THE BALKAN CHESSBOARD
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was first and foremost a world class statesmen. He was also prone to crafting strategic flights of fancy that had the potential to steer the Allied cause off course away from perhaps more obtainable or realistic avenues of action. His latest vision, inspired by the so far successful stand of Greece against the Italians, was to form a new united front in the Balkans to oppose Germany as affiliated belligerents. Churchill believed that if Yugoslavia and Turkey could be brought into the Allied fold, a force nearly 50 divisions strong could be created in order to open an entirely new front in the war.
To even attempt to accomplish this ambitious idea, Churchill knew he would have to reverse his decision of offering only limited British support to Greece, and would have to bolster the Greek forces with a sizable British military contingent. British officials would meet once again with Greek leaders in early February 1941, and to the new Premiere of Greece Alexander Koryzis, the British now offered four divisions, including one armoured division, air support and much needed supplies. Within days of this promise, the British began planning the redeployment of troops from Egypt, confident that these forces would not be needed now that the Italians had been ‘subdued in the North African Theater, to Greece in order to counter any expected German attack. With the arrival of Rommel, his Afrika Korps, and several new Italian Divisions into the North African Theater later in 1941, the decision to move troops from Egypt to Greece had near catastrophic consequences for the Allies. They were soon to discover that the Axis was a long way from defeat in the desert.
Bulgaria officially joined the Axis cause with the country’s signing of the Tripartite Pact on March 1sr 1941. The German 12th Army was on the move across Bulgaria the next day in order to properly position itself for the onset of Operation Marita. Rows of tanks, armored vehicles, and men moved swiftly through the Bulgarian country side, all eventually converging near the border with Greece.
In Albania over the past few months, the Italians had added 10 new Divisions to their Order of Battle, bringing the total force to over 20 in the theater. With the increase in men and material, it was relatively safe to assume that the Greek potential to ‘drive the Italians into the sea’ had passed. The question that remained was if the Italian army was now prepared to go back on the offensive? Mussolini was ready to find out.
With the knowledge that the Germans were planning to launch their offensive in late March, Mussolini still had hoped for one last Italian push to ‘break the Greek back’, without the support of the Germans. He insisted that the Italian military make one last push to accomplish this. Il Duce dreamt of a grand offensive that would carry the Italians all the way to Athens, but would reluctantly follow Cavallero’s recommendation for an operation initially on a much smaller scale.
The Italian General Staff devised Operation Primavera, an assault aimed towards Clisura and the capture of the critical mountain pass leading back into the Kalpaki Valley in Greece. The Italian operation would be three Corps strong, each Corps having a ‘sector’ to assault. The XXV Corps would attack in the west, the IV in the east, and the VIII in the center of the operational zone. Chosen to lead this effort for the Italians was General Gastone Gambara, the ‘hero of Spain’.
But unlike Spain, Gambara’s forces would not have the open terrain needed for wide flanking maneuvers, and would instead be restricted to more or less head on attacks against the enemy. On one side of the Greeks defensive position was the Apsos River, the other side bracketed by the Aoos River; these natural obstacles would act to protect the flanks of the defenders. The Greek’s main defensive position was dug effectively into an 8 mile long portion of ridgeline of the Trebessina Mountains.