Greece in the Second World War

Greece established a constitutional monarchy in 1829 after an uprising against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. King George was on the throne until assassinated in Salonika on 18th March, 1913. He was succeeded by his pro-German son, Constantine I. This created conflict with his prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who favoured Britain.

In peacetime the Greek Army contained about 32,000 men. However, during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) this was increased to 210,000. Senior officers were strongly royalist and tended to support Germany in its disputes with Britain.

On the outbreak of the First World War, the Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, favoured an alliance with Britain, France and Russia against the Central Powers. Venizelos wanted Greece to give military aid to the Allies during the Dardanelles campaign, and when King Constantine I refused to agree, he resigned from office.

When Eleftherios Venizelos was re-elected after a landslide victory in March 1915, he ordered the mobilization of the Greek Army. Over 150,000 men were called up and most of them were sent to help defend the borders of Serbia. When Venizelos invited the Allied forces to Salonika he was dismissed by Constantine I.

Eleftherios Venizelos escaped to Crete where he formed a provisional revolutionary government. With the support of Allied forces at Salonika, Venizelos made plans to march on Athens. In June 1917 Constantine I was deposed and Venizelos was able to regain power.

On 29th June, 1917, Eleftherios Venizelos declared war on the Central Powers. The 60,000 soldiers recruited by Venizelos in Crete, provided the core of the new army. Eventually 250,000 Greek soldiers saw action in the war, including the highly successful Vardar Offensive. During the war, the Greek Army had around 15,000 men killed and another 85,000 wounded.

George II, the son of Constantine I, came to the throne in 1922. However, Greece was a republic from May 1924 until November 1935 when General Joannis Metaxas, head of the Monarchist Party, helped restore the former king to the throne.

Metaxas was appointed prime minister in April 1936. Fearing the growth of the Communist Party in Greece, George II gave his approval to Metaxas closing down parliament in August 1936, and establishing a fascist right-wing military dictatorship.

In October 1940, Benito Mussolini declared war on Greece. Attempts by the Italian Army to invade Greece ended in failure. However, the German Army was much more successful in April 1942.

Rival monarchist and communist resistance groups maintained a guerrilla war against the occupying powers until the British liberated Athens in October 1944.

Primary Sources

(1) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (28th April, 1941)

Oliver Stanley (Conservative M.P. for Westmorland) dined with me alone in a secluded corner of the Lansdowne Club. He asked me what I had thought of the Prime Minister's speech on the air on Sunday. I said that I thought he had done well in a very difficult situation and had heartened his hearers. Stanley said, "It may have gone down very well with the 99 per cent who know nothing, but the 1 per cent of us who do know, feel rather differently."

He then began a long tirade against the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, with whom I had said that I found my personal relations developing very satisfactorily, and that this was additionally important for smooth working, since he was so close to the Prime Minister. Stanley said he did not think he was the sort of man who ought to be close to the Prime Minister. He was, he added, vain, weak and unreliable. He had let down Stanley, Malcolm MacDonald and the rest at the time of his resignation. He had promised to consult them, and they had acted together as a group. They were on many points opposed to Chamberlain's Foreign Policy. Eden, however, chose a most frivolous pretext on which to resign, and gave Stanley and others no warning that he was going to do so. So much so that, at the Cabinet, on the proposal that we should begin again negotiations with Italy, Chamberlain had gone round the table, and got the acquiescence of all of them, and it was only then that Eden had quite suddenly said that he could not go on.

Stanley then proceeded to attack, with such mild vehemence as he could command, the terrible error, as he judged it, of sending anything beyond a small token force to Greece. This, he said, was a crowning blunder. It was the Prime Minister's fault. The decision had been taken against all military and naval advice. It should have been seen from the start that the adventure was quite hopeless. The only real way to help Greece was to win the war. Instead of that we might now lose; both Greece and Egypt. We had thrown away a most valuable Air Force in Greece. At least four squadrons of fighters and three squadrons of bombers had been destroyed. It was quite wrong for Eden to have gone to the Middle East and worst of all to go to Athens. There he had been cheered in the streets and smothered in roses. How in such surroundings could he keep his judgment clear. A Foreign Secretary should stay always in the Foreign Office protected by distance and his officials from such local impressions.

(2) Denis Falvey, A Well-Known Excellence (2002)

The War Cabinet had noted with concern the threat posed to Greece by the German presence in Rumania and Bulgaria. There was great sympathy in Britain for Greece, who was already at war with Italy and was therefore an ally. Before reaching a decision to render help, the War Cabinet sent Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, and Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (GIGS), to Cairo to discuss with the three Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East the feasibility of sending an expeditionary force.

After discussion with the Greek government in Athens, the decision to intervene was made. Eden seems to have been the prime mover, but his colleagues shared the responsibility. The decision was taken with full awareness that the expedition would be a gamble: the force was to consist of two infantry divisions plus an armoured brigade, whose tanks

were already in poor mechanical condition. This puny force was quite inadequate to hold the German horde, and one can only assume that the German speed of reaction was wholly underestimated, and that wishful thinking had descended into fantasy. According to Churchill, the invasion of southern Yugoslavia and Greece was entrusted to the

German Twelfth Army of fifteen divisions, of which four were armoured. The RAF would be outnumbered by ten to one, without even counting the Italian air force. The only charitable explanation is that this information was not available at the time, which means our Intelligence was very remiss. The impression remains that the honourable desire to aid Greece was so strong that an outsize gamble was thought worth the risk.