At the heart of the Greeks defensive line stood Hill 731. Over the course of the upcoming operation, over 15 separate clashes would take place between the two sides for control of this critically strategic hill. Scores of men, both Italian and Greek, would perish either on the hills approaches or on its bomb cratered slopes. This bloody encounter would become perhaps the signature battle of the entire Greco-Italian War, and one of the most hard fought of the entire Second World War.
On March 2nd Mussolini flew to Albania in order to witness the upcoming operation first hand. The internal fears Mussolini had been harboring concerning the reaction he would receive from the troops proved to be unfounded; for the most part the men still loved their Duce. As Mussolini traveled about Albania to tour the area and meet the troops, he was met time and time again by Italian soldiers who lined up to enthusiastically cheer on their leader. The reaction seemed true and genuine, and it further illustrated the power and charisma Mussolini possessed even over men who he had thrust into an unpopular and trying war.
As the days of his visit passed, the receptions that greeted Mussolini grew a little more staged, usually on the doing of officers or Fascist members trying to ensure the Duce was happy. There was also no doubt many soldiers had grown to despise the man for his decision to send them to war, but they smartly kept this to themselves. For Mussolini the overall positive reaction he received from the troops helped to bolster his sagging spirit, and gave him confidence in a successful completion of the upcoming operation.
With Mussolini observing the progress from afar, Operation Primavera initiated at six am on March 9th. General Gambara’s battle plan hinged on the success of the critical first phase, an assault aimed at the center of the Greek line, anchored by Hill 731. Three Infantry Divisions, bolstered by two Blackshirt Battalions, would be called upon for the initial assault. Two more divisions stood by at the ready in order to exploit any breakthrough. The center of the Greek line was held by 5 dug in Divisions; I, V, XI, XV, and XVII.
For his opening move, Gambara had approximately 300 artillery pieces fire virtually nonstop at Hill 731 and the entrenched Greek forces within for nearly two hours. The massive bombardment was followed by the Regia Aeronautica sorting nearly 200 planes on the attack, bombing and strafing the battlefield below. As the dust settled and the last of the planes pulled away, the Italian Infantry was unleashed at Hill 731, charging forward with the goal of seizing the objective.
The Greek defenders were waiting. Greek soldiers had huddled together in their enclosed positions attempting to ride out the earth shaking Italian bombardment. With the enemy artillery now silent they now moved out of their strongholds to man their machine guns and mortars in defense. As the Greeks looked out into the distance below, they could see the ground before them covered with swarming Italian infantry charging franticly towards their positions.
Greek artillery on the ridge was employed first in an attempt to halt the advance. Zeroed in on the attackers approaches, round after round exploded amongst the charging Italians, maiming and killing men by the dozens. The Italians however, kept coming.
The Greek defenders next opened up with their automatic weapons as the Italians continued their charging ascent up towards the Hill. The first volleys were devastating, as scores of Italian soldiers fell to the ground under the waves of steel and fire. Their ranks badly decimated, they remained undaunted, and the surviving men kept moving forward. As men left and right fell either dead or wounded, their unscathed comrades continued their dash for the Hill’s summit.
As the Italians continued their push, Greek officers gave the command to ‘fix bayonets”, and with the order given, the Greeks charged out of their positions to confront the fanatically advancing Italians. The opposing lines swarmed together in frantic hand to hand battle, as both rifle fire and screams of agony reverberated across the chaotic battlefield. Casualties were high as each side fought with a courage and determination that would help make the battle for Hill 731 legendary for both countries.
The Greek defenders were on the brink of breaking, but they somehow managed to hold off the Italian assault and drive their adversaries back down the approach. The day would see Italian soldiers make three more additional charges up towards the slope of Hill 731. Each attack sent directly into the teeth of Greek machine gun and mortar fire. All three of these attacks were repulsed after coming tantalizingly close to driving the Greeks off the summit. At 4:30 pm, the attackers withdrew for the night; Hill 731 still remained firmly in the hands of the Greeks.
To the north of Hill 731 the Greeks held another important high ground, Hill 717. A separate attack by the Italians smashed the Greek defenders of this summit, forcing them to retreat. The Greeks rallied for a counter-attack, but the Italians rebuffed the charging forces after a violent encounter compelling the Greeks once again to pull back. Hill 717 was now the Italians.
The first day of battle had brought small gains for the Italians, but no breakthrough. Through the night each side gathered reports from the field, formulated strategy, and tended to their wounded. The opposing armies would prepare for tomorrows conformation, and a headlong return into the kill zone that was Hill 731.
The next day brought rain, which turned the battlefield into a giant muddy pit. The terrible conditions would be of advantage to the Greeks, as this new natural obstacle would help to hamper any Italian advance. Of greater importance, the rain and cloud cover once again helped neutralize Italian air power.