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To Greece

The Coup d'état in Yugoslavia

The Coup d'état in Yugoslavia

The uncertainty of those in command at Amindaion was not difficult to explain. General Papagos had never given up his hopes of holding the Metaxas line, thereby checking any thrust from Bulgaria and covering the Axios valley through which the Allied supply line from Salonika would have to enter Yugoslavia. Moreover, if that country did support the Allies and if her army was as strong as many military experts declared it to be, then there would be no need for a stronger force about Amindaion. The British commanders, on the other hand, had always argued that the Allies without the support of Turkey and Yugoslavia had not the strength to retain the Metaxas line, Salonika and western Macedonia. In their opinion, and they had won the argument,2 the greater part of the Central Macedonian Army had to be withdrawn to the Aliakmon line. To prevent the Germans driving through Yugoslavia and turning the northern end of that line, General Wilson had consequently been assembling the force at Amindaion.

But events in Yugoslavia had been causing complications. On 25 March, the day on which 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion had moved north from Athens, the Yugoslav Government adhered to the Tripartite Pact with Germany. General Papagos, accepting the situation, had then been prepared to withdraw his troops from eastern Macedonia to the Aliakmon line. Shortly afterwards, however, news arrived that the people of Yugoslavia were dissatisfied with the pact. Acting on this information Papagos declined3 the offer of British transport and kept his divisions in eastern Macedonia. The coup d'état of 27 March which changed the government in Belgrade was definite proof, so far as he was concerned, of the wisdom of his policy. He now hoped that if his divisions remained on the borders of Bulgaria they would, in due time, link up with the armies of Yugoslavia.

The British were inclined to agree with him. The expedition was now ‘in its true setting, not as an isolated military act, but as a prime mover in a large design.’4 Eden and Dill, who had already reached Malta, hastened back to Athens, where they conferred first with Wilson and then with the Greek authorities. It was

2 See p. 102.

3 Wilson, p. 79.

4 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 152, See p. 115.

page 132 decided that the Yugoslavs should be told that, if they moved into Bulgaria and Albania when the Germans entered Greece, the Allies would reinforce the defences along the Nestos River and the boundary of Bulgaria. At all costs they would protect the route up the Axios valley from Salonika into Yugoslavia.

At the end of March Dill paid a secret visit to Belgrade, but the Yugoslav leaders had no definite plans and no desire to take steps which might irritate Germany. The best that he could do was to arrange a conference at Kenali, near the border of Yugoslavia, between General Jankovitch, their Director of Operations, and Generals Papagos and Wilson. The Allied representatives went north from Athens on the night of 2–3 April so it was possible for General Freyberg to join the train and travel some distance with them.

That evening [2 April] I received a mysterious telegram to meet certain important people who were arriving by train at Katerini Station at 4.30 in the morning. To my surprise I met Mr Eden, General Dill, and General Wilson en route to Florina for a conference with the Yugo-Slav General Staff. I travelled up on the train with them as far as Aginion [Aiyinion] and heard the news and the plans which were in view. They were all in high spirits at the thought of Yugo-Slavia coming into the War and, as a result, various new plans seemed to be under consideration, including the possible advance of the British Forces north to the Rupel Pass. In the short time I had I did my best to put the case from our point of view. Although I did not like the Metaxas Line,1 it was a defensive position. With the help of Greek civilians we had improved the tank obstacle considerably and we had put out a great deal of wire. If we moved from this we might well be caught on the open plains without any defence against the German mechanised forces. Our only armoured force was the 1 Armoured Brigade whose original role was to delay the enemy to the maximum between the Axios and Aliakmon Rivers. I also hinted that we were not an Army—that so far we had only got the NZ Division in the forward area. On getting back to my HQ I wrote as follows in my diary concerning this new plan: ‘The situation is a grave one; we shall be fighting against heavy odds in a plan that has been ill-conceived and one that violates every principle of military strategy.’2

This was soon equally clear to the British commanders. They had gone forward to Edhessa and back through the mountains to Amindaion, through the Klidhi Pass and the defence posts of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion to Florina, and beyond that again to a siding just south of the border of Yugoslavia. In the railcar that night, 3–4 April, they had their conference with General Jankovitch, who made the policy of Yugoslavia quite clear. If the Axis group attempted to take Salonika with the aim of encircling Yugoslavia from the south, Yugoslavia would resist and be prepared to co-operate with the Allied armies. She herself would

1 This was an error: the Aliakmon line was meant.

2 Report on New Zealand Division in Greece, pp. 11–12.

page 133 decide just when she would make that move, but she was quite willing to have plans prepared for any eventuality. In fact, Jankovitch had brought with him the draft plans by which she was willing to commit her divisions. Five British divisions were to go forward to the Lake Doiran area as a link between the army of Yugoslavia and the Greek forces along the Metaxas line. At the appropriate moment, which would be decided in Belgrade, the Allied forces were to open an offensive against the Italians in Albania and to the rear and right flank of the Germans advancing towards Salonika.

In the discussion which then developed the Allied representatives had to explain that such an ambitious plan was impossible. Moreover it was quite obvious that Jankovitch had not the authority to make any important decisions. The best they could do was to make suggestions and thereafter hope for the best. ‘General Papagos urged General J. to persuade his Government to send two more divisions into southern Serbia so as to ensure no break in the hinge joining the Allies; whilst I again stressed the importance of stopping a tank break through and of fighting on ground where the Yugoslav soldier would find himself superior to the German. At two o'clock in the morning General J. departed; opportunity for meeting him again never recurred. This closed the most unusual and at the same time the most unsatisfactory conference I have ever attended.’1

On the other hand, it was now quite clear that there had been a tendency to overestimate the contribution which Yugoslavia could make to the Allied cause. Her leaders apparently thought that they could make decisions in their own good time, ‘whereas it was most likely the Germans would make them for them.’2 And, even more important, her army as a fighting unit was now of very doubtful quality.

This hesitancy on the part of Yugoslavia placed Wilson and Papagos in a very difficult position so on 4 April, during the train journey from the conference, they discussed their problems. The former thought that the Germans might follow their favourite practice of attacking on the flanks, in which case there could be an encircling move from the east towards the Strumica River3 or possibly a thrust across south-east Yugoslavia which might end up as an advance into Greece through the Monastir Gap. First Armoured Brigade had therefore to be retained west of the Axios

1 Wilson, p. 83.

2 Ibid.

3 This river is called the Strimon in Greece, the Struma and Strumitsa in Bulgaria, and the Strumica in Yugoslavia.

page 134 River, ready to move forward or, if there was a threat from Monastir, to retire through the mountains to Amindaion.

In the opinion of General Papagos, however, the Monastir Gap was less important than the routes through the mountains into Macedonia and south towards Salonika. That from Bulgaria went through the Metaxas line by way of the Rupel Pass; that from Yugoslavia, the only supply line in the case of war, followed the valley of the Vardar (Axios) River. To control them he thought that several units from the Allied army should be moved forward from the Aliakmon line.

If the British resources had been greater and the support of Yugoslavia more certain this would have been a reasonable plan. But Wilson did not wish his troops to be caught on the move at this stage of the campaign; he preferred to remain where he was until the political situation was less obscure. So the final decision was that there should be no move beyond the Aliakmon line for at least eight days.