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Greek Civil War

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Life did not change much in the villages of Greece. Although the Germans had invaded the country in 1941, the peasants seemed to go about their business undisturbed, the rhythms of the seasons passing as they had always done since the time of the gods of myth.

One morning in June of 1942, therefore, the villagers of Domnitsa, a hamlet about 185 miles from Athens, were startled to see a group of 15 heavily armed men suddenly appear. Their black-bearded leader gave a short speech.

He was Aris Velouciotis, formerly a colonel of artillery in the Greek army, and he was raising the banner of revolt against the occupying forces of their beloved Greece. He and his men were andartes, guerrillas. The name of their force? The National Popular Liberation Army–the Greek initials: ELAS. In the coming months and years, the peasants would get to know that name well.

Two years later, in October 1944, British Lt. Gen. C.J. Scobie, commanding two brigades and some Free Greek units, about 26,000 men in all, landed in Greece to liberate the country from the German occupation forces. The Germans, as it turned out, were only the beginning of the problem.

Greece had been devastated by the war. Thousands of civilians had been uprooted. The country was economically bankrupt–industry at a standstill, factories destroyed, ports and cities in ruins. The civil government was in chaos, almost ineffectual in dealing with the country's problems.

Scobie could do little more than occupy the major towns while the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) began the immense task of getting the civilian population back on its feet.

But one of the general's more immediate problems was dealing with the guerrilla forces that had fought the Germans during the war and were now beginning to fight each other. The victor's prize: control of Greece.

At the end of World War II, the Greek political spectrum was an alphabet soup of organizations covering almost the entire range of political opinion. The most prominent, strongest and best organized group, however, could trace its history back to almost the beginning of the war. When the German army invaded Greece in April 1941, it found many of the country's prominent Communists in jail. Not finding any reason to hold them, and desiring to keep on good terms with their political ally of the time, Stalin, the Germans released the Communists, a move the Germans no doubt later intensely regretted. When Germany attacked Russia in June, these Communist leaders immediately formed a resistance organization, the National Liberation Front–Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopan (EAM).

While ostensibly independent from the Greek Communist Party–the KKE–the EAM was, in fact, tightly controlled by the Communists. About this time, too, another group was formed among the armed bands operating in the mountains, the leftist National Popular Liberation Army or Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikon Stratos (ELAS). Loosely controlled by the EAM and the Communist Party proper, ELAS tended to be somewhat independent, preferring to defeat the Germans first and talk about politics later. As time went on, however, the Communists made sure that ELAS toed the party line more closely. In contrast to ELAS, the purist EAM wanted to nothing less than the total transformation of Greek society along Soviet lines. Thus, relations between the two groups were usually strained and often broke down into actual fighting.

On the other side of the coin, meanwhile, a 51-year-old republican colonel named Napoleon Zercas formed the Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos (EDES), or National Republican Greek League, which was the bitter enemy of the EAM, but on one occasion conducted operations with ELAS against German and Italian targets. There were also other groups on the right, such as the organization named Kh, or X, commanded by the Cypriot-born Colonel George Grivas, and it waged a war of terror and counterterror against the Reds and their sympathizers. In this cauldron of extremes, the more moderate anti-Communist organizations quickly became irrelevant and ineffective.

Even before World War II was over, the Communist guerrillas had begun to consolidate control of the countryside, with the main objective of undermining and destroying the Greek internal security battalions, the gendarmerie. Initially, the guerrilla andartes obtained most of their arms from the Italians–who had surrendered in September 1943–and then from the retreating Germans. The guerrillas even used German, Italian, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers, deserters from various armies that were in Greece, as instructors. Such was the confused situation in the country toward the end of the war, in fact, that observers reported seeing Axis and Allied deserters sitting together in outdoor cafes in Athens while military police patrols zipped past, intent on greater problems.

With the Greek government unable to control a deteriorating situation, fighting between the two main enemies, the EAM and EDES, began in Athens on December 3, 1944, with EAM artillery hitting British headquarters with its first shots. A Communist secret police force name OPLA fanned out into the city, knocking on doors and killing thousands of real and suspected enemies of the party. In three weeks, OPLA executed an estimated 13,500 Greeks, twice the number of their own countrymen killed during the three years of German occupation.

According to the most reliable accounts, the EAM/ELAS units had about 40,00men and women organized into two 'armies': Army South, commanded by Siantos and Mandakas, about 18,000 combatants in three divisions; and Army North, commanded by Saraphis and Aris, about 23,000 combatants in five divisions. Undermanned and out gunned themselves, the British could do little to help the national Greek government, which, going from one crisis to another, seemed to churn ineffectually.

For six weeks, a bloody struggle took place until the British, who had been encouraged by a surprise Christmas Day visit to Athens by Winston Churchill, managed to push back the rebels. Although EAM/ELAS had driven Zervas and his EDES off the mainland to the island of Corfu, the Communists had been humbled by their failure to take Athens. ELAS guerrillas now withdrew 100 miles from the city. Foolishly, they refused to release about 16,000 civilian hostages they had rounded up, a strategy that greatly reduced ELAS's popularity in the countryside an allowed the government forces to regain large area. The truce that ended the fighting in January 1945 did not arrive soon enough to prevent the deaths of 25,000 Greeks in what later became known as the first phase of the Greek Civil War.

With promises of government reforms, many of the Communist groups disbanded, and ELAS even surrendered a large quantity of its arms. many Red guerrillas, however, refused to disarm and took off to the hills. Some fled across the borders of neighboring countries, vowing to return. For a few months at least, the situation looked better.

That was not to last long. The determination of hard-core Communists to control the country now combined with an atmosphere of mutual distrust and hatred. At the same time, government policies remained shortsighted–for example, the government allowed paramilitary terrorist units such as Grivas' X group to 'clean up' ELAS elements in the cities in such a ruthless manner that thousands joined the rebel army. All such factors contributed to undermining and eventually breaking down the truce.

In December 1945, the Communists reorganized the scattered insurgents into a secret army, which filtered across the border in to Yugoslavia and Albania and established training camps.

Near the town of Bulkes, Yugoslavia, just to the north of Belgrade, the Communists also established a 'model community' based on the purist Stalinist orthodoxy. Here, life revolved around five-man cells. In an atmosphere filled with fear and mistrust, the slightest questioning of camp discipline was considered treason. It reached such absurd, Kafkaesque proportions that not even a trip to the outhouse could take place without the entire cell going along, with the most unreliable men positioned in the middle.

Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria all supplied arms and some materiel aid to the rebels. But from Stalin, who had the most to gain from the situation, came nothing except exhortations in the United Nations. At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on January 21, 1946, for example, Russia loudly condemned what it called the persecutions of leftists in Greece, and the Greek Communists saw this as a sign that Russia would support a new armed rebellion.

In March 1946, the Greek Communist Party refused to participate in the national elections which produced an overwhelming rightist victory. In response, the Communists stepped up their disruption and infiltrated sympathizers into the government bureaucracy, the military and the unions, with the intention of obstructing any constructive government actions.

Under the command of 40-year-old Markos Vafiadis, small ELAS units began training for hit-and-run raids across the border to gather supplies and recruits. The first strike came at the end of March.

An armed group entered the village of Litochoron and attacked an army platoon, which quickly surrendered. Some gendarmerie in a police station put up a stiffer resistance, but soon they, too, put up the white flag. The insurgents then retreated without a scratch as a British unit approached.

It was a signal to ELAS rebels throughout the country. The andartes dug up their weapons and headed for the mountains.

A few months later, a band of 1,000 to 1,500 men attacked and overran a gendarmerie post in the town of Deskati in Thessaly. Villagers later said the rebels looked ragged, almost starved, but they were armed with three-inch mortars and PIAT anti-tank weapons. The garrison was betrayed by a second lieutenant who led 20 gendarmes over to the rebel side. It took government forces five days to clear the area and restore order, with the rebels retreating across the frontier into Yugoslavia–the last stages of their retreat covered by fire from the Yugoslavs.

By the end of 1946, rebel units were making almost daily forays into Greece. Roads were mined and villages burned, the marauders passing without hindrance over the frontiers from the neighboring Communist countries. Although the rebels had pockets of strength throughout the country, there were four main areas of guerrilla activity: central Macedonia along the Yugoslavian-Albanian borders; Thrae and the Bulgarian frontier of northern Greece; the Tripolis-Sparta area of the southern Peloponnesus in the sun-baked Mediterranean, and the mountainous region of Thessaly in eastern Greece.

The national government in Athens, meanwhile, dithered over the situation, relying on right-wing groups to fight ELAS sympathizers in the city's back alleys instead of immediately sending out forces into the countryside, where thy could show the peasants that the government could protect them. It was the remarkable Greek people–particularly the tough, resilient peasants–upon which the government's strength ultimately depended, a fact which it often failed to appreciate.

The Athens government, under the influence of the British, also thought of the rebels in 'bandit' terms rather than as guerrillas. It was a nearly fatal mistake. Government forces–gendarmerie, national guard and police–totaled about 30,000 men. Although under-equipped, poorly trained, they could, with proper leadership and coordination, have dealt with 'bandits.' With guerrillas, they were out of their depth. In October 1946, the government finally began committing units of its 100,000-man army, which was neither trained, armed nor organized for counterinsurgency operations.

Markos Vafiadis now organized his force of about 4,000 guerrillas into semiautonomous units of 100 combatants each. By the end of 1946, he had 7,000 combatants–now called the 'Democratic Army'–and he had established his headquarters inside Greece at the juncture of the Albanian, Yugoslavian and Greek borders, in the rugged terrain of the Grammos and Vitsi mountains. Markos was a thin, hawk-faced man, a member of the Communist Party since 1928. He had escaped from the notorious Gavdos island prison at the start of World War II and made his way to the mountains, where he had joined ELAS as a kapetanios. Although tough and ruthless, he could also be paternal, and he alone of all the guerrilla leaders had the courage to stand up to the Communist Party chiefs and argue his opinions.

By early 1947, the Democratic army was controlling perhaps 100 Greek villages. It was in the villages that the real battle was taking place. Here, the Communist insurgents conscripted the able-bodied, commandeered supplies and levied taxes. Thousands of real and imagined government sympathizers were shot after parodies of trials that entire villages were compelled to attend–the synkendrosi, compulsory gatherings. Nicholas Gage's book Eleni vividly describes what life was like in the Greek villages during this period.

By March 1947, Markos commanded 13,000 insurgents in organized units, with the active support of perhaps as many as 50,000 others int he villages and towns and what some observers have estimated to be another 250,000 sympathizers throughout Greece.

There were also several secret Communist units carrying gout assassinations and terrorism in the cities. By mid-1947, Communist rebel forces had grown to 23,000 active in the field–about 65 to 70 'battalions,' each composed of about 250 men and women. According to Greek government figures, in October 1947 alone, the Democratic army had attacked and pillaged 83 villages, destroyed 218 buildings, blown up 34 bridges and wrecked 11 trains. More than 250,000 civilians had now been made homeless by the war, and four-fifths of Greece was insecure to government forces.

Yugoslavia and the other Communist nations–except Russia–continued to supply the insurgents with everything from antiaircraft artillery to food. A Yugoslav general was posted to ELAS's field headquarters.The Greek government was now in a desperate position. The Communist guerrillas were in complete control of the Mourgna massif, the range of highlands that stretched for 20 miles along the border between Greece and Albania. They also controlled the Grammos Mountains at the northern end of the Pindos range. From these bases, they threatened the entire northwestern region of Greece.

And then the Communists made a mistake. Perhaps overconfident with success, Markos began to deploy his units throughout Greece instead of keeping them concentrated in the mountains. This was a major error providing easier targets for the government. On the international scene, pressure was mounting against the Communist governments supporting the rebels. A U.N. Special Commission on the Balkans arrived in Salnika in January 1947, but was refused entry into the Communist countries–a move that was widely criticized. In March, president Harry S Truman of the United States announced a major economic and military aid program for Greece with his famous 'Truman Doctrine.' Surprised at the international pressure and suddenly seeing government forces fighting with new determination, Markos in frustration reverted once again to guerrilla tactics. He had lost the initiative.

Searching for a site where he could establish a government 'capital,' Markos now attacked the town of Konitsa, about eight miles from Albania's border, aided by 105mm guns sited in Albania. In some ways this became a showdown battle, vital to the Greek Communists. If they could establish a capital at Konitsa, perhaps recognition from the socialist countries would follow. They threw in a force of 10,000 guerrillas to take the town.

The first objective was the bridge at Bourazani, which spanned the Aoos River. Along this route would come the government reinforcements from the provincial capital Yannina. But the townspeople of Konitsa wanted no part of a Communist country. They fought the guerrillas desperately, turning their homes into forts and fighting alongside the government troops. More Greek army troops were flown in by DC-3s commandeered from civil airlines. From Christmas Day 1947 to New Year's Eve, the battle raged on.

Finally, it was too much for the insurgents Leaving behind some 1,200 casualties, they simply melted away across the frontier.

The defense of Konitsa seemed to stir a new spirit in the national Greek army. Now an American-equipped and -advised force some 200,000 men (with eight infantry divisions and three independent brigades, supported by artillery, armor and aircraft), it should have been to easily handle 23,000 insurgents. But so far it had been slow to take the offensive, and its'search-and-clear' operations had often showed little in the way of results. Konitsa, however, was the turning of a corner.

In 1947, a coalition government was formed in Athens that included Papandreou, who had been prime minister of the Free Greek government during the war, and Colonel Zervas of EDES. Zervas became the new minister for public order and promptly arrested some 3,000 Communists and condemned a number to death.

Soon, in the villages and city streets of Greece, counter-terror followed terror. The government cracked down so hard of leftist sympathizers, including the use of public executions and permanent detentions, that the United States and Britain protested the harsh measures. For their part, the Communists used up any good will they could have harbored by a cycle of vicious behavior that is almost unbelievable.

In March 1947, in a move that brought widespread international protest, they carried off more than 28,000 Greek children to Communist countries, to be brought up under Communist regimes and where many live to this day. (The Communists, incidentally, had made a similar move during the Spanish Civil War, some 20 years earlier.)

The taking of the children was the final straw that turned the people of the villages against the Communists. What ever popular base of support the Reds had enjoyed in northern Greece was now irrevocably finished. By 1948, the masses of American equipment, including Helldiver attack dive bombers and napalm, were also having their effect. The U.N. General Assembly condemned Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria for aiding the rebels. For the Communists, even worse was to follow. Yugoslavia broke with Russia and was expelled from the Cominform. In 1949, it would close its frontier with Greece, cutting off the rebels from sanctuary.

On April 15, 1948, the Greek army began Operation DAWN to clear the mountains of central Greece of insurgents. Army mountain commandos traveled over the countryside at night to launch surprise assaults at dawn, catching the guerrillas off guard. Aided by a late snowstorm, government troops in three successive waves captured 1,300 rebels and killed another 650. The surviving guerrillas retreated toward the main Communist base in the mountains to the north.

Perhaps realizing that there was no longer any way he could win militarily, Marko broadcast a call for a cease-fire over the rebel radio in Belgrade in May. But Nikos Zakhariadis, the secretary general of the Greek Communist Party and the real power behind the insurgent struggle, refused to give in. Instead, he ordered Markos to abandon his guerrilla strategy and operate in conventional, small brigades of three of four battalions–another mistake.

In June 1948 came Operation CORONIS. Forty thousand army troops attacked 8,000 andartes in the Grammos Mountains, a series of steep ridges stretching south from the Albanian border. Peaks ranged up to 8,000 feet, and there was not even a dirt track the Greek army could use as a road. Throughout the long summer of 1948, the two opposing forces battled for the heights of the Grammos Mountains. To take a mountain called 'Kleftis' (the thief), government troops poured 20,000 artillery shells onto the peak. It was finally taken in hand-to-hand fighting. But Markos had called in another 4,000 guerrillas, and sometime in late August he broke out of the government's trap. The government claimed 3,000 guerrilla dead against a loss of only 800 Greek Communist Party troops killed.

Not letting up the pressure, the Greek army again went on the offensive. This time it was in the Vitsi Mountains area, where the army had partially encircled the elusive Markos and 13,000 guerrillas. The Communists counterattacked and pushed the national troops back, but at a heavy price in casualties.

To make up for these losses, Markos resorted to a brutal conscription in which young village boys and girls were forced to serve in the guerrilla battalions. The differences, meanwhile, between Markos and Zakhariadis widened and, in January 1949, Zakhariadis replaced Markos as commander of the Democratic army. Markos fled to Albania just ahead of Zakhariadis' assassins.

The national army cleared 4,000 rebels from the Peloponnesus in January, and the following month it was given a new commander-in-chief, the able General Alexander Papagos–hero of the 1940 triumph over the Italians, who accepted the post with the condition that the National Defense Council not interfere in military operations.

The final campaign in the summer of 1949 was code-named Operation TORCH. Papagos attacked in six-division strength, more than 50,000 men, driving the rebels across the border into Albania and Bulgaria.

It was the deathblow to the insurgents. Already conditions in the crucial countryside were becoming more settled with each passing month. By July 1949, 100,000 refugees had returned to their homes.

Stalin had long since realized that, with American aid pouring into Greece, the rebellion had no chance. Even as Greek commando units began coordinated sweeps of the country from north to south, wiping out small bands of insurgents who had been left behind in the general retreat across the border, the Russian leader ordered the Democratic army to declare a cease-fire. The civil war was over. In October 1949, the EAM and ELAS announced a 'temporary cessation' of hostilities.

The cost of the Greek Civil War was enormous. Perhaps as many as 158,000 Greeks lost their lives and hundreds of thousands lost their homes and all they owned. Greek army losses were almost 11,000 killed, while perhaps 38,000 Communist guerrillas were killed.

And what did the West learn from the conflict? According to insurgency expert Robert Asprey, the results of the victory were, unfortunately, not accurately interpreted. Military commanders came to think that insurgency conflicts could be won by conventional methods: regular armies with increased firepower. Insufficient credit was give to such tactics as temporarily removing the civil population from areas of guerrilla control.

Such lessons would have to be learned again–in later wars. Markos, in fact, may have been beaten before he started. The Communists, say Asprey, failed to establish an identity with the religious and conservative Greek people–especially in the rural areas.

Moreover, their cavalier treatment of civilians, their brutal treatment of hostages and their unthinkable, barbarous act of forcibly removing children were major and, in the end, irretrievable mistakes.



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