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 Balkan campaign of World War II and the initial Greek counter offensive, the first successful land campaign against the Axis in the war.
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Italian Fiasco: The Attack on Greece
In June 1940 Germany concentrated her efforts on the war in Europe while secretly preparing to attack the USSR. Not wanting a conflict on his southern flank in the Balkans, Hitler had restrained his Axis partner Mussolini on several occasions during the spring and summer from putting into operation plans for an Italian invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Mussolini, dependent on Germany for the raw materials needed for armaments, had reluctantly accepted Hitler’s decision.
Yet on the morning of October 28, 1940, Italian forces based in Albania crossed the frontier into Greece to initiate one of the most surprising campaigns of the Second World War.
To understand why the Italian dictator ignored Hitler’s wishes it is necessary to view the situation through Mussolini’s eyes.
Benito Mussolini was a man obsessed with thoughts or personal greatness. To satisfy his belief that he was a genius he proclaimed the birth of a ‘New Roman Empire’ which was to take shape under his direction, and which would recreate the ancient glories of Roman history celebrated in the rhetoric of the Fascist poet D’ Annunzio [Gabriel D’ Annunzio (1863-1938) wikipedia]. Unlike Hitler he had no master plan to make his dream a reality. And as he suffered from a duodenal ulcer his decisions were frequently influenced by the prevailing condition of his health, which was also affected by the after math of syphilis contracted in his youth. His intensely vain and theatrical nature added to his arbitrary behaviour. Sometimes he exercised great shrewdness, on the other occasions he acted on impulse.
Under his rule Italy had already overrun weaker countries – Abyssinia in 1936 [Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-36) wikipedia] and Albania [Italian invasion of Albania (1939) wikipedia] in March 1939 – which were incapable of prolonged resistance, but the Duce was realist enough to recognise that he did not possess the raw materials to make war on a grand scale. This knowledge did not, however, prevent him from uttering bellicose sentiments before the outbreak of the Second World War, making it clear that Italy was ready to fight by Germany’s side. Privately he considered a war at that time to be folly, and he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Hitler not to attack Poland, which now had British and French guarantees of help. Hitler made it clear that war was inevitable but indicated that Germany did not need Italy’s help at that stage. When the conflict started Mussolini was quite content to stand outside it, and in so doing earned the contempt of such German leaders as Göring [Herman Göring (1893-1946) wikipedia], who despised a man who ‘was yesterday ready to march and is now passive and reticent’.
The Duce had an excellent excuse for not joining the fight against Britain and France. He had provided Hitler with a formidable list of requirements which he regarded as essential if Italy was to build up her military strength to the pitch where she would be an asset and not a liability to her Axis partner. These requirements had been fulfilled only in part. ‘Without coal there are no guns’ became one of Mussolini’s favourite sayings.
But in March 1940 an official German communiqué proudly presenting Germany’s balance sheet after six months of war made Mussolini envious and forced his grudging admiration. He had nothing to show to compare with the territorial gains made by Hitler. He felt his prestige as the first Fascist dictator in Europe demanded that should occupy the limelight the German leader was now enjoying, and in private he vented his annoyance by criticising those Italians who were not his enthusiastic supporters – the bourgeoisie whom he despised, the King who he disliked, and the Vatican which he distrusted. Some enterprise brought to a successful conclusion was essential to rally public opinion behind him and to keep his followers in good heart.
In May 1940 Mussolini’s frustration increased as the German armies struck in western Europe, drove the British forces off the Continent, and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain to him that Germany would win the war. There was an understanding between him and Hitler that in the ‘New Europe’ Italy would be rewarded with pickings from the French Empire. So, in order to give Italy the right to these spoils by force of arms, Mussolini announced the Italian declaration of war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940.
Foiled by Peace
Unfortunately for his plan the Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano [Galeazzo Ciano (1903-1944) wikipedia] ironically called ‘an outbreak of peace. Hitler at that time was still hopeful of coming to an arrangement with Britain; to facilitate this it was necessary for Germany to show herself in a good light by treating France generously in the terms of armistice. A harsh settlement might also encourage the French fleet and forces in North Africa to reject the authority of the Vichy government and to join de Gaulle.
Consequently Hitler decided not to strip France of her overseas possessions. He made this clear when the two dictators met at Munich on June 19 and Mussolini pressed Italy’s claim to Nice, Corsica, Tunisia, and French Somaliland. At the meeting Hitler also assured the Duce that Russia would make no move to claim Bessarabia from Rumania – a statement the Italian dictator was to remember in the near future.
Mussolini therefore found that his claims to French overseas territory had been ignored. He was told that he would get all he asked for from France when the Axis powers announced the ‘New Order’ in Europe at the conclusion of the war. Meanwhile he had to be content with two crumbs to satisfy his hunger for possessions. At the armistice with France – signed on June 24, 1940 [Franco-Italian Armistice (1940) wikipedia] (two days after the Franco-German armistice [Second Armistice at Compiègne (1940) wikipedia] had been concluded) – Italy was rewarded by the occupation of Nice and parts of Savoy which had been in dispute between the two countries.
The fall of France had serious repercussions on the Balkans, repercussions which encouraged the Italian dictator to look towards that region for territory which he could annex, using Albania as a spring-board for the attack. Italy’s annexation of Albania in 1939 was one of the factors which led France and Britain to give promises of help to Greece and Rumania should their sovereignty be violated. These guarantees had been strengthened in October 1939 when the western Allies signed the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance with Turkey, which pledged Turkey’s help to the Allies should their promises to Greece and Rumania become operative. Earlier doubts which the Balkan countries had had concerning the ability of the Allies to implement their pledges were now revived, and following the defeat of France, the Anglo-French guarantee of April 1939 was promptly renounced by Rumania.
Turkey, who had so far refrained from declaring her neutrality, now hurriedly proclaimed her non-belligerency, maintaining that the collapse of France had altered circumstances under which the Tripartite Treaty had been signed. The Turkish declaration encouraged Mussolini to think that should he attack Greece that country could not expect much help from allies.
France had been linked to Rumania by a web of alliances formed in the 1920’s between those two countries and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Any slight misgiving which Russia might have had about incurring French displeasure by an attack on Rumania were now removed – for France had apparently ceased to count as an international force. Accordingly Stalin immediately presented an ultimatum to Rumania demanding the return of Bessarabia and part of Bukovina which Russia had lost in the First World War – a demand which Hitler had assured Mussolini would never be made. Rumania consulted the Axis powers and on their advice Stalin’s demands were met. So, exactly one week after Pétain [Phillipe Pétain (1856-1951) wikipedia] had signed away official French resistance in the west, Russia occupied the coveted territory in Rumania without opposition [Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina (1940) wikipedia].
Although Mussolini had fallen in with Hitler’s wishes in agreeing to the Russian move he was now far from being pleased. Surely if a non-belligerent like Russia could add to her possessions without shedding a drop of her people’s blood, Italy, fighting by Germany’s side, was entitled to extend the boundaries of her empire.
He was not deterred by the existence of the Balkan Entente, a pact of mutual assistance entered into by Greece, Rumania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia in 1934. For one of the most important Balkan countries, Bulgaria, had adamantly refused to join the Entente because the other Balkan countries declined to restore to her the territories she had ceded to them after her defeat in the Second Balkan War of 1913, losses subsequently reaffirmed by the 1919 Versailles peace conference. Consequently the Entente’s principal exercise in co-operation consisted of resisting Bulgarian pressure for the return of the lion’s share of Macedonia from Greece and Yugoslavia, nearly all of western Thrace from Greece, and south Dobruja from Rumania.
One clause in the Entente agreement guaranteed joint action by member states against a Balkan aggressor; but the signatories had carefully avoided entering into such a pact against a non-Balkan country. They feared such a pronouncement would give offence to their three powerful neighbours – Russia, Germany, and Italy – and they did not wish to draw themselves in this way. Like some small animals of the wild they hoped to avoid notice by remaining motionless.
But even the guarantee of mutual help against a Balkan power proved ineffective. Following Stalin’s example the smaller predators, Bulgaria and Hungary, renewed their claims on Rumania for the restoration of former territories. Once again, under pressure from Hitler, Rumania was forced to concede large areas. On June 28, 1940, by the Treaty of Craciova, South Dobruja was returned to Bulgaria. The other three members of the Balkan Entente made no protest.
It was irksome for Mussolini to approve of Balkan territory being redistributed without Italy receiving a share; he underwent a similar experience in August when he and Hitler, having been asked by Rumania to adjudicate between her and Hungary, announced the Second Vienna Award, which gave Hungary the three ‘Szekler’ provinces and North Transylvania. Italy and Germany also guaranteed the integrity of Rumania’s shortened frontiers – a hint to Russia that Germany would not tolerate any further depredations in those regions by the USSR. This Second Vienna Award was to be a further source of irritation to Mussolini within a few weeks of its announcement.
Another Rebuff by Hitler
When Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, was in Rome in March 1940 he had stressed that Germany wished to avoid a conflict in the Balkans. Nevertheless Mussolini sought Hitler’s approval for an Italian attack on either Yugoslavia or Greece when he sent Count Ciano to Berlin in July. The Italian theme was that it would be dangerous to allow the Greek Ionian islands to be converted into anti-Italian bases by the British, and that Yugoslavia should be crushed because she was, in the Duce’s words, ‘a typical Versailles creation working against us’.
While Hitler agreed that the former was a possibility and that the Yugoslavian problem should be settled in a manner favourable to Italy, he insisted that operations against the two countries should be carried out when the moment was ‘favourable’ – and that moment had not yet arrived. The Führer believed that the Balkans could be won by political – not military – moves, and he feared that an Italian attack, particularly on Yugoslavia where the Communists were strong, would provoke Russian intervention in the peninsula – the last thing the German dictator wanted. Once again, Mussolini’s eagerness to add to the Italian empire received a rebuff.
Hitler was more concerned with long-term strategic planning than with furthering the Duce’s immediate desire for a prestige conquest. The German plan was to bring Spain into the war on the side of the Axis, to close the Mediterranean to the western Allies, and to destroy the British forces based in Egypt. In his less emotional moments the Italian dictator agreed that Egypt was the nerve centre of the British war effort. He accepted the German argument that the Axis had only to drive the British out of the Middle East, cut off their supplies of oil from Iraq and at the head of the Persian Gulf, and all the Balkans could be had for the taking. He also realised that to attack in the Balkans with the British still firmly established in Egypt would entail the risk of allowing the western Allies to establish naval and air bases in the Balkan peninsula. These bases would threaten the Italian command of the Adriatic and open up to Allied bombing one of the major sources of Germany’s oil supplies – the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania.
Following these discussions between Ciano and Hitler in July 1940 Mussolini directed that the Italian war effort should be concentrated in support of the forces in Libya. For the time being the build-up of forces in Albania, which could have been used against either Yugoslavia or Greece, was halted. The Fascist campaign of vilification hitherto aimed at Yugoslavia and Greece now focussed itself on Greece alone – for the Duce had sensed that Hitler was more concerned to maintain the status quo in Yugoslavia than he was in Greece. The Italian press and radio continued to accuse Greece of violating her neutrality by allowing British ships to use her harbours.
The defeat of France had strengthened Mussolini’s position in North Africa, where Italian forces had been freed from the necessity of guarding the western frontier with Tunisia. Marshall Graziani [Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955) wikipedia], the commander, had been urged constantly to attack the British. With 215,000 men under his command it should have been possible, with a resolute plan of action, to defeat the small British force numbering around 36,000.
But Graziani failed to show the necessary resolution. He parried Mussolini’s requests for action, first by demanding additional equipment and then by promising to attack on the day German forces landed in England – the day when the morale of the British troops in Africa would be low. The Duce became more agitated as the weeks went by without Graziani making any move, for he had heard that further efforts were being made to bring about a settlement between Germany and Britain through Swedish intermediaries. If these proved successful Italy would not be in a position to claim some of the spoils of war at the conference table – unless her forces had fought at least one major land engagement with the British.
Consequently the Duce ceased merely to urge his Libyan commander to take offensive action: instead, on August 29, he ordered Graziani to attack the British. With a strange lack of Fascist zeal the reluctant Italian marshall did not commence offensive operations until September 13.
In the meantime the Albanian garrison of Italian troops had been increased during the summer months from 70,000 to 125,000 men. This did not go unobserved by German agents, who reported the facts to Berlin. Once again the Nazi high command emphasised that nay Italian action in the Balkans would be unwelcome, and on August 17, 1940, Ribbentrop lodged an official complaint that the Duce was working out an anti-Yugoslav plan ‘without Germany’s permission’. Ciano called the German statement ‘a complete order to halt all along the line’. As it happened, the Duce, his interest centred for the time being on the prospect of an Italian victory in North Africa, was able to write to Hitler a letter of full reassurances in an effort to convince him that ‘the military measures we have taken on the Greek and Yugoslavian frontiers are simply of a precautionary character’ – adding that they were intended for use in case of a British violation of Balkan neutrality and alleging that both the Balkan countries had mobilised completely.
But the Duce still did not order a ceasefire to the war of nerves he was conducting against Greece. Italian propagandists concentrated on stirring up anti-Greek feeling among the people of Albanian descent in the district of Tsamouria in Greek Epirus, and the Albanian press and radio – Italian inspired – spoke of Italy as the leader of Albanian irredentism. A so-called Albanian patriot was found murdered on the Albanian side of the Greek-Albanian frontier and Greek agents were blamed; Moslems in Greek Epirus were alleged to be suffering persecution at the hands of Greeks; a clandestine radio station was established in Greece to broadcast propaganda favourable to the Italian cause; and Greece was accused of violating her neutrality by allowing British aircraft-carriers and warships to anchor in Greek waters.
Testing the Greeks
To test official Greek reaction, incidents intended to intimidate were staged. Three Italian bombers attacked Greek ship of the lighthouse service and a destroyer which went to her aid. Bombs were dropped from an Italian plane on two Greek destroyers and two submarines in Návpaktos harbour. The Greek steamer Loula was attacked by an Italian submarine on her way from Istanbul to Port Said. On August 15 the Greek cruiser Helle [Greek Cruiser Elli wikipedia], lying at anchor in Tinos harbour, was hit by a torpedo fired from a submarine of unknown nationality; fragments of the torpedo convinced the Greek government that the armament was of Italian manufacture.
Greek policy in the face of this intimidation was two-fold. First, the Greeks offered no provocation, hoping in this way to avoid war – although recent history showed that the absence of provocation had no influence on Axis policy. Nevertheless the Greek government would not allow the press to criticise the Italian campaign of hatred, and even when the investigation proved it was an Italian torpedo which had sunk the Helle, the Greek newspapers were forbidden to print the news. In spite of this censorship the Greek people realised that Italy was the aggressor and the knowledge strengthened national unity. The incident carried undertones of sacrilege, as the Helle had been anchored at Tinos for the Feast of the Assumption and many of its crew were on church parade at a nearby shrine when the cruiser hit.
Second, the Greek government went out of its way to impress Italy that Greece would fight if attacked. But Mussolini did not take this to mean that his forces would be met with determined resistance should Italy violate Greek territory. He preferred to believe the reports of Ciano, Jacomoni (Lieutenant-General of Albania) [Francesco Jacomoni (1893-1973) wikipedia], and Visconti Prasca (C-in-C of the forces in Albania) [Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (1883-1961) wikipedia] – who all for a number of reasons strongly urged the invasion – that Greek forces in Epirus would offer only token resistance and that Greek leaders in Athens were waiting to welcome the Italian General Staff, which emphasised that preparations for the attack were inadequate, were also ignored.
The Duce, in fact, fell victim to his own propaganda machine. Italian money was used in an attempt to buy Greek allegiance, and the recipients sent back comforting assurances that a bloodless victory for Italian arms could be expected.
The Duce tried again to obtain German approval for an attack on Greece when Ribbentrop paid a visit to Rome on September 19, 1940. “The Greeks represent for Italy what the Norwegians represented for Germany before the action in April,’ Mussolini told the German Foreign Minister. ‘It is necessary for us to proceed with the liquidation of Greece, all the more so as when our land forces have advanced into Egypt the English fleet will not be able to remain at Alexandria, and will seek refuge in Greek ports.’ But after a discussion the Duce was once again persuaded that the defeat of Britain must be the primary objective of the Axis powers.
He was able to accept this logical point of view the more readily as the Italian forces in Libya had just reached Sidi Barrani on their advance into Egypt, thus proving that his armies were capable of contributing to the forthcoming victory over the western Allies. But shortly afterwards he learned from Graziani that this 50-mile advance was to be the limit of the present attack. Until more transport vehicles arrived from Italy apparently there was to be no further move forward.
The Duce still awaited a resounding victory for Italian arms. Characteristically he turned his attention again to the Balkans, where the prospect of adding to the ‘New Roman Empire’ seemed much more promising.
Developments were then taking place in Rumania of which Mussolini was kept in ignorance. Following the cessation of Rumanian territory to Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary, the Rumanian government had been overthrown and the pro-German General Antonescu [Ion Antonescu (1882-1946) wikipedia] became dictator. He had repeated a request, refused earlier, that Germany should send a military mission to the country to help train the Rumanian army. With the worsening of Russo-German relations Hitler felt the need to protect the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania, which were only 100 miles from Bessarabia, recently occupied by Russia. So the Führer acceded to Antonescu’s request, but what was apparently a mission became in effect a military occupation of the country.
Hitler issued his directive on September 20, 1940, and when he met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass on October 4 the German ‘mission’ – which at first consisted of a motorised division reinforced by tanks – was already on its way to Rumania.
But the Führer did not take Mussolini into his confidence. When, later in October, news of the German fait accompli reached the Duce he wanted an invitation to celebrate Rumania’s bloodless occupation, but he was unsuccessful, and Italy was represented in Bucharest by only a few Italian air force officers.
Mussolini’s feelings were hurt. He had been acting jointly with Hitler as a guarantor against any violation of Rumania’s frontiers and yet he had not been told when his partner intended to occupy the country. Of course Hitler had an explanation ready – it was not an occupation, ‘merely a military mission sent at Rumania’s request’. The Duce’s reaction was to give the word for the attack on Greece to be launched, and he arranged it so that Hitler would not receive notification of the attack until it was too late to object.
‘Did they tell us about the campaign in Norway?’ Mussolini is reported as having said to Marshall Badoglio, recalling an earlier slight from his Axis partner, ‘or the opening of the offensive on the western front? They behaved as if we did not exist – I shall repay them in their own coin!’
There was a second reason for Mussolini’s decision to keep the news of the forth-coming action from Hitler’s ears: he was sure it would be strongly vetoed, for Hitler at that time was trying to keep America out of the war by influencing US opinion in favour of isolationism. This was to be done by presenting the ‘New Order’ in Europe as one which had brought peace.
Mussolini realised that his intended aggression in the Balkans would destroy this piece of Nazi propaganda, but he was in no mood to allow his own need for aggrandisement to be sacrificed. In a letter to Hitler on October 19 he outlined the many Greek infringements of neutrality (which had been conjured up by the Italian Naval General Staff), and added that he intended to deal swiftly with them. He knew that the German dictator was at that time visiting Spain and France, but he had the letter sent to Berlin by messenger on October 23. Its contents were transmitted by telegram to Hitler at Hendaye on the Spanish border, where the Führer was trying to persuade General Franco to join the Axis.
‘We are on the march!’
The following day, as part of the plan to woo Vichy France, Hitler visited Pétain at Montoire and from there sent a message to Mussolini suggesting a meeting in Florence on the 28th. The Italian attack on Greece was launched early that day, and when Hitler stepped out of the train at Florence he was greeted by Mussolini with the words: ‘Führer, we are on the march!’
Italy had long coveted Greek territory. The 20th century provides many instances of clashes between the two countries arising out of the Italian claim to the Dodecanese Islands, the Epirus region, and Corfu. Fundamentally Mussolini’s action sprang from Greece’s geographical position. Italy looked upon the whole of the Adriatic seaboard as her domain; Albania had already been assimilated into the ‘New Roman Empire’, Greece and Yugoslavia were to follow.
The Treaty of Friendship, Conciliation, and Judicial Settlement which the two countries signed in 1928 (Mussolini being Italy’s signatory) and the declaration which the Duce made when Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940, solemnly announced that he did not intend to drag Italy’s neighbours into the conflict – these were empty words and bore no relation to the Duce’s secret intentions.
There were no ideological differences between the two countries. Mussolini could not accuse Greece of being a democracy – a form of government he detested – for the political situation in Greece was such that she was eminently suited to be a member of the Axis. Since 1936 Greece had been ruled by a dictator, General Metaxas, who was disliked both by the Royalists and the Venizelists (pro-British Liberals). He had strong German sympathies and copied Nazi methods: political parties were disbanded; dissenters from the regime were imprisoned, exiled, or shot; elections were suspended; the press was heavily censored. The Chair of Constitutional Law at Athens University was abolished, and in many areas municipal government was suspended. The Asfalia, a secret police force similar to the Gestapo, was established, and the Hitler Jugend imitated by the introduction of the Ethniki Neolea.
At 3am on October 28, 1940, General Metaxas was awakened by Emmanuel Grazzi, the Italian Minister in Athens, who presented him with the Italian ultimatum, which was to expire at 6am and which demanded a passage for Italian troops to certain unspecified strategic points. Greek troops were to offer no resistance. Ciano noted in his diary: ‘Naturally it is a document that allows no way out for Greece. Either she accepts or she will be attacked.’
But national pride proved far stronger than a common ideology. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and war between the two countries began officially at 6am. Some Italian troops started their advance at 5.30am without waiting for the ultimatum to expire.
So it was that the Greek people in their fight for national integrity were on the side of the democracies and indirectly helped to preserve liberties they themselves did not possess. It was an ironic situation.
The Italian Commander-in-Chief, General Visconti Prasca, felt that he held so strong an initiative that he need make hardly any provision for the enemy’s movements. He knew that the pre-war policy of the Greeks had been to avoid the provocation that the Duce had been so loudly accusing them of; and with that object they had even avoided mobilisation. Since conditions in Greece – poor communications, a widely dispersed population, and mountainous country – made mobilisation a slow process, Visconti Prasca believed that he would have the campaign won before his enemies could take the field in force. In fact, of the 15 or 16 divisions of the Greek army, 12 did not receive mobilisation orders until the Italian invasion had begun.
Visconti Prasca saw before him three main lines of advance into Greece. Just south of the junction of the three frontiers of Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia a road ran from Koritsa to Florina and Thessaloniki. About half-way from this point to the sea a second road ran from Vlonë through Frashei and up the Vijose valley towards Koritsa and Metsovon. This is a less important road, and leads through the very mountainous Pindus region. The third, with two roads, each more important than the Pindus road, is the line of the coast, where alone is there any open country.
Assuming that the Greeks would stand on the defensive everywhere, Visconti Prasca pushed light forces along the Florina road, and made his most important thrust in the mountains. His army was far more highly mechanised than the Greeks’, and he realised that they would be road-bound in the centre, so he committed the largest part of his forces to what he considered a secondary thrust, along the coast across the Kalamas river towards the Acheron river.
The Italian advances achieved no great speed at first, but weight of thrust along the coast took the 6 miles to the southward in the first two days, both on the road above the shore and on the parallel road inland that led to Ioannina. In the Pindus they captured Koritsa, but in the north no progress at all was made.
Four days later, on November 2, the Pindus thrust was held, and the crack III (‘Julia’) Division of Alpini [3rd Alpine Division Julia wikipedia] was struggling to get the advance going again; on the coastal front the slow advance continued. But on the northern front Visconti Prasca suddenly realised what was to be the penalty of his misunderstanding of his enemy.
The Greek Commander-in-Chief, General Papagos [Alexander Papagos (1883-1955) wikipedia], had realised the importance of the Koritsa sector. If the Italians were to make a successful thrust in the direction of Florina they might quite soon break through to Thessalonika, cut off the provinces of western Thrace, which lie along the north coast of the Aegean, and render useless the five Greek divisions whose mobilisation area lay around Thessalonika.
When no Italian thrust in force came along this line, General Papagos awaited the mobilisation of these divisions, and moved them across the country to the Albanian border, boldly accepting the risk that Bulgaria, who maintained her territorial claims to Thrace, might attack once this force was away.
Greece Strikes Back
Now he launched the first of his counter-offensives. On November 2, six days after the invasion had begun, both Greece and Britain were electrified to hear that Greek forces had attacked and captured Mount Pissoderi, 3 ½ miles inside Albania, one of the ring of mountains around Koritsa. He had local superiority of force, and the Italians began to rush up reinforcements. But three days later his tactical plan became clear, when the main road out of Koritsa, which runs north-west, was cut by a Greek force that had pushed past the town. On the same day they were able to bring artillery fire to bear on the town itself.
Meanwhile the Greek forces on the central front, at first little more than a division, had held out against the Italian attack and brought it to a halt. On November 4 they received their first reinforcements, and on the next day, by abandoning the valleys where the Italians’ superior equipment gave them the advantage, they infiltrated through the enemy positions and almost surrounded the ‘Julia’ Division. Fighting at altitudes of up to 5,000 feet, in November of what was to prove a severe winter, their toughness, training, and knowledge of the country were more than a match for the Italians’ weight of metal, and on November 6 the Italians found themselves trapped. The next four days of the most utter confusion as the Alpini tried to break out, retreating at headlong speed and sweeping away the reinforcements that tried to support them, only to find that they had still not escaped the Greeks above them in the mountains. In this battle alone the Greeks took 5,000 prisoners, and claimed that they inflicted 20,000 further casualties, killed and seriously wounded. After this disaster General Visconti Prasca was removed from command (though, for prestige reasons, he remained in Albania in a less important post) and replaced by General Ubaldo Soddu [Ubaldo Soddu (1883-1949) wikipedia].
On the coastal front the Italians had continued to advance after the destruction of the Alpini had begun. On November 8 the Italians reached a short stretch of the Acheron river. This was the limit of their advance. The Greek success in the centre made the position of the foremost Italians in the west precarious, and on the 13th they began to withdraw.
The same day the Greeks had the heartening experience of welcoming a company of Albanian deserters, anxious to fight against their Italian masters. These were formed into the nucleus of an Albanian legion which fought for the Greeks.
On the 14th, without relaxing the pressure on the Pindus sector, the Greeks exerted more upon Koritsa, and captured more positions to the north-west of the town. In the centre some of their troops re-crossed the Albanian border. This steady advance threatened not only the Italians on the coast, but also the second road from Koritsa to the west. On the 16th the Italians abandoned Koritsa, on the south-west flank of the Pindus axis, but reinforced Koritsa across the mountains. Next day the Greek advance in the Pindus cut the Italian road link with Koritsa, but the Italians in that town tried to counterattack and relieve the direct pressure against it.
Now the success of the Greek strategy became plain. By their brilliant success in the centre they had torn loose the Italian hold on both ends of the front. Koritsa was cut off from all communication but foot-traffic and pack animals; the big Italian concentration on the coast was threatened and being forced to withdraw, and, while it was on the move it was counterattacked by the heaviest Greek blow so far. Almost at once a breakthrough was made, and the Italian divisions on the coastal fron – the only portion of the Italian army so far undefeated – were in full retreat. The Greeks pursued them up the coast towards Sarandë and Argyrokastron, and down the Vijose river towards Frashei and Vlonë.
Meanwhile a new attack, intended to lead to the final assault, had been begun against Koritsa on the 18th, and despite desperate resistance by the Italian IX Army – Mussolini’s special pride, the Army of the Po – the town fell on the 22nd. As both the roads out of town had been cut earlier, prisoners and war material captured by the Greeks at Koritsa were a rich harvest. The next day the last Italian soldiers were driven from the soil of Greece.
taken from History of the Second World War
[Phoebus Publishing Ltd in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum]