The Battle of Rimini and the heroes of the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade is one of the lesser known chapters of World War II, but a proud moment for Greece.
It was 77 years ago this month that the Greek expeditionary force made a decisive contribution to the Allies’ effort to repel the Germans from the Italian peninsula.
The Italian city of Rimini was captured by Greek, Canadian and Australian fighters after fierce battles with Axis forces and the Greek flag was waved at the city hall.
The Rimini takeover was not only the prize of the fortnightly hard and bloody battle of the Brigade, but it brought Greece back to the forefront two years after the battle of El Alamein.
The 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade heroic contribution gave Greece credit to promote its positions and territorial claims at the ensuing peace conference.
The forming of the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade
The formation of the brigade that fought in Rimini was not a result of regular staff planning, but a forced choice after the collapse of the Greek military forces in the Middle East by an insurgent movement in April 1944.
At that time, the position of the exiled Greek government became extremely difficult. The Greek army was divided with the leftists on one side and those loyal to the King of Greece and conservatives on the other.
The emerging victory of the allied forces and the imminent liberation of Greece in the absence of a regular national army was dangerous for the post-war governing of Greece.
Consequently, the country’s post-war position in the victors’ camp made it imperative for Greek units to participate in Allied operations against the enemy in Italy.
So, after the Lebanon Congress, the government of Georgios Papandreou, along with the condemnation of the insurgents and the approval of the British army leadership, decided to to form a Greek brigade.
On June 9, 1944, the order for the formation of the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade was issued, from the “healthy elements of the disbanded brigades”.
Colonel Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos was appointed Commander of the Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Nikolaos Papadopoulos was appointed Deputy Commander and Lieutenant Colonel Gerasimos Lamaris was appointed Chief of Staff.
The Greek brigade was formed under the constant supervision of the British staff from June 11 to 18, when it received its armament and was transferred to Tripoli, Lebanon, to the British Mountain Training Center.
The training began on June 22 was completed on July 28, 1944 with the brigade’s total force of 3,377 men, who showed a high morale and an eagerness to fight.
From Lebanon to the Rimini front line
On July 28, the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade were transported by rail to Haifa and on the Dutch ship “Rous”, that set sail on August 7, accompanied by warships.
Upon the departure, Commander of the Middle East Forces Bernard Paget, said that these men were holding “the honor and future of Greece” in their hands.
The Greek force landed on the Taranto port on August 11 and came under the command of the New Zealand Expeditionary Corps commanded by General Bernard Freiberg.
General Freiberg inspected the men and was satisfied. He also praised the help of the Greek people to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the joint struggles in Crete against the Germans in 1941.
On August 20, the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade started for Spoleto where they arrived six days later. There, they joined the 2nd New Zealand Division.
The Allied troops, consisting of the 5th U.S. Army in the western sector along the Adriatic and the 8th British Army in the eastern sector, had a total force of twenty divisions.
The Allied forces, after taking Rome in June 1944, as part of Operation Olive, had advanced north against the new German line of defense, the Gothic Line.
The Gothic Line stretched from Pisa to Rimini in the Adriatic, a 350 km (217 miles) line. It was reinforced with anti-tank fortifications, minefields and trenches, and was defended by General Albert Kesserling with two divisions.
On September 3, the Greek brigade came under the command of the 5th Canadian Armored Division as its reserve and was ordered to move eight kilometers from the front line.
On September 8, the 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade took over the coastal sector, replacing the 3rd Canadian Brigade.
Taking over the area from Riccione to the Adriatic, the Greek force was given the mission to cober the right wing of the 1st Canadian Division in the planned attack against Rimini.
Attack and takeover of Rimini
The 3rd Hellenic Mountain Brigade operations started on September 9, when faced with night enemy patrols, which were forced to retreat after a hard fight and significant losses.
In the following days, the brigade carried out reconnaissance and patrol missions towards the village of San Lorenzo and the Monaldini and Monticelli communities in order to determine enemy positions.
The German positions turned out to be heavily fortified and mined, and to circumvent them required strong artillery support and coordinated offensive action.
The Greek brigade had entered the fire zone for good with losses of 15 dead and 34 wounded. On the night of September 14, the Greeks attacked.
They were reinforced with Allied armored vehicles and machine gun detachments and began with the three battalions attacking in three directions.
Three days later, after fierce fighting and the stubborn resistance of select units of the German Paratroopers Division, the Greek battalions took over the Rimini airport.
Then they continued the offensive towards the city, braving through scattered landmines and mortar fire.
On September 19, while the Greek fighters were only four kilometers from the city, General Tsakalotos sent them the following message:
“Canadians are competing after the Brigade to enter Rimini first. Rimini should be the prize of the Brigade’s ten-day hard fights “.
In the morning hours of September 21, the 2nd Infantry Battalion entered the abandoned city where a Protocol of Unconditional Surrender of Rimini to the Greek forces was signed.
In the afternoon of the same day, a ceremony took place in the square with the presence of delegations of Canadian and New Zealand units to pay tribute to the war flag of the 2nd Battalion.
The first phase of the operation was completed. Two years after the battle of El Alamein, the Rimini Brigade, as it was named after its victorious battle, wrote new bravery passages in the history of Greece at war, placing it in the camp of the victors.
“After El Alamein and Monte Casino, Rimini was a great victory,” said General Oliver Leese, commander of the 8th British Army.
The Rimini epos is a forgotten chapter in Greece’s participation in World War II. It was written in blood as the Rimini Brigade lost 116 men and had 316 wounded.