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October 28, 1940: Greece Has a Long History of Defending the West
Only five of 28 NATO members meet the alliance goal of dedicating two percent of gross domestic product to defense: the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland and Greece. As threats increase around the European continent, including a potential conflict between Russia and the Baltic states, NATO members need to increase defense spending obligations to be able to respond with strength. One example of the significance of allies is Greece’s defeat of the Italians in World War II, marking the first victory against the Axis, and delaying Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
World War II took place from 1939 to 1945 and was a battle between western democracy and totalitarianism, a political system in which the state holds total power over society and controls all aspects of public and private life. The two military alliances that formed were the allies and the Axis. In 1939, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini viewed Greece as an easy conquest and decided to occupy the country. First, the Italians torpedoed the Greek cruiser Elli and then Mussolini presented an ultimatum to Athens in writing on October 28, 1940 demanding for Greece to allow Italian troops to enter the country or face attack. Greek Dictator Ioannis Metaxas initially hoped to remain neutral during the war, but he rejected the ultimatum. As a result, Italian troops began entering Greece from Albania and the west coast.
Even though Mussolini’s troops were armed with tanks, guns, dive bombers and fighter planes, they proved ineffective against the Greeks. Italian troops had difficulty navigating through the mountainous terrain, and overcoming the Greeks’ will to protect their homeland and survive. The mechanized tactics that allowed the Germans to achieve quick advances in Poland, Belgium and France were ineffective in Greece. After six weeks of battle, a population of only 7 million Greeks forced the Italians back to Albania. Greece’s military strategy and defense skills impressed the world because it was the first defeat of the Axis and seven months’ time was gained due to the courageousness of the Greeks.
The first defeat of the Axis changed the climate of the war. The victory demonstrated the low morale of the Italian troops, gave hope and faith to the British and other distraught nations and played a critical role in saving Europe and the Western world from totalitarian rule. Media outlets at the time compared the unexpected conquest to the famous battles of the American Revolution: Lexington, Valley Forge and Bunker Hill. Spain was so impressed with the defeat that it signed a financial treaty with England stating it will not join the Axis. Greeks are so proud of this defeat that each year October 28th is celebrated as a national day of pride as “OXI Day” (which means “no”).
Since the Greeks pushed the Italian forces back to Albania, the United Kingdom gained advantage by establishing bases on Greek islands, the most important in Crete, tightening the blockade in the Mediterranean and cutting Italy’s lines of communication to Albania across the Adriatic and to Africa. The British were also able to transfer ships to transport troops and equipment from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean and from Australia to ports in the Red Sea to defend the Suez Canal and to invade Libya. England supported the Greek army in the air and placed troops and equipment in Greece.
While Europe was celebrating, Hitler decided to send troops to attack Greece from the north and east in the spring of 1941, delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union. Instead of surrendering, Greece once again chose to fight and kept the invaders at bay for weeks with help from the British. As a result, Hitler lost men and material and more time was gained for the allies to prepare. As the Germans advanced against Greek and British forces, the Greek government of King George II, the Greek Army and the British Expeditionary Force along with Australians and New Zealanders were evacuated to the Greek island of Crete.
Greek women fought with men during these invasions. They would roll rocks on the heads of the enemy, shovel snow to clear the roads so Greek soldiers could pursue the opponent, and would carry 80-pound packs of supply and ammunition up steep mountains. Women also plowed deep trenches in the farmland where enemy planes might land and the uneven ground caused many German planes to crash. Greek women even used machine guns to down enemy planes from the sky.
Eventually, Crete was taken over by the Germans, Italians and Bulgarians. In response, Greeks traveled in small boats to Egypt to continue fighting with the allies in North Africa and later in the invasion of Italy. The desert front in Egypt consisted of two brigades, an Air Force of 5,000 men, and 30 Greek warships operated with the naval units of the allies in the North Sea. Greek merchant vessels would also provide assistance to the Russian fleet and air force in large naval operations. Once again, many women were among the fighters in North Africa. Greek guerillas were also resisting the Axis on the mainland and in other parts of Greece.
Greek guerillas along with Australians and New Zealanders would creep from the mountains and destroy invaders’ communications lines and bridges, and attack German military posts and Bulgarian, German and Italian officers in the night. Guerilla tactics were successful because there were few roads that linked Greece and central Europe. Blowing up bridges would disrupt rail traffic to and from Athens for days.
As a result of the German invasion, about 100,000 Greeks died of starvation in the first year. The country grew enough food to feed the population, but the government was unable to organize the collection and transportation of the goods. The Greek population was on the brink of extinction as 1,000 people a day were dying and about one in seven children survived. King George II met with American leaders and addressed the U.S. Congress, asking for aid to Greece. The world tried their best to help: the U.S. provided food and financial help through the Greek War Relief Association and the Red Cross, Canada donated 15,000 tons of wheat monthly, and assistance was also provided by the International, Swiss, and Swedish Red Cross.
Despite the European continent’s suffering, Greece and about 20 other countries wrote off a large chunk of German loans after World War II and restructured the remaining debt by extending the repayment schedule, and granting a lower interest rate in the 1953 London Agreement. West Germany’s debt repayment schedule was linked to its ability to pay because the deal tied repayment to its current and expected trade surpluses. Thus, Germany was free of difficult debt payments, trading partners were incentivized to buy German goods, and its economy was able to grow. Perhaps such a sweet deal should be given to Greece today to help its struggling economy.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged the Greek’s determination to battle totalitarianism with the allies in WWII. Not only did Greece protect its homeland, marking the first defeat of the Axis in WWII, but it allowed the British to tighten the blockade in the Mediterranean and cut Italy’s communication lines, allowing for extra months of time for allies to prepare. As a result, Greece played a crucial role in saving western democracy and defeating the spread of totalitarianism by allowing allies to create strategic bases that assisted with victory. Greece’s experience is one example that illustrates the importance of the NATO alliance – countries that stick together will have more opportunities to defend themselves and each other as they respond to crises. However, to be able to protect one another, members of the alliance must all do their part by investing in defense capabilities that at least meet the minimum NATO requirement on spending.