As foreign Minister of Italy, and Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Ciano possessed perhaps more influence and sway over the Duce than anyone else, including Mussolini’s wife and mistress. Ciano was once an admirer of the Third Reich, but by the summer of 1940 he was already beginning to build a disdain for Hitler and his policies. He, like Mussolini, felt the Balkans should be an exclusive sphere of interest for Italy, and Ciano felt the time had come for his country to exert its influence here
In the months leading up to the commencement of the Greco-Italian War, Ciano busied himself with half-baked Machiavellian plots concerning Greek political and military leaders. Spending millions of liras to bribe certain individuals, Ciano imagined he was sowing the seeds of discontent in the circles of Greek power. Ciano envisioned that this Greek “fifth Column” would basically stand aside or even quietly support the Italians military excursion into their country. None of this was to transpire of course, and the only thing Ciano accomplished was to fill the pockets of several Greeks who were more than willing to take his money while helping to fuel Ciano’s delusions.
Joining Ciano in these flights of fancy was Francesco Jacomoni, Italian governor-general of Albania. Since becoming Viceroy of Albania, Jacomoni had attempted to foster anti-Greek feelings in Albania and even form the foundation for a cross-border resistance movement against the Greek establishment. He repeatedly gave Mussolini glowing and predominantly false or inflated reports on the attitude of the Albanians and their desire to fight alongside the Italians against Greece. Jacomoni, along with Ciano, knew that with an Italian military victory and the occupation of Greece thereafter, their own fiefdoms of power would be increased greatly. To this end, report after report delivered by these two men to Mussolini overstated the truth on the real situation and attitude of the region, and helped lead Mussolini to be falsely assured of a positive outcome for any military operation against Greece.
As commander of Italian forces in Albania, General Visconti Prasca was in a position to have the best and most realistic grasp on the pre-war military situation for the Italians. Once again though, it appears that personal ambitions clouded the judgment of a key Italian decision maker in their rush to make war with Greece. Prasca, like many Italian officers, dreamed of one day achieving the rank of Marshal of Italy, and in the fall of 1940 he believed he had found the opportunity to ensure this promotion. Prasca knew that by commanding the ‘victorious’ forces that overran Greece his ticket to the top tier of the Italian military command would be guaranteed. What Prasca most likely also understood was that if the size of this Italian force under his command became too large, there was a high probability that Mussolini or the General Staff would put a much more senior commander in charge of the operation, thus ‘robbing’ Prasca from his glory.
To this end, when Mussolini inquired about the size of the force needed to perform a coup de main of Epirus, and perhaps then a second advance to quickly seize Athens, Prasca assured Mussolini that the nine divisions currently in theater would be sufficient to perform the task, and only the addition of a couple Mountain Divisions and essential support units would need to be added. Incredibly, the man who would begin the Greek campaign as Italy’s theater commander in effect unwittingly hamstrung the Italian effort in an attempt to seize personal glory. This was to be a glory that would never come, squandered at the cost of perhaps retarding the Italian war effort for the duration of the Second World War.
In the years leading up to Greek invasion in 1940, the Italians had achieved several military victories that helped elevate the reputation of its armed forces. The conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, and a strong showing by the forces under General Gastone Gambara in Spain brought glory and respect that Mussolini craved for his military. Conversely, these engagements also served to wear his forces and resources critically thin, while flaws that were exposed in the military makeup during these campaigns were not properly corrected. The cakewalk in Albania in 1939 was followed by an early Italian victory during the opening months of the Second World War over the British in East Africa; troops fighting under The Duke of Aosta forced British troops to evacuate to the sea as they seized British Somaliland, thus Mussolini’s ‘Empire’ grew a little bit grander. But on other fronts Mussolini was forced to the sidelines as a spectator as he watched Hitler’s Germany first expand ‘peacefully’ into Austria and Czechoslovakia, and then roll off dominating military victories over Poland, the Low Countries, and France. These events captured the attention of the world, and a frustrated Duce grew jealous. Mussolini lamented “It is humiliating to sit here with our hands folded while others write history.”
The world’s focus was squarely on Hitler and his Wermacht, as millions looked on with either fear or admiration at his – Napoleon like conquests across Europe. The British had been forced off the mainland and back across the Channel when France fell in the summer of 1940. Complete domination of Western Europe was within Hitler’s reach as he had left only to subdue the battered British Empire. To Hitler’s annoyance, the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made through his eloquent and inspiring speeches very obvious to all that his Empire had no intention of capitulating to the Axis. If the Germans wanted to raise the Swastika above the British Parliament, they would have to cross the channel and do so themselves.