Monday, July 30, 2012

The War of Greece

It is unfortunate that war ever broke out between Italy and Greece. The two countries share a great deal of history between them. In ancient times, Greece was part of the Roman Empire and many prominent Romans in the time of the republic and many Roman Emperors were greatly attracted to Greek culture and Greek scholars played a significant role in making Imperial Rome as great and advanced as it was. During the era of the Byzantine Empire, Italians were allies as well as antagonists. In the last days of the empire, during the siege of Constantinople, many of those defending the city from the Ottoman Turks were Italian mercenaries from the great city-states. During the Greek War for Independence, many Italians volunteered to fight alongside the Greeks. At one time, King Vittorio Emanuele II hoped that his younger son, the Duke of Aosta, might become the King of Greece to further cement Greco-Italian ties. During the struggle for Crete many Italians volunteered to fight with the Greeks even before all of Italy had been liberated from foreign control. Giuseppe Garibaldi II was only one of the many Italians who fought for Greece in the 1897 war with Turkey over Crete.

Metaxas regime in Greece
However, over the years, tensions had increased between the Greek and Italian kingdoms. During World War I, Greek irregular forces had moved into southern Albania, operating on their own prior to Greek involvement in the war. These forces were driven out by the Royal Italian Army which had long had interest in Albania and which hoped to (and eventually did) establish a broad front across the southern Balkans against the forces of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. These tensions increased after the war with nationalist regimes coming to power in both countries; Benito Mussolini in Italy and Ioannis Metaxas in Greece. Relations became even more strained as Great Britain and France became more hostile toward Italy while the Greeks, especially King George II, became more strongly pro-British (Metaxas was pro-German). The Greeks also wished for Italy to turn over the Dodecanese Islands (won by Italy in the 1911 war with Turkey) to be turned over to them but Mussolini refused. Metaxas also began building up the Greek military and building fortifications along the Bulgarian border and Bulgaria, whose queen was the daughter of the King of Italy, was an Italian ally. Following the Italian annexation of Albania, Italy also inherited the border disputes between Albania and Greece over the Northern Epirus region which also added to the troubles.

Generale Tellini
In 1923 the Italian General Enrico Tellini along with three aides were murdered in Greece which greatly outraged public opinion in Italy. When Greece refused to arrest the culprits or pay reparations Mussolini ordered Italian troops to occupy the island of Corfu, which then belonged to Greece but which had previously been Italian as an outpost of the Republic of Venice. Everything became worse with the outbreak of World War II. Italian intelligence reports had warned for some time that Greece was being used as a haven for French and British forces and as a base of operations for subversive activity against the Italian government. With the Greek military build-up there was also a build-up in worry in the Italian military that Greece would attack Albania while Italian strength was concentrated elsewhere. Mussolini may have also thought of using a war against Greece as a way of drawing British forces away from North Africa, weakening them sufficiently for Marshal Rodolfo Graziani and his desert army to take Egypt and close the Suez Canal.

Unfortunately for Rome, Italy was not prepared for a war with Greece. Mussolini eagerly believed those who downplayed the strength of the Greek military and exaggerated the number of Italian warplanes, artillery and munitions. Marshal Pietro Badoglio argued that it would take at least twenty divisions to attack Greece, even with only the minimal goals of some minor gains in the Epirus region, a very rugged area. However, Mussolini listened to his general in Albania who said that the forces already deployed, reinforced by only three extra divisions, would be sufficient to defeat the Greeks. Even when Italian intelligence learned that Greece had a far larger army than previously thought and all concentrated in the mountains near Albania, General Visconti Prasca, failed to pass this information on and continued to assure Mussolini that the Greek army numbered only about 30,000 men who could be easily swept aside by the veteran Italian forces. Nonetheless, Mussolini sent Metaxas an ultimatum demanding that Greece allow Italian forces to occupy key strategic points. Metaxas was a proud nationalist and would never accept such an ultimatum. Additionally, France and Great Britain had already given a war guarantee to Greece which would have discouraged the Greeks from making any concessions for the sake of peace. As Metaxas said, “Well, it is war”.

Primitive transportation
On October 28, 1940 the seven divisions of the Italian IX and XI armies advanced in four columns across the Albanian frontier into Greece. As expected, the British immediately sent support in the form of five RAF squadrons with 400 Wellington bombers and Hurricanes to aid the Greeks. The Greeks themselves were putting of strong and determined resistance and were also helped by the British cracking Italian codes and then passing on information on the Italian plans to the Greeks who were then able to prepare for almost every move the Italian armies made. The Greek army had never been stronger, Metaxas had enlarged their ranks and made them better armed and organized than they had ever been, plus they were fighting a defensive war on their own ground with patriotic fervor. On the other side, the Italian forces were undermanned and badly equipped with most of her weaponry being badly outdated and unreliable. By this time, the Italian military had been worn down by fighting a number of smaller wars, in Libya, in Ethiopia, in Spain and in Albania, all of which were victories but which were draining on the men and equipment nonetheless. The troops on the ground were often outnumbered and outgunned while British and Italian pilots clashed in the skies overhead. The terrain favored the defenders and the weather was terrible. In every way the Greeks had proven the over-confident Mussolini wrong and held every advantage over the Italians.

Nonetheless, the Italians were tenacious fighters as well and their performance during the Greek War is one of the most unfair mischaracterizations in history. Italian troops advanced 40 km into Greece along the coast while battle-groups detached from the Julia Alpini Division overcame rugged terrain and heavy Greek resistance to secure the Metsovon pass while the Littoral Group and Aosta Lancers established a bridgehead across the Kalamas River, enabling the Julia Alpini to fend off heavy Greek counter-attacks by General Papagos who was trying to surround them, holding out until the Bersaglieri arrived to break the Greek ring of fire. Italian forces dug in and waited for re-supply and reinforcements but were slowly pushed back by heavy Greek attacks. Those forces along the coast also came under overwhelming attack and were pushed back, giving ground grudgingly but taking heavy casualties until some Greek forces pushed beyond the border into southern Albania.

MVSN troops on the Albanian front
By January 10, 1941 the Greeks had driven out the Italian forces and captured the vital Klisura Junction. Metaxas, however, let these victories make him overconfident and the Greek and Italian forces switched roles. Metaxas turned down offers of further British assistance, thinking that his army had beaten the Italians, even boasting that the Greek army would soon be marching down the streets of Rome. Just like the over-confident Mussolini the year before, Metaxas was soon proven wrong. Now it was the Greek supply lines that were over-extended and vulnerable and the Italians who were fighting a defensive war with the ground and bad weather in their favor. Winter conditions robbed the Greeks of their air cover, Italian forces inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks and much of their supplies and equipment were lost to Italian counter-attacks. Humbled, King George II had to ask Great Britain to send in reinforcements to assist in holding the line. British assistance poured in and British air and naval attacks on Italian forces and Italy itself increased, sometimes with horrific results as British forces attacked five Italian rescue vessels whose duty was to pluck helpless pilots from the sea. Some of those killed even included British pilots who had been rescued by the Italian boats. More horrible was the British sinking of the Italian hospital ship “California” at Syracuse in August and the hospital ship “Arno” off Tobruk a few weeks later.

Carabinieri on guard in Greece
The Regia Marina provided great service in successfully and safely ferrying over huge amounts of supplies, men and munitions from Italy to Albania during the war with Greece, moving an entire expeditionary force in only 10 days time without losses. Earlier, one Italian troopship had been sunk by a Greek submarine but all but 3 of the 200 men onboard were rescued and the Greek sub was later rammed and sunk by the Italian destroyer “Antares”. Reinforced and re-supplied, the Italians launched a massive counter-attack on the Greek lines, despite still being outnumbered by as much as 2-to-1. Losses were heavy, but the Italian troops pushed ahead, forcing the Greeks back. After a 10-day break the Italian forces advanced again, by this time in coordination with the Germans who were fresh off their victories in Yugoslavia and coming to help. Working in conjunction, they attacked through the Pindus, captured Ioannina and finally forced the Greeks to surrender. Italian troops would later occupy most of Greece and assist in the total conquest and occupation of Yugoslavia.

Alpini at the Parthenon
Because so many have a false impression of the Greek War, it is important to emphasize the point that Germany did not come rushing south to save the Italians from disaster as the situation is often portrayed. By the time the Germans intervened, the worst was over for Italy. They had suffered terrible reverses in the initial invasion of Greece but later stabilized the line, held firm and were starting to push ahead again when the Germans arrived. The Italian forces were in no danger of collapse or defeat. At worse, they were stalemated and at best beginning to make a major comeback once sufficient resources had been committed to the Albanian front. Germany was prompted to get involved in the Balkans, not because the Italians were in dire need of help, but because the pro-Axis ruler of Yugoslavia, the Prince-Regent Paul, had been overthrown and replaced by a pro-Allied government. This posed a threat to the southern flank of Germany which was preparing their massive invasion of the Soviet Union and could afford no distractions to focus all their attention on that massive enemy.

Another point which must be made is that there was never any plan to conquer all of Greece as some seem to imply. Mussolini stated his goals for the war were the annexation of the disputed Epirus region to the Kingdom of Albania, the restoration to Italian rule of those islands which had previously belonged to Venice and the replacement of the Greek government with one more friendly to Italy. Still confident, at that point, of victory over the British, Mussolini also planned to compensate Greece for her losses by giving the Greeks the island of Cyprus. The war was though an unfortunate affair for everyone involved. However, though the Greeks were understandably bitter and being under Italian occupation in most cases, they later realized that being under German occupation was far worse when the King of Italy dismissed Mussolini and Italy withdrew from the Axis pact. We can also highlight the positive cases of when, just like in the old days, the Greeks and Italians fought together instead of against each other such as in the heroic case of the island of Cefalonia where soldiers of the Italian Royal Army fought to defend the island and the local Greek populace from Nazi occupation. It was a courageous and compassionate affair and provides a thankfully positive note to end on.

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