Fighting took place across a large portion of the Greek line, but once again the most ferocious encounter occurred on and around Hill 731. Three separate Italians attacks were stymied by the tenacious Greek defenders. During each ensuing assault, Italian infantry would gallantly charge forward through the sucking mud, mortars and bullets filling the air around them as the men dashed past the mangled remains of their compatriots who had died attempting to claim the same desolate piece of land on prior assails. On this day alone the Greeks suffered nearly 500 casualties in defense of the Hill, but again held their ground.
Each day of fighting over the course of the next week resembled that of the first two days. Both sides battered the other with relentless savagery as casualties continued to mount daily. The Italians beat back a Greek counter attack on the 12th, while the Greeks continued to hold tightly to Hill 731. By March 16th each side was exhausted, wet, and covered in dirt and mud. Writer Mario Cervi called the clashes between the Greeks and Italians “a dirty war in dirty Albania”. This assessment was perhaps never truer than attempting to find the words to describe the fighting for Hill 731.
With losses mounting the Italians would break off engagement with the enemy on March 20th. The offensive had bagged the Italians small positional gains, but failed in its quest to lead to the capture of the critical mountain pass in order to break out into Greece. With the knowledge that the Germans were days away from launching Operation Marita, it made little sense to continue with this bloody battle of attrition. The Greeks suffered approximately 6,000 casualties to hold the pass, while the Italians lost approximately 12,000 men in their attempt to rip it from the Greeks clutches. Mussolini returned to Italy, disappointed, and without the major Italian victory he dreamt of.
As the battles of Operation Primavera raged in Albania, the British had begun landing their forces en masse in southern Greece. Operation Lustre would transport nearly 60,000 soldiers of the British 1st Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division, the 6th Australian Division, the 7th Australian Division, and the Polish Brigade to Greece. A good portion of these troops would be positioned on the Aliakmon Line, located south-west of Thessaloniki, in order to confront the anticipated German attack from Bulgaria.
With the Germans poised to strike out from Bulgaria in the west, and the Italians in Albania, continued Yugoslavia’s neutrality had allowed the Greeks to keep their northern border virtually unguarded. That was to change on March 25th, when the Yugoslavian government signed the Tripartite Pact joining with the Axis. The next day however, Yugoslavian military leaders led a coup and toppled the government, and immediately invalidated the agreement.
Upon being informed of the developments in Yugoslavia, Hitler flew into a rage and vowed to destroy “Yugoslavia militarily and as a nation”. German war planners immediately went to task formulating a plan (Directive n. 25) to now not only have their forces execute Operation Marita, but also to simultaneously carry out an attack and follow up occupation of Yugoslavia. The Marita Operation was thus delayed from the 28th of March till April 6th in order to accommodate the change in plans.
The Italian General Staff also set to work to prepare for the next round in the conflict. It was assumed that the Yugoslavian and Greek armies would attempt to crush the Italian forces between them, and drive them back to the sea. It would be the role of the Italian Ninth Army to meet and counter this challenge, or risk a union between the Yugo and Greek forces that could jeopardize the success of the Axis offensive.
For months the Italian invasion of Greece had proven to be a slow, methodical, and bloody affair. The two militaries had fought against each other bravely, inflicting damage while also absorbing the blows of its opponent without being broken. It was much like a bout between two determined boxers who lacked the skill or the power to knockout their adversary. To many of the wars combatants, it must have seemed like the cold, mud, and death of the conflict would continue without end. But come the spring of 1941 the pace of the war would change drastically. On April 6th the German 12th Army rolled out of Bulgaria on the attack; the new gods of war had come to Greece.