Uttering the Latin phrase ‘la mare nostrum’(English: ‘our sea’), Benito Mussolini, who had been declared Prime Minister of Italy for life, expressed his illusion of grandeur to claim the Mediterranean Sea as a prize of his Fascist government, attempting to restore the grandeur of the ancient Roman Empire, with himself a modern Caesar. Italy had earlier established a colony across the sea in North Africa and wishing to emulate France, Belgium, the Netherlands and especially the United Kingdom, all of which controlled vast empires, launched an attack on Ethiopia in the mid 1930's, one of the few independent countries in Africa. Ethiopian forces fought airplanes and tanks with spears and crude rifles and were soon to capitulate. Italy also turned Albania into a puppet state and was given free rein in that Balkan land.
In October 1940, an ultimatum was sent to Greece stating that if Italy’s forces were not given free passage through Greece to the oil rich Middle East and the Suez Canal, an attack would be launched. The date of October 28 was set as the deadline for compliance. Il Duce, ‘the leader’ as Mussolini was called, anticipated that Greece would
comply with this travesty. Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece and himself a dictator, replied with a terse, laconic, one-word answer: "OXI" – "NO"! Italy, with a population of 40 million, and large mechanized army and navy was poised to attack Greece, with a population of 10 million with few airplanes, a small army and navy, with some warships still using sails. Greece was viewed as an easy conquest.
Adolph Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, and an ally of Italy and Japan along with some smaller European countries, had conquered Denmark in 1 day, Belgium in 14 days, the Netherlands in less than that, as well as large portions of Poland and France. Mussolini, without Hitler’s knowledge, set out to conquer Greece and present it as a prize to his Axis allies.
Even before the ultimatum deadline, Italy launched a brutal attack out of the Albanian mountains. They were met with strong resistance by the Greek forces and after four weeks of fierce fighting virtually all of the invaders had been expelled. The Albanian city of Koritsa was captured and with the Italian army in full retreat, the Greek army crossed the border into Albania.
The world press headlines and editorials told the story vividly …“but whatever may happen, nothing will ever dim the honor which the Greek army and people have already won in this, the first land victory of the war over the colossal power of the Axis” New York Herald Tribune … “their honor and their heroism bade them to choose battle
instead of shameful surrender” Providence Evening Bulletin … “the courage they displayed will shine on, a beacon to other imperiled nations” Philadelphia Enquirer … “glorious is the word for Greece … the Greeks fight with voracity and heroism not surpassed in this war” New York World Telegram.
Perhaps the words of Winston Churchill state it best: “From now on we will not say ‘the Greeks fought like heroes, but the heroes fought like Greeks.”
Lest we forget that not only the Greek army resisted, but women also participated, their faces wrapped in shawls, they cleared snow from mountain passes with large shovels so the Greek infantry could pursue the Italians. Women came from a myriad of communities in Epirus and Macedonia, bringing supplies and ammunition – loads of 80 pounds on their backs and
carried wounded out of the battle zones.
A diminishing number of people remember this drama, but EVERYONE MUST KNOW IT.
There are several ancillary results of Greece’s actions. One is that Hitler had to come to Mussolini’s rescue by launching an attack through Yugoslavia and northern Greece, delaying Germany’s attack on Russia. Thus, they faced not only Russian forces but the fierce Russian winter. This helped change the outcome of World War II. Also, Greek immigrants in the United States and Greek-Americans faced reduced discrimination and gained respect. Anti-Greek riots and anti-Greek sentiment became a thing of the past.
Peter Plumpis, a former history teacher, is the Historian of Siatista Association – USA.