Guest Viewpoints

Greece’s Decisive WWII Role

October 28, 2020
By Ernest A. Kollitides

Eighty years ago, at 3 AM on October 28th, 1940, while the streets of Athens were almost deserted and most of the country was asleep, a speeding black limo, sporting an Italian flag and carrying a single passenger was on an important mission. It soon stopped in front of a suburban home and its passenger, Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador to Greece, rang the doorbell and hurriedly asked the custodian to announce him to the Prime Minister. Ioannis Metaxas put on his robe, suppressed his annoyance, and even though he already knew, he asked the ambassador to explain the unusual timing of his visit. Grazzi, looking almost contrite, handed him Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding free access for the Italian army to occupy at will strategic areas in Greece; it allowed three hours for its acceptance or else his well-armed divisions would march from Albania into Greece.  

Faced with Mussolini’s outrageous demand but unable to summon his cabinet at that time, Metaxas responded categorically in French, the diplomatic language at the time, "Alors, c’est la guerre!" or "Then, it is war!" This short, but unambiguous rejection of Mussolini's infamous ultimatum, was quickly morphed into a Spartan ‘Oxi’, (Ohi, No) by an enraged Greek public instantly bursting with patriotism and ready for whatever sacrifices were in store. Flags were raised everywhere and speeches were delivered in schools and churches while the radios were blaring patriotic songs and thunderous marching music. A general mobilization was declared immediately as political divisions melted away and suddenly the country was ready to fight any enemy who had the impudence to demand its surrender. 

Following the start of WW II, with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Benito Mussolini had watched in frustration the Germans, his Axis partners, conquered one European country after another while, by the spring of 1939, he had only annexed Albania and declared war on the Allies on June 10, 1940. By September 1940, the Italians began serious preparations to occupy Greece. Obsessed with the lure of an effortless victory in the Balkans, Mussolini had seen Greece as an easy target and massed troops in Albania while blatantly trying to create a “casus belli” to justify an attack on Greece. The sneaky torpedoing of the Elli, a Greek Navy cruiser, on August 15, 1940 near the island of Tinos was his most brazen provocation. Then in the early hours of October 28, 1940, even before his three- hour ultimatum limit had lapsed, Mussolini launched his unprovoked attack on Greece. His armored divisions quickly overran the poorly defended Greek-Albanian border and swarmed into Greece while the Italian air force bombed Greek cities. 

When, later, on the same day, Hitler stepped out of his train in Florence, Italy, for a meeting with El Duce, he was greeted by a boastful Mussolini with the words: “Fuhrer, we are on the march!” However, the hollow bravado of a fascist bully, masquerading a modern Roman emperor soon crashed against the uncompromising determination of the defenders of Greece's honor, emulating the historic examples of their ancestors.

After their early ephemeral success in penetrating Greek territory, Mussolini’s forces came face-to-face with a ferocious Greek counter offensive, were routed by the smaller and poorly equipped Greek army, and retreated back into Albania, losing thousands of their men in bloody fights or as war prisoners. Mussolini quickly discovered that, far from winning acclaim for his fascist arms, his army’s misfortunes at the hands of the Greek defenders were to bring him, not just the scorn of the Allies, but also Hitler’s disdain! 

In defending their national soil, the Greeks repelled Mussolini's mechanized hordes, defeated them repeatedly on the rugged snow-covered Pindus Mountains, and routed them back into Albania, compelling Mussolini to change his generals three times and to accuse the Greeks of … “fighting like savages!” When he launched his “grand counteroffensive,” he had secretly taken personal active command of his shaken armies. When he lost again, the self-proclaimed Caesar kept top-secret his ignominious personal defeat. In a few weeks, the advancing Greek army had forced the retreat of El Duce’s legions and his celebrated Alpine divisions deep into Albania, towards the Ionian seacoast, ready to deal them their own ‘Dunkirk’.  

The Greek women of the Pindus villages offered invaluable support to the men by carrying, mostly on their backs, desperately needed supplies to the front lines, climbing ancient goat paths through frozen mountain ravines, while being strafed by Italian airplanes. Most of the city women were hard at work knitting scarves, socks, and sweaters, following army specifications, so that they would be the same for all the soldiers.

All Italian counteroffensives had failed, inspiring Winston Churchill to declare: “Hence we will not say the Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks!” Patriotic songs declaring, “… we shall raise the Greek flag in Rome,” were filling the air while church bells were announcing the capture of one Albanian city after another. These were the first decisive WWII allied victories against the Axis forces and Greece began to receive enthusiastic accolades from all allied leaders and generals! 

To bail out Mussolini from a total humiliating disaster, Hitler delayed Operation Barbarossa against the USSR and launched Operation Marita, a massive attack against Yugoslavia and Greece. On April 6, 1941, he sent ten divisions of the German XII Army, including three armored divisions, against the length of Greece’s northern frontier. Coordinated heavy Luftwaffe bombing of strategic targets joined the Nazi blitzkrieg of Panzer columns thundering south from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and smashing against stubborn Greek resistance. Having found itself hugely outnumbered and outgunned in fighting at once Italian, German, and Bulgarian armies on several fronts, the Greek army, with some British help and air cover of just 80 planes, fought the German land forces and their 800 Luftwaffe plane onslaught.  

Most of the clashes took place west of Thessaloniki with consecutive strategic southern retreats of the Greek units. Finally, on April 9, the Germans occupied Thessaloniki. After fighting the German blitzkrieg in ways that the international press compared to the heroic stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the outnumbered, outflanked, and savagely bombed Greek army was forced to retreat as the Germans entered Ioannina, a northwestern Greek city, on April 20. 

On April 27, after several other battles on its way south, including one at historic Thermopylae, on April 24-25, the Wehrmacht occupied Athens and began its reign of terror and repression. Starvation, expropriation of national wealth, artworks, and raw materials, deportation to extermination camps, random blockades and cold-blooded mass executions of civilians, became the norm. By the end of April, mainland Greece and most of the islands were occupied by Axis forces. It took another four weeks of dogged, hand-to-hand, fierce fighting against waves of German paratroopers before the island of Crete fell on May 20, after costing the Germans more than 4,000 casualties, prompting the start of savage reprisals against civilians. Marshal Wilhelm Keitel’s order of 9/1941, stated that for every German killed, a minimum of 100 hostages would be executed, and for every wounded one, 50 would die. The first mass executions took place in Crete even before the whole island fell to the Germans. 

 As the Germans began to commandeer and plunder all kinds of raw materials, goods, food stocks, etc., severe shortages developed everywhere. In their aggressive zeal, the Nazis surpassed the plunders and barbarism of Attila the Hun and soon reduced Greek cities into starving enclaves. These despicable and inhumane acts were not just isolated actions by rogue soldiers, but national Nazi policy. Field Marshal Goering’s August 6, 1942 directive to Reich Commissioners and Commanders of the occupied countries stated: “In all the occupied territories I see the people living there stuffed full of food, while our own people are going hungry. For God’s sake, you have not been sent there to work for the well-being of the peoples entrusted to you, but to get hold of as much as you can so that the German people can live. I expect you to devote your energies to that. I could not care less when you say that people under your administration are dying of hunger. Let them perish so long as no German starves.” 

Thereafter, the Germans in Athens elevated their plunder to a ghastly art-form and ramped up their looting at the expense of thousands of starving Greeks, especially the young and the old. Stores, warehouses, museums, and many homes were systematically and mercilessly looted of everything from leather soles, bales of cotton, raisins, figs, wheat, rice, sugar, olive oil, cigarettes, works of art, museum pieces, jewelry, gold coins, etc. Much was shipped to Germany. Jim Schafer, an American oil executive in Athens, summed it up: “The Germans are looting for all they are worth, both openly and by forcing the Greeks to sell for worthless paper Marks, issued locally.” The entire output of Greek mines of pyrites, chrome, iron ore, manganese, bauxite, gold, etc. was commandeered by the Germans. Seldom had a country and its people been plundered so savagely by an occupying force! The few that could find a job were paid in virtually worthless war currency. The longest lines in Greece were the bread lines and the constant processions to the cemeteries to mass-bury the thousands of starved dead. The triple ax of scarcity, worthless money, and hyperinflation forced people to barter and the black market. Severe gasoline shortages forced the conversion of the few buses to crawl on gases generated from coal or wood burning.  

Starvation had driven many in Athens and Piraeus to cutting trees and bushes from gardens, parks, and nearby mountains, carrying them on their backs, and using them as heating fuel or for cooking the few wild grasses, weeds, and roots they gouged out of the now barren soil. Some even ate starved horses. German officers often tormented the starving by throwing them some scraps of food and watching them fight for them. Emaciated children gathered around eating German officers and made a run for anything they spat out such as undesirable: pieces of fruit, olive pits, or bread crumbs. Starved mothers were often found dead clutching their famished children, too weak to move. Towns were often burned and civilian group execution had become a common grim reality. 

The children who survived this hell on earth, owed everything to their fathers who risked their lives to gather food for them and their hero mothers who managed to prepare food for them out of nothing!

These unbearable conditions continued until October 12, 1944, a sunny Thursday morning, when joyous ringing church bells were heralding the sudden German withdrawal from Greece and stirring the Athenians to flood the streets in celebration. As the Germans and Bulgarians were squeezed out of Greece under pressure from the Allies after the Normandy landing on June 6 and the Soviet advance from the east (Italy had surrendered on 9/8/1943), they systematically destroyed most of Greece’s infrastructure. Their retreat and destruction was often resisted in bloody encounters by Greek underground units which had repeatedly attacked the Germans during the occupation.

Almost 10% of Greece’s population of 7.5 million perished during its resistance to the Axis forces, including 500,000 who died from starvation. The residents of 89 towns were murdered in cold blood and more than 1,700 towns and villages were torched or destroyed in brutal ways. Germany’s WWII reparations to Greece exceed $450 billion in today’s dollars but unfortunately they were never paid! This was the last WWII irony for Greece! 

Some say that Greece would have fared far better had it not resisted the Axis. Maybe, but that would not have been the Greek way. By temperament and by the awesome legacy of their history, the Hellenes could not have done otherwise. From the days of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, and even before and since, they have always valued freedom above life. On the other hand, their incalculable human and economic sacrifices were not in vain or mere bravado that added yet another book of glory to their long history. And even though the Western media, books, and movies seldom pay proper tribute to Greece’s WWII heroic resistance and its impact on the war’s outcome, below is a short list of what some of the leaders of that war had stated publically: 

Near the end of the war, as Germany's inevitable and impending defeat loomed ever closer, Hitler attributed great blame to “Mussolini's Greek fiasco” as the cause for his own catastrophe because it delayed by over two months his attack on the Soviet Union, giving the Russians time to organize, and turning the Russian winter into a formidable enemy for his troops at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow! 

“When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom." Franklyn D. Roosevelt. 

“The valiant struggle of Greece against aggression and the triumphs of her defenders in the face of enormous odds have thrilled the friends of democracy throughout the world … It is appropriate that Greece, of all nations, should point the way to victory over tyranny.” H. L. Stimson, U.S.A. Secretary of War.

“Historic justice forces me to admit, that of all the enemies that stood against us, the Greek soldier above all, fought with the most courage.” Adolf Hitler. 

“The Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia; if we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different.” Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s chief of staff.  

[We] thank the Greek People, whose resistance decided WWII … you fought unarmed and won, small against big, you gave us time to defend ourselves. Joseph Stalin.  

“If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been.” Winston Churchill. 

"I am unable to give the proper breadth of gratitude I feel for the heroic resistance of the People and the leaders of Greece." Charles de Gaul  

“They [the Greeks] administered the first real defeat on land to the forces of the Axis. They destroyed the myth of Axis invincibility.” NY TIMES 

 “It will be impossible to compensate the people of Greece in full for the sufferings they have endured.” The Galveston Daily News 


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