The scene is Rome, Italy in the autumn of 1940. The dictator, Benito Mussolini, is feeling melancholic and inadequate. The reasons for his frustrations are that his ally, Adolf Hitler, has been conquering the nations of Europe: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Romania and Austria. Their combined population was close to 140 million. Mighty France, a nation of 43 million, had collapsed and surrendered after only 17 days of fighting in an agonizing and humiliating defeat.
Mussolini was being confronted with faits accomplis, as Hitler would inform him that the Germans had conquered a country three days after the fact. Mussolini decided to show Hitler that the Italians also could conquer Europe, and have Hitler "learn of the conquest from the newspapers."
Mussolini's choice for this mighty show of Italian strength was Greece; a small country of seven million people versus Italy 's 44 million. The disparity in their armed forces was even greater: Italy had close to ten times the firepower of Greece in its army and navy. Italy 's large air force had total air superiority since Greece had a very small defensive air force.
Now that the choice was set, the invasion route was selected: the Albanian Greek border. All that remained would be to deliver an insulting ultimatum to Greece. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allow Italian troops to occupy the country (i.e., surrender) Italy would declare war and invade Greece. Mussolini had given the Greek Prime Minister Metaxas three hours to reply. After reading the demands in the early morning hours of the 28th of October 1940, he rejected the ultimatum and replied with a single Hellenic word: "OXI!" (pronounced Ohee, meaning "NO!"). It has become a Hellenic battle cry that blooms defiantly every 28th of October on walls throughout Greece and Cyprus, and in the thousands of Hellenic communities around the world, today numbering more than ten million Hellenes (Greeks) outside Greece.
Mussolini never waited for Metaxas' reply. Before the ultimatum had expired, five heavily armed divisions of Italian soldiers began moving from Italian controlled Albania over the border into Greece. Expectations of an easy Italian victory soon evaporated. The quick march to Athens for an Italian victory parade never materialized. After a 25-kilometer advance inside Greece, the 200,000 Italian troops were halted for days by a ragged army of Greek soldiers in mismatched uniforms and shepard's clothes. Though Italians outnumbered them more than two to one, the Greeks astonished the Italian generals with their courage, their tenacity, and their limited artillery's precision. The Greek forces had six mortars for each division against the invader's sixty. All Greeks helped in any way they could. The courageous women of Greece supplied clothing, food, and support to the defense of their country in very difficult winter conditions. Sometimes, large groups of women would stand arm-in-arm for hours in icy rivers and streams to slow the waters enough to permit the movement of equipment and supplies to the front.
Within four weeks of the invasion, those undermanned, under-supplied, and underfed Greeks drove the Italian army back into Albania and kept on going, continuing the pursuit into Albania. By this time, Mussolini had replaced the commanding general several times, and finally assumed command of the military campaign himself. He tried to rouse his troops to victory with speeches reminding them of the great legacy of their predecessors, the ancient Romans, but without success.
The Greeks pursued the Italians more than 60 kilometers into Albania, and by December of 1940, the Greek army had liberated the southern third of Albania, better known as Northern Epirus. There was even serious concern by the Italians that the Greek armed forces would cross the Adriatic Sea and invade Italy itself. By the end of the five month campaign, in March 1941, the Greeks had dealt the Italian armed forces some unexpected numbers: 12,500 Italians returned home badly mutilated by the fighting; 13,800 were buried in the frozen soil of Greece; 25,000 were missing in action; and 40,000 were POWs held by the Greek Army.
We should remember that the USA was still neutral, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a year away. The USA was not involved in any fighting then, but all the major USA periodicals such as LIFE and TIME carried cover stories about the Greeks and the history that they were making. In the USA, Greeks and Greek-Americans of all ages were showered with admiration at school and work in response to the historic events.
The entire Western world, discouraged and fearful of the Axis powers and the growing ugly war, took hope from this incredible victory. It was a double first: the first defeat of the Axis powers and the first liberation of territory captured by the Axis powers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Greeks: "Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." However, there was history still to be made by the Greeks.
They outraged Hitler and the Germans. A small military power like Greece had succeeded in defeating their ally, Italy. The Germans invaded Greece in April of 1941, and after nearly two months of fierce fighting, overwhelmed the defiant Greeks. The Greek army included disabled soldiers from the Albanian campaign against the Italians, ordinary citizens, teenagers, and the elderly. On the Greek island of Crete, there were 75-year old peasant women with butcher knives slitting the throats of German paratroopers as they landed. About 10,000 German soldiers died trying to invade Crete. Even Greek prison convicts demanded and were released from jail so that they could fight. The Greek freedom fighters took the lives of many German troops and destroyed much German equipment. The Germans were forced to divert 50 battalions to Greece, though they desperately needed them on the Eastern front.
The six months of fighting caused by the Greek resistance of the Axis powers also delayed Germany 's invasion and campaign against what is today the Commonwealth of Independent States (the former Soviet Union). The fierce resistance of the Greeks in Macedonia, Crete, and other regions of Greece to the Germans caused delays. It overturned German plans to occupy Moscow before the onset of the heavy and deadly Russian winter. This was something the Germans had not planned and thus were unprepared.
The German war machine literally bogged down and froze. The Russians were successful in repulsing and defeating the Germans. This was a major turning point of World War 2. This signalled the beginning of the end of the German Third Reich. The sacrifice and success of the Greek armed forces, the Greek guerrillas, and the ordinary Greek citizens drew the admiration of the free world and kindled hope for the final victory of the Allied powers.
We should note that Greek Prime Minister Metaxas was also a military dictator. Yet the Greeks united behind the belief that the defense of their country, which they wished to become more democratic again, was very important. That is another symbolism and irony of the 28th of October 1940, that the Greek people not only fought the fascist Axis powers invading Greece, but also later fought the extremist forces that were trying to rule Greece and not allow it to be a democracy.
The Greeks faithfully met their obligations to their allies, with heroism and self-sacrifice. As a small country, the human sacrifice and mega devastation Greece suffered in World War 2 were much more that those of the other countries that were on the victorious Allied side. In World War 2, Greece lost the highest percentage of its population in comparison to the other members of the victorious Allies. It lost more than any other member of the Allies on a percentage basis, about 12%, meaning about one million people. The world leadership of the time, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, recognized the decisive contribution of the Greeks. The timeless character of the Modern Greek was shining brightly for all to see: passionate, determined, and proud.
The next time you see or communicate with a Greek, tell them that you remember the 28th of October 1940. Send this article to others who may not know this important day in world history. On that day, Greece, the birthplace of democracy said "NO!" to fascism, and defended its birthright despite overwhelming and unfavorable odds to yet another triumph. On that day, Greece, the ancient cradle of democracy and Western civilization, helped save democracy in its darkest hour. People have brought that birthright of democracy to much of our planet and for that we should all be proud. Interestingly, the 28th of October is also the anniversary of the opening of a symbol patterned after one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes in Greece. This symbol of democracy is the Statue of Liberty in the between New Jersey and New York, USA.
This day is an inspiration to all those who cherish democracy and freedom. For when the world was a risk, an ancient and brave people were willing to risk everything. The ancient Greeks invented democracy, and the twentieth century Greeks are still defending it. All of those who believe in democracy and freedom want Greece to continue as a vigorous and vibrant democracy into the Third Millennium that is two months away. Hellenic civilization in entering its 10,000th year and is still a major cultural force, and this was evident when the Olympics returned to their birthplace in the Athens games of 2004.