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To Greece

The Problems of the Campaign

The Problems of the Campaign

THE weakness1 of the Greek Army, the small Imperial force available, the inadequate port, road and railway facilities, the difficulties already facing the Navy and the Air Force, and the lack of information about Yugoslav plans for mobilisation and deployment had all been known to the service chiefs when they decided to despatch W Force to Greece. Such risks had to be faced, otherwise Britain would not have been able to influence, in any appreciable manner, Hitler's movements in south-east Europe.

But there were, during the campaign itself, many unexpected problems. The Greeks had been unwilling to have their roads, ports and railway facilities wrecked beyond repair. Of the demolitions effected, those in the Platamon tunnel were the most successful because they blocked for some weeks the movement of railway traffic between Athens and Salonika, but in other areas the demolitions halted the enemy for only short periods. And in the Peloponnese little or no effort was made to isolate the embarkation areas; in fact the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, when it crossed to Patrai, found the railway system in working order and was able, by assembling two trains, to rush troops south to Kalamata. This had actually been unnecessary. The advanced guard of 5 Panzer Division, using the undamaged highway south of Corinth, had already arrived and captured2 the thousands assembled there for embarkation.

Immediately after the campaign the results of this policy were still more evident. In the preparations for the attack upon Crete the Germans used the petrol installations at Piráeus, the docking facilities at all ports, Radio Station Athens—the only Balkan station which could be used as a beacon for aircraft operations over Crete— long stretches of the railway system, all the airfields and, most important of all, the Corinth Canal. The wreckage from the bridge had certainly delayed the movement from the Adriatic of the vessels carrying petrol for the Luftwaffe, but divers with special equipment

1 On 7 February 1941 No. 27 Military Mission reported that as Yugoslavia and Turkey did not appear willing to resist, and as Great Britain had not the necessary resources, any Greek aggression would be more like a political gesture than a military operation. See pp. 1512 for conditions in Greece.

2 See p. 453.

page 472 had been flown down from Kiel and the canal had been successfully cleared. All the same, had the delay lasted any longer the attack upon Crete would have been postponed. Consequently it is to be regretted that the British, with their respect for the wishes of the Greeks, did not block the canal as thoroughly as did the Germans later when they, in their turn, were forced to withdraw.

Just as important was the failure to demolish1 some of the great bridges to the north, more particularly the one in the Asopos Gorge. Once the minor bridges were replaced and the Platamon tunnel was cleared, troops and supplies came south by rail to Piráus and from there were shipped to North Africa. Specially selected and carefully trained units had therefore to be sent over to Greece in 19422 to carry out under great difficulties the demolitions which should have been made in April 1941.

Despite the lessons of the campaign in France the Allied commanders had not always allowed for the ‘surprising ability of armoured fighting vehicles to pass over difficult ground.’3 The Royal Air Force had certainly been outnumbered by the Luftwaffe but its difficulties had been accentuated by the inability of the Greeks to provide more airfields. Limited in number, they had been so vulnerable that losses on the ground had been serious. Wireless communications had been another problem: staffs had not always been thoroughly trained; the wireless silence before operations had prevented the checking of faults; and the great mountain ranges had interfered with reception.

The actual fighting had, however, brought out much that was satisfactory, Wilson reporting that the battle discipline of ‘the New Zealand Division was particularly high’ and one German account stating that the British troops ‘fought an outstanding defensive battle in the craggy wooded country in which they had to fight.’4 The morale of the Division had certainly been high. The troops had genuinely regretted the successive withdrawals and the failure to fight a ‘real battle’. They had been subjected to incessant air attacks interrupted only by bad weather, yet by strict discipline, careful concealment and determined road movement they had successfully completed the withdrawals to the beaches.

The Germans did suggest that their own policy of counter-attacks, if applied by the British, would have seriously disorganised the long strung-out panzer divisions. But the withdrawal, which was based upon an intricate timetable, did not allow for such variations

1 See pp. 2023.

2 See M. B. McGlynn, Special Service in Greece (Episodes and Studies series), War History Branch, 1954.

3 Wilson, ‘Report on Operations in Greece, March–April 1941’.

4 ‘Notes on English Methods of Fighting’, by 2 Panzer Division.

page 473 in plan. The first object had always to be the punctual arrival of units at the embarkation beaches, and the fact that so many men were evacuated suggests that the policy adopted was the wisest one under the circumstances.

The division of the Force into brigade groups and their evacuation from widely separated beaches has been criticised. Some would have preferred the creation of a defensive screen behind which the embarkation could, possibly, have been better controlled and more complete. By such methods the evacuation from Gallipoli had been a brilliant success, but because the troops in that peninsula were already concentrated and could move on foot straight from their trenches to the ships, the comparison1 may not mean a great deal.

So far as W Force was concerned, it is doubtful if the basic evacuation plan drawn up by the Navy, Army and Air Force authorities could have been greatly improved. The front was changing rapidly and the military situation was frequently obscure; at Headquarters, British Troops in Greece, in Athens it was ‘impossible to arrive at any reliable figures or to predict the sequence of events.’ The plan had therefore been ‘a rough approximation’,2 easily adjustable according to changing circumstances.

Lack of air cover was another reason for the choice of several evacuation points. To avoid the concentrated efforts of the Luftwaffe the Navy insisted that the Germans must not know ‘the exact beaches in use’,3 that outgoing ships must have time to clear the coast ‘without being spotted’.4

The other problem of the evacuation was the bottleneck likely to arise from a shortage of small craft for ferrying men from the beaches to the ships. Caiques, motor-boats and local craft were used, but the last named could not be relied upon unless commanded by British officers, and they were not always available. The situation was saved by the presence of the ‘Glen’ ships with their special landing craft, without which it would have been impossible, in the time available, to evacuate so large a force.

The really serious weakness in the overall plan was the early closing of Anzac Corps Headquarters. On 23 April, after the destruction of the Royal Air Force Hurricanes at Argos, Wilson and Baillie-Grohman decided that there must be more embarkation from the Peloponnese, especially from Monemvasia and Kalamata. The commanders and staffs of Anzac Corps and of the Australian

1 One feature is common to both evacuations: the pessimistic statements by the senior officers. Wilson expected 30 per cent of W Force to leave Greece; Hamilton had forecast that only 50 per cent of his men would be evacuated from Gallipoli.

2 Admiral Cunningham's Despatch, Transportation of the Army to Greece and Evacuation of the Army from Greece, 1941. (Supplement to The London Gazette, 18 May 1948.)

3 See pp. 4045.

4 See p. 430.

page 474 and New Zealand divisions would make an early departure, leaving Wilson's headquarters to make any further adjustments to the plan. ‘Rowell protested that, in view of this changed situation, Anzac Corps headquarters should remain, but Blamey replied that he had been ordered to go.’1 Anzac Corps Headquarters had, therefore, closed at midnight on 23–24 April and next day Mackay and Freyberg were told that their staffs would embark that night. The Australians obeyed these instructions but Freyberg, whose 6 Brigade was in action at Thermopylae, disregarded the order. It was fortunate that he did so, otherwise Wilson's staff would have been left to direct the Australian and New Zealand divisions, 1 Armoured Brigade, base troops, labour battalions and Yugoslavs. As it was, Freyberg was left in command after the departure of Wilson on 26 April, when there were still many thousands to be evacuated. Information was very limited—he did not, for example, know about the embarkation from Kalamata—and the troops were widely dispersed; the movements of the enemy were but vaguely known; and the signals system was incomplete. The one saving feature was the presence at Monemvasia of Admiral Baillie-Grohman with a small staff and a wireless set, by which communications were established with 4 Brigade at Porto Rafti and the naval authorities in Crete. The final embarkations were then possible, but Freyberg had to face alone, with inadequate resources, the problems which arose from the decision to use several embarkation beaches, from the late decision to embark from Monemvasia and Kalamata and from the unexpected isolation of 4 Brigade at Porto Rafti.

1 Long, p. 151.