Following three and a half years of German occupation, Greece suffered four more years of atrocious civil war as communists, collaborators, monarchists, rebels, ex-partisans, and death squads—backed variously by Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, Albania, and Romania—all but destroyed the country.
DECEMBER 1944 MARKED A NEW LOW POINT for a world that seemed to be sliding toward Armageddon. In the Pacific, firebombing had reduced Japanese cities to ash and a brutal showdown was ongoing at Iwo Jima. Northern Europe was in flames, and Allied forces were still in a fierce fight for Italy. Elsewhere around the Mediterranean peace seemed at hand—except in Greece, where the bloody events of December 3 inaugurated a civil war more savage than any the continent would see for another half century.
The trouble began in Athens, which the Germans had evacuated only six weeks before. Weak British forces and Greek police, acting under instructions from the recently restored government in exile, struggled to maintain order in a city teeming with suffering and discontent. Political demonstrations by competing factions, especially communists, had become a fact of life. Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, December 3, several angry processions marched toward the center of the city in Constitution Square protesting the government’s announcement that it planned to disband the armed groups that had resisted the Germans and replace them with an army.
Police attempted to block the processions from the city center, but the flimsy barricades quickly collapsed as the demonstrators—many of them women—swarmed through the central square and finally converged on the apartment building that served as the residence of Premier George Papandreou. Hard-pressed policemen struggled to hold back the crowds, and when a grenade exploded nearby, the enraged demonstrators stormed the building. The premier cowered in his bedroom until his machine gun–toting guards drove the attackers—who may have included his own stepdaughter, Miranda, a convert to communism—back outside.
Shortly afterward another crowd, waving Greek, Soviet, and even British and American flags, assembled outside a central police station. Panic stricken, the police steadily pulled back until an armed man in uniform rushed out of the station, yelled “Shoot the bastards!” then dropped to one knee and opened fire on the crowd. The policemen followed suit. Civilians tumbled screaming to the ground—12 dead, more wounded. Others fled, but they would be back. Several British paratroops watched these events nervously from nearby. They had been ordered not to intervene. Soon, however, they would no longer be observers but direct participants in the Greek maelstrom.
WINSTON CHURCHILL WAS AMONG GREECE’S most ardent Western suitors, but his affection was not always reciprocated. As first lord of the Admiralty during World War I, he had hoped that the Gallipoli Campaign would entice Greece to enter the war on the side of the Entente against the Ottoman Empire. But the Greeks remained hesitant, and when the campaign failed, it also temporarily derailed Churchill’s political career. British and French forces were eventually allowed to assemble at Salonika, but Greek support remained tepid through 1917. To the British this seemed a poor return on a special relationship that went back a century: The 1821 Greek war for independence from the Ottomans had inspired a revival of interest in classical history and mythology among the British public and especially its literary class. British, French, and Russian warships had helped to secure Greek autonomy by crushing the Ottomans in the 1827 naval battle of Navarino, and the three powers had established and recognized Greek independence in 1832.
After that, Greek politics had offered little to admire, let alone emulate. Although the country expanded its borders in further wars against the Ottomans through 1913, the majority of the population continued to live in medieval squalor under corrupt monarchical and eventually pseudo-republican rule. After World War I and the disastrous Greek intervention in Asia Minor that followed, the country descended into a morass of political and social instability. Economic depression gave rise to a coup that brought the dictator Ioannis Metaxas to power in 1936. During his reign, so-called subversives—many of them impoverished refugees who were ethnically Greek and had fled Asia Minor in 1922—were persecuted and tortured in an expanding penal system. Communists were singled out for special treatment, notoriously being forced to drink castor oil and endure its consequences while sitting on blocks of ice.
Yet the Greeks had not forgotten how to fight. Numerically superior Italian forces invaded the country from Albania in October 1940, only to be driven back in humiliating defeat. But the triumph over Mussolini was only temporary. In January 1941 Metaxas died suddenly. He had accepted secret aid from Britain but had rejected Prime Minister Churchill’s offer to send Allied troops to the country because he didn’t want to offend Hitler. Now, his successors reversed course, welcoming a British expeditionary force. Churchill, romantically attached to the Greek cause, complied instantly, diverting his troops from a victorious advance against the Italians in Libya, despite opposition from his commanders in the Middle East. His fateful decision dashed hopes of capturing Tripoli—and possibly keeping German general Erwin Rommel out of North Africa—and to no avail.
An eventual German invasion of Greece was already probable, with plans drawn up, but British troop landings and a coup overthrowing the pro-Axis Yugoslav regime on March 26–27 made it inevitable. Hitler’s forces invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 and subsequently crashed through or outflanked Greco-British defenses in northern Greece, forcing the Royal Navy to evacuate yet another defeated British expeditionary force. The Greek regime quickly crumbled, as the king fled to join a British-sponsored government in exile, and German forces entered Athens on April 26. The German capture of Crete followed in May. Greece would spend the next three and a half years under occupation.
OCCUPATION IMPOSES TOUGH MORAL CHOICES on the occupied. Desperation may force resisters to emulate and even outdo their oppressors’ brutality, and resistance can become an occasion to settle personal scores or class resentments, subjecting real and imagined collaborators and their families to widespread atrocities. The Greek occupation of 1941–1944 displayed all of these elements. In Greece, unlike much of Eastern and even Western Europe, few people became committed Nazis. Many conservatives, however, saw the Germans as a necessary if unpalatable bulwark against communism. Thousands of ordinary Greeks dealt with the Germans or at least remained quiescent in order to stave off disaster; thanks to Axis mismanagement and a British blockade, over 100,000 people died of starvation in the country through 1944.
Resistance was slow to get started, with rebels lashing out haphazardly in 1941 against German, Italian, and Bulgarian troops and interests. But by 1942 Greek resistance groups and their homegrown enemies had begun to reflect social and political rivalries that predated the war. The Metaxas regime had oppressed and alienated many Greeks, whose lingering resentments now exploded. Their calls for the elimination or expropriation of the wealthy, along with traditional political and religious leaders, ensured that many of those who battled the Germans would fight Greek leftists with equal energy.
Greek communists, who had ample reason to despise the Metaxas regime and its allies, coalesced with other factions in the National Liberation Front (EAM) and its National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS). The latter began as a mere platoon of 15 men and quickly grew into a formidable guerrilla army. The ELAS wiped out many rival opposition groups even as they fought the occupiers. Knowing Churchill’s strong anticommunist stance and sympathy for the exiled king, the EAM distrusted the British but at times accepted their covert support.
The Greek government in exile opposed the EAM, as did the collaborationist government, which organized well-manned and -equipped security battalions. These forces, 18,000 strong, suffered proportionately far higher casualties in antipartisan operations than did the Germans or Italians. Another large resistance group, the National Greek Republican League (EDES), was anticommunist but opposed the monarchist government in exile. Its leaders were a motley bunch, most notable among them the corrupt adventurer and former army officer Napoleon Zervas. The British supported and supplied the EDES, in part because it actively fought the EAM and the occupying forces.
Arms were easily obtained. The disbanded Greek army had left plenty of armaments behind, and British intelligence agents provided more. After 1943 rebels seized ordnance from Italian and Bulgarian forces as their regimes collapsed. But the protagonists usually found it easier to terrorize civilians suspected of sympathizing with their enemies than to engage in open combat with armed opponents. Large-scale massacres of prisoners and hostages were common.
Churchill remained deeply interested in Greece. By early 1944 he feared that Soviet advances in the Balkans would spark an EAM uprising resulting in the installation of a communist puppet regime. The British had reformed the government in exile to make it more palatable to factions like the EDES, placing it in April 1944 under Papandreou, a republican and Metaxas enemy. Of greater long-term significance was a diplomatic offensive by British foreign minister Anthony Eden to persuade the Soviets that Greece should remain in the Western sphere. The Soviets appear to have conceded this principle long before Churchill and Stalin confirmed it in Moscow on October 9. “So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 percent predominance in Rumania, [and] for us to have 90 percent say in Greece?” Churchill had asked Stalin. The Soviet premier had acquiesced, but the Americans only later accepted the notorious “Percentages Agreement” as a fait accompli.
Outflanked to the north by Soviet forces penetrating the Balkans, the Germans began withdrawing from Greece in September 1944. As they departed, anti-EAM factions, including both collaborationist forces and their erstwhile enemies, gradually coalesced to fight their common enemy: communism. The process was uneasy, though, and the more unitary and utterly ruthless EAM had seized control of much of the country, except for Crete, by the end of the year.
Lacking the manpower to exert control over the countryside, the British decided to concentrate on the major cities. Mediterranean commander in chief Sir Henry Maitland Wilson designated Lieutenant General Ronald Scobie as commander of the 10,000-strong Force 140, which was to seize Athens in Operation Manna as soon as practicable. But the Germans retreated only gradually, leaving behind intact supply dumps for all to plunder and well-equipped security battalion garrisons, in hopes that they would foment civil war. Reprisals and counterreprisals were well underway by the time the Germans left Athens on October 12 and the British began to land. On October 14, as British troops on parade entered Athens with Papandreou at their head, ELAS fighters were setting up checkpoints and battling rivals throughout the countryside.
Bereft of overt Soviet support but still hoping to secure it in the future, the EAM went through the motions of compromise and agreed to participate in a coalition government under British supervision. It also agreed not to interfere with British military operations or maintain armed forces in Athens, but it broke that pledge almost immediately. It propagandized relentlessly through protests, publications, and graffiti; actively instigated unrest; and formed armed cells throughout the city.
The uneasy truce did not last long. Fighting between ELAS forces and anticommunists broke out in eastern Macedonia at the beginning of December. Two days later the Greek government’s declaration of disbandment for partisan formations throughout the country served as the occasion for the protests that led to the storming of Papandreou’s apartment and the massacre in front of the police station in Constitution Square. By the next day full-scale fighting had begun in earnest throughout the country, between about 22,000 ELAS fighters versus double that number of government troops, composed of Greek army units returned from exile, former security battalion troops (whom the British had interned only briefly), and miscellaneous anticommunist resistance bands.
Though outnumbered, the ELAS formations were better organized than their opponents. Within hours they had stormed and occupied almost all of Athens’s police stations. On some occasions the communists dragged policemen into the streets and tortured them to death in front of horrified British troops forbidden to interfere. Scobie and Churchill had hoped that the British presence alone would suffice to overawe the rebels, but such was clearly not the case.
ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 4–5 CHURCHILL decided the uprising had become so dangerous that British troops should take overt action against the communists. But Scobie’s command was entirely inadequate for anti-insurgency operations, with only eight British and four Greek regular infantry battalions plus a squadron of tanks, a handful of armored cars, and some field guns. Although ELAS fighters were not yet prepared to attack the British directly, from December 8 through 12 they successfully infiltrated and cut off a number of detachments. As Scobie pulled his dispersed forces back to the city center, abandoning a number of supply dumps, insurgents sniped at and ambushed British troops, sometimes using women and children as human shields or even combatants.
Help was on the way: British major general John “Ginger” Hawkesworth was put in charge of combat operations in Greece. Far superior in tactical ability to Scobie, Hawkesworth deployed his troops in mutually supporting emplacements and awaited significant reinforcements of combat-hardened troops from Italy. His dispositions were completed just in time to repulse a full-scale but uncoordinated ELAS attack on the night of December 15–16. Well-positioned British tanks and armored cars played a major role in stopping and then routing the attackers.
Working under cover of a tentative truce, Hawkesworth prepared a detailed plan for securing essential buildings in central Athens and then methodically clearing the city of resistance. After the truce collapsed, he launched a major offensive to retake the capital on January 3, 1945. Thanks to substantial reinforcements, the attack succeeded, clearing the city within several days at a cost of 210 British troops killed and a few hundred wounded. At the same time, though, the ELAS entirely wiped out its rivals in northern and western Greece. Communist detachments also rounded up and interned over 1,000 British civilians and 15,000 well-to-do Greeks throughout the country. In the weeks that followed, thousands of the captives would die from forced marches, exposure, and brutality.
Surprisingly, the communists—probably unnerved by the Soviets’ continued refusal to offer support—did not press their advantage. The EAM leadership accepted a truce in February and agreed to disband its military arm, the ELAS, on the assumption that they could not take on the British directly and win. But many communist guerrilla leaders refused to accept the agreement. As a result, resistance became less organized but remained fierce, as small bands vied for control.
Communist forces—drawing on the fears of Slavophone Greeks that the new government would persecute them as savagely as Metaxas had—remained dominant in the mountains of northern Greece, especially Thessaly and western Macedonia. Their political head, George Siantos, was a charismatic former tobacco farmer with a natural ability to connect with the Greek peasantry. But right-wing vigilante bands, emboldened by firm British and government control of the cities, began operating in the central part of the country and even penetrated the mountains, and a new cycle of reprisals and counterreprisals shattered the February truce, plunging Greece back into fighting as brutal as any seen during the war.
After Churchill lost to Labour leader Clement Attlee in July 1945, British forces continued to hold their ground in Athens but refused to intervene in the country. Fighting there fell to the Greek government, which now had to take on the newly formed Communist Democratic Army of Greece, the DSE. As the struggle continued, the EAM became increasingly desperate and its program more radical. Siantos, who had been willing to accommodate the British at least in the short term, was ousted and died mysteriously in 1947. No longer willing to compromise, the communists called for the institution of a Soviet-style regime, the dismantling of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the extermination of all “fascist sympathizers.” While this appealed to students, refugees, and some impoverished peasants (Greece had no urban working class to speak of), it infuriated religiously observant Greeks, who still dominated the population. Communist bands became infamous for savage atrocities, including the torture-murder of popular actress Eleni Papadaki. EAM support, once robust, began to crumble.
At the peak of the fighting, in 1946–1947, the government could call on 250,000 organized troops plus about 50,000 militia. The DSE, by contrast, mustered a mere 26,000 fighters. But they were veterans of guerrilla warfare and fought well. Some of their material support came from the Soviet Union—which did not seek a communist takeover but had an interest in fomenting instability—and Yugoslavia. Marshal Josip Broz Tito supplied the rebels with thousands of rifles, machine guns, antitank weapons, and land mines. He even sent antiaircraft weapons that the communists used to shoot down dozens of Greek air force planes (mostly secondhand Supermarine Spitfires). The laying of thousands of mines impacted military operations in the short run but primarily induced civilian suffering. What the communists sorely lacked were basic supplies like food, clothing, and especially transport; they had just enough to carry on resistance but not nearly enough to advance or exert control. Recruiting remained limited, and there were few effective officers.
As the communists continued widespread atrocities against civilians, government oppression approached levels not seen since the Metaxas regime. Captured rebels were imprisoned on the island of Makronisos off the Peloponnese, where they were subjected to extreme deprivation and forced labor. Inventive tortures included forcing bound prisoners and several half-starved cats into canvas sacks that were then partially submerged in water. The prisoners emerged cut to pieces and sometimes dead.
Britain had been dilatory in providing equipment and especially training to the Greek army. Most army conscripts and officers (trained veterans often having been discredited by collaboration) had no understanding of antiguerrilla warfare, and their operations were ponderous and often ineffective. Army troops also had no motivation to fight their fellow Greeks. The government tried to compensate by forming mobile commando units, but these took time to become effective. Right-wing partisan squads, meanwhile, were successful at taking on the communists at their own game and matching them in a brutality that often engendered more opposition.
Though not as dominant as they had been earlier, the communists by 1947 still controlled approximately half the country and a third of its population. Large-scale Greek government offensives that year put on a lot of show but accomplished little of substance. Communists, operating in bands as large as a few hundred strong, ruthlessly employed overt terrorism, bombarding peaceful villages with artillery and mortars to discredit government authority, provoke reprisals, and overtax the army. They also destroyed infrastructure such as power stations, dams, and factories. The government simply responded with ever larger antipartisan operations.
BRITAIN FORMALLY WITHDREW FROM GREECE in early 1947, but American military advisers turned the tide in favor of the Greek government after 1948. Resisting Greek calls to finance an expansion of the national army, the Truman administration elected instead to focus on providing effective training. Led by a new commander, General Alexandros Papagos, better-equipped Greek government forces operated methodically to push the rebels north toward their mountain strongholds. American equipment and especially aircraft—notably surplus Curtiss SbzC-5 Helldivers—played an important role in these operations.
The Greek Civil War climaxed in August 1949 at the final major communist stronghold, the massif of Grammos near the Albanian border in August 1949. Three Greek army divisions began the attack at the town of Vitsi on August 10. Several days of vicious combat ensued as the rebels were slowly repulsed and finally broke, streaming back across the Albanian border and leaving behind 2,000 dead and wounded. The final assault on Mount Grammos, backed by Helldivers dropping napalm, destroyed the remnants of the rebel army and brought the entire massif under government control. Fighting quickly faded afterward, thanks in part to Stalin’s express orders to the Greek communists to declare a cease-fire.
The Greek Civil War’s final toll is difficult to estimate, and few tallies agree. Government forces suffered about 48,000 casualties from 1946 to 1949 while claiming to inflict 38,400 casualties on their enemies. (Half that number is more likely.) Death squads on both sides executed thousands of civilians, however, and thousands more died from brutality, disease, and starvation. By one estimate, a total of about 158,000 Greeks died as a result of the civil war. Yet not all of the war’s costs can be measured in terms of physical wounds or lives lost. Hundreds of thousands of civilians left Greece during this period. Some ethnic minorities—Albanian and Slavic—were forced into exile, but most voluntarily fled conflict and poverty for Western Europe and the United States.
Unlike other major civil wars, large-scale executions or reprisals did not follow the cessation of armed conflict. This was so partly because the Americans insisted upon parliamentary government and domestic stability. And while Greek economic devastation was total, the seeds of revival were already in place through the Marshall Plan. With its conclusion in 1952, healing from one of the most brutal civil wars of the 20th century could begin in earnest.
Greece wins independence from the Ottoman Empire, with help from Britain, France, and Russia
Ioannis Metaxas becomes dictator
Italy attacks Greece but is repulsed
January: Metaxas dies suddenly, and his successors ally with the British
April: Germany invades Greece, and Axis powers occupy it for almost four years
Resistance forces join to form the EAM (the National Liberation Front), with ELAS as its fighting arm; British Special Operations Executive establishes a military mission in Greece to help coordinate them
October: Fighting among collaborationist, Greek government-in-exile, and ELAS forces signals the first round of civil war
July: American Office of Strategic Services joins with British Military Mission to form Allied Military Mission in Greece
September: Germans withdraw from mainland Greece, and resistances forces begin to fracture into warring factions. The pro-communist EAM-ELAS becomes a common target
October: Churchill and Stalin arrive at “Percentages Agreement,” which leaves Greece within the Western sphere. British forces march into Athens
December: Greece erupts into a second round of civil war
February: Varkiza Agreement ends second round of civil war, but right-wing elements brutally persecute communists from former EAM-ELAS into 1946
March: Third round of civil war begins between government forces and the Communist Democratic Army of Greece
Britain withdraws military support to Greece; the United States steps in to shore up the government fight against the communists
Communist forces collapse, and under orders from Stalin, declare a cease-fire that effectively ends the civil war
EDWARD G. LENGEL, an expert on George Washington, also writes frequently about the World War I era.
PHOTO: Bitter factionalism made the Greek Civil War especially notable for its atrocities. Here, Greek political prisoners, whose shirts spell out in French “the British must go,” await a United Nations team sent to investigate conditions at a Salonika prison in March 1947. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Postwar Agony in Greece.
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