In late 1940 General Giovanni Messe was given command of a ‘special’ corps designed to deal primarily with Greek counter-attacks. The fine performance on the part of the future Marshal’s troops was one of the highlights for the Italian forces throughout the Greco-Italian war.
Cavallero planned a localized offensive in order to gain territory and relieve some pressure off his lines in early January. The operation was to take place between Tepeleni and the Adriatic Sea. Misfortune in the form of bad timing stuck the Italians as the Greeks launched their own operation towards Kilisura while the Italian troops were in transit to the launching points for their attack. Cavallero was forced to cancel the offensive in order to redeploy assets to deal with the Greek operation. Kilisura (Clisura) would fall to the Greeks. This victory would be the last major offensive Greek victory of the war.
In early February the Greeks attempted another offensive, this one aimed at capturing Tepeleni. The Italians, led by the Julia Division who was now rebuilt back up to full strength, would repulse the attack and drive the Greeks off. After the darkest days faced just weeks earlier the Italians were finally assembling their forces and material up to appropriate levels. By this time a large amount of lorries had been brought to the theater, thus Italian officers were able to quickly move their soldiers to where they were most needed. As the Italian supply situation grew into a strength, the Greeks were still struggling to meet the needs of their army over the long lines of communication that stretched across the mountains.
Back across the Adriatic, Mussolini, although feeling dismayed at the news he received from Albania and Greece remained defiant, as displayed in this quote from a speech he delivered “With absolute certainty I tell you we will break the Greeks back. Whether in two months or twelve months it little matters..”. But he also realized that his dream of a purely “Italian” victory in Greece would not materialize, as the Germans had made it clear they planned on intervening in the spring. Hitler‘s fear of Greece aerodromes and airfields being used as jumping off points by the British to attack Romania, along with a desire to bolster his Axis partners reputation, made Germany’s entry into the conflict inevitable.
On January 18th Italian leaders met with Hitler and his staff for a three day summit to discuss the situation in the Balkans. Here the Germans briefed the Italian delegation on their plans for Operation Marita, the invasion of Greece. The Germans intended to launch their forces on a quick and ruthless attack emanating from Bulgaria, and they needed the Italian military to be prepared to play their part in the operation. Hitler did not want German involvement in the Greek campaign to drag on, for he secretly was preparing for his greatest campaign of the war to date, Operation Barbarossa, the planned summer attack on the Soviet Union.
Just days earlier in Greece, Metaxas and General Papagos met with British General Wavell to discuss what assistance the United Kingdom could offer Greece. On top of critically needed supplies, the Greeks believed that 12 divisions would be needed to stop the anticipated German attack out of Bulgaria. The Greeks, the men explained to the General, would only be able to provide three of the needed formations. It had taken almost everything they had to block the Italian invasion, and they just did not have the manpower or the equipment to weaken their lines against the Italians in the Albanian sector in order to also confront the Germans in the northeast. Unfortunately for the Greeks, General Wavell was only able to offer his counterparts a company of light tanks and a regiment of artillery; far less then they hoped for. Metaxas was disappointed at the offer, and so was forced to refuse the ‘meager’ assistance. Metaxas still hoped to avoid a military conflict with the Germans, and he feared that Hitler would use the British presence in his country as an excuse to initiate their attack.
Metaxas fell critically ill just days after the British delegation left Athens on the 17th. Ten days later he passed away, finally succumbing to his illness. Metaxas was not necessarily loved by his countrymen, but he was respected, and had become a symbol the country rallied behind when war came calling. He will forever hold an honored place in Greek history as the man who stood up to the Axis.
End Part Two of Three
Special thanks to Dennis Hussey and Jeff Leser for their help in editing the article. Your time and work is greatly appreciatedd. Thank you both.
The Hollow Legions: Mussolini’s Blunder in Greece, 1940-1941: Mario Cervi
Heroes Fight Like Greeks, The Greek Resistance Against the Axis Powers in WWII : Ronald J Drez
Mussolini and his Generals: The Armed forces and Fascist Foreign Policy, 1922-1940 : John Gooch
Hitler: Ian Kershaw