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.
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 who 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 British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, addressed the House of Commons on April 13, 1939 spelling out Britain’s position on the recent Italian occupation of Albania. Britain considered the Italian action as a threat to peace in the Balkans. Chamberlain made it clear that “in the event of any action being taken that threatens the independence of Greece and Romania, His Majesty’s Government would at once lend as the case might be, all the support in their power.” France also supported the British position. Metaxas was pleased with the British and French statements.
The Italian press and radio waged a fierce anti-Greek campaign accusing Greece of threatening to invade Albania and persecuting Greece’s Chams minority, which the Greek government denied. Metaxas sought to maintain cordial relations with Italy despite Italian statements to the contrary. The Italians would have liked to depose the Metaxas regime.
On August 15, 1940, the Greek cruiser, Elli was torpedoed during the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary in Tinos in the Cyclades by an unknown submarine. One officer was killed and thirty men were injured. Many visitors attended this very important religious event. Metaxas told the people of Tinos to remain calm and assured the safe return of all excursionists. The Greek government never divulged the origin of the submarine to its citizens. There were also reports of Italian planes unsuccessfully bombing Greek ships off their coast. Rome assured Athens of maintaining friendly relations with it.
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 [can] only result in war.” On September 5, 1940, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax reaffirmed his country’s commitment to Greece in the advent 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 of Greece. Badoglio opposed this move because the British navy would 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 note accusing Greece of violating its neutrality by being pro-British. No proof was supplied to substantiate instances of violating its neutrality, nor was evidence given of a threat to Albania.
Metaxas asked what strategic points Grazzi was alluding to. The Italian minister didn’t know. “So its 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. 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 in two columns with one towards the Pindus mountains intending to occupy the port in Salonika 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 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. The Greeks had the advantage of shorter lines of communication.
Greece inflicted the first defeat on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and October 28, 1940 is known as ‘OXI’ day by Greeks all over the world because that is when Metaxas effectively said ‘No!’ to Mussolini. It is an important historical day and we must never forget the sacrifices of our heroes in the Italo-Greek war of 1940-1.