Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tough Greek resistance

Greek general officers are escorted to the surrender conference. Greece would be garrisoned by German and Italian troops.

Supporting the offensive were the bombers of VIII Flightcorps. As the German dive bombers swooped down on the Greek defences they were disconcerted to met by heavy anti-aircraft fire, for alone amongst the great European fortifications of the time, the defences of the Metaxas Line included turret-mounted 37mm anti-aircraft guns. And unlike the poor-grade fortress divisions that manned the Maginot Line, the Greek defenders were members of high-grade units. The German XXX Corps was thrown back when it attempted to cross the Nestos, suffering heavy casualties. The German mountain troops, fighting their way down the Rupel Pass, were also forced to retreat. Eventually, the XVIII Corps was able to make some progress against the Metaxas Line, bringing up high-velocity guns in order to fire directly into the embrasures of the Greek defences.

The German breakthrough did not come on the Metaxas Line, however, but through the outflanking actions of the 2nd Panzer Division and the XL Panzer Corps (General Stumme), which had invaded Yugoslav Macedonia before turning south into Greece.

German breakthrough
Lieutenant General Vieil's 2nd Panzer Division - which had played a prominent role in forging the Panzer Corridor in France in 1940 - advanced into Yugoslavia on the 6th, eliminating the Bregalnica Division and capturing Strumica. It then turned south down the Axios valley and entered Greece on 8 April, encountering only limited opposition. An attempt to block the progress of the German panzers at Kilkis was brushed aside, and after a dash of some 90km (56 miles), the port of Salonika was in German hands. As a consequence, all the Greek troops holding the Metaxas Line were cut off from the rest of Greece, and at 1400 hours on 9 April, the Greek commander holding the line, General Bakopoulos, instructed his 70,000 men to lay down their arms.

The main thrust into Greece was made by the XL Panzer Corps, having first destroyed the Yugoslav army in and around Skopje (20,000 troops and seven generals taken prisoner). The main axis of advance lay through the Monastir gap, which ran through the high mountains into Greece. Spring had not reached this region, and the Germans were forced to battle through snow and freezing temperatures.

The German advance had been spearheaded by the 9th Panzer Division and the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, a reinforced motorised brigade that had won its spurs in the fighting in France. On 10 April, the Leibstandarte was ordered to take the Klidi Pass, the main route into Greece. Instead of Yugoslavs, the SS troops faced better-trained Australians and New Zealanders of the British expeditionary force. Germans casualties mounted but after two days of hard fighting the defenders were prised from their positions, and the Germans made their way into the heart of Greece.

Shortly afterwards, the reconnaissance battalion of the Leibstandarte found itself engaged in a tough battle with Greek troops holding the Klisura Pass. The battalion commander, Kurt Meyer, sent two of his companies to attack the position from the flanks, while he led a detachment up the main road to the pass. During his advance, the Greeks let off a series of demolition charges and raked the advancing SS troops with machine-gun fire. Meyer and his soldiers were pinned down by heavy fire, seemingly unable to move. Meyer recounted how he solved this problem, using 'dynamic' SS leadership:

A feeling of nausea tightens my throat. I yell to [Untersturmführer] Emil Wawrzinek to get the attack moving. But the good Emil just looks at me as if he has doubts about my sanity. Machine-gun fire smacks against the rocks in front of us. How can I get Wawrzinek to take that first leap? In my distress, I feel the smooth roundness of my (egg) hand grenade in my hand. I shout at the group. Everybody looks thunderstruck at me as I brandish the hand grenade, pull the pin, and roll it precisely behind the last man. Never again did I witness such a concerted leap forward as at that second. As if bitten by tarantulas, we dive around the rock spur and into a fresh crater. The spell is broken. The hand grenade has cured our lameness. We grin at each other, and head forward to the next cover.

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