Greco-Italian War of 1940-1941

On this day in history 1940, during the early years of World War II, Il Duce Benito Mussolini’s (b.1883-1945) government declared war on Greece, starting the Italo-Greek War. This conflict would become the earliest front in the Greek campaign of the greater Mediterranean-North African campaign between by fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Allies, principally Britain and her Commonwealth allies.

Il Duce Benito Mussolini

Using a massive invasion force of eight divisions, well over 200,000 men with full compliments of artillery, armor, and the warplanes of the Regia Aeronautica, which were launched from Albania, the Italians made an unexpected move towards war against the greater strategic aims of the Axis powers in October 1940. Most certainly Mussolini and his upper-echelon military generals realized that they must act alone in large scale military operation without the aid of Nazi Germany, so that their Axis allies and the enemies of Italy took them as a serious threat in the coming conflict to come.

Below: Regio Esercito, the Italian Royal army, on the march from Albania to Greece October 1940

Albania had been a protectorate kingdom under Italian control 1917-1920, and then again from 1939-1943, following the short decisive invasion and military victory over King Zog I’s (b.1895-1961) royalist forces in April of 1939. Even earlier Italy’s belligerence worried many of its neighbors including the Greeks, led by their Prime Minister and authoritarian leader Ioannis Metaxas (b.1871-1941).

Soviet period political cartoon showing the belligerence of fascist Italy against Albania

Even though the Italians had many occupying troops in Albania it was hard to mobilize and deploy all of these forces to both attack Greece and defend the conquered Albanian territory from partisan attacks, all of which tied down much needed manpower and resources.

Sporadic but at times intense and bloody skirmishing was common early on, with mountain fighting tactics being deployed by both sides during the conflict. Tactics first deployed during the long bloody campaigns fought between the Italians and Austro-Hungarian/German armies in the Alps, north Italy & southern Austria, 1915-1918 during the Great War. The most significant and bloody battle for the Italian mountain division, 3rd Alpine Division Julia, during this early period being the Battle of Pindus, October-November 1940.

3rd Alpine Division Julia marching through the Balkans to Greece

For his greater strategic failures in December, General Pietro Badoglio (b.1871-1956) was fired and replaced by General Ugo Cavallero as commander of forces in the Greek-Albanian theater of operations. Cavallero mounted a better defense in the cold winter months of December-February though he was still no closer to winning a decisive victory over the Greeks. It was clear to the Italians and the rest of the world that without German intervention the war would be lost, or at best become an even longer and costlier stalemate for Mussolini’s Italy who had already overextended itself.

One of the final battles between purely the Greeks and the Italians began after the launching of Operation Primavera in March 1941, an operation watched from Albania by Mussolini and the high command very closely because a victory was greatly needed before the British and Germans invaded Greece to turn the campaign in either direction.

The battle came to be known as the Battle of Hill 731, for the heroic defense of the Greek positions by the rifleman and machine gunners of the 1st division who inflicted heavy casualties on the Italian attackers, many of whom were experienced assault, ‘arditi’ squads or elite fanatical black shirts divisions.

Greek army soldier, fully equipped for battle 1940-1941

Towards the end of the seventeen day battle the Italians captured a portion of the hill before a spirited bayonet charge cut through the attackers yet again, of the 300 Italians who had recently captured half of Hill 731, only four would survive the counter attack. [For more please visit Stavros' blog, My Greek Odyssey]

Greeks on the attack

The Italo-Greco of 1940-1941 came to end after both the Italians and the Germans intervened in Yugoslavia, and ultimately after the Germans invaded Albania and Greece, helping to crush organized resistance of and in defense of the Kingdom of Greece. Metaxas had died in January of 1941 and an independent Greece would be crushed until the Allies after in the Invasion of Sicily 1943.

Allied & Axis campaigns in the Balkans and Mediterranean, 1939-1941

Italian War with the Albanian Kingdom 1939-April invasion quickly defeats King Zog I's (b.1895-1961) Royalist army. He abdicates in favor of direct Italian control over Albanian interests as protectorate. Low intensity resistance continued but was insignificant.

Siege of Malta-Germans and Italians battle the United Kingdom and its allies for control of Malta, south of Sicily. United Kingdom successfully defends fortress Malta.

Greco-Italian War 1940- April 1941-Fought between the Greeks and the Italian military stationed in occupied Albania on the border between both countries. Combat casualties exceeding 150,000 men and vehicles by the time a treaty is signed in April of 1941 following German intervention and withdrawal of the British.

Battle for Greece, Operation Marita April 1941-Britain and her allies invade southern Greece hoping to push out the Axis invaders and give a boost to the faltering Greek army lacking in military capabilities and political leadership. Ends in a complete Allied failure, Axis armies occupy most of Greece save for Crete and some other smaller islands.

Invasion of Yugoslavia April 1941-German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia to put pressure on the country to join the growing list of Axis aligned client states in 1940-1942. Quick and brutal victory but a costly occupation splits Yugoslavia into Russian and Italo-German zones where partisan activity is fierce throughout the war.

Battle of Crete May 1941-Germans capture Crete from the Greeks and the United Kingdom May-June, in a total surprise victory at a very heavy cost in men and aircraft.

Continued Soviet, Allied, & non-aligned Partisan campaigns fought throughout Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other occupied territories from 1939-1945.


  1. the blackshirts were not elite divisions, also your assumption that the war would be lost is incorrect as the greeks had been dwindling and started being pushed back strogly by Italian forces back into greece before the germans came to aid her ally.

  2. Also you falsify records by claiming out of 300 that stormed and occupied Hill 731 only 4 survived the greek counterattack...
    in fact most made ot back alive...

    1. Andew, do you have any sources that i can take a look at to amend the post?