|Painting by Alexandros Alexandrakis|
True, 'alone' had a rather broad meaning as we had Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the rest of the British Empire on our side, but from the fall of France on 17th June 1940 until 27th October 1940 we were the only nation in Europe not conquered, collaborating or neutral.
Then, unexpectedly, we had an ally.
How Not To Run A War
replaced by decisive leadership. Reason, and the other trappings of the Enlightenment, were to be ditched in favour of Will.
The results were some of the worst decisions ever made by the leaders of nations at war. Hitler's decisions to declare war on first the Soviet Union and then the United States were, with hindsight, ghastly mistakes. His decision to pursue the Final Solution was not just objectively immoral, it was also subjectively stupid at a time his nation was fighting for its own survival and Jews were willing to serve. Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbour led inevitably to the nations defeat and ruin. On the other side Stalin's decision to appease Hitler rather than prepare for war almost ended his rule.
Meanwhile Churchill's decision not not to surrender in May 1940 and Roosevelt's choice to aid Britain were clearly the right things to do. Democracy, the evidence suggests, is a better way to make decisions.
However of all the bonkers choices made by dictators in the Second World War, Mussolini's decision to attack Greece is possibly the daftest. But this mistake was not just the error of a vainglorious fool. It was the result of a rotten political system.
The Other Dictator
The reality was that the Italian army was a joke that everyone got except him. One observer in Milan on the eve of war noted:
Everyone thinks only of eating, enjoying themselves, making money, and relaying witticisms about the great and powerful. Anyone who gets killed is a jerk ... he who supplies the troops with cardboard shoes is considered ... a sort of hero.But if the Italian Army was seriously lacking in trouser, it more than made up for it in mouth. Mussolini's generals could certainly talk a good fight, and the great dictator was more than ready to listen.
The Braggart ...
from most of its empire and the fascists would have free reign in Europe.
What's more, with Britain fearing invasion across The Channel, the Middle East was seriously short of troops and equipment.
Italy had 300,000 men next door in Libya and 200,000 down the road in Ethiopia. Britain had 35,000 in Egypt, half of whom were pen pushing admin staff. However things didn't go well. First of all General Balbo, the Commander-in-Chief, died after being shot down by his own anti-aircraft guns, then when Italian tanks met British armoured cars on the border the crews, in the words of the report afterwards, 'dispersed'.
Balbo's replacement, Graziana was at least smart enough to realise his army was pants. However, rather than deliver this unwelcome news to his boss, he took the opposite course of bigging up the British forces he was opposing until he claimed he was facing more soldiers and armoured cars in Egypt than existed in the whole empire.
When the advance actually began General Maleti, who liked to be known as 'the old wolf of the desert', got lost before he'd even crossed the Egyptian border. The only part of the Italian operation that actually worked was the catering. If an army really did march on its stomach the Italians would have reached Cairo in a week. In the event they crawled across the desert at a snail's pace.
The advance ground to a halt, and just to add injury to insult a surprise attack by Royal Navy carrier aircraft sank half the Italian fleet in harbour. Mussolini though was not bothered. He declined Hitler's offer of specialist troops to help and had every confidence Graziani would finish off the decadent Brits.
... And The Fool
Like most Italians at the time, he had a fairly low opinion of the Greeks. Prasca talked of 'liquidating' and 'shattering' the nation with his 'iron will'. A war would be little more than a 'rounding up' operation. The Italian High Command estimated it would require 20 divisions to capture Athens. However as a junior general Prasca was only allowed to command five, so he refused to allow his command to be reinforced.
Presca's fellow officers knew he was talking out of his fundament, but he had the ear of El Duce and in fascist Italy that was everything.
Yugoslavia would have been his first choice, but the target varied so often his generals fully expected to have to draw up plans to move on Iraq.
Then on 10th October he found out Hitler's had made a deal with the Romanian fascists that saw German troops deployed to Bucharest.
Worried Hitler would gobble up the Balkans the same way he'd snatched France from him, Mussolini made the fateful choice two days later to invade Greece. He wasn't going to wait either, and so he gave his staff two weeks to make the plans.
The tactical and logistical difficulties of invading a mountainous country with few modern roads in autumn would have challenged a Rommel or a Guderian. It was completely beyond the Italian general staff. Never-the-less Presca informed El Duce that the operation had been prepared 'down to the most minute detail and as is as perfect as is humanely possible.'
That was enough for Mussolini. He would have his triumph, and his revenge.
Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back with his own coin. He will find out from the papers that I have occupied Greece. In this way the equilibrium will be re-established.Ancient Greece gave the world democracy, but by 1940 modern Greece had a dictator - Metaxas - who was possibly the dullest man to ever hold that title. Ancient Greece also gave us irony, and on the morning of 28th October 1940 Metaxas, who was a great fan of both Germany and Italian fascism found himself being told by Mussolini's envoy to occupation or invasion. Popular legend has it he replied with the single Greek word "Οχι" ("Ochi" - "No"). In reality he answered in French for some unknown reason: "Alors, c'est la guerre" ("Then it is war").
A week later the attack had fallen apart. Another week and the Italians were being pushed back into Albania. When the front eventually stabilised Prasca's men were thirty miles behind where they had started from. The news electrified Europe. For the first time since Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, the fascists had been defeated.
To rescue Prasca the Italians sent as many men as they could from Africa to Albania. They felt that they had little to fear from General O'Connor's puny force. General Berti even went back home to get his piles looked at. He never saw his troops again.
On 8th December O'Connor attacked and in the next 8 weeks his 25,000 men captured 150,000 Italian soldiers, 400 tanks and 1200 guns. Many of those taken prisoner were found to have packed their suitcases in anticipation. As Sir Anthony Eden said
"Never had so much been surrendered by so many to so few".
Prasca was relieved of command after two weeks. In 1943 he joined the Italian resistance. He was captured by his old allies the Germans and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life in prison. He escaped and completing a bizarre journey from fascist to communist as he ended up joining the Red Army and taking part in the Battle of Berlin.
Mussolini found himself in a war that he could neither win nor control. Italian soldiers followed the Germans into Russian and died horribly in the snow. Italy was invaded and occupied.
Greece, meanwhile, endured occupation, starvation and repression. Relatively Greece suffered worse than any other European nation except Poland. In 1945 World War was followed, not by liberation, but by Civil War. Italy fared little better. The weak underbelly of fascist Europe she was invaded, changed sides and fought over by almost every nation involved in the war. Mussolini was imprisoned, rescued, captured again and ended hanging by his heels in front of a jeering mob.
But Italian fascism, rather than restoring the greatness of Rome, had created a system where sycophancy had replaced merit, fantasy had replaced reality, and where decisions of national importance made on the basis of one man's vanity.
We should be profoundly grateful for the courage, skill and sacrifice of the Greeks who fought fascism, but perhaps we should be more grateful to Greece for giving us the weapon that really defeats totalitarianism: democracy.
A trusty tool, it still serves us well today.
Fateful Choices by Ian Kershaw
Military Blunders by Georffrey Regan
Inside Hitler's Greece by Mark Mazower