We cannot leave Greece in the lurch
British aid to Greece November 1940-March 1941
At 5 pm attend War Cabinet at Downing Street. It is decided to proceed subject of course to assent of Aust. Cabinet to use of Australian troops. Nett view, the project has some reasonable chance of success … We cannot leave Greece in the lurch.
[Robert Gordon Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, diary, 24 February 1941, in A W Martin and Patsy Hardy (eds), Dark and Hurrying Days, Menzies’ 1941 Diary, Canberra, 1993, p.65, hereafter, Menzies diary]
At 3.00 am on Sunday, 28 October 1940, General Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece, was awoken in his Athens home. At the door was the Italian Ambassador, Count Grazzi, with a written ultimatum to the Greek government demanding that Italian forces be given free passage into Greece from Albania and that they be allowed to garrison certain unspecified ‘strategic points of Greek territory’. Italy claimed that its request for this ‘temporary’ occupation was the result of English attempts to involve more and more countries in the war. If Greece refused to comply then resistance would be ‘broken by force of arms’. A reply was demanded by 6.00 am but Metaxas gave it at once — ‘No’! At 5.30 am Italian troops crossed the Greek–Albanian border and Greece was at war with Fascist Italy.
Over a year earlier, on 13 April 1939, after Italy had occupied Albania, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons that if there was any threat to Greek independence then Britain stood ready to help. Britain’s initial aid to Greece in 1940 was limited. Five squadrons of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters and bombers arrived in Greece to support the Greeks in Albania, a small British force was landed on the island of Crete, and over 4000 anti-aircraft gunners, RAF ground staff and depot troops were sent to the mainland. On 12 November 1940 a British Military Mission was established in Athens. In Greece, Britain now had a solitary ally on the continent of Europe.
Mussolini had intended a short war but, to his alarm, the Greeks had by early December 1940 driven his army back inside Albania. Over the winter of 1940–1941, the struggle between the Greeks and Italians proceeded in countryside which, according to one writer, ‘have exhausted the epithets of the most hardened journalist’:
Those deep dark valleys and ravines along which swirling torrents roared were not made to be violated by motor-transport, and the ridges were swept by icy winds and savage blizzards. It was on those snow-covered ridges that the Greek soldiers fought. The pack-horses froze in their shoes. The mules lay down and congealed where they lay.
[Compton Mackenzie, The Wind of Freedom — The History of the Invasion of Greece by the Axis Powers, 1940–1941, London, 1943, p.93, hereafter Mackenzie, Wind of Freedom]
As the RAF pilots soon found, flying in those winter conditions was extremely hazardous. Returning from a raid on Valona, Albania, a Canadian pilot, Flight Lieutenant A Bocking of 30 Squadron, struck bad weather:
We tried to get above it, but at 16 000 feet ice was forming on the wings, and the controls began to get very heavy. The cockpit was full of snow; it was difficult to see; then glaze-ice, the most dangerous sort, began to form. Just as we were wondering whether it would be necessary to jump we found a hole in the cloud, quite a tiny affair, and we came down through it and steered a course for home.
[Mackenzie, Wind of Freedom, pp.91–92]
During those months the most visible support for Britain’s new ally was from the RAF Gladiators, and, later, Hurricanes, flying from Ioannina and Trikala in west central Greece and Blenheim bombers from Tatoi and Elefsis near Athens. Flying with the RAF in Greece was a small number of Australian pilots, one of whom was Flight Lieutenant R N Cullen of Newcastle, New South Wales. On 28 February 1941 there occurred the largest air battle of the period when nine Hurricanes of 80 Squadron and 19 Gladiators of 112 Squadron engaged a large force of Italian fighters and bombers over Albania. That day, flying in a Hurricane, Cullen shot down five of the enemy — a squadron record — and overall during his time in Greece he was credited with 13 enemy aircraft. Cullen was killed in action on 4 March 1941. The Greeks were grateful for the courage and sacrifice of the young pilots. An RAF commander reported the effect on local morale of the great air battle of 28 February:
Civilians and soldiers passing us in the streets made the Sign of the Cross saying ‘Long life to you. Thank the Almighty who sent you to us’.
[Quoted in John Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series Three, Air, Vol 111, p.84]
And Compton Mackenzie paid tribute to these forgotten few of the RAF:
Bright in the ever-lengthening scroll of honour, glory, valour and skill which adorns the records of the RAF during the Second World War stand out the names of those squadrons which helped Greece during the last two months of 1940.
[Mackenzie, Wind of Freedom, p.92]
Italy’s failure against the Greeks greatly annoyed Adolf Hitler. By late 1940 the Germans were well into preparations for what was to be their great offensive of 1941 — the invasion of Russia — and Hitler had hoped to secure Germany’s flank in the Balkans by diplomacy. Germany’s main fuel supply came from the Romanian oil fields and with Greece now Britain’s ally, thanks to Mussolini’s desire for swift Italian aggrandisement, the oil fields had become vulnerable to potential RAF bombing from airfields in northern Greece. Greek relations with Germany had been good, but as Hitler saw Italy driven back, he ordered the German army in early November 1940 to prepare for an invasion of northern Greece. By late November this limited strike was enlarged into a plan — ‘Operation Marita’ — for the occupation and subjugation of the whole of Greece.
Learning of German intentions, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw an opportunity to create a so-called ‘Balkan front’ against the Germans that would consist of Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey. This would require sending a much larger British force to Greece and the need to persuade the Greeks — concerned at this stage to give no provocation to Hitler — to accept this force. However, they recognised that German plans were afoot to invade them and after the death of General Metaxas in late January 1941, the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Koryzis, began exploratory talks with the British concerning what forces might be sent to aid Greece against German invasion. The diplomatic story of how Britain induced Greece to accept an expeditionary force is a complex one but it had its culmination on 22 February 1941 in a high level meeting between British and Greek delegates in Athens.
Before the meeting opened, Koryzis assured the British that Greece would resist German aggression. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, offered three infantry divisions, a Polish brigade, one armoured division and perhaps later a second armoured brigade — a total of approximately 100 000 men with 240 field guns, 32 medium guns, 192 anti-aircraft guns, 142 tanks and 202 anti-tank guns. Five additional RAF squadrons might also be available. This seemed like a formidable force. The observations of Lieutenant Colonel de Guignand, one of the British military delegation, shows this offer in a different light:
Totals of men and guns are generally impressive. In the aircraft flying over I had been asked to produce a list showing totals of items we were proposing to send. My first manpower figures excluded such categories as pioneers, and in the gun totals I produced only artillery pieces. This was nothing like good enough for one of Mr Eden’s party who was preparing the brief. He asked that the figures should be swelled with what to my mind were doubtful values. I felt that this was hardly a fair do and bordering upon dishonesty. I don’t know, however, whether figures meant very much to the Greeks by the time they were provided.
[de Guignand, quoted in Gavin Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1, Army, Vol II, Canberra, 1953, p.10, hereafter Long, Greece, Crete and Syria]
For Eden, the meeting was a triumph and Churchill had secured the first link in his sought-after ‘Balkan front’. Subsequent British attempts, however, to draw in the Yugoslavs and the Turks came to nothing.
The main forces that Britain had available to send to Greece in early 1941 were predominantly Dominion troops currently either fighting or training in the Middle East. These consisted of the 2nd New Zealand Division and the three divisions of the 1st Australian Corps, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) — the 6th, 7th and 9th. While the British commander-in-chief of the Army of the Nile, General Sir Archibald Wavell, could allocate Australian and New Zealand units to an expeditionary force for Greece, final permission to use such forces rested with the Australian and New Zealand governments. As preliminary planning for Greece was taking place, the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, arrived in Egypt on 5 February 1941 to inspect Australian troops in the area before proceeding to London.
Menzies remained in Egypt, with short side trips to Libya, until 14 February. On the evening before his departure Menzies met with Wavell who, earlier, he had described as a man ‘of few words and with sinister left eye’. After this meeting Menzies wrote that Wavell:
… is clearly contemplating the possibility of a Salonika operation [Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece].
[Menzies diary, 13 February 1941, p.53]
Just two days after Menzies’ departure and before the Prime Minister had even arrived in London, Wavell summoned to Cairo, from his headquarters 1600 kilometres away in Cyrenaica, the commander of the 1st Australian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey. On 18 February Wavell briefed Blamey on the proposed Greek operation. The force to be sent, ‘Lustre Force’, was to be composed of the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions, the HQ of the 1st Australian Corps, the 1st Armoured Brigade and the Independent Polish Brigade. On being told by Blamey that this matter would have to be referred to the Australian government, Wavell said that he had already discussed the possibility of this operation with Menzies. On the previous day, Wavell had briefed the New Zealand divisional commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg described his reaction in words that summed up both his own and Blamey’s sense of Wavell’s way of handling the Dominion commanders:
There was no question of our being asked if we agreed. We attended and were given instructions to get ready to go … At that meeting my opinion was never asked. I was told the bare facts … In any case I never expected to be asked my opinion by the Commander-in-Chief. He was far from co-operative. He had the secrecy mania.
[Freyberg, quoted in David Horner, High Command — Australia’s Struggle for an Independent War Strategy, 1939–1945, Sydney, 1982, p.67, hereafter Horner, High Command]
Menzies arrived in Britain on 20 February and on 23 February he dined with Churchill:
Momentous discussion later with PM about defence of Greece, largely with New Zealand and Australian troops. This kind of decision, which may mean thousands of lives, is not easy. Why does a peaceable man become a Prime Minister.
[Menzies diary, 13 February 1941, p.64]
On the next day — 24 February — the question of sending a force to Greece was placed for final decision before the British War Cabinet in Downing Street. Menzies attended the meeting and, as he was assured that military opinion suggested that the proposed venture had ‘a reasonable chance of success’, he gave his consent subject to the approval of the Australian Cabinet. He was probably expressing public opinion in general throughout Britain and the Dominions when he confided to his diary:
We cannot leave Greece in the lurch.
[Menzies diary, 24 February 1941, p.65]
However, Menzies was deeply concerned about the expedition and at the War Cabinet meeting he was the only one to raise any serious questions as to its feasibility. Most members of the Cabinet, he felt, simply bent to Churchill’s will. When Menzies forced them to spend time on troublesome details such as the obvious problems facing Lustre Force of air support, equipment, timing and shipping, he felt very much out of step with the normal course of Cabinet proceedings:
I was the only one to put questions, and feel like a new boy who, in the first week of school, commits the solecism of speaking to the captain of the School.
[Menzies diary, 24 February 1941, p.66]
After this meeting Menzies cabled to Australia to the Acting Prime Minister, Arthur Fadden, recommending the Greek expedition. On 28 February Fadden cabled Menzies that the Australian War Cabinet concurred with the sending of two Australian divisions to Greece provided that proper planning take place ‘to ensure that evacuation, if necessitated, will be successfully undertaken’. Thus, from both Menzies and the Australian War Cabinet in late February 1941 one can detect doubts regarding the commitment of Australian forces to Greece. These misgivings were reinforced in early March when it was clear that the Germans were sending troops to North Africa to re-inforce the Italian army there. It also emerged that the Greeks were not carrying out the previously agreed upon British plan for the defence of Greece, and that a British commando force had failed to capture Castlellorizo in the Dodecanese. From this Greek island group, held by the Italians, air strikes could be launched on convoys from Egypt to Greece. While the Australian government clearly had its doubts about the Greek venture, what was the opinion of Australia’s chief military leader in the Middle East, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey?
From the moment he was briefed by Wavell on 18 February, Blamey had entertained serious concern about Greece. As Australia’s national commander As Australia’s national commander in the field, he had the right of access to the Australian government over Wavell’s head. However, it was not until 9 March 1941, by which time elements of Lustre Force were already on their way, that Blamey requested of the Minister for the Army, Percy Spender, that he might submit his views. It must have come as a shock, so late in the day, to the Australian War Cabinet to learn that Blamey did not think the expedition had ‘a reasonable chance of success’. While the British could muster three divisions and an armoured brigade, against them, Blamey advised, the Germans had ‘as many divisions available as roads can carry’ and ‘within three to four months we must be prepared to meet overwhelming forces completely equipped and trained’. His conclusion was simple:
Military operation extremely hazardous in view of the disparity
between opposing forces in number and training.
Thus did the AIF set out for Greece with the agreement of the Australian government and towards what its commander, who arrived there on 18 March, thought could be disaster.