It is 1940 and Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, is feeling inadequate. His ally Adolf Hitler has conquered most of Europe, and even the once mighty France capitulated to the Nazis after only seventeen days of fighting. Mussolini’s choice for a show of strength was Greece, a nation then of only seven million people.
“The timeless character of the Greek was shining brightly for all to see: passionate, determined, and proud.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The invasion route was the Albanian Greek border. All that remained was to deliver an ultimatum to Greece demanding Italian troops occupy the country, or Italy would declare war and invade.
Mussolini gave the Greek dictator, General Metaxas, three hours to reply. In the early morning hours of the 28th of October 1940, Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and rumour has it that he replied with a single word: “OXI!” (pronounced Ohee, meaning “NO!”)
Mussolini did not wait for Metaxas’ reply.
Five heavily armed divisions of Italian soldiers began moving from Italian controlled Albania over the border into Greece. Italy had ten times the fire-power of Greece and overwhelming air and sea superiority, but expectations of an easy Italian victory quickly evaporated.
After a 25 kilometre advance inside Greece, 200,000 Italian troops were halted for days by a ragged army of Greek soldiers in mismatched uniforms.
Though Italians outnumbered them by more than two-to-one, the Greeks astonished the Italian generals with their courage, their strategic knowledge, their tenacity and their artillery’s precision. Greek forces had six mortars for each division against the invader’s sixty. Greeks were outnumbered and under-resourced yet drove the Italian forces back deep into Albania.
Greece’s victory provided a rallying cry for the demoralised British and other European nations in their war against the Hitler and his allies.
The women of Greece supplied clothing, food, and support to the resistance in extreme winter conditions. Large groups of women would stand arm-in-arm for hours in icy rivers and streams to slow the waters enough to permit the movement of equipment and supplies to the front.
Within four weeks of the invasion Greeks not only drove the Italian army back into Albania but continued to pursue them into Albania.
Mussolini replaced the commanding general several times and finally assumed command of the campaign himself. He tried to rouse his troops to victory with speeches reminding them of the legacy of their predecessors, the ancient Romans, but to no avail.
By December of 1940, the Greek army had liberated a third of Albania, better known as Northern Epirus. There was even serious concern expressed by key Italians that the Greek armed forces would cross the Adriatic Sea and invade Italy itself.
By the end of the five month campaign, 12,500 Italians returned home as casualties of war; 13,800 were buried in the frozen winter soil of northern Greece; 25,000 were missing in action; and 40,000 were POWs held by the Greek Army.
All major US and British media covered the Greeks’ victory over Mussolini.
It was the first defeat of the Axis powers and the first liberation of territory captured by the Axis powers.
The Greek success outraged Hitler. Greece had succeeded in defeating their ally, Italy.
On January 29, 1941 General Metaxas died. The new Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Koryzis sent a note to the British Government reaffirming Greece’s determination to resist a German attack. Metaxas had refused to openly align himself with Britain in fear of German invasion.
The Germans were forced to invade due to the Italian failure in April of 1941 and after two months of fierce fighting, overwhelmed the Greeks. The Greek army comprised of disabled soldiers from the Albanian campaign, ordinary citizens, men, women, the youth and the elderly. On the island of Crete civilians and resistance fighters attacked and killed German paratroopers as they landed, those without guns used pitchforks.
Over 10,000 German soldiers died and thousands were wounded trying to invade Crete making it Germany’s first significant troop loss. The Greeks saved the lives of many Australian Diggers in Crete. British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Greek Resistance: “Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.” The Greek Resistance struck down the German forces and destroyed much of their equipment. The impact was great enough to force the Germans to divert 50 battalions to Greece, though they desperately needed them on the Eastern front.
The fighting delayed Germany’s invasion plans and campaign against Russia. The Greek Resistance overturned German plans to occupy Moscow before the onset of the deadly Russian winter.
Metaxas was not instrumental in the resistance to Fascism, it was the Greek citizens that consciously united behind the belief of the defence of their country, and their desire to become a democratic nation again.
Under Axis Occupation over 300,000 civilians died from starvation and thousands more through German reprisals.
Yet the Greek Resistance, proved to be one of the most effective resistance movements in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The timeless character of the Greek was shining brightly for all to see: passionate, determined, and proud.”
On 28 October 1940, Greece the template of Western civilization shone bright.