At 3 a.m. on the morning of October 28th, 1940, Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador to Greece, delivered an ultimatum from Benito Mussolini to Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas. Il Duce demanded that Metaxas allow the Italian army free passage to enter and occupy strategic sites in Greece unopposed.
Faced with this demand, Metaxas delivered an unequivocal response in French, the diplomatic language of the day, “Alors, c’est la guerre.” This brief phrase, “Then, it is war,” was quickly transmuted into the laconic “Oxi,” the Greek for no, by the citizens of Athens.
At 5:30 a.m., before the ultimatum had even expired, the Italian army poured over the Greek-Albanian border into the mountainous Pindos region of Northern Greece. The war between Italy and Greece had begun. The Italian forces were met with fierce and unexpected resistance by the Greek army.
The invasion was a disaster, the 140,000 troops of the Italian Army in Albania encountering an entrenched and determined enemy. The Italians had to contend with the mountainous terrain on the Albanian–Greek border and unexpectedly tenacious resistance by the Greek Army.
By mid-November, the Greeks had stopped the Italian invasion just inside Greek territory. After completing their mobilization, the Greeks counter-attacked with the bulk of their army and pushed the Italians back into Albania – an advance which culminated in the Capture of Klisura Pass in January 1941, a few dozen kilometers inside the Albanian border. The defeat of the Italian invasion and the Greek counter-offensive of 1940 has been called the “first Axis setback of the entire war” by Mark Mazower, the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance”.
Within six months, Ioannis Metaxas would be dead; his successor, Alexandros Koryzis would commit suicide; Mussolini would be humiliated, and the Germans would raise the swastika over the Acropolis.
Despite Greece’s ultimate fall to Axis powers, Metaxas’ response resulted in a fatal diversion and delay for the Axis powers in general and the German army specifically. British military historian Sir John Keegan describes the Battle of Greece as “decisive in determining the future course of the Second World War.”
The British statesman Winston Churchill, who led the United Kingdom during World War II, expressed his admiration of the Greek people in a BBC speech during the Greco-Italian War, making the now-famous statement “Until now we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say: Heroes fight like Greeks.”