28 October is one of the most important dates for every Greek around the world. This date does not only symbolise a national anniversary, but the fight of the whole world against oppressive powers.
It is a date that makes every Greek proud and epitomises the spirit of freedom and love for one's values, history and above all family. If you want to know more about why this date is so important, feel free to read further.
"Until now we would say that the Greeks fight like heroes. From now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." - Sir Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister
It was the beginning of the Second World War and the Axis powers seemed unstoppable as one country fell after another. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, feeling a bit outplayed by Hitler and wanting to show that he too was a great leader, decided to attack and occupy Greece, believing that it would be an easy target.
On 15 August 1940 the Italian submarine Delfino torpedoed and sank the Greek light cruiser Elli in the port of the island of Tinos. On 28 October 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Greece, Grazzi, visited the house of the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, to deliver a surrender ultimatum by Mussolini. When this visit took place, Hitler's forces had captured a large part of Europe, including Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland and Albania. Egypt and Ethiopia had also been captured or surrendered. France had followed by June 1940.
By July 1940 Hitler had informed his generals that the next attack would be against the Soviet Union. His plan was to invade the Soviet Union and then turn his attention to Britain. His main ally, Italy, had the task of making sure that no activities against Germany would take place by the Balkan countries. Unfortunately for Hitler, Mussolini did not like playing the part of the 'puppet' and decided to invade the surrounding areas.
Up to that point, Metaxas had hoped to remain neutral in the war, although the Greek King at the time was quietly on the side of Great Britain, which at the time was heavily tested by the Luftwaffe's aerial bombing campaign.
Grazzi delivered the ultimatum which was to "allow Italian forces to occupy for the duration of the present conflict... certain strategic points on Greek territory." It concluded with the threat: "Any resistance encountered will be put down by force of arms." That force of arms included 2,000,000 Italian soldiers, 400 Italian warplanes and hundreds of Italian tanks and armored vehicles. Greece had only 80,000 soldiers, 30 WWI-vintage bi-planes, and no tanks whatsoever.
Despite the vast numerical difference, Metaxas' answer was brief and straightforward: "So it is war. I consider this demand, and the manner in which it is made, as a declaration of war," Immediately the newspapers run full pages of the answer, using only one word: "OXI", which means "No". To this day, the 28 October 1940 is known by all Greeks as "the anniversary of OXI".
On the same day, Italian forces began their attack on Greece through Albania. The people of Greece answered the call to defend their country. The Greek troops, with amazing success, seized the peaks of the mountains, let the enemy come into the valleys, and then poured down upon the invaders. In just six weeks they drove the Italian army back into the mountains of Albania and were soon making some of the most sensational news of WWII, giving the world its first glimmer of hope.
"Our country, in which virtue is especially honoured, watches with admiration the struggle of the Greeks in Albania. We are so much touched, that, by letting aside every other feeling, we shout: LONG LIVE HELLAS!" - Mainichi Shimbun Japanese newspaper, 7 December 1940
Metaxas died on 29 January 1941, however by then it was evident that Mussolini was losing the battle. In March 1941 the Italians launch a second invasion attempt, only to be rebuffed again by mid-March. The first British troops arrive in Greece, without, however, heading north so as not to provoke a German attack.
"In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the battle of Salamis Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds." - Charles de Gaulle President of the French Republic
Even though Hitler was building up his forces to ivade Russia, he could not leave his southern flank exposed. On 6 April 1941 and with its ally embarrassed by a small Greek army, Germany formally declares war on Greece. Operation 'Marita', as it was named, was launched and German forces attacked Greece after crossing Yugoslavia. This was not part of Hitler's initial war campaign and, as it turned out, turned the course of the war to the Allied Forces' favour.
After 3 weeks of resistance, the German army enters Athens on 27 April 1941. A Greek soldier named Konstantinos Koukithes, knowing that the invaders would go to the Acropolis and raise the swastika where Greece's white and blue flag was still flying, decided that he could not bear to see that desecration. He went to the Acropolis, lowered the Greek flag, wrapped himself in it and jumped off the Acropolis, killing himself. Only a few weeks later two young men, M. Glezos and A. Santas, took down the Nazi emblem, which the occupying German forces characterised as an act of violence against it, and justification for harsh reprisals.
"Historical justice forces me to admit that among all the enemies who stand against us, the Greek soldier above all, fought with the most courage. He surrendered himself only when the continuation of resistance was not possible any longer, and when he had no reason not to... However, he fought so bravely, that even his enemies can not deny their respect for him... Thus, the Greek prisoners of war were released immediately, having in mind the heroic stance of these soldiers." - Adolph Hitler, Reichstag, 4 May 1941
"I forbid the Press to underestimate the Greeks, to defame them... The Führer admires the bravery of Greeks. " - Joseph Goebbels in his diary, 9 April 1941
"The brave struggle of the people of this relatively small nation, for the right to live without interventions by dictatoric states, calls forth the respect and admiration of all the nations who love freedom." - USA Congress 3 April 1941
On 23 April 1941 a decision was taken for the evacuation of Commonwealth forces to the island of Crete and to Egypt. The evacuation of some 42,000 soldiers was completed by 30 April 1941.
The island of Crete was an important strategic area for the Allied Forces. Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. With Crete in Allied hands, the Axis southeastern flank would never be safe.
On 25 April 1941 Hitler ordered the invasion of Crete, under the codename Operation Mercury. The Royal Navy's forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault was a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on. This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion in the history of warfare.
The allied forces based in Crete at the time were 9,000 Greeks from the Greek Army. There was also a defense battalion made up mostly of transport and logistics personnel and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions, which had escaped to Crete and were organised under British command. The majority of the island's army had been transferred to the Albanian border's to fight against Italy and was cut off from returning to the island when Germany invaded Greece.
The British Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original British garrison and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation. Substantially intact units under their own command, composite units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment.
On 20 May 1941 the full German assault on Crete commenced with air attacks followed by paratroops dropped on the four airfields. Some 23,000 troops and 600 aircraft were deployed. They suffered heavy losses. The British and Greek forces were short of equipment and fire power but knew the Germans were coming. They outnumbered them considerably.
Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient rifles which had last been used against the Turks in 1821 were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. In other cases, Cretan civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and many German parachutists were knived or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms. This was the first occasion during the war that Germans had encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time it unbalanced them. However, once they had overcome their shock at these actions, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity. Further, as most Cretan partisans wore no identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions.
Command in London eventually decided the cause was hopeless, and ordered a withdrawal. Over the next four nights, between 28 and 31 May, 16,000 troops were taken off to Egypt by ships. After 10 days of bitter fighting, tough allied troops and stubborn local fighters defending Crete succumbed to Nazi paratroopers dropped over the island's airfields by the thousands.
Crete fell in German hands, but not at a small cost to the Germans. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraeberfuersorge e.V.(War Graves Commission) stated 47,460 casualties at a cemetery located at Maleme. To this date, hundreds of German tourists visit the cemetery in Crete, where their relatives are buried.
The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an equal number wounded, and an enormous number captured (12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek). There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Royal Navy. After the war the Allied graves from the four burial grounds that had been established by the German forces were moved to the site of Suda Bay War Cemetery.
A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire or died fighting as partisans. Many Cretans were shot by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation that followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children. During the occupation Greece suffered some of the worst atrocities during the war.
Now you know why every Greek in the world is proud of their country and never forgets this special date. One very important point to add, however, is this.
History has recorded that the losses suffered by Hitler in the Soviet Union lead to the final allied assault in Normandy (D-Day) and won the war. A number of historians have pointed out, however, that the reason Germany lost the battle against the Soviet Union was the fact that Hitler delayed his plan in order to invade Greece and by the time he turned on the Soviet Union winter had arrived which made it extremely difficult.
At least two of the main figures in WWII have given their dues to Greece for this.
"If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been." - Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister
"The Russian people will always be grateful to the Greeks for delaying the German army long enough for winter to set in, thereby giving us the precious time we needed to prepare. We will never forget." - Joseph Stalin, in an open letter read over the air on Radio Moscow short wave on numerous occasions during the war.
If you want to know more about Greece during WWII, including the atrocities it suffered and its resistance during the occupation, there are many books you can buy online, some of which I highly recommend:
Inside Hitler's Greece by Mark Mazower: Eyewitness accounts and archived information, detailing the German occupation of Greece and the rise of the resistanse movement.
Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss: A classic account from one of the officers who took part in one of the greatest escapades in WWII, the kidnapping of General Kreipe , commander of the Sevastopol Division in Crete.
There is also a film based on the book:
The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis is the author's story of his war-time work in the Cretan resistance against the Germans. His journeys involved smuggling arms and explosives, carrying vital messages, guiding allied soldiers, agents or commandos through occupied Crete, all told with humor and humanity.
Greece and Crete 1941 by Christopher Buckley is one of six books from The Second World War in which writers were commissioned to document events of the war and present them in a readable style for the general public. It tells the story of what might have been the most courageous stand by the allies, the defense of Crete and its fall to the Germans.
The Fall of Crete by Alan Clark: A detailed analysis of the 10 day battle of Crete
There is also a great movie on the subject, The 11th Day:
War in the Balkans: The Battle for Greece and Crete 1940-1941 by Jeffrey Plowman, is a photographic history that traces the course of the entire Balkan campaign from the first moves of the Italians through Albania and the invasion of Jugoslavia and Bulgaria by German forces through to the battle for Greece and the final airborne assault on Crete.
Kos and Leros 1943: The German Conquest of the Dodecanese by Anthony Rogers is an illustrated account of the autumn 1943 battle for the Dodecanese, as Winston Churchill attempted to secure the Aegean islands in the wake of the Italian armistice.
The Battle for Heraklion - Crete 1941, by Yannis Prekatsounakis is a fresh account of one of the Second World War’s most memorable battles. It is given added authority by the writer’s military background, together with his deep knowledge of the battlefield and his access to Greek accounts and sources.