fliegerdivision, Hitler forbade further airborne operations. General Kurt Student would dub Crete "the graveyard of the German paratroopers" and a "disastrous victory." During the night of 24 May, George II and his government were evacuated from Crete to Egypt.
|Battle of Greece Timeline|
|6 April||The German armies invade Greece.|
|8 April||The German 164th Infantry Division captures Xanthi.|
|9 April||German troops seize Thessaloniki.
The German 72nd Infantry Division breaks through the Metaxas Line.
The Greek army in Macedonia capitulates unconditionally.
|10 April||The Germans overcome the enemy resistance north of Vevi, at the Klidi Pass.|
|13 April||General Wilson decides to withdraw all British forces to the Haliacmon river, and then to Thermopylae.
Elements of the Greek First Army operating in Albania withdraw toward the Pindus mountains.
Hitler issues his Directive No. 27, which illustrates his future policy of occupation in Greece.
|14 April||The spearheads of the 9th Panzer Division reach Kozani.
After fighting at Kastoria pass, the Germans block the Greek withdrawal, which extends across the entire Albanian front.
|16 April||Wilson informs General Papagos of his decision to withdraw to Thermopylae.|
|17 April||Rear admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman is sent to Greece to prepare for the evacuation of the Commonwealth forces.|
|18 April||After a three-days struggle, German armored infantry crosses the Pineios river.
The 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler—which had reached Grevena— overwhelms several Greek units.
|19 April||German troops enter Larissa and take possession of the airfield.
German troops capture Ioannina.
|20 April||The commander of the Greek forces in Albania, General Georgios Tsolakoglou, offers to surrender his army to the Germans alone.
The Bulgarian Army occupies most of Thrace.
|21 April||The final decision for the evacuation of the Commonwealth forces to Crete and Egypt is taken.
The Germans capture the port of Volos.
|23 April||Official surrender of the Greek forces in Albania to both the Germans and the Italians after a personal representation from Mussolini to Hitler|
|24 April||The Germans attack the Commonwealth forces at Thermopylae. The British rear guards withdraw to Thebes.
5,200 Commonwealth soldiers are evacuated from Porto Rafti, East Attica.
|25 April||The few RAF squadrons leave Greece. Some 10,200 Australian troops are evacuated from Nafplio and Megara.
The Germans stage an airborne operation to seize the bridges over the Corinth Canal.
|27 April||The first Germans enter Athens.|
|28 April||Italian troops start occupying the Ionian and Aegean islands.|
|29 April||5th Panzer Division units reach the south coast of Peloponnese, where they are joined by SS troops arriving from Pyrgos.|
|30 April||The evacuation of 42,311 Commonwealth soldiers is completed. The Germans manage to capture around 7-8,000 Commonwealth troops.|
In enumerating the reasons for the complete Axis victory in Greece, the following factors were of greatest significance:
- Germany superiority in ground forces and equipment;
- The bulk of the Greek army was occupied fighting the Italians on the Albanian front.
- German air supremacy combined with the inability of the Greeks to provide the RAF with adequate airfields;
- Inadequacy of British expeditionary forces, since the Imperial force available was small;
- Poor condition of the Hellenic Army and its shortages of modern equipment;
- Inadequate port, road and railway facilities;
- Absence of a unified command and lack of cooperation between the British, Greek and Yugoslav forces;
- Turkey's strict neutrality; and
- The early collapse of Yugoslav resistance.
Criticism of British actions
After the Allies' defeat, the decision to send British forces into Greece faced fierce criticism in Britain. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War II, considered intervention in Greece to be "a definite strategic blunder", as it denied Wavell the necessary reserves to complete the conquest of Italian Libya, or to withstand Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps March offensive. It prolonged the North African Campaign, which might have been concluded during 1941.
In 1947, de Guingand asked the British government to recognise its mistaken strategy in Greece. Buckley countered that if Britain had not honored its 1939 commitment to Greece, it would have severely damaged the ethical basis of its struggle against Nazi Germany. According to Heinz Richter, Churchill tried through the campaign in Greece, to influence the political atmosphere in the United States and insisted on this strategy even after the defeat. According to Keegan, "the Greek campaign had been an old-fashioned gentlemen's war, with honor given and accepted by brave adversaries on each side" and the vastly outnumbered Greek and Allied forces, "had, rightly, the sensation of having fought the good fight". It has also been suggested the British strategy was to create a barrier in Greece, to protect Turkey, the only (neutral) country standing between an Axis block in the Balkans and the oil-rich Middle East but the British intervention in Greece was considered a fiasco. Martin van Creveld believes that the British did everything in their power to scuttle all attempts at a separate peace between the Greeks and the Italians, to keep the Greeks fighting so as to draw Italian divisions away from North Africa.
Freyberg and Blamey also had serious doubts about the feasibility of the operation but failed to express their reservations and apprehensions. The campaign caused a furore in Australia, when it became known that when General Blamey received his first warning of the move to Greece on 18 February 1941, he was worried but had not informed the Australian Government. He had been told by Wavell that Prime Minister Menzies had approved the plan. The proposal had been accepted by a meeting of the War Cabinet in London at which Menzies was present but the Australian Prime Minister had been told by Churchill that both Freyberg and Blamey approved of the expedition. On 5 March, in a letter to Menzies, Blamey said that "the plan is, of course, what I feared: piecemeal dispatch to Europe" and the next day he called the operation "most hazardous". Thinking that he was agreeable, the Australian Government had already committed the Australian Imperial Force to the Greek Campaign.
Impact on Operation Barbarossa
In 1942, members of the British Parliament characterised the campaign in Greece as a "political and sentimental decision". Eden rejected the criticism and argued that the UK's decision was unanimous and asserted that the Battle of Greece delayed Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. This is an argument that historians such as Keegan used to assert that Greek resistance was a turning point in World War II. According to film-maker and friend of Adolf Hitler Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler said that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad". Despite his reservations, Brooke seems also to have conceded that the Balkan Campaign delayed the offensive against the Soviet Union.
Bradley and Buell conclude that "although no single segment of the Balkan campaign forced the Germans to delay Barbarossa, obviously the entire campaign did prompt them to wait." On the other hand, Richter calls Eden's arguments a "falsification of history". Basil Liddell Hart and de Guingand point out that the delay of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union was not among Britain's strategic goals and as a result the possibility of such a delay could not have affected its decisions about Operation Marita. In 1952, the Historical Branch of the UK Cabinet Office concluded that the Balkan Campaign had no influence on the launching of Operation Barbarossa. According to Robert Kirchubel, "the main causes for deferring Barbarossa's start from 15 May to 22 June were incomplete logistical arrangements and an unusually wet winter that kept rivers at full flood until late spring." This however does not answer whether in the absence of these problems the campaign could have begun according to the original plan. Keegan writes:
In the aftermath, historians would measure its significance in terms of the delay Marita had or had not imposed on the unleashing of Barbarossa, an exercise ultimately to be judged profitless, since it was the Russian weather, not the contingencies of subsidiary campaigns, which determined Barbarossa's launch date.
The Greek Resistance (Greek: Εθνική Αντίσταση Ethnikí Andístasi, i.e., "National Resistance") is the blanket term for a number of armed and unarmed groups from across the political spectrum that resisted the Axis occupation of Greece in the period 1941–1944, during World War II.
Although there is an unconfirmed incident connected with Evzone Konstantinos Koukidis the day the Germans occupied Athens, the first confirmed resistance act in Greece had taken place on the night of 30 May 1941, even before the end of the Battle of Crete. Two young students, Apostolos Santas, a law student, and Manolis Glezos, a student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, secretly climbed the northwest face of the Acropolis and tore down the swastika banner which had been placed there by the occupation authorities.
The first wider resistance movements occurred in northern Greece, where the Bulgarians annexed Greek territories. The first mass uprising occurred around the town of Drama in eastern Macedonia, in the Bulgarian occupation zone. The Bulgarian authorities had initiated large-scale Bulgarization policies, causing the Greek population's reaction. During the night of 28–29 September 1941 the people of Drama and its outskirts rose up. This badly-organized revolt was suppressed by the Bulgarian Army, which retaliated executing over three thousand people in Drama alone. An estimated fifteen thousand Greeks were killed by the Bulgarian occupational army during the next few weeks and in the countryside entire villages were machine gunned and looted. The town of Doxato and the village of Choristi are officially considered today Martyr Cities.
At the same time, large demonstrations were organized in Greek Macedonian cities by the Defenders of Northern Greece (YVE), a right-wing organization, in protest against the Bulgarian annexation of Greek territories.
Armed groups consisted of andartes - αντάρτες ("guerillas") first appeared in the mountains of Macedonia by October 1941, and the first armed clashes resulted in 488 civilians being murdered in reprisals by the Germans, which succeeded in severely limiting Resistance activity for the next few months. However, these harsh actions, together with the plundering of Greece's natural resources by the Germans, turned Greeks more against the occupiers.
|Icon from here|
The Virgin Mary in the epic of 1940/41
[...] In recent years, the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God has become associated with thanksgiving for the deliverance of the Greek nation from the Italian invasion of 1940. These events are commemorated in Greece in a national holiday known as "Ochi Day" or "No Day," referring to the response of the Greek leader Metaxas to Mussolini's ultimatum.
In recognition of this, and because of the many miracles of the Holy Virgin which were reported by Greek soldiers during the Greco-Italian War of 1940-1941, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece elected in 1952 to transfer the Feast from October 1 to October 28.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate also provides for this usage in its parishes in Greece and in the Greek diaspora, and it is generally observed now throughout the Greek-speaking world. The observance includes the chanting of a Doxology incorporating hymns recognizing the Protection of the Theotokos over the Greek nation, as well as the kontakion "O Champion Leader."
Not often you see a Nazi serpent in an icon
The Miracle of Saint Menas in El Alamein in 1942
Orthodox New Martyrs in France vs Nazi
Saint Charalambos of Magnesia (vs Nazi)