Mussolini found out the hard way Greece was no pushover
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini dreamed of recreating the great Roman empire of ancient times, which included annexing Greece. The nation across the Ionian Sea had been a thorn in his side for some time, refusing to commit to a side at the beginning of World War II but allowing Britain to use its merchant fleet for the war effort.
Frustrated that he was being left behind by his ally Hitler in the race to annex parts of Europe, on October 28, 1940, 75 years ago today, Mussolini delivered Greece an ultimatum: Allow Italian troops to enter and occupy parts of Greece or face violent invasion.
Prime minister Ioannis Metaxas saw that he had only one option, telling the Italian ambassador in French “Alors, c’est la guerre” (“Then it is war”). According to popular Greek legend, Metaxas’s response had simply been “oxi” or “no” and every year the date is commemorated as Oxi Day.
But Mussolini’s dreams of making Greece part of a great new Italian empire soon turned to bitter disappointment. What he thought would be a short battle became a long, gruelling campaign that would embroil German, British, Australian, New Zealand and Polish troops.
The Italians had invaded Albania in 1939 and used it as a base to invade Greece. On October 13, 1940, Mussolini asked his military chief of staff Marshal Pietro Badoglio to prepare for an attack on Greece to take place in late October. Mussolini delivered his ultimatum at 3am on October 28 and by 5am the Italians were attacking the Greek frontier.
Marshal Badoglio had argued against the attack, but the overly optimistic military governor of Albania, General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, convinced Mussolini plans for the invasion were “as perfect as is humanly possible” and the Greeks didn’t like fighting anyway. Prasca was wrong on both counts. Italy’s preparation for the invasion was abysmal. They had rations and ammunition for only about 40 days, lacked maps, had no engineering troops, had no warm clothes for the onset of cold, and far from being reluctant fighters the Greeks proved to be a wily and tenacious enemy.
One tactic the Italians had been counting on was the millions of lire they had sent to Greek military and civilian leaders to bribe them not to oppose the invasion. It is not known whether any of the money actually reached its intended targets but it made no difference to the fighting. As the battle became bogged down, the advance often halted by mountains, rain or snow, the Italians found themselves being pushed back to Albania. and Prasca replaced was with removedGa General from Ubaldo command Soddu, who had been taken off his job as under-secretary for war.
Ubaldo inherited a campaign in which his forces were on the defensive. The Greeks launched a major offensive on November 14. By November 22 they had captured Koritza in Albania, the town used as Italian HQ.
Hitler was furious that Mussolini had opened up a new front in Europe, giving the British a reason to send forces to assist the Greeks. He began making plans for intervention. The British were tied up in North Africa at the time and were only able to send a small RAF force to support the Greeks.
The Greeks decided not to push further into Albania, instead capturing strategic ports. Metaxas had limited British support, since he was keen to avoid Germany becoming involved. After his death on January 29, 1941, his successor Alexandros Koryzis accepted British help in the form of an expeditionary force, which included Australians and New Zealanders.
This force was of little help when the Germans joined the battle in April 1941. The Germans quickly overran Greece, King George II of Greece was evacuated and the British and Commonwealth troops retreated, back to Crete. While many were evacuated from Crete, thousands were killed, injured or captured.
Greece spent more than three dark years under occupation by the Axis powers until the mainland was liberated ated in October 1944.
Greek troops man a pass against the Italian invaders in 1940 and (below) Greek
PM Ioannis Metaxas.