Monday, November 03, 2008


Every year, on certain evenings towards the end of November, my late grandmother's eyes would glaze over as she would unconsciously clutch her belly. "It was around about this time that I gave birth to your father," she would remember. It was a very difficult and traumatic birth, notwithstanding the primitive conditions and rudimentary medical facilities of the Greek villages of that time and my grandmother suffered greatly. "I must remember to organise a mass for Panayia Vrontiani," she would continue, lost in her reverie.
Now, the monastery of Panayia Vrontiani in Samos, named thus owing to it having been built in 1566, in a magical location on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea, where it is buffeted continuously by the wind, is notable for its quaint architecture, breath-takingly intricate iconostasis and the fact that its abbot is so much of an avid fan of former King Constantine that he has converted one of the cells into a shrine to the said monarch, with its white-washed walls pasted with aged, fading and newspaper cut-outs and articles of this most unlikely of poster boys, mouldering in the damp.
The mercy and intercession of Panayia Vrontiani, according to my grandmother, at any rate, is also the primary cause of my father's safe delivery into the world and my grandmother's survival. As she languished in her excruciating labour pains, with the midwife shaking her head hopelessly and muttering something about "complications" and "God's mercy," my grandfather ran into the room, and whispered in my grandmother's ear: "There's something that has been weighing heavily on my mind that I must tell you. I've made a «τάμα» to Panayia Vrontiani that I haven't fulfilled. And I'm sure she is punishing us now." Through gritted teeth and with a face contorted in pain, my grandmother gasped: "Perhaps you should fulfil it now."
Ten years earlier, my grandfather, a soldier, was lying behind a rock, in the snow, on the precipitous crags of the Pindus ranges. All about him was shrouded in the darkness of smoke, as bullets flew and bombs exploded around him following undiscernible trajectories. Here, in the merciless tectonic folds of the mountain, it was impossible to distinguish between friend and foe. He was freezing, hungry, infested with fleas and thoroughly confused and he had to make his way, along a path, to a detachment of soldiers further up the mountain. As a bomb whizzed above him and landed right along the path that he had to take, sending up clods of earth as it cratered into a moonscape and shrapnel careering in all directions, my grandfather stood up, crossed himself and vowed: "Panagia Vrontiani, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to have a mass said for you every year." Taking hold of his rifle, he stepped onto the path. A terrific explosion flashed before him and he felt as if his head had turned into molten lava and had merged with the living rock around him. He fell to the ground. The bullet that had hit my grandfather, pierced his tin helmet, barely grazed his scalp and exited as forcefully as it had entered. My grandfather stared dumbfounded at his helmet for a while and then, regaining his composure, scurried up the slope to rejoin his companions, forgetting all about his vow.
It follows axiomatically then, that I can attribute my existence to the Italian Invasion of Greece. If the Italians had not invaded, my grandfather would never have made the vow to Panayia Vrontiani. If he had not remembered and fulfilled that vow on the night of my father's birth, then my progenitor and by consequence, my own hypostasis, would never have come in to being.
My grandfather rarely spoke about the war. He certainly never related the above incident to me. Not for him the grand strategies, the Realpolitik, the zeitgeist of ideologies that led to global conflagration. All these were but a footnote upon the page of a peaceful though frugal, rural existence. According to him, war could be best described as a combination of cold, an infestation of fleas and bone-numbing weariness. Endless marches in the mud, with one’s boots being sucked up from ones feet by the hungry, glacial quagmire were to be stoically endured, because in a mindset that has endured among the Greek people since the Persian Wars, subjugation and the deprivation of liberty could simply not be countenanced.
Thus, it is not the “OXI” of the plucky Metaxas or the superb generalship of the leaders of the Greek army that are the architects of the remarkable “Epic of 1940.” Rather, this is one of the few epics in history that celebrate not the prime movers but instead, the steadfastness of the common man and woman – especially those resolute women of Pindus who, in the absence of mules and pack horses, bore the entire munitions store of the Greek army on their backs.
It was this absolute love of liberty as the most precious of all treasures that caused the the people of Greece spontaneously to stream into the street, singing Greek patriotic songs and shouting anti-Italian slogans, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece to head to the Army's offices to enlist for the war. Uncharacteristically, the whole nation was united in the face of aggression. Even the imprisoned leader of Greece's banned Communist Party, Nikolaos Zachariadis, issued an open letter advocating resistance, although in two further letters he accused Metaxas of waging an "imperialistic" war and called upon Greek soldiers to desert their ranks and overthrow the regime.
The ensuing war was bitterly fought, harrowing and taxing for all. The Italians attacked on the morning of 28 October 1940, even before Metaxas’ resouynding “OXI,” pushing back the Greek screening forces. The "Ciamuria" Corps, augmented by Albanian collaborators, attacked towards Kalpaki, while οn its right the Littoral Group advanced along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. The Italians faced difficulties because of the harshness of the terrain, with their tanks, unable to cope with the hilly terrain or the muddy tracks that served as roads.
On 31 October the Italian Supreme Command announced that: "Our units continue to advance into Epirus and have reached the river Kalamas at several points. Unfavourable weather conditions and action by the retreating enemy are not slowing down the advances of our troops". In reality, the Italian offensive was carried out without conviction, under a leadership uncertain and divided by personal rivalries, and was already becoming exhausted. By 1 November, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defence. On that same day, the front line in Epirus was given priority over Africa by the Italian High Command. However, despite repeated attacks the Italians failed to break through the Greek defences until 9 November, when the attacks were suspended. Local Epirots attributed this to the intercession of St Kosmas, who, some 150 years earlier, had prophesised that an invading army would reach thus far, but no further.
A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of the 10,800-strong "Julia" Division over the Pindus mountains towards Metsovon, which threatened to separate the Greek forces in Epirus from those in Macedonia. "Julia" achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of the Greek force. A first Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, and met with little success. Having covered 25 miles of mountain terrain in icy rain "Julia" Division managed to capture Vovousa, 30 km north of Metsovon, but it had become clear that the Division lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue in the face of the arriving Greek reserves.
Ensuing Greek counterattacks resulted in the recapture of several villages, including Vovousa, by 4 November , practically encircling "Julia". During the next days the Alpini forces fought in atrocious weather conditions and under constant attacks by the Greek Cavalry Division led by Major-General Georgios Stanotas. However, on 8 November, the commander of "Julia", General Mario Girotti, was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt. Smolikas towards Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until by 13 November the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence, ending the "Battle of Pindus" in a complete Greek victory.
The unexpected Greek resistance caught the Italian High Command, which was expecting a 'military picnic', by surprise. The Greeks, continuously reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, launched an attack on 14 November, in the direction of Korytsa, liberating that town, to the jubilation of its Greek inhabitants.
After hard fighting, the Greek army also liberated captured Agioi Saranda, and Argyrokastron by early December, and Cheimarra on Christmas' Eve, practically occupying the entire area of Northern Epirus. A final Greek success was the forcing of the strategically important and heavily fortified Kleisoura pass, a feat still sung in the demotic songs of the Northern Epirots. However, the Greek army did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat, and their offensive towards Avlona failed. Thus, by the end of January, due to a combination of Italian finally gaining numerical superiority and their own bad logistical situation, the Greek advance was finally stopped.
In anticipation of a German attack, the British and some Greeks urged a withdrawal of the Army of Epirus, so as to spare badly needed troops and equipment for the repulsion of the Germans. However, national sentiment forbade the abandoning of so hard-won positions, overriding military logic, and retreat in the face of the 'defeated' Italians was deemed disgraceful. Therefore the bulk of the Greek Army was left deep in Albania, while the German attack approached. British General Wilson derided this reluctance as "the fetishistic doctrine that not a yard of ground should be yielded to the Italians" and so only six of the twenty one Greek divisions were left to fight the German attack.
Despite the ultimate triumph of the Axis powers in the Greek campaign, the Greek resistance to the Italian invasion greatly affected the course of the Second World War. More specifically, it has been argued that the need for a German intervention in the Balkans delayed the invasion of Russia, and caused losses, especially in aircraft and paratroopers during the airborne invasion of Crete, which affected its outcome. Adolf Hitler, in conversation with Leni Riefenstahl, would bitterly say that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad.” Furthermore, the need to occupy the country, suppress the partisans and defend it against Allied actions, tied down several German and Italian divisions during the course of the war.
Also important was the moral example, set in a time when only the British Empire resisted the Axis Powers, of a small country fighting off the supposedly mighty Fascist Italy, something reflected in the exuberant praise the Greek struggle received at the time. Most prominent is the quote of Winston Churchill: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
French general Charles de Gaulle was among those who praised the fierceness of the Greek resistance. In an official notice released to coincide with the Greek national celebration of the Day of Independence De Gaulle expressed his admiration for the heroic Greek resistance: “In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the battle of Salamis, Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds.”
Would the modern (supposedly soft, westernised, homogenised and globalised) Greeks be capable of such steadfast resistance? I think so. For no prospect is more futile than trying to forcibly dominate an irrascible Greek, in any age. Until next week then,: “OXI to everything!”


First published in NKEE on 3 November 2008