Amongst the comments of my first article were requests to know more about the Greek SOF—since (as it seems) you don’t come about this kind of information every day. Well, sit back then, for here comes more. And as the rules of storytelling go, we’ll start from the beginning.
The beginning finds us in 1942 in the Middle East, which is where the Greek government and king had fled after the Greek defense had eventually given in to the Germans, who backed up the initial unsuccessful Italian attack. The major concern of the exiled military leadership was to assemble the forces that had managed to escape the occupied mainland back to a fighting force. Consequently, two brigades were created, with the first one being ready before the battle of El Alamein and taking part in it. However, the officers were a few too many for the corresponding positions, which resulted in the creation of an Army unit, formed by officers, with soldier’s duties—after the suggestion of Lt Commander (Air Force) G. Alexandris, initially with the form of a MG company and the force of 200 men.
When Colonel Tsigantes, a former political exile who until then fought with the French Foreign Legion, assumed command, the unit was renamed to Sacred Company, in honor of the Sacred Company of Thebes and the Sacred Company of the Greek Revolution, and used on their insignia and as a motto, the customary farewell of the women of ancient Sparta to men going to war, “With your shield, or on it.” With the cooperation of Lt. Colonel David Stirling, the unit had its role redefined to that of a commando unit. It was attached to the SAS and then relocated to its base at Kabrit in Egypt to be trained.
On January 27th 1943, while the Company was in Libya en route to link up with the rest of the SAS, it became known that the SAS forward elements already in Tunisia had suffered heavy losses and David Stirling had been captured. Thus, the unit found itself without a mission and so it was put under the command of General Leclerc of the Free French Forces, with the duties of Light Mechanized Cavalry, after the suggestion of Colonel Tsigantes who did not want it to stay out of the fight. In Ksar-Rillan, the Sacred Company gave its first major battle while covering the advance of the X British Army Corps. When the Allied forces captured Gabès, the Company was detailed to the 2nd New Zealand Division, along with which it fought the Germans at Wadi Akarit. On April 17th, it was sent back to Egypt to train and regroup.
After the armistice was signed by Italy, the British forces began operations in the Aegean to keep the ‘owned by Italians’ Dodecanese away from German hands. Since the islands were mostly populated by Greeks, the Greek government requested the participation of its own forces, a request initially declined until October. With Rhodes lost from the beginning, it was decided to occupy the remaining islands, especially the larger ones: Kos, Leros and Samos. The Sacred Company deployed on Samos by ships and night drops, in which the unit’s commander, Colonel Tsigantes, participated in without prior paratrooper training. The Greek unit was tasked with the island’s defensive preparation, but the loss of the other two islands made the Allied forces evacuate Samos.
Four months later, the Company was attached to Raiding Forces alongside SBS, with the objective to disrupt supply lines and harass the German garrisons in the Aegean. By July 13th 1944, when the operation on Simi, which resulted in the liberation of the island, took place, the Sacred Company had expanded to regimental size, with a strength of approximately 1,000 men. With the departure of the SBS in August, the responsibility of operations in the Aegean rested solely on the men of the Sacred Company.
In September the Company was divided into two battalion-size task forces; force B with the objective to continue operations in the Aegean and force C was to participate in the liberation of mainland Greece, as the German forces were beginning to retreat. With Athens liberated on October 14th, 1944 by British forces, the Company reunited and continued the operations in the Aegean, liberating Nisiros, Tilos, Tinos, Milos, Kos and Rhodes. On August 7th, the unit was awarded with Greece’s highest military awards, the Gold Cross of Valour and the War Cross First Class and disbanded in a ceremony in Athens.
The total casualties of the Sacred Company were 17 dead, 58 wounded, 3 missing and 29 captured.
During World War II, the Greek resistance consisted of two politically opposite parties, who, despite their occasional cooperation during the War and the final departure of the Germans, had not resolved their differences, which resulted in a Civil War that broke out on March 31 1946, when Communist guerrillas attacked a Gendarmerie station in Litochoro, killing the gendarmes.
Facing guerrilla warfare in the mountainous terrain, which is predominant in the Greek mainland, the Greek military command soon realized that regular army was not efficient and so 40 special, independent companies were created, after the suggestion of Colonel Andreas Kalinskis, a veteran of the Sacred Company. The new units were named Mountain Raiding Companies and each consisted of 4 officers and 59 enlisted men. The urgent need for these units to be deployed resulted in hasty selection and training, and eventually in poor performance. Consequently, it was decided to disband all but 4 of the existing units (the 32th, 36th, 39th and 40th), and start all over again. This time, the selection of personnel was more meticulous and the training regime was based on the British commandos.
The new unit’s insignia was an upward sword framed by wings and the motto “Who dares wins,” and as its distinctive headgear it adopted the Green Beret. In the meantime, the British aid to Greece was replaced with an American one.
In April of 1947, the operation TERMINUS commenced, a nation-wide clearing mission with an axis of advance from south to north except Peloponnesus where the Mountain Raiding Companies took part along with battalions of infantry and gendarmerie, Paramilitary units (countryside defense units) and air force. The operation was inconclusive, failing to deal a substantial blow to the guerrillas’ forces despite the raiders good performance. In the meantime, in search of an urban center to form a government, the guerrillas began to attack major cities of the Greek north and that is where the Mountain Raiding Companies were tasked to act as a general reserve.
In the battle of Konitsa, the 63rd, 64th, 65th and 66th Companies conducted a nighttime infiltration, breaking through communist lines and took hold of Lykomoro hill, on the rear of enemy forces cutting off one route of retreat, thus relieving pressure from the city’s besieged defenders and contributing to the final victory. The Companies’ positive performance led to the creation of 4 battalion-sized units, called squadrons, which consisted of the independent companies and formed a brigade under the name of Raiding Forces Command. Since 1948, the guerrillas, in their attempt to gain international legitimacy, organized their forces in the areas of Grammos, Vitsi and Mourgana in the form of a regular army and their style of battle was a tactical one. In response, the Raiding units were used as light infantry shock troops.
The command’s inefficiency had caused great losses in Mourgana and Grammos and a defeat in Vitsi, which made the American allies openly question the competence of the Greek army. Thus, the Greek Army General Staff turned to the Raiders as their only reliable force. The Raiders responded with a daring plan of night infiltrations against mountains Magovits and Vitsi. At the dawn of October 17th, squadrons A and B managed to catch the enemy off guard, forced them to retreat and took hold of their respective objectives. Almost immediately, they faced counterattacks in the guerrillas’ attempts to catch them off balance.
In Magovits things went according to plan, and A squadron was relieved by an infantry unit. In Vitsi, however, the infantry failed to do so, leaving B squadron to fight consecutively until the next afternoon. Despite the initial success, the infantry could not perform accordingly and the operation in Vitsi also ended up in failure. At the same time, squadrons C and D participated in operations in Peloponnese and managed to turn the tide for the Government forces in the area.
In January 1949, Alexander Papagos was named field marshal, a prestigious military figure, as he was the commander of the Greek army during the WWII. He put in motion major changes in the Greek armed forces, in order for 1949 to be the last year of war. Strict discipline was enforced, new equipment received from the USA and the army force reached 197,000 men. Until the summer of 1949, the operations conducted had two objectives: clearing any pockets of resistance and circling the guerrilla forces main bases in Vitsi and Grammos.
After a diversionary attack on Grammos, on August 10th a Raiding Division, consisting of the four preexisting and one new squadron, led the attack on Vitsi with the objective of capturing two of its peaks, Baros and Lesits. The dense fortifications and the mountainous terrain, alongside the tenacious defense of the communists’ forces, caused a great number of losses, with A squadron’s CO and XO among them. The enemy’s defense gave in on August 16th, with the remaining forces retreating over the border. Now, with Grammos totally surrounded and the guerrillas counting merely 8,000 men, the Greek army assaulted the area with the Raiders’ mission being to exploit any breach created by the attacking infantry. Meanwhile, flanking maneuvers were conducted along the borders with Albania, putting pressure on the rear of the guerrilla forces and causing their defense to collapse. By August 30th the battle was over and with it the Greek Civil War. A war that cost the Raiders 420 dead and 1,620 wounded.
That was the brief history of the creation of the Greek Special Operation Forces. The Sacred Company, whose great service to the country was to empower its claim on the Dodecanese islands and reunite the Greek populations with the mainland. The Mountain Raiding Forces created their own legend of a dependable, ferociously fighting unit and were so highly admired that even today their name has become synonymous to Greek SOF.
Special thanks to Savas Vlassis, Defense journalist and former paratrooper, for his help and license to publish extracts from his upcoming book on the Sacred Company, the first one in English language on that subject which will be available in December from Trojan Horse publishing.