The Italian Invasion of Greece
Although Metaxas admired Mussolini and Hitler, he was a patriot. When, through the agency of his ambassador in Greece Mussolini demanded the right of Italian soldiers to enter Greek territory, his demand was firmly rejected. [For the story of this famous 'No', read Athens.] Although the Italians bombed Piraeus on January 20th and many were killed, the invaders were soon pushed back into Albania. Churchill offered air and land support. Anxious not to provoke German intervention, accepted the former and refused the latter. When the dictator died on 29th January 1941, he left behind an inept government unable to cope with the dangerous situation. His successor, Alexander Koryzis, invited in British troops, who started to arrive in March. Hitler, unwilling to expose the southern flank of his projected invasion of the Soviet union, launched a blitzkrieg on the Balkans.
The German Blitzkrieg
Early on the morning of Sunday April 5th 1941, Germany declared war on Greece. Perhaps not surprisingly, Piraeus was their first target. The harbour was crowded with vessels discharging cargo, including the 12,000 ton Clan Fraser, with 250 tons of TNT in its hold and other ships nearby also loaded with explosives. Although several times during that day enemy planes flew over, no precautions were taken, such as towing the vessels containing the explosives outside the port for the night. Under cover of darkness, waves of German planes dropped mines outside the harbour, blocking all vessels inside the port, then launched a heavy bombardment. The TNT in the hold of the Clan Fraser went up at about 3.15 a.m.. The shock of the blast was felt fifteen miles away in Athens, doors were blown in; while windows were shattered in Psihiko, a suburb to the north of the city. White hot debris detonated the ÔÍÔ in the other ships nearby, and set other ships, and buildings ashore, on fire. Dawn revealed that the port had been reduced to ruins, with ships and buildings still burning. The road between Piraeus and Athens was filled with refugees. Many camped in the railway stations and in Omonia Square, while others sought safety in the surrounding hills. [Read about the attack on Piraeus, and the disastrous explosion of the Clan Fraser in Athens.]
On 18th April 1st Prime Minister Koryzis committed suicide, and on the next day there was an air battle over Athens between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force. General Tsolakogiou surrendered in Epiros, even offering his services to a collaborationist government. When the Germans advanced south, on 23rd Ápril the Allies abandoned the capital, and the king and government fled to Crete.
The Bulgarians were to occupy Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, the Italians most of the rest of the country, and the Germans Athens, Piraeus and some of the islands. On 27th April 1941, German troops entered Athens and made the Hotel Grande Bretagne their headquarters. They set up a puppet government under General Tsolakogiou. Using existing secret police reports drawn up by the Metaxas regime, the latter lost no time in rounding up communist sympathisers once more.
The German Occupation of Athens
When German forces first entered the Greater Athens area, they were under strict orders to behave in a civilized and courteous manner, under instructions to treat the Greeks as though they bad been 'liberated from British occupation.' But the Swastika flag, raised above the Acropolis, was soon stolen by two schoolboys. Then they soon came to be loathed as they imposed increasingly harsh measures on the population. Á curfew was enforced. All shutters had to be kept closed, especially irksome during the oppressive heat of the summer nights. It was forbidden to criticize German soldiers under any circumstances, even by so much as a glance -and the Germans themselves were the arbiters of what constituted a 'critical glance'. [Read about the theft of the Swastika in Athens.]
The conquerors were afraid to sleep in camps for fear of bombardment by the Allies, so they appropriated private homes for their own use. They requisitioned all public and most private transport, so that citizens had to walk or use the home-made two-wheeled push-carts which were used as 'taxis'. Hospitals were emptied of the sick, including war casualties, to ensure that they would be available, if required, for German soldiers. The wounded victors of the Albanian campaign were turned out of their beds to be quartered in vacant warehouses, or were forced to wander the streets in pyjamas. Medicines were reserved for the use of the conquerors.
The Greek Famine
The Germans looted the country. German companies, such as I. G. Farben, appropriated the output of the mines. The tobacco, leather, cotton and silk crops were confiscated, or 'purchased' at pre-war prices with currency freshly minted by the Germans, which soon proved to be worthless. German soldiers would even stop passes by and casually rob them of their jewellery and watches. The same procedures were applied to food. Owners of livestock were required to hand over their flocks and herds. Within four months, over fourteen million animals had been sent to Germany. Much of the citrus fruit crop was appropriated by the Germans. The occupiers requisitioned food coming in from the countryside. Although most was taken by the occupying forces, or was exported, much of it found its way into the hands of profiteers, who sold it on the black market.
Although the British government had previously assured the Greek premier that in the event of the occupation of his country by the Axis Powers, Britain would permit 30,000 tons of grain per month to be imported for the use of the population, after the British forces had left this undertaking was not honoured. The justification given was the need to deny the occupying soldiers access to external sources of food. But it is clear that the effect of a total blockade would be to generate a full- scale famine. It seems inescapable that the real motive of the blockade was to drive the population to desperation, and so provoke them to rebellion against the occupying forces. To make matters worse, much of the country's grain supply had already been consumed by the British forces during their brief stay in the country.
Moreover, manpower in agriculture had been reduced by conscription, while the most fertile land, in the north, had been seized by Hitler's Bulgarian allies. In any case, although three quarters of Greeks worked on the land, the main agricultural crops the country produced, olive ïßll tobacco, wine and currants, were not basic foodstuffs. Greece imported cereals and dairy products. Moreover, as normal transport broke down, country people grew increasingly reluctant to enter the towns to sell such produce as they had.
The hot dry summer of 1941 was followed by an unusually harsh and prolonged winter. Although Athens has a generally mild climate, with temperatures rarely falling below freezing, a harsh, penetrating wind from the north or northeast can quickly and thoroughly chill a city where the buildings are designed to keep out the heat of the sun, not to retain it. That winter, temperatures fell below zero. Fuel was very hard to come by, and the remains of the forest around Athens disappeared.
Famine became inevitable. The price of a loaf of bread rose to two million drachmas Ordinary meat, oil cheese and butter disappeared. All the animals in the greater Athens area were eaten Donkey meat was passed off as veal and cat as rabbit. Peop1e survived on scraps from the refuse of the conquerors, and on cabbage, grapes and acorns and wild greens; and even they were in short supply. Vitamin deficiency was commonplace: evident in the form of boils and tumours on hands, feet and faces. Malnutrition and the cold conspired to generate tuberculosis. Eyewitnesses recall the bloated stomachs of the children of the poor, most of whose hair fell out. Because of the malnutrition of the mothers, nine out of every ten babies died almost as soon as they were born. Others were abandoned by desperate mothers unable to feed them. Most medicines disappeared. Even aspirin required a certificate to obtain.
In time, many became tïï weak tï continue the search for food. They would sink tï the ground and die in the streets. An eye-witness wrote: '... passers by, their clothes hanging limply away from their skeletal bodies, would sway and drop down dead. Their lifeless limbs sprawled out on the pavement, like those of a severed puppet, seemed unreal. We did not stop, nor did others who passed by, as it became such a usual sight - and then - there was nothing we could do.' The collaborationist government did nothing to assist the people during this period. Fortunately, EAM organized daily meals of soup made of dried beans in some areas, which saved many lives.
The effects of the famine were unevenly distributed. They were felt particularly severely by those on fixed incomes, and especially by industrial and service workers, whose wages had failed to keep pace with inflation. They bore most harshly and most implacably on the poor refugees of the industrial suburbs, who worked for long hours in terrible conditions in sweatshops owned by rich Greeks. Since much industrial plant was appropriated by the Germans, and raw materials were hard to come by, many lost both their jobs and the pitiful incomes which went with them.
Dõring that winter throughout the country as many as 450,000 people out of seven million either died of starvation or succumbed to ailments resulting from chronic malnutrition. In December, deaths in Athens were said to be a thousand a day. Many joined the resistance fighters with a sense of grievance against their own middle classes, who had watched their neighbours die and failed to help. They would exact a terrible revenge when the Germans left. Ironically, the health of the wealthy, forced to eat less, and reduced to eating some greens, improved considerably. At the end of winter, the British finally relented, and allowed in Red Cross supplies. [Read about the famine in Athens in Athens.]
Resistance and Collaboration
Graffiti recording resistance soon began to appear on walls. Many left the city and its crowded suburbs for the mountains and guerrilla resistance. On 28th October ßç 1942 and 1943 there were demonstrations. When, in February 1943 plans were made to deport Greeks to Germany for slave labour, there was widespread disorder. Archbishop Damaskinos threatened the Occupation Áuthïrities with a major rising, and they desisted. When nearly a hundred trams were destroyed in the Kallithea tram depot, only intervention by the archbishop prevented fifty hostages from being shot.
Jews were ordered to report to the authorities on a weekly basis. Archbishop Damaskinos protested. He instructed all monasteries to give sanctuary to Jews and organized the issue of false baptismal certificates. He used his limousine, exempt from searches, to get Rabbi Barzaiai out of the city to ELAS partisans and safety, while Police chief Evangelos Evert provided them with false identity papers. Some were taken out of the country by fishermen through the east-coast port of Rafina, although some of these were simply robbed and abandoned on deserted islets.
The Germans increasingly relied upon the collaborationist government to recruit Nazi sympathizers, mostly monarchists, former Metaxas supporters and other right-wingers, to form 'Security Battalions'. Their torture chambers in their HQ in Stoumara Street were as notorious as those of the SS. Corpses of the victims killed there would be dumped on street comers. Other, less formal, groups of collaborators were created, such as the Panoliaskou Brothers in Keramikos, the Papageorgious band in Pangrati, and Colonel Griías group known as '×' in Thiseio.
In time, EAM/ELAS developed a well-organized resistance in Athens. Unlike the andartes of the countryside, they were young street fighters in ordinary civilian clothes with forged identity papers, based largely in the poorer refugee settlements which ringed the city centre. ELAS targeted collaborators, but respected the determination of the police to remain independent of the occupying forces. Resistance fighters caught in Athens were hung from trees in the streets, their bodies guarded by Security Battalionists to stop people from taking them down and giving them a proper burial.
Atrocities and War Crimes
As the Soviet steamroller moved inexorably westwards, the German occupying forces, sensing approaching defeat, began to grow increasingly desperate; while those Greeks who had actively collaborated with the Germans, grew ever more afraid, particularly of the working class refugees from Asia Minor, among whom the ELAS resistance movement was very active. The Germans determined upon a policy of collective guilt, in order to terrorize the people of those areas into acquiescence using the bloka. German forces would surround an area, usually very early in the morning, and round up all the men and holding them in the main square. Traitors would point out resistance fighters. These wïuld be executed, while others wïuld be taken to the SS Ñrisïn camp at Haidari as hostages. Once again, it was the poor refugees in the industrial suburbs, such as Kokkinia, Nea lonia, Vyronas, Dourgouti (now Neos Kosmos), Kallitheia, and Gyzi, who bore the brunt of their ferocity. As the occupying forces had calculated, the news of what was happening in one district would quickly spread across the entire Greater Athens area, and induce widespread terror. [Read about the blokas in Athens.]
The SS prison camp at Haidari was used as a transit camp to hold Jews and others before moving them out of the country; to house Greeks being held for interrogation at their Headquarters in Kolonaki; and tï keep hostages awaiting execution in reprisal for partisan activities. The buildings lacked proper accommodation and sanitation. Water had to be brought in by truck, and if the supply of petrol ran short, so did the water. Prisoners were forced to relieve themselves in the corridors and on the stairways. Food was limited to beans, bread and water. The only doctor in the camp had no dressings or medicines. [Read more about the SS prison camp at Haidari in Athens.]
Early in 1944, after a German general was killed in the Peloponnese, two hundred hostages were selected for execution. Taken across the city to a firing range in a ravine on the side of Mount Hymettos, at Kaisariani, they decided, en masse that they would not undress, as victims were always required to do, but would go to their deaths fully clothed and with dignity. Families and friends gathered on the nearby hillsides and watched helplessly as the hostages were executed in batches of twenty This atrocity was followed by others. On 10th May ninety men and ten women, and on 18th another hundred, went to their deaths; on 5th September fifty were executed in reprisal for the murder of a notorious collaborator, Apostolos Papageorgiou. On 8th September, seventy-two were shot in the, ravine of Daphni. The villages of Attica were no less vulnerable. When, on 22nd July 1944, two German officers were killed at Pikermi, fifty-six villagers were executed and the neighbouring village of Koropi burned down. Read about the atrocities at Pallene and the massacre at Pikermi in Attica.]
The 'Liberation' of Athens
Ây late summer 1944, the Germans were preparing to pull out. Colonel Ñlytzanopïulïs, head of the Security Battalions, began claiming that he and his officers had always really supported the Greek Government-in-exile in Cairo. Members of the Security battalions visited ÅÁÌ leaders to suggest joint action against the withdrawing Germans, an offer which was contemptuously refused. By September 10th, frequent gun battles between the two resumed.
On 12th October, Athens and Piraeus were liberated by resistance fighters. By the time that the Germans pulled out, the economy and infrastructure of Greece was in ruins, and its currency worthless. The coming British had fought alongside the Greeks before pulling out, and were regarded by almost everyone, including the members of EAM, as welcome allies. But the wealthy, many of whom had made fortunes on the black market, and the collaborators, looked to them for protection against reprisals by EAM/ELAS. In an already polarised society, there could be no easy reconciliation.
© John L. Tomkinson