Hitler Decides to Attack Greece
Hitler Decides to Attack Greece
By this time Hitler had made several important decisions. As a result of the Italian invasion of Greece no panzer divisions would, as yet, be sent to Libya. Support would be given to the Italians in Albania1 and a German force would occupy northern Greece. Air cover would be provided for the Rumanian oilfields, Bulgaria would be assisted against possible attack by Turkey, and in the Western Mediterranean, with Franco's assistance, Gibraltar would be occupied.
Unfortunately for Hitler the problem soon became more complicated. In November, the British, by bombing the Italian warships in Taranto harbour, gained greater prestige in the Balkans and a much better strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. The further reverses of the Italians in Albania were even more important, for the minor powers were then encouraged to await the outcome of events or to raise the price for their support. Hungary and Rumania were still sympathetic, but neither Spain nor Vichy France was certain that the last word had been spoken. In the opinion of Hitler's naval staff, the campaign was clearly a regrettable blunder which had created the greatest strategic, political and psychological difficulties. And Hitler himself now informed Mussolini that he wished ‘Above all’ to have delayed the invasion of Greece ‘until a more favourable time, at any rate until after the American Presidential Election.’2
1 The Italians did not accept this proposal.
With Greece, on the other hand, there was no suggestion of negotiations. The Mediterranean situation had to be liquidated ‘that winter’, so Hitler, although he complained about the Italian disasters in Albania, was prepared to give Mussolini every assistance, for the British, by using bases in Greece, were quite likely to attack1 the oil refineries in Rumania. Decisive counter measures had therefore to be taken. With the assistance of Spain the western gateway to the Mediterranean must be closed; the Luftwaffe had to block the Suez Canal and destroy the British fleet. After these opening moves there would be a spring campaign in Greece for which it was essential to have the positive collaboration of Yugoslavia. He told Mussolini that the German divisions would have to be out of Greece by 1 May, but he did not tell him that they were wanted for the campaign in Russia.
Hitler then hastened to complete his system of alliances. Hungary, Rumania and Slovakia adhered to the Tripartite Pact but Bulgaria would do no more than promise to permit the passage of German troops to the boundaries of Greece. Shortly afterwards, the plans for the capture of Gibraltar were abruptly postponed2 by General Franco. The British Navy was still intact and the economic condition of Spain was such that she could not enter the war until Britain was on the point of collapse. This was a disappointing but not a major setback. Determined to be secure in at least the Eastern Mediterranean, Hitler confirmed on 13 December his orders for Operation MARITA. Twelfth Army supported by 8 Air Corps was to take north Greece and, if necessary, all Greece in order to prevent the British opening up a Balkan front from which they could bomb both Italy and the Rumanian oilfields.
1 In a proclamation issued on 6 April, the day Greece was invaded, Hitler gave an additional reason: ‘From the beginning of the struggle it has been England's steadfast endeavour to make the Balkans a theatre of war …. We shall never … tolerate a power establishing itself on Greek territory with the object at a given time of being able to advance thence from the south-east into German living space.’—Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. I, p. 787.
2 The British victories in North Africa during December 1940–February 1941, the bombardment of Genoa by the Navy and the passage of the aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious through the Mediterranean decided the matter. On 26 February Franco informed Hitler that the Protocol ‘agreed upon in October must now be considered outmoded.’