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Wartime Greece

“No.”  — Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece



Wartime Greece spanned almost nine long years to the day, beginning with the
battles first fought against Italy, then Germany and Bulgaria, to the occupation of Greece by these same countriesand finally ending with Greece’s civil war, one of the bloodiest in European history.


From October 28th, 1940 to October 16th, 1949, over one million Greeks died or were missing. During the famine in Athens alone, over 350,000 Greeks would die of starvation. Greece’s wartime decade was perhaps the most single destructive event in its treasured history. Millions of lives were changed forever or methodically destroyed, and would ultimately be responsible for the cataclysmic near-total annihilation of Greece’s Jewish population.


On October 28th, 1940, Italian dictator Mussolini sent his ambassador, Emmanuele Grazzi to deliver an ultimatum to Greek leader Ioannis Metaxas. This cleverly worded letter was nothing short of humiliating Greece into allowing Italian forces to enter Greece unabated, or face war. In events leading up to the Greco-Italian War, fascist-style Metaxas would attempt to keep Greece neutral and to avoid a war at all costs with their belligerent neighbor. In fact, in August of 1940, the Greek light cruiser Elli was torpedoed while she sat at anchor off the Greek island of Tinos, in a deliberate attempt to force Metaxas’ hand into a conflict with Italy. Metaxas wisely refused to act, infuriating Mussolini. Although the Greeks were thoroughly outnumbered on the eve of the Italian invasion and fearing a double-pronged attack by Italy’s allies—Germany and Bulgaria—Metaxas, nonetheless refused Mussolini’s ultimatum. Though the exact words have been debated, it is said that he uttered, simply, “No.” The day has become synonymous with Greece. It is celebrated annually on the 28th of October as the day in which the small country, knowing full well of the dire consequences suffered by Europe’s stronger and wealthier neighbors, would respond to aggression and violation of its sovereignty with this one word. The day is known as “Oxi Day,” in honor of Metaxas and to those who answered the call to arms (the Greek word for No is Oxi).



Awaiting the overwhelming forces at the expected point of attack, Greek forces met the Italians in Epirus in northern Greece. It is known as the Greco-Italian War and was a conflict that resulted in the first successful land campaign against the Axis powers. Eventually, Germany would come to the rescue of its embattled ally, which suffered defeat at the hands of the outnumbered Greeks. Paralyzed from further advance into Greece, even after a counter-offensive which failed, half a million Italian troops were caught by surprise. The conflict brought about the intervention of Nazi Germany into Greece on April 6th, 1941.


Germany would eventually attack through Yugoslavia, outflanking the Metaxas line and forcing the Greeks to retreat. Ultimately, the surrender of Greece and the occupation by Axis forces would lead to a collaborationist regime as occurred in France, as well as stiff resistance from the populace. This part of the wartime decade would bring misery to millions.


After the Greek mainland was defeated, the Germans quickly moved into Athens and established themselves as masters. The Greek flag was ordered to be taken down from the Acropolis, and replaced with a German swastika. A young Greek soldier, Konstantine Koukidis, obeyed the request. But, rather than handing it over to the German guards, he wrapped himself in the flag and hurled himself over the edge of the Acropolis. The Germans watched in disbelief as he plunged to his death. When this news was heard around Athens, it lifted the people’s spirits: the spot where his flag-draped body fell became holy ground, and his martyrdom defined a symbolic act of defiance for Greeks. Thus began the vilest regime to have ever ruled over Greece.



As in other countries, a collaborationist regime replaced supporters of Metaxas, who had died in January, 1941. Now, only the island of Crete remained in Allied hands and it was just a matter of days until Germany launched an attack to complete their domination of the country.


On the morning of May 20, 1941, people were surprised at what they saw in the skies over Crete. They awoke to the largest airborne invasion the world had ever seen. Thousands of elite German paratroopers, the Fallschirmjäger, fell gently to the island on that clear morning. However, what the Germans had not calculated was the resistance by the civilians which was so fierce that the Germans lost over 4,000 men the first day. The British, Australian, and New Zealand troops would fight valiantly alongside the few remaining Greek troops, all of whom would not surrender so easily. Together, with bands of ordinary men, women, and children the fighting rampaged throughout Crete for ten days, particularly around its capital, Heraklion. Although decoded intercepts from Enigma — Germany’s top-secret message encrypter — layed open the battle plan for British commander General Freyberg, he would not allow his reserves to break from their position. Rather, he had these fresh troops dig-in on the northern coast of Crete, waiting for a major seaborne invasion which never came. After some minor unsuccessful German seaborne landings — which rather seemed to work more as feints, or decoys — further misled Freyberg, the paratroopers finally gained a foothold at Maleme Airfield, turning the tide of the battle.



After a vain attempt to hold Crete, King George II of Greece fled with his government-in-exile to Egypt. But the Germans’ pyrrhic victory forced Hitler to rethink his airborne strategy, and considering the staggering losses — between 15,000 to 20,000 casualties — he refused to commit a large number of paratroopers to an invading force again. After the battle, reprisals against the Cretans who aided the British resulted in mass executions and the destruction of Cretan villages, such as Kandanos.


The brutality of the Axis occupation led to a terrible famine and deportation of most of the country’s Jewish population to death camps in Poland. Despite the cruelty of the oppressors, the Greeks formed partisan groups to defeat the Germans. One of the largest contingents was derived from the Greek communists, or ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army, and EDES, the Nationalist/monarchist group. Others, like Manolis Bandouvas and Captain Petrakogiorgis would lead their partisan groups in attacks against the Germans on Crete.


The Germans quickly realized they were outmatched: fighting to win a guerrilla-style war, with ambushed convoys becoming a common occurrence, was unlikely to result in any victory. As the Germans began to retreat before the advancing Red Army in December of 1944, the ELAS and EDES partisans deliberately began to lay claim to their own territory, which would mark the beginning of a larger conflict that was nothing short of Dante’s outer circle: the Greek Civil War.



Once Germany entirely withdrew out of mainland Greece, the ELAS partisans came out of hiding and tried to exert their authority where they could. However, so did the exiled Greek government, who returned from Egypt. As tensions mounted in late December of 1944, communists demonstrating in Athens were shot upon by British soldiers, leading to a period called Dekemvriana — the “Troubled Times of December.” This was the official beginning of the Greek Civil War.


The British, who considered Greece to lie within its sphere of influence, attempted to intervene and disarm ELAS, a not-so-easy task. Shouts in the street led to bloody gun battles.



Winston Churchill personally went to Greece to negotiate a deal to end the fratricide. As the war wound down, nothing softened the demands of ELAS, who considered themselves responsible for defeating the Germans and the major political power in Greece. Supplied and funded by the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, ELAS would metamorphose into “freedom fighters,” and despite the aid, would succeed only ingloriously. The “freedom” they sought would come at the highest price: a country torn apart and divided worse than in the past four years under German occupation. Ultimately, thousands would be killed, and a million more fled Greece entirely. Children were “displaced,” or kidnapped forcefully — from both sides — and raised by families in distant parts of Greece, in communist and non-communist countries, even the United States. It is estimated that 30,000 Greek children were taken to live in Slavic-speaking countries.






As Great Britain began to see a never-ending conflict that would only escalate, it allowed the United States to become a major participant in Greece’s policy-making. President Truman readily agreed, sending aid and weapons and reinforcing the Greek Nationalist forces, through a historical decision known as the Truman Doctrine. This would be instrumental in bringing about a conclusion of the Greek Civil War and ultimate defeat of the communists. More so, the Truman Doctrine was a worldwide manifest that supplied aid anywhere to those countries fighting against communism.



Eventually, the communists were defeated. Hundreds of thousands were killed, thousands were sent to languish in prisons for years, families were broken and Greece remains divided to this day — without reconciliation — as a result of these events that occurred some seventy years ago.


Read Helias Doundoulakis’ account of his passage into Greece’s turbulent past in his latest book TRAINED TO BE AN OSS SPY.