Παρασκευή, 18 Μαρτίου 2016

Exploring the WW2 fortifications at Istibey Bunkers Complex: Operation "Marita", April 1941

Lt. Col. (ret.) Ilias Kotridis outside Istibey Bunkers Complex
The Istibey Bunkers Complex is located on a hill at Beles mountain range, right next to the borders of Greece with Bulgaria, at an altitude of 1339 meters, northwest of Neo Petritsi village.

The location of Istibey Bunkers Complex 
Construction began in 1937 and was completed in 1940.

View from the inside of a machine gun nest
It included thirty surface pillboxes, 12 single  and 6 double machine gun nests, a  double antitank pillbox, a gun emplacement and an observation complex post, two flanking guns emplacements, an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, two mortar emplacements, four observation posts and a sheltered projector. 

One of the underground corridors inside the bunker complex
The underground shelters cover 655 meters and the length of the corridors connecting them was 1642 meters, bringing the total of the underground works at Istibei to 2297 meters.

The garrison amounted to 10 officers and 300 other ranks.

Another machine gun emplacement
The German Attack

The German offensive was conducted by the 3rd Battalion of the 85th Gebirgsjäger (Mountain Troops) Regiment with artillery and close air support.

A partially blown up observation cupola
Many of the bunkers were facing the borderline with Bulgaria, at a distance of just 250 meters and as a result, most of them were destroyed with direct artillery hits.

A corridor leading to one of the machine gun emplacements
The Greek infantry elements located in trenches on Tipits hill were wiped out at the early stages of the offensive, thus allowing the German mountain troops to reach the defensive positions and the bunkers at Istibey.

Partially hidden from the dense undergrowth, a heavy gun emplacement
The Greeks immediately staged a daring counterattack, first with two companies, then followed by elements of Ιstibey's garrison, but were repelled by the Germans and essentially wiped out.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Ilias Kotridis inside Istibey Bunker Complex
The Greek artillery inflicted heavy losses to the Germans who could not get cover while being on top of the fortifications, but the Germans held their positions and began filling the pillboxes with stones and earth. At the same time, they used smoke and gas machines and tried to suffocate the defenders inside the bunkers. The defenders used their gas masks, but there were casualties.

Relics inside Istibey
Due to the heavy losses inflicted by the Greek artillery, the German Battalion Commander asked for his unit to be replaced. The German withdrawal took place on the night of 6 to 7 April.

Signs reading "Towards machine gun post and floodlight"
At the same time, the situation inside the bunkers deteriorated rapidly due to the gas and on the next day, at eleven in the morning, negotiations between the Greeks and Germans on evacuating Istibey in order to avoid further deaths were held. Early in the afternoon Istibey surrendered.

Trees are now covering the once bombed out area of Istibey
The Germans, following a direct hit with a 88 mm gun, managed to penetrate the bunker complex. Fierce fighting started inside the corridors, where the Greek garrison used sandbags and flour bags to block the Germans and use their machine guns. Most of the Germans were wiped out during this operation.

Bullet holes in Istibey, a sign of the heavy fighting inside the bunkers
The German Commander Julius Ringel stated in his report that from his observation post he noticed about thirty Germans entering the bunkers, out of which just seven or eight got out alive.

More bullet holes
A German soldier's narrative

"During the German aerial attacks, the Greek defenders of the bunkers along with their machine guns, withdrew deep inside the complex, only to come out again to their fighting positions, just as soon as the bombing stopped. 

Bullet holes everywhere
In one of the pillboxes, right after the aerial attack was over, a small flag signaled, as if to say, "I am still here, come and get it".

Steel ladder to an observation post
After the Greeks surrendered I searched and found "my" Greek and I took his flag and him with me on my motorbike until we reached Tithorea (central Greece).

Trenches close to Istibey, still visible after 75 years
After the war was over, I went on vacation to Crete and I gave this flag, together with the Edelweiss sign of the mountain troops, to the President of Atsipopoulo village in Rethymno, along with my account of the events."

Istibei Today

The surface works of Istibei were destroyed by the Bulgarians after the capitulation of Greece. They were rebuilt from 1969 to 1972. Today, Istibei is open to visitors and part of the tunnels are accessible.

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