Good Friday invasion. Italian troops are landing in Durres.

7 April 1939.
Painting by Harilla Dhima.

People's Hero Mujo Ulqinaku. Monument erected in the castle of Durres to honour the memory of the patriots fallen in defence of Albania in 1939.

Alas, in April 1939 the leaders of the Western democracies did not know much about the situation in Albania and they had nothing to say to their concerned parliaments. And meanwhile, barely in several hours after the press had published Neville Chamberlain's mild and moot statement, the world could finally learn from different sources what was going on in Albania. Namely, on 7 April 1939, after the Italian press agency Stefani, all the world's agencies had published the first official communique of the Italian foreign office, which announced as follows:

Official notice from Rome: 

On Good Friday 7 April 1939 at dawn Italian troops landed in Durazzo, Valona, Santa Quaranta and San Giovanni di Medua. In Durazzo Albanian troops tried to deliver resistance, which was broken. From Durazzo Italian troops started the march into the country. The population welcomes them calmly and friendly. As many as 400 aircraft of the Group A are patrolling the Albanian skies. The group has received orders not to bomb inhabited places and to spare civilian population.

While answering the questions why the Italian armed forces had undertaken actions against Albania, the Stefani Agency stated laconically that the Albanian parliament by government's request had rejected the ultimatum of the Italian government of 5 April 1939. Following the Stefani's official statement also the Reuters had announced that

Italian forces, with three divisions, an air group, and a navy squadron, set off tonight for Albania.

At 8 o'clock in the morning Italian forces tried to make a landing. Albanian forces resisted. In Durazzo, where Italian forces tried to land on the beaches, they were twice repelled, and forced to retreat.

Bloody fights are fought in Valona.

The uneasy audiences could learn more about the Italo-Albanian conflict from the afternoon papers, which had already acquired - via Radio Budapest - the recorded broadcasts aired from Tirana every half an hour. From those broadcasts it came out that on 7 April 1939 Italian warships twice bombarded port in Durres (Durazzo), three times Vlora (Valona), and four times Saranda (Santa Quaranta) and Shengjin (San Giovanni di Medua). Also the Italian air forces had bombed Durres, Vlora and Saranda. Further news said that in the afternoon Italian transport ships disembarked in Durres infantry landing parties, which tried to seize the city; Italian troops were however repelled by Albanian regular units and volunteers. The Albanians not only repelled the attack, but forced the Italians to return to the ships. The Albanian government had also pleaded to defend, together with the whole nation, the independence to the last drop of blood.

Also the same afternoon newspapers published another official communique provided by the Stefani. Contrary to the Reuters and Radio Tirana it said that the military action undertaken by the Italian armed forces in Albania had been conducted as scheduled. Three Albanian ports attacked on 7 April in the morning were taken by the afternoon of the same day by combined efforts of the navy, air forces and landing troops. Only in Durres there came to weak skirmishes, but the Albanian army in general did not deliver any serious resistance. The same newspapers had also published the first, unofficial, news about the mission of Colonel Sami Koka and the minister of economy Rrok Geraj to the Italian headquarters, which had to testify to the willingness to end the conflict promptly and peacefully.

The news from Albania, both those coming from Rome and those coming from Tirana, were largely late and completely contradictory, and did not reliably depict the events that took place in the country Italy attacked early in the morning of 7 April 1939. The world still did not know much of what was happening there. Who took the upper hand? Who attacked? Who was forced to retreat? How bloody were the fights? How many casualties?

Also more and more people were trying to figure out the answer to the question asked among others in the aforementioned article in the New York Herald Tribune: would the Italians' action bear broader international consequences? Many wondered what would be the position of Great Britain and France; the common assumption was that the Western democracies would finally abandon their policy of idle spectatorship to the aggressive initiatives of the fascist satrapies, which had encroached into the areas of their immediate interests. Hence on 7 April, and within several following days, world's press on daily basis published an enormous amount of information and comments concerning London's and Paris' retaliatory actions against Rome, movements of their navies, and other actions of political or military nature. Yet both Great Britain and France were still incapable to face the fascist aggression in any way; they did not even intend to block Mussolini's way to Albania. After all Benito Mussolini knew it very well as he properly understood the experience of his ally - Adolf Hitler - in case of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Klaipeda. That is why the war in Albania was conducted for real, although differently from the way Rome and Tirana presented it to the world.

On 7 April 1939 about 4:30, several minutes before the Italian invasion fleet saw the coasts of Albania, Tirana and Albanian ports were awakened by the sinister roar of motors - Italian bombers, covered by fighters, were incoming. The very brain of the whole expedition, the Italian foreign minister, count Galeazzo Ciano, held the controls of one of the planes. They unloaded tons of bombs and incendiaries on the calm, silent and unexpecting towns. Hellish explosions were accompanied by columns of billowing fire and mad rattle of heavy machine-guns that fired at attacked objects, and especially at panic-stricken people, who ran in vain for safety. Italian pilots, especially those, who did not have a chance to gain their "glory" in Abyssinia or Spain, now were able to show off before Ciano. They were descending low, very low, almost over the very roofs, to place another load of bombs right in target or another series of bullets right in the back of a running civilian. Several minutes after the barbaric attack from the air, the navy started shelling the Albanian coast wherever existed the slightest possibility of resistance. Then the navy ships put smoke screens, behind which smaller landing crafts laden with Italian infantry were approaching to the designated sectors, where landing parties seized bridgeheads for further advance towards the ports. Upon the seizure of the ports, the ships carrying the main forces of the Italian expedition had to arrive there.

General Alfredo Guzzoni, who controlled the whole operation, was pleased. So far everything was going on as scheduled - without major troubles or surprises. Only in few spots of the coast the Albanians tried to resist, but their defences - weak and chaotic - were easily overcome; landing troops could disembark and move on virtually unmolested. If anything had troubled General Guzzoni, it was the apparent lack of training and discipline of the Italian infantry, as well as poor technical equipment of duce's invading army. In a war with an equal or stronger enemy those factors could fatally affect the outcome of military operations. Here, however, as the enemy practically did not exist, they were only visible and could not spell a defeat, which was not taken into account at all.

Guzzoni drove the main strike, as it became transparent from the messages from both sides, onto the Albanian ports: Durres, Vlora and Saranda. Especially Durres played a crucial role in the Italian plans, which foresaw a complete occupation of Albania within 48 hours. Durres offered virtually ideal conditions to disembark heavy equipment: guns, tanks, armoured cars and lorries. It is also the closest port to Tirana, and Guzzoni intended to take Tirana right after taking Durres. With all those factors in view, Guzzoni had applied in Durres a tactics different from that applied in Vlora or Saranda. There, after a short bombardment from the sea and air, bridgeheads were seized, from which attacks were driven on the cities themselves, previously terrorized by air raids. In Durres everything was different. An Italian squadron of one cruiser and three destroyers had anchored off Durres since 6 April, but it was not until now that the ships undertook action. On 7 April in the morning, as the Italian forces attacked the whole Albanian coast, the Italian cruiser in Durres launched boats that carried infantry and marines to the beaches. In the beginning the operation was going on as planned. Italian troops landed on the beaches and started forming columns to enter the city. They ignored reports about Albanian soldiers and armed civilians approaching the landing. Those were loose groups of volunteers led by a navy officer, Mujo Ulqinaku, and a gendarmerie officer, Abaz Kupi, who against all odds decided to resist the invasion. The Albanians opened fierce fire from rifles, shotguns and two machine-guns. The effect was astonishing. The Italians panicked, and instead of organizing defences they fled to the ships. It was not until the ships went to the action that the situation was taken under control. The Albanian fighters found themselves under the fire of ship artillery, and those few Italian field guns and machine-guns that did not abandon their positions. The Italians also awkwardly tried to introduce light tanks in the fights on the land. Eventually, after an hour of fights, the tiny Albanian force was overcome; half of the defenders were killed, others dispersed. They withdrew from the beaches and then from the city, which was left to its own fate.

Now the Italians regained their spirit. Within half an hour they took the city and the port, which did not deliver any resistance. Only the bodies of the Albanians fallen in defence of their country remained in the sands of the Adriatic beaches. But the Italian infantry lost dozens of men too, while the Italian marines lost ten killed and dozens of wounded, who were transported the following evening back to Brindisi.

The seizure of Durres enabled the Italians to start the same day the march on the capital of Albania - Tirana, that is located some 35-40 km east of Durres. Having his troops disembarked and formed a rapid motorized group of light tanks and motorcyclists, Guzzoni made for Tirana in the afternoon of 7 April. The Italian column moved towards Tirana without troubles and was about to take the city when it stalled again some 10km away. This time it was a shallow river making its way in a gully; the Albanians blew up the only bridge across the gully. Italian engineers started building a makeshift bridge. They were half-way done when the rifle fire burst out from a grove on the opposite bank. It was a handful of Albanians that tried to stop the Italian advance. Although their fire was weak and chaotic, the Italians lost several killed and wounded. Those casualties hardly could be called big or serious, but they caused an astonishing effect. Whole Italian units fell in panic and ran back yelling that they were attacked by prevailing enemy troops, dropping their arms and leaving their equipment behind. It was not until the Italian gendarmerie, which guarded Guzzoni's staff, entered into action, that the situation was once again taken under control. A strong unit of infantry was then sent to the opposite bank of the river. The Italians had had several more soldiers killed, but had eventually opened the way to Tirana. The building of the bridge was resumed; it was ready before the evening, but the Italians did not dare to continue the march in the darkness, especially that the way was across a rocky area ideal for ambush. They decided to wait for the next morning some 6km away from Tirana. Meanwhile dramatic events had unfolded in the capital of Albania.

When the Italian command made the decision to overnight on the road to Tirana, it did not know what was going on in the city and perhaps counted on a fortunate outcome of the secret mission entrusted to one of the most adventurous Italian fascists, Ettore Muti. Muti was sent to Tirana with the task to induce king Zog to accept the Italian ultimatum or, after the invasion, to induce the king to capitulate and kidnap him if necessary. This part of the plan failed though as Zogu, together with the whole royal family and their court, fled the royal palace as soon as the news about the invasion arrived, and their whereabouts were unknown. So, Muti started the realization of the second part of his mission - diversion in the capital of the attacked country. His men from the formations of Italian and Albanian "black shirts", despite of the fact that they were acting in a country that was being conquered, but for the moment was still sovereign, within a few hours murdered several Albanians, who refused to back Mussolini's actions. The Italian propaganda later portrayed the information about Muti's mission as a pure fabrication, and Muti himself meticulously destroyed every piece of evidence of his crimes, but he overlooked the Ciano's diary, in which the latter wrote I gave him freedom of action, but he is under definite orders: to respect the Queen and the child. [Ciano G. (2001).]

The action of Muti's bandits agitated the citizens of the Albanian capital and animated their predicaments to revenge. The Albanians spontaneously formed a popular militia. Regular soldiers reinforced the volunteers and armed civilians. Muti's men were chased until they found shelter in the Italian embassy, where also found themselves those Italians, who did not manage to leave Albania in time. The word that the embassy became shelter to the bandits responsible for murders and sabotage spread throughout the whole Tirana. Yet before the evening 7 April the legation became besieged by armed Albanians - civilians and soldiers alike. They called upon the Italian ambassador to give away Muti and his stooges. The ambassador of course refused. Then the agitated crowd stormed into the building. The Italians gathered inside were well-armed - they possessed even grenades and machine-guns - and they opened fire. At midnight, when the Italian column was sleeping in the middle of the road to Tirana, the embassy had already repelled several attacks, with one killed and several wounded. The Albanians had suffered more casualties, but they would not give up. As they understood that they were not able to take the legation, they started collecting wood, hay and petroleum - a sure sign they were going to set the embassy afire. The besieged had panicked. Their machine-guns had an obvious superiority over old rifles and shotguns, but the fire would pose a no means problem.

The Italian ambassador, who maintained permanent radio-communication with the Foreign Office and the General Staff in Rome, started dramatic calls for help. Yet those besieged in the building of the embassy apparently had no luck. Once again the lack of training impaired the actions of the Italian armed forces - the supreme command tried in vain to contact the Italian staff that was supposed to quarter in Durres, while the latter stayed 6km away from Tirana waiting undisturbed for the sunrise. And when the situation of the Italians besieged in Tirana seemed already hopeless, someone in Rome had guts to make a bold decision. Around 1:30 over Tirana roared the engines of 50 Italian aircraft. At first they made no impression as the Italian planes had been flying over the city since the morning, and the Albanians thought that had been yet another demonstration of power rather than a real air raid. But this time the goal of the night demonstration was different. As soon as the air pirates appeared over the city practically deprived of any anti-air defence, they unloaded a shower of bombs and incendiaries. In no time Tirana went aflame. Thousands of inhabitants fled their homes in panic, looking for safety in the streets or in nearby temples. But that night neither the streets - showered by bombs and whipped with machine-guns - nor the temples were safe: Catholic Italians targeted alike Christian churches and Moslem mosques. When the gates of hell opened in the skies of Tirana, nobody of course thought about further siége of the Italian embassy, which soon became silent and calm. The levelled and terrorized city had abandoned further resistance when the Italian troops marched in its streets. The only moment sad to the Italians was Guzzoni's meeting with the involuntary "tenants" of the Italian legation saved at the very last moment. Guzzoni was not able to explain why his triumphant march into Tirana could not occur at least few hours earlier; he was not able to explain why the communication with his army, standing at the city gates, failed. He only smiled dully, slapped his hosts' backs, and mumbled something like a la guerre comme a la guerre and... everything can happen. What else could he say? That the equipment was far from ideal? That the troops' training was even worse? That the duce's policy was alien to the officers, and rank and files' morale was so low that they would flee with a single enemy soldier in sight? The foreign office secretary of state, and Ciano's close friend, Filippo Anfuso, was more sincere after years, as he put in his diaries an extraordinarily keen evaluation of the Italian military actions in April 1939: The landing in Albania was conducted with such a childish ignorance, that if only the Albanians had possessed a well-trained fire brigade, they would have hurled us back into the Adriatic. [Anfuso F. (1957).]

Those were bitter, and moreover - true, words, but the modern warfare has it that an armed to teeth empire can afford such infantile blunders in a clash with practically defenceless opponents without a risk of defeat. The Italians had compensated flaws in their art of war and technics with brutal violence, terror and indiscriminate application of criminal rules of the total war. Although Guzzoni realised all the flaws of his army, on 8 April 1939 in the morning he sent a report to his master: My Duce, today morning, on 8 April 1939, our troops took the capital of Albania! The enemy does not resist. All is quiet in Tirana! [Fusco G. C. (2001).] But Guzzoni lied even in this short statement. Tirana was not quiet on those days; one could not help to hear in all the corners of the city crying women mourning the victims of the barbaric massacre. Harry A. Christogeorghu wrote for the New York Herald Tribune from Athens:

At least 400 were killed and wounded from bombs last night. Today Italians triumphantly entered the city. As soon as they took the royal palace in their possession, they immediately announced creation of a new Albanian government, that is "disposed friendly to Italy, which desires to restore law and order in Albania." Few men were brought to the new government under the threat that otherwise they would be shot or exiled in Libya.

Before the closing of the Albanian chapter of the duce's conquests it is worth mentioning yet another incident. Namely, as soon as the infantrymen from the Italian motorized column, marching from Durres, entered Tirana, they were confronted by the soldiers of a grenadier regiment, that challenged their title as conquerors of the Albanian capital. The grenadiers arrived in the airfield near Tirana aboard Italian transport planes; they seized the airfield without firing a single shot, arrested the Albanian staff, hoisted the Italian flag and... did not do anything more. Only when the soldiers' boots rattled on the cobblestones of Tirana, the brave grenadiers occupied, without any resistance, a nearby village. The incident was quickly solved. Although the Albanian victory was not big, it had brought huge laurel wreaths. Enough to share among all the interested parties - the brave motorized infantrymen and no less brave grenadiers, who are often mentioned in Italian sources as the actual conquerors of Tirana.

As soon as the report about the taking of Tirana arrived, the Italian Foreign Office issued a special communiqué, which stated that the military operation aiming at the military occupation of Albania, was in principle completed. The Italians held the capital of the country, all the ports and many minor hamlets. Yet the communiqué issued on 10 April admitted that the fights were still being fought and the troops were continuing their march into unoccupied areas:

All day Friday and Saturday, Italian forces continued gradual occupation of the Albanian territory. There were skirmishes with Albanian troops and locals, but details of those skirmishes are not as yet known. (...) On the Italian side, apart from naval and infantry units, also take part the air forces, which among others have transported to the airport of Tirana a grenadier regiment, which occupied Tirana. [Fusco G. C. (2001).]

Apart of the aforementioned communiqué, the British and French press also quoted the appeal to the Italian nation broadcast by the Albanian radio. It emphasized prophetically that

Help the Albanian people. They are only one million strong and they must defend their country against a nation of forty-four millions, for we will not have our destiny changed for us by outsiders. The Albanian Government has decided to defend Albania and the honour of our nation with all the forces at our disposal. We will fight to the end! [Pearson O. (2006a).]

The appeal also recollected Mussolini's own words said after the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939: A nation which does not defend itself, does not deserve to live! Albania had taken those words to heart completely.

Albanians, indeed, resisted the fascist invasion, but they were alone and, what is more significant, deprived of leadership. The government failed, collapsing sooner than the military situation would dictate. The king failed, fleeing Tirana on 7 April, seeking, as it turned out, asylum in Greece. He left the royal crown to its fates, or rather to the Italian grace, but he took the trouble to secure his financial future. On 8 April the high commissioners of the Italian ministry of finances, who walked into the building of the National Bank of Albania, discovered in dismay that the treasury was empty. The investigation into that matter, summoned ad hoc, established that the king, before leaving the capital, took from the bank as much as 400,000 francs in gold. Albania never saw that gold again. But the king lavished in luxury in Turkey and Poland, England and Egypt, and whatever corner of the world else he lived in, until he died of natural causes in 1961. Then his fortune helped his son Leka build in South Africa a financial empire dealing in suspicious operations. This was the price for the Albanian crown, a price Mussolini certainly did not like to pay, for he counted he could get the crown for free. Yet it did not make news in the Italian press. The rest of the world was also absorbed in watching the military developments rather than king Zog's court's odyssey or his financial portfolio.

All the day of 8 April the Italian media reported consecutive successes of the "brave troops", as they entered Korca, surrendered by its prefect, and Elbasan, occupied by the motorized column commanded by General Antonioni. Also some Albanian troops returned to Tirana and laid their weapons down in front of the royal palace. Also for the first time the Stefani Agency mentioned casualties inflicted during the landing. According to Stefani, the landing in Durres cost Italians 8 killed infantrymen and 3 sailors, as well as 34 infantrymen and 9 sailors wounded. Landing in Saranda reportedly cost them 1 killed and 10 wounded soldiers. Albanian casualties are not known, but obviously they must have been substantial. Reports from other sources as to the number of casualties differ rather significantly. The townspeople of Durres maintain that the Italians lost four hundred dead. Although Roman propaganda claimed that the Italians lost only twelve men in the entire invasion, it is clear that approximately 200 Italians were killed at Durres alone, and the Albanians may have lost even more.

Further news from Albania did not touch important matters any more. They rather mentioned that king Zog, with his family and court, flew to Yannina in Greece, leaving behind three generals only to accommodate royal chefs in the plane. Then they continued to Larissa, while the queen suffered from puerperal fever and required constant medical attention, for which a special ambulance was procured for the royal caravan. Also it was reported that the king's brother Xhelal had crossed the Yugoslav border and arrived in Skopje, while the queen's mother, countess Gladys Virginia Stewart Girault of Apponyi with his husband, Colonel Gontrand Girault, had arrived in Zagreb and intended to proceed to Switzerland. More space in the world's press columns was given to the comments concerning the impact of the Italian invasion in Albania on the international political situation. Greece and Yugoslavia were reportedly shocked and concerned, but simultaneously many politicians in Athens and Belgrade spoke vigorously against the Italian policy. Some columnists even speculated over a possibility of mounting of an Anglo-Franco-Greco-Yugoslav coalition, decisions of a military nature, fleets' movements, and guarantees of London and Paris to Greece.

On 9 April the world was not interested in Albanian affairs any more. The only emotional news in that matter were that the Soviet Union was the only country that condemned the Italian action and offered king Zog hospitality on a ship taking him to Turkey. More attention was given to analyses of the sources of the crisis that eventually led to the Italian military action, possibility of existence of secret agreements, which fostered it, and validity of alliances and guarantees in face of that crisis. The French press, quoting its sources in Belgrade, had published the text of the Italian ultimatum of 5 April. According to the Havas Agency the main points of that ultimatum were as follows:
  1. Control of all ports, communications, roads and airfields in the event it appears that Albanian independence is in danger.
  2. An Italian organizer in each Albanian ministry who would have the rank of Minister ranking immediately below the Albanian Minister.
  3. Italians in Albania would have equal civil and political rights with the Albanians.
  4. Rising of the Italian legation in Tirana and the Albanian legation in Rome to the rank of the embassies.

Meanwhile the events in Albania were going according to the Italian scenario. On 9 April Ciano visited Tirana, where among others he met an Albanian prince, Xhafer bej Ypi. During the audience given to the Albanian feudal, Ciano accepted his declaration, made in name of the Albanian nation, of loyalty to the Italian government and il duce. Tirana meanwhile became the stage of surrealistic scenes of self-disarmament of the regular Albanian troops, who, deprived of command or commanded by officers inclined to go to Italian service, were coming back to the capital and laying their arms in a big yard in front of the royal palace. Italian military and civilian authorities in Tirana were meticulously recording all the news about the progress of the Italian troops in the Albanian hinterland. Late in the evening of 8 April the column commanded by Gen. Arturo Scatini took Shkodra (Scutari), and on 9 April, after a short clash, the Italians occupied Berati. In course of further actions the Italians took Tepelena on 10 April, and later the same day Italian columns marching from Tirana and Berati met on the river Devoll. This way almost the whole Albania fell into Italian hands. Independent Albania existed only in some remote mountainous hamlets on the Greek or Yugoslav borders, but even there Italian carabinieri would soon appear to take over the border guard service. Among the last Albanian hamlets occupied by the Italians were Bilisht (Bilische) on the Greek border (12 April) and Kukes on the Yugoslav border (14 April).

As the Stefani Agency informed the world about the military operations, it followed in that matter direct Ciano's instructions, which had to convince the public opinion that the invasion was necessary, and soothe it with the notion that the future would be peaceful. The same goal was pursued when Stefani informed the world about a personal letter Mussolini reportedly wrote to the British prime-minister, in which the Italian dictator assured Chamberlain that the annexation of Albania was the end of the Italian plans in the Balkans. In fact such a letter has never been written, the more so never sent, but the desire to believe in it was so strong, that even the Parisian Petit Parisien, a newspaper that reflected the official views and positions of the Quay d'Orsay, deemed it plausible to publish such an information. It continues to mislead certain amateur historians even nowadays.