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To Greece

The Importance of the Campaign

The Importance of the Campaign

The decision to send the Imperial force to Greece has already been the subject of much discussion. Some have argued that the original promise to support Greece was given when France was still a power in the Eastern Mediterranean. After her defeat no aid could be expected from her and the obvious course was to continue the thrust across the Western Desert. General Wavell has page 478 said, however, that his forces could not have ‘cleared up the North African coast for good and all.’1 The state of his armoured units and mechanised transport did not permit an advance of 500 miles to Tripoli; the Royal Air Force was still outnumbered; and the Navy, already unable to use Benghazi2 because of the lack of anti-aircraft guns, could not have maintained an army and air force in Tripoli.

On the other hand, it is difficult to accept his statement that the service chiefs recognised the dangers of the Greek expedition but thought that there was a reasonable chance of defending Greece and of controlling the northern shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. The strength of the German Army, the lack of air support, the indefinite attitude of Yugoslavia, the decision of Turkey to remain neutral, and the problems of supply and reinforcement from Egypt to Macedonia: all suggest that from the strictly military point of view the wise decision would have been to stop the expedition, even though troops were already embarking and any changes would have caused considerable confusion. In fact, Wavell afterwards admitted that ‘the whole expedition was something in the nature of a gamble’3 with the dice loaded against it from the start.

Some authorities have been more downright. Papagos believed that ‘For Greece to be crushed without a single British officer striking a blow in her defence would have meant a flagrant breach of the promises so repeatedly given. Such a defection might well have provoked an outcry against the British Government on the part of the British people and Press. Also it would certainly have had an unfortunate effect on American public opinion ….’ But he still thought that the movement of W Force from North Africa to ‘certain failure’ in the Balkans was ‘a strategic error in contradiction with the principles of a sound conduct of the war.’4 One military historian has even said that ‘The affair appears to have been handled with political and strategic frivolity, and the British Government did not deserve to get off as lightly as it did’.5 Others have stressed the political side of the question. Blamey thought that military considerations had been outweighed; that the force had been despatched for political reasons.6 The General Staff in the United Kingdom, according to General Martel, had never been confident. ‘The whole matter was, of course, inevitably bound up with political considerations that may have outweighed the purely military aspect.

1 ‘The British Expedition to Greece, 1941’, Army Quarterly, January 1950.

2 Cunningham, pp. 310–11.

3 Despatch covering period 7 February to 15 July 1941.

4 General Alexandros Papagos, The Battle of Greece, 1940–41, Athens, J. M. Scazikis ‘Alpha’ edition, 1949, p. 316.

5 Cyril Falls, The Second World War, p. 91.

6 Long, p. 193.

page 479 As we had taken no clear line, we eventually drifted into a position where we were bound to come to their help, and at that stage the C.I.G.S. (General Dill) agreed with the decision to do so.’1 In one sense this is misleading; the records show that Dill definitely helped to make the decision, even though he could,2 with a clear conscience, have decided against the venture. Nevertheless, he admitted that risks were being taken, for on 17 March when in Cyrenaica he remarked to General Neame: ‘You are going to get a bloody nose here, Philip, and it is not the only place where we shall get bloody noses.’3 Lord Alanbrooke, who succeeded General Dill as CIGS, has since stated that intervention in Greece was a strategic blunder, that he ‘doubted Dill's advice and judgment.’ But, unlike most critics, Lord Alanbrooke has been careful to admit that he, Alanbrooke, was hardly ‘in a position to form any definite opinion’ as he was ‘not familiar with all the facts.’4

To Mr Churchill the less tactful, more outspoken experts were ‘officers occupying subordinate positions’ and not possessing ‘the knowledge to consider sufficiently what … the opposite policy’5 would have conceded to Hitler—an open road to Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Persia, a division of the spoils with Russia or an earlier and more powerful offensive against her. This may be only a list of possibilities, but the same title could be given to the advantages which might or might not have been gained from an advance beyond Benghazi. General O'Connor thought that with full naval and air support he could have occupied Tripoli, but from the comments of Admiral Cunningham it seems very doubtful6 whether the Army could have been supplied by sea through Benghazi.

Criticism has also been made of naval policy at this critical period. On 21 April, just before the evacuation of W Force from Greece, there had been that hazardous bombardment of Tripoli which Admiral Cunningham thought quite unjustifiable. No losses were suffered but Churchill now admits that the Admiralty, with his full agreement, forced Cunningham to run undue risks. But here, as with the Greek campaign, he emphasises the overall situation: ‘we at home alone could measure the proportion of world events, and final responsibility lay with us.’7

1 Lt-Gen Sir Giffard Martel, Our Armoured Forces, p. 93.

2 See Churchill's cable, p. 99.

4 Sir Arthur Bryant, The Turn of the Tide, p. 248.

5 Churchill, Vol III, pp. 26–7. The opinion of certain officers is given in B. H. Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill.

6 The extra 200 miles from Alexandria, the widely breached breakwater, the partially blocked entrance, the closer proximity to enemy air bases in Tripoli and Sicily: all these factors forced Cunningham on 22 February to tell the Army that if Benghazi port could not be effectively defended the Navy could not use it.—Cunningham, p. 310. See also Wavell's statement, p. 478.

7 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 215.

page 480

This being the case, it is easy to understand why Wavell thought that the final reasons for the Greek campaign were political and psychological. It also explains the advice given by Dill to General Auchinleck on 26 June 1941. After discussing the different factors which had influenced Wavell in the preceding months, Dill said: ‘The fact is that the Commander in the field will always be subject to great and often undue pressure from his Government. Wellington suffered from it: Haig suffered from it: Wavell suffered from it. Nothing will stop it. In fact, pressure from those who alone see the picture as a whole and carry the main responsibility may be necessary …. the pressure often comes from very broad political considerations; these are sometimes so powerful as to make it necessary to take risks which from the purely military point of view, may seem inadvisable.’1

If studied from this angle the expedition to Greece may be explained. For the breadth and complexity of modern warfare can create demands which military leaders are not always qualified to assess and coordinate. Men, resources and national morale—all controlled by politicians—are more important than ever before. Consequently it cannot be expected that the politicians should fall silent once mobilisation begins and remain silent until the commanders have completed their tasks. Military and political action must go hand in hand.

In any case, democracies do not always act on purely military considerations, otherwise they would not be democracies. Hence the statement by Admiral Cunningham: ‘we had encouraged the Greeks in their resistance to the Italians, and it seemed all wrong to desert them now.’2

Another factor of political importance was the strategic situation in the spring of 1941. The fighting spirit of Britain was then magnificent but Mr Churchill—and many cold-blooded unromantic observers—knew that she had no chance whatsoever of winning the war by her own unaided efforts. Allies had to be found and it was no use stalling for time, for opportunity seldom knocks at the door; statesmen, like other mortals, have to knock at its door. Mr Churchill had, therefore, been cultivating the friendship of the United States. In May 1940 he had begun his confidential correspondence with Mr Roosevelt and accepted the loan of fifty destroyers. In February–March 1941, when the conferences were taking place in Athens, the Lend-Lease Bill had been before Congress. So much depended upon it that on 28 February he cabled to Mr Hopkins: ‘Let me know when the Bill will be through.

1 J. R. M. Butler, Grand Strategy, Vol. II (September 1939–June 1941), p. 531,

2 Cunningham, p. 320.

page 481 The strain is growing here.’ On 7 March, when Britain finally decided to support Greece, the bill was still before Congress, but it was passed two days later and Churchill could cable: ‘Thank God for your news.’1

But this was not sufficient, for the great majority of the American people, though sympathetic towards Britain, were still anxious to keep out of the war. This explains why Mr Churchill had thought of American opinion before supporting Greece and why he was hopeful, after the evacuation, that the risks taken to support an ally had appealed to the Americans. Mr Roosevelt certainly described it as ‘a wholly justified action’, but the next step in the ‘wooing’,2 the signing of the Atlantic Charter, did not take place until August 1941. And it was not until 7 December that the Japanese, by bombing Pearl Harbour, ensured the entry of the United States into the war. America's policy of isolation and the overall situation in 1941 are therefore some justification for Churchill's determined efforts to win the respect and sympathy of the United States.3

The desperate isolation of Britain will also explain Churchill's desire to create a Balkan front ‘with effects upon Russia which could not be measured by us.’ Greece and Turkey were openly friendly. Rumania had lined up with Germany but the other states were hesitant, as was obvious from the moves and counter-moves in the months immediately before the despatch of the expedition. Bulgaria had signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Turkey on 17 February and did not adhere to the Tripartite Pact until 1 March. Hungary had been an adherent in November 1940 but she had also, the following month, signed a pact of friendship with Yugoslavia. That country, bereft of her alliance with France and suspicious of Italian designs, had, on 25 June, re-established diplo matic relations with Russia, the ancient guarantor of Serbia. In other ways, however, Russia had remained the incalculable factor. Apparently indifferent to the fate of the western powers, she had permitted Hitler to dominate Rumania and Bulgaria; instead of declaring war upon Germany, it seemed more likely that she would attempt to grab her share of the British Empire. Yet there were many who simply could not believe that she had so easily forgotten her pan-Slav sympathies and her age-old ambitions in south-east Europe.

All the same, it was a distinctly intricate mosaic and the chances of its arrangement according to the British pattern were not very great. The best that could be done was to prevent Hitler creating

1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 111.

2 Bryant, The Turn of the Tide, p. 282. On 8 December, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Churchill was no longer cautious. ‘Oh, that is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her; now that she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently.’

3 See p. 112 for references to Hitler and the United States.

page 482 a group of Balkan states subservient to the Axis. Consequently, when Yugoslavia staged her coup d'état and refused to become a German satellite, Britain increased her efforts to assist her. No support came from Hungary, in fact the pro-German element arranged for the movement of German troops towards Yugoslavia, but the suicide of the Hungarian premier on 2 April was ‘a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack upon Yugoslavia.’1

The reaction of Russia was not immediate but it did show that she was still interested in the Balkans. On the night of 5–6 April, only a few hours before Yugoslavia was invaded, Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Yugoslavia and, to the annoyance of Hitler, it contained a clause for friendly relations in the event of war. Actually it was little more than a gesture; Russia or, more particularly, Stalin, preferred a policy of appeasement.

In any case, it was not what Stalin thought of Germany but what Hitler thought of Russia that mattered, and on this subject British opinion was undecided but always hopeful. Sir Stafford Cripps2 had for months predicted that Hitler would attack Russia in the spring of 1941. The Joint Intelligence Committee,3 on the other hand, were inclined to think that his main task for 1941 would be the invasion of Britain.4 As for Mr Churchill, he waited hopefully until the end of March when the reported movements of panzer divisions, before and after the coup d'état in Yugoslavia, convinced him that Russia would eventually be invaded. In a note to Mr Eden, who was still in Athens, on 30 March he suggested that Yugoslavia or Turkey was about to be invaded and then added this deduction: ‘Bear will be kept waiting a bit. Furthermore, these orders and counter-orders in their relation to the Belgrade coup seem to reveal magnitude of design both towards south-east and east. This is the clearest indication we have had so far. Let me know in guarded terms whether you and Dill agree with my impressions.’5

The wording of this message suggests that Russo-German enmity was definitely one of the ‘broad political considerations’ for which risks had to be taken.

This must not be forgotten, for the expedition, quite apart from the battle casualties, was most costly. After making every effort to build up supply bases for a long campaign the British brought

1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 148. Restricted independence was maintained until the German occupation in March 1944.

2 Barbarossa; the origins and development of Hitler's plan to attack Russia'; unpublished monograph by E. M. Robertson, Enemy Documents Section, Cabinet Office, London.

3 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 318.

4 In April 1941, when Churchill proposed to increase the number of tanks he was about to send throught the Mediterranean to the Middle East, Dill disagreed ‘in view of the shortage for Home Defence.’—Ibid., p. 219.

5 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 319–20.

page 483 away no artillery, no heavy equipment and none of the 8000 vehicles which would have been so useful in the Western Desert. The Navy had lost the destroyers Diamond and Wryneck; the transports Ulster Prince, Pennland, Slamat and Costa Rica had been sunk; and the landing ship Glenearn had been damaged. In addition the Air Force had lost 209 aircraft. More important still, the movement of men and equipment to Greece had made possible the rapid advance of the Axis forces in Cyrenaica.

The evacuation of the Force from Greece and this unexpected threat in the Western Desert so disturbed the country that the British Government decided to ask for a vote of confidence. In the debate on 6 and 7 May its overall conduct of the war was criticised from many angles, but the actual decision to send the expedition to Greece was accepted as natural and honourable, so much so that the House divided 447 for and only 3 against. Once again political rather than military factors had decided the issue. For Mr Churchill in his defence said: ‘Looking back on the sad course of events, I can only feel, as the Prime Minister of New Zealand has so nobly declared, that if we had again to tread the stony path, even with the knowledge we possess today, I for one would do the same thing again, and this is the view of all my colleagues in the War Cabinet and on the Defence Committee.’1

His reward came long afterwards when it was learnt that the aggressive policy of the Government had made it impossible for Hitler to enjoy all the advantages of his dominant position in Europe. On the principle that it was better to do something rather than do nothing, they had harassed the Germans wherever possible. And as a result, ‘striking powers for Barbarossa’2 had been sacrificed because the Germans feared British diversions on the French coast and in Norway and were forced to support the Italians in North Africa.

Their refusal to permit the peaceful occupation of the Balkans had similar results. On 17 March Hitler, as a result of the movement of W Force to Greece, decided that Marita (the Greek campaign) must give him air supremacy over the Eastern Mediterranean. This meant the occupation not only of northern Greece but also of Attica and probably the entire Peloponnese. Larger forces had therefore to be employed and that, in turn, had meant the employment3 of forces previously allocated to Barbarossa (the Russian campaign).

The resistance of Yugoslavia had a still greater influence on German war policy. Hitler had always known that he would even-

1 House of Commons Debates, 6 and 7 May 1941.

2 Halder's Diary.

3 Ibid.

page 484 tually need the Yugoslav transport system if he was to transfer his divisions from Greece to the Russian front, but he had expected to be given the use of it through the adherence of Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact. After the coup d'état—for which British diplomacy and the expedition to Greece may have been partly responsible1—this could no longer be expected and, furthermore, there was always the danger of a hostile and pro-Russian Yugoslavia to the rear of his armies on the Russian front. Faced with this threat, Hitler could not avoid a campaign in Yugoslavia. As he explained to Mussolini on 27 March, the position was not catastrophic but it was a difficult one and they had to avoid any mistake, otherwise, in the end, their whole position would be endangered. Plans were drawn up that night for Operation 25 (the Yugoslav campaign); Marita was revised; and Barbarossa was postponed for four weeks.2 On 7 April, when the plans for the changeover from Operation 25 to Barbarossa were complete, the date was altered to ‘about 22 June’, a postponement of over five weeks.

It has been suggested that Hitler might have attacked before that date had it not been for the unusually heavy rain in May which prevented any armoured offensive until the second week in June. Consequently there is no exact estimate of the time which he lost because of his Balkan campaign. The most reliable German authorities thought that ‘the friction in the Balkans and the exceptional weather in 1941 caused the loss of four precious weeks.’3 In the opinion of Mr Churchill, ‘a delay of five weeks was imposed upon the supreme operation as the result of our resistance in the Balkans, and especially of the Yugoslav revolution. No one can measure exactly what consequences this had before winter set in upon the fortunes of the German-Russian campaign. It is reasonable to believe that Moscow was saved thereby.’4

Another result of Hitler's enforced intervention in the Balkans was the gradual development of strong resistance movements in both Greece and Yugoslavia. In the latter particularly, the partisans led by Marshal Tito fought a guerrilla war similar to that by which Spanish patriots had crippled Napoleon's army in the Peninsula. It became another running sore, so ugly that by 1945, when Hitler's armies were fighting desperately to hold several crumbling fronts, he still had to have a dozen German divisions scattered throughout Yugoslavia.

1 Goering afterwards talked of Russian influence and extensive financial backing ‘on the part of England’. See N.D., Vol. IX, p. 33.

2 See p. 158.

3 F. Halder, Chief of the General Staff; G. Blumentritt, Chief of Staff of the Fourth Army in Poland.

4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 316.

page 485

This fact afterwards led General Wilson to point out the similarity of the Corunna campaign of 1808 to the Greek campaign of 1941: ‘the effect of the appearance of a small British force on the strategy of a superior force engaged in aggression; the fury of a Dictator, causing him to commit larger forces than the situation demanded; the British retreat over similar terrain and covering the same distance; in both cases the miscalculation by H.M. Government as to the degree of resistance to be expected from the Allies which the expedition was intended to assist; finally its far-reaching after effects on the war in Europe.’1 To complete the comparison he could have pointed out that sea power had made possible the successful evacuation of each expeditionary force.

It could be argued that these results were unpredictable; that those who use them to justify the expedition are simply being wise after the event. But it would be unjust to Churchill, Eden, Smuts and the senior commanders in the Middle East to make such statements without studying the situation as it was early in 1941. Because the friendship of possible allies had to be cultivated, decisions were made for ethical and political as well as for military reasons. Britain could not stand aside and permit Germany to overrun the Balkans and to threaten the future of Turkey and the Middle East. Nor could she assume that there was no chance of a Balkan front and no fundamental antagonism between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Risks had to be taken to get possible results in the future. The costly evacuation and the failure of the Balkan powers to take ‘simultaneous action’ were certainly disappointing. But the expedition does seem to have impressed Mr Roosevelt; it helped to create that unstable Balkan front to which Hitler was forever sending men and equipment; it was a threat to German security at a most awkward time and place; and it had considerable influence upon the course of the war in Russia. As a long-term investment it was therefore well worth the risks which had been taken.

1 Wilson, Eight Years Overseas, p. 102.