The British had immediately gone to the assistance of Greece when Italy invaded at the end of October. In part this was following an obligation to neutral countries given in April 1939. Equally Churchill attached a special importance to the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The strategic sensitivity of the region was precisely why Hitler had wanted the area left undisturbed as he prepared to assault Soviet Russia. Mussolini’s precipitate action had been intended to demonstrate to Hitler that he could act independently and successfully. Yet his forces were already facing serious reverses.
The British had limited forces that they could send to help Greece. It was all the more pleasing to discover that they were supporting a determined, and successful, Greek Army. Churchill’s Private Secretary, John Colville, recorded his reaction when he learnt of their successes. At the time a reinforced bunker was being prepared beneath 10 Downing Street:
Monday, November 18th
When I got back to No. 10 Annexe the P.M. was downstairs looking at Intelligence Reports, putting red ink circles round the names of Greek towns and chortling as he thought of the discomﬁture of the Italians.
Then, after expressing to me his disgust with Admiral Somerville who let twelve Hurricanes bound for Malta take off from an aircraft carrier too soon, so that eight came down in the sea and were lost, he went to bed and slept until the Cabinet was due.
Towards dinner-time, while I was desperately coping with mountainous papers on my desk, the P.M. appeared and, bidding me bring a torch, led me away to look at girders in the basement, intended to support the building.
With astonishing agility he climbed over girders, balanced himself on their upturned edges, some ﬁve feet above ground, and leapt from one to another without any sign of undue effort. Extraordinary in a man of almost sixty-six who never takes exercise of any sort.
From the Military Situation report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet:
During the past week the force of the Italian attack on Greece has been stemmed, and the Greeks have been able to advance along the whole front. The principal opposition to their advance has been from the air, and dive-bombing and machine-gunning has considerably retarded their progress.
The Greeks hold the heights immediately to the East of Koritsa, and are shelling the town with mountain artillery. In the Pindus sector they have crossed the frontier in several places. In general, the mopping up of enemy stragglers appears to have been considerable, and a quantity of material has been captured, including 35 anti-tank guns with ammunition, and 20 mountain guns.
Mussolini’s dreams of a few quick military victories were rapidly proving to be no more than fantasies. The Italian senior commanders were well aware of the limitations of their forces yet were unable to stand up the the demands of ‘Il Duce’. In consequence, in almost every theatre that they engaged in, the Italian forces suffered reverses and humiliation.