Operation Esigenza Albania

'Esigenza Albania' was the Italian invasion and occupation of Albania (7/12 April 1939).

The conflict resulted directly from the imperialist ambitions of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Albania was rapidly overrun, King Zog I was driven into exile in neighbouring Greece, and the country was incorporated into the Italian empire as a protectorate in personal union with the Italian crown.

A small country of just 11,100 sq miles (28748 km²) across the Strait of Otranto from the 'heel' of the Italian 'boot', Albania had for some time been of considerable strategic importance to Italy. Italian naval strategists coveted the port of Vlorė (Valona in Italian) and the island of Sazan at the entrance to the Bay of Vlorė, as their possession would give Italy control of the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, and suitable base for military operations in the Balkans. In the late Ottoman period, as the Moslem faith became less important in Albania, the Albanian nationalist movement gained the strong support of the two Adriatic sea powers, namely Austria-Hungary and Italy, which were concerned about pan-Slavism in the wider Balkans and the Anglo-French hegemony apparently represented in the area through British and French influence in Greece. Before World War I, Italy and Austria-Hungary had been supportive of the creation of an independent Albanian state, and the start of World War I offered Italy the opportunity to occupy the southern half of Albania in order to prevent its seizure by the Austro-Hungarians. This was an Italian success that was only short-lived, however, as Albanian resistance during the subsequent Vlora War (June/August 1920) and post-war domestic problems forced Italy to withdraw later in 1920. The desire to offset this failure then became one of Mussolini’s major motives in deciding to invade Albania.

Albania was deemed important culturally and historically to the nationalist aims of the Italian Fascist party as the territory of Albania had long been part of the Roman empire, even before its annexation of northern Italy. Later, during the mediaeval period, some coastal areas such as Durrės (Durazzo in Italian) had been influenced and owned for many years by Italian powers, chiefly the kingdom of Naples and the republic of Venice. The Fascist régime of Italy legitimised its claim to Albania through studies proclaiming the racial affinity of Albanians and Italians, especially as opposed to the Slavic Yugoslavs. Italian Fascists claimed that Albanians were linked through ethnic heritage to Italians as a result of the links between the prehistoric Italiotes, Roman and Illyrian populations, and that the major influence exhibited by the Roman and Venetian empires over Albania justified Italy’s right to possess it.

after he had taken power in Italy during October 1922, Mussolini turned with renewed interest to Albania. Italy began penetration of Albania’s economy in 1925, when Albania agreed to allow Italy to exploit its mineral resources. Then came the 1st Treaty of Tirana in 1926 and the 2nd Treaty of Tirana in 1927, whereby Italy and Albania entered into a defensive alliance. Among other things, the Albanian government and economy were subsidised by Italian loans, one-third of Albanian imports came from Italy, and the Albanian army was not only trained by Italian military instructors, but accepted large numbers of Italian officers into its ranks. Other Italians were highly placed in the Albanian government.

Despite strong the Italian influence in his country, Zog I refused to yield completely to Italian pressure, and in 1931 openly resisted the Italians when he refused to renew the 1st Treaty of Tirana. After Albania had signed trade agreements with Yugoslavia and Greece in 1934, Mussolini seems to have made a failed attempt to intimidate the Albanians by a large naval demonstration off the Albanian coast.

As Germany occupied and annexed Austria in March 1938 and then moved against Czechoslovakia, Italy feared a lessening influence in the 'Pact of Steel' alliance signed with Germany in May 1939, and at much the same time the imminent birth of an Albanian royal child meanwhile threatened to give Albania a lasting dynasty. After the German seizure of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, Mussolini became angry that he had not been warned of this before the event, and decided to proceed with his own annexation, namely that of Albania. King Vittorio Emanuale III criticised the plan to take Albania as a great and indeed unnecessary risk for almost negligible gain. Rome presented Tiranė (Tirana in Italian) with an ultimatum on 25 March 1939, demanding that it consent to Italy’s occupation of Albania. Zog refused to accept money in exchange for allowing a full Italian takeover and colonisation of Albania.

The Albanian government tried to keep secret the news of the Italian ultimatum, but despite the fact that the national radio organisation broadcast that nothing was happening, people became suspicious and the news of the Italian ultimatum was spread from unofficial sources. On 5 April the king’s son was born and the news was announced by gun salutes. People poured out into the streets alarmed, but while the news of the prince’s birth calmed them, people were nonetheless suspicious that something else was going on, which led to an anti-Italian demonstration in Tiranė the same day. On 6 April there were several demonstrations in Albania’s main cities. That same afternoon, 100 Italian aircraft flew over Tiranė, Durrės, and Vlorė, dropping leaflets instructing the people to submit to Italian occupation. The people were infuriated by this demonstration of force and called for the government to resist and to release the Albanians arrested as 'communists'. While a mobilisation of the reserves was ordered, many high-ranking officers left the country and the government began to dissolve. The minister of the interior, Musa Juka, left the country for Yugoslavia on the same day. Even when Zog announced that he would resist Italian occupation, people felt that they were being abandoned by their government.

The original Italian plans for the invasion called for up to 50,000 men supported by 51 warships and 400 aircraft, but ultimately the invasion force grew to 100,000 men supported by 600 aircraft. In fact only 22,000 men actually took part in the invasion. On April 7 Mussolini’s troops, led by Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni, invaded Albania, attacking all Albanian ports simultaneously. The Italian naval forces involved in the invasion consisted of the battleships Giulio Cesare and Conte di Cavour, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, nine destroyers, 14 torpedo boats, one minelayer, 10 auxiliary ships and nine transport ships. The ships were divided into four groups, and these carried out the landings at Vlorė, Durrės, Shėngjin (San Giovanni di Medua in Italian) and Sarandė. The Romanian army did not intervene in Sarandė, and Italy thus took this the Romanian concession along with the rest of Albania during the invasion.

The Albanian regular army totalled some 15,000 poorly equipped troops. Zog’s plan was to mount a resistance in the mountains, leaving the ports and main cities undefended, but Italian agents placed in Albania as military instructors had sabotaged this plan. The Albanians discovered that their artillery had been disabled and also that there was no ammunition, and as a result, the main resistance was offered by the Albanian gendarmerie and small groups of patriots.

In Durrės, a force of 500 Albanians, including gendarmes and armed volunteers, led by Major Abaz Kupi, the commander of the gendarmerie in Durrės, and Mujo Ulqinaku, a naval sergeant, tried to halt the Italian advance. Equipped with small arms and three machine guns and supported by a coastal battery, the defenders resisted for a few hours before being overcome by Italian forces supported by naval gunfire. The Albanian navy vessels stationed in Durrės comprised four patrol boats each armed with a machine gun, and a coastal battery with four 75-mm (2.95-in) guns. Mujo Ulqinaku, the commander of the patrol boat Tiranė, used his machine gun to kill and wound many Italian troops until he was himself killed by a shell from an Italian warship.Eventually, a large number of light tanks were unloaded from the Italian ships, and after this the Albanian resistance began to crumble. Within five hours the Italians had captured the city.

By 13.30 on this first day, all of Albania’s ports were in Italian hands. That same day Zog, his wife, Queen Geraldine Apponyi, and their infant son Leka fled to Greece, taking with them part of the Albanian central bank’s gold reserves. On learning this, a mob attacked the prisons, liberated the prisoners and sacked the king’s residence. At 09.30 on 8 April, Italian troops entered Tiranė and quickly captured all the government buildings. Italian columns then marched to Shkodėr, Fier and Elbasan. Shkodėr surrendered during the evening after 12 hours of fighting, but two officers in the Rozafa castle refused to obey the ceasefire order and continued to fight until they ran out of ammunition. During the Italian advance in Shkodėr the mob besieged the prison and liberated some 200 prisoners.

The number of casualties in these battles is disputed. Italian military reports stated that at Durrės 25 Italians were killed and 97 wounded, while the local townspeople claimed that 400 Italians had been killed. Albanian losses were given as 160 dead and several hundreds wounded.

On 12 April, the Albanian parliament voted to depose Zog and unite the nation with Italy 'in personal union' by offering the Albanian crown to Vittorio Emanuele III. The parliament also elected Albania’s largest landowner, Shefqet Vėrlaci, as prime minister. Vėrlaci served as interim head of state for five days until Victor Emmanuel III formally accepted the Albanian crown in a ceremony at the Quirinale palace in Rome. The king appointed Francesco Jacomoni di San Savino, a former ambassador to Albania, to represent him in Albania as the 'Lieutenant General of the King'.

In general the Italian invasion was poorly planned, badly executed and succeeded only because Albanian resistance was worse.

On 15 April Albania withdrew from the League of Nations, from which Italy had resigned in 1937. On 3 June the Albanian foreign ministry was merged into the Italian foreign ministry, and the Albanian foreign minister, Xhemil Dino, was given the rank of an Italian ambassador. Upon the capture of Albania, Mussolini declared the official creation of the Italian empire, whose figurehead, Victor Emanuele III, was crowned as the king of the Albanians. The Albanian military was placed under Italian command and formally merged into the Italian army in 1940. Additionally, the Italian 'Blackshirt' Fascist movement formed four legions of Albanian militia, initially recruited from Italian colonists living in Albania but later from ethnic Albanians.

On the occupation of Albania and the installation of a new government, the economies of Albania and Italy were connected through a customs union that resulted in the removal of most trade restrictions. Through a tariff union, the Italian tariff system was put in place in Albania. As a result of the economic losses in Albania which were deemed likely as a consequence of the altered tariff policy, the Italian government provided Albania 15 million Albanian leks each year in compensation. Italian customs laws were to apply in Albania and only Italy alone was permitted to conclude treaties with third parties. Italian capital was allowed to dominate the Albanian economy, and as a result Italian companies were allowed to hold monopolies in the exploitation of Albanian natural resources.

Albania followed Italy in declaring war on the UK and France on 10 June 1940, and then served as the base for the Italian 'Esigenza G' invasion of Greece in October 1940. Albanian troops participated in the Greek campaign, but deserted in large numbers. The country’s southern areas, including the cities of Gjirokastėr and Korēė, were temporarily occupied by the Greek army during that campaign. Albania was enlarged in May 1941 by the annexation of Kosovo and parts of Montenegro and the Vardar Banovina, going a long way towards realising nationalist desires got a 'Greater Albania'. Chameria, which is part of the western coast of Epirus, was not annexed but instead placed under an Albanian high commissioner who exercised nominal control over it. When Italy left the Axis in September 1943, German troops immediately occupied Albania after a short campaign against relatively strong resistance.

During World War II, Albanian guerrillas, including some occasional Albanian nationalist groups, fought against the Italians from the autumn of 1942 and, subsequently, the Germans. By October 1944 the Germans had withdrawn from the southern Balkans in response to the advances of Soviet forces, the collapse of Romania and the imminent fall of Bulgaria. After the Germans had departed, their rapid advances left the Albanian partisan forces well placed to crush nationalist elements, and the leader of the Albanian communist party, Enver Hoxha, became the leader of the country.