World War II : The Greco-Italian war (Oct. 1940 - Apr. 1941)

The year was 1940, the month was October. The German armies had swept through nothern and western Europe. By June 1940 Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and France had been defeated. Romania and Bulgaria were, or were bound to become, more or less Axis territory. Altogether, the Balkans were still, surprisingly enough, comparatively quiet considering the mayhem going on in the rest of the continent. Yugoslavia had its own domestic problems while Greece and Turkey followed a path of non-alignment and relations between them were abnormally good. The Axis was marching towards its manifest destiny. Britain was alone, with no toehold on or allies in continental Europe. Until someone made a grave error...

The fascist dictators

In 1936, Ioannis Metaxás was appointed prime minister of Greece. He dissolved parliament and his government was autocratic and dictatorial, modelled on the doctrines and methods of his ideological kin Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini. Yet, while this may have driven Greece to join the Axis under other circumstances, his nationalistic ambitions that aimed at increasing Greek power in the Aegean and the Balkans were in direct conflict with Mussolini's ambitions to expand Italian influence. Metaxas was a nationalist, a fascist and an expansionist, as were Mussolini and Hitler. Metaxas, though, was just a retired army general with an inferiority complex and had nothing remotely resembling the personality or rousing rhetorical skills of the others. He was appointed by the palace and tolerated by the people. He was not appreciated or adored, or even particularly hated.

When World War II broke out Greece remained neutral. Metaxas had to tread a fine line between his natural political affinity to the Axis powers and Greek dependence on British goodwill. This was less a matter of a benign attitude on behalf of the British Empire but was rather a direct result of the formidable British naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, which had influenced Greek foreign policy and guaranteed Greek security in the past. Also, while the Metaxas regime fostered a burgeoning trade with Germany and had no quarrel with Hitler, the dictator himself hated Mussolini's guts.

Britain and France, such as was left of it, had pledged themselves to maintaining the independence of Greece and Romania. As far as Romania went, its geographical location made that promise an empty letter. The solid position of allied forces in the eastern Mediterranean, though, made defending Greece much more plausible and public sympathy in the country was on the side of the Allies. As had been the case in World War I, sympathies high up were divided but this time the palace favoured Britain.

In the latter half of 1940 Mussolini was mooching around in Africa and had not been half the help that Hitler would have liked him to be. This was hardly surprising since Hitler himself eighty-sixed most of the Italians' strategic plans. While the German armies overran western and northern Europe, Mussolini's navy floundered in the face of Britain's naval supremacy. Abyssinia was a suboptimal place to tie up one's forces at the time, even though they presented a credible threat to Kenya, the Sudan and the shipping route to the Gulf's oil fields. Mussolini had to do something to alleviate the gloom of watching his ally get all the spoils and all the glory while he was giving himself ulcers worrying over it.

Mussolini, despite British sea power, already controlled much of what was to to the south of Italy. Germany had taken care of the north, and to the west lay only Vichy France, a lot of water, and Mussolini's neutral buddy Franco, who had his own reasons for wanting nothing to do with this whole world war business. Mussolini therefore had to look east for his best chances for spoils. Since Hitler had told him to keep his hands off Yugoslavia, Mussolini chose to pick on someone smaller who annoyed the hell out of him anyway. Germany disapproved of the invasion of Greece too but that did not dissuade Mussolini, who was rather miffed by the fact that the Germans had dealt with Romania without cutting him in. Albania had been overrun and annexed by Italy in April 1939 and, while it wasn't a very glamorous prize, it did give the Italians a significant bridgehead on the Balkan peninsula. Under these circumstances, preparations were made for the invasion and occupation of Greece.

Preparing for invasion

The decision to invade was made as early as June 1940 despite the Italian declaration of having no territorial designs on Greece, which was made following the annexation of Albania. Contingency G, as the invasion plan was called, was not very ambitious and foresaw nine divisions occupying only part of Epirus. The decision to completely occupy the country was not made until two weeks before the invasion, which really didn't leave much time to move the necessary forces. The invasion was by no means a new idea, having been discussed between Hitler, Ciano and Ribbentrop as early as August 1939 in the context of picking off the neutral countries one by one.

Before October 1940, Italian agents and military forces staged several acts of provocation against Greece and Yugoslavia while the army prepared for action. In theory the match was between a mighty Italy of 41 million and a 7-million strong Greece that had declined to follow the rest of Europe in military spending and thus was short on equipment and training. In fact, the only expensive work of the Greek military was the defensive line called the Metaxas Line, which, unfortunately, was built to defend the north-eastern frontier with Bulgaria, not the north-west. Many Greek resources were tied up in the defence of port installations and were nowhere near the Pindus mountains. Piece of cake. Il duce would brandish "forty-one million spears" in Greece's general direction from the balcony of the Palazzo Veneto just to make sure everyone got the message.

The Italian provocations peaked when an "unknown" submarine, later revealed to be the Italian Delfino, torpedoed the Greek minelayer Elli off Tinos island, where it was representing the Navy in a religious festival, on 1940-08-15. The lack of response to these provocations, even when the government was shown Italian markings on a torpedo's remains, showed that the Greeks were avoiding confrontation by ignoring even blatant hints. Consequently the only way to get results was probably also the least subtle one.

On the evening of 1940-10-27 the Italian Mission in Athens received a coded message from Rome. The same evening it held a reception that continued into the night. At 02:30 the ambassador excused himself and disappeared. His destination: the prime ministerial residence. His cargo: a list of Greek "outrages" and an Italian ultimatum. The timing of its delivery was precise and had been ordained by Rome. The content was unambiguous:

"The Italian Government as a guarantee of Greece's neutrality, and the security of Italy has the right to occupy with her armed forces, and for the duration of the war with Great Britain, a number of strategic points on Greek territory. The Italian Government demands that the Hellenic Government shall not oppose any resistance to this occupation. Should the Italian forces meet with resistance, the resistance will be crushed by the force of arms, and in that case, the Hellenic Government will bear the responsibility for whatever may ensue."

You don't wake up a dour retired general at three in the morning with a message like that. You just don't. Metaxas' answer was a simple, straightforward "No." The 28th of October is still celebrated in Greece as "NO" (ohi) day, one of two major national holidays.

"Italy has declared war. The Italian Ambassador, having awakened the Prime Minister at 3:00 a.m. this morning, delivered an infamous ultimatum. The Prime Minister rejected it. Hostilities began at 5:30 a.m. The frontier troops are defending our freedom." --Athens state radio, 1940-10-28

Piece of cake

On the ground, the forces were almost evenly matched in men, artillery and light weapons, with about 150000 soldiers on each side. What the Greeks lacked in transportation equipment, the Italians forgot to bring along and they suffered supply problems due to a lack of trucks. The Italians also brought along around 90 working tanks, which was about 90 too many in the mud and mountains. The timing of the Italian offensive could not have been worse, as the beginning of winter, also the rainy season, decisively reduced the mobility of heavy ground units and air support capability.

While the Italian forces made some inroads in the first ten days, they also suffered heavy losses as the Greeks had planned their fallback positions and counter-attacked by infiltrating Italian positions and striking from inside. Though the assault on the border met with some success, the rest of the world wasn't being quite as cooperative, with the British Royal Navy patrolling the western coast, British units landing on Crete, and Turkey making a declaration of neutrality. Britain also began sending financial aid and limited war materiel to Greece. Crete was strategically important as it offered a base against forces in the Italian-ruled Dodecanese, from where some air raids were launched against Athens, apart from the island's useful location in the eastern Mediterranean.

By the 3rd of November, things were going really pear-shaped for the Italians as they were driven back over the Kalamas river and into Albania. The III Alpine Division "Giulia" had made the most impressive progress and was threatening Metsovo but overextended itself and, cut off from the rest of the forces, was vulnerable to attack from the rear and eventually left 5000 prisoners in Greek hands. The Greeks had won the race against time and brought enough reserves to hold their positions, relieve the pressure on the lightly armed local civilians that took part in the defence, and reverse the Italian gains. Italian reinforcements were usually committed too few too late and were more often than not beaten into a hasty retreat. At their greatest advance, the Greeks reached 50 km into Albania up the coast and were south of the vital port of Vlore (Valona).

Within two more weeks, the Greek army had recovered all lost ground and marched into Korçë (Korytsá), the principal city of SW Albania, taking 2000 more prisoners after defeating the Italian IX army on the 15th. By this time, Hitler had realised that Mussolini had blown his plans to keep the Balkans relatively peaceful, and started drawing plans to occupy Greece himself. The Greek army made further advances until early January and dug in when the weather and terrain made progress impossible. Hitler informed Mussolini later in the same month that he was going to do the job himself. Shortly before his death on the 29th, Metaxas made a costly miscalculation and refused British intervention as he was still hoping for German mediation.

Britain was determined to assist the Greeks whether they wanted it or not. One important failure of the foreign policy of the Greek leadership was the delay in accepting British aid. Their belief that they could avert German intervention by remaining outside of the Allied fold was unrealistic, and they mistrusted Anthony Eden's efforts to rally them to the Allied cause based on information obtained through ULTRA. British support was rather covert and informal in the beginning, and consisted mostly of reinforcing the small Greek air force. Not until March were there major troop deployments (one British, two Australian and one New Zealand divisions), and those arrived in anticipation of the German attack and in response to German build-up in Romania and Bulgaria.

The Italians launched their last major offensive in early March 1941, sending 28 divisions against half as many Greek units (Greek divisions were typically larger). At this point though, the Greek defensive positions were too solid to easily overcome and the ground gained was not worth the heavy casualties suffered on both sides. The Greeks were firmly entrenched. The Italians dared not venture into the mountains and the Greeks, likewise, saw folly in venturing out and onto level ground. Mussolini became less interested, the less the success on the front was.

All this was primarily a ground-based affair, being a winter war, so not quite as much was going on in the air. The Greek air force at the time had 38 fighters (12 added in December) and 32 bombers. Most of the interceptors were Polish-built PZL P.24s, whose serviceability depended on ingenious hacks in light of the shortage of spares that followed the collapse of Poland. One anecdote from those days tells of British airmen staring in disbelief as Greek mechanics built a new P.24 overnight from the remains of two others, which had collided the day before. A couple of donated Gloster Gladiators and a squadron of Bloch 151s made up the rest. Even ammunition was in short supply and many planes, designed to take hard to get Oerlikon guns, were modified to have regular machine guns mounted, with the matching ammunition. This reduced the air force's effectiveness since regular machine gun rounds were not capable of penetrating the Italian bombers' armour.

The Italians didn't really bring anything better along with them since they were preoccupied with North Africa, and their Albanian Air Command started with just over 100 fighters in Albania, with backup available in Brindisi, mostly Fiat CR.32s and CR.42s. Neither side gained air superiority as the Greeks matched the Italians' quantity with Aces High abandon and gave about twice as well as they got in air-to-air combat. Their record may have been better if 139 paid aircraft had been delivered on time before the war.

Naval warfare was limited as inland objectives took tactical precedence. The underequipped Greek navy had one notable success in the sinking of the large troop transport Sardegna before the vintage submarine Proteus was itself taken out by one of the transport's escorts on the 24th of December, and some shore bombardment occurred in support of the Greek advance along the Albanian coast by British and Greek units. Italian morale was not helped by the devastation of the British raid on Taranto on the 11th of November, and operations were largely limited to transportation.

By the time the Germans came to secure their southern flank (not to bail out the Italians of course) Mussolini was just conveniently distracting the Greek army and not a major threat or help to either side. With so many forces tied up in Albania, the four Commonwealth divisions and the few RAF units that were sent to aid the Greeks' few ready northern and north-eastern divisions were insufficient to hold off the Wehrmacht when it attacked on 1941-04-06. The Greek army retreated from Albania on the 14th of April, following the German advances in the north of the country, and surrendered on the 21st. Mussolini demanded, and got, a separate surrender to soothe his bruised ego.

...or maybe not

The invasion of Greece was the first Axis campaign in World War II to end in major failure and provided a much-needed morale boost to the Allies. The determined resistance of the Greek defenders forced the Germans to pretty much do the job themselves if they wanted to secure the southern flank before attacking Russia. The thinly spread Greek armed forces and allied troops were no match for the Wehrmacht in April and May of 1941, though they went on to write another page of history in the Battle of Crete before conceding and abandoning the country to German occupation.

"We knew till now that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we have to say that the heroes fight like Greeks."

--Winston Churchill, Manchester Guardian, 1941-04-19

That man really had a way with words. It is true, though, that, in the winter of 1940/41, the Greek army distinguished itself in the field. It took full advantage of its strength in familiar terrain, and of the weaknesses of an arrogant and careless invader, and almost sent Mussolini the way of Xerxes and Dareius. A literally rag-tag army fought to a freezing, muddy victory under the leadership of an unpopular dictator, who nonetheless earned his place in history and, to quote Time Magazine, "...made a monkey of Benito Mussolini." For six long months Greece was Britain's sole fighting ally in Europe.

There were several things wrong with the picture of an easy victory in Greece. Bulgaria ignored the promise of territorial gains in Thrace and declined to support the Italian invasion with operations of its own. That allowed the Greeks to deploy more units on the Albanian front. Huge numbers of troops and equipment were tied up in northern Italy in anticipation of the called-off attack on Yugoslavia and massive resources had been deployed against the British in North Africa. Mussolini either could not or did not want to muster enough forces to overwhelm the Greeks. Italian forces only marginally outnumbered the Greeks in Epirus. Mussolini did not deploy superior numbers until after suffering heavy losses and by then the Greeks had dug in well and truly.

The Italians failed to realise who made up the Greek army. While its bulk was made up of ill-equipped conscripts, some of whom couldn't even boast a complete uniform and may or may not have had a bayonet, there were capable officers who proved to be wily defenders in the best tradition of their ancient counterparts. Many of them were local to the mountains and knew the territory like no invader could and all the spies in the world could not have given Mussolini's forces maps that did not exist but in the heads of the locals. And with a population rallied around a common cause, every able-bodied man and woman was a fighter. The women of Epirus, as proud as they had been during the War of Independence, took over as guides, load-bearers and nurses, maintained military equipment and built roads while feeding the army with what little they had to spare and often with their own necessities.

Credit where credit is due of course but one must not underestimate the impact of the dismal decisions at the top of the Italian command chain. A vainglorious dictator ignoring sound advice and practically castrating his command by dismissing the cream of his army's tactical thinkers is a recipe for disaster and, neither for the first nor for the last time, Italy paid dearly for Mussolini's poor judgement. The troops may have been unwilling and not very motivated but were probably undeserving of the Italian coward jokes that still make the rounds in Greece just like French surrender jokes do elsewhere. The fault lay almost exclusively with Mussolini dumping perfectly good commanders when he quit liking what they said, and replacing them with yes men, who in turn were likely to do the same, spreading the rot down the ranks. In a logical universe, the Italian invasion would have stood a good chance of success but Mussolini and logic did not get along very well.

"In the Greek campaign the Italian troops were, without any doubt whatever, the worst led troops in the world."

--M. Cervi

The disastrous Greek campaign and the subsequent diversion of German forces to take Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete--precisely what Hitler had tried to avoid--may have delayed Operation Barbarossa by just enough to doom it. As with most wars, there are a lot of what-ifs and we'll never really know how decisive Greek resistance was in the outcome of WWII. We can just acknowledge it as a potentially critical factor.

Office of the Defence Attache, Greek Embassy in Ottawa
Time Magazine, 1941-01-06
Katherine Mezinis, AHEPA
Cervi, Mario: The Hollow Legions (Doubleday 1971)
Greek Air Force,
The Nizkor Project's Nuremberg Files archive,
Many more minor sources, damned if I remember them all

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