Rome, Italy October 28, 1940

In early October 1940 Romanian strongman Gen. Ion Antonescu gave Adolf Hitler per­mis­sion for the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) 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 on Octo­ber 15 that he would “occupy” Greece in a two-week cam­paign launched from Ital­ian-occupied Alba­nia on this date, Octo­ber 28, 1940. As a way of evening the score, he’d let Hitler read about his fait accompli in the Berlin news­papers! The cover story—the casus belli given to the Greeks in Italy’s three-hour ulti­ma­tum before launching its inva­sion—was that Greece had been in vio­la­tion of its obli­ga­tion as a neutral coun­try to not col­labo­rate with Italy’s ene­mies. Truth be told, though, it was shortly after Nazi Germany had defeated France several months earlier, in June 1940, that Mus­so­lini became fixated with adding Greece to his “Mare Nos­trum” (Latin, “Our Sea”), a geo­stra­tegic con­cept com­pa­ra­ble to what Hitler wished to think of as Germany’s rightful “Lebens­raum” (meaning “spatial expansion”) in Eastern Europe.

It was a head-slapping blunder. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 by Greek defenders, Mus­so­lini’s inva­sion force—ill-pre­pared, poorly led, and insuf­fi­ciently equipped—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 same month the British deployed squad­rons of the Royal Air Force on the Greek main­land. 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, inadver­tently sucking British RAF and (later) Common­wealth ground forces into the unstable Greco-Italian mixture, to say nothing of throwing a huge monkey wrench into the Wehrmacht’s logistical timetable in the East.

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

Italian invasion of Greece Ignites the Greco-Italian War, 1940–1941

Initial Italian invasion of Greece, Oct–Nov 1940Greek counteroffensive, Nov 1940–March 1941

Above: Mussolini sent the Italian Army eastward across the Adriatic Sea into Albania in early April 1939, after which the impov­erished coun­try of just over one million people was incor­po­rated in the Italian Empire (Impero Italiano) and ruled by a vice­roy of King Victor Emmanuel III. The Italian 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 that coun­try’s 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 Southern Albania on January 10, 1941. Soon the front lines stabilized, broken only after Hitler’s intervention in April 1941, Operation Marita.

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 moun­tain infan­try regi­ments in Italy’s 3rd Alpine (Alpini) Divi­sion “Julia” struggles with his mule in deep mud during the Greco-Italian cam­paign in 1940–1941. Following their debacle in Greece, the three Ital­ian Alpine divi­sions that comprised the Alpine Corps saw ser­vice on the East­ern Front in 1942–1943 as part of the 235,000-man Eighth Ital­ian Army in Russia, or ARMIR (Armata Italiana Russi). Musso­lini dis­banded ARMIR in Febru­ary 1943, railing it home after it sus­tained heavy losses, including 64,000 who entered Soviet captivity. Of the ill-suited 57,000 Al­pine troops who fought in the vast, flat expanses of 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. The three Axis combatants occupied Greece for the next four years.

Outbreak of the Greco-Italian War: The Invasion of Greece

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