Twenty-four hours earlier, Grazzi had hosted a gala reception for Metaxas and Greece’s figurehead king, George II, at the Italian consulate following a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. There, he had toasted Greek-Italian friendship with fine French champagne and a large cake bearing the words “Long Live Greece.” The new message he had been ordered to deliver to Metaxas at the behest of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was far less cordial. Although cloaked in the usual diplomatic pleasantries and written, as was still the custom of foreign ministries throughout the world, in formal French, the note’s underlying meaning was clear: Italy was invading Greece. The only question was how the vastly outnumbered Greeks would respond.
Grazzi waited silently for the answer as Metaxas, clad only in a nightshirt, a flowered dressing gown, and slippers, read over the message while sitting on the sofa in his trinket-laden study. The 69-year-old Metaxas, a former general, was not a well man. A lingering throat infection had sapped his strength, and the day before he had received word from his doctor that he would have to undergo a dangerous operation to determine the underlying cause of the infection. He had been sound asleep when Grazzi arrived. Now, however, he was wide awake. His hands trembled slightly as he read the document, and behind his reading glasses his dark eyes glistened with tears.
“Alors, C’Est La Guerre”
The gist of the message was unmistakable. Italy—already at war with Greece’s ally Great Britain as part of Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany—was demanding the right to occupy various strategic points within Greece “for the duration of the war in the Mediterranean.” The ultimatum accused Greece of allowing the British Royal Navy to use her territorial waters and ports to attack Italy, as well as permitting the buildup of British secret forces on Greek islands. “These provocations,” the ultimatum declared, “can no longer be tolerated by Italy…. The Italian government demands that the Hellenic government shall not pose any resistance to this occupation. Should the Italian forces meet with resistance, such resistance will be crushed by force of arms.”
Metaxas looked up from the document. “Alors, c’est la guerre (So, this is war),” he said in French. Not necessarily, Grazzi urged. “If you order your troops to let our forces enter freely, then—” Metaxas cut him off. “There is no need for you to continue,” he said. “For one thing, I will never issue such an order, and for another, your ultimatum is expiring in almost one hour. There is no time. I could not make a decision to sell my own house on a few hours’ notice. How do you expect me to sell my country?” Then Metaxas, with a fine sense of drama, switched to his native Greek to make his formal reply to the Italian demands. “Ochi,” he snapped. That single word—“No”—would soon become the battle cry for millions of Greek patriots. It was also an accurate assessment of Italy’s military prospects on the Balkan Peninsula, although it would be some weeks yet before that forecast would be fully proven.
Italy Encroaches Upon Greece
In many ways, Metaxas was an unlikely figure to rally Greek resistance against the Italians. “If in all Greece there was a single man who really had a feeling of affection for Italy, that man was John Metaxas,” Grazzi said later. A fascist himself, he had ruled Greece for the past four and a half years, having persuaded the weak-willed King George that the only way to face the mounting threat of communism within the country was to install a dictatorship, with Metaxas himself at the head of the government. Since then, the decidedly unmilitary-looking prime minister had instigated a milder, if still ruthless, form of fascism as it was currently being practiced in Italy and Germany. His soldiers had adopted the familiar stiff-armed salute, and Metaxas had created a secret police modeled on the dreaded Nazi Gestapo. A national youth group, the Neolia, or EON, imitated the larger countries’ pure-bred youth movements, marching stiff-legged down city streets and singing bloodcurdling songs of conquest. At the same time, Metaxas had instituted total censorship of the national press, banned the works of Plato and other “subversive hymns to democracy,” and exiled enemies of his regime to out-of-the-way islands. Although he was not a murderous despot like Hitler and Mussolini, he was nevertheless a despot.
But in his way Metaxas was also a patriot, and he had been keeping a wary eye on Italy ever since Mussolini’s legions had occupied neighboring Albania in April 1939. Like most Greeks, Metaxas was aware—Mussolini said so, again and again—that the Italian strongman believed he had an “outstanding account” to settle with Greece over the murder of several visiting Italian diplomats in 1923 during an ongoing territorial dispute concerning the Greek-Albanian border.
In recent months, the Italians had committed a number of carefully calibrated provocations against Greek targets as a way of testing the smaller nation’s resolve. Italian bombers had attacked Greek ships and coast guard stations, and an Italian submarine had torpedoed the Greek destroyer Helle as she lay anchored off the island of Tenos during one of the country’s holiest days, the Feast of the Assumption. Thirty religious pilgrims had been killed or wounded during the attack.
At the same time, the Italian press had inflated the murder of an obscure Albanian murderer, rapist, and cattle-rustler named Daut Hoggia into an international incident. Hoggia, said the Italians, was “a man animated by great patriotic spirit” who had been killed by Greek agents while attempting to liberate the Tsamouria region of Greece for his fellow Albanian countrymen. In actuality, Hoggia had been killed by two other Albanian bandits during a quarrel. Publicly, Metaxas ignored the Italian provocations, but secretly he began mobilizing four divisions of troops, two of which were already in place on the Albanian border. So secret was the mobilization that the Greek public, to say nothing of the Italian Embassy, did not even realize it was taking place.
Dissent Among Italian Ranks
While the Greek forces were busy mobilizing, the Italian high command was busy arguing. The overall blueprint for the invasion of Greece, code-named Contingency G, had been worked and reworked for the past three months, and still there was no final decision on strategy, tactics, or primary objectives. The confusion reflected the indecisive and mercurial Mussolini himself, who sometimes changed his mind on a subject five times in 15 minutes.
Like his idol, Adolf Hitler, Mussolini fancied himself a brilliant military strategist. But unlike the Führer, who had his own limitations as an army commander, Il Duce had not won the Italian equivalent of two Iron Crosses for heroism. The closest Mussolini came to duplicating Hitler’s valorous World War I service was to be struck by shrapnel while observing the demonstration of a new mortar by his own comrades in the Italian Army. One fellow soldier said—apparently with a straight face—that the future dictator “wasn’t much under fire.”
As commander in chief, Mussolini presided over a quarrelsome group of generals and advisers, including most particularly his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano. Arrogant, bombastic, and ambitious, the 35-year-old Ciano had married Mussolini’s eldest daughter and favorite child, Edda, 10 years earlier and thereafter had risen swiftly in the halls of Italian government. As a favored kinsman, Ciano naturally had Mussolini’s ear in a way that the other members of the inner circle did not. On the subject of Greece, Ciano was both hawkish and dangerously overoptimistic. He wanted a “little war” in the Balkans to establish Italian domination of the region and to checkmate the spreading German presence, begun with Hitler’s unopposed occupation of Bulgaria earlier that same month. An invasion of Greece, Ciano believed, would be “useful and easy.”
Over the objections of a majority of the general staff, called the Supermarina, Ciano convinced Mussolini to attack. And despite the fact that a previous battle plan had estimated that it would take at least a year and 18 full divisions to successfully bring off such an invasion, Mussolini decided in mid-October to attack in two short weeks. To make matters worse, General Visconti Prasca, commanding the Italian forces in Albania, would have less than one-third that number of divisions with which to attack. Nevertheless, Il Duce was adamant. “Dear Visconti,” Mussolini wrote on October 25. “Attack with the greatest determination and violence. The success of the operation depends above all on its speed.” Prasca, who had literally written the book on such an operation—he had titled it Lightning War—seemed like a good choice to lead the attack. Events would soon prove otherwise.
Three days later, at dawn on the 18th anniversary of Mussolini’s triumphant “March on Rome,”Prasca did as he was told. Even before the three-hour waiting period on the Italian ultimatum had run out, the forward elements of Prasca’s 100,000-man army began streaming across the Greek-Albanian border. At his villa in Rome, a poised and confident Mussolini waited patiently for the inevitable announcement of victory, entirely convinced that his people would welcome joyously the news of the invasion. “I shall send in my resignation as an Italian,” he told Ciano, “if anyone objects to our fighting the Greeks.”