World War II: Battle of Greece

German artillery during the Battle of Greece (1941).
German artillery fires during the advance through Greece, 1941. Image Courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany)

Battle of Greece - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Greece was fought from April 6-30, 1941, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders:

Axis

  • Field Marshal Wilhelm List
  • Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs
  • 680,000 Germans, 565,000 Italians

Allies

  • Marshal Alexander Papagos
  • Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson
  • 430,000 Greeks, 62,612 British Commonwealth troops

Battle of Greece - Background:

Having initially wished to remain neutral, Greece was pulled into the war when it came under increasing pressure from Italy.

Seeking to show Italian military prowess while also demonstrating his independence from German leader Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini levied an ultimatum on October 28, 1940 calling for the the Greeks to permit Italian troops to cross the border from Albania to occupy unspecified strategic locations in Greece. Though the Greeks were given three hours to comply, Italian forces invaded before the deadline had passed. Attempting to push towards Epirus, Mussolini's troops were halted at the Battle of Elaia–Kalamas. 

Conducting an inept campaign, Mussolini's forces were defeated by the Greeks and forced back into Albania. Counterattacking, the Greeks managed to occupy part of Albania and captured the cities of Korçë and Sarandë before the fighting quieted. Conditions for the Italians continued to worsen as Mussolini had not made basic provisions for his men such as issuing winter clothing. Lacking a substantial arms industry and possessing a small army, Greece elected to support its success in Albania by weakening its defenses in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace.

This was done despite the increasing threat of a German invasion through Bulgaria.

In the wake of the British occupation of Lemnos and Crete, Hitler ordered German planners in November to begin devising an operation to invade Greece and the British base at Gibraltar. This latter operation was cancelled when Spanish leader Francisco Franco vetoed it as he did not wish to risk in his nation's neutrality in the conflict.

Dubbed Operation Marita, the invasion plan for Greece called for the German occupation of the northern coast of the Aegean Sea beginning in March 1941. These plans were later altered following a coup d'état in Yugoslavia. Though it required delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union, the plan was altered to include attacks on both Yugoslavia and Greece beginning on April 6, 1941. Recognizing the growing threat, Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas worked to tighten relations with Britain.

Battle of Greece - Debating Strategy:

Bound by the Declaration of 1939 which called on Britain to provide aid in the event that Greek or Romanian independence was threatened, London commenced making plans to aid Greece in the fall of 1940. While the first Royal Air Force units, led by Air Commodore John d'Albiac, began arriving in Greece late that year, the first ground troops did not land until after the German invasion of Bulgaria in early March 1941. Led by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, a total of around 62,000 Commonwealth troops arrived in Greece as part of "W Force." Coordinating with Greek Commander-in-Chief General Alexandros Papagos, Wilson and the Yugoslavs debated defensive strategy.

While Wilson favored a shorter position known as the Haliacmon Line, this was rejected by Papagos as it ceded too much territory to the invaders. After much debate, Wilson massed his troops along the Haliacmon Line, while the Greeks moved to occupy the heavily fortified Metaxas Line to the northeast. Wilson justified holding the Haliacmon position as it allowed his relatively small force to maintain contact with the Greeks in Albania as well as those in the northeast. As a result the critical port of Thessaloniki remained largely uncovered. Though Wilson's line was a more efficient use of his strength, the position could be easily flanked by forces advancing south from Yugoslavia through the Monastir Gap. This concern was disregarded as the Allied commanders anticipated the Yugolav Army to mount a determined defense of their country.

The situation in the northeast was further weakened by the Greek government's refusal to withdraw troops from Albania lest it be seen as a concession of victory to the Italians.

Battle of Greece - The Onslaught Begins:

On April 6, the German Twelfth Army, under the guidance of Field Marshal Wilhelm List, commenced Operation Marita. While the Luftwaffe began an intensive bombing campaign, Lieutenant General Georg Stumme's XL Panzer Corps drove across southern Yugoslavia capturing Prilep and effectively severing the country from Greece. Turning south, they began massing forces north of Monastir on April 9 in preparation for attacking Florina, Greece. Such a move threatened Wilson's left flank and had the potential to cut off Greek troops in Albania. Further east, Lieutenant General Rudolf Veiel's 2nd Panzer Division entered Yugoslavia on April 6 and advanced down the Strimon Valley (Map).

Reaching Strumica, they brushed aside Yugoslav counterattacks before turning south and driving towards Thessaloniki. Defeating Greek forces near Doiran Lake, they captured the city on April 9. Along the Metaxas Line Greek forces fared little better, but succeeded in bleeding the Germans. A strong line of fortifications in mountainous terrain, the forts of the line inflicted heavy losses on the attackers before being overrun by Lieutenant General Franz Böhme's XVIII Mountain Corps. Effectively cut off in the northeastern part of the country, the Greek Second Army surrendered on April 9 and resistance east of the Axios River collapsed.

Battle of Greece - The Germans Drive South:

With the success in the east, List reinforced the XL Panzer Corps with the 5th Panzer Division for a push through the Monastir Gap. Completing preparations by April 10, the Germans attacked south and found no Yugoslav resistance in the gap. Exploiting the opportunity, they pressed on hitting elements of W Force near Vevi, Greece. Briefly halted by troops under Major General Iven McKay, they overcame this resistance and captured Kozani on April 14. Pressed on two fronts, Wilson ordered a withdrawal behind the Haliacmon River.

A strong position, the terrain only afforded lines of advance through the Servia and Olympus passes as well as the Platamon tunnel near the coast. Attacking through the day on April 15, German forces were unable to dislodge New Zealand troops at Platamon. Reinforcing that night with armor, they resumed the next day and compelled the Kiwis to retreat south to the Pineios River. There they were ordered to hold the Pineios Gorge at all costs to allow the rest of W Force to move south. Meeting with Papagos on the April 16, Wilson informed him that he was retreating to the historic pass at Thermopylae.

While W Force was establishing a strong position around the pass and village of Brallos, the Greek First Army in Albania was cut off by German forces. Unwilling to surrender to the Italians, its commander capitulated to the Germans on April 20. The next day, the decision to evacuate W Force to Crete and Egypt was made and preparations moved forward.

Leaving a rearguard at the Thermopylae position, Wilson's men began embarking from ports in Attica and southern Greece. Attacked on April 24, Commonwealth troops succeeded in holding their position throughout the day until falling back that night to a position around Thebes. On the morning of April 27, German motorcycle troops succeeded in moving around the flank of this position and entered Athens.

With the battle effectively over, Allied troops continued to be evacuated from ports in the Peloponnese. Having captured the bridges over the Corinth canal on April 25 and crossed over at Patras, German troops pushed south in two columns towards the port of Kalamata. Defeating numerous Allied rearguards, they succeeded in capturing between 7,000-8,000 Commonwealth soldiers when the port fell. In the course of the evacuation, Wilson had escaped with around 50,000 men.

Battle of Greece - Aftermath:

In the fighting for Greece, British Commonwealth forces lost 903 killed, 1,250 wounded, and 13,958 captured, while the Greeks suffered 13,325 killed, 62,663 wounded, and 1,290 missing. In their victorious drive through Greece, List lost 1,099 killed, 3,752 wounded, and 385 missing. Italian casualties numbered 13,755 killed, 63,142 wounded, and 25,067 missing. Having captured Greece, the Axis nations devised a tripartite occupation with the nation divided between German, Italian, and Bulgarian forces. The campaign in the Balkans came to an end the following month after German troops captured Crete. Considered a strategic blunder by some in London, others believed that the campaign was politically necessary. Coupled with late spring rains in the Soviet Union, the campaign in the Balkans delayed the launch of Operation Barbarossa by several weeks. As a result, German troops were forced to race against the approaching winter weather in their battle with the Soviets.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Greece." ThoughtCo, Dec. 16, 2016, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battle-of-greece-2361485. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, December 16). World War II: Battle of Greece. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battle-of-greece-2361485 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Greece." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-battle-of-greece-2361485 (accessed December 18, 2017).