Ponte Perati: The ‘Highway of Death’ of the Greek Army in Albania

Ponte Perati: The ‘Highway of Death’ of the Greek Army in Albania

by

David Aldea

You can contact David at: decimaflottigliamascommandos@gmail.com
David is also the co-author of 5th Infantry Brigade in the Falklands
(Leo Cooper, 2003) and has written numerous articles, including “Blood
and Mud at Goose Green” (Military History Magazine, April 2002)

In April 1941, General Ugo Cavallero’s 9-day blitz took the 14 Greek Army divisions  in Albania completely by surprise. Despite claims in poorly researched books that the retreating Greek Epirus Army escaped largely intact and surrendered with full military honours to the SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler opposite the Vjosa River,  the opposite happened. The cream of the Greek Army in Albania, was almost totally destroyed in the Battle for Perati Bridge.

On 13 April, General Ugo Cavallero, the Italian commander-in-chief in Albania, launched an offensive on the Greek Epirus Army (Epirus Field Army Section or EFAS) culminating in what came to be known by the Italians as the Battle of Ponte erati.  General Cavallero smashed the EFAS, and the supporting RAF and Hellenic Air Force squadrons, as well as some Yugoslav units in the offensive. A war correspondent with the Bari Division would eventually come to write: “The Greeks had lost the best part of fourteen divisions, sacrificed in a battle at Perati bridge.” (Source: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19410423&id=Y09QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TQ0EAAAAIBAJ&pg=4405,5298215&hl=en  ‘Greeks Caught in Trap, Says Italy’, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 23 April 1941 )

 

Success depends on your speed!

April 13 dawned clear and windy. By early evening, the Bersaglieri spearheads of General Carlo Geloso’s 11th Army were rapidly closing on Korce. By the time the sun set on day one, the Italian Army in Albania could report the capture of 1,000 enemy POWs  and a dozen artillery guns captured in the area of Lake Ohrid. Elsewhere, General Alessandro Pirzio Birolo 9th Army encountered stiff resistance, road-blocks and mines,  but Geloso’s divisions were able to press on, capturing Bilishti on 15 April and Erseke on 17 April.

On 14 April, as the weather worsened, and raining commenced, Cavallero warned Pirzio Biroli: “Successo dipende da vostra celerità.”   (Source: Diario, 1940-1943, Ugo Cavallero, Giuseppe Bucciante, p. 15, Ciarrapico, 1948) Recognizing that the Greeks were attempting to escape to Greece under the cover of bad weather, Cavallero drew up a plan for round-the-clock bombing raids to break their formations. (Regia Aeronautica: Balcania e Fronte Orientale, Angelo Emiliani, Giuseppe F. Ghergo, Achille Vigna, p. 136, Intergest, 1974, p.136).

The key target was the the bridge over the river at Perati. He arranged for Italian Stukas  named Picchiatello in Italian service— to bomb and subject it to intensive cannon fire. It would be cleared by the 9th Army but the Tridentina, Parma and Piemonte Divisions  became bogged down in the confusion of battle and their advance stalled. (Venti Anni, Marco Piraino, Stefano Fiorito, p. 87, Lulu Press, Inc) The dive-bomber attacks started on 14 April and went according to plan in spite of intense anti-aircraft fire that cost one Picchiatello on 16 April. (Source: Stormi d’Italia: Storia dell’Aviazione Militare Italiana, Giulio Lazzati, Mursia, 1975, p.141).

The Italian 9th Army divisions proceeded to capture Koritza, that doomed the British/Australian/New Zealand defence in Greece:

Their courage, like that of the defenders of the Metaxas line, was to no avail; as so often happens to troops occupying a static position in mobile warfare, the battle was being decided elsewhere. List now detached the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division from the main axis of advance of XXXXth corps and sent it forward in the direction of Koritsa. Far from counter-attacking, however, the demoralized Greeks gave way and thus allowed the Italians to occupy the town without resistance on 15 April. With 9th armoured division crossing the upper Aliakhmon and reaching Servia on the next day, the British forces on the Olympus found themselves surrounded on both flanks. following a decision made by Wilson three days earlier they now started falling back across Thessaly to Thermopylae, leaving in their wake 20,000 Greek troops who, being less well endowed with motor vehicles, failed to escape in time and were captured by the Germans. (Source: Martin van Crevald, Hitler’s Strategy 1940-1941: The Balkan Clue, p. 162, Cambridge University Press, 1973)

On 18 April, the Italian high command announced that, despite fierce fighting, divisions of the 11th Army had broken through the Greek lines that morning and captured Klisura.

It was on this, the fifth day, that the Casale and Ferrara Divisions captured Porto  Palermo  and in order to pursue a faltering enemy General Geloso executed a  brilliant maneuver. Wheeling as one to the right, part of the 11th Army turned east and carried the fight into the Klisura Pass. Exacting a heavy toll, the Bari Division captured Permet, finding and surprising an enemy as it did so. (Source: Albania in the Twentieth Century, A History: Volume II: Albania in Occupation and War, 1939-45, by Owen Pearson, p. 144, I.B. Tauris, 2006).

The power and deadliness of the Regia Aeronautica ground strikes was impressive,  demoralizing the Greek Army and winning total domination of the air. The Greeks commanders complained about “total lack of air cover,” which the British had promised to provide. British fighters intercepted Italian bombers and claimed one Fiat G.50 fighter shot down and several others damaged near Koritza on 14 April and bombed Valona harbour, but thereafter disappeared from the skies.

 

Highway of Death

Like the attack on the Iraqi Republican Guard on the “Highway of Death” in 1991, much of the Greek mechanized hardware soon became smoldering hulks. Hundreds of vehicles were caught in the open and pummeled by Italian aircraft and artillery along the  Përmeti-Perati mountain pass. The road came to be known among Italian Stuka  pilots, as the “Autostrada della Morte”.  Along the Adriatic coast, waves of Savoia-Marchetti SM.79  and SM. 81 Sparviero bombers pounded other roads leading away from the battlefield. Stefani, the official Italian news agency took great pride in the slaughter saying, that the Greek Army was  losing “four-fifths of its permanent forces and all the war material supplied by Britain.” The news agency also reported that “the Greek route of retreat, on the road from Ioannina to Arta, 35 miles south, was littered with the wreckage of hundreds of motor vehicles.” (Source: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=950&dat=19410421&id=xwJQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DVUDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3348,916037&hl=en  ‘Allies Fall Back to New Defense Lines’, The Evening Independent, 21 April 1941).

On April 20, the 4th Bersaglieri Regiment annihilated a Greek division in six hours. At dusk, the 5th and 8th Alpini Regiments joined the fight and smashed into the EFAS  rearguards. The steamrolling of the Eprirus Army continued. Prisoners taken were able to confirm intelligence reports. The Italian spearheads were confronting the vaunted Royal Guard or Evzones. The Evzones fought hard for more than a day before being defeated. The crack Bersaglieri regiment  breached the Greek Evzone line with  flamethrowers. Many Greeks were burned alive in their bunkers. In the meantime, the Edolo Battalion, 59th Alpini Regiment, 26th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Battalion and 17th Milan Lancers Regiment upon receiving new orders, raced to reach the fleeing Greekdivisions before they could repair the bridge and escape the trap. (Source: La Guerra Italiana, Retroscena della Disfatti, Volume 2, by Emilio Canevari, p.330, Tosi).

That night, a communique issued by the Italian High Command announced that Italian fighters and bombers had obtained further success, destroying hundreds of more trucks packed with troops and equipment. (Source: http://www.alieuomini.it/pagine/dettaglio/bollettini_di_guerra,9/-_aprile_dal_n_al_n,54.html Bollettini di Guerra, N. 298 – N. 329, April 1941). Under the umbrella of air supremacy, tens of thousands of troops from the Brennero, Julia and Modena Divisions were able to advance along roads stretching from Argirocastro to Libonovo and Delvine, in concert with the Bari and Taro Divisions now racing to reach Ponte Perati.

Embittered fighting Greece

Embittered fighting  takes place

The seventh day of battle merged without pause into the eighth, and the Italian high

command announced that Bersaglieri and Alpini spearheads had practically sealed the

Albanian-Greek frontier:

During yesterday (April 20th) our troops were forced to fight hard in beating back the Greek retreating forces, who were offering a tenacious resistance in their fortified positions along the Albanian frontier. Embittered fights took place, in one of which the Fourth Bersaglieri Regiment particularly distinguished itself. All the localities along the Albanian frontier have been reoccupied by our troops.” (Albania in the Twentieth Century, A History: Volume II;  Albania in Occupation and War, 1939-45, Owen Pearson, Tauris, 2006, p.145)

On 20 April Salivaras wrote in her diary: “In Albania there was fierce resistance to the

enemy air force. The enemy attempted to hit our troops at two points. But they were held

off at great loss and chased back behind their own lines.” (The Kalamata Diary: Greece,

War, and Emigration, Eduardo D. Faingold, Rowman & Littlefield, 2010, p.132).

As the Bari and Taro Divisions reached the Ponte Perati area, the Bari came under heavy

machine-gun and artillery fire, causing many casualties.:

“Il 19 aprile il 139° fanteriadella Bari, elemento più avanzato dell’VIII corpo, veniva

arrestato da un violento fuocodi armi automatiche e di artiglieria in corrispondenza

del torrente Carshaves, unadiecina di chilometri avanti al ponte di Perati. La

Campagna Di Grecia, Ufficio Storico SME, 1980, p.799) (“Fra il 19 ed il 22 reparti della

Bari, della Cagliari e della Cacciatori delle Alpi ebbero ragione della testa di ponte di

Perati.” (Source: Immagini Della Seconda Guerra Mondiale: La Campagna Italo-Greca, 1940-1941, Luigi Emilio Longo, Stato Maggiore Dell’Esercito, Ufficio storico, 2001, p.56).

“Dal 20 al 23 sostiene ancora duri combattimenti prima di raggiungere Ponte

Perati” (Source: http://www.regioesercito.it/reparti/fanteria/rediv47.htm).

Although fierce fighting continued on 19, 20, 21 and 22 April, word soon got around that

the Greeks in the area had had enough. Under a white flag, a Greek officer approached

the Milan Cavalry Regiment and a parley took place. (“A mezzogiorno del 21 aprile,

frattanto, un emissario greco si presentava agli italiani a Ponte Perati per informare che

un armistizio era in atto.” Ponte Perati: La Julia in Grecia, Manlio Cecovini, Longanesi,

1973, p.17 ) “Alle ore 17 si  presentava un nuovo parlamentare per chiedere che fosse

trattato un armistizio; ma anche questo fu respinto.”

(Source: http://www.soldatinionline.it/english/Articles/History/La-Campagna-di-Grecia-1940-1941-6-parte.html).

 

By nightfall, the division, bloodied, but undaunted, could say with pride it had broken

the back of a stout enemy. The Bari Division, which had borne a great deal of the Ponte

Perati action, was to report the loss of 30 officers and 400 other ranks, killed or wounded.

(“Voglio darvi solo una notizia perché possiate valutare lo sforzo che è stato fatto:dalle 16

del giorno 21 alle 9,30 di ieri mattina, cioè nel giro di una notte, la divisione “Bari”, che

ha espugnato la posizione di Ponte Perati, ha perduto 30 ufficiali e 400 uomini di truppa.

Ecco un indice dello sforzo!” Diario, 1940-1943, Ugo Cavallero, Giuseppe Bucciante,

Ciarrapico, 1948, p.86) The Commanding Officer of the 139th Infantry Regiment (Bari

Division), Lieutenant-Colonel Achille Lauro, was killed and awarded the Medaglia d’Oro

al Valor Militare for his outstanding leadership in the face of the fierce enemy fire.

“Ufficiale superiore di elette virtù militari, rimasto ferito il proprio colonnello, assumeva

il comando del reggimento durante un aspro combattimento. Due volte ferito, rifiutava

di allontanarsi dalle posizioni per dare ancora, in un momento particolarmente delicato,

il contributo per il conseguimento del successo. Mentre venivano stroncate le ultime

resistenze nemiche, veniva nuovamente colpito e cadeva da eroe alla testa dei suoi fanti

lanciati verso la vittoria. Premeti -Zona Ponte Perati (Fronte greco), 18- 22 aprile 1941”

(Source: http://www.quirinale.it/elementi/DettaglioOnorificenze.aspx?decorato=13130).

 

Plenipotentiaries to General Carlo Geloso

On 21 April, the Pusteria Division received orders to move its units to Lake Giannina,

well inside Greece, a march that would require the Alpini to march across the lower

slopes of the Pindus Mountains. Lieutenant Antonio Ferrante Di Ruffanoe of the division

recalled:

 “On the way we found a lot of materiel abandoned in retreat by the Greeks, especially

ammunition. Their depots extended for hundreds of metres with great numbers of

boxes. The biggest boxes were made in Britain, while the French ones often

contained one very large shell each … we found two heavy-calibre cannons well

hidden in caves, which had been used to shell us on Mount Golico. Neither our air

force nor our own artillery had managed to silence them.” (Never Retreat: Mai Daùr,

Antonio Ferrante Di Ruffano, Lulu Press Inc, 2011.p.70).

 

That night, Lieutenant-General Georgios Tsolakogloou, commander of the Greek forces in

Western Macedonia, entered  into surrender negotiations with the Italian 9th Army Headquarters:

“The news came that at 9 p.m. Lieutenant-General George Tsolakoglou, the other

commander in the Epirus and Macedonia, sent plenipotentiaries to General Carlo

Geloso, commanding the Italian Eleventh Army, to seek acceptance of surrender.

General Tsolakoglou capitulated on behalf of the commanders of all the Greek

armies on the Albanian front, but without the sanction of the Greek

government” (Source: Albania in the Twentieth Century, A History: Volume II: Albania

in Occupation and War, 1939-45, Owen Pearson, I.B. Tauris, 2006, p.146).

 

Anxious to avoid dealing with the Italians, the Greek First Army commander, General

Georgios Tsolakoglou had the previous day offered to surrender the whole Greek Army

in Albania and Greece to SS General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich. (“The protocol decreed that

from that moment hostilities between Germany and Greece would cease, and, on

Dietrich’s word, within a few hours between Greece and Italy as well. Greek troops

would return to the original Greece-Albania borders within 10 days, Tsolakoglou offered,

then they would demobilize, surrender their weapons, and return home. For honour’s

sake Greek officers would keep their side arms.” (Source: Swastika over the Acropolis: Re-

interpreting the Nazi Invasion of Greece in World War II, Craig Stockings, Eleanor

Hancock, BRILL, 2013, p.403). But the Germans turned their backs on the Greeks and

Ioannina and the Port of Kalamatas in southern Greece were strafed and heavily

bombed by the Luftwaffe.

“The German planes turned circles above the unfortified city, machine-gunned, bombed.

Then after half an hour, the siren announced it was over. We went outside because the

danger had passed. But the worst thing was that the planes had bombed the White House

Hospital and killed two of the wounded, wounding others still more.” (Source: The

Kalamata Diary: Greece, War, and Emigration, Eduardo D. Faingold,  Rowman &

Littlefield, 2010,p.133).

 

“The Germans, however, failed to keep their promises. Even as negotiations were being

conducted, they were savagely bombarding Ioannina, and the next day they violated the

agreement. The Italians also began a series of attacks and bombardments that caused

great losses” (Source: Written on the Knee: A Diary from the Greek-Italian Front of WWII,

Helen Electrie Lindsay,  Scarletta Press, 2013, p.193).

The Greek commanders were taken aback and with the Regia Aeronautica heavily

bombing Ioannina, they were forced to admit defeat to General Alberto Ferrero, Chief of

Staff of the Italian Army in Albania. “The Italian air force, now unrestrained and

unstoppable, bombarded Ioannina in blind fury. The capital of Epirus blazed. Two

bombs fell on the operating theatre of the 1st Military Hospital, killing a great number of

people. Arta was also hit” (Source:  The Greek Epic: 1940-1941, Ángelos Terzákis, Army

General Staff, 7th Staff Office, 1990, p.176).

Hostilities on the Albanian front were finally declared at an end at 14.45 hours on 23

April local time with the Italian high command reporting that:

“The enemy Army of the Epirus and Macedonia has laid down its arms. The

capitulation was made at 9.45 last night by a Greek military delegation to the

command of the Italian Eleventh Army on the Epirus front.” ( Albania in the

Twentieth Century, A History: Volume II: Albania in Occupation and War, 1939-45,

Owen Pearson, Tauris, 2006. p.147).

 

The Italian Effort wears out the Greeks

In just little over a week, the Italian Army in Albania had steamrolled over some of the

world’s best mountain fighters, plentifully supplied with machineguns and counting with

excellent fire-support. “Marshal Badoglio told Mussolini he would need twenty divisions

to overcome the 150,000 Greek troops, who enjoyed a superiority in the number of

machine-guns” (Source: Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy’s Military Struggles from Africa and

Western Europe to the Mediterranean and Soviet Union 1935-45, Frank Joseph, Casemate

Publishers, 2010, p.64).

“Outnumbered two to one, the Greeks astonished the Italian generals with their courage

and the accuracy of their artillery, although they had only six mortars for each division

against the invaders’ sixty” (Source: Eleni, Nicholas Gage, Random House, 2010, p.63).

“The enemy dominated us with its 82mm French mortars against our 45mm and 81mm

ones. And even if we captured some of their munitions, we couldn’t use them” (Source:

Never Retreat: Mai Daùr, Antonio Ferrante Di Ruffano, p. 46, Lulu Press Inc, 2011. p.46).

 

While the Regia Aeronautica was successful in shattering morale, the Italian Army had,

in a week overrun and scattered to the four winds more Greek units than in the past 6

months. By the end of the fighting more than 70 percent of the crack 5th Cretan Division

had deserted. (“All efforts at regaining control with the 5th Greek Division failed and …

its divisional commander was sacked …  and by morning 16 April what was left of the

division was an unorganised mass in the vicinity of Petrani-Fourka” (Source: Swastika

over the Acropolis: Re-interpreting the Nazi Invasion of Greece in World War II, Craig

Stockings, Eleanor Hancock, BRILL, 2013, p.258). Generals Ioannis Pitsikas and Georgios

Bakos had already warned the Greek Commander-In-Chief on 14 April that morale in the

Greek Army was wearing dangerously thin, and command and control in the crack 5th,

6th and 8th Divisions had largely evaporated, and several Greek soldiers shot for

desertion. “Generals Pitsikas and Bakos … warned of ‘a danger of a complete collapse’ of

the army’s morale. Papagos at first was inclined to dismiss the fears” (Source: The

Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941, John Carr,  Pen and Sword, 2013, p.218).  “More

seriously, outbreaks of mutiny occurred in the 5th (Cretan) and 6th Divisions. A few

dozen deserters were caught at the Mertzani Bridge on the border and promptly

executed, but that didn’t stop the rot. Amid these signs of an army’s disintegration, on 14

April Major General Katsimitros of the much-bloodied 8th Division appealed to Pitsikas

to consider an armistice with the Germans merely to keep some of the army intact”

(Source: The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941, John Carr, Pen and Sword, 2013,

p.219).

Italian killed totalled 1,000 killed while 14 Greek divisions were disarmed and marched

off to prisoner of war camps. (“Dal 14 al 22 aprile la 9 e 11° armata ebbero oltre 1000

morti e 4.000 feriti)”                                                                                                                               (Source:http://digilander.libero.it/lacorsainfinita/guerra2/40/greciabers.htm).

“Accordingly, on the 21st, the Greeks had to sign another surrender agreement, which

contained much harsher terms than the first, all soldiers being now transferred to

prisoner of camp, although officers were still allowed to keep their sidearms, and

Mussolini grudgingly accepted it two days later” (Source: Hitler’s Gladiator: The Life and

Wars of Panzer Army Commander Sepp Dietrich, Charles Messenger, Conway, 2005, pp.

93-94). “Barely was the ink dry on the agreement than Dietrich presented the Greeks

with a new one, revoking the Greeks troops’non-prisoner status and giving the Italian

field command authority to decide on a cease-fire on its front. Tsolakoglou protested, but

eventually signed the new protocol ‘compulsorily as a prisoner of war and not of my free

violation’ (Source: The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941, John Carr, Pen and Sword,

2013, p.226).

It was a victory in every sense of the word, and Count Galeazzo Ciano, Il Duce’s right-

hand man and son-in-law, knew it when he inspected the assembled divisions in Tirana,

the Albanian capital:

9th May 1941: At Tirana. The general feeling is good; the soldiers feel more and

more that the Italian effort wore out the Greeks, and they are proud of it.” (Source:

Albania in the Twentieth Century, A History: Volume II: Albania in Occupation and

War, 1939-45, Owen Pearson, I.B. Tauris, 2006, p.151).

The Regio Esercito had tied-down large numbers of Greek divisions in Albania. This

facilitated the German invasion of Greece, with the Greeks leaving their back door

practically open to invasion. “He made it clear that in his view the Albanian front

represented a serious distraction which tied down 300,000 Greek troops and deprived

the Allies of any reserves for the eastern and central Macedonian sectors of Operations.

In fact, only three Greek divisions were made available to Wilson” (Source: Churchill’s

Generals, John Keegan, Hachette, 2012) . Benito Mussolini, congratulated Cavallero and

the 9th and 11th Italian Armies on the success of the offensive and thanked the troops

for overcoming earlier setbacks.:

“After six months of most sharp fighting, the enemy has laid down his arms. The victory

consecrates your bloody sacrifices, especially severe for the land forces, and illuminates

your flags with new glory. The fatherland is proud of you as never before” (Source:

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2194&dat=19410430&id=aPcuAAAAIBAJ&sjid=2tsFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5634,6004413&hl=en  ‘ The Victory in Albania’, Ottawa Citizen, 30 April 1941).

 

One thought on “Ponte Perati: The ‘Highway of Death’ of the Greek Army in Albania

  1. I always thought the Italians had won in that war because they spilled so much blood and effort.

    Without the Italians, the Germans could have lost the battle of Greece.

    The Italians are good soldiers who can put up with a lot of deprivations that would make the English turn into cry babies. Only the Russian soldier is tougher than the Italian soldier.

    Like

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