In what became known as the ‘Rhodes’ or ‘Rome’ dilemma, Churchill had long favoured an early Allied liberation of Greece as a prerequisite to securing the Balkans, bringing neutral Turkey into the fold and shoring up long-term British interests. However, insisting that the Allies should land in Italy, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to support any British move on Rhodes. Churchill was forced to concede. Nonetheless, he kept up military pressure on the Dodecanese islands in the south east Aegean from British bases in Egypt, Palestine and Cyprus and waited for his chance to strike.
The combination of Allied landings at Sicily on 10 July 1943 and the first aerial bombing of Rome on the 19th, turned the tide of public opinion against Italy’s fascist rulers. In the ensuing political turmoil, Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini was sacked and Italian King Victor Emmanuel III reinstated as the head of the army. The King immediately incarcerated Mussolini and formed a new government. Despite ostensibly supporting the Germans, he began secret negotiations for an armistice with the Allies.
Although poised to capitalise on the imminent Italian surrender of the Dodecanese in early September 1943, Churchill ended up being totally outfoxed by the Germans who had astutely diverted their own troops, planes and equipment into the area. Not waiting for official news of the surrender, the Germans made a pre-emptive attack on the large, 4,000 strong Italian garrison on Rhodes. They seized control two days later on the 11th of September, thereby securing the port and the strategically important airfields on the island.
This unfortunate development did not deter the British from liberating other islands in the region – including Leros, Kalymnos, Kos and Samos. Taking part in these operations was the Royal Greek Navy, the remnants of the Greek Army which had survived the German invasion of 1941 and been fighting alongside the Allies in the North African and Italian campaigns. The Sacred Regiment, a small but elite Greek special forces unit composed entirely of officers, also joined the fray. They often worked with another crack team known as the British Special Boat Squadron on special do-or-die missions.
However, the Germans counter-attacked against the British advances with a quick succession of unremitting Luftwaffe bombings, amphibious assaults and paratroop landings. Because of the loss of its airfield, the fall of Kos to the Germans on the 4th of October 1943 would prove to be a decisive blow to Churchill’s plans. With Kos in German hands, the Italian garrison, still in control of Kalymnos under the direction of a handful of British, quickly capitulated, thus setting the stage for the Germans to re-take Leros, the next island in the chain.
Adding to the confusion were German attempts to transport Italian prisoners off the islands, where they were a liability and drain on limited resources. This often put them directly in harm’s way. Following an unsuccessful attack by the RAF on the 22nd of September 1943, the steamship Gaetano Donizetti and torpedo boat TA-10 were sunk by HMS Eclipse 10 miles south of Rhodes. The Germans had crammed the Donizetti with 1,576 Italians – twice the safe number. There were no survivors. Incidentally, a month later, the HMS Eclipse hit a mine, broke in two and sunk off Kalymnos. She lost 119 officers and crew in addition to 134 soldiers on board.
While the British had a sizeable naval force deployed in the region, German air superiority wreaked havoc on its support operations, resulting in considerable losses and general ineffectiveness. As a result, Leros fell to the Germans on the 16th of November 1943. Save for the small island of Kastellorizo (also known as Megisti) just off Turkey, the British were forced to concede one island after another. Battered and beaten, they had withdrawn entirely by the end of November 1943. The Germans could claim what was to be their very last successful campaign of the entire war.
In lives, equipment and prestige, it had been a costly disaster for which Churchill is still often criticised. Nonetheless, it would have been negligent not to try and take advantage of the Italian surrender to grab a foothold in Greece. The failure gave new impetus to British manipulation in the affairs of the Greek resistance. Churchill could only foresee a miserable communist outcome otherwise.
Axis Occupation Breakup
With the Italian surrender in September 1943, the Germans were forced to commit more military personnel and equipment to Greece at a time when they were badly needed on the Eastern front against Russia. This led to bitter resentment and brutal reprisals. As the Italians tried to hand over the island of Cephalonia to their former ally, the Germans attacked on the 13th of September. Eight days and over 1,000 casualties later, the Italians capitulated. Nevertheless, the Germans proceeded to ruthlessly execute over 4,500 of their newly acquired Italian prisoners in one of the worst military atrocities of the war.
Such ruthlessness was also exhibited elsewhere in the theatre. On the 18 October 1943, the steamer Sinfra was sunk en route from Souda (Crete) to Piraeus by Allied aircraft. According to the German Navy War Dairy; “The ship had 204 German and 2,389 Italian soldiers. 71 Greek convicts there were also aboard.”
What is not reported is that while the Sinfra was aflame and sinking, the Germans turned on the Italians, locking them in the holds and tossing in grenades. Any Italians who did manage to make it to the inadequate number of life-boats were mowed down by submachine guns. Of the 204 Germans on-board, 194 survived, whereas only 597 Italians and 13 Greeks live through the savagery. Unbelievably, many of those Italian survivors were later executed by the Germans on charges of mutiny.
Reversal of Fortune
By 1944, things were going seriously awry for the Nazis. The D-day landings in June and the liberation of Paris two months later had put final paid to Hitler’s promise of a thousand year Reich. Although hard fought, the Allies had retaken most of the Italian peninsula. This allowed the establishment of bases in southern Italy a year earlier from which an aerial campaign against shipping in the Adriatic and land targets in Albania and Yugoslavia was in full swing. These missions complemented the sabotage undertaken by Yugoslav partisans on the ground. German supply lines to Greece were thereby seriously disrupted.
Furthermore, Hitler’s failure on the Eastern front had cascaded into an unstoppable Russian advance that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The former Axis power of Romania fell in August 1944. Bulgaria, which had annexed northern Greek regions for the Germans back in 1941, was also on the point of being absorbed by the Soviets.
The upshot of these reversals was that the German occupiers faced the very real danger of being totally cut off from the Fatherland and therefore annihilated. The German High Command was forced to issue a secret order at the end of August to begin a furtive withdrawal. The official directive does not appear in the German War Diaries until the 6 October 1944. “The evacuation of Greece, Albania and Macedonia has been ordered by the Fuehrer. All important communications, buildings and facilities south of the named line [marked by Scutari, Skopje and Klisura] are to be lastingly destroyed.”
Prelude to Liberation
Almost incredibly, the rivalry between the feuding Greek resistance groups was suspended when a tentative agreement was reached in February 1944. Brokered by shrewd political manoeuvres made by the British, E.L.A.S., E.D.E.S. and E.K.K.A. would finally focus their attentions on expelling the Axis powers instead of each other. The agreement was later ratified during a May meeting in Lebanon with resistance representatives and the exiled Greek government.
Wary of a potential coup by the government in exile who were supported by the British, E.L.A.S. agreed to the guarantee of a quarter of the cabinet seats in a post-war ‘National Unity’ government comprising all resistance groups and led by Georgios Papandreou. A further agreement signed on the 26 September allowed the British to land forces in Greece without fear of attack from any resistance group. Such was the general mistrust that the British also had to secure promises that no resistance group would attempt to control Athens or Piraeus when the liberation came.
More to follow
With the stage set, Greece was finally about to be liberated. What, however, would be found after three years of ruinous oppression? Find out by reading next week’s instalment of this special 75th anniversary series.