On 28 October 1940, Italy invaded Greece from
Albania. The intention was a lightning campaign which would lead
to the Italian domination of the southern Balkans and the Aegean
Sea. The invasion was a failure with the ill-equipped but
high-spirited Greek infantry successfully fighting on familiar
ground to defeat the more numerous and heavily armed invader. The
Italians were forced back into Albania.
- Italy's attack on Greece made Greece an ally of Britain against Italy
but not against Germany.
Five RAF squadrons were soon operating from Greek airfields against the
Italians in Albania and a small infantry group was landed in Crete.
General Sir Archibald Wavell, the Middle East Commander-in-Chief went to
Athens to offer the Greek dictator, General Metaxas, immediate
reinforcements. These were declined on the grounds that they would not
effectively reinforce the Greek Army and might provide the Germans with
the pretext for attacking Greece. However, it is now known that Hitler had
ordered his staff on 12 November 1940 to plan for the occupation of
northern Greece, with the objective being enlarged later in the month to
include the whole of Greece.
Germany's aim was to secure its southern
flank in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia,
timed to begin some time after the 15 May 1941. The German operation,
code-named Marita, was to be launched by the 12th Army of 13 divisions
attacking northern Yugoslavia and the 2nd Army of 15 divisions attacking
southern Yugoslavia and Greece. These forces were supported by air units
of the Luftwaffe.
On 29 January 1941 General Metaxas died. The new Greek Prime Minister,
Alexander Koryzis sent a note to the British Government reaffirming
Greece's determination to resist a German attack, repeating that a British
force should not be sent to Macedonia unless the German Army entered
Bulgaria, but suggesting that the size and composition of the proposed
force should be determined. On 24 February at a meeting of British and
Greek political and military leaders, British Foreign Secretary, Anthony
Eden, said Britain could offer three infantry divisions, the Polish
Brigade and an armoured brigade, a total of 100,000 men.
By 6 April 1941,
the date Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece, 50,000 British and
Commonwealth troops had arrived in Greece. These forces included the
commanded by Major General Ivan Mackay, the
Zealand Division commanded by Major General Sir Bernard Freyberg VC and
the British 1st Armoured Brigade. These formations comprised 38 armour,
infantry and artillery units, including 16 New Zealand, 14 Australian and
8 British battalions and regiments.
The Greek Army consisted of 21 divisions, 15 of which were on the
Albania front and 3 on the Metaxas line along the Greek/Bulgarian border
in eastern Macedonia and Thrace. The remaining three divisions were part
of a joint Greek-British force on the Olympus-Aliakmon line in central
Macedonia which stretched from Mount Olympus to the Yugoslav border. On 5
April, General Maitland Wilson formally took command of the forces in
central Macedonia with his advanced headquarters at the foot of Mt Olympus
on the main Larisa-Florina road.
The 1st Australian Corps commanded by
General Thomas Blamey was situated from the sea to the Veria Pass. The
Greek forces, two divisions called the Central Macedonian Army were in the
Vernion mountains, north of Veria.
The ill-prepared Yugoslav Army and the Greeks on the Bulgarian border
took the shock of the German attack on 6 April. However the Luftwaffe
delivered a heavy blow to the British expedition on the night of 6/7 April
when German bombers seriously damaged Piraeus, the port of Athens sinking
seven merchant ships, sixty lighters and 25 caiques. The port was closed
for 2 days and when it reopened, it was with a much reduced capacity to
handle the ships needed to reinforce and maintain the British expedition.
The Greek forces on the Bulgarian border yielded very little territory in
the first three days of fighting but the Germans outflanked the Greek
forces by attacking through Yugoslavia down the Axios plain to Salonica.
The Greek commander in eastern Macedonia capitulated his isolated army on
The danger to the Olympus-Aliakmon line was also an outflanking move
from Yugoslavia through the Monastir Gap. Wilson decided to create a
blocking force in the Florina valley directly under his command. The 1st
Armoured Brigade and the 19th Australian Brigade were detached from
Blamey's 1st Australian Corps and placed under command of General Mackay.
As a result of the German success in eastern Macedonia, the Greek military
decided to withdraw from the Albanian front and central Macedonia to a new
defence line which would on the east include the Olympus-Aliakmon position
but would omit the passes west of the Florina Valley. A rear defensive
line from Mt Olympus along the south bank of the Aliakmon River was also
planned for a protracted defence.
Mackay's force deployed on 9 April at Vevi where the Monastir valley
narrows to 100 to 500 yards and followed a winding course through a defile
flanked by steep rock-strewn hills with few trees. Next day, German and
British guns exchanged fire in the valley and Mackay was ordered to hold
until the night of 12 April before withdrawing. Mackay's infantry was
commanded by Brigadier Vasey who had 3 battalions spread across ten miles
of front much of which was covered with snow; the 2/8th Australian
Battalion on the east, the 1st Rangers in the centre and the 2/4th
Australian Battalion on the hills to the west.
On 12 April the Germans
thrust back the Rangers but the Royal Horse Artillery and Australian
anti-tank gunners held back German infantry and tanks. By dusk German
tanks were among the forward posts of the 2/8th and it was out of touch
with Brigade Headquarters. It withdrew but the men reached the vehicles
further south and on the west the 2/4th withdrew except for a company
which walked into the German lines and was captured. After two successful
rearguard actions by the armoured brigade the force was extricated and the
infantry reached the Olympus-Aliakmon Line.
The 16th Australian Brigade was hurried forward to the Veria Pass on 8
April where it began to take up its positions. The brigade was astride a
mountain road some 3000 feet above the sea and troops had to carry their
gear, ammunition and rations either by hand or on the backs of donkeys.
Snow and rain fell on the mountains and for shelter each platoon had a
tent-fly which sagged under the weight of the snow. However, having
established itself, the brigade was ordered on 10 April to march back
through the snow covered mountains to fill a gap in the New Zealand front
west of Servia.
With Australian and New Zealand units fighting side by side, Blamey as
commander of 1 Australian Corps renamed it the Anzac Corps on 12 April.
The following day, Wilson, aware that he would receive no substantial
reinforcements from Egypt and concluding that the Greek divisions on his
west could not be relied on, informed Blamey that he had decided to
withdraw about 100 miles to a shorter line from Thermopylae to the Gulf of
Corinth. The order for retirement was issued on 15 April with conduct the
withdrawal to be commanded by Blamey. The same day, Wavell and other
senior British Middle East commanders met and decided that the evacuation
of all forces from the Greek mainland was unavoidable.
Blamey's orders for the withdrawal provided that the 6th NZ Brigade
would occupy a rearguard position astride the roads near Elasson through
which the two forward New Zealand Brigades would withdraw; the 16th
Australian Brigade would occupy a position west of Larisa through which
the 17th Australian Brigade would withdraw and the 19th Australian Brigade
would form a final rearguard at Domokos. Meanwhile German divisions were
rushing south and west over muddy cratered roads. Blamey ordered Brigadier
Allen's 16th Brigade to the Pinios Gorge to halt the German thrust towards
the main road at Larisa, a bottle-neck which was the only escape road for
the Anzac Corps. By midnight of 17 April, the Anzac Corps' four forward
brigades had west their positions, embussed and driven south, leaving the
6th NZ and the 16th and 17th Australian Brigades astride the 3 main roads
converging on Larisa.
Throughout daylight on 18 April the Germans attacked the 16th Brigade
in the Pinios Gorge and the 6th NZ Brigade at Elasson. The 16th Brigade
held the road until late that night but the German tanks forced the two
battalion of the 16th brigade into the hills. From the air, the Luftwaffe
attacked the long lines of vehicles along the 70 miles escape route to
Lamia. Although the air attacks continued all day and were noisy and nerve
wracking, the Luftwaffe failed to exploit its superiority and was unable
to halt the retreating column and did remarkably little damage to men and
vehicles. By dawn on 19 April, all units except parts of battalion in the
Pinios Gap were south of Larisa and the Anzac Corps was deploying in the
Thermopylae positions. It took the Germans five full days to cover the
distance to Thermopylae and prepare for their next attack.
On 18 April, Koryzis, the Greek Prime Minister committed suicide and
two days later, without authority from Athens, the Greek Army which had
fallen back from Albania, surrendered to the Germans. The plans for the
evacuation were brought forward and the night of 24/25 April was scheduled
for the withdrawal from the Thermopylae line and also for the first
large-scale embarkation. The embarkation was from various beaches in the
Athens area or in the Peloponnese. To lift the troops there were 6
cruisers, 24 destroyers and escort vessels, 2 Landing Ships Infantry, 14
troopships and a number of landing craft.
On 24 April, the Germans attacked the Thermopylae line which was held
by the 6th NZ Brigade on the east and the 19th Australian Brigade on the
west. German tanks tried to break through the New Zealanders while
mountain troops attacked the high pass held by the Australians. The New
Zealanders destroyed twelve tanks and together with the Australians held
their ground. The 5th NZ Brigade and 6000 corps and base troops embarked
on the night of 24/25 April. The 19th Australian Brigade embarked from the
Peloponnese beaches the following night.
On 26 April, German paratroops
cut the only road linking the two parts of the British force. That night
troops of the armoured brigade were embarked from Athens beaches and 8000
troops including the 16th and 17th Brigades from Kalamata. The 4th NZ
Brigade fought off the Germans on the 27 April and embarked that night but
some groups at Kalamata and Navplion were captured.