World War II: Italian Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

World War II Greece
Figure 1.--This Greek boy is serving as an Tsolias/Evzoni guard of honor in a state funeral. The photograo, however, is unidentified. We believe that a soldier killed in resisting the Italian invasion may be being honored. Or perhaps it is the funeral of Primeminister for Life Metaxas.

Mussolini invaded Greece through Albania (October 28). Perhaps miffed that Hitler did not consult with him as he invaded Poland and France, Mussolini carried out another invasion without consulting Hitler. Unlike Albania, the poorly armed Greeks fought. After an extremely painful confrontation with Franco, a surprised Hitler arriving at the train station in Rome was told by an enthuiastic Mussolini, "Führer, we are on the march." Hitler was furious although he did not show it in public. And we do not know what he told Mudolini in private. Hitler was angry because having been frustrated by Britain, he was had decided to strike east. And to concentrate his strength he wanted a safe southern flank. He had already made progress in brining the Balkan countries into the Axis. Greece was a Fascist country, albit with ties to Britain. The Greeks, however, were primarily concerned with their independence and would have been happy to have remained neutral and left alone. But now Mussolini had unecesarily opened up a new front and stirred up a beesnest. Hitler wanted Mussolini to focus on the British forces in Egypt, but now the Italian army had two fronts on its hands and not doing well on either. The Greek invasion proved to be a dissaster from the onset. And only got worst as the winter set in. The weather proived to be a factor. Musolini, genius as it was, had launched an attack though mountnous territory just as the fall weahger began to turn cold. The Greeks not only resisted, but drove the vaunted Italian Army back accross the Albania border. Even worse, it turned the Greeks which had a Fascist Government from a potentiall ally to an opponent from which the key Romanian oil fields could be threatened. Ultimately the Germans has to interceed. But for 9 months the Italians wre stuck in a draining campaign in the Albanian mountains while the Britih in Egypt launched a counter attack and nearly destroyed Italian forces in Libya (December 1941). Hitler intervened to sabe the Italians. First he sent Erwin Rommel and a small armored force to Libya (March 1941). Second, after a copp in Yugoslavia, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941). It was a text book Blitzkrieg German campaign. Yugoslavia and Greece and a British expeitionary force were quickly crushed, but of much more importance, Operation Barbarossa, the invassion of Russia, had to be delayed a few critical weeks.

Italian Military Situatiom

Mussolini declared war on Britain and France after concluding that the Germans had already won the War (June 1940). The Germans did defeat the French, but the British were a very different matter. From the very onset the military situation did not go well for the Italians. While France was teetering, the Italians attacked in the South, but were repulsed by French Army units there (June 1940). A few Italian air units joined the Germans in the Battle of Britain. But it was soon evident that the Italian Air Force was not prepared for modern warfare (July 1940). Unlike the Allies, there was no real Axis coordination. Hitler wanted the Italians to use their massive militrary superiority, at least, in number to seize Suez from the British. The Italians did move a massive army a few miles into Egypt, but despite ocerwealming numbers, decided to establish a defensive line instad of pressing on to Alexandria and Suez (September 1940). his was the beginning of the fight for the Western Desert. In response. the outnumbered Royal Navy began attacking Italian supply convoys, mostly to Tipoli. Supplying their forces in the Western Desert would be the primary Axis problem in North Africa. This would lead to aeries of naval engagements between the Britih Mediterrnean Fleet and the much larger Italian Navy--Mediterranean Naval campign. The Italian Navy was at first reluctant to give battle.

Primeminister Metaxas

Primeminister for Life Metaxas, whatever his failings, correctly accessed Mussolini's intentions in the Mediterranan and toward Greece. Mussolini made no secret of it. And even began bribeing Greek government and military officials to assist in his designs on the country. Metaxas from the beginning of his administrtion began modernizing the Greek Army. Grece is a small country with limited resources. Thus there was only so much that Metaxas could do. But by the time that Mussolini invaded, Greece had a competent Army that was prepared to fight. And it had some modern arms. It was not a modern army in the German or British sense, but was we now know, neither were the Italians. A major decesion as Mussolini stepped up the pressure on Greece was to redeploy a substantial number of men away from the Bulgarian border. Greece for years had seen Bulgaria as the country's greatest threat. And the fortified Metaxas Line was built facingbthe Bulgarian border. Many of these men were redeployed in Epirus to resist a potential Italian attack.

Invasion (October 28, 1940)

Mussolini seems to have been blissfully unaware of the limitations of his army. He lso concluded that the War would soon be over so he decided he must grap the spolis of war while they were still available. Mussolini was moved to action by Hitler moving into Romania, a country he saw as part of Italy's sphere of influence (October 7). He thus decided to invade Greece to show off Italy's miliitary capabilities. his is not histprical speculation. Foreign Minister Ciano gives us an inside loook by his diary entry (October 12). He tells that Mussolini ws displced that his commander in the Esrrn Desert, Graziani, was not launching a furyther offensiv and then turn to Romania and Greeze. "But above all he (Mussolini[] is indignant at the German occupation of Rumania. He says that this has impressed Italian public opinionvery deeply and badly, because, in view of the decision taken in Vienna, nobody had expected this to happen. 'Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out from the papers that I have occupied Greece. {Note he does not say 'invased', but 'occupied'.] In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.' I ask if he has come to an agreement with Badoglio. [Field Marshal Badoglio was the commander of the Army and only 2 weeks before the invasion, this tells us that the orders to invade Greece had not been issued and more imporantly the planning and preparations had not begun.] 'Not yet,' he answers, 'but I shall send in my resignation as an Italianif anyone objects to our fighting the Greeks.' The Duce seems determined to act now. In afct I believe tha the military operations will be useful and easy. [Ciano, October 12, 1940, p. 300.] Mussolini and Ciano both thought it would be another easy target like Albania. Mussolini sprang the decesion on his horrified General Staff (October 15). The three heads of the General Staff were unanimously opposed. They were forced to recall hundreds of thousands of reservits who had just been demobilized to help with the harvest. The Italian Navy began the invasion by torpedoing the Greek cruiser Elli in the port at Tinos. There was great loss of life. The Italian ambassador. Perhaps irritated that Hitler did not consult with him as he invaded Poland and France, Mussolini carried out another invasion without consulting Hitler. Greece had a Fascist Government that could have possibly brought into the Axis or at least would have remained neutral. Instead Mussolini turned the Greeks into an active British ally. Athens delivered an ultimatum demanding that the Greeks acquiese in the Italian Army's occupation of their country (October 28). Primeminister for Life Metaxas had hoped to to keep Greece neutral in the war. He rejected the Italian ultimatum. A few hours later, Italian troops based in Albania poured across the border into northern Greece. Metaxas' flat rejection of the Italian Ultimatum is celebrated annually as a National Holiday / It is 'Ochi Day', meaning No Say.

Meeting with Hitler (October 28, 1940)

Mussolini did not coordinated his invasion of Greece with Hitler in advance. (The Axis partners never coordinated their operations like the Allies.) A surprised Hitler after an extremely painful confrontation with Franco and a disappoiting meeting with Pétain arriving at the train station in Florence was told by an enthuiastic Mussolini, "Führer, we are on the march." Hitler was furious although he did not show it in public. And we do not know just what he told Mussolini in private. Hitler was angry because having been frustrated by Britain, he was had decided to strike East. And to concentrate his strength he wanted a safe southern flank. He had already made progress in brining the Balkan countries into the Axis. Greek leader Meyaxis and constructed a Fascist dicttorship, albeit with historic ties to Britain. The Greeks, however, were primarily concerned with their independence and would have been happy to have remained neutral and left alone. But now Mussolini had unecessarily opened up a new front and stirred up a bees nest. Hitler wanted Mussolini to focus on British-occupied Egypt, but now the Italian army had two fronts on its hands and not doing well on either.

Greco-Italian Campaign (1940-41)

World War II began when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland (September 1939). For a year figting waged in the north, but not the Mediterranean or Balkans. The Italian invasion expnded the War to the Balkans. Mussolini thought that the Greeks would be easily abd quickly defeated. Six reinforced Divisions of the Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army ) drove south from occupied Albania into northern Greece. This was argually the most ill-conceived military offensive of the entire war. To say that it was poorly planned would be a mistatement, there was in fact little planning what-so-ever. Mussolini simply decided he wanted to do it. He ignored the advise from his General Staff stressiung the necessary manpower and appopriate timing needed to launch and supported a major military action. He was also told that while engaged with the British in the Western Desert, opening a second front was a serious mistke. The Italian ilitary commanders were given only days to prepare. General Roatta issued a directive (DSCSTA f.4100/SME) detailing plans to the senior Army officers for the invasion--Contingency G (October 20). Roatta focused the initial offensive on seize the Greek Epirus region, essentoally northern Greece. Epirus is one of the three main regions of Greece. The other areas of northern Greece are Macedonia and Thrace. The rest of Greece is the Peloponnese peninsula in the south. The Epirus area is dominated by the Pindus Mountains, averaging some 8,700 feet in height -- aformidable obstale for even the best equipped army and the Italian units being prepare for the invasion were neiher well equipped or supplied. They were in fact an imposing natural barrier separating Albania and Yugoslav Macedonia from the more heavily populted ares of Greece. The planned area of operations was bounded by the Artachtos River which flowing east and the Adriatic Sea in the west. Roatta plan was to seize Epirus and then establish a defensive posture in the Korista area. At the same time the island of Corfu was to be seized and occupied. The position in Epirus was to be reinforced. And when sufficent reinforcements were brought in, the Italians woyld launch a major offensive toward Rome. Nore of this transpired except for the initil attack into Epirus. The Greek in ivasion proved to be a dissaster from the onset an a huge embarassment for the Axis. Within days, Italian defeats in the field began. We see this in Cianos's diary as soon as he returns from a trip to Germany, although he is not yet aware that the Greeks will be able to resist for long.. [Ciano, November 6, p. 307.] After the initial Italian attack, the Greeks concluded that there would be no Bulgarian attack and thus most of the combat-ready divisions werevmoved west to resist the Italians. And the initial Greek stand in the mountains, bought time to mobilie the reserves. More Greek attacks convince Ciano of the seiouness of the situation.. [Ciano, November 15, p. 311.] And the situation only got worst as the winter set in. The weather proved to be a factor. Musolini, genius as it was, launched an attack though rugged, mountnous territory just as the fall weather brought rains and then cold weather. The Greeks not only resisted, but after only 6 weeks drove the larger and better equipped vaunted Italian Army back accross the Albania border. Greek troops overtook over one third of Albania. The Italians spent spent the next 3 months fighting for their life in a defensive battle. It was the first land defeat of the Axis. It was not the Germans, but it undrscored Italy's weakness which was firther demostrated in the Western Desert.

Impact

Even worse, it turned the Greeks which had a Fascist Government from a potentiall ally to an opponent from which the key Romanian oil fields could be threatened. Ultimately the Germans had to interceed. But for 9 months the Italians wre stuck in a draining campaign in the rugged Albanian mountains while the Britih in Egypt launched a counter attck and nearly destroyed Italian forces in Liby (December 1941). The Italian invasion had created an Allied belingerant that could provide air fields to attack the Romanian oil fields.

German Intervention (April 1941)

Hitler intervened to save his Italian allies. This was necessary because critical to the German invasion was access to the Romanian oil fields. Germany had been relying on Soviet oil deliveries to supplement its synthetic oil production. The Soviet deliveries would end of course when Germany invaded leaving the Germans dependant on Romanian oil until the Soviet Caucauses could be seized. Hitler thus saw a German intervention to seize Greece and secure Germany's southern flank now that Mussolini had undid his diplomacy would be necessary. As a result, German forces in Romania were reeinforced and efforts were made to bring Yugoslavia into the NAZI orbit so that the Panzers could move through that country to attack Greece. Hitler had forced Yugoslavia to join the other AXIS Balkan partners, but the Government was overthrown necessitaing a full-scale German invasion. Hitler had to come to the rescue Mussolini. First he sent Erwin Rommel and a small armored force to Libya (March 1941). Second, after a coup in Yugoslavia, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece simultaneously (April 6, 1941). The British sent about 50,000 troops to help Greece, which depleted their forces in the Western Desert. It was a text book German Blitzkrieg campaign. The Luftwaffe and German Panzers quickly crushed Yugoslavia and Greece as well as the British expeditionary force. But of far greater importance Belgrade was subjected to Luftwaffe terror bombing for rejecting an alliance with the NAZIs. The Germans swept through Greece Yugoslavia Greece capitualed (April 27). The Germans then took Crete with a daring, but costly parachute assault. (Hitler never again allowed a parachute assault.)

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

Mussolini's 1940 invasion of Greece complicated Hitler's time table for Barbarossa. Despite the succes of the German Balkans campaign, it was an unwelcomed diversion as forces were being concentrated or Brbarossa. It proved to have been a straegic dissaster. The Balkans diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa, although here assessments vary. Some authors estimate a 6 weeks dely. Other assessments or for a shirter period. We have seen some authors claiming that the Germans were not ready to invade the Soviet Union in May, but most historians beliee that Hitler's Balkan diversion delayed Barbarossa. If Hitler had started his invasion to of the Soviet Union May it seems highly likely that they would have seized Moscow if not have defeated the Red Army. As it was the Wehrmacht was stopped on the outskirts of Moscow (December 1941).

Sources

Ciano, Galeazzo. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing Company: Garden City, 1945), 582p.






CIH -- WW II







Navigate the CIH World war II Section:
[Return to Main Italian military campaigns]
[Return to Main Axis campign in the Balkans page]
[Return to Main Greek World War II page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]




Created: 7:47 PM 8/30/2014
Last updated: 4:51 PM 4/14/2016