Chapter 6: The Balkan Front
IN April 1939, shortly after the Italian forces had landed in Albania, Mr Churchill warned the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, that the ‘whole of the Balkan Peninsula’1 was at stake. Already convinced that the Axis powers meant war, the British Government guaranteed to support Greece and Rumania should their independence be threatened. And in May Turkey was assured2 that she would be supported should any act of aggression lead to war in the Mediterranean.
Once war was declared Churchill was able to enlarge upon the strategic importance of the Balkans. In his opinion the course of events and the ‘quenchless antagonism’ between Germany and Russia would create not only an eastern front but also a south-eastern one. For the ambitions of Hitler and the traditional interest3 of Russia in the Balkans were almost certain to be conflicting. Britain had therefore been ‘fostering this front’, strengthening it and ‘endeavouring to throw it into simultaneous action should any part of it be attacked. ...’4
After the collapse of France in June 1940 this was no longer possible. Encouraged5 by Hitler, Russia, Bulgaria and Hungary stripped Rumania of her frontier provinces. In consequence she was soon to be, with Bulgaria and Hungary, one of the subsidiary allies of Germany.
In August Mussolini, without consulting Hitler, attempted to intimidate Greece. At this stage Britain could offer little assistance. Mr Churchill, ever conscious of the importance of the Eastern
Mediterranean, had already suggested6 that if Italy attacked Greece, then Britain and France should become responsible for Crete. But now that Britain stood alone her forces were hopelessly inadequate. Consequently, when General Metaxas (Greek Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs) on 22 August asked what assistance he could expect, he was told that until Egypt was secure no land or sea forces were available for service in the Balkans. This did not mean that Britain intended to desert Greece. Churchill, who was then completing his ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal with Roosevelt, stated that the business was urgent, that it might indirectly save Greece from invasion. And to reassure Greece, the guarantee of British protection was renewed on 5 September.
But no close understanding developed between Greece and Britain. The former had only two aims in view: ‘(1) not to become involved in the disputes between the groups of Great Powers, and, (2) to forestall any attempt to use her territory as a theatre of war.’7 The British Chiefs of Staff took just as realistic a view of the situation. Troops might possibly be sent to strengthen the garrison in Crete but no support could be given to the Greeks on the mainland. By October conditions had improved, for the invasion of Britain had not been attempted and Churchill had risked the despatch of reinforcements to the Middle East. But the Chiefs of Staff were still convinced that ‘The front line defence of Egypt did not lie in Greece.’
As it was, the Italian invasion of Greece had been postponed, not because of British action but because Hitler had called a halt all along the line. He had decided that, if the invasion of Britain proved impracticable, his next move must be the invasion of Russia and not, as many thought, a thrust south-east to the Suez Canal or the Persian Gulf. In preparation for this venture he hoped to isolate his Russian victim, bring Spain and Vichy France into the war on the side of Germany and encourage the Balkan states to adhere to the Tripartite Pact. If they would permit the movement of his armies through their territories he could avoid an unnecessary campaign in the Balkans; the British would not dare to intervene; and he would have another secure front from which to attack Russia.
In his efforts to arrange this he now had several months of delicate negotiations, sometimes brilliantly successful, sometimes rather frustrating. After the Tripartite Pact between Berlin, Rome
and Tokio8 had been signed on 27 September, Russia was faced with the possibility of war on two fronts, and the United States, under the threat of the Japanese Fleet, would ‘not dare to move.’9 Spain and Vichy France, when approached, were sympathetic but sympathetic only; Hungary and Rumania gave their support but would not, as yet, admit definite obligations; Bulgaria hesitated and, as she was a Slav state with Russian sympathies, Hitler did not force her to make any immediate decision.
At this point Mussolini became impatient and reminded the Germans that there was still the problem of Greece and Yugoslavia. But they took no action and, to make matters worse, Hitler when he met Mussolini in the Brenner Pass on 4 October did not mention that his troops were about to enter Rumania. The occupation which took place three days later was a complete success but the secrecy of the move aroused the jealousy of Mussolini. Objecting to the fait accompli, he decided to make his own decisions. So, without mentioning any fixed date, he informed Hitler that he would soon invade Greece. It was ‘one of the strong points of British strategy in the Mediterranean’10 and had to be liquidated. Now thoroughly alarmed and determined ‘to prevent under all circumstances an expansion of the conflict in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean,’11 Hitler suggested a conference, but when he met Mussolini at Florence on 28 October he was told that Italian divisions were already moving from Albania into Greece. ‘Führer, we are on the march.’12
Plans for Barbarity Force
The position of Britain was quite clear. As she had already warned the Greeks not to expect intervention on the mainland, Mr Churchill was perfectly justified in telling the House of Commons that ‘We have most carefully abstained from any action likely to draw upon the Greeks the enmity of the criminal dictators. For their part, the Greeks have maintained so strict a neutrality that we were unacquainted with their dispositions or their intentions.’13 Nevertheless, when the Greeks invoked the guarantee of April 1939, Britain was morally bound to give some assistance. In fact King George VI, by the advice of the War Cabinet, cabled
to the King of the Hellenes: ‘Your cause is our cause: we shall be fighting against a common foe.’
On the other hand it was doubtful just what Britain could do. General Metaxas wanted the Navy to defend Corfu and the Royal Air Force to cover Athens, but the only assistance possible was the despatch on 1 November of a force to occupy the naval base at Suda Bay in Crete. The battalions were intended for Malta, but Churchill held that the loss of Crete would be ‘a grievous aggravation of all Mediterranean difficulties.’ The British Minister in Athens14 suggested, however, that although Greek morale was high the non-appearance of British aircraft was encouraging some criticism. So, without waiting for instructions, the Air Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, had No. 30 Blenheim Squadron in Greece by 3 November. His statement was a good explanation of the whole problem: ‘It seems that it has become politically absolutely essential to send a token force to Greece even at the expense of my forces here.’15
Churchill considered this move to be both wise and bold. In his opinion, every effort must be made to assist the Greeks. They were determined to resist the Italians; prolonged fighting in the Balkans was inevitable; and the ‘collapse of Greece without any effort by us will have deadly effect on Turkey and on future of war.’ The commanders-in-chief in the Middle East were still inclined to worry about the security of Egypt, which was essential if the support of Turkey was to be retained, but Churchill was convinced that the forces with General Wavell were more than sufficient for the defence of that country and for the offensive in East Africa. ‘No one will thank us for sitting tight in Egypt with ever-growing forces while Greek situation and all that hangs on it is cast away. Loss of Athens far greater injury than Kenya and Khartoum. ...’16
Such being the case, the Government decided, as a long-term investment, to send still more assistance to the Greeks. On 4 November General Wavell was instructed to give Greece all possible moral and material support at the earliest possible moment. As soon as properly defended airfields were ready, Barbarity Force – five squadrons of the Royal Air Force with all equipment and ancillary services – must be sent to Greece.
Suggestion that New Zealand Troops be Sent to Crete
Britain also offered to be responsible for the security of Crete, an important strategic point in the Eastern Mediterranean; ‘failure
to hold it would be a military and political disaster of the first order.’17 British troops were already in the Suda Bay area, but if additional battalions were sent the Greeks could transfer their own garrison to the Albanian front. As he was then preparing for the First Libyan Campaign, General Wavell could not withdraw any troops from the Western Desert but he could send over some of the units which had been left in Egypt for purposes of internal security.
Consequently, the New Zealand Government on 8 November was asked if some of the battalions in Maadi Camp could be sent to Crete. As Wavell was working with inadequate resources, General Freyberg considered that the wishes of Britain should willingly be met. The Government thereupon agreed to the proposal, provided the troops were fully equipped and sufficiently trained. But it again reminded the British Government that the New Zealand Division was still split into three groups: 6 Brigade in Maadi Camp, 4 Brigade in the desert and 5 Brigade in Britain. If they were to operate as a complete formation in 1941 they must be brought together for advanced training. This mild protest possibly had some effect for the plan was dropped and United Kingdom troops18 were sent to Crete.
Cautious Attitude of British Government
At the same time every care was taken to give the Greeks no reason to hope for immediate relief. The staff officer sent over as an observer was warned that he must not make any promises or give any undertakings to the Greek General Staff. No. 27 Military Mission to Greece, established by the Chiefs of Staff, Middle East, which had to report upon the situation was given similar instructions: ‘You will not commit His Majesty’s Government even by implication to the provision of any such requirements as may be referred to you by the Greek Government. Nor will you encourage any expectation of specific support without prior sanction in order that false hopes may not be raised.’19 An inter-services mission to Greece from London was instructed that the policy was to sustain Greek resistance without committing forces in Greece which were vital for security elsewhere.
After 11 November there was some improvement in the situation, for the naval aircraft which attacked the Italian warships in Taranto harbour decisively altered the balance of power in the
Mediterranean. More convoys could sail through the Straits of Gibraltar, the Navy had greater security along the North African coast and the protection of convoys to Malta and to Greece had been simplified. As an Italian army had still to be dealt with in North Africa, this increased security did not mean that greater assistance could now be offered to Greece, but it did mean that a campaign in Greece in 1941 was not impossible.
Nevertheless the British Government, unwilling to open another front and anxious to respect the wishes of the Greeks, still acted very cautiously. The base for Barbarity Force had to be capable of expansion to accommodate two divisions, but the Greeks were on no account to be informed of this possibility. The best site for it, strategically, was the flat country near Salonika, but as aircraft from that area could bomb the Rumanian oilfields the Greeks feared that its establishment would provoke direct action by Germany. The force after it reached Greece on 16 November was accordingly dispersed, the bombers to airfields near Athens and the fighters to whatever grounds could be found near the fighting line.
First New Zealand Troops in Greece
In Barbarity Force there were about 4000 men, half of whom came from the Royal Air Force and half from the Army. They had been collected very hastily, so hastily that General Freyberg did not know that on HMAS Sydney and SS Nieuw Zeeland there had been No. 3 Section 9 New Zealand Railway Survey Company (Captain Nevins20), which a week before had been quietly doing survey work in Palestine. As its arrival was immediately noticed by newspaper correspondents and radio commentators, the New Zealand Government naturally inquired as to the truth of their reports. Headquarters 2 NZEF, however, knew nothing about the movement because the railway companies were under the control of the Director-General of Transportation, Middle East. General Headquarters, Middle East, flatly contradicted the reports. The New Zealand Government made inquiries in London but nothing was known there about the surveyors. The news was repeated, further inquiries were made, and in December General Headquarters, Middle East, was apologising for its misinformation and admitting that a section had actually been sent to Greece. Thereafter the New Zealand Government insisted that Headquarters 2 NZEF or the High Commissioner in London had to be informed of the employment of New Zealand troops in any theatre of war in which 2 NZEF was not itself engaged.
The section worked about Piræus and New Phaleron, prepared camp sites, surveyed minor railway extensions, and finally a base depot to the west of Athens, at which it was working when the Germans eventually invaded Greece.
Hitler Decides to Attack Greece
By this time Hitler had made several important decisions. As a result of the Italian invasion of Greece no panzer divisions would, as yet, be sent to Libya. Support would be given to the Italians in Albania21 and a German force would occupy northern Greece. Air cover would be provided for the Rumanian oilfields, Bulgaria would be assisted against possible attack by Turkey, and in the Western Mediterranean, with Franco’s assistance, Gibraltar would be occupied.
Unfortunately for Hitler the problem soon became more complicated. In November, the British, by bombing the Italian warships in Taranto harbour, gained greater prestige in the Balkans and a much better strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. The further reverses of the Italians in Albania were even more important, for the minor powers were then encouraged to await the outcome of events or to raise the price for their support. Hungary and Rumania were still sympathetic, but neither Spain nor Vichy France was certain that the last word had been spoken. In the opinion of Hitler’s naval staff, the campaign was clearly a regrettable blunder which had created the greatest strategic, political and psychological difficulties. And Hitler himself now informed Mussolini that he wished ‘Above all’ to have delayed the invasion of Greece ‘until a more favourable time, at any rate until after the American Presidential Election.’22
To meet the situation he now decided that every possible effort must be made ‘to turn Russia away from the Balkans and to direct her towards the Orient.’ Russia was therefore offered her share of the British Empire and a political and economic alliance with the countries of the Tripartite Pact – Germany, Italy and Japan. But the discussions with Molotov when he was in Berlin on 12–13 November were not encouraging. His questions were often difficult to answer. When Molotov wanted, for instance, to know something about the fate of Hungary and Rumania, of Greece and Yugoslavia, Hitler had to admit that he was interested in the southern Balkans: ‘The idea was intolerable to Germany that England might get a foothold in Greece’ for the establishment of air and naval bases. Molotov returned to Moscow and the formal
reply to the German proposals came from Stalin on 26 November. He made it quite clear that Russia wished to increase her influence in the Baltic, the Black Sea and the oilfield areas about Iraq and Iran. As such designs ran contrary to his own, Hitler sent no definite reply; he preferred to warn his commanders-in-chief on 18 December that ‘The German Armed Forces must be prepared even before the end of the war against England, to overthrow Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign (Operation Barbarossa).’
With Greece, on the other hand, there was no suggestion of negotiations. The Mediterranean situation had to be liquidated ‘that winter’, so Hitler, although he complained about the Italian disasters in Albania, was prepared to give Mussolini every assistance, for the British, by using bases in Greece, were quite likely to attack23 the oil refineries in Rumania. Decisive counter measures had therefore to be taken. With the assistance of Spain the western gateway to the Mediterranean must be closed; the Luftwaffe had to block the Suez Canal and destroy the British fleet. After these opening moves there would be a spring campaign in Greece for which it was essential to have the positive collaboration of Yugoslavia. He told Mussolini that the German divisions would have to be out of Greece by 1 May, but he did not tell him that they were wanted for the campaign in Russia.
Hitler then hastened to complete his system of alliances. Hungary, Rumania and Slovakia adhered to the Tripartite Pact but Bulgaria would do no more than promise to permit the passage of German troops to the boundaries of Greece. Shortly afterwards, the plans for the capture of Gibraltar were abruptly postponed24 by General Franco. The British Navy was still intact and the economic condition of Spain was such that she could not enter the war until Britain was on the point of collapse. This was a disappointing but not a major setback. Determined to be secure in at least the Eastern Mediterranean, Hitler confirmed on 13 December his orders for Operation MARITA. Twelfth Army supported by 8 Air Corps was to take north Greece and, if necessary, all Greece in order to prevent the British opening up a Balkan front from which they could bomb both Italy and the Rumanian oilfields.
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.’25
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.’26 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
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.’27
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.
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.’28
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.’29 He thought that ten30 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.’31
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.’32 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
‘Glen’ ships should be sent to assist in the capture of Rhodes33 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 Mission34 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.’35 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.36 On 8 February M. Koryzis, the new President37 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 talks38 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
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.’39
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 report40 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,41 6 and 7 Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division.
On 17 February he told General Freyberg that his division would be the advanced guard of the Imperial Force.42 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 direct43 with the New Zealand Government, without letting me know what was happening. ... We should have cabled them.’44
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.’45
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.’46 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.’47
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.’48 They might have to play the cards of their ‘evacuation strong suit’49 but the stakes were big, so big that intervention was safer than inactivity.
The forces available were not strong; at the very most Lustre Force50 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 appreciation51 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
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.52 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, both53 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.
Time was all important, but General Papagos had already asked the Greek Government for permission to withdraw54 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 warned55 that there
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’,56 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”.’57 But this was perhaps too confident a statement.
New Zealand Division to go to Greece
In New Zealand there was a certain amount of confusion. On three previous occasions58 General Freyberg had mentioned Greece as a possible theatre of war, and on 23 February, the very day General Wavell returned from Athens, he had, without mentioning Greece, given the New Zealand Government ‘an appreciation of the situation and our likely role and fitness for it.’ As soon as 5 Brigade had arrived from Britain, been refitted and hardened up, the Division could take the field. ‘Therefore, I feel that should the British Government request the release of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force for a full operational role the New Zealand Government can now do so with confidence.’59 The result was that when a cable60 was received from Britain on 26 February stating that the despatch of the Division was an essential part of the plan to assist Greece and that Mr Menzies was advising his Government to permit the use of the Australian divisions, the Government
naturally assumed that General Freyberg had been consulted; in fact his words, ‘full operational role’, were repeated in the cable which gave its consent. Had the Government not made this assumption it would certainly have asked for his opinion, and had there been no reference to the acceptance of the plan by Menzies a more detailed statement would have been asked for.
After the receipt of another cable61 with reasons and plans for the expedition the Government was more critical and less confident. Thinking that the force was small and anxious about its chances of being reinforced, it asked if these features had been given full consideration. It was told that the plan was not without hazard, but the general tone of the reply62 was surprisingly confident, even though it was known that Greece was now feeling the strain63 and that Turkey had not changed her attitude. Indeed, Mr Eden, who had been in Ankara with General Dill during 26 February–1 March, had already informed64 Mr Churchill that, unless the Turks were deliberately attacked, their inadequate resources would force them to remain neutral.
1 Australian Corps to go to Greece
The Government in Australia had more detailed information than the Government of New Zealand. On 25 February Mr Menzies sent a cable to Mr Fadden, the acting Prime Minister, with a summary of the plan and the note that most people were in favour of it, the argument being that Wavell and Dill were ‘able and cautious’ men whose advice must be respected.65 Churchill had also said that if Japan attacked them ‘adequate naval reinforcements would at once be dispatched to Australian waters.’66 This was a statement which Menzies was inclined to discount. The risks were very apparent and a forced evacuation was quite possible, but his final opinion was that Australia should agree to the expedition.
The War Cabinet in Australia, though worried about the size of the expedition and the problem of supplies, eventually agreed that 6 and 7 Divisions should go to Greece. But it made one interesting proviso – its consent was ‘conditional on plans having been
completed beforehand to ensure that evacuation, if necessitated, will be successfully undertaken and that shipping and other essential services will be available for this purpose if required.’67
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.’68 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 understood69 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
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,70 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.’71 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.
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.’72 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.’73 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 endorsed74
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.’75
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’,76 the delegation had signed a written agreement with the Greeks; they doubted whether a minister not authorised by them could make a binding agreement77 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.’78 The Dominions had been given all the information
but he could not forecast their agreement to the operation, as now proposed.
In the next cable Eden received an admirable analysis79 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 pilloried80 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
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.83 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 reminded84 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
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,85 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.’86
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.”‘87 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,88 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’,89 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.
The New Zealand Government Makes its Decision
The exact orders for the departure of the first flight of Lustre Force cannot be found but the fact is that the ships were already on their way to Greece.90 They had left Alexandria at noon on 6 March, before Mr Eden and his advisers held their afternoon and evening conferences, one day before the War Cabinet in Britain
finally decided to send the expedition, and two days before the New Zealand Government agreed to the proposed course of action.
The reply from New Zealand was sent on 9 March after a long sitting of the War Cabinet in Wellington. The Government realised that the operation, always dangerous and speculative, was now distinctly hazardous. The margin was narrow and the risks considerable, so, remembering Norway and Dunkirk, the Government prepared its own analysis91 of the problem. In the first paragraph it was clearly stated that the formation of a Balkan front was no longer the dominant reason for the expedition: ‘There seems to be little prospect of Yugoslav or Turkish assistance, and consequently the possibility of such assistance should be disregarded entirely as a factor in the consideration of the matter.’
After listing all possible dangers, the Government made this memorable statement:
Nevertheless, having regard to all these considerations, His Majesty’s Government in New Zealand look upon the first and last of the alternatives set out in the fifth paragraph of the Secretary of State’s telegram as completely unacceptable. In particular they cannot contemplate the possibility of abandoning the Greeks to their fate, especially after the heroic resistance with which they have met the Italian invader. To do so would be to destroy the moral basis of our cause and invite results greater in their potential damage to us than any failure of the contemplated operation. Therefore, in the circumstances, they find themselves in agreement with the conclusions arrived at by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, as now approved by His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom – a decision which they consider to have been correct in a most difficult situation.
His Majesty’s Government in New Zealand, with a full knowledge of the hazards to be run, align themselves with His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and agree with the course now proposed. They are confident that New Zealand troops in this dangerous enterprise will worthily uphold their traditions and indeed would be the first to approve of the decision now taken.92
There had been no differences of opinion. ‘This conclusion was arrived at unanimously by all the members of the War Cabinet and all the members of the ordinary Cabinet and was approved as the only possible course in the difficult circumstances by the Leader of the Opposition,93 who was specially consulted on the matter by myself.’94
It could be suggested that the Government had not been fully briefed, that it had attached too much weight to the opinion of Mr Menzies, that it had received no report from General Freyberg.
And it is certainly true that after the campaign Mr Fraser reminded General Freyberg that he should have warned the Government that the expedition, so far as he understood it, had no reasonable chance of success. The Government may then have sought further assurances from Britain, but it is doubtful if its decision would have been any different. For time was pressing and it was determined not to do anything that might appear to be a moral failure.
The Australian Government Makes its Decision
The Australian Government was not so easily convinced. From London Mr Menzies had been giving it a more critical appreciation of the situation than the one the New Zealand Government had been building up for itself from the official despatches. Impressed by the statement that the commanders-in-chief still supported the proposal and that Generals Blamey and Freyberg were agreable, it had, however, agreed95 that 1 Australian Corps should be despatched to the Balkans. No sooner had it made this decision than it learnt that General Blamey had always been doubtful about the operation.
On 5 March in a letter to Mr Menzies he had said: ‘The plan is, of course, what I feared: piecemeal dispatch to Europe.’ The next day he was called before Generals Dill and Wavell to be told that the enterprise was now more dangerous.96 Somewhat perturbed, he asked his own Government for its permission to submit his views before the corps was sent to Greece. With his request went an explanatory note: ‘You will appreciate that as I am under operational direction of C in C Middle East I cannot do so without direction from you.’ The Government was unprepared for this. Thinking that he was agreeable, it had already committed the Australian Imperial Force. It now learnt that in his opinion the Allies would have to face a stronger army supported by a superior air force. If they wished to reinforce Greece in order to impress Turkey and Yugoslavia, they had to remember that a defeat and an evacuation, if that should occur, would impress neither the Balkan states nor Japan. In his opinion the operation was ‘extremely hazardous.’ Mr Menzies was therefore asked to state this view in London and to get some assurances that the operation had a reasonable chance of success. The answers he received were little different from those in the final cables, Mr Churchill referring to ‘the overwhelming moral and political repercussions of abandoning Greece’ and saying little about the possibility of a Balkan front.
Increased Confidence after the coup d’état in Yugoslavia
As it was, the Allied cause was not without its supporters in the Balkans. As a result of an appeal to the Prince Regent, a Yugoslav staff officer visited Athens on 8 March to make inquiries about the assistance his Government might expect if it were to oppose Germany. At Cyprus on 18 March Mr Eden persuaded the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs that Turkey must ask Yugoslavia to arrange for common action should Salonika be attacked through Bulgaria. The barometer certainly dropped on 25 March when Yugoslavia officially adhered to the Tripartite Pact,97 but it rose sharply on 27 March when a group of army officers overthrew the Cvetkovic Government and released the national enthusiasm of the Serbs.
For Mr Churchill this was proof that his policy could get results. Hitler had been flouted; it might still be possible to prevent the Balkan states falling piecemeal into Hitler’s power. The President of Turkey was told that ‘Surely now is the time to make a common front which Germany will hardly dare assail.’ At Malta, Mr Eden, then on his way home, received a similar cable and returned to Athens. From there Sir John Dill on 31 March–1 April visited Belgrade and met, secretly, certain members of the new Yugoslav Government. In their opinion Hitler, who was furious at the coup d’état, would attack Yugoslavia and not Greece; in fact they wanted to know if Greece would support Yugoslavia should Germany attack her. Nevertheless, they were not prepared to take the initiative against Germany, for the Croats and Slovenes were restless and the country not yet prepared for war. Their policy was to gain time for mobilisation and concentration. Had they known that Hitler had already decided to destroy Yugoslavia ‘militarily and as a national unit’, they might have been more willing to take immediate action. However, they did agree to staff talks,98 which took place at Florina on 3 April, to arrange for common action should Germany attack Yugoslavia and Salonika.
Mr Churchill and the Dominions
The importance of the coup d’état in Yugoslavia can also be noted in Churchill’s subsequent correspondence with the Dominions. On 30 March, with his gift for lifting a subject out of the commonplace, he summed up the situation for Mr Fadden, the acting Prime Minister of Australia:
When a month ago we decided upon sending an army to Greece it looked rather a blank military adventure dictated by noblesse oblige. Thursday’s events in Belgrade show far-reaching effects of this and other measures we have taken on whole Balkan situation. German plans have been upset, and we may cherish renewed hopes of forming a Balkan front with Turkey, comprising about seventy Allied divisions from the four Powers concerned. This is of course by no means certain yet. But even now it puts Lustre in its true setting, not as an isolated military act, but as a prime mover in a large design. Whatever the outcome may be, everything that has happened since our decision was taken justifies it. Delay will also enable full concentration to be made on the Greek front instead of piecemeal engagement of our forces. Result unknowable, but prize has increased and risks have somewhat lessened.99
To reduce these risks still further the Dominion Governments had already made it quite clear that, if the expedition was fraught with so many dangers, every care must be taken to prevent a complete disaster. On 24 March Admiral Cunningham was advised that both Dominions when agreeing to the plan had asked that arrangements be prepared for the possible evacuation of the troops. To reassure them he was asked to state that he already had such preparations under way. His reply was that ever since the decision to despatch the expedition the problem of evacuation had never been far from his thoughts.100 The final arrangements must depend upon the course of the campaign, the place of evacuation and type of ship that could be used, but he did guarantee that everything possible would be done ‘to withdraw the Dominion Troops with British.’