German 12th Army HQ, Larissa, Greece April 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 representa­tives of the Greek govern­ment, leader­less after Prime Minis­ter Alexan­dros Koryzis com­mitted sui­cide three days earlier, signed a docu­ment of capi­tu­la­tion at the head­quarters of the German 12th Army at Larissa in Central Greece. Fourteen Greek divisions laid down their arms.

The news that Greece had surren­dered to his Axis part­ner rather than to Italy infuri­ated Ital­ian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini. It was the Duce’s plan to domi­nate South­eastern Europe that had trig­gered Italy’s inva­sion of Greece from neigh­boring Ital­ian-occupied Albania almost six months earlier, on October 28, 1940, an inva­sion that took Adolf Hitler com­pletely by surprise. That Hitler had to rescue Mus­so­lini from a Greek quag­mire of his own making was galling enough. Within days of invading Greece the Duce’s army was close to being defeated by inspired Greek mili­tary leader­ship, elite Greek infan­try familiar with mountain terrain, and British arms (later men). Adding to Mus­so­lini’s miseries was the loss of three of his battle­ships (half of the Regia Marina’s capital ships) in Taranto harbor, on Italy’s heel, to 20 British carrier-based torpedo bombers on the night of November 11/12, 1940.

In a meeting between Mussolini and Hitler in Ba­va­ria on Janu­ary 19–20, 1941, Hitler apprised his junior part­ner of Oper­a­tion Marita, which assumed that Yugo­sla­via would join the Axis alli­ance (Tri­par­tite Pact), allowing the German Army to attack the Greek-British defense line from the rear that spring.

After elements of the Yugoslav military over­threw the govern­ment of regent Prince Paul, who had signed the Axis pact under pres­sure, and placed 17‑year‑old King Peter II on the throne, Hitler launched an inva­sion of Yugo­sla­via and Greece on April 6, 1941. Yugo­slavs signed the act of surren­der in their destroyed capital, Belgrade, eleven days later. Hitler smoothed Mus­so­lini’s feathers over Greece’s sur­ren­der to Ger­many by restaging the capitu­la­tion cere­mony two days later in Thes­salo­niki, Greece’s second largest city, with an Italian repre­sen­tative pre­sent. Two days later the Brit­ish flew the Greek king and govern­ment to the island of Crete, the first step in creating a Greek government-in-exile.

On April 27 German tanks entered Athens, and by month-end the Royal Navy had evac­u­ated what it could (50,000) of the Allied expedi­tion­ary force that had managed to reach the coast. In their disas­trous cam­paign in Greece, the Allies lost nearly 13,000 men, including 9,000 taken pri­soner, and all of their heavy equip­ment. Mus­so­lini’s army, in six months of cam­paigning, suffered over 76,000 casu­al­ties and 25,000 missing. Greek losses were close to 16,000 dead and missing and 270,000 taken prisoner. German casualties in both countries were under 5,500.

The Axis Conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, April 1941

Operation Marita: Yugoslav soldiers surrender armsOperation Marita: Panzerkampfwagen IV

Left: The German invasion of Yugo­slavia began on April 6, 1941, with an over­whelming air attack on Bel­grade and attacks by German land forces initially from Bul­garia. This photo pur­ports to show Yugo­slav soldiers laying down their arms on the day of the invasion.

Right: A German Panzer IV medium tank advancing into Yugo­sla­via from Bul­garia. In February 1941 the Bul­garian Gen­eral Staff had agreed to let German troops and equip­ment use their country as a staging area for Germany’s assault on Yugoslavia.

Operation Marita: Greek surrender restaged, April 23, 1941Operation Marita: Greek soldiers, April 1941

Left: Restaging the official surren­der of Greek forces to both the German and Ital­ian com­mands after Musso­lini had made a per­sonal repre­sen­tation to Hitler. Thessalo­niki, Greece, April 23, 1941. Unchar­ac­ter­is­tically, the Germans, in recognition of their enemy’s courage, allowed the defeated officers to retain their swords. Even more unchar­ac­ter­is­tically, Hitler ordered all Greek POWs released after the armistice was signed.

Right: Greek forces lacked the equip­ment neces­sary to fight against German mo­tor­ized divi­sions and were soon en­circled and over­whelmed. This photo may show retreating or captured Greek soldiers.

Contemporary Newsreels of the Axis Conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, April 1941