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During the interwar years, 1919-39, Greco-Italian relations weren’t friendly at all. Mussolini considered Greece a pushover but grossly underestimated the Greek resolve to defend their country from the invader.
Mussolini wanted to create a modern Roman Empire and turn the Mediterranean into an Italian lake.
On April 8, 1939, Italy occupied Albania with the Albanian King Zog and his followers unexpectedly turning up in Greece. This surprised the Greek government which offered its hospitality to Zog. The Italian government ‘requested’ from the Greeks that it would take a dim view of any political activity on the part of Zog on Greek soil. General Metaxas, the Greek dictator, assured Mussolini that Zog wouldn’t be permitted to carry out anti-Italian propaganda as a ‘guest’ in Greece.
The Italian press and radio waged a fierce anti-Greek campaign accusing Greece of threatening to invade Albania and persecuting the Chams minority, which the Greek government denied. Metaxas sought to maintain cordial relations with Italy despite Italian actions and rhetoric to the contrary.
The Italians would have liked to depose the Metaxas regime. Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister 1936-43, recorded in his diary that Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, was itching to go to war with Greece “because since 1923 he has some accounts to settle, and the Greeks deceive themselves if they think that he has forgotten.” The events of 1923 allude to the Corfu crisis which precipitated a diplomatic and military crisis between Greece and Italy.
On August 14, 1940, the U.S. Ambassador in Athens, Lincoln MacVeagh noted in his diary that Italian radio falsely accused Greece of violating its neutrality in allowing the British to use Cretan harbors. Furthermore, it alleged that the Metaxas regime had exiled many army officers who objected to its foreign policy. The Italians were seeking to create a pretext for war and expand their influence in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Britain didn’t want Italian naval expansion in the Mediterranean, which it considered vital to its imperial interests.
The next day, the Greek cruiser, Elle was torpedoed during the feast day of Dormition of the Virgin Mary in Tinos by an unknown submarine. One officer was killed and thirty men were injured. Many visitors attended this very important religious event and Metaxas told the people of Tinos to remain calm and assured the safe return of all pilgrims.
The Greek government never divulged the origin of the submarine to its citizens, however, and there were also reports of Italian planes unsuccessfully bombing Greek ships off their coast. Rome assured Athens of maintaining friendly relations with it, however.
Metaxas knew that Italy would eventually attack Greece but tried to avoid a clash or to give the Italians a pretext to attack. In early September 1940, the Italians were increasing their troop numbers along the Greek-Albanian frontier and Greece also bolstered her troops in that region. The former Greek foreign minister, Dimitrios Maximos “believed the real Axis aim with Greece is to bring her under complete control, and this [will] only result in war.” On September 5, 1940, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax reaffirmed his country’s commitment to Greece in the event of an attack from Italy.
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Rome, Reed learned from a confidential source that Italy was planning to invade Greece on October 25. Mussolini instructed the chief of the Italian armed forces, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, to prepare the army for the invasion. Badoglio opposed this move because the British navy would then seize bases in Greece, giving it the ability to bomb oil fields in Romania. He argued that any attack on Greece should coincide with an advance in Egypt. Despite Badoglio’s opposition, Mussolini won the argument in the end.
The die had been cast.
Several days before the Italian ultimatum, the Italian ambassador in Belgrade told the Yugoslav Foreign Minister that they shouldn’t be alarmed with the increase of Italian troops in Albania, as they were to be used against Greece. The Yugoslavs were surprised to hear of Italian pretensions in Greece. “The Greeks are continually provoking Italy and are adopting a very unfriendly attitude,” Mameli said.
On October 28, 1940, the Italian Minister in Athens, Grazzi presented a note to Metaxas at 3 AM demanding that Italy be allowed “to occupy with its armed forces and for the duration of the conflict, strategic points in Greek territory.” Metaxas was given three hours to answer. It was a blunt noted accusing Greece of violating its neutrality by being pro-British. No proof was supplied to substantiate instances of violating its neutrality, including non-existent threats to Albania.
Metaxas asked what strategic points Grazzi was alluding to. The Italian minister didn’t know. “So it’s war,” Metaxas told Grazzi. Metaxas summoned his cabinet at around 4 AM to inform them that Greece would not obey the Italian demands. There were anti-Italian demonstrations in the streets of Athens with the demonstrators attempting “to storm the Italian legation” and they “actually wrecked the premises of the Ala Littoria Airline.”
“At 6 AM, the Greek Government declared general mobilization and later martial law was proclaimed throughout the country, while the Premier and the King issued manifestoes, the Premier’s being especially dignified and inspiring in its simplicity and appeal,” MacVeagh said. Greece was at war with fascist Italy. Italian forces crossed over onto Greek territory from Albania thinking it would be an easy task. The Italian army advanced into two columns with one towards the Pindus mountains intending to occupy the port in Thessaloniki and the other headed towards the Metsovo Pass in central Greece. Despite its large invasion force, the Greeks were able to halt and push the Italians back into Albania. Mussolini couldn’t believe that the Greeks would fight with such determination to maintain their freedom and independence.
The Italians were also at a military disadvantage from the start when invading Greece. There were many mountain trails and very poor roads which made it difficult to transport their heavy weapons. Time would be lost in transporting additional Italian troops across the Adriatic Sea to Albania, and the Greeks had the advantage of shorter lines of communication.
On November 12, 1940, the British navy attacked the Italian naval fleet at Taranto, sinking ships and causing extensive damage to its fleet. It was an important victory giving the Royal Nay complete command of the Mediterranean and destroying the myth of the invincibility of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan).
Badoglio had told Ciano that Italy should have immediately moved its fleet away from Taranto when it attacked Greece. Such a decision was never taken.
Greece inflicted the first defeat on the Axis powers and October 28, 1940, is known as ‘OXI’ day by Greeks all over the world. It is an important historical day and we must never forget the sacrifices of our heroes in the Italo-Greek war of 1940-41.
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