The world owes a debt that will probably never be repaid. But, perhaps it’s enough that a few still remember a moment of uncommon courage and determination, from long, long ago. Young people today are not even taught in depth about the Second World War, but there are reasons they should be. One of those reasons has to do with Greek courage, sacrifice, and doing the right thing when the times called for it. Here is why the world must always remember “Oxi Day”.
September 30, 1939, the forces of Hitler’s Nazi Reich rolled through Poland to begin World War 2. By October of 1940, nearly all of Europe was blanketed by the dark strain of fascism. England could not see the sky for Goering’s Luftwaffe bombers, France and the rest of Europe were subjugated, and the Axis forces were at Greece’s doorstep. Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini demanded the Greeks allow Axis forces free access through their country. Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas answered in a word “Oxi!”
What ensued after Metaxa’s proclamation was known as the Greco-Italian War, which lasted from 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941, and the Balkans Campaign for Axis forces. The Italian invasion was a catastrophe for Mussolini. Six Italian divisions had scarcely even crossed the Greek border with Albania by mid-November. The Hellenic Army, outnumbered and heavily outgunned, embarrassed the fascist dictator. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler was infuriated. This was the first setback for the Axis, a symbolic and strategic victory that had to be rectified before the Third Reich’s ultimate goals could be achieved.
The Greeks not only stopped the Italians, they launched a counter offensive that forced Mussolini to reinforce the front with an additional 18 divisions that were much needed in North Africa. In the end, these forces did not prove to be enough, and Hitler was forced to react. On 6 April, the Nazis invaded northern Greece in Operation Marita, outflanking Greece’s opposition with far superior firepower and numbers from Bulgaria. The Germans reached Athens on 27 April and the southern shore on 30 April. Only Crete and outlying islands were left, and the big island would prove a very costly conquest indeed, in the debacle that was Operation Mercury.
On May 20, 1941 the Germans launched the largest airborne invasion in history against Greek and British forces that had retreated to Crete. Though the invasion ended in success for the Axis, the devastating losses the Cretans and their British allies exacted on Hitler’s Fallschirmjäger (German paratroops) caused the Nazi leader to never deploy such large airborne forces ever again. The conquest of Crete, and the subsequent resistance to Axis occupation became the stuff of legend and legends. And the historic figures who fought this total war against domination, are not forgotten here on Greece’s most independent island.
Ultimately, Hitler was forced to keep urgently needed divisions in Greece. These divisions, it should be known, would surely have been deployed in Operation Barbarossa, and afterward for Hitler’s plan to annihilate the Soviet Union. Resistance in the mainland, and especially on Crete, tied up vital men and equipment that could have been used by Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, in North Africa. It’s appropriate to suggest here, that every Soviet soldier who fought at Stalingrad, had unseen civilian allies in the villages of Crete, guarding their flanks in that desperate battle. And at El Alamein, the British who halted the advance of the world’s greatest tank commander owe the debt too. Without Greek resistance, and the resistance of other partisans across Europe, commanders like Rommel and Guderian, even Goering’s seemingly unstoppable Luftwaffe, would certainly have been literally indomitable.
In the wide scheme, “Oxi Day” is a pivotal point in the battle between Allied and Axis powers. If the Soviet Union had fallen, Japan would have certainly secured all of China, leaving additional resources to battle the United States in the Pacific. And that theater, in 1941, was nearly decided in favor of the Axis powers. Only the Battle of Midway island in June of 1942, saw the U.S. tilt the balance. I could go on, but my point has been well made by historians and strategists for decades now. The Greeks stood tall, for one and for all, when they took to the streets and chanted enmasse “Oxi, Oxi, Oxi” in the face of certain consequences.
Here in Crete there are countless monuments to the heroes of Greek resistance, for the Nazis exacted a horrible toll on civilian populations. Whole villages were wiped out. Thousands were subjugated, forced labor caused many deaths, statues and monuments can be found in almost every hamlet on the island. Though almost all of the partisans who fought are gone now, their ambushes and capturing of German generals in the dark of night still resonate. One cannot help but admire their memories of those desperate days, days most other nations cannot claim as their finest hours. These Crete defenders and partisans fought Germany’s best soldiers, as first, with butcher knives strapped to broomsticks, and with bare hands. Their courage extraordinary, even for a time when desperation was normal.
From here in Heraklion, where our baker Akis (who works 16 hours 6 days normally) has closed his little shop – we feel gratitude to a people whose legacy is courage.