British support in 1941

When Italy attacked Greece from Albania in December 1940, Metaxas requested assistance from the British. At that time, however, only a few RAF assets were available, plus some small forces sent to Crete to allow Greek troops there to redeploy to the mainland. Almost completely unassisted, the Greek Army was able to repel the Italians and push into southern Albania before a stalemate developed.

Churchill sent his close aide Anthony Eden and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir John Dill on a lengthy diplomatic and military mission to try and mobilise the friendly Balkan nations to defend Greece from the expected German attack in the spring of 1941. The idea was to persuade Yugoslavia and Turkey to join the fight, but both countries refused.

Direct British intervention was therefore the only feasible option. Churchill instructed Eden that as desirable as it was to send the Greeks assistance, it should not be done “if the prospects were no more hopeful than for another Norwegian fiasco”. The Allied commanders in Egypt, however, considered that there was a good chance of success. The Italians had been swept away in Libya and a sizeable Allied force was able to be deployed.

Churchill’s memoirs show that he was still hesitant about committing ground forces to Greece, but he wrote of Anthony Eden’s message from Athens:

“… Collapse of Greece without further effort on our part to save her by intervention on land, after the Libyan victories had, as all the world knows, made forces available, would be the greatest calamity. Yugoslavia would then certainly be lost; nor can we feel confident that even Turkey would have the strength to remain steadfast if the Germans and Italians were established in Greece without effort on our part to resist them. No doubt our prestige will suffer if we are ignominiously ejected, but in any event to have fought and suffered in Greece would be less damaging to us than to have left Greece to her fate . . . . In the existing situation we are all agreed that the course advocated should be followed and help given to Greece.”

This proved to be the decisive argument and the War Cabinet agreed. Thus the British and Greek governments agreed in early 1941 that ‘Lustre Force’ would be deployed to Greece. Originally planned for 100,000 men, bickering between Allied commanders and events in Cyrenaica resulted in only around 70% of the planned number actually being sent, comprised mostly of Commonwealth units. The force was severely lacking in tanks, artillery and air cover.  In addition, the decision weakened the British forces in North Africa, allowing Rommel’s Afrika Korps to counterattack.

The presence of significant Allied forces on the Continent, especially so close to the oilfields at Ploesti, crossed a red line for the Germans.  They quickly drew up plans to expel them and did so with Operation Marita in April 1941. Shortly afterwards Operation Merkur captured Crete and ended all British presence in continental Europe (apart from Gibraltar), despite the valiant efforts of the Allied troops on the island. Greece had been completely defeated within 8 weeks and some 25,000 Commonwealth soldiers became POWs. At the time these losses were a severe setback to the war in North Africa.

Although the Greek expedition had been a military failure in itself, Anthony Eden stood up in the House of Commons to defend the venture. “In this war,” said Eden, “we are fighting not for gains but causes. Greece is the embodiment of those causes. I believe that had we not gone to her help we could not have raised our heads again.”

The effect of the campaign on Barbarossa is debatable and outside the scope of this article. What is beyond doubt is that although conventionally defeated, Greece (and Yugoslavia) became a festering sore for the Axis, requiring large amounts of troops and resources to control resistance movements that could not be pacified.

Axis occupation

Greece was divided into 3 occupation zones – Italian, German and Bulgarian. Italy administered most of western Greece apart from Athens, as well as a portion of Crete and a significant portion of the Aegean islands (including the Dodecanese). Bulgaria was granted Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace – territory it had held up until the end of The Great War. Germany controlled the rest including Athens, Central Macedonia and Thessaloniki, as well as the far east of Thrace along the border with Turkey.

During the occupation, the already severely weakened Greek economy was strained even further by the Germans who requisitioned large amounts of raw materials and food. A “war loan” to Germany only added to the misery.  A famine struck during the winter of 1941-42, exacerbated by an Allied blockade, and an estimated 300,000 people perished. Eventually the Allies partially lifted the blockade so that the Red Cross could distribute emergency supplies.

Immediately after the defeat of Greece, there was little that could be termed as resistance. After a few months, small guerrilla bands and networks to aid escaped POWs began to appear but were of little concern to the occupiers as yet.

In 1942, organised resistance movements began to appear, in two main groups. One was the ELAS (Ethnikos Laikos Apelevtherotikos Stratos, Greek People’s Liberation Army), the military arm of the EAM (Ethnikon Apelevtherotikon Metopon, National Liberation Front). The EAM was a front for the KKE (Kommounistikon Komma Ellados) or Communist Party of Greece. On the other side of politics was the EDES (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos) or National Republican Greek League. The EDES was only small to begin with and consisted of around 300 former Greek Army officers and men.

Sporadic attacks occurred on Axis troops during the summer of 1942 but by the autumn both groups clashed with the Italians in larger scale operations. In October, a British SOE (Special Operations Executive) unit headed by Colonel E.C.L. Myers made contact with ELAS and EDES, and a combined attack destroyed a key viaduct and railroad at Gorgopotamos (Operation Harling). This was SOE’s first major success of the war. It inspired the Greek guerrilla movement and many other bands began to spring up, each with their own political aims right across the spectrum. By the end of winter EDES and ELAS had increased their numbers to 1500 and around 4500 respectively.

Meanwhile, internal politics in the KKE was producing some contradictory outcomes. In the first half of 1943, ELAS made some attacks on EDES and other small non-communist forces. However the KKE then signed up to a ‘National Bands Agreement’ in July 1943 establishing a common HQ and operational areas for all resistance groups, thereby ensuring the continued flow of British weapons to ELAS.

Events of the next 3 months turned out to be a pivotal point in the struggle.  The KKE sensed that an Allied return to Greece was imminent after the Italian surrender in September. The KKE leaders in favour of seizing power over all of Greece by any means became the dominant faction, and they wished to complete this goal before the Allies arrived. They estimated that the strength of ELAS (around 15,000 under arms) was sufficient to crush all opposition, and importantly they no longer needed British supplies as they had captured the equipment of the entire Italian 24th (Pinerolo) Division, which had surrendered to them.

In October 1943, the ELAS launched a campaign to destroy all the other resistance groups. This incident led to the British ceasing all weapons shipments to the ELAS and throwing their resources entirely to EDES. It was also the beginning of the Greek Civil War, which would continue in various forms for another 6 years.
This “First Round” of the war initially lasted around a week. EDES repulsed the ELAS attacks but other smaller groups were dispersed or destroyed by the ELAS. The fighting was interrupted when the Germans began an assault of their own. Both major groups suffered significant losses, with the ELAS getting the worst of it. German operations continued well into the winter of 1943/44, concentrating on Macedonia and Epirus. Once the Germans paused, EDES counterattacked ELAS and regained some lost ground. Naturally the British were extremely concerned by the situation and eventually managed to broker a truce between EDES and ELAS in February 1944.

It was now that political developments came to the fore. On March 10th the KKE declared that it had set up a provisional government – the PEEA (Politiki Epitropi Ethnikis Apelevtheroseos, Political Committee of National Liberation). This posed a direct threat to the Greek government-in-exile. Although the KKE had taken great care to project the PEEA as an anti-fascist rather than a communist organisation (to widen its appeal), the strings were being pulled in secret by the KKE’s Central Committee. The first impact of this declaration was a mutiny by elements of the Greek forces in exile on 31st March (which was quickly put down by the British).  The Greek government in exile had to respond. It called a conference in Lebanon in May 1944, and under the stewardship of George Papandreou a new government of national unity was formed, to include members of all parties and the PEEA. The KKE delegates, however, had overstepped their authority in signing up to the plan, and as a result the KKE had been outmanoeuvred. It tried to stall for time but larger diplomatic forces had also been at work. A Soviet delegation flew to the KKE headquarters on the 26th of July. Although there are no records of what exactly took place, shortly thereafter the KKE dropped all its objections and joined the new government.

Although German forces still continued ground operations during 1944 (mostly against ELAS), the Soviet advance had cast the die and they prepared to depart. By October the British were in Athens and the Axis occupation had effectively ended after 3 and a half years. Over 300,000 civilians and thousands of guerrilla fighters had died, and the country was in ruins.