Chapter 10: ‘Middle East’: The Loss of Cyrenaica and Greece
The British offer of military formations to Greece had been, in the words of General Wavell, ‘politely but quite definitely refused’. This absolute negative was soon qualified. The appearance on Greek soil of a couple of British regiments, to be built up to two or three divisions, might indeed bring down the German Army on Greece without providing the means of resistance; but once a German attack was certain any degree of help would be better than none. On 18th January 1941, only a few days after Wavell’s departure from Athens, the Greeks accordingly modified their attitude. While still declining what was offered at that moment they made it clear that in one situation they would welcome a British expedition of whatever size we could muster. This was if Hitler made his intentions plain beyond doubt by moving troops into Bulgaria.
In point of fact the German dictator had set preparation sin train for a southward move as far back as 12th November 1940. On 13th December had followed his firm directive for operation ‘Marita’—the occupation in the following spring of the Aegean coast and possibly the whole of the mainland of Greece. His main reason, strangely enough, was fear that the Royal Air Force would take over bases in Salonika and bomb the Rumanian oilfields; other factors such as the desirability of rescuing the Italians in Albania or clearing his right flank for the great venture against Russia apparently concerned him less. Of the details of all this the British Government was not aware; it had, however, impeccable grounds for believing that German was bent on attacking Greece. We were, therefore, not at first disposed to cooperate with the Greeks along the lines they now suggested. Already conscious that our proffered help—the most within our power—could scarcely offset the presence of some twenty
German divisions in Rumania, the Defence Committee considered that delay of the kind proposed by the Greeks would sacrifice the most attractive element in the whole scheme—the chance, for once, of forestalling Hitler. But the Turks, to whom, as already related, the Prime Minister then addressed himself, proved even less willing then the Greeks to accept the questionable benefit of British help on a small scale. Understandably reluctant to allow the Germans in to the eastern Mediterranean without a struggle, the Government was thus thrown back on the Greeks. Moreover it remained acutely aware both of its obligations to a singularly gallant ally and of the deplorable effect on public opinion—and not least on American public opinion—which would result from a failure to honour them. On 10th February the Defence Committee accordingly reaffirmed the policy of halting the African advance at Benghazi, and the following day the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff were ordered to Athens to concert measures with the Greeks. At the same time General Wavell was instructed to prepare all possible forces for a move across the Mediterranean.
On 22nd February, Eden, Dill, Wavell, Longmore and D’Albiac met the Greek political and military leaders at Tatoi. The total of forces likely to be available to resist a German attack through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was six Greek and four British divisions, excluding the Greek forces already engaged in Albania. With these it was certainly not possible to hold the long, shallow provinces of the north-east—Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace. Indeed, British plans had always recognized that twenty divisions would be needed for Eastern Macedonia alone. On the other hand it was vitally important to stimulate the resistance of the Yugoslavs; and the Yugoslavs could hardly be expected to oppose a German move through their country if Salonika, the only port through which British supplies could reach them, was not to be defended. But as Yugoslavia at the moment appeared likely to submit to the German dictates without a fight, it was agreed that no serious opposition should be offered on the north-eastern frontiers, and that the Greek forces in the outlying territories should be withdrawn to a short, and apparently very strong, position in Central Macedonia. In its right-hand sector this followed the River Aliakmon, which gave its name to the line; the left-hand stretched towards the Yugoslav frontier. The mountainous terrain promised well for defence, while the right flank, behind which stood Mount Olympus, rested on the sea. The proposed line was not, however, to be occupied until the British Foreign Secretary had made a further effort to persuade the Yugoslavs to play their part.
The discussions at Tatoi proceeded favourably, and on 24th February the War Cabinet, after receiving Eden’s report, decided that ‘on balance … the enterprise should go forward’. Subject to the consent of Australia and New Zealand, whose troops were to make up three of the four British divisions, the Prime Minister then instructed Eden to clinch the matter. ‘While being under no illusions, we all send you the order “Full steam ahead”.’
On 1st March the German army began to enter Bulgaria. Within a few hours Eden, Dill and Wavell were again in Athens. The Greek Commander-in-Chief, General Papagos, had apparently not been informed of the result of the fresh British approaches to Yugoslavia, and he had therefore left his forces in their forward positions. Beseeched by the British representatives to withdraw them at once to the Aliakmon Line, he answered that it was now too late, since they might be attacked during the move; and he suggested instead that we should ‘dribble our forces piecemeal’ (in Eden’s phrase) to join the Greeks in Eastern Macedonia. This proposal we firmly resisted. The attitude of Yugoslavia, however, was still undecided, and as a compromise between the views of the British and Greek leaders it was agreed that the Greeks should maintain their main forward position in Eastern Macedonia; while if Yugoslavia remained neutral the Eastern Macedonian forces would fight a delaying action and retire to the Aliakmon. On top of all the other risks of the enterprise, it was thus with General Papagos’s troops committed to dispositions unsatisfactory from the purely military point of view, if unavoidable politically, that, on 7th March 1941, the British expeditionary force began to land in Greece.
By this date, in accordance with earlier orders from London, Longmore had already moved three more squadrons across from Africa—Nos. 11 (Blenheims), 112 (Gladiators and Hurricanes) and 33 (Hurricanes). Another Blenheim squadron (No. 113) arrived in Greece during March, and No. 208 Squadron (Lysanders and Hurricanes) was on the way when the Germans launched their attack. D’Albiac was accordingly confronted with the problem of finding suitable bases for five extra squadrons, in addition to his original four, in a country desperately short not only of airfields but of general communications. This he had to do in the intervals of protecting arrival of the expeditionary force, covering its movement up to
central Greece and its assembly on the Aliakmon Line, and supporting the Greek offensive in Albania.
The programme was certainly a full one. On the Albanian front D’Albiac’s difficulties may be glimpsed from one of Longmore’s messages to the Chief of the Air Staff at the end of February: ‘Have just returned from visiting western aerodromes. All water-logged except Paramythia, where in spite of appalling operational conditions Blenheims and Hurricanes have kept Greeks almost clear of air interference since 13th February. … Line of communication for petrol and bombs in this area unbelievable. … One hour’s flight takes two or three days by road.’ In central Greece conditions were little better. Most of the grass airfields were still too soft for use, and those with firm surfaces were often in wildly inconvenient places. One of the Blenheim squadrons, for instance, had to be based at Almyros, which had no direct communication with the combined headquarters of the Army and the new Royal Air Force ‘Eastern Wing’ at Ellason. All messages between the two points had to be relayed through the airfield at Larissa; and since the local air raid warning centre more or less monopolized one stretch of the only available line, the passing of a priority telephone call during the campaign often took as much as fix or six hours. Larissa itself was a good airfield, but congested, and the neighbourhood suffered severely in an earthquake on 1st March. Around Athens conditions and communications were naturally better, but the distance to the fronts was too great for effective operation. Matters were also not improved by the presence of the German Minister, who mingled with our arriving troops and on one occasion actually secured an invitation to an officers’ mess.
The reinforcing squadrons arrived to find their comrades taking part in a major offensive. Conscious of the impending German move, the Greeks had determined on an all-out attempt to capture Valona and finish off the struggle in Albania. Their continual entreaties had moved D’Albiac to use two of his squadrons for close support; a dry patch for a few Blenheims had been found near the front; and a ‘Western Wing’ headquarters had been set up to control operations. For two or three weeks the weather was kind, and a great effort on 13th and 14th February, when fifty sorties were flown, helped to carry the Greeks almost into Tepeleni. With the arrival of the Hurricanes of No. 112 Squadron, morale mounted still higher; and it reached a peak on 28th February when twenty-eight Gladiators and Hurricanes intercepted an enemy formation of fifty aircraft and shot down twenty-seven for only one loss to themselves. The engagement was fought over the Greek lines in full view of both armies, and each success was confirmed from the ground. This remarkable feat so
impressed the local Greeks that Wing Commander P. B. Coote, in charge of the Western Wing, was able to report: ‘civilians and soldiers passing us in the streets make the sign of the Cross, saying “Long life to you. Thank the Almighty who sent you to us”.’
But very soon the Italian airmen, freed from any preoccupation with their own bases and spurred on by the presence of Mussolini in Albania, began to show a most unwelcome activity. In the teeth of protests from the Greeks, D’Albiac adjudged it necessary to revert to attacks on airfields and supply ports. ‘In vain we tried to explain the proper employment of an air force and the disparity between our strength and that of the enemy,’ wrote Wing Commander Coote; ‘at the end we gained our point, but the same discussion started all over again on the morrow. Nevertheless, jokingly, we again pressed our point of view and always parted at the Greek Headquarters in a most friendly and cordial atmosphere.’ But though relations between the allies remained untroubled, the Greek advance, handicapped by a renewed spell of bad weather and continued Italian reinforcement, slowed down and came to a halt a few miles north of Tepeleni. Soon the enemy struck back, only to be held. A decision in Albania was still as far off as ever. And on the southern and western borders of Bulgaria now lay Hitler’s legions, poised for action.
The assignment of four divisions and five additional squadrons to Greece left the British units in Cyrenaica remarkably thin on the ground. The reduced military units, under Major-General Neame, consisted of only one armoured brigade and one incompletely trained division of Australian infantry; the reduced air forces, under Group Captain L. O. Brown, amounted to no more than four squadrons—two fighter (Nos. 3 (RAAF) and 73), one bomber reconnaissance (No. 55) and one tactical reconnaissance (No. 6). Two of these were at less than half-strength. On the air side, Longmore and Brown were deeply conscious of the risk that was being run, for well before the decision to commit a British expedition to Greece German aircraft were harassing our front-line troops, frustrating our efforts to use Benghazi, and laying mines in the Suez Canal. But on the military side General Wavell as yet saw no reason to be perturbed.
Having finally, like Longmore, come down on the side of the Greek venture, the Commander-in-Chief loyally set about obeying the Government’s injunction to strip North Africa to the lowest level consistent with safety. Since on balance it appeared that the many good reasons for going into Greece outweighed the many good reasons to the contrary, it was only logical to give the British expeditionary
force at least some chance of success by making it as strong as possible. Very little would then be left in Cyrenaica; but the remaining Italian forces in Libya were so shattered as to be obviously incapable of any immediate counter-stroke. So far the reasoning was good. But unfortunately General Wavell reckoned without the Germans.
Hitler’s first directive ordering German troops to Africa was issued on 11th January 1941. The unit selected was the 5th Light Division, which included one panzer regiment; command was in the hands of Erwin Rommel. The intention at this date was nothing more ambitious than to save Tripolitania from the fate then rapidly overtaking Cyrenaica. On 6th February a further step followed; the Führer decreed that German air forces, besides operating from Sicily and the Dodecanese, could also be transferred to North Africa, ‘if necessary withdrawing them from warfare against the British Isles’. About the same time the first German troops landed at Tripoli. On 12th February Rommel arrived to take up his command, after a conference with the commander of Fliegerkorps X in Sicily the previous day, and by the middle of the month the Germans were establishing themselves in the forward area around Sirte. On 18th February Hitler named Rommel’s forces the ‘German Africa Corps’ and decided to reinforce them with a full panzer division.
All these moves and decisions were of course not know to us on 24th February, when the Cabinet formally agreed to send a force to Greece. By 28th February, however—before the first British troops had sailed from Egypt—it was known in London that the Africa Corps and the 5th Light Division were at Tripoli. Moreover the handful of reconnaissance aircraft with our forward troops were already observing signs and portents of the arrival of German units at the front. On balance, however, G.H.Q. at Cairo discounted the probability of any German appearance in strength, and on 2nd March—when it was admitted that one German armoured brigade group was already in Africa, and reinforcement proceeding—General Wavell advised London that in view of the great distance from Tripoli to Benghazi, the enemy’s shortage of transport, and the coming hot weather, no large-scale enemy attack was likely before the end of the summer.
During March, General Neame and the Australian divisional commander, worried by repeated reports of the appearance of German units on their front, made representations to Cairo. As the month wore on, General Wavell himself became increasingly anxious; but his considered appreciation remained that no attack was likely before May, by which time our victories in East Africa might free one of the two Indian divisions for service in Cyrenaica.
Fortunately Group Captain Brown was more impressed with the evidence of his own aircraft, including the many signs that the enemy were occupying fresh landing-grounds and making more use of the small harbours along the coast. So far as his diminutive resources allowed, Brown accordingly carried out attacks against the main airfields and Tripoli. The four Wellington squadrons—Nos. 37, 38, 70 and 148—from the Canal and Malta, also operated against the same targets. Much damage was done, but the available effort was of course far short of what was required to stop the Germans building p the force they had planned.
Apart from the German 5th Light Division, Italian reinforcements amounting to two divisions, including one armoured, reached Tripolitania in January and February. During the same period there arrived about 110 German aircraft, of which all but a few were Ju.87s or Me.110s. Their commander, known as Fliegerführer Afrika, came under the higher control of Fliegerkorps X in Sicily. On 10th March our aircraft which had reported increased movement by enemy M.T. since 2nd March, observed large concentrations in the area immediately west of El Agheila. From the 19th onwards, enemy patrols became very aggressive, and on the 24th, German and Italian forces approached El Agheila and compelled us to withdraw our outposts. Yet only the Royal Air Force took these indications at their true value. On 22nd March, Brown instructed his units to prepare for a move backwards at short notice; but Neame, his early apprehensions apparently dispelled by the attitude of his superiors at Cairo, maintained in a conference on 27–29th March that there were no German troops in Tripolitania except a few technical experts. On 30th March his headquarters issued an operational orders stating that though enemy forces had occupied El Agheila, they had ‘so far shown no signs of contemplating a further advance’. ‘There is no conclusive evidence’, the order continued, ‘to show that the enemy intends to take the offensive on a large scale, or even that he is likely to be in a position to do so in the near future.’ They very next day—presumably while this appreciation was being distributed—the enemy counter-offensive began.
The British military commanders, it must be mad clear, had this justification: that when the attack began, the enemy intended a very limited advance. It was only when the Axis forces found the going so easy that, under the spur of Rommel’s aggressive genius,. they went so fast and so far. As late as 3rd April, when the vital tank battle had already been decided in the enemy’s favour, and Rommel was pushing hard across the base of the Cyrenaican ‘bulge’, Keitel was issuing orders that ‘attacks … must not #be extended … before the 15th
Panzer Division arrives. ... Under no circumstances should the open right flank be endangered, which would necessarily be the case in an advance to the north of Benghazi. … Even after the arrival of the 15th Panzer Division, a large-scale offensive, aimed perhaps at Tobruk, should not be launched.’ Such plans, Keitel concluded could be changed only if the bulk of the British armoured forces were withdrawn from Cyrenaica. Which indeed, though he was unaware of it, was unaware of it, was already the case.
Exposed to an attack by three armoured or motorized divisions and an air force greatly superior in numbers, within a few hours our forward units were falling back through Agedabia. The intention was to maintain our armour inland of the coastal road and so guard against an advance along the coast and adirect outflanking thrust across the desert. Yet Neame was also under orders to fight a retiring action, if necessary, as far as the high ground east of Benghazi—a point certainly much too far north for effective control of the desert route through Msus and Mechili. Worse still, the 2nd Armoured Division, new to the forward area, short of transport and thus tied to a vulnerable series of petrol dumps, and struggling along with worn-out or Italian tanks, was in no fit shape to halt the enemy along either path they might take.
Until our armour reached Antelat, on 2nd April, the retirement went according to plan. From then on the whole British movement became disjointed. Once the commander of the 2nd Armoured Division heard that his tank losses could not be made good, and so refrained from seeking a decision south of Benghazi, there was really nothing to do—if we wished to avoid to avoid being trapped in the Jebel Akdar by the outflanking move across the desert—but pull out of Western Cyrenaica as fast as possible. Unfortunately it is not always practicable to adopt the most expedient course from the purely military point of view. By the evening of 2nd April it was clear, as foreseen in the retirement plan, that Benina and Benghazi were untenable; but Wavell still hoped to make the main stand on the high ground to the east. Coming up to examine the situation for himself, the Commander-in-Chief nevertheless found matters more critical than O’Connor to the forward area from his new command in Egypt—in the capacity, however, of an adviser, not a commander.
During this time No. 3 (RAAF) Squadron at Benina, helped by a flight of No. 73 on detachment from Tobruk, gave valuable protection to Benghazi and the forward troops. Great efforts were also mad by our bombers. Brown’s single remaining squadron of Blenheims was reinforced by a flight of No. 45 Squadron from Greece, and
together these aircraft repeatedly bombed landing-grounds and concentrations of vehicles. From Egypt the three Wellington squadrons, now joined by the Wellington squadron from Malta—German air raids on the island having compelled its withdrawal—attacked similar targets. By refuelling near Tobruk they were also able to strike at Tripoli, so hampering enemy reinforcement. But though our squadrons were not outfought they were heavily outnumbered and far too few for the work to be done. Their most strenuous exertions—and these they gave in full measure—could not possibly redress the situation on the ground.
From 3rd April the situation in the forward area was chaotic. On the night of 2nd April, No. 6 Squadron, one of the Army Cooperation units under direct military control, was with the Headquarters of the Second Armoured Division at Antelat. When morning came the Headquarters had disappeared, leaving the squadron completely ignorant of its intentions. Mystified, the squadron put up search patrols, and when these proved in van retired north-east across the desert to the Division’s main supply dump at Msus. Here the airmen found a Free French detachment which denied knowledge of any other troops in the area; and it was not until noon that the missing Headquarters was located thirty miles to the west. It had retired, not north-east, but due north towards Benghazi with the rest of the Division. Two hours afterwards one of the squadron pilots, taking a ‘quick look’ along the Msus–Antelat track, reported a small enemy force only five miles off Msus. At this the 3rd Armoured Brigade was directed east to investigate, leaving the Divisional Headquarters troops and the Support Group to continue the retirement north. But when the Brigade arrived at Msus the following morning, it found neither the enemy—though he may well have been there overnight—nor the petrol with which it hoped to refuel; for this had been destroyed when the Free French left. Instead of continuing ahead across the desert to Mechili in accordance with its orders, the Brigade therefore—unknown to Divisional Headquarters—turned north towards petrol, the coast, and disaster.
Covered by No. 3 Squadron (RAAF) and 73 Squadron, who on 5th April claimed fourteen enemy aircraft for only two losses on their own side, the rest of the Division had by then reached the high ground towards which it had been steadily retiring. But there was now wide scope for manoeuvre by the enemy to the south; and there seemed no hope of success in a pitched encounter. Sizing up the situation on his arrival, O’Connor had already advised a general withdrawal to the line Derna-Mechili. So back on Derna moved the Australian infantry on the right; and back on Derna, through the heart of the
Jebel Akdar, moved the Support Group, followed in the latter part of its course by the 3rd Armoured Brigade; and back on Mechili, under the impression that the Armoured Brigade was heading there too, moved the troops of Divisional Headquarters. Meanwhile, against the mounting threat to Egypt, Indian troops were ordered post haste from the Sudan; the South African Government agreed that their forces could be employed as far north as the Mediterranean; the 7th Australian Division, destined for Greece, was held back; and reinforcements of Hurricanes and Wellingtons were rushed out from home.
By 7th April, Brown’s squadrons were partly at Sidi Mahmoud, outside Tobruk, partly at Gambut, an elevated expanse of brown dust between Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier. No. 6 Squadron, sent forward again in response to a military request after it reached Derna, lost a number of men in getting back; and misfortune also befell O’Connor and Neame, who made a detour to avoid the endless stream of vehicles and by bad luck ran into an enemy patrol. To Tedder the gods were kinder. Forced down in the desert by engine failure he was picked up next day by a passing Blenheim.
By 8th April all hope of holding the Derna-Mechili line had vanished. In the north the Australians, having withdrawn without difficulty to Derna, had been ordered further back to defend Tobruk; the Support Group, after a fierce encounter outside Derna, was retiring in the same direction; and the 3rd Armoured Brigade, following a little later, had been cut off in Derna and in large part overwhelmed. Inland, at Mechili, the Divisional Headquarters, strengthened by Indian motorized troops from Tobruk, had for two nights waited in vain for the Armoured Brigade. Surrounded on 8th April, it then strove to break out to the east. A few elements got through but the bulk of the force was destroyed or taken prisoner.
By that time Wavell had decided to stake a good part of his fast-dwindling resources holding Tobruk. The water supplies, the ample stores, and the excellent harbour of this port were a valuable prize, and in Rommel’s hands would undoubtedly give a fresh impetus to the enemy advance. A brigade of the Australian 7th Division was accordingly shipped in from Egypt; the remnants of the Support Group were concentrated a few miles to the south; and while No. 3 Squadron (R.A.A.F.) and 45/55 Squadron retired over the Egyptian frontier, Nos. 6 and 73 stayed behind to operate from within the defended perimeter. With these moves the Royal Air Force completed its withdrawal through Cyrenaica. In contrast to the hundreds of unserviceable aircraft abandoned by the Italians during their retreat in the opposite direction, Brown’s squadrons—admittedly
a much smaller force—left behind only ten. And these, of course, they destroyed.
Within three days of the disaster at Mechili the enemy was threatening El Adem and the neighbourhood south of Tobruk. Deprived of the refuelling-grounds in this district the Wellingtons could no longer reach Tripoli. The whole burden of air operations against enemy traffic to Africa thus fell on Malta; and Malta, under the pressure of the German assault from Sicily, had just been relieved of its only bomber squadron. For the moment, however, the Germans and Italians were more interested in developments at the front. On 12th April their armour attempted to concentrate for an attack on Tobruk. It was at once spotted by our reconnaissance and broken up by our bombers, which flew up from Egypt and refuelled at landing-grounds within the perimeter. Unable to take the port in their stride, the Axis forces promptly consoled themselves by moving to Bardia and the Sollum escarpment. This they occupied on 13th April. But by then the ever-increasing difficulties of supply, the ceaseless toll of the desert and the menace of an unsubdued Tobruk had robbed the advance of its momentum. On the borders of Egypt the German and Italian columns came to rest.
Meantime events had not stood elsewhere. On 6th April, while our hard-won position in Cyrenaica was thus crumbling into ruin, the German avalanche had descended on Greece.
On 25th March 1941 the Yugoslav Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, summoned to Vienna to declare their attitude to the Axis Tripartite Pact, duly signed on the dotted line. Their countrymen, however, were made of sterner stuff than the acquiescent Rumanians and Bulgarians. Belgrade was at once aflame with protests; and on 27th March a military coup overthrew the Regent Paul and the collaborationists and installed the young King Peter in the exercise of full regal powers. From this point it was clear not only that Yugoslavia would fight to keep the Germans out, but also that she would have to do so in the very near future. It was also clear, though the point seems to have been appreciated more in theory than in practice, that everything now depended on effective cooperation between the Greeks, the Yugoslavs, and the British.
On 28th March, Admiral Cunningham, placed on the scent the previous day by a Sunderland of No. 230 Squadron, brought strong Italian naval forces to action off Cape Matapan. Blenheims from Greece joined in without success—contrary to our belief at the time—but intensive reconnaissance by Sunderlands helped to keep track of
the enemy’s movements, and the final result was entirely satisfactory. On the Italian side three cruisers and two destroyers were sunk and a battleship damaged, while on our side the only loss was that of one naval aircraft. Heartened by this notable contribution towards control of the Mediterranean and still more the dramatic change in the attitude of Yugoslavia, the Greeks now shook off the pessimism which had lately fallen upon them, and addressed themselves to the future with confidence.
Unfortunately time was short, and everything still remained to arranged with Yugoslavia. Labouring under the misfortune of common frontiers with Italy, Germany, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, the Yugoslavs were exposed to attack on five sides; but with their traditional spirit, and against the advice of their allies, they were firmly resolved to defend their territory at all points. This made it impossible for them to concentrate strong forces in the vital sectors. To a British and Greek request of more doubtful wisdom, they did, however, agree; in the hope of capturing badly needed equipment they undertook to launch four divisions against the Italians in Albania. Here cooperation stopped. Sir John Dill, so heavily incognito that the Yugoslavs with whom he conferred remained unaware that he was anything more than a representative of General Wilson, paid one fleeting visit to Belgrade; a Yugoslav general paid one fleeting visit to Greece. These were the only military contacts of any significance before the German attack. Afterwards there were still less.
By the beginning of April the German army had mustered twenty-seven divisions, of which seven were armoured, on the borders of Yugoslavia and Greece. Other divisions were contributed by the Italians, the Hungarians, and the Bulgarians. German aircraft available for the occasion, under Luftflotte 4, amounted to some 1,200 first-line machines, to which—since they could be used to attack many targets besides those on the Albanian front—must be added the 150 Italian aircraft in Albania and as many more in Italy. Against this formidable force the Greeks could muster six divisions—the remainder of their army being already engaged with the Italians; the British under General Wilson between two and three divisions;1 and the Yugoslavs twenty-four divisions. But the Yugoslav army, being nearly all infantry and like the Greeks dependent on horse, mule and ox-drawn transport, was hardly yet in the field; and it was not likely to give of its best against tanks and bombers if caught in
* The German invasion of Greece, April 1941
the process of concentration. In the air, combined Greek and Yugoslav strength totalled no more than a hundred machines for all fronts; while D’Albiac’s force amounted to nine squadrons and two visiting detachments of Wellingtons—in all something under two hundred aircraft, of which only eighty-two were serviceable at the beginning of April. Moreover the two squadrons of the ‘Western Wing’ were committed to the Italian front. To complete the catalogue of inequality, the Greeks had already borne the strain of six months’ struggle against a far more powerful opponent; while the Germans, with every advantage in numbers, equipment, and communications, would also choose the place and time at which the blow would fall.
The time proved to be 0515 on 6th April; the place, or rather places, Eastern Macedonia and seven separate areas along the Yugoslav frontiers. Infuriated by Yugoslavia’s unexpected defiance, which had forced him to call back several divisions already under orders to proceed further east, Hitler led off with Operation Strafgericht (Retribution). This enabled the Luftwaffe to inscribe the name of Belgrade alongside those of Warsaw and Rotterdam among its battle-honours. According to an official German report the effect of various high explosive calibres proved in all cases ‘up to expectation’. With bombers thus pounding their capital to ruins, fighters shooting up their slow-moving helpless columns, and tanks striking deep into their territory at a host of different points, the Yugoslav armies were beaten almost before they could take the field.
All this, of course, was to determine the progress of events in Greece. As there was a large gap between the Greek forces on the Albanian front and the Anglo-Greek forces in the east, the defence of Greece essentially depended on what happened in southern Yugoslavia. Unfortunately the Yugoslav Army in this area collapsed at the first thrust, and within two days the enemy was astride the Vardar. By 9th April, one German force had followed the river south-east towards Salonika, cutting off the forward Greek divisions in Eastern Macedonia and compelling their surrender; another, striking south at a point further across Yugoslavia, was heading through the Monastir gap into virtually undefended territory. Thenceforward the result was scarcely in doubt; for the Allied Army in Central Macedonia and the Greek Army in the Epirus could not be stretched to meet in the middle. Either the two armies must retired on both sides of the peninsula, or they must stand and be outflanked by a thrust down the centres. And the Greeks, having no mechanical transport worth mentioning, could not retire.
During these first critical days, when the issue of the campaign was being decided, D’Albiac strove to establish the enemy’s intentions and
delay the advancing forces. He also provided fighter protection for the Greeks in Eastern Macedonia, a task which produced a notable victory when twelve Hurricanes took on twenty Me.109s and claimed five victims without loss. The bombers he at first directed at previously selected communications targets in Bulgaria, including the marshalling yards at Sofia; then, as the enemy’s plan unfolded, against the columns pouring into south-east Yugoslavia; and finally, as the main danger became clear, against concentrations and bottlenecks on the roads leading to the Monastir gap. Losses were light—it was not until the hundredth sortie, on 11th April, that a Blenheim failed to return—and some of the German columns suffered severely, but bad weather baulked many of our efforts. The morning of 7th April, for instance, was a complete blank, and only heroic determination in the afternoon took ten Blenheims and Wellingtons through to bomb the streams of vehicles winding their way towards Vardar. April 8th was as bad, and again it required the utmost resolution and skill to even reach the target area. Still more disappointing was the 9th, when the Blenheims could attack only the enemy’s route to Salonika, though the growing movement through the narrow defiles towards the Monastir gap offered a far more attractive target. On the 10th, nineteen Blenheims got through to the Monastir approaches by day, and four Wellingtons by night. On the 11th and 12th, when the German movement was at its strongest, only twelve bombers took off in the whole forty-eight hours. D’Albiac, who had been through the Staff College mill, was certainly not unmindful of what might be achieved against an enemy caught in a narrow defile. Perhaps, indeed, his thoughts turned to the classic occasion of 21st September 1918, when seven squadrons of Bristols, D.H.9s, S.E.5as, and R.E.8s trapped a Turkish force in the Wadi el Fara and reduced it at leisure to a shambles of shattered guns, wagons, beasts and men. If so, he was certainly frustrated by mist, rain and unbroken low cloud.
The bad weather in the north had one advantage. Though it hampered out aircraft, it protected our airfields and ground forces from the Luftwaffe. For a few days the British troops therefore escaped serious attack. Moreover, it was not until 14th April, after he had attained his main objectives in Yugoslavia and Salonika, that Hitler finally decided to occupy the rest of Greece. It was thus the approach of the German Army on his left flank, not the activity of the German Air Force, which forced General Wilson to retire. Once that retirement had started, disaster succeeded disaster. The tanks of the 1st Armoured Brigade, like those of their fellow-brigade in
Cyrenaica, broke down by the score; the Greek divisions disintegrated when they found their mules and horses unable to keep pace with the British lorries; the skies cleared and the Luftwaffe began to appear in strength. Already on 16th April it was clear to the Greeks that resistance was hopeless. For when Wilson proposed to move right back to Thermopylae, Papagos not only agreed, but went one better by suggesting complete evacuation.
To abandon the Olympus positions and retire on Thermopylae meant surrendering Larissa and the other airfields in the Thessalian plain. This was a grave step to take, for there was only one landing-ground between the Athens area and the new line on which the troops would fight. the decision, inevitable in the circumstances, was taken for purely military reason; but to these additional urgency was soon lent by the increasing pressure of the German Air Force. With the better weather on 13th April, D’Albiac’s Blenheims had had a profitable day, despite the fact that one entire formation of six was shot down north of Monastir.2 At night Wellingtons had also bombed successfully. These attacks were repeated on the 14th, and that night Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron broke the bridge over the Vardar at Veles. Such activity was unlikely to be tolerated by the Germans for long. On the 14th the enemy, operating fighters and dive-bombers from forward strips, bombed the Anzac Corps heavily in its new positions. Our Hurricanes offered valiant resistance; and the Luftwaffe soon fell back on its old and well-tried principle of mastering the opposing air force before attempting too much elsewhere. Four times during the morning of 15th April, Me.109s appeared over the Larissa plain without warning—for the Greek observer system had broken down in the withdrawal. Four times they ground-strafed No. 113 Squadron at Niamata. Not a single Blenheim escaped damage or destruction. At Larissa itself, twenty Me.109s swept in just as three of No. 33 Squadron’s Hurricanes were taking off. Two of the British fighters were at once shot down; the third put up a skilful defence and claimed one of the enemy. D’Albiac, who had
witnessed the attack, ordered the squadron back to the Athens area forthwith, but in any case it must have retired during the next few hours. The remaining squadrons of the Eastern Wing followed on 16th April.
By this time the British air commander was fully aware that the end could not be long delayed. On 15th April he reported to Longmore that he had only forty-six aircraft serviceable, apart from the Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron. ‘Even if the army establish themselves on the rear line,’ he pointed out, ‘I see no possibility of providing them with adequate air support in view of the scarcity of aerodromes.’ The dilemma was indeed acute. If our fighters stayed on the single airfield immediately behind the Thermopylae line they would undoubtedly be wiped out by the enemy; if they retired to Athens they would be too far from the front to protected effectively either our ground forces or our bombers. Further, as all our aircraft became concentrated on the two or three grounds near Athens, they would present—in absence of any adequate ground defence by anti-aircraft guns—a more and more tempting target to the Luftwaffe. Faced with so harsh a choice of evils, D’Albiac recommended immediate evacuation.
By 17th April the signs of collapse were general. D’Albiac warned by the King that the internal situation was fast deteriorating, ordered the Wellingtons to Egypt (whence they could still operate) and recalled to Athens the two squadrons of the Western Wing. The latter’s task was complicated by the remnants of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force arriving at Paramythia on 15th April, and by a vicious enemy air attack which swept down on the airfield shortly afterwards. All forty-four of the Yugoslav aircraft were put out of action, though six bombers, three civil aircraft and ten sea-planes were later passed on successfully to Egypt. Despite this episode the Western Wing made good its retreat just in time. The following day No. 208 Squadron, the only remaining unit in the forward area, had too close an escape to be pleasant—it was in the air when a Greek Gladiator squadron sharing the airfield was annihilated on the ground. By 19th April No. 208 Squadron, too, was withdrawn, and all D’Albiac’s aircraft were concentrated around Athens.
Three times a day our fighters intercepted formations of over fifty aircraft. Our pilots claimed eight of the enemy as against damage to three Hurricanes. On 20th April the fighting waxed still hotter. At 0430 hours that morning a formation of Me.110s got through undetected and destroyed or damaged a dozen Blenheims at Menidi; but on three other occasions our fighters either harassed the enemy or beat them off entirely. The climax came during the afternoon, when
Ju.88s, Me.109s and Me.110s to the number of almost a hundred attempted to bomb the Piraeus. Fifteen Hurricanes of Nos. 33 and 80 Squadrons remained serviceable, and all immediately took the air. In the combats that ensued the enemy’s losses were estimated as at least fourteen, against five of our own; but five from so slender a force—and among them, Squadron Leader ‘Pat’ Pattle, the brilliant and much-loved leader of No. 33 Squadron—was a loss we could ill afford. Yet still the dwindling number of Hurricanes continued to challenge the enemy, many of our pilots taking off in riddled aircraft that would normally have been considered quite unfit for flight. Against the Italians, during the earlier phase of the campaign, they had cheerfully accepted odds of five to one, and asked for nothing better. Now it was odds of ten, fifteen, twenty to one; and the men in the opposing cockpits were Germans. With the best will in the world—and it was theirs in full measure—our outnumbered airmen could not prolong the agony indefinitely.
Meantime a small inter-Service staff, on which the Royal Air Force representative was Group Captain C. B. R. Pelly, had since 17th April been preparing plans for complete evacuation. The Piraeus was too good a target for the Luftwaffe (and too heavily damaged already), so that obviously men would have to be lifted from whatever suitable beaches or small harbours could be found in Attica and the Morea. The overwhelming German superiority in the air also made it essential that the operation should be carried out by night—preferably during a moonless period. Preparations were accordingly made along these lines. Fortunately a number of infantry assault ships and tank-landing craft were available for the task of going in to the beaches, but three or four days’ notice would be needed for the vessels to be brought the six hundred miles from Egypt. If evacuation were decided upon, 28th April was the first practicable date on which it could begin.
On 21st April, General Wilson heard that the Greek Army of the Epirus had laid down its arms. Attempting too late to yield the territory it had so gallantly wrested from the Italians, it had found itself outflanked by the Germans. With the Adolf Hitler S.S. Motorized Division at Yannina, there was now real danger that the enemy would reach Athens from the west before the British could get back to the beaches. Nothing less than immediate evacuation could save Wilson’s forces. Although preparations were far from complete, it was accordingly decided to try to pick up the first parties on the night of 24/25th April.
Until 19th April the Blenheims had continued their attempt to delay the enemy advance. From 20th April the surviving aircraft
concentrated on the work of flying key airmen to Crete—first air-crew, then ground staff. On 22nd and 23rd April the squadrons took off from Menidi and Eleusis for the last time, together with the four remaining Lysanders. Only the Hurricanes of Nos. 33, 80 and 208 Squadrons—eighteen aircraft in all—then remained for the last duty of giving what protection they could to the evacuation. For this task they were ordered to Argos, a Greek training airfield in the Morea, where they would be well placed to protect our shipping approaches and the final movements of some of the parties towards the beaches.
The command of this rear force and the supervision of the Royal Air Force evacuation from this area were entrusted to Air Commodore J. W. B. Grigson. When Grigson arrived at Argos he found the main airfield so lacking in any form over cover, either for aircraft or men, that he decided to base the Hurricanes on a small satellite three miles away where the landing area was adjoined by an olive grove. Unfortunately the troops detailed for anti-aircraft protection had proceeded to the wrong airfield, and the only defences immediately available were those of the local Greeks. These consisted of two Bofors and two Hotchkiss machine-guns.
The Hurricanes arrived over Argos during the afternoon of 22nd April. The Greek Bofors at once opened up, and one machine was badly damaged. This incident over, the pilots landed, pushed their aircraft into the edge of the olive grove, and settled in for the night. The following morning they put up a reconnaissance and an offensive patrol. Then the Luftwaffe appeared—just when five fresh Hurricanes had landed from Crete. four of the five got into the air and challenged the enemy; the other was destroyed on the ground. This did not satisfy the Germans, who returned in force during the afternoon. Some of our aircraft were on patrol at the time, but apparently mad no interceptions. The others, at dispersal in the edge of the olive grove, were completely unable to get off the ground. This did not satisfy the Germans, who returned in force during the afternoon. Some of our aircraft were on patrol at the time, but apparently made no interceptions. The others, at dispersal in the edge of the olive grove, were completely unable to get off the ground in time. In utter impotence their pilots watched thirty to forty Me.110s first silence the Bofors guns, then pour their bullets into the dispersed aircraft, then turn their attention to the airmen and troops in the grove. It was a leisurely performance, occupying some forty minutes; but at the end of its thirteen Hurricanes had been destroyed on the ground and one in the air, beside nearly all the Greek trainers. This was enough for Grigson, who now wisely decided to transfer his seven surviving machines to Crete, whence they could at least cover the return of our ships. At daylight on 24th April, eighteen hours before the first troops were due to embark, what remained of our fighters took off for the last time from the soil of Greece.
Meanwhile the Royal Air Force ground-crews were making their way to the evacuation points. Lack of food and sleep, frequent misdirection, and inability to use lights for fear of air attack gave a nightmare quality to most of the journeys. No. 112 Squadron, which had just reached Athens from the Epirus, had much less trouble than most of the other contingents and was among the first to be taken off. The Squadron diary tells their story:
(22nd April.) In pitch darkness we moved off, after throwing all equipment, etc., into the sea, and we passed Eleusis village without incident. Here our convoy met the Army stream … and at a deadly snail’s pace the vast cavalcade crept on. Nerves were frayed and any suggestion of a light brought forth a chorus of ‘Put that bloody light out’ from front and rear. As it was imperative to use lights now and again to negotiate the cliff road, the invective was almost continuous … The road was strewn with overturned vehicles … one estimate was three hundred overturned on the Corinth–Argos section alone … Just before Corinth a convoy of pack mules got mixed up in the general melée … we must pay tribute to the magnificent way the soldiers coaxed and handled these animals. On our arrival at Argos, endless units were in groups for miles down the road, but gradually the RAF was sorted out and moved off to the aerodrome. By now (23rd) eleven thousand Army and Air Force had reached Argos, only to learn that two of the ships to take us off had been dive-bombed and were burning—one loaded with high explosive. This blew up with a terrific crash, but passed almost unnoticed in a bombing raid … [A description follows of various air attacks, including the one which destroyed the Hurricanes.] At nightfall we again moved through Argos and dispersed on the hillsides three miles beyond, this time minus blankets and kit, and it being too cold to sleep, finished a continuous forty-eight hours without sleep. Dawn (24th) and still no word of a ship, but a little later the first three Me.109s took a look round … The usual dive-bombing started shortly afterwards. Later in the day Me.110s flew far and wide at 3,000 feet seeking objectives … The squadron had two narrow escapes when sticks of bombs dropped right across our lines … A check-up revealed that a party of airmen were missing … Towards sunset we were all told to be ready to march to Nauplia. Relief showed on all our faces and no one asked the distance. The six mile were covered in excellent time and we arrived at the water’s edge in good order without incident. As the harbour was too shallow for large ships to put alongside, invasion barges were brought in by the Navy and everyone looked on in silent admiration of real efficiency. The last on board arrived about midnight, making seventy sleepless hours in all, and all lay down anywhere, anyhow, to a sleep of sheer exhaustion, oblivious of any dangers the sea might hold and with full confidence as ever, in the Navy.
Thanks to the naval efficiency which so impressed No. 112 Squadron, and a corresponding lack of enterprise on the part of the Luftwaffe and the Italian fleet, the plan of night evacuation worked miraculously well. Doubtless with Dunkirk in mind, Hitler had
ordered every precaution against a British escape, yet four-fifths of the troops who had landed in Greece re-embarked in safety. Unable in the dark to find the beaches we were using, the enemy made no attempt to bomb the actual embarkation. Instead he concentrated on attacks by daylight against our troops movements and shipping. But by dawn our returning vessels had normally reached 37° N, at which point they not only came within range of Blenheim fighters from Crete but also passed out of the range of the Ju.87s. The advent of our fighters thus coincided with the removal of the deadliest menace to our ships. long-range bombers persistently attempted to interfere beyond this vital point, but the Blenheims from Crete, despite their slender numbers—there were only fifteen or so in all—succeeded many times in scaring them off. Significantly enough the only major disaster to a loaded vessel occurred when a Dutch ship carrying several hundred men left Nauplia too late to reach 37° N. by the appointed hour. And once our ships approached the anchorage at Suda Bay, they came under additional protection from the single-engined fighters in Crete—the half dozen Fulmars and Gladiators of the Fleet Air Arm, the Gladiators returned from the Epirus, and the six or seven Hurricanes which had survived the bombing at Argos.
In their work of covering our vessels the Blenheim fighters ran many dangers. Not all of these arose from the enemy. On 28th April, for instance, a formation of Blenheims of No. 203 Squadron made contact with its convoy and was at once fired upon by one of our destroyers. The rest of the story may be told in the words of the Squadron Operations Record Book:
No damage noticed at time but after eventual recognition L. 9044 caught fire starboard engine and at 0817 aircraft set course for base on port engine. Failed to make Retimo and landed in sea 1½ miles to north. 0850 hrs. Air Gunner got rubber boat out and alongside wing immediately. Navigator was stuck under the navigator’s table underwater, but managed to scramble out, and then turned to help captain of aircraft who was trapped in his seat below water unable to find his release pin, and pulled him out in time. The crew began to paddle for the shore and when still one mile away were met by a Greek soldier, Marcos Koumnisakios, who threw them a rope and with the other end tied around his waist proceeded to swim back towing them while they paddled … On landing at Retimo, crew were covered by rifles and (perhaps partly owing to colour of captain’s hair) thought to be Germans. However, the captain, on hearing an uncertain but familiar accent suggesting British soldiery, gave the inspired cry (after one soundless attempt) of ‘We’re ___ing British!’ and this convinced everyone of the crew’s undoubtedly Allied character …
The protection of our returning vessels was not the only service rendered by the Royal Air Force during the evacuation. An emergency
‘air lift’ for ‘V.I.P.s’, Headquarters parties, and the like was organized by No. 201 Group at Alexandria. The aircraft employed were the Sunderlands of Nos. 228 and 230 Squadrons, which carried out reconnaissance by day and evacuation by night, the Lodestars and Bombays of No. 267 (Communications) Squadron, and two B.O.A.C. flying-boats. The Lodestars and Bombays mad only five trips to Greece before conditions at Menidi and Eleusis made further flights impossible; thereafter, with the two B.O.A.C. aircraft, they concentrated on the Crete–Egypt section of the run.3 But the Sunderlands made full use of their ability to alight at remote spots along the coast—one of them was attracted to a stranded party by signals from a shaving-mirror—and between them they succeeded in bringing off from Greece nearly nine hundred persons. The King of Greece and most of our senior commanders mad their exit this way; a little earlier in King Peter had been rescued in similar fashion from Yugoslavia. Needless to say, the pilots took on fantastic loads. One Sunderland with an official ‘emergency capacity’ of thirty bodies staggered off the water with eighty-four.
The merits of intervention in Greece are still a matter of controversy. As far as the Royal Air Force was concerned, the phase before the Germans came on the scene was extremely profitable. Nearly two hundred Italian aircraft were reckoned to have been destroyed, as against forty-seven of our own, and much valuable help was given to the Greeks in other ways. Even after the Germans intervened the strict balance of profit and loss in terms of aircraft was less adverse than might appear from the events of the final days; for though we lost 151 aircraft between 6th and 30th April—of which 87 were damaged machines perforce abandoned at the end—D’Albiac’s fighters were doubtless responsible for most of the 164 losses which Operation ‘Marita’ coast the enemy. Those consoling features can scarcely, however, disguise the fact that the committal to Greece of British expeditionary force and the greater part of the Royal Air
Force in the Middle East, while it had extremely strong political arguments in its favour, from the immediate military aspect was quite unsound. The terrain was ideal for defence; but the defenders were too few to face with any prospect of success the opposition they would meet, while by moving through Yugoslavia the Germans could—and did—make nonsense of the whole Allied deployment. On the air side, the shortage of airfields and anti-aircraft guns was a grave handicap from the start; and when Wilson was compelled to retire south of the Thessalian plain and all the squadrons became crowded on the two or three grounds around Athens, there could only be one end. The Germans, it is true, soon brought many more landing-grounds into use, including those of Salonika—which for a combination of political and military reasons we had never been able to do. But the German attack on Greece coincided with the time when the soil was at last beginning to dry out. A few days in mid-April made all the difference between a sticky morass and a serviceable air-strip; and the transport plans of Luftflotte 4 provide the rest of the explanation of the enemy’s superior mobility.
From the immediate military point of view, the, the decision to face the Germans in Greece was an unsuccessful gamble. The result was not all loss, for by inspiring Yugoslavia to resist we set back the German offensive against Russia by four weeks. The precise effect of that on the fortunes of war is a matter of speculation. What is beyond dispute is that in so doing we threw away Cyrenaica, and with it out only hope of a swift end to the war in the desert.
The situation in the Middle East now demanded desperate remedies. With a boldness worthy of the occasion, the authorities at home had already decided to run a special convoy through the Mediterranean. The cargo, to the great relief of our harassed commanders, included 306 tanks and 50 Hurricanes. Fortunately the vessels were protected by an unseasonable quantity of cloud as they passed within range of the German bombers in Sicily; Fulmars of the Ark Royal beat off the one attack that developed; and on 12th May the entire convoy, less one ship sunk by a mine, docked safely at Alexandria. Meanwhile as part of the same series of operations Benghazi was bombarded and a convoy was passed into Malta from east to west. This, too, benefited from the favourable weather. ‘The clouds,’ wrote Flight Lieutenant Whittingham at Malta on 8th May ‘were right down to the deck. A most unusual occurrence this time of the year Malta (has not been known for a hundred years), but it was extremely fortunate as a large convoy was coming in.’ ‘Weather
again down to the ground,’ he noted on 9th May. ‘The cloud remained over the island all day—a miraculous act of Providence.
By this time the thin trickle of aircraft reinforcement over the Takoradi route was broadening into a steady flow. ‘Whereas you have received only 370 from November to now,’ announced Churchill to Longmore on 15th April, ‘528 more are on the way and a further 880 will start before the end of May.’ These energetic measures on the part of the authorities in London did much to fill the appalling gaps left by the disasters of Cyrenaica and Greece. Their efforts were fully seconded by those of the commanders at Cairo. Every man and machine that could be spared from East Africa was rushed to Egypt;’ a new group (No. 204—more or less the old 202), under the well-tried Collishaw, took over the emaciated units in the Western Desert; and into the wasted frames of the squadrons was pumped the life-blood of the new aircraft from home. While Rommel fretfully awaited supplies and the 15th Panzer Division, Egypt was thus replenished and restored, and the danger from the west receded.
In point of fact advanced elements of the 15th Panzer Division had landed at Tripoli on 31st March. By the middle of April these were beginning to appear in the forward area. But the impulsive Rommel was advised by General Paulus, who was then on a mission from German Army Supreme Headquarters, to stay quiet until the rest of the Division arrived; and the view of Paulus (which was also that of the Italians) was echoed in a directive from Keitel on 15th April. This enjoined a pause for the build-up of his own resources, the reinforcement of the Luftwaffe, and—above all—‘the elimination of British attacks on our rear communications’. Such attacks were to be avoided by ‘capturing Tobruk, protecting coastal routes and coastal shipping against sea and air attacks … and protecting sea transports from Italy to Libya’. The order was scarcely despatched when its terms were justified in a striking and, to our commanders in Egypt, altogether agreeable fashion. On 16th April our destroyers from Malta, warned by air reconnaissance, intercepted and sank an entire convoy off Sfax. The vessels contained Schutz Regiment 115 and Artillery Regiment 33 of the 15th Panzer Division.
With Egypt for the moment verboten Rommel’s gaze rested all the more avidly on Tobruk. eighty miles behind his front-line, it was undoubtedly a powerful thorn in his flesh. To supply and protect the garrison, however, was scarcely less of a worry to our own commanders. Ceaselessly bombed and shot up, and with their airfields under observed artillery fire, the two squadrons within the perimeter faced an impossible task. Within a few days of the investment it was clear that the Lysanders of No. 6 Squadron must be
within, but the Hurricanes for a while kept up the uneven struggle. The fantastic odds reached their peak on 23rd April, when, after an abortive early morning ‘scramble’, the seven available aircraft of No. 73 Squadron intercepted a force of some sixty German dive-bombers and fighters. In the fierce combats that followed our pilots claimed six of the enemy for only one loss to themselves. But the Luftwaffe returned to the charge, and before the day was out another force of forty aircraft appeared on the scene. Once more they were intercepted, and once more our pilots reckoned to have had the better of the exchanges. But when night fell No. 73 Squadron could muster only four serviceable aircraft; and it had lost three Commanding Officers within two weeks. Four months had now passed since the arrival of the squadron pilots from Egypt—four months of continuous action in non-stop advance and retreat across the breadth of Cyrenaica. Human blood and nerves could stand no more, and on 25th April the remnants of No. 73 Squadron followed the Lysanders to Egypt. Only the Hurricane flight of No. 6 Squadron then remained in Tobruk; it fought on until 8th May, when it was reduced to for machines. From then on the beleaguered troops had no air cover except fleeting patrols from Sidi Barrani, 120 miles distant.
Elsewhere in the Middle East Command the sombre horizon showed at least two gleams of light. In Malta things were perceptibly improving. In March not a day had passed without visits from Fliegerkorps X; and in the early part of the month such havoc had been wrought at the airfields and anchorages that Longmore had perforce withdrawn the Sunderlands and Wellingtons to Egypt. But at the beginning of April the island’s defences were strengthened by a dozen Mark II Hurricanes—the Mark I had been outfought by the Me.109s at heights over 16,000 feet—and thereafter the enemy had matters much less his own way. The Germans still attacked almost ceaselessly, but the damage was not so heavy. By the middle of the month the Wellingtons were back again and bombing Tripoli.
On 27th April another quota of Hurricanes came in safely from the Ark Royal. This enabled Maynard to form a second fighter squadron—No. 185—to share the burden of defence. The time was indeed ripe, for No. 261 had been appalling hard-pressed since the beginning of the year. The strain on this squadron may perhaps be gathered from an extremely feeling remark in the diary of one of its members. A true English ‘mem-sahib’ at a party on 14th April had asked this pilot how long he had been on the island, had been told ‘3½ months’, and had replied ‘Oh, quite a short time’. ‘I hope’, wrote the outraged
airman, ‘that when this old cow has a baby she looks forward to the few hours of labour in the same spirit.’
The Hurricanes were not the only new arrivals. During April the advent of a few more Marylands enabled No. 431 Flight to become No. 69 Squadron, and at once made possible a more ambitious programme of reconnaissance. To take advantage of the great opportunities that would now undoubtedly occur, the Wellingtons were withdrawn at the beginning of May and replaced by a flight of Blenheims from Bomber Command’s No. 2 Group. These aircraft had for some time specialized in attacks against German shipping in the English Channel and North Sea, and thenceforward the task of Malta’s bombers was less to bomb ports than to sink ships on passage. About the same time a squadron of Beaufighters (No. 252) came out from home to protect the convoy whose safe arrival in Egypt has already been described. Once in the Middle East Command these Beaufighters proved to useful that they were kept there for the rest of the war.
Despite an acute shortage of airfields and maintenance facilities, Maynard’s forces were thus steadily growing. Equally encouraging, his principal opponents were about to depart. In May Fliegerkorps X began an unobtrusive withdrawal from Sicily to the Balkans, as other German units in turn moved farther east for their Führer’s next great venture. Soon the island fortress, faced once more only by the Italians, would be free to strike out as it desired; and harassed officers in Rome would debate, not what could be spared for Africa, but how it could get there past the bombers and submarines of Malta.
The successful reinforcement of Egypt and Malta was not the only bright spot in a still gloomy horizon. From East Africa the tidings were not merely good but positively exhilarating. Both wings of the offensive launched in January 1941 had met with complete and uninterrupted success.
From Sudan General Platt, helped by Slatter’s squadrons, had pushed into Eritrea, captured the great natural stronghold of Keren, and swept on to Asmara and Massawa. These success were not confined to operation on land. As our forces approached Massawa six Italian destroyers put to sea: three were sunk by the Royal Air Force, a fourth by the Fleet Air Arm, and the other two ran aground or scuttled themselves in desperation. By mid-April Platt was moving into Abyssinia from the north, with his task so nearly completed that the 4th Indian Division and most of the air forces involved—four out of six and a half squadrons—were on their way to threatened Egypt.
Meantime the other arm of the great pincers—General Cunningham’s three divisions from Kenya, with the South African squadrons under Sowrey—had established an equally firm grip on the south. Mogadishu, where the airfield displayed the wrecks of twenty-one Italian aircraft, fell on 25th February; Berbera was recovered by mid-March, after the Aden squadrons had prepared the way for a seaborne expedition; and on 6th April, a few hours after the Germans opened their attack in the Balkans, Cunningham’s forces entered Addis Ababa. Before the end of the month three of the Kenya and Aden squadrons were en route to Egypt, and the whole campaign, thanks in no small measure to the rapid and complete subjugation of the enemy air force, was on its way to a triumphant conclusion.
Success at one extremity of the Middle East Command, however, usually meant trouble at another. While the sun was slowly breaking through at Malta, and in East Africa the skies were clearing completely, over Iraq the storm-clouds were now gathering in ominous array.