While Mussolini’s two attempts to invade Greece were farcical and the Nazis had to finish the job, the campaigns ultimately proved disastrous for every country involved.
In the autumn of 1940, Benito Mussolini was a frustrated would-be Caesar. His participation in World War II had thus far won him all of 13 villages in the southern French Alps. When he stuck the dagger in France’s back to get a seat at a peace conference, it was Italy that bled more. The French lost some 120 killed or wounded and 150 missing, while Italy suffered 631 dead, 2,631 wounded, 616 missing, and 2,151 frostbite cases. To compound the humiliation, almost 4,000 Italians were captured, and they were the ones invading.
A disgusted Italian general, Quirino Armellini, complained in his diary about “the disorder, lack of preparation, and muddle in every sphere.” He added: “Someone will say: Fifteen days we must be ready to march against Yugoslavia; or in eight days we will attack Greece from Albania—as easily as saying, let’s have a cup of coffee. The Duce hasn’t the least idea of the differences between preparing war on flat terrain or in mountains, in summer or in winter. Still less does he worry about the fact that we lack weapons, ammunition, equipment, animals, raw materials.”
Armellini was prescient: in his diary entry for August 11, 1940, Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law, the unctuous Count Galeazzo Ciano, recorded that his father-in-law spoke of “a surprise attack against Greece.” Italian aircraft had already bombed Greek naval vessels in Greek waters four times, without provocation. For Mussolini, Greece appeared to be an ideal—meaning easy—target: an impoverished population only a fifth the size of Italy’s, an antiquated military, deep political divisions barely papered over by a despised king. George II had been imposed on the Greeks by the army in 1935 after an 11- year exile, and was fronting for a fascist-style dictator, Premier Ioannis Metaxas.
Mussolini claimed his decision to invade Greece was “an action which I matured at length for months, before our entry into [World War II] and before the beginning of the conflict.” But, by the brand of logic—or illogic—uniquely his, it was the actions of Bucharest that provoked Mussolini to attack Athens, and clearly more in a fit of temper than following any rumination. The conflict Mussolini fanned to flames in Greece eventually drew in Britain, then Germany as well, with profound consequences for the course and outcome of the war.
In October 1940, the new pro-Fascist regime in Romania had requested troops from Adolf Hitler to strengthen it against a possible takeover by the Soviets. Mussolini “is indignant,” Ciano recorded. He considered the Balkans his sphere and demanded the Romanians ask for military assistance from him as well; they requested only a few pilots. With Bulgaria close to allying with Hitler, Mussolini had only one place left where he could—he thought—safely flex his muscles.
On October 12, 1940, Mussolini called in Ciano to secretly inform him of his decision to invade Greece in just 16 days, to coincide with the anniversary of the Fascist seizure of power. “Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli,” Mussolini said, referring to Romania. “This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out in the papers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.” He added: “I will send in my resignation as an Italian if anyone objects to our fighting the Greeks.”
Incredibly, Mussolini waited three days to inform the military of his plan. Chief of Staff Pietro Badoglio did plenty of objecting, but, as usual, Mussolini ignored practical obstacles.
Besides the lack of time—Badoglio insisted he needed at least three months—there was a lack of men: Mussolini had just demobilized 600,000 troops to bring in the fall harvest. Mussolini brushed aside Badoglio’s objections, and the other service chiefs fell in line. Ciano, too, was confident of the outcome, claiming Greek politicians and generals had been bribed and the Greek people would never fight for King George II or Premier Metaxas. He predicted that with “one hard blow” Greece would “utterly collapse in a few hours.”
Mussolini’s idea of an in-depth briefing, with Ciano, Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Mario Roatta, and the general appointed to command the invasion, Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, was published in all its vacuous glory in the Fascist press:
Mussolini: What is the state of mind of the Greek population?
Ciano: There is a clear distinction between the population and the ruling political, plutocratic class, which animates the spirit of resistance and keeps alive the country’s anglophile spirit. It is a small and very rich class, while the rest of the population is indifferent to everything, including the prospect of our invasion.
Mussolini: How far is it from Epirus [Albania’s southern region] to Athens?
Visconti Prasca: About 150 miles on not very good roads.
Mussolini: What is the country like, in general?
Visconti Prasca: Steep, high hills, quite bare.
Mussolini: In what direction do the valleys run?
Visconti Prasca: From east to west, right in the direction of Athens.
Mussolini: This is important.
Roatta: It is true up to a certain point, because one has to cross a mountain range that is more than 6,000 feet high.
Visconti Prasca: There are a number of mule trails.
Mussolini: Have you been over these roads yourself?
Visconti Prasca: Yes, several times.…
Mussolini: I advise you not to pay too much attention to whatever losses you may suffer. I am telling you this because sometimes a commander halts as a result of heavy losses.
Visconti Prasca: I have given orders that the battalions are always to advance, even against divisions.…
Mussolini: To sum up, then. Offensive in Epirus; observation and pressure on Salonika, and, as a second phase, the march on Athens.
When Badoglio had argued that Hitler should be informed, Mussolini replied, petulantly, “Did they ask us anything about attacking Norway? Did they ask our opinion when they wanted to start the offensive in the West? They have acted precisely as if we did not exist. I’ll pay them back in their own coin.”
But, as was often the case with Mussolini, after his bluster, his nerve faltered. In effect eliminating his basic rationale for the invasion, he wrote Hitler: “As regards to Greece, I am resolved to put an end to the delays, and very soon….Greece is to the Mediterranean what Norway was to the North Sea, and must not escape the same fate.”
Reading the letter, Hitler did not at first believe Mussolini was actually going to invade. But when he received confirmation from his embassy in Rome—in part due to Ciano’s indiscretion on a golf course—Hitler, according to his interpreter Paul Schmidt, “was beside himself.” As they rushed to a scheduled meeting with Mussolini, Hitler’s usually obtuse foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, asserted that “the Italians will never get anywhere against the Greeks in the autumn rain and winter snows. The Führer intends at all costs to hold up this crazy scheme of the Duce’s.”
But as Hitler’s train was passing through Bologna, word came that the invasion had already begun. Hitler cursed but kept his anger under control when he stepped off the train in Florence at 10 A.M., October 28, 1940, to be greeted bombastically by Mussolini: “Führer, we are on the march! At dawn this morning our Italian troops victoriously crossed the Albanian-Greek border!”
Seven hours earlier in Athens, an embarrassed Italian ambassador, Emmanuel Grazzi, was knocking at the villa door of Premier Metaxas. Two nights before he had hosted an embassy affair to promote friendship with Greece—while his staff was decoding Mussolini’s ultimatum. Ciano had written it himself, expressing perverse pride in his diary: “Naturally it is a document that allows no way out for Greece. Either she accepts occupation or she will be attacked.”
Metaxas himself, in pajamas and robe, opened the door. Grazzi handed him a demand that Italy be allowed “as a guarantee of Greece’s neutrality…to occupy a number of strategic points.” A ruthless dictator who modeled his secret police after the Gestapo, Metaxas responded with words that rallied all Greeks: “I could not make a decision to sell my house on a few hours’ notice. How do you expect me to sell my country? No!”
A half-hour ahead of schedule, 162,000 troops, about half the number Badoglio said he needed to succeed, launched a three-pronged invasion into Greece from Albania. Italy had invaded Albania in April 1939, a month before allying with Germany, and treated it as a colony. Many of the soldiers were either new conscripts or overage reservists, since Mussolini had refused to rescind his demobilization order.
In the south, Italian forces moved along the Adriatic coast into Greece. To the northeast, two columns advanced into the Pindus Mountains, one aiming for the port of Salonika on the north Aegean Sea, the other heading for the Metsovon Pass into central Greece. Some of the invaders, sharing Ciano’s confidence, were carrying silk stockings and contraceptives, while singing, “Nothing can stop us/Our lips swear we shall win or we shall die.”
Meanwhile, with fight-them-on-the-beaches determination, Metaxas was telling his cab- inet, “We might abandon Epirus and Macedonia, even Athens herself. We will with- draw to the Peloponnesus and then Crete.” Eager to get in on the glory, Ciano had immediately joined a bomber squadron. It was not what he expected, as his diary reflects on November 1, 1940: “The sun has finally come out. I take advantage of it to carry out a spectacular bombardment of Salonika. I am attacked by Greek fighters. All goes well. Two of theirs fell, but I must confess that it is the first time I had them on my tail. It is an ugly sensation.” He was soon back in Rome.
Just a few days into the campaign, however, General Visconti Prasca, in a press conference, desperately tried to reassure international correspondents: “Naturally, there is still much to be done. I am confident there is nothing to worry about.”
The general’s uncharacteristically subdued words and lack of bombast betrayed that there was indeed plenty to worry about. Ciano recorded one major obstacle, the weather, in his diary:
October 29 The weather is bad but the advance continues.
October 30 Things are going a little slowly. It’s because of the rain.
October 31 Continued bad weather.
Endless, pounding, icy rain was turning even brooks into treacherous torrents and what passed for dirt roads into impassable quagmires.
Further, the Italian supply system had immediately disintegrated. Ships arriving at the port of Durazzo, Albania, found it already jammed with ships delivering marble for the Fascist occupation infrastructure; when 30,000 tons of supplies were finally offloaded, they were left piled on the docks, useless for lack of transport. Later, Greece’s tiny fleet of four out-of-date submarines (one sank 27,000 tons in a week) and British aircraft (Churchill had informed Greece the day it was invaded, “We will fight a common foe”) operating out of Malta devastated the Italian fleet.
Against the expectations of Italian intelligence, which believed the Greeks could only field 30,000, the Greek army mobilized 230,000, largely due to the efforts of Metaxas. Although poorly equipped even compared to the Italians, the Greeks had the initial advantages of shorter lines of communications and supply (they would bring up 100,000 transport animals essential for the mountain trails of Greece and Albania while the Italians had 30,000 stuck back in Italy), better knowledge of the terrain, better training and discipline, more fire support from their artillery, and a superior commander in Gen. Alexander Papagos.
Most of all, the Greeks had ferocious national pride and a fighting will to match. “I was with that [Greek] Army, whose gallantry and conceit were formidable,” wrote C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times. “Rickety trucks bounced to the front over impossible roads, bearing Hellenic fisherman and farmers. They rode to the death and glory with garlands over their ears and their rifle muzzles stuffed with flowers, shouting ‘On to Rome.’ Antiquated mountain artillery was trundled along ridge combs to shell the Fascists in the valleys. Evzone [Greek army infantry] guard patrols attacked with their knives and teeth, biting the scared little Italian infantrymen. I visited a forward prisoners’ cage that included dozens of frightened Fascists with tooth wounds in their shabbily bandaged necks.”
In the Italians’ deepest penetration into Greece, the elite 3rd Julia Alpine Division advanced 25 miles in five days to the Metsovon Pass. But once inside the pass, they came under withering fire from the ridgelines and were finally forced to retreat in disorder, after suffering 2,500 casualties.
The Italian offensive everywhere was grinding to a halt, and the Greeks were launching local counterattacks. From Ciano’s diary, November 6, 1940: “Mussolini is dissatisfied over the way things are going in Greece….The enemy has made some progress and it is a fact that on the eighth day of operations the initiative is in their hands.”
On the morning of November 14, an international group of war correspondents was nearing the front lines when suddenly Italian soldiers ran past, shouting. “They’re crazy,” an Italian reporter said. “They say the Greeks are coming.”
By November 14, General Papagos had launched a counteroffensive along the entire front; instead of risky frontal assaults, the Greeks would infiltrate through gaps in the overstretched Italian lines to fall on them from the flanks and in the rear. The Italians collapsed, soon fleeing so fast their cargo planes were inadvertently airdropping supplies on the Greeks. “Our soldiers have fought but little, and badly,” complained Ciano.
An Italian captain, Fernando Campione, described the tragedy and disorder: “Another infantryman is lying on the road. His hands are contracted, a shell splinter tore open the right side of his stomach, where the clotted blood has formed a huge dark filthy stain on his jacket….A soldier who had managed to scrounge some alcohol, swaying and staggering in his drunkenness, was carrying in his arms a tin of tuna fish weighing several kilograms.”
The Greeks not only drove the Italians out of Greece but invaded Albania. In their most important victory, the Greeks under Lt. Gen. Giorgios Tsolakoglu captured the important Italian base at Koritsa, 20 miles inside Albania, shattering three Italian divisions and capturing 2,000 prisoners, 135 artillery pieces, and 300 machine guns. Ciano tried to minimize it as “certainly not the loss of Paris,” but Koritsa was enough of a disaster that it forced Mussolini to finally recall those 600,000 troops he had demobilized.
By the time their own offensive stalled on December 5, 1940, in the face of stiffening resistance, the Greeks had knocked the Italians back 50 miles and had penetrated 30 miles into southern and eastern Albania. Amid the international ridicule heaped on the Italians, perhaps the most cutting remark was made by an elderly Greek woman watching some of the 26,000 Italian prisoners trudge past: “I feel sorry for them. They are not warriors. They should carry mandolins instead of rifles.”
Ciano’s diary in the weeks to follow took on the tone of a dirge:
December 7 News from Greece confirms reports that the situation is serious.
December 17 Again a bad withdrawal in Albania.
December 19 The Sienna Division was broken to pieces by a Greek attack.
December 27 The usual story in Albania and this displeases the Duce.
January 11, 1941 We are not getting very good news.
While Ciano was recording the disaster, Mussolini was busy blaming anyone but himself. He had fired Visconti Prasca just 11 days into the offensive, later grousing to Ciano, “Every man has made one fatal error in his life. And I made mine when I believed Visconti Prasca.”
Visconti Prasca’s successor was fired in his turn—he was allegedly spending time at the front composing movie music. Marshal Badoglio openly complained, “All the fault lies with the leadership of Il Duce,” so Mussolini ordered a campaign against him in the Fascist press that forced Badoglio to resign.
Mussolini alternated between rage and despondency, vowing to level Athens, then saying it was time to ask Hitler to mediate a truce: “There is nothing more to be done. It is ridiculous and grotesque, but that is the way it is.”
Ciano talked him out of the idea, later writing bitterly: “I would rather put a bullet in my head than telephone Ribbentrop. It is possible that we are defeated? May it not be that that the commander has laid down arms before his men?”
In effect, Mussolini had. On December 4, 1940, physically drained—face unshaven and eyes swollen, as one account described him— Mussolini called in his ambassador to Germany, Dino Alfieri, and instructed him to seek military, not diplomatic, help from Hitler. Unknown to them, Hitler had a month earlier issued a directive to invade Greece.
In an order as pointless as it was petty, Mussolini sent Ciano and other younger government officials to the front; the sight of uniformed bureaucrats floundering in the snow trying to do their paperwork under fire amused rather than inspired Italians. In Ciano’s final diary entry regarding Greece, dated January 26, 1941, a very different man from the glory-seeker of only two months before wrote: “Departure. This time I have a certain amount of experience in such departing. I find it hard to leave. I have no apprehension, only a small amount of conviction and consequently fewer enthusiasms. All of my comrades who have become volunteers by force feel this way, and many do not hide their feelings.”
While Mussolini fumed in Rome, his troops in the Albanian hills endured an agonizing winter in which temperatures fell to 20 degrees below zero. Capt. Fernando Campione wrote of the grim conditions: “The major in command drags himself with his feet affected by the beginning of frostbite. His serious, emaciated, livid face betrays the tragedy of the days and nights passed in the cold and snow….It is said that 40 men are frozen to death daily.”
Perhaps the most shocking statistic of Mussolini’s Greek misadventure was that, while 50,874 Italian soldiers suffered combat wounds, 52,108 endured illness, and 12,368 were incapacitated by frostbite.
Mussolini’s response was astonishingly callous, even for him: “This snow and cold are very good. In this way our good-for-nothing men and this mediocre race will be improved.”
In spite of their military successes, the situation for the Greeks was no less desperate. Greek soldiers subsisted on a near starvation diet of bread and olives; as a result, their uniforms “seemed about two sizes too big for them,” an American correspondent reported. Greek amputations from frostbite reached a horrifying 11,000. Ammunition was beginning to run low as the British had to find the right ammunition for the Greeks’ outmoded German and French rifles, then ship it across the Aegean and move it up the hardly existent roads on mules and peasants’ backs.
The Greeks suffered a further blow when Premier Metaxas died suddenly of tonsillitis after an operation on January 29, 1941. His successor, Alexander Koryzis, the head of the National Bank of Greece, had little political experience and would prove, fatally for himself, not up to the job.
It turned out that by dying, Metaxas would have his greatest impact on the war in Greece. Winston Churchill from the start was bent on not merely supplying the Greeks but fighting alongside them. Believing he could raise the Balkans against Hitler and wanting to show the still-neutral United States that Britain would stand beside an ally, Churchill was prepared to pull troops out of North Africa, from their own successful campaign against the Italians there. “No one will thank us for sitting tight in Egypt with ever-growing forces while the Greek situation and all that hangs on it is cast away,” he told his skeptical war secretary, Anthony Eden. “‘Safety first’ is the road to ruin in war.”
Chief of the Imperial General Staff John Dill and Commander in Chief of the Middle East Archibald Wavell saw it differently. They were on the verge of driving the Italians out of North Africa; Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps did not arrive until February. Notoriously inarticulate, Wavell for once made himself clear: “Even if we can intervene in Greece, we can’t intervene with enough men, so don’t stop a successful operation for a possibly botched one.”
The arguing remained academic since Metaxas had refused to accept British troops, asserting it would provoke a German invasion. But when he died, Koryzis quickly acquiesced.
Yet just as Dill and Wavell were also finally coming around— or had just been worn down—about an operation in Greece, it was Churchill who began having doubts. “Do not feel obligated to the Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will be only another Norwegian fiasco,” he cabled Eden and Dill, on their way to the final negotiations in Athens.
In the ultimate, bewildering, turnabout, it was Anthony Eden who became the Greek operation’s strongest proponent. On February 27, 1941, the War Cabinet reached, unanimously, its final decision, and Churchill cabled Eden with a marked lack of enthusiasm, “While being under no illusions, we all send you the order ‘Full steam ahead.’” He still continued to hedge, though, cautioning, “We must be careful not to urge Greece against her better judgment into a hopeless resistance.”
As Dill said later, “The Prime Minister had led the hunt before we left England.…By the time he had begun to doubt, the momentum was too great.” Days after the cabinet’s decision, the first of an eventual 58,364 Commonwealth troops began landing—under the watchful eyes of still-neutral German diplomats—for what Wavell called “a gamble in which the dice were loaded against us from the start.”
Arriving ahead was their commander, supposedly incognito in civilian clothes as “Mr. Watt.” It was a bit unrealistic, though, to expect Gen. Henry Maitland Wilson to pass unnoticed: his elephantine girth and gait had earned him the nickname “Jumbo” throughout the British army.
While his army was being routed in the autumn and winter, Mussolini vowed they would win in the spring, which “was Italian.” He piloted his plane to the front to witness the next Italian offensive. He strutted among his troops in a marshal’s uniform, oblivious as always to the true impression he created. He swaggered up to a soldier, in obvious pain from a chest wound, to grandly announce, “I am Il Duce, and I bring you the greetings of the fatherland.”
“Well, now, isn’t that great,” the suffering soldier managed to get out. Mussolini quickly moved on.
From his observation post, Mussolini watched as his artillery fired 100,000 shells in two hours to open the Italian offensive on the central Albanian front on March 9, 1941. Then 50,000 Italians began advancing against 28,000 Greeks along a 20-mile front between the Osum and Aoos rivers, land dominated by the Trebeshina Mountains.
The Greeks managed to hold their positions in often hand-to-hand combat, then launched counterattacks of their own. On the fifth day, a Greek aircraft bombed and strafed Mussolini’s position, forcing him to a shelter for cover. Mussolini asked Badoglio’s successor, Gen. Ugo Cavallero, “How is the morale of our troops?”
“We cannot say it is high,” Cavallero had to admit. “We have losses and no territorial gains.”
Pronouncing himself “disgusted by this environment,” Mussolini flew home after 11 days, to let the offensive grind on another five futile days; there were 12,000 Italian casualties at the end.
Time had run out—for Mussolini and, more tragically, for the Greeks. A week after Mussolini’s return to Rome came the fateful letter from Hitler: “Now, I would cordially request you, Duce, not to undertake any further operations in Albania in the course of the next few days.” In other words, stay out of the way.
Before dawn, Palm Sunday, April 6, 1941, it was the German minister’s turn to hand an announcement of aggression against Greece to Premier Koryzis; the German XIIth Army had invaded from Bulgaria 30 minutes earlier. Koryzis had no heroic words of defiance, though a doomed Greek soldier on the frontier, in a farewell letter to his family, did: “With our fingers on the trigger, we are following the movements of the enemy, expecting the ultimatum with the resolution to die and with the certainty that we will show the Germans what being a free Greek means.”
He and his fellow soldiers would get little chance. The Germans simultaneously attacked Yugoslavia, blitzing it in just five days and destroying Churchill’s hopes for a united Balkan front. “The sudden collapse destroyed the main hope of the Greeks,” he wrote. “It was another example of ‘One at a time.’…A grim prospect now gaped upon us all.”
Against British advice, the Greeks chose to make their stand in the Metaxas Line, 130 miles of concrete bunkers stretching across the mountains of eastern Greece. Under relentless German assault, it crumbled in only two days, as German air power controlled the skies and, with Yugoslavia’s million-man army routed, the Germans could flank the Greek defenses.
A German soldier described the fighting: “The Gebirgsjäger [mountain troops] are climbing out of the deep valley towards that crest. Their hour has come and rifle and machine-gun fire echo in a succession of rolling thunder claps around the mountain peaks….We run through a hail of machine-gun fire to the first Greek frontier post and see our first dead Greek. His wide open eyes stare up at the sky….The entrances to the pillboxes are blocked and shortly thereafter, at about 19.00 hrs., a white flag is raised….[Greek] dead are still lying in their trenches. Their faces are covered with ice. The deep silence of the mountain surrounds us.”
More disasters awaited the Allies. Athens’ port of Piraeus was wrecked when a Luftwaffe raid exploded a freighter packed with 250 tons of TNT. The blast shattered windows for 11 miles and was heard 150 miles away.
Even worse, at 8 A.M. on April 9, the 2nd Panzer Division rolled unopposed into Greece’s second-largest city and port, Salonika. The falls of the Metaxas Line and Salonika trapped 70,000 Greek soldiers in eastern Greece, leaving them no choice but to surrender. An artillery major made a different choice: he lined up his battery, saluted, then shot himself as his men sang the national anthem.
With only the 6th Australian Division, the New Zealand Division, the 1st British Armored Brigade, and three understrength Greek divisions available to him, Wilson established his own defense line from Mount Olympus to the Aliákmon River. While the British held the 33rd Panzer Regiment a day at Ptolemais (although losing 32 tanks and antitank guns in the process), Wilson learned from decrypted German radio interceptions that he was outnumbered more than two to one and was going to be flanked on both ends of the line. On April 16, he ordered a retreat south across the plain of Thessaly.
The terrain of Greece had been brutal enough for both sides. “Libya was like a billiard table compared with the terrifying ranges and yawning ravines here,” the correspondent for the Times of London wrote.
Incessant German air attacks made it even worse. “For two days I have been bombed, machine-gunned, and shot at by all and sundry,” reported the Times man. “German stukas have blown two cars from under me and strafed a third….All day and all night there have been waves of Germans in the skies….[Luftwaffe Commander in Chief Hermann] Göring must have a third of his air force operating here and it is bombing every nook and cranny, hamlet, village and town in its path.”
One British unit refused to allow its routine to be disrupted in the chaos. A Greek lieutenant watched, astonished, as the soldiers stopped, laid out a playing field by the roadside, and players in shorts came out for a scheduled soccer game: “The game was reaching the end of the first half-time when a dozen stukas appeared over our heads and started strafing a convoy moving along the road, only a few yards away from the field. Nobody moved and the game continued as the players dribbled, passed and kicked the ball with unrelenting zest.”
In Athens, Greek leaders crumbled, exhausted from six months of fighting the Italians and stunned by the magnitude of the German blitzkrieg. Premier Koryzis killed himself on learning that the minister of war, in an act of either defeatism or treason, had granted widespread Easter passes to the troops to leave the fighting. A broken General Papagos told Wilson, “We are finished. But the war is not lost. Therefore, save what you can of your army to help win elsewhere.”
While Mussolini had raged and moaned, Hitler’s enjoyment at Churchill’s new Greek travails was marred by regret over having to devastate the country. “Athens and Rome are his meccas,” his ranking diarist, Josef Goebbels, wrote. “The Führer is a man totally attuned to antiquity. He hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity….What a difference between the benevolent, smiling Zeus and the pain-wracked, crucified Christ….What a difference between a gloomy cathedral and a light airy ancient temple.”
The final blow came when the Germans roared through Yugoslavia down the Monastir Gap to capture Kastoria and cut off the Greek First Army fleeing south from Albania. “The situation offers no way out,” General Tsolakoglu radioed Athens in refusing an order to break through. To avoid having to surrender to the Italians, he signed an armistice with the Germans, but a furious Mussolini demanded, and received, a new ceremony with an Italian general present.
The same day Tsolakoglu surrendered, April 22, the Greek king and cabinet flew to Crete on an RAF bomber and British headquarters in Athens issued the order to evacuate. To buy time for it, Wilson prepared a final stand at, of all places, Thermopylae. The idea of repeating the three-day stand by the Greeks against the Persians in 480 BC struck a chord with Churchill: “The intervening ages fell away. Why not one more undying feat of arms?”
Instead of three days, Wilson could only give Churchill two. Australian gunners knocked out 19 German tanks before Ger – man mountain troops climbed the hills to the west, flanking the pass. The Commonwealth forces withdrew east to the pass just south of Thebes, held two more days, then began the final run for the coast.
The evacuation had been moved up four days, underscoring the desperation of the situation. With Piraeus out of operation and Salonika in German hands, the only ports left were Rafina to the east and Megara to the west of Athens, and Nauplia, Monemvasia, and Kalamata on the Peloponnesus, Greece’s southern peninsula. Passing through Athens at midnight, a British soldier found to his surprise even at that hour “the brave Greek people lining the streets and wishing us good luck. It was terrible. It was like leaving a sinking ship with most of the passengers still on board.”
The Commonwealth forces wrecked trucks and guns to block the roads behind them and to slow the pursuit. To avoid air attack, they marched and boarded ship at night, then sailed no later than 3 A.M.; luckily for them, the nights were moonless. Tragically, a Dutch ship lingered until dawn to load, then with its two destroyer escorts was dive-bombed and sunk, with only 50 survivors out of more than 700 on all three ships.
One escape route was the bridge at the Corinth Canal linking the Peloponnesus to the mainland. The Germans launched a combined glider and paratroop attack at 7 A.M. on April 26, just missing by a few hours General Wilson lumbering across with the last of the Commonwealth forces on the road, leaving an Australian rearguard to blow the bridge. The Germans were attempting to defuse the explosives when the bridge suddenly exploded, the British later claiming they set off the charges with rifle shots.
By the time the last ship sailed the morning of April 29, 1941, 80 percent of the Commonwealth force plus Greeks—50,662 people—had been evacuated to Crete or Egypt. Standing out, literally, among the evacuees was Jumbo Wilson, his suitcase in hand, waiting interminably at the edge of the jetty at Nauplia for a Short Sunderland flying boat. With the sound of small-arms fire rattling not far away, a nervous staff officer asked him what he wanted to do. “I will do what many soldiers have done before me—I’ll sit on my kit and wait!” was his reply.
Within 21 days of launching their offensive, the first German units were speeding into Athens. At the Acropolis, it was said, a guard jumped to his death rather than hoist the swastika; in view of what lay ahead for the Greeks, it would seem churlish to question his choice.
To his bad judgment, Mussolini added worse taste in demanding a victory parade through Athens; the few Greeks to turn out for the token procession gave the Germans some grudging claps so they could greet the Italians with dead silence.
Mussolini’s war by temper tantrum cost the Italians 13,755 killed and 25,067 missing. A bitter comrade wrote their epitaph: “At school they had heard it was a fine thing to die with a bullet in one’s heart kissed by the rays of the sun. No one had thought that one might fall the other way with one’s face in the mud.”
Yet if a parade was all Mussolini got out of the war in Greece, it was more than anyone else. Hitler’s conquest would seem to have been cheap—just 2,559 German dead, 5,820 wounded. But, in the opinion of his commander in chief, Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, and the chief of the general staff Generaloberst Franz Halder, the month spent conquering Greece and Yugoslavia fatally delayed the invasion of Russia. “Had Hitler not run up a swastika on the Acropolis, he might have succeeded in draping it upon the Kremlin,” commented New York Times foreign correspondent C. L. Sulzberger.
British losses in Greece were 5,100 killed or wounded, mostly from air attacks, and 7,000 abandoned at Kalamata, who were captured when the flotilla commander panicked and withdrew. “We have paid our debt of honor with far less loss than I feared,” said Churchill. But the loss was to be greater than Churchill realized. As the official German history itself notes: “Churchill’s decision [to intervene in Greece] gave the Germans the opportunity to intervene successfully in North Africa, and two years were to pass before the British, together with the Americans, were able to achieve the final victory there which had been so near in February 1941.”
Greece’s war losses—13,408 killed and 42,485 wounded— were only the beginning of a decade of agony. The Germans plundered Greece of food and medicine. Some 100,000 died of starvation and disease in Athens alone. Then communist forces attempted to take over, igniting a civil war that continued until 1949 and in which more than 150,000 died.
The war’s principals came to varying ends. King George II returned to Greece, unpopular as ever, to be imposed again as ruler, this time by the British, but died soon after. (The Greek monarchy ended with George II’s nephew fleeing the colonels’ coup of 1967.) General Tsolakoglu turned from hero to quisling; he headed the collaboration regime during the Axis occupation and died in prison waiting trial. General Papagos survived Dachau to also lead Greece, as its elected prime minister.
Of the British, Dill and Wavell were soon sidelined out of roles in Europe. While he was not seriously criticized for the debacle in Greece, Henry Maitland Wilson never held a combat command again; he was made field marshal and, on Dill’s death in 1944, was sent to Washington to head the British military mission.
And Galeazzo Ciano? Hitler pressured Mussolini to execute him for abetting his father-in-law’s downfall. But the firing squad bungled the job, and Ciano had to be dispatched with that pistol bullet to the head he had once said he preferred rather than appealing to Ribbentrop for help.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue (Vol. 21, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Greek Tragedy
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