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

14 March 1941

14 March 1941

The following is the text of a report by the Chiefs of Staff on the military case for assistance to Greece:

No appreciation has been received as yet of the tactical factors which led our envoys and Commanders-in-Chief to favour the Greek enterprise. These will probably be elucidated during the course of the next few days on the return of our envoys. Meanwhile, we give below some comments on the situation as it now is.

In our commentary on the military aspect of the enterprise we referred to Mr. Eden's description of General Papagos as having been ‘unaccommodating and defeatist’, and we expressed the view that this was bound to react unfavourably on the fighting spirit of his army1. However, it is reassuring to learn that on 6 March General Wilson ‘had a most satisfactory talk with General Papagos’ and ‘was greatly encouraged by the marked improvement’ in his attitude. He found him most helpful and anxious to co-operate in every way.

1 See No. 350.

page 260 That this improvement has been maintained is clear from another message dated 10 March1 in which General Wilson is reported to have found General Papagos most ‘cheerful and helpful’.

The outlook from a military point of view is essentially one of time, space, and numbers. When we considered the position on 5 March we were apprehensive lest the Germans should be able to break the Aliakmon line before it could be manned effectively. Briefly, our reasons for this misgiving were as follows:


We were informed that the Greeks had failed either to redeem their undertaking to move troops on to the line or to start work on improving communications to it.


On the information available to us we calculated that at the best we could have one armoured brigade and one New Zealand brigade on the line by 15 March, while the Germans could concentrate two divisions there by 15 March and five divisions by 22 March.

With regards to (a), we have now learned that General Wilson has himself visited the Aliakmon line and found that it ‘is being manned up to time’. Confirmation of this is contained in a telegram of the same date (10 March)2 from the British Military Mission at Athens3 which states that concentration is proceeding satisfactorily.

As regards (b), our own movements are proceeding according to plan and a message on 10 March reports that the full programme has been made possible by the passing of ships through the Suez Canal (see my telegram of 12 March, No. 355). On the other hand, it is clear that the Germans are unable to achieve the timetable which we visualised. They have not yet crossed the Greek frontier and it is therefore impossible for them to concentrate any forces at all on the Aliakmon line by 15 March.

The view has been expressed by General Wavell that if his forces can be transported to Greece and concentrated on our chosen battle line there is a good chance of holding the enemy's advance. In view of the facts set out in the preceding paragraph, the prospects seem brighter than they did a week ago.

Another satisfactory change in the situation is that the Suez Canal was opened for traffic on 9 March and that, so far as we know, the shipping required for the movement is now on the right side of the canal.

We made no reference in our original commentary to the difficulties which confronted the German forces. It has been pointed out by Mr. Eden that ‘the enemy have long and bad communications through

1 Not available.

2 Not available.

3 Headed by Major-General T. G. G. Heywood, CB, OBE; killed in aircraft accident, India, 31 Aug 1943.

page 261 countries of doubtful friendship’ and that ‘weather conditions are likely to hamper them.’ A recent visitor to Greece has also told us that the Aliakmon position is one of tremendous natural strength.

The Greek ammunition situation appears to be less serious than we were led to believe a short time ago. The head of the British Military Mission to Athens has expressed the opinion that ‘provided [large?] part of raw material and ammunition already advised as sent from America and the United Kingdom could arrive by the middle of April the situation does not call for alarm.’

So far as the naval situation is concerned, Admiral Cunningham1 reported on 4 March that the movement of a large force to Greece involved considerable risk. Should the Germans start an air offensive from Bulgaria against convoys and ports of disembarkation, losses were to be expected, and in addition surface action by the Italian fleet against convoys could not be excluded. He summed up by stating that his resources were taxed to the limit but that nevertheless he had considerable hope that all his difficulties could be overcome.

As regards air forces, the present position is that Greek aerodromes now available on the mainland south of the Aliakmon line will accommodate thirteen squadrons in all. Within the next two or three months additional aerodromes for a further seven squadrons will become available.

The British air forces now in Greece comprise three Blenheim bomber squadrons, one Blenheim bomber-fighter squadron, and three fighter squadrons. In addition, the Greeks have about twenty-one bomber aircraft, forty-six fighter aircraft, and forty-eight old reconnaissance aircraft. Their serviceability, however, seldom exceeds 50 per cent. The programme of reinforcements is as follows: one Blenheim bomber squadron now; two Blenheim bomber squadrons, one single co-operation squadron (Hurricanes and Lysander), all during March; three heavy bomber squadrons. Depending on the arrival of necessary aircraft, a further two fighter squadrons may become available later.

It should be possible ultimately to accommodate up to twenty squadrons south of the Aliakmon line. The provision of these units and their maintenance will be dependent on the receipt of aircraft direct from the United Kingdom and via Takoradi2, on the situation in other Middle Eastern theatres, and on the results of experience of our ability to maintain air forces in Greece in the face of German attack.

For the last four months the reinforcement of the Middle East with aircraft has been given the highest priority. Every possible

1 Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean.

2 On the Gold Coast, approximately 400 miles west of Lagos. Aircraft were flown by this route to Khartoum and thence to Cairo and the North African theatre.

page 262 aircraft has been sent by every possible route, crated or flown, to the Middle East; and this process will continue by every means that can be devised.

In the annex to this report, details of the air forces which the Germans have concentrated in the Balkans and further information about our own air forces in the Middle East are shown.

Finally, it is clear that the commanders on the spot take a more favourable view of our chances than they did a week ago. Mr. Eden, in a telegram dated 7 March, writes that, ‘We are all convinced, not only that there is a reasonable fighting chance, but that we have here an opportunity, if fortune favours us, of perhaps seriously upsetting the German plans.’