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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

335 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs2 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

page 239

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs2 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

25 February 1941

At a meeting on 24 February Cabinet considered the whole Middle Eastern position. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs3 and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff held exhaustive discussions at Cairo with Wavell, Cunningham, and Longmore,4 and the following is a summary of the conclusions which they reached:

We should do everything in our power to bring the fullest measure of help to the Greeks at the earliest possible moment. If the help that we are in a general position to offer were accepted, they believed that there was a fair chance of halting a German advance and preventing Greece from being overrun.

The maximum land force which could be sent to Greece would comprise three divisions and the Polish Brigade,5 and most of one armoured brigade, with certain specialised troops.

As regards the air, the existing seven British squadrons in Greece could be increased to a maximum of fourteen squadrons by the addition of three bomber, one Army co-operation, one long-range bomber, and probably two fighter squadrons.

page 240

The command of the British forces to be entrusted to General Maitland Wilson.

Should they agree in the first instance, the Greeks to be urged to accept the above forces as soon as they can be despatched, in view of the time factor.

From Cairo, Eden and Dill, with Wavell, went to Athens, where, after discussion with the Greek representatives, they reported that the Greek representatives had accepted the offer and were in full agreement on the following points:

The movement of British troops should begin forthwith, the utmost secrecy being preserved

General Wilson should be under the immediate authority of the Greek Commander-in-Chief,1 with the right to refer in case of necessity to the Commander-in-Chief.

Greece immediately should begin preparations to withdraw her advanced troops from the Bulgarian frontier to the line in Macedonia, which, in the event of a Yugoslav refusal to join us against Germany, would have to be held initially, and to improve communications to facilitate the occupation of that line.

A further effort to persuade the Yugoslav Government to join us should be made by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

An effort should be made to persuade the Turkish Government to reaffirm its assurance that it would come into the war if Greece were invaded or, better still, if Bulgaria was entered openly by German formations.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs also reported that he and Dill and Wavell were impressed by the frank and fair dealing of the Greek authorities on all the subjects discussed, and by their clear determination to resist to the utmost of their strength.

After considering the above recommendations, and taking into account the fact that our advisers at present in the Middle East (including as they do the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Wavell) represent the most prudent and experienced military opinion at our disposal, Cabinet came to the conclusion that the recommendations should be accepted and immediately acted upon.

We have taken full cognizance of the risks involved in the despatch to Greece and the maintenance there of so large a proportion of the troops available in the Middle East. However, we are satisfied that the above force should be able to reach the positions in Greece in time to meet the German advance, and that the plan offers a page 241 reasonable prospect of achieving its objects. It was felt that we must take this only remaining chance of forming a Balkan front and persuading Turkey, and possibly Yugoslavia, to enter the war on our side. Looking at the situation from the strategic point of view, the formation of a Balkan front would have the advantages of making Germany fight at the end of long lines of communication and expending her resources uneconomically, of interfering with Germany's trade with the Balkans, and particularly the oil traffic from Roumania, and of enabling us to establish a platform for the bombing of Italy and the Roumanian oil fields. Further, it would keep the war going in Albania and prevent Italy from devoting her energies to re-establishing her position in North Africa. Moreover, should we fail to support Greece, Germany would obtain naval and air bases from which to threaten our position in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Crete and the Suez Canal, and interfere with our communications to Turkey; she would also become free to concentrate on Turkey and to run oil traffic from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. Finally, from the political point of view, our failure to help this small nation putting up a gallant fight against one aggressor, and willing to defy another, would have a grave effect on public opinion throughout the world, particularly in the United States of America.

2 Viscount Cranborne.

3 Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden had become Foreign Secretary in Dec 1940.

4 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Murray Longmore, GCB, DSO; AOC-in-C, Royal Air Force, Middle East, 1940–41; Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force, 1941; retired 1942.

5 This was the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade, under the command of Major-General S. Kopanski. The brigade did not, in the event, go to Greece, but was later to play a distinguished role as part of the garrison of Tobruk.

1 General Alexander Papagos, GBE, Commander-in-Chief, Greek Forces, 1940–41, and of the Greek and Allied Forces, 1941; resigned 21 Apr 1941.