Operation Steinadler

golden eagle

This was a German operation against the partisan forces of ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army), led by Napoleon Zervas, round Pentalofos in the eastern part of German-occupied Greece (June 1944).

Three weeks after the end of ‘Gemsbock’, General Hubert Lanz’s XXII Gebirgskorps launched ‘Steinadler’ to destroy the guerrilla forces threatening the roads linking Korca and Ioánnina, and Ioánnina and Trikkala. Attached to the corps were Generalleutnant Walter Stettner Ritter von Grabenhofen’s 1st Gebirgsdivision, a provisional division formed from elements of Generalleutnant Kurt Pflugradt’s Korpsgruppe ‘Saloniki’, and a number of security battalions.

There were only vague estimates of the partisan strength, which was believed to be in the order of 6,000 to 8,000. Of considerable significance was the close liaison between the Greek partisans and partisan groups in Albania just across the frontier.

For security reasons, only the minimum number of commanders and staff officers were informed of the plan, while the troops were told they were assembling for a series of small-scale operations. Further steps to preserve the secrecy of the operation consisted of radio silence on the part of units moving into the area, small-scale troop movements in adjacent areas, and radio traffic from the light division below Arta indicating an attack farther to the south. The radio net operated by the guerrillas was monitored carefully to determine their reaction to these measures and to detect possible alerting of their units. Air reconnaissance was extended into Albania in order to allay partisan suspicions over unusual interest in the area.

Establishing its command post in the vicinity of Metsovan, the XXII Gebirgskorps deployed the 1st Gebirgsdivision along a line extending from that point to Ioánnina, Vasilikon and Leskovic. Strongpoints and reinforced security units acting as a blocking force secured the road from Leskovic to the north and a junction with the divisional grouping near Korçë. From a point to the east of Korçë, the divisional grouping was responsible for the line linking Bilisht, Kastoria, Neapoli, Grevena, Krania and Metsovan.

Aware of their predicament as soon as the German troops had had to deploy from their vehicles, the partisans evacuated Pentalofon and moved into the mountains. Air reconnaissance reported them still within the encirclement, however, and the German troops continued their movement as planned. The first day ended with elements of the 1st Gebirgsdivision checked by stiff resistance in the area to the north of Metsovan. During the day, troops of the divisional grouping repulsed an attempt by a significant partisan force to break out at Grevena. On the second day, the divisional grouping was compelled to halt and reorganise after finding it difficult to maintain cohesion over the rough terrain. The 1st Gebirgsdivision meanwhile became heavily engaged at close quarters when it attempted to break through the resistance to its front. It was in this engagement that a battalion aid station, moved too far forward, was overrun by the partisans and 80 wounded men were murdered and mutilated.

To the left of the divisional grouping, the 1st Gebirgsdivision managed to drive forward and on the operation’s third day enveloped the partisan pocket in the area to the north of Metsovan, only to find a large part of the defending force had escaped to the north-west. Some 1,500 partisans were compressed in a ring about Pentalofon and destroyed in a systematic combing operation lasting two more days.

‘Steinadler’ cost the partisans 567 persons killed and 976 taken prisoner; in addition, 341 Italians and seven British were captured. The matériel taken by the Germans included 10 tons of explosives, more than 750,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunition, and 10,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep and goats. Despite their losses, however, the partisans began to regroup as soon as the German combat troops had left the area.