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,” Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) 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 (Oper­a­tion Marita; see video below), as well as on Greece’s north­ern neigh­bor, Yugo­sla­via (Opera­tion 25), and on the Allied gar­ri­son on Crete in the Medi­ter­ra­nean (Opera­tion Mercury). Hitler’s inter­ven­tion in Greece 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 six weeks. 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. In a reflec­tive mood in his under­ground Fuehrer­bunker in 1945 Hitler said he counted his friend­ship with Mussolini, his wanting to be a good ally as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Operation Marita (The Battle of Greece), April 6–30, 1941

Operation Marita: 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.

Operation Marita: Germans raising swastika over AcropolisU.S. publicity poster: Greece Fights On

Left: German soldiers raise the blood-red German war ensign (Kriegs­flagge) 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.

Operation Marita, the Axis Invasion of Greece, April 6–30, 1941