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The Greco-Italian War (Greek: Ελληνοϊταλικός Πόλεμος Ellinoitalikós Pólemos or Πόλεμος του Σαράντα Pólemos tou Saránda, "War of '40", Italian: Guerra di Grecia, "War of Greece") was a conflict between Italy and Greece which lasted from 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941. It marked the beginning of the Balkans Campaign of World War II. From 6 April 1941 intervention of Nazi Germany onwards, the conflict is known as the Battle of Greece.
By mid-1940, Mussolini had grown jealous of 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 (Italian conquest of British Somaliland in the summer of 1940), but could not boast victories on the same scale as Nazi Germany. At the same time, Mussolini also wanted to reassert Italy's interests in the Balkans, threatened by Germany (he was piqued that Romania, a Balkan state in the supposed Italian influence zone, had accepted German protection for its Ploieşti oil fields in mid-October) and secure bases from which British eastern Mediterranean outposts could be attacked.
On 28 October 1940, after Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas rejected an Italian ultimatum demanding the occupation of Greek territory, Italian forces invaded Greece. The Hellenic Army counter-attacked and forced the Italians to retreat and 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, with small gains around Himare. In the first days of April, as the German attack on Greece unfolded, the Italian army resumed its attacks. From 12 April, the Greek army started 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. This led to a delayed attack and subjected the German forces to the conditions of the harsh Russian winter, leading to their defeat at the Battle of Moscow.
Ever since the Italian unification, Italy had aspired to Great Power status and Mediterranean hegemony. Later, under the Fascist regime, the establishment of a new Roman Empire, which included Greece, was often proclaimed by Mussolini.
Already in the 1910s, Italian and Greek interests clashed 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 been occupying the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese islands in the southeastern Aegean since the Italo-Turkish War of 1912, and although it promised their return in the 1919 Venizelos–Tittoni accords, it later reneged on the agreement. Clashes between the two countries' troops occurred during the occupation of Anatolia, and Italy helped the Turkish nationalists in their war against Greece.[dubious – discuss] In its aftermath, the new Fascist government of 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 had been under Venetian rule until the late eighteenth century, and a target of Italian expansionism. A period of normalization followed, especially under the premiership of Eleftherios Venizelos in Greece (1928–1932) and the signing of a Friendship Agreement between the two countries on 23 September 1928.
When Metaxas came to power in 1936 (see 4th of August Regime), plans had been 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 "Metaxas Line". In the following years, the Army benefited from great investments aiming at its modernization; it was technologically upgraded, largely re-equipped and as a whole dramatically improved from its previous deplorable state. The Greek government purchased new arms for the three Armies. However, due to increasing threat and the eventual outbreak of war, the most significant purchases from abroad, made from 1938 to 1939, were never or only partially delivered. Also, a massive contingency plan was developed and great amounts of food and utilities were stockpiled by the Army in many parts of Greece for the eventuality of war.
On 7 April 1939, Italian troops occupied Albania, thereby gaining an immediate land border with Greece. This action led to a British and French guarantee for the territorial integrity of Greece, but for the Greeks, this development canceled all previous plans, and hasty preparations started for the event of an Italian attack. As war exploded in Central Europe, Metaxas tried to keep Greece out of the conflict, but as the conflict progressed, Metaxas 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, and had built strong economic ties with Hitler's Germany.
At the same time, the Italians, especially the governor of Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, began agitating on the issue of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus as a means to rally Albanian support. Although in the event, Albanian enthusiasm for the "liberation of Chameria" was muted, Jacomoni sent repeated over-optimistic reports to Rome on Albanian support. In June 1940, the headless body of Daut Hoxha, an Albanian bandit, 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 use against Greece.
Soon after the fall of France, Mussolini set his sights on Greece. According to the 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.
Benito 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, because of German opposition and lack of the necessary transport.
On 12 October 1940 the Germans occupied the Romanian oil fields. This action, of which he was not informed in advance, infuriated Mussolini, who regarded it as a German encroachment on south-eastern Europe, an area Italy claimed as its exclusive sphere of influence. Three days later he 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, but the local commander in Albania, Lt. Gen. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, argued that only 3 further divisions would be needed, and these only after the first phase of the offensive (the capture of Epirus) had been completed. Mussolini was reassured by his staff that the war on 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. 1,750 lorries were supposed to be in Greece, only 107 turned up. The number of divisions was inflated because Mussolini had switched from 3 to 2 brigade divisions. Lieutenant General Visconti Prasca knew he would lose command if more than 5 divisions were sent so persuaded Mussolini that 5 was all he needed.
Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano (who said that he could rely on the support of several Greek personalities, who would be easy to corrupt) was deputed to find a casus belli. The following week Tzar Boris III of Bulgaria was invited to take part in the coming action against Greece, but refused Mussolini's invitation.
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, reaching their peak with the torpedoing and sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli in Tinos harbor on 15 August 1940 (a national religious holiday), by an Italian submarine. 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 thus preserved, the people were well aware of the real perpetrator (accusing Mussolini and his Foreign Minister Count Ciano).
On the eve of 28 October 1940, Italy's ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Metaxas. In it, the Duce demanded free passage for his troops to occupy unspecified "strategic points" inside Greek territory. Greece had been friendly towards National Socialist Germany, especially profiting from mutual trade relations, but now Germany's ally Italy was 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 which 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 the Athens Radio early in the morning of the 28th, with the famous 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, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece headed to the Army recruitment offices to enlist. The whole nation was 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 (although in two further letters he accused Metaxas of waging an "imperialistic" war and called upon Greek soldiers to desert their ranks and overthrow the regime).
The initial Italian goal of the campaign was to establish a Greek puppet state under Italian influence. 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). 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 (see Principality of Pindus) and the Italian-controlled Kingdom of Albania was to annex territory between the Hellenic north-western 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 practically 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 and Mario Roatta 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 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 considering the inadequacies of the Albanian ports and connecting infrastructure, adequate preparation would require 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, after the arrival of reinforcements, by a thrust into Western Macedonia and 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, while it was hoped that Bulgaria would intervene and pin down the Greek forces in Eastern Macedonia.
The Italian High Command had accorded an Army Corps to each theatre, formed from the existing forces occupying Albania. The stronger XXV Ciamuria Corps in Epirus (23rd Ferrara and 51st Siena Infantry Divisions, the 131st Centauro Armoured Division, in total ca. 30,000 men and 163 tanks) intended to drive towards Ioannina, flanked on its right by a small brigade-sized "Littoral Group" (Raggruppamento Litorale) of ca. 5,000 men along the coast, and to its left by the elite Julia Alpine Division which would advance through the Pindus Mountains. XXVI Corizza Corps in the Macedonian sector (29th Piemonte, 49th Parma Infantry Divisions, with 19th Venezia Division en route from the north of the country, in total ca. 31,000 men) 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: In Epirus the 8th Infantry Division, fully mobilized and prepared for forward defence by its commander, Maj. Gen. Katsimitros. In Western Macedonia was 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. 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 30% more infantry (three regiments as opposed to two) and slightly more medium artillery and machine-guns than the Italian ones, but they completely lacked tanks, while the Italians could count on complete air superiority over the small Hellenic Royal Air Force. Furthermore, the majority of Greek equipment was still of World War I issue, or else came from countries like Belgium, Austria and France, which were now under Axis occupation, with 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 (from the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 and the First World War to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22), and, 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 the Italian military 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 Kalpaki (Elaia), while οn its right the Littoral Group advanced along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. The Italians faced difficulties because of the harshness of the terrain, with their light L3/35 tankettes and medium M13/40 tanks, unable to cope with the hilly terrain or the muddy tracks that served as roads.
On 31 October the Italian Supreme Command announced that "Our 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". But in reality, the Italian offensive was carried out without conviction and without the advantage of surprise (not even for air action which was rendered ineffective by poor weather), under a leadership uncertain and divided by personal rivalries, and was already becoming exhausted. Adverse conditions at sea made 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. 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.
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 Colonel Davakis' force. The Greek General Staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of II Greek Army Corps. A first Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, and met with little success. Having covered 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". Prasca tried to reinforce it with the newly arrived 47th Bari Division (originally intended for the invasion of Corfu), but it arrived too late to change the outcome. During the next days the Alpini fought bravely in atrocious weather conditions and under constant attacks by the Greek Cavalry Division led by Major General Georgios Stanotas. However, on 8 November, the commander of Julia, General Mario Girotti, was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt. Smolikas towards Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until 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 (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 together with 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 the plans for subsidiary attacks on Greek islands were definitively scrapped. Enraged by the lack of progress, Mussolini reshuffled the command in Albania, replacing Prasca with General Ubaldo Soddu, his former Vice-Minister of War, 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 invasion force also included several hundred Albanians in blackshirt battalions attached to the Italian army. Their performance, however, was distinctly lackluster. The Italian commanders, including Mussolini, would later use the Albanians as scapegoats for the Italian failure. These battalions, named Tomorri and Gramshi, were formed in the Italian army while during the conflicts, the majority of them defected.
Greek reserves started reaching the front in early November, while Bulgarian inactivity allowed the Greek High Command to transfer the majority of its divisions from the Greco-Bulgarian border and deploy them in the Albanian front. This enabled Greek Commander-in-Chief, Lt. Gen. Alexandros Papagos, to establish numerical superiority by mid-November, prior to launching his counter-offensive. Walker cites that the Greeks had a clear superiority of 250,000 men against 150,000 Italians by the time of the Greek counterattacks, with only six of the Italian divisions, the Alpini, being trained and equipped for mountainous conditions. Bauer states that by 12 November General 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 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 the 17th, entering Korçë on the 22nd. 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.I and II Corps advanced in Epirus, and after hard fighting captured Sarandë, Pogradec and Gjirokastër by early December, and Himarë on December 22, occupying practically the entire area of southern Albania known as "Northern Epirus" to the Greeks. A final Greek success was the forcing 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. However the Greeks did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat, and their offensive towards Vlorë failed. In the fight for Vlorë, the Italians suffered serious losses to their Lupi di Toscana, Julia, Pinerolo and Pusteria divisions, but by the end of January, due to a combination of Italy finally gaining numerical superiority and their own bad logistical situation, the Greeks' advance was finally stopped.
Meanwhile, General Soddu had been replaced in mid-December by General Ugo Cavallero. On 4 March, the British sent their first convoy of troops and supplies to Greece, under the orders of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Their forces were four divisions (57,000 soldiers), two of them armoured. They did not reach the front in time to fight.
The following passage aptly summarizes the episode from the perspective of both the brilliant Greek defence of their homeland to the ill-prepared Italian debacle, but also the bravery of the Italian soldiers:
The stalemate continued, despite local actions, as both opponents were not strong enough to launch a major attack. Despite their gains, however, 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, and were too weak to resist a possible German attack via Bulgaria.
The Italians, on the other hand, wishing to achieve a success in the Albanian front before the impending German intervention, gathered their forces to launch a new offensive, codenamed "Primavera" ("Spring"). They 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 dislocate the Greeks and obtained only small conquests like Himarë, the area of Mali Harza and mount 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, so as to spare badly needed troops and equipment for the repulsion of the Germans. However, national sentiment forbade the abandoning of such hard-won positions, overriding military logic, and retreat in the face of the defeated Italians was deemed disgraceful. Therefore the bulk of the Greek Army (fifteen divisions) was left deep in Albania, while the German attack 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 twenty-one Greek divisions were left to oppose the German attack.
From 6 April the Italians recommenced their offensive in Albania in connection 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, followed by Ersekë three days later. On 19 April the Italians occupied the Greek shores of Lake Prespa and on 22 April 4 Bersaglieri Regiment reached the bridge of the border village Perati, crossing into Greek territory the next day.
In the meantime, the Greek Army of Epirus was cut off in 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. General Georgios Tsolakoglou, in agreement with several other generals but without authorization from Papagos, relieved Army commander Lt. General Pitsikas and offered the Army's surrender to Sepp Dietrich on 20 April, 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 were allowed to retain their sidearms. Mussolini, however, was enraged by this unilateral surrender, and after many protests to Hitler, the surrender ceremony was repeated on 23 April to include Italian representatives.
On 24 April the Italian troops joined up with the German forces attacking the Attica area near Athens, while the defeated British forces started their evacuation and Bulgaria invaded 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 was 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, 10 destroyers (4 old Theria class, 4 relatively modern Dardo class and 2 new G class destroyers), several torpedo boats and 6 old submarines. Faced with the formidable Regia Marina, its role was primarily limited to patrol and convoy escort duties in the Aegean Sea. This was essential both for the completion of the Army's mobilization, but also for the overall resupply of the country, the convoy routes being threatened by Italian aircraft and submarines operating from the Dodecanese Islands.
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 (14–15 November 1940, 15–16 December 1940 and 4–5 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. Also, 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.
With the fall of Crete in May 1941, all of Greece was under the complete control of the Axis. For the next 3 years it would endure a harsh joint occupation by Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. In the occupied country, an effective Resistance network was established, which achieved the liberation of much of the mountainous mainland by 1944. At the same time, Greek troops and ships were continuing the fight along with the British in North Africa and, eventually, in Italy itself. With the German withdrawal from the Balkans in October–November 1944, Greece, with the exception of some isolated German garrisons in the islands, was liberated. Soon however, the country would be engulfed by a new conflict, the Greek Civil War.
Despite the ultimate triumph of the Axis powers in the Greek campaign, the Greek resistance to the Italian invasion, according to several historians, greatly affected the course of the Second World War. More specifically, it has been argued that the need for a German intervention in the Balkans delayed Operation Barbarossa, and caused losses, especially in aircraft and paratroopers during the airborne invasion of Crete, which affected its outcome. Adolf Hitler, in conversation with Leni Riefenstahl, would bitterly say that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad". Furthermore, the need to occupy the country, suppress the partisans and defend it against Allied actions, tied down several German and Italian divisions during the course of the war. However, some popular historians such as Antony Beevor claim that it was not Greek resistance that delayed the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, but instead the slow construction of airfields in Eastern Europe.
For Mussolini, the failure of the Italian forces to subdue Greece without German assistance proved damaging to his prestige both internationally and at home. Instead of asserting Italian independence as he had hoped, Mussolini instead found himself more indebted to Hitler than he had ever been. For the duration of the war Mussolini would never again be in a position to act unilaterally in the sort of manner he attempted to do against Greece.
At the same time, however, the Greek resistance ultimately necessitated an Allied intervention. The decision to send British forces into Greece was primarily motivated by political considerations, and is considered in hindsight, in the words of General Alan Brooke, "a definite strategic blunder", as it diverted forces from the Middle East, at a very critical stage, to Greece. These forces in the event proved insufficient to halt the German invasion of Greece, but could have played a decisive role in the North African Campaign, bringing it to a victorious conclusion much sooner.
Also important was the moral example, set in a time when only the British Empire resisted the Axis Powers, of a small country fighting off Fascist Italy, something reflected in the exuberant praise the Greek struggle received 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 (25 March), 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 at the conclusion of World War II, in 1947.
The 1940 war, popularly referred to as the Épos toú Saránda (Greek: Έπος του Σαράντα, i.e., 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, is a day of national celebration in Greece, named Ohi Day (Greek for "Day of No"). A military parade takes place in Thessaloniki (to coincide with the city's anniversary of liberation during the First Balkan War and the feast of its patron saint, St. Demetrius) and student parades in Athens and other cities. 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 (1941–1944).
General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, in his memoirs, attributes the failure of the campaign mainly to poor organization, personal agendas, corruption and lack of cooperation among the top ranks of Italy's Armed Forces. Prasca compared the stubborn Greek resistance in Epirus with that of the Turks in the Dardanelles in World War I. At the same time, however, Prasca is considered one of those mainly responsible for underestimating the strength of the Greek Army, making inadequate plans and leading the Italian army to its blunder in the mountains of Epirus. The Italian forces certainly faced tactical problems, being weaker in infantry, with only two regiments per division. However the Italians were stronger in artillery and mortars than the Greeks, and enjoyed absolute superiority in air forces, which they did not manage to exploit properly. Poor motivation, as opposed to the Greeks, and the rough terrain of Epirus, which favoured the Greek defence, also played a role in the outcome.
However, the Italians failed primarily at a strategic level, i.e., at the level of Mussolini and the High Command. Barely a month before the invasion of Greece, on 1 October, Mussolini ordered the demobilization of half the Italian army, a measure accepted by the General Staff, although General Mario Roatta warned that much of the army would become unserviceable for many months. In addition, the persistent underestimation of Greek preparedness doomed the campaign to failure from the start. As the Italian historian Renzo De Felice wrote: "The military superiority (numerical and technical) was always, in the first months of the war, on the side of the Greeks. The Italians had only eight divisions in Albania (and two of these were facing the Yugoslavian Army) in October 1940, while the Greeks had initially 14 divisions well trained to the fight in their mountainous terrain. The Greek Army spent all available resources to attain their victorious defence and counterattack; as a consequence, the German attack Operation Marita found a limited resistance from the exhausted Greeks in April 1941." Another notable failure of the Italian offense is the lack of any attack on the Ionian Islands or Crete, which were obvious and relatively undefended targets, and could have provided Italy with strong forward naval and air bases.
Atrocities: Expulsion of Cham Albanians
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