Mus­solini found out the hard way Greece was no pushover

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - History - TROY LEN­NON HIS­TORY EDITOR

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.

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