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To Greece

The Misunderstanding about the Aliakmon Line

The Misunderstanding about the Aliakmon Line

At this point the difficulties of Mr Eden were increasing. Having failed to persuade the Turks to enter the war he had now, on the instructions of Mr Churchill, to make his main appeal to Yugoslavia. An attack by her upon the Italian flank in Albania would produce a ‘disaster of the first magnitude, possibly decisive on whole Balkan situation.’ If Turkey declared war at the same time the effect would be incalculable. ‘I am absolutely ready,’ said Churchill, ‘to go in on a serious hazard if there is reasonable chance of success.’2 At the moment, however, it was very difficult to decide just what these chances were. The Government of Yugoslavia had long since declared that any aggression would be resisted and that the movement of foreign troops through the country would be refused. But it had never declared what its attitude would be if the German forces in Rumania began to cross the Danube into Bulgaria.

On 1 March this question was answered. The crossing began, there were no protests from Yugoslavia and the Germans were free to approach the borders of Greece. Next day Mr Eden and General Dill returned from Turkey to Athens, where the British Minister from Belgrade was waiting to explain the hesitant attitude of Yugoslavia. He was sent back to the Regent with a verbal message pointing out that as Britain had decided to help Greece it was also possible for her to assist Yugoslavia.

Still more disturbing was the fact that General Papagos had not withdrawn to the Aliakmon line any units from Thrace, eastern Macedonia and Albania. After the conference at Athens the British had thought that they and the Greeks would immediately begin to occupy the Aliakmon line without waiting to hear what Yugoslavia had decided to do. General Papagos, however, had understood3 that he could wait until a reply was received from Yugoslavia. He had done so but it was now too late. For should he order a withdrawal there would be despair among the Greek

2 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 86.

3 General Alexander Papagos, The German Attack on Greece: ‘It is natural that General Papagos should desire it to be quite clear to British readers that the said change of plan was due not to any obscure political reasons, but to the delay in receiving an answer from the Yugoslav Government clarifying their intentions.’ (from Preface) Eden, Dill and Wavell had understood that there would be an immediate withdrawal; de Guingand, who was present, thought that the move would be made ‘as early as possible’ (Operation Victory, p. 58). For the political problem see p. 115, note 1.

page 106 people of Macedonia and every chance of his troops being caught during the withdrawal. He therefore proposed to hold the Metaxas line and not to withdraw any of his divisions from Albania. The British on their arrival would have to move up piecemeal to the Macedonian front. This was so entirely different from the original plan, and strategically so unsound, that Sir John Dill would not accept it. General Wavell was called over from Egypt and a series of anxious discussions then took place.

To General Dill it appeared hopeless for the Greeks to attempt to hold the Metaxas line with three divisions when they knew that it would require nine. Nor was he any more confident when Papagos thought that four divisions might be found for the task. The transportation of British troops to Salonika would be too dangerous; the three or four Greek divisions would be overwhelmed before the British arrived; and even if they did get there in time resistance would be hopeless. So, while admitting the difficulty of the situation and praising Greek valour in Albania, he stated, very firmly, that he was not going to throw away the only British reserves in the Middle East.

If risks had to be taken in the Balkans they would be taken along the Aliakmon line. Nine divisions had once been considered necessary for its defence but he was now prepared to carry on if three Greek divisions could be assembled to support the three and a half British divisions. The transfer of troops from Albania would have simplified the task, but Papagos thought that the morale of his force would decline and that any move would be too late. The national pride of the Greeks was such that they would not withdraw from the Italian front, even if it meant a stab in the back from the Germans. In his opinion the situation had no solution, for Germany had the initiative in the Balkans. Nevertheless he offered to provide seven or eight battalions for the Aliakmon line, but Dill and Eden, remembering the original plan for thirty-five Greek battalions,1 wanted a better military proposition.

After further study another conference was held, this time in the presence of the King, for the attitude of Papagos had hitherto been ‘unaccommodating and defeatist.’2 Dill once again stated that he would not send troops to the Metaxas line; the Aliakmon line gave the Germans another 100 miles to advance, was difficult to approach, was shorter and naturally stronger. Papagos still did not favour any dispersal of his forces, but he finally offered to provide three divisions and seven battalions—in all about twenty battalions.

1 See p. 102.

2 Documents, Vol. I, pp. 247–9: Eden and Dill to Churchill, 4 Mar 1941.

page 107

The British now had to make one of three decisions. They could accept the Greek plans for the Metaxas line, which were hopeless; they could leave the Greeks to their fate, but that was politically impossible and dangerous to the safety of the Royal Air Force and those supporting units already in Greece; or they could defend the Aliakmon line, supported by twenty Greek battalions instead of the thirty-five they had been promised at the earlier conference. With considerable misgivings, the third plan was accepted shortly after midnight on 4 March. The command and organisation of the Aliakmon line was to be the responsibility of General Wilson; the overall command was to be retained by General Papagos who, once the decision had been made, was confident and determined.

So far as the army was concerned the Aliakmon line was not altogether hopeless; at the worst there could always be a fighting withdrawal ‘through country eminently suitable for rearguard action.’1 No reference was made to the other services, but Admiral Cunningham that same day informed the Admiralty that the only possible decision had been made, although it meant that great risks would have to be taken. The convoys and the ports of disembarkation would have insufficient air cover; one convoy would be sent to Malta but, apart from that, the fleet for the next two months or more would be concerned with the movement of troops to Greece. This meant less protection for the supply line to Tobruk and no attempt, as yet, to capture the island of Rhodes.

The expedition was thus hazardous from every angle, but those on the spot were certain that the abandonment of Greece would in the end be more costly. A year later, after the fall of Singapore and when the occupation of Java by an Australian corps was suggested, Wavell informed Churchill that had the terms been reasonable he would have unhesitatingly recommended that risks be taken as he had done in the matter of aid to Greece. ‘I thought then that we had good fighting chance of checking German invasion, and in spite of results still consider risk was justifiable.’2 Nearly ten years later he was of the same opinion and explained the situation as he saw it: ‘I think that it may have been psychological and political considerations that tilted the balance in the end over the military dangers. To have withdrawn at this stage, on grounds which could not have been made public, would have been disastrous to our reputation in the U.S.A. and with other neutrals, would have ended all hope of Yugoslavia joining the Allies and would have shaken our ally Turkey. Our plan had been endorsed3

1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 88.

2 Ibid., Vol. IV, p. 125.

3 This was hardly correct. See pp. 1035.

page 108 by the Dominion Governments whose troops were involved. And there were political difficulties in any reversal of plan; the troops were on the move and a change would have caused confusion.

‘I was sure at the time, and I am sure still, in spite of what resulted, that the decision we took at our Embassy in Athens in that first week in March, 1941, was the only one consistent with the political requirements of the moment, with military strategy and with our national honour.’1

The authorities outside the Mediterranean area had still to be convinced of the wisdom of this decision. The Chiefs of Staff in Britain pointed out that the hazards of the operation had increased considerably. The Greeks were too heavily involved in Albania; the force might not be able to reach the Aliakmon line in time to halt the German advance. The Navy was worried about the safety of convoys, the air defences of the ports in Greece and the blocking of the Suez Canal by mines.

The two Dominions concerned, particularly Australia, were not happy about the decision. With Mr Menzies attending the War Cabinet, the Australian Government was receiving a detailed analysis of the situation in the Middle East. The British raid on the island of Castelorizzo had failed, German aircraft were operating over Cyrenaica and German armour was said to be in Tripoli. The Australians felt it necessary to point out that, although Australia was not afraid to take ‘a great risk in a good cause’,2 the delegation had signed a written agreement with the Greeks; they doubted whether a minister not authorised by them could make a binding agreement3 which substantially modified a proposal already accepted by them.

This forced Mr Churchill to reconsider the whole enterprise. On 6 March he sent Mr Eden, who was now back in Cairo, a most prudent despatch with the warning that he might expect an adverse decision from the War Cabinet. The delegation had done its best to create a Balkan front and, having failed, must leave the Greeks free to make their own choice. In any case the loss of Greece and the Balkans was not a major catastrophe so long as Turkey remained genuinely neutral. Moreover, grave Imperial issues were ‘raised by committing New Zealand and Australian troops to an enterprise which, as you say, has become even more hazardous.’4 The Dominions had been given all the information

1 Field Marshal Earl Wavell, ‘The British Expedition to Greece, 1941’, Army Quarterly, January 1950.

3 The accepted version in French of the discussions of 4 March was signed by Generals Dill and Papagos.

4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 90.

page 109 but he could not forecast their agreement to the operation, as now proposed.

In the next cable Eden received an admirable analysis1 of the problem that had been prepared by the Chiefs of Staff in Britain. The attitude of General Papagos was bound to react unfavourably upon the fighting spirit of his army and the failure of the Greeks to withdraw to the Aliakmon line was most serious. The British had expected that some Greek troops could be transferred from Albania to this line, but Papagos now reported that his army was ‘exhausted and outnumbered.’ With enemy aircraft operating from the island of Rhodes, some of the Royal Air Force would have to be used to protect the sea route to Greece. The mining of the Suez Canal was another serious problem. And if the German thrust from Bulgaria was unchecked it was possible that the attack might open with two German divisions attacking one armoured brigade and one New Zealand infantry brigade. Their conclusion was that the hazards of the enterprise had considerably increased. But, in spite of their misgivings, they felt that they were not as yet in a position to question ‘the military advice of those on the spot’ who had described the position as not by any means hopeless.

These two statements, the first from the once hopeful Mr Churchill and the second from the ever cautious Chiefs of Staff, mark a new stage in the negotiations. In future there were to be fewer references to a Balkan front and more emphasis upon the moral aspects of the problem.

The British Minister in Athens, Sir Michael Palairet, was most distressed by the suggestion that the agreement between Britain and Greece need not be kept. The Greeks had decided to fight Germany, alone if necessary. ‘We shall be pilloried2 by the Greeks and the world in general as going back on our word.’ The King of Greece was still confident of Allied success and General Wilson had been greatly encouraged by the marked improvement in the attitude of General Papagos, who was now most hopeful and anxious to co-operate.

At 5 p.m. on 6 March Mr Eden, Sir John Dill and the three commanders-in-chief met in Cairo. They were worried by the evident reluctance of the Dominions to tempt fortune with their divisions, but General Wavell reassured them. He had not yet seen General Blamey but he had informed General Freyberg of the new situation. ‘General Freyberg though he realises the added difficulties was not

1 Documents, Vol. I, pp. 253–5.

2 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 91: Palairet to Eden, 6 Mar 1941. The same point was made by General Smuts at the conference held that night in Cairo.

page 110 perturbed and was prepared to go ahead.1 He had made no suggestion that his Government might be unwilling to go ahead.’2

In any case, the Foreign Secretary and the three commanders-in- chief still thought that an expedition must be sent to Greece. Eden argued that a withdrawal at this stage would remove, once and for all, any chance of bringing Yugoslavia into the war and might have incalculable effects upon the Turkish position. Air Chief Marshal Longmore doubted whether the Royal Air Force could hold the Luftwaffe in Greece but he still thought that assistance must be given. Admiral Cunningham was anxious about air attacks on his convoys at sea and in the ports of disembarkation, but he too agreed that the decision they had made in Athens was the only possible one.

The military authorities were more confident. Sir John Dill admitted that the situation was worse than they had originally considered it but thought that if the British reached the Aliakmon line before the Germans there was a reasonable chance of holding it. Should the Germans get there first, he thought it possible to withdraw without great loss. General Wavell was convinced that the expedition should be sent; success offered such chances that the course of the war could be changed.3 Eden then suggested that a resolute note be sent to Churchill stating that they thought, in spite of the risks involved, that their decision to send the expedition had been correct.

Their firm attitude impressed Mr Churchill but he made it quite clear that he was not going to support any hazardous scheme just because it was his moral duty to do so. They were reminded4 that the Greeks must not be urged against their better judgment to a hopeless struggle. If, however, they were determined, aided or unaided, to fight it out to the end, then their ordeal must be shared. He also pointed out, obviously because of Mr Menzies' suggestions, that the Dominions had to be told that the hazardous venture was being undertaken, not because of the agreement signed in Athens but because the commanders saw ‘a reasonable fighting chance.’ So far there had been too many references to moral obligations; a precise military appreciation was now indispensable.

In Cairo at 10.15 p.m. the subject was again discussed, this time in the presence of General Smuts, an international statesman who had long since learnt that military and political action must go

1 Actually Freyberg had been informed rather than consulted, had told Wavell that he had no illusions about the difficulties ahead, and had been told once again that the New Zealand Government was prepared to engage in the venture.—Freyberg to Kippenberger, 10 Sep 1956.

2 British Historical Section, Cabinet Office.

3 Major-General R. J. Collins, Lord Wavell, Appx VII: The Pros and Cons of Intervention in Greece.

4 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 92–3.

page 111 hand in hand. He realised that everything depended upon the divisions' being able to reach the Aliakmon line in time to halt the German advanced guard but, like the others, he failed to see how the expedition could now be held back. The Greeks had been so successful in Albania that any failure to assist them would leave Britain discredited before the world. Some might argue that a German victory in the Balkans would almost wreck the cause but, in his opinion, the damage would be greater if Britain stood aside and did nothing. Nevertheless, as Australia and New Zealand were to provide the greater proportion of the fighting troops, there could be repercussions if things went wrong.

General Wavell then reported that since the meeting at 5 p.m. he had seen General Blamey and told him of the increased risks which might now have to be taken. He, like General Freyberg,1 had not expressed any wish to withdraw. At the suggestion of Mr Eden a note about the determined attitude of the Dominion commanders was immediately cabled to the War Office. The discussion then swung back to the ground already covered that afternoon, with Eden, Dill and Wavell still convinced that the expedition should be sent, and Longmore and Cunningham certain that they should not turn back but doubtful of their ability to give adequate support.

On 7 March the decisions of this second conference were received by Churchill. The envoys had seen no reason to reverse their previous judgment. They pointed out that there had been no attempt to persuade Greece ‘against her better judgment.’ Britain had already been giving assistance to Greece. Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, ground defences and anti-aircraft guns had been in action there for several months. ‘Collapse of Greece without further effort on our part to save her by intervention on land, after the Libyan victories had, as all the world knows, made forces available, would be the greatest calamity. Yugoslavia would then certainly be lost; nor can we feel confident that even Turkey would have the strength to remain steadfast if the Germans and Italians were established in Greece without effort on our part to resist them. No doubt our prestige will suffer if we are ignominiously ejected, but in any event to have fought and suffered in Greece would be less damaging to us than to have left Greece to her fate….’ They trusted that the Dominion troops could be used in Greece and emphasised the fact that, if the Royal Air Force was adequately reinforced, ‘most of the dangers and difficulties of this enterprise will disappear.’2

1 See p. 99.

2 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 93–4.

page 112

In this statement Mr Churchill was not given that military appreciation which he had described as indispensable. Time may have prevented its preparation but, even so, it was most unusual for the War Cabinet to be left without a joint and detailed appreciation from the three services. Nor was anything said about a Balkan front. Emphasis was now given to the moral and political importance of a campaign in Greece. In fact Admiral Cunningham, when writing of this last meeting, has said: ‘I gave it as my opinion that though politically we were correct, I had grave uncertainty of its military expedience. Dill himself had doubts, and said to me after the meeting: “Well, we've taken the decision. I'm not at all sure it's the right one.”’1 Their unanimity is therefore all the more remarkable. Apparently they realised that every opportunity must be seized, that the Balkans could not be abandoned without a struggle, that the good will of Russia and the United States was worth cultivating,2 and that there was always the Navy and the chances of a successful evacuation.

The urgency of the situation had, as it happened, forced the War Cabinet to make its decision before the receipt of this last appreciation. With Menzies present, it had decided that because of the consistent attitude of General Dill, the commanders-in-chief on the spot, and ‘the commanders of the forces to be employed’,3 Eden should be authorised to proceed with the operation, the War Cabinet having accepted full responsibility and arranged to communicate with the Dominion Governments. In one way this was a surprising decision for no detailed military appreciation had been received. On the other hand, the definite attitude of the once hesitant commanders-in-chief was very convincing and the Government itself was anxious to support Greece if it was administratively possible.

1 Admiral of the Fleet Viscoun Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey, p. 315.

2 Hitler had similar views. Dönitz afterwards reported that U-boat activities off Halifax were restricted because Hitler wished ‘to avoid every possibility of friction with the United States.’ N.D., Vol. XIII, p. 265. See also ‘The Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 1939–1945’, published in Brassey's Naval Annual, 1948, and F. H. Hinsley, Hitler's Strategy.

3 Two cables had been sent to London on 6 March, one giving the decision of the first conference (see p. 110), the other stating that Generals Blamey and Freyberg had been consulted (see p. 111).