April 1941: Operation “Marita” and the Greek “Maginot Line” that cost the nazi Germans dearly

by Pierre Kosmidis – 

Marita

On October 28th, 1940, fascist Italy launched an unprovoked and ultimately disastrous attack on Greece which signaled it’s entry in World War Two.

Following the stalemate of their Italian allies in the Albanian front and the victories of the Greeks in the mountainous regions of northern Greece and Albania against the Italian army, the German dictator Adolf Hitler initiated the preparation for Operation “Marita”.

On April 6th, 1941, Nazi Germany started their offensive against Greece.

The nazi German offensive against Greece, April 1941

The Nazi German offensive against Greece, April 1941

General Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek dictator-prime minister who died shortly before the German invasion of his country, had initiated this construction project in the summer of 1936.

Its strongest part extended over a distance of  200 kilometers (125 miles) from the mouth of the Nestos River to the point where the Yugoslav, Bulgarian, and Greek borders meet.

Only direct artillery hits would silence the bunkers

Only direct artillery hits would silence the bunkers

The fortresses within this defense system blocked the road that led through the basin of Nevrokop and across the Rupel Gorge to eastern Macedonia.

The strength of the Metaxas Line resided not so much in its fortifications proper as in the inaccessibility of the intermediate terrain leading up to the defense positions.

Rare photo of the bunkers at Metaxas Line during the fight

Rare photo of the bunkers at Metaxas Line during the fight

The Greek fortifications along the border had been skillfully adapted to these terrain features and a defense system in depth covered the few available roads. No continuous fortifications had been erected along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, but road blocks, demolitions, and extensive mine fields had been prepared at all border points.

The German plan of attack was based on the premise that, because of the diversion created by the campaign in Albania, the Greeks would lack sufficient manpower to defend their borders with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

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Aerial bombardment, mainly by Stukas, of the “Metaxas Line”, had minimal effect to the fortifications and the morale of the Greek soldiers

The frontal attack on the Metaxas Line, undertaken by one German infantry and two reinforced mountain divisions of the XVIII Mountain Corps, met with extremely tough resistance from the Greek defenders.

After a three-day struggle, during which the Germans massed artillery and dive bombers, the Metaxas Line was finally penetrated.

Some of the fortresses of the line held out for days after the German attack divisions had bypassed them and could not be reduced until heavy guns were brought up.

The main credit for this achievement must be given to the 6th Mountain Division, which crossed a 7,000-foot snow-covered mountain range and broke through at a point that had been considered inaccessible by the Greeks.

Nazis contemplate over the mass grave of 6 of their comrades

Nazis contemplate over the mass grave of 6 of their comrades

The division reached the rail line to Salonika on the evening of 7 April and entered Kherson two days later.

By driving armored wedges through the weakest links in the defense chain, the freedom of maneuver necessary for thrusting deep into enemy territory could be gained more easily than by moving up the armor only after the infantry had forced its way through the mountain valleys and defiles.

Once the weak defense system of southern Yugoslavia had been overrun by German armor, the relatively strong Metaxas Line, whicl1 obstructed a rapid invasion of Greece from Bulgaria, could be outflanked by highly mobile forces thrusting southward from Yugoslavia. Possession of Monastir and the Vardar Valley leading to Salonika was essential to such an outflanking maneuver.

Nazis monitor the mountainous region that was part of the "Metaxas Line"

Nazis monitor the mountainous region that was part of the “Metaxas Line.”

When Operation Marita began on 6 April, the bulk of the Greek army was on the border with Albania,  then a protectorate of Fascist Italy, from which the Italian troops were trying unsuccessfully to enter Greece.

German troops invaded through Bulgaria, creating a second front. Greece had already received a small though inadequate reinforcement from British Empire Forces, in anticipation of the German attack but no more help was sent after the invasion began.

The Greek army found itself outnumbered in its effort to defend against both Italian and German troops.

When German troops officially entered Bulgaria during the first four days of March, the British reacted promptly by embarking an expeditionary force in Alexandria.

Several squadrons of the Royal Air Force as well as antiaircraft units had been operating in Greece during the previous months.

Nazi assault troops take cover while Ju87s bomb the fortifications

German assault troops take cover while Ju87s bomb the fortifications

From the British point of view, it was not feasible to desert the Greeks now that forces were available after the North African victories.

At no time had the British exercised any pressure on the Greeks by requesting them to resist the Germans.

On the contrary, Greek leaders had repeatedly expressed their intention to defend themselves against any German invasion, no matter whether they would be assisted by their ally or not.

The British fully realized that their prestige would suffer a crushing blow if the expeditionary force had to be evacuated in another Dunkerque, but even this possibility seemed preferable to leaving Greece to its fate.

In a report Mr. Eden and his military advisers sent to London at the beginning of March, they summed up the situation by stating that there was a “reasonable fighting chance” and, with a certain amount of luck, a good opportunity “of perhaps seriously upsetting the German plans.”

Germans take a defensive position on the mountains of northern Greece

Germans take a defensive position on the mountains of northern Greece

Even so, there can be no doubt that political factors overshadowed military considerations in the British decision to send an expeditionary force to Greece.

No definite decision on the disposition of forces was taken, mainly because of British and Greek hopes that Yugoslavia would join forces against the Axis Powers.

When this hope finally and somewhat unexpectedly materialized at the end of March, the three countries failed to establish a unified command. No such initiative was taken, and there was only one meeting of British, Yugoslav, and Greek military representatives on 3 April.

Newspaper frontpage, dated Sunday April 6, 1941, mentions that at 5:15 this morning the german attack against Greece started. "We will win and we will live free!"

Newspaper frontpage, dated Sunday, April 6, 1941, mentions that at 5:15 this morning the German attack against Greece started. “We will win and we will live free!”

During this conference the Yugoslavs promised to block the Strimon Valley in the case of a German attack across their territory. Moreover, the Greeks and Yugoslavs agreed to launch a common offensive against the Italians in Albania.

By 12 April, the Yugoslavs were to concentrate four divisions along the northern border of Albania and provide additional forces in support of a Greek offensive in southern Albania.

The course of events demonstrated only too clearly how unrealistic these offensive plans were at a time when both countries should have attempted to coordinate their defense efforts against the German threat.

Mountain troops are moving towards their targets

Mountain troops are moving towards their targets

The assembly area of the German attack forces in southwestern Bulgaria was delimited by the rugged mountain range along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border.

To enter northern Greece, the attacker had to cross the Rhodope Mountains, where only a few passes and river valleys permitted the passage of major military units.

Two invasion routes led across the passes west of Kyustendil along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border and another one through the Strimon Valley in the south.

The very steep mountain roads with their numerous turns could not be negotiated by heavy vehicles until German engineer troops had widened them by blasting the rocks. Off the roads only infantry and pack animals could pass through the terrain.

An inside view of the underground tunnel of one of the forts at Metaxas Line

An inside view of the underground tunnel of one of the forts at Metaxas Line

The Strimon and Nestos Rivers cut across the mountain range along the Greek-Bulgarian frontier; both valleys were well protected by strong fortifications that formed part of the Metaxas Line. This line was a system of concrete pillboxes and field fortifications, which had been constructed along principles similar to those applied in the Maginot Line.

Along the Yugoslav-Greek border, there is another mountain range with only two major defiles, one leading from Monastir to Florina, the other along the Vardar River.

Aside from these mountain ranges bordering Greece in the north, an aggressor must surmount a number of other alpine and subalpine mountain ranges barring access to the interior of the country.

Germans during a pause of the bitter fighting

Germans during a pause of the bitter fighting

In the west there are the Pindus Mountains stretching from Albania deep into the interior, whereas the Olympus and Thermopylae mountain ranges obstruct the eastern part of the mainland.

Finally, the inaccessible Peloponnesus Mountains hamper military operations in the southern provinces of Greece.

Troops are subjected to extreme physical hardships by a campaign across Greece because habitations are few, water is in short supply, and the weather is inclement with sudden drops in temperature.

Following the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, most of the Greek troops were evacuated from western Thrace, which was defended by the Evros Brigade, a unit consisting of three border guard battalions, when the Germans launched their attack.

One of the bunkers that sustained direct artillery hits

One of the bunkers that sustained direct artillery hits

Adjacent to this unit, in eastern Macedonia, stood the Nestos Brigade in the area around Xanthi. The Metaxas Line was held by three infantry divisions, the 7th and 14th east of the Strimon, the 18th west of that river.

The 19th Motorized Infantry Division was in reserve south of Lake Doirani. Including the fortress garrisons in the Metaxas Line and some border guard companies, the total strength of the Greek forces defending the Bulgarian border was roughly 70,000 men. They were under the command of the Greek Second Army with headquarters in the vicinity of Salonika.

The Greek forces in central Macedonia consisted of the 12th Infantry Division, which held the southern part of the Vermion position, and the 20th Infantry Division in the northern sector up to the Yugoslav border. On 28 March, both divisions were brought under the command of General Wilson.

The heavy bombardments did not neutralise most of the bunkers

The heavy bombardments did not neutralize most of the bunkers

The bulk of the Greek forces First Army with its fourteen divisions was committed in Albania.

As a result, it was planned that the mobile elements of the XL Panzer Corps would thrust across the Yugoslav border and capture Skoplje, thereby cutting the rail and highway communications between Yugoslavia and Greece. Possession of this strategic point would be decisive for the course of the entire campaign.

From Skoplje the bulk of the Panzer Corps was to pivot southward to Monastir and launch an immediate attack across the Greek border against the enemy positions established on both sides of Florina. Other armored elements were to drive westward and make contact with the Italians along the Albanian border.

The XVIII Mountain Corps was to concentrate its two mountain divisions on the west wing, make a surprise thrust across the Greek border, and force the Rupel Gorge. The 2d Panzer Division was to cross Yugoslav territory, follow the course of the Strimon upstream, turn southward, and drive toward Salonika.

The XXX Infantry Corps was to reach the Aegean coast by the shortest route and attack from the east those fortifications of the Metaxas Line that were situated behind the Nestos.

All three corps were to converge on Salonika. After the capture of that main city, three panzer and two mountain divisions were to be made available for the follow-up thrusts toward Athens and the Peloponnesus.

Twelfth Army headquarters was to coordinate the initially divergent thrusts across southern Yugoslavia and through Bulgaria into Greece and, during the second phase of the campaign, drive toward Athens regardless of what happened on the Italian front in Albania.

"Dragons' teeth" were built to hinder the advance of armour

“Dragons’ Teeth” were built to hinder the advance of armor

Actually, the Twelfth Army maneuver would constitute the most effective assistance that could be given the Italians.

This plan of operations with far-reaching objectives was obviously influenced by the German experience during the French campaign.

It was based on the assumption that Yugoslav resistance in front of the XL Panzer Corps would crumble within a short time under the impact of the German assault.

The motorized elements would then continue their drive and, taking advantage of their high degree of mobility, would thrust across the wide gap between the Greek First and Second Armies long before the Greek command had time to regroup its forces.

Remains of a bunker

Remains of a bunker

In anticipation of this move, the enemy command could either move up the newly arrived British forces or pull back the Greek First Army from Albania and form reserves that could block the German advance from the north. Given the difficult terrain conditions it seemed doubtful whether this could be achieved with the necessary speed.

The other XVIII Mountain Corps units advanced step by step under great hardship. Each individual group of fortifications had to be reduced by a combination of frontal and enveloping attacks with strong tactical air support.

A recent image of a destroyed bunker - Most of the bunkers were destroyed by the Bulgarian occupation forces, the allies of the nazis, following the capitulation of Greece. During the course of the war and when it became clear that the Germans were losing, the Bulgarians swiftly changed sides and became allies of the Russians.

A recent image of a destroyed bunker – Most of the bunkers were destroyed by the Bulgarian occupation forces, the allies of the Nazis, following the capitulation of Greece. During the war and when it became clear that the Germans were losing, the Bulgarians swiftly changed sides and became allies of the Russians.

The 5th Mountain Division together v ith the reinforced 125th Infantry Regiment penetrated the Strimon defenses on 7 April and, attacking along both banks of the river, cleaned out one bunker after another. After repelling several counterattacks, the division reached Neon Petritsi, thus gaining access to the Rupul Gorge from the south.

A downed aircraft, possibly somewhere near the Metaxas Line

A downed aircraft, possibly somewhere near the Metaxas Line

The 125th Infantry Regiment, which was attacking the gorge from the north, suffered such heavy casualties that it had to be withdrawn from further action after it had reached its objective. The 72d Infantry Division, which advanced from Nevrokopi across the mountains, was handicapped by a shortage of pack animals, medium artillery, and mountain equipment.

To be continued…

Many thanks to Pierre Kosmidis / pierrekosmidis.blogspot.gr

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