WWII Italian offensive ; Greece says «NO»

Αθήνα 1940, οδός Πανεπιστημίου. Παρέλαση στρατιωτών που αναχωρούν στο μέτωπο

Ochi! Greek volunteers marching from Athens to the front. This picture illustrates very well the moods after the Italian invasion.

The Italian fascism saw the Balkans as a natural area of its expansion, either through direct conquest of certain lands (Dalmatia, Ionian Islands) or through their political and economical subordination. However the results of this policy were weak: apart from occupation of Albania closer relations were established only with Hungary. Their basis was in common hostility towards Yugoslavia and in Budapest’s seeking some balance to the III Reich, especially after the annexation of Austria and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In April 1939 Benito Mussolini, who unlike Adolf Hitler had gained nothing from creation of the Axis Rome-Berlin, and inspired by his foreign minister, count Galeazzo Ciano, decided to annect Albania. Out of Mussolini’s crippled conquests this was probably the most bizarre one. Italian expeditionary forces were created literally hastily. They had no combat experience, no adequate equipment, no precise orders and they almost blundered in face of the chaotic Albanian defence. Only the faint-heartedness of the Albanian king Zog I, as well as corruption and treason among his many ministers and generals, caused, that Albania was eventually occupied. This operetta-style invasion had brought to the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, yet another title – the King of Albania, to the Italian industrialists – an opportunity of unlimited exploitation of the country, and to the Italian military – a bridgehead for further conquests. But the real beneficiary was count Ciano, who practically had got his own appanage principality.

Because the new prey was subordinated to the Italian ministry for foreign affairs, and Ciano had appointed his crony, Francesco Jacomoni di San Sarino, to the post of the governor in Tirana. He ruled in Albania through the puppet collaborationist government of Shefqet Vërlaci. Vërlaci supported the Italian claims towards Yugoslavia and Greece with the Albanian revindications. Since a substantial Albanian population lived in Yugoslav Kosovo and Metohia, as well as in Greek Epirus, the government in Tirana raised the question of so-called Greater Albania and demanded annexation of Yugoslavia’s and Greece’s frontier lands. Simultaneously were growing ambitions of another Italian governor – Cesare Maria de Vecchi of Dodecanese. He dreamt about his own realm, so-called Egea, and planned to extend his dominion at the expense of Greece and Turkey. This, among others, was a reason of Turkey’s rapprochment with the Western democracies.

After the fall of France Mussolini immediately came back to the plans of the conquest of Balkans. First of all he was thinking about Yugoslavia, and then about Greece. Therefore in summer 1940 Italian troops had been concentrated on the Yugoslav border and their command was seeking co- operation with the Hungarians and German consent to use the territory of Austria during the possible campaign against Yugoslavia. However Ciano was thinking more realistically; after all he knew about the Berlin’s negative attitude towards any military adventure in the Balkans. So he resolved, that to time it would be safer to limit his appetite to way weaker Greece only. By Ciano’s initiative a number of provocations were staged, responsibility for which was shifted on the Greeks. It brought such an effect, that on 12 August Mussolini summoned Jacomoni and the commander-in-chief of the forces in Albania, Gen. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, to Rome where he outlined a plan to seize the island of Corfu (Kerkyra) and the coasts of the Epirus. He also assumed, that if the Greeks gave in without a shot, he would make no more claims. In case of a resistance he foresaw further operations. A perspective of a hastily conceived military adventure actually scared both Jacomoni and Visconti Prasca, but they dared not to spell any other opinion, but that the operation could be successful and even easy if carried out quickly. Giving still a higher priority to the action against Yugoslavia, Mussolini considered an action against Greece not sooner than in the end of September. Meanwhile provocations against Greece gained momentum. The most spectacular one took place on 15 August, when an «unknown» submarine (actually it was Italian Delfino) torpedoed the Greek cruiser Elli off Tinos during a great religious feast.

Germany’s position, as well as the policy of Yugoslavia and Greece, which did not surrender to the provocations, caused, that on 22 August Mussolini ordered to postpone the action against Greece till the end of September, and the action against Yugoslavia till the end of October. The concentration of troops on the Yugoslav frontier still lasted though. In mid-September as many as 37 divisions found themselves there, while only 3 new divisions were sent to Albania. The German position as well as the needs of the African front eventually forced il duce to abandon his plans towards Yugoslavia, but he did not give up Greece. On 12 October, when he learnt about the Germans’ entry to Romania, he turned back to the plan of the war against Greece, known to the staffs as the plan G. This plan foresaw a limited operation, a police action rather, against Greece and in favourable circumstances like Greece’s voluntary consent to the occupation, conflict with Bulgaria or domestic troubles. In case of a real war with Greece, there was prepared another plan, known as the plan PPG, which foresaw use of at least 20 divisions, which of course had to be concentrated beforehand in Albania.

On 14 October il duce summoned the chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, and the deputy chief of staff of the army, Gen. Mario Roatta, and astonished them with the demand to occupy Greece. He also asked about the number of divisions needed and time when they could assume initial positions. The officers estimated, under provision that Bulgaria would take part in the invasion, that such an operation would require twelve divisions but the eight already deployed in Albania, and their concentration would require 3 months. If they thought that they had pleased Mussolini, they were wrong. Next day he summoned a conference of the supreme political and military authorities and declared a political necessity to occupy Greece. It came out from il duce’s enunciations, that he wanted to occupy the whole Greece. As he spoke out his will, reactions of the audience varied. Badoglio and Roatta, who had already been sceptic about the whole enterprise, had spelled more objections. They argued, that they had thought only about a political action. But they were outnumbered by the supporters of il duce’s opinion. Ciano said, that Greece had been ruled by a handful of pro-English plutocrats, who solely were determined to resist, but were in conflict with the people, who were indifferent to anything including an Italian invasion. Gen. Visconti Prasca, who had to command the operation against Greece, but according to the hitherto plans had just enough forces to seize Epirus, boasted, that he would take Athens without reinforcements. He also claimed, that the morale of the Italian troops had been high, and the reason for some insubordination, which occurred among soldiers and officers, was solely due to their desire to act and attack. As to the Greek soldiers, they did not belong to those, who would be willing to fight. For short – according to the general – the march on Athens would present no troubles.

Mussolini’s decision was to be realized immediately. It meant, that the invasion of Greece had to be carried by the forces foreseen for a limited action and only in favourable circumstances. Meanwhile neither on 15 October nor within next thirteen days before the invasion (it was postponed till 28 October, the anniversary of the fascist March on Rome) occurred circumstances, which could give an impression, that it would be an easy action. Quite a contrary, the news from Greece were telling about the will to fight, while Bulgaria declined the Italian offer of a common action against Greece. Simultaneously Ciano, the author of the diplomatic note to Greece, by the very spirit of its text dismissed any chance of negotiations with the Greeks. Naturally it is a document, wrote Ciano in his diaries, that allows no way out for Greece. Either she accepts occupation or she will be attacked. [Ciano]

After the fall of France Greece found herself in a difficult situation. In April 1939 she accepted Anglo- French guarantees and therefore had bound herself with the Allied bloc. Greece too could rely on support from Turkey, also allied with France and Great Britain. It was accepted in Athens, that Greece would fight in case of an Italian aggression, but if not attacked she would maintain a friendly neutrality towards the Allies. In June 1940 situation changed dramatically: Italy entered the war against France and Great Britain, and Turkey did not fulfil her obligations coming out of the alliance with them (did not declare war on Italy). Then France capitulated. Having no assurance, that England would hold her positions in the eastern Mediterranean, Greece found herself alone in face of the dangerous Italian neighbour. So the Greek prime-minister, Gen. Ioánnis Metaxas, conducted the cautious policy of manoeuvering. He tried to maintain good relations with the «Axis» and not to break up with Great Britain. This policy met a fierce opposition. Most of the military accused the prime-minister in Anglophilia and demanded closer co-operation with Germany. Civilian politicians, contrary, accused him in drifting towards the «Axis» and bargaining Greece’s national interests. Many accused him in dragging the country into the war. Metaxas, who had been ruling Greece in dictatorial manner since 1936, quickly made short with the inner opposition, whereas he continued his policy outside and limited defence measures to the indispensable minimum. Even since mid-October 1940, when the Greek intelligence signalized deployment of Italians troops for the attack, Metaxas hesitated. After all the Italian forces in Albania were not big, Bulgaria did not show any signs of war preparations, and the talks with the German envoy, during which the Greeks tried to sound the «Axis» position, brought no effect. Because the Germans did not know anything about Mussolini’s decision until the last moment. Finally, when on 26 October by Ciano’s order intensified border provocations, it became obvious to the Greek General Staff, that the solution is a matter of hours. The Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Aléxandros Papagos, demanded proclamation of mobilization, but the prime-minister refused. He still believed, and the limited number of Italian troops in Albania strenghtened this belief, that the strain in the Italo-Greek relations did not mean a war, but was just a prelude to some Italian political demands.

The theatrical season in Athens started that year with Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly attended, according to the Italo-Greek cultural agreement, by the composer’s son Antonio and his wife. After the show a party dedicated to the friendship between the two nations was given in the Italian embassy. The party was not over yet, when the Rome started to transmit the text of the Italian ultimatum to Greece. The Greek intelligence though failed to break the Italian code. But the night to 28 October 1940 revealed the secret. At 3:00 the Italian ambassador, Emmanuele Grazzi, arrived to Metaxas’ home and handed over the text of the note prepared by Ciano. Apart from false accusations against the Greeks it also contained the demand, that Greece allowed the Italians to seize strategic points on the Greek territory. When Metaxas asked, what were those points, Grazzi had to admit, that he did not know. He added though, according to Ciano’s instructions, that the Italian troops amassed to enter Greece would do it at 6:00. The Italian government, continued the envoy, expected that the Greek government ordered its forces to make way for the Italian troops. Greece’s negative position though would not affect the decision to enter Greece. It would take place anyway. This was the aforementioned Ciano’s «allowing no way out for Greece».

Metaxas stated, that Italy had not left a chance for negotiations, and as it had given only 3 hours to issue orders not to resist its troops, it had choosen war. Before Grazzi left Metaxas’ home (at 3:15), the prime-minister started issuing orders and directives by phone. When early in the morning 28 October 1940 Italian air forces started attacking Greek cities, and Visconti Prasca’s assault grouping crossed the Greco-Albanian border, the country was already alerted. The whole Greek nation, united in the will to fight, delivered the resistance, which surprised everybody. And the prime-minister’s decision, shortened to one strong word «no» (in Greek – ochi), became a war cry and the symbol of that resistance. Metaxas himself described it in a quite tempered and compact manner in his diaries:

Someone wakes me up at 3:00. It’s Travlos. Grazzi arrives. War! I call Nikoulidis and Mavroudis. I talk to the King. I call Palairet and ask for England’s help. I summon the meeting of the Government at 5:00. They trust me (…) We examine the situation. People’s fanaticism is beyond description. Fights in Epirus. Bombings. [Metaxas]

All the Greek newspapers published the order of general mobilization. Metaxas in a radio broadcast addressed the people with the call to fight. Leaflets were dropped in the streets of Athens, buildings became decorated with national flags and propaganda posters. The whole city was agitated. Crowds of people demonstrated against the Italians in front of the Italian embassy; police had to protect the building. Although Athens and Piraeus were declared open cities, nobody was allowed to leave them. At 7:00 the first air alarm for Athens was called in.