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 1940Greek 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, 1940Destroyed 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 muleGreek 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 and German Newsreels of Operation Marita, April 6–30, 1941: Axis Invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia