Short account of the Greek Epopee of 1940
Sixty years have gone by since the Second World War (WW II) storm hit Greece in 1940, bringing her untold suffering until her 1944 liberation with the help of her Allies. WW II broke out in Europe on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, which she occupied the same month. Austria and Czechoslovakia had previously come under complete German control without resistance.
When on 28 October 1940 Italy attacked Greece, the Battle of Britain was just over and the UK troops had retreated from Europe at Dunkirk. At this time a Peace Agreement was in force between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Battle of Greece, initially against the unprovoked Italian attacks from 28 October 1940 onward and later on the German invasion from 6 April 1941 onward, lasted altogether 216 days. This unexpectedly very long and stanch Greek fight back caused international astonishment, general admiration and praise, manifested in many ways. It was something magnificent and rightly considered as a Greek miracle. Peter Young, in his book “WORLD ALMANAC BOOK OF WW II” reports that the Axis occupied France in 45 days, in spite substantial British military support; Belgium in 18 days; Holland in 5 days, while Denmark submitted in 12 hours and Bulgaria, Rumania and Albania succumbed without a fight.
While only Great Britain and Greece remained practically the only free countries in Europe, small and poor Greece, with material and moral preparation, unity, self-sacrifice, capable political, spiritual, religious and military leadership, fighting alone without substantial allied aid for 160 days, was victorious in her struggle against attacking and many times larger fascist Italy. Later on, when Nazi Germany attacked her too on 6 April 1941, she carried on fighting with the support of meagre British military forcers on her mainland, while during the last 11 days she fought together with Commonwealth forces in the defence of the island of Crete. Part of the Greek Armed Forces, including all the remaining from the Battle of Greece Hellenic Navy Warships, together with the King and the under Prime Minister E. Tsouderos Government, moved to Alexandria in Egypt, where they continued fighting the common enemies on the side of the Allies till 1944. However, the Hellenic Merchant Marine was placed by the Greek Government at the disposal of the Allies from the very start of WW II on 1 September 1939 and continued serving them to the final WW II end in August 1945.
The failure of the five-month long offensive and the repeated persistent attempts of the fascist Italian Empire to conquer Greece were crowned by the resounding collapse of the largest till then Italian Spring Attack of March 1941. This final offensive was supervised and coordinated by Mussolini himself, who for the purpose went to the Front. Following the failure of this attack too, Mussolini returned beaten and humiliated to Rome. It should be noted that the following three very decisive events took place in March 1941:
– The final defeat of Italy by Greece.
– The change of Government in Yugoslavia, from pro-German to pro-British
– The commencement of disembarkation on Greek soil of a small UK Expeditionary Force.
Hitler, due to the inability of the Italians to overcome Greece, the loss of his control over Yugoslavia and the appearance of even a small UK Expeditionary Force in Greece, ordered simultaneous attacks on Greece and Yugoslavia.
The Greek preparation
The oncoming WW II storm had become very early evident to distinguished Greek politicians. At the same time the need was recognised for extraordinary measures to be applied to achieve the required preparation of the country. Former Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was first to show initiative and tried unsuccessfully to take over power in 1935, (see the 1948 edition in Greek of the Athens newspaper “ELEFTHERIA”: “ELEFTHERIOU VENIZELOU; UNPUBLISHED THOUGHTS ON CONSTITUTIONAL MATTERS”). The following year Eleftherios Venizelos died and John Metaxas, being Prime Minister in 1936, waived the application of certain basic Constitutional provisions and carried on to successfully prepare the country materially and morally, without outside financial assistance.
Prime Minister John Metaxas defined clearly to the Hellenic Armed Forces since Autumn 1936 the position of Greece on the side of the British during the expected WW II, (see the 1953 Official Report on the “Action of the Hellenic Navy in 1940-44”, relevant Board of Admiral’s meeting)
The spirit of 1940
The conscientious and in unison resistance of the Greeks against the Italian and German attacks for the conquest of their country, in conjunction with their systematic moral and material preparation, rendered Greece a substantial partner, that contributed decisively to the final allied Victory against the Axis. The spiritual, political, military and religious leaders of 1940 had succeeded in disseminating and making fully understood by all Greeks their responsibilities and obligations towards their Country. To be fair, it should be recognised, that the sense of duty towards their respective Countries was strong at that period amongst all sides involved in WW II. To enlighten this aspect, we are gleaning here below some very characteristic cases that prove the rule and honour their protagonists.
Destroyer HMS ADRIAS hit a mine in 1943, while operating in the Aegean sea, lost its bow and many dead as well as wounded, but extemporaneously repaired by her crew, sailed back under own power to her Base in Alexandria, Egypt. As reported by her Chief Engineer, then Lieutenant Commander Constantine Arapis, a most revered now veteran, on page 172 of his book “Memories from the Peace and the War”, amongst the dead was the young sailor engineer Panagiotis Markopoulos. What made Panagiotis Markopoulos stand out? He was then a 20-year-old young man, raised by his grand mother in the safety of Constantinople, in neutral Turkey, since both his parents had died. This very young Greek considered his duty to join the Hellenic Navy as volunteer and fight for the liberation of his enslaved motherland.
Greek Shipowners and members of the shipping community, the majority of whom lived abroad, had the possibility of avoiding the ordeals and dangers of the WW II. However, most of them did not make use of this advantage. As it is noted on page 647 of the book in Greek of Vice Admiral E. Kavadias H.N., Chief of the Hellenic Fleet 1939-42 and Deputy Minister for the Navy 1942-43 “The Naval War as I have Lived it”, many of them, with Stavros Niarchos probably as the best known, went to Alexandria in Egypt, while Greece was occupied, and served voluntarily in the Hellenic Navy till 1945. Amongst them were also M. Lemos, N. Ebirikos, P. Vergotis, P. Livanos and many others.
Eugene Panagopoulos was then a non-significant Greek University student abroad, when Italy attacked Greece on 28 October 1940. This young graduate engineer of the Athens Technical University, born and raised in Greece by a teacher father, was qualifying in England in Naval Architecture. He immediately reported to the Hellenic Naval Attach? in London and requested to be enlisted in the Hellenic Navy. Since this was not at the time immediately practical, he was told that he would be called as soon as a crew was to be formed to take delivery of one of the new warships built in England and handed over to the Hellenic Navy to be manned and operated in the allied common effort. In the mean time instead of carrying on with his education, Eugene Panagopoulos got permission, joined the British Forces as volunteer and trained as Commando, till the moment he was needed by the Hellenic Navy. In 1942 he was indeed called by the Hellenic Navy, named Sub Lieutenant Engineer and appointed on the newly commissioned Destroyer HMS PINDOS. He served onboard various warships with the Hellenic Navy, as well as in commando operations for the liberation of some Aegean islands, until Greece became totally free. He was placed on retirement by the end of 1944 and since the WW II was not all over, he volunteered to join the US Navy. After the War he settled in the US, he made a distinguished carrier in the Merchant Marine and he died in 1995.
A further student abroad at the time Greece came under Axis occupation was John Tsouderos. He deferred from all other students abroad, with respect to the fact that his father Emmanuel Tsouderos was the then Prime Minister of the Greek Government in exile. As the President of the Society for the Study of Greek History informs us in the issue of 28 March 1997 of the magazine “Political Subjects”, the then 20 year old John Tsouderos, having followed his father in 1941 to exile, was studying sociology and economics at a U.S. University. As one of the Greek U.S. university students, he could have stayed in the safety of his host country. Under the circumstances, however, he considered his duty to interrupt his studies and return to the Greek mountains to fight the conquerors of his country. However, the Allies did not permit this, to avoid any possible political implications. The obstacle did not deter the young student. Under the presumed name John Giannakopoulos he joined a volunteer Greek-American saboteur unit that came and operated in occupied Greece in 1944. John Tsouderos was wounded seriously in action against the Germans in northern Greece. Following his recovery he returned to his team and continued fighting till the liberation of Greece. John Tsouderos, maintaining his humbleness to his death in 1997, avoided any mention of his voluntary struggle against the enemies.
Louis Mountbatten – James Roosevelt
Most people know the British gentleman Louis Mountbatten, cousin of the British King, who distinguished himself in various prominent public positions and served as well as Viceroy of India. He was assassinated in 1979. In May 1941 he was operating south of Crete during the German offensive for the conquest of the island, as Destroyer Squadron Commander and Captain of HMS KELLY. HMS KELLY was sunk there by attacking German warplanes and Louis Mountbatten swam in the sea and was saved. His noble descent and his close relation to the King of England did not lead him to pursue to serve at a very much less risky position, as he could easily have done. Who was the U.S. Navy Captain James Roosvelt, whom the then American President Franklin Roosvelt sent at the end of April 1941 to the island of Crete, to deliver to the Greek King his personal message, with which the President acclaimed the Greek struggle and expressed unqualified United States support? He was non other then the eldest son of the President of the U.S. Neither the President nor his son wanted to avoid the big risks this mission entailed.
Max Schmeling – Harold Goebbels
Today Berlin has a Stadium named after Max Schmeling. Who was Max Schmeling? He was since 1930 German heavy-weight box-champion. He was the first European boxer of the 20th century to win this title. He was the idol of the younger generation of his time. However, Max Schmeling did not feather his nest by trying to serve in the rear lines. During the Battle for the conquest of Crete he was dropped on the island as paratrooper, he was wounded and nursed at the Zappion Megaron in Athens, which the Germans has turned to a military Hospital. After the War he returned to boxing in 1947 and won further fights. It has been maintained (see the 1998 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica at the lemma Max Schmeling), that Max Schmeling was sent to the front line, because he had fallen out of favour with the Nationalsocialistic Party. This view is checked as false, because in that bloodiest for the Germans Battle, yet another much better connected parachutist was dropped on the island. He was the stepson of Joseph Goebbels, the closest and most entrusted to the very end associate and friend of Hitler, whom he appointed in his will as his successor. It is certain that this paratrooper could have avoided serving in the front line, had he wanted to.
German recognition of the heroism of the Greek fighters
Acknowledging the Greek fighter’s heroism, Hitler made in the case of Greece unique concessions with respect to every other country he conquered. After the end of hostilities he let the Greek Army go free and did not hold any prisoners, he permitted Greek Officers to retain their arms and the country to have a Greek Government.
The terms of the first signed German-Greek Protocol for the cessation of fighting were changed later-on twice to the worse for the Greek side, due to strong intervention by Italy. The original text, most honourable for the Greek side and not co-signed by the Italians, had as follows:
The undersigned Generals of the brave German Army and the brave Greek Army, Dietrich and Tsolakoglou, representing their respective Armies, having met at BOTONOSI, today on 20 April 1941, at 19.00 hours, have agreed as expressed below:
1st) The hostilities between Greece and Germany end at 18.00 hours of today and in a few further hours, care of the German Commander in Chief, end the hostilities between Greece and Italy.
2nd) From tomorrow 21 April the German armed forces are permitted to pass and take positions between the Greek and the Italian armed forces, in order to facilitate the following agreed matters:
a) The Greek armed forces are to withdraw within 10 days to the former Greek-Albanian borders.
b) The Greek Armies of Hepiros and Macedonia are to be demobilised. Their men are to hand their armament to depots to be set up by the Army and go back to their homes.
c) Doing honour to the Greek Officers, the same may keep their outfits and arms and are not to be considered as Prisoners.
d) The logistic support of the Greek Army is to be continued, care of the same.
Commandant of the Greek Armies of Hepiros and Macedonia
Commander of the Tank Division “Adolf Hitler”
What foreign protagonists said about the Greek Epopee of 1940
Let us now remember some of the things said by protagonists of the period about the Greeks:
Hitler in his speech to the Raichstag on 4 May 1941, which is found recorded in the archives of the Hellenic Radio: “Historic justice compels me to ascertain that of all our opponents, the Greek soldier in particular fought with boldness and highest disrespect for death. Capitulated only when further resistance was impossible and useless.”
The British Minister of Foreign Affairs Lord Halifax, in his speech to the House of Lords, following the capture by the Greeks of the town of Cotitza, from the retreating in Albania Italians: “Great admiration inspires all of us the accomplishment of the Greek valour against an enemy so much more numerous and so much better equipped. These deeds remind us of the trophies of the classical times. Long live Greece!”
Winston Churchill’s telegram to the Greek Prime Minister, after the failure of the last Italian Spring Offensive of March 1941 and the final failure of Italy in her continuous five month offensive against Greece: “The bravery and determination of the Greek armed forces that took part in these operations have won the admiration of all free peoples of the world!”
Recognition of the Greek contribution to the final defeat of the Axis
Some prominent personalities among Enemies and Friends have since then underestimated and doubted the substantial Greek contribution to the allied Victory in WW II. Indicatively is mentioned here the negative view expressed by the English historian Basil Liddell Heart, on page 162 of the first volume of his book “History of WW II” published in 1988 by the Hellenic Army General Staff, regarding the delay of the German attack on Russia: “However, the campaign against Greece was not the cause of the delay.” It suffices to mention here just two unchallengeable sources, which recognize and prove manifestly the effective Greek contribution:
The words of Hitler himself, spoken in 1944 to the famous German photographer and cinematographist Lenie Riffenstahl, as she relates in her memoirs: “The entrance of Italy to the War was proven catastrophic for us. Had the Italians not attacked Greece and had they not needed our help, the War would have taken a different course. We would have had time to capture Leningrad and Moscow, before the Russian cold weather set in.”
The memoirs of the Russian Field Marshal Zukoff: “If the Russian Peoples succeeded in raising their tired bodies in front of the gates of Moscow, to contain and set back the German torrent, they owe it to the Greek People, that delayed the German Divisions all the time needed. The gigantomachy of Crete, was the climax of the Greek contribution.”
– By Rear Admiral Sotirios Georgiadis, Hellenic Navy, Ret.