This was the German and Italian strategic seizure of the Greek mainland and many of the Greek islands (6/30 April 1941).
As presaged by Adolf Hitler’s Führerweisung Nr 20 of 13 December 1940, the invasion of Greece eventually resulted from events in Yugoslavia, particularly the 27 March 1941 overthrow, in a military coup d‘état inspired by the 18 year old King Petar II, of the Yugoslav administration headed by the regent, Prince Pavle. Two days earlier this latter had signed the Tripartite Pact, thereby tying Yugoslavia to the Axis cause, in an attempt to stave off Italian, Hungarian and Romanian pressures for annexations of Yugoslav territory. Hitler was so incensed by the overturning of this agreement, however, that on 27 March he ordered the rapid preparation of the ‘Unternehmen 25’ campaign that would bring Yugoslavia firmly under the German heel. At the same time he decided that the simultaneous conquest of Greece would secure the whole of Germany’s southern flank before the launch of ‘Barbarossa’, deny the use of the country to the British for the forward basing of bombers which might undertake attacks on the Romanian oilfields and installations at Ploieşti that were of strategic importance to Germany, and also rescue the Italian forces locked hopelessly in a fruitless campaign in Albania and north-western Greece.
The whole of the Balkan campaign involved a first phase, in which Greek forces and units of the RAF successfully fought off the Italian forces that had invaded Greece in October 1940 in ‘Emergenza G’, then a second phase in which the poorly equipped, poorly trained, politically divided and badly led Yugoslav forces fought unsuccessfully from 6 April 1941 to beat off a concerted offensive by Axis ground and air forces in ‘Unternehmen 25’, and a third phase which also began on 6 April 1941 and in which Greek, British and commonwealth forces unsuccessfully resisted the ‘Marita’ invasion of Greece.
After Italy had invaded and occupied Albania in April 1939, Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, assured the rest of the world that Italy had no designs on Greece. The British and French governments nevertheless made an immediate pledge to maintain Greek and Romanian independence. Germany and Italy reacted to this by signing the ‘Pact of Steel’, which strengthened the Rome-Berlin Axis agreement of 1936. When Italy declared war on France and the UK on 10 June 1940, Mussolini still maintained that he had no interest in Greece, but on 28 October, after accusing Greece of allowing British forces to violate its neutrality, sent troops across the border from Albania. Though its forces were dangerously stretched at home, and by the battle for the Mediterranean, the UK immediately dispatched five RAF squadrons to Greece and established an inter-service mission.
The Italian offensive, which lacked both the strength and the commitment to accomplish its planned task, collapsed in the face of determined Greek resistance, and by 14 November the Greeks had launched a counter-offensive to drive the Italians back into Albania. The Greek commander-in-chief, Antistrátegos Alexandros Papagos, was sure that the Italians in Albania would soon be reinforced and, in an effort to secure victory before this could happen, drove his forces forward: on 6 December the Greeks had reached Sarandë on the coast and by 10 January 1941 had captured Kleisura on the Vjosë river, while British bombers, despite the adverse weather conditions, struck at Italian port facilities and lines of communication, and also supported the Greek advance on Valona.
Meanwhile, during November 1940 the Germans had begun their own preparations for an invasion of Greece through Romania and Bulgaria, not to aid the Italians but to protect the Romanian oilfields on which they were dependent for much of their fuel, and to secure the southern flank of their planned ‘Barbarossa’ invasion of the USSR. First to appear in the area were units of the Luftwaffe, and in January 1941 a build-up of German ground forces started in Romania, which after the fall of France had repudiated an Anglo-French pledge and aligned itself with Germany. The presence of Luftwaffe units in Bulgaria, and other factors suggestive of Germany’s Balkan intentions, became known to the British by means of ‘Ultra’ and other more conventional intelligence sources. By the second week in February, after Germany had failed to secure a halt in the Greco-Italian war by diplomatic means, it became abundantly clear that Greece was to be attacked on a second front.
During January 1941 the Greeks had come to believe that the British desired to embroil Greece in a long conflict with Germany and the British suspected the Greeks were considering a separate peace with the Italians, and as an initial result a British offer of ground forces and a Greek request for British matériel were both refused.
At the time of the Axis invasion, Greece was thus already at war with Italy following the Italian ‘Emergenza G’ invasion of 28 October 1940, and as a result, when ‘Marita’ began on 6 April, the main strength of the Greek army was deployed in the Albanian frontier region. In ‘Marita’ the German troops invaded through Bulgaria, creating a second front. Greece had already received a small though inadequate reinforcement of British and commonwealth forces delivered in anticipation of the German attack, but no more help was sent after the German invasion had started. The Greek army therefore found itself outnumbered in its effort to defend against both Italian and German troops, and as a result in the far north-east the defences along the Greco/Bulgarian frontier did not receive adequate troop reinforcements and was quickly overrun by the Germans, who then outflanked the Greek forces in the Albanian borders, forcing their surrender.
The British-led forces were powerless to halt the German onslaught and forced to retreat to the south toward the ports from which they could be evacuated across the Mediterranean to Egypt. The German forces reached Athens, the Greek capital, on 27 April and the south coast of mainland Greece three days later, capturing some 7,000 men of the British and commonwealth forces. and ending ‘Marita’ with a decisive victory. The conquest of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete one month later in ‘Merkur’. Following its capitulation, Greece was occupied by German, Italian and Bulgarian military forces.
Adolf Hitler later blamed the failure of the ‘Barbarossa’ invasion of the USSR, whose start had been delayed by six weeks by ‘Marita’, on Mussolini’s failed conquest of Greece and therefore his need to come to the support of his Tripartite Pact ally. Although largely specious as a reason for the failure of ‘Barbarossa’, it cannot be denied that ‘Marita’ nevertheless had serious consequences for the Axis war effort in the North African theatre, in which the British retention of Malta was a decisive factor, and it has rightly been emphasised that Hitler’s decision not to undertake the ‘Herkules’ airborne assault on Malta was a strategic error resulting directly from the very heavy losses of the German airborne arm in ‘Merkur’.
On the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Strátegos Ioannis Metaxas, the right-wing dictator of Greece, attempted to maintain a Greek neutrality. However, Greece was subject to increasing pressure from Italy, culminating with the sinking, but the Italian submarine Delfino of the Greek cruiser Elli on 15 August 1940. Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, was irritated by the fact that Adolf Hitler, the German Nazi leader, had not consulted him on Germany’s war policy and wished to establish Italy’s nationalist policy by the launch of independent operations. Mussolini hoped to match the German military successes of ‘Weiss’ (i) against Poland, ‘Weserübung’ against Denmark and Norway, and ‘Sichelschnitt’ against the Netherlands, Belgium and France by the Italian seizure of Greece, which he regarded as an easy target. On 15 October 1940, Mussolini and his senior advisers finalised their decision, and in the early hours of 28 October Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador, presented Metaxas with a three-hour ultimatum to give free passage to Italian troops for the occupation of unspecified ‘strategic locations’ in Greece. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum, but even before the ultimatum had expired Italian troops had marched into north-western Greece through Albania, which was already under Italian occupation.
The main Italian thrust was directed toward the region of Epiros in north-western Greece. The first clash between Italian and Greek forces was the Battle of Elaia-Kalamas, in which the Italians failed to break the Greek defensive line and compelled to halt. Within three weeks the Greek army launched a successful counter-offensive in which it marched into Albanian territory, capturing significant cities such as Korytsa (Korçë) in the north and Agioi Saranta (Sarandë) in the south. Neither a change in Italian command nor the arrival of substantial reinforcements improved the Italian situation.
After weeks of inconclusive winter warfare, the Italians launched another major offensive on the centre of the front on 9 March 1941, but despite the Italians’ overall superiority this failed. After a single week and 12,000 casualties, Mussolini terminated the offensive.
During this six-month campaign, the Greek army made territorial gains by destroying Italian salients, but Greece lacked any substantial armaments industry, and both its equipment and ammunition supplies had come to rely increasingly on stocks captured by the British from the Italians in North Africa. Moreover, to mass sufficient numbers of men for the Albanian front, the Greek command had been compelled to thin its forces in eastern Macedonia and western Thrace. Although the Greek command knew it lacked the strength to protect the whole of Greece’s land frontiers, it nonetheless decided to support its success on the Albania front despite the risk of a German and/or Bulgarian attack across the Greco/Bulgarian border.
Hitler intervened on 4 November 1940, four days after the first British troops had arrived on the islands of Crete and Lemnos in the south and north respectively of the Aegean Sea: although Greece had been neutral until the Italian invasion, the British troops delivered onto Greek national territory could now be construed as having created the possibility of a new front on Germany’s southern flank. Hitler therefore ordered the preparation of a campaign to take northern Greece from land and air bases in Bulgaria and air bases in Romania within the context of his master plan to deprive the British of Mediterranean bases. On 12 November, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht issued a directive scheduling the simultaneous launch of operations against Gibraltar and Greece in January 1941. In December 1940, however, German ambitions in the Mediterranean were of necessity radically revised after the dictator of Spain, General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, specifically rejected any German assault on Gibraltar across Spanish territory, and after this German offensive operations in southern Europe were limited to the Greek campaign.
On 13 December 1940 the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht issued a new directive outlining the Greek campaign under the codename ‘Marita’. In this, German forces were to take and hold the north coast of the Aegean Sea by March 1941, thereby giving German overland access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Aegean Sea, and to seize the entire Greek mainland if this proved necessary. Then, during a hasty meeting of Hitler’s staff after the unexpected coup d’état of 27 March by the Yugoslav king and air force officers against the Yugoslav government, which had only two days earlier signed the Tripartite Pact, orders for the new ‘Unternehmen 25’ campaign against Yugoslavia were drafted, and changes to the plans for the campaign against Greece agreed. On 6 April, both Greece and Yugoslavia were to be attacked.
The other main participant in the campaign which was to follow was the UK and its commonwealth. The UK had committed itself to the assistance of Greece by a declaration of 1939, which stated that in the event of a threat to Greek or Romanian independence ‘His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Greek or Romanian Government… all the support in their power.’ The first concrete evidence that the UK felt itself bound by this declaration was the deployment of Royal Air Force squadrons, under the command of Air Commodore J. d’Albiac, which started to arrive in November 1940. With the final approval of the Greek government, British forces had in fact already been dispatched to Crete on 31 October to guard Souda Bay, a strategically important naval anchorage on the island’s north coast, and this allowed the Greek government to redeploy Hypostrátegos Georgios Papastergiou’s 5th Cretan Division to the mainland.
On 17 November 1940, Metaxas proposed to the British government a joint offensive in the Balkans with Greek strongholds in southern Albania as its operational bases. The British were reluctant to discuss Metaxas’s proposal as they wished to undertake a defensive war if required, and also because the additional formations which the Greek plan would require would seriously jeopardise operations in North Africa such as the ‘Compass’ offensive which was currently being planned.
Churchill believed it was vital for the UK to take every measure possible to support Greece. On 8 January 1941, he stated that ‘there was no other course open to us but to make certain that we had spared no effort to help the Greeks who had shown themselves so worthy.’
During a meeting of British and Greek political and military and political leaders in Athens on 13 January 1941, Papagos, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army, asked the UK for the delivery of nine divisions and air power to match. The British responded that all they could offer was the immediate dispatch of a token force of less than divisional strength. This offer was rejected by the Greeks, who feared that the arrival of so small a force might well trigger a German offensive without providing the Greeks any meaningful assistance. The Greeks decided to request a greater degree of British aid if and when the movement of German troops to the south across the Danube, from Romania into Bulgaria, became evident.
Only a little more than one month later, the British decided that the time was ripe for a reappraisal of their situation, largely because Prime Minister Winston Churchill wished to create a Balkan front comprising Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, and instructed the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, to reopen talks with the Greek government. At meeting attended by Eden and the Greek leadership, including King Georgios II, prime minister Alexandros Koryzis (successor to Metaxas, who had died on 29 January) and Papagos, which took place in Athens on 22 February, Eden told the Greek government that the British would send troops to help defend their country on condition that the Greeks agreed to abandon Thrace and Macedonia to the Axis forces by withdrawing westward to a new defensive position, the Aliákmon Line, which ran from the mouth of the Aliákmon river, through Veroia and Edessa, to the Yugoslav frontier just to the east of the Monastir gap. The British believed that the Greeks had agreed to this plan, but when Eden returned to Athens on 2 March, having failed to achieve anything in drawing Turkey into the war on the Allied side and with Yugoslavia still sitting on the fence, he found that Papagos, whose understanding had been that forming the Aliákmon Line had been conditional on Yugoslavia’s reply to Eden’s request for support, had not even started the withdrawal.
Even so, late in February the British decided that it was time for the creation of a British and commonwealth expeditionary force would for rapid despatch to Greece as it was now known that German troops had been massing in Romania. On 1 March, these German forces started to move to the south into Bulgaria, and at the same time the Bulgarian army was mobilising and starting to occupy positions along the Greco/Bulgarian frontier.
On 5 March ‘Lustre’ began for the movement of troops, weapon and supplies from Egypt to Greece, and 26 troopships arrived at the port of Piraeus. Events were now starting to develop rapidly, and on 3 April, in the course of a meeting between British, Greek and Yugoslav military representatives, the last undertook to block the valley of Struma river, flowing to the south through western Bulgaria into western Macedonia and into the Aegean Sea, in the event of a German offensive across their territory. Papagos stressed the importance of a joint Greco/Yugoslav offensive against the Italians immediately the Germans launched their offensive.
On 9 March the Italians launched their second offensive against the Greeks on the Albanian front but, despite now having 28 divisions at their disposal, were again unable to effect any breakthrough. During this month Yugoslavia was under constant pressure from Germany to join the Tripartite Pact, and eventually did so on 25 March, and it was this which precipitated an anti-Nazi coup d‘état. Having agreed, but only with great reluctance, to withdraw the Greek forces from Thrace at the suggestion of the British, Papagos now reversed his decision. This left 3.5 Greek divisions manning the Metaxas Line, extending from the mouth of the Nestos river to the southern side of the Beles mountains in the area to the west of the Rupel pass, to protect Thessaloníki while another three divisions manned the Aliákmon Line with the British and commonwealth ‘W’ Force commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, who commanded the British and commonwealth forces in Greece.
By 24 April more than 62,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Palestinian and Cypriot troops had arrived in Greece, these comprising Major General Iven G. Mackay’s Australian 6th Division, Major General Bernard C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division, Brigadier H. V. S. Charrington’s British 1st Armoured Brigade and a number of supporting British artillery units, which became ‘W’ Force after Wilson, its commander, with Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of the two-division Australian I Corps, as his second-in-command. Although initially earmarked for deployment to Greece, Generał brygady Stanisław Kopański’s Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and Major General John D. Lavarack’s Australian 7th Division were retained in Egypt because of the first and very successful German thrust into Cyrenaica and toward Egypt.
d’Albiac commanded the British air forces in Greece. The total of RAF squadrons was now seven, and though aided by two squadrons of Egypt-based bombers for night operations, two of these were operating with the Greeks on the Albanian front, and what remained was no match for the 650 or more first-line aircraft of General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV.
To enter the northern part of Greece from Bulgaria, the German forces faced significant terrain problems inasmuch as they had to cross the Rhodope mountains, which possess only a few river valleys and mountain passes suitable for the transit of major military units. Two invasion routes were located in the area to the west of Kyustendil, and a third along the Bulgarian/Yugoslav frontier down the Struma river valley. The Greek border fortifications had been carefully created to extract the maximum benefit from the terrain and a formidable defence system covered the few available roads. The Struma and Nestos rivers cut across the mountain range along the Greco/Bulgarian frontier and both of their valleys were protected by strong fortifications, as part of the larger Metaxas Line. This was a system of concrete pillboxes and field fortifications, constructed just along the Greek side of the Bulgarian border in the late 1930s and schemed on principles similar to those of the Maginot Line in France. Its strength rested primarily in the inaccessibility of the intermediate terrain leading up to the defence positions.
However, despite increasing evidence that German troops were moving in large numbers over the Danube river into Bulgaria during the early spring of 1941, the Greek and the combined British and commonwealth forces in Greece were unable to establish a coherent front because of command disagreements. The Greeks wanted adamantly to fight their battle along the Metaxas Line, a line of strong fortifications built during the 1930s along the Bulgarian border from the mouth of the Nestos river on the north coast of the Aegean Sea, north-west up the Metaxas river and then west across the Struma river and south of the Beles mountains almost to Dojran on the Greco/Yugoslav border. This course of action was posited on the idea of exploiting the region’s naturally difficult terrain, enhanced in defensive capability by the man-made fortifications, while protecting the strategically important port of Thessaloníki. But the Greek plan disregarded the fact that the forces and equipment available were adequate only for a token resistance, and that the Metaxas Line was vulnerable to a flanking attack past its western end, through the Vardar river valley and past Dojran, if the neutrality of Yugoslavia was violated. Obsessed with its fears of Bulgarian aggression against its long and comparatively shallow regions between the Aegean Sea and Bulgaria, and being on traditionally good terms with the Yugoslavs, the Greeks had left the Yugoslav border region largely without man-improved defences.
Greece’s mountainous terrain favoured a defensive strategy and the high ranges of the Rhodope, Epiros, Pindos and Olympos mountains offered many defensive opportunities. However, air power was required to protect defending ground forces from entrapment in the many defiles if their positions were turned. Although an invading force from Albania could be stopped by a relatively small number of troops positioned in the high Pindos mountains, the north-eastern part of Greece was difficult to defend against an attack from the north.
After a conference in Athens during March, the British believed that they would combine with Greek forces to occupy the Aliákmon Line, which extended from a point on the Greco/Yugoslav border to the north-west of Edessa, past Edessa, along the north-eastern face of the Vermion mountains to Véroia and finally along the lower part of the Aliákmon river to its estuary on the Aegean Sea just to the west of the estuary of the Vardar river, known in Greece as the Axios river. The advantage of Wilson’s position was that it required fewer forces, and that more time would therefore be available for the preparation of the line against Axis forces invading from Bulgaria. But any concentration of the defence on the Aliákmon Line meant nearly the entire northern part of Greece would have to be abandoned to its fate, and this was unacceptable to the Greeks for obvious political and psychological reasons. Moreover, the left flank of the Aliákmon Line was susceptible to any flanking movement by the Germans through the Monastir gap in Yugoslavia to debouch into Greece to the west of Lake Vegorrítis behind the north-western end of the Aliákmon Line.
But Papagos was still awaiting clarification from the Yugoslav government and later proposed that the allied forces hold the Metaxas Line (now to the Greek population as much a symbol of national security as the Maginot line had been to the French up to May 1940, yet with no greater justification) and not withdraw divisions from the Albanian front. Papagos’s case was that to do so would be seen as a concession to the Italians. However, Papagos’s plan left strategically important port of Thessaloníki practically undefended and the ‘Faggot’ movement of British troops, weapons and supplies to the city remained dangerous. Papagos’s answer to British concerns was that he proposed to take advantage of the area’s terrain and prepare fortifications, while also protecting Thessaloníki.
Dill saw Papagos’s attitude as narrow-minded yet defeatist, and argued that his plan ignored the fact that Greek troops and artillery were capable of only token resistance to a German invasion. The British believed that the Greek rivalry with Bulgaria, the Metaxas Line having been designed and constructed specifically against the eventuality of war with Bulgaria, as well as their traditional amity with the Yugoslavs left the nation’s north-western border largely undefended. Despite their awareness that the line was likely to collapse in the event of a German thrust down the valleys of the Struma and Axios rivers, the British little option but to accede to the plan of the Greek command. On 4 March, Dill accepted the plans for the Metaxas Line, and on 7 March the agreement was ratified by the British war cabinet.
The result of this disagreement was the creation of two (and therefore weaker) defence positions rather than one strong position, one along the Metaxas Line held by Bakopoulos’s Eastern Macedonia Army Section, and one along the Aliákmon Line held largely by British and commonwealth forces. Predictably, both positions were easily overrun by the Germans.
Overall command was still to be vested in Papagos, and the Greek and British commands agreed to fight a delaying action in the north-east. The British did not move their troops as Wilson believed them to be too weak to protect such a broad front. Instead, he ordered ‘W’ Force to take position some 40 miles (65 km) to the south-west of the Axios river, across the Aliákmon Line, with the primary objectives of maintaining contact with the Greek army in Albania and denying any German offensive access to central Greece. The twin objectives had the advantage of requiring a smaller force than other options, and also provided greater time for preparation, though they also meant the abandonment of almost all of northern Greece, which was unacceptable to the Greeks for political and psychological reasons. Moreover, the line’s left flank was vulnerable to being outflanked by a German advance through the Monastir gap in southern Yugoslavia. However, the rapid disintegration of the Yugoslav army and a German thrust into the rear of the Vermion position were not expected.
The German strategy was based on the use of the now well-proved Blitzkrieg method which had proved itself during the German campaign in north-western Europe. The efficacy of the method was confirmed once more during the ‘Unternehmen 25’ invasion of Yugoslavia. Thus the German command combined armour, artillery and infantry under an air umbrella which provided total cover and also served as ‘flying artillery’ for the armoured forces roaming ahead of the slower-moving infantry and its horse-drawn artillery.
The German strategic aim was to use the XL Corps (mot.), freed by the lack of any significant opposition in Yugoslavia, to strike to the south between the Pindos mountains and Kozani to secure the complete division of the Greek forces in north-western and north-eastern Greece, while at the same time isolating the Central Macedonia Army Section and Eastern Macedonia Army Section from each other and from the rest of the country. These isolated groups could then be crushed individually with the aid of the VIII Fliegerkorps.
The initial objective was Thessaloníki, followed by Athens and the port of Piraeus. The loss of the last and the seizure of the isthmus of Corinth would fatally compromise any possibility of the withdrawal and evacuation of the British and Greek forces.
From north-west to south-east, the German force tasked with the main assault on Greece (Thrace and Macedonia) was Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s 12th Army 1. The 12th Army attacking from Bulgaria was to be supplemented on its left in the Monastir gap by elements of another of its formations, General Georg Stumme’s XL Corps (mot.) (Generalleutnant Alfred Ritter von Hubicki’s 9th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Bruno Bieler’s 73rd Division and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s brigade-sized Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’) after it had first seized Yugoslav Macedonia and taken Skopje before wheeling south into the Monastir gap.
List’s last and indeed largest subordinate formation was Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzergruppe (otherwise the Panzergruppe ‘von Kleist’), whose two corps were in fact wholly committed to ‘Unternehmen 25’ and therefore played no part in ‘Marita’.
In the west, Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s 9th Army and Generale d’Armata Carlo Geloso’s 11th Army were to advance from Albania into north-western Greece.
General Vladimir J. Cukavac’s Yugoslav 5th Army had responsibility for the defence of the south-eastern border region between Kriva Palanka and the Greco/Yugoslav frontier, but the Yugoslav troops were not fully mobilised and lacked adequate equipment and weapons.
Following the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, the majority of the Greek troops were evacuated from western Thrace. By this time, the Greek forces defending the Greco/Bulgarian frontier totalled about 65,100 men, only about half of them combat-capable, of what British and Germans sources generally describe as the 2nd Army although no such formation existed, while the rest of the Greek forces, the 15 or more divisions often erroneously known as the 1st Army by British and German sources, was committed in Albania.
The forces available to face the expected German attack in Macedonia were mostly newly formed divisions manned by reservists and lacking heavy weapons and equipment. As noted above, the Greek high command did not agree with the British as to the deployment of its forces, being unwilling to abandon all of northern Greece in favour of the shorter line between the Vermion mountains and Aliákmon river favoured by the British, so the Greek forces in Macedonia were divided in two major groupings, which fought separate battles.
Antistrátegos Konstantinos Bakopoulos’s Eastern Macedonia Army Section covered the pre-war fortifications of the Metaxas Line between Mt Beles and the Nestos river with Hypostrátegos Christos Zoiopoulos’s 7th Division (26th, 71st and 92nd Regiments), Hypostrátegos Konstantinos Papakonstantinou’s 14th Division, Hypostrátegos Leonidas Stergiopoulos’s 18th Division, Hypostrátegos Nikolaos Lioumbas’s 19th Mechanised Division (191st, 192nd and 193rd Regiments), Syntagmatárches Anastasios Kalis’s Nestos Brigade, the Krousia Detachment and Hypostrátegos Ioannis Zisis’s Evros Brigade detached as a covering force for western Thrace, and the 21 fortresses of the Metaxas Line.
Also allocated directly to the defence of Metaxas Line by Yugoslavia was Lieutenant General Dragutin Zivanovic’s 20th ‘Bregalnička’ Division (23rd, 28th and 49th Regiments as well as the 20th Artillery Regiment), which was part of the 3rd Territorial Army and intended to prevent the 2nd Panzerdivision from outflanking the entire Greek position by crossing into Greece from Yugoslavia.
Antistrátegos Ioannis Kotoulas’s Central Macedonia Army Section was assigned on 28 March to the ‘W’ Force in holding the line between the Vermion mountains and the Aliákmon Line with Syntagmatarches G. Karambatos’s 12th Division (35th and 80th Regiments, the Dodecanese Regiment, the X Frontier Sector and the 20th Mountain Artillery Regiment), and Hypostrátegos Christos Karassos’s 20th Division (82nd, 84h, 86th and 87th Regiments).
The rest of ‘W’ Force, which was only just settling into its positions as the German invasion began, comprised Australian, New Zealand and British elements in the form of Mackay’s Australian 6th Division (Brigadier Arthur S. Allen’s 16th Brigade, Brigadier Stanley G. Savige’s 17th Brigade and Brigadier George A. Vasey’s 19th Brigade, Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division (Brigadier E. Puttick’s 4th Brigade, Brigadier J. Hargest’s 5th Brigade and Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough’s 6th Brigade), and Charrington’s British 1st Armoured Brigade.
Wilson had his headquarters to the north-west of Larissa. The New Zealand 2nd Division took position to the north of Mt Olympos, while the Australian 6th Division blocked the valley of the Aliákmon river up to the Vermion range. The RAF continued to operate from airfields in central and southern Greece, but was short of aircraft, and many of those which had been made available were obsolescent as only a very few modern warplanes could be diverted to the theatre. The ‘W’ Force was almost completely motorised, but its equipment was better suited to desert warfare than to operations over steep Greek mountain roads. The ‘W’ Force was short of tanks and anti-aircraft guns, and its lines of communication across the Mediterranean Sea were very exposed as each convoy had to pass close to Axis-held islands in the Aegean Sea, which was dominated on the surface by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet but in the air was largely dominated by German and Italian warplanes. The ‘W’ Force’s logistical problems were aggravated by the limited availability of shipping and relatively small capacity of Greek ports.
The German overall plan drew heavily on the army’s experience in ‘Sichelschnitt’ and ‘Rot’ (iii) in the French campaign, and the strategy was centred on the creation of a diversion through the campaign in Albania, thus stripping the Greek army of troops for the defence of its frontiers with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Then, by driving armoured punches through the weakest links of the allied chain of defences, the Germans believed that they would be able to penetrate deep in Greece without any need for substantial armour backing an infantry advance. Once southern Yugoslavia had been overrun by German armour in ‘Unternehmen 25’, the Metaxas Line could readily be outflanked by mobile forces thrusting to the south from Yugoslavia. Thus, possession of Monastir and its gap would allow the Aliákmon Line to be outflanked round its north-western end, while seizure of the Axios river valley woulds open the way to Thessaloníki
The anti-German coup d’état after Yugoslavia’s entry into the Tripartite Pact demanded a major alteration of the core plan and confronted the 12th Army with a number of difficult problems. According to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s directive of 28 March, the 12th Army was to create a mobile task force to attack toward Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, down the Morava river valley after entered south-eastern Yugoslavia to take Niš. With only nine days left before the German forces’ final deployment, every moment was important as each redeployment needed time. By the evening of 5 April, the forces which would enter southern Yugoslavia and northern Greece had been assembled.
It was at dawn on 6 April that the German forces began the ‘Marita’ invasion of Greece. The XL Corps (mot.) moved off at 05.30 to advance to the south-west cross the extreme south-east of Yugoslavia, take Skopje on the Vardar river and then wheel to the south-east and enter the Monastir gap. The corps advanced across the Bulgarian frontier in two columns at separate points. By the evening of 8 April, the 73rd Division had taken Prilep, severing an important railway line linking Belgrade and Thessaloníki, thereby isolating Yugoslavia from its allies. On the evening of 9 April, Stumme deployed his forces to the north of Monastir in readiness for the planned attack toward Flórina. This position threatened to encircle the Greek forces in Albania and ‘W’ Force in the area of Flórina, Edessa and Katerini. While small security detachments covered Stumme’s rear against the possibility of a surprise attack from central Yugoslavia, elements of the 9th Panzerdivision pushed to the west to link with the Italians on the Albanian border.
The 2nd Panzerdivision of the XVIII Gebirgskorps entered Yugoslavia on the morning of 6 April and advanced to the west through the Struma river valley. The division met little resistance, but was delayed by the needs to clear roads and also to overcome demolitions, mines and mud, but was nevertheless able to reach its first-day objective, the town of Strumica. On 7 April, the division beat off a Yugoslav counterattack against its northern flank, and on the following day drove its way across the mountains and overran the elements of the Greek 19th Motorised Division located to the south of Lake Doiran. Despite encountering several varied delays along the mountain roads to the east of the Axios river, a German armoured advance guard despatched toward Thessaloníki entered the city by the morning of 9 April. The capture of Thessaloníki involved no fighting, and was followed by the surrender of the East Macedonia Army Section with effect from 13.00 on 10 April.
The Metaxas Line was held by the Eastern Macedonia Army Section’s 7th, 14th and 18th Divisions, and extended about 106 miles (170 km) from the mouth of the Nestos river on the Aegean Sea just opposite Thasos island to the north-west up the river’s western side and then to the west on the Greek side of the frontier with Bulgaria as far as Mt Beles near the Yugoslav border. The fortifications were designed to be held by a garrison of more than 200,000 men, but the actual number had been reduced to 65,100 men to satisfy the manpower requirements of the Albanian front, so the line was only thinly defended. The Greek matériel resources for the defence of the Metaxas Line included 40 tankettes, 188 pieces of field artillery, 76 anti-tank guns and 30 anti-aircraft guns.
Eventually using almost the full available strength of the XVIII Gebirgskorps and XXX Corps, the Germans had to break the line to capture Thessaloníki, the most heavily populated city of northern Greece and possessing a port of strategic significance. The Battle of the Metaxas Line, which is known in Greece as the Battle of the Forts, began on 6 April with the commitment of two divisions and one infantry unit of the XVIII Gebirgskorps. The Greek resistance was initially strong, and on the first day of their attack the Germans made little progress in breaking the line, a German report at the end of the first day describing how the 5th Gebirgsdivision in the Rupel pass despite despite the strongest possible air support (the 12th Army could call on 650 aircraft) and sustained major losses. Of the 24 forts constituting the Metaxas Line, only two had fallen and then only after they had been destroyed rather than captured by direct assault.
Over the following days, the Germans deluged the remaining forts with artillery fire and the bombs of dive-bombers, and had to reinforce the 125th Regiment. A 7,000-ft (2135-m) snow-covered pass, which was considered inaccessible by the Greeks, was successfully crossed by the 6th Gebirgsdivision, which reached the railway line to Thessaloníki during the evening of 7 April. The 5th Gebirgsdivision and reinforced 125th Regiment next managed a very difficult opposed crossing of the Struma river, attacked along both banks and cleared a series of bunker position until they reached their objective on 7 April, though heavy casualties meant that they then had to be pulled back, albeit only temporarily. The 72nd Division advanced from Nevrokop across the mountains, though its advance was delayed by a shortage of pack animals, medium artillery and mountain equipment, and it was only during the evening of 9 April that the division reached the area to the north-east of Sérres, the second largest town of central Macedonia, to the east of the Struma river and south-east of Lake Kerkini. Most of the forts of the Metaxas Line, such as Roupel, Echinos, Arpalouki, Paliouriones, Perithori, Karadag, Lisse and Istibey, managed to hold out until after the Germans had occupied Thessaloníki on 9 April, whereupon they surrendered under Bakopoulos’s orders. Even so, a number of smaller forts continued to fight for a few days more and were not taken until heavy artillery was used against them, and this provided the time for some of the retreating Greek troops to be evacuated by sea. Although eventually defeated, the defenders of the Metaxas Line had succeeded in delaying the German advance.
On the left of the German assault, the XXX Corp reached its designated objective on the evening of 8 April as the 164th Division on the corps’ right captured Xanthi. The 50th Division on the corps’ left pushed far beyond Komotini toward the Nestos river, and the two divisions linked on the following day.
On 9 April, the Greek forces defending the Metaxas Line capitulated unconditionally following the collapse of Greek resistance to the east of the Axios river. In an estimate of the situation on 9 April, List commented that as a result of the swift advance of the mobile forces, his 12th Army was now well positioned to advance into central Greece by breaking the Greek build-up behind to the west of the Axios river. On the basis of this estimate, List successfully requested the transfer of Generalmajor Gustav Fehn’s 5th Panzerdivision from the 1st Panzergruppe to the XL Corps (mot.) as its availability would add weight to the German thrust through the Monastir gap. For the continuation of the campaign, List divided the 12th Army into two as an eastern group under the command of the XVIII Gebirgskorps and a western group under the command of the XL Corps (mot.).
By the morning of 10 April, the XL Corps (mot.) had completed its preparations for the next phase of the offensive and advanced in the direction of Kozani, which lies in the southward bend of the Aliákmon river between Servia to the south-east and Flórina to the north-west. Against all German expectations, the Monastir gap had been left fully open and the Germans were quick to exploit this error. The first German contact with British and commonwealth troops in the Greek campaign took place to the north of Vevi at 11.00 on 10 April. Men of the Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ seized Vevi on 11 April, but were stopped at the Klidi pass just to the south of town, where a mixed British commonwealth and Greek unit, Mackay’s ‘Mackay’ Force, was assembled to halt the German progress down the Flórina valley. During the following day, the Waffen-SS unit reconnoitred the Allied positions and at dusk launched a frontal attack against the pass.
The Australians and New Zealanders were tired after a long and sudden journey from North Africa, and were not prepared for a European winter, which was lingering in the Greek mountains. The Allied units occupying the Klidi pass itself were predominantly of Vasey’s Australian 19th Brigade: the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions, the latter missing one company, complemented by the 9/King’s Royal Corps. The infantry was supported by parts of the New Zealand 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion, the Australian 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, the British 2nd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery and other smaller elements of Australian and British artillery units. The other components of ‘Mackay’ Force were in flanking positions some distance from the pass.
The Kampfgruppe ‘Witt’, a Waffen-SS battle group under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, was the German unit which assaulted the pass. Kampfgruppe ‘Witt’ comprised one infantry battalion, two light infantry weapons platoons, a heavy infantry weapons platoon, three anti-tank platoons, two engineer platoons, a light field howitzer troop and an 88-mm (3.465-in) Flak platoon. The British-led forces found that the Kleidi pass was between 110 and 550 yards (100 and 500 m) wide in the form of a winding defile, with steep, rocky and treeless sides up to a height of 3,280 ft (1000 m). On 11 April Vasey’s three infantry battalions were spread across a front 10 miles (16 km) wide: the 2/8th Battalion was on the ridge east of the pass, the 1/KRRC on a north-facing spur on the western side, and the 2/4th Battalion west of the British battalion. The New Zealand machine gunners were distributed among the infantry, and the Allied artillery was concentrated in the pass itself. Conditions at the top of the pass were ‘bitterly cold’, with rain turning to snow, which hindered the ability of the Allied infantry to rest.
The Kampfgruppe began a series of probing attacks on the afternoon of 11 April. They also approached along the main road, and other, more prolonged little attacks were directed at the positions of the 2/8th Battalion, and these became more aggressive as night closed in. On the morning of 12 April the snow lay more than 1 ft (0.3 m) thick on the hillsides, and by dawn many of the Australians and New Zealanders on the heights were suffering from frostbite and were unable to work their weapons effectively.
The outcome of these initial clashes with the Germans at Vevi were not encouraging for 'W' Force, and the rapid advance of the German armour into Thessaloníki and Prilep in southern Yugoslavia greatly disturbed Wilson, who was nonetheless able to time his moves nicely, in part as a result of the ‘Ultra’ intelligence he received: Wilson was informed of the intelligence’s origin, the first time a commander in the field had been made privy to the secret. The British commander was now faced with the prospect of being pinned by the invading Germans operating from Thessaloníki while being flanked by the formations of the XL Corps (mot.) descending through the Monastir gap behind his left flank. Orders had now been issued for an orderly withdrawal to the Aliákmon Line, however, to begin during the evening.
The primary German assault was launched at 08.30, and struck more strongly in the 2/8th Battalion’s sector at the point it met that of the 1/KRRC. Supported by intense machine gun and mortar fire, the men of the Waffen-SS succeeded in overrunning one Australian platoon. Believing that the 2/8th Battalion was retreating, the 1/KRRC withdrew in the centre. This opened the pass to the Germans, created a gap between the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions, severed communications between Vasey and the 2/8th Battalion and left Australian anti-tank guns without infantry protection. The two companies of the 2/8th Battalion on the western flank were then forced to retreat up the slopes. By 16.00 the Greek Dodecanese Regiment, east of the Australians, had completed a withdrawal planned by the Allied high command. This left the 2/8th Battalion in a long salient exposed on two flanks, and it was soon coming under machine gun fire from the east. According to an official Australian account, Vasey ‘realised his men were not going to be able to stage an orderly withdrawal. At 5.00 pm he telephoned the commanding officer of the 2/4th Battalion…with the code phrase indicating that a pull-out was now vital.’
At 17.30 German tanks arrived in force along the whole of the 2/8th Battalion’s sector, effectively sealing the Allied defeat at Vevi. The 2/8th Battalion was forced into a chaotic retreat, with component units being separated and officers ordering even light weapons to be abandoned to speed their withdrawal. The losses among the Australian infantry would have been much worse it were not for the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment and the Royal Horse Artillery, which stood their ground in the centre until the Germans were only 440 yards (400 m) distant. The 2/8th Battalion was effectively destroyed as a fighting force for the rest of the Greek campaign. According to some accounts, at its fallback position of Rodona, the battalion could muster only 250 men, of whom only 50 had weapons. Although the 2/4th Battalion had been spared the brunt of the German assault at Vevi, it had 70 personnel taken prisoner at a German roadblock during its retreat to Sotir. The Germans claimed to have captured 480 prisoners for the loss of 37 dead, 95 wounded and two taken prisoner. In spite of its defeat and losses, ‘Mackay’ Force had succeeded in gaining two days for the retreat and regrouping of the Allied forces.
On the morning of 14 April, the spearheads of the 9th Panzerdivision reached Kozani, and during the evening which followed the division established a bridgehead across the Aliákmon river, but an attempt to advance beyond this point was stopped by intense Allied fire.
As noted above, Wilson now had to face the prospect of his forces being pinned by Germans advancing to the west from Thessaloníki while being flanked by the XL Corps (mot.) moving to the south through the Monastir gap. On 13 April, he withdrew all British and commonwealth forces to the Aliákmon river and then to the narrow pass at Thermopylai. Wilson therefore ordered the British and commonwealth forces to fall back to a line which ran near Mt Olympus. This defence had three main elements, in the form of the Platamon tunnel area between Mt Olympus and the sea, the Olympus pass itself, and the Servia pass to the south-east. By channelling the German attack through these three defiles, the new line offered the limited defensive forces a checking capability far greater than they would have possessed in more open country. The defence of the Olympus and Servia passes was provided by Puttick’s New Zealand 4th Brigade, Hargest’s New Zealand 5th Brigade, and Allen’s Australian 16th Brigade. For the next three days, the advance of the 9th Panzerdivision was stalled by the determined resistance of these resolutely held positions.
A ruined castle dominated the ridge across which the coastal pass led to Platamon. During the night of 15 April, a German motorcycle battalion supported by a tank battalion attacked the ridge, but the Germans were repulsed by Colonel Macky’s New Zealand 21st Battalion, which suffered heavy losses in the process. Later in the same day, a German armoured regiment arrived and fell on the battalion’s coastal and inland flanks, but the New Zealanders held once again. After being reinforced during the night of 15/16 April, the Germans assembled a tank battalion, an infantry battalion and a motorcycle battalion. The infantry attacked the New Zealanders’ left-hand company at dawn, while the tanks attacked along the coast several hours later. Macky, who had lost touch with the company on his left, and had two companies farther down the hill being fired upon from the flank and the rear, gave the order to retire. The withdrawal was covered by the reserve company, which was on a ridge to the south of that pierced by the tunnel. Macky had intended to hold a new position about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of Platamon, but this was found to be impracticable, and the New Zealanders continued their retirement to the mouth of the Pinios gorge. The New Zealand battalion crossed the Pinios river and by a time just before the fall of night had reached the western exit of the Pinios gorge, suffering only light casualties.
It was here that Macky was informed that the gorge had to be denied to the Germans to 19 April even it this meant the destruction of his battalion. Macky ordered the sinking of a crossing barge at the western end of the gorge once his men were across and set up defences. The 21st Battalion was reinforced by the Australian 2/2nd Battalion and later by the 2/3rd Battalion, the three antipodean battalions becoming known as ‘Allen’ Force. The 2/5th and 2/11th Battalions moved to the Elatia area, to the south-west of the gorge, and were ordered to hold the western exit for three or four days.
On 16 April, Wilson met Papagos at Lamia and informed him of his decision to withdraw to Thermopylai. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, commanding the Australian Imperial Force, divided responsibility between Mackay and Freyberg during the leapfrogging move to Thermopylai. Mackay’s force was assigned the flanks of the New Zealand 2nd Division as far to the south as an east/west line through Larissa, and to oversee the withdrawal through Domokos to Thermopylai of the ‘Savige’ and ‘Zarkos’ Forces and finally of the ‘Lee’ Force; the 1st Armoured Brigade was to cover the withdrawal of the ‘Savige’ Force to Larissa and thereafter the withdrawal of the Australian 6th Division, under whose command it would come, and overseeing the withdrawal of ‘Allen’ Force, which was to move along the same route as the New Zealand 2nd Division. The British and commonwealth forces remained under attack throughout their withdrawal.
On the morning of 18 April, the Battle of Tempe Gorge, as the the struggle for the Pinios gorge was otherwise known, was over when German armoured infantry crossed the river on floats and men of the 6th Gebirgsdivision worked their way around the New Zealand battalion, which was then dispersed. On 19 April, the first elements of the XVIII Gebirgskorps entered Larissa and took possession of its airfield, which the British had abandoned without demolishing the supply dump. The German seizure of 10 truckloads of rations and fuel enabled the spearhead units to continue their advance without pause. The port of Volos, where the British had re-embarked many units in the course of the last few days, fell on 21 April to the Germans, who captured large quantities of valuable Diesel fuel and crude oil.
As the German forces pressed deeper into Greece, Antistrátegos Georgios Tsolakoglou’s Epiros Army Section finally received permission to retreat, but it 13 April before the first Greek elements began to withdraw toward the Pindos mountains. The Allied retreat to Thermopylai uncovered a route across the Pindos mountains by which the Germans might flank the Greek army in a rearguard action, and the Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ was assigned the mission of cutting off the Epiros Army Section’s line of retreat from Albania by driving to the west toward the Metsovon pass, and thence to Ioánnina On 14 April, there was heavy fighting in the Kleisoura pass, where the Germans blocked the Greek withdrawal. By now this withdrawal extended across the whole of the Albanian front, with the Italians in only hesitant pursuit.
Papagos rushed Greek units to the Metsovon pass, where he expected the next German attack. On 18 April there began a battle between several Greek units and the Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’, which had by then reached Grevena. The Greeks lacked the weapons and other equipment needed to wage an effective battle against a motorised unit, and as a result were soon encircled and overwhelmed. The Germans pressed forward and on 19 April captured Ioánnina, the key point on the line of communications and supply for the Epiros Army Section.
On 20 April, Tsolakoglou accepted that the situation of his Epiros Army Section was hopeless and offered to surrender the 14 divisions of his army, but to the Germans rather than the Italians. Under Hitler’s strict instructions, Dietrich parleyed with the Greeks in total secrecy and accepted the surrender. When he learned of this, an outraged Mussolini ordered attacks on the surrendering Greek forces, which repulsed the Italian efforts. It took a personal representation from Mussolini to persuade Hitler that there should be an Italian involvement in the armistice which was concluded on 23 April. This allowed Greek soldiers to go home after the demobilisation of their units rather than being seized as prisoners of war, and the Greek officers were permitted to retain their side arms.
As early as 16 April, the German command realised that British ships were evacuating troops from the ports of Vólos in Thessaly and Piraeus in Attica, and from this time onward the campaign assumed the character of German pursuit rather than a German invasion. For the Germans, it was now primarily a question of maintaining contact with the retreating British and commonwealth forces and defeating their evacuation plans, and as a result the Germans withdrew their infantry divisions, which lacked the mobility for such an effort. The 2nd Panzerdivision, 5th Panzerdivision, 5th Gebirgsdivision, 6th Gebirgsdivision and Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ were therefore the formations and units with which the Germans undertook their pursuit of the retreating British and commonwealth forces.
To allow an evacuation of the main body of British forces, Wilson ordered the rearguard to make a last stand at the historic Thermopylai pass, the gateway to Athens. Here Freyberg had been allocated the task of defending the coastal pass with Mackay defending the inland village of Brallos. In the New Zealand sector, the 5th Brigade was deployed along the coastal road, the foothills to the south of Lamia and on the Spercheios river, the 4th Brigade on the right where it had established coast-watching patrols, and the 6th Brigade in reserve. In the Australian sector the 19th Brigade, comprising the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions, defended Brallos. On 19 April, the 2/1st and 2/5th Battalions were placed under the command of Vasey, and that day and during the early hours of the next, the 2/11th Battalion rejoined the brigade. Freyberg and Mackay had told their subordinates that there would be no more withdrawals as both were unaware of discussions at higher command levels about the evacuation.
When the order to retreat was received on the morning of 23 April, it was decided that each of the two positions would be held by one brigade. These were the Australian 19th Brigade and New Zealand 6th Brigade, which were to hold the passes as long as possible, allowing the other units to withdraw. The Germans attacked at 11.30 on 24 April, met fierce resistance, lost 15 tanks and sustained considerable casualties. The Australians and New Zealanders held out the entire day, and with their delaying action accomplished, the two brigades fell back in the direction of the evacuation locations. The Panzer units seeking to press the German pursuit were considerably slowed by their need to navigate the road leading across the pass, which had very steep gradients and difficult hairpin bends.
After abandoning Thermopylai, the British and commonwealth rearguard withdrew to an improvised switch position to the south of Thebes, which was the last obstacle to the north-west of Athens. The motorcycle battalion of the 2nd Panzerdivision, which had crossed to the island of Euboia to seize the port of Khalkis 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 the first German troops entered Athens, followed by armoured cars, tanks and infantry. Here the Germans seized large quantities of petrol, oil and lubricants, several thousand tons of ammunition, 10 trucks loaded with sugar and 10 truckloads of other rations in addition to various other equipment, weapons and medical supplies. The population of Athens had been expecting the Germans for several days and confined themselves to their homes with their windows shut. The Germans drove straight to the Akropolis and raised the Nazi flag.
During the morning of 15 April, Wavell, the British commander-in-chief Middle East Command, sent Wilson a message saying ‘We must of course continue to fight in close cooperation with Greeks but from news here it looks as if early further withdrawal necessary.’ When he was in Greece between 11 and 13 April, Wavell had warned Wilson that he must expect no reinforcements and authorised Major General F. W. de Guingand, of the Joint Planning Staff of the GHQ Middle East, to discuss evacuation plans with certain responsible officers, which de Guingand had already started on his own initiative. Nevertheless, the British could not at this stage adopt or even mention any such course of action as, for political reasons, the suggestion had to come from the Greek government. On the following day, Papagos suggested to Wilson that ‘W’ Force be withdrawn. Wilson informed GHQ Middle East of this, and on 17 April Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman was sent to Greece to prepare the evacuation, which was planned as ‘Demon’. On the same day Wilson travelled to Athens, where he attended a conference with the king, Papagos, d’Albiac and Rear Admiral C. E. Turle, the British naval attaché in Greece. In the evening, after telling the king that he felt he had failed in the task entrusted to him, prime minister Koryzis committed suicide.
On 21 April, the final decision to evacuate the British and commonwealth forces from mainland Greece to Crete and Egypt was taken, and an initial contingent of some 5,200 men, mostly of the New Zealand 5th Brigade, were evacuated on the night of 24 April from Porto Rafti in eastern Attica, while the New Zealand 4th Brigade remained to block the narrow road to Athens. On 25 April the few remaining RAF squadrons left Greece, d’Albiac establishing his new headquarters in Heraklion on the island of Crete, and some 10,200 Australian troops were evacuated from Nafplio and Megara in the Peloponnese. Another 2,000 men had to wait until 27 April after Ulster Prince ran aground in shallow waters close to Nafplio. It was only at this stage that the Germans realised that the evacuation was now also taking place from the ports of the eastern Peloponnese.
On 25 April the Germans launched their ‘Hannibal’ (ii) airborne operation to seize the bridges over the Corinth Canal with the double aim firstly of cutting off the British line of retreat and secondly of securing their own later means of access across the isthmus into the Peloponnese. The attack met with initial success, until a stray British shell destroyed the bridge.
Assembled in Ioánnina, the Infanterieregiment (mot.) ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ was now driving along the western foothills of the Pindos Mountains via Arta to Messolongi on the northern side of the western end of the Gulf of Corinth, and crossed to Patrai in the Peloponnese to open the possibility of an advance to the isthmus from the west. Reaching the isthmus at 17.30 on 27 April, the SS force learned that the paratroopers had already been relieved by army units advancing from Athens.
The 11,636-ton Dutch troop ship Slamat was part of a convoy evacuating about 3,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops from Nafplio in the Peloponnese and, while steaming to the south off the east coast of the Peloponnese, during the morning of 27 April, came under attack by a Staffel of nine Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber of Major Graf Clemens von Schönborn-Wiesentheid’s Stukageschwader 77. Slamat was damaged and set on fire. The British Diamond rescued about 600 survivors and Wryneck came to her aid, but as the two destroyers made for 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 men from Wryneck, 20 crew from Diamond, 11 crew and eight evacuated soldiers from Slamat survived.
The completion of a temporary bridge across the Corinth Canal made it possible for elements of the 5th Panzerdivision to pursue the British and commonwealth forces across the Peloponnese. Driving via Argos to the port of Kalamata, from which the majority of the British and commonwealth units had already started to depart, on 29 April the German army forces reached the south coast of the Peloponnese, where they were joined by SS troops arriving from Pírgos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. In overall terms, the fighting in which the German forces found themselves engaged in the Peloponnese took the form of small-scale engagements with isolated groups of British troops who had been unable to reach the evacuation point. The German 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 had been completed, but ‘Demon’ was heavily contested by German warships, which sank at least 26 troop-laden ships as well as many warships. The Germans captured around 8,000 British and commonwealth troops, including 2,000 Cypriots and Palestinians, as well as a number of Yugoslav troops in Kalamata before they could be evacuated, and also freed many Italians from prisoner of war camps.
The German casualties in the Greek campaign were 1,685 men killed and 3,750 wounded, compared with British losses of 12,700 men killed and 9,000 taken prisoner, and Greek losses (in a six-month campaign including the war with Italy in Albania) of 15,700 men dead and 218,000 taken prisoner. During their six-month involvement the Italians had lost 13,755 men dead, 50,875 wounded, 25,000 missing and 12,370 suffering from frostbite.
On 13 April, Hitler had issued his Führerweisung Nr 27 about the later stages of the Greek campaign, and this included his preliminary instructions for the occupation policy for Greece, which was finalised in the Führerweisung Nr 31 of 9 June. Greece was divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. Germany controlled the north-eastern corner opposite European Turkey, Macedonia, Athens and the islands of Salamis and Aigina off it, the western three-quarters of Crete after its seizure in ‘Merkur’, Milos and Amorgos in the Cyclades islands group, and in the Aegean Sea the islands of Patmos, Chios, Lésbos, Agios Eustratios and Lemnos. Bulgaria received Thrace (between the Struma river and a line of demarcation running through Alexandroupoli and Svilengrad to the west of the Evros river, which had been occupied on the day that Tsolakoglou had offered his surrender, and from July 1943 extended westward to a line just short of Thessaloníki) and the islands of Thasos and Samothrace. Italy was given the rest of the country on the mainland and in the islands of the Ionian and Aegean Seas to supplement those they already possessed in the Dodecanese islands group.
Italian troops started to occupy the islands of the Ionian and Aegean Seas on 28 April, on 2 June they occupied the Peloponnese, on 8 June Thessaly, and on 12 June most of Attica.
King Giorgios II and his government departed mainland Greece for Crete on 25 April, but were forced to leave Crete for Egypt on 24 May after the German ‘Merkur’ invasion of Crete.
The Greek campaign ended with a complete German, and to a lesser extent Italian, victory. The Greeks lacked the modern military strength and industrial infrastructure which might have allowed them to mount a more effective defence, and the UK and its commonwealth lacked the military resources to permit them to carry out simultaneous large-scale operations in North Africa and the Balkans. Moreover, even had they been able to block the Axis advance, the British and commonwealth forces would have been unable to exploit the situation by a counter-thrust across the Balkans. However, the British came very close to holding Crete and perhaps other islands which could have provided air support for naval operations throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Thus the reasons for the complete Axis victory in the Greek campaign included the German superiority in ground forces and equipment; the commitment of the bulk of the Greek army to fighting the Italians on the Albanian front; German air supremacy combined with the inability of the Greeks to provide the RAF with adequate airfields; the inadequacy of the British and commonwealth expeditionary force; the technically impoverished nature of the Greek forces and their overall shortage of modern equipment; inadequate port, road and railway facilities; the absence of a unified command and the resultant lack of effective co-operation between the British, Greek and Yugoslav forces; Turkey’s strict neutrality; and the early collapse of Yugoslav resistance.
After the Allied defeat in Greece, the decision to send British and commonwealth forces into Greece faced fierce criticism in the UK. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War II, considered intervention in Greece to be a strategic error as it denied Wavell the necessary reserves to complete the conquest of the Italian ‘empire’ in North Africa, or to withstand the combined Axis offensive to the east in March 1941 after the ‘Sonnenblume’ arrival of German forces in Libya. Thus the diversion of British and commonwealth forces to Greece prolonged the North African campaign, which otherwise might have been successfully concluded during 1941.