(Oct. 30, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the German Fuhrer’s personal train, Amerika, pulled into the Santa Maria Novella Railway Station in Florence, Italy, where the German Fuhrer was scheduled to meet the Italian Duce. It was not a week that had gone well for the German dictator.
On Oct. 23, der Fuhrer and his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had met with the Spanish Caudillo and his brother-in-law, Spanish Foreign Minister Ramon Serrano Sufler, in the small French resort village of Hendaye, on the Spanish border, in an unsuccessful effort to entice Spain to enter the war on the side of the Axis nations.
The meeting had lasted nine hours. Afterwards, Hitler told Mussolini that, “Rather than go through that again, I would prefer to have three or four teeth yanked out!”
The day after meeting with the Spanish Caudillo, the German Fuhrer traveled, on the Amerika, to Montoire-sur-le-Loir, France, where he met the French leader, Marshal Henri Philip Petain, in an effort to get France to declare war on Great Britain. The German warlord was again disappointed. Although the old Marshal secretly agreed that, “...the French government will support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to . . .” defeat Great Britain, he would not commit France to go to war with its former ally.
After the French Marshal’s departure from the Amerika, the Fuhrer got wind of Il Duce’s plans to invade Greece, and quickly arranged to meet with the Italian dictator on Monday, Oct. 28 in Florence. As the German Fuhrer alighted from the Amerika, the Italian Duce bounded forward and gleefully exclaimed, in German, “Fuhrer! We are on the march!
Victorious Italian troops crossed the Greco-Albanian frontier at dawn today!”
The German leader was barely able to conceal his rage. Twice the Italians had been specifically told by their German allies not to undertake such an adventure. Il Duce had been personally warned by the German Fuhrer, less than three weeks previously, when they met at the Brenner Pass, and German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop had also warned them.
A week after Italian forces had occupied Albania, in 1939, Great Britain had issued a guarantee to the Kingdom of Greece. Hitler realized that British bombers, based in Greece, would place the Reich’s recently secured oil source, at Ploie ti, Rumania, at risk.
But after watching the German Army efficiently and almost effortlessly rip through Polish defenses and brilliantly sidestep the Maginot Line, conquer France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxemburg, the Italian Leader could stand it no more.
The last straw was when the Kingdom of Romania had accepted German protection for the oil fields of Ploiesti. That had come without any discussion with the Italian dictator, who considered Romania to be in the Italian “zone of influence” ever since Italian troops had made Albania a part of the Italian Empire.
Relations between Italy and Greece had been increasingly strained. By the summer of 1940, Il Duce had decided to act. Three days after the Germans occupied the Romanian oil fields, on Oct. 12, 1940, the Italian Duce convened a meeting at the Palacio Venezia to discuss the coming invasion.
Absent were the Chiefs of the Regia Aeronautica and the Regia Marina. The Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, objected, arguing that at least 20 divisions would be needed. However, the local commander in Albania, Lt. Gen. Count Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, argued that only three divisions, and what was available in Albania, would be needed. The staff, telling Mussolini what he wanted to hear, convinced Il Duce that the campaign would be over in two weeks! Gen. Prasca told II Duce that the invasion plans were, “... as perfect as humanely possible!”
The Italians, mistakenly, thought that the Greeks, tired of the dictatorial rule of Gen. Ioannis Metaxas — nicknamed ‘’Little Johnny” due to his diminutive stature — would take the opportunity to revolt. They also thought that they would be welcomed by the Albanians who resided in the Greek portion of Epirus.
They felt that since Albania was now a part of the Italian Empire, the Albanians on both sides of the border would support this opportunity to unite all of Epirus. Two infantry divisions — Siena and Ferrara — and an armored division — Centauro — were combined into the Ciamuria Corps under the command of Gen. Carlo Rossi. “Ciamuria” was the Albanian name for the area. However, Albanians on both sides of the border failed to properly appreciate what the Italians were trying to do for them.
At 3 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, 1940, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emmanuele Grazzi, accompanied by military attaché Col. Luigi Mondini, delivered an ultimatum to the Greek Arkhigos (leader), which demanded free passage for Italian troops to occupy unspecified “strategic points” inside Greece. The diminutive Arkhigos replied, “Then its war!”
The next morning 85,000 Italian soldiers crossed the border between Albania and Greece in a driving rainstorm, which deprived them of air support. The soldiers were supplied with only four days of rations. In addition to Gen. Rossi’s Ciamuria Corps, the attacking force also contained the Julia Mountain Division, commanded by Gen. Mario Girotti, the Littorale Combat Group, commanded by Gen. Carlo Rivolta, and the Corizza Corps, composed of the Parma and Piemonte Infantry Divisions, led by Gen. Gabriele Nasci.
The Arezzo and Venezia Infantry Divisions were stationed on the Yugoslav border. Because of the Pindus Mountains, which divided the area into two theaters, Gen. Nasci’s Corizza Corps was assigned to the Macedonian sector, while Gen. Rossi’s Ciamuria Corps attacked through Epirus.
With Mussolini’s insistence on a quick strike, the Italians had been unable to assemble the logistical support necessary for the operation. In fact, this force had been thrown together in four days, and because of Il Duce’s insistence that the invasion be launched immediately, Italian troops were tasked with invading a mountainous country, during the rainy season, with the onset of winter, without proper clothing or equipment.
The timing of the invasion — during bad weather — served to nullify the one huge advantage the Italians had over the Greeks — air power. Like the Germans in the Soviet Union, they failed to equip their troops for the winter weather, since they thought that the campaign would be over in two weeks, or less. It was one of the coldest winters of the century.
Initially, the Greeks only had 15,000 soldiers to meet the invaders, because the vast majority of the Greek Army was on the border with Bulgaria, with whom relations were also strained.
The Greek Arkhigos, “Little Johnny,” addressed the nation on the radio: “The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. Now, above all, fight!”
Hundreds of thousands headed to enlistment offices. Greek morale was high, with many seeking revenge for the unprovoked sinking of the light cruiser Elli by the Italian submarine Delfino near the Greek island of Tinos, two months earlier.
Three days later Commando Supremo announced that, “Our units continue to advance into Epirus and have reached the River Kalamas at several points. Unfavorable weather conditions and action by the retreating enemy are not slowing down the advances of our troops.”
On Nov. 1 the Italians captured Konitsa, a town of less than two thousand near the border, and encountered the main line of Greek defense. That same day, Commando Supremo gave priority to the Albanian theater over the African theater, thereby robbing Marshal Graziani’s forces of the supplies they needed to continue their offensive against the British in Egypt.
Five days later, Gen. Papagos launched a counterattack. The Italians had embarked on this adventure without obtaining the military support of Bulgaria, which considered that it was entitled to Thessalonika and access to the Aegean Sea, and might have been enticed to join the Italians, as it later was by Germany.
The Greeks had determined that the Kingdom of Bulgaria was not going to aid the Italians, and therefore, had been able to shift units from the Bulgarian front to meet the Italian attack, and by the time of the counterattack, had established a superiority of 250,000 to 150,000 Italians.
By Nov. 8, Italian units were beginning to retreat. On Nov. 9, Mussolini replaced Gen. Prasca with Gen. Ubaldo Soddu, a former vice-minister of war. A worse selection probably could not have been made.
Gen. Soddu was short and fat, with no combat experience. Rather than tend to his military duties, he preferred to compose music. When things started going bad, he advocated making peace as the only way to avoid a disaster.
Within three days, the Greeks had reached the Albanian border and captured the 700-year-old city of Korce in Albania. Today Korce is the seventh largest city in Albania with a population of almost 60,000.
The following month, Gen. Soddu was replaced with Ugo Cavallero, and the Italians desperately rushed reinforcements to the crumbling front. By the end of December, the Greeks had occupied southern Albania, which they called Northern Epirus, and captured the 2000-year old port of Himare on the Ionian Sea, which today has a population of about 30,000, half of whom are Greek.
However, the Greeks were unable to go further and the Italians held. In the meantime, on the outskirts of Menton, France, French citizens erected a sign which read, “Greeks, this is France. Stop here and do not go any further!”
In compliance with the guarantee that they had issued the previous year, the British offered the Greeks military support. Initially, “Little Johnny” refused, fearing that British assistance would invite the Germans to assist their Italian ally.
Ultimately, he agreed, and on Nov. 5, 1940, the British sent planes, soldiers, and 60 tanks to aid the Greeks. Now, as Hitler had feared, the Romanian oilfields and refineries at Ploiesti were within British bomber range. And now, as “Little Johnny” had feared, the Germans and the Bulgarians entered the war against the Greek kingdom. German planning had begun on Nov. 4.
Knowing that the Germans were coming, the Italians, on March 9, 1941, launched an assault on the Greek position at Klisura Pass in Albania in an attempt to salvage some pride, before the Germans hogged all the credit for victory.
Under the code name of Primavera, Commando Supremo assembled 17 divisions for the assault. For more than a week, the Italians pounded away, but were unable to make much headway. However, the Greeks had stripped their defenses along their borders with the Yugoslavian and Bulgarian kingdoms to meet the Italian threat. Even a frontline visit by Il Duce could not inspire victory!
On April 6, 1941, German forces under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelm List, attacked across the Yugoslavian and Bulgarian borders. By April 9, the 2200-year-old Aegean port of Thessalonika had fallen to the Germans. The Bulgarians followed on April 20.
The Greek and British troops who had moved into Albania were in danger of being trapped. The British commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, advised the Greeks to withdraw those forces to avoid just such a problem. However, the Greeks could not bring themselves to withdraw on the front facing the Italians. Eventually, of course, they would have no choice. By then, it was too late.
On April 20, 1941, Gen. Georgios Tsolakoglou surrendered the Greek forces to Joseph “Sepp” Dietrich, commander of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler regiment. Anybody but the Italians!
Greek King George II and the government left Athens for Crete on April 25. Two days later, German forces entered Athens. By April 30, evacuation of Commonwealth forces was complete. The battle for Crete would begin in a month.
For this adventure, 63,000 brave Italian soldiers died, while an equal number were wounded or suffered frostbite. Half that number of valiant Greeks became casualties defending their country.
British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill observed that, “Hence we shall not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.” Hitler agreed, saying that, “Greece has fought so valiantly that the esteem of her enemies cannot be denied to her.”
Although “Little Johnny” did not live to see the Axis troops parade down the streets of Athens, (he died on January 29, 1941) the date that he said “NO!” to the Italians lives on as a national holiday — “The Day of No” — which is observed by Greeks the world over.
Next month: The Royal Navy Cripples the Regia Marina Italia at Taranto
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.