Greece in the World War II
Η Ελλάδα στον Β΄ Παγκόσμιο Πόλεμο 1940-1944,
Αρχείο Ραδιοφώνου, ΕΡΤ,
Αθήνα, 2000, σελ. 18-23.
The Italian Invasion
Greece's active part in World War Two carried a heavy cost in terms of human life and material losses sustained. The country became involved in the fighting despite the initial unwillingness on the part of both the Greek people and the government in power. After a whole century of giving strict priority to the Greek lands still in bondage, the conce- ntration in a free state of the vast majority of the members of the Greek family (follow- ing the population exchanges with Bu- lgaria and Turkey) made it necessary, at the end of World War 1, for a review of the strategic direction of Greek foreign policy to be carried out. As soon as the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, Greece 's primary concern was to consolidate its territorial integrity and national independence. The country's entry into the Second World War, a decision which found the Greek people and the Greek government wholly united, occurred precisely when these precious commodities came under threat.
As the morning of 28th October, 1940 dawned the Italian ambassador in Athens, acting on orders from the Fascist government in Rome with an ultimatum to the then Greek prime minister, loannis Metaxas, demanded the immediate surrender of a number of strategic areas of Greek territory as a guarantee of Greece 's neutrality and of Italian security. When the Greek prime minister refused outright to agree to these demands, Italian forces crossed the Greek-Albanian border and invaded Epiros . In an attempt to justify the unprovoked attack by Italy, Mussolini made the totally groundless claim that Greece had violated the rules of neutrality by providing facilities for British troops on its territory and by oppressing the ethnic Albanian population in Tsamouria . In fact, Mussolini's initiative was motivated by his opportunistic and expansionist inclinations; these were particularly apparent in the countries that neighbored Italy which wanted to bring them gradually under its sphere of influence and control. A few months before the Italian invasion of Greece, Germany 's victory over France had fired Mussolini's ambitions even further and he speeded up ltaly's entry into the war. Indeed, the operation against Greece would have taken place earlier had Hitler not raised strong objections, claiming it was not the right time to open up a new front in the Balkans.
The unanimous Greek reaction to the unprovoked attack by the Italians was immediate and decisive. The repeated acts of provocation by Rome which culminated in the torpedoing of the cruiser "Elli" in Tinos harbor on 15th August, 1940 resulted in fuelling the Greek people's determination not to stand passively by and allow its national and human dignity to be insulted. The invading Italian forces came up against an impregnable wall of Greek troops along the Pindos mountain range. In the last ten days of November, the Greek forces had already launched a counter-attack and moved into Albanian territory, inaugurating a steady and successful advance. In addition to checking the Fascist invasion, the Greek public now saw that the liberation of the still-enslaved ethnic Greeks in Northern Epiros was under way with the consecutive occupation, in early December, of Korytsa, Moschopolis, Pogradec, Premeti, Aghii Saranda, Argyrokastro and finally Chimarra . The world watched with surprise and admiration as Greek fighters, alone amongst the peoples of mainland Europe, stood up to the Axis forces. In a letter to Constantine Dimaras dated 31st December, 1940 the French writer Andre Gide, wrote: "Beloved people of Greece, have you any idea what you represent to us today? Pot-many dreadful months we have known nothing but failure and disappointment, the annihilation of any motivation for pride and hope, and it is as if from the depths of a much-loved past your voice has been raised above the disordered sounds of hell..."
Greece 's advance on the Albanian front was halted only because of poor weather conditions when snow on the mountains and flooding on low-lying land made it difficult to get supplies through to the troops. Only then were they forced to check their advance. Kleisoura, which had been seized in the early days of 1941, marked the innermost Greek position within Albania . The Greek army would not succeed in forging on to Avlona and striking the final blow to the Italians, but neither would it retreat one inch from the Pogradec-Chimarra line. The major Italian attack, known as the Spring attack, was to result in failure. During the second half of March Italian forces, although reinforced in terms of both men and armaments, failed under Mussolini's very eye to overcome the resistance of the Greek vanguard and to reverse the course of the war.
The German invasion
When Greece was attacked by Italy it had no conventional ties with the protagonists in the war. Despite the obvious friendly disposition towards Britain shown by both the Greek government and the Greek people, no agreement had been drawn up committing Greece to allegiance with one side or the other. Having had to confront the invading Italian forces effectively all on its own, Greece had every reason to expect the conflict to become entrenched for the most part on a bilateral Greek-Italian basis, given that the British were unable to dispatch any appreciable forces from the fighting in North Africa to support a new operational front in south-eastern Europe. The Greek government thus hoped to avoid conflict with Nazi Germany. If the attempt was unsuccessful, the failure was due not so much to the upsetting of the balance in its relations with the warring parties as to the broader strategic planning of Adolf Hitler, particularly his decision to extend the military front towards the East, with the Soviet Union as his new target.
By 18th December, 1940 the plan to attack Russia was already in place. From then until the following May, through unceasing activity on the diplomatic and military front, Germany was imperceptibly preparing the ground for implementation of its plan. A fundamental prerequisite was to protect the German army's southern flank and ensure control of the Balkans. Beyond the satellites of the Axis states in central and eastern Europe, such as Hungary and Romania, the position of Sofia, Belgrade and Ankara very soon became clear: Bulgaria and Yugoslavia would join the tripartite agreement between Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, while preparations would be made for the signing of a bilateral friendship agreement with Turkey .
The overthrow of the pro-Axis government in Belgrade on 27th May, 1941 did not bring with it any radical changes in the balance of power, which was clearly in favor of the Axis. On 6th April, thirty heavily-armed divisions of the German army, reinforced by Italian troops and covered by Bulgarian forces, advanced to the last outposts on the Bulgarian border and invaded Yugoslav and Greek territory simultaneously.
Awareness of the overwhelming supremacy of the enemy did nothing to change the determination of the Greek people to resist this latest unprovoked attack. On the Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia front, linking the strongholds of Nymphaia, Echinos, Lysses, Perithorio, Rupel and lstibey, Greek fighters carried out their duty unflinchingly. Having battled against superior enemy forces for four whole days and nights, the troops finally surrendered only when the German tank divisions, having accomplished a sudden breach in the Yugoslav front, entered the valley of the River Axios and outflanked the line of defense on the River Struma. The capture of Thessaloniki on 9th, Larissa on 19th and Chalkida on 25th April, 1941 marked the relentless German advance on Athens. The resistance put up by the Greek troops at the strategic positions on the Aliakmon line and at Thermopylae, this time with the help of British forces, checked the German progress for only a few days. I
The collapse of the Greek front signaled the start of a period of terrible suffering for the Greek nation. On 18th April, the Prime Minister, Alexander Koryzis, committed suicide and two days later, against the strict instructions of the government which demanded resistance to the end, General Tsolakoglou, commander of the Epiros Army Division, surrendered to the invading forces. Field-Marshall Papagos sent a telegraph demanding Tsolakoglou's immediate replacement, but in the end he was unable to prevent the disintegration of the army. When the German vanguard arrived in Athens on 27th April, 1941 King George 11, the new Prime Minister Emmanuel Tsouderos and the members of the cabinet had already moved the government's headquarters to Crete . The island, which was to be of considerable strategic importance, became the scene of Greece 's greatest battle in the Second World War.
The Battle of Crete bore the stamp of the same fighting spirit that the Greek people had shown from the very first hours of Fascist provocation. According to a report written by Lord Salisbury, the Greek fighters with very little training, inferior weapons and equipment, took the whole brunt of the German attack bravely and resolutely. For the first time in the course of the war, the unanimous and full-scale contribution of the people to the fight against the occupying forces was seen in Crete . However, the organized defense created at the initiative of Allied Headquarters, six months after the first British troops landed on the island, failed to provide the necessary guarantee for dealing effectively with enemy attack. The last piece of Greek territory fell to the Germans on 30th May, 1941 after ten days of bitter fighting. The price of this first, and last, extended operation involving airborne troops was to prove a heavy one for the victors, who lost thousands of their best I parachutists and also valuable time, with grave consequences for the outcome of their Russian campaign and ultimately for the course of the war.
The Greeks in the Vanguard of the Fight against the Axis Powers 1941-1944
The fall of Greece did not mean the defeat of the Greek fighting spirit. Inspired by what Angelos Terzakis calls the passion for freedom, the Greeks continued unflaggingly to do battle against the enemy with whatever means possible in the cities and the Greek countryside and on the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fronts. The representatives of the government in exile had early on expressed the decision to stand up to the forces of violence and totalitarianism at the inter-allied conference in London in June, 1941: " We have sacrificed everything for independence and freedom ... Our land has been occupied, but we shall continue the struggle to the end using all available means, as long as we are able, alongside our allies, until freedom prevails and we have established peace and free cooperation amongst peoples in a liberated Europe". In occupied Greece, as enemy forces flooded into the streets of the capital, Athens Radio Station broadcast its final | message, the first call to resist the occupying troops: "Greeks, keep your spirits high..."
A primary concern of the Greek government in exile, presided over in turn by Emmanuel Tsouderos, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos (for a short period) and finally George Papandreou, was to
establish an effective armed force. Despite the adverse conditions, the attempt met with success, with
officers and plain soldiers enlisting in great numbers from both Greece and the Diaspora. Armaments depended, on the one hand, on fighting units, mainly naval ones, and on equipment that had been transferred in time to the Middle East, and on the other on supplies from Greece 's allies, chiefly Britain . The activity of the land army, a force consisting of three brigades, proved to be extremely effective in the operations against Rommel at El Alamein, in the attempts to land in the eastern Aegean and in the allied campaign in Italy, culminating in the Battle of Rimini. At the same time the Sacred Company, a select body of commandos composed entirely of NCO's from all branches of the armed forces, made a valuable contribution to the field of operations in the Middle East and the Aegean . Three air squadrons made up purely of Greeks were active on the African fronts and in Italy, while the navy was no less dynamic. From the well-trained naval units which fled to Alexandria in Egypt, led by the battleship " Averof ", a force of approximately fifteen ships was assembled, both surface vessels and submarines, which were manned by trained crews. By the end of the war this force had been reinforced with a further thirty ships of all types, supplied by the Allies. Also present in the allied struggle against the Axis powers was Greece 's powerful merchant navy. At the height of the war more than 500 cargo ships with crews of 20,000 men made a decisive contribution to the provision of essential supplies to the allied countries at war, with an extremely high level of losses: 3,000 seamen and 374 boats with a total displacement of 1,315,657 tons, without taking into account the number of motor vessels and sailing boats destroyed.
The resistance put up against the occupying German, Italian and Bulgarian forces both in the cities and in the countryside assumed epic proportions. Three organizations with a broad fighter participation - EAM (National Liberation Front), EDES (National Republican Greek League) and EKKA ( National and Social Liberation) - as well as a host of local resistance groups or secret networks in the country's urban centres and a multitude of stalwart individuals, often anonymous, together formed a large and unobtrusive army. Mass demonstrations and protest rallies, not to mention numerous acts of self-sacrifice and self-denial, shook up the towns and cities, especially Athens: secret information and communication networks were set up with the allied authorities abroad, support and assistance was given to groups of fighters and their leaders, and buildings and warehouses storing material belonging to the occupation forces were destroyed or sabotaged. Alongside these activities, steps were taken to arm the people in the Greek provinces, with the mountain ranges in central Greece and in Crete chosen as operational bases. As time passed, the activities of partisan groups spread virtually throughout the country, serving both as a source of moral uplift and inspiration for the enslaved and defeated and as a means to carry out important operational plans in collaboration with the Allied Headquarters in the Middle East. Major achievements included the blowing-up of the bridge at Gorgopotamos and the conducting of operations code-named Animals (June, 1943) and Noahs Ark (from spring till autumn of 1944). Professor Albert Bayet from the Sorbonne in Paris and chairman of the French Press Federation described Athens as the leading capital in the European Resistance.
The Broader Significance of Greece's part in the War
Greece 's participation in the Second World War was to leave its mark on the general course of events at military, operational and also political level. The effects of the strong Greek resistance to the attack by the Axis powers were felt immediately in, above all, the field of military operations. The Greek troops deep inside Albania created an unexpected front that checked the Axis powers, which at that time controlled most of the European mainland. In the context of the Potential new balance in the region, the western allies gained strategic footholds that could be used by their naval, air force and ground troops. For Hitler, the real threat to metropolitan Italy, the Italian-held islands of the Dodecanese and Romanian oil-wells lay in the securing of Greek positions on the Albanian front. Assessing the importance of Greek domination over the Italian invaders, F. Noel Baker has expressed the view that if the Greeks had given in, the Axis powers would have extended their control over the whole of the Mediterranean, thus making the allied resistance in North Africa very difficult and bringing about the fail of one country after another in the Middle East. "It is not hard to believe that we might even have lost the war. Thanks to the Greek resistance, we had enough time to beat back and then crush the Italian army which was moving towards Egypt, to purge the Red Sea of enemy ships and transfer American help to the Near East, and thus to I neutralize the threat against Middle East".
Yet Greece 's contribution to the allied victory also proved to be all-important in the period that 1 immediately followed. Hitler's forced decision to purge the Balkans before undertaking any aggressive I action against the Soviet Union had initially been linked to implementation of the Barbarossa Plan around the middle of May, 1941. However, the failure of the major Spring counter-attack by the 1 Italians in Albania, the subsequent victory of the pro-allied coup in Belgrade on 27th March, 1941 and above all the extension of the Wehrmachts operations in mainland Greece and Crete meant a delay that was to prove decisive to the outcome of Hitler's Russian campaign. This is a view voiced by all the protagonists on both sides, but chiefly by Hitler himself who told Martin Bormann: "The alliance 1 with Italy was an absolute disaster. By transferring the war to the Balkans, the Italians made Germany lose six vital weeks before the attack on Russia ".
While not in themselves being of any outstanding significance, the unfailing presence of Greek fighters on the fronts in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean throughout the war and the still powerful resistance in the cities and country areas of occupied Greece made a valuable contribution I to the allied war effort.
The effects of Greece 's participation in the war, particularly in the political arena, were manifest. In a period of political fluidity in the Balkans and the Middle East, interception of the Italian attack served to discourage any pro-Axis proclivities. Hitler himself admitted that even in France and Spain, there was now more support for those who believed the last word had not yet been said regarding the outcome of the war. In the end, German military intervention in south-eastern Europe brought about the surrender or defeat of the countries in the region, but not until after the time limits for extension of its policy of penetration in the Middle East had been exhausted. Moreover, the domination of the Greek forces on the Albanian front contributed in the long term to the weakening and ultimately the collapse of the Fascist regime, dealing a fatal blow to its prestige and heightening its dependence on Berlin .
Nonetheless, apart from the strategic and political arena, the strong resistance put up by Greece
to the forces of violence and totalitarianism also made a major contribution to boosting the morale
of the people of Europe in critical times, when their suffering was at a peak. As Jean Cassou writes, " How moved we were, in this nightmare of shame and gloom, to see a little nation stand up so
admirably against the monster that has tyrannized mankind ... We French, beaten, humiliated and
exhausted, have kept our eyes fixed firmly on Greece to do battle, just like knights defending their
honor, and this has given us renewed hope ..." There are innumerable accounts from all over the
world that echo this feeling produced by the Greek struggle. In the words of Andre Gide, "You deserve
gratitude because you gave back to the whole of mankind some reasons to win back trust in man, love
and hope". Countless others were to express the same view.
The Greek Situation in the Light of later Development
Greece was a cradle of resistance and strength during the Second World War and the struggle by the Greek people in the name of freedom, democracy, human dignity a moral statement and source of hope. Four years of bitter experiences, trial and tribulation gave way to a period suffused with unattained aspirations from the past which were uninitiated in the spirit of the new age that was dawning. The fulfillment of outstanding national demands and the healing of the scars left by the war were matters of absolute priority in the consciousness of the Greek people. Yet at the same time there was a feeling that these overriding national needs would meet with response only in conjunction with a more general restructuring of international society as a whole. Greece's general standpoints and specific aspirations centered firmly around the same principles that had inspired them and the rules adopted by the new collective and international manifestos that were issued after the announcement of the Atlantic Charter and in view of the vote on the United Nations Charter
But were these principles accorded their rightful place in practice? To what extent were the hopes and expectations of the people anticipating the application of these principles in fact confirmed? Today, half a century later, a one-dimensional reply to these questions would not suffice. The fresh attempt to streamline the organization of international life through the United Nations certainly bore the markings of a less unrealistic and more down-to-earth approach than that which had been adopted during the period between the wars. Besides, apart from the more general problem concerning the organization of peace, Greek expectations regarding national claims were not entirely disappointed. In February, 1947 the Dodecanese were incorporated into the Greek state under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. The quest for international support that would meet the country's defense needs had always remained largely unsatisfied, but it was now satisfied in part by the country's admission to broader organized alliances, chiefly Nato . At the same time, while the Marshall Plan enabled Greece to see to its economic revival, settlement of the pending national issues concerning Northern Epiros and Cyprus was allowed to drag on. Only a few years later Greeks were required to launch themselves into another bitter and unequal struggle against the colonial regime which its main ally during the recent war insisted on imposing on Cyprus ! Failure of the relevant mechanisms and of the new international organization, the United Nations? Insistence by the major powers on power politics at the expense of the principles they had so jubilantly proclaimed? Whatever the reason, the disappointment and frustration of the Greek public was linked to the belief that lack of recognition of national demands was ultimately the same thing as violation of the principles and regulations which had been universally acknowledged and for which legislation had been enacted.
The repercussions of the Second World War were also associated with widespread fermentation in Greece 's domestic political life. In addition to advancement of their national claims and hopes for a fairer structuring of the international system, Greeks - in common with all those who had suffered under regimes of violence and oppression - looked forward to a new world based on sound principles and practices. It was not, however, an ideology shared by everyone. A section of the nation was leaning towards implementation of the Socialist system and the domination of Marxist internationalism, while another - ultimately the one which prevailed - linked its aspirations to the prospect of the domination of liberal ideas and the parliamentary model. Their opposition was coupled early on with the inexorable conflict between two major fronts in political ideology, those of the Western and the Eastern world, which vied with each other for supremacy in the international scene after the Second World War. The deep scars inflicted on the body of the nation finally healed much later, roughly halfway through the fifty-year post-war period ...
Although half a century has now intervened since the end of the war, the expectations and dreams that inspired the people of Greece then are still in place. Turning these expectations and dreams into firm principles and authoritative proposals, which had been appreciated through bitter experience and fierce struggles, would naturally increase their chances of survival. Yet much more than this process of conversion, it was their survival in practice, succinctly described by Angelos Terzakis as a Passion for freedom, since it sustained the resistance to the forces of violence and totalitarianism, at marked out the course towards the future. The experiences of the fifty years since the war are closely related to the frustration of hopes and the violation of principles which had represented a firm foothold in the struggle by liberated man for a better world. Yet at the same time, these very vents serve to confirm the widespread prevalence of the fundamental choices to which Greeks turned in the wake of the crucial war.