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Media Watch 1940-1998

22 November 1940
Source: The War Illustrated
Comment: The following article appeared in The War Illustrated of London on 11 November 1940.
Mussolini's Men Checked in the Mountain Battle

The article details the heroic struggle by Greece against the fascist forces of Mussolini. To this day, the debt Europe and the rest of the world owes Greece for its sacrifices in World War Two is more than often ignored by many governments and Western press and media.

"Mussolini's Men Checked in the Mountain Battle

After a fortnight of war the Italians had made an inglorious showing in their invasion of Greek territory. The outstanding event was the defeat of the Alpini, described below, while the occupation of Crete made Italy's position even more vulnerable than heretofore. But the main Italian effort is yet to come.

SHORTLY before he launched his attack on Greece Mussolini is stated to have expressed his confidence that the Italian troops would be in Athens within 12 days. A fortnight after the offensive opened, however, the Italians had still a long way to go; so far from having reached Athens, they had not yet sighted the rooftops of Janina. Moreover, in one section of the front the invaders had been driven back, and Koritza - one of the chief Italian supply bases in Albania - was threatened by Greek detachments which had succeeded in carrying at the point of the bayonet the heights which dominate the town. Then on November 11 came the news of another reverse to the Italian arms, one even more spectacular and unexpected.

"Between October 28 and November 10," ran an official bulletin issued in Athens on the latter date, "operations proceeded on a large scale in the mountainous and thickly wooded region of Smolika and Grammos in the north of the Pindus range, which resulted in the complete defeat and breaking-up of an Alpini division, one of the crack enemy divisions, supported by cavalry, Bersaglieri and a Fascist militia formation."

The Alpini division - it was the Third, from Venice - was mobilized long ago, and had seen service in Albania before the war began. No doubt it was selected by the Italian Command as being the one most capable of dealing a quick, decisive blow at the Greek forces in Epirus. When it made its attack it was supported by strong forces of artillery and tanks, with which it was confidently hoped the Greek communications would soon be threatened and severed.

The Alpini attempted a dash across the mountains with a view to reaching Metsovo, some 20 miles to the north-east of Janina, whence it might debouch on to the plains of Thessaly and Epirus and cut the Salonika-Athens railway at Larissa. The Alpini made some progress down the Sarantaporo and Aeos valleys, and as the enemy advanced the Greek light covering forces withdrew before them. Indeed, they did their best to draw the Italians ever deeper into the mountainous gorges, and for a week the northern entrance to the Aeos valley was deliberately left open so that more and more of the enemy might be enticed into the trap.

While the Italians were making their way along the rough mountain tracks - roads is hardly the word to use - the Greeks were being steadily reinforced, and night after night little bodies of Greek soldiers clambered into position on the lofty peaks which dominated the gorges along whose bottoms, several thousands of feet below, the Italians were making their painful way.

Then, at the opportune moment, the Greeks launched their counter-attack. For days they fought with characteristic stubbornness over most difficult country in cold and rain, often going hungry because of the difficulty of obtaining their viands; such supplies and stores as reached them in their eyries were brought up with the aid of women from the neighbouring villages. At length the fierce fighting came to an end; the enemy forces were completely overthrown and, in their haste to avoid being surrounded they retreated in disorder, hotly pursued by the Greeks, In their mad rush down the gorges they carried away with them Italian reinforcements which had been landed at Valonal, and which were being rushed in motor-lorries to the aid of their comrades.

Whole platoons of the enemy flung away their arms and plunged into the mountain torrents, already considerably swollen by autumn rains. Scores were swept away by the rushing stream before they could make the opposite bank, and were drowned. Hundreds more sought safety in flight across the mountains, and days afterwards the Greeks, patrolling the wooded heights, came upon heaps of enemy corpses already showing signs of having been mauled and half-devoured by mountain bears and wolves. Large numbers of prisoners were taken, and a great quantity of all sorts of war material fell into the hands of the victors. By November 10 the fighting was over; the Alpini division had been destroyed.

Italy Sends a New General

That the seriousness of the defeat was realized in Italy was demonstrated by the appointment to the command of the Italian troops operating in Greece of General Soddu, who was formerly Italian Under-Secretary for War, and who was now recalled from Egypt, where he had been acting as Graziani's Vice-Chief of Staff. Generals Vercellino and Geloso were also dispatched to Albania to take over the command of the 9th and 11th Army Corps. These appointments presaged a determined effort to wipe out the shame of the Alpini's defeat.

Elsewhere in Greece, almost the only signs of military activity where in Crete, which was occupied by British troops early in November. As the little British Expeditionary Force came ashore in Suda Bay they received a vociferous welcome from the Greek shepherds, shopkeepers and fishermen, who poured down to the waterfront and cheered wildly as the soldiers, in full war kit, were landed from British warships. Gifts of fruit and nuts, fresh milk and wine, were showered upon them, and in a very short time the newcomers had made themselves comfortable in a land whose hills and fields made a pleasant contrast with the sandy deserts of Egypt. Though the weather was calm and the landing was made in daylight, the Italians did nothing to hinder it. But a day or two later Italian bombers flew over Rhodes and dropped bombs in the neighbourhood of Candia and Canea and on, or rather near, the warships assembled in Suda Bay. They were soon driven off, however, by the ships' anti-aircraft guns.

By the occupation of Crete, Britain not only established herself across the lines of communication which linked Italy with Rhodes and the islands of the Dodecanese, but secured bases for her ships and aircraft which should soon prove to be of inestimable value in the war against Italy. Already, then, Mussolini must be regretting his move of October 28. If Greece had bowed before the blast, had given way to his menaces as Rumania gave way before Hitler, then, as he confidently expected, he would indeed have been in Athens in ten days. But the Greeks, strong in the strength of British sea power, called the Duce's bluff.

History may have to record that the invasion of Greece was the beginning of the end of Mussolini's dominion. Certain it is that we have secured an ally of whom we may well be proud. "There is one small, heroic country," declared Mr. Winston Churchill in the peroration of his speech at the Lord Mayor's luncheon at the Mansion House on November 9," to whom our thoughts today go out in new sympathy and admiration. To the valiant Greek people and their armies, now defending their native soil from the latest Italian outrage - to them we send from the heart of old London our faithful promise that amid all our burdens and anxieties we will do our best to aid them in their struggle, and that we will never cease to strike at the foul aggressor in ever-increasing strength from this time forth until the crimes and treacheries which hang around the neck of Mussolini and disgrace the Italian name have been brought to condign and exemplary justice.""