On October 28th 1940, acting on orders given by its ‘Duce’ Benito Mussolini, six reinforced Divisions of the Royal Italian Army (Regio Esercito) moved south out of occupied Albanian and across the adjoining Grecian border. This action would initiate what would come to be known as the Greco-Italian War. Taking place within the larger framework of the Second World War, this violent clash would drag on for approximately six months and serve as the spark that ignited the flames of war within the Balkans. The decision made by Mussolini to launch this campaign, an endeavor that would shape the structure of both countries for decades thereafter, cannot be looked upon as anything but a tragic folly.
One would be hard pressed to find a campaign on a similar scale that was as ill-timed and poorly supported on the part of the aggressor as this undertaking was. The decision to launch the invasion, made in such an unfathomably rushed and off-handed manner, seemed to be based on little more than anger, greed, poor assumptions, and ignorance. Ignoring sound advice given by members from his General Staff regarding the needed manpower and necessary schedule to prepare and launch a properly-supported invasion, Mussolini instead was swayed by his emotions and the pro-war opinions expressed by a few influential individuals, who looked to personally benefit from a successful operation in Greece.
To say that the Italian invasion of Greece failed because of poor logistical and strategic planning would not only over-simplify the events, but would also take away from the bitter and determined fight of the Hellenic army in defense of its land and people. However, these same failures on the part of the Italian policy makers served to bind the Italian soldier to a trajectory that from the opening days of battle seemed to be destined to end in failure.
In the end, total defeat at the hands of the Greeks was avoided; the entry of the German military into the fighting is rightfully identified as the main reason for the eventual victorious outcome of the battle, although the belated arrival of Italian reinforcements, supplies, and equipment restored the equilibrium of the Italian units on its own. These logistical improvements helped to lead to the stabilization of the front in January/February of 41’, months before German entry into the conflict. Approximately six months after the Italian invasion of Greece commenced, Italian soldiers would march into a subdued Athens alongside their German partners.
PRELUDE TO WAR
In the years leading up to this outbreak of war, there was a tense yet cordial relationship between the political establishments of Italy and Greece. As the world marched towards the Second World War, relations between the two countries began to sour. In the last few months before Mussolini made the decision to go to war, the Italians instigated an anti-Greek campaign in the press and even went so far as to sink a Greek naval cruiser in its own waters. The Greek political and military hierarchies, in an attempt to keep the peace in the region, would cover up the sinking by claiming that the warship was attacked by an ‘unknown’ aggressor even though they possessed proof that it had been an Italian submarine that had carried out the assault.
There were several points of contention between the countries that had lingered for years, two of which were territorial disputes. Both countries had laid claim on the Dodecanese Islands, and as the protectorate of Albania, Italy assumed Albania’s claim to the disputed northern Epirus region of Greece.
The April 1939 Italian occupation of Albania, a nearly bloodless affair, raised concerns inside the Greek government that Italy had stepped up in its intentions of wanting control of the Balkans. To help counter this threat the Greek military increased their readiness for a war they hoped never would materialize, but were determined to be ready for if called upon.
From the Italian perspective, of particular concern for Mussolini was the British use of Greek airfields and harbors, although by the fall of 1940 this threat was more imagined then real. Based out of Greece, the bombers and or fighters of the British air force could menace both the Italian mainland and its forces in Albania, something that Il Duce found unacceptable. Furthermore, the British air force working in conjunction with its own Royal Navy, which Mussolini feared would be operating out of Greek ports, could greatly threaten the Italian lines of communication across the Adriatic Sea while also denying the Italian navy freedom of movement.