In 1939, the Italians under Mussolini issue an ultimatum to the Greeks demanding they allow the Italian Army to cross into and occupy Greece. It is Greece's finest moment and the Greek response inspired the world. Not only was the Italian advance smashed, the Italians were expelled from Greece and driven back to Albania.


Greece entered World War II on 28 October 1940, when the Italian army invaded from Albania. The Greek army dealt the first victory for the Allies by defeating the invasion and pushing Mussolini's forces back into Albania. Hitler was reluctantly forced to send his own forces to overcome Greece in April 1941, and delay the invasion of the Soviet Union by six weeks. This is considered by some historians as the first turning point of the war, since the delay proved disastrous to the German invasion, with the onset of the Russian winter and the strong resistance of the Soviet armed forces halting it before the gates of Moscow. Although the German invasion of Greece was swift, their forces met fierce resistance on the island of Crete, where the elite Fallschirmjäger suffered almost 7,000 casualties. These heavy losses eliminated the option of a massive airborne invasion of the Soviet Union and further expansion in the Mediterranean saving Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, and the Suez Canal from airborne invasion.

After Greece was occupied and divided between the Axis powers, a large-scale Resistance movement developed in the country, which tied down a large number of Axis divisions. 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, its economy and infrastructure lay in ruins. Greece suffered more than 300,000 casualties during the occupation, and the country's Jewish minority was almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust. Soon, 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 Greco-Italian War had started when the Italian ambassador in Athens issued an ultimatum on October 28th, 1940 to the Greek Prime Minister, demanding that Greece allow Italy to occupy the country. There were many Italians who were quite dismayed at Mussolini's hostile attitude towards Greece and rightly predicted that nothing good could come from Mussolini's desire to show off the Italian war machine to his ally Hitler. The Greeks had replied to the Italian ultimatum with a resounding NO (OXI in Greek) and October 28th is still celebrated every year in Greece as a national holiday commemorating the resistance of Greece to Axis aggression and the sacrifice of the Greek nation for the allied cause. The Greeks have a saying: "When we are right we fight". And fight they did.

"Until now, we knew that Greeks were fighting like heroes; from now on we shall say that the heroes fight like Greeks." ~ Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain - 1940

Mussolini had been busy building up the Italian war machine and watching in envy as his ally Hitler conquered one country after another. He was fond of lecturing the Italian people about how he would restore Italy into a powerful new Roman Empire. The Italian armed forces had an overwhelming advantage in terms of modern weaponry and numbers of troops, but they drastically underestimated the fighting spirit of the Greek army. Besides the fact that the Greeks were fighting for their homeland they also harbored a deep animosity towards the Italians for their betrayal of the Greek cause during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 when the supposedly allied Italians secretly sold weaponry to the Turkish side and then cut a deal to support the Turks.

When the Italian army crossed into Greece, they expected an easy victory, but met an enemy who was preparing to deliver a response that would devastate the Italian battle plan. As the columns of Italian infantry and tanks advanced through the valleys into Greece, the Greek forces converging from all over northern Greece went into action. They came down from the surrounding mountains, where they had been monitoring the troop movements, and attacked from all sides, stopping the invasion dead in its tracks. In one of the most amazing episodes in military history, the Greek army trapped the Italian 3rd Alpine Division in the mountains and shocked the Italian high command, by annihilating the unit taking 5,000 prisoners. By the middle of November, the Greek army had gone on the offensive driving the Italian army back into Albania.

At the end of December in 1940, the victorious Greek army had not only repulsed the Italian invasion, but had gone on to push the Italian forces out of the southern one third of Albania completely. On December 28th, Mussolini had to acknowledge that his grandiose vision to show Hitler how Italy could easily conquer Greece was a complete failure and he asked for German military assistance. Hitler who was furious that Mussolini had embarked on the invasion of Greece in the first place, now had to rescue the defeated Italians. This amazing Greek victory over the Italians became known as The Epic of 1940 to the Greeks and to the rest of the world as the first defeat of the Axis powers that gave them reason to hope that the aggression could be halted.

The Germans were unable to render assistance to their Italian allies until winter was over and then they launched their "Balkan Blitzkrieg" against Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6th, 1941. As with the fight against the Italians - the Greeks fought ferociously and with British assistance succeeded in holding out until the end of May 1941. The final battle of the German invasion of Greece was the airborne assault on the island of Crete. The Greek and British Commonwealth forces repelled two out of the three airports assaults, but the Germans poured men and material into the one airport that they had captured and finally turned the tide in their favor. Greek peasants hunted down and killed the elite paratroopers wherever they could find them. The German paratroopers suffered about 50% casualties (with almost 4,000 dead) out of 14,000 troops used in this final battle. So heavy were the losses that Hitler decided never to launch an airborne invasion again. General Kurt Student would later say, "Crete was the grave of the German parachutists".

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."

Occupation Forces

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 organised 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, 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 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 Resistance

The rise of resistance movements in Greece was precipitated by the invasion and occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany (and its allies Italy and Bulgaria) from 1941 to 1944. Italy led the way with its attemted invasion from Albania in 1940, which was repelled by the Greek Army. After the German invasion, the occupation of Athens and the fall of Crete, King George II and his government escaped to Egypt, where they proclaimed a government-in-exile, recognised by the Western Allies, but not the Soviet Union. The Western Allies actively encouraged, even coerced, the King to appoint center-wing, moderate ministers; only two of his ministers were members of the dictatorial government that had governed Greece before the German invasion. Some in the left-wing resistance claimed the government to be illegitimate, on account of its roots in the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941. Regardless of its pretensions, or of the dissenters, the government's inability to influence the governance of Greece rendered it irrelevant in the minds of most Greek people.

Germans set up a collaborationist government in Athens as soon as they entered the city; but this government, too, lacked legitimacy and support. The puppet regime was further undermined when economic mismanagement in wartime conditions created runaway inflation, acute food shortages, and even famine, amongst the Greek civilian population. Some high-profile officers of the pre-war Greek regime served the Germans in various posts.

References and Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

Antony Beevor (1992). Crete: The Battle and the Resistance. United Kingdom: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-016787-0.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.