Hitler Continues to Work on Franco
But if the Italians were happy to learn of the invasion, another European people—or at least their leaders—were not. Adolf Hitler had already spent a frustrating last few days trying fruitlessly to convince Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to enter the war on the Axis side. Franco, whose rise to power in Spain had been aided materially by Hitler’s air power and steady stream of supplies, did not think the timing was right for a new war, coming as it did so soon after his own country’s brutal civil war.
To Hitler’s frank astonishment, Franco refused to help. “I would rather have three or four teeth yanked out than go through such an interview again,” Hitler said after his final nine-hour meeting with Franco on the Spanish-French border. He had just departed by train for Berlin when he received word that Mussolini had invaded Greece. “How can he do such a thing?” Hitler raged. “This is downright madness. If he wanted to pick a fight with poor little Greece, why didn’t he attack in Malta or Crete? It would at least make some sense in the context of war with Britain in the Mediterranean.”
Ordering his train to turn around and head for Italy, Hitler and his bone-weary staff arrived at the train station in Florence on the morning of October 28. Mussolini and a 60-man band were waiting for him. On Il Duce’s signal, the band began playing a stirring version of the Italian Royal March, then hurriedly realized their mistake and switched to the German national anthem. Hitler, smiling grimly, cracked open his compartment window as Mussolini strode down the side of the train to meet him. “Führer,” he cried, “we are on the march! Victorious Italian troops crossed the Greco-Albanian border at dawn!”
That was the last thing in the world that Hitler wanted to hear. His own carefully thought-out blueprint for world conquest called for one more year of peace in the Balkans while he completed his buildup for a massive invasion of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941. Nothing must interfere with the flow of oil, aluminum, lead, copper, chrome, tin, and other raw materials from the Balkans. That was the whole reason he had recently proposed a Tripartite Pact with Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, the three countries directly bordering Greece.
A Pig’s Mess
Now, in a stroke, Mussolini had destabilized Germany’s entire southern flank—and all without a word of warning. With surprising restraint, Hitler assured the beaming Mussolini that Germany would fully support him in his venture, although privately the Nazi leader murmured to his staff that the Greek invasion was nothing less than a schweinerei—a pig’s mess. Ciano, at Mussolini’s side, noted in his diary: “We are attacking in Albania and talking in Florence. In both places things are going well. In spite of the bad weather, the troops are advancing rapidly, though air support is lacking. In Florence the talk is of great interest and shows that German solidarity has not ceased.”
As usual, Ciano was too optimistic. Hitler was furious and immediately began reinforcing the 600,000 German troops already stationed in Romania for a possible Greek invasion of his own, should Mussolini’s “pig’s mess” live up—or down—to its name. Worse yet, the initial Italian advance was not going well at all. Torrential rainfall had drenched the region in the two days preceding the jumping-off point of the attack, turning previously dry stream beds into raging rivers and reducing dirt roads to muddy swamps. General Francesco Rossi, sent from Rome to inspect the front lines on the eve of the invasion, recommended that the advance be postponed. “Atmospheric conditions particularly adverse without expectation of early improvement,” he telegraphed Mussolini. “Supply and movement extremely difficult. Conditions for air force prohibitive. Bad weather hampering unloading of ships.” He advised that Prasca, commanding the invasion, be allowed to wait until the weather cleared. But Mussolini, who set great store in overt displays of symbolism, liked the notion of attacking on the anniversary of his grandiose “March on Rome.”
Nor did Prasca want to wait. As a comparatively new army commander, he was still low on the overstuffed list of Italian generals, and he was afraid that any delay in the Greek invasion would result in his being replaced by a more senior general. Mussolini deliberately played on Prasca’s fears, telling him disingenuously: “You know, and if you do not I am telling you now, that I have opposed all attempts to take your command away from you on the eve of the operation. I believe that events, and above all your actions, will justify me.”
With Mussolini’s veiled warning fresh in his mind, Prasca commenced the invasion as planned, at 5:30 am on October 28. Moving in total darkness through the icy rain, three columns of Italian troops began the assault. On the Italian left, the 11,000-man Julia Division, under Prasca’s direct control, headed toward the towering Smolikas Mountain, nearly 9,000 feet high, en route to the village of Metsovon and the critical Larisa-Yanina road. The division was comprised of tough Alpine fighters who were used to fighting at high altitudes. Despite the freezing weather, which caused the soldiers’ sodden puttees to grip their legs like pails of concrete, the division broke through the advanced Greek positions and pushed up the Aoos Valley in northwestern Greece.
Greece Prepares a Counterstroke
In the center, the Ferrara and Centauro Divisions, with 17,000 men between them, struck for Yanina. Some 3,500 Albanian volunteers accompanied the advance. Greek minefields and artillery fire slowed their progress. Farther south, on the Italian right, the Siena Division captured the village of Filates, crossed the raging Thiamis River, and swung north to encircle the Greek position at Yanina. Italian air superiority was rendered completely useless by the terrible weather conditions, which also forced the cancellation of a planned amphibious assault on the island of Corfu off the west coast of Greece.
For four days the Italians slogged eastward, laboriously crossing streams and rivers swollen twice their size and pouring with yellow mud, broken tree trunks, and the sodden carcasses of drowned sheep and other animals. On November 1, the weather suddenly cleared, and Ciano, who had come to Albania to observe the fighting, ordered a “slap-up bombing raid” on Salonika, in Macedonia, to divert Greek attention from the west. The bombing raid was a failure—poorly briefed pilots came close to wiping out a building full of Italian nationals who were waiting in Salonika for their forced repatriation—and the clearing skies permitted the skilled Greek artillery to begin shelling the Italian positions. Prasca, who had airily predicted on the eve of the invasion, “Greeks don’t like to fight,” soon had occasion to eat his words.
On November 2, Italian forces in the Julia Division captured Vovossa. It would prove to be their deepest penetration into Greece. Already there were signs of disintegration and disorganization within the Italian ranks. General Quirino Armellini of the Supermarina, on hand to observe the invasion, complained of “utter chaos” within the high command, which he attributed to the generals’ ill-advised tendency to operate on the principle, “First we’ll make war and then we’ll see.”
Ciano reported back to Mussolini, “There are complaints here about the ill will of the General Staff, which did not do all it should have done in preparation for the operation.” Specifically, Ciano pointed to Italian Chief of Staff Pietro Badoglio, who he said had undercut the offensive from the start, since he “was convinced that the Greek question would be solved at the conference table.” Mussolini, however, professed himself to be “satisfied with the development of operations in the first phase,” and Prasca assured him, “The Greeks have put up little resistance or have run away, even leaving tables laid and hot food behind them.”
But while Prasca was busy congratulating himself on his success, Greek General Alexander Papagos was preparing a swift and audacious counterstroke. On the morning of November 1, even as Mussolini’s air force was ineffectually bombing Salonika to keep the Greeks pinned down in Macedonia, Papagos launched a sudden attack across the Devoli River in southeastern Albania. Catching a battalion of the Italian 83rd Regiment as it was moving into line, the Greeks opened a gap in the enemy front. Advancing over Mount Morova and other precipitous hillsides on roads cleared of snow with the help of peasant women from nearby villages, the hardy Greeks infiltrated Italian positions all along their left flank, creating absolute consternation within the Italian camp.
Before the invasion began, Prasca had been assured that the Macedonian sector would remain quiet while he advanced into Greece from the west. But General John Pitsikas’s three divisions forced back the Italian 9th Army in wild, rocky terrain that was largely inaccessible to tanks, trucks, or the favorite Italian light transport, the motorcycle. Meanwhile, Greek mountain cavalry, riding small, agile horses accustomed to the most difficult footing, carried out lightning-quick sorties against the suddenly besieged enemy. On November 4, the crack Albanian Tomor Battalion was counterattacked in the Lapishtit Mountains and driven down the sheer face of the elevation. Italian carabinieri tried to intervene to stop the rout, at which time the panic-stricken Albanians began firing at them, too. Only 120 of the 1,000-man Albanian battalion remained in place when the shooting was over.