Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Revisiting Greece’s defeat of fascist Italy

Some interesting pieces (in English) in the current issue of the American Hellenic Institute’s Policy Journal. In particular, there’s a very moving extract from Konstantinos Fotiadis’ book on the Pontian Genocide – the desperate efforts of the Pontic Greeks to impress on Eleftherios Venizelos and other Allied leaders after the defeat of the Ottoman empire not only the depredations the Pontians had suffered from 1914-18 but their continuing vulnerability to Turkey’s extermination campaign.

Another good piece is by Alexandros Kyros on George Blytas’ book, The First Victory: Greece in the Second World War. In his review, Kyros stresses that British historians have downplayed the importance of Greece's repulsion of the Italian invasion 1940-41 in order to elevate Britain’s role in defeating the Axis powers. Along these lines, Kyros says, a myth has developed that Greece’s defeat of the Italians was critical in postponing, and therefore undermining, Germany’s fateful invasion of Russia when, in fact, the main consequence of Greece’s heroics was to deflect Axis attention from Britain and save that country from further defeats at the hands of the Germans and Italians. Below is some of what Kyros says:

‘Although it is doubtful that the Greek victory in Albania was important to the ultimate outcome of the German-Soviet conflict, it was crucial to the survival of the British war effort in the Mediterranean. In short, the Greek victory against Italy contributed decisively to the failure of the Axis to vanquish Britain, not the Soviet Union.

‘The Greeks’ victory in Albania diverted crucial Italian, land, air, and sea forces at a time when they were desperately needed in North Africa to defeat the British forces in Egypt.

‘From October to May 1941, the Italians dispatched five times as many troops and supplies to Albania as they did to North Africa. Albania had the first call on armor, motor transports, artillery, and aircraft. As a result of the Greek crisis, the Albanian front monopolized the attention of the Italian High Command and remained Rome’s all-consuming concern at the expense of other operations, especially those in North Africa.

‘Had Rome defeated and occupied Greece, and not been tied down fighting a desperate defensive war in Albania, the Italians would have been able to concentrate an enormous, mobile, and far more lethal force in Libya with which the Axis might well have taken El Alamein and successfully advanced to the Suez in 1941, rather than failing to do so in 1942.

‘In short, the Greeks’ victory against the Italians in 1940 probably saved the not yet firmly organized, poorly led, and still underperforming British forces in Egypt from defeat, a development which would have had disastrous consequences for Britain’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean.

‘Furthermore, it is clear that Italy’s failure in Greece persuaded Franco to remain neutral in the European conflict. Conversely, had the Italians defeated the Greeks, Spain would have likely entered the war on the side of Hitler and Mussolini.

‘With Spain as a member of the Axis camp, Gibraltar would have been easily overrun and the British presence in the Western Mediterranean would have been wiped out. Such simultaneous strategic losses for the British at the opposite ends of the Mediterranean – Gibraltar and Suez – would have been catastrophic for Britain and its ability to continue the war against the Axis.’


Anonymous said...

Another great post. The Kyrou review was excellent.

It was of course Hitler who most famously attributed the failure of operation Barbarossa to the defeat of the fascist invasion of Greece and his need to deploy the 12th army in defeating and later subduing Greece.

I agree that the Greek army's heroism was helpful but probably not crucial in the Red Army's eventual victory over the Nazis.

The question of whether the axis powers could have taken suez and malta in 1941 if Mussolini had deployed all his resources to that end is highly speculative. Perhaps they could have if ever that option was on the table.

The reality however was that Mussolini and Hitler believed that they had more than enough resources in North Africa to account for the British in 1941 and 1942 and so there was never any question of the fascists throwing all their resources at their meditteranean campaign.

In fact but for General Graziani's cowardice and treachery in not following orders to take suez in September/October 1940 the fascists may have indeed vanquished the British in the mediterranean.

It is interesting that Ian Kershaw in "Ten decisions that changed the world in 1940-1941" speculates on the possibility that had the fascists postponed their attack on Greece and instead attacked the British in Egypt, Britain would have probably defeated the fascist forces and Greece would have been spared an attempted invasion and therefore involvement in the war.

I think this speculation is fanciful and perhaps highlights the discomfort that many Britsh historians feel in the knowledge that little Greece probably saved Great Britain (at least in the mediterranean)and dealt the first big blow against the axis powers. It was a blow that shattered the spine of fascism and convinced the world including Britain that fascism/nazism could be beaten.

This great story of unbelievable national sacrifice and valour is a reminder to us all of our potential as a people.


John Akritas said...

Thanks for the additional information and context.
The valour and national sacrifice was remarkable, even more so given the Asia Minor humiliation. That morale could recover so quickly is testament to the self-confidence of that generation. It all seems pretty remote from today's Greece, as remote as the Athenians who defeated the Persian invaders.

Anonymous said...

Yes the war generation was very special. Compared to the current generation they stand like giants before lillipudlians. I shudder at the thought of what might happen if our people were to be put to the same test today.

However we need to remind ourselves that the greeks had been bullied and kicked around by the italians since Mussolini had come to power. Until Mussolini's ultimatum our leadership had consistently sought to appease Italy. The fascists had even occupied corfu in 1923. (mmm sounds familiar...)

To add insult to injury Metaxas was a fascist admirer of Mussolini - not the ideal leader you would want handed Mussolini's ultimatum. In horse racing terms the speedy italian annexation of Greece was " unbackable" at this point in history.

The fact that this pint sized tin pot dictator found within himself the strength to stand firm and to rally our people with his defiant ohi is to his eternal credit and one of the major miracles of greek history.

Greece's greatest strength is its people. Despite my pessimism about Greece's current situation i know that intelligence heroism and determination are features imbedded in our dna. These features cannot remain repressed within our people indefinitey. Of that i have no doubt.


Anonymous said...

A correction is required. I meant to refer to the lilliputians. A race of extinct tiny island people who are distantly related to the modern day limnians and in no way to be confused with the equally exotic liverpudlians who I am told are a much bigger people that still live by the banks of the Mersey.

Sadly the lillipudlians have never existed except very briefly in the writer's confused mind.


Anonymous said...

Generla Metaxas was a great Greek leader. He was referred to as the " pocket Moltke". To this day the Italian attack on Greece was an Italian fiasco made in Italy. Hitler vehemently opposed any such incursion by the Italians into Greece. When Hitler learnt about the Italian invasion, he regretted it and had no doubts in expressing his view that the Italian army would be mired and become bogged down in the Albanian mountains and face irreversible defeat. Furthermore, the Great Metaxas refused the entry of British troops into mainland Greece-- allegedely to help the Greek in their fight against Italy. He accepted aid and mteriel, but no troops. He was poisoned by the British, gotten out of the way, and the next thing we had was the entry of british forces into Greece. This was the reason the Germans descended upon Greece, not to help the inept Italians, but to rout the British. The Great Metaxas was a genuine Greek nationalist, the greatest leader Greece had in the XX century. It is curious that no historian has made a scholarly research into what went into the minds of the Italian high command to decide into attacking Greece . What did they hope to achieve ? Occupation of greece was not italy's goals. ? It is true that Italy only asked for the unimpeded passage of Italian soldiers to the eastern mediterranean through Greece, to better strategize their war in North Afrika. Greece was the loser in the end. Greece lost more than 1.2 million Greeks in the occupation, through starvation ( the famous British and allied blockade preventing from goods and services reaching Greek ports)privation, and related hardships.
We don't see any " monuments or memorials " to the death of 1.2m Greeks during the war in any Greek city. although we have other types of un Greek memorials--- ask the red vampire of Salonika Boutaris.

On the 11 th January 1944 the allies gratuitously bombed and destroyed the port of Piraeaus. The busiest and most important port in the eastern mediterranena went up in smoke, never again to regain its former status and importance.8 German dead and 5700 Greek dead was the toll of thatill fated bombardment. Greece should never have continued the war, through resistance, and sabotage unless the right price was exacted from the Allies; over and above the dodecanesus, Northern epirus and Cyprus should have been negotiated. 1,2m dead for the dodecanesus ---which were already Greek populated -- was an intolerably high price to pay.