CHAPTER 23 — Conclusion
The Problems of the Campaign
THE weakness1 of the Greek Army, the small Imperial force available, the inadequate port, road and railway facilities, the difficulties already facing the Navy and the Air Force, and the lack of information about Yugoslav plans for mobilisation and deployment had all been known to the service chiefs when they decided to despatch W Force to Greece. Such risks had to be faced, otherwise Britain would not have been able to influence, in any appreciable manner, Hitler's movements in south-east Europe.
But there were, during the campaign itself, many unexpected problems. The Greeks had been unwilling to have their roads, ports and railway facilities wrecked beyond repair. Of the demolitions effected, those in the Platamon tunnel were the most successful because they blocked for some weeks the movement of railway traffic between Athens and Salonika, but in other areas the demolitions halted the enemy for only short periods. And in the Peloponnese little or no effort was made to isolate the embarkation areas; in fact the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, when it crossed to Patrai, found the railway system in working order and was able, by assembling two trains, to rush troops south to Kalamata. This had actually been unnecessary. The advanced guard of 5 Panzer Division, using the undamaged highway south of Corinth, had already arrived and captured2 the thousands assembled there for embarkation.
1 On 7 February 1941 No. 27 Military Mission reported that as Yugoslavia and Turkey did not appear willing to resist, and as Great Britain had not the necessary resources, any Greek aggression would be more like a political gesture than a military operation. See pp. 151–2 for conditions in Greece.
Just as important was the failure to demolish1 some of the great bridges to the north, more particularly the one in the Asopos Gorge. Once the minor bridges were replaced and the Platamon tunnel was cleared, troops and supplies came south by rail to Piráus and from there were shipped to North Africa. Specially selected and carefully trained units had therefore to be sent over to Greece in 19422 to carry out under great difficulties the demolitions which should have been made in April 1941.
Despite the lessons of the campaign in France the Allied commanders had not always allowed for the ‘surprising ability of armoured fighting vehicles to pass over difficult ground.’3 The Royal Air Force had certainly been outnumbered by the Luftwaffe but its difficulties had been accentuated by the inability of the Greeks to provide more airfields. Limited in number, they had been so vulnerable that losses on the ground had been serious. Wireless communications had been another problem: staffs had not always been thoroughly trained; the wireless silence before operations had prevented the checking of faults; and the great mountain ranges had interfered with reception.
The actual fighting had, however, brought out much that was satisfactory, Wilson reporting that the battle discipline of ‘the New Zealand Division was particularly high’ and one German account stating that the British troops ‘fought an outstanding defensive battle in the craggy wooded country in which they had to fight.’4 The morale of the Division had certainly been high. The troops had genuinely regretted the successive withdrawals and the failure to fight a ‘real battle’. They had been subjected to incessant air attacks interrupted only by bad weather, yet by strict discipline, careful concealment and determined road movement they had successfully completed the withdrawals to the beaches.
The division of the Force into brigade groups and their evacuation from widely separated beaches has been criticised. Some would have preferred the creation of a defensive screen behind which the embarkation could, possibly, have been better controlled and more complete. By such methods the evacuation from Gallipoli had been a brilliant success, but because the troops in that peninsula were already concentrated and could move on foot straight from their trenches to the ships, the comparison1 may not mean a great deal.
So far as W Force was concerned, it is doubtful if the basic evacuation plan drawn up by the Navy, Army and Air Force authorities could have been greatly improved. The front was changing rapidly and the military situation was frequently obscure; at Headquarters, British Troops in Greece, in Athens it was ‘impossible to arrive at any reliable figures or to predict the sequence of events.’ The plan had therefore been ‘a rough approximation’,2 easily adjustable according to changing circumstances.
Lack of air cover was another reason for the choice of several evacuation points. To avoid the concentrated efforts of the Luftwaffe the Navy insisted that the Germans must not know ‘the exact beaches in use’,3 that outgoing ships must have time to clear the coast ‘without being spotted’.4
The other problem of the evacuation was the bottleneck likely to arise from a shortage of small craft for ferrying men from the beaches to the ships. Caiques, motor-boats and local craft were used, but the last named could not be relied upon unless commanded by British officers, and they were not always available. The situation was saved by the presence of the ‘Glen’ ships with their special landing craft, without which it would have been impossible, in the time available, to evacuate so large a force.
1 One feature is common to both evacuations: the pessimistic statements by the senior officers. Wilson expected 30 per cent of W Force to leave Greece; Hamilton had forecast that only 50 per cent of his men would be evacuated from Gallipoli.
1 Long, p. 151.
The Attitude of the Commonwealth
The despatch of the expedition to Greece was of considerable importance in the constitutional history of the Commonwealth. Great risks have sometimes to be taken for good causes, but neither Australia nor New Zealand wanted to see divisions which could have been used in the Pacific being thrown away in the Balkans. In August 1940 the New Zealand Government had hesitated for some time before arranging for the defence of Fiji and the despatch of the Third Echelon to the Middle East.2
In the Middle East itself there were command problems which had arisen because no attempt had been made to define a policy for the control and integration of Commonwealth forces during a major war. The Middle East Command did not appear to appreciate the fact that Generals Blamey and Freyberg were commanding the national armies of self-governing Dominions. As the former afterwards explained to the Australian Advisory War Council, the British commanders still ‘had difficulty in recognising the independent status of the Dominions and their responsibility for the control of their own forces.’1 With his experience of the problems of the AIF in 1914–18, he had insisted that his corps should remain intact. General Freyberg, because of his efforts to co-operate with the Middle East Command, which was drastically short of specialist troops, had for a time been left with a depleted force and, on one occasion, had been faced with a proposal to distribute his units about the Middle East Command.2
The two generals were in a difficult position. In one sense they were subordinate commanders who were not expected to air their opinions about the major strategy of the war, but they were also independent commanders responsible to governments which were quite determined to make their own decisions. So far as Greece was concerned, both generals seem to have been soldiers first and politicians second.
General Freyberg, when told on 17 February that his division was going to Greece, did not advise the New Zealand Government of his doubts and apprehensions. As he afterwards explained: ‘We attended and were given instructions to go.’ Nor did he mention that on 5 March, before leaving for Greece, he had told General Wavell that he, Freyberg, had no illusions about the difficulties ahead.
1 Long, p. 553. Had The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, 1914–1919 (ed. Robert Blake), London, 1952, then been available, the British commanders might have known that Australians looked upon themselves ‘not as part and parcel of the English Army but as Allies beside us’ (p. 266); that Currie, the Canadian commander, was suffering from a ‘swollen head’ when he wished his divisions to fight as a Canadian Corps (p. 303).
This was the only occasion in the six years of the war when there was any such misunderstanding between the Government and General Freyberg. As an independent commander he thereafter used the powers2 given to him in his charter of authority: ‘To communicate directly either with the New Zealand Government or with the Commander-in-Chief under whose command he is serving, in respect of all details leading up to and arising from policy decisions.’ And it is quite certain that the Government never failed to support its commander.
With General Blamey it was much the same. On 18 February, when he received his first warning of the move to Greece, he was worried but had not informed the Australian Government, having been told by General Wavell that Mr Menzies had already given his approval of the plan.3 Shortly afterwards he learnt from Wavell that the proposal had been accepted by a meeting of the War Cabinet in London at which Mr Menzies was present. He was still the subordinate commander when he wrote to Mr Menzies on 5 March saying: ‘I am not criticising the higher policy that has required it, but regret that it must take this dangerous form.’ It was the interview with Generals Dill and Wavell the following day that brought matters to a head. ‘Although both on this and on the previous visits my views were not asked for and I felt I was receiving instructions, I made inquiries as to what other formation would be available and when.’ The answers so disturbed him that he ‘ventured to remark’ that the operation was ‘most hazardous’ and then cabled to Australia for permission to submit his views. When the discussion4 which they aroused had died down he, too, was told what his policy should have been. Mr Menzies declared that as he had been given his powers as GOC of the AIF he ‘should not have hesitated to offer his views.’
Nevertheless, the campaign had made it clear to the Dominions that the problems of Commonwealth relations were not always understood by the British Government or by the Higher Command in the Middle East. When the campaigns in Greece and Crete were over Mr Fraser addressed a formidable list of questions2 to the British Government. Complete answers were not made, but the result satisfied Mr Fraser. Thereafter the two commanders, as well as their respective Governments, insisted3 that they had rights and were prepared to assert them.
There is, however, another aspect of the problem which must be recognised. In war unity of command is essential and Dominion commanders with special powers could possibly be as selfish and unimaginative as the Dutch deputies who almost wrecked the plans of Marlborough. As General Freyberg has since stated, the system was ‘productive of great friction, and could have been anticipated and avoided if the problem of the integration of Dominion contingents had been thoroughly examined at the staff colleges between the wars …. In any future war at least one third of the British forces will be from Commonwealth countries overseas. These forces must be used in the best way possible.’4
1 Fadden to PM NZ, 11 Mar 1941.
3 Freyberg to Fraser, 14 Oct 1942: ‘It takes a new Commander-in-Chief some time to understand the relationship of a Dominion force to its own Government. They are prone to look upon us as just another British division. They are inclined to tell us what we may send in the way of information. If I were to agree to the last proposal it would have had the effect of muzzling me completely. I meet him [Montgomery] tomorrow morning and shall tell him that I am in duty bound to send you a full and frank opinion of any operation contemplated where the Division is to be employed, that I have done so in the past, and that the New Zealand Government expect it of me in the future.’— Documents, Vol. II, p. 127.
The Importance of the Campaign
The decision to send the Imperial force to Greece has already been the subject of much discussion. Some have argued that the original promise to support Greece was given when France was still a power in the Eastern Mediterranean. After her defeat no aid could be expected from her and the obvious course was to continue the thrust across the Western Desert. General Wavell has page 478 said, however, that his forces could not have ‘cleared up the North African coast for good and all.’1 The state of his armoured units and mechanised transport did not permit an advance of 500 miles to Tripoli; the Royal Air Force was still outnumbered; and the Navy, already unable to use Benghazi2 because of the lack of anti-aircraft guns, could not have maintained an army and air force in Tripoli.
On the other hand, it is difficult to accept his statement that the service chiefs recognised the dangers of the Greek expedition but thought that there was a reasonable chance of defending Greece and of controlling the northern shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. The strength of the German Army, the lack of air support, the indefinite attitude of Yugoslavia, the decision of Turkey to remain neutral, and the problems of supply and reinforcement from Egypt to Macedonia: all suggest that from the strictly military point of view the wise decision would have been to stop the expedition, even though troops were already embarking and any changes would have caused considerable confusion. In fact, Wavell afterwards admitted that ‘the whole expedition was something in the nature of a gamble’3 with the dice loaded against it from the start.
2 Cunningham, pp. 310–11.
3 Despatch covering period 7 February to 15 July 1941.
6 Long, p. 193.
To Mr Churchill the less tactful, more outspoken experts were ‘officers occupying subordinate positions’ and not possessing ‘the knowledge to consider sufficiently what … the opposite policy’5 would have conceded to Hitler—an open road to Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Persia, a division of the spoils with Russia or an earlier and more powerful offensive against her. This may be only a list of possibilities, but the same title could be given to the advantages which might or might not have been gained from an advance beyond Benghazi. General O'Connor thought that with full naval and air support he could have occupied Tripoli, but from the comments of Admiral Cunningham it seems very doubtful6 whether the Army could have been supplied by sea through Benghazi.
Criticism has also been made of naval policy at this critical period. On 21 April, just before the evacuation of W Force from Greece, there had been that hazardous bombardment of Tripoli which Admiral Cunningham thought quite unjustifiable. No losses were suffered but Churchill now admits that the Admiralty, with his full agreement, forced Cunningham to run undue risks. But here, as with the Greek campaign, he emphasises the overall situation: ‘we at home alone could measure the proportion of world events, and final responsibility lay with us.’7
2 See Churchill's cable, p. 99.
6 The extra 200 miles from Alexandria, the widely breached breakwater, the partially blocked entrance, the closer proximity to enemy air bases in Tripoli and Sicily: all these factors forced Cunningham on 22 February to tell the Army that if Benghazi port could not be effectively defended the Navy could not use it.—Cunningham, p. 310. See also Wavell's statement, p. 478.
7 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 215.
This being the case, it is easy to understand why Wavell thought that the final reasons for the Greek campaign were political and psychological. It also explains the advice given by Dill to General Auchinleck on 26 June 1941. After discussing the different factors which had influenced Wavell in the preceding months, Dill said: ‘The fact is that the Commander in the field will always be subject to great and often undue pressure from his Government. Wellington suffered from it: Haig suffered from it: Wavell suffered from it. Nothing will stop it. In fact, pressure from those who alone see the picture as a whole and carry the main responsibility may be necessary …. the pressure often comes from very broad political considerations; these are sometimes so powerful as to make it necessary to take risks which from the purely military point of view, may seem inadvisable.’1
If studied from this angle the expedition to Greece may be explained. For the breadth and complexity of modern warfare can create demands which military leaders are not always qualified to assess and coordinate. Men, resources and national morale—all controlled by politicians—are more important than ever before. Consequently it cannot be expected that the politicians should fall silent once mobilisation begins and remain silent until the commanders have completed their tasks. Military and political action must go hand in hand.
In any case, democracies do not always act on purely military considerations, otherwise they would not be democracies. Hence the statement by Admiral Cunningham: ‘we had encouraged the Greeks in their resistance to the Italians, and it seemed all wrong to desert them now.’2
2 Cunningham, p. 320.
But this was not sufficient, for the great majority of the American people, though sympathetic towards Britain, were still anxious to keep out of the war. This explains why Mr Churchill had thought of American opinion before supporting Greece and why he was hopeful, after the evacuation, that the risks taken to support an ally had appealed to the Americans. Mr Roosevelt certainly described it as ‘a wholly justified action’, but the next step in the ‘wooing’,2 the signing of the Atlantic Charter, did not take place until August 1941. And it was not until 7 December that the Japanese, by bombing Pearl Harbour, ensured the entry of the United States into the war. America's policy of isolation and the overall situation in 1941 are therefore some justification for Churchill's determined efforts to win the respect and sympathy of the United States.3
The desperate isolation of Britain will also explain Churchill's desire to create a Balkan front ‘with effects upon Russia which could not be measured by us.’ Greece and Turkey were openly friendly. Rumania had lined up with Germany but the other states were hesitant, as was obvious from the moves and counter-moves in the months immediately before the despatch of the expedition. Bulgaria had signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Turkey on 17 February and did not adhere to the Tripartite Pact until 1 March. Hungary had been an adherent in November 1940 but she had also, the following month, signed a pact of friendship with Yugoslavia. That country, bereft of her alliance with France and suspicious of Italian designs, had, on 25 June, re-established diplo matic relations with Russia, the ancient guarantor of Serbia. In other ways, however, Russia had remained the incalculable factor. Apparently indifferent to the fate of the western powers, she had permitted Hitler to dominate Rumania and Bulgaria; instead of declaring war upon Germany, it seemed more likely that she would attempt to grab her share of the British Empire. Yet there were many who simply could not believe that she had so easily forgotten her pan-Slav sympathies and her age-old ambitions in south-east Europe.
1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 111.
2 Bryant, The Turn of the Tide, p. 282. On 8 December, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Churchill was no longer cautious. ‘Oh, that is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently.’
The reaction of Russia was not immediate but it did show that she was still interested in the Balkans. On the night of 5–6 April, only a few hours before Yugoslavia was invaded, Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Yugoslavia and, to the annoyance of Hitler, it contained a clause for friendly relations in the event of war. Actually it was little more than a gesture; Russia or, more particularly, Stalin, preferred a policy of appeasement.
In any case, it was not what Stalin thought of Germany but what Hitler thought of Russia that mattered, and on this subject British opinion was undecided but always hopeful. Sir Stafford Cripps2 had for months predicted that Hitler would attack Russia in the spring of 1941. The Joint Intelligence Committee,3 on the other hand, were inclined to think that his main task for 1941 would be the invasion of Britain.4 As for Mr Churchill, he waited hopefully until the end of March when the reported movements of panzer divisions, before and after the coup d'état in Yugoslavia, convinced him that Russia would eventually be invaded. In a note to Mr Eden, who was still in Athens, on 30 March he suggested that Yugoslavia or Turkey was about to be invaded and then added this deduction: ‘Bear will be kept waiting a bit. Furthermore, these orders and counter-orders in their relation to the Belgrade coup seem to reveal magnitude of design both towards south-east and east. This is the clearest indication we have had so far. Let me know in guarded terms whether you and Dill agree with my impressions.’5
The wording of this message suggests that Russo-German enmity was definitely one of the ‘broad political considerations’ for which risks had to be taken.
1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 148. Restricted independence was maintained until the German occupation in March 1944.
3 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 318.
4 In April 1941, when Churchill proposed to increase the number of tanks he was about to send throught the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Dill disagreed ‘in view of the shortage for Home Defence.’—Ibid., p. 219.
5 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 319–20.
The evacuation of the Force from Greece and this unexpected threat in the Western Desert so disturbed the country that the British Government decided to ask for a vote of confidence. In the debate on 6 and 7 May its overall conduct of the war was criticised from many angles, but the actual decision to send the expedition to Greece was accepted as natural and honourable, so much so that the House divided 447 for and only 3 against. Once again political rather than military factors had decided the issue. For Mr Churchill in his defence said: ‘Looking back on the sad course of events, I can only feel, as the Prime Minister of New Zealand has so nobly declared, that if we had again to tread the stony path, even with the knowledge we possess today, I for one would do the same thing again, and this is the view of all my colleagues in the War Cabinet and on the Defence Committee.’1
His reward came long afterwards when it was learnt that the aggressive policy of the Government had made it impossible for Hitler to enjoy all the advantages of his dominant position in Europe. On the principle that it was better to do something rather than do nothing, they had harassed the Germans wherever possible. And as a result, ‘striking powers for Barbarossa’2 had been sacrificed because the Germans feared British diversions on the French coast and in Norway and were forced to support the Italians in North Africa.
Their refusal to permit the peaceful occupation of the Balkans had similar results. On 17 March Hitler, as a result of the movement of W Force to Greece, decided that Marita (the Greek campaign) must give him air supremacy over the Eastern Mediterranean. This meant the occupation not only of northern Greece but also of Attica and probably the entire Peloponnese. Larger forces had therefore to be employed and that, in turn, had meant the employment3 of forces previously allocated to Barbarossa (the Russian campaign).
1 House of Commons Debates, 6 and 7 May 1941.
2 Halder's Diary.
It has been suggested that Hitler might have attacked before that date had it not been for the unusually heavy rain in May which prevented any armoured offensive until the second week in June. Consequently there is no exact estimate of the time which he lost because of his Balkan campaign. The most reliable German authorities thought that ‘the friction in the Balkans and the exceptional weather in 1941 caused the loss of four precious weeks.’3 In the opinion of Mr Churchill, ‘a delay of five weeks was imposed upon the supreme operation as the result of our resistance in the Balkans, and especially of the Yugoslav revolution. No one can measure exactly what consequences this had before winter set in upon the fortunes of the German-Russian campaign. It is reasonable to believe that Moscow was saved thereby.’4
Another result of Hitler's enforced intervention in the Balkans was the gradual development of strong resistance movements in both Greece and Yugoslavia. In the latter particularly, the partisans led by Marshal Tito fought a guerrilla war similar to that by which Spanish patriots had crippled Napoleon's army in the Peninsula. It became another running sore, so ugly that by 1945, when Hitler's armies were fighting desperately to hold several crumbling fronts, he still had to have a dozen German divisions scattered throughout Yugoslavia.
1 Goering afterwards talked of Russian influence and extensive financial backing ‘on the part of England’. See N.D., Vol. IX, p. 33.
4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 316.
This fact afterwards led General Wilson to point out the similarity of the Corunna campaign of 1808 to the Greek campaign of 1941: ‘the effect of the appearance of a small British force on the strategy of a superior force engaged in aggression; the fury of a Dictator, causing him to commit larger forces than the situation demanded; the British retreat over similar terrain and covering the same distance; in both cases the miscalculation by H.M. Government as to the degree of resistance to be expected from the Allies which the expedition was intended to assist; finally its far-reaching after effects on the war in Europe.’1 To complete the comparison he could have pointed out that sea power had made possible the successful evacuation of each expeditionary force.
It could be argued that these results were unpredictable; that those who use them to justify the expedition are simply being wise after the event. But it would be unjust to Churchill, Eden, Smuts and the senior commanders in the Middle East to make such statements without studying the situation as it was early in 1941. Because the friendship of possible allies had to be cultivated, decisions were made for ethical and political as well as for military reasons. Britain could not stand aside and permit Germany to overrun the Balkans and to threaten the future of Turkey and the Middle East. Nor could she assume that there was no chance of a Balkan front and no fundamental antagonism between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Risks had to be taken to get possible results in the future. The costly evacuation and the failure of the Balkan powers to take ‘simultaneous action’ were certainly disappointing. But the expedition does seem to have impressed Mr Roosevelt; it helped to create that unstable Balkan front to which Hitler was forever sending men and equipment; it was a threat to German security at a most awkward time and place; and it had considerable influence upon the course of the war in Russia. As a long-term investment it was therefore well worth the risks which had been taken.