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Italian Invasion Of Greece 1940-41: Part One

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Mussolini’s desire for another military victory as the next step in building his ‘New Empire’ played a great part in pushing the two countries into war.  In the months leading up to the Italian advance into Greece, Mussolini stilled harbored the dream that General Rodolfo Graziani’s forces in North Africa would eventually be able to push all the way across Egypt to the Suez Canal, and thus subsequently drive the British from their naval base in Alexandria.  With this in mind, Mussolini theorized that by seizing the Greek harbors and naval bases he would not only gain their use for his own Regina Marina, but also be able to deny their use to the British.

If the British navy was blocked from Greece and also driven from Alexandria, the Italians would be in a favorable position to seize almost total control of the eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps eventually the whole of the ‘MiddleSea’.  In this scenario, Italian supplies could flow to North Africa and the AOI (Africa Orientale Italiana ) relatively freely, while the British would now be completely compelled to navigate around the tip of Africa to supply its troops in the Middle and Far East.  Even the pesky little island of Malta could be subdued at the Duce’s leisure.  To Mussolini, the rewards to be seized during the summer of 1940 must have looked endless.

Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas.

Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas.

THE PLAYERS

Ioannis Metaxas, who held the title Prime Minister of Greece, was at the helm of political power for his country during the turbulent period of the late 1930s.  Metaxas was a clever and calculating man, and was for all intents and purposes a dictator; he was not cut from the same cloth as a Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, who looked to expand their empires through military conquests, but instead Metaxas was content to rule over only his country in an authoritarian manner.   Some have compared his ruling style and level of ambition to that of Spain’s Francisco Franco.

Metaxas was considered a Germanophile, and his admiration for the Germanic way and their social and military accomplishments was off-putting to many in the Greek political and military elite.  Contrarily, the Greek monarchy and military hierarchy were squarely seen as Anglophiles,  based in no small part on the large presence maintained by the British Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

There are historians who theorize that over time Metaxas and Greece could have been drawn into the Axis alliance as a partner.  The possibility of this occurring would have increased greatly if Great Britain’s ability to influence world affairs was further diminished from its pre-war heights.  Mussolini however was not looking for a new ally to willingly join the alliance, nor was he inclined to wait patiently to see how affairs sorted themselves out.  The Duce instead craved an Empire founded by the sword, and he was not going to spend time courting a nation to join him as a partner, and share in the eventual spoils,  when he believed they could be brought under his boot heel with relatively ease

Metaxas, weary of Mussolini’s intentions, had from the beginning of his reign begun the process of rebuilding and reorganizing the Greek military.  While the Greek army was not a juggernaut at the outbreak of the conflict, the advances and material improvements it made under Metaxas’s rule paid dividends once war was brought to their land.  This newly reconstructed Greek army would also hold the critical advantages that come from fighting in defense of their home soil.  The military force the Greeks were able to assemble at on the onset of the hostilities would hold numerical superiority over the Italians for a large part of the conflict, while poor weather through the opening months of the war would help eliminate the advantage the Italians held in armor and air power.

The man tasked to lead the Greek military in what would prove to be perhaps its finest hour of the 20th century was General Alexander Papagos.  Papagos was an able, if not cautious, field commander.  If in the annals of military history he is not considered one of the great generals of World War Two, his skill set was still high enough for one to fairly state that he obtained the upper hand against all three of the Italian commanders he was pitted against during the conflict.

For the Italians there existed a small group of powerful men who, either blinded by self-delusion and greed or out of ignorance to the realities of the situation, used their position and influence to help propel Italy into the war without the proper preparations needed.  Focused on the glory, accolades and riches that come from victory, Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Francesco Jacomoni di San Savino, and General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, gave Mussolini false or exaggerated reports on necessary military strength, supposed disorder in the Greek military, and the mood of Italian troops; all with the hope of convincing the Duce into declaring war.  Mussolini was of course all too willing to believe these distorted facts and claims, favoring these statements and analysis over the more cautious and realistic ones he would receive from his General Staff.  In the end, as Duce of Italy, it would be his decision alone to commit his country to war with Greece, and thus send his troops into the distant mountains to meet their fate.

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