The Greco-Italian War
(28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941)
So who really won the war?
That’s a question that has plagued military historians for years. On October 28, 1940 a cocky but under strength Italian force crossed the Albanian border to invade northern Greece in the region of the Pindus Mountains. The Italians expected it to be a quick and relatively easy campaign lasting only a few weeks. What they got instead was a big surprise. The Greeks were ready and waiting for them and managed, within a month, to push them back across the border into Albania. From mid-January to April 6, there was an uneasy stalemate with neither side strong enough to overcome the other. But by mid-January, General Cavallero was able to report to Mussolini that the front was finally stabilized. Throughout February, the Greeks had made some small gains but it seemed that the Greeks could go no further even if they had wanted to. Try as they might, they simply could not defeat the Italians. By the end of February, they were running low on artillery shells, manpower and logistics. Greek resistance was coming to an end in Albania. The question was: how long could the Greeks continue to hold out?
The Greeks had pinned their hopes on their ally Yugoslavia, to help them push the Italians out of Albania and into the sea. They hoped that if they could maintain the pressure on the Italians, together with the forces of Yugoslavia, they could drive the Italians out of Albania and then release men and arms from that front to counter the growing threat from the Bulgarians and especially the Germans. But with the rapid fall of Yugoslavia to the German 2nd Army, and the Italian 2nd and 9th Armies plus overwhelming air power, its surrender on the April 17, dashed the last remaining hope the Greeks had for victory against the Italians.
The Greek general Papagos and senior commanders knew they were not able to defeat the Italians on their own. They had some sporadic assistance from the British, but it was a case of too little too late. Besides, having the British involved was a two-edged sword for the Greeks because it meant that it could also draw the Germans into the conflict. With the sudden collapse of Yugoslavia, all hope for a final victory for the Greeks, collapsed as well.
They could only wait for the inevitable. And it came.
After the failure of the Greek Tepelene Offensive, the Greek Army of the Epirus weakened while the Italians were building up their strength. On March 9, the Italians launched a major attack called the Primavera or Spring Offensive. But while the offensive could not dislodge the Greeks from their positions (though it came very close to doing so) it had seriously weakened the Greek Army of the Epirus. Munitions supplies were running out. The Greek Army of the Epirus had less than a month’s supply of artillery shells left and manpower was becoming harder to replace.
Throughout all this the British were dilly-dallying, urging the Greeks on to fight the Italians with promises of support, pouring cold water on any talk of a cease-fire or armistice with the Italians or any peace initiatives from the Germans, all the while promising men and material that was paltry. On the 15th January 1941, General Wavell offered the Greeks two to three divisions, but Metaxas the Greek Prime Minister, wanted at least nine. He declined the British offer as being insufficient to prevent German intervention but enough to encourage it. Meanwhile the British were involved in all sorts of shenanigans with the Greeks, the Yugoslavs, the Bulgarians and the Turks, trying desperately to set up some sort of coalition or Salonika Front; in other words, getting others to do the fighting for them at the least cost to themselves; what has become known to military historians as “the British way of fighting”.
By the end of March, Greek resistance was beginning to crumble. The Italians were slowly pushing the Greeks back at certain weak points along the front even before the start of Operation Marita (the German intervention in Greece). When the final shove came, Greek and British resistance crumbled quickly, like a pack of cards that needed that last final push.
Because the Italian Army was bleeding the Greeks white and pinning down the bulk of its forces, the Germans had an easy time of it through Greece thanks to Italian tenacity and courage. The Greeks began to retreat everywhere almost immediately, while the British and Commonwealth forces, after offering several days of resistance, couldn’t retreat fast enough to their ships for the relative safety of Crete.
The Germans entered Athens on the 27th of April, and the Italians, soon after. The Greeks officially surrendered to both the Germans and the Italians. Italy then proceeded to occupy two thirds of the country with the remaining one third given to Germany and Bulgaria.
So who really won the Greco-Italian war?
Many Greeks will tell you blindly and as an article of faith that they had won the war because they had successfully repulsed the Italian invasion. And yet, it was their country that was occupied mostly by the Italians. How is it possible to win a war and lose two-thirds of your country? How is it possible for the supposed “victors” of the Greco-Italian war, the Greeks, to stand and watch helplessly as Italian troops entered Athens and parade in front of the Acropolis? How is it possible to sign a surrender document to the Italians on April 23 and call it a “victory”?
How indeed? By a twist of logic. To their way of thinking, because the initial Italian thrust was pushed back into Albania, no Greek land was occupied by the Italians. So this means in their minds that they had actually won the war. But if one follows this logic, Germany must have won the First World War because no Allied Army had actually entered upon German soil. This is pure nonsense and wishful thinking on the part of the Greeks.
Their second line of reasoning goes like this. “Oh, the Italians were only able to invade Greece because the Germans helped them on April 6 when they entered Greece.” The simple answer to this is: so what? Were not the Italians and the Germans allies? Did not the Italian Army hold down and wear out the bulk of the Greek Army in Albania, making intervention much easier for the Germans?
Thirdly, through obscurantism. By casting all types of negative and overly critical dispersion upon the Italians: i.e. their lack of preparedness, their supply problem, their morale problem, their equipment problem, their organizational problem, their leadership problem, the Mussolini problem, the Ciano problem, in fact, the whole fascist hierarchy problem and just about anything else they can find including the kitchen sink! Or they focus in on and exaggerate Italian deficiencies and set-backs. It’s the same old song played over and over again, ad nausea; a game by the way that many Anglo-American authors, like to play as well.
If the Italians had, in say January or February, simply said: “Oh, this is too much! We’re packing our bags and going home!” then yes, it would have been a clear victory for the Greeks. But they didn’t! Even though the Italians were initially pushed back into Albania, by mid-January the Italians under General Cavallero had regrouped and stabilized the front. By late March and early April, there were signs that the Greeks were beginning to crack under the pressure. Certainly the Greeks could not have held out for long as their ordnance supplies were low and their army , in the words of one author, “was fast reaching the end of its logistical tether”. Their morale was sinking and desertions were increasing. The Greek army was exhausted. It had, according to some estimates, a month of effective resistance left, while Italian strength was increasing, not decreasing.
So who really won the Greco-Italian war? Well, I’ll leave this question up to you, the reader, to decide. But for myself, I would ask these questions:
- who ended up occupying most of Greece?
- who officially surrendered to whom?
- when a foreign army marches through your capital city and you are helplessly looking on, who is victorious here?
- if an enemy attacks, even when it is pushed back, but still continues to fight and never lets up, can one really claim it as a “victory”?
Wars have their ebbs and flows. Sometimes the invading force pushes forward, sometimes it is pushed back. Each side can claim tactical successes or failures here and there, but at the end of the day, whose boots are marching in your towns and cities? The Greeks made a valiant effort against an enemy that was complaisant and half prepared, an enemy that expected an easy victory. The Italians were both surprised and dismayed by the stiffness and hardiness of the Greek resistance. But after an initial set-back, they recovered, stabilized and starting pushing back. Italy had the resources to continue the war for as long as it took; the Greeks did not have that luxury. They played for time, hoping against hope that the Yugoslavs or the British would come to the rescue. But when the former collapsed and the latter was niggardly in aid and oscillating, then realistically the Greeks had little chance defeating the much stronger Italians. And when the heavy Teutonic boot of the Germans entered the fray, whatever chance the Greeks had against the Italians, was snuffed out.