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Italian Invasion of Greece 1940-41: Part Two

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The offensive into the Epirus Sector moved steadily, if not slowly, as columns of marching Italian troops met minimal resistance.  The Greeks were not going to attempt to hold at the border, but were fighting a flexible defense serving to draw the Italians in.  The Italians offensive was modeled on a classic ‘pincher’ attack with left and right arms swinging round while the main force would push up the center.  The left blow of the attack was led by the Julia Division, who was tasked with capturing the Metsovan Pass, which it’s seizure would prevent Greek troops from escaping while also serving to block reinforcements from arriving.   The Littoral Group was to deliver the right hook, and secure the town and harbor at Prevesa.  The main frontal attack was to be carried out by the Siena, Ferrara, and Centauro Divisions, who planned to smash through the Greek lines along the Kalamas River and force the main bridge at Kalpaki.

Presca’s plan also assigned the Parma Division to the Macedonian Region, while the Arezzo and Venezi Divisions would be situated to guard the Yugoslavian border.  The Piemonte Division would be held in strategic reserve.  Yet even from the opening shots of the war, the precariousness of the Italian supply situation was obvious.  The advancing forces only carried enough ammunition to last five days.  There was enough fuel on hand for 70 days of use, while they were limited to basically 30 to 40 days of supplies for almost every other essential need.

The Littoral Group, operating on the right flank of the attack, made steady progress against minimal resistance the first day of battle.  They advanced on the flank of the Adriatic and pushing forward was able to secure a small bridgehead over the Kalamas River. But the Kalamas and its tributaries continued to rise with the storm, helping to halt the drive.  After a day and a half the Littoral Group had driven nearly 40 miles into the Greek defense, but now was stalled by the Kalamas which had become a raging torrent.

Soldiers of the Italian Julia Division navigate through the rough landscape

Soldiers of the Italian Julia Division navigate through the rough landscape

On the left flank the Julia Alpine Division was likewise off to a fast start.  As they moved forward into the Pindis Mountains, they were confronted by the 2,000 man strong Greek Pindus Detachment.  The detachment fought hard, but was pushed back by the skilled soldiers of the Julia.  The terrain the Julia had to navigate was difficult as they were compelled to spread out on a twelve mile wide front and forced to use animal paths due to the fact that there were no true roads in the area.  By October 30th, the Pindus Detachment was in retreat, which was conducted mostly in an orderly fashion although in some areas there were scenes of panic amongst the Greek troops.  The rapid advance by the Julia had swiftly situated them into a  prime position to seize their objective, Metsovo, and in doing so would give the Italians an opportunity to take a significant step towards securing the Epirus Region.

But the Julia was outpacing the other Italian forces on its flanks, and the Division’s rapid advance made their position vulnerable.  Furthermore, the Julia Divisions commander, General Mario Girotti, had failed to leave troops behind to guard the heights and passes that the Julia had progressed past during the advance.  Girotti was of the belief that the 8,000 foot high surrounding mountains would be impenetrable to any force, thus giving the Julia a secure left flank.  The Greeks however, would prove him wrong.

General Papagos had become alarmed by the Julia’s advance, and realizing the severity of the situation, ordered almost all available resources to the area to counter.  Not only were reserve forces brought forward, but troops that could be spared from the Macedonian front were ordered to move through the imposing mountains to help halt the advance.  In an impressive display of will and drive, using both pack animals and the assistance of the local population, a large number of Greek forces would make the journey across these obstacles and were stealthily able to take up positions on the flank as well as behind the Julia Division.  What momentarily looked as if it could develop into a huge Italian strategic gain, now had the potential to turn into a Greek success.

On the 3rd the Julia Division, who was suffering greatly from the cold weather from the elevation, had captured the town of Vanousa.  A victory at nearby  Metsovo would cut the lines of communication between the Greeks IX Division in Macedonia and the VIII in Epirus, and perhaps deliver a knockout blow to the entire Greek defensive line.

But Papagos correct reading of the situation paid off, and on November 1st, elements of the newly arrived Greek I Division began to counter attack.  Within days they had the Julia Division surrounded and cut off from the rest of the Italian Army.  The now outnumbered Julia fought valiantly against an enemy that attacked ruthlessly from almost every direction, but short on ammunition and supplies the exhausted men of the Julia were compelled to retreat on the nights of November 6th and 7th.

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  1. I hop someone soon will write a detailed acticle about the failed allied “Operation Agreement” sep 42 if Im not mistaken, and of course underline the italian involvement in the allied defeat.

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