Tuesday, May 29, 2018

2nd Battle of Skra Di Lengen , May 1918 Centenary

The centenary for the 2nd Battle of Skra (Battle of Yarebichna in Bulgarian,Μάχη Σκρά in Greek) during the First World War has arrived. This is always a good excuse to do something for war-gaming. Unfortunately I am in the midst of grading and writing ,so no game. Instead with the help of Robert Monk, we developed a Great War Spearhead II scenario covering the central part of the battle.

A nice painting about the battle from the First World War exhibit of the National Historical Museum at Athens. You can see more at this link from my blog.


Background

The battle took place 29th to 31st May 1918 (New Style), with the main Greek action been on 30th May 1918. The position at Skra was a Bulgarian salient protruding  from the Bulgarian lines that followed the high ground separating what is today the eastern part of FYROMacedonia from Greece. The salient was located about 4 kms south of the village Huma/Modern Hyma and about 3kms north-west of the village Louminitsa(modern Skra). Today it is located right on the border line between the two states. It was located about 10km west of the Vardar/Axios river and the key town of Gevegeli.

Topographical sketch from the Hellenic Staff Army History Directorate book "The Greek Army during the First World War 1914-1918, Volume II". Skra is at he left side towards the edge.

The salient was a heavily fortified position situated on dominating heights ranging up to 1036 meters. The position had been attacked in 1917, during the First Battle of Skra Di Lengen by a composite French-Greek forces, and despite some initial success was taken back and held by the Bulgarians.

French Map of the area



The area on google maps

Theater Goal

In 1918 with the start of the German Spring Offensive in the Western Front, the commander in Chief of the Army of the Orient,Adolphe Guillaumat was asked by the French political and military leadership to launch a number of local offensives on the Salonika front with the goal of tying down German units and denying their transfer to the Western Front. The Second Battle of Skra, was one of these spoiling operations.

The operation holds a special place in Greek military historiography, because it was the first Corps level operation conducted by Greek forces in the First World War, under Greek command.  For the Prime Minsiter of Greece, Elefterios Venizelos, only recently imposed by force on southern Greece, the operation was chance to show to the allies that the Greek army had overcome the political divisions of the National Schism, could fight under independent command , and was thus a useful military tool rather than a drag. Domestically a victory under Greek command might placate officers who had remained loyal to the King Constantine  I of Greece during the Schism, and prove to the pubic that the Entente saw Greece as a partner, with future rights to compensation for its troubles.

For a general overview of Greece in the First World War, the Great War video Series team has prepared a good and brief overview.

Venizelos was able to persuade Guillaumat to use the best available Greek forces, mainly the three divisions of the National Defense Army Corps, the army he had raised during the division of Greece into two governments, en masse and under Greek command. Another Greek Corps, A Corps (I,II and XIII Division) had been recently formed and given to the British Army under General Milne.Four more Greek divisions were at various stages of formation.


Guillaumat decided to lunch four operations:

The 1st Division Group, which included the National Defense Corps was tasked with occupying Skra-Di-Lengen in order to rationalize the front line. This is the operation I focused on.

The 3rd Division Group was tasked to occupy Ostrovitsa and Kamia.

The French Army of the Orient would conduct a raid in the Albanian front.

On the rest of the Front the British-Greek Army and the Serbians would conduct raids.


British Map of operations


The goal of these operations were not to break the Salonika Front and knock out Bulgaria from the war. Their main goal was to rationalize the front line and to force the Germans to stop transferring troops from Salonika and Romania to the Western front.

Operational Forces 

The Greek forces that participated in the battle were the National Defence Army Corps under Lt.General Emmanouil Zumvrakakis. At his disposal were the Crete Division under Major General Panayotis Spiliades (7th,8th Cretan Regiments, 29th Infantry Regiment), the Archipelagos Division under Major General Demetrios Ioannou (  5th and 6th Archipelagos Regiments, 1st Serres Regiment), and the Serres Divison under Major General Epameinondas Zymvrakakis (2nd and 3rd Serres Regiments).

All Greek division were triangle in organisation, meaning that they had three regiments, each regiment of three battalions. At full strength a Greek battalion was about 750-1000 men, so a regiment about 2500-3000 men, a division at 9000 men (12000 including support personal) and a Corps 27000 to 36000 men.

Greek reenactor from Khaki Depot, a Greek company specializing in reenactment uniforms, posing in the 1917 uniform.


The Greek forces were supported by French, British, and Serbian artillery, as well as French specialist troops, while the Serbian Timok and Yugoslav Divisions, and the French 122 Division would make diversionary attacks on their sectors (that flanked the positions to be attacked by the Greeks). The 1st Regiment De Afrique (3000 to 4000 men) would act as a reserve for the Greek forces.

The Crete and Serres Divisions were given secondary goals on the Bulgarian positions flanking the Skra salient on the east. The Crete Division was reinforced by a battalion of the French 45th Infantry Regiment (About 1000-1500 men). It main goal was the Bosset position, east of the Skra salient. The Serres division was given secondary objectives as well on the west flank of the Skra position ,but had been gutted to only 5000 men.

The Archipelagos Division was given the specific task of taking Skra-Di-Lengen, supported by 11 battalions ,2 platoons, and 2 batteries of artillery. The division would feed almost all three of its regiments, 9000-10000 men, against the Skra position. The III/3RD Serres Battalion, on loan from the Serres Division, would remain as a garrison o the Greek trench-line and not participate in the attack.

Greek Map of Operations


Entente Forces 

Thus the Entente forces would strike as follows

The 9000-10000 men of the Archipelagos Division would strike at the Skra Salient
The 10000-15000 men of the Crete Divison would strike East of the Skra Salient.
the 5000 men of the Serres Division would strike West of the Salient.
3000-4000 men of the 1st Regiment De Afrique would be the reserve.
For a total of 27000 to 33000 men.

Bulgarian Forces

It is not easy to find information about their opposition ,as in general Bulgarian sources are not available in English (I thank my friend Georgi Vassiliev for his help in finding some Bulgarian sources), and tend to conflate the whole operation, with the specific Skra action.

According to French sources the general responsibility for the front belonged to the 5th Bulgarian "Dunavska" division. Like many Bulgarian division this was a square division ,meaning that it was made of two to three brigades, each of two regiments, each of three battalions. At 750-1000 men to a battalion a full Bulgarian division could muster 16000 to 24000 men, in regiments of 3000 to 4000 men each. Thus a full Bulgarian division was about the same size as a Greek Corps of three divisions. Keep that in mind when you hear claims about one division holding back a whole Corps.

The 5th "Dunavska" was a 6 regiment division, so in full power it could muster 24000 men (Here is its order of battle in 1915). The French sources claim that the units had been brought up to full complement via the conscription of the Class of 1918. Bulgarian sources on the other hand note severe manpower issues with the Bulgarian Army in 1918. The exact numbers are unknown but the Bulgarian claim that the 49th Regiment was annihilated in the battle seems to indicate that some units were at half-strength r 60% of full strength, since the 49th seems to have had about 2400-2500 men which is close to the nominal 3000 men of a full regiment . We can thus make an educated guess of 50% to 60% strength.

The French sources claimed the following Bulgarian Units available. Opposite the Serres Division and the Serbian forces the 20th,18th, and 50th Infantry Regiments (about 6000-7500 men at 60-50% strength). At the Skra position and at Bosset the 49th Infantry Regiment (2400-2500 men). East of Skra the 2nd Infantry Regiment (2400-2500 men). At Hyma in immediate reserve the 54th Infantry Regiment (2500 men). Further back were the 8th and 60th Regiments and a Struminitsa as a general reserve the 45th German Infantry Regiment (potentially 6000 to 8000 men?).
For a total of 17000 to 23000 men.

Bulgarian Uniforms of World War 1. By 1918 some of these troops had Austro-Hungarian or German pattern helmets. 


The Bulgarian artillery is claimed at 77 guns by Bulgarian sources and 88 by Greek sources.

If we compare forces immediately available at sectors
On the Crete Division Front (East Flank) 10000-15000 Greeks faced the 50th Bulgarian Regiment and elements of the 49th, or about 3000 to 4000 men. A 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 advantage.
On the Skra Section the Greek Archipelagos division and  had 9000-10000 men against the remainder of the 49th Bulgarian , probably about 1500-2000 men, and its immediate reserve of the 54th Regiment at Huma.(2400 men), for a total of 3000 to 4000 men. A 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 advantage.
At the Serres Division Front (West Flank) the Greek had 5000 men against the 2500 men of the 2nd Bulgarian Regiment. A 2 to 1 advantage.

Reserve wise the Greeks had 4000 reserves vs. 6000 potential Bulgarian- German reserves.

Brief Description of Battle

The Greek attack at Skra was well supported by artillery and well prepared. The battle begun with an artillery bombardment on the 29th of May at 0510 hours, followed by the continuation of diversionary attacks (Started on 28th May) by the Serbs towards Dobro Pole and the British towards Dioran. On the 30th of May 1918 , at 0455 hours, the Greek forces went on the offensive covered by a creeping barrage, after a short 25 minute hurricane bombardment. The Archipelagos Division assaulted the positions at Skra.

Bulgarian Troops 1918


According to the Greek official history:
Skra sector

The 6th Archipelgos Regiment , attacking the east part of the Skra position was able to attain all its objectives by 0640 hours meeting desultory resistance .

 The 1st  Serres Regiment, which attacked the center of the Skra positions, begun its assault at 0545 hours.By 0700 hours it had attained its objectives, but had experienced heavy losses from resistance and artillery fire.

The 5th Archipelagos Regiment, attacking the west flank, went of the attack on 0455 hours. It faced considerable enemy resistance but was able to obtain its objectives by 0630 hours. At 1600 hours it repulsed a Bulgarian counterattack.

The whole regiment was counterattacked at 0130 and 0250 hours on the 31st of May, but was able to hold its positions.

The Archipelagos division captured 1835 prisoners (35 officers), the bulk of the 49th Infantry Regiment. 400 dead Bulgarians were counted. The Division itself lost 338 dead, 1777 wounded, and 164 missing, including a battalion commander (Major Vasileios Papayiannis).

Greek Propaganda Poster WW1

Crete Division Sector

At 0455 hours, the division went on the attack, following artillery preparation and  preceded by a creeping barrage. By 0540 the 7th Crete Regiment had taken its objectives with minimal resistance.

At 0530 hours the 8th Crete Regiment went on the offensive.It obtained it's first objectives quite fast, by 0540, but then its attack stalled, as the 7th Crete Regiment had not continued its attacks towards Bosset.  This took place at 1040. By 1330 hours all objectives had been taken. At 1400 the units were given new objectives which they had attained by 1440, in the face of sporadic artillery resistance.

The division captured 210 prisoners and suffered 71 dead and 314 wounded.

Serres Division Sector 
The units of this division went on the offensive at 0455 hours, and were able by 0645 hours to take most of their objectives. They did not face serious resistances, and most of its losses were incurred during the night where they helped repulse Bulgarian counter-attacks.  It lost 32 dead and 113 wounded.

It is not fully clear which Bulgarian units lunched the counter-attacks of the night of 30th to 31st May, nor their losses.

 Total losses for the Greeks were 443 dead, 2234 wounded, 164 missing or 10% of forces engaged. Bulgarian losses were 400 dead and 2045 prisoners, not including the unknown losses of counter-attacking units. This was about 10% of available forces.

Emmanouıl Zymvrakakis, Commnader of Greek Forces at Skra Di Lengen

Consequences 

The Greek forces won a tactical victory, that was an important propaganda victory. This was the first time Greek troops were used en mass, under a Greek operational commander.  The Greek losses were a worrisome indicator of the lack of flexibility in Greek operations, that would become more clear in the 1919-1922 war with the Turkish National Assembly. However, unlike the Greeks who were still tapping into mobilization, the losses of the Bulgarians were impossible to correct, necessitating the continued presence of German troops in the Salonika Front.Thus the tactical victory at Skra did feed to the operational victory of the spoiling operations of May 1918, which helped the Entente attain the theater goal of pinning some German troops in the Balkans (or at least so claimed by the official French and Greek military histories. We would need info from the German archives and histories to actually know if the goal was attained). A key result of the battle was the realization by the Entente, that the morale of the Bulgarian army was at a nadir. In general Bulgarian units had not resisted well during the battle, with artillery fire being the main obstacle the Greeks faced. The counter-attacks attempted were defeated. This information would play a role in the final decision to lunch the Great Entente Offensive of Summer/Fall 1918 that would break trough the Salonika Front and knock out Bulgaria from the war.

Here is the Great War Series episode, covering among others, the 2nd Battle of Skra Di Lengen.


Wargame

You can find the war-game scenario for the battle (focusing on the Archipelago Division) in my Scenarios page on the blog, or by clicking here 2nd Skra Di Lengen 1918. The scenario is a draft scenario developed by Robert Monk for the Great War Spearhead II rules.

Enjoy!










1 comment:

Nameless said...

Ωραία δουλειά, μπράβο!