Greece in WW2: The Unsung Heroes

Intro to Greece in WW2

Has the role of the Greece in WW2 been unjustly overlooked and disregarded? The Greek mainland was occupied by the axis armies on April 30th 1941 after the “Battle of Greece” was lost by the resistance and allied forces. This resulted in the evacuation of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Forces who fled to Egypt and the government seeking refuge and being hosted in London by the allies. The total conquest of Greece was completed after the Battle of Crete between 20 May – 1 June, 1941. On the face of it, the defence and resistance of Greece was ultimately unsuccessful and maybe this is why the part Greece played in the war has often been overlooked. Greece was actually a real thorn in the Nazi paw, causing the Nazi hierarchy many headaches and putting up a very strong, effective and in some respects, successful resistance.

Italy v Greece in WW2

The Greco-Italian War, 28 Oct 1940 to 23 April 1941, saw the commencement of the Balkans campaign and would later develop into the Battle of Greece once British and German ground forces had to intervene in April 1941. The Italian army’s invasion of Greece through annexed Albania started disastrously – a sign of things to come. Everything from poor equipment to even poorer leadership was going against the Italian campaign. However, Greece started preparations before this in the late 1930s including the Metaxas Line, a chain of fortifications constructed along the Greco-Bulgarian border and in 1939 they accelerated defences in Albania due to fears of an Italian attack from Albania – which is exactly what happened. On 28th October Mussolini gave the Greeks an ultimatum –  Allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified “strategic locations” or face war. The Prime minister for Greece, Metaxas, allegedly replied with a single word: “όχ!” (No!). However, his actual reply was “Alors, c’est la guerre!” (Then it is war!)[1]. The Greeks still celebrate the 28th October as ‘Oxi day’ – a public holiday to commemorate the day their country stood up to fascist axis nations.

Greece in WW2 firing guns

German artillery fires during the advance through Greece in WW2, 1941.

Disaster for Mussolini at the hands of Greece

So, war it was. The Italians invaded Greece in WW2 on the very same day the ultimatum was issued – before the offer had even expired. As mentioned above, the Italians were hindered by sub-par equipment and leadership and the tricky mountainous terrain that is the Algerian-Greco border made things doubly difficult. Italy, allied with Bulgaria, dwarfed the Greek army in manpower and materials and as a result the Greeks had to adopt a purely defensive strategy, retreating tactically in order to gain time until they could fully mobilise their army. The Italian invasion of Greece has been remembered as one of Mussolini’s wartime disasters. The campaign was launched in driving rain without any reasonable cover for the Italian troops. The weather and rugged terrain played a significant factor in the ultimate failure of the Italian invasion. Rising rivers and roads deteriorating into nothing more than mud tracks meant that Italian movement was sluggish which in turn allowed the Greek soldiers to fall back to their prepared positions. The Italian Centauro tanks struggled on these mud tracks, often becoming stuck and resulting in their abandonment. Italian reinforcements were thrown into the action in unsystematic fashion and with little tactical nous. Because of this, the Greek strategy shifted from being purely defensive to offensive with Greece actually managing to gain ground and push the Italians further back into Albania. With every success of the Greeks in the Greco-Italian war, however, it became more and more apparent that Germany would have to deploy troops and intervene. The Nazis finally came to assist Italy in April 1941 and with this the occupation of Greece had commenced. As a side note it is also worth noting that the subsequent retreat of the Italian forces back into Albania is thought by many to be the first Allied victory over the Axis nations.

How important was Greece in WW2 to allied victory?

The significance of Greece’s courageous resistance to fascist Italy is somewhat debated. Some think that it contributed greatly to the failure of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The theory being that it forced Germany into action when it should have been commencing ‘Operation Barbarossa’ the invasion of the Soviet Union. Due to the situation in Greece/Albania, the Nazis had to delay Operation Barbarossa by as much as six weeks. This gave the would-be ill prepared Russians some much needed additional time to prepare for the German invasion. Importantly, it also meant that the German assault was delayed into the onset of what was a freakishly wet and harsh Russian winter where freezing temperature would grind German progress to a halt and sheeting rain would, like in on the mountainous Greek border, turn the roads to nothing more than mud tracks. Hitler himself would later place the blame of his failed invasion of Russia firmly on the shoulders of Mussolini and his failed invasion of Greece[2][2]. It is difficult to say what significance a successful invasion and conquered Moscow would have had but the ramifications could have been huge and it is plausible that the Greeks played a key role in the Nazi’s failure.

Kreta, Landung von Fallschirmjägern
German Paratroopers landing in Crete, 1941.

The delaying and subsequent failure of Operation Barbarossa is not the only line of thought when thinking of the Greece in WW2 as unsung heroes The total occupation of Greece was complete when the Battle of Crete was won by the Axis Powers. This was the first mainly airborne invasion in history and the first time the Fallschirmjäger (German paratroopers) were deployed en-masse by Hitler… It would also be the last. This is due to the Greek resistance inflicting heavy casualties to the Nazi paratroopers and from then on Hitler would only deploy the Fallschirmjäger as ground troops[3]. Interestingly, the Allied powers were impressed with what they saw and could see the potential in airborne assaults and later adopted them in their own fighting.

As alluded to above, the notion and significance of Greece delaying Operation Barbarossa has been questioned. One of those doubters is Richard Evans. In his book The Third Reich at War he puts forward the case that the particularly bad weather in Russia at the time would not have allowed the Germans to launch their invasion significantly earlier anyway[4]. When discussing the delaying of Barbarossa some historians and commenters like to draw attention to the rebellion in Yugoslavia and argue that it was this that delayed Hitler’s plans more significantly than the Battle of Greece.

Even if Hitler had captured Moscow, would it have been that significant? Napoleon managed to do it and it had little effect on his eventual outcome, after all. The same can be argued with the Nazis. If Hitler was successful and Moscow was occupied, the Russians could effectively retreat further back into Russia and fall back on their greater manpower and production once they had collected themselves, with Hitler’s army being ill prepared to hold onto Russia had they been successful.

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A German infantryman walks toward the body of a killed Soviet soldier and a burning BT-7 light tank  during the early days of Operation Barbarossa

                Whether or not you buy into the notion that the Greeks played a significant role in delaying Operation Barbarossa, hopefully now you can agree that the role of Greece has been often overlooked and that their role in World War Two tells the tale of a valiant and courageous resistance against Italian and German Fascism. The Greco-Italian war was surely a headache for Hitler and would have certainly been a headache and disruption to their planned Soviet invasion and had the German paratroopers not suffered such heavy casualties during the Battle of Crete Hitler would have launched more airborne attacks – the Greeks effectively nipped that strategy in the bud. To finish, some praise for Greece in WW2:

“We will not say hereafter that the Greeks fight like heroes, but heroes fight like Greeks!” Winston Churchill, 24 April 1941.

“If the Russian people managed to raise resistance at the doors of Moscow, to halt and reverse the German torrent, they owe it to the Greek people who delayed the German divisions during the time they could bring us to our knees.” Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s memoirs.

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20150106052253/http://www.kalavrytanews.com/2014/10/Alors-cest-la-guerre-to-oxi-toy-metaxa.html

[2] von Rintelen, Enno (1951). Mussolini als Bundesgenosse. Erinnerungen des deutschen Militärattachés in Rom 1936–1943 [Mussolini as an ally. Memories of the German military attaché in Rome 1936–43] (in German). Tübingen/Stuttgart: R. Wunderlich.

[3] Kurowski, Frank, ‘Jump into Hell: German Paratroopers in World War II’, Stackpole Books, (2010), pp. 165-166

[4] Evans, R: ‘The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster’ Penguin, 2009

6 comments

  1. Having lived in Crete for a few years until May this year, I am full of admiration for what the Greeks achieved and do believe they had a great part to play in putting Hitler and his armies off their stroke. But their contribution is, as you say, often overlooked and it’s heartening to see you redress the balance. While the generation who fought for their country have almost all died off, their children had some amazing stories to tell. I just wish I could bloody remember them!

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    1. What a lovely comment. I must I loved reading up on the Greek involvement in the war and previously knew very little about – we never did anything about it in school or university! I personally think they played a big part in the allied victory too. Thanks for reading as always!

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  2. I just want to add the more or less complete list of FAMOUS QUOTES ABOUT THE GREEKS IN WWII:

    Adolf Hitler:
    “For the sake of historical truth I must verify that only the Greeks, of all the adversaries who confronted us, fought with bold courage and highest disregard of death.. ” (From speech he delivered to Reichstag on 4 May 1941)
    Winston Churchill:
    “The word heroism I am afraid does not render the least of those acts of self-sacrifice of the Greeks, which were the defining factor in the victorious outcome of the common struggle of the nations, during WWII, for the human freedom and dignity. If it were not for the bravery of the Greeks and their courage, the outcome of WWII would be undetermined.” (Paraphrased from one of his speeches to the British Parliament on 24 April 1941)
    “Until now we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say: The heroes fight like Greeks.” (From a speech he delivered from the BBC in the first days of the Greco-Italian war)
    Joseph Vissarionovich Tzougasvili Stalin:
    “I am sorry because I am getting old and I shall not live long to thank the Greek People, whose resistance decided WWII.” (From a speech of his broadcast by the Moscow radio station on 31 January 1943 after the victory of Stalingrad and the capitulation of marshal Paulus)
    Charles de Gaul:
    “I am unable to give the proper breadth of gratitude I feel for the heroic resistance of the People and the leaders of Greece.” (From a speech of his to the French Parliament after the end of WWII)
    Maurice Schumann Minister of the exterior of France 1969-1973, member of the French Academy 1974:
    “Greece is the symbol of the tortured, bloodied but live Europe.. Never a defeat was so honorable for those who suffered it.” (From a message of his he addressed from the BBC of London to the enslaved peoples of Europe on 28 April 1941, the day Hitler occupied Athens after Greece fought a 6-month war)
    Moscow, Radio Station to Greece:
    “You fought unarmed and won, small against big. We owe you gratitude, because you gave us time to defend ourselves. As Russians and as people we thank you.” (When Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R.)
    Georgy Constantinovich Zhoucov 1896-1974 Marshal of the Soviet Army:
    “If the Russian people managed to raise resistance at the doors of Moscow, to halt and reverse the German torrent, they owe it to the Greek People, who delayed the German divisions during the time they could bring us to our knees.” (Quote from his memoirs on WWII)
    Benito Mussolini:
    “The war with Greece proved that nothing is firm in the military and that surprises always await us.” (From speech he delivered on 10/5/1941)
    Sir Robert Antony Eden, Minister of War and the Exterior of Britain 1940-1945, Prime Minister of Britain 1955-1957:
    “Regardless of what the future historians shall say, what we can say now, is that Greece gave Mussolini an unforgettable lesson, that she was the motive for the revolution in Yugoslavia, that she held the Germans in the mainland and in Crete for six weeks, that she upset the chronological order of all German High Command’s plans and thus brought a general reversal of the entire course of the war and we won.” (Paraphrased from a speech of his to the British parliament on 24/09/1942)
    Sir Harold Leofric George Alexander, British Marshal during WWII:
    “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Greece upset the plans of Germany in their entirety forcing her to postpone the attack on Russia for six weeks. We wonder what would have been Soviet Union’s position without Greece.” (Paraphrased from a speech of his to the British parliament on 28 October 1941)
    George VI, King of Great Britain 1936-1952:
    “The magnificent struggle of Greece, was the first big turn of WWII” (Paraphrased from a speech of his to the parliament in May 1945)
    Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States of America:
    “On the 28th of October 1940 Greece was given a deadline of three hours to decide on war or peace but even if a three day or three week or three year were given, the response would have been the same. The Greeks taught dignity throughout the centuries. When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom.”
    (Paraphrased from speech he delivered on 10/6/1943)
    “The heroic struggle of the Greek people… against Germany ‘s attack, after she so thunderously defeated the Italians in their attempt to invade the Greek soil, filled the hearts of the American people with enthusiasm and moved their compassion.” (Paraphrased from a speech of his on 25/04/1941)
    NOTES:
    On 10 April 1941, after the capitulation to Germany, the northern forts of Greece surrender. The Germans express their admirations to Greek soldiers, declare that they were honored and proud to have as their adversary such an army and request that the Greek commandant inspect the German army in a demonstration of honor and recognition! The German flag is raised only after the complete withdrawal of the Greek army. A German officer of the air force declared to the commander of the Greek Eastern Macedonia division group, lieutenant general Dedes that the Greek army was the first army on which the stuka fighter planes did not cause panic. “Your soldiers” he said, “instead of fleeing frantically, as they did in France and Poland, were shooting at us from their positions.”
    The Greeks originally surrendered to the Germans only (which makes sense). Mussolini learned about it and got pissed, demanding that the Greek Army surrender to the Italians as well. He ordered additional attacks against the Greeks who were then in the process of surrendering to Germany. The Greeks resisted, and defeated the Italians once more. After the embarrassment to Mussolini, Hitler relented and had General Dietrich convince General Georgios Tsolakoglou to include Italy as well in the surrender.
    And here’s a very old quote from ancient times:
    AESCHYLUS: “BECAUSE ONLY WE (THE GREEKS), CONTRARY TO THE BARBARIANS, NEVER COUNT THE ENEMY IN BATTLE”
    Here’s a little history lesson on the Greeks in WWII. The Greeks resisted longer than any other country before being occupied by the Nazis. Read this, it should make you feel Proud to be Greek! After you have finished reading, feel free to post other reasons why you are Proud to be Greek.
    DURATION OF RESISTANCE (in days):
    Greece 219
    Norway 61
    France 43 (The superpower at the time)
    Poland 30
    Belgium 18
    Holland 4
    Yugoslavia 3
    Denmark 0 (The Danes surrendered to Hitler’s motorcyclist who was conveying Hitler’s request to the Danish king for the crossing of the Nazi armies. The
    Danish king indicating submission surrendered his crown to the motorcyclist)
    Czechoslovakia 0
    Luxenburg 0
    TOTAL GREEK CASUALTIES IN WWII BY COUNTRY:
    Albanians killed 1,165 Greeks
    Italians killed 8,000 Greeks
    Bulgarians killed 25,000 Greeks
    Germans killed 50,000 Greeks
    TOTAL LOSES IN POPULATION PERCENTAGES:
    Greece 10%
    Soviet Union 2.8%
    Holland 2.2%
    France 2% (The superpower at the time)
    Poland 1.8%
    Yugoslavia 1.7%
    Belgium 1.5%

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  3. The Greeks are a nation of Warriors who have never given up the everlasting fight for Democracy, their gift to the world.
    My father arrived in Pireus in 1944 with the returning British Army. At no time ever, did my father refer to the Greek freedom fighters as ‘partizans’. For my father, the Greek freedom fighters he saw at Pireus, were Athenian Warriors.
    I have nothing but love and admiration for the Greeks. Athens is the beating heart of Democracy, the very foundation of the Western world. The word ‘Democracy’ begins with the Greek word ‘demos’ – the people. Thus it is we the people who rule and not a foreign dictator.

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