The Greek Campaign

Italian Fiat Tank Captured By Greek Forces

Today we have another amazing excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her novel!

To a great extent, Poland is a vast flat expanse, an immense village square set between the Carpathian Mountains to the south and the Baltic Sea to the north. Something like an enormous marketplace separating Germany from the Ukraine and Western Russia. In the event of a German attack, which had been unimaginable in the summer of 1929, and seemed unavoidable by the summer of 1939, the only terrain features that might have leant any assistance to the Polish Army were two rivers, the Bug, flowing westward south of East Prussia, and the Vistula, flowing east from southern Poland, then north through central Poland to Danzig and the Baltic Sea. It has been argued that had the Polish Army made a stand behind these two rivers, the German Blitzkrieg may well have failed.

That the war began promptly on September First was not serendipity. The autumn rains begin in mid-October, and as the end of summer approaches, rivers throughout Europe are low in their beds and running slow. It is not until the end of August that a large mechanized army can be sure of crossing Polish rivers rapidly enough to strike quickly, and by the third week of October, Germany’s armoured and motorized infantry units would be immobilized by the mud, and helpless against Poland’s elite cavalry units.[1] There was, therefore, a six week time frame within which an invasion of Poland had its greatest chance of success.

* * *

Invariably, Benito Mussolini and his career are summed up in two pairs of words. Castor oil and train schedules. He established his reputation as a forceful leader by compelling incompetent government bureaucrats (as well as his political opponents) to drink castor oil. And he secured his popularity in Italy when he got railroad passenger service throughout the country consistently running on time. This he accomplished with nothing more than pencils and notebooks. Officials rode the trains, noting how long it took to go from one city to another, how long it took the passengers to get on and off the train, how long it took to load and unload their baggage, how much time was necessary for proper maintenance. New schedules were written by simple clerks armed with nothing more than this pertinent information, and then the trains ran on time. There was no overhaul of the existing rail network, and no new trains were designed or built. There was almost no money spent, and not one engineer, conductor or ticket agent drank castor oil.

Sadly, Mussolini himself learned nothing from this, his most successful undertaking during more than twenty years as Prime Minister, and which was also almost certainly his only effort grounded in reality.

The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28th, when the mountains and valleys were awash with the autumn rains, and the rivers brimming with rapid flows. Because of the weather, Italy’s air force could not fly tactical combat support, and neither artillery nor trucks could move. At five-thirty in the morning[2], eight divisions of the Italian army went forward in three columns, with Metsovon, Ioannina and Arta as their operational objectives. This would place Epirus (the westernmost province of the Greek mainland) under Italian control.

The war plans, as drawn up by the Italian General Staff, called for reinforcements arriving from Italy, once Epirus was secure, to subsequently drive east to the Aegean Coast, splitting Greece and thus allowing it to be conquered gradually. However, General Prasca, assuming that a spectacular show of force, in conjunction with the virtually unopposed arial bombardment of Greek cities, would demoralize the population and prompt their government to surrender, had no specific plans to carry out the later phases of the invasion.[3]

No other army in Europe had greater bravery or cheaper rifles than the Italians, and no other army in history ever fought so well so often while being led so badly and equipped so poorly.

* * *

Italians fighting in Greece received their first Operational Directive two weeks after the invasion began. It had been written by General Soddu, who had been put in charge of the Greek campaign when General Prasca was relieved of command.

Greek Soldier WW2

The Greek plan of defense was as pragmatic as it was brilliant, and as effective as it was simple. They launched a large number of small counterattacks as the Italians advanced through narrow valleys between steep mountains. A handful of Greeks, with a few well-concealed artillery pieces and a limited number of shells, would inflict heavy casualties on the lumbering mass of surprised Italians. Greek infantry would descend upon them, inflicting more casualties and inciting panic. The Greeks then commandeered such materiel as they could carry and destroyed much of what they could not carry. Those Italians who counter-attacked in the treacherous fog and hazardous terrain took heavy losses.[4] In terms of equipment and resources, in numbers devoid of emotion, the Greek tactics were effective enough, but the impact on Italian morale dwarfed the more concrete effects.

Centauro Division Insignia

On the morning of November 5th, the Italian Centauro Armoured Division spearheaded what would prove to be Italy’s final attack to take place on Greek soil[5]. The tanks leading the operation fell victim to concealed tank traps. Tanks attempting to maneuver around these obstacles discovered minefields, where many of them were destroyed. Artillery fire forced the remaining tanks to attempt a withdrawal through marshes, where most of them sank. The majority of armour crewman who had survived to that point were killed by machine gun and rifle fire. Cavalry units attempting to cover the retreat suffered equally horrendous losses, and that night, Greek infantry taking up the positions abandoned by the shattered Italians were unnerved by the sight of men, interspersed among dead horses and abandoned equipment along the roadsides, who appeared to be sleeping. Anticipating minimal resistance from the Greeks, Italian High Command had not made any arrangements for evacuation of the wounded. However severe their injuries, these soldiers had resigned themselves to their duty, composed themselves, then accepted death, alone and far from home, for the glory of Rome.[6]

On November 22nd, in what could be considered the first victorious Allied attack to take place on the European mainland during the Second World War, the Greeks captured Koritsa, which is now generally known as Korce.[7]

By December Fourth, the Greeks had captured Pogradec, in Albania, and the obvious finally became apparent even to General Soddu, who issued a directive instructing his men to withdraw meter by meter, even though the only Italian units that had not already withdrawn from Greece were those finally arriving from Italy, or those that had been routed too suddenly to retreat.

Not having expected so great a degree of success, the Greeks were not prepared to press it further. They were also reaching the limits of their own supply lines, which had been tenuous from the start. Without trucks or paved roads to drive them on, and hampered by a shortage of mules, whenever the Greeks were unable to capture what they needed from the Italians, they often depended upon a network of women and children.

* * *

One weeps when one imagines an army supplied by children, and one’s sobs become wrenching when one considers to what end these Greek children were supporting their brothers, uncles and fathers. It is always appropriate to give the fullest measure of devotion to protect one’s home, family, and community. However horrible the circumstances, it is always pleasant and proper to die in defense of one’s country, even if it is a de jure crime to speak another language in that country, or a de facto crime to practice another religion. It is holy to stand in the gap and fight for the freedom of another country, another nation, another people. But had the Greeks driven the Italians from Albania, it is inconceivable that Ioannis Metaxas would have done anything more than replace the Italian street signs with Greek ones.

[1] Although Poland’s cavalry did not perform as well against the Germans as it had against the Soviets twenty years earlier, Polish cavalry consistently avoided the encirclement which was an essential facet of the German scheme of warfare.

[2] Emanuele Grazzi, Italy’s ambassador to Greece, had been instructed to inform Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas at 3:00 AM that unless his government immediately acceded to Italy’s demands–which, in effect, amounted to an annexation of Greece–a state of war would exist between the two nations as of 6:00 AM. Metaxas personally received this message from Grazzi at 4:00 AM.

[3] Reynolds Packard, UPI bureau chief in Rome at the time, later contended that the Italian Foriegn Mininster, Count Ciano, had paid bribes to a number of Greek officials in a failed attempt to secure the prompt surrender of Greece. While Packard’s contention is plausible in itself and fully consistent with events, there is neither concrete nor definitive evidence which validates it.

[4] Four years later, many of these same Italians, fighting as partisans against the German forces occupying Italy, would use the same technique.

[5] Italy’s advances into western Greece in 1941 were merely seizures of positions abandoned by the Greeks in response to German successes in Northern and Central Greece.

[6] After the war, General Charalambos Katsimitros, commander of the Greek Eighth Infantry Division, which was responsible for the majority of Italian casualties during the first few weeks of fighting, insisted that cowardice was virtually non-existent among the enlisted men of the Italian Army.

[7] In spite of the city’s population being more than ninety percent ethnic Albanian, the Greeks believed that they were liberating a Greek city. Most historians, wishing to avoid an obvious tinderbox, downplay the significance of this particular battle.

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