“The First Victory”

                                                                          “Greece in the Second World War”
                                                                                                          by George C. Blytas 
                                                                        Published by: Cosmos Publishing, American Hellenic Institute Foundation   

                                                                                                                               Price + $35.00                         
                                                                                                                                reviewed by

                                                                                                                           Joseph C Keane

                                                                                              Chairman Hellenic Cultural Commission

The Golden Age of Greece casts a reflection in a distant mirror in the 20th Century.  “The First Victory” is a must read for any 
student of Greek history or of the Second World War. Until October 1940, Hitler and Mussolini had achieved their 
territorial ambitions everywhere and generally in a matter of weeks. However, on the 28th of October, Mussolini 
presented Greece with an ultimatum demanding the “right to occupy certain strategically important areas of Greek territory”. 
His premature move would lead to his armies being thoroughly defeated by Greece for five and one half months, which 
became the first victory for the Allies and thus the title of the book.  Overcoming that  victory would require an additional two 
months, would need the combined armies of Italy and Germany, with help from Albania and Bulgaria, but the struggle
would continue for four more years.  The genius of the book is in presenting the circumstances surrounding  events, like the 
German general staff had planned the occupation of Greece only after the “British naval squadron in Alexandria was neutralized 
and the Suez Canal was captured or rendered non-navigable”. Obviously this didn’t happen before Mussolini’s precipitous
and petulant move. 

Dr. Blytas begins with a brief overview of Greece’s role in the First Balkan War, then the First World War, touches on the
Holocaust of Smyrna and the role of the Dictators. All this is necessary to set the stage to build up to the Battle of Greece and 
WW II.  Ioannis Metaxas, The Prime Minister and then Dictator of Greece, is treated well for his efforts to keep Greece neutral 
and for his courageous response to the ultimatum and his subsequent management of the war. General Papagos didn’t fare as 
well. His hesitation in Albania in December 1940, when the Italian army was demoralized is difficult to explain. The subsequent 
peace mediation efforts by Germany are enlightening and vividly illustrate the impact on the military and political situation that 
the Greek victories had, which were considerable. It clearly stiffened Franco’s Spain, Petain’s Vichy France, and Turkey’s 
resistance to joining the Axis and definitely thwarted Hitler’s Mediterranean strategy. The USSR also resisted Hitler’s attempts to 
lure them into the Axis, with Molotov pointing to Greece’s victories as the only successful counter to von Ribbentrop’s assertion 
that “the war is being won by the Axis”. The downside to Greece’s success was Hitler’s issuance of Operation Marita, for the 
attack on Greece through Bulgaria. Concurrently Hitler also authorized Operation Barbarossa, the attack on Russia, which would
prove so disastrous for him because of the lengthy and courageous resistance of the Greek army and people.  

England had long been in search of a Balkan front and Hitler knew that he would have to occupy all of Greece to keep them 
out of the Balkans. The intrigues involved in sending the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to Greece is an excellent illustra-
tion of the authors total command of the countervailing forces at play.  The battle for the island of Crete is an excellent illustration 
of the logical but totally inappropriate use of airborne troops. This heroic battle is covered in great detail. 

The occupation of Greece talks to the plundering and famine, in part caused by the Allied blockade, that Greeks suffered during
the war. The resistance of the people during the 3-1/2 years with demonstrations, strikes, ambushes, battles and sabotage is 
well covered. The resistance to the Axis was fierce and there were many reprisals and massacres. The divisions that would
erupt into civil war are carefully described and explained. The narrative is not solely focused on events in Greece, but covers 
them as seen through the prism of the struggles in Greece.  The costs and sacrifices of Greece are well documented and 
the implications and consequences carefully explained, but perhaps the greatest contribution is the well thought out “what 
would have happened if Greece didn’t” scenario. The greatest tribute to Greece’s sacrifice was paid by Churchill’s knowing
and catastrophic sacrifice of the BEF to guarantee Greece’s membership as an ally and Stalin’s tribute: “You fought with-
out weapons and you won…..We owe you gratitude because you bought time….As Russians and as fellow humans, we 
thank you”.