Chapter 4: Matapan and the Start of the Greek Campaign
See Map 6
Having successfully covered the second supply convoy of the year into Malta, Admiral Cunningham arrived back at Alexandria with the battlefleet on 24th March. On the 26th he received bad news from Suda Bay. Early that morning six fast hydroplaning motor boats loaded with explosives had attacked shipping in this ill-protected harbour. The 8-inch cruiser York had been so badly damaged that she had to be beached, and the tanker Pericles was also hit. This was the first success in a series of attacks of an unconventional kind, requiring great individual skill and daring, which the Italians made against British ships in the Mediterranean.
But there were indications that the enemy might be planning some more important enterprise in the Eastern Mediterranean. Reconnaissance aircraft had been showing unusual interest in the sea areas to the west and south of Crete and in Alexandria harbour itself. In view of the imminent invasion of Greece by the Germans Admiral Cunningham was led to conclude that some major operation by the Italian Fleet was impending. It might take the form of a naval diversion to cover a landing in Cyrenaica or in Greece or possibly an attack on Malta. More probably there would be an attack on the convoys in the Aegean or Eastern Mediterranean, coinciding perhaps with the escorting of an Italian convoy to the Dodecanese. The obvious targets were the convoys on passage from Egypt carrying the British forces which were being sent to Greece. This movement, known as operation ‘Lustre’, had begun on 4th March and the enemy must soon have become aware of it. Most of the troops were being carried in H.M. ships, but the merchant ships carrying the bulk of the equipment and stores could only be provided with light escort. To cover both troops and stores a naval force had been patrolling to the west of Crete and in the south-western Aegean; before the Malta convoy operation this force had included two battleships, but at the moment the cover was being provided by the Vice-Admiral, Light Forces, with four cruisers and, four destroyers.
Admiral Cunningham was anxious to avoid any movement which might make the enemy suspicious and cause him to postpone some
intended operation. It was fortunate that only one British convoy (AG9) was at sea, bound north for Piraeus, having sailed from Egypt on 26th March. This was ordered to hold on until nightfall on the 27th and then reverse its course. The sailing of a south-bound convoy from Piraeus was cancelled, and at the last possible moment the Aegean was to be cleared of shipping. Admiral Cunningham thought that if he could get early information that an Italian force was at sea, and if the departure of the British fleet from Alexandria could be concealed as long as possible, he would stand a fair chance of bringing the enemy to battle. At 12.30 p.m. on 27th March a flying-boat of No. 230 Squadron RAF sighted three enemy cruisers and a destroyer about seventy-five miles east of Sicily steering towards Crete. Bad visibility prevented the flying-boat from keeping this force under observation, but the news confirmed the Admiral in his intention to take the fleet to sea under cover of darkness that evening.
The covering force (Force B), already at sea, consisting of the cruisers Orion (Flag of Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, VALF), Ajax, Perth, Gloucester and four destroyers, was ordered to leave the Aegean in time to reach a position thirty miles south of Gavdo Island—a rocky islet lying ten miles south of Crete towards its western end—at 6.30 a.m. the following morning. Three destroyers at Piraeus were to remain, ready to leave at short notice. Greek naval forces were warned to be in readiness. The Royal Air Force promised maximum air reconnaissance of the south Ionian Sea, of the south-western Aegean, and of the sea to the south of Crete, from first light on the 28th. Thirty bombers of Nos 84, 113 and 211 Squadrons RAF were to stand by in Greece.
The British battlefleet at Alexandria consisted of the battleships Warspite (Flag of the Commander-in-Chief), Barham and Valiant, the aircraft carrier Formidable and nine destroyers. Thirty-seven aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm were available, of which thirteen Fulmars of Nos 803 and 806 Squadrons and ten Albacores and four Swordfish of Nos 826 and 829 Squadrons were in the carrier Formidable. Five catapult aircraft of No. 700 Squadron were with their respective ships, and five Swordfish of No. 815 Squadron were at Maleme in Crete. The Formidable’s aircraft had been active in the Red Sea while she was on passage to relieve the damaged Illustrious, but this was her first appearance in a major operation by the Mediterranean Fleet. The Fleet left Alexandria harbour as night fell on the evening of 27th March, and steering a north-westerly course at 20 knots passed an uneventful night.
For some time the German Naval Staff had been urging their Italian colleagues in Rome to attack the Allied communications in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Admiral Iachino, the Commander-in-Chief Afloat, was at last summoned to Rome on 15th March and an operation was decided upon. Admiral Iachino with a
force of one battleship, eight cruisers and thirteen destroyers was to make a double raid against merchant shipping and convoys: to the south of Crete as far as the island of Gavdo, and in the southern Aegean as far as the eastern end of Crete. Enemy warships were to be closely engaged only if conditions were entirely favourable to the Italians.1 The arrangements for air support were made by Supermarina with the Italian and German Air Commands, but up to the moment of sailing Admiral Iachino protested that they were quite inadequate.
On the evening of 26th March Admiral Iachino, in the battleship Vittorio Veneto, left Naples escorted by four destroyers (Force Y on the diagram). On her way eastwards the battleship was joined by the 3rd Cruiser Division—the three 8-inch cruisers Trieste (Vice-Admiral Sansonnetti) Trento and Bolzano—and three destroyers (Force X). Two other Cruiser Divisions, the 1st and 8th, and six destroyers (Force Z), whose orders to operate in the southern Aegean were cancelled by Supermarina at 10 p.m. on the 27th, also joined the Commander-in-Chief. The 1st Division consisted of three 8-inch cruisers, Zara (Vice-Admiral Cattaneo), Fiume and Pola ; the 8th consisted of the two 6-inch cruisers Garibaldi and Abruzzi (Vice-Admiral Legnani). By 7 a.m. on 28th March these three Forces had reached positions south of Gavdo Island steering a south-easterly course at high speed in an effort to close Admiral Pridham-Wippell’s Force B, which had been reported at 6.30 a.m. by the Vittorio Veneto’s reconnaissance aircraft.
Admiral Cunningham had had no further information about the enemy fleet since the flying-boat lost contact on 27th March. At 7.22 a.m. on the 28th an aircraft from the Formidable reported four cruisers and four destroyers (Force Z) some thirty-five miles to the north-east of Force B steering south-west. Shortly afterwards a second aircraft reported three cruisers and six destroyers (Force X) only twenty-five miles from the position of the first. For a time it was thought that Force B might have been mistaken for the enemy, but it was not long before the Orion herself sighted enemy cruisers (Force X) to the northward. Recognizing them to be 8-inch cruisers, faster than his own ships and able to outrange them, Admiral Pridham-Wippell increased speed and altered course so as to draw the enemy towards the battlefleet ninety miles to the eastward. The Italian cruisers followed and at 8.12 opened fire at a range of thirteen miles. At 8.55, having been recalled by Admiral Iachino, who felt that his ships were already farther east than his orders warranted, they ceased fire and swung round to the north-westward at 28 knots with Force B trying to keep in contact.
Admiral Cunningham received the Orion’s first sighting report at 8.27 and at once increased his speed and altered course to close Force B. Although the situation was far from clear, the Commander-in-Chief concluded from the air reports that there was in fact a second enemy force, which possibly included battleships, on to which the enemy cruisers (Force X) were retiring. To relieve the danger to Force B Admiral Cunningham at 9.39 ordered an air torpedo striking force of six Albacores of Nos 826 and 829 Squadrons with an escort of two Fulmars of No. 803 Squadron to attack the first enemy sighted.
The uncertainty about the presence of battleships was suddenly settled when at 10.58 the Orion sighted one Littorio class battleship (Force Y) some sixteen miles away to the north. Admiral Pridham-Wippell at once altered course to the southward, made smoke and increased his speed to thirty knots in an attempt to disengage, but for thirty minutes his squadron had to suffer a bombardment of 15-inch salvoes which though desultory was at times uncomfortably accurate. The situation was serious, for it appeared that the British cruisers might be sandwiched between the Vittorio Veneto and the Italian cruisers of Force X, and in fact Admiral Iachino had turned the Vittorio Veneto and Force X with just this intention. At this moment the Formidable’s striking force most opportunely intervened and Admiral Pridham-Wippell’s squadron escaped with only minor damage. The aircraft sighted the enemy battleship at 10.58 and at 11.27 they launched their attack. One hit was claimed on the Vittorio Veneto although in fact all six torpedoes passed clear astern of her. But the attack was successful in relieving the immediate danger to Force B because the Vittorio Veneto at once broke off the engagement and withdrew in a north-westerly direction at 25 knots. This news was received with mixed feelings by Admiral Cunningham who had been obliged to launch his first air attack sooner than he had intended and who now saw little chance of bringing the enemy battlefleet to action during daylight unless a second air attack should prove more successful than the first in reducing the battleship’s speed. Meanwhile the cruisers of Force X had also been attacked, by three Swordfish of No. 815 Squadron from Maleme, but without success.2
At 12.30 p.m. Force B made visual contact with Admiral Cunningham, who, with his fleet now concentrated, continued in pursuit of the Vittorio Veneto, then some 65 miles to the westward. The strong north-easterly wind had dropped, and flying operations could be conducted without delaying the general pursuit. The situation was still obscure, but soon after 2 p.m. it appeared that the enemy force of one battleship, eight cruisers and thirteen destroyers was retiring to the north-west in three distinct groups. A second air striking force, of three Albacores and
two Swordfish of No. 829 Squadron, escorted by two Fulmars of No. 803 Squadron, sighted the enemy battleship at 3.10 screened by two destroyers on either bow. The aircraft, led with great gallantry by Lieut.-Commander J. Dalyell-Stead, who did not survive, launched five torpedoes of which one—the leader’s—struck the Vittorio Veneto. The damage reduced her speed but not enough to enable the British battlefleet to overtake her before dark. Throughout the afternoon Royal Air Force bombers from Greece made twenty-four sorties against the Italian battleship and cruisers; they obtained several near misses without causing any serious damage. This was the first instance in the Mediterranean of cooperation of bombers of the Royal Air Force with the British fleet against an enemy fleet at sea.
During the afternoon the air reports still did not give a clear picture, and continued to refer to another enemy force containing battleships north-west of the Vittorio Veneto. This was in fact Force Z, whose two Garibaldi cruisers were being mistaken for battleships. At 4.44 Admiral Cunningham directed his cruisers to press on with the utmost speed and make contact with the Vittorio Veneto, then estimated to be some 58 miles ahead. He ordered the aircraft carrier to make a third torpedo attack on the battleship at dusk. At 5.45, about one hour before sunset, the Warspite’s reconnaissance aircraft, with the Commander-in-Chief’s observer on board, was catapulted, and by 6.30 had made the first of a series of accurate reports which gave the Commander-in-Chief the information he so urgently needed. The Vittorio Veneto was some fifty miles ahead of the Warspite steering a north-westerly course at twelve knots, and the enemy squadrons, less the two Garibaldi cruisers of Force Z, had concentrated round the battleship in five columns. (These two cruisers had been ordered at 4.30 to leave the fleet, and return to Brindisi). This was the formidable sight that confronted the crews of the third air striking force, six Albacores and two Swordfish of Nos 826 and 829 Squadrons, joined by two Swordfish of No. 815 Squadron from Maleme. The aircraft sighted their target just as the sun was sinking, and waited for the light to fade. At 7.25, skimming low over the surface of the sea they swept into the attack in single line ahead, and were at once met with a smoke screen and a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Dazzled by searchlights and in danger of collision, the aircraft had to break formation and turn away before they could position themselves to aim their torpedoes at the Italian battleship. In the individual attacks which followed observation was very difficult, but one cruiser was claimed to have been hit. This was in fact the Pola, whose electrical power was put out of action and with it all her turrets. This success was to have important results.
By 7.20 p.m. Admiral Cunningham was aware of the position and formation of the enemy fleet, but the report of the last air attack reached him at 8.8 and left him doubtful whether the Vittorio Veneto
had been hit again. He now had a difficult decision to make: whether to risk his battlefleet in a night action with an enemy heavily screened by cruisers and destroyers, or to wait until morning and risk being heavily attacked by German dive-bombers. By 8.40 the Commander-in-Chief had made up his mind to accept the risks of a night action. He ordered the 2nd and 14th Destroyer Flotillas under the command of Captain P. J. Mack to find and attack the enemy, intending himself to follow with the battlefleet. The enemy fleet was then estimated to be about thirty-three miles from the Warspite steering a westerly course at 13 knots.
Just before this, at 8.15, radar in the Ajax and Orion had picked up a vessel about six miles to port and further plots over the next eighteen minutes revealed that the vessel was stopped. As Admiral Pridham-Wippell did not know if this ship was the Vittorio Veneto or not he decided to continue his pursuit of the enemy fleet, with which, as it happened, he never succeeded in regaining contact.
The news that an unknown ship was lying stopped was received by the Commander-in-Chief at 9.11 p.m. He at once decided to investigate and altered the course of the battlefleet accordingly. About an hour later the Valiant’s radar—the flagship was not fitted—detected an object about six miles away on the port bow. Admiral Cunningham turned his battleships to close, and hopes ran high that the stationary vessel might be the Vittorio Veneto. The sea was smooth, there was no moon, and visibility was about 2½ miles. The two screening destroyers on the port side were ordered to take up station to starboard to clear the line of fire. Radar ranges from the Valiant grew steadily less. Suddenly, at 10.25, on quite a different bearing, the outlines of two large vessels with a smaller vessel ahead of them loomed up through the darkness some 4,000 yards away fine on the starboard bow and on a course which was taking them directly across the bows of the battlefleet from starboard to port. They were, in fact, the Zara and Fiume with one destroyer ahead and three astern returning to the help of the cruiser Pola. Admiral Cunningham instantly swung his ships 40 degrees to starboard back into line ahead, bringing the enemy on to the port bow. The Formidable turned farther away to starboard, for a carrier has no place in the line at night when battle is joined. The Warspite’s guns steadied on the second 8-inch cruiser and opened fire.3 Almost simultaneously with the Warspite’s first broadside the destroyer Greyhound, ahead of the battleships, switched a searchlight on to the enemy, which greatly helped the Valiant and Barham to select their targets. (See Photo. 4.) In the beam of the Warspite’s own searchlights five of the six 15-inch shells of her first broadside were seen to hit. The three battleships poured broadside after broadside into the unfortunate Italian cruisers which had been caught quite unprepared and which had, indeed, no arrangements for using their heavier guns at night. ‘One saw whole turrets and masses of other heavy debris whirling through the air and splashing into the sea and in a short time the ships themselves were nothing but glowing torches and on fire from stem to stern.’4 Three Italian destroyers turned towards the British battleships and one was seen to fire torpedoes. To avoid them, Admiral Cunningham swung his
ships away 90 degrees to starboard. Just 4½ minutes had elapsed since the Warspite’s opening broadside. Leaving the four destroyers who were with the fleet to finish off the enemy cruisers, Admiral Cunningham, collecting the Formidable on the way, withdrew northward at 10.40 clear of the battle area. The Fiume blew up and sank at about 11 p.m. and the Zara was torpedoed and sank a few hours later.
Since 9 o’clock the destroyers under Captain Mack in the Jervis had been speeding westwards in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which, unknown to him, had altered course at 8.48 to the northward and had increased speed. Thus at 11 p.m. instead of being some ten miles north-west of the enemy battleship and in position to attack her from ahead, Captain Mack’s destroyers were in fact 25 miles to the south. At 11.20, in order to reduce the risk of engaging friendly ships, the Commander-in-Chief ordered all forces not occupied in sinking the enemy to retire to the north-east; in the case of Captain Mack’s destroyers the order was qualified by ‘after your attack’. Half an hour after midnight Captain Mack intercepted a signal from the Havock, who was finishing off the disabled cruisers some fifty miles to the eastward, reporting that she was in touch with a Littorio class battleship and had no more torpedoes. The Jervis, with both flotillas, immediately turned back only to hear an hour later that the ‘battleship’ was the Pola. Captain Mack decided to continue on his course and at 2 a.m. he saw searchlights ahead. Shortly afterwards he sighted the cruiser Zara which he sank with torpedoes as he passed her by. About two miles away was the Pola. The Jervis, ordering the other destroyers to pick up the many survivors in the water, went alongside the Pola to take off the rest of the ship’s company. 22 officers and 266 ratings were embarked and the Pola was sunk by torpedoes from the Jervis and Nubian. Captain Mack re-formed his flotillas and set off for the rendezvous with the battlefleet. By 7 a.m. all units of the fleet had rejoined the Flag.
Air search was resumed at 4.30 a.m., but only a number of rafts and survivors were seen, the Vittorio Veneto having made good her escape during the night. As the fleet steamed back through the scene of the previous night’s action, destroyers were detached to rescue the many survivors still in the water until the appearance of German aircraft brought this work of mercy to an abrupt end. A total of 55 officers and 850 ratings were rescued by British ships alone, and a further 110 were picked up by a Greek destroyer flotilla which had unfortunately been prevented from being present during the battle owing to a mistake in the ciphering of the orders. The Commander-in-Chief signalled to the Italian Admiralty the position of the many other survivors still in the water, and an Italian hospital ship eventually rescued 160 of them. On the way back to Alexandria the fleet was attacked only once from the air and escaped without damage.
Although the damaged battleship had escaped, the results of the
action were substantial. The Italian Navy had lost three fast heavy cruisers, two large destroyers, and 2,400 officers and men, against the British loss by enemy action of one aircraft and its crew. The Italian Commander-in-Chief placed much of the blame on the Italian and German Air Commands for their failure to provide him with fighter protection or with accurate information of the movements of the British battlefleet. He had, before sailing, repeatedly asked for the arrangements for air support to be improved, but it seems that the plan was not flexible enough to meet changes in the tactical situation and no aircraft other than those carried in individual warships were placed under the Commander-in-Chief’s orders. As it happened, during most of 28th March the fleet was operating to the east of the area covered by the German fighters and at almost the extreme range of the Italian fighters based on Rhodes and Scarpanto. In spite of the poor visibility, the air gave warning, early in the afternoon, of the presence of a formidable British force, including a battleship and an aircraft carrier. The Admiral seems to have doubted the accuracy of this report for he did not succeed in confirming it and acted as if the force was much farther away. In this belief he detached the Zara and Fiume to go to the help of the Pola. Not until 10.28 p.m., when he saw the gun flashes of the British battlefleet forty-five miles astern of him, did he realize how wrong his deductions had been.
It is difficult to say how far the lack of air support in this action was attributable to the failure of the Italian High Command in the years before the war to carry out enough practical trials of cooperation between ships and air and to arrange for adequate mutual training. What is certain is that the Duce, for one, had now become so impressed by the need for the Italian Navy to have an aircraft carrier that he ordered a liner to be immediately converted for the purpose. In the meantime the Fleet was to operate only in waters which could be covered by shore-based fighters. The liner was not ready by the time that Italy retired from the war.
The British had practised night fighting between all classes of ships for many years, but up to the time of Matapan the Italians seem to have regarded night action between heavy ships as impracticable, and only their lighter guns were equipped for the purpose. At night, therefore, it was their custom to leave their heavy guns unmanned and rely upon a screen of destroyers well ahead of their heavy ships to give sufficient warning for evasive action. This makes it all the more remarkable that Admiral Cattaneo should have approached the Pola with his cruisers and destroyers in line ahead. None of the Italian ships was fitted with radar, and it was radar which caused the British to become aware of the Pola in the dark, and to locate her. This in turn led to a night action for which the British were doubly ready and the Italians were not ready at all.
The Vittorio Veneto escaped destruction because her speed had not been reduced sufficiently for her to be overtaken by the British battlefleet. After dark the attempts to locate her were unsuccessful, partly owing to a chain of unfortunate circumstances which prevented Admiral Pridham-Wippell from spreading his cruisers to search for her before the Commander-in-Chief signalled all ships not engaged in sinking enemy ships to retire. Admiral Cunningham had been under the impression that gunfire observed and two alarm-signals intercepted by the battlefleet indicated that the cruisers and Captain Mack’s destroyers were in contact with the enemy, which, as has been seen, was not the case. By 12.30 a.m. all attempts to locate the Vittorio Veneto had ceased.
Admiral Cunningham has criticized his own decision to retire on so easterly a course, but whatever force there may be in that, there can be no doubt that the rough handling given to the Italian Fleet supplied the answer to the immediate problem of how to safeguard the LUSTRE convoys from surface attacks. That no attempt was made by enemy ships to interfere with the evacuations from Greece and Crete was another of the beneficial results of the action on the night of 28th March off Cape Matapan.
See Map 8
It has been related in the previous volume how, in February 1941, the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Eden, accompanied by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir John Dill, was sent out to the Middle East as the representative of His Majesty’s Government. He was to try to counter the German moves in the Balkans by arranging to send speedy succour to Greece and by encouraging Turkey and Yugoslavia to unite with Greece in opposing the Germans. Agreement was reached with the Greeks that certain British and Greek troops should occupy a position running north-west from in front of Mt. Olympus, called the Aliakmon position, with the object of holding up the expected German invasion. These troops were to be commanded by Lieut.-General Sir Maitland Wilson. The importance of the attitude of Yugoslavia was fully realized, for not only was the Rupel Pass between Bulgaria and Greece very close to the Yugoslav frontier, but the Aliakmon position itself could be turned from the direction of Monastir. It was left to Mr. Eden to make the approach to the Yugoslav Government and the result was disappointing. In order to have first-hand information of conditions in the country before renewing his efforts, he summoned the British Minister in Belgrade, Mr. Campbell, to Athens to discuss the attitude of the Yugoslav Government to Germany’s obvious intention of invading Greece, and to consider what could be done to encourage Yugoslavia to join the Allies.
Mr. Campbell emphasized the Yugoslav Government’s difficulty in maintaining national unity, since the Serbs who predominated in the south and east favoured the Allies while the Croats in the north were firm adherents of the Axis. Moreover, the Government was under constant pressure from Germany to sign the Tripartite Pact. Nevertheless he thought that if the Prince Regent knew what the British were doing to help the Greeks he might yet be able to convince his Government that Yugoslavia’s best interest lay in joining the Allies. Mr. Eden accordingly sent a personal letter to Prince Paul by hand of the Minister, who was authorized to give the Prince an outline of the Anglo-Greek plans. He was to emphasize that the defence of Salonika, the one port through which Yugoslavia could maintain communication with Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, must depend to a large extent upon the resistance put up by the Yugoslavs themselves. If staff officers could come to Athens at once the Allies would be very willing to discuss plans with them.
A representative of the Yugoslav General Staff arrived in Athens on 8th March, but the talks were inconclusive as he had no authority to disclose the Yugoslav plans. His object was to find out whether Salonika could be used as a base for the Yugoslav southern armies; what naval assistance could be expected in the Adriatic if the northern armies were cut off by the Germans and had to be evacuated; and what military supplies the Yugoslavs could expect, especially in aircraft, tanks, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The British and Greeks decided to reply in general terms, and gave an assurance that if Yugoslavia sided with the Allies she would have a call upon the pool of war equipment in common with other member states. They stressed the difficulties with which the enemy would be faced in advancing through hostile territory with ever-lengthening communications, and pointed out the great advantages to be expected from an immediate attack by the Yugoslav armies on the rear of the Italians in Albania; the Italians would collapse and large Greek forces would be released to oppose the Germans. The officer returned to Belgrade in a more confident frame of mind, and it was hoped that he would pass on some of his resolution to the Yugoslav General Staff.
Since Mr. Eden’s visit to Ankara at the end of February the Turkish Government had shown no sign of taking any action in the Balkans, and Mr. Eden now decided to try to induce them to make some communication to Belgrade which would hearten the Yugoslav Government. General Wavell, supported by Air Chief Marshal Longmore, doubted the wisdom of making any further approach to the Turks because the offensive power of Turkey was so small that she would be a liability rather than an asset if she entered the war at this stage, and there were no military supplies in the Middle East to spare for her. On the other hand, if a declaration of war on Germany was the one
thing necessary to make Yugoslavia stand firm, then the Turkish Government should be encouraged to take this step since it was of the greatest importance strategically that Yugoslavia should not go over to the enemy.
Mr. Eden’s view was that if the Germans wanted to attack Turkey they would do so when it suited them. A declaration of war by Turkey would certainly encourage both the Yugoslavs and the Greeks, and might well cause Hitler to hesitate and reconsider his policy in the Balkans. It was possible that the political advantages of a declaration of war by Turkey in the event of a German attack on Greece might outweigh the military disadvantage of precipitating a German attack on Turkey, but Mr. Eden agreed that this was a matter on which the views of the Commanders-in-Chief must prevail. It was decided that Mr. Eden should meet the Turkish Foreign Minister and discuss political rather than strategical questions; in particular, he would try to persuade the Turkish Government to adopt a more determined attitude in declaring publicly that their policy was the preservation of peace in the Balkans and that they would not remain indifferent to any further acts of aggression by a foreign Power.
The two Foreign Ministers met in Cyprus on 18th March. It seemed that the Yugoslav Government was on the point of signing some form of agreement with Germany. Mr. Eden suggested that the Turkish Government should tell the Yugoslav Government that they would regard a German attack on Salonika as a casus belli provided that the Yugoslavs would do the same. Mr. Sarajoglu could not agree to this but said that the Turkish Government would restate to the Yugoslav Government their determination to resist any German attack on Turkey, and that they were convinced that Yugoslavia, for her part, would also resist if attacked. He would suggest an exchange of views between the two Governments. But this message was never sent, for other members of the Turkish Cabinet were evidently not prepared to go so far. In the anxious and uncertain days that were to follow, Mr. Eden made strenuous efforts to induce the Turkish Government to adopt a more resolute attitude and make some reassuring communication to the Yugoslavs, but nothing came of his suggestion.
It had become known on 17th March that the Germans had asked the Yugoslav Government to sign the Tripartite Pact. The President of the Council had affirmed that his Government would sign no agreement which required Yugoslavia’s participation in hostilities or the use of her territory for military purposes. It soon appeared, however, that the Yugoslav Government was on the point of yielding to German pressure. Mr. Eden therefore decided to make a further appeal to the Prince Regent and to send it by Mr. Terence Shone, H.M. Minister in
Cairo, a personal friend of Prince Paul. In his letter he urged Prince Paul to continue to stand firm against the Germans and make them realize that further aggression in the Balkans might bring them into conflict with Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey, backed by all the resources of the British. In this way the German threat might be checked before it developed into military action. Mr. Eden went on to emphasize how favourably situated Yugoslavia was in relation to Albania. The recent attempts by the Italians to break the Greek front had failed and their morale was low. If the Yugoslavs were to enter Albania from the north, Italian resistance would soon collapse and that would be the end of Italian participation in the Balkan conflict, except for any part played by their air forces from Italy. Valuable munitions of war and supplies of all kinds would fall into the hands of the Yugoslavs, and the Greek Army and the Royal Air Force would no longer be tied to a front in Albania. In conclusion, Mr. Eden stressed the importance of an early meeting of the military staffs to discuss plans. Mr. Shone handed this letter to Prince Paul on 18th March. It failed to produce any change of attitude, and on 20th March it was learned that the Yugoslav Government had made an offer to the German Government to sign the Tripartite Pact on certain conditions.
Feeling was now running high in Yugoslavia, particularly among the Serbs, as rumours of the Government’s intention to sign the Pact swept through the country. On 22nd March three Serb Cabinet Ministers resigned and the next day Mr. Campbell learnt that the Germans had given the Yugoslav Government until midnight to sign a modified form of the Tripartite Pact. Meanwhile from London the Prime Minister was doing all he could to encourage the Yugoslav Government to stand firm, and from Cairo Mr. Eden was pressing the Turkish Government to make some reassuring communication to the Yugoslavs.
All these efforts proved useless, for on 25th March the Pact was signed in Vienna by the Yugoslav President of the Council and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Anticipating this event, a small band of Yugoslav officers led by General Simovitch, the former Chief of the Air Staff, had planned to seize power. In the early hours of 27th March General Simovitch, in the name of the boy King Peter, took over the Government. Mr. Eden and General Dill, who had left for home on hearing of the German ultimatum, were at Malta when the news of the coup d’état reached them. They turned back and arrived at Athens on 28th March.
General Papagos was naturally eager to take immediate advantage of the news from Belgrade, and wished to move British and Greek forces forward from the Aliakmon position to cover Salonika. General Dill and General Wilson were firmly opposed to a change of plan before the intentions and military plans of the new Yugoslav Government were known. It was urgently necessary therefore to discover what the
new Government intended to do. After some wavering General Simovitch said he was prepared to see General Dill in secrecy but could not agree to receive Mr. Eden.
Sir John Dill thereupon flew to Belgrade, intending to inform General Simovitch of the conditions on which the British and Greeks would move forward a force under a British Commander to strengthen the Greek forces already covering Salonika. These conditions, with which General Papagos agreed, were that if the Germans invaded Greece the Yugoslavs would undertake to attack the enemy’s communications in the valley of the upper Struma, to clear the Beles mountain of the enemy, and to attack the Italians in Albania. However, at the meetings with. General Simovitch and his colleagues nothing so definite was discussed. The new Yugoslav Ministers were greatly preoccupied with the immediate and pressing problems of taking over government. They wished to avoid further provoking the Germans because the Yugoslav forces were not ready for war; they needed time in which to mobilize and concentrate, and they were short of armaments. Yugoslavia was determined to resist the Germans if attacked, but in the present internal state of the country General Simovitch dared not propose to his government that he should sign a military agreement with the Allies, for this would only cause another major political crisis. He agreed, however, that it would be useful to hold staff talks, without obligation on either side and limited to an exchange of views on plans to meet various eventualities.
The staff talks took place at a small frontier station near Florina, on 3rd April. The Allies were represented by Generals Papagos and Wilson and Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac. Mr. Eden and Sir John Dill travelled from Athens with them, to be at hand if wanted. The results were very disappointing because the Yugoslav General Yankovitch had authority to discuss only the plans for action in defence of Salonika, and the Yugoslav plan was based on such faulty assumptions about the strength and dispositions of the Anglo-Greek forces that it was useless as a basis for serious discussion. In the circumstances it was agreed that further staff talks should be held as soon as possible in Athens. But before anything came of this suggestion for yet another meeting to concert a last-minute plan, the Germans invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece.
It would be unfair to blame the new Yugoslav Government for not seeing everything through the eyes of the Allies. It had to take things as it found them, and a policy of making a major effort towards the south and south-east could not have been put into effect in a matter of days even if mobilization had been complete, which it was not. The coup d’état was in no sense a national rising of the Yugoslav people; it was the expression, mainly by the Serbs, of the choice between subjection and resistance to the Germans. It was therefore a very brave act; as to its consequences there could have been no illusions. But as it was an
act of defiance to Germany it could not logically be followed by a weakening of the northern frontier, which the Germans were certain to attack. The Croats in the north could not be expected to support such a weakening. It could only have been attempted by a strong government, sure of the whole nation’s support. The coup d’état was itself a denial of any such unity.
The Italian offensive in Albania, to which Mr. Eden had referred in his letter to the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia, had been prepared with great energy, and it is easy to understand that Mussolini was extremely anxious that it should succeed before the Germans arrived to steal his triumph. The equivalent of 28 divisions was assembled in Albania, supported by an average serviceable strength there of 26 bombers and 105 fighters and, in addition, working from bases in Italy, 134 bombers and 54 fighters of the 4th Squadra.5 The Duce himself arrived in Albania on 2nd March to be present at the Italian success.
Under cover of an intense artillery bombardment and accompanied by heavy air attacks, the assault began on 9th March on a twenty mile front in the central sector. After a week of bitter fighting it was clear that the offensive had failed, though the struggle went on less violently for another ten days. By this time the Greeks were short of ammunition and had suffered heavy losses. After the long and rigorous winter campaign, during which most of their troops were permanently in the front line, the fourteen Greek divisions on this front had very nearly reached the limit of their endurance. In the almost complete absence of any air forces of their own, the Greeks depended for air support upon the contingent of the Royal Air Force. This consisted only of one squadron of Gladiators, a detachment of Hurricanes, a squadron of Blenheim bombers, a few Blenheim fighters and a detachment of Wellingtons. The fighters flew many sorties in trying to defend the Greek forward positions from the constant and heavy enemy raids, and they claimed to have destroyed many enemy aircraft, but by 15th March they had only twelve serviceable aircraft left. At the express wish of the Greek Commander-in-Chief the bombers operated at first mainly in close support of the Greek Army—as they had done during the Greek offensive in February—but on 14th March Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac switched his bomber effort on to the congested airfields at Tirana, Valona, and Berat. To supplement the bombing attacks on shipping by the Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron, RAF, Admiral Cunningham had sent six Swordfish torpedo aircraft of No. 815 Squadron, FAA, to Paramythia on 11th March. Both Valona and Durazzo harbours were very difficult to approach by night, the
one on account of the surrounding high ground, the other because most of the water was too shallow for torpedoes. Nevertheless, on 17th March the torpedo boat Andromeda, and three merchant vessels totalling some 12,000 tons, were sunk by Swordfish in Valona harbour.
The British air contingent undoubtedly did a great deal to encourage the Greeks, but it was not strong enough to have a decisive effect or even to cause serious delay or dislocation behind the Italian lines.
The text of the plan agreed by the British and Greeks at the final Athens conference on 4th March is given in Appendix 7 of Volume I. Briefly, the decision was that apart from the Albanian front there would be a force in Eastern Macedonia under Lieut.-General K. Bacopoulos and a force on the Aliakmon position under General Wilson. All the Allied troops in Greece were to be under the high command of General Papagos.
General Bacopoulos’s force of three immobile divisions and some fortress troops was to hold a line along the lower Nestos and on to Rupel and Beles. This line was naturally strong and parts of it had been made yet stronger by concrete forts, barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles. Between these fortified areas there were some field-works. The weakest part of the line was at its western end, close to the junction of the three frontiers. This was unfortunately the nearest point to Salonika.
General Wilson’s command, known as W Force, was a composite one. The deployment of the British portion was a race against time; indeed it was not complete by the time the German attack began. It was covered at first by the Greek portion, or Central Macedonian Army, under General Kotulas, which was in reality an improvised corps of three weak divisions. Two of these divisions, the 12th and 20th, had each two regiments instead of three, and a few field and mountain batteries. The 19th was nominally a motorized division, but had only recently been formed and was incompletely armed and equipped with a mixture of British and captured Italian weapons and vehicles. Allowing for seven additional battalions which were due to come from Thrace, this Greek force, of other than first-line troops, could only be a poor substitute for the larger and better organized force that General Papagos had originally been understood to offer.
A number of British army units had been in Greece since the previous November, having been sent to provide the anti-aircraft defence and the engineer, signal, and supply requirements of the first Royal Air Force detachment. When it was decided, in February 1941, to offer a land force to Greece, a small administrative staff, under Brigadier G. S. Brunskill, was sent to prepare for its arrival and deployment. The units already in the country then reverted to Army control.
General Wilson himself arrived in Athens on 4th March, but at the express wish of the Greek Government remained incognito in plain clothes. This restriction greatly hampered his activities as a Commander and added to the many difficulties of the administrative staff. He was unable, for instance, to make a proper reconnaissance of the ground that his troops were to hold, and had to be content with one trip by motor-car along the front from Katerini to Edessa, and back through Kozani to Larissa.
The defensive position was to run along the northern slopes of the Olympus-Pieria mountains from near the mouth of the river Aliakmon north-westwards to the Yugoslav border, a distance of over 70 miles in a straight line from the sea. It was naturally strong, for the lower forward slopes were generally steep and rugged, and except at the gaps formed an obstacle to vehicles. The gaps were four in number. First, the coastal route between Mount Olympus and the sea, along which runs the Athens-Salonika railway; second, the Olympus Pass, to the west of Mount Olympus, connecting Katerini with Elasson; third, the Verria Pass, through which runs the Salonika–Kozani road; and fourth, the Edessa Pass, connecting Edessa with Florina. The defence of the last of these gaps presented the main problem, not only because it was the widest, but because the approaches from the east were open and suitable for tanks. At the time of General Wilson’s arrival the 9th Greek Division was in the Katerini area, far enough forward to cover the passes on both sides of Mount Olympus; the 12th Division was in the Verria area and the 10th at Edessa.
It had been recognized all along that the weakness of the position lay in the fact that it could be turned by way of the easy valley from Monastir to Florina, which entered Greece behind the left flank of the position. The defence of this route would naturally depend in the first instance upon the Yugoslavs. If a threat to the British developed from this direction, it might be possible to meet it by continuing to hold the Olympus–Pieria mountains and withdrawing from the Vermion range to the line of the river Aliakmon to near Grevena, thus blocking the valley running south-east from Florina and also the valley of the upper Aliakmon.
The prospect of such a withdrawal in the face of greatly superior air forces was distinctly uninviting. Greece is a mountainous country, the flat areas between Athens and the Aliakmon being limited to the plains of Larissa, Trikkala, Lamia and Thebes. On these there is very little cover, and from them the mountains rise steeply and become impassable in places even to pack transport. Stones and rocks and low thorny bush make observation and cross-country movement difficult. The valleys are deep with precipitous sides; the watercourses are strewn with boulders and are liable to heavy spates. In 1941 a few well graded roads crossed the mountains, but they were single-way and unfit for
heavy motor traffic. The other roads were mere fair-weather tracks winding steeply through the defiles, and demanding a skill in driving very different from what the British troops had acquired in the Western Desert. For the rest, communications were limited to bridle paths. Heavy and frequent falls of rain during March and April made the roads slippery, quickly reducing most of them to muddy tracks and the surrounding country to clogging mud, and making dispersion of vehicles off the road virtually impossible. Nothing the engineers could do in the time could alter this state of affairs. Moreover, the spring rains were usually followed by a drying sun, which turned the surface into sticky clay and brought any vehicle without chains to a standstill. These factors underlined the differences between the capabilities of the Allied troops. The pack animals and ox wagons of the Greeks were well adapted to the mountainous conditions, but were quite unsuitable for wide or rapid manoeuvres. The British, on the other hand, were far better armed and equipped, but were tied to the vicinity of the motorable roads. Thus the country obviously presented many difficulties to an invader, but it also had many disadvantages for an army on the defensive or in retreat.
The broad lines of the British administrative policy had been laid down in Cairo. The main port and base were to be in the Piraeus–Athens area, with Volos as a subsidiary port. The advanced base was to be at Larissa, some 190 miles from Athens, to which it was connected both by road and single-line standard gauge railway. Between Volos and Larissa there was a single-line metre gauge railway and a fair-weather road. The policy was for the main and advanced bases between them to hold supplies of all kinds for ninety days.
Volos had such a low capacity that the railway from Athens was of prime importance. Unfortunately for the British, this railway was already being used almost to its limit in maintaining the Greek armies, notably those on the northern portion of the Albanian front, to which the supply line ran in front of the Vermion range. Shortage of rolling stock had prevented the building up of adequate reserves at Florina, so that, once the Germans gained contact with the main position of W Force and made the railway between Katerini and Edessa unusable, the northern armies in Albania and the Greek troops in the Vermion range would have to be supplied by the road from Larissa through Kozani to Florina. This unfortunately was not a proper two-way road, and in places was steep and tortuous. As the Greek Army was already short of lorries it was obvious that some very difficult problems were likely to arise.
Practically nothing was available for the British from local sources. The civil population was short of food. Motor vehicles, carts, wagons and pack animals had been requisitioned by the army, together with nearly all the caiques and other small craft. Most of the men, women
and children were working on the roads, so that there was a general shortage of labour. In fact everything the British wanted they had to bring with them. The Greek people offered goodwill in abundance, but the cupboard was bare. This general lack of military facilities of all kinds, coupled with the fact that preparations were being made for a much larger force than was in the end sent, accounts for the size of the administrative tail.
To guard against the interruption of daily deliveries to W Force, Brigadier Brunskill started at once to move forward from the base area the accumulated British stocks and to form Field Supply Depots at points which would be within reach of the corps and divisional transport. Seven of these were formed, each containing seven days’ supply of rations, ammunition, petrol and defence and medical stores. By 6th April fifty-eight days’ food, thirty-eight days’ petrol and oil, seventy days’ ordnance stores, and 14,000 tons of engineer stores had been landed in the country. The unloading of all this and the disembarkation of the troops and their equipment was solemnly witnessed by the staff of the German Embassy, who were, of course, free to come and go as they liked. It is hard to picture a more ridiculous situation in war time than that of the German Military Attaché standing on the quay and counting the British troops, whose own Commander was not allowed to show himself to them.
The order in which General Wilson’s British formations were due to arrive was: 1st Armoured Brigade Group (Brigadier H. V. S. Charrington); the New Zealand Division (Major-General B. C. Freyberg, VC); the 6th Australian Division—fresh from Cyrenaica—(Major-General Sir Iven Mackay). Interspersed with these would be the Force Headquarters and that of the 1st Australian Corps (Lieut.-General Sir Thomas Blamey), two medium regiments of Royal Artillery, and a number of corps, base, and lines-of-communication troops. The 7th Australian Division and the Polish Brigade were to follow. By the end of March over 31,000 men had been transported to Greece, mostly in cruisers, and the remainder, with their equipment, in merchant vessels. There were a few half-hearted bombing attacks by Italian aircraft from the Dodecanese, but no casualties and no damage.
See Map 9
At the beginning of April the plan for the deployment of W Force was as follows. 1st Armoured Brigade, less its one cruiser regiment, was out in the plain ahead of the defensive position covering the preparation of demolitions as far forward as the river Vardar (or Axios). Over this area the brigade was to delay the enemy’s advance, its line of withdrawal being through the Edessa gap. On 11th March General Wilson had ordered the New Zealand Division to prepare to occupy a
position in front of the railhead at Katerini, which task, in addition to the preparation of the defences of the Olympus. Pass and the coastal gap, meant that the New Zealanders would be stretched over some fifteen miles. On 20th March General Wilson had agreed with General Papagos that the 19th Greek Division should be transferred to the Eastern Macedonian Army, and it was moved forward to the Doiran area to guard against landings by paratroops.
On the left of the New Zealand Division, astride the Verria gap, the 12th Greek Division was to be replaced by the 6th Australian Division. The Australians and New Zealanders would then together form General Blamey’s 1st Australian Corps. The 12th Greek Division was to side-step to the north and with the 20th Division would hold the left sector under General Kotulas.
General Wilson had been anxious from the first about the possible threat from the direction of Monastir, and the meeting with General Yankovitch on 3rd April convinced him that he could not depend upon the Yugoslavs to hold the Germans on that route. He had kept back the 1st Armoured Brigade’s cruiser regiment, the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, at Amyntaion in the valley behind Edessa, because this regiment suffered from the same trouble with worn tracks as the other cruiser regiment of the 2nd Armoured Division, and General Wilson had thought it wiser not to send it forward into the Axios plain. On 5th April he decided to take a precaution, which he had had in mind for almost a fortnight, by forming a composite group round this regiment, which could not be large but would provide some stopping and hitting power on this dangerous flank. 3rd Royal Tank Regiment was accordingly joined by 64th Medium Regiment RA (less one troop), the 27th New Zealand Machine-Gun Battalion (less two companies), and the 1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment (less one battery). The whole was known as the Amyntaion detachment and was commanded by Brigadier E. A. Lee, Commander of the Corps Medium Artillery, under the operational direction of General Kotulas.
General Wilson had several reasons for being anxious about the security of the lines of communication and of installations in the back area. Airborne attacks were to be expected at key points; the vital railway from Athens to Larissa, with its long flimsy bridges, was very exposed to sabotage; and the lavish British rations could not fail to attract pilferers in a country whose inhabitants were hungry. All this pointed to the need for guards, especially at the airfields, where in the absence of enough anti-aircraft artillery there should be at least some light machine-gun defence. For all these tasks General Wilson had no option but to call upon the Australians and New Zealanders. No Commander likes to have his fighting strength reduced by duties of this sort, and Generals Blamey and Freyberg were no exceptions. They were supremely keen that their own contingents should acquit
themselves well in battle, and they did not welcome anything that tended to reduce their chances directly.
On 5th April General Wilson was at last allowed to emerge from his seclusion and assume command openly. The state of the British deployment was as follows. 1st Armoured Brigade (less 3rd Royal Tank Regiment) was out in the Axios plain. On the right was the New Zealand Division, mostly in front of Katerini, but part of one brigade was preparing to occupy the Olympus Pass. The Commander of the 6th Australian Division had just arrived, and his 16th Infantry Brigade was about to take over the defence of the Verria gap from 12th Greek Division. Two battalions of the 19th Australian Infantry Brigade were on the way up from Athens, while the 17th Brigade and one field regiment had not yet left Egypt. The division was therefore very incomplete. 20th Greek Division was at the Edessa gap, and the Amyntaion detachment was guarding the approach from Monastir. General Wilson felt unable to exercise command from Athens, although many matters could only be settled there; he felt obliged therefore to split his Force Headquarters between a rear echelon in Athens and a main headquarters near Elasson, fifteen miles north of Larissa.
The Royal Air Force had in Greece at this time four Blenheim bomber squadrons (Nos. 11, 84, 113 and 211), one Blenheim fighter squadron (No. 30), three single seater fighter squadrons (Nos. 33, 80 and 112) of which only the first was completely armed with Hurricanes, and one Army Cooperation Squadron (No. 208). Detachments from three Wellington bomber squadrons based in Egypt were available during the moonlight periods. The Greek Air Force was now little more than a token force, on account of its heavy losses in Albania and the slow rate of replacement of aircraft and spares. On 6th April, when the invasion began, Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac could muster only eighty serviceable aircraft in all, against an estimated force of 800 German aircraft on the eastern front, 160 Italian aircraft in Albania, and another 150 which could operate from bases in Italy. To make things worse, the number of suitably sited airfields and landing grounds was small and many were still unfit for use after the winter rain and snow.
With these slender resources the Air Officer Commanding had to consider how to provide continued air support for the Greek army in Albania, escorts for incoming convoys, air defence for the ports of disembarkation, the base area, and the lines of communication, and air support for the Allied armies in Macedonia. Even this was only part of his task, for the enemy’s air bases in the Dodecanese and in Bulgaria ought to be attacked, as well as the roads and railways, crowded with troops and transport, which in the mountainous and difficult Balkan country were particularly vulnerable from the air. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac’s force was nothing like big enough for all these tasks. As air
adviser to General Papagos he kept his headquarters in Athens, and decided to operate through two Wings—an eastern and a western. The western Wing, at Yannina, comprising one bomber and one fighter squadron, was to support the Albanian front; the eastern Wing, with two bomber, one fighter, and one army cooperation squadron, would support W Force, its headquarters being close to General Wilson’s at Elasson. Under his own command the Air Officer Commanding kept two fighter squadrons for the defence of the base area and one bomber squadron and the Wellington detachments for strategic targets.
Information about the German movements in Bulgaria had been gradually coming in, and showed that from the end of March onwards the enemy would be able to deploy against the Aliakmon position much stronger forces than the Allies could concentrate for its defence. By the end of March the Germans appeared to have something like twenty divisions in Bulgaria, of which six were in the west and from four to six in the centre. It was learned on 30th March that the German 18th Corps, which contained two mountain divisions, had moved west of the river Struma and that there was great activity along the Bulgarian-Greek frontier. It was noticed also that the Italians in Albania were moving troops northward from the Tepelene area, presumably to strengthen their Yugoslavian frontier. The German air force in the Balkans was reported to be ready. On 31st March General Rommel’s advance in Cyrenaica began, and it was naturally assumed that there was a connexion between events in the two theatres, although as has been seen there was none.
On 4th April came news that preparations for crossing the river Vardar (Axios) had begun, and the Allied troops were warned that the attack on Greece would probably start next day. This estimate was one day out, for at 5.45 a.m. on 6th April Germany declared war on Yugoslavia and Greece and the attack on the frontier posts of both countries began. General Wilson had only been allowed to assume command openly on the 5th and the prospect before him was not a cheerful one. He had just learned that owing to events in Cyrenaica the 7th Australian Division and Polish Brigade were not coming to Greece, and even the troops that had arrived were not all in position. Of his two Allies one was very nearly exhausted after its long and arduous campaign against the Italians, while the other was in a state of political confusion with its armies not even fully mobilized. His air support would certainly be weak, for the Royal Air Force was greatly outnumbered by the Germans and Italians. Added to all this his line of supply was complicated and vulnerable and his signal communications were dangerously inadequate.