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

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

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

8 March 1941

The following is the text of a telegram to Cairo from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for Mr. Eden:

With reference to my immediately preceding telegram, the following is the commentary of the Chiefs of Staff:

The principal changes in the situation since the decision was taken to go full speed ahead with the Greek enterprise appear to us to be as follows:

At their first interview with the King of Greece and General Papagos our envoys reported that they were ‘greatly impressed by the attitude and spirit’ of Papagos, but at their recent interview they found him ‘unaccommodating and defeatist’, though towards the end he appears to have cheered up. This change of attitude on the part of General Papagos was perhaps only to be expected in view of the German arrival on the Greek-Bulgarian frontier and of the failure of any support from Yugoslavia or Turkey. Nevertheless, it is bound to react unfavourably on the fighting spirit of his army.

The Greeks undertook on 21 February to begin the withdrawal of their advanced troops to the line which we should require to hold if the Yugoslavs were unwilling to come in, and to start work immediately on the improvement of communications in Greece to facilitate the occupation of this line. Today (twelve days later) we learn that no withdrawal has commenced and we gather that no work has been done. This is serious in view of the paramount importance of the time factor.

At first we were to have had thirty-five Greek battalions to help us hold the line. We are now told that we are to have three Greek divisions and seven battalions from Western Thrace, these amounting only to twenty-three battalions at the most. With the page 254 exception of the 12th Division, these troops are all newly formed and have not yet fought. One of the divisions can have hardly any guns, while the remainder can only have captured Italian material. But in addition to the thirty-five battalions for which we had hoped, we had contemplated that the Greeks would be able to withdraw some divisions from their Albanian front. According to General Papagos this cannot now be done as they are ‘exhausted and outnumbered’.

It always has been contemplated that mandibles would be captured before, or at least simultaneously with, the move to Greece. It now appears that mandibles cannot be undertaken until the move to Greece has been completed. This means that instead of being able to concentrate all available air forces against the German advance, considerable air operations will have to be conducted against mandibles in order to protect our lines of communication to Greece.

The mining of the Suez Canal has become a more acute handicap. It was to have been open on 3 March but on that date the Germans put in ten more mines. The canal is now completely closed and on past form may not be clear until 11 March. Only half of the MT1 ships required for the move to Greece are north of the canal and all personnel ships are south of it. Even if the personnel for Greece are carried in men-of-war, the whole force cannot be dealt with by this means.

We have estimated that one armoured and three motorised divisions could reach the Bulgarian-Greek frontier on 5 March and, in addition, an infantry division by 11 March. It is further estimated that, assuming weak delaying action by the Greeks in the Rupel area, the Germans could have two divisions on the Aliakmon line by about 15 March and could concentrate the whole five divisions there by 22 March.

We are now told that General Papagos intends to fight with three divisions in the Rupel area. Since much will depend on the strength of the position, the equipment and morale of the Greek troops, and on whether an effective scheme of demolitions has been prepared and can be executed, we have no means of knowing how much delay will be imposed on a German advance until we receive an answer to our telegram No. 642. If the delay imposed is short we should at the best have one armoured brigade and one New Zealand brigade to oppose the first two German divisions on the Aliakmon line.

page 255

Our conclusion is that the hazards of the enterprise have considerably increased. In spite of our misgivings and our recognition of a worsening of the general situation, we are not as yet in a position to question the military advice of those on the spot, who describe the enterprise as not by any means hopeless.

1 Mechanical transport.

2 Not published. This was a telegram asking whether the Commanders-in-Chief agreed with the estimated timetable of German movements given in the Chiefs of Staff's commentary, and requesting information about Greek positions and intentions and whether the Allied forces would arrive on the Aliakmon line in time to hold it.