Part I. GREECE
Part I. GREECE
What were the grounds for believing that three Divisions and an Armoured Brigade, plus the Greeks, could hold an unlimited number of German divisions, fully mechanised and armoured—plus the Italians?
Was an attack against us through the Monastir gap contemplated as a possibility, a probability or a certainty?
If so, what confidence could have been placed in the Aliakhmon line on which our plan was based and which, in effect, was never fought?
Note: The above questions are asked not by way of criticism, for the operation was necessary (unless militarily quite impossible) for non-military, political and moral reasons, and the New Zealand Government, as they have already stated more than once, would take the same course again in the same circumstances.
Answers to Questions 1, 2 and 3
Early in January 1941 information in the possession of His Majesty's Government seemed to show that the Germans, who were rapidly concentrating large forces in Roumania, intended an early advance through Bulgaria against Greece. It appeared most unlikely that they would move through Yugoslavia, their plan being probably to coerce Yugoslavia into submission by surrounding her. Furthermore, an attack on Yugoslavia would jeopardise the rear of the Italian army facing the Greeks.
Accordingly, a telegram was sent on the 10th January, 1941, to the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East telling them that everything pointed to an early German advance in the Balkans and that His Majesty's Government had decided that it was essential to offer the Greeks the maximum possible assistance with the object of ensuring that they would page 492 resist German demands by force. The giving of assistance to Greece would have to take priority over all operations in the Middle East after the capture of Tobruk, though this need not prevent an advance to Benghazi if the going were good. It was proposed that our assistance to the Greeks should take the form of specialist and mechanised units and air forces to support the Greek divisions, rather than a large expeditionary force, which we could not provide. The Commanders-in-Chief were invited to telegraph their intentions after discussing matters with General Metaxas.
General Wavell and Air Marshal Longmore went to Greece and held discussions with the Greek Government and Commander-in-Chief on the 15th and 16th January. In the course of these discussions, General Wavell informed General Metaxas of what His Majesty's Government proposed, and suggested that the despatch of a number of specialist troops to Salonika would enable the Greeks on that front to offer strong resistance to any German advance which, in view of the nature of the country, would not be in overwhelming numbers, and that the despatch of these troops would convince the Turkish and Yugoslav Governments of our determination to support the Greeks to the utmost and to resist any advance on Salonika. If we did nothing, on the other hand, the enemy, seeing Salonika weakly defended, would be encouraged to attempt a rapid advance to seize the port, and Turkey and Yugoslavia would be discouraged from taking any action.
General Metaxas did not accept this view. He thought that the despatch of these troops, while not sufficient to ensure the safety of Salonika, would provoke Germany into attack. He thought that we should postpone sending assistance to the Greeks until we could land in sufficient numbers to act offensively as well as defensively. General Metaxas also refused an offer of assistance against the Italians.
In view of the Greek attitude, the Commanders-in-Chief were instructed on the 21st January that our future policy should be:
His Majesty's Government were still very much impressed with the urgent need of taking action—
Accordingly, on 31st January, 1941, the Prime Minister addressed a personal telegram to the President of the Turkish Republic urging him to agree to allow us to infiltrate considerable air forces into Turkey, by the same method that the Germans were employing in Bulgaria. By so doing we should enable the Turks to deter Germany from overrunning Bulgaria and quelling Greece, and we should counterbalance the Russian fear of the German armies. On the 7th February, a reply was received from the President of the Turkish Republic refusing this proposal but pressing for further supplies of armaments for the Turkish army.page 493
The situation in the Balkans continued to develop in such a way [as] to show that a German attack on Greece could not be long delayed. Following on the capture of Benghazi, anxious discussion took place as to whether it would be better to continue the advance on the North African shore in an attempt to take Tripoli or whether surplus forces should be got ready for use in the Balkans. It was felt that if Greece were attacked by the Germans and decided to resist, we could not possibly refuse to help her. It was therefore thought to be essential to find out what the Greek plan would be in the event of a German threat, so that we could see how best to help. It was not thought to be impossible for the Greeks and ourselves to hold up a German advance down the Struma Valley, provided the Greeks were able to disengage a few divisions from the Albanian front in time, and if we could support them with air and mechanised forces. A successful resistance might encourage the Turks, and possibly the Yugoslavs, to join in the battle. When the matter came under consideration on the 11th February, an assessment was made of the possible course of the German campaign. On the assumption that they would cross the Bulgarian frontier on the 17th February, it was thought they might arrive on the Greek frontier by the 12th March with five divisions, including one armoured division. Other forces would be retained to watch the Turks and the Yugoslavs. The state of the communications in Bulgaria at that time of year would not permit of larger forces being maintained forward. It was thought that the Greeks, supported by the forces we could get there by that date, might well be able to hold up this advance.
In order to examine thoroughly the possibilities, and to try and bind together the Balkan front, it was decided to send the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff out to the Middle East. They left on 12th February.
This was the background of the situation which confronted the Foreign Secretary, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the three Commanders-in-Chief when the former arrived in Cairo on the 19th February.
On the 20th February a brief appreciation of the German threat through Bulgaria was received in Cairo from General Papagos. He thought that, if Yugoslavia were to collaborate with the Greeks, the Germans would probably not make serious efforts down the Struma Valley, owing to the vulnerability of this line to attack from Yugoslavia. Under these conditions the possibility of holding the Greek-Bulgarian frontier might be seriously considered. On the other hand, if Yugoslavia remained neutral, Salonika would have to be abandoned. Within 10 or 15 days of crossing the Danube the Germans could have 8 or 9 divisions on the Greek frontier, of which three might be in the area of the Rupel Pass. The Germans might even violate Yugoslav territory and move down the Vardar Valley as well. The success of a German thrust in this area would cut off all troops in Eastern Macedonia. For these reasons he had seriously to consider the necessity of withdrawing Greek divisions now from Eastern Macedonia to the Aliakhmon position. He hoped that before the German offensive began he would have reached in Albania the line Berat–Valona. He would then be able to economise troops and make more available for the defence of North-East page 494 Greece. In the meanwhile, he was concentrating two newly-formed divisions in the Florina–Edessa–Veria area. Under no circumstances would Greece make a separate peace with Germany.
On the 21st February the Foreign Secretary telegraphed from Cairo, after full discussions with the three Commanders-in-Chief. He said that all were agreed that we should do everything in our power to bring the fullest measure of help to the Greeks at the earliest possible moment. If our help was accepted by the Greeks, it was believed that there was a fair chance of halting a German advance and preventing Greece from being overrun. The present limited air forces available made it doubtful whether we could hold a line covering Salonika, but the position to be held would be discussed with the Greeks. In reply, the Prime Minister telegraphed:
‘Do not consider yourselves obligated to a Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will only be another Norwegian fiasco. If no good plan can be made, please say so. But, of course, you know how valuable success would be.’
On the same day the Foreign Secretary telegraphed again as follows:
‘It is, of course, a gamble to send forces to the mainland of Europe to fight Germany at this time. No one can give a guarantee of success, but when we discussed this matter in London we were prepared to run the risk of failure, thinking it better to suffer with the Greeks than to make no attempt to help them. That is the conviction we all hold here. Moreover, though the campaign is a daring venture, we are not without hope that it might succeed to the extent of halting the Germans before they overrun all Greece. It has to be remembered that the stakes are big. If we fail to help the Greeks, there is no hope of action by Yugoslavia, and the future of Turkey may easily be compromised. Though, therefore, none of us can guarantee that we may not have to play trump cards of our bare strong suit, we believe that this attempt to help Greece should be made.’
Full discussions were then held with the Greeks. These were recorded by the Foreign Secretary in a telegram, of which the following is an extract:
‘3. …. The President of Council, after reaffirming the determination of Greece to defend herself against Germany, reiterated the misgivings of the Greek Government lest insufficient British help should merely precipitate German attack, and stated that it was essential to determine whether available Greek forces and forces which we could provide would suffice to constitute efficacious resistance to the Germans, taking into account the doubtful attitude of Turkey and Yugoslavia. Before the Greek Government committed themselves, the President of Council therefore wished the military experts to consider the situation in the light of the British offer. I made plain the logical conclusion of the attitude taken up by the President of Council. If we were to delay action for fear of provoking the Germans, such action must inevitably be too late.
‘4. From the ensuing discussion between the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, and Air Officer Commanding, on the one hand, and General Papagos, on the other hand, it emerged that, in view of the doubtful attitude of Yugoslavia, the only page 495 line that could be held and would give time for withdrawal of troops from Albania would be a line west of the Vardar, Olympus–Veria– Edessa–Kajmakcalan. If we could be sure of Yugoslav moves, it should be possible to hold a line further north from the mouth of the Nestos to Beles, covering Salonika. It would be impracticable, unless Yugoslavia came in, to hold a line covering Salonika in view of exposure of Greek left flank to German attack.
‘5. In full agreement with the Greek Government, the following detailed decisions were reached:
These proposals were approved by the War Cabinet on the 24th February, Mr Menzies being present.
The Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff then visited Turkey, returning to Greece on the 4th March just as the first flight of British troops was sailing from Egypt for Greece. The Germans had in the meanwhile entered Bulgaria (1st March, 1941). They found a changed and disturbing situation. General Papagos had not withdrawn any of his forces from Eastern Macedonia to the Aliakhmon line, as agreed upon at the previous meeting, and now stated that, in view of the German entry into Bulgaria, a withdrawal was no longer possible, since his troops would risk being caught on the move. He also said that it was quite impossible to make any withdrawals from the Albanian front, since his troops there were all exhausted and greatly outnumbered. Very serious discussions then took place as to what should be done. It was eventually agreed as follows:
The view taken in these discussions of the Military problem is shown by the following telegram which was sent home by the Foreign Secretary on the 5th March:
Anxious consideration was given to these telegrams when they were received in London, and the Chiefs of Staff prepared a commentary which is given in full below:
* The other two possibilities referred to were:
‘The following appear to us to be the principal changes in the situation since the decision was taken to go full speed ahead with the Greek enterprise:
The above commentary was telegraphed out to the Middle East by the Prime Minister, who indicated to the Foreign Secretary that, in the light of the new information from Athens, it was unlikely that the War Cabinet would sanction the Greek enterprise. However, on the following day, the Foreign Secretary telegraphed in reply as follows:
‘The Chief of the Imperial General Staff and I, in consultation with three Commanders-in-Chief, have this afternoon re-examined the question. We are unanimously agreed that, despite the heavy commitments and great risks which are undoubtedly involved, especially in view of our limited naval and air resources, the right decision was taken in Athens.’
Later the same day the Chief of the Imperial General Staff telegraphed:
‘General Wavell has explained to Generals Blamey and Freyberg additional risks involved in venture in Greece under existing situation. Both have expressed their willingness to undertake operations under new conditions.’
On the following day the matter was reviewed again by the Foreign Secretary, the Commanders-in-Chief and General Smuts, who was in Cairo. The Foreign Secretary telegraphed:
‘While we are all conscious of the gravity of the decision, we can find no reason to vary our proposed judgment…. The collapse of Greece
* A telegram asking whether Commanders-in-Chief agreed with the estimate time table given in paragraph 6, and for information about Greek positions and intentions and whether Allied forces would arrive on the Aliakhmon line in time to hold it.
In the light of these telegrams, the Prime Minister telegraphed on the 7th March to the Foreign Secretary that the Cabinet had considered the projects in the light of the above telegrams. He said that the Chiefs of Staff advised that, in view of the steadfastly expressed opinion of Commanders-in-Chief on the spot, of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Commanders of the forces to be employed, it would be right to go on. The Cabinet accordingly had decided to authorise the operation to proceed.
The above summary of the events leading up to the arrival of British and Imperial forces in Greece shows that there was full discussion of military plans between our Commanders and General Papagos, and that the dispositions taken up were based on an early advance, probably about the middle of March, by the Germans directed on Salonika, Yugoslavia at first remaining neutral. Under these conditions and in the weather likely to be experienced in March in that part of the world, it was felt that the Allied forces on the Aliakhmon line would have a good chance of withstanding the German attack. It was felt that, if the Germans decided to violate the neutrality of Yugoslavia, the latter would be able to hold the difficult passes in the South-east of the country and would be able to complete the destruction of the Italian Army in Albania; no early attack through the Monastir Gap was therefore thought to be likely.
The situation was somewhat changed by the coup d'Etat which took place in Yugoslavia on the 27th March and which caused a postponement in the German attack. It was still felt that the Yugoslavs would be able to hold a German advance from Bulgaria through the narrow valleys eminently suitable for anti-tank defence. Every effort was made to induce the Yugoslavs to take the initiative against the Italians before the Germans were ready to launch their attack and thus enable the Greeks, the Yugoslavs and ourselves to form a combined front against the Germans. These efforts failed; the Germans attacked Yugoslavia on the 7th April and rapidly broke through to the head of the Monastir Gap. The Yugoslavs proved incapable of any action against the Italians and, in consequence, there were not sufficient forces to close the gap in the Allied line.
It is worth remembering that, owing to the necessity for meeting the German advance in Cyrenaica, the forces which actually went to Greece consisted of only two Divisions and an Armoured Brigade. The whole of the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Brigade had to be kept back. The Aliakhmon position was extremely strong and, on the assumption that page 500 either the Germans did not go through Yugoslavia or that the Yugoslavs would succeed in holding their advance through the mountainous country, there is nothing to show that the forces originally planned to hold the Line would not have been able to do so. The number of German Divisions which could be maintained for an invasion of Greece from Bulgaria was by no means unlimited, and the successful defence put up by weak Greek forces in the Rupel area shows what can be done by determined men in strong natural positions.
Was sufficient consideration given to the adequacy of our Air Force in Greece?
Much anxious consideration was given to the question of air support for the operations in Greece. It was fully realised that, with the resources available, the R.A.F. would be hard put to it to hold their own against the Germans, who would not only be able to operate the full number of squadrons that could be accommodated in the aerodromes in Bulgaria and around Salonika after they had captured this place, but would be able to keep up a steady supply of replacements. The most that could be hoped was that we should be able to keep the effects of the enemy's air superiority to a minimum and to prevent them becoming such as to prejudice the holding of our positions.
We were not, of course, in a position to send forces at will. It was rather a case of considering how much must be retained for the protection of the Suez Canal and Fleet base and for operations in the Western Desert, where a German threat was developing. Having decided upon the minimum for these purposes, the remainder could go to Greece.
As it turned out, by the middle of April we had in Greece—
1 Heavy Bomber Squadron,
5 Medium Bomber Squadrons,
3 Fighter Squadrons, and
1 Army Co-operation Squadron.
Total, 10 Squadrons.
Our air forces in Egypt at that time consisted of only 12 Squadrons, including 2 Sunderland Flying Boat Squadrons. It will be seen, therefore, that to all intents and purposes our air forces in the Eastern Mediterranean were equally divided between Greece and Egypt.
We had been much hampered in preparing for air operations in Greece by lack of aerodromes. The Greeks were slow to realise the necessity to develop aerodromes and to provide facilities. We were not in a position to conscript labour and the work had to be done throughout the winter, when the weather was extremely adverse. The only aerodromes worthy of the name were Jannina and Paramythra on the Albanian front, and six in Macedonia, of which Trikala and Larissa were the best. The Germans were not handicapped in the same way after our withdrawal because, with the improvement in the weather, a number of other aerodromes became fit for use.page 501
Taking into account all these factors, it was clear that the air situation in Greece in the event of a German attack would be most unsatisfactory, but could not by any means be improved. Having in mind the moral necessity of helping the Greeks to the utmost, the great prize at stake if the Germans could be held in the Balkans and the favourable nature of the country for military defence, it was felt by all in authority that the air situation must be accepted as part of the general risks of the campaign.
Viewing the campaign in retrospect, it must be remembered that the German advance through the Monastir Gap and the turning of the Aliakhmon line led to a retreat in the course of which aerodromes had to be hurriedly abandoned, the operations of our air forces in consequence being gravely handicapped. Moreover, the failure of the Yugoslavs to take any effective action against the Italians made it impossible for our forces to concentrate entirely against the Germans. In spite of these adverse factors, it was not until the closing stages that air attack on the troops began to cause serious results, and the successful evacuation shows that it was never decisive.
Could not and should not aerodromes in Greece have been destroyed prior to evacuation?
At the time of the German attack, the Royal Air Force were using six main aerodromes in Greece, plus some advanced landing grounds and satellites. This number does not include aerodromes in the Salonika area, which we were never able to occupy, but it includes two which were used in support of the Albanian front. There seems to be considerable misapprehension as to what is involved in the ‘destruction’ of an aerodrome. A note on the subject has been included in the answer to Question 10 on Crete. The main points affecting the situation in Greece are that—
In actual fact, the aerodromes in Greece were utilised by our own Air Forces right up to the time that they had to be abandoned to the enemy. It is doubtful whether more than 24 hours elapsed between the ending of our aerial activity at an aerodrome and the arrival of enemy forces. An exception is possibly the aerodromes behind the Albanian front, but in that area we had no forces who could have done the work.