It was seventy years ago today that Italy invaded Greece.
We’ll come back to that.
Chaos Theory is a mathematical, physical and, occasionally, philosophical theory that says among other things that any action can, theoretically, have a hypothetically infinite set of consequences – even consequences that would never have been predictable.
Such was Italy’s invasion of Greece – from whose language, ironically, the word “Chaos” comes.
Mussolini, feeling left out of the big conquest-go-round (he’d been stymied by French resistance in the Alps during the Battle of France, had had only captured a few square miles of the country, and his total so far had been the occupation of Albania in early 1939, and the 1935 conquest of Ethiopia – and even that wasn’t going all that well. Mussolini decided he needed to rack up a trophy.
Months of diplomatic maneuvering followed, of course. The Greek Government was actually fundamentally friendly to the Nazis; the Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, was fundamentally a Fascist in the classical sense of the term, and sought friendly relations with Hitler (who, to be fair, seemed to be the winning side at this point in the war).
But Mussolini saw low-hanging fruit. His few successes in the war so far had come at the expense of the British; he’d swept aside a token British force to occupy British Somaliland. Since Britain seemed to be on the ropes so far, he sought to build up bases from which to securely pick over what he thought would be the corpse of British power in the Eastern Mediterranean – Egypt, the Suez Canal, Palestine – to add to his new Roman Empire.
So seventy years ago yesterday, Mussolini demanded that Metaxas allow his troops free passage through Greece to occupy strategic locations – naval and air bases that could be used as jumping-off points in the Eastern Med.
It was an absurd request, designed to be rejected – and Metaxas knew it. When the Italian ambassador presented Mussolini’s ultimatum, Metaxas replied in French (at the time, the lingua franca – hah! – of diplomacy), “”Alors, c’est la guerre” – “Then it’s war”. This was passed on to the Greek people in a single word – Ochi. ”No”.
It was a setup, of course; the Italians invaded promptly, seventy years ago today, with half a million men and a division of tanks and six times as many planes as the Greeks owned.
The Greeks were a small country – but they were an exceedingly tough nation. The people who hewed a living from the rocky peninsula had just won their independence from the Turks within the previous generation, and still held their independence dearly. And they had had generations of experience fighting in the rocky, inhospitable mountains.
While the nation was poor, it had invested heavily in its military – then as now. Even today, the Greek military is exceedingly large for the nation’s size and strategic position; it’s hereditary hatred of Turkey, whose military is equally exaggerated, keeps things tuned to a fever pitch.
And partly due to that national history, and partly due to Metaxas’ militant nationalism, the Greeks were ready. They’d built a line of fortifications in the extremely rugged country along the Albanian border. The Italian offensive smacked into the Elaia-Kalamas line – and bounced off.
By mid-December, the Italian offensive had petered out. A Greek counteroffensive tossed the Italians out of whatever parts of Greece they’d conquered, and the riposte lopped off a quarter of Albania by April.
In March, concerned by the potential threat to vital British territory at Suez and Crete, Churchill diverted British troops from Africa to Greece to help backstop the Greeks. Faced with the complete implosion of his ally and, potentially, the loss of North Africa, Hitler responded by invading Greece in April of 1941. Invaded from Albania and Bulgaria – Hitler’s ally – Greece fell in a three-week Blitzkrieg of immense brutality, leading to four years’ occupation (and fierce Greek resistance).
So let’s go back to chaos theory.
The invasion of Greece set off a chain of events that, directly and indirectly, changed the course of World War II.
- The Neutralization of Italy: Along with the crushing defeats that’d come in North Africa the following year, Italy proved itself a paper tiger.
- The Costliest Rescue: Hitler, to bail out his paper-tiger ally, diverted troops from his planned invasion of the Soviet Union to conquer the Greeks. He was forced to push back the invasion – Operation Barbarossa – by a couple of months to make up for it.
- The Costliest Counter-Rescue: The British diversion of troops and resources to Greece weakened their position in North Africa, leaving their holdings overextended and ripe for counterattack by German general Erwin Rommel, who would become known as the Desert Fox.
- Pyrrhic Victories: While the British – overextended, at the end of their supply lines – got clobbered in their attempt to rescue Greece, they were largely able to evacuate. Many evacuated to Crete – where a German airborne assault managed to conquer the Island in June of 1941, but with casualties so horrific that the Germans never attempted another airborne assault.
- The Sandy Backwater: Rommel’s success in the deserts of Libya and Egypt led to the diversion of immense British resources to countering him – which led eventually to the turning-point Battle of El Alamein, in early 1942.
- Supply Lines: The attempt to supply the British forces in Greece passed through and by the key British base at Malta led to one of the epic ongoing naval and air battles in history, as the Germans and Italians pounded the British-held island of Malta. After Greece fell, Malta became a threat to German/Italian supply lines to North Africa, making the skies above Malta one of the most ferocious air battles of the war, and the seas around Malta a graveyard of British and Italian ships and submarines; the ongoing battle around Malta may have been one of the costliest naval campaigns in history.
- Diversion: The imperative to lift the threat to Malta, clear the Germans and Italians from Africa and open the Mediterranean to ease the threat on the Suez Canal prompted the first great US land campaign in Europe – “Operation Torch”, the invasion of Morocco and Algeria. Fraught with costly blunders against the experienced Germans, it was a bloody education for US troops.
- A Stitch In Time: The two months delay in the launching of the attack on the USSR meant that Hitler’s troops arrived at the gates of Moscow as winter fell, rather than at the beginning of autumn. It meant their drive to the Caucasus, and the vital oil fields, bogged down in the frozen rubble of Stalingrad, rather than passing through. This crippled the Germans’ timetable, and enabled the USSR to rebuild its army, to absord Lend-Lease equipment from the US, and to eventually go on to win the war in the East.
- Echoes: The Greek resistance to the Nazis, esconced in the rugged mountains of that craggy land, was among the largest in occupied Europe. And like many resistance movements, it was deeply divided between Nationalists loyal to the pre-war government, and Communists whom Metaxas had forced underground and who had been engaged in resistance even before the war. Both sides took their tolls on the Nazis, Italians and Bulgarian occupiers. Both sides absorbed immense aid from the UK, USSR and, eventually, the US. And after the war, they turned their attention on each other in a bloody civil war that threatened to put Greece in the Soviet bloc for a decade, and into deep-seated political feuding that made the Greek communist party a serious contender for power into the eighties, and has made left-right politics in Greece a bloodsport until this very day, with consequences the Greek nation is feeling even as we speak.
And so a small, pointless, ego-driven sideshow had side-effects that tipped the outcome of World War II, the Cold War, and our current economic climate.