By Pierre Kosmidis
On 14 November 1940, three hundred German bombers dropped 500 tons of explosives, 33,000 incendiary bombs and dozens of parachute mines on the industrial city of Coventry. During the raid, 507 civilians were killed and 420 seriously injured.
Europe was under the nazi boot, with the exception of the neutral countries like Switzerland, Spain etc. One nation stood against the Axis, apart from Britain: Greece was at war with the Italians and would go on to fight a series of battles which remained in history as an epic struggle in the most adverse winter conditions on the mountains of Epirus and Albania.
At the other side of the continent, Greece, facing the fascist hordes of Benito Mussolini, started a counter-offensive, barely two weeks after the Italian assault on October 28, 1940, which made the Italians hastily retreat deep into Albanian soil.
It was the first allied victory and caused astonishment to the world, as it made friends and enemies recognise that «heroes fight like Greeks». Up until then, the Axis with its pioneer strategic planning and tactic employment of mechanised and airborne forces advanced all over continental Europe.
In contrast, it took only 45 days for the occupation of France, despite the strong British military assistance, 18 for Belgium; 5 for the Netherlands; while Denmark had succumbed within 12 hours and Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Albania had either joined or surrendered without a fight to the Axis.
During this battle, approximately 14,000 Greek soldiers were sacrificed, up to the final occupation of Greece, against the loss of 28,000 soldiers of the opponent forces.
The threat from the Axis, however, came from the unexpectedly successful Hellenic counter-offensive in northern Epirus which started on 14 November 1940, just two days after the completion of the general mobilisation of Greece.
On 22 November 1940, the Hellenic forces seized Coriza (Korçë), the first town lost by the Axis forces since the beginning of the war.
Subsequently, on 13 December 1940, Hitler issued his Order Number 20 code named operation “Marita”, in which he explained that «… given the menacing situation in Albania, it is of twofold importance to cancel the effort of the English to organise -under the screen of the Balkan front- an air base particularly dangerous for both the Italians and the oil wells in Romania.
In this light:
a) Within the next months forces should assemble in southern Romania that were gradually to be reinforced (and)
b) as soon as the weather conditions permit -perhaps in March […] they would be employed in order to occupy, through Bulgaria the northern coast of the Aegean Sea and, if necessary, all mainland Greece».
Here is a characteristic excerpt from the speech of the British parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of War Transport (including Shipping) Philip Noel Baker, on 28 October 1942, for the first anniversary of «OCHI» (the Greek «NO» to the Italians):
«Had Greece succumbed without a fight to the Axis attacks, no one would have had the right to blame it.
I say this while we knew then and we know even better now, what it would have meant for us if Greece had surrendered without a fight.
The Axis would then be able to develop lines of communication throughout Europe and its planes and submarines would then dominate across the Mediterranean from the Greek coasts.
Our defence in Egypt would be much harder. Syria, Iraq and Cyprus would be taken over by the Axis and Turkey would also be engulfed.
The oilfields of the Middle East would be at the disposal of the Axis. The rear door of Caucasus would be wide open and we would lose the entire Middle East and perhaps the war.
Thanks to the Greek defence we were given the time first to fend off and then crash the Italian army, which moved from Libya against Egypt, to clear up the Red Sea from enemy ships, to move the American aid to the Middle East and to overcome the hostile threat against it.
The results of the Greek defence are even felt today in our struggles.
If Stalingrad and the Caucasus stand up today to the German pressure, it is not unrelated to the Greek defence, by which we are benefiting even two entire years later.
The world really has no right to forget the feats of the Greeks at this historic moment».