Eighty years ago, Mussolini's campaign in Greece comes up against a military professional

 


Mussolini’s lunatic decision to attack Greece brought the Italian army up against the brutal fact that its successes during the Fascist era had only come when it faced extremely weak opposition: the tribal levies of Abyssinia and the feeble resources of the Kingdom of Albania. It had not covered itself in glory during the Spanish Civil War. Before that, its experience had been in the gruelling but essentially attritional battles against Austria on its north eastern frontier. By contrast the Greek army might have been small and poorly equipped but it had fought for more than a decade in the fluid battles of the Balkan wars, and – albeit disastrously – the war with Turkey. Greece's de facto dictator Ioannis Metaxas had been an army general trained at the Berlin Kriegsakademie (War Academy), the cradle of the German general staff, before entering politics. The Greek leaders could adopt a strategy based on reasonable confidence that Bulgaria would stay neutral, however much it might covet Greek territory, under the threat of an attack from Turkey. The Greek army thus massed on its left flank and opened the war by moving into Italian occcupied Albania, preempting the Italians. Metaxas had been fully imbued with the principle of concentraing his forces. Mussolini may have thought that it was appropriately Fascist and aggressive to declare war before his spurious ultimatum to Greece had even expired, but such moves need to be followed up by appropriately efficient military action if they are to achieve anything. The Italian army was not up to the task.

Britain was committed to support Greece under the more-or-less unilateral declaration that it had made in the wake of the Italian invasion of Albania (and the Germany seizure of the rump of Czechoslovakia) an eternity before in April 1939. Two squadrons of obsolescent Blenheims were sent to Greece from the RAF’s exiguous resources in the Mediterranean theatre.  Some British ground forces were also despatched to Crete, manifestly not a sector under threat from Italy, but a potential staging point for an attack on Egypt.

For the first day since the Luftwaffe began its attacks on London in early September, the air raid sirens did not sound. London had undergone almost two months of uninterrupted bombardment. After the massive daylight raids in mid-September the Germans had switched almost entirely to night attacks but now poor weather was beginning to offset somewhat the advantage the advantage of the longer nights. The bomb-free night was a small respite but it did not mark the end of the Blitz. The RAF’s night fighters were modified Blenheim light bombers and Defiants, the failed turret fighter designer. They had only the most primitive airborne radar and posed little threat to the bombers. Londoners had more pain to come.

The government came under sustained, but futile, attack from one Labour MP, Richard Stokes. Stokes was a decorated soldier from the First World War and one of those dedicated parliamentarians who puts holding ministers to account far above party loyalties; he and his ilk were the only opposition that Churchill’s coalition had to face. Stokes had picked up that there was something suspect in the sinking of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Glorious the previous June in Norwegian waters while British forces were being evacuated. She had almost certainly been involved in the abortive operation to mine the Swedish port of Lulea intended to interrupt supplies of iron-ore to Germany, which would have been a major breach of neutrality. The operation was also a brain child of Churchill himself. The exact circumstances are still mysterious but it was probably the diplomatic aspect that explains government furtiveness.

Franklin Roosevelt won the US presidential election with a very comfortable margin over his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. Both he and Roosevelt advocated assistance to Britain, so isolationism was not a significant issue in the campaign, although it remained a potent factor in US politics. The Republicans had recognised that only a centrist such as Willkie gave them the remotest chance of winning the White House but the instinct of the party went far further to the right.  Even before the election Roosevelt had promised to double aircraft deliveries to Britain but there were great obstacles in the way of any more active involvement.

 

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