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Greece 1940-1950 - The Terrible Decade

Greece heroically resisted Axis forces at a crucial moment in World War II, forcing Adolf Hitler to change his timeline and delaying the attack on Russia. Winston Churchill said, "if there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been" and "no longer will we say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks". Hundreds of thousands of the people of Greece were killed during World War II.

The decade of the 1940s was the most devastating and deadly in Greek history. In that period, the horrors of foreign military occupation were followed by the ravages of the Civil War. The events of this decade left wounds that remain unhealed many decades later. During the latter half of 1940 the Balkans, always a notorious hotbed of intrigues, became the center of conflicting interests of Germany, Italy, Russia, and Great Britain. From the beginning of World War II Adolf Hitler had consistently stated that Germany had no territorial ambitions in the Balkans. Because his primary interest in that area was of an economic nature?Germany obtained vital oil and food supplies from the Balkan countries?he was prepared to do his utmost to preserve peace in that part of Europe. For this reason he attempted to keep in check Italy's aggressive Balkan policy, to satisfy Hungarian and Bulgarian claims to Romanian territory by peaceful means, and to avoid any incident which might lead to Great Britain's direct intervention in Greece.

Greece's entry into World War II was precipitated by the Italian invasion on October 28, 1940. When Greece was attacked by Italy on 28 October 1940, it did not request any assistance from Great Britain, for fear of giving Hitler an excuse for German intervention. Nevertheless, the British occupied Crete and Limnos three days later, thereby improving their strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. By 4 November British air force units began to arrive in southern Greece. Since Hitler believed that these moves brought the Romanian oil fields within British bombing range, he decided to transfer additional antiaircraft, fighter, and fighter-bomber units to Romania to protect the German oil resources. Early in March 1941, the British sent an expeditionary corps of some 53,000 troops into Greece in an attempt to support their allies against the impending German invasion.

Despite Italian superiority in numbers and equipment, determined Greek defenders drove the invaders back into Albania. The Italian spring offensive, which started on 9 March, made no headway, and the Greeks were able to hold their territorial gains until Germany entered the conflict. Hitler was forced to divert German troops to protect his southern flank and overran Greece in 1941. German offensive planning for southern Europe had to be restricted to the campaign against Greece. Upon insistence of the Luftwaffe, the entire country was to be occupied, not just the northern provinces.

Once Mussolini had committed the blunder of thrusting his blunt sword across the Albanian border into Greece and had suffered bitter reverses, Hitler felt obliged to rescue his brother-in-arms. Aside from reasons of prestige, Hitler's hand was forced by the British occupation of Crete and other Greek islands as well as by subsequent Russian and British political activities in the Balkans.

The invasion of Greece was the first operation in which panzer divisions and motorized infantry units were employed in distinctly alpine terrain. Despite the difficulties that were encountered the commitment of armor to spearhead an attack through mountains proved to be sound tactics. The two major successes during the first phase of the campaign - the early seizure of Skoplje and the quick capture of Salonika - could not have been accomplished without armored divisions. The Greek command was paralyzed by the initial upsets, which were caused in some measure by "tank fright" of the rank and file soldier, as had been the case during the French campaign.

As early as 27 March Hitler estimated that the campaign against Yugoslavia would delay Operation BARBAROSSA by about four weeks. This estimate was based on the diversion of forces for the assembly against Yugoslavia. Headquarters staffs, divisions, and GHQ units that were on the way to the concentration areas for Operation BARBAROSSA or whose departure was imminent had to be diverted. Those units had to be replaced by others whose departure was delayed because they were not ready for commitment. However, of the two corps headquarters and nine divisions that were diverted to the Yugoslav campaign, all but three infantry divisions were replaced from the Army High Command reserves by the time Operation BARBAROSSA got under way. To form an unbiased opinion of the true relationship between the campaigns in the Balkans and the invasion of Russia is far from easy. German military authors state that the diversion in the Balkans had hardly any influence on the course of the subsequent campaign, since Germany's casualties were relatively low and the expenditure of materiel and supplies insignificant.

Regarded as the chief architect of their defeat by the Greeks, the Wehrmacht turned over the bulk of the occupation responsibility to the Italians in 1941. Already smarting under defeat in Africa at the hands of the British and having made a poor showing in their own Balkan campaigns, the Italians undertook no appreciable measures to prevent the growth of a guerrilla movement. The few Italian attempts at suppression, harsh and arbitrary, only kindled the resentment of the Greek population and placed a further onus on the Germans. Even more resented was the German invitation to the Bulgarians to annex Thrace, won at the cost of so many thousands of Greek lives in 1922-24 and still fresh in the minds of the bulk of the Greek population.

The Germans exploited the economy for as much as it could bear, leaving the civilian population at a scant subsistence level and in many cases at a level so low that the relief agencies of neutral powers had to be called upon to prevent widespread starvation. This, the raising of native collaborationist forces to augment their own, and the obvious fact that there would be no relief so long as the Germans remained, placed the occupiers in a position that could only be held with increasing force as time passed. Shorn of allies by the defection of the Italians and Bulgarians, the Germans found themselves in possession of a rugged and largely mountain area seething with discontent, where even former collaborators were eager to join the winning side.

The successes achieved by the guerrillas against the Germans, Italians, and Bulgarians in the Balkans during World War II strengthened considerably the tradition of resistance to foreign occupation forces. Communist indoctrination of large segments of the population, with stress placed on clandestine methods and guerrilla tactics, also played its part in awakening this sentiment.

The British managed to support, and control the guerrilla movement. Once they became aware of the Communist element in the strongest guerrilla force, they worked to keep it from establishing complete military and political control over the country during a period of extreme political weakness. Their success in this undertaking was certainly an outstanding accomplishment.

The Greeks, traditionally opposed to any occupier, they readily took up arms when it became apparent the conquerors intended to remain and to exploit their few resources; even the collaborationists often proved to be unreliable. Once started, the surge of the guerrilla-movement could not be stopped even by the wholesale slaughter of hostages. Following a very severe German occupation in which many Greeks died (including over 90% of Greece's Jewish community) German forces withdrew in October 1944, and the government-in-exile returned to Athens.

After the German withdrawal, the principal Greek resistance movement, which was controlled by the communists, refused to disarm. A banned demonstration by resistance forces in Athens in December 1944 ended in battles with Greek Government and British forces. Continuing tensions led to the outbreak of full-fledged civil war in 1946. First the United Kingdom and later the U.S. gave extensive military and economic aid to the Greek Government. In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall implemented the Marshall Plan under President Truman, which focused on the economic recovery and the rebuilding of Europe. The U.S. contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Greece's buildings, agriculture, and industry.

In August 1949, the Greek national army forced the remaining insurgents to surrender or flee to Greece's communist neighbors. The insurgency resulted in 100,000 killed, 700,000 displaced persons inside the country, and catastrophic economic disruption. This civil war left Greek society deeply divided between leftists and rightists.

Greece became a member of NATO in 1952.

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Page last modified: 27-07-2018 22:36:18 ZULU