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To Greece

General Wilson decides to Withdraw to Thermopylae

General Wilson decides to Withdraw to Thermopylae

In W Force itself there was, as yet, no suggestion of evacuation; the all-important question was still that of withdrawal. After the discussions of 9–11 April when Wilson and Papagos had decided upon the line for ‘protracted defence’, their respective forces had begun to withdraw. But an undisturbed retreat by the slow-moving Greek armies was almost impossible. On 12 April Papagos was asking the British to send anti-tank guns to the Klisoura, Vlasti and Siatista passes, to use 1 Armoured Brigade in the Klidhi Pass and to provide motor transport for some of the Greek divisions. That night, however, when Wavell met Wilson at Larisa, there seems to have been no thought3 of any withdrawal other than that already agreed upon.

The reports which came in that night and throughout the next day, 13 April, changed the whole programme. The road about Grevena was crowded with Greek troops patiently marching south; the Cavalry Division was still holding the Pisodherion Pass, but 12 and 20 Divisions were said to have disintegrated during their movement across the valley to the Klisoura and Siatista passes.

3 Maj-Gen R. J. Collins, Lord Wavell, p. 374, states that ‘… it was becoming obvious that W Force would not be able to stand for long even on the Mount Olympus-Edessa line. Accordingly, before leaving, Wavell and General Wilson discussed a further withdrawal, the administrative re-adjustments for which were set on foot at once.’ As W Force had then left the Edhessa area and was preparing to hold the Mount Olympus-Servia sector, it is therefore possible that the generals discussed the withdrawal to the Thermopylae area which was decided upon by Wilson and Blamey the following day. General Wilson, however, is convinced that the discussion was ‘just a general review of the situation’ (Wilson to Playfair, 19 Sep 1954).

page 217 These reports were probably too critical but they were natural enough, for the simple transport of the Greeks and the detachments of weary soldiers, base troops for the most part, did not inspire confidence. Wilson decided that the Greek GHQ was rapidly losing control and that the Greek Army could no longer be relied on as a fighting force. In this opinion he was undoubtedly unjust to the units remaining in the forward areas.

The other facts which influenced Wilson were the hesitation of Papagos before deciding to withdraw and the relatively slow withdrawal of his armies after that decision had been made. In his opinion ‘the Greek C-in-C …. could never really bring himself to give up his successful campaign against the Italians.’1 This was likely enough as other Greeks were of the same opinion. When it became known that 3 Corps2 was to withdraw, the Metropolitan Bishop of Ioannina protested. ‘I then implored the army commanders not to carry out this fatal order and to act on their own initiative. This was declined as they considered it disloyal. General Platis (Chief of Staff, Army of Epirus) … finally stated that he would only withdraw as far as the Greek-Albanian frontier and if he had orders for a further withdrawal he would not carry them out.’3 Papagos may not have known of these discussions, but he knew that his armies would be disappointed and was very appreciative of the dangers which would develop when his slow-moving divisions began their withdrawal.

That night, 13–14 April, Wilson discussed the situation with Blamey and, without consulting Papagos, decided to withdraw to Thermopylae. The preliminary moves would be made as soon as possible.

At first thought too much seems to have been abandoned at too early a date: all Greece was to be left to the enemy, except for the Peloponnese and the narrow strip between Athens and Thermopylae; in future there would be no co-operation with the greater part of the Greek Army; the British would move back swiftly in their motor transport but the majority of the Greeks would have to march 100 or more miles. Moreover, W Force, now in position from the Platamon tunnel to Mount Olympus and Servia Pass, had not been seriously attacked. The Germans were certainly threatening the three passes in the mountains along the eastern flank of the Greek armies but the Central Macedonian Army and the Army of Epirus were still able, in spite of the Luftwaffe, to withdraw along the highway through Grevena.

1 Operations in Greece, report by Lt-Gen Wilson, para. 54d.

2 The Western Macedonian Army had been renamed 3 Corps.

3 Rich, quoting narrative of Metropolitan Bishop of Ioannina.

page 218

On the other hand, many of the British commanders had never been confident of the ability of the Greeks to face the highly mechanised units of the German Army. They argued that courage and primitive equipment were no match for a modern army supported by an aggressive air force. To complicate matters, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the crisis in North Africa now made it impossible to establish a Balkan front and difficult for W Force to remain in Greece. As time soon showed, Wilson and Blamey had made the right decision. If the withdrawal to Thermopylae had been delayed any longer, even for one day, the greater part of W Force would never have left Greece.

The orders1 for the move were immediately prepared, but the urgency of the situation was such that nearly twenty-four hours before they were issued on 15 April several units2 had already received their instructions and were moving to build up the successive rearguard positions through which the main body of W Force was eventually to withdraw.

1 See pp. 2268.

2 See p. 237 (Divisional Cavalry Regiment); p. 238 (6 Brigade).