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

346 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

page 247

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

7 March 1941

The following is the text of a telegram from Athens, dated 4 March, from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom:

We found a changed and disturbing situation on our arrival here and an atmosphere quite different from that of our last visit. On the last occasion General Papagos had insisted strongly that the withdrawal (of all?) troops in Macedonia to the Aliakmon1 line was the only sound [military?] solution.2 Our expectations were that this withdrawal would have already begun. Instead we found that no move had been made, General Pagagos alleging that it had been agreed that the decision taken at our last meeting was dependent on the receipt of an answer from Yugoslavia as to their attitude. He now stated that in view of the German entry into Bulgaria the withdrawal was no longer possible since his troops would risk being caught on the move. Moreover, both he and the King3 stressed the fact that a withdrawal from Macedonia now must have serious internal political consequences by causing panic among the civil population. Papagos also stated that since his troops on the Albanian front were all exhausted and greatly outnumbered it was quite impossible to make any withdrawals there. Papagos therefore proposed to hold the line of fortifications near the Macedonia frontier with four divisions in Macedonia, although he thought that they could not hold out for long, and also simply remain where he was on the Albanian front. As he himself practically admitted, this seemed an admission of despair.

It was his proposal that the British troops should be moved up piecemeal to the Macedonia frontier line as they arrived, although it was more likely that they could [not?] arrive in time.4 We naturally refused to accept this proposal, which was so entirely

1 Four different versions of the spelling of this place-name are to be found in the originals of these telegrams: Aliakhmon, Alyakmon, Alaikmon, Aliakmon. The last is used throughout this series.

2 The text reads ‘(naval-military?) solution.’

3 George II, KG, GCMG, King of the Hellenes. Succeeded to the throne 1922; abdicated 1924; recalled 1935; evacuated from Greece to Crete, 23 Apr 1941; left Crete on 22 May and was escorted safely to Egypt; spent remainder of the war years in Egypt and the United Kingdom; recalled to the throne of Greece after national plebiscite, 1 Sep 1946; died 1 Apr 1947.

4 The text here is uncertain.

page 248 different from the conditions under which we had agreed to send our troops, and we telegraphed the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to come to Athens for discussion. Since his arrival yesterday, 3 March, discussions have been practically continuous during the afternoon and evening of 3 March and today, 4 March. As the attitude of Papagos was unaccommodating and defeatist we had to enlist the aid of the King, who was, throughout the very trying discussions which followed, calm, determined, and helpful.

We were finally offered three Greek divisions (12th from Macedonia, 20th from Florina, and a newly formed motorised division), together with battalions from Western Thrace, provided the Turks would agree to release them and they arrived in time, to hold the position on the Aliakmon line until reinforced by British troops.

We were thus faced with these alternatives:


To accept the plan of Papagos, to which he constantly returned, of attempting to dribble our forces piecemeal up to the Macedonia frontier.


To accept the three Greek divisions offered for the Aliakmon line, equivalent of about sixteen to twenty-three battalions instead of the thirty-five we had been led to expect on our previous visit, and to build up our concentration behind this. Against this we had to set the delay likely to be imposed by the defence of Rupel and other passes by the three divisions remaining in Macedonia.


To withdraw our offer of military support altogether.

We were agreed that the first course could only lead to military wavering while the last course seemed equally disastrous because it would lead inevitably to the rapid elimination of Greece from the war, and because of the effect which the abandonment of Greece would have throughout the Near and Middle East as well as in the Empire and the United States. Also, in withdrawing our Air Force and other troops already in Greece, we should have been faced with considerable difficulties.

Therefore, after some misgivings, we agreed to the second solution, but with the proviso that the command and organisation of the whole Aliakmon line be entrusted to General Wilson as soon as he was in a position to take over. This was agreed to.

While recognising the dangers and difficulties of this solution, the military advisers did not consider it by any means a hopeless proposition to check and hold the German advance on this line, which is naturally strong and with few approaches. A fighting page 249 withdrawal from this line through country eminently suitable for rearguard action should always be possible at the worst.

The most depressing feature of the situation is the attitude of Papagos, who, deprived of the guidance of Metaxas,1 seems to have lost confidence. At the final interview, however, after we had taken the decision, he seemed recovered.

We are all sure that we have arrived at the correct decision in a very difficult situation. These two days have been indescribably anxious, but there is a marked improvement in the general atmosphere on the Greek side now that the decision has been taken. The hard fact remains that our forces, including the Dominion contingents, will be engaged in an operation more hazardous than it seemed a week ago. You will no doubt decide on any communications to be made to the Dominion Governments.

See also my immediately following telegram of elucidation.

We will telegraph separately the agreed French text of the decisions made at the final meeting.

Later: With regard to the Greek troops mentioned in paragraph 4 above, we have just heard that the Turkish Government agree to their release.

1 General Ioannis (John) Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and acting Minister of War, Marine, and Air, 1936 – death, 29 Jan 1941.