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The Greco-Italian War, sometimes called the Italo-Greek War, was a conflict between Italy and Greece, which lasted from 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941. It marked the beginning of the Balkan campaign of World War II and the initial Greek counter-offensive was the first successful land campaign against the Axis 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" and in Italy as the "War of Greece".
By the middle of 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had grown jealous of Adolf Hitler's conquests and wanted 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 boast of 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 dictator 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 counterattack failed, humiliating Italian military pretensions. 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.
The Greek victory over the initial Italian offensive of October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of the Second World War and helped raise morale in occupied Europe. 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.
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 northwestern neighbour, was, from its establishment, effectively an Italian protectorate. Both Albania and Greece claimed Northern Epirus, inhabited by a large Greek population. Furthermore, Italy had occupied the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese islands in the southeastern Aegean since the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. Although Italy promised their return in the 1919 Venizelos–Tittoni accords, it later reneged on the agreement. Clashes between the two countries' forces occurred during the occupation of Anatolia. 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, was a target of Italian expansionism. A period of normalization followed, especially under the premiership of Eleftherios Venizelos in Greece from 1928 to 1932, and the signing of a friendship agreement between the two countries on 23 September 1928.
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. It was technologically upgraded, largely re-equipped, and, as a whole, dramatically improved from its previous deplorable state. Additionally, the Greek government purchased new arms for its three armies. However, 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.
On 7 April 1939, Italian troops occupied Albania, gaining an immediate land border with Greece. This action led to a British and French guarantee for the territorial integrity of Greece. For the Greeks, however, this development canceled all previous plans, and hasty preparations were made to defend against an Italian attack. As war exploded in Central Europe, Metaxas tried to keep Greece out of the conflict, but, as it progressed, he felt increasingly closer to the United Kingdom, encouraged by the ardent anglophile King George II, who provided the main support for the regime. This was ironic, for Metaxas, who had always been a Germanophile, had built strong economic ties with Hitler's Germany.
At the same time, the Italians, especially the governor of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, began using the issue of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus as a means to rally Albanian support. Although Albanian enthusiasm for the "liberation of Chameria" was muted, Jacomoni sent repeated overoptimistic reports to Rome on Albanian support. In June 1940, the headless body of Daut Hoxha, an Albanian Cham patriot, was discovered near the village of Vrina. Jacomoni blamed his murder on Greek secret agents and, as the possibility of an Italian attack on Greece drew nearer, he began arming Albanian irregular bands to be used against Greece.
Soon after the fall of France, Mussolini set his sights on Greece. According to 3 July 1940 entry in the diary of his son-in-law and foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano:
...British ships, perhaps even aircraft, are sheltered and refueled in Greece. Mussolini is enraged. He has decided to act.
By 11 August, the decision for war had been taken:
Mussolini continues to talk about a lightning attack into Greece at about the end of September.
Mussolini revealed in his private comment to his son-in-law, Count Ciano:
Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out from the newspapers that I have occupied Greece.
In the meantime, the original Italian plan of attacking Yugoslavia was shelved due to German opposition and lack of the necessary transport.
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. These reached their peak with the torpedoing and sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli by the submarine Delfino in Tinos harbor on 15 August 1940, a national religious holiday. Despite undeniable evidence of Italian responsibility, the Greek government announced that the attack had been carried out by a submarine of "unknown nationality". Although the facade of neutrality was preserved, the people were well aware of the real perpetrators, accusing Mussolini and his Foreign Minister Count Ciano.
On 12 October 1940, the Germans occupied the Romanian oil fields. Mussolini, who was not informed in advance, was infuriated by this action, regarding it as a German encroachment on southeastern Europe, an area Italy claimed as its exclusive sphere of influence. Three days later, Mussolini ordered a meeting in Rome to discuss the invasion of Greece. 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, had been completed. Mussolini was reassured by his staff that the war in Greece would be a campaign of two weeks. This overconfidence explains why Mussolini felt he could let 300,000 troops and 600,000 reservists go home for the harvest just before the invasion. 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- to two-brigade divisions. Lt. Gen. Prasca knew he would lose his command if more than five divisions were sent, so he convinced Mussolini that five were all he needed. Foreign Minister Ciano, who said that he could rely on the support of several easily corruptible Greek personalities, was assigned to find a casus belli. 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. 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 favour to a military intervention; the same was true for an alleged revolt of the Albanian minority living in Chameria, located in the Greek territory immediately behind the boundary, which would break out after the beginning of the attack.
On the eve of 28 October 1940, Italy's ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Metaxas. It demanded free passage for his troops to occupy unspecified strategic points inside Greek territory. Greece had been friendly towards Nazi Germany, profiting from mutual trade relations, but now Germany's ally, Italy, intended to invade Greece. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum with the words "Alors, c'est la guerre" (French for "Then it's 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."
Shortly thereafter, Metaxas addressed the Greek people with these words: "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. The struggle now is for everything!" The last sentence was a verbatim quote from The Persians, by the dramatist Aeschylus. In response to this address, the people of Greece reportedly spontaneously went out to the streets singing Greek patriotic songs and shouting anti-Italian slogans. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece, headed to army recruitment offices to enlist. 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. Even the imprisoned leader of Greece's banned Communist Party, Nikolaos Zachariadis, issued an open letter advocating resistance, despite the still existing Nazi-Soviet Pact, thereby contravening the current 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.
The initial goal of the campaign for the Italians was to establish a Greek puppet state under Italian influence. This new Greek state would permit the Italian annexation of the Ionian islands, the Aegean island, groups of the Sporades, and the Cyclades, to be administered as a part of the Italian Aegean Islands). These islands were claimed on the basis that they had once belonged to the Venetian Republic and the Venetian client state of Naxos. In addition, 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 northwestern frontier and the Florina–Pindus–Arta–Prevesa line. 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 had reached a victorious conclusion.
The front, roughly 150 km 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 to provide labor for the harvest. Given the expected requirement of at least 20 divisions to facilitate success, the fact that only eight divisions were currently in Albania and the fact that the Albanian ports and connecting infrastructure were inadequate, proper preparation would have required at least three months. Nonetheless, D-day was set at dawn on 26 October.
The Italian war plan, codenamed Emergenza G ("Contingency G[reece]"), 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 existing forces occupying 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 blackshirts 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. The plan was essentially prescribing a defensive stance in Epirus, with a gradual retreat to the Arachthos River–Metsovo–Aliakmon River–Mt. 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 judgment 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 immediate 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 Greeks enjoyed a small advantage in that their divisions had three regiments as opposed to two, meaning 50% more infantry, and slightly more medium artillery and machine-guns than the Italians, but they completely lacked tanks. While the Italians could count on complete air superiority over the small Hellenic Royal Air Force, but the majority of Greek equipment was still of World War I issue. Additionally, these parts came from countries like Belgium, Austria, and France, which were now under Axis occupation, creating adverse effects on the supply of spare parts and suitable ammunition. However, 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 actively prepared itself for the forthcoming war during the late 1930s. In addition, Greek morale, contrary to Italian expectations, was high, with many eager to "avenge Tinos".
The war started with Italian forces launching an invasion of Greece from Albanian territory.
The attack started 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, while the littoral group advanced οn its right along the coast, securing a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. The Italians faced difficulties with the light L3 tanks of the Centauro, which were unable to cope with the hilly terrain or the muddy tracks that served as roads.
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. Even air action was rendered ineffective by poor weather. Under an uncertain leadership and divided by personal rivalries, the troops were already becoming exhausted. 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 defense. On that same day, the Albanian theatre was given priority over Africa by the Italian High Command. 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-strong3rd 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' force. The Greek General Staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of the II Greek Army Corps. The first Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, but had little success. After covering 25 miles of mountain terrain in icy rain, Julia managed to capture Vovousa, 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 the arriving Greek reserves.
Greek counterattacks resulted in the recapture of several villages, including Vovousa by 4 November, practically encircling "Julia". Gen. Prasca tried to reinforce it with the newly arrived 47th Bari Division, which was originally intended for the invasion of Corfu), but it arrived too late to change the outcome. 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. However, 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. This fighting retreat lasted for several days. By 13 November, the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence and the Julia division was effectively destroyed, ending the Battle of Pindus in a complete Greek victory.
With the Italians inactive in western Macedonia, the Greek high command moved III 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. The performance of Albanians in blackshirt battalions was distinctly lackluster. The Italian commanders, including Mussolini, would later use the Albanians as scapegoats for the invasion's failure. These battalions, named Tomorri and Gramshi, were formed and attached to the Italian army during the conflicts; however, the majority of them defected.
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 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 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 bitter fighting on the fortified frontier line, the Greeks broke through on 17 November, entering Korçë on 22 November. However, due to indecisiveness 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. The Greeks did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat, and their offensive towards Vlorë also failed. 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 was finally stopped. 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, but the 57,000 soldiers did not reach the front in time to fight.
The following passage aptly summarizes the episode from the perspective of the Greek defence of their homeland, the ill-prepared Italian debacle, and the bravery of the Italian soldiers:
No one can deny the victor's laurels to the Greek soldier. But under conditions like these, one can only say that the Italian soldier had earned the martyr's crown a thousand times over.
The stalemate continued, despite local actions, as both opponents were not 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, on the other hand, wishing to achieve success on the Albanian front before the impending German intervention, gathered their forces to launch a new offensive, code-named Primavera ("Spring"). The Italians assembled 17 divisions opposite the Greeks' 13 and, under Benito Mussolini's personal supervision, launched a determined attack against the Klisura Pass. The assault lasted from 9 to 20 March, but failed to dislodge the Greeks. The attack only resulted in small gains like Himarë, the area of Mali Harza, and Mt. Trebescini near Berat. From that moment until the German attack on 6 April, the stalemate continued, with operations on both sides scaled down.
In anticipation of the German attack, the British and some Greeks urged a withdrawal of the army of Epirus to spare badly needed troops and equipment to repel the Germans. However, national sentiment forbade the abandonment of such hard-won positions. The mentality that retreat in the face of the Italians would be disgraceful and overriding military logic caused them to ignore the British warning. Therefore, 15 divisions, the bulk of the Greek army, was left deep in Albania as German forces approached. General Wilson derided this reluctance as "the fetishistic doctrine that not a yard of ground should be yielded to the Italians"; only six of the 21 Greek divisions were left to oppose the German attack.
On 6 April, the Italians re-commenced their offensive in Albania in coordination with the German Operation Marita. The initial attacks made little progress, but on 12 April, the Greek high command, alarmed by the rapid progress of the German invasion, ordered a withdrawal from Albania. The Italian 9th Army took Korçë on 14 April and Ersekë three days later. On 19 April, the Italians occupied the Greek shores of Lake Prespa, and on 22 April, the Bersaglieri Regiment reached the bridge of the border village of Perati, crossing into Greek territory the next day.
Greek forces in Epirus were cut off on 18 April, when elements of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler motorized brigade captured the Metsovo Pass after overcoming local Greek resistance. The next day, Ioannina fell to the Germans, completing the isolation of the Greek army. Aware of the hopelessness of his situation, Lt. Gen. Georgios Tsolakoglou, in agreement with several other generals, but without authorization from Papagos, relieved army commander Lt. Gen. Pitsikas and offered the army's surrender to German General Sepp Dietrich on 20 April. This was done primarily to avoid the perceived dishonour of surrendering to the Italians. The terms of surrender were deemed honourable, as the Greek army would not be taken prisoner and officers would be allowed to retain their sidearms. Mussolini was enraged by this unilateral surrender. After many protests to Hitler, the surrender ceremony was repeated on 23 April, this time including Italian representatives.
On 24 April, Italian troops joined up with German forces attacking the Attica area near Athens. The defeated British forces began their evacuation and Bulgaria occupied northern Greek territory around Xanthi. 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.
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 severe 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 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 decisively 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. German 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 signaled the end of Allied surface operations in Greek waters until the Dodecanese Campaign of 1943.
Looking back near the end of the war, as Germany’s inevitable and impending defeat loomed ever closer, Hitler attributed great blame to Mussolini’s Greek fiasco as the cause of his own subsequent catastrophe. ‘But for the difficulties created for us by the Italians and their idiotic campaign in Greece,’ he commented in mid-February 1945, ‘I should have attacked Russia a few weeks earlier.’ He believed that the delay in launching ‘Barbarossa’ had cost him victory in the Soviet Union. Days later, along similar lines, he lamented that the ‘pointless campaign in Greece’, launched without warning to Germany of Italian intentions, ‘compelled us, contrary to all our plans, to intervene in the Balkans, and that in its turn led to a catastrophic delay in the launching of our attack on Russia. We were compelled to expend some of our best divisions there. And as a net result we were then forced to occupy vast territories in which, but for this stupid show, the presence of our troops would have been quite unnecessary.’ ‘We have no luck with the Latin races,’ he bemoaned afterwards. The one friend among the Latins, Mussolini, took advantage of his preoccupation with Spain and France ‘to set in motion his disastrous campaign against Greece’.
As an explanation of Germany's calamitous defeat in the Soviet Union, this had little to commend it. Some historians, such as Antony Beevor, claim that it was not Greek resistance that delayed the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, but the slow construction of airfields in Eastern Europe. But, although the diversion of German resources into Greece just prior to the attack on the Soviet Union scarcely helped the latter enterprise, Mussolini's foolishness did not undermine 'Barbarossa' before the operation started. It nevertheless had the most serious consequences for the Axis war effort in north Africa. In the autumn of 1940 this should have been the pivotal theatre. Italy’s position prior to launching a north African offensive would indeed have been far stronger had Tunis and Malta been taken after she had entered the war.
The Germans saw the importance of the sector and offered troops and equipment. The Italian military Supreme Command wanted to take advantage of the offer. It could have made the difference. But Mussolini refused. He was keen to keep the Germans at bay in what he saw as an Italian war theatre. Beyond that, from October onwards vital manpower and resources were directed, not at north Africa, but at Greece. Between October 1940 and May 1941, five times men, one and a third times as much matériel, three and a half times merchant ships and more than twice escort vessels were deployed on the Greek operation as in north Africa.
The consequences of this diversion of resources, once the British offensive began in December, soon became evident. The implications were recognized by German strategists. The naval staff’s operational planners summed up the position already by 14 November 1940, little over a fortnight into the Greek debacle: ‘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’ – even though this of course, more than an attack on Greece, had the potential to inflict serious damage on the British war effort, if the Axis could have taken possession of the Suez area. The assessment continued:
The Italian offensive against Greece is decidedly a serious strategic blunder; in view of the anticipated British counteractions it may have an adverse effect on further developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the African area, and thus on all future warfare … The Naval Staff is convinced that the result of the offensive against the Alexandria–Suez area and the development of the situation in the Mediterranean, with their effects on the African and Middle Eastern areas, is of decisive importance for the outcome of the war … The Italian armed forces have neither the leadership nor the military efficiency to carry the required operations in the Mediterranean area to a successful conclusion with the necessary speed and decision. A successful attack against Egypt by the Italians alone can also scarcely be expected now.
By mid-December it was a case not of the long-awaited offensive against Egypt, but of repairing the fall-out from the disastrous Italian collapse. Despite Rommel’s subsequent heroics in the desert campaign, with limited resources, the Italian failure and the alternative priorities for the deployment of German manpower and matériel meant that the crucial north African theatre was exposed to Allied might. To this unhappy state of affairs (from an Axis viewpoint), Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece at the end of October 1940 had made a major contribution.
The most direct consequences of Mussolini’s move were felt by Greece and Italy. The immediate casualties of the conflict unleashed by the Fascist dictator on 28 October numbered around 150,000 on the Italian side and 90,000 Greeks.
For the Greeks, however, this was the beginning of the misery. Three and a half years of occupation followed the German invasion of April 1941. Beyond the repression of the conquerors, hyperinflation and malnutrition took a high toll. Around a hundred thousand people died of famine during the winter of 1941–2. A small fraction of Greece’s Jews survived Nazi round-ups and deportation to the death camps. Even liberation, in October 1944, brought no end to Greece’s suffering. The bitter aftermath of deep and intractable internal divisions that emerged during the occupation and surfaced after liberation was the country’s fierce civil war, which flared up in 1946 and lasted until 1949.
For Italy, ill-fated invasion of Greece (with the attendant disasters of the sinking of the fleet at Taranto and the ignominious collapse in the north Africa) signalled the end of great-power pretensions once and for all. The idea of a 'parallel war' to build Italy's own imperium had been revealed as a chimera. Mussolini had, of course, been the chief ideologue as well as the political leader driving along this cause, but he had been able to build upon, and exploit, long-standing continuities in Italian ambitions to became a genuine great power. For although they were often anxious about the consequences of expansion and armed conflict, and voiced well-founded strategic and tactical reservations, the Italian establishment right up to the King had no principled objections to war in pursuit of empire and national grandeur. If Mussolini could have delivered a successful war, he would have encountered little opposition.
The Greek struggle received an exuberant praise at the time. Most prominent is the quote of Winston Churchill:
"Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks."
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:
In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25 March 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the Battle of Salamis, Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds.
Greece's siding with the Allies also contributed to its annexation of the Italian-occupied but Greek-populated Dodecanese islands in 1947.
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. October 28, 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.
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