Greco-Italian War

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Greco-Italian War
Part of the Balkans Campaign of World War II
Ethnos newspaper 28 October 1940.jpg
Greek newspaper announcing the war
Date 28 October 1940 – 23 April 1941
(5 months, 3 weeks and 5 days)
Location Southern Balkan Peninsula
Result Greek tactical victory, strategic stalemate leading to German intervention with the eventual Greek surrender



Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Benito Mussolini (Prime Minister of Italy)
Kingdom of Italy Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (CINC to 9 November)
Kingdom of Italy Ubaldo Soddu (CINC to mid-December)
Kingdom of Italy Ugo Cavallero (C-in-C from mid-December)
Kingdom of Greece Ioannis Metaxas (Prime Minister of Greece)
Kingdom of Greece Alexander Papagos (commander-in-chief of the Hellenic Army)
565,000 men[1]
(about 87,000 men at the beginning of the attack[2])
463 aircraft[3]
163 light tanks
Less than 300,000 men
77 aircraft[3]
Casualties and losses

13,755[4][5][6] dead
50,874[4][5] wounded
25,067 missing (21,153[5] of whom taken prisoner)
Total combat losses: 89,696
52,108 sick
12,368 incapacitated by frostbite
64 aircraft (another 24 claimed)[3]

General total: 154,172[4][5]

13,325 dead
42,485 wounded
1,237 missing
1,531[7] taken prisoner
Total combat losses: 58,578
ca. 25,000 incapacitated by frostbite
52 aircraft[3]

General total: 90,000

The Greco-Italian War, also known as the Italo-Greek War, was a conflict between 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, it is known as the "War of '40"

By the middle of 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to emulate Adolf Hitler's conquests to prove to his Axis partner that he could lead Italy to similar military successes. Italy had occupied Albania in the spring of 1939 and several British strongholds in Africa, such as the Italian conquest of British Somaliland in the summer of 1940, but could not claim victories on the same scale as Nazi Germany. At the same time, Mussolini wanted to reassert Italy's interests in the Balkans, feeling threatened by Germany, and secure bases from which British outposts in the eastern Mediterranean could be attacked. He was irritated that Romania, a Balkan state in the supposed Italian sphere of influence, had accepted German protection for its Ploiești oil fields in mid-October.

On 28 October 1940, after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected an Italian ultimatum demanding the occupation of Greek territory, Italian forces invaded Greece. The Greek army counterattacked 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, a major Italian counter-attack failed. On 6 April 1941, coming to the aid of Italy, Nazi Germany invaded Greece through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. On 12 April, the Greek army began retreating from Albania to avoid being cut off by the rapid German advance. On 20 April, the Greek army of Epirus surrendered to the Germans and on 23 April 1941, the armistice was repeated, including the Italians, effectively ending the Greco-Italian war. By the end of April 1941, Greece was occupied 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 major Allied land victory of the Second World War and helped raise morale in occupied Europe. Some historians, such as John Keegan, argue that it may have influenced the course of the entire war by forcing Germany to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to assist Italy against Greece. The delay meant that the German forces invading the Soviet Union had not attained their objectives for that year before the harsh Russian winter, leading to their defeat at the Battle of Moscow.


Greco–Italian relations in the early 20th century[edit]

Trench construction in the Elaia-Kalamas line by Greek soldiers, March 1939

Ever since Italian unification, Italy had aspired to Great Power status and Mediterranean hegemony. Under the Fascist regime, the establishment of a new Roman Empire, including Greece, was often proclaimed by Mussolini. In the 1910s, Italian and Greek interests were already clashing over Albania and the Dodecanese. Albania, Greece's north-western neighbour, was, from its establishment, an Italian protectorate. Albania and Greece claimed Northern Epirus, inhabited by a large Greek population. Italy had occupied the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese Islands in the south-eastern Aegean since the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. Although Italy promised their return in the 1919 VenizelosTittoni accords, it reneged on the agreement.[8] Clashes between the two countries' forces occurred during the occupation of Anatolia. The goal remained without practical consequences of note during the years when Fascism was consolidating its hold on the Italian state and on society. In its aftermath, the new Fascist government, headed by Mussolini, used the murder of an Italian general at the Greco-Albanian border to bombard and occupy Corfu, the most important of the Ionian Islands. These islands, which had been under Venetian rule until the late 18th century, were a target of Italian expansionism. A period of normalization followed, especially the signing of a friendship agreement between the two countries on 23 September 1928, and under the premiership of Eleftherios Venizelos in Greece from 1928 to 1932. Fascist Italy was not prepared for foreign wars beyond low intensity conflicts. The state was obstructed with debts as a legacy of the Italy in the First World War. Most regions, in the south, were sub-developed, while the national income was less than a quarter of that of the United Kingdom.[9]

In 1936, the 4th of August Regime came to power under the leadership of Ioannis Metaxas. Plans were laid down for the reorganization of the country's armed forces, including a fortified defensive line along the Greco–Bulgarian frontier, which would be named the "Metaxas Line". In the following years, great investments were made to modernize the army and the Greek government purchased new arms for its three armies. Due to increasing threats and the eventual outbreak of war, the most significant purchases from abroad, made from 1938 to 1939, were never or only partially delivered. A massive contingency plan was developed and great amounts of food and utilities were stockpiled in many parts of the country for use in the event of war.

In a far-reaching speech to the Fascist Grand Council on 4 February 1939, Mussolini envisaged a war with the Allies to attain the Italian version of Lebensraum. Italy was landlocked by British domination of the Mediterranean and control of the Strait of Gibraltar in the west and the Suez Canal in the east. Encircled by hostile countries and deprived of any scope for expansion, Italy was "a prisoner of the Mediterranean". The task of Italian policy was to "break the bars of the prison" and "march to the ocean". Whether this march was to the Indian or the Atlantic, ocean, "we will find ourselves confronted with Anglo-French opposition".[10]

The German occupation on 15 March of what was left of Czechoslovakia, ended the Munich settlement, brokered by Mussolini and when Hitler’s emissary presented a verbal message of explanation and gratitude to Mussolini, he wished to withhold the news from the press. "The Italians would laugh at me", he lamented. "Every time Hitler occupies a country he sends me a message".[11] On 7 April 1939, Italian troops occupied Albania, gaining a land border with Greece. This action led to a British and French guarantee for the territorial integrity of Greece. Mussolini wished to take Italy in war right from the start but he had been forced to bow to pressure from within the Fascist regime, at least for the time being and wait on events as a non-belligerent; less demanding than neutrality but falling short of what he demanded from Fascist martial values.[12]

Diplomatic and military developments, 1939–1940[edit]

Ever since the Italian takeover in Albania in April 1939, Greco–Italian relations had been deteriorating and hasty preparations were made to defend against an Italian attack. By 11 September 1939, Mussolini told his representative in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, that "Greece does not lie on our path, and we want nothing from her". Italian troops were pulled back about 12 miles (19 km) from the Greek border.[13]

Parallel war[edit]

A propaganda campaign against Greece was launched in Italy and repeated acts of provocation were carried out, such as overflights of Greek territory and attacks by aircraft on Greek naval vessels, with the torpedoing and sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli by the submarine Delfino in Tinos harbour on 15 August 1940, the Dormition of the Theotokos a national religious holiday. Despite evidence of Italian responsibility, the Greek government announced that the attack had been carried out by a submarine of unknown nationality.[2] The original Italian plan of attacking Yugoslavia was postponed due to German opposition and lack of the necessary transport.[14]

Hitler's decision to invade Poland without informing his Axis partner, as well as his interference in Romania and Croatia, were among Mussolini's considerations in making the decision to attack Greece as a pre-emptive measure against what he considered to be "a predatory German ally".[15] On 7 October 1940, the Germans entered Romania in order to assume control of the Ploesti oil fields. Mussolini was not informed in advance, was infuriated by this action, regarding it as a German encroachment on south-eastern Europe, an area Italy claimed as in its exclusive sphere of influence.[15]

Mussolini made the impulsive decision to invade Greece, an act which was typical of Mussolini's leadership style. His fury over the stationing of German troops in Romania, however, affected only the timing of the attack, since an attack on Greece was part of Mussolini's plan to establish Italian rule over the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Although Hitler had conceded that Greece would be left to Italy, repeated warnings had been given that turmoil in the Balkans was to be avoided. Mussolini was wishful thinking that at the Brenner meeting Hitler had given the Italian military carte blanche in Greece.[16] On 13 October, he ordered that the invasion should be launched on 26 October.[17] Mussolini summoned a meeting of his military chiefs to take place next day. Only the chief of the general staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, voiced objections, citing the need to assemble a force of at least 20 divisions prior to invasion. However, the local commander in Albania, Lt. Gen. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, argued that only three further divisions would be needed and these only after the first phase of the offensive, capturing Epirus. Mussolini was reassured by his staff that the war in Greece would be a campaign of ten to fifteen days.[18]

Mussolini let 300,000 troops and 600,000 reservists go home for the harvest just before the invasion.[2][19] There were supposed to be 1,750 lorries used in the invasion, but only 107 turned up. The number of divisions was inflated because Mussolini had switched from three-regiment to two-regiment divisions. Lieutenant General Prasca knew he would lose his command if more than five divisions were sent, so he convinced Mussolini that five were all he needed.[20] The following week, Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria was invited to take part in the coming action against Greece, but he refused Mussolini's invitation.[2] 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 internal propaganda used by Italians generals and personalities in favor of a military intervention;[2] 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.[2]

Italian ultimatum[edit]

"I said that we would break the Negus' back. Now, with the same, absolute certainty, I repeat, absolute, I tell you that we will break Greece's back."
Mussolini's speech in Palazzo Venezia, 18 November 1940[21][22]

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 began attacking 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."

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece, headed to army recruitment offices to enlist.[23] Despite the opinion of several Italian generals and politicians pushing for war, according to which the Greek government was not loved by the people, the whole Greek nation proved to be united in the face of aggression.[2] Even the imprisoned leader of Greece's banned Communist Party, Nikolaos Zachariadis, issued an open letter advocating resistance, despite the Nazi–Soviet pact, thereby contravening the Comintern line. However, in later letters, he accused Metaxas of waging an imperialistic war and called upon Greek soldiers to desert their ranks and overthrow the regime.

Mussolini's war aims[edit]

The initial goal of the campaign for the Italians was to establish a Greek puppet state under Italian influence.[24] This new Greek state would permit the Italian annexation of the Ionian Islands, and the Aegean island groups of the Sporades and the Cyclades, to be administered as a part of the Italian Aegean Islands.[25] These islands were claimed on the basis that they had once belonged to the Venetian Republic and the Venetian client state of Naxos.[26] The Epirus and Acarnania regions were to be separated from the rest of the Hellenic territory and the Italian-controlled Kingdom of Albania was to annex territory between the Hellenic north-western frontier and the FlorinaPindusArtaPreveza line.[25] The Italians further projected to partly compensate the Greek state for its extensive territorial losses by allowing it to annex the British Crown Colony of Cyprus after the war.[27]

Order of battle and opposing plans[edit]

Alexandros Papagos, commander of the Greek Army.

The front, roughly 150 kilometres (93 mi) in breadth, featured extremely mountainous terrain with very few roads. The Pindus mountain range divided it into two distinct theatres of operations: Epirus and Western Macedonia. The order to invade Greece was given by Benito Mussolini to Pietro Badoglio, commander-in-chief of the Italian armed forces, and Mario Roatta, acting chief of staff of the army, on 15 October with the expectation that the attack would commence within 12 days. Badoglio and Roatta were appalled given that, acting on his orders, they had recently demobilised 600,000 men three weeks prior for the harvest.[28] Given the requirement for at least 20 divisions, that only eight divisions were in Albania and the fact that the Albanian ports and connecting infrastructure were inadequate, preparation would have required at least three months.[28] Nonetheless, D-day was set at dawn on 26 October.

The Italian war plan, codenamed Emergenza G ("Contingency G[reece]"),[2] called for the occupation of the country in three phases. The first would be the occupation of Epirus and the Ionian Islands, followed by a thrust into Western Macedonia after the arrival of reinforcements, and concluded with movements towards Thessaloniki, aimed at capturing northern Greece. Afterwards, the remainder of the country would be occupied. Subsidiary attacks were to be carried out against the Ionian Islands and it was hoped that Bulgaria would intervene and pin down the Greek forces in Eastern Macedonia.

The Italian High Command accorded an Army Corps to each theatre, formed from the forces in Albania. The stronger XXV Ciamuria Corps in Epirus consisted of the 23rd Ferrara (16,000 men, with 3,500 Albanian troops), the 51st Siena (9,000 men) Infantry Divisions, the 131st Centauro Armoured Division (4,000 men); the Corps was reinforced by 3rd Granatieri di Sardegna Regiment, the 6th Regiment Lancieri di Aosta, several cavalry squadrons of the 7th Regiment Lancieri di Milano, some artillery batteries and some hundreds of Albanian Blackshirt battalions, all forming the brigade-sized "Littoral Group" (Raggruppamento Litorale) of some 5,000 men. In total, this was around 30,000 men and 163 L3 light tanks.

They intended to drive towards Ioannina, flanked on the right by the Littoral Group along the coast and to its left by the elite Julia Alpine Division, which would advance through the Pindus Mountains. The XXVI Corizza Corps in the Macedonian sector consisted of the 29th Piemonte (9,000 men), the 49th Parma (12,000 men) Infantry Divisions; the 19th Venezia Division (10,000 men) was moving from the Yugoslavian frontier: it first unit to reach the operation theatre was the 83rd Infantry Regiment. The total Italian forces in western Macedonian, once completed their deployment, was around 31,000 men. The 53rd Arezzo Division was later called in the area once the failure of the offensive become apparent. It was initially intended to maintain a defensive stance. In total, the force facing the Greeks comprised about 85,000 men under the command of Lt. General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca.

After the Italian occupation of Albania, the Greek General Staff had prepared the "IB" (Italy-Bulgaria) plan, anticipating a combined offensive by Italy and Bulgaria, with a defensive strategy in Epirus, with a gradual retreat to the Arachthos RiverMetsovoAliakmon RiverMt. Vermion line, while maintaining the possibility of a limited offensive in Western Macedonia. Two variants of the plan existed for the defence of Epirus, "IBa", calling for forward defence on the border line, and "IBb", for defence in an intermediate position. It was left to the judgement of the local commander, Maj. General Charalambos Katsimitros, to choose which plan to follow. A significant factor in the Greeks' favour was that they had managed to obtain intelligence about the approximate date of the attack and had just completed a limited mobilization in the areas facing the expected Italian attack.

The main Greek forces in the area at the outbreak of the war were the 8th Infantry Division, fully mobilized and prepared for forward defence by its commander, Maj. Gen. Katsimitros, in Epirus and the Corps-sized Army Section of Western Macedonia or TSDM (ΤΣΔΜ, Τμήμα Στρατιάς Δυτικής Μακεδονίας), under Lt. Gen. Ioannis Pitsikas, including the "Pindus Detachment" (Απόσπασμα Πίνδου) of regimental size under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis, the 9th Infantry Division, and the 4th Infantry Brigade in Western Macedonia. The Greek forces amounted to about 35,000 men, but could be quickly reinforced by the neighbouring formations in southern Greece and Macedonia.

The Greek divisions had three regiments as opposed to two, meaning 50% more infantry,[29] and slightly more medium artillery and machine-guns than the Italians but had no tanks.[30] The Italians could count on complete air superiority over the small Hellenic Royal Air Force. The majority of Greek equipment was still of World War I issue from countries like Belgium, Austria and France, which were under Axis occupation, which caused a shortage 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. Despite its limited means, the Greek Army had prepared for war during the late 1930s. Greek morale, contrary to Italian expectations, was high, with many eager to "avenge Tinos".


Italian offensive (28 October – 13 November 1940)[edit]

Italian invasion of Greece

The war started with Italian forces launching an invasion of Greece from Albanian territory. The attack was launched on the morning of 28 October, pushing back the Greek screening forces. The Ciamuria Corps, spearheaded by the Ferrara and Centauro divisions, attacked towards Elaia in Kalpaki. The tanks of the Centauro Division faced difficulties with the marshy terrain.[31]

On 31 October, the Italian Supreme Command announced that "[their] units continue to advance into Epirus and have reached the river Kalamas at several points. Unfavourable weather conditions and action by the retreating enemy are not slowing down the advances of our troops". In reality, the Italian offensive was carried out without conviction and without the advantage of surprise.[citation needed] Even air action was rendered ineffective by poor weather.[29] Under an uncertain leadership and divided by personal rivalries, the troops were already becoming exhausted.[citation needed] Adverse conditions at sea made it impossible to carry out a projected landing at Corfu. By 1 November, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defence. On that same day, the Albanian theatre was given priority over Africa by the Italian High Command.[32]

Greek military uniforms from 1941 on display in Athens War Museum

Only the littoral group on the western sector managed to advance slowly and secured a bridgehead over the Kalamas River on 6 November.[31] However, despite repeated attacks, the Italians failed to break through the Greek defences in the Battle of Elaia–Kalamas, and the attacks were suspended on 9 November 1940. A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of the 10,800-strong 3rd Julia Alpine Division over the Pindus Mountains towards Metsovo, which threatened to separate the Greek forces in Epirus from those in Macedonia. Julia achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of Col. Davakis' detachment of 2,000 men.[33] The Greek General Staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of the II Greek Army Corps. The first Greek counter-offensive was launched on 31 October, but had little success. After covering 25 miles (40 km) of mountain terrain in icy rain, Julia managed to capture Vovousa, 19 miles (30 km) north of Metsovo, on 2 November, but it had become clear that it lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue in the face of Greek reserves.[34]

Greek counter-attacks resulted in the recapture of several villages, including Vovousa by 4 November, practically encircling "Julia". Prasca tried to reinforce it with the 47th Bari Division, (which was originally intended for the invasion of Corfu) but it arrived too late and over the next few days, the Alpini fought in atrocious weather conditions and under constant attacks by the Greek Cavalry Division led by Maj. Gen. Georgios Stanotas. On 8 November, Gen. Mario Girotti, the commander of Julia, was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt. Smolikas towards Konitsa. By 13 November, the Greek forces had cleared the sectors of Pindus and Epirus pushing the Italians back to the pre-war border, while in north-western Macedonia they already gained footholds beyond the border.

With the Italians inactive in western Macedonia, the Greek high command moved III Army Corps, which consisted of the 10th and 11th Infantry Divisions and the Cavalry Brigade, under Lt. Gen. Georgios Tsolakoglou, into the area on 31 October and ordered it to attack into Albania with the TSDM. For logistical reasons, this attack was successively postponed until 14 November.

The unexpected Greek resistance caught the Italian high command by surprise. Several divisions were hastily sent to Albania and plans for subsidiary attacks on Greek islands were scrapped. Enraged by the lack of progress, Mussolini reshuffled the command in Albania, replacing Prasca with his former Vice-Minister of War, General Ubaldo Soddu, on 9 November. Immediately upon arrival, Soddu ordered his forces to turn to the defensive. It was clear that the Italian invasion had failed.[according to whom?] The performance of Albanians in blackshirt battalions was poor and Italian commanders, including Mussolini, scapegoated the Albanian battalions Tomorri and Gramshi, the majority of whom defected.[35]

Greek counteroffensive (14 November 1940 – 10 January 1941)[edit]

Greek counter-offensive (13 November 1940 – 7 April 1941).

Greek reserves started reaching the front in early November. Bulgarian inactivity allowed the Greek high command to transfer a majority of its divisions from the Greco-Bulgarian border to the Albanian front. This enabled Greek Commander-in-Chief Lt. Gen. Alexandros Papagos to establish numerical superiority by mid-November, prior to launching his counteroffensive. Walker[36] cites that the Greeks had a clear superiority of 250,000 men against 150,000 Italians by the time of the Greek counterattacks. Only six of the Italian divisions, the Alpini, were trained and equipped for mountainous conditions. Bauer[34] states that by 12 November, Gen. Papagos had at the front over 100 infantry battalions fighting in terrain to which they were accustomed, compared with less than 50 Italian battalions.

TSDM and the III Corps, continuously reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, launched their attack on 14 November in the direction of Korçë. After the Battle of Korcë on the fortified frontier line, the Greeks broke through on 17 November, entering Korçë on 22 November. However, due to indecision among the Greek high command, the Italians were allowed to break contact and regroup, avoiding a complete collapse. The attack from western Macedonia was combined with a general offensive along the entire front. The I and the II Corps advanced in Epirus and, after hard fighting, captured Sarandë, Pogradec, and Gjirokastër by early December and Himarë on 22 December. In doing so, they occupied practically the entire area of southern Albania known as "Northern Epirus". Two final Greek successes included the capturing of the strategically important and heavily fortified Klisura Pass on 10 January by II Corps, followed by the capture of the Trebeshinë massif in early February.

Stalemate and Italian Spring offensive[edit]

Greek troops during the spring offensive.

The Greeks did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat and Vlorë, during the winter. In the fight for Vlorë, the Italians suffered serious losses to their Lupi di Toscana, Julia, Pinerolo, and Pusteria divisions. By the end of January, with Italy finally gaining numerical superiority and the Greeks' bad logistical situation, the Greek advance faced difficulties. Meanwhile, Gen. Soddu was replaced by Gen. Ugo Cavallero in mid-December. On 4 March, the British sent their first convoy of troops and supplies to Greece under the orders of Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Their forces consisted of four divisions, two of them armoured,[37] but the 57,000 soldiers did not reach the front in time to fight.

The stalemate continued, despite local actions, as neither opponent was strong enough to launch a major attack. Despite their gains, the Greeks were in a precarious position, as they had virtually stripped their northern frontier of weapons and men in order to sustain the Albanian front, making them too weak to resist a possible German attack via Bulgaria. The Italians wished for a success against the Greeks before the German intervention, launched another offensive, code-named Primavera ("Spring"). The Italians assembled 17 divisions opposite the Greeks' 13 and under Mussolini's supervision launched a determined attack against the Klisura Pass from 9–20 March. The Greek army repulsed the Italian attack which was a costly defeat and Mussolini admitted that result of the "Primavera" was "zero". Until the German intervention on 6 April, the stalemate continued.

German intervention[edit]

German invasion[edit]

Main article: Battle of Greece
German forces arrive in Athens, May 1941

On 1 November, Hitler had decided to let Italy fight its war with Greece alone but British encroachments in Greece and reports that they were building air bases on Lemnos and Salonika, led Hitler to order planning for a speedy march into Turkish Thrace and northern Greece. On 18 November, Hitler issued Directive 18 which mentioned Luftwaffe operations against targets in the eastern Mediterranean, which included "British bases that might threaten the Romanian oil-fields."

Metaxas tried to prevent war between Greece and Germany and hoped that he could persuade the Germans to act as mediators, to end the war with the Italians in Albania.[38] He tried to convince the Germans that Greece would remain either neutral or pro-Axis and allowed "discreet approaches" to be made to Berlin.[39] The Greek army wanted to avoid hostilities with Germany for they knew they were no match against the Wehrmacht and King George sacked several generals for defeatism.[40]

In anticipation of the German attack, the British and some Greeks urged a withdrawal of the Army of Epirus to creeate reserves to fight the Germans but national sentiment forbade the abandonment of such hard-won positions and 15 divisions, the bulk of the Greek army, were left deep in Albania as German forces approached and only six of the 21 Greek divisions were available to oppose a German attack.[41] On 6 April, the Italians began another offensive in Albania, co-ordinated with the German Operation Marita. A Greek retreat began on 12 April and the 9th Army entered Korçë on 14 April and Ersekë three days later. On 19 April, the Italians occupied the Greek shores of Lake Prespa.


German soldiers on the Acropolis of Athens

Rapid progress by German troops and the capture of Thessaloniki on 9 April, led Greek General Headquarters in Athens on 12 April, to order the withdrawal of the Greek forces on the Albanian front.[42] The Greek commanders in Albania knew that Italian pressure, lack of motor transport and pack animals, exhaustion and the poor transport network in Epirus, could turn a retreat into a rout. Having urged a retreat before the German attack, they petitioned the senior front commander, Lt. General Ioannis 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".[43][44] The retreat, news of the Invasion of Yugoslavia and Yugoslav collapse and of the rapid German advance, caused a collapse of the morale of the Greek troops, many of whom had been fighting for five months and were forced to abandon captured ground. By 15 April, the divisions of II Corps, beginning with the Cretan 5th Division, began to disintegrate.[43][45][46]

On 16 April, Pitsikas reported to Papagos that signs of disintegration had begun to appear among the divisions of I Corps as well and asked him to "save the army from the Italians" (to capitulate to the Germans before the military situation collapsed). Next day, the Western Macedonia Army Section under Lt. General Georgios Tsolakoglou was renamed III Corps under Pitsikas. The three corps commanders and the metropolitan bishop of Ioannina, Spyridon, pressured Pitsikas to unilaterally negotiate with the Germans.[45][47][48] Pitsikas refused and the others selected Tsolakoglou, as the senior of the three generals, to carry out the task. Tsolakoglou prevaricated and sent his chief of staff to Athens to secure permission from Papagos. The chief of staff reported chaos in Athens and wringly implied that Papagos assented. On 20 April, Tsolakoglou contacted Sepp Dietrich, commander of the LSSAH brigade, to offer surrender, which was concluded at 18:00.[49]

Presented with the fait accompli, Pitsikas resigned his command.[49][50][51] The original surrender document did not include the Italians and "came as an unwelcome and most humiliating blow" to the Italians. List agreed with Tsolakoglou that the Italians should not be allowed to enter Greece. Some units of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, were so impressed with the bravery of the Greek army that they assumed positions between the Greek and Italian armies at a border crossing called "Ponte Berati", to prevent the Italian army from crossing into Greece. Hitler quickly countermanded List, insisting that the German-Italian relationship was of paramount importance. On 13 May, Hitler announced that the occupation and responsibility for Greece would be left to the Italians.[52]

In 2001, Mazower wrote that this "came as an unwelcome and humiliating blow, for Mussolini had been desperately anxious to beat the Greeks before the Wehrmacht arrived". Mussolini became "enraged" when he learned of the surrender terms and "became even more incensed" when he understood that the agreement was a surrender and not a ceasefire. Mussolini summoned the German attaché in Rome and threatened that he would not observe the ceasefire, if the Italians were not also parties to the surrender agreement. Mussolini feared that the Greeks would claim that they had not surrendered to the Italians, which the Greeks did and "quite justifiably" so. Mussolini ordered counter-attacks against the Greek forces which had surrendered and to Mussolini's embarrassment, the counter-attacks were repulsed. After a personal request to Hitler, Italy was allowed to join the armistice agreement on 23 April.[53][54]

Triple occupation[edit]

Map of the occupation zones, with the Italian zone in light blue; German in red and Bulgarian in green

For propaganda purposes, Mussolini decided to forestall the announcement of the surrender agreement by announcing ahead of time through the Italian radio that the "surrender had been tendered to the commander of the Italian Eleventh Army" and that the rest of the details would be ironed out with "our German allies". The Italian broadcast had the effect of further straining German–Italian relations. The "Wehrmacht felt utter contempt" toward their Italian allies (Mazower 2001). Field Marshal Keitel had remarked at the time that "The Italians were just like children wanting to gobble up everything". In the vicinity of Patras, members of the Leibstandarte reacting to the salutes of some Italian women responded by "Brutta Italia, Heil Hitler".[55]

Mussolini's occupation plans for Greece were unclear and this was revealed when the Italian Foreign minister gave some vague replies on 21 April to the Germans regarding the territorial claims of the Italians against Greece. He told them that he thought that Mussolini had plans of annexing parts of Northern Greece and the Ionian islands. Many of the territories that Mussolini coveted were mountainous villages with poor infrastructure, and their annexation had little strategic or political benefit for the new Roman Empire that Mussolini envisioned to build in Greece. The Italian military attaché in Berlin perceiving that the vague Italian plans would not be acceptable to the Germans advised the Italian government to "accelerate our occupation even by sea to forestall the German troops".[56]

At the second round of surrender talks in Salonica, Benzler, the German chief Foreign Office delegate attached to the 12th army, told the Anfuso, the Italian negotiator, that the Italians should assist in the formation of the new Greek government under occupation and refused the suggestion by Anfuso 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. Faced with the German response, Anfuso complained half-heartedly that given Greece's "total defeat", 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 and the Germans, starting with Hitler, admired the Greeks for their bravery.[57]

Naval operations[edit]

At the outbreak of hostilities, the Royal Hellenic Navy was composed of the old cruiser Averof, 4 old Theria class, 4 relatively modern Dardo class, and 2 new G class destroyers, several torpedo boats, and 6 old submarines. These ships, whose role was primarily limited to patrol and convoy escort duties in the Aegean Sea, faced up against the far larger Italian Regia Marina.

Nevertheless, the Greek ships also carried out limited offensive operations against Italian shipping in the Strait of Otranto. The destroyers carried out three bold, but fruitless night-time raids on 14 November 1940, 15 December 1940, and 4 January 1941. The main successes came from the submarines, which managed to sink some Italian transports. On the Italian side, although the Regia Marina suffered minor losses in capital ships from the Royal Navy during the Taranto raid, Italian cruisers and destroyers continued to operate covering the convoys between Italy and Albania. On 28 November, an Italian squadron heavily bombarded Corfu, while, on 18 December and 4 March, Italian task forces shelled Greek coastal positions in Albania.

From January 1941, the RHN's main task was the escort of convoys to and from Alexandria, in cooperation with the British Royal Navy. As the transportation of the British Expeditionary Corps began in early March, the Italian Fleet decided to sortie against them. Well informed by Ultra intercepts, the British fleet intercepted and narrowly defeated the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan on 28 March.

With the start of the German offensive on 6 April, the situation changed rapidly. During the Battle of Crete, the Italian 50th Infantry Division Regina captured Sitia on 28 May and Italian bombers from 41 Gruppo on Rhodes. German and Italian control of the air caused heavy casualties to the Greek and British navies, and the occupation of the mainland and later Crete by the Wehrmacht signalled the end of Allied surface operations in Greek waters until the Dodecanese Campaign of 1943.



Ian Kershaw wrote that the five week delay in launching Barbarossa, caused by the unusually wet weather in May 1941, was not decisive. For Kershaw, the reasons for the ultimate failure of ‘Barbarossa’ lay in the arrogance of the German war goals, in particular the planning flaws and resource limitations that caused problems for the operation from the start. He adds that the German invasion into Greece in spring 1941 didn't cause significant damage to tanks and other vehicles needed for ‘Barbarossa’, the equipment diverted to Greece being used on the southern flank of the attack on the Soviet Union.[58] Von Rintelen emphasizes that although the diversion of German resources into Greece just prior to the attack on the Soviet Union did little for the latter operation, Italy's invasion of Greece did not undermine 'Barbarossa' before the operation started. Instead, Italy's invasion of Greece was to have serious consequences for its ongoing campaign in North Africa. Moreover, Italy would have been in a better position to execute its North African campaign had it initially occupied Tunis and Malta.[59]

During and after the October attack on Greece, Italian resources were dedicated to fighting in the Greek front rather than assist the Axis war effort in North Africa. From the start of the Italian attack in October 1940 to May 1941, the quantity of soldiers, merchant ships, escort vessels and weapons which Italy allocated to the Greek front was multiple times higher than the quantities Italy sent to support its campaign in North Africa.[60] When the British counter-attack began in December 1940, this diversion of resources by Italy has adverse results in the North African war front. The German naval staff by 14 November 1940 issued a critical appraisal of the 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 because it would have allowed it control of the Suez Canal.[61]

According to Kershaw, Italy's ambitions of becoming a great power were put to an end, due to the combination of the failed Greek campaign, the loss of its fleet at Taranto and Italy's retreat and failure in the North African front. After these failures, Mussolini's exploitation of Italian ambitions for political gain had come to an end. By failing to deliver, his stature amongst the political elites of Italy was diminished.[62] Mussolini's failure caused Italy to become even more subservient to the Germans. According to Kershaw, when things started unravelling in Italy's war effort, the Italian political elites did not accept their share of the responsibility for the failures, although they were eager to take credit for the successes, when things were going well. Kershaw concludes that the stupidity of Mussolini's choice reflected the despot's extreme individual inadequacies. At the same time it was additionally the idiocy of a political framework.[63]

Sadkovich asserts that while "the Italo-Greek war was a crucial turning point in the Second World War, its impact has been exaggerated by most authors, who are content with the superficial observation that it ended Mussolini's parallel war.".[64] De Felice states that "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".[65]

Subsequent operations[edit]

On 30 April, troops from the Italian 185th Airborne Division Folgore dropped in on Zakynthos, Cephalonia and Lefkada, capturing the Greek islands and the 250-strong garrison.[66] That same day, Italian troops captured Corfu and a Greek battalion that had regrouped in the local woods.[67] On 3 May, after the final conquest of Crete, an imposing German-Italian parade in Athens celebrated the Axis victory. It wasn't until after the victory in Greece and Yugoslavia that Mussolini started to talk and boast in his propaganda about the Italian Mare Nostrum. The Greek struggle received exuberant praise at the time. French general Charles de Gaulle was among those who praised the fierceness of the Greek resistance. In an official notice released to coincide with the Greek national celebration of the Day of Independence, De Gaulle expressed his admiration for the heroic Greek resistance. Greece's siding with the Allies also contributed to its annexation of the Italian-occupied but Greek-populated Dodecanese islands in 1947.

The occupation of Greece, during which civilians suffered terrible hardships, and died from privation and hunger, proved to be a difficult and costly task. It led to the creation of several resistance groups, which launched guerilla attacks against the occupying forces and set up espionage networks.[68] The 1940 war, popularly referred to as the Épos toú Saránda (Greek: Έπος του Σαράντα, "Epic of '40") in Greece, and the resistance of the Greeks to the Axis Powers is celebrated to this day in Greece every year. 28 October, the day of Ioannis Metaxas' rejection of the Italian ultimatum, named Ohi Day, Greek for "Day of No", is a day of national celebration in Greece.

A military parade takes place in Thessaloniki and student parades take place in Athens and other cities to coincide with the city's anniversary of liberation during the First Balkan War and the feast of its patron saint, St. Demetrius. For several days, many buildings in Greece, public and private, display the Greek flag. In the days preceding the anniversary, television and radio often feature historical films and documentaries about 1940 or broadcast Greek patriotic songs, especially those of Sofia Vembo, a singer whose songs gained immense popularity during the war. It serves also as a day of remembrance for the "dark years" of the Axis occupation of Greece from 1941 to 1944.


  1. ^ Richter (1998), 119, 144
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Mario Cervi, Storia della guerra di Grecia, Oscar Mondadori, 1969, page 129
  3. ^ a b c d Hellenic Air Force History accessed 25 March 2008
  4. ^ a b c Mario Montanari, La campagna di Grecia, Rome 1980, page 805
  5. ^ a b c d Giorgio Rochat, Le guerre italiane 1935–1943. Dall'impero d'Etiopia alla disfatta, Einaudi, 2005, p. 279
  6. ^ Mario Cervi, Storia della guerra di Grecia, BUR, 2005, page 267
  7. ^ Rodogno (2006), pages 446
  8. ^ Verzijl (1970), p. 396
  9. ^ Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914–45, London, 1995, p. 383; I.C.B. Dear and M. R.D. Foot (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Second World War, Oxford/New York, 1995, p. 583.
  10. ^ Quoted from MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed 1939–1941. Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War, paperback edn., Cambridge, 1986, pp. 39–40.
  11. ^ Ciano’s Diary 1939–1943, ed. Malcolm Muggeridge, London, 1947, pp. 45–6.
  12. ^ Ciano’s Diary, pp. 134–6; Enno von Rintelen, Mussolini als Bundesgenosse. Erinnerungen des deutschen Militärattachés in Rom 1936–1943, Tübingen/Stuttgart, 1951, p. 71; Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, p. 43. On the concept of ‘non-belligerency’, see Neville Wylie (ed.), European Neutrals and Non-Belligerents during the Second World War, Cambridge, 2002, p. 4.
  13. ^ Mario Cervi, The Hollow Legions. Mussolini’s Blunder in Greece, 1940–1941, London, 1972, pp. 7–10
  14. ^ Knox (2000), p. 79
  15. ^ a b Sadkovich, (1993), The Italo-Greek War in Context, pp.439- 445.
  16. ^ Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, p. 202; Martin van Creveld, Hitler’s Strategy 1940–1941. The Balkan Clue, Cambridge, 1973, p. 34.
  17. ^ Kershaw 2007, p. 170.
  18. ^ Guy Wint; John Pritchard; Peter Calvocoressi (2 September 1999). The Penguin History of the Second World War. Penguin Books Limited. p. 280. ISBN 978-0-14-195988-7. 
  19. ^ Regan, Geoffrey. More Military Blunders. p. 83. 
  20. ^ Regan, Geoffrey. More Military Blunders. p. 54. 
  21. ^ "Cronologia del Mondo". 1940-11-02. Retrieved 2014-08-06. 
  22. ^ Knox, MacGregor (1986). Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy's Last War. Cambridge University Press. p. 261. ISBN 0-521-33835-2. 
  23. ^ Goulis and Maïdis (1967)
  24. ^ Rodogno (2006), p. 103
  25. ^ a b Rodogno (2006), p. 104
  26. ^ Rodogno (2006), pp. 84–85
  27. ^ Knox, MacGregor (1986). Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy's Last War. Cambridge University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-521-33835-2. 
  28. ^ a b Bauer (2000), p. 99
  29. ^ a b Walker (2003), pp. 22–23
  30. ^ Buell (2002), p. 37
  31. ^ a b Plowman (2013), p. 12.
  32. ^ Knox (2000), p. 80
  33. ^ Carr (2013), p. 42
  34. ^ a b Bauer (2000), p. 105
  35. ^ Anamali, Skënder and Prifti, Kristaq. Historia e popullit shqiptar në katër vëllime. Botimet Toena, 2002, ISBN 99927-1-622-3.
  36. ^ Walker (2003), p. 28
  37. ^ Buell (2002), p. 75
  38. ^ Mazower, 1993, p.15
  39. ^ Mazower, 1993, p.15.
  40. ^ Mazower, 1993, p.16.
  41. ^ De Felice (1990), p. 125
  42. ^ Koliopoulos 1978, p. 444.
  43. ^ a b Koliopoulos 1978, p. 446.
  44. ^ Stockings & Hancock 2013, pp. 225–227, 282.
  45. ^ a b Gedeon 2001, p. 33.
  46. ^ Stockings & Hancock 2013, p. 258.
  47. ^ Koliopoulos 1978, pp. 448.
  48. ^ Stockings & Hancock 2013, pp. 282–283, 382.
  49. ^ a b Koliopoulos 1978, pp. 448–450.
  50. ^ Gedeon 2001, pp. 33–34.
  51. ^ Stockings & Hancock 2013, pp. 383–384, 396–398, 401–402.
  52. ^ Mazower, 2001, p.20
  53. ^ Mazower 2001 pp. 16–19
  54. ^ Keegan, P. 158
  55. ^ Mazower 2001 pp. 18
  56. ^ Mazower 2001 pp. 15–23
  57. ^ Mazower 2001 pp. 15–23
  58. ^ Kershaw 2007, p. 178.
  59. ^ Rintelen, pp. 90, 92–3, 98–9
  60. ^ James J. Sadkovich, ‘The Italo-Greek War in Context. Italian Priorities and Axis Diplomacy’, Journal of Contemporary History, 28 (1993), pp. 439–464
  61. ^ Kershaw 2007, p. 179.
  62. ^ Kershaw 2007, p. 180.
  63. ^ Kershaw 2007, p. 183.
  64. ^ Sadkovich, 'Italian Morale during the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941',(1994) p.97.
  65. ^ De Felice, cited in Sadkovich's 'Italian Morale during the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941',(1994) p.97.
  66. ^ German Airborne Divisions: Mediterranean Theatre 1942-45, Bruce Quarrie., p. 51, Osprey Publishing, 2013
  67. ^ Scritti scelti sul potere aereo e l'aviazione d'assalto, 1920–1970: Il periodo tra le due guerre e la Seconda Guerra Mondiale, 1920–1943, Amedeo Mecozzi, p. 408, Aeronautica militare, Ufficio Storico, 2006
  68. ^ Carlton (1992), 136


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External links[edit]