Chapter 20: The Greeks Accept the British Offer
WHEN, ON February 8th, M. Koryzis reaffirmed his country’s determination to resist a German attack at all costs, he suggested that the time had come to decide whether the size of the British force that would be sent to Greece if the Germans entered Bulgaria would be sufficient, together with the Greek forces, to check the German attack and encourage Yugoslavia and Turkey to take part in the struggle.1 This suggestion came just after the unexpectedly early fall of Benghazi, and after the Turkish Government had declined Mr. Churchill’s offer of British air and anti-aircraft units.2 The attitude of Japan was becoming so menacing that it looked as if she might intend to enter the war before very long, and it was still possible that the Germans might attempt an invasion of the British Isles. As regards the flow of supplies from the United States, the Lend-Lease Bill had passed the House of Representatives two days before, and was now to come before the Senate. In this general setting the Defence Committee met on February 10th to review their policy for the Middle East.
A point which required instant decision was whether the Italians should be chased back to Tripoli. It was certain that if Tripoli were not captured at once the Germans and Italians would reinforce it. Its capture would remove the last of the Italian troops from North Africa and make it impossible for the enemy to invade Egypt again without first undertaking a sea-borne operation. Tripoli would provide another base from which bombers could attack Sicily, though it would not enable fighters to provide cover for convoys passing through the Narrows. At Tripoli the British forces would find themselves close to the French, which might be useful at some future date. Thus there would be advantages in possessing the place, and it was quite possible that the Army could go forward on the crest of the wave and take it, for Italian morale and fighting power were at a very low ebb and resistance was likely to be weak. But, even if Tripoli were captured at once, its defence would make heavy demands on the resources with which it was hoped to oppose a German occupation of the Balkans, especially the already stretched fighter
aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. The Navy, too, would find it very difficult to safeguard a supply line to Tripoli in addition to its other commitments, to which might soon be added a greatly increased scale of movement to Greece or Turkey. The Defence Committee were firmly convinced that they must retain the ability to intervene in the Balkans and came to the conclusion that they ought to adhere to their previous policy of halting when a secure flank for Egypt had been gained after the capture of Benghazi. No serious operations, therefore, were to be undertaken beyond this. The garrison of Cyrenaica was to be reduced to the minimum, and the largest possible land and air force concentrated in Egypt in preparation for movement to Europe.
In previous examinations of the Balkan problem the Chiefs of Staff had consistently maintained that our first aim should be to make certain of Turkey, and that support to her should rank before any other commitment in the Balkans But the question now facing the Defence Committee was how to reply to the Greek Government’s request. Obviously there were many political aspects to be considered. Would Turkey regard a German invasion of Bulgaria or an ultimatum to Greece as reasons for entering the war? If the Greeks received no help from us, would they submit to Germany’s greatly superior strength—and who could blame them if they did? If this happened, Turkey could be expected to fight only in defence of her own territory; Yugoslavia would be lost; and any hope of forming a Balkan front against the Germans would vanish. The best way of encouraging Turkey to fight would probably be to give effective support to Greece; but without knowing the Greek plan for the defence of the Bulgarian front it was impossible to judge whether our support could be effective or not. If the Greeks had a good plan, the right course would be to back it as strongly as possible. A full and frank exchange of views with the Greek leaders was clearly necessary, and in order that the intricate military and diplomatic measures should be concerted as completely as possible the Prime Minister decided to send the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Eden, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, to the Middle East. Before going to Athens to confer with the Greeks they were to have preliminary discussions in Cairo; meanwhile, the Commanders-in-Chief were to initiate such plans and preparations as they could, including the collection of shipping, for the move of the maximum forces to Greece at the earliest possible moment.
The Commanders-in-Chief shared the opinion of the Defence Committee that highest priority should be given to countering German moves in the Balkans. They had gained the impression, however, that in assessing the ability of the forces in the Middle East to meet the many and varied commitments there was a tendency at
home to over-estimate their actual resources. They now felt it right to say so.
The Navy was already fully extended in covering the long lines of sea communications on the Libyan coast and in protecting the Libyan ports in addition to the Mediterranean bases. The cruisers and light craft being sent out would not all have arrived until May, but the despatch of strong army and air forces to the Balkans would create a heavy commitment in safeguarding lines of supply through the Aegean and in establishing new bases on Greek islands and per-haps in Turkey. If the Balkan operation began before the present acute shortages in light craft, escorts, local defence vessels, and men for shore bases had been met, the situation might well become critical.
Nor was this all, for the German Air Force was obviously preparing to operate from Bulgarian airfields, and shipping in the North Aegean would be under a grave threat of bombing. Adequate fighter protection for troop and supply convoys against the probable scale of German air attacks would be very difficult to provide with the few aircraft and airfields available, and casualties to troops and ships must be expected. Even more serious would be the danger from magnetic and acoustic mines laid by aircraft in the Aegean ports, and in the approaches to them. With his existing resources Admiral Cunningham would not be able to keep clear yet more areas, and he was doubtful if he could do so even with the additional craft and gear on its way. He regarded it as imperative that he should be sent at once more sweepers for dealing with all types of mines, as well as extra gear to fit into local craft. If he knew that more anti-mine equipment was on its way he could take greater risks in Egypt and Libya in order to release something for Greek ports. As it was, air mining was restricting the use of Sollum and Tobruk, and had caused the Canal to be temporarily closed. It was necessary to face the fact that the risks from mines were great, while the resources to combat them were slender.
Air attacks on Egypt from the west were now unlikely, but it was necessary to provide for the air defence of Benghazi and the lines of communication through Cyrenaica, against which German aircraft were already active. It would be necessary to leave some bombers and at least three fighter squadrons in Cyrenaica. Moreover, until the threat from Rhodes had been removed, it would be necessary to provide for the continued protection of Alexandria, the Delta, and the Canal. The deliveries of medium bomber aircraft to the Middle East had fallen a long way short of expectations, and as regards equipment of all kinds there was a long interval between the date of despatch from home and the time when it was fit to use and in the hands of the users. This was very marked in the case of new types of
aircraft. The Air Ministry were doing what they could to improve matters; 19 Blenheim IVs and 23 Glenn Martins had just reached Takoradi, and 79 Blenheim IVs and 6 Glenn Martins were at sea.
The War Office were well aware of the incomplete state of all General Wavell’s formations, and, prompted by the Prime Minister, suggested that a complete division—the 50th—should be sent out in the next convoy. In this way they hoped to make a useful contribution to the strength of the strategic reserve, but it would mean the exclusion of nearly 15,000 corps troops, drafts, and administrative units, for which, they suggested, the need was now less, as the capture of Benghazi might be expected to release many units for service elsewhere. General Wavell replied that he would have been very glad of the 50th Division, but not at this cost. In the first place, it had not been possible to abolish the overland L. of C. to Benghazi, as the German air attacks had prevented the use of that port as a seahead.3 Secondly, he wished to have his existing fighting formations brought up to strength; they were particularly short of artillery, engineers, and signallers. Thirdly, experience had shown the absolute necessity for a strong administrative backing of base, L. of C. and transportation units, if the efficiency and striking power of the fighting troops was to be maintained. The outcome was that the convoy sailed without the division, and the Prime Minister instructed Mr. Eden to address himself to the problem of ensuring that the many valuable military units in the Middle East were fitting into a coherent scheme and were immediately pulling their weight. This seemed to the Prime Minister very far from being the case.
Mr. Eden was anxious to reach the Middle East at the earliest possible moment, and he and his party left London on February 12th, only to be delayed by bad weather at Plymouth and again at Gibraltar; they did not reach Cairo until late on the 19th, having lost five valuable days. The principal object of the Foreign Secretary’s mission was to send speedy succour to Greece against a German attack; secondly, he was to encourage the Turks and Yugoslavs to fight, or at least to do the best they could for the Allied cause, bearing in mind that the interests of Turkey were no less important to us than those of Greece. Mr. Eden’s powers were very wide; he was to represent His Majesty’s Government in all diplomatic and military matters, and to initiate any action he thought necessary with the Commanders-in-Chief and with the Governments of Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff would act as his military adviser, and in extreme urgency Mr. Eden was to act upon his own initiative without reference home.
The Foreign Secretary lost no time in exchanging views with the Commanders-in-Chief and members of the military missions to Turkey and Greece. Hitherto General Dill had held that forces sent to Greece would inevitably be lost and that it would be better to concentrate on helping Turkey, but after thorough discussion in Cairo both he and Mr. Eden agreed that the fullest measure of help ought to be offered to Greece at once, although if’ this were accepted there would be nothing left for Turkey. The Greeks were already fighting, and fighting well, and seemed determined to oppose the Germans with or without any outside help. General Dill was now satisfied that all evidence indicated that Greece, and not Turkey, was to be Hitler’s next victim. The Turks were unlikely to fight at our bidding, although they would defend themselves if attacked and might enter the war if we were successful in helping the Greeks to stem the German advance. Yugoslavia would not fight unless Turkey fought, and the converse might well be true. Hence the only chance of preventing the Balkans being devoured piecemeal was to go to the help of Greece with everything we could. This would certainly be risky, but not so risky as doing nothing. It was obviously necessary to learn what plans the Greeks had made, and the Greek Government immediately welcomed the proposal for a secret meeting on February 22nd.
The question to be settled at once was the composition of the forces to be offered. Mr. Eden’s instructions from the War Cabinet required him to consider the slowing down of operations in the various Middle Eastern theatres in order to collect the largest possible force for Greece, bearing in mind that Eritrea ought to be cleared up and that the capture of Rhodes was still of great importance. He consulted General Wavell, who recommended that Cyrenaica should be garrisoned by one of the less well trained and equipped Australian divisions, an Indian motor brigade under training, and one armoured brigade group which was all that could be found from the 7th Armoured Division. The 4th and 5th Indian Divisions were com-mitted in Eritrea, where there was a hold-up at Keren, and could not be drawn upon until their operations were successfully completed. In Kenya some reduction could be accepted, and the South African Division would be moved to Egypt when shipping could be made available. The 6th (British) Division, which was being formed from the 16th Infantry Brigade, the Matruh garrison, and miscellaneous units, was to be used for the operation against Rhodes.
The forces available were therefore as follows: first contingent, ready to sail, one armoured brigade group and the New Zealand Division (whose third infantry brigade had not yet arrived from England), together with two medium artillery regiments and some anti-aircraft artillery; to be followed by the Polish brigade group and
an Australian division; with a third contingent consisting of a second armoured brigade, if required, and another Australian division. Disembarkation of the first contingent could be completed about thirty days after the decision to send it; and that of the second and third contingents at intervals of three weeks.4 The maintenance of a force of this size would strain the administrative resources of the Middle East to the utmost, and would call for a large amount of improvisation. At least fifty ships would be needed for the passage, which meant that many of the ships arriving at Suez in convoys would have to be diverted to the Mediterranean through the Canal, which was liable to be closed by mining. The retention of these ships would of course have its effect upon the United Kingdom’s imports and upon the subsequent flow of men and material to the Middle East.
The most unsatisfactory aspect of all was the shortage of aircraft. Coupled with the weakness in anti-aircraft units, it made the possibility of using Salonika as a port for disembarkation and maintenance seem almost out of the question. The Royal Air Force had three fighter and four bomber squadrons in Greece; another bomber squadron was to go there at the end of February, and two more, with an army co-operation squadron, by the end of March. Three night bomber Wellington squadrons based in Egypt, but operating from Greek airfields during moonlight periods, would be available for long distance raids by night. There was no immediate prospect of withdrawing any squadrons from the operations in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The arrival of the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean had created new problems for the Air Force at Malta, in the Central Mediterranean, and in western Cyrenaica, and wastage had inevitably increased in fighting the Germans, who were more highly skilled and better equipped than the Italians. Moreover, squadrons were tired after their long chase across Cyrenaica, and needed to rest and rearm with modern aircraft. Air Chief Marshal Longmore was hoping to raise two fighter squadrons during March, but this depended upon the arrival of equipment and ammunition for the American Tomahawks. The flow of modern aircraft to the Middle East was still below expectations, and the net result was that the number which could be sent to Greece—and nothing but the best would be good enough against the Germans—was smaller than had been estimated in London before the Mission left. The conclusion was that if effective support were to be given to Greece there would be nothing left for Turkey.
This conclusion made it difficult to decide what the British attitude to the Turks should be. The arguments for and against inducing
Turkey to enter the war were fairly evenly balanced, but the feeling was that on the whole it would be best if she would agree to do so. The advantages were that the Germans would be further extended; the Yugoslavs might be encouraged to declare war also; and we should acquire bases from which to bomb the Rumanian oilfields. On the other hand, we should not be able to comply with the inevitable requests for assistance, and the Turks might be defeated by the Germans while the only available British forces were in Greece. The one certain conclusion was that it would be wrong to divide our effort between the two, and it seemed that the proper course was to tell the Turks frankly that we were determined to support the Greeks and that this would be the best way of helping all our friends, including the Turks.
Before Mr. Eden left for Athens he was told that the Prime Minister approved of his proposal to make contact with the Greek leaders before going to Ankara. Mr. Churchill added: ‘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.’
Mr. Eden, Sir John Dill, General Wavell, Air Chief Marshal Longmore, and Captain R. M. Dick, R.N. (representing Admiral Cunningham), with their staffs, arrived secretly by air in Greece on February 22nd, and were made the guests of the King of the Hellenes at Tatoi Palace. Meetings were held lasting all day, and before they began the President of the Greek Council handed to Mr. Eden a written declaration of Greece’s determination to go on fighting the Italians and if necessary to defend herself against the Germans, even if she had to do so alone.5
Mr. Eden began by explaining the views of the British War Cabinet. These were that the Germans intended to subdue Greece and immobilize Turkey, hoping thus to strike a decisive blow at the British position in the Middle East. They would occupy Bulgaria, and then either attack Greece or try to intimidate her into coming to terms with Italy. These terms would include a German occupation of Greece on the Rumanian model. At this M. Koryzis intervened to say categorically that Greece would resist any attempt at invasion.
Mr. Eden went on to say that the War Cabinet had decided, with the full agreement of the Chiefs of Staff and of the Commanders-in-Chief at Cairo, that the maximum of help should be offered to the Greeks as soon as possible. He then gave a summary of the land and air forces that could be sent, and when. It was of course essential to
be able to guarantee a reasonable degree of safety for the convoys against attack from both surface craft and submarines, and at the same time continue to protect the west coast of Greece. This would impose a heavy additional strain on the Royal Navy, but Admiral Cunningham was confident that he could meet it. What we were now offering represented the most we could do; the troops were well trained, well equipped, and would acquit themselves well. The force would be commanded by General Wilson, with all the experience of the Desert campaign behind him—an announcement which was received with evident pleasure by General Papagos.
M. Koryzis, in reply, emphasized once more that Greece was determined to defend herself against attack from any quarter, and any aid from Great Britain would be warmly welcomed. At the same time they had to remember the danger of precipitating a German invasion. He thought that the military representatives should examine together the adequacy of the combined Anglo-Greek forces to resist German attack, bearing in mind the uncertain attitude of Yugoslavia and Turkey. Mr. Eden agreed with the President’s suggestion, but pointed out that if avoidance of provoking Germany was carried too far it would mean that no effective help would reach Greece in time. Their decisions ought to be made without waiting to find out what Turkey and Yugoslavia would do.
The first military consideration was that owing to the steady reinforcement of the Italian forces in Albania it had been necessary to withdraw Greek troops from eastern Macedonia, where there now remained only three weak divisions, with another thirteen battalions and a few batteries of artillery in western Thrace. The defence of the Bulgarian frontier presented a difficulty, for, although an enemy would have very few lines of approach through the mountains, the strip of country between the frontier and the Aegean Sea would be very difficult to defend because of the lack of depth and the fact that the main communications ran parallel to the front. Work had, nevertheless, been begun upon a position running from the Yugoslav frontier on the Beles mountains to the mouth of the river Nestos, and upon another which followed roughly the line of the river Struma. The purpose of these lines was to cover Salonika, which was the only port through which munitions and supplies could be sent to Yugoslavia. As long, therefore, as there was any chance that the Yugoslavs would fight by the side of the Greeks, there was a strong desire not to give up Salonika. But it would be useless for the Greeks to attempt to stand on either the Nestos or the Struma, for their forces in northern Greece were quite insufficient to hold such long fronts.
A much shorter position, and one of some natural strength, could be found forty miles to the west of the line of the river Vardar (or Axios). It would run along the northern slopes of the Olympus-Pieria
mountains and follow the line of the Vermion range north-wards to the Yugoslav border—over seventy miles in a straight line. Through this front there were only four major gaps; one on each side of Mount Olympus; one which formed the valley of the river Aliakmon; and one, much wider, at Edessa, through which passed the road and railway from Florina to Salonika. Except for these gaps the lower forward slopes were generally steep and rugged, and formed an obstacle to vehicles.
If the attitude of Yugoslavia remained doubtful, as it now was, General Papagos considered that the proper military course would be to withdraw everything except light covering detachments from Thrace and eastern Macedonia to the Aliakmon position. This would take about twenty days to do. Simultaneously, by drawing back to a shorter line on the Albanian front he would be able to spare some forces from there also. In all, he could find thirty-five Greek battalions for the Aliakmon position, with one or two divisions in reserve. If they were joined by the British contingent, the position should be quite formidable. It would have been better still if it covered the important approach from Monastir, but there would only be a danger of this route being used by the Germans if they had traversed a large part of Yugoslavia, in which case the Yugoslavs would presumably be fighting in defence of their own country.
With these views Generals Dill and Wavell agreed, and made the point that the difficulty of defending Salonika against air attack from Bulgarian airfields meant that the British expedition would have to land at Piraeus and Volos. Also, that as the British had no pack animals it would be necessary to start at once on the improvement of communications to enable their mechanized forces, especially the medium artillery, to be used to the best advantage. But, if the plan for the occupation of the Aliakmon position required mobile forces to delay the enemy by operating out in front, this was a role for which some of the British units would be very suitable.
At the final plenary session, late on 22nd February, the military representatives announced their complete agreement that in view of the uncertain attitude of the Turks and Yugoslavs it was not possible to contemplate holding a position covering Salonika; the only sound military course was to occupy the Aliakmon position. Mr. Eden then referred to the political problems, namely, whether to approach the Yugoslav Government in the hope of ascertaining their intentions, and whether their reply should affect the withdrawal of the advanced Greek troops. On the first point it was decided that Mr. Eden should make an approach to the Regent of Yugoslavia, drawing his attention to the danger to Salonika presented by current German activities in the Balkans and asking for Prince Paul’s views on the subject. On the second point the decision recorded was ‘that preparations should
at once be made and put into execution to withdraw the Greek advanced troops in Thrace and Macedonia to the line which we should be obliged to hold if the Yugoslavs did not come in’. There is no doubt whatever that General Dill and General Wavell were left with the firm impression that the withdrawal was to take place as soon as the necessary preparations could be made. General Papagos, however, was later to argue that it was to have been contingent upon the result of the approach to Yugoslavia.
On the matter of the forthcoming British approach to the Turks it was agreed that Mr. Eden should inform them of the decision to give as much help as possible to the Greeks, and should try to persuade them to reaffirm their intention of coming into the war if Greece were invaded or even if German formations entered Bulgaria. The Greek Government had no great hopes, however, of any offensive action by the Turks in any event, because of their repeated protestations of unreadiness.
Finally the Foreign Secretary asked to be assured that the Greek Government accepted the offer of British help of their own free will, and that the arrival of British troops in the numbers and on the conditions proposed would be sincerely welcomed by the Greek Government. The British did not wish to give the impression that they were forcing their offer on the Greeks; but wanted to be sure that they were anxious to accept it of their own free will. The President of the Council, without hesitation and showing some emotion, stated formally that the Greek Government accepted with deep gratitude the offer of His Majesty’s Government and entirely approved the military plan on which the military representatives had agreed. Greece would do her duty by herself and by her ally, Great Britain.
The Mission returned to Cairo next day, 23rd February, greatly impressed by the frank, friendly, and courageous attitude of the Greek leaders. Mr. Eden reported to the Prime Minister that he was sure of their determination to resist with all their strength, and that His Majesty’s Government had no alternative but to back them whatever the consequences. He added that ‘we are all convinced that we have chosen the right course’. The risks, he thought, were indeed great, but there was a fair chance of stopping the Germans before the whole of Greece was overrun. It meant accepting difficulties which would make heavy demands upon the Middle East’s resources of aircraft; it was particularly important to hasten the flow of fighters.
That evening the Chiefs of Staff considered very seriously whether to endorse the Foreign Secretary’s proposal. They came to the conclusion that it had undoubted military attractions, although the risks of failure were serious. But the disadvantages of leaving Greece to her
fate—deserting, in fact, a small ally already engaged in a fight against one aggressor and willing to defy another—would be certain and far-reaching. Even the complete failure of an honourable attempt to help Greece need not be disastrous to our future ability to defeat Germany, and it was better to make the Germans fight for what they wanted than let them have it by default. On balance, they recommended that the enterprise should go forward, and that everything possible should be done to ensure the participation of Turkey and Yugoslavia; for without the support of one or the other our help to Greece was unlikely in the long run to have a favourable effect on the war as a whole.
Next day the War Cabinet decided to approve the despatch of a military force to Greece on the basis of the Foreign Secretary’s proposals. The Governments of Australia and New Zealand and the Polish Government in London would of course have to be consulted.6 In communicating this decision to Mr. Eden the Prime Minister wrote: ‘Therefore while being under no illusions we all send you the order “Full steam ahead”.’
Having thus attained the first object of his mission, and having made the agreed approach to the Regent of Yugoslavia, the Foreign Secretary had now to sound the Turks. Accompanied by his advisers, he continued his strenuous round and reached Ankara by air on 26th February for an official visit. A series of meetings, interspersed with many ceremonies, was held with the heads of the Turkish Government and Services, and finally one with President Inönü himself. Mr. Eden told the Turkish leaders in confidence of his recent secret visit to Greece, of the determination of the Greeks to resist the Germans, of the intention of the British to help to the limit of their ability, and of the decision to bar the enemy’s advance west of Salonika.
This news was on the whole well received, and the Turks agreed with the view that it would be wrong to divide the British forces between Greece and Turkey. But it might be Turkey’s turn to be attacked after Greece or even before. If attacked, she would defend herself, but having no offensive power her best contribution to the common cause would be to remain out of the war if she could. When her deficiencies, especially in aircraft and armoured and motor vehicles, were remedied, she could enter the war as an effective combatant and not as a military liability. She intended to remain loyal to her alliance with Great Britain, and sooner or later she would be certain to enter the war; but she did not wish to precipitate a German attack upon herself and she could not say in advance what
her action would be if Germany attacked Greece. The Turkish Government had recently made an appeal to the Yugoslav Government, and was disappointed by the evasive nature of the reply, but was still willing to concert common action with Yugoslavia in view of the danger to that country from the German threat to Greece.
The problem of making good the Turkish deficiencies of equipment and war material, to which the Turks attached very great importance, led to a long and detailed discussion at which General Dill promised that everything possible would be done to meet the Turkish requirements, though he qualified his promise by referring to the many other demands that the British had to meet, including the needs of their own troops.
All this time Mr. Eden had been anxiously awaiting a reply to his message to the Regent of Yugoslavia which he had sent from Athens on 23rd February. Late on the evening of 27th February, after the meetings with the Turkish leaders were over, the Yugoslav Ambassador at Ankara delivered a communication from his Government. It was to the effect that, although Yugoslavia would defend herself against any aggression and would not permit the passage of foreign troops across her territory, it was impossible for her to say what her reaction would be to a German move across Bulgaria. The Ambassador begged that His Majesty’s Government would not insist on a more definite attitude for the present. It is easy to imagine what a disappointment it was to Mr. Eden to receive such a negative reply; he decided in the circumstances to summon the British Minister at Belgrade to Athens for consultation.
Next day his party left Ankara for Ismid on the Sea of Marmara, there to waste twenty-four hours while grounded by bad weather. They eventually reached Athens during the afternoon of 2nd March, by which time German troops had crossed the Danube and Bulgaria had aligned herself openly with the Axis.
On arriving at the British Legation in Athens Mr. Eden’s party was astonished to learn that no order had as yet been given by General Papagos for the withdrawal of the Greek troops from Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, nor from the Albanian front, although it was on the assumption that these withdrawals would be carried out that the British had set in train the move of their own forces to Greece. The news that nothing had been done was disturbing indeed, and profoundly affected the whole problem. Attempts to resolve this new difficulty lasted until late on March 4th; three intensely anxious days of plain speaking and searching argument in a very different atmosphere from that of the meetings of the previous week.
The negative attitude of Turkey and Yugoslavia came as a great disappointment to the Greek leaders, but M. Koryzis reiterated that they were determined as ever to oppose the Germans and continue the struggle against the Italians. He expressed doubt, however, whether the resistance that could be offered to a German attack would be effective, and Mr. Eden pointed out that they had already come to an agreed conclusion on this question; the uncertain attitude a Turkey and Yugoslavia had led to the decision to occupy the Aliakmon position, and the knowledge that the intervention of these countries was now more uncertain than ever did not constitute a new factor in the problem. The point for decision was whether there was still time to occupy the Aliakmon position in sufficient strength.
Discussion of this military problem disclosed a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. It appeared that General Papagos had not already given the order for the withdrawal from Thrace and eastern Macedonia because he was waiting to know whether Yugoslavia would enter the war. He was unwilling to give it now because there was a danger that the withdrawing troops would be caught on the move by the Germans, and because of the consternation that would be caused among the Greek population of Macedonia. He now proposed that, after all, the Greeks should attempt to defend the Nestos–Rupel line—the more easterly of the two positions covering Salonika—but admitted that there were not enough troops available to do so with any hope of success. His information of the German preparations pointed to the likelihood of operations against Greece beginning in about ten days.
General Dill, who had summoned Generals Wavell and Wilson for consultation, thought that the Germans could not begin opera-tions anything like so soon. He nevertheless believed that it was out of the question to try to land the British force at Salonika, a port which was very liable to be mined and which would be much more difficult to defend from air attack than Piraeus or Volos. There was in any case no point in trying to hold with three weak Greek divisions the Nestos line which was estimated to require nine. The British force could not be expected to arrive before the Greeks had been overrun, and even if they did the united forces would still be less than the required nine divisions. This proposal therefore merely invited defeat in detail. If, however, withdrawal were to begin at once, some Greek troops might be lost but others would get back; given luck, none would be lost. This was surely the lesser of the two evils. The proper course, in his view, was to adhere to the existing plan for the disembarkation of the British force, and to occupy the Aliakmon position with the full intention of operating forward of it with armoured troops. The question was: could the Greeks now
make enough forces available from anywhere, including Albania, to ensure, together with us, the security of that position?
General Papagos replied emphatically that they could not. The Greek troops on the Albanian front had been fighting for four months without any rest; they had suffered heavily, and were now at the limit of their endurance against an enemy who was steadily growing stronger. They could therefore make no contribution to the Aliakmon position, and, as it was too late to withdraw from the Bulgarian front, the only feasible plan was for the British to come forward to Salonika.
It is not difficult to understand General Papagos’s distress. The national spirit of the Greeks had been roused in October by the wanton Italian attack and their morale had been sustained by successes won against heavy odds. And now a new and even stronger enemy was coming to attack them from another direction. To meet this threat by withdrawing before the Italians would have had a disastrous effect on the morale of the Greeks. They could hardly be blamed if they saw little chance of success against both enemies at once and if, rather than be beaten on both fronts, they preferred to be stabbed in the back by the Germans while still facing the Italians.
The Chief of the Imperial General Staff; too, was in an unenviable predicament. The Foreign Secretary had been given the task of sending speedy succour to Greece, and his instructions enjoined him to act, if need be, without referring home. Consequently, General Dill, as his military adviser, bore a great responsibility; in the present crisis of the negotiations, when time was obviously all too short, the decision lay, to all intents and purposes, with him. Nothing could be more distasteful than to desert an ally—and a very deserving one—and General Dill paid generous tribute to the magnificent fight made by the Greeks against the Italians. He said, however, that he was quite unable to recommend that the only British reserves in the Middle East should be committed to a plan which he believed to be unsound—a plan which amounted to the gradual dribbling forward of forces into battle.
Next morning, March 4th, General Papagos continued to advocate the use of all available forces on the Nestos line, but in the light of the British refusal to attempt to concentrate their forces as far forward as eastern Macedonia he explained that certain reinforcements already on their way to the Nestos Line could be diverted to the Aliakmon. General Dill was unable to agree that the seven or eight battalions thus offered were sufficient.
At the next meeting His Majesty the King of the Hellenes was present. General Dill restated his view that the object should be to establish ourselves in adequate strength on the Aliakmon position,
and General Papagos then announced that he could make available two infantry divisions, one motorized division, and perhaps seven other battalions, although he regarded this as an undesirable dispersion of forces. It was not the best plan, but if it commended itself to the British he would accept it and do his utmost to see it through.
The British were thus faced with the choice of withdrawing their offer altogether or of occupying a position on which practically no work had been done, with the help of perhaps about twenty Greek battalions instead of the expected thirty-five. Shortly before midnight they decided, with some misgivings, to adhere to their plan. It meant that the British force would be engaged upon a task which was more hazardous than it had seemed a week before. But, while recognizing the dangers and difficulties, General Dill considered the prospects of checking and holding the German advance by no means hopeless; the position was naturally strong, with few approaches, and at the worst it should be possible to make a fighting withdrawal from it through country eminently suitable for rearguard action. The Greek forces allotted to the Aliakmon position were to be concentrated there with all speed under a Greek commander responsible to General Wilson, who would command all the forces on the position and be responsible in turn to General Papagos. Details of preparations to hasten the occupation of the position were examined and approved. To avoid further misunderstanding the agreed French version of the decisions was signed by General Papagos and General Dill.7
All preparations for the despatch of the British force from Egypt had gone ahead on the original plan. On March 4th, as the first ships were about to sail, Admiral Cunningham informed the Admiralty that, while he was convinced that the right policy was being followed, he wished to make it clear that a big risk was being taken, principally on account of the weakness of the convoys and of the ports of disembarkation against air attack. A convoy would have to be run to Malta when the Formidable arrived, but otherwise the moves to Greece would absorb the whole energies of the Fleet for the next two months—and even longer if the Germans continued to close the Canal by mining. Meanwhile, the Cyrenaican supply line would go practically unprotected and the operations against the Dodecanese would have to be postponed,.
Even if there were no delays to the shipping programme the margin of time was dangerously narrow. The armoured brigade and one New Zealand brigade could not be in position until the third week of March, and the whole New Zealand Division and one Australian brigade not before the end. The timing of the German moves through Bulgaria would depend largely on the weather, which
might be bad until the second week of April, and upon the delay caused by air action, demolitions, and the resistance of the advanced Greek troops; it was estimated that if all went smoothly for the Germans two divisions might possibly reach the Aliakmon by mid-March, and five before the end, one of which might be armoured and three motorized.
In the light of these figures and of Admiral Cunningham’s remarks the Chiefs of Staff made a searching analysis of the situation, laying great stress on the twelve wasted days during which not even the preparatory steps had been taken to carry out the original plan. They came to the obvious conclusion that the hazards of the enterprise had greatly increased. The delay to the operations against the Dodecanese was a most unfortunate turn, for it meant that some of our air effort would have to be used to reduce the scale of attack from these islands against our sea lines of communication to Greece. But in spite of their misgivings they did not feel as yet in a position to question the military advice of the men on the spot, who had described the enterprise as not by any means hopeless.
On receiving this lukewarm approval the Prime Minister immediately prepared Mr. Eden for an adverse decision by the War Cabinet, for it was difficult, he wrote, to see how we had now any power to avert the fate of Greece unless Turkey or Yugoslavia or both came in, which seemed most improbable. We had done our best to promote a Balkan combination against Germany, and Greece must not be urged against her better judgement into making a hopeless resistance alone. Grave Imperial issues were raised in committing New Zealand and Australian troops to an enterprise which had become even more hazardous; the assent of their Governments to this new proposition could not be forecast.
Mr. Eden’s reply to this message was to reaffirm the decision, to which he, General Dill, and the three Commanders-in-Chief adhered. This steadfast attitude greatly impressed the Prime Minister, who emphasized once more that the British must not take on their shoulders the responsibility of urging the Greeks against their better judgement to fight a hopeless battle; if, however, with the full knowledge of the help that we could send they resolved to fight to the death, then obviously we must share their ordeal. A large proportion of the troops would be from the Dominions, and the War Cabinet would have to be able to tell their Governments that this hazard was being undertaken, not because of any commitment entered into by a British Cabinet Minister at Athens, but because the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the Commanders-in-Chief were convinced that there was a reasonable fighting chance.
It says much for the sense of urgency which possessed the War Cabinet that a decision was reached without waiting for any further
information from Mr. Eden. On March 7th they authorized the operation to proceed, and in so doing accepted full responsibility. They undertook to communicate with the Governments of Australia and New Zealand.8
News of this decision crossed Mr. Eden’s final appreciation. He and his advisers had been fortified in their views by a meeting with General Smuts, who had just arrived in Cairo. There had never been any question, he wrote, of coercing the Greeks to resist the Germans ; on the contrary, the Greeks had consistently declared that this was their intention, with or without help from outside. Squadrons of the Royal Air Force and anti-aircraft units had been in action in Greece for nearly four months, and to desert the country now, when it was well known, that British forces had become available after the Libyan victories, would be a calamity. Yugoslavia would certainly be lost and Turkey’s resolution might waver. Our prestige would no doubt suffer if we were ejected ignominiously, but this would be less damaging than leaving Greece to her fate. They were all agreed that the decision was the right one although they were under no illusions about its gravity.
The references in the appreciation to more strictly Service matters made it very clear that the risks had not been overlooked; indeed, the views of the Commanders-in-Chief as expressed on this occasion show that while in no doubt as to the proper strategic course they were very anxious about their ability to carry it out. General Wavell thought that, if his forces could be concentrated upon the Aliakmon position in time, there might be a good chance of holding the enemy’s advance. Admiral Cunningham, however, felt that the naval situation had deteriorated; the mining of the Canal was serious, and if the Germans were to mine the Greek ports he could not guarantee to clear them. Air Chief Marshal Longmore was particularly anxious about our relative weakness in the air and was by no means confident of giving adequate air support to the operations. German air forces working on interior lines were increasing the weight of their attacks from Sicily, Tripoli, the Balkans and the Dodecanese. No corresponding increase in Royal Air Force reinforcements was being made, and the promised allotment of Tomahawks had just been reduced. Unless his reinforcements could be speeded up he faced his commitments on the Albanian and Macedonian fronts, added to those in Africa and Malta, with the gravest misgivings As for the enemy, it was to be expected that they would be hampered by the weather and by long and bad communications through countries whose friendship was doubtful, but this was almost the only
encouraging aspect of the military situation which Mr. Eden and his advisers could suggest. However, they declared themselves convinced that there was a ‘reasonable fighting chance’ and, given good fortune, an opportunity ‘of perhaps seriously upsetting the German plans’.
It has been seen how Great Britain’s active assistance to Greece grew from a very small beginning—the sending of one squadron of the Royal Air Force in the first flush of admiration for the defiant contempt with which the Greeks had received the Italian ultimatum. The Greek President, General Metaxas, invoked the British guarantee of April 1939, and Mr. Churchill responded by promising all the help in our power. The British contribution was gradually increased, but was confined to squadrons and their necessary adjuncts, limited as much by what could be usefully accepted as by what could be spared. Early in January 1941 came information of the move of German army and air forces into Rumania, and the British offered to help by providing some of the specialist troops that the Greek Army lacked. This offer was declined, but the Greek Government declared that if German military formations entered Bulgaria the despatch of a British force to Greece would be welcomed. On February 8th, the day following the total defeat of the Italians in Cyrenaica, the new Greek President, M. Koryzis, asked for the particulars of the British force to be settled.
The outcome of this request was the tour of the Eden Mission, which led to complete military agreement upon a plan that was independent of the help of Turkey or Yugoslavia. It seems almost incredible that an opening should have been left for genuine doubt as to what exactly was decided, but the fact remains that the preliminary action upon which the British were counting was not taken. On returning to Athens after their exploratory visit to Ankara the British representatives found themselves faced with a military situation of which the best that could be said was that it was not hopeless. There was not a moment to lose, for German troops were on the move into Bulgaria and the expedition from Egypt was on the point of sailing. One way or another the decision had to be taken—to go ahead or to back out. There was no question of being pressed from London; on the contrary, the Prime Minister had shown that he would back up his emissaries if they chose to abandon the venture now.
To the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the three Commanders-in-Chief the military dangers were all too clear; we might be bundled out of Greece as we had been out of Norway, and we might lose heavily in the process, especially in equipment. But the
cause for which we stood might suffer an even greater blow if at this critical moment we shrank from our obligations to our Ally, whatever the circumstances that caused us to change our plans. Which course would put heart into the freedom-loving nations: to attempt and fail, or not to attempt at all? Which course would show the United States, ‘the arsenal of democracy’, that we deserved their all-out help? As for the Turks, they had agreed that it was right for us to give all the help we could to Greece; their reaction to a volte-face might well be unfavourable. By doing nothing we should certainly lose any chance of winning over the Yugoslavs, and the Germans would be free to take whatever they wanted in Greece and spill over into the Aegean Islands. Our strategic reserve would still be intact, but in these circumstances would be unable to move quickly to the help of Turkey.
Mr. Eden and his advisers must have felt, like General Wolfe, that war is indeed an option of difficulties. In this particular dilemma they decided to take what seemed to them to be the big view, and accept the short-term consequences. The war, in fact, was more important than the battle. They agreed unanimously that the proper course was to go forward with the enterprise and ‘engage the enemy more closely’.
The resulting campaigns in Greece and Crete were by no means the only ones in which the Middle East Command was involved in the spring of 1941. Before the German invasion of Greece had even begun, the British had lost a large part of Cyrenaica. Malta had been suffering heavy attacks from the air—possibly as the prelude to an attempt at capture. Iraq showed signs of unrest. In Italian East Africa there had been many rapid successes, but there had also been a long, anxious, and bloody contest at Keren.
It is difficult to turn at this moment from events in the Balkans to follow the progress of the campaign in East Africa without sharing to some extent the feeling of the Commanders-in-Chief that this war was not ‘one damned thing after another’: it was everything in all directions at once.