Fire in the Balkans

Although politicians in Rome were talking about an occupation of the whole Greece, there was barely enough troops concentrated in Albania to seize Epirus. Bigger operations had to be improvised while the hostilities were already going on. Out of 140,000 men deployed in Albania 100,000 were in combat units: five infantry divisions, one armoured, and one alpine division. Moreover three cavalry regiments, one grenadier regiment and some smaller units were used to create the Coastal Group, which more or less equalled in strength to a division. Most of those forces were concentrated along the Epirus frontier. General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca exercised the command through the Supreme Command Albania (Superalba). On 24 October his forces were divided into two army corps: 25th or Ciamuria in Epirus under the command of Gen. Carlo Rossi, and 26th in Western Macedonia under the command of Gen. Gabriele Nasci. The Ciamuria Corps had to strike with the forces of the Division Ferrara (23rd Inf.) and the Armoured Division Centauro (131st Amd.) from the area of Tepelena and Gjirokastra on Kalpakion, Yannina and Arta. The Infantry Division Siena (51st Inf.) had to force the Kalamas River, and support the advance on Yannina.

The Coastal Group had to contain Greek troops in the coastal region between the border and the mouth of Kalamas, and then operate against Arta and Preveza. The Alpine Division Giulia (3rd Inf.), subordinated directly to the Superalba, starting from the area of Erseka and Leskoviku, had to pass the Pindus range and seize passes in Metsovon and Vrisko where the roads linking Epirus with Thessaly run. The 26th Corps, which comprised the Infantry Division Parma (49th Inf.) deployed in the area of Korca, and the Infantry Division Venezia (19th Inf.), deployed on the Yugoslav border, had to support the advance of the 25th Corps with operations on its left flank. The air cover had to be provided by the Commando Aeronautica Albania deployed in Albania, and the 20th Squadron operating from Apulia – altogether 300 fighters and 100 bombers. [Terzakis] So the Italian forces were not impressively big. They might be sufficient enough to occupy Epirus, but further offensive on Athens with such a force could not be realistic. After all the Italians did not have clear plans what to do after the occupation of Epirus. They assumed that it would be an easy march on Athens from Metsovon and Arta via Lamia and Missolonghi.

The peacetime Greek army numbered about 80,000 soldiers organized in 14 infantry divisions, 1 cavalry division, and some units at the disposal of the Supreme Command. In case of mobilization those forces could be increased to 430,000 men. Till 1939 the Greek General Staff focused its strategic attention on the Bulgarian frontier, where strong fortifications were built, known as the Metaxas Line. The situation had changed after the Italian occupation of Albania. More troops had to be deployed on the Albanian frontier, and the border needed to be fortified. The troops were deployed according to the view, that an Italian offensive would be driven from the area of Korca to Salonika. Epirus was considered a secondary theatre of operations. The fall of France increased the danger of seaborne operations against Greece’s coasts; more troops were detached from the Bulgarian and Albanian sectors to the defence of major islands and continental ports.

In September 1940 the Greeks established that the Italians attached bigger attention to the Epirean sector, while the Bulgarians did not demonstrate any aggressive activities. Moreover Great Britain still controlled Eastern Mediterranean, which reduced the danger of Italian amphibious operations. Therefore the Greek operational plans were corrected, and in October 1940 it was decided to deploy 8 infantry divisions and 2 infantry brigades along the border with Albania, 6 divisions and 1 brigade along the border with Bulgaria, and 1 infantry division, 1 infantry brigade and 1 cavalry division in Salonika sector. Smaller units were garrisoned on the islands and major cities. Mobilization and deployment on the Bulgarian front were supposed to take 15 days, on the Albanian front – 28 days, starting from the first day of mobilization. Some mobilization measures were undertaken already in August. On the day of the Italian aggression the Greeks had fully operational commanding system, and partly activated defence system along the Albanian border. Generally, together with the rear units, the Greeks prevailed in the Korca – Salonika direction. In other sectors (Pindus, Epirus) the forces of both sides were more or less in balance, but the Italians possessed superiority in tanks, artillery, and air forces. In that state of matters they could achieve an operational success in Epirus, but such a success would arguably win the war for them.

The Italian assault grouping, which crossed the border on 28 October, within few days reached Kalpakion, where they stalled in face of stubborn defence of the Greek 8th Inf.Div. deployed along field fortifications. On the coast the right wing of the Italian grouping managed to seize a bridgehead on the south-east bank of Kalamas. Yet the Division Giulia achieved the biggest success – while marching across the Pindus range it outflanked Kalpakion from the north and approached Metsovon. The situation of the Greek defence became critical, but soon new factors started playing their roles; more fresh troops were hastening to the front, and civilians also came with aid to the fighting troops. Greek units in Pindus went to the counter-attack on the flank and rear of the Division Giulia, and cut it off the main Italian grouping. Its commander learnt about it several days later from a BBC broadcast from London! It was not until 6 November, that he received the order to pull his troops back. To relieve the Division Giulia divisions Ferrara and Centauro pushed against Kalpakion but without a significant success. Only in the south the Italians managed to extend their bridgehead on Kalamas. The battle for Epirus achieved its pivotal point, whereas in the direction Korca – Salonika the Greeks managed to seize strategically important heights in the Grammos range.

At that time it must have occurred to the Italians, that an easy tourist march to Athens was out of question. But the Italian political and military leadership was busy with hunting for the culprits of the debacle, which introduced chaos into the Italian command, and Mussolini’s personal intervention into operational matters. It resulted in the re-organization of the Italian command. The Army Group Albania was created under the command of Gen. Ubaldo Soddu. It comprised the 9th Army (Gen. Mario Vercellino), and the 11th Army (Gen. Carlo Geloso). Gen. Soddu immediately ordered his troops to assume defence until the arrival of reinforcements. Offensive operations had to be renewed in the beginning of December. The Greeks of course would not wait till December. The Italian decisions clearly indicated that the Greeks won the border battle. Their commander-in-chief, Gen. Aléxandros Papagos, so far was racing with time; now the roles changed diametrically. Greek troops made farther advance towards Korca, beat the Division Giulia, which barely managed to break through back to Albania, and drove the Italians beyond Kalamas.

Meanwhile important developments took place in the Mediterranean. On 31 October a British fleet reached the area of the Ionian Islands, and started cruising there to prevent any Italian amphibious operation. Simultaneously the British obtained the consent of the Greek government to install their naval base in Crete, in the Gulf of Souda. By the night from 11 to 12 November the Royal Navy bombers and torpedo aircraft carried out a successful action against the Italian fleet based in Taranto. The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, wrote, that Admiral Cunningham had for some time been anxious to strike a blow at them with his now augmented naval air forces as they lay in their main base at Taranto. The attack was delivered on November 11 (…)

Taranto lies in the heel of Italy three hundred and twenty miles from Malta. Its magnificent harbor was heavily defended against all modern forms of attack. The arrival at Malta of some fast reconnaissance machines enabled us to discern our prey. The British plan was to fly two waves of aircraft from the Illustrious, the first of twelve and the second of nine, of which eleven were to carry torpedoes, and the rest either bombs or flares. The Illustrious released her aircraft shortly after dark from a point about a hundred and seventy miles from Taranto. For an hour the battle raged amid fire and destruction among the Italian ships. Despite the heavy flak, only two of our aircraft were shot down. The rest flew safely back to the Illustrious.

By this single stroke the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was decisively altered. The air photographs showed that three battleships, one of them the new Littorio, had been torpedoed, and in addition one cruiser was reported hit and much damage inflicted on the dockyard. Half the Italian battle fleet was disabled for at least six months, and the Fleet Air Arm could rejoice at having seized by their gallant exploit one of the rare opportunities presented to them. [Churchill]

The situation at sea changed in favor of Great Britain, and subsequently also of Greece, which did not need to be afraid of Italian landings. Thus Mussolini’s campaign in Greece, which was supposed to bring him an easy prey, suddenly turned into a war ugly for the Italians.

The public opinion of the free world cheered the first Greek success in the war with fascist Italy. But its further successful conduct required closer co-operation between Greece and Great Britain. The political and military leaders of both countries soon articulated it. According to General Papagos the allies should have had defined their «sectors of responsibility» and schedules of military operations on individual fronts based on a common strategic plan. Yet such a «unity of operations» had never been achieved, because each of the allies pursued its own policy. England’s attitude towards Greece reflected the British strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey was the main political partner of the British. Greek potential was not highly estimated. Moreover, Greece’s access to the war came in a very critical to Great Britain moment and in situation when British forces were preparing for the counter-offensive in the Western Desert. It limited, as least initially, British possibilities to render aid to Greece.

The British Chiefs of Staff recommended the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Middle East, Gen. Archibald Wavell, send one infantry brigade to reinforce defence of Crete. They also discussed a possibility of aerial operations from Malta against Italy, and recommended sending four RAF squadrons and two anti-aircraft artillery squads to Greece. The British Cabinet accepted those recommendations, and announced that if the Italian air forces bombed Athens, the RAF would bomb Rome. But first of all one needed to keep the enemy off Crete, and to preserve this island as an important base. Because Crete played an important role in the British strategic plans in the Mediterranean. Perhaps even bigger than the rest of Greece. On the other hand the Greeks hardly had any illusions about the real Britons’ intentions and the dimensions of their help, and they did not give up their policy, which came out from their own estimation of the situation. Therefore, as soon as they realized that only Italy attacked them, and Germany remained neutral, they undertook any effort possible to maintain good relations with the III Reich and not to deliver it a pretext for an intervention.

There was also an important question of reaction in the countries neighbouring with Greece: Turkey, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. With Turkey and Yugoslavia Greece had concluded an alliance known as the Balkan Treaty, or the Balkan Entente. But in 1940 that treaty was just a hollow paper. If Athens needed to count on co-operation with those countries, they needed to find a more suitable reason. Both Turkey and Greece were interested to keep their possessions in the Aegean Sea. The Cordial Treaty of 14 September 1933 between them was unequivocally concluded to hold at bay Bulgaria’s designs to recover the access to the Aegean. The treaty was still efficient enough to assure that Sofia would maintain neutral position, but it had no use against Italy. Whereas the Franco-Turkish treaty concluded in October 1939 obliged Turkey to support the Anglo-French alliance in case of a conflict with Italy. In the existing situation it could mean that Turkey had to support the British, who in their turn were supporting Greece. Since June 1940 Turkey had been evading any engagement alongside the Allies despite of the British diplomatic pressure; the less was she eager to do so since the occurrence of the Greek casus. Turkey declared strict neutrality, and despite some friendly gestures towards Greece, it conducted a consequent policy of non-alignment. Bulgaria, although she did not renounce her territorial claims in the Aegean, also evaded engagement alongside Italy and declared neutrality. In fact Sofia was balancing on very shaky diplomatic ground to maintain her neutrality, but even that was beneficial to the Greek cause, since the Greek command could move some troops from the Bulgarian to the Albanian frontier.

Yugoslavia, apart from the partnership in the Balkan Entente, had a lot of common with Greece. Both countries had cultural links, and a common tradition of the fights against the Turkish domination. They fought arm by arm in the Balkan and First World wars, and now had the same enemy – fascist Italy. When the Balkan Entente was concluded in 1934 Greece, which was afraid to be dragged into the war by an Italo-Yugoslav conflict, stipulated that if any Balkan country (presumably Bulgaria) were supported by a third power (presumably Italy) then Greece would not go into the conflict with it. Now that stipulation acted against Greece. So Athens had no formal basis to expect a Yugoslav aid. But there was the menace common to both countries. And the Italian domination in the Adriatic, as well as rapprochement of Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia with Berlin caused that Salonika was becoming Yugoslavia’s only window to the world. Occupation of Salonika by the Italians would spell a complete encirclement of Yugoslavia by the Axis countries. So the Greek Supreme Command, and especially General Papagos, hoped that Yugoslavia would ally with Greece and Great Britain. Those hopes were very close to meet a very unpleasant surprise: with the outbreak of the hostilities Belgrade thought about something completely different than help. There were politicians in Belgrade, who claimed that Yugoslavia should forestall the Italians and seize Salonika. The Greek nationalist resistance groups caused that those plans were abandoned.