THE OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES AND GREECE: THE MISSING LINK OF THE MEDITERRANEAN CAMPAIGN
Dr. Panagiotis Dimitrakis
(Military historian based in Athens, Greece and completed his PhD in War Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Greek Military Intelligence and the Crescent - Estimating the Turkish Threat: Crises, Leadership and Strategic Analyses, 1974-1996 (Plymouth: University of Plymouth Press, 2008). Recently, the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence published his article ‘British Intelligence and the Cyprus Insurgency, 1955-1959’. His latest book Greece and the English- British Diplomacy and the Kings of Greece will be published by IB Tauris, London/New York in 2009. In Greek he published the Secret Operations in Asia Minor- The Secret War of Greek and British Intelligence Services for Anatolia, 1919-1923 (Athens: Communications, 2005) and The German Secret Services in Greece- Espionage and Intelligence Analysis, 1937-1945 (Athens: Enalios Publishers, 2008).
Note: First published online at the Military History on Line at 07/13/2008.
Greece entered the Second World War in October 1940. Fascist Italy invaded the Northwest frontier but the Greek Army counterattacked reaching Albania. In April 1941 the Wehrmacht invaded from the Greek-Bulgarian borders. By late May, Greek and Commonwealth units fought fiercely in mainland Greece and Crete but eventually they withdrew to Egypt. The Greek government in exile was hosted in London. The occupation experience in Greece has been of the harshest in Europe. Thousands died of famine in Athens in 1941-1942 and German units burned down and destroyed villages killing indiscriminately men, women and children. The British Military Mission and the Special Operations Executive established a close co-operation with the Greek guerillas, the Antartes.
At the time the United States entered the war many Greek-Americans served in the rank and file of the US Army. The Greek government in exile urged the US government the Greek-Americans to fight in Greece and contribute in the resistance. Thus, in January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the 122nd Infantry Battalion, based in Camp Carson, in Colorado. The number '122' was meant to have a symbolic meaning; it marked the 122 years of Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire. Head of the new formation was appointed Major Peter Clainos of Manchester, New Hampshire, a Greek-American, born in Sparta in 1907, who graduated from the West Point. American officers, like Lieutenant Robert Houlihan were also called up to fill in the rank and file. Houlihan was considered eligible by the War Department because he just had 'studied Greek at a prep school in Wisconsin'. Eventually, he was the one to head the C Company, 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion aka the Greek Operational Group of the Office of Strategic Services.
Andrew Mousalimas, a young Greek-American who joined the 2671 Battalion spoke 'of the many 25- to 35 miles hikes that Major Clainos put us through during our training at Carson. Clainos was 36 years old and he always led the battalion. We nicknamed him Leonidas of Thermopylae… We continually cussed him for driving us so hard, but we had tremendous respect for him.' Mousalimas found infantry training very strenuous: 'hiking, [Mousalimas's emphasis] obstacle courses, rifle range, hiking, map reading, compass reading, hiking, live grenade throwing, antipersonnel mine detecting, hiking, live machine gun fire with limited crawling space, hiking, digging foxholes, learning infantry tactics, hiking and boring guard duty. Perry [one of his mates] and I were chosen for G2 and given intelligence course. This sounded impressive (the innocence of youth) until we learned that we were slated to be the point scouts of the company.'
The Greek Operational Group of the OSS was divided into eight groups that operated independently. Usually, the Greek-American commandos acted under British officers of the British Military Mission in Greece together with the local Antartes of the EAM-ELAS (National Liberation Front-National Liberation Army). Group I entered Greece by sea landing in Epirus (Northwest Greece) on 23 April 1944. Group II entered by parachute in Roumeli area (Central Greece) on 18 June 1944. Group III was deployed in Thessaly (Central Greece) on 19 July 1944. Greek Macedonia (not to be confused with today's Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's territories) was visited by the Group IV in early September 1944. On 21 May 1944, Group V operated in Mount Paikon (North Greece). Mount Olympus, the mythical site of the Ancient Greek Olympian gods, was the epicenter of the operations of Group VI. Finally, Group VII entered Peloponnesus on 16 May and Group VIII operated in Greek Macedonia. In sum twelve officers and 130 NCOs of the OSS reached Greece in 1944. Privates did not serve with the OSS groups in Greece.
The OSS's missions focused on sabotage against communications, rail networks and bridges used by the Wehrmacht for the redeployment of troops to the North Greece. Occasional targets included light military personnel vehicles and columns. The Germans started withdrawing troops from summer 1944. By early September, OSS gathered day by day tactical intelligence on the direction of the German divisions and their capabilities saved from the Greek theatre of operations. A typical OSS group was composed of eighteen to thirty officers and NCO. Key tactics had been surprise and night attacks at pill boxes, tunnels or bridges. After long hazardous marches in mountain areas the commandos approached the target employing the Antartes as guides and scouts. A part of the team provided back up to the demolition experts approaching the target. Another team was assigned close security.
By the end of the occupation the rift between the communist-influenced EAM-ELAS and the British Military Mission was evident. The OSS entered Greece in 1944 and focused only on military matters, thus minimizing the friction with the suspicious mountain guerillas. Also, relations between British and Americans were not cordial as expected to be. Mousalimas's team, the Group IV operated near the Greek-Bulgarian borders. He emphasized that 'the enlisted men rarely fraternized with the British officers or the Antartes. The Antartes were in no mood to be too cordial. Having spent over four years in the mountains fighting they co-existed with the British although they knew the British preferred the Royalist party to govern Greece when the Nazis left Athens. We were ordered not to speak Greek to the Antartes and civilians; we believed this was ridiculous, but as obedient young soldiers we followed the orders, though at times we slipped and spoke Greek.'
But prior to the Operational Group deployments some OSS officers holding the rank of lieutenant and captain were parachuted in Greece and acted on liaison duties with the Antartes' groups and the British Military Mission in the Greek mountains. Greek-American Captain Kouvaras infiltrated occupied Athens reporting on Greek political attitudes towards the communists, the republican and the communist-influenced resistance groups. He also sent back valuable intelligence on German occupation policy, the black market controlled by the Abwehr and the Sicherheitdienst.
Under Operation Pericles, on 17 May 1944 Captain Costas Couvaras arrived in the guerilla-dominated Mount Karpenisi (Central Greece). The EAM-ELAS leaders accepted helping the OSS in their planned intelligence and sabotage missions.(George Kardiakis Report, OSS Cairo, 3.9.1944, RG 226, Entry 190, Box.74, Folder 34 NARA) Fifteen days later, in his first report Couvaras pointed the finger to the British Military Mission arguing that they had to do more to counter the famine in the mountain areas. Americans had to get involved in the humanitarian aid he emphasized (Couvaras to OSS Labor Section, Cairo, 1.6.1944, RG 226, Entry 190, Box 73, Folder 27 US NARA/National Archives and Records Administration).
On 25 May, Couvaras entered occupied Athens to gather economic intelligence. Five days later, on 30 May, the OSS commando group operating in Greek-Turkish borders near the Evros river area blew up two bridges to avert the transfer of chrome from Turkey to Germany.(OSS, Washington to Harry Hopkins, White House, October 1944, Papers of H.Hopkins, Box 156, Roosevelt Presidential Library). Since late April the US Military Attaché in Ankara warned Washington of the strategic value of the rail line connecting Greece and Turkey for the transfer of chrome to Germany. (US Military Attaché, Ankara to War Department, 26.4.1944, Map Room Files, Box 79, Roosevelt Library).
At that time, the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS in Washington assessed that Britain had strategic interests in Greece and wanted to dominate in the Mediterranean in the post war era. The British were supposed to fight by any means to retain Greece within their own zone of influence and certainly did not want to let the country taking the path of a communist satellite as Stalin may have wanted. The EAM-ELAS was increasingly influenced by radical communist elements and that was why the British Military Mission channeled military aid to lesser pro-republic resistance organizations. But in the period 1942-1943 it was the British Military Mission and the Special Operations Executive that backed the EAM-ELAS believing it was the only force to count against the Axis. The EAM-ELAS was the most successful and determinate resistance organization. But the OSS believed that the EAM-ELAS was not wholly dominated by communists and that the ones with influence were moderates and not radicals.(OSS RG 59, Numbered Intelligence Reports, 2.6.1944, Research & Analysis, 2205, NARA)
Meanwhile, on 23 April 1944, Group I under Captain George W. Verghis reached Parga (Epirus coast) with a light landing craft. The OSS commandos contacted the British military mission there and the local Antartes and moved south. In the night of 5/6 July the Greek-Americans together with some Antartes ambushed five German trucks in the road Igoumenitsa-Joannina (Igoumenitsa is opposite Corfu). The engagement lasted for about forty minutes and the results were successful. The convoy was burned down. It was the first time the OSS engaged the Axis in Greece.
On 8 September, the Group IV flew from Brindisi, Italy and was parachuted in Macedonia, Greek-Bulgarian borders. Two C-47s were sent into that mission. Mousalimas's was excited of returning to his motherland after so many years: 'When we arrived at the drop zone, our plane kept circling for what seemed an eternity. Though it was a moonless night, we could see the mountains of Macedonia through the open door. We learned later that the reason we kept circling was that the pilot of the first plane initially refused Captain Eichler's [commanding officer of the Group IV] order to drop the men in 4-man sticks. The pilot had to make three trips between two mountain ranges, bring the plane low enough to safely drop 4 men, then climb above the mountain range and repeat the maneuver two more times. The pilot insisted on dropping all 12 at once. No doubt this was a dangerous maneuver for the airmen but unlike most parachute drops there were no enemy planes or anti-aircraft firing from the ground. Captain Eichler, though not in command of the plane, told the pilot that he would not allow a stick of 12 men to jump at the same time, and if the pilot did not drop us as ordered, he threatened him with a court-martial if we returned to Italy.
Meanwhile our plane continued to circle the rim of the mountains. The anticipation of the parachute jump plus circling over Axis-held territory was nerve wracking. We were worried that the Axis would discover us and send up their fighter planes. Shooting down an unarmed C-47 by fighter planes would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Sweating it out, we were very anxious to get the hell out of the plane. The red light finally turned on in our plane, signaling us to prepare to jump. The first stick was led by Lt. Pope with three men. The light turned green and the four men jumped into the dark sky. The plane immediately gained altitude, circled the area, and returned to the drop zone, dropping low enough for the second stick to jump. The second stick, led by Sgt. Chris Christie, waited for the green light and the next four men jumped into the dark sky. The third and last stick, led by Tom Georgalos and followed by Alex Phillips, Pete Lewis, and me, hooked up. Meanwhile the C-47 repeated the dangerous maneuver once again, gained altitude to avoid the mountains, and returned to the drop zone.
By this time you could cut the tension in the plane with a knife. The light turned green and the third stick jumped…[Once landed] we immediately gathered our parachutes, loaded our heavy equipment on mules, gathered the rest of our equipment, and walked single file into the unknown of the Macedonia mountains. We were told our location was Oropethion near the Bulgarian border... We were warmly received by 50 Antartes and a four-man British mission…Our first night in Greece we followed the two British officers and two signalmen and two Antarte scouts, walking winding trails until we reached our temporary base on a mountainside. We did not have a clue where in the hell we were. We were at the mercy of the Antarte scouts. The Antartes would always be present whenever we needed them to guide us through the mountains. Until we reached [the city of] Drama we slept on the ground, usually on the side of a mountain; we never went into the valleys where we would be an easy target for the Axis.'
That same day, Lieutenant Giannaris and his Group II moved to attack a rail line of the Salonika-Athens railroad north of Lamia (Central mainland Greece). The commandos had to deal with a pill box, heavy mortars and heavy machine guns, even 20 mm anti aircraft guns, and a 105 mm Howitzer. Giannaris's mission was to harass the Germans while the Antarters will blow up the line at a northern point. 'As the [OSS group] patrol was approaching the line, an enemy machine gun opened fire at point blank range, hitting one man with an entire burst. Simultaneously, flares went up, and other machine gun emplacements opened fire. Lieutenant Giannaris gave the order to withdraw and attempted to reach the man who was hit with the first burst, but before he took more than a few steps, he had detonated a mine and was seriously injured and unconscious. In the meantime, the pillbox to the left and the emplacements to the right had commenced firing, and the barrage was terrific.
The party was pinned down and unable to move, due mostly to the direct fire in front which was a grazing fire covering the immediate area with vision from flares. In view of this predicament, a corporal without personal safety took a few steps toward the machine gun emplacement and opened fire from 15 yards. This action silenced the machine gun and enabled the men to withdraw to safer positions and eventually retreat over the mountaintop to the rendezvous point.' Eventually the commandos did their job and the Antartes theirs. (U.S. National Archives, Greek U.S. Operational Groups, Operations in Greece 1944, p. 130; report filed at OSS Headquarters, 24 December 1944). There is no name at the end of this report to disclose who compiled this. Lieutenant Giannaris was wounded, so one of his men wrote this account.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Peyton, assumed the command of Group V after Lieutenant George Papazoglou being injured in mid July. Peyton and his men were called up, together with some Antartes to blow up a mine and a dam guarded by German units. It was an opportunity target for Peyton's group. The daring operation took place on 27 August 1944 in the Gevgelli area (Northern Greece) and the post action report of the lieutenant was graphic enough for his superiors to get a picture of the heat of the raid: 'We were still browned off about two train ambushes which failed to come off. We had previously been told of a mine the Germans were operating and decided this would be a good time to hit as long as we were still in the area…Barbed wire entanglements and tri-wire minefields encircled the entire area. A large dam stored the water used to operate the turbines, which were enclosed in large concrete structures. The plan was to divide the mine area into two sections. The Antartes were to assault and take one section, and the OGs [OSS men] the other. We were to blow the dam, the power plants, and mine shafts. I left on a recon of the mine with three RSR (Raiding Support Regiment) officers and left my group under Sergeant Paidas with instructions to meet me at 2330 hours that night, and I would take them into position; we would lie down and get some sleep and forget the damn thing until time to attack. The men were very tired and after getting into position, they all lay down and slept.
At the first crack of dawn, the men were aroused and got ready for the attack. The attack began at 0545 hours, and all hell broke loose. We caught the bastards with their pants down and really gave them hell for awhile. Following the plan, I took 8 men with me (1 bazooka, Browning automatic rifle (BAR), 2 M1 rifles, and two Thomson machine guns (TG) to assault the mine (our half). The rest of the OGs were covering us. We went down a ravine and kept undercover as well as we could until we came to the mine proper. I placed the bazooka and, with one shot (Corporal Minogianis and Corporal Gianotis) took out a machine gun (MG) nest that was in our way. As soon as MG was finished, we dashed forward to that point. We had to go through a minefield, and it was a little touchy at times due to the fact that you didn't know if you had seen all the wires or not. Prior to our assault, my BAR team (and it's the best), consisting of Corporal Lygizos and Corporal Photis, took out another MG nest, and that left only two more to go. We could see the Hun running around and realized they were quite frightened and, of course, that gave us the chance we wanted. We hit them hard and fast, and they didn't stand a chance. We knocked off 75 and captured 28 Hun who decided they would rather surrender than die. It was a little rough for awhile, but once again the good Lord was with us and watched over us. We assaulted the buildings, and the two remaining MG emplacements with TGs and grenades, and in a few minutes we had things going our way. We decided, upon completion of our mission, to help the Antartes take their half of the mine.
The situation was such, however, that after three attempts to link up with them, we decided to withdraw. The prisoners were herded in front of us, and we left the mine. As soon as we got to our original position, the prisoners were turned over to the Antartes. I was told by the Antarte chief that it was impossible for them to fulfill their mission, and there was nothing to do on the other side of the mine. As soon as we had taken our half of the mine, demolitions were laid for the destruction of the dam and powerhouses. This was accomplished and, as a parting gesture, we blew two mine shafts. Once again, the Antartes killed themselves by going through the minefield like a herd of sheep. Instead of following us, they took a shortcut and got themselves killed and wounded. The number of Huns wounded was unknown as they were scattered over a huge area. The killed counted to 75, the prisoners 28. Our casualties, none.' (U.S. National Archives, Greek U.S. Operational Groups, Operations in Greece 1944, p. 151 (report filed at OSS Headquarters, 24 December 1944), reported by commanding officer, 2nd Lt. Lon Peyton).
In mid September 1944 the Bulgarian Army was still in the city of Drama (Northern Greece). The EAM-ELAS controlled the outskirts of the city and the OSS men of Group IV there found themselves in an awkward position. Mousalimas admitted that 'we were under what can be called protective custody by Bulgarian guards… We were confused; our exact status with the Bulgarians and the Greek controllers of Drama, the EAM/ELAS, was ambivalent to say the least. Major Miller had gone to Sofia, Bulgaria, and after establishing the Allied mission there he returned to Drama. However due to the Greek political situation and the undefined Bulgarian situation, we were in a fog. On 12 October 1944, a confrontation between the Bulgarians and the EAM/ELAS was brewing and we were caught in the middle.
The Bulgarians did not believe we were Americans and asked Captain Eichler for credentials. He refused to negotiate, and the Bulgarians threatened to take the law into their own hands. The British Major Kit Kat, now in charge of our mission, finally contacted the local provost. Colonel Radoff, the leader of the Bulgarian Partisans, called Major Kit Kat to his office to discuss the old question that he brought up in many conferences with the British, namely where was the mission's authorization to be in Drama and where were our credentials? Radoff then demanded that unless some authority was produced within one hour he would take the law into his own hands. Major Kit Kat returned to our billet and divulged the facts of his meeting to Captain Eichler. We took up defensive positions and waited for Radoff's threat to be put into operation. Hell, we were only 26 Americans and three or four Brits, and the Bulgarians encircled our billet with infantry troops and artillery.
Major Kit Kat immediately contacted the provost marshal again, who in turn saw Colonel Radoff and told him that our presence was a question for the Greeks to decide, not the Bulgarians. We were ordered to stand by and protect the mission in case of an attack- ridiculous, considering there were thousands of Bulgarians in the Drama vicinity, and the only weapons we had were our rifles, a couple of Browning automatic rifles, one light machine gun and a bazooka. The EAM ordered the Bulgarians to relinquish protective custody. The Bulgarians retreated after the EAM told them not to fire on our mission. We were elated that we did not have to fight against long odds, and even more pleased the EAM supported us; we were only a handful and we would have been annihilated by the Bulgarians. The only shots that we fired during the negotiations were shots against a German Messerschmitt fighter plane that flew very close to our billet. Fortunately the Bulgarians and the EAM realized we were firing at the German plane.'
Group IV left Greece last, on 20 November 1944. Mousalimas, tired of his missions but satisfied of the OSS contribution in the resistance remarked: 'A C-47 with an American crew landed at our makeshift airport in Drama and we loaded up with all of our equipment…landed at Tatoi Airport in Athens. British and OSS officers in charge of Allied operations in Athens ordered us not to debark from the airplane. Lieutenant Houlihan, who was with us, argued strongly to allow his men to visit Athens, believing it would be a shot in the arm for the morale of the Greek Operation Group and especially for the Greek people, who would discover that Greek-Americans had fought in Greece. He did not win the argument. We were disappointed. Since then, Major (ret.) Houlihan has mentioned numerous times that it was the finest argument he has ever lost. The Greek civil war was brewing, and because the Americans were under British command, we would have been ordered into battle against the same Antartes (EAM/ELAS) with whom we had fought side by side in the mountains of Macedonia.'
The OSS was proud of their story in Greece but the Greek Operational Groups was disbanded once they reached Italy. The commandos did not enter the labyrinth of the Greek civil war between royalists, republicans, communists, and the British. Only three OSS commandos were killed in action and 23 were wounded. The War Department staff officers read the combat statistics: 76 commando operations in total; 14 trains attacked; 11 locomotives destroyed; 32 train cars destroyed; 5 convoys attacked; 15 bridges destroyed; 9,920 yards of rail blown; 61 trucks destroyed; approximately 2,000 enemy troops were killed and wounded.
. Gerolymatos,Andre, Red Acropolis, Black Terror: The Greek Civil War and the Origins of the Soviet-American Rivalry, 1943-1949 (London: Basic Books, 2004).
. Korkas, Constantine, The Greek-American Volunteers in the National Resistance, History of the Operations in Greece of the 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion (23 April - 20 November 1944), Army General Staff, Directorate of Military History (Athens, 2005).[in Greek]
. Mazower, Mark, Inside Hitler's Greece- The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
. Mousalimas, Andrew, Greek/American Operational Group Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Memoirs of World War 2. http://www.path.com/oss/straight01.html Accessed 12 April 2008.
. Rizas, Sotiris, Chronology of Events, 1940-1944 from the Documents of the American Services (Athens: Academy of Athens,2004) [available in Greek only].