The road to hell, 1940–1: Greece

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Greek Troops.

Signor Emanuele Grazzi was tired and worried. Motoring along the empty road from Athens to Kifissia with the military attaché, Colonel Luigi Mondini, he was briefly cheered by the clear sky, which was, remembers Mondini, ‘dotted with the myriads of stars that make the sky of Attica so marvellous’. It was a quarter to three in the morning on 28 October 1940, in southern Greece’s Indian summer. The piece of paper Grazzi was about to deliver to the Greek dictator, General Ioannis Metaxas, would bring that late summer mood to an end. The sentry at Metaxas’s modest two-storey house mistook the Italian flag on Grazzi’s car for the tricolour. Metaxas had been told that the French consul wished to see him urgently and so, half-asleep, he was baffled to see the Italian minister instead. Still somewhat bemused, Metaxas ushered Grazzi into a sitting room furnished in the dictator’s unassuming lower-middle-class style. He offered his visitor a seat on the green divan in front of a large desk, and apologized for the fact that he had not yet changed out of his nightshirt and dressing gown. Outside the door, Metaxas’s wife, Lela, listened quietly. ‘Their conversation began calmly’, she wrote later, ‘but soon I heard an animated exchange, and an angry tone in my husband’s voice followed by a loud bang of the palm of his hand on top of the desk. This was the exact moment of the Οχι! [No!] which was followed by Grazzi’s departure.’ In his memoirs, the Italian does not recall Metaxas’s becoming overexcited, nor does he remember the Prime Minister banging the table and shouting ‘No!’ Whether true or not, the rumour became fact throughout Greece within a matter of days – the Οχι War had begun.

Grazzi’s embarrassment was genuine. A hard worker and an admirer of Greece, his attempts to calm the troubled waters of Greco–Italian relations made no impact whatsoever on his boss, Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italy’s whimsically irresponsible Foreign Minister. Even if Metaxas had so desired, the ultimatum had been worded so as to preclude Greece’s capitulation to the Italians. Benito Mussolini was set on invading and occupying Greece, not because this might be of any strategic value to Italy but, as Ciano reported, because the Italian dictator was furious with Hitler. Without telling Mussolini before the event (not for the first time), the Führer announced on 11 October that the Luftwaffe had assumed control of the Ploeşti oil fields ‘in accordance with the Romanian request’. Ciano saw a blustering Mussolini that day: ‘He says that this has impressed Italian public opinion very deeply’, Ciano wrote, quoting Mussolini as saying, ‘“Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out from the papers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.”’

Hitler’s consistent refusal to inform Mussolini of any major operations he was planning wounded the Italian’s excessive pride, and it was thus in a fit of pique that Mussolini decided on the invasion of Greece, allowing a mere two weeks for preparations. Ciano backed his leader enthusiastically although he was alarmed to note that the

three heads of the General Staff have unanimously pronounced themselves against it. The present forces are insufficient, and the Navy does not feel that it can carry out a landing at Prevesa [in northern Greece] because the water is too shallow . . . Badoglio foresees the prolongation of the war, and with it the exhaustion of our already-meagre resources. I listen, and do not argue. I insist that, from a political point of view, the moment is good. Greece is isolated. Turkey will not move. Neither will Yugoslavia. If the Bulgarians enter the war it will be on our side. From the military point of view I express no opinion. Badoglio must, without any hesitation, repeat to Mussolini what he has told me.

Notwithstanding his habitual tendency to equivocate, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of the general staff, was trying to indicate the sheer lunacy of an assault from southern Albania through the Pindus massif without adequate preparations. A year earlier, the general staff had ordered General Alfredo Guzzoni to formulate a detailed plan for an invasion of Greece. Guzzoni concluded that it would require eighteen to twenty divisions and that the operation would take three months. Now, Mussolini was expecting nine divisions (including one useless cavalry division) to do the same job with advance notice of a fortnight.

Ciano pretended not to listen to the military objections. He certainly understood the implications of what the Chief of Staff was saying. But had he acknowledged them then he would have been obliged to relay such serious misgivings to his father-in-law, il Duce. And Ciano never questioned Mussolini’s political wisdom.

Mussolini’s contribution to the Axis war effort stood in inverse proportion to the damage he visited on his own new order. His régime is surely one of the most powerful historical arguments against autocracy, dictatorship and the adulation of ‘strongmen’. No wartime episode demonstrates this better than the Greco–Italian war of 1940–1, which caused tens of thousands of unnecessary Greek and Italian casualties. In April 1939, Britain had extended a security guarantee to Romania and Greece in the wake of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment. Metaxas did not discourage British protection but he kept London at arm’s length in order to stress Greece’s essential neutrality. Germany was now soaking up the bulk of Greek exports, and was able to apply economic pressure. Metaxas was balanced delicately between the two camps. Italy’s attack put an end to all that, placing Greece unequivocally on the side of the Allies. In theory, Metaxas might now place Greek territory at the disposal of British armed forces.

Metaxas was deeply troubled by the realization that Greece was at war with Italy. He had received much of his military training in Germany, and nurtured fond memories too of many years spent in Siena. To be sure, Metaxas was pragmatic; he saw Germany and Italy as greater threats to Greece’s independence than Britain. But his dictatorship resembled other Mediterranean régimes. The last thing he wanted was for Greece to be at war with anyone. Despite this, he showed great resolve, convinced that, as his wife recalled, ‘they [the Italians] can come, we are ready. We will defeat them.’

Metaxas’s road to power had been smoothed by the self-destructive actions of the pro-Venizelos officers in the Greek military during the first half of the decade. The National Schism, the battle between monarchists and republicans which was fought out primarily and catastrophically within the army, had negated all attempts to establish a coherent democracy during the interwar years. While in private Metaxas, a monarchist, had been inclined for a long time towards dictatorship, it did not follow that the republican, Venizelist forces were therefore principled supporters of democracy. Indeed, as Venizelos neared his death, his contempt for the democratic process deepened. The republican officers made a final attempt to secure a monopoly on power in March 1935 when they mounted a disorganized coup, which quickly collapsed. The monarchists then exploited the widespread popular disaffection with Venizelos by holding a referendum on the monarchy. King George II (1922–4, 1935–47) returned in triumph. After an interim period, Metaxas proclaimed himself Prime Minister in August 1936 and assumed dictatorial powers, all in alliance with the King, who retained a considerable, if discreet influence on the military strongman.

The centrepiece of Metaxas’s attempt to build popular legitimacy on corporatist lines was the National Youth Organization (EON), whose members took centre stage in many large parades glorifying Metaxas’s role as ‘the first peasant’, ‘the first worker’, and so on. Squat, with a round face and circular glasses, Metaxas was probably the least charismatic of all Balkan dictators. He employed a brutish chief of the secret police and kept his opponents in shocking conditions on island prisons. But in contrast to many of his peers, he stopped short of murder and systematic torture.

The August 4th Régime was careful to soothe the peasantry by lowering its excessive tax burden. The key to the stability of Metaxas’s régime, however, lay with the military. When Metaxas took over, the overwhelming majority of the 5,000 officers were at least passively pro-monarchist. Like most other European leaders from the mid-1930s onwards, Metaxas identified his primary task as the overhaul and modernization of the armed forces. This gave him a distinct advantage in suppressing the resurgence of republican sentiment in the military. Soldiers were given new guns and accelerated promotion.

Greece was anti-revisionist. The national catastrophe of 1923 had actually led to the collapse of the Megali idea, of a Greater Greece. None of the major political forces wished Greece to make significant claims against any neighbour and in the interwar period Greece had established good political relations with its old enemy, Turkey. The threat of Bulgarian revisionism in western Thrace and Macedonia led Greece into the Balkan Pact and, at the beginning of the Second World War, all Greek leaders recognized Bulgaria as the major threat to their country’s security (although they remained wary of Yugoslav intentions regarding Salonika). But Metaxas began planning for a possible Italian invasion from Albania soon after he assumed power. If for nothing else, Metaxas deserves credit for this foresight.

The mountains of Epirus (Chamuria, as the Albanians know it) are carved into spectacular, craggy canyons that appear unexpectedly in the walls of stone. They are crisscrossed with small rivers which usually pose only a minor obstacle to the serious walker. But as often happens in autumn and spring, the mountains in the early morning of 28 October were covered in grey, threatening clouds. As Italian troops entered the first passes of the mountain range, these clouds released a torrent of rain. Italian bomber command was forced to ground all its planes, denying the military the use of the one arm in which they enjoyed a clear superiority over the Greeks. The Italians moved forwards in appalling visibility as the earth turned to thick mud. Within hours the little streams became unfordable rapids. The Italian force was divided into two main sections. The first, comprising some 55,000 men, was to drive down through Epirus. The second army group of 30,000 men was to strike out from Korçe south-east into Macedonia before moving westwards to link up with the larger force. This would then cut Greece in two, leaving Thessaloniki hanging ready ‘to drop into Mussolini’s hands like a ripe fruit’. That, at least, was the general idea; but on Day 2 the navy had to call off its planned occupation of Corfu because of rough seas.

The troops on the Epirot front became bogged down even before they had encountered the enemy, and in the first two days several thousand men became hopelessly lost. Spearheading the assault was the Alpine Julia division, comprising 10,800 men and twenty guns. The advance units pushed forward doggedly after crossing the river Sarandaporos, which had burst its banks. They struggled on as far as the pretty hillside village of Konitsa. The Greeks had gained enough time to organize a robust welcome. The Julia Division withdrew under fire, but in good order. Unlike il Duce and Ciano, who were celebrating in Rome, the soldiers of this crack unit already knew that the invasion was a débâcle.

Back inside Albania, supply lines broke down. A special envoy for the War Ministry reported on the eve of war that 1,750 lorries would be required for the invasion force. Three weeks later, the operational commander, General Count Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, complained that ‘only 107 lorries had been landed in Albania’. The majority of these had fallen foul of Albania’s dirt tracks. Small wonder that Visconti Prasca was so impatient. After all, this aristocratic general had incautiously promised Mussolini that he would deliver a ‘colpo di mano in grande’ in northern Greece from which the enemy would not recover. This, he argued, would leave open the road to Athens; within a matter of weeks, the Italian flag would fly over the Acropolis. In fact, within ten days, Visconti Prasca had absolutely no idea what was happening to his troops over the border. This did not dissuade him from sending messages back to Rome claiming they were advancing rapidly on a wide front. Inspired by such mendacity, Ciano, a qualified pilot, dropped in on Tirana to make his contribution to the war effort. ‘The sun has finally come out’, the Foreign Minister enthused in his diary entry for 1 November. ‘I take advantage of it to carry out a spectacular bombardment of Salonika. On my return I am attacked by Greek planes. All goes well. Two of theirs fell, but I must confess that it is the first time that I had them on my tail. It is an ugly sensation.’ Ciano’s raid destroyed the building next to the hall where the Italians of Thessaloniki were being mustered, pending their deportation.

Visconti Prasca could dissemble no longer as news filtered through that the Italian forward divisions were dispersed, lost and suffering severe casualties. Having allowed the Italians to stretch their supply lines, the Greek army had co-opted the enthusiastic local villagers to help transport their weaponry and supplies across the difficult terrain. The men took up arms, creating their own units or joining the main army. The women volunteered to act as bearers, scaling mountains with cannon parts and ammunition roped to their back. ‘We tie thick ropes around their waists’, explained Warrant Officer Simetzis, ‘and policemen standing on higher levels pull them up . . . And these women, heavily loaded as they are, climb up like goats, now clinging to a rock, now grasping at stray roots, buckling under the weight of their load and always in danger of falling into the precipice which opens below them. They climb up and down continuously and often throw rocks at the enemy below who have advanced as far as the huts of Tservatiotika.’

The Italians dodging the rocks thrown by the mountain women were from the Julia Division, the toughest group of soldiers on the front line. After five days, with no supplies forthcoming, their advance units were living on dry biscuits. Sensing the enemy’s weakness, the Greek Commander General Papagos wheeled round on the right flank, pushing back the division covering the Julia’s left flank and cutting their communications completely. Within a fortnight, the Italian army was in general retreat. A week later, Papagos was able to lead his troops into Korçe, the main town in south-eastern Albania, and a week after that the Italians were driven from Pogradec in central-eastern Albania. The Greeks knew that if they were to push the Italians back into the sea this would snap their own supply lines and so instead they decided to keep the enemy tied up in central Albania. A third of the country was now under Greek control.

That winter, Mussolini could not contain his delight when it snowed in Rome. In a jovial mood that Christmas Eve, he told Ciano: ‘This snow and cold are very good.’ Perhaps inspired by the central heating in the Palazzo Venezia, Mussolini warmed to his theme. ‘In this way our good-for-nothing men and this mediocre race will be improved. One of the principal reasons I have desired the reforestation of the Apennines has been to make Italy colder and more snowy.’ As he spoke, thousands of Italians across the Otranto straits were putting his theory about climate and the Mediterranean character to the test, as the Italian writer, Mario Cervi, has documented:

Frostbite worked havoc among the men of the Ninth Army, who spent months at the highest altitudes, sleeping in the open without proper winter clothing, often living in undrained trenches amid the mud and snow . . . Among these long-suffering troops, fighting for reasons unknown to them an enemy they did not hate, the dreaded ‘dry gangrene’ or ‘white death’ started insidiously to spread. Its onset was painless. Legs swelled above the ankle, all feeling disappeared from the foot, the flesh changed colour, turned purple and then blackish. Then there was the agonizing journey to overcrowded field hospitals of men who often had to be carried bodily by their comrades because of the lack of stretchers, and were then loaded on to lorries that caused agony at every jolt on the appalling roads to Valona or Durazzo or Tirana, where they awaited transport to Apulia.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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