Chapter 9: Retrospect
THE British expedition to Greece was undertaken partly with the object of establishing a front in the Balkans in cooperation with Greece and, it was hoped, Turkey and Yugoslavia, and partly because the British nations had a moral obligation to give substantial help to the hard-pressed Greeks, whom they had guaranteed to assist against any aggressor. The moral obligation was felt the more deeply because Greece was the only surviving ally of the British Commonwealth, and, although a small nation, had fought resolutely – and with success – against the Italians, and was willing to defend herself against Germany. Leaders in Britain and the Dominions were anxious about the unhappy results that might follow, particularly in the United States, if Britain failed to support her ally with all her strength. In their view, the expedition had to be undertaken to maintain the prestige of the British Commonwealth, if for no other reason.
In January the Greek leaders had declined a British offer of help on the grounds that it was so small that not only would it be ineffective but likely to provoke German retaliation. The offer to send a force to Greece was finally accepted, but a condition imposed by the Greeks was that the British force should not arrive until the German Army had entered Bulgaria – when an invasion of Greece was virtually inevitable, and when there would be little time left to transport an effective force from Egypt and build up an enduring front in the Balkans.
The Greek leaders were grateful. Later Papagos wrote that he considered that it was not for military but political reasons that Britain offered aid.
For Greece to be crushed without a single British soldier striking a blow in her defence would have meant a flagrant breach of the promises so repeatedly given (he said). 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 unfavourable effect on American public opinion. ... In any case, we Greeks, regardless of the effectiveness of the British aid, owe a debt of gratitude to the British Empire, whose sons came to Greece to fight and get killed by our side.1
A Greek republican leader, General Sarafis, afterwards outstanding in the Resistance Army during the German-Italian occupation, went farther and declared that it was Greece who had failed to fulfil her obligations to Britain. In common with other republicans and liberals in Greece, he regarded the monarchists as only half-hearted enemies of Nazism.
Our British allies were left to continue the fight alone and exposed (he wrote); and thus, at Thermopylae where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell, a singular thing came to pass – the Greeks were absent while the British fought. We ought to have put up a defence to the last moment, to have constituted ourselves the rearguard and facilitated the retreat of the British and of as many Greek troops as possible for use on another front.
The responsibility for this does not lie with our people, who did their duty to the fullest extent. Nor are the generals who capitulated alone responsible but, rather, all our rulers who not only did not take proper measures to prevent surrender, but by their general attitude suggested that very thing.2
Opinions will differ on the question whether the expedition was necessary to maintain the prestige of the Allied cause, particularly in the United States. On the one hand is the down-to-earth military opinion forcibly expressed by General Blamey, that another defeat would do more harm than good to the reputation of the British Commonwealth. On the other is the point of view of Britons, in England and the Dominions, who were sensitive to any possible slur on British honour, particularly since the surrender at Munich, and who were convinced that the spectacle of one great Power standing by its promise or duty to a little one was of immense value to the cause, whether in the United States or in the world at large.
The principal aim of the British intervention, however, was to establish a Balkan front; yet at no time does there seem to have been sufficient good evidence to justify the hope entertained by Mr Churchill and his colleagues that Turkey or Yugoslavia would take effective steps towards combined action against attack by Germany. The hopes of the Ministers in London seem to have been based either on inaccurate information or excessive optimism. Thus, very soon after Britain decided to send a large expedition to Greece, the then leaders of Yugoslavia virtually surrendered to Hitler, and the Turks made it clear, as they had done before, that they considered that Britain lacked sufficient military strength to intervene effectively in the Balkans. The Greek leaders agreed with them on this point.
All but four weak divisions of the Greek Army (later two more weak divisions were hurriedly formed) were engaged against a stronger Italian army in Albania. The most that Britain could offer was approximately four divisions, including only a brigade of armour. On the other hand the only limit on the force that the German Army could employ was the capacity of the roads to carry them. (This, as the operations showed, was a genuine limit, because when the British embarkation from the Peloponnese ended fewer than one-third of the divisions of the German Twelfth Army had managed to reach southern Greece.) In the event the German staff greatly over-estimated both the force opposed to them and the ability of the Balkan roads to carry their own army, and made available against Greece and Yugoslavia an extravagantly large army group of twenty-seven divisions, including seven armoured (one of which spent April on the Bulgarian-Turkish frontier). The actual conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece was achieved by a fraction of the troops the Germans laboriously deployed. In the face of such reserve power, detailed examination of Allied supply problems, the state of the Greek Army, and the degree of Allied inferiority in the air, would be prolix.
When the invasion of Greece began the exact date of the invasion of Russia had not been fixed by the German High Command. In December
it had directed that preparations must be complete by 15th May; on 24th January the 1st June was mentioned as the estimated date. Immediately after the coup in Yugoslavia, however, the invasion of Russia was postponed for about four weeks – an inexact decision since the date of the proposed operation had never been fixed. On 6th April plans for the occupation of Yugoslavia were complete and it was decided that the invasion of Russia could begin on the 22nd June. This date was confirmed on 30th April. Thus the date was tentatively fixed on the day on which the attack on Greece and Yugoslavia opened and confirmed as soon as the Greek campaign ended.3
The Germans rapidly re-deployed their Balkan armies for the attack on Russia. By 14th May only three armoured and fifteen unarmoured divisions remained in the Balkans; by 21st June no armoured divisions and seven unarmoured divisions. On 21st June seventeen armoured and 106 unarmoured divisions of the German Army, and other formations provided by the satellite nations, were deployed on the Russian front.
General Papagos later expressed a conviction that the wise course for Britain would have been to concentrate on the conquest of Libya rather than the defence of Greece. General O’Connor, the commander in the field in Cyrenaica, believed that, given full naval and air support, he could have taken Tripoli, had it not been that his advance was halted to enable the force to be sent to Greece – and a fortnight was to pass between the end of the fighting in Cyrenaica and the day on which the Greek leaders accepted the British offer of military help. Before the British and German Armies met in Greece, the reduced garrison of Cyrenaica was in retreat.
The outstanding lesson of the Greek campaign (wrote General Blamey in his dispatch) is that no reasons whatever should outweigh military considerations when it is proposed to embark on a campaign, otherwise failure and defeat are courted. The main principles that must be satisfied are that the objects to be secured should be fully understood, the means to achieve the objects should be adequate and the plan should be such as will ensure success. All three essentials were lacking in the campaign in Greece, with the resultant inevitable failure. As far as my limited knowledge goes, the main reason for the dispatch of the force appears to have been a political one, viz., to support the Greeks to vindicate our agreed obligations.
It has been seen that Dill, Wavell and Cunningham undertook the expedition with some misgivings though they did not doubt its correctness; but it would have been difficult for them to oppose it. The British Cabinet made it clear at an early stage that it was determined to establish a force in the Balkans if it could, and the personality of the British Prime Minister must be taken into account in any assessment of the decisions of his immediate subordinates. In experience of the conduct of policy in war he towered above his contemporaries, whether in Europe or America. He was autocratic, had a considerable knowledge of military and naval affairs, and an uncommon grasp of their details; he was supported by immense
prestige, and it required men of phenomenal strength and forthrightness to tell him that he was wrong. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, was astonished at the manner in which he dominated his Cabinet.
In other circumstances the Dominion Governments concerned might have vetoed the adventure. Throughout 1940 and 1941, however, the Dominion Governments were not informed on questions of military policy fully and promptly enough to enable them to make important strategical decisions, and, in addition, were clearly impressed by the necessity of presenting a united front. The habit of accepting the solution offered by senior British leaders was deeply engrained.
When facing a crucial problem Menzies might have been expected to consult Blamey, and Blamey to have expressed his opinion to his minister, as he had the right to do. But, as a result of misunderstandings, Menzies had been told in London that Blamey agreed, Blamey in Egypt that Menzies agreed. In any event (and it is in this respect that, in this episode, the method of cooperation with the Dominions chiefly failed) , when the Dominion leaders were consulted it was too late. The British envoys had offered to Greece an army consisting chiefly of three divisions – two Australian and one New Zealand – and it had been accepted by the Greeks. The Dominion Governments were left a choice between concurrence on the one hand and, on the other, a veto which would have required the British Commonwealth to break an undertaking with its ally. They concurred. For any disregard of their rights and responsibilities the Dominion Ministers themselves were largely responsible. It was their duty to ensure that they were adequately informed on military matters, and to assert their right to swift and adequate information from London and effective consultation.
The record of the consultations between British and Greek commanders is a sorry tale of misunderstanding, and the campaign opened in an atmosphere of mistrust. One principal object of the British political leaders was to establish cooperation with Yugoslavia, and the Greeks were particularly anxious that this should be done. With sound logic Papagos was resolved to attempt to hold Salonika, the only port through which Yugoslav resistance could be maintained, until the attitude of Yugoslavia had been defined. The British commanders saw the advantage of holding Salonika but, after learning of the dispositions of the Greek Army, decided that it would be advisable to deploy on the Olympus–Vermion line in country difficult to an attacker. The coup in Yugoslavia revived the possibility of holding a line forward of Salonika, but efforts to establish an effective liaison with the Yugoslav Army proved unsuccessful.
Lack of confidence in the Greeks, established in the minds of the British and Dominion commanders before the fighting opened, strongly influenced the conduct of the campaign. General Wilson decided to withdraw from the Aliakmon position because, he believed, the Greeks had disintegrated on his left. It has been seen, however, that the more dangerous breach of the Allied line occurred not in the Greek sector on the left, but on the
right of the Anzac Corps. That Corps was not strong enough to hold the Olympus–Aliakmon line against the forces which the Germans could bring against them. Later, when the British force retired and occupied the Thermopylae position, and the Greek army in Epirus surrendered, the capitulation of that army was given as a reason why the Thermopylae position would be untenable. Actually no threat to the Anzac force developed from that flank; and, whatever happened in Epirus, the Thermopylae position could not have been held against List’s army by the depleted Anzac Corps. It was regrettable that efforts were made to place responsibility for failure on the Greeks who had fought well against both Italians and Germans. Finally, the military planning of the embarkation was left until too late, and two commanders and staffs well qualified to take part in controlling an orderly and complete withdrawal and embarkation were sent out of Greece too early. In retrospect it is evident that a more deliberate withdrawal could have been carried out and thousands of base troops who were left behind could have been saved.
Pride is a military virtue. The soldier is “jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth”. The reputation of a senior commander seldom survives a failure. A humiliating feature of a set-back in which the foot-soldier has stood his ground but the general management has been faulty is the recrimination that follows and may infect the troops as well as their leaders. An Air Force officer from Greece wrote of the scene in Cairo immediately after the evacuation:
At both Army and Air Headquarters during the next few days there was a hum of splenetic activity, reminiscent of an overturned beehive. Everybody was writing out reports, the Army blaming the Air Force ... the Air Force blaming the Army. ... The atmosphere was full of acrimonious tension, which was felt even by other ranks, for there were incidents at Alexandria between soldiers just in from Greece and men of the R.A.F., some of whom had never even been there.4
Before the war it had been generally realised that air attack would be more accurate and persistent than in the war of 1914-18; actual experience of air assault on rear positions and convoys vividly impressed some senior commanders and staffs in 1940 and 1941, and gave them temporarily an exaggerated conception of the power of aircraft (in the numbers available in those years) decisively to influence fighting on the ground. Some of them asserted that British air inferiority had been a decisive factor in Greece. If so much as a platoon had altered its position because it had been attacked from the air, or if substantial casualties had been inflicted on the rearguards by aircraft, or the transport and supply of the force seriously impeded because they had destroyed its trucks, there would be support for such a contention. The fact was that the German Air Force failed to achieve any of these results in Greece; its greatest success was the destruction wrought in the port of Athens. The time was then distant when
air power, vastly stronger than that employed by the Germans in Greece, considerably more accurate in its fire and more closely coordinated, would be able to play a part comparable with, say, the artillery in an action on the ground.
After the campaign there was also much discussion of equipment – whether the force as a whole was adequately armed, whether the unit and the man were as well provided as their enemy. In fact the British formations in Greece were probably no better or worse armed than their German adversaries, who were happy to refit vehicles and weapons captured in this as in earlier campaigns. The infantry were flung into a mountain campaign against expert mountain troops who were better equipped and trained than they were for such operations. Nevertheless, at short notice they converted themselves into mountain troops to the extent that they covered the ground and solved the new tactical problems. Inevitably useful lessons were learnt as a result of first meeting with another first-class army – for the Anzac Corps was a well-trained force and in fine fettle – but the defeat suffered by the Corps was not the result of lack of equipment within the formations but of the deployment of an enemy force stronger both in armour and infantry.
The Anzac Corps carried out a series of successful rearguard actions – in each of its positions the clash did not come until after plans for the next withdrawal had been made; each was a rearguard action in the strictest sense of the word. Perhaps the most important military lesson of the campaign was its demonstration of the extent to which, in such rugged country, artillery, with reliable infantry ahead, could halt and confuse a pursuer, and, after each retirement, engineers, cratering the roads at well-selected places, could delay for days the advance of a force tied to a multitude of laden vehicles – as was the German. In retrospect, the fighting withdrawal of more than 300 miles, generally along a single road, with the loss of but one fighting unit, seems an outstanding military achievement.