The Start of Italy’s European Disaster – ‘Emergenza G’ and the Invasion of Greece (part 1)

On 28 October 2011 it will be the sixty-first anniversary of the Italian invasion of Greece, and thus the real starting point of the disaster represented by Italy’s attempts at territorial aggrandizement in Europe during World War II. (We can ignore the Italian part on the defeat of France in June of the same year as the Italian forces were severely handled by French forces already on the verge of defeat by Germany.) The initial goal of what the Italians termed ‘Emergenza G’ was the establishment in Greece of a puppet state under Italian control. This new Greek government would then permit the Italian annexation of the islands in the Ionian Sea and also the Cyclades and Sporades island groups in the Aegean Sea, which were to be administered as a part of the Dodecanese islands of the Aegean, already under Italian control since 1911. The Epiros and Akarnania regions were also to be separated from the rest of Greece to become the so-called ‘Principality of the Pindus’, and Italian-occupied Albania was to annex territory between Greece’s north-western frontier and the line linking Florina, Pindos, Arta and Prevesa. The Italians also proposed to compensate Greece for its large territorial losses by allowing it to annex the British crown colony of Cyprus after the war had ended in Axis victory.

The front between Greece and Albania, already seized by Italy in 1939, was about 95 miles (150 km) long and characterised by extremely mountainous terrain with very few roads. The Pindos mountain range effectively split the front into two portions, in Epiros and western Macedonia. It was on 15 October 1940 that Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, gave his instructions for the invasion to Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Mario Roatta, respectively the head of the Comando Supremo and acting chief of the army general staff, adding that ‘Emergenza G’ was to start within 12 days. Badoglio and Roatta were appalled, not least because, on Mussolini’s own orders, they had only three weeks earlier demobilised 600,000 men to aid the Italian harvest. Given the expected requirement for a minimum of 20 divisions, when there were currently only eight divisions in Albania, and considering the inadequacies of the Albanian ports and local infrastructure, the Comando Supremo felt that adequate preparation would require at least three months. Even so, the launch of the invasion was scheduled for 26 October as a three-phase undertaking. The first phase was to be the occupation of Epiros; the second, made possible by the success of the first and the arrival of reinforcements, was to be a thrust into western Macedonia and toward Thessaloníki to complete the seizure of northern Greece; and the third was to comprise the seizure of the rest of Greece. Subsidiary attacks were to be carried out against the Ionian islands, and it was hoped that Bulgaria would intervene and pin down the Greek forces in eastern Macedonia.

The army allocated one corps to each theatre, these formations being formed from the existing occupation forces in Albania. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Carlo Rossi’s stronger XXV Corps ‘Ciamuria’ of Generale d’Armata Carlo Geloso’s 11th Army, spearheaded by Generale di Divisione Francesco Zani’s 23rd Division ‘Ferrara’ and Generale di Divisione Giovanni Magli’s 131st Armoured Division ‘Centauro’, together with Generale di Divisione Ercole Caligian’s 51st Division ‘Siena’ (about 30,000 men and 163 tanks), was to advance on the right toward Ioánnina, flanked on its right by the brigade-sized Raggruppamento Litoral (about 5,000 men) along the coast, and to its left by Generale di Divisione Mario Girotti’s elite 3rd Alpini Division ‘Julia’, which was to advance through the Pindos mountains. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Sebastiano Visconti Prasca’s weaker XXVI Corps ‘Corizza’ of Generale d’Armata Mario Vercellino’s 9th Army in the western Macedonia sector with Generale di Divisione Giovanni Cerio’s 29th Division ‘Piemonte’, Generale di Brigata Paolo Micheletti’s 49th Division ‘Parma’, with Generale di Divisione Mario Arisio’s 19th Division ‘Venezia’ on its way from the north of the country (about 31,000 men), was initially to remain on the defensive. In total, the force facing the Greeks comprised about 85,000 men, under Prasca’s operational command.

After the Italian occupation of Albania during the spring of 1939, the Greek general staff had prepared its ‘IB’ (Italy-Bulgaria) plan in anticipation of a combined Italian and Bulgarian offensive against its country. At the basic level, the ‘IB’ plan called for a defensive stance in Epiros, with a a slow and staged retreat to the line linking the Arachthos river, Metsovo, the Aliákmon river and Mt Vermion, while maintaining the possibility of a limited offensive in western Macedonia. There were two variants of the plan for the defence of Epirus: ‘IBa’ posited a forward defence on the border, and ‘IBb’ was posited on a defence along an intermediate position. It was left to the judgment of the local commander, Hypostrátegos Charalambos Katsimitros, to choose which sub-plan to follow. The Greeks had a significant advantage inasmuch as they had managed to garner intelligence about the approximate date of the attack, and had just completed a limited mobilisation in the areas facing the expected Italian attack. The primary Greek forces in the immediate area at the outbreak of the war were Katsimitros’s own 8th Division (fully mobilised and prepared for forward defence) in Epiros, and Antistrátegos Ioannis Pitsikas’s corps-sized Army Section of Western Macedonia (the TSDM), including Syntagmatárches Konstantinos Davakis’s regiment-sized Pindos Detachment, Hypostrátegos Christos Zigouris’s 9th Division and the 4th Brigade, in western Macedonia. The Greek forces amounted to about 35,000 men, but could quickly be reinforced by formations currently in southern Greece and Macedonia.

On the credit side of the balance, the Greeks enjoyed a small advantage in that their divisions had about one-third more infantry (three regiments to the Italian two regiments per division) and slightly more medium artillery and machine guns, but on the debit side they lacked any armoured fighting vehicles, and the Greek air force was most decidedly inferior in number and equipment to the Italian air force; moreover, most Greek equipment was still of World War I issue, or else came from countries like Belgium, Austria and France, which were now under Axis occupation, with adverse effects on the supply of spare parts and suitable ammunition. However, many senior Greek officers were veterans of two decades of warfare (from the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 and World War I to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919/22), and, despite its limited means, the Greek army had actively prepared itself for the forthcoming war during the late 1930s. In addition, and wholly contrary to Italian beliefs, Greek morale was high, with many eager to avenge the sinking, on 15 August and in time of peace, of the light cruiser Elli in Tinos harbour by the Italian submarine Delfino.

On 28 October Italy demanded the right to occupy and hold unspecified strategic points inside Greece, received a peremptory Greek refusal, and only hours later launched its invasion. The Italian forces initially drove back the Greek screening forces along the frontier. The XXV Corps attacked from Gjirokastër (Argyrokastron) toward Kalpaki (Elaia), while οn its right the Raggruppamento Litoral advanced southward along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas river. The Italians faced difficulties because of the harsh terrain, and their L3/35 tankettes and M13/40 medium tanks soon revealed themselves incapable of coping with the mountainous terrain and the muddy tracks that served as roads. The Italian offensive was implemented in a decidedly apathetic way, moreover, and did not even have the advantage of tactical surprise or overwhelming air power as the Italian aircraft were generally grounded by the poor weather. The local leadership was uncertain and riven by personal rivalries, and the offensive soon began to slow down even though it had achieved limited gains. Adverse sea conditions also made impossible the implementation of the planned landing on Corfu.

By 1 November, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defence. On that same day, the Albanian theatre was given priority over the African theatre by the Comando Supremo. The most important fighting on this sector of the front took place between 2 and 8 November in what became know as the Battle of Elaia-Kalamas. In the period immediately following the start of ‘Emergenza G’, the Greek high command was largely pessimistic about the ability of the Greek army to defeat an Italian attack against a position that was difficult to defend. In general the defensive line near the frontier of Greece and Albania could only be thinly manned before general mobilisation allowed the arrival of reinforcements, and thus the defence was expected only to slow the Italian advance. However, Katsimitros had higher expectations of his 8th Division, which was holding an area of considerable strategic importance in which the Italian superiority in men and armour was offset by the mountainous and marshy nature of the terrain. Katsimitos therefore concentrated the main strength of his 8th Division in the area of Elaia-Kalamas. Antistrátegos Alexandros Papagos, the Greek commander-in-chief, had reluctantly agreed to Katsimitros’s plan only after allocating the division a new chief-of-staff who carefully studied the area and then reached the same conclusion as Katsimitos. In accordance with their basic ‘IB’ plan, on 28 October the Greeks responded to the Italian movement toward Kalpaki (Elaia) by slowly pulling back their screening units toward the main defensive line of Elaia-Kalamas about 18.5 miles (30 km) south of the border and to the north of Ioánnina. By 2 November the Greek forces were located in the positions which had been planned along the line linking Kalamas, Elaia, Grabala and Kleftis hill. On the same day, after repeated air and artillery strikes, the 23rd Division attacked. The Italians initially faced major problems as a result of the terrain’s bogginess, and then on the following day their L3/35 tankettes and M13/40 medium tanks were unable to cope with the terrain that alternated steep hills and marshy bottoms. The Italians could not breach the Greek defences, and fared no better in repeated attacks up to 9 November, when they called off their efforts.

A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of Girotti’s 3rd Alpini Division over the Pindos mountains from Klisura toward Metsovo. Davakis’s force held this 22-mile (35-mile) sector of the front between Epiros and western Macedonia in the Pindos mountains. The Italian capture of Metsovo would exercise a major influence on the outcome of the Italian offensive as it would cut the Greek line of communication and sever the Greek forces in Epiros from those in western Macedonia. The division achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of Davakis’s two-battalion force of the 51st Regiment. The Greek staff immediately ordered reinforcements into the area, which passed under the control of Antistrátegos Demetrios Papadopoulos’s II Corps. An initial Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, and met with little success.The 3rd Alpini Division covered 25 miles (40 km) of mountain terrain in icy rain and captured the village of Vovousa, but could not get as far as Metsovo some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the south-east. On 2 November Davakis was gravely wounded during a reconnaissance mission near Fourka, but by this date the Italians had realised that they lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue in the face of the arriving Greek reserves. One day later, the Italian spearhead was surrounded, and Girotti asked the 11th Army’s headquarters for relief attacks. Prasca tried to reinforce this sector of the front with Generale di Divisione Achille D’Havet’s newly arrived 47th Division ‘Bari’, which had originally been intended for the invasion of Corfu, but this formation arrived too late to change the outcome. During the next few days the 3rd Alpini Division fought bravely in appalling weather conditions and under constant attacks by Hypostrátegos Georgios Stanotas’s Cavalry Division. The villages that the Italians had captured during their initial advance, Samarina and Vovousa, were recaptured by the advancing Greek forces on 3 and 4 November, and on 8 November, Girotti was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt Smolikas towards Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until by 1 November the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence and the 3rd Alpini Division had been effectively destroyed, at least temporarily, as a fighting formation, so ending the Battle of Pindos in a complete Greek victory.

The 3rd Alpini Division had started its offensive with 9,140 men and 20 guns, and lost 1,674 men killed, wounded and missing, of whom about 1,000 were taken prisoner.

[Part 2 of this follows next week … ]