Greco-Italian War
Italian invasion of Greece
28 October 1940 - 23 April 1941
author Paul Boșcu, September 2018
After Italy invaded Greece, through Albania, the Greeks fought back hard. The invasion turned out to be a disaster for the Italians who were pushed back into Albania by the Greek Army. The Italian defeat prompted the Germans to intervene in the Balkans in order to aid the Italians.
During the Greco-Italian war, the Kingdom of Italy attacked Greece with the purpose of annexing part of Greek territory. The Italians invaded Greece through Albania, which had been previously annexed by Italy, but the invasion turned out to be a disaster for the Italians. The Greeks counterattacked and pushed the Italian army back into Albania. After another failed Italian offensive in the spring, Adolf Hitler decided to come to his ally’s aid. Germany attacked northern Greece, and so the Greeks made a belated withdrawal from Albania, to avoid being cut off by the Germans.

In a series of incredibly confused conferences, the Italian military leaders heard Mussolini explain his decision to attack Greece and argued over various unlikely schemes for implementing this project. Simultaneously it became clear that the army in North Africa was, as usual, not ready to move forward.

The Germans were not officially told about the invasion of Greece until the last moment. The contradictory indications they received ahead of time were in any case no basis for decisive action which might seriously offend their Italian ally, at a time when Hitler still hoped to work out some accommodation of Italy with France and Spain. Hitler could only put a good face on the situation created by the Italian attack. Anger came later.

Bulgaria's refusal to join the attack on Greece — perhaps out of concern that Turkey might then join in — meant that the Greek leadership could move troops from Thrace to Macedonia to aid in stemming the Italians.

Anyone who has seen the terrain over which Italian troops fought in World War I will recognize that they are entirely capable of fighting bravely under the most difficult circumstances; but in an army where intelligence and rank were distributed in inverse proportions, nothing but utter disaster could be expected. Twice the top commander on the Italian side was relieved, but all to no avail. Two decades of Fascist rule had left Italy with an army that was much more poorly led, equipped, and trained than that of 1915.

The Italian troops in Albania, totally unsuccessful in their efforts at resuming the offensive, had to await the results of a German attack on Greece from an entirely different direction.

The Italians foresaw a two-stage campaign. First, their forces in Albania (a country that Mussolini had seized in April 1939) would drive south and occupy northern Greece, as their navy seized the most important Aegean islands. Then the troops would continue the march south to Athens for a final assault. Heavy bombing to terrorize Greek civilians would help precipitate the fall of the regime.

Italians began planning for an attack on Greece. But they did so without halting the demobilization of their army and had already reduced ground forces from 1,000,000 to 600,000 men. The reasons for the demobilization had been economic as well as political: the harvest and industry needed manpower, and the public needed some reassurance that events were returning to normal. Incredibly, the army executed the demobilization by age group, so that every division in Italy lost a substantial portion of its manpower. Italian forces were undermanned and unprepared for war, though their generals were all too willing.

Italian plans revealed an unhealthy contempt for the Greeks’ ability to defend themselves, along with a disregard for the most obvious operational problems. To begin with, Italian forces in Albania could claim a bare one-to-one ratio with Greek defenders. Moreover, Albania had only enough logistic infrastructure to support forces already in that country. Once the attack on Greece began, Italy would have no capacity for sending new formations into the theater or for a rapid buildup, given the demands for ammunition, food, and fuel from the battlefront.

The Italians also assumed that, given Bulgarian-Greek hostility, the mere existence of the Bulgarian Army would freeze much of the Greek Army in Thrace. This assumption turned out to be incorrect.

Mussolini believed that the small and poorly equipped Greek army would not cause him undue problems. His habitual vanity blinded him to the failings of his own army and the residual hardiness of his opponents.

Under the command of General Visconti Prasca, the Italian assault would be conducted by four divisions in the Epirus region in the west, with a further two divisions protecting the main attack. Given the ambitious nature of the plan, it was a surprisingly small force, possibly reflecting the overconfidence of the Italian high command.

The Greeks had picked up indications that an invasion was coming, and the Greek ambassador in Rome warned his government to expect an invasion. Thus alerted, the Greeks mobilized. Their forces along the frontier were quite similar in size and composition to the Italians’, but Greek artillery was better.

The Greek forces had better artillery, but this cannot be assigned a major role in the outcome. It is also futile to point to the terrible weather and terrain, since these were the same for both sides. Certainly terrain and weather conditions kept the Greeks from exploiting their victories into clearing the Italians out of Albania altogether. The actual events were decided by the determined and brave fighting of the Greeks on the one hand and the almost incredible incompetence of the Italian planning, preparations, and leadership on the other.

When Hitler and Mussolini had met on the Brenner Pass, the Führer did not warn the Duce that he intended to occupy Romania only three days later. Similarly, Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, under General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, was undertaken from occupied Albania with ten divisions without Hitler’s prior knowledge. With temperatures of -20° Celsius, difficult territory and stiff Greek resistance under General Alexander Papagos, the Italians were soon forced back into Albania.

The Italians were superior in tanks and aircraft, but their tanks were lightly armored, while the Regia Aeronautica had neither the training nor the navigational equipment to fly in bad weather. Launched into northern Greece with no logistic buildup, in some cases even without winter clothing, and no clear superiority in either weapons or manpower, the Italians marched straight into defeat.

The Italian attack concentrated on a push south in the Albanian-Greek coastal sector, an effort to cut the only significant east-west road across northern Greece at the central portion of the front, and a minimal holding attack at the Macedonian end of the border. The Greeks had been alerted by prior press polemics and diplomatic pressures and hence had begun to move up forces to meet an anticipated invasion.

After initial advances the Italian forces in the coastal sector were held, while those on the offensive in the middle were cut off and destroyed. Those at the northwestern end were quickly pushed back. Within a week it was clear on both sides that the Italian forces had suffered a serious setback in spite of having control of the air and alone fielding armored vehicles.

Italian aircraft confined themselves to attacks on Greek cities like Salonika rather than supporting their hard-pressed ground forces. The Bulgarians failed to move, while the Greeks shifted reserves to the Albanian front and soon gained local superiority. Heavy casualties bled Italian units white, and the supply system failed in almost every respect.

The Italian commander, General Visconti Prasca, exacerbated the chaos by panicking. The Italian left flank near Kroce was on the verge of collapse. As hopes of a Blitzkrieg faded, the Italians moved to a strategy of attrition to wear the Greeks down. Prasca was replaced by General Ubaldo Soddu, who was hardly an improvement; as army group commander, he whiled away his evenings writing musical scores for movies.

A Greek counter-offensive began and quickly threw the Italian forces back into Albania. The front then stabilized approximately thirty miles inside Albania with Italian counter-offensives held by the Greeks, and further Greek attacks making only smaller advances; both sides were exhausted.

Helped by units of the British RAF, the Greeks had marched so far into Albania by Christmas Eve that the Italian Chief of Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was forced to resign. Hitler, who had already decided to shore up the Italians in North Africa, was now faced with having to protect them from the Greeks and British as well.

As the Italian situation in Albania and North Africa deteriorated further, the Germans had to examine the possibility of sending troops as well as planes. The idea of sending a corps with two mountain divisions to Albania was eventually dropped for two reasons: the Italian forces appeared to no longer be in danger of being completely driven into the sea by the Greeks, and the logistical situation in Albania simply could not accommodate two German divisions.

As if these setbacks were not sufficient, the British navy carried out a previously planned assault by torpedo-carrying planes from an aircraft carrier on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Three battleships were hit, one of them beyond repair.

The campaign rapidly turned into a rout; the Greeks surged into Albania, and Soddu lost control and suggested a retreat to Valona and Durazzo. By now Mussolini had fired Badoglio; his replacement, General Ugo Cavallero, hastened to Albania to buck up Soddu. The Italians held, but barely, and Soddu’s days were numbered, especially after Mussolini discovered that he was still composing film scores. For the next month and a half the Italians hung on in a precarious position.

Both Greeks and Italians suffered terribly in the winter conditions, short of supplies and medical support. The important town of Klisura was taken by the Greeks, but from then on a stalemate ensued. The two sides dug in and waited for better weather in the spring.

The humiliating setbacks suffered by Italy's armed forces against the Greeks, accompanied by the Tarante raid, and soon followed by the collapse in North Africa, shook the Fascist system in Italy. Here were unmistakable signs of incompetence on the one hand and a war obviously about to last a long time on the other. If anyone in Italy had doubts on either score, they were enlightened by the remobilization that was now ordered, by a dramatic tightening of the rationing of basic foodstuffs, and by the British naval bombardment of Genoa.

There was great disaffection which Mussolini could not divert from himself by firing Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the Chief of the General Staff, instead of his son-in-law Ciano whom many Italians blamed for pushing Italy into the Greek adventure. The public relations stunt of sending all Cabinet members aged 45 or under to the front in Albania in January entertained rather than reassured the people at home, even as it alienated those associates of Mussolini who found their pleasant berths in Rome replaced by distinctly uncomfortable tents in the frozen highlands of Albania.

Since neither the King nor the church nor the military leadership could or would act against the regime, the police and the activist elements in the Fascist Party—with considerable use of their traditional means of persuasion, clubs and castor oil—managed to hold the discontent of the people in check. A major appeal by Churchill pointing out that it was ‘one man alone’ who had brought the Italians into this disastrous situation, clearly suggested a way out. But practically no one was prepared to take it.

By the end of January the Italians had succeeded in stemming the Greek advance. By February they were strong enough to counterattack, though with disappointing results; the Greeks hardly budged despite attacks that led to extraordinarily high casualties among Italian units.

The failure of Italian counterattacks in February represented the last gasp of Mussolini’s parallel war in the Mediterranean. Italy was well on the way to becoming a German satellite.

The Italian Spring Offensive was the last attempt to win the war against Greece without German support. The offensive opened under the supervision of Mussolini, but ended up being a failure.

The Ninth Army, under the command of General Alessandro Pirzio-Biroli, opened the attack. As the infantry surged forward, they were caught by a fierce bombardment from the well-sited Greek artillery, which caused heavy casualties and prevented the Italians from making any real headway. General Ugo Cavallero noted in his diary: 'The Greek artillery is powerfully deployed. All elements of the defending forces are well organized in depth, using positions of strength which enable them to contain and to counterattack immediately and vigorously.' The Italians fought hard to dislodge the Greeks from their defenses, but to no avail.

The attack was eventually called off, the three corps that had led the assault suffering 12,000 killed and wounded. Mussolini returned to Italy with his military reputation further tarnished. The only positive advantage for the Axis was that the offensive had worn down the Greek army, using up most of General Papagos's remaining troop reserves.

The Italians, who had earlier proudly refused German help, were forced by their defeat to ask for help. The decision to intervene in the Balkans confronted the Germans with the logistic and diplomatic difficulties of committing major forces to southern Europe. Winter weather exacerbated the difficulties.

Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to occupy the whole of Greece and drive the British into the sea. Nevertheless, planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa, added to the difficulties of a Balkan campaign by complicating the logistical buildup. By the end of March, Field Marshal Wilhelm List’s Twelfth Army, supported by the Luftwaffe’s Fliegerkorps VIII, had deployed on the Greek-Bulgarian frontier.