Berlin, Germany December 13, 1940

Italy had long had an interest in the neigh­boring Balkans, which lay to the coun­try’s east across the Adri­a­tic Sea. In June 1917 Ital­ian sol­diers briefly seized por­tions of cen­tral and south­ern Al­ba­nia, declaring them a pro­tec­tor­ate. Ital­ian Fascism, which was rooted in Ital­ian nation­alism, urged Ital­ians to reestab­lish ancient Rome’s impe­rium over parts of the Medi­ter­ranean basin (Mare Nos­trum, Latin for “Our Sea”). Ital­ian dic­ta­tor Benito Mus­so­lini (1883–1945) made the urge a cen­tral part of his foreign policy starting in 1936, gobbling up Ethi­o­pia, Eri­trea, and Ital­ian Somali­land, the latter two East Afri­can pos­ses­sions already in treaty relation­ship with Italy since the 1880s. Between April 7 and 12, 1939, Mus­so­lini over­ran Albania and made the king­dom a part of his Ital­ian Empire as yet another pro­tec­­torate in per­sonal union with Italian king Victor Immanuel III.

In mid-1940 a diplomatic brouhaha erupted between Italy and its with Axis treaty part­ner (since Octo­ber 1936) to the north, Germany. With­out so much as a heads-up to Mus­solini, Adolf Hitler sent German troops to Roma­nia osten­sibly to guard that coun­try’s oil fields, so vital to the German war machine, and to train mem­bers of Roma­nia’s armed forces. How­ever, Ital­ians in general and Il Duce (Ital­ian, “the leader”) in par­tic­u­lar believed Roma­nia was in Italy’s sphere of inter­est; thus, Mus­so­lini sent his expe­di­tion­ary force of 55,000 men over the Alba­nian fron­tier into neu­tral Greece on Octo­ber 28, 1940, and let Hitler learn all about it in the media. (Hitler was livid.) With­in three weeks the Greek army launched a fierce counter­offen­sive and found itself a good way into Ital­ian Alba­nia. Mus­so­lini’s inva­sion force, ill-pre­pared, poorly led, and insuf­fi­ciently equipped com­pared with better-disci­plined, better-moti­vated, and better-equipped Greek forces, was now on the back foot.

The Greco-Italian martial maneuvers, against the back­drop of Great Britain’s Decla­ra­tion of April 13, 1939, to assist Greece should that coun­try’s inde­pen­dence be threatened, jeo­pardized Hitler’s prep­a­rat­ions to liqui­date his arch­enemy, the Soviet Union, in early 1941 (Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa). Royal Air Force squad­rons began arriving in Greece in Novem­ber 1940. Hitler drafted Direc­tive No. 20 early the next month. In it he wrote: “The out­come of the battles in Alba­nia is still uncer­tain. In the light of the threat­ening situ­a­tion in Alba­nia it is doubly impor­tant to frus­trate English efforts to estab­lish . . . an air base [in Greece] which would threaten Italy in the first place and, inci­den­tally, the Ruma­nian [sic] oil­fields.” In the next two para­graphs Hitler stated his inten­tions: “(a) To estab­lish in the coming months a con­stantly increasing force in South­ern Ruma­nia. (b) On the arrival of favour­able weather—probably in March [1941]—to move this force across Bul­garia to occupy the north coast of the Aegean and, should this be neces­sary, the entire main­land of Greece.” On this date, Decem­ber 13, 1940, the Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht (German Forces High Com­mand) issued Direc­tive No. 20 out­lining the Greek cam­paign under the code designation Operation Marita.

The subsequent coordinated German and Axis assaults on Greece and neigh­boring Yugo­sla­via to the north in early April 1941, or Hitler’s res­cue of Mus­so­lini’s “mad­ness,” as he called Il Duce’s Alban­ian misstep, had the unin­tended con­se­quence of German mili­tary inter­ven­tion in Mus­so­lini’s Mare Nos­trum (Medi­ter­ra­nean realm). Inter­ven­tion turned into a bigger dis­aster for Italy than the Ital­ian dic­ta­tor could ever have imag­ined—one that cul­mi­nated in the Italy’s destruc­tion by sparring German and Western Allied armies on the Ital­ian main­land between 1943 and 1945 and his own exe­cu­tion on April 28, 1945, and the public hanging of his corpse the next day in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan, the birthplace of Italian Fascism.

Operation Marita (The Battle of Greece), April 6–30, 1941

Map of German invasion of Greece, 1941

Above: Map shows Bulgaria, Hitler’s Axis partner since March 1, 1941, serving as the jumping off point for the German Wehr­macht’s inva­sion of Greece and Yugo­sla­via in April 1941. (Hitler used Germany’s 70 percent strangle­hold on Bul­garia’s trade to force Bul­garian King Boris III to join the German-led Tri­par­tite Pact.) The suc­cess of Oper­a­tion Marita had the up­side of preserving Mus­so­lini’s regime (increas­ingly unpop­u­lar due to Ital­ian mili­tary set­backs in Greece, North­east Africa, Ethi­o­pia, and Somali­land), as well as dis­placing over 62,000 British and Common­wealth armed service members (as of April 24, 1941) from the northeastern Mediterranean basin.

Operation Marita: Germans raising swastika over AcropolisU.S. publicity poster: Greece Fights On

Left: German soldiers raise the blood-red German war ensign (Kriegs­flagge) over the Acrop­olis of Athens, April 1941. Greek resis­tance fighters pre­vented the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Bul­garia) from enjoying a peace­ful occu­pa­tion of the main­land. By 1944, one in four Greeks was a mem­ber of the largest Greek armed resis­tance group, the National Libera­tion Front (EAM). The German Wehr­macht with­drew from main­land Greece in Octo­ber 1944 in the face of the Soviet Army’s advance into and con­quest of Bul­garia to the north. Iso­lated German gar­ri­sons remained on Crete and some of the other Aegean islands until the end of the war in May 1945.

Right: American poster supporting Greece, 1942. Greek offi­cers and sol­diers who escaped falling into German hands served in Greek units attached to the British Eighth Army, seeing ser­vice in North Africa (Oper­a­tion Torch, Novem­ber 8–16, 1942) and Italy. The Greek Navy took part in the Allied inva­sions of Sicily (Oper­a­tion Husky, July 9/10 to August 17, 1943) and Anzio in Italy and Normandy (Oper­a­tion Over­lord, June 6 to August 25, 1944), France.

Operation Marita, the Axis Invasion of Greece, April 6–30, 1941