The Greco-Italian War was a conflict between Italy and Greece from October 28, 1940 to April 6, 1941. It marked the beginning of the Balkans Campaign of World War II. Once Nazi Germany intervened the conflict is considered to be the Battle of Greece.
Fascist Italy had long-term plans for the establishment of a new Roman Empire, which included Greece. Italy’s immediate reason for seeking war with Greece was a desire to emulate its German ally’s triumphs. Mussolini also wanted to reassert Italy’s interest in the Balkans (he was piqued that Romania, an Italian client, had accepted German protection for its Ploesti oil fields earlier in October) and secure bases from which the British eastern Mediterranean outposts could be attacked. As the Yugoslav Kingdom was perceived as too strong, the obvious victim was Greece, which the Italians thought to be weak and internally divided. Furthermore, Italy had been occupying the predominantly-Greek Dodecanese islands in the southeastern Aegean since 1911.
After the Greco-Turkish treaty of 1930 and the Balkan Pact of 1934, the threat from Greece's traditional enemy, Turkey, was reduced. Albania was too weak to be a threat and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did not seriously press its claims on southern Macedonia. Therefore, during the 1930s, the main threat was perceived to be Bulgaria and her aspirations to reclaim Western Thrace. Thus, when, in 1936, Metaxas came to power in Greece (see 4th of August Regime), plans had been laid down for the reorganization of the country's armed forces and for a fortified defensive line along the Greco-Bulgarian frontier. The line was constructed under Metaxas' regime and named after the dictator: the "Grammi Metaxa". During the following years, the Army benefited from great investments aiming at its modernization: it was technologically upgraded, enlarged, largely re-equipped and as a whole dramatically improved from its previous deplorable state. The Greek government purchased new arms for the three Armies, and the Navy was added new ships. However, due to the increasing threat and the eventual outbreak of the war, the most significant purchases from abroad, made during the years 19381939, were never or only partially delivered. Also, a massive contingency plan was developed and great amounts of food and utilities were stockpiled by the Army in many parts of Greece for the eventuality of war.
In early 1939, Italian troops occupied Albania, long under Italian influence, thereby gaining an immediate border with Greece. This new development cancelled all previous plans, and hasty preparations started for the event of an Italian attack. As war exploded in Central Europe, Metaxas tried to keep Greece out of the conflict, but as the conflict progressed, Metaxas felt increasingly closer to Great Britain, encouraged by the ardent anglophile King George II, who provided the main support for the regime. This was ironic for Metaxas, who had always been a Germanophile and who had built strong ties with Hitler's Germany.
A mounting propaganda campaign against Greece was launched in mid-1940 in Italy, and the repeated acts of provocation, such as overflights of Greek territory, reached their peak with the torpedoing and sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli in Tinos harbor on August 15, 1940 (a national religious holiday), by an Italian submarine. Despite undeniable evidence of Italian responsibility, the Greek government announced that the attack had been carried out by a submarine of "unknown nationality". Although the facade of neutrality was thus preserved, the people were well aware of the real perpetrator.
On the eve of October 28, 1940, Italy's ambassador in Athens handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Metaxas. By then Italy had concentrated a large part of the Italian Army in neighboring Albania, and the Duce demanded free passage for his troops to occupy unspecified "strategic points" inside Greek territory. Greece had been friendly towards National Socialist Germany, especially profiting from mutual trade relations, but now Germany's ally Italy was to invade Greece (without Hitler's awareness), partly to prove that Italians could match the military successes of the German Army in Poland and France. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum, echoing the will of the Greek people to resist, a will which was popularly expressed in one word: "Ohi" (Greek for "No"). Within hours Italy was attacking Greece from Albania.
Shortly thereafter, Metaxas addressed the Greek people with these words: "The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. Now, over all things, fight!". In response to this address, the people of Greece reportedly spontaneously went out to the streets singing Greek patriotic songs and shouting anti-Italian slogans, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece headed to the Army's offices to enlist for the war. The whole nation was united in the face of aggression. Even the imprisoned leader of Greece's banned Communist Party, Nikolaos Zachariadis, issued an open letter advocating resistance, despite the still existing Nazi-Soviet Pact, thereby contravening the current Comintern line (althought in two further letters he accused Metaxas of waging an "imperialistic" war and called upon Greek soldiers to desert their ranks and overthrow the regime).
Summary of campaign
On October 28, 1940, Mussolini ordered the attack in Greece. Despite having been inadequately prepeared for offensive in mountainous Greece, Italians initially achieved success. Before winter had even set in however, the Italians advance was stopped and they were forced onto the defensive. The Greeks launched a counter attack on November 14, 1940 which pushed the Italians back into Albania. This made good progress at first, but eventually ground to a halt with the fronts stalemated, due to Italian reinforcements, and exhaustion, lack of transport vehicles and inadequate supply on the Greek side. After the failure of a second Italian offensive in March 1941, intended by Mussolini to bring a success for Italian arms before the looming German intervention, the front was relatively quiet. Italy however was still a threat, which forced the Greeks to commit the bulk of their forces in Albania, leaving only a small number forces to cover the Bulgarian frontier. When the Germans moved into Bulgaria in preparation for the invasion, Greece formally asked for British intervention.
Stages of campaign
Order of Battle and Opposing Plans
The front, roughly 150 km in breadth, featured extremely mountainous terrain with very few roads. The Pindus mountain range practically divided it into two distinct theatres of operations: Epirus and Western Macedonia.
The Italian war plan, codenamed "Emergenga G" (Emergency Greece), called for the occupation of the country in three phases. The first would be the occupation of the Epirus and the Ionian Islands, followed by a thrust into Western Macedonia and towards Thessaloniki, aimed at capturing northern Greece. Afterwards, the remainder of the country would be occupied.
Thus, the Italian High Command had accorded an Army Corps to each theatre. The stronger XXV "Ciamuria" Corps in Epirus (23rd "Ferrara" and 51st "Siena" Infantry Divisions, 101st "Centauro" Armoredd Division) intended to drive towards Ioannina and along the coast to Preveza. XXVI "Corizza" Corps in the Macedonian sector (19th "Venezia", 29th "Piemonte" and 49th "Parma" Infantry Divisions) was initially intended to maintain a passive stance, while between the two Corps lay the elite "Julia" Alpine Division which would advance through the Pindus Mountains in conjunction with XXV Corps. In total the force facing the Greeks comprised about 85000 men, under the command of Lt Gen Sebastiano Visconti Prasca.
After the Italian occupation of Albania, the Greek General Staff had prepared the "IB" (Italy-Bulgaria) plan, anticipating a combined offensive by Italy and Bulgaria. The plan featured several options, depending on the situation, but was essentially prescribing a defensive stance in Epirus, while maintaining the possibility of a limited offensive in Western Macedonia.
The main Greek forces in the immediate area at the outbreak of the war were: In Epirus the 8th Infantry Division, under Maj Gen Charalambos Katsimitros, fully mobilized and prepared for forward defence. In Western Macedonia was the Corps-sized TSDM (ΤΣΔΜ, "Army Section of Western Macedonia") under Lt Gen Ioannis Pitsikas, including the "Pindus Detachment" (Απόσπασμα Πίνδου) of regimental size under Col Davakis, the 9th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Brigade. The Greek forces amounted to about 35000 men.
Initial Italian Offensive (28 Oct 1940 13 Nov 1940)
Initial Italian Offensive
The Italians attacked with inadequate preparation and despite repeated attacks failed to achieve a breakthrough. In the Epirus sector, the Italian attack ground to a halt by November 9. A greater threat was posed by the advance of the "Julia" Division, but it was checked by the forces of the II Greek Army Corps, which had taken over the Pindus sector. The Greeks managed to encircle and practically destroy "Julia" by November 13. In Western Macedonia, in the face of Italian inactivity and as to relieve the Epirus front, on the 31st, the Greek High Command moved III Corps (10th and 11th Infantry Divisions and the Cavalry Brigade, under Lt Gen Georgios Tsolakoglou) into the area and ordered it to attack into Albania together with TSDM. For logistical reasons this attack was successively postponed until November 14. The unexpected Greek resistance caught the Italians, who were expecting a 'military picnic', by surprise. Several divisions were hastily sent to Albania, among them the division (47th "Bari") intended for the invasion of Corfu. Enraged about the bogging down of the offensive, Mussolini replaced Prasca with General Umbaldo Soddu, his former Vice-Minister of War, on November 9. Immediately upon arrival, Soddu ordered his forces to turn to the defensive. It was clear that the Italian invasion had failed.
Greek counter-offensive and stalemate (14 Nov 1940 March 1941)
Greek Counter Offensive
The Greek reserves started reaching the front in early November, and with the proceeding mobilization, the Greek Commander-in-Chief, Lt Gen Papagos, had sufficient forces to launch his counter-offensive. TSDM and III Corps, continuously reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, launched their attack on November 14, in the direction of Korytsa. After bitter fighting on the fortified frontier line, the Greeks broke through on the 17th, entering Korytsa on the 22nd. However, due to indecisiveness among the Greek High Command, the Italians were allowed to break contact and regroup, avoiding a complete collapse. The attack from Western Macedonia was combined with a general offensive along the entire front. I and II Corps advanced in Epirus, and after hard fighting captured Agioi Saranda, Argyrokastron and Himara by early December, practically occupying the area the Greeks called "Northern Epirus". A final Greek success was the forcing of the strategically important and heavily fortified Klisura pass on January 10 by II Corps, but the heavy winter, the Italian numerical superiority and the bad logistical situation of the Greeks forced a stalemate by the end of the month. Meanwhile, General Soddu had been replaced in mid-December by Gen Ugo Cavallero.
Italian Spring Offensive and German Attack (March 1941 23 April 1941)
2nd Italian Offensive
The stalemate continued, despite local actions, as both enemies were too weak to launch a major attack. Despite their gains, however, the Greeks were in a precarious position, as they had virtually stripped their northern frontier of weapons and men in order to sustain the Albanian front, and were too weak to resist a possible German attack. The Italians, on the other hand, wishing to achieve a success in the Albanian front before the impending German intervention, gathered their forces to launch a new offensive, codenamed "Primavera" (Spring). They assembled 17 divisions opposite the Greeks' 13, and, under Mussolini's personal supervision, launched a determined attack against the Klisura Pass. The assault lasted from March 6 to March 19, but failed to dislocate the Greeks. From that moment until the German attack on April 6, the stalemate continued, with operations on both sides scaled down. In anticipation of the German attack, the British and some Greeks urged a withdrawal of the Army of Epirus, so as to spare badly needed troops and equipment for the repulsion of the Germans. However, national sentiment forbade the abandoning of so hard-won positions, overriding military logic, and retreat in the face of the 'defeated' Italians was deemed disgraceful. Therefore the bulk of the Greek Army was left deep in Albania, while the German attack approached. Eventually, due to the rapid German advance, the Army of Epirus was ordered to fall back on April 12th, but was cut off by German forces and was surrendered to them by General Tsolakoglou on April 20 on honourable terms. On April 23, on Mussolini's insistence, the surrender ceremony was repeated to include Italian representatives.
Following the attack by Italy and the needs of the Albanian front, the Greek Army was too weak to repel the German forces that followed. Greece was jointly occupied by Germany, Italy and Bulgaria, and liberated in October 1944 with the German withdrawal. However it has been argued that the need for a German intervention delayed Operation Barbarossa, which may have affected its outcome. Also important was the moral example, set in a time when only the British Empire resisted the Axis Powers, of a small country fighting off the supposedly mighty Fascist Italy, something reflected in the exuberant praise the Greek struggle received at the time.
Most prominent is the quote of Winston Churchill:
"Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks".
French general Charles de Gaulle was among those who praised the fierceness of the Greek resistance. In an official notice released to coincide with the Greek national celebration of the Day of Independence (25 March), De Gaulle expressed his admiration for the heroic Greek resistance:
"In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the battle of Salamis Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds".
Even Hitler would later praise the Greek people and their bravery, and would grant to the Greek soldiers the unique honour of not taking any of them as prisoners of war.
Greece's siding with the Allies also contributed to its annexation of the Dodecanese islands at World War II's conclusion.
The 1940 war, known as the Épos tú Saránda (Greek: Έπος του Σαράντα, i.e. Epic of '40) in Greece, and the resistance of the Greeks to the Axis Powers, is celebrated to this day in Greece every year. October 28th, the day of Ioannis Metaxas' "No" to the Italian ultimatum, is a day of national celebration in Greece, named Okhi Day (Greek for "Day of No"). A military parade is taking place in Salonica and a student parade in Athens. For as long as three days, every building in Greece, public or private, displays the Greek flag. In the days preceding the anniversary, television and radio often feature historical films and documentaries about 1940, or broadcast Greek patriotic songs, especially those of Sophia Vembo, a singer whose songs gained immense popularity during the war. It serves also as a day of remembrance for the "black years" of the German occupation of Greece (1941-1944).
Military insights gained from the war
The poor performance of the Italian forces can be blamed on many things. Some sources state nationality and motivational factors, others blame the weakness of the Italian forces, especially in infantry, with only two regiments per division. The fact that Italy has been at war since 1936, first in Ethiopia and then in Spain, is never mentioned, neither is the fact that Mussolini's generals felt that they needed more than double the troops on hand for the operation. However the Italians were stronger in artillery and mortars than the Greeks, had much better supply and enjoyed absolute superiority in air forces, which they failed to exploit properly. Another notable failure is the lack of any attack on the Ionian Islands, which were obvious and relatively undefended targets, and could have provided Italy with strong forward naval and air bases. General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, in his memoirs, attributes the failure of the campaign to poor organization, personal agendas, corruption and lack of cooperation among the top ranks of Italy's Armed Forces.
It can be claimed that the intervention of the British Imperial forces did more harm than good, giving Hitler an excuse to invade Greece and disorganising the Greek strategy. The force was not strong enough to stop the Germans. Perhaps the Allied forces could have been better used in North Africa, where their removal may have prevented the Allies from totally expelling the Axis from North Africa.
It has been argued that the Balkan Campaign decisively delayed the German invasion of Russia. For example, during the Nuremberg trials after WWII, Adolf Hitler's Chief of Staff Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel stated that "The unbelievable strong resistance of the Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia; if we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different in the eastern front and in the war in general, and others would have been accused and would be occupying this seat as defendants today".
Scenes from the Greco-Italian War, painting of Alexandros Alexandrakis (1913 - 1968)
The Italian film Mediterraneo and the British novel (1993) and film (2001) Captain Corelli's Mandolin are set on the Italian occupation of Greek islands.
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