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Allied Strategy in the Mediterranean, the Resistance and Political Conflict in Occupied Greece, 1942

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Sotiris Rizas

Members of the Greek resistence group ELAS. (Source: Wikimedia)

As happened in other occupied countries, especially in the Balkans, the emerging resistance organisations in Greece were highly politicised and projected opposing visions of the postwar world. A communist-led National Liberation Front (EAM) emerged as the most powerful organisation in occupied Greece with two equally effective tenets in the urban centres and the countryside with armed bands, which operated under the central command of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS). Along with EAM-ELAS, several Republican armed bands were formed, the most notable being the National Democratic Greek League (EDES). They nonetheless were of local or regional range, and their power base in the urban centres was rather weak. Consequently, they were isolated and thus vulnerable to EAM-ELAS.

An external factor interjected in the Greek scene in the form of the British Military Mission with the landing of the Operation HARLING on 30 September 1942. Britain’s interest in Greece as a strategically crucial point in the imperial line of communications from Gibraltar to the Suez Canal was ascertained in the mid-1930s, as international tension mounted after the Abyssinian crisis of 1935. Anglo-Greek cooperation was cemented with the restoration of the monarchy under King George II in 1935 and the imposition of a royalist dictatorship in 1936.

Mussolini’s campaign against Greece in October 1940 failed as the Greek army proved able to resist and then push back the Italian forces well into the Albanian territory. The British attempted in vain to aid the Greeks militarily in April 1941. A German Balkan campaign was anticipated because of Italy’s failure to overcome the Greek resistance since the Germans wished to prevent the establishment of a British springboard in the Balkans with Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in sight.

Brigadier Edmund Meyers, head of the British Military Mission. (Source: Wikimedia)

Almost 18 months later, the nucleus of the British Military Mission, a group of saboteurs under Brigadier Edmund Meyers, with Colonel Christopher Woodhouse as the second in command, was sent to Greece for a single mission of a purely military nature. This was the explosion of the Gorgopotamos viaduct in southern Greece that would render inoperative the railway connection which served the Axis war effort in Northern Africa. The bridge was successfully destroyed on 25 November 1942 in an operation in which groups of ELAS and EDES guerillas participated. The military value of this sabotage was limited though, at least regarding the Battle of El Alamein, which had ended successfully for the British army before 25 November. However, the landing of the British group of saboteurs had political ramifications. In December 1942, after the success of the operation, the group was ordered to remain in occupied Greece as it was understood that a new reality was emerging in the mountains. The British had to establish regular contact with the resistance and attempt to coordinate its activities according to the military planning of the Allied headquarters in Cairo. On the other hand, the British government recognised the King and his government-in-exile residing in Cairo. It was expected that the King would return on liberation along with the British and the Greek troops stationed in the Middle East. Only afterwards would a political process be initiated. It was difficult though to reconcile the conflicting military and political aspects since the military value of the resistance also meant that the British had to build up organisations, the EAM-ELAS amongst them, which wished to prevent the return of the king and aspired to dominate a broadly reconstituted government-in-exile.

This dilemma was not fully resolved till the end of the Occupation although British Foreign Office’s concerns over the political implications of the Special Operation Executive’s (SOE) cooperation with the guerrilla forces were increasingly carrying more weight in the British policy-making. The Foreign Office made clear in March 1943 that it would be desirable for the British services to sever ties with organisations that were opposed to the king and his government in exile. It was a political principle that clashed with military considerations projected and defended by the War Office, the SOE and the Allied Headquarters in Cairo. The Foreign Office’s claim was not adopted as a critical concern of military policy although the military authorities undertook to support, to the extent possible, organisations and groups that were closer to British political aims. On the other hand, the Foreign Office was becoming more apprehensive after the demonstration of anti-royalist sentiment in the Greek armed forces in the Middle East in March and July 1943. In August 1943 a resistance delegation visited Cairo, accompanied by the chief of the British Military Mission, Myers, and for a moment, Foreign Office political considerations took precedence over military planning as the delegation demanded the King remain in exile after liberation and until a referendum determined the monarchy’s future.

British policy-making was only to an extent able to influence events in occupied Greece. However, the infiltration of a significant number of British Liaison Officers (BLO) in Greece and their spread all over the country was helpful from a British point of view since the BLOs exercised a restraining influence over EAM-ELAS reminding them of Allied priorities. The British Military Mission thus became a source of legitimacy. The reality on the ground of occupied Greece did not favour the British as the EAM-ELAS was gathering strength politically and militarily. The Mission could have limited impact. The course of events could be influenced decisively only by the developments in the central war theatres.

That leads us to the Anglo-American planning of forward operations in Western and Southern Europe. Since 1940, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff tended to distinguish between the defence of Britain and the protection of British interests in the Mediterranean or elsewhere which they felt it was an imperialist policy. This mindset was evidently at work in the planning of Operation TORCH. President Franklin Roosevelt overcame the objections of the US Chiefs of Staff as he felt that TORCH offered a definite possibility for a decisive military victory against the Germans. However, even after the Allied victory in North Africa, the Anglo-American debate during 1943 revealed a divergence of views between the two staffs. The Americans were not opposed to an Allied landing on Sicily and, furthermore they did not preclude the continuation of operations in mainland Italy. They thought however that these operations were of secondary importance and could serve as a diversion for the major one which was the Allied landing on the Western shores of Europe. The British for their part attached significant importance to the campaign in Sicily and Italy as a springboard for air operations in central and southeastern Europe. In this context, the British wished to establish bridgeheads in the Dodecanese and the Dalmatian coast in the hope that the occupation of the Dodecanese would prompt Turkey to enter the war. The Americans did not endorse British planning. The operation in the Dodecanese was undertaken only after Winston Churchill’s talks with Roosevelt, and with the limited resources the British could muster. The British military planners criticised the Americans that they disregarded the importance of the Mediterranean in the strategy to end the war.

The announcement of the Italian Armistice on 8 September 1943 was a turning point for the leadership of the Greek Communist party. Being confident of the British opposition after the Cairo mission and confident that their opponents on the ground were easily to be dispersed the party leadership asked its staff officers to prepare a plan for the seizure of Athens at the time of liberation. The party leadership was also convinced that the Soviet Union would have a word in postwar developments. Some indications seemed to vindicate the estimate of the Communists that the Allies were planning a landing on Greece: In early September, almost immediately after the announcement of the Italian Armistice, the British had initiated their operations in the Dodecanese.

The atmosphere was tense because of the failed mission of the resistance delegation in Cairo. A consequence of this was the replacement of Myers as chief of the British Military Mission by Woodhouse. In his talks with the political commissioner of ELAS, Andreas Tzimas, Woodhouse understood that the Greek Communists were disappointed by the turn of events during August and September 1943. Tzimas felt that the resistance was not afforded the treatment it deserved and that the British would oppose the accomplishment of their postwar political agenda.

The Italian Armistice was another factor that influenced the balance of power on the ground in favour of EAM-ELAS. In occupied Greece, the Italians had been accorded by the Germans the role of policing a significant part of Greek territory so that the German forces were relieved of these duties. The Italians had fulfilled this role reluctantly. In the circumstances of the Italian Armistice in September 1943, of importance was the Italian division Pignerolo. Although in general, Italian equipment and doctrine had not proved to be of sufficient quality for an aspiring great power, in the Greek context the war material of the Italian army was not a negligible element. EAM-ELAS had succeeded in dispersing the division’s units, and at some point, they moved swiftly and disarmed the Pignerolo acquiring thus an unmatched fire-power.

A rifleman acts as 'tail-end Charlie', guarding the commander of a Sherman tank from snipers during operations against ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944. (Source: © IWM (NA 20934))

These events provided the context and backdrop for the civil war that broke out in the Greek mountains in October 1943 between EAM-ELAS and EDES. It lasted until February 1944. The British, after agonising efforts, arranged for a ceasefire between the warring organisations. EAM-ELAS had just not extinguished its opponents. The political issues though remained open till the liberation of October 1944. The civil war that subsequently ensued was the result of deep-rooted cleavages in Greek society and politics and the lack of legitimacy after eight years of dictatorship and Occupation. These fissures would have been overcome only by the presence of a strong Allied army on liberation as had happened in Italy and France. This was not possible nonetheless in October 1944 since the emphasis of the Allied strategy was on the West.

Dr Sotiris Rizas is Director of Research at the Modern Greek History Research Centre of the Academy of Athens. He is the author of The Rise of the Left in Southern Europe: Anglo-American Responses (2012) and has had articles published in several scholarly journals in Cold War History and Contemporary European History.

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