He was a brave boy;
With his dull gold buttons and his pistol
With a man's air in his step
And his helmet a shining spot
They easily reached his mind
That never knew evil
With his soldier's left and right
And vengenace for injustice before him
Fire against lawless fire!
With blood above his eyebrows
The Albanian mountains thundered
Then they melted snow to rinse
His body, silent shipwreck of dawn
And his mouth a songless bird
And his hands, open spaces of desolation
The mountains of Albania thundered
They did not weep
Why should they weep?
He was a brave boy!
Excerpt from "The Heroic Song of Mourning for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign" by Odysseus Elytis
In March 1941 , the Italian Army launched a last ditch assault to break Greek resistance on the Albanian front. This offensive known as "Operazione Primavera" (Operation Springtime) was planned to its last detail and supervised by Mussolini himself who arrived to Albania on March 2nd. For 17 days, a number of intense attacks were launched on the Greek positions. The strategic objective known as Hill 731, stood at the center of the Italian effort. The Italians made every attempt to seize this objective which was the key to their entire effort. The Greeks, fighting outnumbered and outgunned exceeded all their hopes and stopped the enemy cold.
The Italian offensive was concentrated along a four mile front, against which they threw an entire Corps. The primary assault was launched by three infantry divisions and two elite Blackshirt battalions, with two more divisions in reserve. The secondary assault was launched by three infantry divisions with two more in reserve. There were also, 15 independent well trained battalions of Bersaglieri, Alpini and Blackshirts available to be thrown into the effort. The Greek defensive line was held by the men of the Greek 1st "Thessaly" Infantry Division, between Trebeshin-Bubeshi, in the area surrounding Hill 731 and high ground at Breghu-Rapit.
Greek forces were well prepared. Italian intentions had been known for some time and the Greeks were dug in and ready for what was to come. Their orders were to hold captured territory and launch counter-attacks when feasible. The "Thessaly" Division under Major General Vassilios Vrachnos
had six frontline battalions and three in reserve, divided into two sectors held by three Battalions of the 5th "Trikala" Regiment, under Lt.Col Themistocles Ketseas
a battalion was on 731, under Major Demetrios Kasslas (right)
and another battalion was on Breghu-Rapit, under Major Chimariotes
with a reserve (stationed at Spi-kamarate under Major Perrakis). On March 9th, the following order was issued by LtCol Ketseas:
"Hold your positions at all costs. I'm expecting reports, either by liaison or by phone, for the tactical situation to your left, to your right and upfront. Nobody will abandon his position or move to the rear. We shall all die here."
The Italian attack begins at 6:00 AM while Mussolini observed the battlefield. Within the next two-three hours, tens of thousands of artillery shells are fired against the Greek positions. Over two hundred aircraft bomb the Greek entrenchments. Two hours later, the Italians launch a primary attack on the Ketseas sector against 731 and the Breghu-Rapit heights. Despite the intense Greek artillery fire, Italian troops of the Cagliari Division manage to reach the steep slopes of both heights. The Greeks unable to stop the Italian attack by firing their rifles and machine guns, charged at the oncoming Italians with fixed bayonets, under the cover of dense smoke. By late afternoon, the Italians had launched four consecutive attacks, all repulsed by the Greeks. Height 717 was finally captured by the Italians, despite a series of Greek atempts to recapture it.
The Italian "BARI" Division, attempts to break the Greek defensive line at Trebeshin by simultaneously launching three consecutive attacks on Hill 731.
Activity continued all day along the front-line with barrages of artillery fire. That night, two battalions of the 26th Blackshirt Legion advanced through the gorge between the Proi-Math and Qjafe-Luzhit heights attempting to bypass the defenders on 731. Their advance was detected, trapping them between deadly fire coming from the defensive positions on both heights. Two hundred fifty Blackshirts were killed and five hundred captured despite diversionary attacks to rescue them.
At early dawn, elements of the BARI Division, launched attacks on heights 709, 710, Breghu-Rapit, Qjafe-Luzhit and 731. Ketseas' men repelled the Italians and in some cases, counter-attacked. In the morning, the Italians concentrated their main effort on 731. They failed again. At Trebeshin, after an initial Italian artillery barrage, the attacking troops reached the steep slopes. The Greeks counter-attacked and hand-to-hand fighting commenced. Men on both sides fought with every weapon at hand including bayonets, pistols, and rocks. In the afternoon, the Greeks reinforced the defending units with the entire 19th "Serres" Regiment under Colonel Balis.
The Italian effort begins with a heavy artillery barrage. On this day, the Italian attacks were almost entirely concentrated on 731. A series of Italian attacks on the hill, were once again repelled by the Greeks. During the height of this engagement an infantry company under 1st Lt Isaac Lavrentides charges into the oncoming attacking Italians.
The Italians launched a new assault on 731. When the Greek units ran short of ammunition, they attacked the Italians with their bayonets. Greeks troops under Captain Koutrides and 2nd Lieutenant Hatzikyriakos counter-attacked with such fury that the Italian troops later nicknamed this assault "Contrataccato dei Animali" (Counter-attack of the Beasts). Koutrides who was leading the assault, was wounded twice but continued giving orders to his troops. Hatzikyriakos was killed in the melee at close quarters that followed.
The Italian High Command orders a series of night attacks. Each one fails with significant casualties.
On this day, the Italians threw in the battle, elements of an elite assault unit of the SIENA Division, the ARDITI D'ITALIA supported by four tanks. The Greek troops on 731 were caught by surprise and despite the effective fire of the Greek artillery, the first tank accompanied by the Arditi troops seize a portion of Hill 731. The Greeks are forced to abandon some of their positions but the tenacious defense by a platoon from the 10th company under 2nd Lt Georgios Tzathas
delays the Italian advance, "buying" time for the Greeks to launch a counter-attack. The main Greek attack was launched by the 9th Company under Lieutenant Isaac Lavrentides. Carrying just 20 rounds each, the Greeks fix bayonets and rush headlong into the Italians attempting to organize a defense of their newly gotten gains. Lt Tzathas, climbed onto the enemy tank and destroyed it by throwing a couple of grenades through the hatch. Hill 731 remained in Greek hands. Again, the bayonet proved to be the decisive weapon in the hands of the Greeks; of the approximately 300 Italians who gained the summit of 731 only 4 survived. One hundred fifty Greeks pay the butcher's bill for possession of the strategic heights.
A group of Italian stretcher bearers escorted by Catholic chaplains, holding a white flag, reached the foothill of 731, seeking a short cessation of hostilities, to bury their dead. The sight of the battlefield exceeded the limits of human imagination: human limbs scattered everywhere, weapons, limbless, chewed up trees. The stench was unbearable. When the winds shift, carrying it toward the enemy positions, Greek troops cheered.
The last large scale Italian attack was launched on Goliko mountain (behind 731) , defended by the Greek "Athens" Division . The Italians concentrated on a hill named "Donti" (Tooth) where 2,000 artillery shells rain down in a few short hours but the attack fails.
Heavy artillery barrages target 731.
At sunrise, Greeks troops attack and seized Hill 717. When they reached the top, they discover abandoned positions. The battle is finally over. During the seventeen day battle for 731, the 1st Division casualties are 27 Officers dead, 59 WIA, 531 men KIA, 2,028 WIA. It is thereafter named "the Iron Division."
May their memories be eternal and may their sacrifices serve to remind present day Greeks of the hard won freedoms they now enjoy and squander so easily.