On the morning of Monday, 27 August 1923, a Ford automobile carrying Greek Col. Dimitrios Botzaris turned a corner on the road between Ioannina and Kakavia and suddenly came upon a Lancia saloon car surrounded by the bullet-riddled bodies of Gen. Enrico Tellini and the other members of the Italian delegation assigned to determine the border between Greece and Albania. A car with the Albanian delegation had set out first from Ioannina for Kakavia on the Albanian border followed by the second car with the Greek delegation led by Botzaris, but the Greeks had encountered car trouble and so had stayed behind in Ioannina for repairs, allowing the Italian car to be the one immediately following the Albanian car. An initial Greek investigation later that same day determined that robbery was not the motive since no valuables had been taken. Footprints could be seen leading into the dense forest towards the Albanian border, only 45 minutes away from the scene of the crime. The murders were clearly premeditated because, after the passage of the Albanian car, tree branches had been placed along a part of the road to slow or stop the second car. Although the frontier area was notorious for lawlessness and bands of brigands, the unsolved murders have always appeared politically motivated. It has never been certain, however, whether the intended victims in the second vehicle were the Italians or the Greeks. Indeed, only a few months later Col Botzaris was ambushed himself.
Mussolini’s immediate reaction to the massacre of the Italian delegation was moderate, even uncertain, but he was spurred to over-reaction by anti-Greek demonstrations throughout Italy and by the cables from his ambassador in Athens: Giulio Cesare Montagna was so openly hostile to the Greek revolutionary government that Greek newspapers denounced him. Soon Mussolini demanded a public funeral, an enormous fine, and an investigation by Count Ferdinando Perrone di San Martino, the Italian Military Attaché in Athens. Mussolini had already been planning to occupy the defenseless island of Corfu in case of any Greek reaction to Italy’s imminent proclamation of sovereignty over the Dodecanese. He took advantage of the massacre of Italians on Greek soil to send ships which bombarded the old fortress on Corfu housing refugees, despite secret reports and assurances from Perrone that Corfu was not defended by any artillery. Several were killed, mostly school children, from among the 20,000 or so refugees on Corfu. The Italian navy occupied Corfu under the guise of a ‘pledge’ against payment of the fine. The resulting anti-Italian demonstrations on Crete were so violent that they persuaded Halbherr to tell the Italian students there to leave Crete immediately as he could not ensure their safety. The female students left Greece itself soon after, reluctant and embittered over their aborted studies.
“Here is a pretty kettle of fish! I was lucky enough to send off my last letter with Parlanti who left with the last boat to leave for Italy & which must have reached Corfu the very moment of the bombardment. I think the latter has put us [Italians] completely in the wrong, & I must say the people here [in Athens] have behaved very well about it. The [Italian] legation & the Patissia schools are guarded by troops but here [at the School] we have nothing [no troops] and nothing has happened. I was to have left tomorrow for Arkadia with the Bouboulina but we have put it off for the moment. On Sunday [2 September] I went to the Serpieris at [their country estate at] Pyrgos and stayed to dinner. De Facendis, the consul whom you saw at my lecture, arrived there to speak to Serpieri and give the truth according to the legation. [Domenico de Facendis was the Chargé d’Affaires at the Italian Embassy in Athens and far more moderate than Montagna.] One never knows now what the morning may bring, Tokyo earthquake [of Sept 1, when over 100,000 were killed] or other disaster. Grant telegraphed to me to cover the situation by wire but I had to write to him and tell him that as a member of the Italian School I could not possibly mix myself up in the matter as it might compromise the legation. Pity as now I had a chance of making heaps of money out of the MP. (Friday, 7 September 1923)”To be continued as Spying for Mussolini