Cairo, Egypt · March 7, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Greece, a British expe­di­tion­ary force from Egypt arrived just two days before the army of Ital­ian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini started its last un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign against Greek forces. The pre­vious Octo­ber the Ital­ian army had crossed Greece’s north­west­ern fron­tier from neigh­boring Alba­nia, launching the Greco-Ital­ian War. The Ital­ian in­va­sion came as a sur­prise to Adolf Hitler. “Don’t worry, in two weeks it will be all over,” the Duce assured his Axis part­ner. Hitler char­ac­ter­ized Mus­so­lini’s in­va­sion of Greece as “pure mad­ness.” Mus­so­lini told his son-in-law and foreign minis­ter, Galeazzo Ciano, “Hitler rapped me on my knuckles with a ruler like a school­boy.” The on­set of win­ter and the Greek army com­bined to stop Mus­so­lini’s mis­ad­ven­ture. In­deed, the Greeks suc­ceeded in pushing their Ital­ian enemy back, deep into Al­ba­nia, and in so doing won one of the Allies’ first vic­to­ries against an Axis army. The next spring, beginning on April 6, 1941, the Ger­man army and Luft­waffe de­scended on Greece with a ven­geance, as well as Greece’s north­ern neigh­bor, Yugo­sla­via, and the Allied gar­ri­son on Crete in the Medi­ter­ra­nean. Hitler’s inter­ven­tion on the side of Italy in April 1941 saved the Duce from a de­bacle simi­lar to the one in which he found himself in Libya before Gen. Erwin Rom­mel’s Deutsches Afrika­korps arrived there by air and sea the pre­vious month. The Allied com­mit­ment to Greece in March 1941, too little and too late, ended in de­feat and mass evac­u­a­tion by the end of April—or cap­tiv­ity for those who were part of a rear­guard under con­stant attack from dive-bombers and pur­suing Ger­mans. Some 12,000 Aus­tra­lian and Brit­ish troops were killed or cap­tured in the abor­tive cam­paign to save Greece from falling into Axis hands, while 50,000 escaped by sea. Despite Allied help, the Greeks were de­feated in barely a month and Ger­man troops entered Athens on April 27, the king and the Greek govern­ment fleeing to exile in Egypt. The Ger­man diver­sion of resources in the Bal­kans delayed Hitler’s launch of the in­va­sion of the Soviet Union (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa) by a criti­cal month. This proved dis­as­trous when the Ger­mans, like the Ital­ians the pre­vious winter in Greece, failed to finish off their ad­ver­sary before the onset of wicked winter weather.

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The Battle of Greece, April 6–30, 1941

Map of German invasion of Greece, 1941

Above: Map shows Axis partner Bulgaria serving as the jumping off point for the German Wehrmacht’s invasion of Greece in April 1941.

Germans raising swastika over AcropolisU.S. publicity poster

Left: German soldiers raise the German war ensign over the Acrop­o­lis of Athens, April 1941. Greek resis­tance fighters pre­vented the Axis (Ger­many, Italy, and Bul­garia) from enjoying a peace­ful occu­pa­tion of the main­land. By 1944, one in four Greeks was a mem­ber of the largest armed resis­tance group, the National Libera­tion Front (EAM). The German Wehr­macht with­drew from main­land Greece in Octo­ber 1944 in the face of the Soviet Army’s ad­vance into and con­quest of Bul­garia to the north. Iso­lated gar­ri­sons remained on Crete and some of the other Aegean islands until the end of the war in May 1945.

Right: American poster supporting Greece, 1942. Greek offi­cers and sol­diers who escaped falling into Ger­man hands served in Greek units attached to the British Eighth Army, seeing ser­vice in North Africa and Italy. The Greek Navy took part in the Allied inva­sions of Sicily and Anzio in Italy and Normandy, France.

Italian and German Campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia, 1940–1941