In addition to these military complications there arose a political one. Determined to avoid any action that might lead to German intervention, the Greek government refused to permit the Royal Air Force to survey sites for new airfields north of the line Mount Olympus-Gulf of Arta. (Map 5) Whereas such caution on the part of the Greeks was understandable, it was futile since, as early as 4 November, Hitler had decided to occupy northern Greece to eliminate the British threat to the Romanian oil fields.
The Greek Army held the initiative through the beginning of March 1941, but made only local gains by eliminating enemy salients
on the Albanian front. The Italian spring offensive, which started on 9 March, made no headway, and the Greeks were able to hold their territorial gains until Germany entered the conflict. Except for some tactical air support received from the British, the Greek Army carried the fight entirely on its own, suffering very heavy casualties.
While the Greeks had thus demonstrated their ability to withstand the assault of the junior Axis partner, a German intervention in the Balkans could easily reverse the situation. In the event of a German attack, Greece was in a very unfavorable position because it lacked the necessary strength to cope with such a formidable opponent. The morale of the Greek forces in Albania eras high, but it was difficult to foretell how a German attack would affect them. Moreover, since Greece had practically no armament industry, its equipment and ammunition supplies consisted mainly of stocks that the British had captured from the defeated Italian armies in North Africa.
In order to feed the battle in Albania, the Greek command had been forced to make continuous withdrawals from eastern Macedonia and western Thrace. To reverse this process in anticipation of a German attack was inexpedient because the available forces were inadequate for sustained resistance on both fronts. The Greek command therefore decided to continue its successful resistance in Albania, no matter how the situation might develop under the impact of a German attack across the Bulgarian border.
In this difficult military situation Greece's only hope was that the ground forces offered by tile British would arrive in time and that Yugoslavia and Turkey, or Yugoslavia alone, would participate in the struggle against the Axis Powers. If Yugoslavia joined Greece before the Germans were ready to attack, the Albanian pocket could be cleared of Italian forces. This in turn would make available considerable forces to block a German Invasion of Greece.
During a meeting of British and Greek military and political leaders which took place in Athens on 13 January, Gen. Alexander Papagos, Commander in Chief of the Greek Army, reviewed the situation and expressed the opinion that Yugoslavia would probably remain neutral. The minimum assistance he asked from Britain was nine divisions with corresponding air support. These divisions should arrive in eastern Macedonia and western Thrace before the Germans moved from Romania to Bulgaria and assembled their forces for the attack on Greece. Secrecy and deception as to the ultimate destination of the British expeditionary force, which was to be assembled in Egypt, were essential to prevent any German interference. However, all the British could offer was two to three divisions and a relatively
small number of planes whose arrival would furthermore be delayed by the existing shortage of shipping. They suggested the immediate dispatch of a small token force of less than divisional strength. This offer was rejected by the Greeks who feared that the arrival of such a contingent would precipitate a German attack without giving them any sizable assistance. British help would be requested if and when German troops crossed the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria. Such an overt act would be considered as a preliminary step to an attack on Greece.
The Greek Government apparently informed the Yugoslavs of this decision, and they in turn made it known to the German Government. General Papagos writes on this subject:
This, incidentally, disposes of the German assertion that they were forced to attack us only in order to expel the British from Greece, for they knew that, if they had not marched into Bulgaria, no British troops would have landed in Greece. Their assertion was merely an excuse on their part to enable them to plead extenuating circumstances in justification of their aggression against a small nation, already entangled in a war against a Great Power. But, irrespective of the presence or absence of British troops in the Balkans, German intervention would have taken place firstly because the Germans had to secure the right flank of the German Army which was to operate against Russia according to the plans already prepared in autumn 1940, and secondly because the possession of the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula commanding the eastern end of the Mediterranean was of great strategic importance for Germany's plan of attacking Great Britain and the line of Imperial communications with the East.*
Throughout the month of February the Greek Government weighed the pros and cons of limited British intervention and a voluntary withdrawal of military forces from the northeastern border of the country. From the military point of view it would have been preferable to evacuate eastern Macedonia and western Thrace because this part of the country could not be defended with fewer than twelve divisions. Since the combined Greek-British defense force for this area would not amount to more than six divisions, it would have been preferable to establish a defense dine along the shorter Vermion-Mount Olympus line which offered very favorable natural terrain features. Political considerations, however, made it impossible to take such a step which would have involved the abandonment of Salonika and the entire region east of the Vardar River. Similar reasons stood in the way of a voluntary withdrawal of the Greek forces from Albania, which would have had disastrous results on Greek morale. From their point of view it seemed preferable to the Greeks to run the risk of being stabbed
* Alexander Papagos, The Battle of Greece 1940-1941 (The J. M. Seazikia Alpha Editions, Athens, 1949), p. 317.
in the back by the Germans while holding the Italian front, rather than to be defeated by both enemies simultaneously.
When German troops officially entered Bulgaria during the first four days of March, the British reacted promptly by embarking an expeditionary force in Alexandria. Several squadrons of the Royal Air Force as well as antiaircraft units had been operating in Greece during the previous months. From the British point of view it was not feasible to desert the Greeks now that forces were available after the North African victories. At no time had the British exercised any pressure on the Greeks by requesting them to resist the Germans. On the contrary, Greek leaders had repeatedly expressed their intention to defend themselves against any German invasion, no matter whether they would be assisted by their ally or not. The British fully realized that their prestige would suffer a crushing blow, if the expeditionary force had to be evacuated in another Dunkerque, but even this possibility seemed preferable to leaving Greece to its fate. In a report Mr. Eden and his military advisers sent to London at the beginning of March, they summed up the situation by stating that there was a "reasonable fighting chance"; and, with a certain amount of luck, a good opportunity "of perhaps seriously upsetting the German plans." Even so, there can be no doubt that political factors overshadowed military considerations in the British decision to send an expeditionary force to Greece.
No definite decision on the disposition of forces was taken, mainly because of British and Greek hopes that Yugoslavia would join forces against the Axis Powers. When this hope finally and somewhat unexpectedly materialized at the end of March, the three countries failed to establish a unified command. No such initiative was taken, and there was only one meeting of British, Yugoslav, and Greek military representatives on 3 April. During this conference the Yugoslavs promised to block the Strimon Valley in case of a German attack across their territory. Moreover, the Greeks and Yugoslavs agreed to launch a common offensive against the Italians in Albania. By 12 April the Yugoslavs were to concentrate four divisions along the northern border of Albania and provide additional forces in support of a Greek offensive in southern Albania. The course of events demonstrated only too clearly how unrealistic these offensive plans were at a time when both countries should have attempted to coordinate their defense efforts against the German threat.
Bulgarian border. In order to enter northern Greece the attacker had to cross the Rhodope Mountains, where only a few passes and river valleys permitted the passage of major military units. Two invasion routes led across the passes west of Kyustendil along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border and another one through the Strimon Valley in the south. The very steep mountain roads with their numerous turns could not be negotiated by heavy vehicles until German engineer troops had widened them by blasting the rocks. Off the roads only infantry and pack animals could pass through the terrain.
The Greek fortifications along the border had been skillfully adapted to these terrain features and a defense system in depth covered the few available roads. No continuous fortifications had been erected along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, but road blocks, demolitions, and extensive mine fields had been prepared at all border points. The Strimon and Nestos Rivers cut across the mountain range along the Greek-Bulgarian frontier; both valleys were well protected by strong fortifications which formed part of the Metaxas Line. This line was a system of concrete pillboxes and field fortifications, which had been constructed along principles similar to those applied in the Maginot Line. General John Metaxas, the Greek Premier who died shortly before the German invasion of his country, had initiated this construction project in the summer of 1936. Its strongest part extended over a distance of 125 miles from the mouth of the Nestos River to the point where the Yugoslav, Bulgarian, and Greek borders meet. The fortresses within this defense system blocked the road that led through the basin of Nevrokop and across the Rupel Gorge to eastern Macedonia. The strength of the Metaxas Line resided not so much in its fortifications proper as in the inaccessibility of the intermediate terrain leading up to the defense positions.
Along the Yugoslav-Greek border there is another mountain range with only two major defiles, one leading from Monastir to Florina, the other along the Vardar River. Aside from these mountain ranges bordering Greece in the north, an aggressor must surmount a number of other alpine and subalpine mountain ranges barring access to the interior of the country. In the west there are the Pindus Mountains stretching from Albania deep into the interior, whereas the Olympus and Thermopylae mountain ranges obstruct the eastern part of the mainland. Finally, the inaccessible Peloponnesus Mountains hamper military operations in the southern provinces of Greece. Troops are subjected to extreme physical hardships by a campaign across Greece because habitations are few, water is in short supply, and the weather is inclement with sudden drops in temperature.
Whereas an invader thrusting from Albania can be stopped with relatively small forces in the high Pindus Mountains, the northeastern part of the country is difficult to defend against an attack from the north. Eastern Macedonia and western Thrace are narrow strips of land that can be cut off from the rest of Greece by an advance following the course of the Vardar River. Salonika, the only efficient port in northern Greece, is situated within this vulnerable area. The supply system of the Greek forces fighting in Albania was based on Salonika. The capture of the port would cut their supply lines and isolate them in their exposed positions. Since a voluntary withdrawal of the Greek forces in Albania was not feasible and Salonika was practically indefensible, the Greek and British commands resigned themselves to fighting a delaying action in the northeastern part of the country. The British fully realized the vulnerability of the Greek border defense system; it was bound to collapse in the event of a German thrust between the Strimon and Vardar Rivers. However, they let the Greeks have their way without taking the logical step of moving their forces up to the frontier into the sector west of the Metaxas Line. General Maitland Wilson, the commander of the British expeditionary force, was of the opinion that his forces were too weak to hold such an extended front line. Instead, he established a shorter position some forty miles west of the course of the Vardar. Running along the northern slopes of Olympus and Pieria Mountains and following the eastern slopes of the Vermion Range northward to the Yugoslav frontier, this position extended over approximately seventy miles. There were only four major gaps in this mountain position: one on each side of Mount Olympus, one through the Aliakmon Valley, and one at Edhessa. Almost everywhere else along the so-called Vermion Position the lower forward slopes were steep and rugged, forming a natural obstacle to attacking forces. The two main objectives in establishing this position were to maintain contact with the Greek First Army in Albania and to deny the (Germans access to central Greece. The possibility of a rapid disintegration of the Yugoslav Army and a German thrust into the rear of the Verrnion Position was not taken into consideration.
The German strategy called for the same blitzkrieg tactics that proved so successful during the Yugoslav campaign. Once Salonika had been captured, Athens, with the important port of Piraeus, was to be the principal objective. With this port and the Isthmus of Corinth in German hands, the withdrawal and evacuation of the British and Greek defense forces would be seriously jeopardized. Daring thrusts by mobile elements, strongly supported by tactical air power would be the key to success.
The Greek forces in central Macedonia consisted of the 12th Infantry Division, which held the southern part of the Vermion position, and the 20th Infantry Division in the northern sector up to the Yugoslav border. On 28 March both divisions were brought under the command of General Wilson. The bulk of the Greek forces--First Army with its fourteen divisions was committed in Albania.
The British forces were almost fully motorized, but their equipment was suitable for desert warfare, not for the steep mountain roads in Greece. There was a shortage of tanks and antiaircraft guns. The lines of communication across the Mediterranean were very vulnerable
despite the fact that the British Navy dominated the Aegean Sea. All convoys had to pass close to enemy-held islands in the Aegean. The logistical problems were aggravated by the limited availability of shipping and the low capacity of the Greek ports. Only one single-line railroad and one good highway led northward from Piraeus, the principal port of debarkation.
As a result it was planned that the mobile elements of the XL Panzer Corps would thrust across the Yugoslav border and capture Skoplje, thereby cutting the rail and highway communications between Yugoslavia and Greece. Possession of this strategic point would be decisive for the course of the entire campaign. From Skoplje the bulk of the panzer corps was to pivot southward to Monastir and launch an immediate attack across the Greek border against the enemy positions established on both sides of Florina. Other armored elements were to drive westward and make contact with the Italians along the Albanian border.
The XVIII Mountain Corps was to concentrate its two mountain divisions on the west wing, make a surprise thrust across the Greek border, and force the Rupel Gorge. The 2d Panzer Division was to cross Yugoslav territory, follow the course of the Strimon upstream, turn southward, and drive toward Salonika.
The XXX Infantry Corps was to reach the Aegean coast by the shortest route and attack from the east those fortifications of the Metaxas Line that were situated behind the Nestos.
All three corps were to converge on Salonika. After the capture of that main city, three panzer and two mountain divisions were to be made available for the follow-up thrusts toward Athens and the Peloponnesus. Twelfth Army headquarters was to coordinate the initially divergent thrusts across southern Yugoslavia and through Bulgaria into Greece and, during the second phase of the campaign, drive
toward Athens regardless of what happened on the Italian front in Albania. Actually, the Twelfth Army maneuver would constitute the most effective assistance that could be given the Italians.
This plan of operations with far-reaching objectives was obviously influenced by tile German experience during the French campaign. It was based on the assumption that Yugoslav resistance in front of the XL Panzer Corps would crumble within a short time under the impact of the German assault. The motorized elements would then continue their drive and, taking advantage of their high degree of mobility, would thrust across the wide gap between the Greek First and Second Armies long before the Greek command had time to regroup its forces. In anticipation of this move the enemy command could either move up the newly arrived British forces or pull back the Greek First Army from Albania and form reserves which could block the (German advance from the north. In view of the difficult terrain conditions it seemed doubtful whether this could be achieved with the necessary speed.
The assembly along the Bulgarian border was complicated by the fact that the infantry and mountain divisions had to march distances
up to 400 miles over the worst possible roads to reach their jumpoff positions. During the forced marches, which took place under bad weather conditions, the accommodations of the troops were of the most primitive type. Nevertheless, by the evening of 5 April all attack forces that were to enter southern Yugoslavia and Greece the next morning had moved into their assembly areas and were ready for action.
In order to satisfy the demand for supplies, which was expected to increase with the progress of the (3 reek campaign, Twelfth Army established mobile supply points close to the Greek border. Essential supplies were loaded on trucks which were organized in convoys, ready to proceed across the mountain passes at short notice. In addition, loaded freighters were standing by in Romanian Black Sea ports. They were to leave for Salonika as soon as that port had fallen into (German hands.
The dumps established near the Yugoslav and Greek frontiers held ten days' rations, one basic load of all types of ammunition plus half a basic load of artillery ammunition, and three to five units of consumption of POL (one unit of consumption represented the average quantity of POL consumed per 100 kilometers) .
Because of the length of the lines of communications with the zone of interior and the bad road conditions in the Balkans, strict supply economy had to be imposed. The Twelfth Army quartermaster ordered that no ammunition should be left behind in gun positions. Unexpended ammunition was to be returned to the nearest army dump. "Every round is valuable !" was the motto of an order issued by army headquarters on 3 April.
Aside from rations carried by the field kitchens, infantry units were to take along four days' basic rations and one "iron ration," while motorized and armored troops were issued three days' additional special rations. These precautions were by no means exaggerated, since a number of units eventually operated so far ahead of the supply columns that they were forced to consume their iron rations. In several instances spearhead forces had to rely on captured rations and POL supplies to continue their advance.
The initial allowance of POL issued to all units before the start of operations consisted of five units of consumption. Captured gasoline was to be used only after it had been tested against pollution. All captured stocks of gasoline in excess of thirty tons had to be reported to army headquarters. The VIII Air Corps units were to draw their supplies from Army installations.
That same day the flying column attached to the 73d Division reached Veles, while the main body of the division followed at some distance. The reinforced 1st SS Motorized Infantry Regiment, which had been held back, moved up along the 9th Panzer Division route to participate in the assault on the Vardar defense positions.
The continuation of the operation looked hazardous because a force of less than three divisions w as to drive deep into enemy territory with both flanks open. The First Panzer Group offensive in the north was not to start until 8 April and no news on the progress of the 2d Panzer Division attack farther to the south was available. Moreover, the possibility of Yugoslav counterattacks against the rear of the panzer corps was not to be excluded. None of these threats materialized.
The Vardar was crossed with surprising ease and the corps thus gained freedom of maneuver. By the evening of 8 April the XL Panzer Corps began its pivoting movement and the advance elements of the SS regiment captured Prilep. The important rail line between Belgrade and Salonika was severed and one of the strategic objectives of the campaign--to isolate Yugoslavia from its allies--was achieved. In addition, the Germans were now in possession of terrain which was favorable for the continuation of the offensive. On the evening of 9 April General Stumme deployed his forces north of Monastir, ready
to carry the attack across the Greek border toward Florina. While weak security detachments covered the rear of his corps against a surprise attack from central Yugoslavia, elements of the 9th Panzer Division drove westward to link up with the Italians at the Albanian border.
The other XVIII Mountain Corps units advanced step by step under great hardship. Each individual group of fortifications had to be reduced by a combination of frontal and enveloping attacks with strong tactical air support. The 5th Mountain Division together with the reinforced 125th Infantry Regiment penetrated the Strimon defenses on 7 April and, attacking along both banks of the river, cleaned out one bunker after another. After repelling several counterattacks the division reached Neon Petritsi, thus gaining access to the Rupul Gorge from the south. The 125th Infantry Regiment, which was
attacking the gorge from the north, suffered such heavy casualties that it had to be withdrawn from further action after it had reached its objective. The 72d Infantry Division, which advanced from Nevrokop across the mountains, was handicapped by a shortage of pack animals, medium artillery, and mountain equipment. Nevertheless, even this division got through the Metaxas Line by the evening of 9 April, when it reached the area northeast of Seres. Some of the fortresses of the line held out for days after the German attack divisions had bypassed them and could not be reduced until heavy guns were brought up.
opportunity to envelop the British positions. If that happened, the Greek First Army in Albania would suffer the same fate as the Second Army in Macedonia.
On the basis of this estimate Field Marshal List requested the transfer of the 5th Panzer Division from First Panzer Group to the XL Panzer Corps. This division was no longer needed for the Yugoslav campaign, and List reasoned that its presence would give additional punch to the German thrust through the Monastir gap. For the continuation of the campaign he formed two attack groups, an eastern one under the command of XVIII Mountain Corps consisting of 2d Panzer, 72d Infantry, and 5th and 6th Mountain Divisions, and a western group led by XL Panzer Corps composed of the reinforced 1st SS Motorized Infantry Regiment and 73d Infantry Division, which were subsequently to be joined by the 5th and 9th Panzer Divisions.
First contact with British troops was made north of Vevi at 1100 on 10 April. An intercepted radio message indicated that the British command was surprised by the swiftness of the SS regiment's thrust and gave orders for immediate withdrawal from the Vermion Position. The SS troops seized Vevi on 11 April, but were stopped a short distance south of that town, where strong Australian forces held the dominating heights overlooking the pass road. During the next day the SS regiment reconnoitered the enemy positions and at dusk launched a frontal attack against the pass. After heavy fighting the Germans overcame the enemy resistance and broke through the defile.
On 13 April the XL Panzer Corps commander ordered mobile elements of the 9th Panzer Division to pursue the withdrawing British forces to Kozani and cut off their communications with Verroia, situated along the southeastern foothills of the Vermion Range. The SS regiment was given the mission of cutting off the Greek First Army's route of withdrawal from Albania by driving westward and taking possession of the Kastoria area.
During the early afternoon of 13 April the 33d Panzer Regiment of the 9th Panzer Division entered Ptolemais, a town midway between Vevi and Kozani. The arrival of the German forces was greeted by heavy shelling from the hills south and southeast of the town. German reconnaissance patrols reported that the road bridge situated about 500 yards south of Ptolemais had been blown up by the British and that a ditch filled with water cut across the low ground on both sides of the road. The ditch was six feet wide and three feet deep and had soft shoulders. It constituted a perfect antitank obstacle. The patrols came under heavy fire from artillery, antitank, and machine guns emplaced on the high ground overlooking the road.
The regimental commander sent out two patrols to find a road that bypassed the ditch. Two side roads were discovered, one of which was impassable for armored vehicles since a bridge leading across the river had been demolished and steep dams dominated both banks. The other road bypassing the ditch to the west led through a swamp interspersed with several ditches but seemed passable even though there was no trace of recent vehicular traffic. Most of this roadstretch across the swamp was in plain view of the British.
The regimental commander chose the latter route for his axis of advance because it offered a possibility to envelop the enemy's dominating positions and strike his flank. The approach across the swamp was very difficult and had to be made at a walking pace under intermittent fire from British tanks and antitank guns. As soon as the first German tanks came within striking distance, they opened fire and drove off the enemy vehicles, knocking out two of them.
After having crossed the swamp the German armor deployed. Seven tanks were stuck and followed later. Speed was of the essence if the plan of attack was to succeed and the enemy was to be prevented from withdrawing. This part of the plan was complicated by the difficult terrain which rose abruptly and was broken in places. At the same time the British stepped up their artillery and antitank fire. As dusk was setting in, the German tanks assembled and suddenly emerged on the British flank with all guns ablaze. The British tanks turned about and a violent engagement developed, the result of which could not be accurately gauged because of growing darkness.
Two British self-propelled antitank guns were engaged at less than 200 yards' distance, while trying to escape. They were knocked out and a few supply trucks were captured. Some of the British tanks set up smoke screens to further reduce visibility and thus cover their withdrawal. As darkness covered the battlefield the
Germans observed explosions in the distance and noticed that the enemy artillery fire was decreasing.
The plan to push on to Kozani had to be abandoned because the German tanks had expended almost all their ammunition. Some tanks had no gasoline left, while the rest had only enough for about ten miles. The British had lost their hill positions, abandoning thirty-two tanks and antitank guns as Nell as a number of trucks. The Germans lost 2 Mark IV, 1 Mark II, and 1 Mark I tanks in the engagement. This was the first and last tank battle that took place during the Greek campaign.
By the morning of 14 April the spearheads of the 9th Panzer Division reached Kozani. That same evening the division established a bridgehead across the Aliakmon River, but an attempt to advance beyond this point was stopped by intense enemy fire. For the next three days the 9th Panzer Division advance was stalled in front of the strongly fortified mountain positions held by the British.
On 19 April the 1st SS Regiment which had meanwhile reached Grevena was ordered to advance southeastward in the direction of Yannina to cut off the Greeks' route of withdrawal to the south and complete their encirclement. This mission was accomplished by 20 April, following a pitched battle in the 5,000 foot high Metsovon Pass in the Pindus Mountains. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the Greek commander offered to surrender his army, which then consisted of fourteen divisions. After brief negotiations, which, on strict orders from Hitler, were kept secret from the Italians, the surrender was accepted with honorable terms for the defeated. In recognition of the valor with which the (Greek troops had fought,
their officers were permitted to retain their side arms. The soldiers were not treated as prisoners of war and were allowed to go home after the demobilization of their units.
For reasons of prestige Mussolini insisted that the Greeks also surrender to the Italians. Hostilities between the Greeks and Italians continued for two more days, and on 23 April the Greek commander signed a new surrender agreement which included the Italians.
New Zealand troops were dug in at Platamon with orders to defend the coastal pass until instructed to withdraw. Meanwhile, General Boehme, the XVIII Mountain Corps commander had to wait until the
rear elements of his divisions that were lagging behind in the Rhodope Mountains were able to close up. The advance in the direction of the Vardar was resumed as soon as the bulk of the corps had been assembled. After the Vardar crossing had been accomplished on 11 April, the 6th Mountain Division drove in the direction of Edhessa and then turned southward toward Verroia. After capturing that town the division established a bridgehead across the Aliakmon and pushed on to the high ground at the foothills of Mount Olympus. The 2d Panzer Division crossed the Aliakmon near the river bend and entered Katerini on 14 April, three hours after the 9th Panzer Division captured Kozani on the west side of the Vermion Mountains. The 5th Mountain and 72d Infantry Divisions were closing up along the 2d Panzer Division's route of advance.
A ruined castle dominated the ridge across which the coastal pass led to Platamon. During the night of 1~15 April a German motorcycle battalion supported by a tank battalion attacked the ridge but was repelled by the New Zealanders. On the next morning a special sabotage detachment, which was to outflank the Platamon position by sea in one motor and three assault boats and sail up the Pinios River to capture the bridge on the road to Larisa, had to turn back because of heavy swells.
On the morning of 16 April the 2d Panzer Division repeated its assault on the Platamon ridge. This time the Germans employed 100 tanks, two battalions of infantry, twelve 105-mm. and four 150-mm. guns as well as other artillery and technical units. They were opposed by the New Zealand 21st Battalion, four 25-pounders, and one platoon of engineers. The New Zealand commander had been told that the terrain ahead of his positions was entirely unsuitable for tank movement, and that he need expect only infantry attacks.
The German plan of attack called for simultaneous frontal and flank assaults. After a thorough artillery preparation that started at 0900, the flank attack made good progress. The western end of the ridge was seized in hand-to-hand fighting, whereupon the German tanks began to roll up the entire position. The New Zealand battalion withdrew, crossed the Pinios River, and by dusk reached the western exit of the Pinios Gorge, suffering only light casualties.
The German tanks tried to launch a pursuit but were unable to get down the south slope of the ridge. The railway tunnel near the edge of the sea had been blown up and was impassable. One tank company attempted to edge its way along the coast but could not get through. In the end the tanks were towed over the ridge, a very time-consuming
process by which only about thirty tanks were made available on the next morning.
The pursuit through the Pinios (forge made little headway. The walls of the gorge rose steeply on both sides of the river. The railway tracks, along which the lead tanks made slow progress. clung to the narrow north bank of the river, while the road twisted just above the river bed on the southern side of the gorge. The 6th Mountain Division marched across the mountains and emerged at the exit of the Pinios Gorge, only to find the bridges and ferry demolished and the railway track blocked. The tired mountain troops were met by heavy machine gun fire from the south bank of the river. By nightfall the first German tanks crossed the river, but they bogged down in a swamp while trying to bypass a road demolition.
On the morning of 18 April armored infantry crossed the river on floats, while 6th Mountain Division troops worked their way around the New Zealand battalion? which was annihilated. The struggle for the Pinios Gorge was over.
During the fighting in the Mount Olympus area the Germans were unable to move up supplies because of bad roads and traffic congestion. These difficulties were alleviated by airdrops and by shipping ammunition, rations, and gasoline by lighter along; the Aegean coast.
On 19 April the first XVIII Mountain Corps troops entered Larisa and took possession of the airfield, where the British had left their supply dumps intact. The seizure of ten truckloads of rations and fuel enabled the spearhead units to continue their drive without letup. The port of Volos, at which the British had re-embarked numerous units during the last few days, fell on 21 April; there, the Germans captured large quantities of diesel and crude oil.
On 15 April the 5th Panzer Division, recently assigned to the corps, launched the enveloping movement north of the Aliakmon with the intention of driving southward via Kalabaka toward Lamia. As expected, the division encountered very unfavorable terrain conditions after it had crossed the Aliakmon near Grevena in the face of light resistance. Extraordinary efforts were needed to keep the heavy vehicles moving over cart roads which had been washed out by snow and rain. Not until 19 April did the division emerge from the mountains and was finally able to move at its usual speed. Lamia w as seized on the following day against minor enemy resistance. It low became apparent that too much time had been lost in crossing the mountains, since the British rear guards had meanwhile evacuated the Aliakmon and Mount Olympus lines and established themselves along the next delaying position at the Thermopylae Pass.
Before evacuating the Aliakmon position the British forces had repelled all 9th Panzer Division attacks until 17 April, when the first troops of the XVIII Mountain Corps, driving through the Pinios Gorge, entered the Plain of Thessaly, thus threatening to cut the British route of withdrawal through Larisa. During the night of 17-18 April the British succeeded in breaking contact with the German outposts and evacuating their strong positions that had remained intact. Large-scale demolitions slowed down the German pursuit on the ground, but the Luftwaffe was very active, making numerous dive-bomber attacks on the retreating British columns.
As soon as General Stumme realized that the enemy rear guard had withdrawn beyond the immediate reach of his spearheads, he issued orders giving Luftwaffe ground personnel traffic priority along the Kozani-Larisa road, so that the tactical air support units could operate -from fields that were closer to the fast-moving mobile forces.
On 19 April the 9th Panzer Division reached the Elasson area, where it was ordered to stop and assemble. Since it was not needed for the continuation of the campaign in southern Greece, the division was designated corps reserve and eventually redeployed to Germany for rehabilitation.
the 1st SS Motorized Infantry Regiment, and the two mountain divisions launched the pursuit of the enemy forces. For days at a time, German flying columns were out of touch with their respective division headquarters. The distance between Larisa and Lamia, for instance, which is sixty-five miles across partly mountainous terrain, was covered in less than three days despite road blocks, demolitions, and a number of minor engagements with British rear guards.
The supply situation was further relieved by the capture of rations and fuel stocks in the Lamia area. Even though regular supply channels failed to function because of traffic congestion and Volos, the only port in central Greece that had a satisfactory capacity, could not be cleared of mines before 27 April, the spearhead divisions were able to leave the Lamia area with an adequate supply of rations and fuel. The ammunition expenditure remained very small.
By 22 April a flying column of the 5th Panzer Division was attacking the Thermopylae positions that were defended by British infantry supported by well-camouflaged artillery and single tanks. The initial German probing attacks were without success. On the next day a wide enveloping movement was undertaken by 6th Mountain Division troops crossing the difficult terrain west of the British positions. This operation took place simultaneous with another outflanking maneuver performed by a tank-supported motorcycle battalion advancing via Molos. After offering strong resistance along the Molos road, the British troops abandoned the Thermopylae Pass during the night of 24-25 April.
The panzer units launching a pursuit along the road leading across the pass made slow progress because of the steep gradient and a large number of difficult hairpin bends. Occasional landslides hampered the repair of British demolitions. The railway tracks at the top of
the pass were so thoroughly destroyed that repairs were estimated to take three months.
The atrocious road conditions in Greece had taken a heavy toll of German truck tires. Since no tire reserves were on hand, the vehicle attrition rate of the motorized columns rose to 35 percent after only two weeks of hostilities. The Twelfth Army supply officer therefore requested the immediate dispatch of 1,500 tires from higher headquarters.
After leaving Larisa according to plan, the heavily loaded, slow planes took two hours for the approach flight, covering the distance at an average speed of approximately 110 miles per hour. The planes flew over the Pindus Mountains and then dropped to about 150 feet altitude above the Gulf of Corinth, heading toward their objective in column formation. They took advantage of the haze that covered the gulf and succeeded in reaching the isthmus without being observed. The pilots pulled up to 400 feet altitude, reduced speed, and dropped their loads above the designated objectives.
The first to land were the gliders, which touched ground on both sides of the isthmus. The parachute troops jumped at the same time and seized the bridge, capturing a large number of British troops.
The primary mission of seizing the bridge intact with a minimum of delay seemed to have been achieved, when an accidental hit by a British antiaircraft shell exploded the demolition charge after German engineers had succeeded in cutting the detonating cord. The bridge blew up and numerous German soldiers were buried under the debris. On the same day engineer troops constructed a temporary span next to the one that had been destroyed so that the traffic between the mainland and the Peloponnesus was interrupted for only a short time.
During the airborne operation one transport plane was forced down by squalls and crashed in the Pindus Mountains, and two gliders were
wrecked while landing. Several planes suffered minor damages from antiaircraft and machine gun fire.
Had this airborne operation been executed a few days earlier in the form of a vertical envelopment, its success would have been far greater since large numbers of British troops would have been trapped and thus prevented from reaching the ports of embarkation at the southern tip of the Peloponnesus. By the time the isthmus was seized, most of the British had escaped from the Greek mainland.
The airborne seizure of the Isthmus of Corinth had been coordinated with a drive across western Greece launched on 25 April. The 1st SS Motorized Infantry Regiment, assembled at Yannina, thrust along the western foothills of the Pindus Mountains via Arta to Mesolongion and crossed over to the Peloponnesus at Patras in an effort to gain access to the isthmus from the west. Since most motorized vehicles had to be left on the mainland, the advance guard consisting of infantry and support units entrained at Patras and proceeded by railway to Corinth. Upon their arrival at 1730 on 27 April the SS forces learned that the paratroops had already been relieved by Army units advancing from Athens.
The SS units thereupon returned to Patras with orders to envelop the retreating British forces in the Peloponnesus from the west. The movement took place by rail and the first train arrived late on 28 April in Pirgos, where the German troops were welcomed by the mayor.
The erection of a temporary span across the Corinth Canal permitted 5th Panzer Division units to pursue the enemy forces across the Peloponnesus. Diving via Argos to Kalamai they reached the south coast on 29 April, where they were joined by SS troops arriving from Pirgos by rail. The fighting on the Peloponnesus consisted merely of small-scale engagements with isolated groups of British troops who had been unable to make ship in time. In their hasty evacuation that took place mostly at night the British used numerous small ports. On the Peloponnesus some 8,000 British and Yugoslav prisoners were captured and many Italians were liberated from Greek camps. By April 30 the last British troops had either escaped or been taken prisoner and hostilities ceased.
detachments were able to exploit advantages more effectively than the unwieldy units of divisional size. These columns were composed of self-propelled assault guns and motorized infantry and combat engineer elements. The commanders stayed well forward so that they could evaluate terrain obstacles and enemy resistance at first hand. In many instances the division commander found it expedient to take his place in the lead column. He was thus able to take appropriate on-the-spot action, such as changing the march route of the following divisional elements, whenever he ran into insurmountable obstacles.
In an attack on a defensive position the mission of the flying column w as to advance through the gaps opened by the mountain troops during the initial penetration and to prevent the defender from rallying his forces and renewing resistance farther to the rear. During the fluid phases of the Greek campaign the carefully selected commanders of the flying columns were repeatedly able to turn the tide of battle in their favor. With complete disregard of what happened along their flanks and in the rear they drove ahead into enemy-held territory. It must not be forgotten that such daring forward thrusts could be executed only because the Greeks--and during the initial phase the Yugoslavs--were on the verge of collapse. Similar tactics rarely proved successful during the Russian campaign.
often let German patrols approach their positions without engaging them. To determine the exact location of their strongholds, the Germans usually directed intensive fire at suspected points in the hope of drawing reaction fire.
VII. Obstacles and Demolitions
The obstacles encountered by the Germans consisted almost exclusively of road and bridge demolitions. The bypassing or bridging of these caused long delays and required a lot of work. Most of the craters along defiles measured up to 100 feet in diameter, having been made by heavy explosive charges. Much more effective obstacles could have been created by blowing hillsides, but the British engineers apparently were short of drilling equipment. Mines were never laid singly, but were emplaced in fields or rows near road blocks.
The British did not have the necessary military resources in the Middle East to permit them to carry out simultaneous large-scale operations in North Africa and the Balkans. Moreover, even if they had been able to block the German advance into Greece, they would have been unable to exploit the situation by a counterthrust across the Balkans. It is worth noting that the British planners in Cairo secretly started to work on evacuation plans from Greece at the time when the expeditionary force was being transferred from Egypt to Greece. The ill-fated expedition was considered a hopeless undertaking by those who knew how little help Britain would actually be able to offer to Greece. General Papagos also had strong misgivings
about the effectiveness of assistance the British were able to furnish and the soundness of their planning.
The Germans neither expected nor received effective help from their allies and satellites. The Italian forces contributed only to the extent that their presence tied down the Greek First Army in Albania. Bulgarian forces did not participate in the military operations. In accordance with previous arrangements they were subsequently employed for the occupation of parts of northern Greece.
In the political field Hitler felt obligated to respect the prestige and aspirations of his fellow-in-arms, Mussolini. Thus, for example, he forced the Greek First Army commander to repeat the surrender ritual before the Italians, despite the fact that the latter had had no share in the defeat of that army. Moreover, Hitler arranged that Italian troops march in the victory parade in Athens and turned over to Italian authorities the occupation of conquered Greece. During the subsequent years of occupation the act of giving the Italians free reign in Greece nullified whatever good will the Germans had acquired by the immediate release of Greek prisoners of war.
In enumerating the reasons for the quick and complete German victory in Greece, the following factors seem of the greatest significance: