In the aftermath of the Axis occupation of Greece, the quaint Greek village of Meligalas in the southern region of Messinia became the site of one of the darkest pages in Greek history, when communist guerrillas of EAM-ELAS encircled the retreating forces of the right wing Security Battalions, and after defeating them in pitched combat, executed the surrendered militiamen along with scores of civilians suspected of collaborating with them.

The field of crosses

Following the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943,  German forces took control of all Italian zones of occupation in Greece, including the Peloponnese. In the face of emboldened guerilla insurgency, featuring constant sabotage, ambush, harassment and hit-and-run operations against the occupying forces in the region, General Karl Von LeSuire launches a series of cleanup operations, and follows up on every act of resistance with harsh reprisals against guerillas and civilians alike. These culminate in the infamous massacre of Kalavryta in December 1943, where 1200 civilians of all ages were executed in reprisal for the previous killing of 78 captured German soldiers by partisans. To help counter the communist guerilla forces of EAM-ELAS and their growing influence among other partisan groups  in Greece, as well as to preserve the lives of German soldiers, they enlist the help of the Greek collaborationist government of Ioannis Rallis, prompting the establishment of the Security Battalions : a Greek force of 22.000 ex-veterans, army officers, landowners and other right-wing sympathizers – who fearful of a successful communist insurgency, will form volunteer war bands whose main role was to aid the occupying German forces in their fight against the forces of EAM-ELAS. The Security Battalions were particularly active in the central and south Greek mainland, and specifically in the guerilla-rife mountainous southern region of Peloponnese, where Meligalas will soon become a stronghold for mounting their counter insurgency operations in the surrounding area.

Griechenland, erhängter Mann in Ortschaft
A member of the Security Battalions posing next to a hanged man (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-179-1552-13 / Drehsen / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

By August 1944, the German collapse in the Soviet Union leading to the Red Army’s unstoppable advance towards Romania becomes a major threat for the occupying Nazi forces stationed in Greece. Faced by the danger of being cut off in the southern Balkan peninsula, the order to evacuate towards Yugoslavia and the retreating front is given. With the Germans in retreat and out of their way, the communist guerillas of Capetan Aris Velouhiotis advance throughout Messinia and enter its capital Kalamata, liberating it and disarming most remaining resistance. However, escaping elements of the Security Battalions based in Kalamata and the surrounding towns and villages – about 200 strong – successfully retreat 30km away to Meligalas, where they join a significant force of 800 already based there, and begin to fortify the village. At their heel, a heavily armed force of 1200 EAM-ELAS guerillas who will surround Meligalas on the 11th of September 1944, and after a pitched 3 day battle involving close combat through barricaded streets, minefields, fortified houses and machine gun nests, will force the hopelessly surrounded remains of the Security Battalions to surrender.

The field of crosses

There is a variety of eyewitness, official and popular accounts about what happened next, that generally vary depending on whose side these come from. The consensus seems to be that the first wave of reprisals came among the local communist guerillas, who began summarily executing those adversaries recognized among the surrendered : a gendarme here, a known collaborator there. Then came villagers from nearby regions, who having suffered hardships and executions from both Germans and the Security Battalions as a result of the occupation, descended on the liberated village and began exacting further revenge, burning, looting and killing more prisoners – abetted by the guerillas’ intentionally relaxed attitude towards the safety of the surrendered. Around the 15th of September, a summary court is established and the mock trials begin to include the populations of Meligalas and surrounding villages, men or women, young and old, who after being accused of aiding the Security Battalions or as sympathizers on testimonials by locals, they are subsequently led to an area outside the village to be killed, their bodies thrown in a well. The executions are performed by members of EAM-ELAS brought in from other regions of Greece according to custom, while Velouhiotis and the remaining local guerillas make their way back to Kalamata with about 60 captured leading members of the Security Battalions : Along the way, several prisoners are beaten or knifed by local villagers, and as soon as they arrive at the central square of Kalamata, an angry mob breaks through the guerilla ranks and lynches the rest, beating them to death or hanging them from the square’s lamp posts. Over the course of 4 days, hundreds of former combatants and civilians from the surrounding area are being massacred at the well of Meligalas : In 1945, 708 bodies are exhumed on the site, but the current memorial mentions 787 names from 61 villages, while other accounts bring the death toll up to 1144 or more.

The Well at Meligalas

The atrocities at Meligalas had a negative effect on the already diminished reputation of the liberating forces of EAM-ELAS in Greece and abroad, and their popularity suffered further among the Western Allies – who had so far supported communists, albeit with increasing reluctance among other Greek partisan groups. The war was drawing to its inevitable close, and the new ideological borders being drawn in Europe were becoming apparent as the King of Greece and his government in exile began to reassert legitimate control of the newly liberated country along the lines of the Lebanon Conference and the subsequent Caserta agreement, which stipulated that all resistance forces in Greece, regardless of ideology, would be able to participate in a new government of national unity, and that all collaborationist forces would face trial and punishment. However, the tensions arising from the slaughter at Meligalas and the general reluctance of EAM-ELAS to lay down their arms and cede control of their territories to the newly re-established central government would lead to the events of December 1944 , when communist guerillas began clashing with royalist and British forces in the streets of Athens, in what was to become the prelude to a bloody and desperate Greek Civil War, the first proxy conflict of the Cold War era.

The field of crosses

If you happen to be in the area, the memorial is easy to reach by car. Its massive concrete cross is hard to miss, and the ossuary and field strewn with graves next to the abominable well of Meligalas is a stark reminder of the extremes of war.

The monument, memorial wall and chapel at Meligalas

All photos © explorabilia except where specified otherwise.

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