April 30, 1941 – The Battle of Greece is the common name for the invasion of Greece by Nazi Germany in April 1941. It followed a previous, unsuccessful Italian invasion known as the Greco-Italian War. It is usually distinguished from the Battle of Crete that came after mainland Greece had been subdued. These operations were part of the greater Balkans Campaign of Nazi Germany in World War II. At the time of the German invasion, Greece was already at war with Italy, following the Italian invasion on 28 October 1940. Greece successfully defeated the initial attack and the counterattack of March 1941. When Operation Marita began on 6 April the bulk of the Greek army was on the Albanian border, from which the Italians were trying to enter Greece. German troops invaded through Bulgaria, creating a second front. Greece had already received a small reinforcement from British Commonwealth forces in anticipation of the German attack but no more help was sent after the invasion began. The Greek army found itself vastly outnumbered in its effort to defend against both Italian and German troops. As a result the Bulgarian defensive line 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 Commonwealth forces then performed a tactical retreat with an ultimate goal of evacuation. The German army reached the city of Athens on 27 Aprila and Greece’s southern shore on April 30, capturing 7,000 British Commonwealth forces, and ending the battle to their complete victory. The conquest of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later. Following its conquest, Greece was occupied by military forces of Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Some historians argue that Operation Marita was decisive in determining the course of World War II, in that it delayed Operation Barbarossa—the German invasion of the Soviet Union—which is regarded as a significant factor for the eventual defeat of the Axis powers. Others hold that this delay was unrelated to the decision to invade Greece. It nevertheless had serious consequences for the Axis war effort in north Africa. At dawn on 6 April, the German armies invaded Greece, while the Luftwaffe began an intensive bombardment of Belgrade. The XL Panzer Corps—planned to attack across southern Yugoslavia—began their assault at 05:30. They pushed across the Bulgarian frontier at two separate points. By the evening of 8 April, the 73rd Infantry Division captured Prilep, severing an important rail line between Belgrade and Thessaloniki and isolating Yugoslavia from its allies. On the evening of 9 April, Stumme deployed his forces north of Monastir, in preparation for attack toward Florina. This position threatened to encircle the Greeks in Albania and W Force in the area of Florina, Edessa and Katerini. While weak security detachments covered his rear against a surprise attack from central Yugoslavia, elements of the 9th Panzerdivision drove westward to link up with the Italians at the Albanian border. The 2nd Panzerdivision (XVIII Mountain Corps) entered Yugoslavia from the east on the morning of 6 April and advanced westward through the Struma Valley. It encountered little resistance, but was delayed by road clearance demolitions, mines and mud. Nevertheless, the division was able to reach the day’s objective, the town of Strumica. On 7 April a Yugoslav counterattack against the division’s northern flank was repelled and the following day the division forced its way across the mountains and overran the Greek 19th Motorised Infantry Division Units stationed south of Doiran lake. Despite many delays along the mountain roads, an armoured advance guard dispatched towards Thessaloniki succeeded in entering the city by the morning of 9 April. Thessaloniki’s capture took place without a struggle and was followed by the surrender of the Greek East Macedonia Army Section, taking effect at 13:00 on April 10. The Metaxas Line was defended by the Eastern Macedonia Army Section, which comprised the 7th, 14th and 18th Infantry Divisions under the command of Lieutenant General Konstantinos Bakopoulos. The line ran for about 170 kilometres (110 miles) along the river Nestos to the east and then further east, following the Bulgarian border as far as Mount Beles near the Yugoslav border. The fortifications were designed to garrison over 200,000 troops, but the actual number was roughly 70,000. As a result the line’s defences were thinly spread. The Germans had to break the line to capture Thessaloniki, Northern Greece’s biggest city, with a strategic port. The attack started on 6 April with one infantry unit and two divisions of the XVIII Mountain Corps. Due to strong resistance, the first day of the attack yielded little progress in breaking the line. A German report at the end of the first day described how the German 5th Mountain Division “was repulsed in the Rupel Pass despite strongest air support and sustained considerable casualties”. Of the 24 forts that made up the Metaxas Line, only two had fallen and then only after they had been destroyed. In the following days the Germans pummeled the forts with artillery and dive bombers and reinforced the 125th Infantry Regiment. A 7,000 feet (2,100 metres) snow-covered mountainous passage considered inaccessible by the Greeks was successfully crossed by the 6th Mountain Division, which reached the rail line to Thessaloniki on the evening of 7 April. The 5th Mountain Division, together with the reinforced 125th Infantry Regiment, penetrated across the Struma river under great hardship, attacking along both banks and clearing bunkers until they reached their objective location on 7 April. Heavy casualties caused them to temporarily withdraw. The 72nd Infantry Division advanced from Nevrokop across the mountains. Its advance was delayed by a shortage of pack animals, medium artillery and mountain equipment. Only on the evening of 9 April did it reach the area northeast of Serres. Most fortresses—like Rupel, Echinos, Arpalouki, Paliouriones, Perithori, Karadag, Lisse and Istibey—held until the Germans occupied Thessaloniki on 9 April, at which point they surrendered under General Bakopoulos’ orders. Nevertheless, minor isolated fortresses continued to fight for a few days more and were not taken until heavy artillery was used against them. This gave time for some retreating troops to evacuate by sea. The dispositions of forces in the Florina Valley, 10 April 1941. The blue arrows indicate German advances and the Allied lines are shown in red. Vevi and the Klidi Pass are upper centre, the Australian 19th Brigade HQ is in the centre and Mackay Force HQ is at Perdika, lower centre. Although eventually broken, the Metaxas Line proved much stronger than expected, inflicting significant damage to the German force. The XXX Infantry Corps on the left wing reached its designated objective on the evening of 8 April, when the 164th Infantry Division captured Xanthi. The 50th Infantry Division advanced far beyond Komotini towards the Nestos river. Both divisions arrived the next day. On 9 April the Greek forces defending the Metaxas Line capitulated unconditionally following the collapse of Greek resistance east of the Axios river. In a 9 April estimate of the situation, Field Marshal List commented that as a result of the swift advance of the mobile units, his 12th Army was now in a favorable position to access central Greece by breaking the Greek buildup behind the Axios river. On the basis of this estimate, List requested the transfer of the 5th Panzer Division from First Panzer Group to the XL Panzer Corps. He reasoned that its presence would give additional punch to the German thrust through the Monastir gap. For the continuation of the campaign, he formed an eastern group under the command of XVIII Mountain Corps and a western group led by XL Panzer Corps. By the morning of 10 April, the XL Panzer Corps had finished its preparations for the continuation of the offensive and advanced in the direction of Kozani. Against all expectations, the Monastir gap had been left open and the Germans exploited the error. First contact with Allied troops was made north of Vevi at 11:00 on 10 April. German SS troops seized Vevi on 11 April, but were stopped at the Klidi Pass just south of town, where a mixed Commonwealth-Greek formation—known as Mackay Force—was assembled to, as Wilson put it, “… stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina valley.” During the next day, the SS regiment reconnoitered the Allied positions and at dusk launched a frontal attack against the pass. Following heavy fighting, the Germans broke through the defence. By the morning of 14 April, the spearheads of the 9th Panzer Division reached Kozani. Wilson faced the prospect of being pinned by Germans operating from Thessaloniki, while being flanked by the German XL Panzer Corps descending through the Monastir Gap. On 13 April, he withdrew all British forces to the Haliacmon river and then to the narrow pass at Thermopylae. On 14 April, the 9th Panzerdivision established a bridgehead across the Haliacmon river, but an attempt to advance beyond this point was stopped by intense Allied fire. This defence had three main components: the Platamon tunnel area between Olympus and the sea, the Olympus pass itself and the Servia pass to the southeast. By channelling the attack through these three defiles, the new line offered far greater defensive strength. The defences of the Olympus and Servia passes consisted of the 4th New Zealand Brigade, 5th New Zealand Brigade and the 16th Australian Brigade. For the next three days, the advance of the 9th Panzer Division was stalled in front of these resolutely held positions. A ruined castle dominated the ridge across which the coastal pass led to Platamon. During the night of April 15, a German motorcycle battalion supported by a tank battalion attacked the ridge, but the Germans were repulsed by the 21st New Zealand Battalion under Colonel Macky, which suffered heavy losses in the process. Later that day a German armoured regiment arrived and struck the coastal and inland flanks of the battalion, but the New Zealanders held. After being reinforced during the night of the 15th–16th, the Germans assembled a tank battalion, an infantry battalion and a motorcycle battalion. The infantry attacked the New Zealanders’ left company at dawn, while the tanks attacked along the coast several hours later. Australian anti-tank gunners resting, soon after their withdrawal from the Vevi area. The New Zealand battalion withdrew, crossing the Pineios river; by dusk, they had reached the western exit of the Pineios Gorge, suffering only light casualties. Macky was informed that it was “essential to deny the gorge to the enemy until 19 April even if it meant extinction”. He sank a crossing barge at the western end of the gorge once all 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. This force became known as “Allen force” after Brigadier “Tubby” Allen. The 2/5th and 2/11th battalions moved to the Elatia area south-west of the gorge and were ordered to hold the western exit possibly for three or four days. On 16 April, Wilson met Papagos at Lamia and informed him of his decision to withdraw to Thermopylae. General Blamey divided responsibility between generals Mackay and Freyberg during the leapfrogging move to Thermopylae. Mackay’s force was assigned the flanks of the New Zealand Division as far south as an east-west line through Larissa and to oversee the withdrawal through Domokos to Thermopylae of the Savige and Zarkos Forces and finally of Lee Force; Freyberg’s 1st Armoured Brigade was to cover the withdrawal of Savige Force to Larissa and thereafter the withdrawal of the 6th Division under whose command it would come; overseeing the withdrawal of Allen Force which was to move along the same route as the New Zealand Division. The British Commonwealth forces remained under attack throughout the withdrawal. On the morning of 18 April, the struggle for the Pineios gorge aka Battle of Tempe Gorge was over, when German armoured infantry crossed the river on floats and 6th Mountain Division troops worked their way around the New Zealand battalion, which was subsequently dispersed. On 19 April, the first XVIII Mountain Corps troops entered Larissa and took possession of the airfield, where the British had left their supply dump intact. The seizure of ten truckloads of rations and fuel enabled the spearhead units to continue without ceasing. The port of Volos, at which the British had re-embarked numerous units during the prior few days, fell on 21 April; there, the Germans captured large quantities of valuable diesel and crude oil. As the invading Germans advanced deep into Greek territory, the Hellenic Army Section of Epirus (ΤΣΗ) operating in Albania was reluctant to retreat. General Wilson described this unwillingness as “the fetishistic doctrine that not a yard of ground should be yielded to the Italians.” It was not until 13 April that the first Greek elements began to withdraw toward the Pindus mountains. The Allies’ retreat to Thermopylae uncovered a route across the Pindus mountains by which the Germans might flank the Hellenic army in a rearguard action. An elite SS formation—the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler brigade—was assigned the mission of cutting off the Greek Epirus Army’s line of retreat from Albania by driving westward to the Metsovon pass and from there to Ioannina. On 14 April, heavy fighting took place at Kleisoura pass, where the Germans blocked the Greek withdrawal. The withdrawal extended across the entire Albanian front, with the Italians in hesitant pursuit. General Papagos rushed Greek units to the Metsovon pass where the Germans were expected to attack. On 18 April a pitched battle between several Greek units and the LSSAH brigade—which had by then reached Grevena—erupted. The Greek units lacked the equipment necessary to fight against a motorised unit and were soon encircled and overwhelmed. The Germans advanced further and on 19 April captured Ioannina, the final supply route of the Greek Epirus Army. Allied newspapers dubbed the Hellenic army’s fate a modern day Greek tragedy. Historian and former war-correspondent Christopher Buckley—when describing the fate of the Hellenic army—stated that “one experience a genuine Aristotelian catharsis, an awe-inspiring sense of the futility of all human effort and all human courage.” On 20 April the commander of Greek forces in Albania—General Georgios Tsolakoglou—accepted the hopelessness of the situation and offered to surrender his army, which then consisted of fourteen divisions. Historian John Keegan writes that Tsolakoglou “was so determined … to deny the Italians the satisfaction of a victory they had not earned that … he opened [a] quite unauthorised parley with the commander of the German SS division opposite him, Sepp Dietrich, to arrange a surrender to the Germans alone.” On strict orders from Hitler, negotiations were kept secret from the Italians and the surrender was accepted. Outraged by this decision Mussolini ordered counterattacks against the Greek forces, which were repulsed. It took a personal representation from Mussolini to Hitler to organize Italian participation in the armistice that was concluded on 23 April. Greek soldiers were not rounded up as prisoners of war and were allowed instead to go home after the demobilisation of their units, while their officers were permitted to retain their side arms. As early as 16 April, the German command realised that the British were evacuating troops on ships at Volos and Piraeus. The campaign then took on the character of a pursuit. For the Germans, it was now primarily a question of maintaining contact with the retreating British forces and foiling their evacuation plans. German infantry divisions were withdrawn due to its limited mobility. The 2nd and 5th Panzerdivisions, the 1st SS Motorised Infantry Regiment and both mountain divisions launched a pursuit of the Allied forces. To allow an evacuation of the main body of British forces, Wilson ordered the rearguard to make a last stand at the historic Thermopylae pass, the gateway to Athens. General Freyberg was given the task of defending the coastal pass, while Mackay was to hold the village of Brallos. After the battle Mackay was quoted as saying “I did not dream of evacuation; I thought that we’d hang on for about a fortnight and be beaten by weight of numbers.” When the order to retreat was received on the morning of 23 April, it was decided that the two positions were to be held by one brigade each. These brigades, the 19th Australian and 6th New Zealand 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 Allies held out the entire day; with the delaying action accomplished, they retreated in the direction of the evacuation beaches and set up another rearguard at Thebes The Panzer units launching a pursuit along the road leading across the pass made slow progress because of the steep gradient and difficult hairpin bends. After abandoning the Thermopylae area, the British rearguard withdrew to an improvised switch position south of Thebes, where they erected a last obstacle in front of Athens. The motorcycle battalion of the 2nd Panzerdivision, which had crossed to the island of Euboea to seize the port of Chalcis 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 1941, the first Germans entered Athens, followed by armoured cars, tanks and infantry. They captured intact large quantities of POL (petroleum, oil and lubricants) several thousand tons of ammunition, ten trucks loaded with sugar and ten truckloads of other rations in addition to various other equipment, weapons and medical supplies. The people of Athens had been expecting the Germans for several days and confined themselves to their homes with their windows shut. The previous night, Athens Radio had made the following announcement: “You are listening to the voice of Greece. Greeks, stand firm, proud and dignified. You must prove yourselves worthy of your history. The valor and victory of our army has already been recognised. The righteousness of our cause will also be recognised. We did our duty honestly. Friends! Have Greece in your hearts, live inspired with the fire of her latest triumph and the glory of our army. Greece will live again and will be great, because she fought honestly for a just cause and for freedom. Brothers! Have courage and patience. Be stouthearted. We will overcome these hardships. Greeks! With Greece in your minds you must be proud and dignified. We have been an honest nation and brave soldiers.” The Germans drove straight to the Acropolis and raised the Nazi flag. According to the most popular account of the events, the Evzone soldier on guard duty, Konstantinos Koukidis, took down the Greek flag, refusing to hand it to the invaders wrapped himself in it and jumped off the Acropolis. Whether the story was true or not, many Greeks believed it and viewed the soldier as a martyr. General Archibald Wavell, the commander of British Army forces in the Middle East, when in Greece from 11–13 April had warned Wilson that he must expect no reinforcements and had authorised Major General Freddie de Guingand to discuss evacuation plans with certain responsible officers. Nevertheless, the British could not at this stage adopt or even mention this course of action; the suggestion had to come from the Greek Government. The following day Papagos made the first move when he suggested to Wilson that W Force be withdrawn. Wilson informed Middle East Headquarters and on 17 April, Rear admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman was sent to Greece to prepare for the evacuation. That day Wilson hastened to Athens where he attended a conference with the King, Papagos, d’Albiac and Rear admiral Turle. In the evening, after telling the King that he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him, Koryzis committed suicide. On 21 April, the final decision to evacuate Commonwealth forces to Crete and Egypt was taken and Wavell—in confirmation of verbal instructions—sent his written orders to Wilson. 5,200 men, mostly from the 5th New Zealand Brigade, were evacuated on the night of 24 April, from Porto Rafti of East Attica, while the 4th New Zealand Brigade remained to block the narrow road to Athens, dubbed the 24 Hour Pass by the New Zealanders. On 25 April (Anzac Day), the few RAF squadrons left Greece (d’Albiac established his headquarters in Heraklion, Crete) and some 10,200 Australian troops evacuated from Nauplion and Megara. 2,000 more men had to wait until 27 April, because Ulster Prince ran aground in shallow waters close to Nauplion. Because of this event, the Germans realised that the evacuation was also taking place from the ports of East Peloponnese. On 25 April, the Germans staged an airborne operation to seize the bridges over the Corinth canal, with the double aim of cutting off the British line of retreat and securing their own way across the isthmus. The attack met with initial success, until a stray British shell destroyed the bridge. The 1st SS Motorised Infantry Regiment (LSSAH), assembled at Ioannina, thrust along the western foothills of the Pindus Mountains via Arta to Missolonghi and crossed over to the Peloponnese at Patras in an effort to gain access to the isthmus from the west. Upon their arrival at 17:30 on 27 April, the SS forces learned that the paratroops had already been relieved by Army units advancing from Athens. The erection of a temporary bridge across the Corinth canal permitted 5th Panzerdivision units to pursue the Allied forces across the Peloponnese. Driving via Argos to Kalamata, from where most Allied units had already begun to evacuate, they reached the south coast on 29 April, where they were joined by SS troops arriving from Pyrgos. The fighting on the Peloponnese consisted of small-scale engagements with isolated groups of British troops who had been unable to reach the evacuation point. The 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.Macdougall 2004, p. 195 By 39 April the evacuation of about 50,000 soldiers was completed,a[›] but was heavily contested by the German Luftwaffe, which sank at least 26 troop-laden ships. The Germans captured around 8,000 Commonwealth (including 2,000 Cypriot and Palestinian) and Yugoslav troops in Kalamata who had not been evacuated, while liberating many Italian prisoners from POW camps.