Greek Armed Forces 1940-41

flag-greeceStrength and organization of the Armed Forces of Greece 1940-41.

Soldiers of the Greek Army 1940-41

Soldiers of the Greek Army (from left to right): Sergant (1940), Lieutenant (1941), Lieutenant-Colonel (1941), Evzone Private (1941)

From 1938 until the German invasion, Greece was a constitutional monarchy under King George II, but the actual power was in the hands of her right-wing dictator-President General Metaxas.
The Greek armed forces, like most of those of the smaller nations, suffered from a shortage of modern weapons and motor transport. However, the mountainous frontier with Albania was ideal for defensive fighting, and the natural sturdiness of her soldiers proved too much for the Italian forces which invaded on 28 October 1940.

The initially outnumbered Greek forces were able not only to contain the Italian attack, but force the invaders back into Albania, where, with the British aid in men and material, they were able to hold them until the Germans invaded from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria on 6 April 1941. This attack, by the best army in Europe, overwhelmed the Greek defences, and despite bitter resistance the Germans forced the Greek Army in eastern Macedonia to capitulate and the Allies to retreat. On 20 April the Greek Epirus Army surrendered and on 22 April the Allies began their evacuation of Greece.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Greek Armed Forces was General Papagos and the control of the Army was exercised by a General Headquarters and five Army Corps areas.
In 1940, just before the Italian attack, Greece mobilised her armed forces. The field army was organised in two Army Groups, six general headquarters, six infantry and nine mountain divisions, four mountain brigades and one cavalry division.
At the outbreak of war the Army numbered 430,000 men, but losses were heavy and some 60,000 men were killed, wounded or missing after the winter fighting.


Greek Army

Divisions of the Greek Army
Mountain Division Infantry Division Motorized Division Cavalry Division
Total units 14 5 + 1 brigade 1 1
Infantry regiments 3 (each with 1,100 men and 58 officers, armed with Mannlicher M1903/14 rifles) 3 (each with 1,100 men and 58 officers, armed with Mannlicher M1903/14 rifles) 3 (theoreticaly – in March 41 total only 2,000 men) 2 cavalry ( + 1 motorized in progress of formation)
Total men 12,000 12,000 c. 12,000 (theoreticaly – in March 41 only 2,000 conscripted garage workers) ?
Machine guns 264 (216 light Hotchkiss 8mm, 48 heavy St Etienne M07) 264 (216 light Hotchkiss 8mm, 48 heavy St Etienne M07) c. 264 (on paper) c. 144
Mortars 24 (81mm) 24 (81mm) 24 (theoreticaly) c. 24
Howitzers and Fieldguns 36 (16 x 75mm mountain guns, 8 x 105mm guns, 12 x 65mm mountain guns) 48 (36 x 75mm-M1897 field guns, 12 x 65mm mountain guns) c. 36-48 (on paper) 4 (75mm mountain guns)
Tanks 24 light Italian CV33 and Dutch tankettes and a few Bren Gun Carriers 4 squadrons of armoured cars

The crack infantry of the Greek Army were the Evzones. Originally formed as light infantry during the war for independence at the beginning of the 19th century, these highlanders became part of the regular army in 1833. In 1940 they served in light regiments and in the Royal Guard.
In addition to the line infantry and mountain regiments there were a number of battalions and companies for island and land frontier defence, as well as a number of mobile and static machine gun units.

In March 1941, total strength was 540,000 men, but this included 50,000 recruits with only one month’s training. The German invasion cost the Greeks 15,700 battle casualties; about 220,000 Greek soldiers were taken prisoner, but released soon after.

The army corps each consisted of two to four infantry or mountain divisions. I, II, III, IV Corps were each supported by a heavy artillery regiment of 7 batteries (8 x 85mm, 8 x 105mm and 12 x 155mm guns) while V Corps had 4 x 85mm guns, 4 x 105mm guns and 4 static six-inch guns. Each corps also had its own anti-aircraft support of 88mm, 37mm and 20mm guns.

Since the artillery was equipped with either French, German or Czech guns Britain was unable to supply ammunition, and stocks in America were soon ex-hausted, so all the British could do was supply the Greeks with Italian material captured in Libya.

When the British landed in Greece in March 1941 they were dismayed to find that many divisions existed in name only. One division of recently assembled troops had a strength of just six battalions, and its transport was limited to the commander’s motor car and five trucks.


Greek Air Force

Grreek PLZ P24 F fighter

This PLZ P24 F fighter of the Royal Greek Air Force has made an emergency landing after a dogfight with a Me 109 in April, 1941.

The Greek Air Ministry was responsible for the air services maintained by the Greek Army and Navy. There was no independent Air Force as such. The Army air service was small with just 250 officers and 3,000 men. Many of the pilots had undergone their training in England, and although outnumbered first by the Italians and then by the Germans, the air service put up a stubborn resistance in the campaigns of 1940-41.

In 1940 the combined strength of the Army and Navy air services was as follows:

  • 44 fighters (including Polish PZL 24s, Gloster Gladiators and a few Hawker Hurricanes);
  • 46 bombers and reconnaissance planes;
  • 16 general purpose aircraft;
  • 20 flying boats (Fairey IIIs and German Do 22s).

When the Germans invaded in April 1941 only 41 combat aircraft were still operational.

The Army air service was organised in three flying regiments each of two squadrons, based on rather primitive airfields in Athens, Candia, Drama, Joannina, Larissa, Salonica, Tanagra and Thebes.
It’s primary role was to provide air support for ground operations, but by January 1941 casualties and lack of spares had practically grounded it, and so the Greek command had to appeal to the RAF to switch its emphasis from bombing Italian lines of communication to providing air support to ground forces.


Greek Navy

battleship Kilkis

The pre-Dreadnought battleship Kilkis (ex USS Mississippi) was sold together with her sister ship Lemnos (ex USS Idaho) by the US government in 1914 to Greece. Both were sunken by German Ju 87 dive-bombers in the port of Piraeus on 23 April, 1941.

The executive commander of the Navy was the Chief of the Admiralty, Admiral A. Sakellariou.
Under him were 6,300 regular naval officers and men and 11,000 reservists and the following vessels:

  • 2 old battleships (armoured cruisers) built in 1905/06;
  • 2 old light cruisers;
  • 4 old destroyers;
  • 4 Hidra Class (Italian) destroyers;
  • 13 old torpedo boats;
  • 2 motor torpedo-boats (MTBs);
  • 6 submarines.

The Greek Navy suffered its first loss on 15 August 1940, before the opening of hostilities, when the minelaying cruiser Helli was alleged to have been sunk by an Italian submarine.
On the outbreak of the war two months later the Navy’s first task was to ensure the safe passage of thousands of Army reservists recalled to the colours from the numerous Greek isles. At the same time the Navy patrolled the coast of Albania and provided artillery support.

German entry into the Greco-Italian war was heralded by aerial attacks which destroyed a number of Greek warships. On 21 April 1941 the Greek government decided to evacuate the mainland, and the port of Salamis was blown up as the last ship carrying Allied troops left.
29 warships and auxiliary vessels were sunk – a very high proportion of the pre-war Navy.


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7 Comments

  1. actually the greek army had an outstanding performance the first 5 months of the war and supress the so called primavera of the italian army in the early days of march, the italian army in Albania was beaten and the help of the british army was in material only with the italian and with some fighters also to help the greek airforse that has lost -lost but also success because the italian had more losses -more than half of the total greek plains. Until the german invation greek forces gain ground to the 30% of albanias actual size the north epirus and the greek army succed all these -the 1st wins of the alies,in all ww2- with each own strength and the most help that britain offer was some huricanes that help a lot ,but only the airforce,the british role to the greek victory to the italians was let say about 10%,all the other 90% was greek and we talk about materials ,money and air or sea covering! The british try to help and with foot soldiers and did a lot i have to say in the german invasion and also in the battle of crete ,but the number of division and their composition also was insufficient ,the english offered us the 30% of the soldiers we asked and not even the 20% of the planes and the tanks,i am sure that they want to keep their promise to us but it was very difficult with Rommel in africa to uncompromise their position in Egypt by helping greece and i am also sure that loosing greece not meant the end of the war for england but losing egypt ,it was a very different think and maybe british would capitulate if an event such as the fall of egypt happened.
    ANYWAY,GREEKS WON THE FIRST ALIE VICTORY AND CREECE ALSO DELAY NAZIS FROM THEIR MAIN OBJECTIVE RUSSIA FOR 3 MONTHS,CAUSE BRITISH AIRPLANES IN MACEDONIA-BY THE WAY MACEDONIA IS ONLY GREEK- WOULD CREATE A CERTAIN MESS FOR THE GERMANS OILFIELDS IN ROMANIA,CAUSE WITH THE BOMBERS OF THOSE DAYS ALL ROMANIA EVEN SOUTH GERMANY OR AUSTRIA OR ITALY WAS IN DANGER FROM BRITISH BOMBING

    • Most can be agreed, but the delay of Op. Barbarossa was just one month or maximum 6 weeks (from May to June) and this hasn’t any outcome for this campaign after modern researches. Even the capture of Moscow in the last weeks of the year and after US entered war would not have resulted in an Soviet defeat anymore in the way the Nazis and esp. Hitler ruled this war.
      More about here: Operation Barbarossa

  2. Fine article. Neither short nor tiring long. The division table is very good but need some fix with the cavalry.

    To be fare, the British never really send any real military help during the Greco-italian war, besides some dozens of aircraft and tanks. They couldn’t afford it anyway. But they did send hundreds of thousands of blankets and other woolmade clothes whom had captured in Libya. They sended them right when the winter was taking it’s toll with the countless of frostbites. 25.000 Greeks are reported to have sustained frostbites and were therfore out of combat. These casualties should be included in your cassualties stats .

    Also, Greece didn’t had 430.000 men at arms by any means at the outbreak of the invasion. Even when after 15 days later full mobilization was achieved, she had mustered around 300.000 (Greek Gen. staff info). The 540.000 men you mention during May of 1941 was actualy the size of the Italian army.

    • Thanks for yor additional information. But there are at least THREE (!) independent sources available here which claim all exactly 430,000 Greek soldiers (Oct 40, outbreak of war in 16 divs) and two of them 540,00 soldiers in May 1941.

  3. Good article! Direct British aid during the war with the Italians was mostly limited to five squadrons – two of Gladiator fighters and three of Blenheim light bombers. AA units provided protection at the improvised airfields setup to accommodate these squadrons. I believe heavier bombers provided strategic support from Egypt. Some Hurricanes were deployed prior to the German invasion to protect the expeditionary force sent to stop the Germans. This expeditionary force was not committed until March 1941, and was deployed away from the Albanian front.

    The Greek machine gun strength listed in the table was actually for a regiment not a division. I believe divisional strength was roughly 336 LMGs and 108 HMGs. The Greeks had over 6,000 M1922 LMGS in 6.54mm Mannlicher Schonauer and additional 1,700 in 7.92mm Mauser. About 2,400 M1907 St. Etienne machine guns were in service. In addition there were several thousand M1915 Chauchats and hundreds of Schwarzlose, M1914 Hotckiss and M1908 Maxim guns from fighting in the Balkan Wars, WWI and Asia Minor. These heavier weapons were probably used in the Metaxas Line and other fixed fortifications. The Chauchats were supposed to have been entirely replaced by the Hotchkiss guns purchased in the 1920s. They were issued to new formations established after the start of hostilities. Some were used in the invasion of Crete by the rear detachment of the Greek 5th Division that stayed behind when the rest of the division deployed to Albania in December 1940.

    You are correct that the Greeks had three squadrons of Polish PZL 24 fighters. The other fighters used were a squadron of nine French Bloch MB 150s. These were more modern than the PZL and similar to the Hurricane. But they were kept near Athens for purely defensive purposes as only six were operational. One of the PZL squadrons was later overhauled with second-hand Gladiators donated by the British. The remaining PZLs were consolidated into two squadrons.

    The Navy also had two new British-made destroyers built in 1937-38.

    I too have seen the 430,000 and 540,000 numbers thrown around. I believe total theoretical strength was 540,000 on full mobilization. I’ve read that the initial mobilization had yielded an active strength of 350,000 men by mid November 1940. New divisions were formed and some brigades were strengthened to “division strength” by the Spring of 1941. But these newer divisions such as the 19th motorized and 20th infantry consisted of fewer battalions than the pre-war divisions. Furthermore, a lack of equipment, uniforms etc. (plus the casualties suffered in Albania) limited the army’s strength to 430,000 by the eve of the German invasion.

    • Thanks for this long reply. I mad a quick check for the machine-guns with the source and think there must be a mistake there. There were 3 Greek infantry regiments per division and the source mentioned that the Regimental strength was 58 officers and 1,100 men with just 36 light machine guns (Hotchkiss andf 8 heavy machine guns (St Entienne). But I guess this is just the battalions strength (2 per regiment), because with a regimental strength of just 1,100 men the over-all strength of 12,000 could not be reached.
      I will proof this later when I have more time for it.

      • Done and fixed. The strength of the machineguns is now per division and also added the 6 65mm Mt guns of the second regiment.

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