This was the Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940/23 April 1941).
The initial Italian goal in its land campaign, launched from Italian-controlled Albania, was to turn Greece into a puppet state under Italian control. This new state would then permit the Italian annexation of the islands in the Ionian Sea and also the Cyclades and Sporades island groups in the Aegean Sea,which were to be administered as a part of the Dodecanese islands group in the Aegean, already under Italian control since 1912 as a result of the Italo/Turkish War (1911/12). The Epiros and Akarnania regions were also to be separated from the rest of Greece to become the so-called ‘Principality of the Pindus’, and Italian-occupied Albania was to annex territory between Greece’s north-western frontier and the line linking Florina, Pindos, Arta and Prevesa. The Italians also proposed to compensate Greece for its large territorial losses by allowing it to annex the British crown colony of Cyprus after the war had ended in Axis victory.
The front between Albania and Greece was about 95 miles (150 km) long and characterised by extremely mountainous terrain with very few roads. The Pindos mountain range effectively split the front into two main sectors, namely Epiros and western Macedonia.
It was on 15 October 1940 that Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, gave his instructions for the invasion to Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Mario Roatta, head of the Comando Supremo and acting chief of the army general staff respectively, adding that this ‘Emergenza G’ was to start within 12 days. Badoglio and Roatta were appalled, not least because, on Mussolini’s own orders, only three weeks earlier they had demobilised 600,000 men to aid the Italian harvest. Given the expected requirement for a minimum of 20 divisions, when there were currently only eight divisions in Albania, and considering the inadequacies of the Albanian ports and local infrastructure to accept the arrival of more men and equipment, and then to transport them to the front, the Comando Supremo felt that adequate preparation would require at least three months.
Even so, the launch of the invasion was scheduled for 26 October as a three-phase undertaking. The first of these was to be the occupation of Epiros and the Ionian islands; the second, made possible by the success of the first phase and the arrival of reinforcements, was to be a thrust into western Macedonia and toward Thessaloníki to complete the seizure of northern Greece; and the third was to encompass the seizure of the rest of Greece. Subsidiary attacks were to be carried out against the Ionian islands, and it was hoped that Bulgaria would intervene in the north-east and thus pin the Greek forces in eastern Macedonia.
The army allocated one corps to each theatre, these corps being formed from the existing occupation forces in Albania. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo Rossi’s stronger XXV Corps ‘Ciamuria’ of Generale d’Armata Carlo Geloso’s 11th Army, spearheaded by Generale di Divisione Francesco Zani’s 23rd Divisione montagna ‘Ferrara’ and Generale di Divisione Giovanni Magli’s 131st Divisione corazzata ‘Centauro’, together with Generale di Divisione Ercole Caligian’s 51st Divisione ‘Siena’ (about 30,000 men and 163 tanks), was to advance on the right toward Ioánnina, flanked on its right by the brigade-sized Raggruppamento Litoral (about 5,000 men) along the coast, and to its left by Generale di Divisione Mario Girotti’s elite 3rd Divisione alpina ‘Julia’, which was to advance through the Pindos mountains.
Generale di Corpo d’Armata Sebastiano Visconti Prasca’s weaker XXVI Corps ‘Corizza’ of Generale d’Armata Mario Vercellino’s 9th Army in the western Macedonia sector with Generale di Divisione Giovanni Cerio’s 29th Divisione ‘Piemonte’, and Generale di Brigata Paolo Micheletti’s 49th Divisione ‘Parma’, and Generale di Divisione Mario Arisio’s 19th Divisione montagna ‘Venezia’ on its way from the north of the country (about 31,000 men), was initially to remain on the defensive.
In total, therefore, the force facing the Greeks comprised about 85,000 men, under Prasca’s operational command.
After the Italian occupation of Albania during the spring of 1939, the Greek general staff had prepared its ‘IB’ (Italy-Bulgaria) plan in anticipation of a combined Italian and Bulgarian offensive against its country. At the basic level, the ‘IB’ plan called for a defensive stance in Epiros, with a a slow and staged retreat to the line linking the Arachthos river, Metsovo, the Aliákmon river and Mt Vermion, while maintaining the possibility of a limited offensive in western Macedonia. There were two variants of the plan for the defence of Epiros: ‘IBa’ was posited on a forward defence on the border, and ‘IBb’ was posited on a defence along an intermediate position. It was left to the judgment of the local commander, Hypostrátegos Charalambos Katsimitros, to choose which of these sub-plans to adopt in the light of unfolding events.
The Greeks had a significant advantage inasmuch as they had managed to garner intelligence about the approximate date of the attack, and had just completed a limited mobilisation in the areas facing the expected Italian attack. The primary Greek forces in the immediate area at the outbreak of the war were Katsimitros’s own 8th Division (fully mobilised and prepared for forward defence) in Epiros, and Antistrátegos Ioannis Pitsikas’s corps-sized Army Section of Western Macedonia (the TSDM), including Syntagmatárches Konstantinos Davakis’s regiment-sized Pindos Detachment, the 9th Division and the 4th Brigade, in western Macedonia. The Greek forces amounted to about 35,000 men, but could quickly be reinforced by formations currently in southern Greece and Macedonia.
On the credit side of the balance, the Greeks enjoyed a small advantage inasmuch as their divisions had about one-third more infantry (three regiments to the Italian two regiments per division) and slightly more medium artillery and machine guns. On the debit side, they lacked any armoured fighting vehicles, and the Greek air force was most decidedly inferior in numbers and equipment to the Italian air force; moreover, most Greek equipment was still of World War I types, or else came from countries such as Belgium, Austria and France, which were now under Axis occupation, with adverse effects on the supply of spare parts and suitable ammunition. However, many senior Greek officers were veterans of two decades of warfare (from the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 and World War I to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919/22). Moreover, despite its limited means the Greek army had actively prepared itself for the forthcoming war during the late 1930s. In addition, and wholly contrary to Italian beliefs, Greek morale was high, with many eager to avenge the sinking, on 15 August and in time of peace, of the light cruiser Elli in Tinos harbour by the Italian submarine Delfino.
On 28 October Italy demanded the right to occupy and hold unspecified strategic points inside Greece, received a peremptory Greek refusal, and only hours later launched its invasion.
The Italian forces initially drove back the Greek screening forces along the frontier. The XXV Corps attacked from Gjirokastër (Argyrokastron) toward Kalpaki (Elaia), while οn its right the Raggruppamento Litoral advanced to the south along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas river. Nonetheless, the Italians faced early difficulties as a result of the harsh terrain, and their L3/35 tankettes and M13/40 medium tanks were soon found to be incapable of coping with the hilly terrain and the muddy tracks which served locally as roads.
The Italian offensive was implemented in a decidedly apathetic way, moreover, and did not even have the advantage of tactical surprise or overwhelming air power as the Italian aircraft were generally grounded by the poor weather. The local leadership was uncertain and riven by personal rivalries, and the offensive soon began to slow even though it had achieved only limited gains. Adverse sea conditions also made impossible the implementation of the planned landing on Corfu.
By 1 November, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defence. On that same day, the Albanian theatre was given priority over the African theatre by the Comando Supremo. The most important fighting on this sector of the front took place between 2 and 8 November in what became know as the Battle of Elaia-Kalamas.
In the period immediately following the start of ‘Emergenza G’, the Greek high command was largely pessimistic about the ability of the Greek army to defeat an Italian attack against a position that was difficult to defend. In general the defensive line near the frontier of Greece and Albania could be manned only thinly before general mobilisation allowed the arrival of reinforcements, and thus the defence was expected to slow but not to halt the Italian advance. However, Katsimitros had higher expectations of his 8th Division, which was holding an area of considerable strategic importance in which the Italian superiority in men and armour was offset by the mountainous and marshy nature of the terrain. Katsimitos had therefore concentrated the main strength of his 8th Division in the area of Elaia-Kalamas. Antistrátegos Alexandros Papagos, the Greek commander-in-chief, had reluctantly agreed to Katsimitros’s plan only after allocating the division a new chief-of-staff who carefully studied the area and then reached the same conclusion as Katsimitros.
In accordance with their basic ‘IB’ plan, on 28 October the Greeks responded to the Italian movement toward Kalpaki (Elaia) by slowly pulling back their screening units toward the main defensive line between Elaia and Kalamas about 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south of the border and to the north of Ioánnina. By 2 November the Greek forces were located in pre-planned positions along the line linking Kalamas, Elaia, Grabala and Kleftis hill.
On the same day, after repeated air and artillery attacks, the 23rd Divisione attacked. The Italians initially faced major problems as a result of the terrain’s bogginess, and then on the following day their L3/35 tankettes and M13/40 medium tanks were unable to cope with the terrain, in which steep hills alternated with marshy valleys. The Italians could not breach the Greek defences, and fared no better in repeated attacks up to 9 November, when they called off their efforts.
A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of Girotti’s 3rd Divisione alpina over the Pindos mountains from Klisura toward Metsovo. Davakis’s force held this 22-mile (35-mile) sector of the front between Epiros and western Macedonia in the Pindos mountains. The Italian capture of Metsovo would exercise a major influence on the outcome of the Italian offensive as it would cut the Greek line of communications and sever the Greek forces in Epiros from those in western Macedonia. The division achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of Davakis’s two-battalion force of the 51st Regiment. The Greek staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of Antistrátegos Demetrios Papadopoulos’s II Corps.
An initial Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, and met with little success. The 3rd Divisione alpina covered 25 miles (40 km) of mountain terrain in bitterly cold rain and captured the village of Vovousa, but could not get as far as Metsovo some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south-east. On 2 November Davakis was gravely wounded during a reconnaissance mission near Fourka, but by this date the Italians had realised that they lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue their advance in the face of the arrival of Greek reserves.
One day later, the Italian spearhead was surrounded, and Girotti asked the 11th Army’s headquarters for relief attacks. Prasca tried to reinforce this sector of the front with Generale di Divisione Achille D’Havet’s newly arrived 47th Divisione ‘Bari’, which had originally been intended for the invasion of Corfu, but this formation arrived too late to change the outcome. During the next few days the 3rd Divisione alpina fought bravely in appalling weather conditions and under constant attacks by Hypostrátegos Georgios Stanotas’s Cavalry Division.
Samarina and Vovousa, villages which the Italians had captured during their initial advance, were recaptured by the advancing Greek forces on 3 and 4 November, and on 8 November, Girotti was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt Smolikas toward Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until by 1 November the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence and the 3rd Divisione alpina had been effectively destroyed, at least temporarily, as a fighting formation, so ending the Battle of Pindos in a complete Greek victory. The 3rd Divisione alpina had started its offensive with 9,140 men and 20 pieces of artllery, and had lost 1,674 men killed, wounded and missing, of whom about 1,000 were taken prisoner.
With the Italians inactive in western Macedonia, the Greek high command moved Antistrátegos Georgios Tsolakoglou’s III Corps (10th and 11th Divisions and the Cavalry Brigade) into the eastern area on 31 October with orders to attack into Albania together with the TSDM. For logistical reasons, however, this attack was steadily postponed until 14 November.
Caught totally by surprise by this unexpected Greek resistance, the Comando Supremo organised the despatch of several more divisions to Albania, and cancelled all plans for subsidiary attacks on any of the Greek islands. Enraged by the lack of progress, Mussolini reshuffled the Italian command in Albania, replacing Prasca with General d’Armata Ubaldo Soddu, his former vice-minister of war, on 9 November. Immediately upon arrival, Soddu ordered his forces to turn to the defensive. It was clear that the Italian invasion had failed.
Greek reserves started to arrive at the front early in November, and Bulgaria’s decision not to intervene made it possible for the Greek high command to transfer to the Albanian front the majority of the divisions it had deployed on the Greek/Bulgarian border. This allowed Papagos to establish a clear numerical superiority, including a greater proportion of men trained for mountain warfare, by a time in the middle of November, and only then launched the Greek counter-offensive. Steadily reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, the TSDM and III Corps began the Greek counter-offensive on 14 November in the direction of Korçë.
This was the Battle of Morava-Ivan, which was the first major Greek offensive of the war, and took place on the north-eastern flank of the front in the area in which the Italian forces had remained on the defensive during the initial Italian invasion of Epiros. The offensive’s basic plan had been decided by the Greek general staff even before the start of the war on 28 October. Greek intelligence had established with a fair degree of accuracy the dispositions of the Italian forces in Albania, and the Greeks were therefore able to conclude that the Italians planned to make their major effort toward Epiros while maintaining a defensive posture on the western Macedonian sector. The Greek plan was finalised in the second half of September, and ordained that the Greek forces in western Macedonia would remain on the defensive, albeit with limited attacks into Albania to improve their positions, until they had been reinforced. Then they would go over to the offensive with the object of taking Korçë, which was an important communications centre, and also boosting the morale of the Greek forces and nation.
The forces initially available to the Greeks in this sector were the 9th Division and 4th Brigade, both of them infantry elements of the III Corps. In the first three days of the war they were not attacked on any appreciable scale, and then between 1 and 6 November began their own limited offensives, entering Albania in some places. During these clashes it was revealed that they faced the 49th Divisione, 29th Divisione and 19th Divisione montagna of the XXVI Corps. The terrain favoured the defence, but offered no possibility of defence in depth. The Greek and Italian positions were separated by the Devoll river valley. To the north of the valley lies Mt Morava, a continuation of the Grammos mountain range, with a maximum altitude of 5,932 ft (1808 m), and north of this lies the Korçë plateau. The Morava massif provided the Italians with good defensive positions, but the defence’s lack of depth meant that should the positions on Mt Morava collapse the Italians had no option but to abandon Korçë and the Korçë plateau, and retreat to the north in the direction of the Kandauian mountains.
The upper Devoll valley communicates with the Korçë plateau through the Cangonj (Tsangoni) pass, defined by Mt Morava to the south and Mt Ivan to the north. Mt Ivan is steep and attains a height of 5,807 ft (1770 m). There was a paved road through the Cangonj, and another paved road, in the southern part of Mt Morava, crossed the mountain toward Korçë.
By 13 November the Greek forces concentrated for the attack were the 9th, 10th and 15th Divisions, the last expanded from the 4th Brigade, in Tsolakoglou’s III Corps, itself part of the Pitsikas’s Army Section of Western Macedonia. Reinforcement was also on the move to this area in the form of the 11th and 13th Divisions, and during the forthcoming battle the 10th and 11th Divisions came under the command of Antistrátegos Georgios Kosmas’s ‘K’ Divisional Group. On the Italian side of the front, the XXVI Corps had the 49th Divisione, 29th Divisione and 19th Divisione montagna, with Generale di Divisione Michele Molinari’s 53rd Divisione montagna ‘Arezzo’ in corps reserve; additional reinforcements, in the form of Generale di Divisione Ugo Santovito’s 2nd Divisione alpina and other Alpini elements, began to arrive from 13 November, but were committed on a piecemeal basis and thus had little impact.
The Greeks planned to make their major offensive effort on the left, along the mountainous Darza road, rather through the Cangonj pass, as there were fears that the Italians could use armour through the pass’s relatively open terrain: the Greek deployment placed the 15th Division on the right, the 9th Division in the centre and the 10th Division on the left. The 15th Division had the task of moving towards the Cangonj pass, between Mts Ivan and Morava, and capturing its western exit. The 9th Division was to attack toward Mt Morava, co-ordinating its left flank with the 10th Division. The 10th Division had the task of penetrating the Italian position and flanking the Italian positions on Mt Morava.
There was severe fighting on the fortified frontier line before the Greeks broke through on 17 November. The Greeks had entered the battle with some 45,000 men and 200 pieces of artillery against an Italian total of 80,000 men and 200 pieces of artillery, and the Italians lost 625 men killed and 2,350 wounded. The Greek forces entered Korçë on 22 November, and here the Greek high command revealed a measure of indecision, which afforded the Italians the opportunity to break contact and regroup, thereby avoiding a total collapse.
Thus the attack from western Macedonia against the left of the Italian front was combined with a general offensive along the entire front. The I and II Corps advanced in Epiros, and after hard fighting captured Sarandë, Pogradec and Gjirokastër by a time early in December, and Himarë on 24 December, occupying practically the whole of southern Albania, to a depth varying between 18.5 and 50 miles (30 and 80 km), between Himarë on the coast, Tepelenë just below the confluence of the Vjosë and Dhrina rivers, Berat on the Devoll river, Elbasan on the Shkumbin river, and the western side of Lake Okhrida.
The Greek counter-offensive’s greatest success came between 6 and 11 January as the II Corps forced the strategically important and heavily fortified Klisura pass. Following the Battle of Morava-Ivan, the Greek army penetrated deep into Italian-held Albanian territory, and at conference on 5 December Papagos, concerned about the possibility of German intervention in support of the Italians, attempted to hasten the advance. Pitsikas and Tsolakoglou suggested the immediate capture of the Klisura pass as the best method of securing the Greek positions.
Meanwhile, in mid-December, Soddu had been replaced as the Italian commander-in-chief by Generale d’Armata Ugo Cavallero.
During their counter-offensive, the Greek forces became increasingly hampered by the steadily greater length of their lines of communication, all the more so as their logistics and road network were substantially inferior to those serving the Italians, whose lines of communication were shortening as they retreated.
The Klisura pass was a strategic location near Berat, and here the terrain combined with the weather to make the Greek operation extremely difficult. The attack was planned and implemented by the II Corps, which used primarily its 1st and 11th Divisions. In the battle that followed, the Italians for the first time used their new M13/40 medium tank, which was fielded by the 131st Divisione corazzata. The tanks were used in frontal attacks, but the result was disastrous for the Italians as the tanks were decimated by Greek artillery fire. On 10 January, after four days of combat, the Greek divisions captured the pass. The final assault was led by the freshly arrived 5th Division, which consisted mainly of Cretans.
The Italian headquarters immediately launched counterattacks to recapture the sector. Cavallero ordered Generale di Divisione Alberto Roda’s newly arrived 7th Divisione ‘Lupi di Toscana’ to support the 3rd Divisione alpina, but the operation was hastily and poorly prepared. Although they faced only four Greek battalions, the Italian soon lost one of their own battalions when this was encircled and forced to surrender. By 11 January the Italian counterattack had proved completely fruitless and the pass remained in Greek hands.
On the right the Greeks did not succeed in breaking through toward Berat, however, and their offensive towards Vlorë (Valona) failed. In the fight for Vlorë, the Italians suffered serious losses to their 7th Divisione, 3rd Divisione alpina , Generale di Divisione Giuseppe de Stefanis’s 24th Divisione ‘Pinerolo’ and Generale di Divisione Amedeo de Cia’s 5th Divisione alpina ‘Pusteria’, but by the end of January, the combination of fresh Italian reinforcements and Greek logistical problems finally halted the Greek counteroffensive.
Across the front the stalemate continued through the rest of the winter, despite local actions, as neither side had the strength to launch a major effort. Despite their gains, the Greeks were in a precarious position, however, as they had virtually stripped their northern frontier of weapons and men in order to sustain the Albanian front, and were too weak to resist a possible German attack via Bulgaria.
Eager to defeat the Greeks and also to secure a real territorial advantage before Germans forces became embroiled in the Balkans in the parallel ‘Unternehmen 25’ against Yugoslavia and ‘Marita’ against Greece, the Italians now planned their ‘Primavera’ spring offensive, which lasted from 9 to 16 March 1941. This was the last Italian attempt of the war to defeat the Greek forces which had advanced deep into Albanian territory. In February 1941 the Italians began intense preparations to strengthen their forces in Albania, and by the end of the month the 15 Italian divisions in Albania had been bolstered by the arrival of another 10 divisions. To raise the morale of the soldiers, Mussolini ordered the new formations and units to be accompanied by the most aggressive Fascist cadres, and also by government ministers and other high-ranking officials.
The operation was controlled directly by Mussolini, who arrived in Tiranë (Tirana) on 2 March. The offensive began on 9 March under the operational command of Geloso. The start of the operation was marked by a heavy the bombardment of the Greek positions by artillery and aircraft before 11 infantry divisions and the 131st Divisione corazzata moved forward. The assault fell primarily on the Greek 1st, 2nd, 5th, 11th, 15th and 17th Divisions, which were subjected to waves of Italian attacks. There was severe fighting between the Osum and Vjosë rivers in an area dominated by the Trebeshinë heights. On 14 March Cavallero, appreciating that the attacks were unable to break through the Greek line, advised Mussolini to halt the offensive. Fierce fighting took place on Hill 731, which was assaulted without success on at least 18 occasions.
On the side of the front, the Greeks were undertaking an active defence including the use of prepared and improvised counterattacks when the Italians approached their lines, and also of systematic exploitation of terrain features. The decisive factors for the final Italian defeat was the high level of Greek morale and the fact that the Italians could not neutralise the Greek artillery.
It is also worth noting that on 5 March the British sent their first convoy of troops and supplies from North Africa to Greece under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. Arriving on 6 March in 'Lustre', The British force comprised four divisions, two of them armoured, with a total of 57,000 men. None of the British troops reached the front in time to become involved in the defeat of ‘Primavera’, however.
In overall terms, the Italians had committed 565,000 men, 163 armoured fighting vehicles and 463 aircraft to their war with Greece, and in the process suffered the loss of 13,755 men killed, 50,875 wounded, 52,110 sick, 12,370 incapacitated by frostbite, and 25,065 missing of whom 21,155 were taken prisoner. The Italians also lost at least 64 aircraft. The Greeks had committed fewer than 300,000 men and 77 aircraft, and lost 13,325 men killed, 42,485 wounded, about 25,000 incapacitated by frostbite, 1,235 missing, and 1,530 taken prisoner. The Greeks also lost 52 aircraft.