ITALY INVADES GREECE; HITLER STUNNED

Rome, Italy · October 28, 1940

In October 1940 Romanian strongman Gen. Ion Antonescu gave Adolf Hitler per­mis­sion to occupy his coun­try. Hitler’s Axis part­ner Benito Mus­so­lini was caught off guard by the news, and the Ital­ian public reacted nega­tively. For years the Ital­ian dicta­tor and his country­men had con­sidered Roma­nia to lie within their sphere of in­fluence. In a fit of pique, Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) announced in a war coun­cil meeting earlier in the month (Octo­ber 15) that he would “occupy” Greece in a two-week cam­paign launched from Ital­ian-occupied Alba­nia on this date in 1940. As a way of evening the score, he’d let Hitler read about his fait accompli in the Berlin newspapers! (Truth be told, it was shortly after the German Wehr­macht [armed forces] had defeated France several months earlier, in June 1940, that Mus­so­lini became fixated with adding Greece to his “Mare Nos­trum” [Latin, “Our Sea”], a concept comparable to Hitler’s quest to acquire German “Lebensraum” in Eastern Europe.)

Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 by Greek defenders, Mus­so­lini’s inva­sion force was ill-pre­pared, poorly led, and insuf­fi­ciently equipped, and was easily pushed back into Alba­nia by better-disci­plined, better-moti­vated, and better-equipped Greek forces. The Ital­ian “Blitz­krieg” (German, “lightning war”) on Greece, which Hitler only learned about while en route to a meeting with Musso­lini in Flo­rence, Italy, petered out in mid-Novem­ber 1940. The Ital­ian set­back appeared to en­danger Hitler’s forth­coming cru­sade against the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa) by need­lessly riling the neu­tral Bal­kan states and Tur­key, to say nothing of throwing a monkey wrench into the Wehrmacht’s logistical timetable in the East.

The sub­se­quent coor­di­nated German assaults on Greece and neigh­boring Yugo­sla­via to the north in early April 1941, or Hitler’s res­cue of Mus­so­lini’s “mad­ness,” as he referred to it, had the unin­tended con­se­quence of Ger­man mili­tary inter­ven­tion in Italy’s Medi­ter­ra­nean realm. Inter­ven­tion turned into a bigger dis­aster for Italy than Mus­so­lini ever could have imagined—one that culmi­nated in the coun­try’s destruc­tion by sparring German and Allied armies on Italian soil between 1943 and 1945.





The Greco-Italian War, 1940–1941

Initial Italian incursion into Greece, Oct–Nov 1940 Greek counteroffensive, Nov 1940–March 1941

Above: Mussolini sent the Italian Army across the Adriatic Sea into Albania in April 1939. The army, initially deployed on the Albanian-Greek bor­der, launched a major offen­sive against Greece on Octo­ber 28, 1940. After a two-week con­flict, Greece managed to repel the inva­ding Ital­ians. Beginning on Novem­ber 9, 1940, Greek forces launched a major counter­offensive and penetrated deep into Albanian territory.

Greek soldiers in Albanian town, 1940 Destroyed Italian tank, Albania

Left: Greek soldiers in Gjirokastra, Southern Albania, in Decem­ber 1940, after pushing the Ital­ians out of Greece. Early that same month the Greek mili­tary com­mand worried about the pos­si­bility of Ger­man inter­ven­tion in support of their Axis treaty part­ner, Italy, and so they attempted to hasten their advance. However, Italian reinforcements in January 1941 halted the Greek counteroffensive.

Right: Greek operations culminated with the capture of the strategically important Klisura Pass in Albania on January 10, 1941.

Alpine trooper and mule Greek army unit during Italy’s 1941 spring offensive

Left: Emblematic of the campaign in Greece, a mem­ber of one of three regi­ments in Italy’s 3rd Divi­sion Alpine “Julia” struggles with his mule in deep mud during the Greco-Italian cam­paign in 1940–1941. Following their debacle in Greece, the Ital­ian Al­pine regi­ments saw ser­vice on the East­ern Front in 1942–1943 as part of the 8th Ital­ian Army in Russia, or ARMIR, which sus­tained heavy losses. Of the 57,000 Al­pine troops who fought in Russia, only 11,000 returned home.

Right: A unit of the Greek Army during Italy’s 1941 offen­sive, code­named Prima­vera (“Spring”). The Ital­ians wanted to achieve suc­cess on the Alba­nian front before the im­pending Ger­man inter­ven­tion in Greece and Yugo­sla­via. Under Benito Mus­so­lini’s per­sonal super­vision they launched a deter­mined attack that lasted from March 9 to March 20, but it failed to dis­lodge the Greeks. The stale­mate con­tinued until the Ger­man attack on Greece from Bul­garian territory on April 9, 1941 (Opera­tion Marita). The Greek high com­mand ordered a with­drawal from Albania on April 12. Later that month Ger­man, Ital­ian, and Bul­ga­rian forces over­whelmed Greek and Brit­ish Com­mon­wealth defenders, and the Germans raised their swastika flag over the Acropolis in Athens on April 27, 1941.

Italian Newsreel Documenting the First Days of Mussolini’s Invasion of Greece (in Italian)