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German Army Battles & Campaigns: Greece, 1941

The German invasion

The German invasion of northeastern Greece, launched by Field Marshal Wilhelm List's Twelfth Army from Bulgarian soil, commenced on April 6 simultaneously with the offensive into southeastern Yugoslavia; indeed, these two efforts merely represented the twin facets of an integrated invasion plan. A few hours earlier, the Germans had informed the Greeks that the alleged anti-German "allied" front created in the Balkans by Greek acceptance of British forces on its soil had forced a German invasion. The note stressed, however, that Hitler's quarrel was not with Greece but with Great Britain; but to the Greek soldiers facing coordinated panzer and Stuka dive-bombing attacks that afternoon, these diplomatic niceties held no relevance whatsoever.

Opening moves

To help maintain the lightning pace of the German armored advance through Macedonia, Field Marshal List employed a detachment of Brandenburg commandos to capture key crossings over the Vardar River. With these secured, the panzer spearheads of XL Corps continued to race west through southern Kosovo to reach Italy's Albanian colony. As in the 1940 invasion of the West, the German Army effectively employed highly trained special forces to sustain the forward momentum of its mechanized vanguards.

The attack made on April 6 by the elite, specially trained troops of General Ringel's 5th Mountain Division, part of XVIII Mountain Corps, against the center of the Greek Metaxas Line defensive position near the Rupel Pass made only slow progress, despite intensive close air support. During the infantry attacks the division mounted that day against the powerful Greek fortifications, its lightweight 75mm Mountain Gun 36 (75mm GebG 36) pieces provided invaluable firepower support, while Stuka dive-bombers provided additional assistance from above. Under this supporting fire, the mountain rifle troops pushed toward the Greek bunkers, hugging the available terrain, before bravely engaging the enemy strongpoints with grenades and demolition charges. Such work was at close ranges and highly hazardous.

Yet despite the high tactical skills possessed by these select German troops, they still encountered bitter Greek resistance that even they struggled to overcome. Eventually, typically effective German tactical improvisation enabled these alpine troops during April 9 first to outflank the defenders and then to utilize surprise to capture the remaining Greek positions in the Rupel Pass. However, the mountain troops only ultimately secured this key tactical mission at very high cost in terms of casualties - some 2,300 killed and wounded in just four days of intense mountain combat. The appropriate doctrinal lesson the German Army drew from this, and other similar experiences encountered in the Balkans, was that combat in difficult mountain terrain against prepared enemy field defenses would always remain a tough mission, but that with perseverance, resourceful and tactically skilled assaulting alpine troops could still achieve victory over their opponents.

Panzer attack

During April 6, the crack troops of the 2nd Panzer Division successfully advanced west an incredible 45 miles (74 km) to capture Strumica in southeastern Yugoslavia. The next day the division then swung south and crossed the Yugoslav-Greek border near Lake Doiran to outflank the western end of the Metaxas Line. To keep the division's vehicles going in the face of the attritional damage inflicted by the poor-quality roads, its workshop units had to work round the clock replacing or repairing damaged suspensions, tracks, and engines. Once again, the vital supporting "tail" units included in the well-balanced composition of the German armored divisions had proven crucial for the success achieved by the spearhead "teeth" arms in the Balkans.

By noon on April 8, the increasingly exhausted soldiers of the 2nd Panzer Division had notched up a potentially critical strategic success by swiftly advancing south to a point halfway from the key port of Salonika. If the panzers could capture the port, they could cut off the four divisions of the Greek East Macedonian Army deployed in northeastern Greece. Despite the desperate countermoves launched by the Greek 19th Division that day, a series of well-coordinated all-arms attacks enabled the 2nd Panzer Division nevertheless to race south and reach the outskirts of Salonika by the evening of April 8. Lacking any available shipping either to evacuate the cut-off Greek East Macedonian Army or resupply it with munitions, and in the absence of any reserves to stop the advance of the 2nd Panzer Division farther east beyond the Axios River toward Serrai, the surrounded Greek forces - some 60,000 troops - faced a hopeless situation. On April 11 they recognized the inevitable, and surrendered to the numerically inferior advancing German forces.

Bypassing the Metaxas Line

The German XVIII Mountain Corps attacked from southwestern Bulgaria due south toward Serrai in northeastern Greece against the defenses manned by the Greek East Macedonian Army. Simultaneously, other elements of XVIII Corps attacked from Petrich in southwestern Bulgaria westward into the southeastern tip of Yugoslavia. Subsequently these German forces swung through 90 degrees to drive due south into northern Greece, thus bypassing the western end of the powerful Metaxas defense line. In response to this German attempt to penetrate the Metaxas Line by frontal attack, on April 7 British bombers attacked German logistic bases in southwestern Bulgaria. If the Royal Air Force had continued these efforts, it might have undermined the German Army's desperate attempts to meet the onerous demands for supplies emanating from its rapidly advancing mechanized spearheads. Farther to the east, however, the two divisions of the German XXX Corps enjoyed swifter success against weaker resistance, though by April 9 the Greek forces that had retreated to the eastern wing of the Metaxas Line along the Nestos River successfully halted the westward advance of the corps.

Hard fighting

The German 72nd Infantry Division took 48 hours to pierce the powerful Metaxas Line defenses and penetrate beyond a modest 19 miles (30 km) toward Serrai in the face of fierce Greek resistance. In these hard-fought engagements, the resilience instilled in German soldiers by both the realistic battle simulations undertaken in training and the prior experiences of combat gained during 1939-40 proved a real advantage. One infantryman recalled the collective shudder of terror that went through his section when the Greek defenders they faced fixed bayonets and charged in a counterattack. Despite their fear, however, the discipline of the German soldiers held, and they mowed down the charging enemy troops with intense MG 34 and small-arms fire before the enemy could reach them to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

The SS in Greece

In Greece, despite possessing significant amounts of equipment that was less effective than that fielded by the best German Army units, the SS Leibstandarte Division nevertheless managed to accomplish a swift rate of advance during the invasion. This success owed much to the ideological beliefs held so fanatically by these physically superb and determined volunteer Nazi soldiers. Yet these "qualities" were also reinforced by the ruthless determination and discipline displayed by the division's junior commanders. One egregious example of this fanaticism involved the commander of the division's reconnaissance battalion, SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt "Panzer" Meyer. With scant regard to either his own safety or that of his troops, Meyer savagely drove forward an attack that had faltered in the face of intense enemy resistance by dropping a primed grenade behind the rearmost soldier in each section. Needless to say, Meyer's "leadership" successfully restored forward momentum to the German attack.

Cutting off the Greeks

Farther to the west, during April 10-11, XL Motorized Corps continued its threatening thrust south in Yugoslav Macedonia. Now the panzers reached the critical part of their mission: the drive south deep into Greek territory to threaten the relatively weak Anglo-Greek center. Consequently, by the evening of April 11, these forces had raced farther south to capture Florina, 13 miles (21 km) from the border. This dangerous advance made possible a future German thrust farther south toward Ioannina that would cut off the 14 Greek divisions, then locked in combat with the Italians in southern Albania, from their only routes of retreat across the Pindus mountains.

The Germans are held - for the moment

Around Vevi, however, on 12 April the British forces located along the western flank of the central sector held by the Anglo-Greek W-Force managed to stem the advance of the now-weakened XL Corps. One reason for this decline in German combat power was that on April 11, Hitler - against the wishes of the German Army High Command -- had diverted westward certain units from XL Corps, including the elite SS Motorized Division Leibstandarte. The Führer wished these forces to link up with the Italian units attacking the Yugoslav Third Army from Eastern Albania, whereas it made better strategic sense to concentrate all available German units for the decisive thrust south through the weak Greek center.

The attempt to trap the British

On April 12, after the Greek East Macedonian Army had capitulated, the German XVIII Mountain Corps commenced a thrust west from Salonika toward Edessa to link up with the southerly drive of XL Motorized Corps from the area around Vevi. At the same time, other elements of XVIII Mountain Corps - including the 2nd Panzer Division - advanced rapidly south along the eastern Greek coast toward the successive objectives of Katerini, Mount Olympus, Larissa, and finally the Thessalonian Plain. As this attack developed, XL Corps attacked south beyond Florina and Vevi to penetrate the powerful Anglo-Greek defenses established in the key center sector of the theater.

Between them, these two German corps hoped to encircle the four British divisions of W-Force north of the Aliakmon. In addition, by advancing southwest toward Ioannina, XL Corps hoped to cut the lines of retreat available to the Greek forces then still holding back the attacking Italian forces located in southern Albania. To forestall the encirclement of W-Force, and to allow the Greek Western Macedonian and Epirus Armies to retreat southward, during April 12-13 British Commonwealth and Greek troops pulled back 19 miles (30 km) to a new defensive front: the Second Aliakmon Line. This position covered a front some 114 miles (180 km) long from Mount Olympus on the east coast through Servia and the Aliakmon Valley to Lake Prespa on the Greek-Yugoslav-Albanian border.

The Axis invasion of Greece, April 1941

The Axis invasion of Greece, April 1941

The Greeks seek an armistice

To the British and Greek forces desperately striving to resist the Axis onslaught on Greece, the successful German advance through the Aliakmon Valley represented a significant strategic setback: the Greek Western Macedonian Army then still successfully holding back the Italian attacks in southeastern Albania now had no line of retreat. Given this disastrous situation in the west, the 14 virtually encircled divisions of the Western Macedonian Army accepted the inevitability of their demise on April 21, and hence surrendered to Field Marshal List's forces.

Back toward the east, XL Corps had managed to drive back the British contingent of W-Force south a further 80 miles (129 km) to Thermopylae by April 20. By this time, however, the British High Command had already begun intensive planning for a maritime evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Such a withdrawal was now imminently required because the Greek government had already commenced armistice negotiations with the Germans before its entire army collapsed. On April 23, Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, chief of staff of OKW, accepted the Greek capitulation. All the Wehrmacht needed to do now was to destroy those British Commonwealth forces that remained on Greek soil. During the night of April 23-24, while Commonwealth forces held the Germans along the Thermopylae defensive position, the British commenced Operation Demon, the naval evacuation of their forces from Greece.

German airborne forces

Not content with achieving a rapid defeat of the Greek Army, local German commanders ruthlessly attempted to annihilate the remaining British forces before they could evacuate. Consequently on April 26, to stop British forces from retreating south into the Peleponnese to embark from the ports of Nauplion and Kalamata, the Germans audaciously deployed glider-borne and paratroop forces deep into the enemy's rear. Through no fault of their own, however, these airborne forces failed to disrupt significantly the last phase of the British disembarkation; the operation commenced 24 hours too late, by which time significant numbers of British troops had already crossed to the southern side of the canal and closed on the evacuation ports.

The end of the campaign

Overall, by April 30, 1941, some 50,000 British and Commonwealth troops out of the 62,000 originally deployed had managed to escape across the Mediterranean Sea, mostly to the island of Crete. By then German units had pushed south to occupy the rest of Greece and had begun to cross the Aegean to establish their presence on the main Greek islands, a task they completed on May 3. Immediately after the campaign, the Germans transferred their units in Greece - apart from those earmarked for Operation Mercury, the invasion of Crete - to the east to participate in Barbarossa.

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