Heroes Fight Like Greeks

Today, very few of us appreciate 28 October 1940. Historians have written much about various turning points in world history, but this turning point of the Second World War is not well known.

In 1940, the dictator of Italy, Mussolini, decided to show the world that Italy, like its German ally, could also conquer nations. His choice for this mighty show of strength was Greece, a small country having one-tenth the firepower of Italy in its army, navy and air force. An ultimatum was delivered demanding that Greece allow Italian troops to occupy the country (i.e., surrender) or Italy would declare war and invade Greece. The Greek Prime Minister, Metaxas, was given three hours to reply. After reading the demands in the early morning hours of the 28th of October 1940, he rejected the ultimatum and replied with a single Hellenic word: "OXI!".

Mussolini did not wait for a reply. Before the ultimatum expired, five heavily armed divisions began moving across the Greek-Albanian border. After a 25-kilometer advance into Greece, the 200,000 Italian troops were halted by a ragged army of Greek soldiers in shabby uniforms and shepherds' clothes. Though extremely outnumbered, they astonished the Italians with their courage and tenacity. All the people helped in any way they could. Women supplied clothing, food, and support to the defence of their country in very difficult winter conditions. Sometimes, large groups of them would stand arm-in-arm for hours in icy rivers and streams to slow the waters enough to permit the movement of equipment and supplies to the front. Within four weeks of the invasion, the Greeks drove the Italians back, pursuing them more than 60 kilometres into Albania. By December of 1940, the Greek army had liberated the southern third of Albania, better known as Northern Epirus. There was even serious concern on the part of the Italians that the Greek armed forces would cross the Adriatic Sea and invade Italy itself!

The entire Western world took hope from this incredible victory. It was a double first: the first defeat of the Axis powers and the first liberation of territory - Albania - captured by the Axis powers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Greeks: "Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes; from now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." However, there was history still to be made by the Greeks.

Following the humiliating defeat of Italy, the Germans invaded Greece in April of 1941, and after nearly two months of fierce fighting, overwhelmed the defiant Greeks. The Germans were forced to divert 50 battalions to Greece, though they desperately needed them on the Eastern front. The months of fighting caused by the Greek resistance considerably delayed Germany's plans to invade the Soviet Union and occupy Moscow before the onset of the heavy Russian winter. It helped the Russians to repulse and defeat the Germans, signalling the beginning of the end of the German Third Reich.

How did the Greeks achieve this miracle? What they did was humanly "impossible". The soldiers, however, did not fight alone. The whole nation was praying day and night. In the cities, churches were open 24 hours a day, and groups of people would pray in shifts, so that the prayers would never cease. There were many instances of divine assistance rendered to the Greek soldiers: numerous accounts relay how Παναγία herself would appear during battles, or lead a group of soldiers through a difficult mountain pass, only to suddenly disappear once they were safely through.

The celebration of 28th October is a holy day not just for Greeks, but for all people, to remind us of the miracles which do occur when our spirit is flamed by ardent faith in God, full of the courage to say “NO!” and “enough!” to all forms of evil.

This article first appeared in Lychnos in October 2002