Imperial ambitions of Fascist Italy in Europe in 1936 (click to enlarge)
In the late 1920s, the Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini said that Fascist Italy needed Spazio vitale, an outlet for its surplus population and that it would be in the best interests of other countries to aid in this expansion. The regime wanted hegemony in the Mediterranean–Danubian–Balkan region and Mussolini imagined the conquest "of an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz". There were designs for a protectorate over Albania and for the annexation of Dalmatia and economic and military control of Yugoslavia and Greece. The fascist regime also sought to establish protectorates over Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, which lay on the periphery of an Italian European sphere of influence.
In 1935, Italy began the Second Italo-Ethiopian War to expand the empire; a more aggressive Italian foreign policy which "exposed [the] vulnerabilities" of the British and French and created an opportunity the Fascist regime needed to realize its imperial goals. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began and Italy made a military contribution so vast that it played a decisive role in the victory of the rebel forces of Francisco Franco. "A full-scale external war" was fought for Spanish subservience to the Italian Empire, to place Italy on a war footing, and to create "a warrior culture".
In September 1938, the Italian army had made plans to invade Albania, which began on 7 April 1939 and in three days had occupied most of the country. Albania was a territory that Italy could acquire for "living space to ease its overpopulation" as well as a foothold for expansion in the Balkans. During 1940, Italy invaded France and Egypt. A plan to invade Yugoslavia was drawn up, but postponed due to opposition from Nazi Germany and a lack of Italian army transport.
Greek–Italian relations in the interwar period
Italy had captured the predominantly Greek-inhabited Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea from the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. It had occupied them since, after reneging on the 1919 Venizelos–Tittoni agreement to cede them to Greece. When the Italians found that Greece had been promised land in Anatolia at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, for aid in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the Italian delegation withdrew from the conference for several months. Italy occupied parts of Anatolia which threatened the Greek occupation zone and the city of Smyrna. Greek troops were landed and the Greco-Turkish War (1919–22) began with Greek troops advanced into Anatolia. Turkish forces eventually defeated the Greeks and with Italian aid, recovered the lost territory, including Smyrna. In 1923, Mussolini used the murder of an Italian general on the Greco-Albanian border as a pretext to bombard and temporarily occupy Corfu, the most important of the Ionian Islands.
The Greek defeat in Anatolia and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) ended the expansionist Megali Idea. Henceforth Greek foreign policy was largely aimed at preserving the status quo. Territorial claims to Northern Epirus (southern Albania), the Italian-ruled Dodecanese, and British-ruled Cyprus remained open but inactive in view of the country's weakness and isolation. The main threat Greece faced was from Bulgaria, which claimed Greece's northern territories. The years after 1923 were marked by almost complete diplomatic isolation and unresolved disputes with practically every neighbouring country. The dictatorship of Theodoros Pangalos in 1925–26 sought to revise the Treaty of Lausanne by a war with Turkey. To this end, Pangalos sought Italian diplomatic support, as Italy still had ambitions in Anatolia, but in the event, nothing came of his overtures to Mussolini. After the fall of Pangalos and the restoration of relative political stability in 1926, efforts were undertaken to normalize relations with Turkey, Yugoslavia, Albania and Romania, without much success at first. The same period saw Greece draw closer to Britain and away from France, exacerbated by a dispute over the two sides' financial claims from World War I.
The Greek government put renewed emphasis on improving relations with Italy and in November 1926, a trade agreement was signed between the two states. Initiated and energetically pursued by Andreas Michalakopoulos, the Italian–Greek rapprochement had a positive impact on Greek relations with Romania and Turkey and after 1928 was continued by the new government of Eleftherios Venizelos. This policy culminated with the signing of a treaty of friendship on 23 September 1928. Mussolini exploited this treaty, as it aided in his efforts to diplomatically isolate Yugoslavia from potential Balkan allies. An offer of alliance between the two countries was rebuffed by Venizelos but during the talks Mussolini personally offered "to guarantee Greek sovereignty" on Macedonia and assured Venizelos that in case of an external attack on Thessaloniki by Yugoslavia, Italy would join Greece.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mussolini sought diplomatically to create "an Italian-dominated Balkan bloc that would link Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Hungary". Venizelos countered the policy with diplomatic agreements among Greek neighbours and established an "annual Balkan conference ... to study questions of common interest, particularly of an economic nature, with the ultimate aim of establishing some kind of regional union". This increased diplomatic relations and by 1934 was resistant to "all forms of territorial revisionism". Venizelos adroitly maintained a principle of "open diplomacy" and was careful not to alienate traditional Greek patrons in Britain and France. The Greco-Italian friendship agreement ended Greek diplomatic isolation and led to a series of bilateral agreements, most notably the Greco-Turkish Friendship Convention in 1930. This process culminated in the signature of the Balkan Pact between Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Romania, which was a counter to Bulgarian revisionism.
The Second Italo-Ethiopian War marked a renewal of Italian expansionism, and began a period where Greece increasingly sought a firm British commitment for its security. Although Britain offered guarantees to Greece (as well as Turkey and Yugoslavia) for the duration of the Ethiopian crisis, it was unwilling to commit itself further so as to avoid limiting its freedom of manoeuvre vis-à-vis Italy. Furthermore, with the (British-backed) restoration of the Greek monarchy in 1935 in the person of the anglophile King George II, Britain had secured its dominant influence in the country. This did not change after the establishment of the dictatorial 4th of August Regime of Ioannis Metaxas in 1936. Although imitating the Fascist regime in Italy in its ideology and outward appearance, the regime lacked a mass popular base, and its main pillar was the King, who commanded the allegiance of the army. Greek foreign policy thus remained aligned with that of Britain, despite the parallel ever-growing economic penetration of the country by Nazi Germany. Metaxas himself, although an ardent Germanophile in World War I, followed this line, and after the Munich Conference in October 1938 suggested a British–Greek alliance to the British ambassador, arguing that Greece "should prepare for the eventuality of a war between Great Britain and Italy, which sooner or later Greece would find itself drawn into". Loath to be embroiled in a possible Greek–Bulgarian war, dismissive of Greece's military ability, and disliking the regime, the British rebuffed the offer.
Prelude to war, 1939–40
On 4 February 1939, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council on foreign policy. The speech outlined Mussolini's belief that Italy was being imprisoned by France and the United Kingdom and what territory would be needed to break free. During this speech, Mussolini declared Greece to be a "vital [enemy] of Italy and its expansion." On 18 March, as signs for an imminent Italian invasion of Albania as well as a possible attack on Corfu mounted, Metaxas wrote in his diary of his determination to resist any Italian attack.
Following the Italian annexation of Albania in April, relations between Italy and Greece deteriorated rapidly. The Greeks began making defensive preparations for an Italian attack, while the Italians began improving infrastructure in Albania to facilitate troop movements. The new Italian ambassador, Emanuele Grazzi, arrived in Athens later in April. During his tenure, Grazzi worked earnestly for the improvement of Italian–Greek relations, something that Metaxas too desired—despite his anglophile stance, Grazzi considered him "the only real friend Italy could claim in Greece"—but he was in the awkward position of being ignorant of his country's actual policy towards Greece: he had arrived with no instructions whatsoever, and was constantly left out of the loop thereafter, frequently receiving no replies to his dispatches. Tensions mounted as a result of a continued anti-Greek campaign in the Italian press, combined with provocative Italian actions. Thus during Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano's visit to Albania, posters supporting Albanian irredentism in Chameria were publicly displayed; the governor of the Italian Dodecanese, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, closed the remaining Greek communal schools in the province, and Italian troops were heard singing "Andremo nell'Egeo, prenderemo pure il Pireo. E, se tutto va bene, prenderemo anche Aténe." ("We go to the Aegean, and will take even Piraeus. And if all goes well, we will take Athens too."). Four of the five Italian divisions in Albania moved towards the Greek border, and on 16 August the Italian Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, received orders to begin planning for an attack on Greece. On 4 August, Metaxas had ordered Greek forces to a state of readiness and a partial mobilization.
"The entire road-building programme has been directed towards the Greek border. And this is by order of the Duce, who is thinking more and more of attacking Greece at the first opportunity."
Entry in Ciano's diary for 12 May 1939
Although both Britain and France publicly guaranteed the independence of Greece and Romania on 13 April 1939, the British still refused to be drawn into concrete undertakings towards Greece, as they hoped to entice Mussolini to remain neutral in the coming conflict with Germany, and saw in a potential Greek alliance only a drain on their own resources. With British encouragement, Metaxas made diplomatic overtures to Italy in August, and on 12 September, Mussolini wrote to Metaxas, assuring him that if he entered the war, Italy would respect Greek neutrality, and that Italian troops based in Albania would be pulled back about 20 miles (32 km) from the Greek border. The Italian dictator even instructed Grazzi, to express his trust towards Metaxas and offer to sell Greece aircraft. On 20 September, the Italians offered to formalize relations by renewing the 1928 treaty. Metaxas rejected this, as the British Foreign Office was opposed to a formal commitment by Greece to Italy, and made only a public declaration of friendship and good-will. Greek–Italian relations entered a friendly phase that lasted until spring 1940.
In May 1940, as Italian entry into the war became imminent, the Italian press began an anti-Greek propaganda campaign, accusing the country of being a foreign puppet and tolerating British warships in its waters. Following the defeat of France, Greek–Italian relations deteriorated further. From 18 June, De Vecchi sent a series of protests to Rome, reporting on the presence of British warships in Crete and other Greek islands and claimed that a British base had been established at Milos. The allegations were overblown but not entirely unjustified: in January 1940, bowing to British pressure, Greece concluded a trade agreement with Britain, limiting its exports to Germany and allowing Britain to use the large Greek merchant fleet for its war effort, marking Greece a tacit member of the anti-Axis camp, despite its official neutrality. British warships did sail deep into the Aegean, leading the British ambassador in Athens to recommend, on 17 August, that the government put a stop to them.
Italian military forces harassed Greek forces with air attacks on Greek naval vessels at sea. On 12 July, while attacking a British petrol carrier off Crete, Italian aircraft based in the Dodecanese went on to bombard Greek warships in harbour at Kissamos. On 31 July Italian bombers attacked two Greek destroyers in the Gulf of Corinth and two submarines in Nafpaktos; two days later a coastguard vessel was attacked at Aegina, off Athens. Ciano's diary confirms that over the summer of 1940, Mussolini turned his attention to the Balkans: on 6 August, Mussolini was planning an attack on Yugoslavia, while on 10–12 August he railed against the Greeks, promising to rectify the "unfinished business" of 1923. On 11 August, orchestrated by Ciano and the Italian viceroy in Albania, Francesco Jacomoni, the Italian and Albanian press began a campaign against Greece, on the pretext of the murder of the bandit Daut Hodja in June. Hodja was presented as a patriot fighting for the liberty of Chameria and his murder the work of Greek agents. Although Greek "expansionism" was denounced and claims for the surrender of Chameria made, Ciano and well-informed German sources regarded the press campaign as a means to intimidate Greece, rather than a prelude to war.
On 15 August 1940 (the Dormition of the Theotokos, a Greek national religious holiday), the Greek light cruiser Elli was sunk by the Italian submarine Delfino in Tinos harbour. The sinking was a result of orders by Mussolini and Navy chief Domenico Cavagnari allowing submarine attacks on neutral shipping. This was taken up by De Vecchi, who ordered the Delfino's commander to "sink everything in sight in the vicinity of Tinos and Syros", giving the impression that war was imminent. On the same day, another Greek steamship was bombarded by Italian planes in Crete. Despite evidence of Italian responsibility, the Greek government announced that the attack had been carried out by a submarine of unknown nationality. No-one was fooled and the sinking of Elli outraged the Greek people. Ambassador Grazzi wrote in his memoirs that the attack united a people "deeply riven by unbridgeable political differences and old and deep-running political hatreds" and imbued them with a firm resolve to resist. Grazzi's position was particularly problematic: a firm believer in Italian–Greek friendship, and unaware of Ciano's shift towards war, he tried his best to smooth over problems and avoid a conflict. As a result, Metaxas, who believed Grazzi to be a "faithful executor of Rome’s orders", was left unsure of Italy's true intentions, wavering between optimism and "crises of prudent rationalism", in the words of Tsirpanlis. Neither Metaxas nor Grazzi realized that the latter was being kept in his post "deliberately in order to allay the suspicions of the Greek government and so that the aggressive plans against Greece might remain concealed".
German intervention, urging Italy to avoid Balkan complications and concentrate on Britain, along with the start of the Italian invasion of Egypt, led to the postponement of Italian ambitions in Greece and Yugoslavia: on 22 August, Mussolini postponed the attack on Greece for the end of September, and for 20 October on Yugoslavia. On 7 October, German troops entered Romania, to guard the Ploiești oil fields and prepare for Operation Barbarossa. Mussolini, who had not been informed in advance, regarded it as an encroachment on Italy's sphere of influence, and advanced plans for an invasion of Greece.