The British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade

INTERNAL SECURITY OPERATIONS, GREECE, 1944

Upon return of the 1st Airborne Division to the UK in November 1943, the 2nd Parachute Brigade was left behind in Italy and became an Independent Brigade. Having seen action during Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France in August 1944, they were then recalled to Italy to jump into Greece as part of Operation Manna. Having landed in October 1944 with the objective of harassing enemy forces, they soon found themselves in the midst of a civil war that was breaking out amongst rival Greek factions – a far different scenario to that faced by their colleagues in the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions fighting in Northwest Europe. As fighting on the streets intensified, the 5th Parachute Battalion suffered over 100 casualties and the 6th Parachute Battalion lost all its company commanders in fighting that was misunderstood by the press and public back home.

Men from the 4th Parachute Battalion were amongst those who had the difficult job of patrolling through the streets of Athens in late December and early January 1944, trying to maintain order and provide assistance to the civilian population whenever possible. Unusually, some men within the 4th Parachute Battalion blackened their webbing instead of using the normal Blanco colour. One theory is that this is the origin of the black DZ flash the men wear today on their uniform.

The 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade’s story is an often forgotten part of The Parachute Regiment’s history. After the 1st Airborne Division left them behind in Italy in 1943, they went on to fight for four bitter winter months in the mountains around Orsogna under the command of the 2nd New Zealand Division, taking part in the assault on the River Sangro. In August 1944 they were still in Italy, from where they boarded aircraft to take them on to participate in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France, where they fought alongside American forces.

They were then returned to Italy to make ready for an airborne operation to be known as Operation Manna. There was concern that, following the German withdrawal, Greece would find itself in a power vacuum with a number of Greek guerrilla groups vying for power and destabilising the whole region. It was therefore deemed imperative that a force be dispatched that could deal with the guerrilla threat as well as ensuring the distribution of food to the civilians. On 12 October 1944, Operation Manna began with members of the 4th Parachute Battalion landing to secure the drop zone at Megara Airfield near Athens. A number of casualties were sustained on the drop zone due to the high winds on the day.

The brigade was greeted by cheering crowds on entering Athens; however, this goodwill was not to last. The brigade took over the policing of Athens and the guarding of key points, all in the face of marching and protests by rival Greek factions. On 17 October the 4th Parachute Battalion was dispatched to Thebes to pursue the withdrawing German forces, while the 5th Parachute Battalion left the city shortly after to go to Salonika where civil unrest ensued.

It soon became clear that the Paras were too few in number to be effective in Thebes and Salonika, so they were withdrawn back to Athens as unrest grew. During this time, the 4th Parachute Battalion held the area of the gasworks, while the 5th Parachute Battalion found themselves establishing their position in the ruins of the Acropolis. Meanwhile the 6th Parachute Battalion had fought their way through to Omonias Square. On 26 December 1944, the 5th Parachute Battalion, supported by tanks of the 23rd Armoured Brigade attacked the main ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) stronghold, reaching Piraeus Road, thereby linking the 6th and 4th Parachute Battalions. The 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade then moved forward on 4 January 1945, using the Piraeus Road as their axis, and following more days of heavy fighting the ELAS forces finally withdrew. By the end of the fighting casualties were high: within the 6th Parachute Battalion all the company commanders had been killed or injured. With such a high price having been paid, and having fought an enemy that did not respect the normal rules of warfare, it hit the men particularly hard when they learned of reports back in the UK that they had been attacking innocent workers in a class war. Such was the concern that the Trades Union Congress sent out a delegation to investigate and, having been given the freedom to do so, reported of the great work carried out by the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. The brigade remained in Greece until the end of January 1945, when two divisions were sent to Greece to reinforce the brigade and subdue the unrest.

Conflict fought between the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and anticommunist Greek nationalists. Greece’s civil war was rooted in age-old divisions within Greek society and was complicated by the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. The nationalists were strongly supported by Britain and the United States. The war was one of the earliest Cold War tests of will between East and West and claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 Greeks, a fatality rate that surpassed the suffering of that nation in World War II. Both sides committed atrocities and tried to settle old scores under the guise of conflicting ideologies. The conflict’s greatest legacy was the Truman Doctrine, which committed the United States and its allies to come to the aid of any nation threatened by communist takeover. This set the stage for President Harry S. Truman’s containment policy.

In the early years of the twentieth century, conservative and liberal parties in Greece struggled for power, engaging in a series of bloodless purges that heightened political instability and created great anger and bitterness. This atmosphere provided fertile ground for authoritarianism, and in 1936 General Ioannis Metaxas established a fascist-style dictatorship, further polarizing the country.

Metaxas’s death in 1941 and the flight of the Greek government to Egypt after the German invasion left Greece in virtual chaos. The KKE, persecuted under Metaxas, stepped into the power vacuum by creating the National Liberation Front (EAM), dedicated to the liberation of Greece. By 1944 the EAM boasted nearly 2 million members, and its military arm, the National Liberation Army (ELAS), had enlisted 50,000 fighters.

In October 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, fearful of a communist takeover in Greece and the loss of control over the eastern Mediterranean, met with Soviet Premier Josef Stalin in Moscow and struck a deal over control of the Balkans. In return for Soviet dominance in Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland, Stalin ceded Greece to Great Britain and vowed not to directly support the KKE after the war.

Relations between the British-backed Greek monarchy and the EAM quickly soured as the communists suppressed dissent and tried to assert control over the country. In retaliation, the British rehabilitated the collaborationist police, returned monarchist military units to the nation, and demanded that the ELAS disarm. On 2 December 1944 collaborationist police fired on antigovernment demonstrators, triggering the Battle for Athens. It resulted in a victory for the nationalists and the disarming of the ELAS. The EAM splintered as moderates and socialists abandoned it, while KKE membership plummeted from its peak of more than 400,000 to only 50,000. KKE leader Nikos Zachariades attempted to impose tighter party discipline but was stymied by the strength of the nationalist forces.

In an attempt to maintain order, the British strengthened the Greek National Guard and turned a blind eye as security forces conducted a campaign of repression against the communists. In the Greek parliamentary elections of March 1946, the rightist candidates won a landslide victory. The allegedly rigged elections prompted the KKE to declare a state of civil war and reorganize ELAS units as the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE). The DSE won notable gains in the first year of fighting due in part to support from the communist governments of Yugoslavia and Albania.

Fearing that the nationalists might indeed lose the war against the DSE, the British appealed for help from the United States. Previous British requests for American assistance in Greece had been rebuffed, but by 1947 American attitudes had begun to change. President Truman’s growing antipathy toward the Soviets and their tightening of control in Eastern Europe hardened his stance. On 12 March 1947, he addressed a joint session of Congress, enunciating the Truman Doctrine and requesting a $300 million aid package to support the Greek nationalists and anticommunists in nearby Turkey.

The KKE did not take the Truman Doctrine seriously, believing that the nationalists would capitulate even with U. S. support. By 1948, however, it was becoming clear that the DSE was in dire straits as the American-backed nationalist army grew exponentially. In January 1949, KKE leaders foolishly declared that the goal of the civil war was no longer the restoration of parliamentary democracy, as they had previously stated, but rather the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship. The DSE then shifted from a mobile war of attrition to a campaign to defend territory, a tactical miscalculation that played into the hands of the revitalized nationalist army.

In the spring of 1949, the nationalist army cleared the communist rebels out of southern Greece and launched a two-pronged offensive designed to drive them completely out of the country. As the fighting reached its climax, Yugoslavia closed its border and ended arms shipments that had kept the DSE insurgency viable. After sustaining more than 2,000 casualties in the summer of 1949, DSE fighters withdrew into Albania during the night of 29 August 1949, effectively ending the civil war. Although sporadic DSE raids continued into 1950, the victory of the nationalist forces was by then complete.

References: Clogg, Richard. A Concise History of Greece. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Close, David H. The Greek Civil War, 1943–1950: Studies of Polarization. London: Routledge, 1993. ———. The Origins of the Greek Civil War. New York: Longman, 1995. Gerolymatos, Andre. Red Acropolis, Black Terror: The Greek Civil War and the Origins of Soviet-American Rivalry. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Iatrides, John O. Greece in the 1940s: A Nation in Crisis. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1981.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.