Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece sent the German Second Army, composed of four army corps and a panzer group, into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria, Hungary, and southern Austria. Against Greece, the Germans assembled their Second Army, comprising the XXX Korps in the east, the XVIII Gebirgs (Mountain) Korps in the centre (opposite the Rupel Pass), and the formidable 40 Korps on the German right. The key lines of attack for the Germans into Greece were through the Rupel Pass and the Metaxas Line, a task given to the mountain troops of XVIII Gebirgskorp, and a flanking manoeuvre further west by the 40 Korps. This unit included two panzer divisions, the mechanised SS Leibstandarte Brigade, and the 72 Infantrie Division.
Its commander, General Georg Stumme, was an experienced soldier who had led a light armoured division in the invasion of Poland. Now at the helm of a powerful armoured corps, he directed the 2nd Panzer Division through what the British called the ‘Doiran Gap’ (named for the nearby lake), cutting down the valley of the Axios River to Salonika. At the same time, Stumme sent the rest of his corps sweeping through southern Yugoslavia, crashing through the Yugoslav Third Army, strung out along the border with Bulgaria in a classic ‘double envelopment’ manoeuvre in which the German armoured formations specialised. What his inner wing did not cut off in Salonika, Stumme would deal with courtesy of his outer wing, driving down the Monastir gap into central Greece. As we have seen, this latter move had been accurately forecast by British military intelligence five weeks earlier.
While the British W Group attempted to consolidate on the Vermion–Olympus line, Papagos had left four-and-a-half divisions in Thrace, organised as the Eastern Macedonian army. The Greek commander-in-chief was determined not to besmirch his nation’s honour by a premature withdrawal, as the British desired, or dash his hopes of keeping open a supply route to the Yugoslavs, for which the communication and supply line running north from Salonika was essential. The eventual accession of Yugoslavia to the Allied cause validated Papagos’ defence of Thrace, but it counted for little because of the rapidity with which Yugoslav defences collapsed. Like Papagos, the Yugoslavs were determined to defend their national sovereignty, and they allowed this political calculation to override military logic. Papagos correctly identified the best defensive option for the Yugoslavs: mobilise around a central position in southern Yugoslavia where a junction could be affected with the Anglo–Greek forces in northern Greece.
Such an option was probably never open to the Yugoslavs, any more than abandoning Salonika was agreeable to Papagos: the disposition he favoured for the Yugoslavs meant, in practice, abandoning Belgrade to its fate, and few national armies would willingly abandon their capital in favour of a position preferred by allies. However, their patriotic determination left the Yugoslav armies strung out along the borders with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary; lacking depth, they were quickly penetrated by panzer spearheads.
The Greek troops on the Bulgarian border were better prepared, to the extent that they occupied the fixed fortifications of the Metaxas Line, but they were wholly without air cover. Contrary to some of the unkind observations made of their army by the British and Anzac commanders, the Greeks in the Metaxas Line fought magnificently. Subjected to repeated Stuka attacks, they held out in their mountain bunkers for days, forcing the German mountain troops to blast them out. So fierce was the Greek resistance, the Germans gave up their attempts to take a number of bunker complexes, preferring to take the line of least resistance and bypass the most difficult garrisons. The German mountain troops (Gebirgsjaeger) were admittedly hampered by the snow and their inability to get more than pack artillery up the mountains; nevertheless, the fighting was ‘hard, bitter and sometimes fanatical.’ A German war correspondent later reported that Greeks lying wounded in captured trenches still fought on with knives and bayonets. It took four days for the Germans to take Rupesco, the last bunker complex guarding the Rupel Pass; at the end of the fighting, the 5th Gebirgs Division buried 160 of its men.
While the Greeks fought hard on this, the eastern end of their line, the Allies rapidly faced a debacle around Doiran and further west. The 2nd Panzer Division pushed the Greek 19 Division aside in its drive down the Axios River, and Salonika itself fell on 9 April, even before the last of the Greek forts on the border had capitulated. Further west again, the rest of the 40 Korps drove through southern Yugoslavia such that, by 8 April, its leading formation, the SS Leibstandarte Brigade, was already rushing toward the Monastir Gap. This opening in the mountain ranges of the Balkans allowed the Germans to threaten the Florina Valley in northern Greece — by cascading down this valley, the Germans could not only complete a double envelopment of the Greeks in Thrace, but turn Wilson out of the Vermion–Olympus line as well.
Rowell later wrote bluntly that ‘our troubles started on 8 April’. At a command conference at 11.00 a.m. that day, Wilson attempted to deal with this crisis by creating a blocking force ‘to stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina gap’. Orders from this conference went to Mackay at 7.30 p.m., instructing him to take command of the Florina Gap operation.
Wilson chose the Australian 19 Brigade as the basis of ‘Mackay Force’; but, with only two of its three battalions available in time, he brought its infantry up to strength by attaching to it the 1/Rangers taken from Briagadier H. Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade. To stiffen his roadblock, Wilson also added to it half of the 27 MG Battalion of the NZ Division, together with a range of artillery units, including the British 2 Royal Horse Artillery and the 64th Medium Regiment. The artillery element was then completed with the 19 Brigade’s own 2/3rd Field Regiment and, to cope with the expected German tanks, a divisional unit from Mackay’s 6th Division, the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. In charge of the whole operation, Mackay devolved local command forward at Vevi to Brigadier G. A. Vasey of the 19 Brigade. On 9 April, Vasey got orders to hold the northern entrance to the Kleidi Pass, south of the tiny village of Vevi, for as a long as possible, so that the rest of W Group could prepare a position on the Aliakmon River and the defiles around Mount Olympus.
What Vasey lacked was tanks. Wilson, who had driven the tank expert Percy Hobart out of the British army in 1939, showed his ignorance of armoured warfare on arrival in Greece by deploying his only tank unit — the 1st Armoured Brigade — as an old-fashioned cavalry screen. Rather than hold back its hitting power for the decisive moment, Wilson sent the 1st Armoured forward to the northern end of the Kozani Valley, where it was ‘given the role of holding the line of the River Vardar [Axios] with the object of delaying the enemy and covering the preparations for demolitions’. With this work done, the brigade withdrew into reserve under Mackay, albeit with its infantry battalion and artillery detached to Vasey, leaving just the tanks at the rear. This misuse of the only Allied armoured unit would prove disastrous.
Vasey would need all of the artillery Wilson gave him, because the German force approaching the Allies at Vevi was led by one of the most feared units of the Reich. To give his conquests an overt political flavour, many of Hitler’s attacks were led by units of the Waffen Shutzstaffeln — the fanatical SS. And so it was in Greece, where heading toward the Australians and their allies at Vevi was the premiere unit of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, then a brigade-sized formation and, later, expanded to a full division. This would be the only time in the whole of the Second World War that Australian troops were in action against these notorious Nazis.
Hitler’s ascension to power had been achieved by an adroit combination of credibility at the ballot box and force of arms on the streets, and it was the SS that played a leading role in the violence. Translated, schutzstaffeln means protection squads, and this was the literal role of the SS — to protect Hitler and other leading Nazis from the strong German communist movement, and to advance Nazi aims where violence was needed to achieve them. Yet as Nazi political strength grew, so too did tensions within the movement. Along with Hitler, Ernst Röhm was a founding member of the Nazis, and indeed had mentored Hitler while the latter was still a corporal in the defeated German army in 1919. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA (Sturmabteilung), or ‘Brown Shirts’, developed as the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing but, throughout the 1920s, Röhm and Hitler squabbled over its control and mode of operation. To Hitler, the Brown Shirts were a sub-component of the larger Nazi organisation, and therefore subject to its political needs and strategy. For Röhm, the SA was a means by which the spirit of German militarism could be kept alive, so that when the German army was freed from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a mass army would be readily at hand; at that moment, the SA would be merged into the Wehrmacht, the regular army.
Röhm’s ideas alarmed the generals, which at this stage of his career Hitler could ill-afford. As political differences over the role of the SA intensified, Hitler’s need for a paramilitary counter-weight grew, something he found in the expansion of the Nazi bodyguard organisation. As the violent spearhead of Nazism, Heinrich Himmler’s SS embodied its most fundamental beliefs. First was an unquestioning commitment to the Fuhrerprinzip — loyalty to the leader. When Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit was reorganised in November 1933 as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, its members swore an appropriate oath: ‘We swear to you Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We pledge to you and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience unto death. So help us God.’
Second, the SS practised the anti-Semitic racism on which Hitler built his wider political program. Qualification requirements for the Leibstandarte therefore included not only rigorous physical requirements (a minimum height of five feet eleven inches), but also a genetic test — ‘pure Aryan blood’ dating back to 1800 for the enlisted men, and a similarly pristine lineage to 1750 for officers. It was these fanatics who dealt with Röhm in the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, rounding up and murdering hundreds of SA leaders on Hitler’s orders. The commander of the Leibstandarte, Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, played a prominent role in this gangland war. On Hitler’s express orders, he murdered the Munich leadership of the SA, including several former close comrades.
Still in command of the Leibstandarte, it was Dietrich who led the Germans into action at Vevi against Mackay Force. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1928, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the SS. Like many Nazis, he was a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. A highly experienced soldier, he helped pioneer storm-troop tactics, in which specially trained assault units were equipped with a combination of arms to achieve maximum firepower in breakthrough operations. Beside their revolutionary military doctrine, the development of these elite forces had ideological consequences that Dietrich would later personify. The storm-troopers were granted a range of special privileges, and a greater sense of egalitarianism existed between men and officers than prevailed anywhere else in the hide-bound army of the kaiser. The success of storm-troop tactics on the battlefield generated a joy of conquest that resulted in a ‘spiritual, almost mystical state of mind compounded by a profound contempt for the civilian world and bourgeois way of life’. Many storm-troopers, unable to adjust to civilian life, joined the Freikorps: right-wing vigilante groups formed by militant officers opposed to the Treaty of Versailles.
Schooled in this milieu, Dietrich had rounded out his military education with service in the first tank units of the German army in 1918. During the tumult of the German civil war in 1919, Dietrich served in the Bavarian police force. Far from keeping the peace, this was a bastion of far-right extremism that cooperated with, and protected, the various Freikorps brigades, which had slaughtered the German left in a series of street battles at the behest of the weak constitutional government newly established at Weimar. Having supped with the devil, the Weimar cabinet then found the Freikorps activists bent on a campaign of assassination against even themselves, including foreign minister Walter Rathenau, Germany’s munitions-production expert in the First World War. He was gunned down in 1922; in a sign of things to come for Germany, one of Rathenau’s ‘crimes’ was that he was Jewish. Dietrich was a fixture in this reign of terror. His services were in constant demand, and his pre-Nazi street-fighting career ended with a spell in the Reinhard Brigade, another Freikorps force established to repel a Polish attempt to occupy Upper Silesia. The success of that campaign in 1921 later became a standard in Nazi folklore. Coincidentally, Dietrich met Hitler for the first time that year.
Dietrich’s senior commanders at Vevi had much in common with him. The Nazi movement was built on lower-middle and working-class discontent, by men who had served Germany in the First World War, and who bitterly resented the failure of traditional, conservative German politics as represented by the Prussian, Junkers aristocracy. Casting around for a new political force to revive German nationalism, they found their leader in Hitler. Few had a university education, or occupied leadership positions in business or public administration — Nazism truly was a revolution of the corporals.
Before 1914, Dietrich was an apprentice in the hotel trade, and after the war he worked as a clerk and garage attendant. The commander of his reconnaissance unit, the Aufklärungsabteilung, was Kurt Meyer, the son of a factory worker — Meyer himself worked as a factory hand and miner, and was wounded in the First World War. In command of the Leibstandarte’s I Battalion was Fritz Witt. Too young to have seen service in the kaiser’s army, his civilian career in textile sales never rose to dizzy heights. In Germany, Witt’s generation was brought up in the shadow of wartime slaughter, and then felt the white heat of post-war economic catastrophe: their most popular cultural response was to recoil from the modern world, and to seek solace in return-to-nature movements. Idyllic perhaps, but a contemporary commentator observed of young Germans like Witt that ‘their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human’. Witt would honour the epithet with horrifying commitment.
Like the Australian infantry at Vevi, the Leibstandarte already had extensive war experience, and through it gained a reputation for brutality and atrocity. In Poland, the Wehrmacht sought to have Dietrich court-martialled for atrocities against civilians, but the Nazi leadership solved that problem by removing the SS from the legal jurisdiction of the army. In the blitzkrieg campaign against France and the Low Countries, Dietrich’s men were again to the fore, driving rapidly into Holland and ending the campaign at Dunkirk. Faced there with stiffening British resistance, Dietrich narrowly avoided death when his car was ambushed by British machine-gunners. The men of the Leibstandarte responded to this affront by massacring 80 British prisoners outside the Belgian village of Wormhouldt. The SS mixed this kind of bestiality with extraordinary bravery under fire. In one of the few substantial British counterattacks in May 1940, Witt won Nazi Germany’s highest decoration, the Knights Cross, by taking on 20 Matilda tanks armed only with hand grenades.
The SS naturally took their military philosophy from the tenets of Nazi ideology. Hitler himself was anti-modern, in the sense that he valued the will to victory and selfless attack as supreme military virtues: he therefore disliked the machine-gun because it heralded the end of hand-to-hand combat. The mythic figure of an invincible Aryan warrior hurling himself at the enemy at all costs was at the heart of SS tactical doctrine. Personifying the point, Meyer later acquired the nickname ‘Speedy’ in the fighting in the Soviet Union, in honour of his propensity for lightning attacks, pressed home whatever the situation. The SS cultivated for themselves an image as latter-day Teutonic knights whose duty in life was to preserve German blood from contamination by Semites, Slavs, and communists. Publicity portraits of Dietrich, Meyer, Witt, and other SS ‘stars’ celebrated the Nazi enthusiasm for martial pageantry, a propaganda role they revelled in. Witt in particular was known as an immaculate dresser who took great pains with the arrangement of his SS regalia and decorations, a celebrity image completed by his frequent companion — a pet German shepherd, Bulli.
Paradoxically, despite the Nazi indifference to technology as a determinant of battle, the SS enjoyed the use of some superb equipment in the first half of the war. Despite massive rearmament in the 1930s, German munitions production was still quite limited between 1940 and 1941, forcing the Nazis to concentrate their best weapons in a handful of units. This turned their army into something of an anachronistic spear, with a mechanised, twentieth-century tip and a nineteenth-century horse-drawn shaft. The Leibstandarte and the panzer divisions were definitely at the sharp end and, due to the excellence of German science and engineering, went to Vevi with outstanding equipment. Their automatic infantry weapons, the MP38 machine pistol and the MG34 machine-gun, combined mechanical reliability with light weight and high rates of fire — the MG 34 fired at twice the rate of the British Vickers, but weighed only half as much. For battlefield mobility, the SS could call on the SdK 251 armoured personnel carrier, which had no rival in British ranks. A ‘half track’, the SdK 251 had normal truck wheels at the front, and tracks like a tank at the rear. This married truck-like speed with the cross-country performance of a tank. Atop this chassis was an armour shell, which allowed the SdK 251 to carry its section of ten infantrymen into battle on all terrains with the benefit of armoured protection.
For close-fire support, the Leibstandarte had the StuG III assault gun, a kind of turret-less tank. A brute of a machine, with its pushed-in nose the StuG III looked uncannily like a bull terrier, and for good reason — both were designed for close-quarter combat. Erich Manstein, the officer whose brilliant plans were the basis of the German campaign against France, developed the StuG III in the mid-1930s, looking for an uncomplicated armoured vehicle that could provide support to infantry in attacks on defended positions. He achieved his goal by removing the turret from a standard tank and installing a 75-millimetre gun into the body of the vehicle itself. Brought up close to fortified positions, it simply blasted a way through for German troops; with its heavy armour, the StuG III was invulnerable to the standard two-pound anti-tank gun of the British armies (a gun named for the weight of the shell it fired). The Leibstandarte had a battery of StuG III assault guns at Vevi; for anti-tank and anti-aircrarft artillery, the SS had batteries of the dual purpose 88-millimetre gun, an outstanding weapon that would dominate battlefields until 1945.
In using these fearsome weapons, the SS also benefited from the revolution in German tactical doctrine that had taken place between the wars. Whereas the British, content with their victory in 1918, reverted to tradition and neglected the innovative possibilities of armoured warfare, German officers like Heinz Guderian took up the lessons of the first tank actions and theorised a totally new way of waging war. Central to this thinking was not so much the tank in isolation, but the combination of all arms around the tank. Guderian understood that infantry now needed to move at the same pace and with the same protection as the tank, to accompany it into battle and deal with its enemies — anti-tank and field artillery. Likewise, artillery needed to be mechanised, so that it, too, could go where the tank could. The point of this combination was not to batter against the enemy’s strongest fortifications, in repetition of the Somme and Verdun, as the British anticipated with their Matilda tanks. Instead, Guderian and his disciples sought out the line of least resistance. A breakthrough at the weakest point of the enemy line would then allow the fast-moving armoured columns to penetrate to, and destroy, the heart of modern armies — their supply and command organisation. Even with the quality of their equipment, it was these doctrinal advances that gave the German army its advantage over its British rival in the first half of the war.
These differences in military philosophy extended to how the aeroplane should be used over the modern battlefield. Apart from the SS, the Luftwaffe was the German armed service most imbued with Nazi politics. Germany had been banned from forming a military air service by the Treaty of Versailles, and it was the Nazis who publicly resuscitated a German air force. Even by then, however, the German army had conducted a rigorous analysis of air tactics and doctrine during the 1920s, and even formed a clandestine air wing, using a rented base in the Soviet Union as a training venue. While the British and Americans spent the inter-war years pursuing the fantasy of ‘independent’ strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, the Germans emphasised the aeroplane’s use as an assault and reconnaissance weapon on the battlefield itself (one British air force officer, who wrote a pre-war book which argued that the bomber was not a battlefield weapon, remarked with some chagrin after the Luftwaffe’s efforts in the Battle of France that he was now being ‘considerably ragged’ for it).
Each of the German panzer divisions in Greece commanded their own aircraft reconnaissance squadron; and, of course, blitzkrieg itself was indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the dive-bombing raids of the bent-winged ‘Stukas’, the Junkers 87s, which blasted defensive positions right in front of attacking troops. The doctrinal superiority of German air-support tactics was then infinitely compounded by the sheer weight of aircraft they could put into Greek skies.
In Bulgaria, for the close support of the invading German army, was Fliegerkorps VIII with 414 aircraft; further back, in Austria and Rumania, Luftflotte 4 had a further 576 aircraft available. Even these formations did not exhaust the German riches; in Sicily was Fliegerkorps X with another 168 aircraft, which was already being used to interdict Allied sea routes, operations crowned by the obliteration of Pireaus. The British, by contrast, had to split their Mediterranean airpower between North Africa and Greece, where they could deploy just ten squadrons, most of them based on airfields around Athens, with a nominal strength of 72 twin-engined Blenheim bombers, 36 modern Hurricane fighters, and even 18 antique Gloster Gladiators biplanes, which were little different in design, construction, and armament from a First World War fighter. Small wonder that Australian and New Zealand veterans remarked that in the three weeks of fighting in Greece, they scarcely saw any friendly aircraft overhead.