Greco-Italian War

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The Greco-Italian War was one of the many conflicts in Europe that were part of World War II. On October 28, 1940, Italian dictator Mussolini demanded Greece surrender. Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas refused, saying simply "okhi" (Greek for "no"). Italian troops invaded, starting the war. With numerically inferior forces, Greek General Alexander Papagos was able to repel the invaders before winter set in.

Even though the Italians had a large air force and navy, the Comando Supremo (Italian Supreme Command) failed to deploy all of the available combat aircraft and elite parachute and marine forces behind Greek lines, attacks that could have tied down a good part of the 15 Greek battalions sent to defend the Pindus sector.

In April 1941 Italy's Axis allies joined the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, with the Greek in Army n Albania forced to abandon all gains in the face of a new Italian spring offensive under General Ugo Cavallero and orders from Athens to halt the German advance through Greece.

The German divisions broke the northern Greece defences in three days and reached the city of Athens a few weeks later, on 27 April.

Italian invasion

Employing a massive invasion force of eight divisions, with full compliments of artillery, armour, and the warplanes of the Regia Aeronautica, which were launched from Albania, the Italians advanced along the Greek coast and mountain passes towards Kalpaki.

Despite fierce Greek resistance, the invaders established a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. However, rapidly rising rivers and mud tracks slowed down the Italian advance, with the Greek defenders falling back into fortified positions.

Greek invasion of Albania

Much fighting took place in November, during the Greek Army invasion of Albania. The most significant and bloody setback for the Italian invaders took place during the Battle of Pindus near Kalamas River in late October and early November 1940, when the advance of the Julia Alpine Division was halted and elite Italian Bersaglieri and Greek Evzones battalions fought bitterly at the foot of Mount Morova.

On 6 November, Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano assured Mussolini that the Italian forces dug in and around Koritza (Korçë) would be able to halt the Greeks.

On 8 November, with General Ubaldo Soddu reporting the complete disintegration of General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca's forces and Ciano proven wrong, Mussolini scrapped the invasion of Greece in favour of defensive operations in Albania and ordered that the Italian Army in Albania be urgently strengthened to seventeen divisions.

On 14 November, the 214,000-strong Greek Army in Abania seized the initiative. Italian reinforcements were rushed forward to restore the broken lines, often without supporting air cover and artillery support.

On 20 December, the Italian Army in Albania were nearly defeated. The Greek Army continued to attack, knowing that the Italians were disorganized. The Italian invaders were back at the original positions north of Himara, Kalarat and Benca.

In December, for his part in the failed invasion General Pietro Badoglio was fired and replaced by General Ugo Cavallero as commander of forces in the Greek-Albanian theater of operations. Cavallero mounted a solid defense in the winter of December–February though his Primamera Offensive failed to defeat Greeks in March.

Stalemate

In February 1941 with the Greek offensive in central Albania (near Tepelene and Kelcyrebulk) against the Ferrara and Julia Divisions defeated, it was clear in Athens and the British Middle East Command in Egypt that without British Commonwealth reinforcements, the Greek gains in Albania could be lost, or Greece conquered in a German invasion for the Greek commanders had left the main defences along the Metaxas Line in northern Greece seriously undermanned in favour of operations in Albania.

That month, General Ugo Cavallero reinforced his positions in Albania with a total of 28 divisions (comprising 4 Alpine, 1 Armoured and 23 Infantry divisions), totalling 526,000 men. On 9 March, he launched the Spring Offensive with seven divisions in an attack aimed at advancing through the Vijose River and Mount Tommorit. The 14 Greek divisions in Albania lost some ground in the initial fighting, but the offensive was called off on 25 March due to heavy casualties and Greek counterattacks.

German invasion

At the start of Operation Marita (the German invasion of Greece) which began on April 6, 1941, the bulk of the Greek Army was fighting in Albania, with the Italians preparing a second spring offensive. The German Army invaded through Bulgaria overrunning the undermanned Metaxas Line. Despite being reinforced with Elite Greek Evzones Regiments, the Greek Army in Albania, which was already suffering from poor morale, proved unable to defend Klisura and Koritza.[1][2][3]

On 17 April, British General Henry Maitland Wilson wrote that Greek defeatism, "was now getting widespread". That evening the Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Korizis, retired into his study and shot himself after telling the Greek King II that "he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him".

Between 20 and 22 April 1941, Australian, British and New Zealand units dug in on the Thermopylae Line with orders to halt the German advance across the plain from Lamia. At that moment Australian General Iven Mackay was confident that Thermopylae Pass could be held for a considerable time. Brigadier George Alan Vasey addressed the Australian 6th Division — "Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay!" But despite the determination of the British Commonwealth soldiers, the defence of Greece and Albania was collapsing.

On 23 April, the Greek Army surrendered and King George II fled Greece to set up a Government-in-exile in Egypt.

On 26 April, the Germans carried out paratroop operations to cut off the British withdrawal, seizing the bridge over the Corinth Canal. However, the British troops under General Wilson managed to fight their way through the paratroopers.

The invasion of Greece was completed when the German Army reached the southern shore in Peloponese on 30 April, ending the evacuation of Allied forces and resulting in the capture of 10,000 British Commonwealth troops.[4] The defeat of Greece was completed with the capture of Crete a month later.

Operation Demon

The Allied evacuations during Operation Demon began on 24 April and over 50,000 troops were removed over five successive nights, although all of the tanks from the British 1st Armoured Division were abandoned. Many of the Allied units escaped largely owing to the bravery of the Greek Navy.

British naval losses were 2 destroyers and 4 merchant ships, with the Greeks losing 4 destroyers and 43 merchant ships.

Aftermath

The Italian losses amounted to 13,755 killed, 50,874 wounded and 25,067 captured or missing. Italian losses during the second spring offensive in April were 1,000 killed and 4,000 wounded.[5] German losses in the invasion of Greece were 1,500 killed (including 200 Luftwaffe pilots) and 3,700 wounded.

The Greeks suffered 13,408 killed, 42,485 wounded and 270,000 captured. [6] The British forces reported losing 12,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Some historians argue that Operation Marita was decisive in determining the outcome of the Second World War, resulting in the delay of Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of Russia) and the defeat of the Axis powers. Others hold that the British decision to reinforce Greece allowed the Afrika Korps to cross the Mediterranean Sea and prolong the North African Campaign. Nevertheless, the Axis occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia and resulting anti-partisan operations, deeply affected the Axis war effort in North Africa and the Eastern Front.

Notes

  1. "… generals Pitsikas and Bakos … warned of ‘a danger of a complete collapse’ of the army’s morale. Papagos at first was inclined to dismiss the fears”. The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941, John Carr, p. 218, Pen and Sword, 2013
  2. "More seriously, outbreaks of mutiny occurred in the 5th (Cretan) and 6th Divisions. A few dozen deserters were caught at the Mertzani Bridge on the border and promptly executed, but that didn’t stop the rot. Amid these signs of an army’s disintegration, on 14 April Major General Katsimitros of the much-bloodied 8th Division appealed to Pitsikas to consider an armistice with the Germans merely to keep some of the army intact.” The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941, John Carr, p. 219, Pen and Sword, 2013
  3. "“All efforts at regaining control with the 5th Greek Division failed and … its divisional commander was sacked .. and by morning 16 April what was left of the division was an unorganised mass in the vicinity of Petrani-Fourka.” Swastika over the Acropolis: Re-interpreting the Nazi Invasion of Greece in World War II, p. 258, Craig Stockings, Eleanor Hancock, BRILL, 2013
  4. "Australia sent 17,125 troops to Greece, 2030 of whom were taken prisoner and 814 either killed or wounded. In total, approximately 10,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner in Greece." Diggers and Greeks: The Australian Campaigns in Greece and Crete, Maria Hill, p. 311, UNSW Press, 2010
  5. CAMPAGNA DI GRECIA
  6. "The Greek Army sustained 13,408 killed, 42,485 wounded, and 270,000 prisoners." World War II: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection (5 volumes), Spencer C. Tucker, p. 735, UNSW Press, 2016