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To Greece

Britain Decides to Assist Greece

page 94

Britain Decides to Assist Greece

The British throughout these months, November–December 1940, had been attempting to deduce just what Hitler intended to do. With his army massing in Rumania, and with Bulgaria apparently willing to permit the passage of his troops, he might be preparing to assist the Italians in Greece or he might be planning to strike through Turkey towards Persia or the Suez Canal. The authorities in London thought that the loss of Greece would weaken the naval position but would not be altogether disastrous. If the thrust was south-east through Turkey the situation would be more serious, for such an advance could jeopardise the security of the whole Middle East. Efforts were therefore made to persuade Turkey that her best policy would be to declare war as soon as German troops entered Bulgaria. And Mr Churchill pointed out to General Wavell the importance of the attack which he was soon to open in North Africa. If successful it might determine the attitude of Yugoslavia and Turkey. ‘One may indeed see possibility of centre of gravity in Middle East shifting suddenly from Egypt to the Balkans, and from Cairo to Constantinople.’1

Within a few weeks Churchill could be more definite, for in Albania the Greeks had continued to advance and in North Africa there had been the victory at Sidi Barrani, the capture of Bardia and, on 6 January 1941, the encirclement of Tobruk.

The destruction of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica and the capture of Benghazi were now the natural objectives. But it was quite possible that Wavell might have to be satisfied with the capture of Tobruk, for once the western flank of Egypt was secure he would have to send some support to Greece. If her forces failed to capture the port of Valona she could possibly be ‘in the mood for a separate peace with Italy.’2 If they were successful it might be possible, with Yugoslavia and Turkey, to form a Balkan front, and that in turn might persuade Russia to challenge German aggression in the Balkans. In any case Hitler, whether he liked it or not, must be preparing to support Italy. In fact the Foreign Office already had a mass of information all pointing to a German attack upon Greece.

So on 8 January the Defence Committee of Cabinet agreed that, from ‘the political point of view’, all possible support must be given to Greece. To support this decision there was a telegram from General Smuts suggesting that Tobruk should be the ‘terminus’ of the advance and that a large part of the desert force be transferred to meet a German attack in the Balkans. He did wonder

1 Churchill, Vol. II, p. 483.

2 Ibid., Vol. III, p. 9.

page 95 if Germany could ‘afford to set the Balkans ablaze with Russia an incalculable factor and Turkey hostile’; he even thought that her troop movements might be an effort to ‘lure the British forces from Britain.’ But, not having all the facts, he left the subject for the General Staff to consider.

The commanders-in-chief in the Middle East were now warned that the Germans would probably advance through Bulgaria towards Salonika. Once Tobruk was taken all other plans would have to be subordinated to the needs of Greece. General Wavell and Air Chief Marshal Longmore were therefore ordered to visit Athens to discuss the situation with Generals Metaxas and Papagos (Commander-in-Chief Greek Army). These firm instructions seem to have surprised the commanders-in-chief. Wavell suggested that the German concentrations in Rumania were possibly designed to weaken the offensive in North Africa. He asked the Chiefs of Staff to ‘consider most urgently whether enemy's move is not bluff.’ In any case, if it was genuine, little could be done to prevent it.

On 10 January Mr Churchill replied—and wasted no words when he did so. The available information contradicted any possibility of ‘bluff’; a thrust towards Salonika would endanger the Greek divisions in Albania. ‘But is this not also the very thing the Germans ought to do to harm us most? Destruction of Greece will eclipse victories you have gained in Libya, and may affect decisively Turkish attitude, especially if we have shown ourselves callous of fate of allies. You must now therefore conform your plans to larger interests at stake.

‘Nothing must hamper capture of Tobruk, but thereafter all operations in Libya are subordinated to aiding Greece, and all preparations must be made from the receipt of this telegram for the immediate succour of Greece up to the limits prescribed…. We expect and require prompt and active compliance with our decisions, for which we bear full responsibility.’1

There was no suggestion, as yet, of a complete army being sent to Greece but the offer would at least cover a squadron of infantry tanks, a regiment of cruiser tanks, ten regiments of artillery and five squadrons of aircraft. And Wavell when he met the Greeks was to stress the fact that if the British had not arrived before the Germans entered Bulgaria the move would almost certainly be too late.

The decision having been made, Churchill sent an explanation to General Smuts. ‘Naturally Wavell and Co. heart-set on chase but Wavell is going … to concert reinforcements with Greeks.

1 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 16–17.

page 96 Cannot guarantee success; can only make what we think best arrangements. Weather, mountains, Danube crossing, fortified Greek-Bulgarian frontier, all helpful factors. Turkey, Yugoslavia, Russia, all perhaps favourably influenced by evidences of British support of Greece.’1

The discussion in Athens on 14–15 January found the Greeks reluctant to accept this offer, Metaxas pointing out that the problem of south-east Europe could not be ‘faced with the forces now at their disposal in the Near [Middle] East.’2 He thought that ten3 divisions was the minimum aid required to give a reasonable chance of withstanding a German attack. The assistance suggested by Wavell would be strong enough to provoke German intervention but not powerful enough to offer any hopes of successful resistance. He insisted that it should be despatched only if the Germans entered Bulgaria, but he emphasised, once again, that Greece would not conclude a separate peace with the Axis powers. Hoping that a British success in Libya and a Greek success in Albania would release sufficient troops for the defence of Salonika, Metaxas also suggested that a joint plan be drawn up and ‘steps taken by Greece to carry out the necessary preparations for the arrival of British troops.’4

This refusal was accepted with relief by General Wavell, who returned to Cairo and cabled a report to London. The suggested plan had been ‘a dangerous half measure.’ Now that the Luftwaffe was operating in the Mediterranean the first task for the British was to secure Benghazi and make Egypt safe from an attack. No promise should be made to send troops to Greece, but he did think that preparations should be made for a force to defend Salonika.

The Chiefs of Staff accordingly modified their policy for the near future. On 17 January Wavell was warned that British aid must not be forced upon the Greeks. If the Germans made a serious attack upon Greece the British, at this stage, ‘could do no more than impose a small delay to their occupation of the country.’5 In any case it was quite possible that British troops would be sent not to Greece but to Turkey. Their final conclusions, issued on 21 January, were that Benghazi should be captured, that three

1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 19.

2 Rich, Ch. 1, p. 35. para. 64.

3 Memorandum, Koryzis-Eden, 22 Feb 1941, recapitulating the attitude of Metaxas on 15 January. Cf. ‘History of the Preliminaries to Greece’, reproducing telegram in COS 12 (O), 15 Jan 1941, where nine divisions is the number stated.

4 These staff talks began immediately and continued until 13 February 1941. See Rich, Ch. 1, p. 35, para. 64.

5 COS 14 (O), 18 Jan 1941.

page 97 ‘Glen’ ships should be sent to assist in the capture of Rhodes1 and that a reserve of four divisions should be assembled for operations in Greece or Turkey within the next two months. The commanders-in-chief agreed, and the desert forces which had just captured Tobruk continued on their way to encircle the Italian army in Cyrenaica.

At the moment any information coming in to the Foreign Office suggested that it was Turkey and not Greece which would have to be supported. The efforts of the British Liaison Mission2 to persuade the Turks to accept British assistance, especially air forces, had not, however, been successful. Lacking the resources with which to challenge the Axis powers, they preferred to remain neutral. This forced Mr Churchill to send a personal appeal to the President of Turkey and to advise the Chiefs of Staff that ‘the Greek-Turkish situation must have priority.’3 As explained to General Wavell by the Chiefs of Staff, it was more important than the capture of Benghazi.

Within a week this was all too clear. On 6 February, three weeks earlier than expected, Benghazi was occupied and the desert flank, the peg on which all else hung, had become relatively secure.4 On 8 February M. Koryzis, the new President5 of Greece, sent a note to the British Government reaffirming the determination of his country to resist any German attack but repeating the statement by Metaxas that no British force should be sent into Macedonia until the Germans had entered Bulgaria. Staff talks6 had, however, been taking place for the last three weeks, so Koryzis now suggested that the size and composition of the British expeditionary force be determined. It would then be possible to decide whether the combined Greek and British forces could resist German aggression and encourage the support of Turkey and Yugoslavia. If they could not, then the premature appearance of insufficient forces in Macedonia ‘would do no more than provoke German intervention.’

The British Government was thus forced to make a major decision—should the desert army which had just taken Benghazi complete the conquest of North Africa or should the force be halted in preparation for a move to the Balkans? In the words

1 The attempt was never made but the ‘Glen’ liners converted for use as assault landing ships were afterwards used in the evacuation of W Force from Greece.

2 The report from this mission was received in London on 22 January.

3 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 32.

4 The landing of the Afrika Korps at Tripoli had begun early in February but Wavell received no definite reports until mid-February.

5 General Metaxas had died on 29 January 1941.

6 Defence plans had been discussed; No. 27 Military Mission had studied harbours and possible bases (not the Salonika area).

page 98 of Mr Churchill: ‘Now the moment had come when the irrevocable decision must be taken whether or not to send the Army of the Nile to Greece. This grave step was required not only to help Greece in her peril and torment but to form against the impending German attack a Balkan Front comprising Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey, with effects upon Soviet Russia which could not be measured by us…. It was not what we could send ourselves that could decide the Balkan issue. Our limited hope was to stir and organise united action. If at the wave of our wand Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey would all act together, it seemed to us that Hitler might either let the Balkans off for the time being or become so heavily engaged with our combined forces as to create a major front in that theatre. We did not then know that he was already deeply set upon his gigantic invasion of Russia. If we had we should have felt more confidence in the success of our policy. We should have seen that he risked falling between two stools, and might easily impair his supreme undertaking for the sake of a Balkan preliminary. This is what actually happened, but we could not know at the time.’1

All that the Government could appreciate was the importance of arresting the movement of German forces into south and south-east Europe. It had been its desire ever since Churchill had made his report2 to Cabinet during the first week of the war, and now that Benghazi had been captured the Government was prepared to send all possible support to Greece. So on 12 February Wavell was told that his forces in Cyrenaica must be halted; his major effort had now to be in the Balkans; and if that was a failure Crete must be held ‘at all costs.’ The Middle East Command was to initiate such preparations as it could, including the assembly of ships for the movement of the maximum forces at the earliest possible moment. To obtain concerted action Mr Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, and Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, were to visit Cairo, study the situation and then go to Athens and Ankara.

These instructions forced General Wavell to search his rather bare cupboard to find a force to go to Greece. The best that he could do was to suggest a brigade from 2 Armoured Division, the Polish Brigade,3 6 and 7 Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division.

1 Churchill, Vol. III, pp. 83–4.

2 See p. 86.

3 Because of Rommel's counter-attack in North Africa the Polish Brigade and 7 Australian Division were not sent to Greece.

page 99

On 17 February he told General Freyberg that his division would be the advanced guard of the Imperial Force.1 The troops would disembark at either Piræus or Volos, move up to a defence line in Macedonia, and, when the Australians arrived, withdraw into Force Reserve for movement north to hold the Monastir Gap or possibly the front north-east of Salonika. And there the subject was closed, leaving Freyberg in a very difficult position. As he afterwards said: ‘The decision to go to Greece was taken on a level we could not touch…. I was never in a position to make a well informed and responsible judgment…. Wavell told me our Government agreed…. Wavell had established the right to deal direct2 with the New Zealand Government, without letting me know what was happening…. We should have cabled them.’3

With General Blamey it was somewhat different. On being given his instructions on 18 February he suggested that the matter should be referred to the Australian Government. He was told that the proposal had already been discussed with Mr Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, who had just passed through Cairo on his way to London. General Wavell had found him ‘very ready to agree to what he suggested.’4

By then Mr Eden and General Dill were on their way to Cairo. The Foreign Secretary had to gather together all the threads and propose the best solution to the problems of the Middle East. His principal task was to initiate any action he thought fit for the swift relief of Greece, with whom it was ‘our duty to fight, and, if need be, suffer.’ His second task was to make both Turkey and Yugoslavia ‘fight at the same time or do the best they can.’ And his third was to arrange for military aid to Turkey since her interests were, in the long run, ‘no less important to us than those of Greece.’5 General Dill, as Chief of the General Staff, would give advice on military affairs and, if there was any difference of opinion, his views were to be given to the Government.

The delegates arrived in Cairo on 19 February where, almost immediately, Eden received a telegram from Churchill in which there was a rather cautious note: ‘Do not consider yourselves obligated to a Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will only be another Norwegian fiasco. If no good plan can be made please say so. But of course you know how valuable success would be.’6

1 See also F. L. W. Wood, The New Zealand People at War, Chap. 14.

2 As Freyberg thought. Actually Eden - Churchill - Dominions Office-New Zealand Government was the line of communication.

3 Freyberg to Kippenberger, 10 Sep 1956.

4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 59.

5 Ibid., p. 61.

6 Ibid., p. 63.

page 100

The replies from Eden on 20–21 February stated that after discussions in Cairo it had been decided to offer the fullest possible support to Greece. The argument was that if Greece was not successfully supported Turkey might not fight—and that would mean that Yugoslavia might not fight. That being so, the only way to prevent Hitler's gradual absorption of these states and to build up a Balkan front was to help Greece with everything that was available. They all admitted that it was ‘a gamble to send forces to the mainland of Europe to fight Germans at this time. No one can give a guarantee of success, but when we discussed this matter in London we were prepared to run the risk of failure, thinking it better to suffer with the Greeks than to make no attempt to help them. That is the conviction we all hold here. Moreover, though the campaign is a daring venture, we are not without hope that it might succeed to the extent of halting the Germans before they overrun all Greece.’1 They might have to play the cards of their ‘evacuation strong suit’2 but the stakes were big, so big that intervention was safer than inactivity.

The forces available were not strong; at the very most Lustre Force3 would have no more than three and a half divisions; and they could not all be deployed until mid-June. Moreover, there would be problems of supply which would tax the resources of the Navy and a weakness of air cover that could never be remedied. However, as a guarantee to the Greeks that Britain was sending her best, the commander would be General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, who had a high reputation after his recent successes in Libya. The Australian Corps and the New Zealand Division would both of them ‘be led by strong personalities who are also senior soldiers.’

Mr Eden, Generals Dill and Wavell, Air Chief Marshal Longmore and Captain R. M. Dick, RN, representing Admiral Cunningham, then went on 22 February to Athens to confer with the King of Greece, M. Koryzis and General Papagos. Before the conference the King insisted that Mr Eden should receive from M. Koryzis an appreciation4 of the situation as it appeared to the Greeks. Greece was determined to continue the war against Italy and, if attacked by Germany, to resist with or without British assistance. But the Government was not certain that the available Greek and British forces were sufficiently strong to resist the

1 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 65.

2 Long, p. 9; Rich, Vol. I, p. 45. Cf. Churchill, Vol. III, p. 65, which says ‘to play trump cards’.

3 The code-name given to the proposed British force during the negotiations.

4 Two documents had been given to the British Minister earlier in the month; the third is summarised in Churchill, Vol. III, p. 66.

page 101 enemy. The British were prepared to despatch two or three divisions but the minimum support, according to the late General Metaxas, must be ten divisions. Otherwise the appearance of a small British force would precipitate German intervention and discourage Turkey and Yugoslavia. Such being the case, no British troops should be despatched until Germany had entered Bulgaria. The problem for the conference was ‘what reinforcements should be sent to enable the Greek Army to resist the German.’

In the discussions which followed the British explained that their victories in North Africa had made it possible for them to offer considerable assistance.1 The Greeks welcomed the suggestion but emphasised the danger of precipitating German action and the need for the Allies to calculate whether their combined forces were, because of the dubious attitude of Turkey and Yugoslavia, strong enough to make an effective resistance. General Papagos explained that the choice of a defence line depended upon the policy of Yugoslavia. If she joined the Allies they could hold either the Metaxas or Strimon line, both2 of which covered the port of Salonika. If she did not the left flank would be open for a German advance through Bulgaria and down the Vardar valley.

The political appreciation at this stage was that Yugoslavia could not be counted on as an ally. Prince Paul had already declined a suggested visit by Mr Eden and the antagonism between Serb and Croat was such that if war was declared the latter would possibly support Germany. The only safe policy was to assume that Yugoslavia would remain neutral.

In that case the best policy for the Allies was to hold the Aliakmon line, which lay to the west of Salonika along the mountain barrier of Mount Olympus - Veroia - Edhessa - Kaimakchalan. The main danger would be the exposure of the left flank should the Germans invade Yugoslavia and approach the Monastir Gap, a natural avenue into northern Greece. There was every chance, however, that Yugoslavia would resist such violation of her neutrality so the military experts, remembering Serbian resistance in 1914–18 and the mountainous nature of the country, decided that the flank was reasonably safe. If the Germans did break through there would always be time to establish a line from Mount Olympus through Servia to the Greek positions in the west.

1 Major-General Sir F. de Guingand, Operation Victory, p. 57, gives an account of how this assistance was described in the best possible light.

2 Metaxas line: forts from Mt Beles near the junction of the Greek, Yugoslav and Bulgarian frontiers to the Rupel Pass and east to the Mesta River—in all 100 miles. Strimon line: from Mt Beles to the Rupel Pass and south down the Strimon River to the sea—in all 70 miles.

page 102

Time was all important, but General Papagos had already asked the Greek Government for permission to withdraw1 his troops as soon as possible from Thrace and Macedonia. Once they had reached the Aliakmon line he could adjust his right flank in Albania and prepare for defensive action. The line was naturally strong and the thirty-five Greek battalions, with the British forces, as offered, should be able to hold it. Papagos had already said that he thought that eight divisions with one in reserve was the requirement and Dill agreed. Wavell and Dill now thought that the plan offered a reasonable chance of success but they were worried about the inevitable air superiority of the Germans, although quite definite that the movement of Imperial troops from Egypt to Greece should begin immediately.

The question then arose as to when the Greeks in Thrace and eastern Macedonia should be recalled to the Aliakmon line. From a military point of view their immediate withdrawal was the only answer. On the other hand, it might be a political error to abandon Macedonia because all contact would be lost with the Turks and Salonika would be left undefended. As the main supply line to Yugoslavia would be from that port, its Government might then decide not to join the Allies. Nevertheless the outcome of the discussion, so far as the British understood it, was that the Greeks would immediately withdraw. And because of the doubtful attitude of some Yugoslav ministers there was to be no official statement to that country, otherwise the Germans might be told of the British expedition. Mr Eden was to approach Prince Paul, the Regent of Yugoslavia, pointing out the likelihood of Germany attacking Greece and asking him for his opinion on the subject of Yugoslav intervention. Before the conference broke up in the early hours of 23 February, M. Koryzis, at Eden's request, stated formally that the Greek Government accepted with deep gratitude the offer of assistance made by the British Government, and that the military plan was completely acceptable.

The authorities in London accepted these decisions. The Chiefs of Staff saw the possibilities of the campaign in the Balkans but thought that the risks were great. On the other hand, the desertion of a minor ally already fighting one enemy and determined to fight another would be a major political error. Moreover it was a sound move to have the Germans fight for what they wanted rather than to grant them a victory by default. In the War Cabinet Churchill pointed out that the men on the spot had not been forced to support the venture. Eden had already been warned2 that there
Trentham Camp, 1939

Trentham Camp, 1939

First Echelon recruits at Hopu Hopu receive their web equipment

First Echelon recruits at Hopu Hopu receive their web equipment

Visitors' Day, Trentham, before the departure of the First Echelon in January 1940

Visitors' Day, Trentham, before the departure of the First Echelon in January 1940

Second Echelon farewell parade at the Auckland Domain, April 1940. A small Navy contingent sailed with this echelon

Second Echelon farewell parade at the Auckland Domain, April 1940.
A small Navy contingent sailed with this echelon

First Echelon troops on board the Dunera, Lyttelton, 5 January 1940

First Echelon troops on board the Dunera, Lyttelton, 5 January 1940

Railway Construction sappers board the Andes at Lytelton, 1 May 1940

Railway Construction sappers board the Andes at Lytelton, 1 May 1940

Submarine lookout, Mauretania

Submarine lookout, Mauretania

First Echelon and AIF convoy in the Indian Ocean, January 1940. The ships are: Nearest line (from left), Otranto, Sobieski; second line, Strathnaver, Strathaird; third line, Orion, Orford, Dunera; fourth line, Empress of Canada, Empress of Japan; fifth line, Orcades, Rangitata; at rear, an escorting cruiser

First Echelon and AIF convoy in the Indian Ocean, January 1940. The ships are: Nearest line (from left), Otranto, Sobieski; second line, Strathnaver, Strathaird; third line, Orion, Orford, Dunera; fourth line, Empress of Canada, Empress of Japan; fifth line, Orcades, Rangitata; at rear, an escorting cruiser



General Freyberg welcomes the First Echelon at Port Tewfik, 12 February 1940. General Wavell (carrying cane) is behind him and to his left are Mr Anthony Eden and Sir Miles Lampson

General Freyberg welcomes the First Echelon at Port Tewfik, 12 February 1940. General Wavell (carrying cane) is behind him and to his left are Mr Anthony Eden and Sir Miles Lampson

20 Battalion arrives at Maadi Camp, Februay 1940

20 Battalion arrives at Maadi Camp, Februay 1940

Battalion lines, Maadi

Battalion lines, Maadi

Second Echelon disembarks at Gourock

Second Echelon disembarks at Gourock

Mytchett Place, Headquarters of 2 NZEF in the United Kingdom

Mytchett Place, Headquarters of 2 NZEF in the United Kingdom

Mr Churchill takes the salute from D Company of the Maori Battalion

Mr Churchill takes the salute from D Company of the Maori Battalion

Loading spruce. New Zealand Forestry Group in the United Kingdom

Loading spruce. New Zealand Forestry Group in the United Kingdom

1 In future discussions General Papagos stated that it had been permission to withdraw his troops ‘if necessary’. See p. 105.

2 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 63.

page 103 was not to be another Norwegian fiasco; General Wavell had naturally been eager to complete his North African campaign; and General Dill had, hitherto, been doubtful about the chances of a Greek campaign. Now they were all in favour of it. Churchill himself thought that the relief of Greece might convince Yugoslavia and Turkey and impress the United States. In the discussion which followed this statement Mr Menzies, who was present, wanted reassurances about shipping and equipment. The venture had to be more than a forlorn hope; he had to be able to tell his cabinet in Australia that there was a reasonable chance of success. Churchill thought that the expedition could hardly be avoided. ‘If we should be pressed back, our troops might well have to be evacuated’,1 but the majority of them could be brought back to Egypt. The only serious loss could be one of equipment. In the end the War Cabinet gave its unanimous approval, with one important reservation: the Governments of Australia and New Zealand had to agree before their divisions were employed. Churchill on 24 February advised Eden that there was ‘No need anticipate difficulties in either quarter.’ ‘Therefore’, he continued, ‘while being under no illusions, we all send you the order “Full steam ahead”.’2 But this was perhaps too confident a statement.

1 British Historical Section, Cabinet Office.

2 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 69.