The scene is Rome, Italy in the autumn of 1940. The dictator, Benito Mussolini, is feeling melancholic and inadequate. The reasons for his frustrations are that his ally, Adolf Hitler, has been conquering the nations of Europe: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Romania, and Austria. Their combined population was close to 140 million. Mighty France, a nation of 43 million had collapsed and surrendered after only 17 days of fighting in an agonizing and humiliating defeat.
Mussolini decided to show Hitler that the Italians also could conquer Europe, and have Hitler “learn of the conquest from the newspapers”. His choice for this mighty show of Italian strength was Greece, a small country of seven million people versus Italy’s 44 million. Italy’s large air force had total air superiority since Greece had a very small defensive air force.
The invasion route was selected: the Albanian-Greek border. All that remained would be to deliver an insulting ultimatum to Greece. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allow Italian troops to occupy the country (i.e. surrender) or Italy would declare war and invade Greece. Mussolini never waiting for Greece’s reply. Before the ultimatum had expired, five heavily armed divisions of Italian soldiers began moving from Italian controlled Albania over the border into Greece. The quick march to Athens for an Italian victory parade never materialized.
After a 25-kilometer advance inside Greece, the 200,000 Italian troops were halted for days by a ragged army of Greek soldiers in mismatched uniforms and shephard’s clothes. Though Italians outnumbered them more than two to one, the Greeks astonished the Italian generals with their courage, their tenacity, and their limited artillery’s precision. The Greek forces had six mortars for each division against the invaders sixty. All Greeks helped in any way they could. The courageous women of Greece supplied clothing, food, and support to the defense of their country in very difficult winter conditions. Sometimes, 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 4 weeks of the invasion, the undermanned, under-supplied, and underfed Greeks drove the Italian army back into Albania and kept on going, continuing the pursuit into Albania. By this time, Mussolini had replaced the commanding general several times and assumed command of the military campaign himself. He tried to rouse his troops to victory with speeches reminding them of the great legacy of their predecessors, the ancient Romans, but without success. There was even serious concern by the Italians that the Greek armed forces would cross the Adriatic Sea and invade Italy itself.
The entire Western world, discouraged and fearful of the Axis powers and the growing ugly war, took hope from the incredible victory. It was a double first: the first defeat of the Axis powers and the first liberation of territory captured by the Axis powers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Greeks: “Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks”.
This outraged Hitler and the Germans. The Germans invaded Greece in April of 1041, and after nearly two months of fierce fighting overwhelmed the defiant Greeks. The Greek army included disabled soldiers from the Albanian campaign against the Italians, ordinary citizens, teenagers, and the elderly. Even Greek prison convicts demanded and were released from jail so they could fight.
The six months of fighting caused by the Greek resistance of the Axis Powers also delayed Germany’s invasion and campaign against what is today the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet Union). This was something the Germans had not planned and thus were unprepared. The Russians were successful in repulsing and defeating the Germans. This was a major turning point of World War 2 that signaled the beginning of the end of the German Third Reich. The sacrifice and success of the Greek armed forces, the Greek guerillas, and the ordinary Greek citizens drew the admiration of the free world and kindled hope for the final victory of the Allied Powers.
The Greeks faithfully met their obligations to their Allies, with heroism and self sacrifice. During this time, the timeless character of the Greek was shining brightly for all to see: Passionate, Determined, and Proud.