Friday, May 25, 2012

From which legends are born

We just returned from a trip to northern Greece with a bunch of our neighbors. It included a stop at the Roupel Fortress (on the Metaxis Line), where some 900 Greek troops held 6,500 Germans with Luftwaffe support at bay for four days. One of the young Greek Army soldiers who are part of the border guards and visitor guide detachment spoke English, so we were able to have a nice chat, in addition to the truly excellent presentation by his colleague, which was in Greek, and thus only partially understandable. Talk about dominant terrain!
The battle is the stuff from which legend is born. The Greek defenders acquitted themselves so well that German General List took two very unusual actions. First, when the garrison fell, he directed that the Greek soldiers be afforded full military courtesy, to include an order that Germans render a proper salute to any Greek of higher rank that they encountered. Second, List did not take any Greeks into captivity, but had them leave their weapons in place and allowed them to safely "rejoin their compatriots" in the city of Serres. None of List's records or reports used the terms "defeat", "surrender" or "retreat" in reference to the Greek Army. Local legend interprets this photo as a German Brigade Commander initiating a salute to the Greek Garrison Commander. We were able to walk through some of the underground facilities. One advantage the Greeks held was that since virtually all of the facilities were underground, German intel was unable to make an estimate of the Greek force defending Roupel Pass. The resistance was so fierce, the Germans over estimated the Greek force by a few orders of magnitude. It was a complete underground base, with only gun ports fighting positions above ground. The "tunnels" have survived quite well since then, attesting to the quality of the construction. Amazing to see the equivalent of a fully underground base. The English speaking soldier said that he enjoyed the assignment. Roupel is in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the Bulgarian border. He alternated between "honor guard" duty for visitors and "border guard". Much of the border protection (primarily to prevent illegal immigration) facilities still use the Metaxis Line positions, so he said he spends every duty day "walking in military history".


  1. What a cool posting.

    I've always wondered if the traditional enmity between Greek and Turk have to do with their both being hard men from the mountains and islands?

    And just as a passing observation, what freaking awful terrain for a mechanized army to attack over. I'd hated to have been one of List's landsers looking at that defense back in the day. Gives me shudders as it is...

  2. Hey, Chief. Attacking through a relatively narrow pass with dug in defensive positions on all sides? Piece of cake.

    Unfortunately, the pic I took of the open plain to the north was too fuzzy to post. Not only did they have the pass to contend with, but they were sitting ducks in the approach. They actually did not make it into the pass until after the defenders were just about out of ammo. Had List not had significant air support, the battle might have lasted longer. They were able to interdict resupply with their Junkers.

    Actually, the young troop I spoke with was really up to snuff on the tactical considerations of the battle. I told him that it brought to mind what we euphemistically called the potential situation at the Fulda Pass, should Ivan have attacked - "enjoying a truly target rich environment". He loved it and was going to share it with his colleagues. It definitely describes what the Greeks faced at Roupel in 1941.

    One portion of the original tunnel complex is kept in excellent repair as a memorial museum. Very impressive.

  3. Thermopylae underground. More pictures here.


  4. Al - General List had a darker side when during the occupation his troops met with the Greek Resistance.

  5. Mike

    Yes, he was one to the 10 or so tried for reprisals, hostage taking, plundering and the like in the "Hostages Trial". List received a life sentence, but was released after 4 years.

    Since we are digging into notable events in Greece, during the War, one rather uplifting story comes from our little island, where a local monk, Father Philotheos, was able to convince the local German commander to spare the lives of 125 islanders from "reprisal executions" ordered in the wake of an attack on the German airfield here.

  6. The stories of Nikolas Stellas and Father Philotheos bring to mind another brave Greek, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens. He took a very strong and public stance against the persecution of the Jews in Greece. Along with directing a program of providing baptism certificates for Jews, providing refuge in monasteries, directing the clergy to provide refuge for Jews in their homes and encouraging the people to do the same, he directed the clergy to sermonize against the persecution of the Jews.

    From the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation:

    When all official appeals to stop the deportations failed, Archbishop Damaskinos spearheaded a direct appeal to the Germans, in the form of a letter composed by the famous Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and signed by prominent Greek citizens, in a bold attempt to appeal to the hearts and minds of the occupying authorities, in defense of the Jews who were being persecuted.

    The letter incited the rage of the Nazi general Stroop, who threatened the Archbishop with death by a firing squad. Damaskinos’ response was, ”Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” The simple courage of the religious leader’s reply caught the Nazi commander off guard, and his life was spared.

    The appeal of the Archbishop and his fellow Greeks is unique; there is no similar document of protest of the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other European country.

    OK, a little bit of pro-Greek history, but they could use a bit of focus on their brighter bits of recent history right now.

  7. Great post, Al! Thanks for sharing it. I did not know anything about this battle.

  8. Andy-
    Until our bus began the drive up the mountain, the wife and I had no idea what "Roupel" was. The one English speaking couple on the trip with us are from our village, and the wife leaned over and said, "You will enjoy this. It's a famous WWII battlefield were a few Greeks held off many more Germans for a few days."

    There isn't much written in English about the Metaxis Line defense, and no real battle analysis. The soldier told me that the Greek Command and Staff College makes a "battlefield walk" there with each class. He was the equivalent of a PFC, as best I could tell, yet was fully conversant with pointing out how many of the artillery emplacements were "located on the reverse slope" for added protection, etc. Another factor that tipped the scales for the Germans was the Luftwaffe, which the Greeks could only engage with small arms. The artillery piece in the picture above was put out of commission when one of the Junkers the Greeks were able to shoot down crashed into it! There were concrete mortar pits with just a 3 foot circular opening for the tube to fire through. The openings were funnel shaped to allow angle of fire.

    We made the trip with the island Senior Citizen Association to see and learn more about our adopted "home". This was one stop along the way that, for me, was far beyond my expectations.

  9. Al -

    Thanks for the great links on the admirable Philotheos & Damaskinos. Exemplary men!

    At Roupel, the Greek Army would probably have lasted even longer had not the majority of their divisions been deep in the mountains of Albania after kicking Mussolini's troops out of northwestern Greece.

  10. Nice post Al. The German Army unit involved seems to have been the 5th Mountain Division. No mention of the battle at all in the OKW Kriegstagebuch, however if you could access that of the 12th Army from that time, it might be interesting . . .

  11. seydlitz-

    Yes, not much recorded in detail. Roupel was just one of two dozen fortresses in the Metaxis line, and I'm not sure why it was the one that has been singled out as a national monument. Possibly due to it's dominant position at the Roupel Pass, it is a visually more stirring location to establish a formal site for remembrance?

    Why more attention has not been drawn to this brief battle is open to debate. Of course, it is a losing battle for the Greeks, although one of significant tenacity by the Greek forces. Obviously, Greeks view it in terms of the heroism and tenacity that was displayed.

    I doubt the Brits had any incentive to reflect on the battle, as they were not significant contributors on the Metaxis Line, and their overall contribution to the defense of Greece was more symbolic than effective. However some Brits postulated that shoring up the Greek front delayed Hitler's invasion of Russia, thereby contributing to the weather induced failure of that operation. That could be a sort of "feather in the Brits' cap", even though the Brits were already discussing their withdrawal as soon as the first shot was fired.

    In a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler said, "Historical justice obliges me to state that of the enemies who took up positions against us, the Greek soldier particularly fought with the highest courage. He capitulated only when further resistance had become impossible and useless." Not to diminish his compliments to the Greeks, which were spot on, but Hitler was also belittling the Brits in that speech, so he may have given the Greeks their just due only to denigrate the Brits by comparison.

    All in all, the battle is a good tactical study in terms of the use of defensive terrain, as well as an example of battlefield courage. It would be nice to have some decent topo maps with order of battle info, however.

  12. Obviously for the Greeks it's a great example of their military prowess. The 5th Mountain Division was considered an elite formation and later helped turn the tables at Crete, so holding them back, even with the advantages of terrain was no small feat.

    Agree too that for the Brits this was not their best moment, this campaign seems to reflect their lowest point in the war.

  13. "Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks"

  14. The young fellow giving the formal presentation referred to the 5th Mountain as "Special Forces", as best I could understand the Greek. One feisty old timer in our village was at one of the Metaxa Line fortresses during the battle. He is afforded a role of honor in our little memorial ceremony on OXI Day and Greek independence Day, placing the first wreath at the monument in the square. Unfortunately he speaks no English, and my Greek is far too limited to engage him in a meaningful conversation. The day he learned I was retired Army, he straightened and gave me a salute. Since I had previously learned about his service, I returned it with pleasure.

    I watched a late 1950's era Greek movie (I love B&W) set during WWII, and from the Greek I could understand, it was less than complimentary to the Brits. The Brit officers spoke English (with a significant Greek accent), with Greek subtitles, and they were portrayed as half-hearted about their being diverted from Africa to assist in Greece. The Aussie troops were portrayed as solid fighters, but the Reluctance of the Brits was quite evident. Of course, the greek fighters were portrayed as quite valiant, and while I did not question it too much, the trip to Roupel, and the subsequent reading that instigated, confirmed the movie's portrayal.

    To be frank, having begun my journey in the Corps, my WWII historical interests and digging were primarily Pacific Theater until recent years.

  15. I love B&W films as well.

    I recommend a short memoir by Baron von der Heydte, who parachuted over Crete. It's called "Daedalus Returned" and in it he has some very interesting comments of his experiences. He had only positive things to say about the Greeks.

  16. Al -

    Your post makes one eager to learn more. And not just about April 41. The Greco-Italian War! Smyrna in 1922! WW1 and earlier (is it true your Bishop Damaskinos was a buck private in the Balkan Wars?)!

  17. Mike-
    Yes, +Damaskinos enlisted in the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars, but I don't much else other than that. He was on the cover of the 1 Oct 1945 issue of Time.

    Interesting you mention Smyrna. Our little farming village was resettled by three refugees from Smyrna in 1922, and is now primarily populated by their descendants. The three men were each given a large tract of land by the monks of nearby 16th century St George Monastery, where they were originally given shelter upon their arrival on Paros. The tracts were large because the land was difficult to farm (very little topsoil over the marble strata), and the monks wanted to be sure they were able to subsist and provide for subsequent generations. It was land donated to the monastery over the decades by families seeking their fortune elsewhere, and the monks are said to have told the three men, "As other have begun new lives in other new lands, begin your new lives on this new land." Our little 0.15 acre of property is a piece of that land, purchased from Georgios Kedronedes, the son of one of the three refugees, who spoke no English and passed away last year. Georgios and I would pass many an afternoon drinking coffee as he encouraged my stumbling Greek. He would regularly bring us fresh fruits and vegetables from his farm land, and expressed his pleasure at being able to provide the land for our new, permanent home.

    Every September, our little village's association puts on an "Asia Minor Festival" to commemorate the Greeks of Smyrna and Asia Minor. We will sponsor singers and dancers from one of the other "Catastrophe" refugee settled community in Greece to join our singers and dancers to present an evening of traditional song, dance and refreshments for all comers. Some pics are here. Our lively band of 80 or so villagers will entertain 700 to 900 guests with music, dance and refreshments! (Ignore the camera date/time stamp on the pics. I never reset the damn thing! They are from the 2011 festival.)

    Which brings up another heroic Greek bishop, Saint Chrysostomos of Smyrna, who was brutally tortured and martyred by the Turks in 1922. +Chrysostomos was offered the opportunity to leave embattled Smyrna several times, but said that a priest stays with his flock. We commemorate him at every church service in our village, and the auxiliary chapel in our main church is dedicated to him.

    It's truly an experience living here.

  18. Al-

    Looked up the price of the book I had recommended. About $100 new and $75 used. I bought mine for $29 new, same limited edition as now advertised, but five years ago. One of the better investments I've made in the last few years . . .

  19. Al - Great pics, thanks for sharing. I'm trying to figure out which picture you are in. Or maybe you are sitting just out of the frame in pic #16 that the smiling Greek dancer is looking down on?

  20. Mike

    As a professional photographer friends says:

    It's great being the photographer. No one ever sees how ugly you are!