A Forgotten Campaign leading to Hitler’s Defeat in Russia
On 28th October 1940 the Albanian and Italian Forces invaded Greece. The Greek government having trained its army by conscription over many years, called the nation to arms, and by 8th November the Greek army had halted the invaders, and captured 5,000 Italian prisoners. A fantastic feat by soldiers armed with old fashioned WW1 equipment, carried largely by mules and bullock carts. Just six days later, the Greek army pushed the invaders back over the border, and within six weeks had defeated the Italian IX Army, and occupied a large area of Albania.
Britain’s first links with the Greek Campaign were forged in April 1939, when Britain guaranteed the independence of Greece. The failure of Italy and Albania to occupy Greece boosted the morale of the other Balkan States, but prompted Hitler to take control. He assembled six divisions in Rumania, originally earmarked for the invasion of Russia, and invaded Bulgaria. This intervention compelled the British Government to honour its commitment to Greece and so, Britain agreed to send a military force to Greece.
In March 1941, a contingent of our armed forces landed at the ports of Piraeus and Volos, and moved north to the Yugoslav border. Available for immediate despatch were 2 infantry divisions, Australian and New Zealand, 2 medium Artillery Regiments with A/A units, and an Armoured Brigade consisting of 3 Royal Tank Regiment ( aka 3 RTR and later part of 7 Armoured Division – the Desert Rats) and the 4th Hussars. The 3 RTR was equipped with 52 worn out medium A10 tanks, which had chased the Italian forces out of Egypt and across Cyranaica. The 4th Hussars had 53 Mark VI light “tanks” armed with machine guns (really armoured cars, rather than tanks). The role of the Allied Force was to support the Greek Army already committed in battle. The RAF contribution was a total of 80 aircraft, comprised of Blenheim bombers, supported by Hurricane and old Gladiator fighters, and confined to 3 or 4 serviceable airfields.
Massed on the other side of the border were 5 German Divisions, including Armoured Brigades of medium and light tanks, plus fresh Italian troops moved into Albania. Available in support was 800 German aircraft, 160 Italian planes in Albania, and a further 160 operating from bases in Italy. In addition, a considerable force of fifth columnists operated throughout Greece in support of the German invasion.
The planned strategy was based on the Yugoslav army offering an effective resistance. If they fought the Germans, then the Allied forces would cross the frontier to give assistance. However, in the event of their collapse, the long northern frontier and the port of Thessalonika would have to be abandoned. A more compact defensive position, based on Mount Olympus in the east and running along the deep defile of the Aliakmon river to the Albanian mountains in the west, would be adopted.
Churchill believed that if we could hold this line, it would be a suitable jumping off point to attack the “soft underbelly of Europe” at some future date. A nice plan if we had something to defend it with. There were no illusions among commanders on the ground of a successful defeat of the German forces. However, the British government believed that honouring our pledge to the Greek government would positively influence other as yet uncommitted nations.
In the event, there was no resistance by the Yugoslav army. Not because they had no stomach for the fight, but because Hitler had issued a threat, and the Yugoslavian government then signed a pact with Germany. A revolution followed, and the German army moved in to quell it, with Belgrade being heavily bombed as an act of punishment.
The campaign in Greece was a disaster. Defeated by the overwhelming superior forces of the enemy, the Allies were driven south at a pace dictated by the German army, until on 22nd April 1941 the Greek government capitulated. After that it was then a mad scramble to evacuation ports. This time, however, there was no small flotilla of small boats as at Dunkirk. Only the Royal Navy could evacuate troops from Greece. And they had to carry out this difficult task of evacuating troops at night and in darkness, in order to avoid the constant stream of German bombers who operated during the day. But the loss of ships became too great, and the evacuation stopped. Many men were stranded on beaches throughout the Peloponnese, and at Kalamata 10,000 were marched off to POW camps.
Later it was judged and recorded by the German High Command that because of their involvement in the Greek Campaign the Germans ultimately lost the war. Germany’s involvement in Greece delayed the programmed invasion of Russia by six vital weeks, forcing the Germans to fight in Russia during the bitter winter months. It is generally acknowledged that the bad weather cost the Germans victory in Russia.
An article on the Greek fiasco written by Edwin Horlington MBE resulted in considerable response from veterans of the campaign. As a direct result, an informal association known as the Brotherhood of the Greek Veterans was born in April 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the surrender of our forces at Kalamata in the Peloponnese. In discussions that followed later with the Municipality of Kalamata, it was agreed that a memorial be erected where the last battle was fought and a ceremony of commemoration conducted annually. A service is also now conducted annually in Britain at the National Memorial Arboretum.