WW2 Campaign in Greece
The Greek High Command was fully aware that Germany would not permit its ally, Italy, to be embroiled in an embarrassing little war indefinitely. In mid-February 1941, therefore, the Greeks seized their last chance and opened an offensive that was intended to drive the Italians from Albania before the Wehrmacht could intervene. The offensive made progress, but it was not sufficient. At the turn of the month, German troops marched into Bulgaria, and a British expeditionary force, which with earlier arrivals eventually numbered approximately 62,500 troops, began moving into Greece. Because of its fear of provoking the Germans, the _ Greek government had previously been reluctant to accept large-scale British assistance.
The Greek Army, commanded by Gen. (later Field Marshal) Alexander Papagos, had a total effective strength of 430,000 men. Unlike the Yugoslav Army, it was fully mobilized and to some extent battle tested. Its problem in countering a German attack was complicated by the psychological and political necessity of defending the long northern frontier. The army command believed that it could not voluntarily evacuate Albania, since to do so would seem to concede victory to the Italians. On the other hand, it was convinced that national morale would be equally damaged if it were to give up the long tongue of Greek territory extending east of Salonika. There the Metaxas Line covered the Bulgarian border. Built only for use in the event of a war with Bulgaria, the line could not withstand a German attack, but it had cost a great deal of money and in the popular mind had become a symbol of national security. The British commander, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Henry Maitland Wilson (later 1st Baron Wilson of Libya and of Stowlangtoft) lacked sufficient troops to close the gap between the front in Albania and the Metaxas Line, and he therefore placed his forces in a short line facing northeastward along the Vermion Mountains and the lower Aliakmon River. Apparently, neither the Greeks nor the British had decided on a course of action if the Germans attacked across the virtually undefended Yugoslav border, and it was just there that one or two thrusts would outflank all three segments of the Greek-British front.
The German Twelfth Army, under Field Marshal Wilhelm List, executed the campaign in Greece. It had three corps headquarters commanding 12 divisions. In the assembly one corps was stationed southwest of Sofia, to attack toward Skopje (Skoplje) in southern Yugoslavia and then southward into Greece. The second was placed in the southwest corner of Bulgaria to attack through and around the flank of the Metaxas Line toward Salonika, and the third was moved close to the eastern end of the Greek-Bulgarian border. The heavy concentration against the narrow strip of territory east of Salonika resulted mainly from Hitler’s desire to defeat at the outset any British attempt to retain a foothold in northern Greece or on the Aegean Islands, Thasos, Samothrace (Samothrake), and Lemnos.
The Twelfth Army attacked on April 6. The units moving toward Skopje encountered the fully mobilized Yugoslav Third Army and became involved in heavy fighting, as did those attacking the Metaxas Line frontally, but everywhere the offensive made good progress. On April 9, Salonika fell, and the Greek Second Army surrendered, thereby ending resistance on the Metaxas Line and in all the territory east of Salonika.
The German corps advancing through southern Yugoslavia took Skopje on April 7, and began turning south. On April 10, it attacked through the Bitolj (Monastir) gap between the open flanks of the British line along the Vermion Mountains, and the Greek front in Albania. The British immediately began retreating toward Mount Olympus (Olymbos) , and the next day the Greek First Army decided to withdraw southward from Albania. When the Germans took Metsovon Pass on April 21, the First Army’s route of escape from the area around and north of Ioannina was cut. The army surrendered the next day. The British force retreated southward along the Aegean coast toward Athens (Athenai). The Germans took the city and reached the Isthmus of Corinth on April 27, and in three more days occupied the Peloponnesus (Peloponnesos). Most of the 12,000 British casualties were incurred during these last days, when the German ground forces closed in, and the ships evacuating the troops were forced to come toward shore without air cover. The Germans lost 1,100 men killed and 4,000 missing and wounded.
Greece was liberated by British troops from the Mediterranean theater in late 1944 (see section 8. Mediterranean Operations), and Yugoslavia was cleared of German troops during the Russian final offensive in 1945 (see section 6. German Invasion of the USSR).