In the early morning hours of October 28, 1940, Italian Ambassador Emmanuel Grazzi awoke Greek Premier Ioannis Metaxas and presented him an ultimatum. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and Italian forces invaded Greek territory from Italian-occupied Albania less than three hours later. (The anniversary of Metaxas's refusal is now a public holiday in Greece.) Mussolini launched the invasion partly to prove that Italians could match the military successes of the German Army and partly because Mussolini regarded south-eastern Europe as lying within Italy's sphere of influence.
The Greek army proved to be a more able opponent than Mussolini or his generals thought, and successfully exploited the mountainous terrain of Epirus. The Greek forces counterattacked and forced the Italians to retreat. By mid-December, the Greeks had occupied nearly one-quarter of Albania, before Italian reinforcements and the harsh winter stemmed the Greek advance. In March 1941, a major Italian counterattack partially failed and the Italian troops only reoccupied small areas around Himare and Grabova. The initial Greek defeat of the Italian invasion is considered the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, even if in the event the campaign, thanks mainly to the German intervention, resulted in a victory for the Axis.
Fifteen of the twenty one Greek divisions were deployed against the Italians, so only six divisions were facing the attack from German troops in the Metaxas Line (near the border between Greece and Yugoslavia/Bulgaria) during the first days of April. In those days, Greece received help from British Commonwealth troops, moved from Libya by orders of Churchill.
On April 6, 1941, Nazi Germany came to the aid of Italy and invaded Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslav Macedonia. Greek and British Commonwealth troops fought back but were overwhelmed.
On April 20, after Greek resistance in the north had ceased, the Bulgarian Army entered Greek Thrace, with the goal of regaining its Aegean Sea outlet in Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia. The Bulgarians occupied territory between the Strymon river and a line of demarcation running through Alexandroupoli and Svilengrad west of the Evros river.
The Greek capital Athens fell on April 27, and by June 1, after the capture of Crete, all of Greece was under Axis occupation.
The Triple Occupation
The occupation of Greece was divided between Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. German forces occupied some strategically important areas, namely Athens, Thessaloniki with Central Macedonia, and several Aegean islands, including most of Crete. Northeastern Greece (Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace with the exception of the Evros prefecture) came under Bulgarian occupation and was annexed to Bulgaria, which had long claimed these territories. The remaining 2/3 of Greece was occupied by Italy, with the Ionian islands directly administered as Italian territories. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Italian zone was taken over by the Germans, often accompanied by violence towards the Italian garrisons. There was a failed attempt by the British to take advantage of the Italian surrender to reenter the Aegean, resulting in the Battle of Leros. For Greece, the strength of the Axis occupation forces always owed more to the threat of invasion from the Allies than to active resistance.
The German occupation zone
Economic exploitation and the Great Famine
Greece suffered greatly during the Occupation. The country's weak economy had already been devastated from the 6-month long war, and to it was added the relentless economic exploitation by the Germans. Raw materials and foodstuffs were requisitioned, and the collaborationist government was forced to pay the cost of the occupation, giving rise to inflation, further exacerbated by a "war loan" Greece was forced to grant to the German Reich. Requisitions, together with the Allied blockade of Greece, the ruined state of the country's infrastructure and the emergence of a powerful and well-connected black market, resulted in the Great Famine during the winter of 1941-42 (Greek: Μεγάλος Λιμός), when an estimated 300,000 people perished. Despite aid from neutral countries like Sweden and Turkey, the overwhelming majority of foodstuff ended up in the hands of the government officials and black-market traders who used their connection to the Axis Occupation authorities to "buy" the aid from them and then sell it on to the desperate population at enormously inflated prices. The great suffering and the pressure of the exiled Greek government eventually forced the British to partially lift the blockade, and from the summer of 1942, the International Red Cross was able to distribute supplies in sufficient quantities.
Increasing attacks by partisans in the latter years of the Occupation resulted in a number of executions and wholesale slaughter of civilians in reprisal. The most famous examples are those of the village of Kommeno (August 16, 1943) by 1.Gebirgs-Division, where 317 inhabitants were murdered and the village torched, the "Massacre of Kalavryta" (December 13, 1943), in which Wehrmacht troops of the 117th Jäger Division carried out the extermination of the entire male population and the subsequent total destruction of the town, and the "Massacre of Distomo" (June 10, 1944), where an SS Police unit looted and burned the village of Distomo in Boeotia, resulting in the deaths of 218 civilians. At the same time, in the course of the concerted anti-guerrilla campaign, hundreds of villages were systematically torched and almost one million Greeks left homeless
Two other notable but almost unknown acts of brutality were the massacres of Italian troops at the islands of Cephallonia and Kos in September 1943, during the German takeover of the Italian occupation areas. In Cephallonia, the 12,000-strong Italian 'Acqui' Division was attacked on September 13 by elements of 1.Gebirgs-Division with support from Stukas, and forced to surrender on September 21, after suffering some 1,300 casualties. The next day, the Germans began executing their prisoners and did not stop until over 4,500 Italians had been shot. The ca. 4,000 survivors were put aboard ships for the mainland, but some of them sunk after hitting mines in the Ionian Sea, where another 3,000 were lost. The Cephallonia massacre serves as the background for the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
The Italian occupation zone
Greatest extent of Italian control of Mediterranean areas (within green line & dots) in 1942.
The Italians occupied the bulk of the Greek mainland and most of the islands. Although several proposals for territorial annexation had been put forward in Rome, none was actually carried out during the war. This was due to pressure from the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, and from the Germans, who were concerned of further alienating the Greek population (which was already strongly opposing the Bulgarian annexations).
Nevertheless, in the Ionian Islands, long a target of Italian expansionism, as well as in the Cyclades, the Greek civil authorities were replaced by Italians in preparation for a post-war annexation. In Epirus, the area near the Albanian border, claimed by Albanian irredentists as Chameria, where a significant Albanian minority (the Cham Albanians) existed, an Albanian High Commissioner was appointed, but no definite steps for annexation were undertaken. Another case of Italian-sponsored minority state on Greek territory was the Aromanian "Principality of Pindus" of Alchiviad Diamandi.
The Italian occupation regime was relatively mild. Unlike the Germans, they never implemented a policy of mass reprisals and protected the Jews in their zone. As they controlled most of the countryside, the Italians were the first to face the rising resistance movement in 1942-43, but failed to contain it. By mid-1943, the Resistance had managed to expel the Italian garrisons from some mountainous areas, including several towns, creating liberated zones ("Free Greece"). After the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, the Italian zone was taken over by the Germans, and German anti-partisan and anti-Semitic policies were extended to it.
The Bulgarian occupation zone
Bulgaria joined World War II siding with the Axis in an attempt to solve its "national question" and fulfill the aim of "Greater Bulgaria", especially in the area of Macedonia (where much territory was lost in the Second Balkan War) and Western Thrace (lost to Greece in the Treaty of Neuilly). Bulgaria became part of the Axis on 1 March 1941, explicitly requesting German support for its territorial claims.
The Bulgarian Army entered Greece on 20 April 1941, at the heels of the Wehrmacht and eventually occupied the whole of northeastern Greece east of the Strymon River (eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace), except for the Evros prefecture, at the border with Turkey, which was occupied by the Germans. Unlike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Bulgaria set out to annex the occupied territories, with the result that the Bulgarian occupation was far harsher than the Nazi and Italian ones. A massive campaign of "Bulgarisation" was launched which saw all Greek officials (mayors, school-teachers, judges, lawyers, priests, gendarmes) deported, a universal ban placed on the use of the Greek language even on a private basis, the names of towns and places changed to the forms traditional in Bulgarian, land and housing expropriated and Bulgarian settlers introduced. A spontaneous and badly organized uprising around Drama in late September 1941 was crushed by the Bulgarian Army. By late 1941, more than 100,000 Greeks had been expelled from the Bulgarian occupation zone.Eventually up to 500,000 Greeks would be expelled from the Bulgarian occupation zone
The advance of the Red Army into Bulgaria in 1944, the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht from Greece in October and the Percentages Agreement between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, meant the Bulgarian Army had to withdraw from Greek Macedonia and Thrace, leaving Greece with the difficult task of post-occupation reconstruction.
General Georgios Tsolakoglou, who had signed the armistice treaty with the Wehrmacht, was appointed as chief of a new Nazi puppet collaborationist regime in Athens. He was succeeded as Prime Minister of Greece by two other prominent Greek collaborators: Konstantinos Logothetopoulos first, and Ioannis Rallis second. The latter was responsible for the creation of the Greek collaborationist Security Battalions. As in other European countries, there were Greeks eager to collaborate with the occupying force. Some did so because they shared the National Socialist ideology (for instance members of ultra-nationalist political factions and parties), others because of extreme anti-Communism, and others because of opportunistic advancement. The Germans were also eager to find support from the ideologically-similar Greeks, and helped Greek fascist organizations such as the infamous EEE (Ethniki Enosis Ellas), the EKK (Ethnikon Kyriarchon Kratos), the Greek National Socialist Party (Elliniko Ethnikososialistiko Komma, EEK) led by George S. Mercouris and other minor pro-Nazi, fascist or anti-Semitic organizations such as the ESPO (Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organization) or the Sidira Eirini ("Iron Peace").
In Nazi ideology, the Greeks were regarded as a German-friendly nation and were above Slavs in their racial scale. Adolf Hitler personally admired the ancient Greek civilization, the Spartan model and Hellenic classicism, which inspired many building and artistics endeavours in Nazi Germany. Hitler had no plans to occupy Greece either, and also resisted Italy's plans to invade Greece, which in the end were for this reason enacted without Benito Mussolini consulting Hitler. Also the fact that Greece in the 1930s had a fascist regime lead by the germanophile Ioannis Metaxas placed Greece on Hitler's list of potentially friendly nations. Furthermore, the Italians' failure to conquer Greece after their October 28, 1940 ultimatum and attack gained the Greeks the respect of Germany. For this reason Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht not to take Greek prisoners during the invasion and the consequent collapse of the front.
However, most Greeks did not cooperate with the Nazis and chose either the path of passive acceptance or active resistance. Active Greek resistance started immediately as many Greeks fled to the hills, where a partisan movement was born. One of the most touching episodes of the early resistance took place just after the Wehrmacht reached the Acropolis on April 27. The Germans ordered the flag guard, Evzone Konstandinos Koukidis, to retire the Greek flag. The Greek soldier obeyed, but when he was done, he wrapped himself in the flag and threw himself off of the plateau where he met death. Some days later, when the Swastika banner was waving on the Acropolis' uppermost spot, two patriotic Athenian youngsters, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas climbed by night on the Acropolis and tore down the flag. It was one of the first actions of Greek resistance and among the first in Europe, and therefore inspired not only Greeks but also other Europeans under German domination.
The greatest source of partisan activity were the Communist-backed guerrilla forces, the National Liberation Front (EAM), and its military wing, the National People's Liberation Army (ELAS), which carried out operations of sabotage and guerrilla attacks against the Wehrmacht with notable success. Other resistance groups included a right-wing partisan organization, the National Republican Greek League (EDES), led by a former army officer, Colonel Napoleon Zervas a well-known Republican, and the National and Social Liberation (EKKA), led by Colonel Dimitrios Psarros, a Royalist. These groups were formed from remnants of the Hellenic Army and the conservative factions of Greek society. Starting in 1943, on a number of cases EDES and ELAS fought each other in a sort of prelude to the civil war that sprang up after the German departure in 1944. EAM alleged that EDES was aided by the German occupying forces and by the Nazi-supported puppet regimes of Tsolakoglou, Logothetopoulos and Rallis. This situation led to triangular battles among ELAS, EDES and the Germans. At the same time, ELAS attacked and destroyed Psarros' military formation, the "5/42 Evzones Regiment".
When Italy surrendered to the Allies in the fall of 1943, German forces actively hunted down and, in some cases executed, the Italian soldiers and simultaneously began serious attacks on EDES. There is evidence that Zervas then struck a deal with the German army. The right-wing partisans and Germans agreed not to attack each other. This truce left the Germans free of sabotage in some areas and allowed EDES to suppress local Communist rivals. The EDES-German truce ended in 1944, when the Germans began evacuating Greece and the British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka agreement).