IN April 1939, shortly after the Italian forces had landed in Albania, Mr Churchill warned the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, that the ‘whole of the Balkan Peninsula’1 was at stake. Already convinced that the Axis powers meant war, the British Government guaranteed to support Greece and Rumania should their independence be threatened. And in May Turkey was assured2 that she would be supported should any act of aggression lead to war in the Mediterranean.
Once war was declared Churchill was able to enlarge upon the strategic importance of the Balkans. In his opinion the course of events and the ‘quenchless antagonism’ between Germany and Russia would create not only an eastern front but also a south-eastern one. For the ambitions of Hitler and the traditional interest3 of Russia in the Balkans were almost certain to be conflicting. Britain had therefore been ‘fostering this front’, strengthening it and ‘endeavouring to throw it into simultaneous action should any part of it be attacked….’4
After the collapse of France in June 1940 this was no longer possible. Encouraged5 by Hitler, Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary stripped Rumania of her frontier provinces. In consequence she was soon to be, with Bulgaria and Hungary, one of the subsidiary allies of Germany.
1 Churchill, Vol. I, p. 274.
3 See Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939–41, documents from the archives of the German Foreign Office, and Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 27–9, for evidence of the distrust with which Russia was to observe German activity in the Balkans.
4 From a paper prepared for the War Cabinet in September 1939: Churchill, Vol. I, p. 352. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939, Third Series, Volume V, edited E. L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, show that the Russian proposals for a mutual assistance pact in April 1939 were both concrete and sweeping.
But no close understanding developed between Greece and Britain. The former had only two aims in view: ‘(1) not to become involved in the disputes between the groups of Great Powers, and, (2) to forestall any attempt to use her territory as a theatre of war.’2 The British Chiefs of Staff took just as realistic a view of the situation. Troops might possibly be sent to strengthen the garrison in Crete but no support could be given to the Greeks on the mainland. By October conditions had improved, for the invasion of Britain had not been attempted and Churchill had risked the despatch of reinforcements to the Middle East. But the Chiefs of Staff were still convinced that ‘The front line defence of Egypt did not lie in Greece.’