In April 1939, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered the Italian army to invade Albania to secure control of the Adriatic Sea. On taking over Albania, Italy began a major engineering project there to improve roads to the Greek border. This was accompanied by assurances from Rome to Athens that Italy would not attack Greece. Simultaneously, on 13 April, Britain and France extended guarantees to both Greece and Romania to preserve their integrity.
In spite of assurances to the Greek government, Italy was indeed planning an invasion. Code-named CASE G, the plan for an attack on Greece received major impetus from foreign minister (and Mussolini’s son-in-law) Galeazzo Ciano, who was much involved in Albanian affairs and sponsored this operation to expand his influence over Greece as well. Mussolini also resented Adolf Hitler’s decision to send German troops to Romania to protect the Ploesti oil fields, a move destroying Italian influence in Romania. Mussolini was determined to redress the Balkan balance.
On 15 October 1940, Mussolini met in Rome with his military leaders, including chief of General Staff Marshal Pietro Badoglio and deputy chief of the army staff General Mario Roatta, to discuss the attack on Greece. Also present was General Sebastiano Visconti-Prasca, commander of the Eleventh Army in Albania and author of the invasion plan, a much shrunk CASEG. Although questions were raised during the meeting, none of those present seriously opposed the decision to begin the invasion in a few days. At this time, Mussolini wrote to Hitler seeking advice and informing him of his intentions; but by delaying sending this letter, Mussolini hoped to surprise his ally, just as Hitler had surprised him with his timing of the invasion of France. Hitler, who had accurate information about Italian intentions, made no effort to restrain his ally.
Before dawn on 28 October 1940, the Italian ambassador in Athens presented an ultimatum to Greek prime minister and dictator General Ioannis Metaxas, accusing Greece of allowing British ships to use Italy’s territorial waters and demanding free passage of Italian troops on Greek soil. Athens rejected the ultimatum, and at 5:30 A.M. that same day, Italy began its invasion.
For the invasion, the Italians had deployed in Albania six infantry divisions (two regiments each, reinforced with a lightly armed Blackshirt Legion, with a total of 12,500 to 14,500 men in each division). These were the Siena, Ferrara, Piemonte, Parma, Venezia, and Arezzo Divisions. In addition, the Italians had the Centauro Armored Division and the Julia Alpine Division. In all, the army deployed some 150,000 men—giving them only a slight numerical superiority over the Greek army before mobilization, instead of the 2:1 advantage that Visconti-Prasca claimed.
The weather was poor, with torrential fall rains. The main body of the Italian troops, consisting of the Ferrara, Centauro, and Siena Divisions, advanced near the Adriatic coast where the terrain was more favorable, trying to push across the Kalamas River and reach Janina. The Julia Division attacked toward Metsovon Pass to penetrate between Epirus and Macedonia. To the extreme Italian left, the Parma and Piemonte Divisions were on the defensive at Korcë.
In defense along the Albanian border, the Greeks had deployed four infantry divisions of three regiments each. These resisted the invaders while King George II of Greece appealed to Britain for assistance. His request won friendly reception from British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill. Although Metaxas, not wanting to offend Hitler, requested only weapons and equipment, Churchill favored sending an expeditionary force. In any case, London immediately dispatched five Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons and an interservice mission.
On 31 October, British forces arrived on the islands of Crete and Lemnos, placing British bombers within range of the Romanian Ploesti oil fields. In response, on 4 November, Hitler ordered his Army High Command to begin preparations for a German attack on Greece.
The same day that the Italian invasion began, on 28 October, Mussolini met with Hitler in Florence and proudly informed him of the event. Mussolini’s triumph was short-lived, however, as the Greek army, commanded by General Alexandros Papagos, offered stiff resistance. Indeed, by the end of the month, the Italian offensive had ground to a halt. The Greeks mobilized reserves for a total force of 18 divisions, with French-supplied artillery superior to that of the Italians. They were, however, inferior in air assets. By 1 November, the Greeks had launched a series of counterattacks that stopped the Italians on the Kalamas River. The Italians made no progress on the Epirus Front, whereas the Julia Division arrived at the Metsovon Pass only to be counterattacked and cut off as the Greeks advanced toward to the Korcë basin, there overrunning the Parma and Piemonte Divisions. The Italian High Command ordered the Venezia and Arezzo Infantry Divisions, deployed on the Yugoslavian border, to reinforce the front. On their arrival, though, they were obliged to retreat in chaos before a spirited Greek advance that aimed to cut the road from Korcë to Perati and envelop the invaders turned defenders. The only possible option for the Italians was to withdraw their entire line into Albania. This took place on 8 November, a bleak time for the Italian army in the campaign. The following day, Italian commander General Visconti-Prasca was replaced by deputy chief of the Italian High Command General Ubaldo Soddu, who then formed the Italian forces into the Albanian Army Group.
Although Mussolini boasted on 19 November that he would “break Greece’s back,” a day later he received a sharply critical letter from Hitler. It criticized Mussolini’s move, which had opened a new front that allowed the British to operate in the Balkans. The Germans were already preparing Operation BARBAROSSA, an invasion of the Soviet Union, and for security reasons did not wish to disclose their plans to the Italians.
As a consequence of the Italian failure, Marshal Badoglio came under fire, and on 26 November he and other military leaders were forced to resign. On 4 December, general of the army Ugo Cavallero replaced him. Cavallero demanded more power for the chief of General Staff and directly helped to facilitate the crisis on the Albanian Front. Cavallero would shortly take over command of the Albanian Army Group from Soddu, who retired in disgrace.
In early December, the Italian retreat from Greece back into Albania continued, forcing Mussolini to seek assistance from Hitler. The Italian “parallel war” now came to an end, along with the illusion that Italy was a great power. With the help of German transport aircraft, the Italians flew in reinforcements and shipped equipment to Valona, but this caused great confusion; units that had hurried to the front quickly disintegrated under Greek pressure and the effects of the winter weather. Moreover, it was difficult for the Italians to transport supplies to the front lines, as all had to be shipped from Italy, and there were not enough pack mules. To make things worse, on 9 December British Commonwealth units under Lieutenant General Archibald Wavell launched a successful offensive in North Africa that overran the more numerous Italian troops. By 6 January 1941, the British had seized the Libyan border town of Bardia.
The British now faced the strategic problem of having to choose between exploitation of their North African successes and stiffening Greek resistance. On 6 January 1941, Churchill told the chiefs of staff that it would be better to delay exploiting the situation in North Africa in order help Greece seize the port of Valona and avoid military defeat. Churchill therefore informed Wavell that Tobruk would be taken, but follow-up operations would depend on the situation in Greece, which would be the priority. This was also partly because intelligence revealed that German forces were concentrating for a possible offensive in the Balkans. Apparently, the Greeks did not need much outside assistance, as they attacked Klisura and forced the Italians to abandon it. At that point, the Greek drive died, meeting stiffening Italian resistance, which successfully defended Berat and therefore Valona, but at a high price.
On 19 January 1941, Mussolini met Hitler and asked him for assistance to check the British Commonwealth advance in North Africa. Mussolini did not, however, request any help in the Greek theater of operations. Meanwhile, for propaganda purposes, Mussolini demanded that senior Fascist Party leaders join Italian troops at the front. Thus Foreign Minister Ciano took command of a bomber group, and ideologue Bruno Bottai joined an Alpini battalion.
A British military mission arrived in Athens on 22 February to study the situation and propose shipment by sea of an expeditionary corps to Greece. The following day, the Greeks accepted the offer, whereon Britain dispatched some of its best North African forces to Greece: 60,000 men with 240 field artillery pieces, 32 medium artillery guns, 192 antiaircraft guns, and 142 tanks under Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson. In addition, under German pressure, Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact on 1 March, and German army units began to flow in force into Bulgaria to deploy for the future campaign. A few days later, the first British convoy to Greece sailed from Alexandria, and by 7 March, British troops began to disembark at Piraeus.
The Italians tried to force the situation in order to avoid the impression that they had been “saved” by the Germans. In March, General Cavallero launched 27 divisions in an offensive to reach Klisura. It failed and cost 12,000 Italian casualties. On 28 March, in an effort to check the British convoys bringing military aid to Greece, the Italian navy suffered an important naval defeat at the Battle of Matapan.
Meanwhile, on 25 March under heavy pressure, Yugoslavia adhered to the Tripartite Pact. But on the night of 26–27 March, a military coup d’état forced Prince Regent Paul into exile and General Dušan Simović formed a new government. This event prompted German military intervention. On 6 April, with Italian and Hungarian assistance, German forces invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece.
During the Italo-Greek War of October 1940–April 1941, the Greek army suffered 13,408 killed and 42,485 wounded. The Italians lost 13,775 dead, 50,874 wounded, and 25,067 missing. In addition, the campaign cost Italy reinforcements to North Africa, especially in equipment, which went instead to Albania. Thus, the British successes in North Africa in large part resulted from the Italian invasion of Greece.
Bitzes, John G. Greece in World War II to April 1941. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1982.
Cervi, Mario. The Hollow Legions: Mussolini’s Blunder in Greece, 1940–1941. Trans. Eric Mosbacher. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Knox, MacGregor. Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Montanari, Mario. L’Esercito Italiano nella Campagna di Grecia. 2nd ed. Rome: Ufficio Storico, 1991.