WWII The Italian Offensive

When the Italian command stopped the offensive in Greece, it planned to resume it after reinforcements come from Italy. Meanwhile the Greek command, in view of the progress in mobilization, neutrality of Sofia allowing shifting some troops from the Bulgarian frontier, as well as the British control over the sea coasts, decided to go to a counter-offensive. General Aléxandros Papágos ordered to strike on 14 November 1940. The core forces – Army Western Macedonia (Gen. Ioánnis Pitsikas), III Army Corps (Gen. Geórgios Tsolákoglou), and II Army Corps (Gen. Dimitrios Papadopulos) had to take the area of Korytsa (Korca), and the left-wing I Army Corps (Gen. Panaiotis Demestichas) had to drive an auxiliary advance on Argyrokastron (Gjirokastra). The Greek offensive started as scheduled. Troops from the Army Western Macedonia in heavy fights took the Morove massif, and started the maneuver to surround Korytsa . The Italian 9th Army found itself in a critical situation, and eventually started withdrawal from the city, where on 22 November at 17:15 entered advanced units of the Greek 9th Infantry Division (Gen. Christos Ziguris).

In other sectors of the front the Greeks drove the Italians back from Greece to Albania. Nine-days-long battle for Korytsá (Korca) brought them a big success. Gen. Papágos decided to exploit the situation in order to achieve the ultimate victory; for that he wanted to use fresh troops coming from the Bulgarian frontier. Further Greek advance drove the Italians farther into Albania, and left in the Greek hands such important points like Permeti, Argyrokastron and Ayioi Saránda. It did not bring though an ultimate destruction of the enemy, especially in the centre of the front, where the Italians held a strategically important area of Kelcyra – Tepelena. Nevertheless the Greek success was estimated very high, among others by the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Spencer Churchill:

The Greek army, under General Papagos, showed superior skills in mountain warfare, outmanoeuvring and outflanking their enemy. By the end of the year their prowess had forced the Italians thirty miles behind the Albanian frontier along the whole front. For several months twenty-seven Italian divisions were pinned in Albania by sixteen Greek divisions. The remarkable Greek resistance did much to hearten the other Balkan countries and Mussolini’s prestige sank low. Churchill

In January and February 1941 the Greeks focused their effort on taking those two spots, but they succeeded only in taking Kelcyra; the Italians held Tepelena. The Greek advance stalled in result of strengthened Italian defence and very harsh winter, which paralysed operations in the mountains. Communication routes stretched as well.

The hereto course of the war against Greece caused a serious internal crisis in Italy. The chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was dismissed. Gen. Ugo Cavallero, who also assumed the personal command of the forces in Albania, took his place. More troops, equipment and supplies were sent to Albania. It coincided with the British offensive in Libya, which brought the destruction of the Italian 10th Army and the loss of Cyrenaica. Also grew the crisis in the Italian-occupied Abyssinia (Ethiopia), where the British in January launched the offensive, which in May brought another Italian defeat. The whole Italian concept of the «parallel war» was falling apart. Benito Mussolini was forced to ask help from Adolf Hitler. But he did not give up the hopes to achieve some success, and he sought the success in Albania.

The Italo-Greek war was waged in a remote, scarcely inhabited, mountainous region with few roads. In December 1940 there came frosty winter, which held its grip till March. In the upper parts of the mountains temperatures dropped to -20 centigrades. The blizzards were ravaging, and the mist covered the mountains. The troops were not prepared for war in such conditions. Most of the soldiers on both sides did not know winter at all. The Italians considered pulling out units comprised by the inhabitants of Italy’s warm southern regions, and replace them by the units from the northern part of the country. The Greek 3rd Infantry Division from the Peloponnese stayed in the front only 20 days, after which it was pulled out. It was replaced by the 8th Infantry Division from Epirus; its soldiers were better prepared for the harsh climatic conditions. Frostbites became a common occurrence. They particularly affected the Greeks, whose medical services were poorer, and the supplies, due to extended communications, scarcer. In the first line the wounded and the frostbitten had to help themselves. Amputations were applied to a massive dimension. It even came to an uproar in the troops, which started saying that the medical service was serving the enemy.

The Greeks, aware of their inferiority in the weapons, conducted their advance along the mountainous ranges hoping, that the success achieved there would eventually leave the valleys in their hands too. This principle worked at the initial stage of the offensive, but such operations progressed at a slow pace. The Greeks could not exploit their successes quickly enough in the valleys, and the Italians had all the time to retreat and assume defence on new positions. Transforming tactical successes into operational ones was very difficult. The Italians, who originally did not attach much attention to holding key mountains, now changed their tactics: when they deployed on communication nodes, they also secured nearby summits.

The war also gradually engaged more human resources. The Greeks concentrated on the Albanian front 250,000 soldiers. The Italians, who possessed a bigger potential, in February had already 350,000 men and were bringing more reinforcements. [Papágos] Better armed and equipped, they eventually managed to build an impregnable defence line. The break through that line by weaker, and worse equipped and supplied Greek troops became practically impossible. Supplies on both sides encountered enormous problems. The Italians though were in a better situation, since after they were driven into Albania, their communications shortened. Substantial forces were detached to building roads and reinforcing bridges; eventually it enabled to introduce some order in supplies and evacuation. On the Greek side the troubles mounted with each kilometre of the terrain gained in Albania. The nearest railway stations capable to handle war materials were in Florina, Amintaion, Kalabaka and Preveza. From there it was about 100km in straight line along lousy roads running across gorges, passes and low carrying capacity bridges. Vehicles were scarce; the whole burden of supplies was laden on horses, mules and donkeys.

The winter had multiplied the troubles. Maintaining the roads in usable conditions required the work of thousands of people. In Greece it was entirely on the women. Behind the frontlines the snow covered rare mountain paths. Every convoy with supplies had to be preceded by engineers, who cleared the way. Low temperatures caused that mules were falling en mass. Only two winter months claimed 50% of the animals – many of them were lost together with their cargo. [Papágos] The 9th Infantry Division, which had advanced deepest into the mountains, had its supply bases within 4-6 days of march on mules. Since each of the mules could carry up to 60kg of the load, and mules and muleteers consumed daily about 5kg of food, barely half of the load, or less, could reach the destination. Theoretically. Practically the weather conditions and enemy air forces could protract the march. Many mules fell, in some sectors only humans could carry the load, and there were periods when supplies did not reach the troops at all.

In January 1941 the commander of the Greek 10th Infantry Division reported:

Since last days our men have been receiving daily rations of 150 grams of bread, and animals less than 1kg of barley. Such a shortage of supplies reaching the frontlines comes out of the losses in mules, inflicted on the way. (…) The problem of supplies becomes dramatic due to the state of the routes, shortages in the beasts of burden, and their exhaustion. The snow cover exceeds 1.5m. Papágos

Simultaneously the commander of the 11th Infantry Division also reported that evacuations caused by frostbites exceeded the average of 45 men per day. Every day at least 20 mules are reported dead (…) and current shortages in beasts of burden on the divisional level exceed 5000 animals. As to the remaining animals, their capacity has been reduced in half due to exhaustion. [Papágos]

The Greek forces on the Albanian front therefore had found themselves in the state of extreme misery. Soldiers had to sustain on few breadcrumbs daily. Modest local supplies were quickly consumed. The only option became to take the food from the enemy. Hence among others a big activity of the Greek patrols and ambush groups, and their desperate stubbornness in the fights.

The protracted war also caused growing troubles in the rear. And there the difference between the military potentials of Greece and Italy shaped very clearly. Italy had way bigger possibilities to send people, arms and supplies to the Albanian front. Whereas Greece, with her weak industry had to cope with mounting difficulties. Mobilization of nearly 10% of the population for the military service had immediately reflected in the economy; mobilization stocks were about to finish, munitions could not meet the demand, and spare parts were not available. British supplies could not solve the problems – they were scarce, and besides the Greek army used mostly French equipment. So the hasty half- solutions were sought. Thus for example the British sent to Greece mountain howitzers taken from the Polish Karpacka Rifle Brigade, since they were French-made. Weapons and ammunition of matching parameters had been bought in the United States, Soviet Union, and even in the Argentina. Perhaps the situation could have been saved if the Greek army had switched completely to the British weapons and equipment, but such an operation would require years of scheduled purchases and troops’ training. From the point of view of the possibility to continue the war Greece had entered in the beginning of 1941 the critical stage. And at the same time in the north had emerged a new enemy – way more dangerous than the Italians – the hitlerite Wehrmacht.