Oxi Day

On 28 October 1940 at 2:50 am, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuel Grazzi took Benito Mussolini’s message to the Greek leader General Ioannis Metaxas.  Metaxas was awoken and confronted with a written ultimatum for Italian troops to enter Greece.

Metaxas responded ‘this means war’ (in French “Alors, c’est la guerre”, French was the diplomatic language of the time).  For Greeks, this day is commemorated as OXI day.  ‘Oxi’ (pronounced “ō-hē”) is the Greek word for ‘no’.  The day is a public holiday in Greece and celebrated by Greek communities world wide.

Jealous of Hilter’s conquests, Mussolini’s impetus for the invasion was to accomplish his own military success.  Mussolini boasted prior to the invasion that he would crush Greece.

Greco-Italian War 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941:

At 5:30 am on 28 October 1940, the Italians crossed the border from Albanian into Greece. Greece was at war with the Fascist government of Italy under Mussolini.  Shortly after, Metaxas addressed the Greek people:

“The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. The struggle now is for everything!”


28 October – 13 November 1940

The first Italian offensive of the war against Greece was fought in the Pindus Mountain range in Epiros and Macedonia.  The Italians wanted to capture the strategic mountain passes of the Pindus Mountains.

The Pindus Mountain range extends 93 miles across Greece, 100 miles south of Albania. The range consists of high, steep peaks, with many deep canyons and a landscape of limestone where erosion created sinkholes, fissures, ravines, underground streams and caverns.  The maximum elevation is 8,650 feet at Mount Smolikas.  The mountain range is called the Spine of Greece since it extends down to the north of the Peloponnese.

The Italian forces moved from southern Albania into Greece with it’s 3rd Alpine Division Julia.  Julia was a light infantry division which specialized in mountain combat and consisted of highly decorated and elite mountain corps. Julia was considered to be one of the best in Italy. The Italians were better armed with weapons and machinery.

The Greek force in the area was the Pindus detachment under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis containing a force of 2,000 men.  Davakis divided his troops into three sectors.  Davakis was a Spartan.  His division was the first Greek unit to encounter the Italians.

Under heavy rain at 5:30 am, the Italian forces attacked the three sectors. The Greeks fought courageously and against greater forces. The Julia division succeeded in pushing through Davakis’ central sector.  The Italians moved to the Greek town of Metsovon and their objective was to cut the Greek forces in two, those in Epirus from those in Macedonia. 

The Greeks were mobilized into small coordinated units which proved to be a strong resistance and within a few days the Julia division was surrounded.  On 8 November, General Mario Girotti of Julia admitted defeat.  The rain, snow and wind along with the steep mountain slopes aided the Greek troops in defending Greece.  The Greeks pushed the Italians back to the border in a complete victory, even advancing deep into Albania.  The Italian loses were 5,000 dead.

Not only weather and terrain aided the Greek forces, but also the local civilian population.  The local women provided crucial assistance to the Greek victory.  Women, old and young, carried guns, food, clothing and supplies on their backs to the troops over the mountain trails.

Davakis was wounded 2 November 1940 but survived.  He was arrested in December 1942 by the Italian occupation authorities under suspicion of working in the Greek Resistance and was shipped to a POW camp in Italy.  However the ship carrying him was torpedoed and sank.  His body was recovered by local Greeks and buried.  After WWll ended, he was transferred to Athens for reburial.


2 − 8 November 1940:

The Greeks while outmanned in both numbers and equipment, created a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river in Northern Greece 19 miles south of the Greek-Albanian border. The Greeks had no tanks and their arms and equipment were from WWI.

The Greek 8th Infantry division in the area were commanded by Major General Charalambos Katsimitros. Katsimitros understood that the mountainous and marshy terrain negated the Italian superiority in men and armour. Opposing instructions from the Greek General Staff, Katsimitros chose to set his troops in a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river.  The Greek Plan was to initiate a slow retreat towards this line. This decision contained the Italian invaders and provided the necessary time for Greek enforcements to arrive. The Italian light tankettes and medium tanks could not navigate the terrain. Even though the Italians had superior numbers and equipment, the Greek defensive line remained unbroken.

The Greek army counterattacked and repelled the Italians back by mid-December and into Albania.  Katsimitros led his division into Albania. The Greek army eventually occupied a quarter of Albania moving 18 to 49 miles deep into Albanian territory, holding down 530,000 Italian troops.

In March of 1941, trying to expel the Greeks from Albania, Mussolini personally supervised a counterattack.  It failed.

The Greeks fought for six months against the Italians and repelled the Italian advance into Greece.

Winston Churchill said,

“Our allies the Greeks has seen off the Italian army. Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”

The Battle of Salamis

There are very few places in Greece without a view of the sea and the sea helped define the Greeks. The land mass of Greece is surrounded on three sides by water, and the two major land masses, Attica and Peloponnesus, also have water between them. The Greek terrain is rocky and mountainous, with limited trees. In fact the joke is that Greece is more suitable for goats than people. Yet, the Greeks have not only survived there and flourished but became the linch-pin for Western Civilization.

With their backs to this rocky and mountainous land, the Greeks faced outward to the sea. The deep blue of the sea fired their imagination and supported their economy. They built trade routes and founded colonies and won a sea victory defeating the Persians and thus saving the future of Western Civilization.

The legend of the 300 hundred Spartans lead by King Leonidas holding off the Persian army of Xerxes at Thermopylae is well known. What is less widely known is the Battle of Salamis, which came shortly thereafter, probably because Hollywood hasn’t made a movie yet. Even as an American-born Greek, traveling to Greece and passing the island of Salamis on the way to my parent’s villages in the Peloponnesus, my uncles, aunts and even cousins would point out that here the Greeks defeated the Persians in the greatest sea battle.

After fighting at Marathon and being aware of the Persian threat to Greece, the Athenian politician, Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of 200 triremes.

Triremes are galley ships with three rows of oars on each side. The triremes were fast and agile. In fact a full-sized replica, Olympias, with an unskilled volunteer crew was able reach a speed of 9 knots and execute 180 degree turns in one minute with an arc no wider than two and a half ship-lengths proving that ancient accounts of the capabilities of these ships was not exaggerated. The Greek ships were outfitted with rams on the bow, resembling an armored beak on the front of a ship used to puncture the hull of an enemy ship.

During the Persian invasion, now general, Themistocles set up a subterfuge to lure the Persian fleet into the Strait of Salamis. The Greek fleet of triremes occupied the strait between the mainland of Greece and the island of Salamis. The Persian ships entered to find a line of Greek ships. Seeming to flee at the advance of the Persian ships, the Greek ships moved back to better position themselves. The Persians sailed further into the strait in pursuit. One of the Greek ships then moved forward and rammed a Persian ship beginning the naval battle. The rest of the Greek ships then sailed towards the Persian fleet and engaged them. The Greek ships formed a wedge and split the Persian line of ships in two. An exact number of Persian ships destroyed is not available but historians believe 300 is a good estimate.

The significance of the battle is that it marked the turning point in the war between the Greeks and Persians. From this point on Greece remained free from invasion by the Persians. Athens flourished and developed philosophy, science, democracy and laid the foundations of Western Civilization. The legacy of Ancient Greece and the Golden Age of Athens became reality by the decisive victory of the Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis.

And what about those Spartans? Their holding off Xerxes allowed Athens to be evacuated and the fleet under Athenian general Themistocles to assemble at Salamis. Their heroic sacrifice bought the Greeks time and saved Western civilization.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t born in Greece, but I cannot live without being close to the sea. I live in Northern California, in the Bay Area, where from any hilltop in my city, I can look across the Bay, through the Golden Gate and the Pacific beyond. I could never live in a land locked area. In fact I feel claustrophobic if I cannot see open sea. Greek blood does flow through my veins after all.