Greece

Italian troops entering Greece
Italian Alpini entering Greece

                     Greco-Italian War 

The Greco-Italian War was one of the many conflicts in Europe that were part of World War II. On October 28, 1940, Italian dictator Mussolini demanded Greek territory. The Prime Minister of Greece, Ioannis Metaxas , refused, saying simply “okhi” (Greek for “no”). Italian troops invaded, starting the war. With numerically superior forces, the Greek general , Alexander Papagos was able to repel the invaders before winter set in.

In April 1941 Italy’s Axis allies joined the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, forcing the Greeks to pull back and retreat  in the face of a new Italian spring offensive under General Ugo Cavallero. 

The German divisions broke the northern Greece defences in four days and quickly reached the city of Athens in just a few weeks later, on 27 April.

Italian invasion

Employing an under-strength invasion force of six divisions,  the Italians advanced from southern Albania along the coastal and mountain passes toward Kalpaki.

Despite fierce Greek resistance, the Italians managed to establish a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. However, rapidly rising rivers and mud tracks slowed down the successful Italian advance, compelling the Greek defenders to fall back into fortified mountain positions.

Greek counter-attack.

Much fighting took place in November. The most significant and bloody setback for the Italian took place during the Battle of Pindus near Kalamas River in late October and early November 1940, when the advance of the Julia Alpine Division was halted and elite Italian Bersaglieri and Greek Evzones battalions fought bitterly at the foot of Mount Morova.

On 6 November, Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano assured Mussolini that the Italian forces dug in and around Koritza (Korçë) would be able to halt the Greeks.

On 8 November, with General Ubaldo Soddu reporting the complete disintegration of General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca’s forces and Ciano proven wrong, Mussolini scrapped the invasion of Greece in favor of defensive operations in Albania and ordered that the Italian Army in Albania be urgently strengthened to seventeen divisions.

On 14 November, the 214,000-strong Greek Army in Abania seized the initiative. Italian reinforcements were rushed forward to restore the broken lines, often without supporting air cover and artillery support.

On 20 December, the Italians in Albania were on the defensive. The Greeks continued to attack and push the Italians back to Himara, Kalarat and Benca.

In December, for his part in the failed invasion General Pietro Badoglio was fired and replaced by General Ugo Cavallero as commander of forces in the Greek-Albanian theater of operations. Cavallero mounted a solid and successful defense in the winter of December–February. The Greeks were unable to defeat the Italians and stalemate in the Pindus mountains occurred, with neither side able to dislodge the other.

Stalemate

In February 1941 with the Greek offensive in  southern Albania in the vicinity of  Tepelene and Kelcyrebulk against the Ferrara and Julia Divisions having failed,  it was clear in Athens and the British Middle East Command in Egypt that without British Commonwealth reinforcements, the Greek gains in Albania would be lost. Greece was now at the end of its logistical tether and lacked the resources and manpower to defeat the Italians. Moreover, to make matters worse, the Greek generals had left the main defences along the Metaxas Line in northern Greece seriously undermanned in favor of operations in Albania against the Italians who were gaining strength day by day.

That month, General Ugo Cavallero reinforced his positions in Albania with a total of 28 divisions (comprising 4 Alpine, 1 Armored and 23 Infantry divisions), totaling 426,000 men. On 9 March, he launched the Spring Offensive with seven divisions in an attack aimed at advancing through the Vijose River and Mount Tommorit, which managed to push the 14 Greek divisions back, losing valuable ground. More importantly, the Italian offensive revealed a chronic lack of  artillery shells and manpower which the Greeks could not make up for.

German intervention

At the start of Operation Marita (the German invasion of Greece) which began on April 6, 1941, the bulk of the Greek Army was fighting in Albania, while the Italians were preparing a second offensive. The Germans invaded through Bulgaria, quickly breaking through the undermanned Metaxas Line. Despite being reinforced with two entire Elite Greek Evzones Regiments, the Greek Army in Albania, which was already suffering from poor morale, proved unable to defend Klisura and Koritza from the attacking Italian 4th Bersaglieri Regiment.

The Montreal Gazette reported the capture of the important Greek fortress:

About 25 miles south of Lake Ochrid, Koritza is a road junction whence a road leads eastwards to Florina, hinge of the present British-Greek line confronting the Axis armies. Fast columns of Italian Bersaglieri on motor cycles and in armored cars entered Koritza at 12.30 p.m. today and captured numerous prisoners and arms of every kind including several batteries of cannon, it was claimed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Guglielmo Scognamiglio, Commanding Officer of the 4th Bersaglieri Regiment, was killed in the Second Battle of Ponte Perati and posthumously awarded the Gold Medal For Military Valour, the Italian equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.


Lieutenant-Colonel Achille Lauro, a Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, 139th Infantry Regiment from the Bari Division was also killed in the fighting for Perati Bridge on 22 April and posthumously awarded the Gold Medal For Military Valour, testament of the bravery of the Greek soldiers.

On 17 April, British General Henry Maitland Wilson wrote that Greek defeatism, “was now becoming widespread”. That evening the Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Korizis, retired into his study and shot himself after telling the Greek king, George II,  that “he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him”.

Between 20 and 22 April 1941, Australian, British and New Zealand units dug in on the Thermopylae Line with orders to halt the German advance across the plain from Lamia. At that moment Australian General Iven Mackay was confident that Thermopylae Pass could be held for a considerable length of  time. Brigadier George Alan Vasey addressed the Australian 6th Division:  “Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay!” But despite the desperation of the British Commonwealth soldiers, the defence of Greece and Albania was collapsing.

On 23 April, the Greek Army surrendered to the Italians and King George II fled Greece to set up a Government-in-exile in Egypt.

On 26 April, the Germans carried out paratroop operations to cut off the British withdrawal, seizing the bridge over the Corinth Canal. However, the British troops under General Wilson managed to fight their way through the paratroopers.

The invasion of Greece was completed when the German Army reached the southern shore of the Peloponnese on  April 30, ending the humiliating evacuation of Allied forces which resulted in the capture of 10,000 British Commonwealth troops. The defeat of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later by a combined Axis force.

Operation Demon

The Allied evacuations during Operation Demon began on 24 April and over 50,000 troops were removed over five successive nights, although all of the tanks from the British 1st Armored Division were abandoned. 

British naval losses were 2 destroyers and 4 merchant ships.

Aftermath

The Italian losses amounted to 13,755 killed, 50,874 wounded and 25,067 captured or missing. Italian losses during the second spring offensive in April were 1,000 killed and 4,000 wounded.[8] German losses in the invasion of Greece were 1,500 killed (including 200 Luftwaffe pilots) and 3,700 wounded.

The Greeks suffered 13,408 killed, 42,485 wounded and 270,000 captured. [9] The British forces reported losing 12,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Some historians argue that Operation Marita was decisive in determining the outcome of the Second World War, resulting in the delay of Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of Russia) and the defeat of the Axis powers. This argument has since been convincingly refuted by the majority of historians and a Royal Commission. The capitulation and occupation of Greece by the Italians was complete and total, with Germany and Bulgaria playing an important supporting role.

 

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