On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on France and Britain, largely because its Fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, had territorial and imperial ambitions of his own. At this time, Britain had already evacuated from Dunkirk, and German troops were moving steadily toward Paris—which meant it was too late for Italian forces to take a serious part in the battle. Hitler himself observed with annoyance that the Italians were in effect riding on his coattails so as to share in the spoils without having to take part in the dirty work. Nevertheless, Germany and Italy were soon allied together as the Axis Powers, and Italy’s entrance into the war set off a chain reaction that brought war to much of the Mediterranean region.
Following its war declaration, Italy made its first moves in North Africa and other regions of the southern Mediterranean. On June 11, 1940, the Italian air force attacked Malta, while, on the same day, British planes carried out a small bombing raid on the Italian colony of Eritrea (in Africa) as well as on the Italian cities of Genoa and Turin. Skirmishes continued in Africa throughout the summer, but the war there did not begin in earnest until August 3, when Italian forces invaded British Somaliland. This attack marked the opening of the East Africa campaign and was a total defeat for Britain, which was forced to abandon the area within days.
A second Italian offensive into British-occupied Egypt on September 13 was a catastrophic failure. Although heavily outnumbered, the British defenders decimated the Italian forces, taking large numbers of prisoners and advancing well into Italian-held territory. This Italian defeat prompted Germany to get involved by sending its best tank divisions under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Germany’s most celebrated commander of mechanized forces.
The Italian invasion of Greece began on October 28, 1940, using forces based in Albania. Mussolini began the attack without consulting or even informing Hitler, who was incensed upon hearing the news. Greece, a country of difficult, mountainous terrain, also had a respectable army that fought the Italians doggedly. In November, Greek forces broke through the Italian line and over the next few months were able gradually to push the invaders back to the Albanian border. It was not long before Britain began providing air support in Greece’s defense. As in Egypt, Mussolini had bitten off more than his military could chew. Germany, however, bided its time and allowed the Italians to flounder.
By March 1941, the situation for the Italians had deteriorated so badly that Hitler was finally forced to step in. This decision raised a new problem, however, in that neutral Yugoslavia refused to grant German forces permission to cross its territory. Therefore, on April 6, Germany invaded Yugoslavia using its standard blitzkrieg method. Yugoslavia surrendered on April 17, and the German forces quickly moved onward to Greece.
By this time, Britain had forces on the ground in Greece to help the fight against the Germans. The British help was not enough, however, and by the end of April, all British forces had evacuated Greece, and the country fell totally under German control. One more battle broke out when the Luftwaffe struck the British garrison on the island of Crete on May 20. Heavy fighting followed, but by the end of the month, the British again had to evacuate.
Italy’s two early campaigns—North Africa and Greece—were similar in that they both were marked by early success but later became quagmires. In both cases, Germany had to intervene and, as a result, committed forces that were badly needed elsewhere. However, whereas Greece was a relatively short campaign, lasting only a few months, the war in the deserts of North Africa would go on for years. The desert war would become one of the major campaigns of World War II, involving large numbers of forces and dramatic battles. The Italian entrance into the war thus greatly expanded its geographical scope and had significant influence on Germany’s decision making.