Greek Resistance

Greek Resistance

The Greek Resistance ( _el. Εθνική Αντίσταση, i.e. "National Resistance") is the blanket term for a number of armed and unarmed groups from across the political spectrum that resisted the Axis Occupation of Greece in the period 1941-1944 during the Second World War.


The rise of resistance movements in Greece was precipitated by the invasion and occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany (and its allies Italy and Bulgaria) from 1941 to 1944. Italy led the way with its attempted invasion from Albania in 1940, which was repelled by the Greek Army. After the German invasion, the occupation of Athens and the fall of Crete, King George II and his government escaped to Egypt, where they proclaimed a government-in-exile, recognised by the Western Allies, but not the Soviet Union. The Western Allies actively encouraged, even coerced, the King to appoint centrist, moderate ministers; only two of his ministers were members of the dictatorial government that had governed Greece before the German invasion. Some in the left-wing resistance claimed the government to be illegitimate, on account of its roots in the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941. Regardless of its pretensions, or of the dissenters, the government's inability to influence the governance of Greece rendered it irrelevant in the minds of most Greek people.

The Germans set up a collaborationist government, headed by General Georgios Tsolakoglou, already before entering Athens. This government however, lacked legitimacy and support, being utterly dependent on the German and Italian occupation authorities, and discredited because of its inability to prevent the cession of most of northeastern Greece to Bulgaria. The puppet regime was further undermined when economic mismanagement in wartime conditions created runaway inflation, acute food shortages, and even famine, amongst the Greek civilian population. Some high-profile officers of the pre-war Greek regime served the Germans in various posts.

First resistance acts

The first resistance act in Greece took place in Athens, on the night of 30 May 1941, even before the end of the Battle of Crete. Two young students, Apostolos Siantas, a law student, and Manolis Glezos, a student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, secretly climbed the northwest face of the Acropolis and tore down the swastika banner which had been placed there by the occupation authorities.

The first wider resistance movements occurred in northern Greece, where the Bulgarian annexation of Greek territories had inflamed nationalist passions. The first mass uprising occurred around the town of Drama in Eastern Macedonia, in the Bulgarian occupation zone. The Bulgarian authorities had initiated large-scale Bulgarization policies, causing the Greek population's reaction. During the night of 28 - 29 September 1941 the people of Drama and its outskirts rose up. This badly-organized revolt was suppressed by the Bulgarian Army, which executed 3,000 civilians in the city of Drama and the village of Doxato.At the same time, large demonstrations were organized in Greek Macedonian cities by the Defenders of Northern Greece (YVE), a right-wing organization, in protest to the Bulgarian annexation of Greek territories.

Armed bands ("andartes") first appeared in the mountains of Macedonia by October 1941, and the first armed clashes resulted in 488 civilians being shot in reprisals by the Germans, which succeeded in severely limiting Resistance activity during the next few months. [Mazower (2001), p. 87-88] However, these harsh actions, together with the plundering of Greece's resources by the Germans, helped much to reduce the Greeks' initial awe and respect towards the Wehrmacht and turn them against the occupiers.

The establishment of the first resistance groups

The lack of a legitimate government and the inactivity of the established political class created a power vacuum and meant an absence of a rallying point for the Greek people. Most officers and citizens who wanted to continue the fight fled to the British-controlled Middle East, and those who remained behind were unsure of their prospects against the Wehrmacht. This situation resulted in the creation of several new groupings, where the pre-war establishment was largely absent, which assumed the role of resisting the occupation powers.

The first major resistance group to be founded was the Venizelist-oriented National Republican Greek League (EDES), led by a former army officer, Colonel Napoleon Zervas, with exiled republican General Nikolaos Plastiras as its nominal head. Next came the KKE-inspired National Liberation Front (EAM), founded in 27 September 1941 on a "broad united front against fascism" principle, which succeeded in attracting many non-Communists. EAM evolved into the largest resistance group and the largest mass movement seen until then in Greece. The third major group was the liberal and anti-monarchist National and Social Liberation (EKKA), led by Georgios Kartalis as its political speaker and Colonel Dimitrios Psarros as its military head.

Another organization, controlled by the KKE, was the paramilitary OPLA. In the area of Florina there was also the Slavo-Macedonian organization NOF, which changed its name to SNOF during the third phase of the civil war.

Resistance in the mountains - "Andartiko"

Greece is a mountainous country, with a long tradition in guerrilla warfare, dating back to the days of the klephts of the Ottoman period and the bandits of the 19th century, who often enjoyed folk-hero status. In the 1940s, the countryside was extremely poor, the road network primitive, and state control outside the cities usually exercised by the trio of gendarme, priest and teacher. But by 1942, due to the weakness of the central government in Athens, the countryside was gradually slipping out of its control, while the Resistance groups had acquired a firm and wide-ranging organization, parallel and more effective than that of the official state.

Emergence of the armed resistance

In February 1942, EAM’s central Committee decided to form a military corps, called the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS), that would first operate in the mountains of Central Greece, with Aris Velouchiotis as their chief captain. Later, on 28 July 1942, Napoleon Zervas announced the foundation of the "National Groups of Greek Guerrillas" (EOEA), as EDES' military arm, to operate, at first, in the region of Aetoloakarnania. EKKA also formed a military corps, the "5/42 Evzones Regiment" under Dimitrios Psarros, that was mainly localized in the area of Mount Giona.

Until the summer of 1942, the occupation authorities had been little troubled by the armed Resistance, which was still in its infancy. The Italians in particular, in control of most of the countryside, considered the situation to have been normalized. [Mazower (2001), p. 106-107] From that point, however, the Resistance gained pace, with EAM/ELAS in particular expanding rapidly, with armed groups attacking and disarming local gendarmerie stations and isolated Italian outposts, or touring the villages and giving speeches. The Italians were forced to re-evaluate their assessment, and take such measures such as the deportation of Army officers to camps in Italy and Germany, which naturally only encouraged the latter to join the underground "en masse" by escaping "to the mountains". [Mazower (2001), p. 132-133]

These developments emerged most dramatically as the Greek Resistance announced its presence to the world with one of the war's most spectacular sabotage acts, the blowing up of the Gorgopotamos railway bridge, linking northern and southern Greece, on 25 November 1942. This operation was the result of British mediation between ELAS and EDES (Operation "Harling"), carried out by 12 British SOE saboteurs and a joint ELAS-EDES force. This was the first and last time that the two major Resistance groups would cooperate, due to the rapidly developing rivalry and ideological retrenchment between them.

The establishment of "Free Greece"

Nevertheless, constant attacks and acts of sabotage followed against the Italians, such as the Battle of Fardykampos, resulting in the capture of several hundred Italian soldiers and significant amounts of equipment. By the late spring of 1943, the Italians were forced to withdraw from several areas. The towns of Karditsa, Grevena, Trikkala, Metsovon and others were liberated by July. The Axis forces and their collaborators remained in control only of the main towns and the connecting roads, with the interior left to the "andartes". This was "Free Greece", stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Aegean and from the borders of the German zone in Macedonia to Boeotia, a territory of 30,000 km² and 750,000 inhabitants.

Italian collapse and German takeover

By this time (July 1943), the overall strength of the "andartes" was around 20 [German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 7.II] -30,000 [Mazower (2001), p. 137] , with most belonging to the ELAS, newly under the command of General Stefanos Sarafis. EAM/ELAS was by that time the only truly nationwide Resistance group, as EDES was limited in operations to Epirus, and EKKA operated in a small area in Central Greece. [Mazower (2001), p. 137] The Italian capitulation in September 1943 provided a windfall for the Resistance, as the Italian Army in many places simply disintegrated. Most Italian troops were swiftly disarmed and interned by the Germans, but in many places significant amounts of weaponry and equipment, as well as men, fell into the hands of the Resistance. The most spectacular case was that of the "Pinerolo" division and the "Aosta" Cavalry Regiment, which went completely over to the EAMite "andartes". [German Antiguerrilla Operations, Ch. 8.III]

The Germans now took over the Italian zone, and soon proved to be a totally different opponent from the demoralized, war-weary and far less brutal Italians. Already since the early summer of 1943, German troops had been pouring into Greece, fearing an Allied landing there (in fact falling victims to a grand-scale Allied strategic deception operation, "Operation Barclay"). Soon they became involved in wide-ranging counterguerrilla operations, which they carried out with great ruthlessness, based on their experiences in Yugoslavia. In the course of these operations, mass reprisals were carried out, resulting in war crimes such as at Kommeno on August 16, the Massacre of Kalavryta in December or the Massacre of Distomo in June 1944. At the same time, hundreds of villages were systematically torched and almost one million Greeks left homeless. [Mazower (2001), p. 155]

Prelude to Civil War: the first conflicts

Despite the signing of an agreement in May 1943 between the three main Resistance groups (EAM/ELAS, EDES and EKKA) to cooperate and to subject themselves to the Allied Middle East High Command under General Wilson (the "National Bands Agreement"), in the political field, the mutual mistrust between EAM and the other groups escalated. EAM was the dominant political and military force in Greece, and EDES and EKKA, along with the British and the Greek government-in-exile, feared that after the inevitable German withdrawal, it would try to dominate the country. This prospect was not only linked with the increasing distrust shown by many conservative and traditional liberal members of the Greek society towards the Communists and EAM, but also with British fears of "losing Greece", which they considered a vital part of their sphere of influence. EAM, on its part, considered itself the only true resistance group, as it contributed the overwhelming majority of activities against the Axis. Its leadership was rightly distrustful of British policies for Greece, and viewed Zervas' wooing of London and King George with suspicion, especially after it surfaced that he had established an unofficial truce with the Germans in Epirus. [Mazower (2001), p. 141-43]

At the same time, EAM found itself under attack by the Germans and their collaborators. Dominated by the old political class, and looking already to the oncoming post-Liberation era, the new Rallis government established the notorious Security Battalions, with the blessing of the German authorities, in order to fight exclusively against ELAS. Other anti-communist fringe groups, such as the royalist Organization "X", received arms and funding.

A virtual civil war was now being waged under the eyes of the Germans. In October 1943, ELAS attacked EDES. This conflict continued until February 1944, when the British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka agreement). But the fight continued amongst the Battalions and ELAS, even in the streets of Athens, until the German withdrawal in October 1944. In March, EAM established a rival government in Free Greece, the Political Committee of National Liberation, clearly staking its claim to a major role in post-war Greece. At this point, ELAS made a fatal move: on Easter Monday, 17 April 1944, ELAS forces attacked and destroyed EKKA's 5/42 Regiment. Colonel Psarros was captured and executed, as were many of his men. This action drove many liberals and moderates, especially in the cities, towards the right, and cemented the rift between the two segments of the Greek population.

Resistance in the islands and Crete

The resistance in Crete was centred in the mountainous interior, and despite the heavy presence of German troops, developed significant activity, most notable being the abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe and the battle of Trahili. Notable figures of the Cretan Resistance include Patrick Leigh Fermor and George Psychoundakis.

Resistance in the cities

Resistance in the cities was organized quickly, but of necessity groups were small and fragmented. The cities, and the working-class suburbs of Athens in particular, witnessed appalling suffering in the winter of 1941-42, when food confiscations and disrupted communications caused widespread famine and perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths. This caused fertile ground for recruitment, but lack of equipment, funds and organization limited the spread of the resistance. The main roles of resistance operatives were intelligence and sabotage, mostly in cooperation with British Intelligence. One of the earliest jobs of the urban resistance was helping stranded Commonwealth soldiers escape. The resistance groups stayed in touch with British handlers through wireless sets, met and helped British spies and saboteurs that parachuted in, provided intelligence, conducted propaganda efforts, and ran escape networks for allied operatives and Greek young men wishing to join the Hellenic forces in exile. Wireless equipment, money, weapons and other support was mainly supplied by British Intelligence, but it was never enough. Fragmentation of groups, the need for secrecy, and emerging conflicts between right and left, monarchists and republicans, did not help. Urban resistance work was very dangerous: operatives were always in danger of arrest and summary execution, and suffered heavy casualties. Captured fighters were routinely tortured by the Abwehr and the Gestapo, and confessions used to roll up networks. The job of wireless operators was perhaps the most dangerous, since the Germans used direction-finding equipment to pinpoint the location of transmitters; operators were often shot on the spot, and those were the lucky ones, since immediate execution prevented torture.

Urban protest

One of the most important forms of resistance were the mass protest movements. The first such event occurred during the national anniversary of 25 March 1942, when students attempted to lay a wreath at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. This resulted in clashes with mounted "Carabinieri", and marked the awakening of the spirit of Resistance amongst the wider urban population. Soon after, on 12-14 April, the "TTT" (Telecommunications & Postal) workers began a strike in Athens, which spread throughout the country. Initially the strikers' demands were financial, but it quickly assumed a political aspect, as the strike was encouraged by EAM's labour union organization, EEAM. Finally, the strike ended on April 21, with the full capitulation of the collaborationist government to the strikers' demands, including the immediate release of arrested strike leaders. [Mazower (2001), p.112]

In early 1943, rumours spread of a planned mobilization of the labour force by the occupation authorities, with the intent of sending them to work in Germany. The first reactions began amongst students on 7 February, but soon grew in scope and volume. Throughout February, successive strikes and demonstrations paralyzed Athens, culminating in a massive rally on the 24th. The tense climate was amply displayed at the funeral of Greece's national poet, Kostis Palamas, on 28 February, which turned into an anti-Axis demonstration. Finally, after another general strike organized by EAM on March 5, the government formally announced that all plans for civil mobilization were dropped. [Mazower (2001), pp.115-120] It was a huge victory, unique in occupied Europe, which helped the protest movement increase its activity throughout the spring and summer of 1943. It also marked the growth of EAM's popularity and influence, which was displayed at the general strike of June 25, where an estimated 100,000 people took part in protest rallies in Athens. [Mazower (2001), pp.120-121]

Risks involved

Resisting the Axis occupation was fraught with risks. Foremost among these for the partisans was death in combat as the German military forces were far superior. However, the guerilla fighters also had to face brutal environmental conditions in the mountains of Greece, often poorly clothed and shod.

The resistance also involved risks for ordinary Greeks. Attacks often incited reprisal killings of civilians by the German occupying forces. Villages were burned and its inhabitants massacred. The Germans also resorted to hostage taking. Quotas were even introduced determining the number of civilians or hostages to be killed in response to the death or wounding of German soldiers [ Mazower, "Inside Hitler's Greece" p.177 ] .

Table of main resistance groups

Notable Resistance members

See also

*French Resistance
*Armia Krajowa
*Partisans (Yugoslavia)

The Resistance remembered

External links

* [ Andartikos - a short history of the Greek Resistance, 1941-5] on]
* [ Official site of the documentary film "The 11th Day" which contains an extensive interview with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, and documents the Battle of Trahili, filmed in 2003.]



* W. Byford-Jones, "The Greek Trilogy: Resistance-Liberation-Revolution", London 1945
* R. Capell, "Simiomata: A Greek Note Book 1944-45", London 1946
* W. S. Churchill, "The Second World War"
* N.G.L. Hammond, Venture into Greece: With the Guerillas, 1943-44, London, 1983. (Like Woodhouse, he was a member of the British Military Mission)
* Reginald Leeper, When Greek Meets Greek: On the War in Greece, 1943-1945
* C. M. Woodhouse," Apple of Discord: A Survey of Recent Greek Politics in their International Setting", London 1948 (Woodhouse was a member of the British Military Mission to Greece during the war)
* Center of Military History, [ German Antiguerrilla Operations in The Balkans (1941-1944)] Washington DC: United States Army.

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