- In honor of the US commitment to assist the Greeks in their Civil War, which took place 67 years ago this week, we’ll be presenting a study of UW in this nation, the birthplace of Western Civilization.
This is the second of four parts, which will run daily:
- The Guerrillas of Greece’s Dawn — yesterday, 4 Mar 14
- The Guerrillas of Greece in the Second World War — today, 5 Mar 14
- The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949 – tomorrow, 6 Mar 14
- Cyprus and other Aftershocks of the Greek Civil War, Friday, 7 Mar 14.
The Guerrillas of Greece in the Second World War
Greece had never been a unitary national state before the events of 1821 to 1833, as recounted yesterday. And Greece continued to have troubles with national unity thereafter (indeed, to this day). While the Greeks were the most unified when being pressed by foreign invaders, even then they were prone to collapse into factionalism.
The classic example of that? Greek factions fighting a Civil War, even while they continued to fight against the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence. We’ll see another example when we look at World War II.
In this century-plus that passed between the war of Independence and the axis invasion of 1941, several groups fought for predominance in Greece. The most important were Royalists and Republicans, although there was also a Communist faction, and the military itself was a political player, for better or for worse.
Meanwhile, of course, smuggling and brigandage remained important economic activities along the coasts and in the mountain valleys of the Greek state. This already volatile and messy mixture of factions, loyalties, and ideologies, was scarcely prepared to accept the new totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. But they came regardless. Both Communism and Fascism promised to liberate the worker and the farmer from the oppressive yoke of the boss or landlord.
The back story
Greece continued to fight with the Ottoman Empire as long as the latter existed. In 1897, they fought a major war over the status of Cyprus, and the Turks, who had worked hard to reform their military, won.
This caused Greece to work on building a modern army and navy. Early in the 20th century, Greece fought, confusingly, in two Balkan Wars that took place in less than a year. The first pitted four small Christian states Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, against the Ottoman Empire and ended in a victory for the allies, who called themselves the Balkan League. Greek naval power was vital to this victory; it kept the Ottoman fleet bottled up in the Black Sea. This Turkish defeat produced the western borders of modern Turkey, and sent ethnic Turks throughout the Balkans fleeing into Turkey as penniless refugees, mere steps ahead of ethnic cleansing. This defeat also would produce the rise of the Young Turks and lead to revolution in the Ottoman Empire, but not until Turkey had suffered further defeats.
One of the Balkan League, Bulgaria, was not happy with the way the territorial division shook out, and it turned on its former allies, precipitating the second Balkan war. This was a disaster for Bulgaria; not only did it not gain the territory in Macedonia wanted, but it lost most of its gains from the first Balkan war. Even the Ottoman Empire fought against Bulgaria in the second Balkan war.
That gives you another data point about the volatility of politics in Greece and the surrounding area: Greece, along with a bunch of allies, would be at war with and against both Turkey and Bulgaria, in less than a year.
After the war, Greek King George I was shot in the back by an anarchist or socialist, and was dead on arrival in the hospital, with a single shot through his heart and lungs. (The assassin jumped, or was thrown, from a window in jail a few days later).
After the murder of George I, the first Greek-born Greek King, Constantine I, came to power. He was not only the next one in dynastic order, he was also extremely popular as the victor of the Balkan Wars. At the outbreak of the First World War Constantine, who inclined towards Germany and the Central Powers, wanted to keep Greece neutral. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos favored the Allies. Their personal and political differences would divide Greece for decades. Each would force the other to resign and abdicate, respectively, twice. At times, the country would be divided into halves, one ruled by the king and one by Venizelos’s revolutionary government. The Venizelos side joined the Allied powers.
After World War I, Greeks had been mostly at war since 1912. And continued to fight with the Ottoman Empire… and lost again by 1922, causing the fall of the government and the King. Between 1922 and 1935 there’d be a King (George II), a republic, and a dictatorship; at least 14 coups d’etat, dozens of governments, and generally Greek political chaos. In 1935, the monarchy (George II again) was restored, and in 1936, an Army dictatorship under General Ioannis Metaxas took power of government, while King George II remained as head of state. Metaxas ran a typical uniformed-strongman government, which took a dim view of dissent, but it was not a truly fascist regime, as it was authoritarian rather than totalitarian.
War Comes to the Hellenes
The Metaxas regime was still in place in October 1940 when Mussolini demanded the Greeks allow it away to station troops on their soil. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum, and when the Italians invaded, the Greeks fought, joined by a small British Expeditionary Force. Whatever Metaxas may have lacked in tolerance for political diversity, he made up in his gift of military skill. He, and the much improved Greek army, beat the Italians like a rented mule. They not only threw the Italian forces out of Greece but they chased them halfway back through Albania (which Mussolini had invaded and annexed) as well.
Hitler had to divert forces from the coming attack on Russia, in order to bail his Italian partner out. He didn’t do it out of any love for Mussolini; he did it because he would otherwise have had a British army on his right flank. The German forces that invaded from Bulgaria, and then stayed to occupy Greece, were not available for Operation Barbarossa, the start of which was also delayed by the Greek diversion.
Between the Greek victory and the German invasion, Metaxas had sickened and died. The loss of the authoritarian leader with no solid or constitutional plan of succession hit the Greeks hard, and the Germans struck in areas that had been backwaters and were without Greek forces to resist them. It all added up to a calamity for Greece.
By the end of April, 1941, the Greek government had fled, first to Crete, and then to Britain. Crete did not hold out for long; it was seized by a German airborne invasion. The Germans chose to occupy most of Crete, certain other key islands, Athens and Piraeus, and sections of Macedonia and Thrace. Part of Thrace was not just occupied, but annexed by the Bulgarians; the balance of Greece and its islands were under Italian occupation. The Axis powers made an effort to govern through Greek institutions: for example, much of the Greek military that was not in exile, was not demobilized but put under Axis command. Irregular militia formations were stood up; and police and judicial authorities bent to the will of the occupier. An entire quisling government under a Greek general was established to put a Greek face on the occupation.
The Resistance Awakes
Resistance can’t start big with a guerrilla movement; it has to start small with acts of bold propaganda and invisible organization. The resistance counterattack didn’t begin with a shot German; it began with disrespect to the swastika flag. The Germans erected their flag with great fanfare atop the Acropolis, and two students climbed up and tore it down. Meanwhile, a story spread that a Greek soldier had refused to strike the Greek flag when the Germans went to raise theirs in its place; instead, he died keeping the Greek flag out of their hands. This story appears to have been wartime propaganda, but it was effective propaganda: it stirred Greeks to resist.
By the fall of 1941, the occupation was firmly rooted, the economy was in a state of collapse (Greece, after all, was a maritime, merchant nation, suddenly cut off from capital and markets), and people began to starve.
Resistance grew first where occupation was harshest — the Bulgarian zone, where the occupiers intended to annex the territory, but preferred to do it without the Greeks. (Mind, the Greeks had previously sent packing the non-Greeks in the areas annexed after the Balkan Wars, so from the Bulgar’s point, turnabout was fair play).
Bulgarians and Germans both used the technique of disproportionate reprisal. For example, a spontaneous revolt in Drama and Doxato in eastern Macedonia/Western Thrace, killed a half dozen Bulgarian police, for which the entire population of Doxato, plus 3,000 from Drama, plus another 10-15,000 from various small villages, were exterminated.
The first Greek resistance, then, was spontaneous reaction to the humiliations or cruelties of occupation. As is normal in GW, violent, wholesale reprisals have a two-stage effect, at first shocking the resistance into quiescence, but increasing the hatred of the invader a hundredfold, and inspiring the resisters to new approaches.
The occupiers didn’t just use reprisals, of course. They tried a wide range of COIN techniques, including recruiting national minorities to inform on and hunt the Greek guerrillas. Once such minority was the Chams, who would suffer expulsion after the war for their participation in resister hunts.
The resistance could only go so far without organizing politically and militarily, of course, and that was always, no pun intended, Achilles’s heel of Greek guerillas. Once again, there were separate republican, royalist, leftist and Communist factions. The Communists were well supplied with leaders and other resources from partisan ratlines that ran back through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to the USSR. Some Communists had been preparing for armed revolution since the advent of Metaxas in 1935, then with the support of the Comintern and Cominform. In time, the Communist group absorbed the other left leaning groups into a “national front” organization that was completely Communist controlled (or betrayed them to the Germans and Italians), and the center to right groups also coalesced, to an extent, although republicans remained hostile to royalists and vice versa (the Government in Exile, for what it’s worth, remained royalist). The guerrillas were often as pleased to fight each other as they were to fight the Germans or Italians.
Weapons, oddly enough, were not the shortage items they were in some other European insurgencies. Greece was awash in stray arms from the Italian, German and British campaigns (the BEF left all but empty-handed), and various political groups had been stockpiling weapons since long before the war. And the Greek Army that was supposedly serving the Germans was full of patriotic Greeks who were in a position to make things “fall off the truck” and into the hands of the resistance. True, groups were often constrained by arms and ammunition supply, but in that case, leaders simply suspended recruiting until they at least had a potential for arming the new recruits. (We’ll have a sidebar on weapons and the state of andarte weapons training tomorrow).
The terrain of Greece favored the guerrilla. It was mountainous and rugged, with many obstacles in all directions, and few avenues of approach to any given point. Observation in the mountains also favored the Gs. They could see the enemy convoys coming, and then engage or vaporize, at their pleasure.
The nation was, indeed, little changed geographically since Independence. Few roads and railways had been built. (And it wouldn’t be Greece if the railways were all built to standard gage, or even a single narrow gage. They were a chaos of incompatible gages and rolling stock). The populace was still predominantly hardy fishermen, farmers and herdsmen. The guerrillas were, initially, small bands in the klepht tradition, but they were called by a new word: andartes. (Guerillas).
Gardner notes that:
Is generally conceded that certain conditions must be fulfilled before a guerrilla movement can develop. By the end of 1941, all the prerequisites necessary for the start of armed resistance were present.
He judges those prerequisites to be: favorable terrain; tradition of violence; civilian support; motivation; chance of success; effective leadership; and outside support.
The British SOE began dispatching advisors to the guerrillas in 1942. They sent them indiscriminately to Communist and non-communist groups alike; their criterion was simply: would they fight? SOE leaders in Cairo held the fond hope that they would be able to get the guerrillas to cooperate. To their dismay, messages came back from liaisons with each side that the problem was the other side: the advisors had become emotionally invested in their G’s. In 1941 and 1942 the communist underground and guerrilla elements were much larger than their compatriots’ equivalents, although most of the rank and file were not ideological communists, just ordinary Joes looking for someone willing to fight the occupation. In this, the growth of the communist underground brought it still further growth.
Because of the mountainous terrain in Greece, roads and especially railroads (which must be much more level than roads) went through a vast number of choke points, which the Anglo-Greek guerrilla leaders realized were natural targets — and too many for the Axis Powers’ troops to keep eyes on.
SOE leaders had some marked successes. Once and only once, they wheedled the communist and non-communist guerrillas into cooperating on a railway strike, one which destroyed a bridge over the Gorgopotamos, and cut a crucial rail line, that had borne dozens of trains daily, and left it unserviceable for months. If you have the time this History Channel episode retells some of the same backstory we have told, explains why the rail line was important (in short, it fed supplies through the Greek port of Piraeus to the Afrika Korps), and describes Operation Harling, that took the Gorgopotamos Viaduct down.
The video includes interviews with then-surviving operation leaders, period footage, and re-enactments (including one error: in 1942, none of the SOE would have a Sterling, or even a Sten. If they had a submachine gun, it would have been a Thompson).
The operation was significant because the SOE managed to induce the communist and republican/royalist fighters to work together. Despite the pressure of a brutal occupation, that would never happen again. But the Italian and German response was more of the same: reprisals against civilians. Brutal but ineffective. And they replaced the Italian bridge guards with more committed Germans, and more of them.
So the Anglo-Greek team went after the Asopos viaduct next, and dropped it. The movie covers these events, too. “In this sort of operation, you have to have a lot of luck,” one of the operators remembers. They did. They found that the bridge was under repair, and used the Germans’ own scaffolding to set their charges. (That had ill effects, though; the Germans blamed Greek workers for the sabotage, and shot them).
It wasn’t all bridge-busting: an SOE team in Crete, dressed as German soldiers, spirited away a German general, driving him through checkpoints in an escape worthy of a spy movie. Before the Germans really understood that he was missing, he was answering questions in Cairo.
And it wasn’t all fun and adventure: Beginning in 1943, the Germans began to subject officers and men who were taken in uniform to the same peremptory shooting that they’d been applying to andartes right along.
By 1943 things were hopping in Greece. The Italians collapsed, and the Germans took over their share of the occupation, too. (The andartes happily helped themselves to the Italians’ abandoned arms and ammo). Tens of thousands of andartes were in the field, and they were a major bother for the Germans, even though they were still more likely to be setting scores with other Greeks than working together to send the foreign armies home. Along with the SOE, OSS men had begun operating in Greece, also, primarily in 30-man Operational Groups. And the Germans were under so much pressure elsewhere that their grip on Greece was growing shaky. They realized that their collaborationist Greek Army wasn’t actually collaborating, and they disbanded units and sent the officers to concentration camps (or tried to; once the word got out, the officers gunned-up and rode for the nearest concentration of andartes, whom they’d often been arming and supplying already).
The war remained a nasty one. The Germans shot captured (and suspected) andartes in large numbers, and the andartes for their part took glee in ambushing German Red Cross convoys as a means of scavenging medical supplies — in the course of which all the noncombatant medical personnel would be slain.
In 1944 the Germans finally withdrew from Greece, and then peace broke out — no, wait. We’re just kidding. Then Greece collapsed into civil war, again. What else would you expect? It’s Greece, after all.
But that is a story for another day.
About these references: Asprey & Boot are overall histories of GW. Asprey’s is better, but suffers from its age. Of the World War II works, Gardner’s is an overview, Sklavos’s is the work of a Marxist whose nose remains out of joint from his side’s defeat.
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: The Guerilla in History. New York: Doubleday, 1975, 2 vols.
Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Liveright, 2012.
Gardner, Hugh G. Guerilla and Counterguerrilla Warfare in Greece, 1941 – 1945. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1962.
Mazower, Mark. After the War was Over. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Phillips, W. Alison. The War of Greek Independence: 1821 to 1833. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897.
Sklavos, L. The Greek Civil War (Greece In Crisis). Kindle edition, 2011.
Woodward, Steven. The Enemies Within: SOE Frustrations Co-ordinating Resistance inGreece 1942- December 1943. Sheffield, England: University of Sheffield (unpublished dissertation), 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/1400049/The_Enemies_Within_SOE_Frustrations_Co-ordinating_Resistance_in_Greece_1942-_December_1943