The Greco-Italian War (Greek: Ελληνοϊταλικός πόλεμος Elleno-italikόs pόlemos), also known as the Italo-Greek War and Italian Campaign of Greece (Italian: Campagna italiana di Grecia), was a conflict between Fascist Italy and Greece, which lasted from 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941. The conflict marked the beginning of the Balkans campaign of World War II and the initial Greek counter-offensive, the first successful land campaign against the Axis powers in the war. The conflict known as the Battle of Greece began with the intervention of Nazi Germany on 6 April 1941. In Greece, the war against Italy is known as the "War of '40"
Fascist Italy had invaded Albania in the spring of 1939 and attacked the British Empire in Africa, completing the conquest of British Somaliland and began an invasion of Egypt in the summer of 1940 but could not claim victories like those of Nazi Germany. Benito Mussolini wanted to reassert Italian interests in the Balkans, feeling threatened by German encroachments (the Kingdom of Romania, in the supposed Italian sphere of influence, had accepted German protection for the Ploiești oil fields in mid-October) and secure bases from which British outposts in the eastern Mediterranean could be attacked.
On 28 October 1940, after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected an Italian ultimatum demanding the occupation of Greek territory, Italian forces invaded Greece from Albania. The Greek army counter-attacked and forced the Italians to retreat. By mid-December, the Greeks occupied nearly a quarter of Albania, tying down 530,000 Italian troops. In March 1941, Operation Spring (Operazione Primavera), an Italian counter-offensive failed and on 6 April, Nazi Germany intervened, invading Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, beginning the Battle of Greece.
On 12 April, the Greek army retreated from Albania to avoid being cut off by the rapid German advance and on 20 April, the Greek Epirus Army Section surrendered to the Germans. On 23 April, the armistice with Germany was repeated with the Italians, ending the Greco-Italian war. By the end of April, the Axis occupation of Greece had been completed by Italian, German and Bulgarian forces, with Italy occupying nearly two thirds of the country. The Greek victory over the initial Italian offensive of October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of the Second World War and helped raise morale in occupied Europe.
- 1 Background
- 2 Opposing plans
- 3 Orders of battle
- 4 Campaign
- 4.1 Italian offensive (28 October – 13 November 1940)
- 4.2 Greek counter-offensive (14 November 1940 – 6 January 1941)
- 4.3 End of the Greek offensive and the Italian Spring Offensive (6 January – 6 April 1941)
- 4.4 German invasion
- 5 Sea and air campaign
- 6 Home front
- 7 Aftermath
- 8 Notes
- 9 Footnotes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
In the late 1920s, the Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini said that Fascist Italy needed Spazio vitale, an outlet for its surplus population and that it would be in the best interests of other countries to aid in this expansion. The regime wanted hegemony in the Mediterranean–Danubian–Balkan region and Mussolini imagined the conquest "of an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz". There were designs for a protectorate over Albania and for the annexation of Dalmatia and economic and military control of Yugoslavia and Greece. The fascist regime also sought to establish protectorates over Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, which lay on the periphery of an Italian European sphere of influence.
In 1935, Italy began the Second Italo-Ethiopian War to expand the empire; a more aggressive Italian foreign policy which "exposed [the] vulnerabilities" of the British and French and created an opportunity for the Fascist regime needed to realize its imperial goals. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began and Italy made a military contribution so vast that it played a decisive role in the victory of the rebel forces of Francisco Franco. "A full-scale external war" was fought for Spanish subservience to the Italian Empire, to place Italy on a war footing, and to create "a warrior culture".
In September 1938, the Italian army had made plans to invade Albania, which began on 7 April and in three days had occupied most of the country. Albania was a territory that Italy could acquire for "living space to ease its overpopulation" as well as a foothold for expansion in the Balkans. During 1940, Italy invaded France and Egypt. A plan to invade Yugoslavia was drawn up, but postponed due to opposition from Nazi Germany and a lack of Italian army transport.
Greek–Italian relations in the interwar period
Italy had captured the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea from the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. It had occupied them since, after reneging on the 1919 Venizelos–Tittoni agreement to cede them to Greece. When the Italians found that Greece had been promised land in Anatolia at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, for aid in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the Italian delegation withdrew from the conference for several months. Italy occupied parts of Anatolia which threatened the Greek occupation zone and the city of Smyrna. Greek troops were landed and the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22) began with Greek troops advanced into Anatolia. Turkish forces eventually defeated the Greeks and with Italian aid, recovered the lost territory, including Smyrna. In 1923, Mussolini used the murder of an Italian general on the Greco-Albanian border as a pretext to bombard and temporarily occupy Corfu, the most important of the Ionian Islands.
The Greek defeat in Anatolia and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), ended the expansionist Megali Idea. Henceforth Greek foreign policy was largely aimed at preserving the status quo. Territorial claims to Northern Epirus (southern Albania), the Italian-ruled Dodecanese, and British-ruled Cyprus remained open but inactive in view of the country's weakness and isolation. The main threat Greece faced was from Bulgaria, which claimed Greece's northern territories. The years after 1923 were marked by almost complete diplomatic isolation and unresolved disputes with practically every neighbouring country. The dictatorship of Theodoros Pangalos in 1925–26 sought to revise the Treaty of Lausanne by a war with Turkey. To this end, Pangalos sought Italian diplomatic support, as Italy still had ambitions in Anatolia, but in the event, nothing came of his overtures to Mussolini. After the fall of Pangalos and the restoration of relative political stability in 1926, efforts were undertaken to normalize relations with Turkey, Yugoslavia, Albania and Romania, without much success at first. The same period saw Greece draw closer to Britain and away from France, exacerbated by a dispute over the two sides' financial claims from World War I.
The Greek government put renewed emphasis on improving relations with Italy and in November 1926, a trade agreement was signed between the two states. Initiated and energetically pursued by Andreas Michalakopoulos, the Italian–Greek rapprochement had a positive impact on Greek relations with Romania and Turkey and after 1928 was continued by the new government of Eleftherios Venizelos. This policy culminated with the signing of a treaty of friendship on 23 September 1928. Mussolini exploited this treaty, as it aided in his efforts to diplomatically isolate Yugoslavia from potential Balkan allies. An offer of alliance between the two countries was rebuffed by Venizelos but during the talks Mussolini personally offered "to guarantee Greek sovereignty" on Macedonia and assured Venizelos that in case of an external attack on Thessaloniki by Yugoslavia, Italy would join Greece.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mussolini sought diplomatically to create "an Italian-dominated Balkan bloc that would link Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Hungary". Venizelos countered the policy with diplomatic agreements among Greek neighbours and established an "annual Balkan conference ... to study questions of common interest, particularly of an economic nature, with the ultimate aim of establishing some kind of regional union". This increased diplomatic relations and by 1934 was resistant to "all forms of territorial revisionism". Venizelos adroitly maintained a principle of "open diplomacy" and was careful not to alienate traditional Greek patrons in Britain and France. The Greco-Italian friendship agreement ended Greek diplomatic isolation and the beginning of a series of bilateral agreements, most notably the Greco-Turkish Friendship Convention in 1930. This process culminated in the signature of the Balkan Pact between Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Romania, which was a counter to Bulgarian revisionism.
The Second Italo-Ethiopian War marked a renewal of Italian expansionism, and began a period where Greece increasingly sought a firm British commitment for its security. Although Britain offered guarantees to Greece (as well as Turkey and Yugoslavia) for the duration of the Ethiopian crisis, it was unwilling to commit itself further so as to avoid limiting its freedom of manoeuvre vis-à-vis Italy. Furthermore, with the (British-backed) restoration of the Greek monarchy in 1935 in the person of the anglophile King George II, Britain had secured its dominant influence in the country. This did not change after the establishment of in August 1936 the dictatorial 4th of August Regime of Ioannis Metaxas. Although imitating the Fascist regime in Italy in its ideology and outward appearance, the regime lacked a mass popular base, and its main pillar was the King, who commanded the allegiance of the army. Greek foreign policy thus remained aligned with that of Britain, despite the parallel ever-growing economic penetration of the country by Nazi Germany. Metaxas himself, although an ardent Germanophile in World War I, followed this line, and after the Munich Conference in October 1938 suggested a British–Greek alliance to the British ambassador, arguing that Greece "should prepare for the eventuality of a war between Great Britain and Italy, which sooner or later Greece would find itself drawn into". Loath to be embroiled in a possible Greek–Bulgarian war, dismissive of Greece's military ability, and disliking the regime, the British rebuffed the offer.
Prelude to war, 1939–40
On 4 February 1939, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council on foreign policy. The speech outlined Mussolini's belief that Italy was being imprisoned by France and the United Kingdom and what territory would be needed to break free. During this speech, Mussolini declared Greece to be a "vital [enemy] of Italy and its expansion." On 18 March, as signs for an imminent Italian invasion of Albania as well as a possible attack on Corfu mounted, Metaxas wrote in his diary of his determination to resist any Italian attack.
Following the Italian annexation of Albania in April, relations between Italy and Greece deteriorated rapidly. While the Greeks began defensive preparations in case of an Italian attack, the Italians began to improve the infrastructure in Albania to facilitate troop movements. Tensions mounted as a result of a continued anti-Greek campaign in the Italian press, combined with provocative Italian actions. Thus during Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano's visit to Albania, posters supporting Albanian irredentism in Chameria were publicly displayed; the governor of the Italian Dodecanese, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, closed the remaining Greek communal schools in the province; and Italian troops were heard singing "Andremo nell'Egeo, prenderemo pure il Pireo. E, se tutto va bene, prenderemo anche Aténe." (We go to the Aegean, and will take even Piraeus. And if all goes well, we will take Athens too."). Four of the five Italian divisions in Albania moved towards the Greek border, and on 16 August, the Italian Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, received orders to begin planning for an attack on Greece. Already on 4 August, Metaxas ordered Greek forces to a state of readiness and a partial mobilization.
Although both Britain and France publicly guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania on 13 April 1939, the British still refused to be drawn into concrete undertakings towards Greece as they hoped to entice Mussolini to remain neutral in the coming conflict with Germany and saw in a potential Greek alliance only a drain on their own resources. With British encouragement, Metaxas made diplomatic overtures to Italy in August, and on 12 September, Mussolini wrote to Metaxas, assuring him that if he entered the war, Italy would respect Greek neutrality, and that Italian troops based in Albania would be pulled back about 20 miles (32 km) from the Greek border. The Italian dictator even instructed the ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi, to express his trust towards Metaxas and offer to sell Greece aircraft. On 20 September, the Italians offered to formalize relations by renewing the 1928 treaty. Metaxas rejected this, as the British Foreign Office was opposed to a formal commitment by Greece to Italy and made only a public declaration of friendship and good-will. Greek–Italian relations entered a friendly phase that lasted until spring 1940.
In May, as Italian entry into the war became imminent, the Italian press began an anti-Greek propaganda campaign, accusing the country of being a foreign puppet and tolerating British warships in its waters. Following the defeat of France, Greek–Italian relations deteriorated. From 18 June, De Vecchi sent a series of protests to Rome, reporting on the presence of British warships in Crete and other Greek islands and that a British base had been established at Milos. The allegations were overblown but not entirely unjustified: in January 1940, bowing to British pressure, Greece concluded a trade agreement with Britain, limiting its exports to Germany and allowing Britain to use the large Greek merchant fleet for its war effort, marking Greece a tacit member of the anti-Axis camp, despite its official neutrality. British warships did sail deep into the Aegean, leading the British ambassador to Athens on 17 August, recommending that the government put a stop to them.
Italian military forces harassed Greek forces with air attacks made on Greek naval vessels at sea. On 12 July, while attacking a British petrol carrier off Crete, Italian aircraft based in the Dodecanese went on to bombard Greek warships in harbour at Kissamos. On 31 July, Italian bombers attacked two Greek destroyers in the Gulf of Corinth and two submarines in Nafpaktos and two days later, a coastguard vessel at Aegina off Athens. On 11 August, orchestrated by Ciano and the Italian viceroy in Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, the Italian and Albanian press began a campaign against Greece, on the pretext of the murder of the bandit Daut Hodja in June. Hodja was presented as a patriot fighting for the liberty of Chameria and his murder the work of Greek agents. Although Greek "expansionism" was denounced and claims for the surrender of Chameria made, Ciano and well-informed German sources regarded the press campaign as a means to intimidate Greece, rather than a prelude to war.
On 15 August 1940 (the Dormition of the Theotokos, a Greek national religious holiday), the Greek light cruiser Elli was sunk by the submarine Delfino in Tinos harbour. The attack was a result of an order by Mussolini and Navy chief Domenico Cavagnari, for a submarine to attack neutral shipping. This was taken up by De Vecchi, who ordered the Delfino's commander to "sink everything in sight in the vicinity of Tinos and Syros", giving the impression that war was imminent. On the same day, another Greek steamship was bombarded by Italian planes in Crete. Despite evidence of Italian responsibility, the Greek government announced that the attack had been carried out by a submarine of unknown nationality. No-one was fooled and the sinking of Elli outraged the Greek people. Ambassador Grazzi wrote in his memoirs that the attack united a people "deeply riven by unbridgeable political differences and old and deep-running political hatreds" and to imbue it with a firm resolve to resist. German intervention, urging Italy to avoid Balkan complications and concentrate on Britain, led to the postponement of Italian ambitions in Greece and Yugoslavia. (On 7 October, German troops entered Romania, to guard the Ploiești oil fields and prepare for Operation Barbarossa. Mussolini was not informed in advance, regarded it as an encroachment on the Italian sphere of influence and advanced plans for an invasion of Greece.)
The Italian war aim was to establish a Greek puppet state, which would permit the Italian annexation of the Ionian Islands and the Sporades and the Cyclades islands in the Aegean sea, to be administered as a part of the Italian Aegean Islands. The islands were claimed on the basis that they had once belonged to the Venetian Republic and the Venetian client state of Naxos. The Epirus and Acarnania regions were to be separated from the rest of the Greek territory and the Italian-controlled Kingdom of Albania was to annex territory between the Greek north-western frontier and a line from Florina to Pindus, Arta and Preveza. The Italians intended partly to compensate Greece for its extensive territorial losses, by allowing it to annex the British Crown Colony of Cyprus after the war.
On 13 October, Mussolini finalized the decision for war when he informed Marshal Badoglio to start preparing an attack for 26 October. Badoglio then issued the order for the Italian military to begin preparations for executing the existing war plan, "Contingency G[reece]", which envisioned the capture of Epirus as far as Arta but left the further pursuit of the campaign open. On the next day, Badoglio and acting Army Chief of Staff Mario Roatta met with Mussolini, who announced that his objective was the capture of the entire country and that he would contact Bulgaria for a joint operation. Roatta advised that an extension of the invasion beyond Epirus would require an additional ten divisions, which would take three months to arrive and suggested limiting the extent of the Italian demobilization. Both generals urged Mussolini to replace the local commander, Lieutenant-General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, with someone more senior and greater experience. Mussolini seemingly agreed but also insisted on the attack going ahead at the determined date, provisionally under Prasca's command. Badoglio and Roatta seemed unconvinced that the operation would take place, like similar projects against Greece and Yugoslavia.
Next day, Mussolini called another conference with Badoglio, Roatta, Visconti Prasca, Ciano, and Jacomoni. He reiterated his objectives and his determination that the attack take place on 26 October and asked for the opinion of the assembled. Jacomoni agreed that the Albanians were enthusiastic but that the Greeks would fight, likely with British help, while Ciano suggested that the Greek people were apathetic and would not support the "plutocratic" ruling class. Prasca offered assurances that the operation was as perfectly planned as "humanly possible", promised to finish of the Greek forces in Epirus, which he estimated at 30,000 men and capture the port of Preveza in ten to fifteen days. Prasca regarded the campaign as an opportunity to win fame and achieve the coveted rank of Marshal of Italy by conquering Athens. Prasca was relatively junior in his rank and if he demanded more troops for the Albanian front, it was likely that a more senior officer would be sent to command the operation, earning the accolades and promotions instead.
During the discussion only Badoglio voiced objections, pointing out that stopping after seizing Epirus—which he conceded would present little difficulty—would be an error and a force of at least twenty divisions was necessary to conquer the whole country, including Crete. Roatta suggested that the schedule of moving troops to Albania would have to be accelerated and called for two divisions to be sent against Thessaloniki as a diversion. Prasca pointed out the inadequacy of Albanian harbours for the rapid transfer of Italian divisions, the mountainous terrain and the poor state of the Greek transport network but remained confident that Athens could be captured after the fall of Epirus, with "five or six divisions". The meeting ended with an outline plan, summed up by Mussolini as "offensive in Epirus; observation and pressure on Salonika, and, in a second phase, march on Athens". The staging of incidents at the border to provide a suitable pretext (analogous to the Gleiwitz incident) was agreed for 24 October. Mussolini suggested that the expected advance of the 10th Army (Marshal Rodolfo Graziani) on Mersa Matruh, in Egypt, be brought forward to prevent the British from aiding Greece. Over the next couple of days Badoglio failed to elicit objections to the attack from the other service chiefs or to achieve its cancellation on technical grounds. Mussolini, enraged by the Marshal's obstructionism, threatened to accept his resignation if offered. Badoglio backed down, managing only to secure a postponement of the attack until 28 October.
The front was roughly 150 kilometres (93 mi) wide in mountain terrain with very few roads. The Pindus mountains divided it into two theatres of operations, Epirus and western Macedonia.[verification needed] The Italian forces in Albania were organised accordingly: the XXV Ciamuria Corps (Lieutenant-General Carlo Rossi) in the west was charged with the conquest of Epirus, while the XXVI Corizza Corps (Lieutenant-General Gabriele Nasci) in the east, around Korçë, would initially remain passive in the direction of western Macedonia.
On 18 October, Mussolini sent a letter to Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, inviting him to take part in the coming action against Greece but Boris refused citing his country's unreadiness and its encirclement by hostile neighbours. This was not regarded as a major setback, as the Italian leadership considered that the threat of Bulgarian intervention alone would compel the Greek High Command to commit most of its army in eastern Macedonia and Thrace. It was not until 24 October that Badoglio realized that not only were the Greeks already mobilizing but that they were prepared to divert most of their forces to Epirus, leaving only six divisions against Bulgaria. Prasca would still have numerical superiority at the start of the campaign (some 150,000 men against 120,000) but concerns grew over the vulnerability of the left flank. The 29th Division Piemonte was diverted from the attack in Epirus to bolster XXVI Corps in the Korçë area, while the 19th Infantry Division Venezia was ordered south from its position along the Yugoslav border.
In 1936, General Alberto Pariani had been appointed Chief of Staff of the army and begun a reorganisation of divisions to fight wars of rapid decision, according to thinking that speed, mobility and new technology could revolutionise military operations. In 1937, three-regiment (triangular) divisions began to change to two-regiment (binary divisions), as part of a ten years plan to reorganise the standing army into 24 binary, 24 triangular, twelve mountain, three motorised and three armoured divisions. The effect of the change was to increase the administrative overhead of the army, with no corresponding increase in effectiveness, because the new technology of tanks, motor vehicles and wireless communications, were slow to arrive and were inferior to those of potential enemies. The dilution of the officer class by the need for extra unit staffs, was made worse by the politicisation of the army and the addition of Blackshirt Militia. The reforms also promoted frontal assaults to the exclusion of other theories, dropping the previous emphasis on fast mobile warfare backed by artillery.
Prior to the invasion, Mussolini let 300,000 troops and 600,000 reservists go home for the harvest. There were supposed to be 1,750 lorries used in the invasion but only 107 arrived. The possibility that Greek personalities, as well as Greek officials situated in the front area, could be corrupted or not react to an invasion, proved to be mostly wishful thinking, used by Italian generals and personalities in favor of a military intervention; the same was true for an alleged revolt of the Albanian minority living in Chameria, located in the Greek territory immediately behind the boundary, which would break out after the beginning of the attack.
On the eve of 28 October 1940, Italy's ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Metaxas. It demanded free passage for his troops to occupy unspecified strategic points inside Greek territory. Greece had been friendly towards Nazi Germany, profiting from mutual trade relations but now Germany's ally, Italy, intended to invade Greece. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum with the words "Alors, c'est la guerre" (French for "then it is war."). In this, he echoed the will of the Greek people to resist, a will that was popularly expressed in one word: "ochi" (Όχι) (Greek for "no"). Within hours, Italy attacked Greece from Albania. The outbreak of hostilities was first announced by Athens Radio early in the morning of 28 October, with the 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.— Greek General Staff, 28 October 1940
In 1936, the 4th of August Regime came to power in Greece, under the leadership of Ioannis Metaxas. Plans were laid down for the reorganization of the Greek armed forces, including building the "Metaxas Line'", a defensive fortification along the Greco-Bulgarian frontier. Large sums of money were spent to re-equip the army but due to the increasing threat of and the eventual outbreak of war, the most significant foreign purchases from 1938–1939, were only partly delivered or not at all. A massive contingency plan was developed and great amounts of food and equipment were stockpiled in many parts of the country as a precaution in the event of war. After the Italian occupation of Albania in spring 1939, the Greek General Staff prepared the "IB" (Italy-Bulgaria) plan, anticipating a combined offensive by Italy and Bulgaria. Given the overwhelming superiority of such an alliance in manpower and matériel, the plan prescribed a purely defensive strategy, including the gradual retreat of the Greek forces in Epirus to the Arachthos River–Metsovo–Aliakmon River–Mt. Vermion line, to gain time for the completion of mobilization.
With the completion of partial mobilization of the frontier formations, the plan was revised with variants "IBa" (1 September 1939) and "IBb" (20 April 1940). These modified the role of the main Greek force in the region, the 8th Infantry Division (Major-General Charalambos Katsimitros). Plan "IB" foresaw it covering the left flank of the bulk of the Greek forces in western Macedonia, securing the Metsovon pass and blocking entry into Aetolia-Acarnania, "IBa" ordered the covering of Ioannina and the defence of the Kalamas river line. Katsimitros had discretion to choose the defensive line and chose the Kalpaki line, which lay astride the main invasion axis from Albania and allowed him to use the Kalamas swamps to neutralize the Italian tank threat. The Greek General Staff remained focused on Bulgaria as its main potential enemy: of the 851 million drachmas spent on fortification between April 1939 and October 1940, only 82 million went to the Albanian frontier and the rest on the Metaxas Line and other works in the north-east.
Orders of battle
In the Epirus sector, the XXV Ciamuria Corps consisted of the 23rd Infantry Division Ferrara (12,785 men, 60 guns and 3,500 Albanian auxiliary troops), the 51st Infantry Division Siena (9,200 men and 50 guns) and the 131st Armoured Division Centauro (4,037 men, 24 guns and 163 light tanks, of which only 90 operational). In addition, it was reinforced by cavalry units in a brigade-level command operating on the extreme Italian right along the coast (4,823 men and 32 guns). The XXV Corps comprised 22 infantry battalions, three cavalry regiments, 61 artillery batteries (18 heavy) and 90 tanks. Along with Blackshirt battalions and auxiliary troops, it numbered c. 42,000 men. XXVI Corizza Corps in the Korçë area comprised the 29th Infantry Division Piemonte (9,300 men and 32 guns), and the 49th Infantry Division Parma (12,000 men and 60 guns). In addition, the Corps comprised the Venezia Division (10,000 men and 40 guns), moving south from its deployment along the Yugoslav frontier between Lake Prespa and Elbasan, and was later reinforced with the 53rd Infantry Division Arezzo (12,000 men and 32 guns) around Shkodër. XXVI Corps totalled 32 infantry battalions, about ten tanks and two cavalry companies, 68 batteries (7 heavy) for a total of c. 44,000 men. The elite 3rd Alpine Division Julia with (10,800 men and 29 guns), was placed between the corps to cover the advance of XXV Corps along the Pindus mountains. The Regia Aeronautica had 380 aircraft available for operations against Greece.
On 28 October, the Greek army had 14 infantry divisions, one cavalry division and three infantry brigades, all at least partly mobilized since August; four infantry divisions and two brigades were on the border with Albania; five infantry divisions faced Bulgaria and five more with the cavalry division were in general reserve. Greek army divisions were triangular and held up to 50 per cent more infantry than the Italian binary divisions, with slightly more medium artillery and machine-guns but no tanks. Most Greek equipment was still of First World War issue, from countries like Belgium, Austria, Poland and France, all of which were under Axis occupation, cutting off the supply of spare parts and ammunition. Many senior Greek officers were veterans of a decade of almost continuous warfare, including the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, the First World War, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22.
In Epirus, the 8th Infantry Division was already mobilized and reinforced with a regiment and the staff of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, fielding 15 infantry battalions and 16 artillery batteries. At the time of the Italian attack, the 2/39 Evzone Regiment was moving north from Missolonghi to reinforce the division. The western Macedonia sector was held by the Western Macedonia Army Section (TSDM), based at Kozani (Lieutenant-General Ioannis Pitsikas), with the II Army Corps (Lieutenant-General Dimitrios Papadopoulos) and III Army Corps (Lieutenant-General Georgios Tsolakoglou), each of two infantry divisions and an infantry brigade. The total forces available to TSDM on the outbreak of war consisted of 22 infantry battalions and 22 artillery batteries (seven heavy). The Pindus sector was covered by the "Pindus Detachment" (Απόσπασμα Πίνδου) (Colonel Konstantinos Davakis) with two battalions, a cavalry company and 1.5 artillery batteries.
The Royal Hellenic Air Force (Ellinikí Vasilikí Aeroporía, RHAF) had to face the numerically and technologically superior Regia Aeronautica. It comprised 45 fighters, 24 light bombers, nine reconnaissance aircraft, about 65 auxiliary aeroplanes and 28 naval cooperation aircraft. It consisted of the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th pursuit squadrons, the 31st, 32nd, 33rd bomber squadrons, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th military cooperation squadrons, the 2828 Independent Military Cooperation Flight and the 11th, 12th and 13th naval cooperation squadrons. At the outbreak of the war the operational combat fleet of the Greek Air Force counted 24 PZL P.24 and nine Bloch MB.151 fighters, as well as eleven Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, ten Fairey Battle B.1 and eight Potez 633 B2 bombers. Serviceable ground attack and naval support aircraft included about nine Breguet 19 two-seater biplane bombers, 15 Henschel Hs 126 reconnaissance and observation aircraft, 17 Potez 25A observation aircraft, nine Fairey III amphibious reconnaissance aircraft, 12 Dornier Do 22G torpedo bombers, and 9 Avro Anson maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The main air bases were located in Sedes, Larissa, Dekeleia, Faleron, Eleusis, Nea Anchialos and Maleme.
The Royal Hellenic Navy had the elderly cruiser Georgios Averof, two modern destroyers, four slightly older Italian destroyers and four obsolete Wild Beast-class destroyers. There were six old submarines, fifteen obsolete torpedo boats and about thirty other auxiliary vessels.
On 22 October 1940, six days before the Italian invasion of Greece, despite the Italian invasion of Egypt, the RAF Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East in Cairo was ordered to prepare squadrons for Greece, based on Ultra decodes and other sources that an Italian invasion of Greece was imminent. The RAF first sent 30 Squadron, consisting of one flight of Blenheim IF night fighters and one flight of Blenheim I light bombers, that were based at Athens-Eleusis airfield. Soon afterwards, six Vickers Wellington medium bombers were detached from 70 Squadron and a flight of Blenheim Is from 84 Squadron arrived. All RAF assets were placed under the command of Air vice-marshal John D'Albiac. The RAF aircraft participated in the Greek counter-offensive that began on 14 November, with No. 84 Squadron operating forward from Menidi. A few days later, the Gloster Gladiator fighters of 80 Squadron moved forward to Trikala, causing significant losses to the Regia Aeronautica. 211 Squadron with Blenheim Is, followed before the end of November, joining 84 Squadron at Menidi and 80 Squadron moved to Yannina, about 64 kilometres (40 mi) from the Albanian border. In the first week of December, 14 Gladiators were transferred from the RAF to the RHAF.
- the Italian offensive and its defeat from 28 October to 13 November 1940
- the Greek counter-offensive, from 14 November to 6 January 1941, the initial Greek counter-offensive in 14–23 November, with the restoration of the pre-war border in Epirus and the capture of Korçë, followed by the Greek advance into Albania until 6 January 1941
- the gradual stabilization of the front from 6 January 1941 until the onset of the German attack on 6 April; the final Greek advances, until 8 March, followed by the Italian spring offensive and the stalemate until April.
The Greek commander-in-chief, Alexandros Papagos, in his memoirs regarded the second phase as ending on 28 December 1940; as the historian Ioannis Koliopoulos comments, this seems more appropriate, as December marked a watershed in the course of the war, with the Greek counter-offensive gradually grinding to a halt, the German threat becoming clear, and the beginning of British attempts to guide and shape Greek strategy. According to Koliopoulos, the final three months of the war were militarily of little significance as they did not alter the situation of the two combatants, but were mostly dominated by the diplomatic and political developments leading up to the German invasion.
Italian offensive (28 October – 13 November 1940)
Italian forces invaded Greece in several columns. On the extreme Italian right, the coastal group moved south in the direction of Konispol with the final aim of capturing Igoumenitsa and thence driving onto Preveza. In the central sector, the Siena Division moved in two columns onto the area of Filiates, while the Ferrara Division moved in four columns against the main Greek resistance line at Kalpaki with the aim of capturing Ioannina. On the Pindus sector, the Julia Division launched five columns aiming to capture Metsovo and cut off the Greek forces in the Epirus sector from the east. With the onset of the Italian offensive, Papagos, until then the Chief of the Hellenic Army General Staff, was appointed commander-in-chief of the newly established General Headquarters. The Army General Staff, which functioned as the main field staff throughout the war, was handed over to Lieutenant-General Konstantinos Pallis, recalled from retirement. With Bulgarian neutrality assured—following the terms of the Balkan Pact of 1935, the Turks threatened to intervene on Greece's side if the Bulgarians attacked Greece—the Greek high command was free to throw the bulk of its army against Italian forces in Albania. Almost half the forces assigned to the Bulgarian front (13th and 17th Divisions, 16th Infantry Brigade) and the entirety of the general reserve (I Army Corps with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Cretan 5th Infantry Division and the Cavalry Division) were directed to the Albanian front.
Epirus and coastal sectors
On the Epirus sector, Katsimitros had left five battalions along the border to delay the Italian advance, and installed his main resistance line in a convex front with the Kalpaki pass in the centre, manned by nine battalions. Further two battalions under Major-General Nikolaos Lioumbas took over the coastal sector in Thesprotia. The swamps of the Kalamas river, especially before Kalpaki, formed a major obstacle not only to armoured formations, but even to the movement of infantry. A further battalion and some artillery were detached to the Preveza area in the event of an Italian landing, but as this did not materialize, they were swiftly moved to reinforce the coastal sector. By the night of 29/30 October, the Greek covering units had withdrawn to the Kalpaki line, and by 1 November, Italian units made contact with the Greek line. During these three days, the Italians prepared their assault, bombarding the Greek positions with aircraft and artillery. In the meantime, the developing Italian threat in the Pindus sector forced Papagos to cable Katsimitros that his main mission was to cover the Pindus passes and the flanks of the Greek forces in western Macedonia, and to avoid offering resistance if it left his forces depleted. Katsimitros had already decided to defend his line, however, and disregarded these instructions, but detached some forces to cover its right along the Aoös River. On 1 November, the Italians managed to capture Konitsa and the Comando Supremo gave the Albanian front priority over Africa.
The scheduled Italian amphibious assault on Corfu did not materialize due to bad weather. The Italian navy commander, Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, postponed the landing to 2 November, but by that time Visconti Prasca was urgently demanding reinforcements, and Mussolini ordered that the 47th Infantry Division Bari, earmarked for the operation, be sent to Albania instead. Mussolini proposed a landing at Preveza on 3 November to break the emerging impasse, but the proposal met with immediate and categorical refusal by the service chiefs.
The main Italian attack on the Kalpaki front began on 2 November. An Albanian battalion, under the cover of a snowstorm, managed to capture the Grabala heights, but were thrown back by a counterattack on the next day. On the same day, an attack spearheaded by 50–60 tanks against the main Kalpaki sector was also repulsed. The Greek units east of the Kalamas were withdrawn during the night. On 5–7 November, repeated assaults were launched against the Grabala and other heights; on the night of the 7th, Grabala briefly fell once more, but was swiftly recaptured. On 8 November, the Italians began withdrawing and assuming defensive positions until the arrival of reinforcements. On the coastal sector, the Italians made better progress. The Greek covering units were forced south of the Kalamas already on the first day, but the bad state of the roads delayed the Italian advance. On the night of 4/5 November, the Italians crossed the river and broke through the defences of the local Greek battalion, forcing Lioumbas to order his forces to withdraw south of the Acheron River. Igoumenitsa was captured on 6 November, and on the next day, the Italians reached Margariti. This marked their deepest advance, as the Thesprotia Sector began receiving reinforcements from Katsimitros, and as on the other sectors the situation had already turned to the Greeks' favour.
As evidence of the Italian offensive's failure mounted, on 8 November, Visconti Prasca was relieved of overall command in Albania and relegated to command the Italian forces in the Epirus front, while General Ubaldo Soddu, State Undersecretary of War, assumed his place. Soddu's report from Albania underlined Greek resistance in Epirus and the mounting threat of the Greek concentration in western Macedonia, and recommended taking up defensive positions "while awaiting the reinforcements that would permit us to resume action as soon as possible". Mussolini consented. With the Italians on the defensive, 8th Division began launching local counterattacks to regain the lost ground. By 13 November, the Greek forces once again stood at the Kalamas river along its entire length. On 12 November, I Army Corps under Lieutenant-General Panagiotis Demestichas took over the Epirus sector. 8th Division was subordinated to it, while the coastal sector was placed under the independent Lioumbas Detachment.
A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of the Julia Alpine Division, under Mario Girotti, over the Pindus Mountains towards Metsovo, which threatened to separate the Greek forces in Epirus from those in Macedonia. The opposing Greek force, the Pindus Detachment, was formed of reservists of the 51st Regiment, mobilized on 29 August, while one of its three battalions (III/51) was formed as late as 15 October and was still on its way to the front. Colonel Davakis and his 2,000 men had to cover a front some 37 km in width, and moreover over extremely broken terrain. The Italian attack began under torrential rainfall and made rapid progress, forcing the Greeks to abandon their forward posts, especially in the Detachment's central sector. Davakis was forced to deploy the companies of the III/51 Battalion piecemeal as soon as they arrived, leaving himself with no reserves.
The situation worried the TSDM, which began sending whatever reinforcements it could muster, and assigned the Pindus sector to the 1st Infantry Division. Despite the onset of snowfall on the 29th, the Julia Division continued pressing its attack on the Greek centre and left during 29–30 October, forcing the Greeks to withdraw towards Samarina. From 30 October, however, the Greeks managed to stabilize the situation. Command in the Pindus sector passed to 1st Division and Major-General Vasileios Vrachnos, while additional forces—the Cavalry Division, 5th Brigade, and he newly formed Cavalry Brigade—were deployed on the flanks of the Italian salient and in the rear to secure the vital passes.
After covering 25 miles (40 km) of mountain terrain in icy rain, the Julia Division captured Vovousa, 19 miles (30 km) north of Metsovo, on 2 November but lacked the manpower and supplies to continue after the arrival of Greek reinforcements. Greek counter-attacks recaptured several villages, including Samarina on 3 November and Vovousa on the next day. The Julia Division began to retreat in the direction of Konitsa to avoid being enveloped. Visconti Prasca sent forward the Bari Division to its aid, but by 13 November the Greek forces had completed the re-occupation of the Grammos and Smolikas mountain ranges. On the same day, Visconti Prasca was relieved and recalled to Italy.
Greek counter-offensive (14 November 1940 – 6 January 1941)
By 14 November, the Italian forces in Albania had been reorganized in two field armies: the Ninth Army, formed out of the XXVI Corps in the Korçë sector, comprising five infantry and two Alpini divisions as well as a number of independent regiments, including Blackshirt and Albanian battalions; and the Eleventh Army (former XXV Corps) on the Epirus sector, with three infantry, an armoured, and a cavalry division, as well as a number of independent units. The Italian situation was very difficult, as the troops on the front had been fighting non-stop for three weeks and were exhausted. The supply situation was abysmal, with the army lacking lorries, horses, and mules; the limited capacity of Albania's two main ports, Valona and Durrës, created a bottleneck for supplies and reinforcements, while the airlift initiated between Italy and Tirana—which consumed all of the Italian Air Force's transport capacity to the detriment of Africa—could transport troops, but not heavy equipment. The Greek order of battle on 14 November consisted of Lieutenant-General Demestichas' I Corps on the coastal sector (2nd, 8th, and the Cavalry Divisions, and the Lioumbas Detachment), Lieutenant-General Papadopoulos' II Corps in the Pindus sector (1st Infantry Division, 5th Brigade and the Cavalry Brigade), and Lieutenant-General Tsolakoglou's III Corps in western Macedonia (9th, 10th, 15th Infantry Divisions, with 11th Division assembling in its rear). The latter two corps were under the command of TSDM, led by Lieutenant-General Pitsikas. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 16th Brigade, were kept in reserve. By 12 November, Papagos had over 100 infantry battalions on familiar terrain against fewer than fifty Italian battalions.
Fall of Korçë (14–23 November)
From the first days of November, III Corps had undertaken limited advances into Albanian territory, and already on 6 November, it submitted plans for a general offensive. Judged too ambitious for the moment, Papagos postponed the offensive for 14 November. III Corps' main objective was the capture of the Korçë plateau, which controlled access to the interior of Albania along the valley of the Devoll river. The plateau lay behind the Morava and Ivan mountains on the Greco-Albanian frontier, which were held by the 29th Piemonte, the 19th Venezia, and the 49th Parma divisions. The Italians were later reinforced by the 2nd Alpine Division Tridentina, the 53rd Arezzo Division, and 30–50 tanks of the Centauro Division. Leaving five battalions to secure its rear, III Corps attacked with twenty battalions and 37 artillery batteries. Due to the lack of tanks or anti-tank weapons to counter Italian armour, the Greeks decided to limit their movement along the mountain ridges, never descending to the valleys. The offensive was launched on the morning of 14 November, with the corps' three divisions moving on converging lines of attack towards Korçë. To achieve surprise, the attack was not preceded by an artillery barrage.
The Italian forces were indeed taken by surprise, allowing the Greeks to force several breaches in the Italian positions on 14–16 November. On 17 November, III Corps was reinforced with 13th Division, and on the next day, with 11th Division, which along with the 10th Division formed a new command, the "K" Group of Divisions or OMK (Lieutenant-General Georgios Kosmas). The most critical moment for the Greeks came on 18 November, when elements of the 13th Division panicked during an ill-coordinated attack and the division almost retreated; its commander was sacked on the spot and the new commander, Major-General Sotirios Moutousis, forbade any further retreat, restoring the front. On 19–21 November, the Greeks captured the summit of Morava. Fearing that they would be surrounded and cut off, the Italians retreated towards the Devoll valley during the night, and on 22 November the city of Korçë was captured by 9th Division. By 27 November, TSDM had captured the entire Korçë plateau, suffering 624 dead and 2,348 wounded. Further south and west, I and II Corps had moved to evict the Italians from Greek territory, which they achieved by 23 November. II Corps further moved across the border line, capturing Ersekë on 21 November and Leskovik on the next day. On 23 November, bowing to pressure from Badoglio and Roatta, Mussolini finally reversed his early October order for demobilization.
Greek offensive towards Valona (23 November – December 1940)
Following the capture of Korçë and the eviction of the Italian forces from Greek soil, the Greek GHQ faced two options: continue the offensive in the Korçë sector in the direction of Elbasan or shift focus on the left flank and drive towards the port of Valona. In the end, the latter was chosen, as the capture of Valona would be of great strategic significance, leaving the Italians with only Durrës as an entrepôt. TSDM, comprising III Corps and OMK, would defend their positions on the Greek right and apply pressure on the Italians in front of them, while I Corps would move north along the Gjirokastër–Tepelenë–Valona axis. II Corps would form the pivot of the movement, securing the connection between I Corps and TSDM, as well as advancing in step with its western neighbour in the direction of Berat. I Corps was reinforced with 3rd Division (21 November) and II Corps with 11th Division (27 November) and the Cavalry Division (28 November).
Between 24 and 30 November, I Corps moved north into Albania along the Drinos river, while II Corps moved in the direction of Frashër, which it captured in early December. TSDM continued to apply pressure against the Italians, with 10th Division capturing Moscopole on 24 November. Pogradec, evacuated by the Italians, was captured by 13th Division on 30 November. The continued Greek advance caused another crisis in the Italian hierarchy. The news of the fall of Pogradec and the pessimistic reports of the Italian commanders in Albania reportedly caused Mussolini to consider asking for a truce through the Germans, but in the end he recovered his nerve and ordered Soddu to hold fast: eventually the Greeks would be worn out, since they had "...no war industry and can only count on supplies from Great Britain". Nevertheless, the retreat led to major changes in the Italian high command. Mussolini was growing increasingly unhappy with Badoglio, who had begun criticizing Mussolini's decisions as the situation worsened; encouraged by the hardline Fascist Party secretary Roberto Farinacci, on 4 December the Duce dismissed the long-serving Chief of the General Staff and replaced him with Ugo Cavallero. The resignations of the governor of the Italian Dodecanese, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, and Admiral Cavagnari, followed within a few days.
I Corps continued its advance, capturing Delvinë on 5 December and Gjirokastër on 8 December; the Lioumbas Detachment captured Sarandë—which the Italians had renamed Porto Edda after Mussolini's eldest daughter and wife of Ciano—on 6 December. Further east, 2nd Division captured the Suhë Pass after a fierce struggle on 1–4 December, while 8th Division launched repeated attacks on the heights around the Kakavia Pass, capturing after the Italians withdrew on the night of 4/5 December. The division had suffered considerable losses, but had also taken over 1,500 prisoners and captured several artillery pieces and 30 tanks. In the TSDM sector, Lieutenant-General Kosmas (now in command of the "K" Group, essentially the 10th Division) captured the Ostravicë Mountain on 12 December, while III Corps—since 1 December reinforced with 17th Division, which replaced 13th Division—completed its occupation of the Kamia massif and secured possession of Pogradec. On 2 December, Papagos, accompanied by Crown Prince Paul, visited the front. Generals Pitsikas and Tsolakoglou urged him to order an immediate attack on the strategic Klisura Pass, without waiting for I and II Corps to level with TSDM. Papagos angrily rejected the proposal, and issued orders to continue the prescribed plan, with III Corps relegated to a passive role. This decision was later heavily criticized; coupled with the onset of winter, it effectively froze the Greek right wing in place.
Despite the atrocious weather and the heavy snowfall, the Greek offensive continued on the left throughout December. I Corps, now comprising 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions (8th Division and the Lioumbas Detachment were moved back as reserves) captured Himarë on 22 December. II Corps, moving between the Aöos and the Apsos rivers, managed to reach the vicinity of Klisura, but failed to capture the pass. To its right, the V Army Corps (the former "K" Group, but still comprising only the 10th Division) managed to advance up to Mount Tomorr and secure the connection between II and III Corps, which remained in its positions.
End of the Greek offensive and the Italian Spring Offensive (6 January – 6 April 1941)
On 28 December 1940, the Greek GHQ took the decision to halt large-scale offensive operations in view of the stiffening Italian resistance, the worsening supply situation and the bad weather, which inter alia led to a large number of frostbites. This decision took effect on 6 January, whereby only local offensive operations would take place to improve Greek lines until the weather improved. By that time, the Italians fielded eleven infantry divisions (11th Infantry Division Brennero, 29th Infantry Division Piemonte, 19th Infantry Division Venezia, 23rd Infantry Division Ferrara, 33rd Mountain Division Acqui, 37th Mountain Division Modena, 48th Infantry Division Taro, 49th Infantry Division Parma, 51st Siena, 53rd Arezzo, and 56th Casale) and four Alpini divisions (2nd Tridentina, 3rd Julia, 4th Cuneense, and 5th Alpine Division Pusteria), as well as the Centauro Armoured Division, with the 6th Infantry Division Cuneo and the 7th Infantry Division Lupi di Toscana moving to the front. In addition, there were two independent Bersaglieri regiments, a grenadier regiment, two cavalry regiments, Blackshirt and Albanian battalions and other units. According to official Italian documents, on 1 January 1941, Italy had 10,616 officers, 261,850 men, 7,563 vehicles, and 32,871 animals in Albania. This strengthening of the Italian position prompted Cavallero, who after Soddu's recall on 29 December combined his post as Chief of the General Staff with the overall command in Albania, to pronounce that the "period of crisis [was] almost overcome", and to begin planning for an attack aiming to recapture Korçë in early February.
Struggle for Klisura Pass and Tepelenë
The major operation envisaged by the Greek GHQ was the capture of the Klisura Pass by II Corps, coupled with minor offensives by I Corps and TSDM to improve their positions. II Corps attacked on 8 January, with 1st Division on the left and 15th Division, followed by 11th Division, on the right flank. The 15th Division faced the Julia Division, and after a hard struggle managed to overturn its positions with heavy losses. 11th Division followed up this success on 9 November, and on the next day, the pass was in Greek hands. The Greek offensive forced Cavallero to deploy the reserves he had husbanded for his projected Korçë offensive, which in the event never took place. Among the main events of the battle was the rout of the newly arrived Lupi di Toscana division.[lower-alpha 1] The unit went into action on 9 January to support the Julia Division, after a 24-hour forced march in horrendous weather, without having time to reconnoitre the front, without maps of the area, and without coordinating fire support with the Julia Division. The division's commander and its chief of staff failed to coordinate its two regiments, which became entangled on the same mule track. Despite attacking downhill and facing a numerically inferior enemy, the division lost a battalion to encirclement and were driven back to their starting positions after two days. By 16 January, the division had disintegrated and "ceased to exist as an organized force", with only 160 officers and men immediately available and over 4,000 casualties. On 26 January, the Italians launched a major counter-attack aiming to recover the pass, but II Corps, reinforced with 5th Division, managed to repel them and then counter-attacked. In the Battle of Trebeshina a series of battles from 2–12 February, the Trebeshinë massif was captured.
As the threat of a German invasion from Bulgaria increased, the need to transfer of Greek divisions to the Bulgarian frontier forced Papagos to launch a final effort to capture Valona as quickly as possible. The RAF agreed to challenge the air superiority of the Regia Aeronautica, which had recovered with the loss of much of the RHAF in ground-attack operations, rather than continue ineffective attempts at interdiction. With reinforcements from Egypt and the drying of a landing-ground at Paramythia, the RAF managed 200 close support sorties by the end of February. Launched in mid-February, the attack saw I Corps gain ground towards Tepelenë; Italian resistance and a deterioration in the weather forced a suspension of operations before Tepelenë, let alone Valona or Berat, were reached. The Italian defensive success was costly and signs of an imminent big Italian offensive in the central sector of the front, forced a return to the defensive.
On 14 February, in view of the fact that GHQ was increasingly concerned with developments in the Bulgarian frontier, a new higher command, the Epirus Army Section (TSI), under Lieutenant-General Markos Drakos, was formed, comprising I and II Corps. Despite Greek success in Albania, dissension within the Greek leadership emerged over strategy towards the expected German attack and the need for a withdrawal in Albania. The front commanders in Albania represented their views to GHQ in Athens and in early March, Papagos moved to replace virtually the entire leadership in the Albanian front: Drakos, Kosmas and Papadopoulos, the commanders of TSI, I and II Corps respectively, were replaced by the TSDM commander Lieutenant-General Pitsikas, Lieutenant-General Demestichas and Major-General Georgios Bakos, TSDM being taken over by Tsolakoglou.
Italian Spring Offensive
On 4 March, the British sent the first convoy of Operation Lustre, with troops and supplies to Greece under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson.[lower-alpha 2] The Italian leadership desired to achieve a success against the Greek army before the impending German intervention. The plan, devised by Cavellero, envisioned a large-scale attack on a narrow, 32 km front in the centre of the Greek front. The aim of the Italian attack was to break through the Greek lines, recapture Klisura, and advance towards Leskovik and Ioannina. The attack would be carried out by the VIII Army Corps (59th Cagliari, 38th Puglie, and 24th Pinerolo divisions), XXV Corps' Sforzesca Division, the 47th Bari, 51st Siena, and 7th Lupi di Toscana divisions as a second echelon, and the Centauro and Piemonte divisions as general reserves. The Greek units opposite them were II Corps (17th, 5th, 1st, 15th, and 11th Divisions), with three regiments as TSI's general reserve, and able to be reinforced by 4th Division. II Corps continued limited offensive action as late as 8 March to improve its positions.
The Italian attack, observed by Mussolini in person, was launched on 9 March with a heavy artillery barrage and air bombardment; on the main sector, held by the Greek 1st Division, over 100,000 shells were dropped on a 6 km front. Despite repeated assaults and heavy shelling, the positions of 1st Division held during 9–10 March. A flanking manoeuvre on 11 March ended in Italian defeat. The exhausted Puglie Division was withdrawn and replaced with the Bari Division during the subsequent night, but all attacks until 15 March failed. The Italian offensive halted on 16–18 March, allowing the Greeks to bring reserves forward and begin a gradual reshuffle their line, relieving the 1st Division with the 17th. The Italian offensive resumed on 19 March with another attack on Height 731 (the 18th thus far). Attacks, preceded by heavy artillery bombardments, followed daily until 24 March, the last day of the Italian offensive, without achieving any result. Mussolini admitted that the result of the Italian offensive was zero. Italian casualties amounted over 11,800 dead and wounded, while the Greeks suffered 1,243 dead, 4,016 wounded and 42 missing in action.
With most of the Greek army on the Albanian border, Operation Marita began through Bulgaria on 6 April, which created a second front. Greece had received a small reinforcement from British forces based in Egypt, in anticipation of the German attack but no more help was sent after the invasion. The Greek army was outnumbered, the Bulgarian defensive line did not receive adequate troop reinforcements and was quickly overrun. The Germans outflanked the Greek forces on the Albanian border, forcing their surrender and British Empire forces began a retreat. For several days Allied troops contained the German advance on the Thermopylae position, allowing ships to be prepared to evacuate the British force. The Germans reached Athens on 27 April and the southern shore on 30 April, capturing 7,000 British troops. The conquest of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later and Greece was occupied by the military forces of Germany, Italy and Bulgaria until late 1944.
On 6 April, Papagos ordered TSDM to launch an attack towards Elbasan, in conjunction with Yugolav forces. The attack began on 7 April and the 13th Division made some progress but the Yugoslav army, attacked by the Germans, rapidly collapsed and the operation was cancelled. On 12 April, GHQ in Athens ordered the Greek forces on the Albanian front to retreat but the decision was too late. The Greek commanders knew that Italian pressure, the lack of motor transport and pack animals, the physical exhaustion of the Greek army and the poor transport network of Epirus, any retreat was likely to end up in disintegration. Advice to retreat before the start of the German attack had been rejected and they petitioned Pitsikas to surrender. Pitsikas forbade such talk but notified Papagos and urged a solution that would secure "the salvation and honour of our victorious Army". The order to retreat, the disheartening news of the Yugoslav collapse and the rapid German advance in Macedonia, led to a breakdown of morale in the Greek troops, many of whom had been fighting without rest for five months and were forced to abandon hard-won ground. By 15 April, the divisions of II Army Corps, beginning with the 5th Division, began to disintegrate, with men and even entire units abandoning their positions.
On 16 April, Pitsikas reported to Papagos that signs of disintegration had also begun to appear among the divisions of I Corps and begged him to "save the army from the Italians" (to be allowed to capitulate to the Germans, before the military situation collapsed completely). On the next day, TSDM was renamed to III Army Corps and placed under Pitsikas' command. The three corps commanders, along with the metropolitan bishop of Ioannina, Spyridon, pressured Pitsikas to unilaterally negotiate with the Germans. When he refused, the others decided to bypass him and selected Tsolakoglou, as the senior of the three generals, to carry out the task. Tsolakoglou delayed for a few days, sending his chief of staff to Athens to secure permission from Papagos. The chief of staff reported the chaos in Athens and urged his commander to take the initiative in a message that implied permission by Papagos, although this was not in fact the case. On 20 April, Tsolakoglou contacted Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, the commander of the nearest German unit, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) brigade, to offer surrender. The protocol of surrender was signed at 18:00 of the same day between Tsolakoglou and Dietrich. Presented with the fait accompli, Pitsikas was informed an hour later and resigned his command.
Sea and air campaign
Thoroughly outclassed by the far larger and more modern Italian Regia Marina, the Royal Hellenic Navy (RHN) was unable to attempt a direct naval confrontation. Its role was rather limited to patrol and convoy escort duties, a particularly important task given the general inadequacy of the Greek transport network on land; apart from large quantities of matériel, c. 80,000 mobilized men and over 100,000 animals were moved by sea during the war. The RHN carried out limited operations against Italian shipping in the Strait of Otranto with submarines (losing one vessel), sinking at least 23,000 long tons (23,000 t) of transport and merchant shipping and also a submarine but lack of maintenance facilities made it impossible to continue the effort. Destroyers carried out bold but fruitless night raids on 14 November 1940, 15 December and 4 January 1941. The British fought the Battle of the Strait of Otranto on 12 November acting as a decoy force and the Regia Marina had half of its capital ships put out of action by the British Royal Navy (RN) during the Battle of Taranto (11–12 November) but Italian cruisers and destroyers continued to escort convoys between Italy and Albania. On 28 November, an Italian squadron bombarded Corfu and on 18 December and 4 March, Italian task forces shelled Greek coastal positions in Albania. From January 1941, the main task of the RHN was to escort the convoys of Operation Excess to and from Alexandria, in co-operation with the RN. As the convoys transporting Lustre Force began in early March, the Italian Fleet sortied against them and the British were forewarned by Ultra decrypts. The Mediterranean Fleet intercepted the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan on 28 March and sank three cruisers and two destroyers, the greatest Italian naval defeat at sea of the war.
Royal Hellenic Air Force
On 2 November, a squadron of 15 Italian CANT Z.1007 bombers, with Fiat CR.42 fighter escorts headed towards Thessaloniki and was intercepted by Greek PZL P.24 fighters of the 22nd Squadron. Second Lieutenant Marinos Mitralexis shot down one bomber and being out of ammunition, aimed the nose of his PZL P. 24 at the tail of a bomber, smashed the rudder and sent the bomber out of control. The news of Mitralexis' feat quickly spread throughout Greece and boosted morale. On 2 December, the 21st Pursuit Squadron re-equipped with 14 ex-RAF Gladiators.
Ultra decrypts of orders to the Regia Aeronautica and nightly reports from 4° Zona Aerea Territoriale in Italy to Comando Aeronautico Albania della Regia Aeronautica in Tirana, disclosed bombing targets for the next day and were sent to RAF HQ in Greece, to assist in fighter interception. From mid-November to the end of December, the Blenheim bombers and Wellingtons from Egypt flew 235 sorties but almost 1⁄3 failed due to a lack of all-weather airfields and the season, when flying was possible for about 15 days per month. The bombing effort was concentrated on Durazzo and Valona but some close support operations were carried out and the fighters near Athens helped to reduce the number of Italian raids. By the end of 1940, the Gladiator pilots had claimed 42 aircraft shot down for the loss of six, which established a measure of superiority over the Pindus mountains. In January 1941, 11 Squadron and 112 Squadron were sent to Greece despite being at half strength. 33 Squadron, 113 Squadron (Blenheims) and 208 Squadron (Lysanders and Hurricanes) moved in March.
The British fighters were able to prevent most Italian air operations after mid-February, when the Greek army made a maximum effort to capture Valona. The RAF managed fifty sorties on 13 and 14 February; Gladiators and Hurricanes intercepted an Italian raid by fifty aircraft on 28 February, the RAF claiming 27 aircraft for the loss of one. When the Greek advance was slowed by more bad weather and Italian reinforcements, the RAF returned to attacks on airfields and ports. On the eve of the German invasion in April, the RAF had claimed 93 Italian aircraft confirmed and 26 probables for a loss of four pilots and ten aircraft. RAF Greece had been increased to nine squadrons and two Wellington detachments of about 200 aircraft, of which only 80 were serviceable, in support of about 100 Greek and Yugoslav aircraft. RAF losses in the Greek campaign were 163 men killed, missing or prisoner (150 aircrew) and 209 aircraft, 72 in the air, 55 on the ground and 82 destroyed or abandoned during the evacuation.
The announcement of the Italian attack was greeted with favour but not much enthusiasm, by the Italian public. The situation changed as the Italian attack devolved into a stalemate in early November, especially after the British Taranto raid and the start of the Greek counter-offensive. In private conversations, Italians soon took to calling the war in Albania "a second and worse Caporetto". The regime's popularity slumped further with the introduction of strict rationing in food, oil and fats in early December. Despite imposing a price freeze in July, prices rose and the state distribution network of staple foods and heating oil broke down. Coupled with the dismissal of Badoglio and the British advance in North Africa in Operation Compass, it produced "the regime's most serious crisis since the murder of Giacomo Matteotti in 1924" (MacGregor Knox). In a move designed to bolster the Fascist Party's flagging standing, in mid-January 1941 Mussolini ordered the all senior gerarchi and officials under 45 years, to go to the Albanian front (much to their displeasure). According to Dino Grandi at least, this move caused much resentment against Mussolini among the Party leadership that simmered underground and resulted in his dismissal in July 1943.
In an effort to win Albanian support for Italian rule, Ciano and the Fascist regime encouraged Albanian irredentism in the directions of Kosovo and Chameria. Despite Jacomoni's assurances of Albanian support in view of the promised "liberation" of Chameria, Albanian enthusiasm for the war was distinctly lacking. The few Albanian units raised to fight alongside the Italian Army mostly "either deserted or fled in droves". Albanian agents recruited before the war, are reported to have operated behind Greek lines and engaged in acts of sabotage but these were few in number. Support for the Greeks, although of limited nature, came primarily from the local Greek populations who warmly welcomed the arrival of the Greek forces. Despite official Greek proclamations that they were fighting for the liberation of Albania, Greek claims on Northern Epirus were well-known. Albanian suspicions were reinforced, when a new municipal council of eleven Greeks and four Albanians was appointed at Korçë, and when the military governor of Gjirokastër prohibited the celebration of the Albanian independence day on 28 November (his counterpart in Korçë allowed it to go ahead and was reprimanded). The Greek authorities even ignored offers of Albanian expatriates to enlist as volunteers against Italy. The Greek occupation regime followed the regulations of international law and the Albanian civil administration was left intact and continued to operate, including law courts. No atrocities were committed and the safes of the state bank were discovered unopened after the Greeks withdrew.
Gerhard Weinberg wrote that despite having control of the air and being the only side to field armoured units, within the first week of the war "it was clear on both sides that the Italians had suffered a serious set-back". He wrote that terrain and harsh weather "kept the Greeks from exploiting their victories into clearing the Italians out of Albania". Terrain, weather and the Greek advantage in artillery, were not decisive in the Italian defeat. Weinberg wrote that "anyone who has seen the terrain over which Italian troops fought in World War I will recognise that [the Italians] are entirely capable of fighting bravely under the most difficult circumstances". The Italian defeats in Greece and Albania were due to the "incredible incompetence of the Italian planning, preparations, and leadership" of the campaign, caused by "two decades of Fascist rule", which had "left Italy with an army dramatically more poorly led, and equipped, and trained than that of 1915." Jowett wrote that had Germany not intervened, "the stalemate would probably have continued".
Despite the heroism shown by Italian soldiers, who were "let down and misled by their superiors", the campaign "reflected both poor preparation and low morale." The campaign had far reaching consequences, since Mussolini's regime had claimed there would be a "quick and relatively easy victory". Defeat and stalemate exposed "the whole corrupt nature of the Fascist government and its war machine" leading to "great hardships" for the regular soldier, "due to the incompetence and unforgivably bad planning of their leaders". Ciro Paoletti described the Italian army as fighting in "horrible conditions, lacking uniforms, food, and ordnance" with the situation being one of "overwhelmed by enemies", "not adequately supplied because of logistical problems", complicated by difficult terrain, resulting in the military fighting a "terrible campaign". "Complete regiments were dismembered after landing; and colonels simply did not know where army headquarters had sent their soldiers." Paoletti criticised Mussolini for "criminal improvidence" causing the great number casualties of the Italian army. The German "invasion went smoothly, because the Greek army was concentrated against the Italians."
Gann and Duignan wrote that the fighting in France, Yugoslavia and Greece "far from [strengthened] Italy", "these victories helped reduce Italy to the status of a [German] satellite." Sadkovich wrote that the effect of the Italo-Greek war had been exaggerated by other authors. Axis victories in the spring of 1941 cancelled the defeats of the winter of 1940–1941, and quoted Renzo De Felice,
public confidence oscillated with Italian defeats and victories, rising with Axis victories in early 1941. This seems to have been the case not only for the public, but for the armed forces as well, which rallied from a jarring setback in Greece.— De Felice
During the war against Greece, the quantity of soldiers, merchant ships, escort vessels and weapons which Italy allocated to the Greek front was much greater than those for Operazione E, the invasion of Egypt.
When Operation Compass, the British counter-attack in Egypt began in December 1940, the 10th Army was destroyed. On 14 November 1940, the German naval staff criticised Italian strategy, "Conditions for the Italian Libyan offensive against Egypt have deteriorated. The Naval Staff is of the opinion that Italy will never carry out the Egyptian offensive". Had the Egyptian offensive succeeded, it would have strengthened the Axis military position in North Africa with control of the Suez Canal. Italian aspirations to great power status were ended by the Greek failure, the damage to the fleet in the battle of Taranto and the loss of Cyrenaica. The prestige of Mussolini and the fascist movement was severely diminished and Italy became more dependent on Germany. The Italian political elite denied its share of the responsibility for the failures, although they were eager to take credit for success.
The Italian invasion began with a force of about 87,000 men and was increased to about 565,000 troops, supported by 463 aircraft and 163 light tanks. Italian forces suffered casualties of 13,755 killed, 50,874 wounded and 25,067 missing (of whom 21,153 were taken prisoner), for a total of 89,696 losses in action and 52,108 sick, 12,368 frostbite cases and 64 aircraft losses (another 24 claimed by the Greeks) with 229 aircrew killed, for a grand total of 154,172 casualties. Eighteen ships of the Regia Marina were sunk. Greek military forces amounted to fewer than 260,000 men and 77 aircraft with casualties of 13,325 killed, 42,485 wounded, 1,237 missing and 1,531 prisoners, for a total of 58,578 losses and c. 25,000 frostbite cases, a grand total of about 90,000 casualties and 52 RHAF aircraft. (In Operation Marita, the Germans took 244,000 Yugoslav, 218,000 Greek and 9,000 British prisoners.)
On 23 April, an armistice was signed between the Italian and German commands and the Greek commander, General Tsolakoglou. It was signed at 2.45pm in Salonika. General Ferrero accepted the Greek surrender on behalf of the Italian Eleventh Army. On the Albanian front, the Greek Army of the Epirus had finally ended its resistance and laid down its weapons.
Italian occupation plans for Greece were unclear and only vague replies were given on 21 April to a German question regarding Italian territorial claims against Greece, that there were plans to annexe parts of Northern Greece and the Ionian islands. The Italian military attaché in Berlin advised the Italian government to "accelerate our occupation even by sea to forestall the German troops". At the second round of surrender talks in Salonica, Benzler, the German chief Foreign Office delegate, said that the Italians should assist in the formation of the new Greek government under occupation and refused to include provision for territorial demands by the Italians in the surrender agreement, mentioning that he did not want to scare General Tsolakoglou with such clauses. The Italian negotiators said that given the decisive defeat of Greece, the agreement should have been that of a "pure and simple occupation" like that for Poland. The German evaluation of Greece differed significantly from that of Poland on strategic and racial grounds; the Germans, starting with Hitler, admired the Greeks for their bravery.
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