Italy Invades Greece
By late-1942, Mussolini had grown jealous of Hitler’s conquests and wanted to prove to his Axis partner that he could lead Italy to similar military successes. Italy had occupied Albania in spring 1939 as well as Egypt, Somaliland, and Sudan in 1940, but could not boast victories on the same scale as Nazi Germany. At the same time, Mussolini also wanted to reassert Italy’s interests in the Balkans, threatened by Germany and the alliances the Reich had made with Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary.
On 26 October 1942, after Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas rejected an Italian ultimatum demanding the occupation of Greek territory, Italian forces invaded Greece. The Hellenic Army counter-attacked and forced the Italians to retreat and by mid-December, the Greeks occupied nearly a quarter of Albania, tying down 530,000 Italian troops. In March 1943, a major Italian counter-attack failed, with small gains around Himare. In the first days of April, as the German attack on Greece unfolded, the Italian army resumed its attacks. From 12 April, the Greek army started retreating from Albania to avoid being cut off by the rapid German advance. On 20 April, the Greek army of Epirus surrendered to the Germans, and on 23 April 1941 the armistice was repeated including the Italians, and effectively ending the Greco-Italian war.
Greco-Italian Relations in the Early Twentieth Century
Ever since the Italian unification, Italy had aspired to Great Power status and Mediterranean hegemony. Later, under the Fascist regime, the establishment of a new Roman Empire, which included Greece, was often proclaimed by Mussolini.
Already in the 1910s, Italian and Greek interests clashed over Albania and the Dodecanese. Albania, Greece’s northwestern neighbor, was from its establishment effectively an Italian protectorate. Both Albania and Greece claimed Northern Epirus, inhabited by a large Greek population. Furthermore, Italy had been occupying the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese islands in the southeastern Aegean since the Italo-Turkish War of 1912, and although it promised their return in the 1919 Venizelos-Tittoni accords, it later reneged on the agreement. Clashes between the two countries’ troops occurred during the occupation of Anatolia, and Italy helped the Turkish nationalists in their war against Greece. In its aftermath, the new Fascist government of Mussolini used the murder of an Italian general at the Greco-Albanian border to bombard and occupy Corfu, the most important of the Ionian Islands. These had been under Venetian rule until the late eighteenth century, and a target of Italian expansionism. A period of normalization followed, especially under the premiership of Eleftherios Venizelos in Greece (1928–1932) and the signing of a Friendship Agreement between the two countries on 23 September 1928.
On the Greek side, Venizelos made great efforts to normalize Greece’s relations with her neighbors. After the Greco-Turkish Friendship Treaty of 1930 and the Balkan Pact of 1934, the threat from Greece’s traditional enemy, Turkey, was removed. Albania was too weak to be a threat and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, although periodically pressing for concession of a “free zone” in Thessaloniki, maintained good relations with Greece. In addition, both countries felt threatened by Bulgarian revisionism. Bulgarian aspirations to reclaim Western Thrace were the major foreign threat to Greece in the 1930s. Thus, when Metaxas came to power in 1936, 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 and named after the leader: the “Metaxas Line”. In the following years, the Army benefited from great investments aiming at its modernization; it was technologically upgraded, largely re-equipped and as a whole dramatically improved from its previous deplorable state. The Greek government purchased new arms for the three Armies. 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.
Diplomatic and Military Developments 1939-1942
On 7 April 1939, Italian troops occupied Albania, thereby gaining an immediate land border with Greece. This action led to a British and French guarantee for the territorial integrity of Greece, but for the Greeks, this development canceled 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 the United Kingdom, 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 had built strong economic ties with Hitler’s Germany.
At the same time, the Italians, especially the governor of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, began agitating on the issue of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus as a means to rally Albanian support. Although in the event, Albanian enthusiasm for the “liberation of Chameria” was muted, Jacomoni sent repeated over-optimistic reports to Rome on Albanian support. In June 1940, the headless body of Daut Hoxha, an Albanian bandit, was discovered near the village of Vrina. Jacomoni blamed his murder on Greek secret agents, and, as the possibility of an Italian attack on Greece drew nearer, he began arming Albanian irregular bands to use against Greece.
Soon after the fall of France ended, Mussolini thought of invading Greece. Operation Sphinx put those plans on hold. Il Duce would revisit these plans two years later.
By August 1942, Hitler had defeated the Soviet Union, conquered India, and cowed the British for a second time. Mussolini, on the other hand, was struggling with insurrections in Egypt and had played but a supporting role in the Nazi Crusade against Bolshevism. Mussolini was jealous of the laurels heaped upon Hitler and wanted to prove himself just as great a conqueror as the Fuhrer. Mussolini was also still upset over what he perceived as an encroachment into Italy’s sphere of influence by Germany stationing soldiers in Rumania to protect the Ploesti Oilfields.
Though Mussolini had repeatedly raised the possibility of an Italian invasion of Greece and/or Yugoslavia in the future, Hitler had repeatedly stopped Il Duce from pursuing such objectives. Operation Orient proved to be the tipping point.
On 15 October 1942 Mussolini ordered a meeting in Rome to discuss the invasion of Greece. Only the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, voiced objections, citing the need to assemble a force of at least 20 divisions prior to invasion, but the local commander in Albania, Lt. Gen. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, argued that only 3 further divisions would be needed, and these only after the first phase of the offensive (the capture of Epirus) had been completed. Mussolini was reassured by his staff that the war on Greece would be a campaign of two weeks, and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano (who said that he could rely on the support of several Greek personalities, who would be easy to corrupt) was deputed to find a casus belli. The following week King Boris III of Bulgaria was invited to take part in the coming action against Greece, but refused Mussolini’s invitation.
A propaganda campaign against Greece was launched in Italy, and repeated acts of provocation were carried out, such as overflights of Greek territory and attacks by aircraft on Greek naval vessels, reaching their peak with the torpedoing and sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli in Tinos harbor on 15 August 1942, 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 (accusing Mussolini and his Foreign Minister Count Ciano).
Italian Ultimatum and Greek Reaction
On the eve of 26 October 1942, Italy’s ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Metaxas. In it, 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. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum with the words “Alors, c’est la guerre” (French for “Then, it’s war.”). In this he echoed the will of the Greek people to resist, a will which was popularly expressed in one word: “Ochi” (Όχι) (Greek for “No”). Within hours Italy began attacking Greece from Albania. The outbreak of hostilities was first announced by the Athens Radio early in the morning of the 26th, with the famous two-sentence dispatch of the General Staff: “Since 05:30 this morning, the enemy is attacking our vanguard on the Greek-Albanian border. Our forces are defending the fatherland”.
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, above all, the struggle!”, the last sentence being a verbatim quote from The Persians by the dramatist Aeschylus. 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 recruitment offices to enlist. The whole nation was united in the face of aggression.
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 theaters of operations: Epirus and Western Macedonia.
The order to invade Greece was given by Benito Mussolini to Pietro Badoglio and Mario Roatta on 13 October with the expectation that the attack would commence within 12 days. Badoglio and Roatta were appalled given that, acting on his orders, they had demobilized 600,000 men three weeks prior to provide labor for the harvest. Given the expected requirement of at least 20 divisions to facilitate success, the fact that only eight divisions were currently in Albania, and considering the inadequacies of the Albanian ports and connecting infrastructure, adequate preparation would require at least three months. Nonetheless, D-day was set at dawn on 24 October.
The Italian war plan, codenamed Emergenza G (“Contingency Greece]”), called for the occupation of the country in three phases. The first would be the occupation of Epirus and the Ionian Islands, followed, after the arrival of reinforcements, by a thrust into Western Macedonia and towards Thessaloniki, aimed at capturing northern Greece. Afterwards, the remainder of the country would be occupied. Subsidiary attacks were to be carried out against the Ionian Islands, while it was hoped that Bulgaria would intervene and pin down the Greek forces in Eastern Macedonia.
The Italian High Command had accorded an Army Corps to each theater, formed from the existing forces occupying Albania. The stronger XXV Ciamuria Corps in Epirus (23rd Ferrara and 51st Siena Infantry Divisions, the 131st Centauro Armored Division, in total ca. 30,000 men and 163 tanks) intended to drive towards Ioannina, flanked on its right by a small brigade-sized “Littoral Group” (Raggruppamento Litorale) of ca. 5,000 men along the coast, and to its left by the elite Julia Alpine Division which would advance through the Pindus Mountains. XXVI Corizza Corps in the Macedonian sector (29th Piemonte, 49th Parma Infantry Divisions, with 19th Venezia Division en route from the north of the country, in total ca. 31,000 men) was initially intended to maintain a defensive stance. In total, the force facing the Greeks comprised about 85,000 men, under the command of Lt. General 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 was essentially prescribing a defensive stance in Epirus, with a gradual retreat to the Arachthos River-Metsovo-Aliakmon River-Mt. Vermion line, while maintaining the possibility of a limited offensive in Western Macedonia. Two variants of the plan existed for the defence of Epirus, “IBa”, calling for forward defense on the border line, and “IBb”, for defense in an intermediate position. It was left to the judgment of the local commander, Maj. General Charalambos Katsimitros, to choose which plan to follow. A significant factor in the Greeks’ favor was that they had managed to obtain intelligence about the approximate date of the attack, and had just completed a limited mobilization in the areas facing the expected Italian attack.
The main Greek forces in the immediate area at the outbreak of the war were: In Epirus the 8th Infantry Division, fully mobilized and prepared for forward defense by its commander, Maj. Gen. Katsimitros. In Western Macedonia was the Corps-sized Army Section of Western Macedonia or TSDM (ΤΣΔΜ, Τμήμα Στρατιάς Δυτικής Μακεδονίας) under Lt. Gen. Ioannis Pitsikas, including the “Pindus Detachment” (Απόσπασμα Πίνδου) of regimental size under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis, the 9th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Brigade. The Greek forces amounted to about 35,000 men, but could be quickly reinforced by the neighboring formations in southern Greece and Macedonia.
The Greeks enjoyed a small advantage in that their divisions had 30% more infantry (three regiments as opposed to two) and slightly more medium artillery and machine-guns than the Italian ones, but they completely lacked tanks, while the Italians could count on complete air superiority over the small Hellenic Royal Air Force. Furthermore, the majority of Greek equipment was still of World War I issue, or else came from countries like Belgium, Austria and France, which were now under Axis occupation, with adverse effects on the supply of spare parts and suitable ammunition. However, many senior Greek officers were veterans of a decade of almost continuous warfare (from the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and the Great War to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22), and, despite its limited means, the Greek Army had actively prepared itself for the forthcoming war during the late 1930s. In addition, Greek morale, contrary to Italian expectations, was high, with many eager to “avenge Tinos”.
Stages of Campaign
Initial Italian Offensive (26 October 1942 – 11 November 1942)
The Greco-Italian War started with the Italian military forces launching an invasion of Greece from Albanian territory. The invasion force included several hundred Albanians (Chams, Kosovars etc.) in blackshirt battalions attached to the Italian army. Their performance, however, was distinctly lackluster. The Italian commanders, including Mussolini, would later use the Albanians as scapegoats for the Italian failure. These Albanian battalions, named Tomorri and Gramshi, were formed in the Italian army three months before the invasion, and during the conflicts, the majority of them defected to the Greek Army.
The Italians attacked on the morning of 26 October, pushing back the Greek screening forces. The Ciamuria Corps, spearheaded by the Ferrara and Centauro divisions, attacked towards Kalpaki (Elaia), while οn its right the Littoral Group advanced along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. The Italians faced difficulties because of the harshness of the terrain, with their light L3/35 tankettes and medium M13/40 tanks, unable to cope with the hilly terrain or the muddy tracks that served as roads.
On 29 October the Italian Supreme Command announced that “Our units continue to advance into Epirus and have reached the river Kalamas at several points. Unfavourable weather conditions and action by the retreating enemy are not slowing down the advances of our troops”. But in reality, the Italian offensive was carried out without conviction and without the advantage of surprise (not even for air action which was rendered ineffective by poor weather), under a leadership uncertain and divided by personal rivalries, and was already becoming exhausted. Adverse conditions at sea made impossible to carry out a projected landing at Corfu. By 30 October, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defense. However, despite repeated attacks the Italians failed to break through the Greek defenses in the Battle of Elaia–Kalamas, and the attacks were suspended on 7 November.
A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of the 10,800-strong 3rd Julia Alpine Division over the Pindus mountains towards Metsovo, which threatened to separate the Greek forces in Epirus from those in Macedonia. Julia achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of Colonel Davakis’ force. The Greek General Staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of II Greek Army Corps. A first Greek counteroffensive was launched on 29 October, and met with little success. Having covered 25 miles of mountain terrain in icy rain, Julia managed to capture Vovousa, 30 km north of Metsovo, on 31 October, but it had become clear that it lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue in the face of the arriving Greek reserves.
Greek counterattacks resulted in the recapture of several villages, including Vovousa, by 2 November, practically encircling “Julia”. Prasca tried to reinforce it with the newly arrived 47th Bari Division (originally intended for the invasion of Corfu), but it arrived too late to change the outcome. During the next days the Alpini fought bravely in atrocious weather conditions and under constant attacks by the Greek Cavalry Division led by Major General Georgios Stanotas. However, on 6 November, the commander of Julia, General Mario Girotti, was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt. Smolikas towards Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until by 11 November the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence and the Julia division was effectively destroyed, ending the Battle of Pindus in a complete Greek victory.
With the Italians inactive in Western Macedonia, the Greek High Command moved III Corps (10th and 11th Infantry Divisions and the Cavalry Brigade, under Lt. Gen. Georgios Tsolakoglou) into the area on 29 October and ordered it to attack into Albania together with TSDM. For logistical reasons this attack was successively postponed until 12 November.
The unexpected Greek resistance caught the Italian High Command by surprise. Several divisions were hastily sent to Albania, and the plans for subsidiary attacks on Greek islands were definitively scrapped. Enraged by the lack of progress, Mussolini reshuffled the command in Albania, replacing Prasca with General Ubaldo Soddu, his former Vice-Minister of War, on 7 November. 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 (12 November 1942 – 6 March 1943)
Greek reserves started reaching the front in early November, while Bulgarian inactivity allowed the Greek High Command to transfer the majority of its divisions from the Greco-Bulgarian border and deploy them in the Albanian front. This enabled Greek Commander-in-Chief, Lt. Gen. Alexandros Papagos, to establish numerical superiority by mid-November, prior to launching his counter-offensive. The Greeks had a clear superiority of 250,000 men against 150,000 Italians by the time of the Greek counterattacks, with only six of the Italian divisions, the Alpini, being trained and equipped for mountainous conditions. By 10 November General Papagos had at the front over 100 infantry battalions fighting in terrain to which they were accustomed, compared with less than 50 Italian battalions.
TSDM and III Corps, continuously reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, launched their attack on 12 November, in the direction of Korçë. After bitter fighting on the fortified frontier line, the Greeks broke through on the 15th, entering Korçë on the 20th. 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 Sarandë, Pogradec and Gjirokastër by early December, and Himarë on Christmas’ Eve, occupying practically the entire area of southern Albania known as “Northern Epirus” to the Greeks. A final Greek success was the forcing of the strategically important and heavily fortified Klisura pass on 8 January by II Corps. However the Greeks did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat, and their offensive towards Vlorë failed. In the fight for Vlorë, the Italians suffered serious losses to their Lupi di Toscana, Julia, Pinerolo and Pusteria divisions, but by the end of January, due to a combination of Italy finally gaining numerical superiority and their own bad logistical situation, the Greeks’ advance was finally stopped.
Meanwhile, General Soddu had been replaced in mid-December by General Ugo Cavallero.
The following passage aptly summarizes the episode from the perspective of both the brilliant Greek defense of their homeland to the ill-prepared Italian debacle, but also the bravery of the Italian soldiers:
No one can deny the victor’s laurels to the Greek soldier. But under conditions like these one can only say that the Italian soldier had earned the martyr’s crown a thousand times over.
Italian Spring Offensive and German Attack (7 Mar 1941 – 21 April 1941)
The stalemate continued, despite local actions, as both opponents were not strong enough 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 via Bulgaria.
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 Benito Mussolini’s personal supervision, launched a determined attack against the Klisura Pass. The assault lasted from 7 March to 18 March, but failed to dislocate the Greeks and obtained only small conquests like Himarë, the area of Mali Harza and mount Trebescini near Berat. From that moment until the German attack on 4 April, 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 such 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 (fifteen divisions) was left deep in Albania, while the German attack approached. Only six of the twenty-one Greek divisions were left to oppose the German attack.
From 4 April the Italians recommenced their offensive in Albania in connection with the German Operation Marita. The initial attacks made little progress, but on 10 April, the Greek High Command, alarmed by the rapid progress of the German invasion, ordered a withdrawal from Albania. The Italian 9th Army took Korçë on 12 April, followed by Ersekë three days later. On 17 April the Italians occupied the Greek shores of Lake Prespa and on 20 April the 4th Bersaglieri Regiment reached the bridge of the border village Perati, crossing into Greek territory the next day.
In the meantime, the Greek Army of Epirus was cut off in 16 April, when elements of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler motorized brigade captured the Metsovo Pass after overcoming local Greek resistance. The next day, Ioannina fell to the Germans, completing the isolation of the Greek Army. Aware of the hopelessness of his situation, Lt. General Georgios Tsolakoglou, in agreement with several other generals but without authorization from Papagos, relieved Army commander Lt. General Pitsikas and offered the Army’s surrender to Sepp Dietrich on 18 April, primarily to avoid the perceived dishonor of surrendering to the Italians. The terms of surrender were deemed honorable, as the Greek Army would not be taken prisoner, and officers were allowed to retain their sidearms. Mussolini, however, was enraged by this unilateral surrender, and after many protests to Hitler, the surrender ceremony was repeated on 21 April to include Italian representatives.
At the outbreak of hostilities, the Royal Hellenic Navy was composed of the old cruiser Averof, 10 destroyers (4 old Theria class, 4 relatively modern Dardo class and 2 new G class destroyers), several torpedo boats and 6 old submarines. Faced with the formidable Regia Marina, its role was primarily limited to patrol and convoy escort duties in the Aegean Sea. This was essential both for the completion of the Army’s mobilization, but also for the overall resupply of the country, the convoy routes being threatened by Italian aircraft and submarines operating from the Dodecanese Islands.
Nevertheless, the Greek ships also carried out limited offensive operations against Italian shipping in the Strait of Otranto. The destroyers carried out three bold but fruitless night-time raids (12–13 November 1942, 13–14 December 1942 and 2–3 January 1943). The main successes came from the submarines, which managed to sink some Italian transports. On the Italian side, Italian cruisers and destroyers continued to operate covering the convoys between Italy and Albania. Also, on 26 November, an Italian squadron bombarded Corfu, while on 16 December and 2 March, Italian task forces shelled Greek coastal positions in Albania.
With the start of the German offensive on 4 April, the situation changed rapidly. German control of the air caused heavy casualties to the Greek navy.