The Italian dictator Mussolini was now beginning to feel sidelined by Hitler’s triumphs. He had joined the war opportunistically when he was confident that France would be defeated – but he had so far failed to gain anything significant for Italy from the war.
He had moved his troops into impoverished Albania. Now Mussolini thought he would present Hitler with the surprise occupation of Greece, south of Albania. Although they were formally in an Alliance Mussolini did not want to discuss the move in advance with Hitler.
At the time Hitler wanted to leave the Balkans undisturbed, not wanting to provoke British or Russian interests. Later in the war he would blame the events that were now about to unfold for the delays that prevented him getting to Moscow in 1941.
The opening gambit from Italy was typically presumptuous. The Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas was roused from his bed in the early hours of 28th October and told to submit to Italian demands by 0600. Famously, standing in his night clothes, he said “Ohi” – “No”, and to this day the 28th October is celebrated in Greece as “Ohi Day”. Other accounts suggest that Metaxas curtly replied in French: “Alors, c’est la guerre” (“Then it is war”).
An ultimatum was delivered by Italy to Greece at 0300 on the 28th October and expired at 0600. The Greeks refused the terms and invoked Great Britain’s assistance. Artillery duels lasted till 1800, and the Greeks, retired from several advanced posts to previously prepared positions. The Italian forces on the Greco-Albanian frontier comprise seven divisions, with a considerable amount of artillery and A.F.Vs.
Operations have begun slowly, and the principal Italian advance is directed from the south-western corner of Albania along the western coast of Greece. It is possible that this is intended initially as a diversion, and that an attack from the Koritsa area towards Fiorina and Salonika may develop later when certain Greek forces are engaged in the Epirus.
From the British military situation report for the week ending 31st October
For a thorough analysis of the circumstances that led Mussolini to invade Greece see Ian Kershaw: Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941.