The German Threat
- Once Hitler decided to turn against Russia, in the summer of 1940, the Balkan Peninsula became of special strategic importance for the Germans. The occupation of the Balkan peninsula constituted a necessary condition for the assumption of this campaign, in order to safeguard the German Armies that would be operating eastwards, from the south.
The occupation of the Balkan Peninsula was also supported by the argument that, the presence of strong German forces would force Turkey to join the Axis or at least to reinforce its neutrality. Furthermore, it would secure the oil-wells of Romania, which were very important for the conduct and spreading of the war, from possible British air raids which would make use of the airfields in Greece for that purpose. What is more, the descent of the Germans to the Balkan peninsula was bound to prevent the unfortunate consequences of a possible failure of the Italian attack against Greece, according to the estimate of the German General Staff.
Thus, Hitler decided to attack Greece, having secured, from the beginning of November 1940, the silent consent of Russia and while all the German officials continued to offer reassurance as to their peaceful and friendly intentions. On November l2, he issued his first confidential instructions to the General Staff to prepare the said operation.
- A month later, on December l3, Hitler issued his no. 20 confidential directive, in which the operation against Greece is referred to, for the first time, by its code name ‘MARITA’.
The objective of the operation was the seizure of the northern shores of the Aegean and the bay of Thessaloniki, in readiness to proceed southwards for the occupation of the whole of Greece. Twenty-four German divisions were assigned in the operation, for the accomplishment of this objective.
Operation ‘MAPITA’ was decided to begin and end during March 1941, so that the above German forces would be disengaged as soon as possible in order to be used in the assault planned against Russia. The main concern of the German Chancellor was to begin the attack as early as possible, in order to complete it before the advent of the Russian winter.
Indeed, five days later, on December 18, 1940, Hitler issued his no. 21 directive for the operation ‘BARBAROSSA’, which was the code name for the assault against Russia, the commencement of which he had made dependent on the termination of the campaign against Greece.
- Meanwhile, on November 23, 1940, Romania joined the Axis of Germany-Italy-Japan. In December, after its consent, the l2th German Army of Marshal Von List, that was assigned to operate against Greece, began to concentrate within its territory.
On March l, Bulgaria joined the Axis as well, after the tempting promise that it would be offered the whole of Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace. Thus, on March 2, the German troops began to enter into the Bulgarian territory, where they were enthusiastically received by the population. On March 9, the advance guards of the forward German divisions reached the Greek – Bulgarian borders.
The war correspondents described the move as ‘a river of steel, which runs long and endless, through plains and valleys, mountain passes and towns’. At the same time, air forces also began to arrive at the Bulgarian airfields.
On March 17, a meeting took place at the Chancellery, in which the occupation of the whole of the mainland and of the most important Greek islands was decided on. In the course of that meeting, the Chief of the land forces Von Brauhtitz reported to Hitler that, the l2th Army would be ready to attack Greece on April l.
- In parallel with the military preparations, the soundings on the issue of a peaceful subjection of Greece to Germany continued.
It is characteristic that, shortly before December 17, 1940, the Military attache of Germany to Athens let it be understood, during the course of a conversation with Major Skylitsis of the General Headquarters, that it would be possible to call a truce in Albania under the condition that the Greek Army would remain in the occupied territories until the end of the war, whereupon the Greek – Italian dispute would be resolved by settlement. German troops would be interposed between the adversary forces.
A similar and more concrete proposal was also put forward, at the time, to Argyropoulos, the Greek Ambassador to Madrid, through the Hungarian Ambassador, after the prompting of the German Admiral Von Kanaris. The Greek Ambassador recommended the acceptance of the proposal to the Government. The answer, however, was negative.
Similar proposals were also repeated after the death of I. Metaxas (January 29, 1941), only to receive the laconic reply of the Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis : ‘we are fighting’.
British Aid to the Defence of Greece
- Greece, a ‘de facto’ Ally of Great Britain, after involvement in the war against Italy, was forced to confront the abovementioned German threat as well.
The Albanian Theatre of Operations had absorbed part of the forces intended for the Bulgarian Theatre, because there was solid evidence to prove that Bulgaria did not wish to interfere in the Greek – Italian conflict, Yugoslavia would remain strictly neutral, and Turkey had declared that it would turn against Bulgaria, in the event that the latter was to operate against Greece. Thus, in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace, only four divisions were left, which had inadequate war manning level and did not suffice to confront the new threat, that had already been discernible since January 1941.
This military situation, that was unfavourable for Greece, could only be altered by a timely and serious British assistance, in conjunction with a decision by Yugoslavia to side with the allies.
- After the Italian attack, the British government sought to assist Greece with army and air forces, both for the sake of prestige, since it had previously guaranteed the territorial integrity of Greece, and also in order to serve the overall British interests in the Middle East. On its part, the Greek Government, given that the extent of the assistance would have been inadequate, did not wish to have British troops landing in Greece, in order to avoid offering a pretext for German intervention. Thus, the British aid was confined, at the beginnings of the war, to the naval defence and the protection of Greece against the actions of the Italian Fleet and to the provision of a light air support.
Since the beginning of 1941, when the danger of a German attack had started to become discernible, the Commander-in-Chief, General Papagos, in a report to the Prime Minister estimated that the required reinforcement would have to comprise eight to nine divisions, powerful means of active anti-tank and anti-aircraft defence and appropriate air strength.
- At the meetings that took place in Athens on January 15 and 16, 1941, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in the Middle East, General Wavell, announced that, after two months, he would be able to provide two or three divisions of the imperial troops, of the nine divisions requested by the Greek Commander-in-Chief General Alexandros Papagos. Direct assistance available comprised few artillery and tank support units, but it was turned down by the Greek Prime Minister, since this immediate yet totally inadequate aid, would provide a pretext for the German intervention and would also have an adverse effect on the position of Turkey and Yugoslavia.
The decision of the Greek Government forwarded to the British Government and communicated to the Yugoslavian one, was that it would summon the British to land in Greece in case that the German troops were to enter Bulgaria, whereupon the German intentions would be finally revealed.
The Problem of Selecting the Defensive Area
(Sketch-map no. 20 and 21)
- After the abovementioned statement of the Greek Government, which was repeated on February 8 by the Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis, as to when, that is, the British forces would arrive, it became necessary to study how the British-Greek forces would be employed.
The reinforcements of the British, in conjunction with the Greek forces which were deployed in Macedonia and Thrace, did not suffice for the defence of Eastern Macedonia, let alone Western Thrace.
The weak point of the fortified position in Eastern Macedonia, where the fortification had not been completed, was the section of Beles, starting from the boundary point of the three nations and ending at Popotlivitsa Fort. The field defences, that had been hastily constructed in that area, were of a limited extent. A hostile offensive action from Stroumnitsa valley towards Thessaloniki, within the section of Beles, would result in the envelopment of the entire fortified position and would serve to cut off all forces present in Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace from the rest of Greece.
From a military point of view, it was advisable to evacuate the fortified position in time and to move the defence to the more economical and ‘naturally fortified’ position of Kaimaktsalan-Vermio-Aliakmonas river.
Nevertheless, the desertion of Thrace and of the greatest part of Macedonia with Thessaloniki, beyond the psychological aspect and the moral repercussions upon the Greek population, was also connected with the position of Yugoslavia. The latter not only did directly influence the defence of Greece but also kept ‘a sphinx-like silence’ and made no effort to clarify its foreign policy.
- Thus the strategic plans for the defence of the Greek territory were inevitably founded on assumptions, with regard to the position of Yugoslavia, and were the following:
-If Yugoslavia were an ally of Great Britain and Greece, the fight had to be conducted at the fortified area from Beles to Nestos, which was known as the ‘Metaxas Line’.
-If Yugoslavia remained neutral and did not allow the passage of German troops through its territory, then the area of Kaimaktsalan-Vermio-Aliakmonas, west of Axios river, would have to be occupied, with the exception of the fort garrisons which would remain at their positions as a gesture of national sovereignty and in order to delay the German advance.
-If Yugoslavia allowed the passage of German troops through its territory or became an ally of the Germans, then the above mentioned area would be unsuitable for the defence, since a German move along the axis of Monastiri-Florina would then threaten the rear area not only of the forces present there but also of the Greek troops fighting in Albania.
This last alternative demanded the timely clarification of the Yugoslavian attitude, in order to provide the entire Greek Army with the time needed for its withdrawal to the more appropriate line of defence: Greek-Albanian frontier-Smolikas mountain-Orliakas mountain-Aliakmonas river-Olympus mountain.
- On the basis of the developments that were likely to occur, a joint effort was made with the British officers, to study the possible use of the area Kaimaktsalan – Vermio -Aliakmonas (Vermio area). This ‘L’ shaped region covers approximately 110 kilometres, between the sea and the mountain bulk of Kaimaktsalan (Voras), and constitutes an anti-tank area throughout, with few exceptions in the coastal sector.
On February 22, the British Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, the Chief of the British Staff, Marshal Deal, the Airforce Marshal, Longmore and a representative of Admiral Cunningham arrived in Athens, in secret. During a meeting, chaired by the King, the Commander in chief Alexandros Papagos agreed to evacuate the entire Greek region east of Axios river and to transfer the forces to the area of Vermio, where the British reinforcements would also be deployed, on the condition that every hope for Yugoslavia entering the war by the side of the Allies would be lost.
- The evacuation of the above region was considered untimely and unprofitable, after the Germans had entered Bulgaria on March 2, and also due to the yet unclarified attitude of Yugoslavia.
- Thus, during the successive meetings which took place from March 2 to 4 in order to consider the situation, while the German troops were passing through Bulgaria, the Greek General Staff proposed the deployment of all Greek – British forces at the fortified area of Beles-Nestos. Nevertheless, faced with the insistence of the British, who supported the abandonment of the Beles-Nestos area and proposed the occupation of the Vermio area instead, the Greek Commander-in-Chief submitted the following compromise proposal, which was accepted by the British :
-Western Thrace would be evacuated and only the forces of the Echinos and Nymphaea Forts, as well as certain screening companies would remain in the area.
-The Greek forces that would be thus conserved, with the addition of those in Eastern Macedonia, would be allocated to two echelons, which would be engaged in defence at the following two areas :
- On the fortified ‘Metaxas Line’, with three divisions, one brigade and the troops of the forts.
- At the Vermio area with the XII and the 20th Infantry Divisions, the XIX Mechanised Division and the British forces that would arrive in Piraeus and would then advance to the above area.
The abovementioned decision of the High Command to set up the defensive Vermio area together with the British Expeditionary Force, created the need to form a General Headquarters, which would have all the Greek forces of the above area under its command. Thus, as of March 6, the organisation of the Central Macedonia Field Army Section (CMFAS) began in Kozani and its Headquarters constituted the Thrace Field Army Section (TFAS) which was under the command of Lieutenant General Ioannis Kotoulas.
The above Field Army Section (CMFAS) comprised the XII and 20th Divisions, one Field Artillery battalion, one Skoda howitzer battalion of 150 mm, one battery of 85mm, one Antiaircraft Artillery battalion and a limited number of non divisional units from the T’FAS. The XIX Mechanised Division had also been placed under the command of the CMFAS and was deployed in the area of Katerini. However, as of March 27, it was re-located to the area of Kilkis and was placed under the command of the EMFAS.
- The British were faced with the dilemma either to withdraw their offer to reinforce Greece or to co-operate with the meagre Greek forces to occupy an area, where the terrain had not been organized defensively.
On March 6, Churchill, the British Prime Minister, in a telegram to Eden, stated the following, among others. ‘ ….We have done whatever was possible, in order to create a permanent front of the Balkan states against Germany. We must take care not to press Greece to undertake a desperate resistance despite its contrary opinion. The Greeks should not consider themselves obliged to reject the German ultimatum. If they themselves decide to fight, then we must share their trial up to a certain degree……..’
Eden replied that ‘in the present situation all agree on the implementation of the solution that has become acceptable and that Greece must be assisted………’
General Wavell later wrote that, during that stage ‘there were difficulties of a practical nature in a potential reversal of the plan. The troops were in motion and any change would create confusion ‘.
- Under these circumstances it was agreed that a British Expeditionary Force be sent to Greece, for the prestige of the British and with very little hope of a successful outcome of the operation.
This Force was formed out of various British units operating in the Middle East, and its commander was General Wilson.
The total of forces that landed in Greece, from March 7 until the day of the German invasion, amounted to 24,206 Englishmen, l7,125 Australians and 16,720 New Zealanders.
The Greek population had a warm welcome in store for the men of the British Expeditionary Force, showering them with flowers upon arrival and in the course of their movement through the Greek territory.
The Commander in Chief of the Middle East General Wavell in his inspired order to the troops that were being transported to Greece said : ‘you shall fight until the last drop of your blood for Greece, exactly as you would have fought for England’.
Description of the Defensive Areas in Eastern Macedonia and on Vermio
(Sketch-map no. 20 and 21)
- The zone of operations of Eastern Macedonia, on the basis of the strategic situation at the time, extended between Axios and Nestos rivers. The Axios river flows into the Greek territory, between the mountain bulks of Voras from the west and Beles from the east. Its valley, within the Greek territory, widens continually from north to south and thus constitutes a worthwhile axis for invasion from the Yugoslavian territory towards Thessaloniki and vice versa.
Further to the east, Strimonas river crosses flowing the Rupel defile runs southwards through the plains of Serres and Nigrita and flows into the Aegean sea. This valley constitutes the main route from the plateau of Sofia to the Aegean and vice versa. However, its many defiles (Rupel, Kresna and Tzoumayia), the operations along this axis impede because they run against natural strong lines.
The river Nestos is constricted along its course from north to south, between mountain bulks with near vertical banks on both sides. Consequently, its valley is not suitable as an axis for a north to south advance and vice versa. On the contrary it constitutes a major defence obstacle for repulsing offensive sections against Eastern Macedonia from the south-east and the east.
The mountain range of Beles is a characteristic feature of the entire area, with a ridgeline that also serves as a boundary line. Defence is problematic on mount Beles, if not impossible, without the occupation and use of at least some parts of its northern slopes.
- In the northern section of the area under consideration and all along the Greek – Bulgarian and part of the Greek – Yugoslavian borders lay the fortified area of the ‘Metaxas Line’, which had been constructed from 1936 to 1940. This was aligned with the permanent forts, which were built mainly in order to block off the passes upon and between the mountain bulks of Beles, Tsingeli, high plateau of Kato Nevrokopi and Boz Dag. From the beginning of 1939, the line had been extended eastwards, as far as the western bank of Nestos, from Paranesti to its estuary. From the beginning of 1941, when the German threat became apparent, it had been extended westwards between Axios river and Doirani lake.
Initially, the objective of the organisation of the above line was to cover the mobilisation and the strategic concentration in this area and, later on, to constitute the main defensive area of the Greek Army as well as the base of departure for offensive operations, in case favourable conditions arose. The defensive potential of this line was considerable and its value would have surely been multiplied, had it been manned as initially authorised, with sufficient field troops to cover the fort flanks and conduct counter-attacks. Nevertheless, there had been a considerable reduction in numbers of these troops to the benefit of the Albanian front.
The forts constructed in the above position were the following:
- At Beles: Popotlivitsa, Istibei, Kelkayia, Paleouriones, Arpalouki.
- In the area of Angistron: Rupel, Karatas, Kali.
- -Between Ali Boutous and Mavro Vouno (Black Mountain): Fort Persek.
- At the high plateau of Kato Nevrokopi: Babazora, Maliaga, Perithori, Partalouska, Dasavli, Lisse, Pyramidoeides.
- In the area of Vo1akas: Kastilo, Agios Nikolaos, Bartiseva.
- In the area of Western Thrace: Echinos, Nymphaea.
Twenty one forts had been constructed in total, which were planned to be manned, in case of war, by approximately 10,000 men.
Each fort, constituted an enclosure work, comprising one or more self-contained strong points, and had a capacity for defence against any direction, including active shelters (emplacements, pill-boxes, observation posts, stations of visual communications) as well as exits for re-supply purposes and for the conduct of counter-attacks.
Various other constructions completed each fort compound, such as underground men’s quarters, depots with sufficient supplies to cover 15 days of defence, command stations, dressing stations, sanitary installations, kitchens, water supply outlets etc.
The ventilation and lighting of the underground spaces were ensured with the aid of electrical installations in the large fort compounds, whereas in the smaller ones they were achieved by manually operated fans and oil lamps.
- Between the borders and the fortified position, hasty field fortifications had been constructed in order to delay the enemy. Starting from the border and reaching fairly deep within the position, powerful passive anti-tank obstacles had also been constructed, as well as active anti-tank means, a full-scale demolition system, an excellent road network and multiple communication networks.
It is worth noting that, both the German as well as the Bulgarian Intelligence Service did not possess sufficient information regarding to the positions, the armament and the strength of the forts. They assumed, in general, that concrete shelters were strewn about and, therefore, the revelation of the shape of these forts came as a big surprise to them after the attack.
As the entire area of Beles-Nestos ran the risk of envelopment from the left (west), which bordered on the Axios river, where the terrain organisation had not reached a satisfactory level, a second defensive area, the ‘Krousia Area’, was organised, between the lakes of Doirani and Kerkini.
The organisation of the above second line was also dictated by the fact that the Beles area presented a relatively low defensive capacity, since the fortification had been built very close to the borders and thus the enemy could neutralise the frontal fire, by using flat trajectory weapons. Moreover, the area lacked the depth required to conduct defence manoeuvres, since the slopes of Beles descended steeply onto the Greek territory.
- In the event that the Beles-Nestos area would be broken through, the Vermio area had been chosen for the defence of the Greek mainland.
In this area there were important artery roads, which ran across the mountain bulks of Kaimaktsalan, Vermio, Pieria and Olympus and permitted the operations of motorised enemy troops. Moreover, it would have been easy for the enemy forces to envelop the area, operating from the direction of Monastiri, through the field corridor of Monastiri-Florina.
Starting in mid-March, the area was manned in haste with Greek – British forces. These forces dealt intensively with the terrain organisation. However, in spite of the serious works that had been conducted, its defensive capacity could not be compared with that of the Beles-Nestos area.
The Re-consideration of the Deployment of the Greek – British Forces and the Clarification of the Yugoslavian Attitude
- The deployment of the Greek-British forces in two areas constituted, naturally, a serious disadvantage. These forces, which were insufficient to confront the enemy at one area, were forced to be divided between two, because of a combination of political and military reasons. The position of the Eastern Macedonia Field Army Section (EMFAS) forces was particularly precarious, since they faced the danger of being cut-off, in the event of an enveloping action of the enemy from the west.
In the face of the impending German attack, the Commander of the EMFAS, Lieutenant General Bakopoulos submitted a report to the General Headquarters, requesting the provision of serious reinforcements for the defence of the Beles-Nestos area. After successive studies and exchanges between the General Headquarters and the EMFAS, a meeting was finally held in Thessaloniki on March 25, headed by the Commander of the EMFAS. During the course of this meeting, the latter supported the need to unite the forces of the two areas and indicated the Beles-Nestos area as the more appropriate choice. On the contrary, the British representative supported that the defence should be transferred to the Vermio area. The representative of the General Headquarters Lieutenant Colonel Dovas, stated that backward movement was impossible, for it required time and that consequently the EMFAS would have to conduct the defence at the Beles-Nestos area, where it had already been deployed anyway.
- During a new meeting held in Athens on the following day, March 26, in the presence of the Commander-in-Chief General Papagos, the Commander of the Central Macedonia Field Army Section (CMFAS), Lieutenant General Kotoulas supported with great persistence the transfer of the EMFAS forces to the area of Vermio. This view was eventually accepted by Lieutenant General Bakopoulos, on account of the objections of the British and chiefly due to the fact that, on the previous day, Yugoslavia had joined the Axis, having been promised Thessaloniki in return. A discussion ensued, concerning the manner in which the transfer of forces to the new area would be conducted and the duration of this operation. In the meantime, however, information arrived concerning an impending coup d’ etat in Yugoslavia in order to overthrow the Government of Tcvetkovitch, which had signed a treaty with Germany . Subsequently, it was decided that the EMFAS would be reinforced in the area of Beles-Nestos.
Indeed, at midnight on March 26 to 27 and before Hitler was able to brag about the entry of Yugoslavia into the Axis, to which he attributed great political importance, a pro-ally coup d’ etat broke out in Belgrade and the new Government of General Simovitch denounced the treaties with Germany.
The coup d’ etat in Yugoslavia was well received by ally circles and created hopes for a favourable development of the situation.
- On the other hand, the situation created in Yugoslavia, alarmed the Germans, who had been planning to commence the ‘MARITA’ operation on March 28. Without awaiting any display of faith on the part of the new Yugoslavia, Hitler decided, in parallel with the attack against Greece to invade Yugoslavia as well. A meeting was held on March 27, in Berlin, over which he presided, and during which the commencement of the operation ‘MARITA’ was decided on, after altering the initial plan as regards the objectives and the allocation of forces, since no plan against Yugoslavia, had been drawn.
The Co-operation with the Yugoslavians and the Stands of Turkey
- Although the impending threat against both Yugoslavia and Greece was clearly discernible, there was no immediate effort to co-ordinate the common defence against the Germans.
Following persistent Greek pressure on the British allies to take the initiative for co-operation, the Chief of the British General staff, Marshall Deal, met with the new Yugoslavian leaders in Belgrade and he ascertained that a state of true anarchy prevailed and that firm and final decisions could not be taken, due to the existence of many impediments.
He only managed to bring about a meeting between the officers of the Yugoslavian Staff and the Greek Commander-in-Chief. This meeting was held on April 3, at the railway station of Kenali (Kremenitsa). A new meeting ensued, attended, on the British side, by General Wilson, and as observers the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eden and the Chief of the British Staff, Marshal Deal.
- The view of Commander-in-Chief A. Papagos, was that the Yugoslavians ought to avoid deploying their troops to defend the endless northern borders of their country. The dispersion of the Yugoslavian forces and the weakened defence would produce fatal results, whereas the concentration of their bulk in Southern Serbia, would protect the Greek and Yugoslavian forces from being cut off in the area of Monastiri-Florina-Kozani.
He stressed the dangers that could arise for both armies, if the enemy managed to create a gap in the area at the Bulgarian-Yugoslavian borders and advanced towards the high plateau of Skopje and the mid valley of Axios river.
During the meeting, it was considered extremely urgent to liaise the Yugoslavian front with the fortified Greek area of the borders.
The Yugoslavians formally adopted the Greek plan and assigned 4 divisions to cover Southern Serbia. Nevertheless, the plan and the co-operation in general, were marked by laxity and inadequacy.
It was, however, decided that in the event of a German attack from the direction of Bulgaria, the valley of Stroumnitsa river, (tributary of Strymonas river), would be blocked off with Yugoslavian forces, in order to avoid the possibility of endangering the liaison with the Greek forces and to impede a German manoeuvre for the envelopment of the Beles-Nestos area.
Lastly, on the whole, common offensive actions were to be conducted, in order to drive the Italians out of Albania.
Thus ended the only meeting of the three Allies, about which General Wilson later wrote in his book that it was the most useless and the least satisfactory meeting he had ever attended.
- Regarding the stands of Turkey during the same period, it was simultaneously inclined towards both sides. Being obligated by convention and having at first declared that it would maintain neutrality in favour of Greece, with the intention of remaining faithful to its alliance with Great Britain, on February 17 it signed a pact of friendship and non-offence with Bulgaria. The subsequent entry of Bulgaria into the Axis, (March 1, 1941 ) proved that, by this pact, Turkey had knowingly facilitated Germany in conducting a future unobstructed attack upon Greece.
During the negotiations with the British Foreign Minister, Anthony Eden, Turkey insisted on its neutrality, claiming that the combat effectiveness of its armed forces was unsatisfactory. According to Wavell, the British Commander-in-Chief and Longmore, the Airforce Marshal, with whom Eden apparently agreed, the entrance of Turkey into the war had nothing positive to offer from a military point of view. However, it was likely to restrain Yugoslavia from joining the Axis.
Subsequently, Eden’s effort was directed, in those anguished and uncertain days, to the task of convincing the Turkish Government to adopt a decisive attitude in order to somehow encourage the Yugoslavians. Even a simple statement that Turkey would not remain indifferent to offensive acts by a foreign power in the Balkan peninsula, would have sufficed. In the end, however, not even this statement was offered by the Turkish Government.
The Deployment and the Plan of Operations of the German Forces
( Sketch-map no. 20, 21 and 22 )
- The new German plan of the parallel attack against Greece and Yugoslavia, as this was decided during the meeting of March 27 in Berlin, was drawn within 24 hours and provided for the application of the ‘advance by bounds’ method, because of the non-completion of the strategic concentration of those forces which would be operating against Yugoslavia. The dates and the forces for the commencement of operations were then defined as follows :
-The 12th Field Army of Marshal Von List, deployed along the Greek and the south-eastern Yugoslavian borders, would operate in the direction of Thessaloniki and Skopje on April 6.
-The 1st Armoured Division Group of General Kleist, deployed in the area of Sofia and initially allocated for the attack against Greece, would launch a surprise offensive towards Nyssa-Belgrade on April 8, whereas the XLI Armoured Army Corps, that belonged to this Group, would operate towards Belgrade, from the direction of Romania, on April 10.
-The 2nd Field Army, organised by the German Staff for the invasion of Yugoslavia with 9 divisions at its disposal, would be operating, on April l0, from Austria and Hungary, towards Zagreb and Belgrade respectively. In the meantime, advanced Field Army elements would seize the bridges and tunnels at the borders of Austria-Yugoslavia in advance, so as to facilitate the further advance of the Field Army.
-The German Airforce would undertake to destroy the Yugoslavian air force installations and the town of Belgrade, with successive air raids.
- The forces of the l2th German Field Army, that were available for the operations against Greece, were the following :
-The XVIII Mountain Army Corps, deployed from Petritsi to Nevrokopi comprising the 2nd Armoured Division, the 5th and 6th Mountain Divisions, the 125th Independent Infantry Regiment (Reinforced) and the 72nd Infantry Division.
-The XXX Army Corps, deployed in the Pasmakli and Kirdzali areas, comprising the 164th and 50th Infantry Divisions.
-The XL Armoured Army Corps, concentrated in the area of Doubnitsa, comprising the 9th Armoured Division, the 73rd Infantry Division and the SS Leibstandarte (Adolphe Hitler Bodyguards).. This Corps was initially employed against Yugoslavia, however, after the occupation of Skopje on April 8, it turned southwards in the direction of Monastiri-Florina-Amyndaeo and attacked the Greek – British forces. Later on, the 5th Armoured Division of the Kleist group reinforced the above forces, after having originally operated in the direction of Nyssa.
-One of the two Infantry Divisions of the Field Army, in the area of Philipoupolis, as a reserve.
The task of screening the entire front remained a responsibility of the Bulgarians, who employed three divisions to that effect.
- Regarding the Airforce, the Germans allocated the following forces for the operations against Greece :
-The VIII Airforce Corps, under the command of Air Chief Marshal Richthoven, which had been assigned to the l2th Field Army from the beginning and comprised 650 aircraft (280 bombers, l50 vertical assault ‘Stukas’, 90 single-engine fighters, 90 double-engine fighters and bombers and 40 reconnaissance ).
-The 4th Airforce Fleet, which was organised after the political reform in Yugoslavia and included 744 aircraft of various types.
The total number of the German front-line aircraft amounted to approximately 1,000, including those of the close air support unit that had been assigned to the Large Units.
- The outline plan of the l2th German Field Army which would operate against Greece, was in general, as follows :
-A westward attack for the occupation of Southern Yugoslavia with the XL Army Corps, which, after joining forces with the Italians in Albania and managing to separate the Yugoslavian and Greek forces, would turn southwards along the axis Monastiri-Florina-Kirli Derven-Grevena, so as to threaten the Greek forces of the Albanian front and the Greek -British forces at the Vermio area from the rear. Thus, conducting a broad envelopment of the fortified Beles-Nestos area as well as the Vermio area and it would continue its operations towards the mainland.
-Seizure of the ‘Metaxas Line’ with the bulk of the XVIII Army Corps forces at the valley of Strymonas river and breakthrough of the Rupel defile, with simultaneous envelopment of this fortified area with the 2nd Armoured Division from the west, through the valleys of Stroumnitsa and Axios, for the occupation of Thessaloniki and the isolation of the whole of Eastern Macedonia.
-Occupation of the Western Thrace coastline and the islands of Northern Aegean with the XXX Army Corps, which would then turn westwards and, crossing Nestos river, would operate towards Thessaloniki in order to assist the operations that were being conducted there.
The plan of operations of the Field Army in the direction of the main effort, where the XL Army Corps was operating, was based, in spite of the rough terrain, on the high mobility of the armoured and motorised units.
The Disposition and the Missions of the Greek and British Forces
( Sketch-map no. 20 )
- The Greek and British forces, that were assigned to confront the German invasion, had been echeloned at the fortified area of the ‘Metaxas Line’ and the Vermio area , as follows :
In Eastern Macedonia, that is, at the fortified Beles-Nestos area, the EMFAS was deployed under the command of Lieutenant General Konstantinos Bakopoulos, comprising :
-The Division Group, under the command of Lieutenant General Panaghiotis Dedes, comprising the XVIII and XIV Infantry Divisions, that were deployed as follows :
The XVIII Division under Major General Leonidas Stergiopoulos, occupied the mountain bulk of Beles, from Triethnes to Strymonas river with 7 Infantry battalions and the troops of 5 Forts. In order to cover a front of about 40 kilometres, the Division had allocated, its forces in three sub-sectors :
- The Rodopolis Subsector: 70th Infantry Regiment (2 Infantry Battalions plus one company).
- The Roupesko Subsector: A battalion of the 70th Infantry Regiment plus one company and Fort Popotlivitsa.
- The Thylakas Subsector: 91st Infantry Regiment (2 Infantry Battalion plus one company) and Forts Istimbei, Kelkayia, Arpalouki and Paleoouriones.
The XIV Division, under the command of Major General Konstantinos Papakonstantinou, occupied the sector from the eastern bank of Strymonas to the western approaches of the Kato Nevrokopi high plateau with 6 Infantry battalions, 5 Screening companies and the troops of 8 Forts. In order to cover its front of about 80 kilometres, the Division had organised two sectors :
- The Siderokastro Sector: 41st Infantry Regiment (3 Infantry Battalions), Forts Rupel, Karatas, Kali and three Screening companies.
- The Karadag Sector: 73rd Infantry Regiment (3 Infantry Battalions) and Forts Persek, Babazora, Maliaga, Perithori and Partalouska.
As a reserve of the XIV Division, 2 Screening companies.
As a reserve of the Division Group, one battalion of the 8lst Infantry Regiment minus a company.
- The VII Division, under the command of Major General Christos Zoiopoulos, that was deployed from the Libahovo crossing as far as mount Kouslar, comprising 10 Infantry battalions, 2 Screening companies and the troops of 6 Forts.
The width of the division zone was about 85 kilometres in total and had been divided into three sectors:
- The Sector of Falakro mountain: 26th Infantry Regiment (4 Infantry Battalions) and Forts Lisse, Pyramidoeides, Dasavli, Kastillo, Agios Nikolaos and Bartiseva.
- The Sector of Touloubar: 92nd Infantry Regiment (3 Infantry Battalions)
- The Sector of Paranesti: 7lst Infantry Regiment (3 Infantry Battalions).
-The Nestos Brigade, under the command of Colonel Anastasios Kalis, which had been deployed on the western bank of river Nestos, from the village of Paschalia as far as the estuary of this river, and comprising 5 Infantry battalions, one Reconnaissance team and the Echinos Fort.
-The XIX Motorised Division, under the command of Major General Nikolaos Liubas, which was in the area of Kilkis, with the 191st Infantry Regiment in the area of Siderokastro (at the disposal of the Division Group), the 192nd Infantry Regiment in the area of Efkarpia-Kilkis and the 193rd Infantry Regiment in the area of Kalindria-Herso.
-The Krousia Detachment : Command of the 8lst Infantry Regiment, a Cavalry Regiment, a Security battalion and a Screening company.
-A reinforced Infantry battalion in the area of Thessaloniki to defend against parachutist action.
In Thrace, the Evros Brigade was deployed under the command of Major General Ioannis Zissis, comprising 7 Screening Companies and the Nymphaea Fort.
- In the Vermio area, the Greek-British ‘W’ Force, comprising the Central Macedonia Field Army Section and the British Expeditionary Force, was deployed under the command of General Wilson, who reported directly to the Greek Commander-in-Chief.
-The Field Army Section of Central Macedonia, under the command Lieutenant General of the Reserve Ioannis Kotoulas (on 8-4-41, he was replaced by Major General Christos Karassos) occupied, the left (northern) section of the area, comprising:
- The 20th Division, under the command of Major General Christos Karassos (on 8-4-4l, he was replaced by Colonel Miltiades Papakonstantinou), with three Infantry Regiments and a Screening Company. Its mission was to secure the passes of Northern Vermio, the pass of Edessa-Kelli and the mountain passes of Vegoritida lake as far as the Greek -Yugoslavian borders on Kaimaktsalan mountain.
- The XII Division, under the command of Colonel Georgios Karambatos, which had four Infantry Regiments, each one comprising two battalions, and a Reconnaissance group, and was deployed south-east of the 20th Division as far as the Hadova defile.
- The X Frontier Sector was under the command Colonel of the Reserve Aristotelis Sergios, with three screening Companies from Gevgeli to Kaimaktsalan mountain.
-The British Expeditionary Force, under the command of General Wilson, was deployed in the rest of the Vermio area and comprised :
- The 1st Australian Army Corps, which was under the command of Major General Blamey and included the 6th Australian Division, under the command of Major General Mackay, and the 2nd New Zealand Division, under the command of Major General Freyberg. The 6th Australian Division had the 16th and l9th Brigades at its disposal and occupied the defile of Hadova. The 2nd New Zealand division had the 4th, 5th and 6th Brigades and occupied the coastal sector of Katerini.
- The 1st Armoured British Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Charrington, in the area of Edessa, with a Demolition squad, west of Axios river.
On the left of the area and behind the 20th Division was the Amyndaeo Detachment, which consisted of British forces.
The British Airforce in Greece comprised, 4 bomber and 4 fighter squadrons and 1 air ground liaison squadron. These forces were organised in two wings in order to support the Albanian Front and Macedonia respectively. In total there were 80 aircraft in good fighting condition, which, nevertheless, did not suffice to cover all of the support missions. The Greek Airforce was essentially insignificant.
- The Greek and British forces had been assigned the following missions :
-The EMFAS would defend the fortified area of Beles-Nestos. In case of failure and after all efforts to secure the above position had been exhausted it would withdraw its forces, depending on the situation, either towards Thessaloniki and then west of Axios river or towards Kavala and Amphipolis, in order to transport its troops by sea and employ them in another area.
The Krousia Detachment had been assigned to occupy the protective Krousia area and to block off the advance of the enemy towards Thessaloniki in case there was a breakthrough of the Beles area.
-The Evros Brigade would seek to secure the bridgehead of Pythio. In case it was unable to retain it, it would withdraw into Turkey.
-The Greek – British ‘W’ Force was assigned to block off any attempt of the enemy to advance west and south of the general area of Kaimaktsalan-Vermio-Aliakmonas river.
The Commencement of the German Attack
- At 0515 hrs on April 6, without adhering to the usual diplomatic formalities of the ultimatum and deadline offer for the reply, the German troops simultaneously invaded the Greek territory and Southern Yugoslavia. At 0530 hrs on the same day, the German Ambassador to Athens presented the Greek Prime Minister with a note, which expressed unfounded allegations that the neutrality had been violated and announced the German invasion.
A modest and plain announcement informed the Greek people that morning: ‘Since 0515 hrs, the German Army that was in Bulgaria all of a sudden attacked our troops on the Greek – Bulgarian frontier. Our troops are defending our fatherland’.
- The main effort of the Germans was directed towards the left of the fortified area and mainly against Beles mountain and Fort Rupel, whereas further to the east, on the high plateau of Nevrokopi and in Western Thrace, the German attack was less intense.
Epic fighting ensued and scenes of splendid heroism took place in the area of the forts, arousing not only the admiration of the entire free world but also of the Germans themselves.
The First Day of the German Attack (April 6, 1941)
(Sketch-map no. 20 and 22)
- The German attack against the area of the XVIII Division (Beles) began at 0515 hrs and was supported by a great number of dive bombers and the vigorous fire of the artillery. The fight that followed was hard and evolved in each Subsector from west to east as follows :
In the Rodopolis Subsector, action was taken by the 6th Mountain Division, which conducted its attack against the heights Demir Kapou and Kale Bair and, by 0700 hrs, had seized the main line of resistance on the ridge-line of Beles mountain. Then, it seized the protective position left of the Subsector and, at approximately 1100 hrs, the villages Platanakia and Kalochori fell into the hands of its troops that had taken a large number of prisoners in the meantime. After delaying the German troops until the evening hours, the troops of the Subsector withdrew to the Krousia area during the night.
The 5th Mountain Division conducted operations further to the east, in the Roupesko and Thylakas Subsectors. Its attack was supported by 165 guns of various calibre and by a large number of aircraft.
Fort Popotlivitsa, despite the severe bombardment, resisted all day long and it was only during the night that the enemy managed to set foot on the surface of the fort. Two enemy aircraft were shot down by the anti-aircraft fire of the Fort.
The brunt of the German attack was borne by Forts Istimbei and Kelkayia, which were the key to the area. The attack against these two Forts was launched simultaneously, at 0700 hrs, following heavy bombardment by the infantry, artillery and airforce. At 0800 hrs, enemy troops managed to set foot on the surface of Fort Istimbei. Its Commander requested artillery fire on the surface of the Fort and a counter-attack by the reserve of the Subsector in order to clear it. The counter-attack was launched shortly before noon, but it was repulsed by the Germans who had been reinforced in the meantime and had seized other heights, further to the east, between Istimbei and Kelkayia.
At 1300 hrs, enemy troops set foot on the surface of Fort Kelkayia as well, and attempted to crush the resistance of its defenders, unsuccessfully. A counterattack by a section of the fort garrison successed temporarily.
Fort Arpalouki was only subjected to artillery and airforce bombardment, whereas at Fort Paliouriones many infiltrations were attempted, which were repulsed with heavy losses for the attackers.
- In the zone of the XIV Division (Sectors of Siderokastro and Karadag), the German attack was also launched at 0515 hrs, with great momentum, especially on the left of the Siderokastro Team against Fort Rupel, whereas Forts Karatas and Kali were only subjected to artillery fire and Airforce bombardment.
The attack against Fort Rupel was conducted by the 125th Independent Infantry Regiment, which had been reinforced with a battalion from the 5th Mountain division. This regiment had also been used in France against the Mazineau line.
The attack began with strong artillery support and continued with a bombardment by vertical assault ‘Stuka’ dive bombers, which made use of special sirens during their dives intenting to break the morale of the defenders. At 0600 hrs motorised Infantry, assault guns and motorcyclists crossed the border en mass and moved towards the Fort, while flat trajectory weapons began to fire from suitable positions against the openings of its defensive works. Simultaneously, a flotilla of 18 assault boats appeared, moving downstream towards the bridge of Siderokastro. The escort, consisting of three boats, got entangled in a wire net installed underwater and was immobilised. The crews were annihilated by the fire of the forts and the boats were sunk.
At approximately 1100 hrs, after the withdrawal of the outposts, the attacking troops approached the forts, but their advance was halted by the defensive fire and only small elements were able to ascend momentarily to the surface of the ‘Molon Lave’ [Come and take it] Monument of Fort Rupel. However, while the frontal attacks of the Germans were repulsed, a battalion force managed to infiltrate the area between the Forts of Rupel and Karatas. From there, an assault unit, of company strength, taking advantage of the screen of smoke, by-passed six pill-boxes and moved towards the rear of the area where, at 1600 hrs, it seized the village of Klidi. The remainder of the above Battalion suffered heavy losses and only few men were able to cross the barrage of fire and move in the direction of Klidi.
The Germans constantly supported their attack with their Airforce and artillery. During the day, 100-200 aircraft flew above Rupel. The one and only anti-aircraft gun of the Fort shot down three of them.
Thus ended the first day of the German attack against Rupel, marked by failure to achieve their objective.
Further to the east, in the Sector of the Karadag Team, the effort of the 72th Division was mainly directed against Forts Perithori-Maliaga and Babazora, before which it was held in position, whereas Fort Partaloushka had only to deal with the activity of small patrols.
Here, the main effort was applied at Fort Perithori, where a tough battle took place, the Germans failing to capture it.
- In the zone of the VII Division (Sectors of Falakro-Touloubar-Paranestio), the 72nd German Division commenced its attack at 0515 hrs, laying heavy pressure mainly on the Sector of Falakro, whereas in the other sectors its activity was confined to the repulsion of the screening forces.
At approximately 1100 hrs, after having overthrown the screening forces and the troops at the forward resistance area, directly north of Kato Nevrokopi, the enemy attempted to move between the Forts of Pyramidoeides and Lisse and to force its way through the defile of Granitis. However, the attempt was not successful because of the effective fire of the abovementioned Forts, especially of the latter. Thereafter, the German troops made another attempt to infiltrate into the space between Forts Perithori and Lisse, but once again they were repulsed. A simultaneous action of the Germans to envelop the defile of Granitis from the east, by seizing the Ousoyia height was also unsuccessful and their troops were held in position before that height, suffering heavy losses.
- In the zone of the Nestos Brigade (in the area of Xanthi), the Germans commenced their attack at 0515 hrs with the 164th Division along the axis of Pasmakli-Melivoia-Echinos-Xanthi. After overthrowing the frontier posts, they gained contact, in the afternoon hours, with the main area of resistance and Fort Echinos, where they were held in position by the fire of the Fort.
- In the zone of the Evros Brigade (Sector of Evros), the German attack commenced at 0505 hrs with the 50th Division along the axis Kirdzali-Nymphaea-Komotini. The screening forces of the Evros Brigade withdrew, delaying the enemy, in accordance with the existing plan. At 0700 hrs, Fort Nymphaea was subjected to the effective fire of the artillery at the openings and the exits from a distance of 600-1,500 meters and by 1100 hours it had become encircled. Attempts on the part of the Germans to ascend to the surface of the fort were contained by the effective fire. The pounding of the Fort, which was conducted by the greatest part of the XXX Army Corps artillery in conjunction with the Airforce, continued until eight o’clock that evening.
- The occupation of the western section of the Beles ridgeline and the infiltration of German troops into the valley of Rodopolis, posed a threat for the entire Beles-Nestos area. The command of the EMFAS, in order to deal with the situation, issued an order at 1030 hrs to the XIX Motorised Division (minus the 191st Regiment), at the disposal of which it also placed the Krousia Detachment, aiming at the occupation of the area from Doirani lake to Kerkini lake.
During the evening hours, the German forces sallied forth into the valley of Rodopolis and took contact with the Krousia area, while the forts on Beles mountain continued their defence. East of Strymonas river and as far as Nestos river, the Germans kept contact with the main area of resistance, which remained intact. Further to the east, in the area of Xanthi and Komotini, the German troops, after bypassing the forts, proceeded to move southwards.
After this development, the EMFAS ordered the withdrawal of the XVIII Division to the area of Strymonas river – Kerkini lake, retaining the liaison with the Krousia area. The greatest part of the 4lst Regiment, which was in Achladochori, was deployed on the eastern bank of Strymonas river, in the section between the bridge of Siderokastro and Fort Rupel, in order to secure the continuity of the front. At the same time, the forts were ordered to defend ‘to the last man’.
The Second Day of the German Attack (April 7, 1941)
(Sketch-map no. 22)
- In the Beles Sector, the XVIII Division began to withdraw, since the morning on April 7, to the area between the bridge of Siderokastro and Kerkini lake, whereas the forts continued their struggle, with no external support any longer.
At Fort Kelkayia, the Germans blocked off the openings during the night and piped choking gases and thick smoke into the galleries, an act which forced the garrison to surrender at 1130 hrs.
Fort Arpalouki, being no more under the protection of Kelkayia, was dangerously encircled. In the night of April 7 to 8, the garrison, which amounted to approximately 200 men, retired unimpeded and reached the bridges of Strymonas, which were found destroyed. There, it was attacked while attempting to cross the river by makeshift means and was overpowered at the end of a three-hour tough struggle, surrendering to the Germans, with the exception of a very small number of men who managed to escape.
The garrison of Fort Istimbei was forced to surrender at 1600 hrs, because of the choking gases and the flaming petrol used by the Germans.
Fort Popotlivitsa and the permanent pill-boxes in the Rupesko Subsector continued their resistance during the whole day of April 7.
- In the XIV Division zone of operation, the German effort remained undiminished, in spite of the foggy and rainy weather.
In the Siderokastro Sector, the effort of the 125th German Regiment was once again directed against Fort Rupel, which continued its heroic resistance. However, the enemy troops that had infiltrated into its rear area (approximately 200 men), occupied the Goliama height where, after organising a perimeter defence, they managed apart from harassing the Fort and cutting off its communications to also pinpoint targets to their Airforce. An attempt by the XIV Division to neutralise the above troops failed.
In the Karadag Sector, the Germans launched a surprise attack and seized the Stavros height, only to lose it later after a counter-attack, which was supported by the fire of Fort Maliaga. At approximately 0900hrs, other German troops managed to set temporarily foot on the surface of Fort Perithori and enter into the underground galleries, were the fight was fierce and presented a picture of a virtual inferno. The Fort garrison fought for two hours with heroism and self-sacrifice and managed to annihilate all the Germans that had entered into it. At the same time, a counter-attack was launched by a small section against the Germans that had set foot on the surface of the Fort. After a hard fight, the Germans were forced to withdraw with heavy losses.
At 1630 hrs, a new vigorous attack by a force of about regiment strength also failed. The same fate awaited the attempts to destroy the Fort with assault guns and small infiltration groups.
- Further to the east, in the VII Division zone of operation, the 72nd German Division continued its main effort against the Sector of Falakro mountain, whereas the screening forces of the Sectors of Paranesti and Touloubar withdrew in order towards the area of resistance. During the night of April 6 to 7, the Germans concentrated sufficient forces and, in the morning, began to fire with machine-guns against the openings of Fort Lisse. These forces, supported by assault guns and taking advantage of the fog, attacked Fort Dasavli at approximately 1000 hrs, without success.
Further to the east, a German force that had managed to infiltrate through the Yiannen valley, seized the Ousoyia height at approximately 1600 hrs. A Greek counter-attack, that was launched during the night of April 7 to 8, in order to re-capture the height, was unsuccessful.
Furthermore, in the field corridor between Forts Dasavli and Perithori, a strong German force, taking advantage of the fog and the bushes, approached and attacked the Kresti height (before Kalapotio pass), and seized it at approximately 1400 hrs. In order to deal with that threat, the VII Division organised a Detachment (Kalapotio Detachment), which was assigned to secure the saddle of Kalapotio and recapture the height of Kresti in the next morning.
- In the area of Xanthi, (Nestos Brigade), the screening forces, after conducting the authorised demolitions and the blowing up of the Nestos bridge at Toxotes, withdrew in order to the area of resistance. Fort Echinos, in spite of the strong pressure and the successive bombings it had suffered, managed to contain the German attackers throughout the April 7.
- In the Sector of Evros, the screening forces, (approximately 100 officers and 2,000 soldiers), after having withdrawn according to the existing plan, crossed over to the Turkish territory where they were disarmed, except for a small section that withdrew towards Makri and was afterwards transported inland by steamboat.
The Commander of the Brigade, Major General Ioannis Zissis, taking the disarmament of his Brigade to heart, committed suicide on April 9, at Ypsala of Eastern Thrace. Most officers and about 1,300 soldiers that had taken refuge in Turkey went to the Middle East in July, 1941, whereas the rest returned to Greece in February, l942.
In the meantime, the German troops by-passed Fort Nymphaea and, during the night of April 6 to 7, reached Komotini.
Fort Nymphaea continued to resist, although it was isolated within an area which was totally controlled by the Germans, who were urgently seeking to break through the advance routes from Komotini to Alexandroupolis and Kavala. Despite the night attacks, the pounding of the artillery, the successive assaults of the infantry and the severe air bombardment, the Germans were unable to ascend to the surface of the Fort for the whole day (April 7). Late in the evening at approx 2100 hrs, after the effective fire of more than a hundred guns of all calibre against the openings of the Fort and the destruction of its weapons and exits, the Germans managed to set foot on its surface. Nevertheless, the Fort continued the defence until 2330 hrs, whereupon it was forced to surrender, since the atmosphere inside it had by then become suffocating, due to the smoke agents thrown by the Germans through the wrecked openings of the pill-boxes.
- In the Sector of the XIX Motorised Division, there were no events worth recording; however, the unfavourable turn of events became apparent.
The Germans attempted to force their way through the defence in the area of the field corridor that lay east of Doirani lake and momentarily succeeded in creating a gap, which was nevertheless immediately closed after counter-attacks of a company and a tank platoon.
At approximately 1230 hrs, the Division took contact with the Yugoslavians at the outpost of Doirani during the course of which a common limiting point was defined together with the probable course of action at the point. Furthermore, the Division was informed that the 2nd German Armoured Division had already occupied Stromnitsa and was engaged in offensive action in the direction of Kostourino-Valadovo. The Yugoslavians requested the urgent dispatch of Greek troops or British motorised units and anti-tank weapons to Valadovo. They also requested the strike of the German columns in the valley of Stroumnitsa, by the British Airforce. This request was satisfied in the afternoon.
At 1700 hrs, the Yugoslavians communicated that they would be withdrawing west of Axios river.
Subsequently, the EMFAS ordered the XIX Motorised Division to extend its left flank as far as the eastern bank of Axios, having previously reinforced it with the XI Frontier Sector (2 Screening companies), a force of two companies from the Security Battalion of Thessaloniki and the XIX Motorised Reconnaissance Group. The latter had been situated in the area of Laina village and originally came from Drama. The mass of the Division forces, according to its new mission, was thereby transferred to the zone between Doirani lake and Axios river, where the Division deployed one of its two regiments and its Reconnaissance group.
In the meantime, a German motorised column had seized the villages of Valadovo and Fourka and was directed towards the field corridor between Doirani lake and the Doum height. Further to the west, the Germans seized Gevgeli.
- On the whole, during the second day of the German attack, the Beles-Nestos defensive area, despite the loss of Forts Istimbei, Kelkayia and Arpalouki, remained essentially intact. However, the rapid breakdown of the Yugoslavian resistance -especially in the area of the valley of Axios- in conjunction with the absence of forces available to cover the left flank of the organised area, created a situation that was extremely serious for the entire area, which was in danger of being cut off from the mainland.
The EMFAS addressed a request to the General Headquarters that, the British Armoured Brigade should attack in the following morning in the direction of Doirani against the advancing German column and that the Airforce should hit the German columns. However, the General Headquarters replied that the implementation of this action was impossible. It was evident that the disposition of the XIX Division, in order to fill the gap created by the breakdown of the Yugoslavian resistance, did not bear any chances of success. The inadequate reinforcements could not reach the area in time to repulse the German advance. Thus, the sensitive area of the Axios river valley constituted the vulnerable spot of the entire defensive area.
The Third Day of the German Attack (April 8, 1941)
(Sketch-map no. 22)
- On April 8, the third day of the German attack, in the Sector of Beles, the Germans advanced and in the early hours made contact with the XVIII Division troops in the area of the Megalochori bridge, while the forts, that had not surrendered, continued to fight. Fort Popotlivitsa, following a hard and uneven struggle, was forced to surrender at 1900 hrs. On the contrary, the guard of three concrete pill-boxes at the southern feet of the Rupesko height, continued to resist, stubbornly. Fort Paliouriones, though subjected to a severe bombardment and the sustained fire of portable weapons against its openings, resisted and caused heavy losses to the Germans.
- In the Sector of the XIV Division the fight continued with unflagging intensity. The Germans tried to break through the area of Forts Rupel and Karatas, but were repulsed and suffered heavy losses, while three German aircraft were also shot down. However, the troops of the 125th German Regiment -which had been positioned on the Goliama height- and the concurrent descent of the 5th Mountain Division to the valley of Rodopolis, began to seriously threaten the left flank of the XIV Division. In order to deal with the situation, the left flank of the Division, was reinforced from the Division Group with two Infantry battalions, one light tank company (Carriers) and a number of guns of various calibre.
- Further to the east, the efforts of the Germans to capture Forts Maliaga and Perithori during the night were unsuccessful. A counter-attack against the troops that had set foot on the surface of Fort Perithori took on the form of a close combat and, in the end, the Germans retreated in disarray. As of 1245 hrs, the Fort and the heights lying beside it were subjected to an attack by nearly two Infantry regiments, which were held in position after a three-hour fight and suffered very significant loses.
- In the Sector of the VII Division, the 72nd German Division attempted to capture Forts Pyramidoeides, Lisse and Dasavli, once again, but was unsuccessful. Further to the west, the Germans retained their positions on the Kresti height, despite the efforts of the VII Division to recapture the latter with the Kalapotio Detachment.
- In the Sector of the Nestos Brigade, the 164th German Division took contact with the area of resistance on Nestos river at Stavroupolis, while Fort Echinos continued to resist, even though by that time it had been encircled and fired from all directions. At approximately 2100 hrs, the Germans managed to set foot on the surface of the Fort and piped in smoke and various choking gases to the galleries. This led the fort garrison, which consisted of 18 officers and 550 soldiers, to abandon the Fort and move towards the western bank of Nestos river. Upon arriving at Kentavros village at approximately 0300 hrs, on April 9, the garrison was informed that the Germans had already occupied Xanthi and Komotini. Subsequently, no longer possessing any way of escape, it surrendered to the Germans.
- However, while the ‘Metaxas Line’ remained essentially intact, thanks to the heroic resistance of the fort defenders, during the third day of the German attack as well, in the sector of the XIX Motorised Division, where the left flank of the EMFAS was situated, a critical situation developed, due to the collapse of the Yugoslavian resistance in Southern Serbia, from the first day. The bulk of the troops that were hastily assigned to block off the valley of Axios river, were unable, to reach and occupy the deffensive area in time, because of the enemy intervention.
At 0600 hrs on April 8, strong German motorised forces of the 2nd Armoured Division crossed the border by Doirani lake and invaded the Greek territory. They proceeded to overthrow the troops that were positioned in the area Akritas-Oveliskos and moved towards Herso-Kilkis and Megali Sterna-Polykastro, breaking up or by-passing the resistance they met on the way.
At the same time, other troops of the 6th Mountain Division, a five battalion force, attacked the Krousia area and managed to create a gap, west of the Dova Tepe height. At approximately 2300 hrs, a German column seized Metalliko village and continued its movement towards Kilkis, while the Headquarters of the XIX Division, that was taken by surprise by the speed of the German advance, moved to Kentriko village.
The Capitulation of the Eastern Macedonia Field Army Section
- The continuing deep infiltration of the Germans and the impending occupation of Thessaloniki on the following day, constituted an immediate danger for the EMFAS, which was bound to be captured if it remained at the defensive area. Therefore, the Commander of the EMFAS, Lieutenant General Bakopoulos, decided to withdraw his units, as of the evening of April 8, towards the harbours of Eastern Macedonia, since any attempt to withdraw them to the west of Axios was out of the question, because of the German advance towards Kilkis-Thessaloniki and the impending demolition of the bridges across the Axios river. Yet the transportation of forces by sea also presented serious impediments, since the available vessels were insufficient.
At 1630 hrs, on April 8, the Commander of the EMFAS communicated by phone to the Commander in chief his decision to withdraw his forces, due to the situation that had arisen. Five minutes had merely elapsed after the telephone conversation, when the Commander of the EMFAS received a General Headquarters order, issued by phone, authorising him to enter into negotiations with the Commander of the German forces in order to seek capitulation and to request a cease-fire. The General Headquarters, assessing the situation and realising the futility in continuing the uneven struggle and aiming to avoid any pointless sacrifice, had already issued since noon a relevant written order for capitulation. Besides, the mission of the EMFAS, which was to delay the Germans in the direction of the Vermio area, had by then become impossible since there were already two directions of attack against that area, from the valley of Axios and from Monastiri, both of which had been broken through by that time.
- After the above events, the Commander of the EMFAS sent a letter, at 2100 hrs on April 8, to Lieutenant General Feiel, the German Commander of the 2nd Armoured Division, proposing a cease-fire, on the condition that the soldiers be allowed to keep their weapons, or at least, if this was unacceptable, that these be returned to Greece after the end of the war. At the same time, he briefed his lower rank officers of the Large Units in confidence and stressed that they had to retain their positions until the capitulation was signed, both as a matter of military pride and because it was the only way to secure favourable and honourable conditions.
At around 2230 hrs, the Military Commander of Thessaloniki, Lieutenant General Rangavis, received a letter of the Commander of the German advance guard, demanding the unconditional surrender of the city by midnight.
The surrender of Thessaloniki was carried out at 0800 hrs on the following day, April 9, by a committee comprising the Metropolitan Bishop of Thessaloniki, the Mayor and the Chief of Police of the city.
- Lieutenant General Feiel, placed the Greek terms before Marshal Von List, who agreed to the cease-fire, which was to commence at 1000 hrs on April 9. Regarding the issue of the return of war supplies he stated that this would be negotiated in the future.
At 1400 hrs, on April 9, a Protocol and Negotiations Supplement were signed at the German Consulate in Thessaloniki between the Commander of the EMFAS and the Commander of the 2nd German Armoured Division.
The Protocol included the term that the officers would get to keep their swords. As for the two other terms on which Lieutenant General Bakopoulos insisted that they be added to the Protocol, those being the return of the war materiel and the non-entrance of Bulgarian troops into the Greek territory, Lieutenant General Feiel declared that he lacked the appropriate authority.
With the Supplement the heroic fighting of the EMFAS was acknowledged and the intention to avoid sending officers or soldier to a concentration camp was expressed. As for the civil authorities it was decided that they would remain at their positions.
Thus ended the struggle in Eastern Macedonia with highly honourable terms for the Greek troops that defended the area Beles-Nestos with extreme vigour.
At 1600 hrs, the Commander of the EMFAS notified his units of the terms of the capitulation and ordered a cease-fire. This order of the EMFAS caused great displeasure to those units which were still retaining their positions and were continuing to fight with success. The idea of a dishonourable conclusion in captivity was bound to create a justifiable reaction and the first thought of many unit leaders was to escape with their troops towards that part of Greece which was still free and fighting.
The Fighting on April 9 and the End of the Battle of the Forts
( Sketch-map no. 22 )
- While the Commander of the EMFAS was dealing with the negotiations for capitulation and the Germans had already entered into Thessaloniki since the morning of April 9, the fight continued within the entire fortified area.
In the Sector of the XVIII Division, the Germans conducted successive attacks against Fort Paliouriones, though without being able to capture it. At 1730 hrs, German messengers informed the Fort garrison of the capitulation. Subsequently, the cease-fire was decided to take place during the night. The surrender of the Fort to the Germans was carried out at 0900 hrs on April l0. A German battalion was arrayed in order to render honours, while the German Colonel who received the Fort addressed the Commander and congratulated the garrison men on their heroic resistance. Then he led the Commander of the Fort before the German battalion in order to inspect it. The German flag was hoisted at the Fort only after the withdrawal of its garrison.
Other such manifestations were also made in honour of the Commanders of Forts Rupel, Lisse, Pyramidoeides, Perithori, Echinos, Nymphaea, Istimbei and Kelkayia.
The garrison of the Rupesko defensive area, after having resisted during the day, managed to escape during the night of April 9 to l0, without attracting the attention of the Germans.
- In the sector of the XIV Division, the fight continued vigorously, the Germans not being able to break through the defensive area.
In the Siderokastro Sector, the Fort Rupel did not surrender, despite the intense shelling, and refused the German call to capitulate.
In the Karadag Sector, an attempted infiltration during the night of April 8 to 9, by a German force of battalion strength, between Forts Maliaga and Perithori, was repulsed with heavy losses on their part. Another battalion force, that had managed to infiltrate during that same night into the area between Forts Perithori and Partalouska and attack the rear of the Sector, was pursued after a valiant counter-attack of a joint section of reserve platoons, that also took 102 German prisoners.
The Germans, benefiting from the occupation of the Kresti height, attempted a new infiltration during the same night of April 8 to 9 and succeeded in seizing the Agios Konstantinos height with a strength of two companies, at the rear of the Karadag Team. Nevertheless, after a Greek counterattack, the height was recaptured and 250 German prisoners were taken.
- In the Sector of Falakro mountain, the German troops that had seized the Ousoyia height, did not attempt to advance any further, due to the intense fire from Fort Pyramidoeides and artillery. At 1010 hrs, the Kalapotio Detachment repeated the attack in order to recapture the Kresti height, an action which had been halted on the previous evening. After a hard fight, that lasted until 1300 hrs, the Detachment managed to drive the Germans away and to recapture the height.
Fort Pyramidoeides continued to resist as well. At approximately 1300 hrs, a German motor-vehicle with a white flag approached the Fort. The officer in charge informed the Fort commander that after a request of the EMFAS, negotiations for capitulation were being conducted and asked for a mutual cease-fire. The event was immediately reported to the Command of the VII Division, and at 1410 hrs a cease-fire was ordered.
- In the Sector of the Nestos Brigade, an attempt by the Germans to cross the river Nestos in the area of Paradeisos village was unsuccessful. However, the Commander of that Sector, being aware of the imminent capitulation, withdrew his troops during the night of April 9 to l0, in the direction of Chrysoupolis-Keramoti, intenting to ferry them across to the isle of Thassos.
- In the Sector of the XIX Motorised Division, the 193rd Regiment was attacked at 0230 hrs, on April 9, and surrendered at the end of a brief fighting. The remaining troops withdrew, in the early morning hours, to the area of Elliniko village, near Lahanas.
- By the morning of April 10 all EMFAS troops had been informed of the capitulation signed and were awaiting the implementation of its terms.
The Greek casualties during the above four-day titanic struggle, were relatively few and did not exceed 1,000 killed in action and wounded. The German casualties, from April 6 to l0, were considerable and amounted, according to German sources, to 555 killed in action, 2,134 wounded and 170 missing in action. A report by the Commander of the Group of Forts Rupel and Karatas, Lieutenant Colonel Plevrakis, which relates the German casualties, states that during his meeting with the Commander of the 125th German Regiment, after the truce, the latter said in tears: ‘ I do not mourn as a soldier, for the sacrifice was necessary, but I weep as a human being for only few of my men are left’.
- Thus ended the Greek resistance in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, after a four-day unequal struggle. Despite its brief duration, this struggle of the Greek Army can be characterised as an example of courage and self-sacrifice and as one of the most glorious pages of the Greek Military History. The Greek forces, in spite of the overwhelming superiority of the enemy, managed to repulse nearly all German attacks with success. They only capitulated after the rapid collapse of the Yugoslavian resistance, which led to the envelopment of the fortified area of Beles-Nestos and the speedy advance of the German armoured forces towards Thessaloniki.
Admiration for the valour and the fighting spirit of the Greek Army was also expressed by many Germans from all ranks of their military echelon of command. Such characteristic statements are listed below, bearing witness to the high esteem in which the Germans held the Greek fighters.
The Chief of Staff of the XXX German Army Corps, made the following statement to Lieutenant General Dedes, Commander of the Division Group. ‘You have fought admirably, your artillery was superb, your flank guard extremely effective. Upon every move the battle group was successfully hit. If your shells did not suffer from misfires at a rate of 4 to 5 none of our troops engaged in the fight would have survived that hell of fire.’
The Commander of the 72nd German Division, that operated on the high plateau of Kato Nevrokopi, stated to the same Greek Lieutenant General : ‘I have fought in Poland and in France, but nowhere have I encountered such an effective and destructive resistance as in Greece.’
The Commander of the XVIII German Army Corps which operated in the fortified Beles-Nestos area, told the EMFAS Chief of Staff : ‘We had heard references made to the bravery and heroism of the Greek Army, yet we could never have imagined the bravery and heroism displayed by your soldiers. You have fought admirably! Superbly! I congratulate you once again, wholeheartedly.’
Marshal Von List, in his order of the day directly after the struggle, acknowledged that ‘the Greeks defended their country valiantly’ and advised the German soldiers to ‘confront and treat the Greek prisoners as befits brave soldiers’.
Lastly, Hitler himself, in a speech on May 4, 1941, before the Reichstadt, reviewing his campaigns, said: ‘Historic justice, however, forces me to ascertain that among all the adversaries that we have confronted, it was the Greek soldier in particular who fought with the greatest heroism and self-sacrifice. Only when the continuation of the resistance was no longer possible and no longer had any meaning did he capitulate’.
Furthermore, there were equally laudatory judgements made by the Germans with regard to the value of the fortification of the Beles-Nestos area, which was considered much better than that of the Mazineau line and comparable to the Ziegfrid line. They stressed in particular the admirable selection of the positions of the defensive works, their perfect concealment and the excellent adaptation of the fire to the ground.
As assessed on the Greek side, it was proved how necessary the fortification of the above area was because it secured the smooth conduct of the mobilisation as well as the strategic concentration of the Greek Army and allowed the conservation of forces for the struggle in the Albanian Theatre of Operations. Moreover, it offered the opportunity of an initially successful repulsion of the German invasion, a fact which was internationally recognised.
 The Thrace Field Army Section had originated from the E’ Army corps, which ceased to exist as of December 15, 1940. Furthermore, as of February 8, the D’ Army corps (of Kavala) was also abolished and its units were placed under the command of the EMFAS.
 This is an exaggeration although numerous misfires were indeed recorded.