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Title: The Second World War: The Grand Alliance

Date of first publication: 1950

Author: Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965)

Date first posted: Nov. 25, 2019

Date last updated: Nov. 25, 2019

Faded Page eBook #20191143

This eBook was produced by: David T. Jones, Al Haines, John Routh & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at https://www.pgdpcanada.net



The Second World War

 

The

Grand

Alliance

 

Winston S. Churchill

 

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON

The Riverside Press Cambridge

1950


COPYRIGHT, 1950, BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY

 

All rights reserved. Reproduction in full or in part in any language strictly prohibited.

 

The quotations from The Unrelenting Struggle,

by Winston S. Churchill, are reprinted by the

courtesy of Cassell & Company Ltd.

 

The quotation from The Memoirs of Cordell Hull

is reprinted by the courtesy of The Macmillan

Company.

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY

KINGSPORT PRESS, INC., KINGSPORT, TENNESSEE


Preface

This volume, like the others, claims only to be a contribution to the history of the Second World War. The tale is told from the standpoint of the British Prime Minister, with special responsibility as Minister of Defence for military affairs. As these came directly to some extent into my hands, British operations are narrated in their scope and in some detail. At the same time it would be impossible to describe the struggles of our Allies except as a background. To do full justice these must be left to their own historians, or to later and more general British accounts. While recognising the impossibility of preserving proportion, I have tried to place our own story in its true setting.

The main thread is again the series of my directives, telegrams, and minutes upon the daily conduct of the war and of British affairs. These are all original documents composed by me as events unfolded. They therefore constitute a more authentic record and give, I believe, a better impression of what happened and how it seemed at the time than any account which I could write now that the course of events is known. Although they contain expressions of opinion and forecasts which did not come true, it is by them as a whole that I wish my own share in the conflict to be judged. Only in this way can the reader understand the actual problems we had to face as defined by the knowledge then in our possession.

Space would not allow, nor indeed in many cases have I the right, to print the replies, which very often took the form of lengthy departmental memoranda. I have therefore been careful to avoid, so far as I can, throwing blame on individuals. Where possible I have endeavoured to give a summary of replies to telegrams. In the main however the documents which are printed tell the tale.

We are again dealing with war on the giant scale, and the battle on the Russian front involved as many divisions on both sides as were engaged in the Battle of France. At every point along a far longer front the great masses engaged, with slaughter incomparable to anything which occurred elsewhere during the war. I cannot attempt to do more than refer to the struggle between the German and the Russian Armies as the background of the actions of Britain and the Western Allies. The Russian epic of 1941 and 1942 deserves a detailed and dispassionate study and record in the English language. Even though no facilities for foreigners to narrate the Russian agony and glory might be accorded, the effort should be made. Nor should this impulse be chilled by the fact that the Soviet Government have already claimed all the honour for themselves.

Hitler’s invasion of Russia brought to an end the period of almost exactly a year during which Great Britain and her Empire stood alone, undismayed, and growing continually in strength. Six months later the United States, violently assaulted by Japan, became our ally for all purposes. The ground for our united action had been prepared beforehand by my correspondence with President Roosevelt, and it was possible to forecast not only the form of our operations but also their sequence. The effective combination of the whole English-speaking world in the waging of war and the creation of the Grand Alliance form the conclusion to this part of my account.

Winston S. Churchill

Chartwell

January 1, 1950

Acknowledgments

I must again acknowledge the assistance of those who helped me with the previous volume, namely, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, Commodore G. R. G. Allen, Colonel F. W. Deakin, and Sir Edward Marsh, Mr. Denis Kelly and Mr. C. C. Wood. I have also to thank the very large number of others who have kindly read these pages and commented upon them.

Lord Ismay has continued to give me his aid, as have my other friends.

I record my obligation to His Majesty’s Government for permission to reproduce the text of certain official documents of which the Crown Copyright is legally vested in the Controller of His Majesty’s Stationery Office. At the request of His Majesty’s Government on security grounds, I have paraphrased some of the telegrams published in this volume. These changes have not altered in any way the sense or substance of the telegrams.


 

 

Moral of the work

 

In War: Resolution

 

In Defeat: Defiance

 

In Victory: Magnanimity

 

In Peace: Good Will


 

 

Theme of the volume

 

How the British fought on

with Hardship their Garment

until

Soviet Russia and the United States

were drawn

into the Great Conflict


Contents
  
  
Book One
  
Germany Drives East
  
  
1.The Desert and the Balkans3
2.The Widening War22
3.Blitz and Anti-Blitz, 1941: Hess38
4.The Mediterranean War56
5.Conquest of the Italian Empire78
6.Decision to Aid Greece94
7.The Battle of the Atlantic, 1941 The Western Approaches111
8.The Battle of the Atlantic, 1941 The American Intervention136
9.Yugoslavia156
10.The Japanese Envoy176
11.The Desert Flank: Rommel: Tobruk196
12.The Greek Campaign218
13.Tripoli and “Tiger”238
14.The Revolt in Iraq253
15.Crete: The Advent268
16.Crete: The Battle284
17.The Fate of the “Bismarck”305
18.Syria321
19.General Wavell’s Final Effort: “Battleaxe”333
20.The Soviet Nemesis352
  
Book Two
  
War Comes to America
  
1.Our Soviet Ally377
2.An African Pause: Tobruk396
3.My Meeting with Roosevelt419
4.The Atlantic Charter433
5.Aid to Russia451
6.Persia and the Middle East Summer and Autumn, 1941476
7.The Mounting Strength of Britain Autumn, 1941501
8.Closer Contacts with Russia Autumn and Winter, 1941524
9.The Path Ahead539
10.Operation “Crusader” Ashore, Aloft, and Afloat557
11.Japan578
12.Pearl Harbour!604
13.A Voyage Amid World War625
14.Proposed Plan and Sequence of the War644
15.Washington and Ottawa662
16.Anglo-American Accords682
17.Return to Storm699
  
Appendices713
  
Index873


Maps and diagrams 
  
The Advance from Tobruk63
The Campaign in East Africa91
  
The Battle of the Atlantic:
   Merchant Ships Sunk by U-Boats in the Atlantic
  
Phase I.From the Outbreak of War to the Invasion of Norway, September 3, 1939, to April 9, 1940113
Phase II.The Western Approaches, April 10, 1940, to March 17, 1941119
Phase III.The Ocean up to the Entry of the United States into the War, March 18, 1941, to December 6, 1941141
The Balkans172
Rommel’s Counter-Offensive, April, 1941216
The German Invasion of Greece231
Habbaniya-Falluja263
Syria and Iraq265
Crete and the Aegean302
The Chase of the Bismarck
Map 1:Situation at 6.00 a.m. May 24309
Map 2:Situation at 3.06 a.m. May 25314
Map 3:Situation at 1.30 a.m. May 26315
Plan 1:Situation about 9.00 p.m. May 26316
Plan 2:Situation at 8.48 a.m. May 27317
Plan 3:Situation at 10.15 a.m. May 27318
The Syrian Campaign331
Diagram to Illustrate Operation “Battleaxe”343
The German Attack on Russia389
Operations in Persia482
The Mediterranean Area, June 21, 1941487
Enemy Dispositions November 18
Opening Phase, November 18-19562
First Battle of Sidi Rezegh562
Rommel’s Raid November 24-28
Second Battle of Sidi Rezegh, November 29-30565
The South China Sea621
Malaya637
Cyrenaica640


Book One

 

Germany Drives East


The Grand Alliance

1
The Desert and the Balkans

The Onset of Events in 1941—A Secure Foundation—The Hinge of the War—False Dawn in the Desert—My War Appreciation of January 6—A Firm Flank at Benghazi—The Campaign in Abyssinia—The Spanish Riddle—Vichy Obscurities—Threat of German Air Power in Sicily—Overriding Danger in the Balkans—The Need to Support Greece—Our Main Task—Hitler’s New Year Thoughts—His Letter to Mussolini, December 31, 1940—Coincidence of Our View About Spain—Hitler’s Conclusions About Russia and Africa—Mr. Eden’s Anxieties—Need to Limit Our Desert Advance—General Smuts’ Telegram of January 8—Directions to General Wavell of January 10—Wavell Flies to Athens—My Telegram to Wavell of January 26—My Reply to General Smuts of January 12.

Looking back upon the unceasing tumult of the war, I cannot recall any period when its stresses and the onset of so many problems all at once or in rapid succession bore more directly on me and my colleagues that the first half of 1941. The scale of events grew larger every year; but the decisions required were not more difficult. Greater military disasters fell upon us in 1942, but by then we were no longer alone and our fortunes were mingled with those of the Grand Alliance. No part of our problem in 1941 could be solved without relation to all the rest. What was given to one theatre had to be taken from another. An effort here meant a risk there. Our physical resources were harshly limited. The attitude of a dozen Powers, friendly, opportunist, or potentially hostile, was unknowable. At home we must face the war against the U-boats, the invasion threat, and the continuing Blitz; we had to conduct the group of campaigns in the Middle East; and, thirdly, to try to make a front against Germany in the Balkans. And we had to do all this for a long time alone. After shooting Niagara we had now to struggle in the rapids. One of the difficulties of this narrative is the disproportion between our single-handed efforts to keep our heads above water from day to day and do our duty, and the remorseless development of far larger events.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had at any rate a solid foundation in Great Britain. I was sure that, provided we maintained the highest state of readiness at home and the necessary forces, a German attempt at invasion in 1941 would not be to our disadvantage. The German air strength in all theatres was very little greater than in 1940, whereas our air fighter force at home had grown from fifty-one to seventy-eight squadrons, and our bombers from twenty-seven to forty-five squadrons. The Germans had not won the air battle in 1940. They seemed to have little chance of winning it in 1941. Our army in the Island had grown far stronger. Between September, 1940, and September, 1941, it was raised from twenty-six active divisions to thirty-four, plus five armoured divisions. To this must be added the maturity of the troops and the enormous increase in their weapons. The Home Guard had risen from a million to a million and a half; and now all had firearms. Numbers, mobility, equipment, training, organisation, and defence works were vastly improved. Hitler, of course, had always a superabundance of soldiers for invasion. To conquer us he would have had to carry and supply across the Channel at least a million men. He could by 1941 have had a large though not a sufficient quantity of landing-craft. But with our dominant air force and naval power giving us the command of both elements we had no doubt of our ability to destroy or cripple his armada. All the arguments, therefore, on which we had relied in 1940 were now incomparably stronger. So long as there was no relaxation in vigilance or serious reduction in our own defence the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of the Staff felt no anxiety.

Although our American friends, some of whose generals visited us, took a more alarmist view of our position, and the world at large regarded the invasion of Britain as probable, we ourselves felt free to send overseas all the troops our available shipping could carry and to wage offensive war in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Here was the hinge on which our ultimate victory turned, and it was in 1941 that the first significant events began. In war armies must fight. Africa was the only continent in which we could meet our foes on land. The defence of Egypt and of Malta were duties compulsive upon us, and the destruction of the Italian Empire the first prize we could gain. The British resistance in the Middle East to the triumphant Axis Powers and our attempt to rally the Balkans and Turkey against them are the theme and thread of our story now.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Desert victories cheered the opening days of the year. Bardia, with more than forty thousand men, surrendered on January 5. Tobruk seemed certainly within our grasp, and was in fact taken, with nearly thirty thousand prisoners, in a fortnight. On the nineteenth we reoccupied Kassala, in the Sudan, and on the twentieth invaded the Italian colony of Eritrea, seizing the railhead at Biscia a few days later. On that same day the Emperor Haile Selassie re-entered Abyssinia. But all the while the reports accumulated of the German movements and preparations for a Balkan campaign. I drew up for the Chiefs of Staff an appreciation upon the war as a whole, with which I found them in general agreement.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 6 Jan. 41

The speedy destruction of the Italian armed forces in Northeast Africa must be our prime major overseas objective in the opening months of 1941. Once the Italian army in Cyrenaica has been destroyed, the Army of the Nile becomes free for other tasks. We cannot yet tell what these will be.

2. The fall of Bardia should enable an advanced base to be established there for the capture of Tobruk. With Bardia and Tobruk in our hands it should be possible to drop the land communications with Alexandria almost entirely and to rely upon sea transport for our further westward advance. Every plan should be made now to use Tobruk to its utmost capacity.

3. The striking force to be maintained west of Bardia and Tobruk need not be large. The 2d and 7th British Armoured Divisions, the 6th Australian Division, the New Zealand brigade group, soon to become a division, with perhaps one or two British brigades, comprising not more than 40,000 to 45,000 men, should suffice to overpower the remaining Italian resistance and to take Benghazi. The distance from Tobruk to Benghazi by the coastal road is not much above 250 miles, compared with about 370 from Alexandria to Tobruk.[1] Thus, once Tobruk is established as the base and our land communications begin from there, no greater strain should be thrown upon the land transport than at present, and it should be possible to start afresh from Tobruk as if Tobruk were Alexandria, and to maintain the moderate but adequate striking force required. With the capture of Benghazi this phase of the Libyan campaign would be ended.

4. The question is, how long will this take? Having regard to the very heavy Italian losses in their best troops and in their vehicles and equipment, and to the fact that we have the command of the sea, the collapse in Cyrenaica might be very rapid. Indeed, all might go with a run at any time. The need for haste is obvious. It would, however, suffice for our general strategy if Benghazi and everything east of it were effectively in our possession and occupied as a military and naval base at any time during March.

5. The aforesaid Libyan operations need not, therefore, at all affect the simultaneous pushing of the campaign against the Italians in Abyssinia. General Wavell has already withdrawn the 4th Indian Division. The 5th Indian Division is also available, and it should be possible to carry out the Kassala operation and to spread the revolt in Abyssinia, while at the same time the Kenya forces press northward by Lake Rudolf. At any time we may receive armistice proposals from the cut-off Italian garrison in Abyssinia. This army must have been buoyed up with hopes of an Italian conquest of the Delta and of the Canal, enabling communications to be restored and supplies to reach them by the Nile and the Red Sea. These hopes are already dead. On the other hand, the vast size of Abyssinia, the lack of all communications, especially sea communications, and the impossibility of nourishing large forces may bring about an indefinite delay. It is, however, not an unreasonable hope that by the end of April the Italian army in Abyssinia will have submitted or been broken up.

6. The moment that this is apparent the northward movement of all the effective forces in Kenya, as well as those in the Sudan and Abyssinia, will become possible. These forces will thenceforward become a reserve available for operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. If we take the present total strength of the armies in the Middle East at about 370,000 (including convoys W.S. 5 and 6), it might be reasonably expected that the equivalent of ten divisions would stand in the Nile Valley, together with two additional divisions from home, a total of twelve, after providing the necessary garrisons and security troops for Abyssinia, Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Palestine. These twelve divisions should thus be free (apart from new distractions) by the end of April.

II

7. To invade and force a way through Spain to the Straits of Gibraltar against the will of the Spanish people and Government, especially at this season, is a most dangerous and questionable enterprise for Germany to undertake, and it is no wonder that Hitler, with so many sullen populations to hold down, has so far shrunk from it. With the permission of the Spanish Government it would, of course, be a short and easy matter for the Germans to gain control of Lisbon and of the Algeciras and Ceuta batteries, together with appropriate airfields. According to Captain Hilgarth [our Naval Attaché in Madrid], who has lived long in Spain and is fresh from contact with our Ambassador, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the Spanish Government will give Hitler passage or join the war against us. General Wavell’s victories in Libya have played, and will play, an important part in Spanish opinion. If the Germans are refused permission it is most unlikely that they will try to force their way into and through Spain before the month of April. From every point of view this delay is helpful to us. We have the use of Gibraltar; we have the time for our strength in the Middle East to accomplish its task there and again to become free; above all, there is the possibility of events taking a favourable turn in France and at Vichy.

8. We must now be most careful not to precipitate matters in Spain, or set the Spanish Government against us more than it is already, or provoke Herr Hitler to a violent course towards Spain. All these matters are highly speculative. There can be no certainty about them. But the fact that Hitler has not acted through Spain as we feared, when conditions, both political and climatic, were more favourable to him, makes it on the whole a reasonable working assumption that any German adventure in Spain will at least wait for the spring.

III

9. The probabilities of delay in Spain until the spring give rise to the hope that the Vichy Government, under German pressure or actual German incursion, may either proceed to North Africa and resume the war from there, or authorise General Weygand to do so. If such an event could be brought about before the Straits of Gibraltar fell into German control, we should have a very good chance of resisting a German attempt against the Straits indefinitely. We could move troops into Morocco by the Atlantic ports; we should have the use of the French air bases in North Africa. The whole situation in the Mediterranean would be completely revolutionised in our favour. The position of any Italian forces remaining in Tripoli would become impossible. We might well be able to open the Mediterranean for supplies and reinforcements for the Middle East.

10. We have, therefore, thought it right to assure Marshal Pétain and General Weygand that we will assist them with up to six divisions, substantial air forces, and the necessary naval power from the moment they feel able to take the all-important step we so greatly desire. We have also impressed upon them the danger of delaying their action until the Germans have made their way through Spain and become masters of the Straits and of Northern Morocco. We can but wait and see what Vichy will do. Meanwhile we enforce the blockade of France fitfully and as naval convenience offers, partly to assert the principle, partly to provide a “smokescreen” of Anglo-French friction, and especially not to let the Vichy Government feel that if they do nothing life will be tolerable for them so far as we are concerned. It is greatly to our interest that events should develop rapidly in France. Presumably Herr Hitler realises this. Nevertheless the probabilities are that the French climax will come about before anything decisive happens in Spain.

IV

11. We must continually expect that Hitler will soon strike some heavy blow, and that he is now making preparations on a vast scale with customary German thoroughness. He can, of course, easily come down through Italy and establish an air power in Sicily. Perhaps this is already taking place.

The Chiefs of Staff Committee are requested to press on with their study of “Influx” [a scheme for the occupation of Sicily], which may conceivably require emergency treatment. It is not seen, however, how “Influx” can be accorded priority over the operations in Libya; certainly not, whatever happens, until Tobruk has been taken and a good forward base made there—if not farther west—to protect Egypt.

V

12. All the foregoing shows that nothing would suit our interest better than that any German advance in the Balkans should be delayed till the spring. For this very reason one must apprehend that it will begin earlier. The exploits of the Greek Army have been an enormous help to us. They have expressed themselves generously about the extremely modest aid in the air which was all we could give. But should their success be followed by a check or a deadlock, we must expect immediate demands for more aid. The only aid we can give quickly is four or five more squadrons from the Middle East, perhaps some artillery regiments, and some or all of the tanks of the 2d Armoured Division, now arrived and working up in leisurely fashion in Egypt.

“Furious” has reached Takoradi, and forty Hurricanes, etc., will soon raise Air Marshal Longmore’s strength to well over a hundred Hurricane fighters. His losses in the offensive have been singularly small. His action in withdrawing squadrons from Aden and the Sudan has been vindicated. Tobruk may soon be in our hands, and thereafter it would seem that a strong reinforcement of air power for Greece should be provided. This should include Hurricane squadrons. Have the aerodromes in Greece been lengthened and adapted to them? Has the airfield in Crete yet been made suitable for their landing on passage? The call, when it comes, may be very urgent. Everything must be set in train now. We must know also how long it would take to move the 2d Armoured Division to the Piraeus, and what numbers are involved.

13. All accounts go to show that a Greek failure to take Valona will have very bad consequences. It may be possible for General Wavell, with no more than the forces he is now using in the Western Desert, and in spite of some reduction in his air force, to conquer the Cyrenaica province and establish himself at Benghazi; but it would not be right for the sake of Benghazi to lose the chance of the Greeks taking Valona, and thus to dispirit and anger them, and perhaps make them in the mood for a separate peace with Italy. Therefore, the prospect must be faced that after Tobruk the further westward advance of the Army of the Nile may be seriously cramped. It is quite clear to me that supporting Greece must have priority after the western flank of Egypt has been made secure.

VI

14. The attitude of Yugoslavia may well be determined by the support we give to Greece and by their fortunes before Valona. While it is impossible to dogmatise, it would be more natural for the Germans to push on through Rumania to the Black Sea and to press down through their old ally Bulgaria to Salonika, rather than to force their way through Yugoslavia. Many troop movements and many more rumours would seem to point to this. Evidently there is a great building-up of German strength, and improvement of German communications towards the southeast. We must so act as to make it certain that if the enemy enters Bulgaria, Turkey will come into the war. If Yugoslavia stands firm and is not molested, if the Greeks take Valona and maintain themselves in Albania, if Turkey becomes an active ally, the attitude of Russia may be affected favourably. Anyone can see how obnoxious, and indeed deadly, a German advance to the Black Sea or through Bulgaria to the Aegean must be to Russia. Fear only will restrain Russia from war, and perhaps a strong Allied front in the Balkans, with the growing prestige of the British Army and sea and air power, may lessen that fear. But we must not count on this.

VII

15. Last, but dominating all our war effort, is the threat of invasion, the air warfare and its effects on production, and the grievous pressure upon our western ports and northwestern communications. One cannot doubt that Herr Hitler’s need to starve or crush Great Britain is stronger than it has ever been. A great campaign in the east of Europe, the defeat of Russia, the conquest of the Ukraine, and an advance from the Black Sea to the Caspian would none of them, separately nor all together, bring him victorious peace while the British air power grew ever stronger behind him and he had to hold down a whole continent of sullen, starving peoples. Therefore, the task of preventing invasion, of feeding the Island, and of speeding our armament production must in no way be compromised for the sake of any other objective whatsoever.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Hitler also had his New Year thoughts, and it is interesting to compare his letter to Mussolini written a week earlier with my appreciation. Coincidence is evident about the attitude of General Franco and Spain.

31 Dec. 40

Duce,

. . . In examining the general situation I reach the following conclusions:

1. The war in the West is in itself won. A final violent effort is still necessary to crush England. In order to determine the manner of accomplishing this, we must weigh the factors which separate England from a complete collapse after the intensification of our air and submarine offensives will have produced their effect.

In this battle, and after we have achieved the first stages of success, important German policies will be necessary for a final assault against the British Isles. The concentration of these forces—and particularly the enormous supply dumps—will require an anti-aircraft defence far superior to our original estimates.

2. France. The French Government have dismissed Laval. The official reasons which have been communicated to me are false. I do not doubt for a moment that the real reason is that General Weygand is making demands from North Africa which amount to blackmail, and that the Vichy Government is not in a position to react without risking the loss of North Africa. I also consider it probable that there exists at Vichy itself a whole clique which approves of Weygand’s policy, at least tacitly. I do not think that Pétain personally is disloyal. But one never knows. All this demands constant vigilance and a careful watching of events.

3. Spain. Profoundly troubled by the situation, which Franco thinks has deteriorated, Spain has refused to collaborate with the Axis Powers. I fear that Franco may be about to make the biggest mistake of his life. I think that his idea of receiving from the democracies raw materials and wheat as a sort of recompense for his abstention from the conflict is extremely naïve. The democracies will keep him in suspense until he has consumed the last grain of wheat, and then they will unloose the fight against him.

I deplore all this, for from our side we had completed our preparations for crossing the Spanish frontier on January 10, and to attack Gibraltar at the beginning of February. I think success would have been relatively rapid. The troops picked for this operation have been specially chosen and trained. The moment that the Straits of Gibraltar fell into our hands the danger of a French change-over in North and West Africa would be definitely eliminated.

I am, therefore, very saddened by this decision of Franco, which is so little in accord with the aid which we, you, Duce, and myself, gave him when he found himself in difficulties. I still have the hope, the slight hope, that he will realise at the last minute the catastrophic consequences of his conduct, and that even tardily he will find his way to this battle front, where our victory will decide his own destiny.

4. Bulgaria. Bulgaria equally is reluctant to associate herself with the Tripartite Pact and to adopt a clear attitude in her international relations. The growing pressure exercised by Soviet Russia is the cause of this. If the King had adhered immediately to our pact, no one would have dared to put such pressure on him. The worst is that this influence poisons public opinion, which is not insensible to Communist infection.

5. Without doubt it is Hungary and Rumania who in this conflict have adopted the most clear-cut attitude. General Antonescu has recognised that the future of his régime, and even of his person, depends on our victory. From this he has drawn clear and direct conclusions which make him go up in my esteem.

The attitude of the Hungarians is no less loyal. Since December 13, German troops have been continually in transit in the direction of Rumania. Hungary and Rumania have put at my disposition their railway network, so that German divisions can be rapidly moved to the points of pressure. I cannot say any more yet of the operations which we are planning or which may become necessary, for these plans are being drawn up at this very moment. The strength of our forces will in any case be such that any threat of lateral counter-manoeuvre will be excluded.

It is simply necessary, Duce, that you stabilise your front in Albania so as to contain at least a part of the Greek and Anglo-Greek forces.

6. Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia is prudently gaining time. If circumstances are favourable it may be that she will conclude a non-aggression pact with us, but it seems now that she will not adhere in any case to the Tripartite Pact. I do not count on trying to obtain anything more until our military successes have improved the psychological climate.

7. Russia. Given the danger of seeing internal conflicts develop in a certain number of Balkan countries, it is necessary to foresee the extreme consequences and to have ready machinery capable of avoiding them. I do not envisage any Russian initiative against us so long as Stalin is alive, and we ourselves are not victims of serious setbacks. I consider it essential, Duce, as a premise of a satisfactory conclusion of this war that there should be in existence a German army sufficiently strong to deal with any eventuality in the East. The greater the strength of this army appears, the less will be the probability that we shall have to employ it against an unforeseen danger. I should like to add to these general considerations that our present relations with the U.S.S.R are very good. We are on the eve of concluding a trade treaty which will satisfy both parties, and there is considerable hope that we can resolve in a reasonable manner the remaining points at issue between us.

In fact, the only two questions which still divide us are Finland and Constantinople. In regard to Finland, I do not foresee fundamental difficulties, because we do not regard Finland as belonging essentially to our sphere of influence, and the only thing that interests us is that a second war should not break out in this area.

In contrast to this, it is not in our interest to abandon Constantinople to Russia and Bulgaria to Bolshevism. But even here it should be possible, with good intentions, to reach a solution which will avoid the worst and facilitate what we want. It will be easier to find a solution if Moscow is clear that nothing obliges us to accept an arrangement which is not satisfactory to us.

8. Africa. Duce, I do not think that in this theatre any counter-attack on a large scale can be launched at the moment. The preparation of such an enterprise would take a minimum of three to five months. In the meantime we shall reach the season of the year in which the German armoured formations cannot successfully go into action. For unless they are equipped with special cooling devices even the armoured cars cannot be used in practice at such temperatures. In any case they cannot be used for tactical operations at long distances requiring a whole day.

The decisive solution in this sector seems to be to increase the number of anti-tank weapons, even if that means that in other sectors Italian formations must be deprived of these special guns.

Above all, as I stated recently, I believe nevertheless that we should try by all means to weaken the naval position of Great Britain in the Mediterranean with our air forces, because the employment of our ground troops in this sector cannot improve the situation.

For the rest, Duce, no decision of importance can be made before the month of March.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Eden was watching with close attention the darkening clouds in the East.

Foreign Minister to Prime Minister 6 Jan. 41

Salutations and congratulations upon the victory of Bardia! If I may debase a golden phrase, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”

The object of this minute, however, is to call attention to a less satisfactory sector of the international horizon, the Balkans. A mass of information has come to us over the last few days from divers sources, all of which tends to show that Germany is pressing forward her preparations in the Balkans with a view to an ultimate descent upon Greece. The date usually mentioned for such a descent is the beginning of March, but I feel confident that the Germans must be making every effort to antedate their move. Whether or not military operations are possible through Bulgaria against Salonika at this time of the year I am not qualified to say, but we may feel certain that Germany will seek to intervene by force to prevent complete Italian defeat in Albania. Already there are reports of increased enemy air forces operating against the Greeks, and General Papagos states that these are slowing down his advance. It would be in accordance with German methods to establish superiority in the air before making any move on land.

Politically the attitude of the Bulgarian Government causes me grave disquiet. They give the impression of men who have now little control of events. Their press is increasingly under German control, and is now little else but the mouthpiece of Axis propaganda. It is essential that our victories in North Africa should not result in any decrease of watchfulness on the part of the Turks and Yugoslavs, and we are doing what we can in the political sphere to ensure this. You may wish to have all these questions considered by the Defence Committee.

Alter reading this I issued the following minute:

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 6 Jan. 41

Pray see the attached from the Foreign Secretary. In spite of the evident need to pursue the Italians along the Libyan coast while the going is good, we shall have to consider the dispatch of four or five more squadrons of the Royal Air Force to Greece, and possibly the diversion of part of the 2d British Armoured Division.

I cannot look beyond Benghazi at the present time, and if Tobruk is taken there will be very few Italian troops, and by no means their best, east of Benghazi. . . .

Although perhaps by luck and daring we may collect comparatively easily most delectable prizes on the Libyan shore, the massive importance of the taking of Valona and keeping the Greek front in being must weigh hourly with us.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On January 8 the Defence Committee agreed that in view of the probability of an early German advance into Greece through Bulgaria it was of the first importance, from the political point of view, that we should do everything possible, by hook or by crook, to send at once to Greece the fullest support within our power. It was also agreed that a decision on the form and extent of our assistance to Greece should be taken within the next forty-eight hours. On this same day I received the following telegram from General Smuts. This was written quite independently of my minute two days earlier. I was fortified by his complete agreement with my view, endorsed as it was by the Chiefs of Staff and the Defence Committee.

General Smuts to Prime Minister 8 Jan. 41

Magnificent victories in the Middle East open up a field of speculation regarding our future course. Flowing tide will soon carry Wavell to Tobruk. Should he go farther? Tripoli is much too far. Even Benghazi is as far beyond the frontier as the frontier is from Alexandria. But there may be sound reasons, naval or other, for going so far as Benghazi. In the absence of good and special reasons Tobruk seems to me the terminus. Beyond it lie risks not necessary to detail. Leaving an adequate defensive force there in a fortified position, the rest of the army should be withdrawn to Egypt and the Middle East, where a strong army [of] manoeuvre will be required against possible attack through the Balkans.

2. I would however suggest that at such a stage liquidation of the Abyssinian situation should also be considered. Conquest of Abyssinia would mean a deadly blow at Mussolini’s prestige and at the Fascist plunder. Italy may possibly be forced out of the war and the whole of the Mediterranean position transformed. Germany would once more be isolated, with prospect of certain defeat.

3. For an early liquidation of Abyssinia there is also the argument that the Italian morale there must be particularly low now, and early finish of the campaign would release large forces for reinforcing our front in the Middle East. If part of Wavell’s Middle East army could be detailed shortly, reinforcing an attack on Abyssinia from the north, and a simultaneous attack is launched from Kenya, Italian resistance might rapidly disintegrate. I should think that an additional division in the north and another in Kenya would be sufficient if both attacks proceed simultaneously.

4. If such a plan for simultaneous attack is approved, I am prepared to supply the additional division for the south. Except for the deficiency in Bren guns, it is ready and could be moved as soon as shipping could be provided. Transport of such large forces both in the north and south must take some time, and if my suggestion is approved decision should be made as soon as possible. Attack from the south will rapidly push the fighting front away from Kenya, and so involve the scrapping of much of the plan now being worked on there. Plan of simultaneous attack from the north and south is required if unnecessary risk and a long campaign are to be avoided in so large an area as Eritrea and Abyssinia. For this [the] additional division in the north will be necessary, and probably sufficient. I hope it can be spared in spite of rumours of large German concentrations in Rumania and Hungary.

Question is whether Germany can afford to set the Balkans ablaze with Russia an incalculable factor and Turkey hostile. The Italian defeat in Africa and Greece, together with the failure of the German Air Force against Britain, have profoundly changed the position, and the German concentrations may only be intended to pacify the Italians, and to lure the British forces away from Britain, where the main attack is intended and has to be made. Whole situation is one for consideration of the General Staff, who have full facts before them. To me it would in the circumstances appear not to involve undue risk presently to detach one division with the necessary air force from the Middle East army in order to strengthen the Sudan force for this attack from the north. If the operation is brought off soon and expeditiously it might produce far-reaching results in Italy and the Middle East.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On January 10 the Chiefs of Staff warned the commanders in the Middle East that a German attack on Greece might start before the end of the month. It would come, they thought, through Bulgaria, and the probable line of advance would be down the Struma Valley against Salonika. Three divisions, supported by about two hundred dive-bombers, would be used, and three or four more divisions might be added after March. The Chiefs of Staff added that the decision of His Majesty’s Government to give the greatest possible help to the Greeks meant that once Tobruk was taken all other operations in the Middle East must have second place, and they authorised the dispatch therefrom of mechanised and specialist units and air forces up to the following limits: one squadron of infantry tanks, one regiment of cruiser tanks,[2] ten regiments of artillery, and five squadrons of aircraft.

The Commanders-in-Chief in Cairo thought that the German concentration in Rumania, of which we had warned them, was merely a war of nerves, designed to induce us to disperse our forces in the Middle East and stop our advance in Libya. Wavell trusted that the Chiefs of Staff would “consider most urgently whether enemy’s move is not bluff.”

On reading this reply, which was far astray from the facts, I issued the following:

Prime Minister to General Ismay or Colonel Hollis, for C.O.S. Committee 10 Jan. 41

Chiefs of Staff should meet tomorrow, Saturday morning, to consider the various telegrams from the Middle East H.Q., and they are authorised to dispatch the attached telegram which I have drafted to General Wavell and Air Marshal Longmore, unless they wish to make any communication to me upon it.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 10 Jan. 41

1. Our information contradicts idea that German concentration in Rumania is merely a “move in war of nerves” or a “bluff to cause dispersion of force.” We have a mass of detail indicating that a large-scale movement through Bulgaria towards the Greek frontier, aimed presumably at Salonika, will begin before the end of the month. Hostile forces to be employed in the aforesaid invasion would not be large, but of deadly quality. One, perhaps two, armoured divisions, with one motorised division, about 180 dive-bombers, and some parachute troops, seems to be all that could cross the Bulgarian-Greek frontier up till the middle of February.

2. But this force, if not stopped, may play exactly the same part in Greece as the German Army’s break-through at Sedan played in France. All Greek divisions in Albania will be fatally affected. These are the facts and implications which arise from our information, in which we have good reason to believe. But is this not also the very thing the Germans ought to do to harm us most? Destruction of Greece will eclipse victories you have gained in Libya, and may affect decisively Turkish attitude, especially if we have shown ourselves callous of fate of allies. You must now, therefore, conform your plans to larger interests at stake.

3. Nothing must hamper capture of Tobruk, but thereafter all operations in Libya are subordinated to aiding Greece, and all preparations must be made from the receipt of this telegram for the immediate succour of Greece up to the limits prescribed. These matters have been earnestly weighed by Defence Committee of Cabinet, and General Smuts has independently cabled almost identical views.

4. We expect and require prompt and active compliance with our decisions, for which we bear full responsibility. Your joint visit to Athens will enable you to contrive the best method of giving effect to the above decisions. It should not be delayed.

The Chiefs of Staff being in accord, this telegram was dispatched. It will be seen that our intentions at this time did not amount to the offer to Greece of an army, but only to special and technical units.

On these orders General Wavell and Air Chief Marshal Longmore flew to Athens for discussions with Generals Metaxas and Papagos. On January 15 they told us that the Greek Government were unwilling that any of our troops should land in Salonika until they could do so in sufficient numbers to act offensively. On receipt of this telegram the Chiefs of Staff telegraphed on January 17 that there could be no question of forcing our aid upon the Greeks. In consequence we modified our view of the immediate future, decided to push on to Benghazi, and meanwhile to build up the strongest strategic reserve possible in the Delta.

On January 21 the Chiefs of Staff accordingly proposed to Wavell that the capture of Benghazi was now of the highest importance. They considered that if it were made into a strongly fortified naval and air base the overland route might be dropped and both men and transport saved. They also urged him to seize the Dodecanese, and especially Rhodes, as soon as possible, in order to forestall the arrival of the German Air Force, with its consequent threat to our communications with Greece and Turkey, and to form a strategic reserve of four divisions to be ready to help these two countries.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 26 Jan. 41

The apparition of the German aircraft in the Central Mediterranean has forced me for the time being to abandon the hopes I had formed of opening and picketing the way through the Narrows, thus enabling troop convoys to pass regularly. Unless this situation can be rectified during the early months of this year, the lack of shipping and the distance round the Cape will undoubtedly affect the scale to which I had hoped to raise the Army of the Nile and the strength of your command. It pained me very much to find that the convoys sent at so much cost and risk round the Cape should so largely consist of rearward services and make so small an addition to our organised fighting units. I shall try my utmost to support you in every way, and I must ask in return that you convince me that every man in the Middle East is turned to the highest possible use and that the largest number of organised divisional or perhaps preferably brigade units are formed. The soldiers in the rearward services and establishments should play an effective part in internal security. . . .

The information reaching me from every quarter leaves me in no doubt that the Germans are now already establishing themselves upon the Bulgarian aerodromes and making every preparation for action against Greece. This infiltration may, indeed almost certainly will, attain decisive proportions before any clear-cut issue of invasion has been presented to the Turks, who will then be told to keep out or have Constantinople bombed. We must expect a series of very heavy, disastrous blows in the Balkans, and possibly a general submission there to German aims. The stronger the strategic reserve which you can build up in the Delta and the more advanced your preparations to transfer it to European shores, the better will be the chances of securing a favourable crystallisation.

I now replied to General Smuts:

Prime Minister to General Smuts 12 Jan. 41

Your message of the 8th arrived when we had reached certain definite conclusions after three or four days’ thought. I read it myself to Defence Committee, three Chiefs of Staff, three Service Ministers, Attlee, and Eden. All struck by complete coincidence of view. Only point of difference is we think northward advance from Kenya with large forces would involve long delay through transport shortage. Rebellion making good headway; Emperor enters soon. Advance Kassala-Agordat cuts tap-root. Force you mention already on the way. Pressure from Kenya to be maintained at utmost, but we cannot carry too many troops on this line. Please send division at earliest. Perhaps by time it approaches can land it in Red Sea. Better keep as fluid as possible in view of imponderabilia. Come though, please, now.

Fully agreed to pay no heavy price beyond Tobruk, where very likely 25,000 Italians in net, and to go on while the going is good so as to make as far-thrown a western flank for Egypt as possible, meanwhile shifting all useful elements to impending war front, Bulgarian-Greek frontier. Naturally Wavell and Company heart-set on chase, but Wavell is going Monday or Tuesday to Athens to concert reinforcements with Greeks. Cannot guarantee success; can only make what we think best arrangements. Weather, mountains, Danube crossing, fortified Greek-Bulgarian frontier, all helpful factors. Turkey, Yugoslavia, Russia, all perhaps favourably influenced by evidences of British support of Greece.

Whatever happens in Balkans Italian army in Abyssinia probably destroyable. If this should come off, everything useful from Kenya should go forward to Mediterranean. Hope Army of South African Union will be there for summer fighting. Very large reinforcements coming continually round Cape. Most grateful for all your help, and above all for your surefooted judgment, which marches with our laboriously reached conclusions.


See map, page 63.

The “infantry” tank was a heavy, slow, strongly armoured tank designed to accompany and support the infantry.

The “cruiser” tank was fast, better gunned than the infantry tank, but with lighter armour. It had a highly mobile fighting rôle.

The “light” tank was fast, with thin armour and only machine guns for armament. Used for reconnaissance.

2
The Widening War

More Intimate Contacts with President Roosevelt—Arrival of Harry Hopkins in London—A Precious Link with the President—Our Journey to Scapa—Mr. Wendell Willkie—“Sail On, O Ship of State!”—Politics and Strategy—Our Grim Alternatives—German Designs upon Rumania and Bulgaria—Soviet Concern—Ribbentrop’s Explanations—My Telegram of January 31 to President Inönü—Our Offer of Military Help to Turkey—Turkish Lack of Modern Equipment—Vital Need to Form a Balkan Front.

With the New Year more intimate contacts developed with President Roosevelt. I had already sent him the compliments of the season.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 1 Jan. 41

At this moment, when the New Year opens in storm, I feel it my duty on behalf of the British Government, and indeed of the whole British Empire, to tell you, Mr. President, how lively is our sense of gratitude and admiration for the memorable declaration which you made to the American people and to the lovers of freedom in all the continents on Sunday last.

We cannot tell what lies before us, but with this trumpet-call we march forward heartened and fortified, and with the confidence which you have expressed that in the end all will be well for the English-speaking peoples and those who share their ideals.

On January 10 a gentleman arrived to see me at Downing Street with the highest credentials. Telegrams had been received from Washington stating that he was the closest confidant and personal agent of the President. I therefore arranged that he should be met by Mr. Brendan Bracken on his arrival at Poole Airport, and that we should lunch together alone the next day. Thus I met Harry Hopkins, that extraordinary man, who played, and was to play, a sometimes decisive part in the whole movement of the war. His was a soul that flamed out of a frail and failing body. He was a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour. He had also a gift of sardonic humour. I always enjoyed his company, especially when things went ill. He could also be very disagreeable and say hard and sour things. My experiences were teaching me to be able to do this too, if need be.

At our first meeting we were about three hours together, and I soon comprehended his personal dynamism and the outstanding importance of his mission. This was the height of the London bombing, and many local worries imposed themselves upon us. But it was evident to me that here was an envoy from the President of supreme importance to our life. With gleaming eye and quiet, constrained passion he said:

“The President is determined that we shall win the war together. Make no mistake about it.

“He has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through, no matter what happens to him—there is nothing that he will not do so far as he has human power.”

Everyone who came in contact with Harry Hopkins in the long struggle will confirm what I have set down about his remarkable personality. And from this hour began a friendship between us which sailed serenely over all earthquakes and convulsions. He was the most faithful and perfect channel of communication between the President and me. But far more than that, he was for several years the main prop and animator of Roosevelt himself. Together these two men, the one a subordinate without public office, the other commanding the mighty Republic, were capable of taking decisions of the highest consequence over the whole area of the English-speaking world. Hopkins was, of course, jealous about his personal influence with his Chief and did not encourage American competitors. He therefore in some ways bore out the poet Gray’s line, “A favourite has no friend.” But this was not my affair. There he sat, slim, frail, ill, but absolutely glowing with refined comprehension of the Cause. It was to be the defeat, ruin, and slaughter of Hitler, to the exclusion of all other purposes, loyalties, or aims. In the history of the United States few brighter flames have burned.

Harry Hopkins always went to the root of the matter. I have been present at several great conferences, where twenty or more of the most important executive personages were gathered together. When the discussion flagged and all seemed baffled, it was on these occasions he would rap out the deadly question, “Surely, Mr. President, here is the point we have got to settle. Are we going to face it or not?” Faced it always was, and, being faced, was conquered. He was a true leader of men, and alike in ardour and in wisdom in times of crisis he has rarely been excelled. His love for the causes of the weak and poor was matched by his passion against tyranny, especially when tyranny was, for the time, triumphant.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In order to clothe the arrival of our new Ambassador, Lord Halifax, in the United States with every circumstance of importance, I arranged that our newest and strongest battleship, the King George V, with a proper escort of destroyers, should carry him and his wife across the ocean. I accompanied them north in my train and saw them off from Scapa Flow. I took advantage of the occasion to visit the Fleet, which I had not seen since I left the Admiralty. This fitted in with my plans for making much closer acquaintance with Harry Hopkins. We went together to the Fleet, inspecting ships and defences. My wife came with me, and excelled all others in nimbleness of skipping and scrambling from one destroyer to another. Hopkins nearly fell into the sea. I returned in my train to Glasgow. I was welcomed by very large crowds, saw all the local authorities, walked through a number of workshops, inspected the Defence, Fire, and Air Raid services, and made a number of impromptu speeches. We then went on to Tyneside, where the same thing happened. All the time I got to know this man—and to know about his Chief. Hopkins was about ten days with me, and in this time he put me into harmonious mental relations with the newly rechosen Master of the great Republic. Later on I took him to Dover to see our heavy batteries glaring across the Channel at the coast of France—for us Germany. He seemed to be keenly interested in all he saw.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 13 Jan. 41

Hopkins and I spent the week-end together, and he is coming along with me on a short tour of Fleet bases, so we shall have plenty of time to cover all points at leisure. I am most grateful to you for sending so remarkable an envoy, who enjoys so high a measure of your intimacy and confidence.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 19 Jan. 41

You probably know that Halifax will arrive at Annapolis in our new battleship H.M.S. King George V. She cannot of course stay more than twenty-four hours. I don’t know whether you would be interested to see her. We should be proud to show her to you, or to any of your high naval authorities, if you could arrange that. She is due at entrance of Chesapeake Bay at 7 A.M. on January 24. If you will communicate to me any suggestions or wishes we will do our best to meet them.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Later on in the same month there arrived in England Mr. Wendell Willkie, the President’s opponent in the recent election. He too brought recommendations of the highest character from the President, and as he was the accepted leader of the Republican Party every arrangement was made by us, with the assistance of the enemy, to let him see all he desired of London at bay. He also came to Chequers for a night, and I had a very long talk with this most able and forceful man, whose life was cut short so unexpectedly by illness three years later.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 28 Jan. 41

I received Willkie yesterday, and was deeply moved by the verse of Longfellow’s which you had quoted. I shall have it framed as a souvenir of these tremendous days, and as a mark of our friendly relations, which have been built up telegraphically but also telepathically under all the stresses.

All my information shows that the Germans are persevering in their preparations to invade this country, and we are getting ready to give them a reception worthy of the occasion. On the other hand, the news from the East shows that a large army and air force are being established in Rumania, and that the advance parties of the German Air Force have already to the extent of several thousands infiltrated themselves into Bulgarian aerodromes, with the full connivance of the Bulgarian Government. It would be natural for Hitler to make a strong threat against the British Isles in order to occupy us here and cover his Eastern designs. The forces at his disposal are, however, so large that he could carry out both offensives at the same time. You may be sure we shall do our best in both quarters.

I am most grateful to you for your splendid reception of Halifax and for all you are doing to secure us timely help. It has been a great pleasure to me to make friends with Hopkins, who has been a great comfort and encouragement to everyone he has met. One can easily see why he is so close to you. Colonel Donovan also has done fine work in the Middle East.

All my respects and kindest regards. I hope you are already better.

Here is the President’s letter:

The White House

Washington    

January 20, 1941

Dear Churchill,

Wendell Willkie will give you this. He is truly helping to keep politics out over here.

I think this verse applies to your people as it does to us:

  “Sail on, O ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”

As ever yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

These splendid lines from Longfellow’s “Building of the Ship” were an inspiration.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is not possible in a major war to divide military from political affairs. At the summit they are one. It is natural that soldiers should regard the military aspect as single and supreme, and even that they should speak of political considerations with a certain amount of disdain. Also the word “politics” has been confused, and even tarnished, by its association with party politics. Thus much of the literature of this tragic century is biased by the idea that in war only military considerations count and that soldiers are obstructed in their clear, professional view by the intrusion of politicians, who for personal or party advantage tilt the dread balances of battle. The extremely close, intimate contacts which prevailed between the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff, and myself, and the total absence of party feeling in Britain at this time, reduced these discords to a minimum.

While the war with the Italians in Northeast Africa continued to prosper, and while the Greeks in Albania had good hopes of capturing Valona, all the news we got about the German movements and intentions proved every day more plainly that Hitler was about to intervene upon a large scale in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. From the beginning of January I had apprehended the arrival of German air power in Sicily, with the consequent menace to Malta and to all our hopes of resuming traffic through the Mediterranean. I also feared they would set up an air station on Pantelleria, with all the facilities this would give for a movement of German troops, presumably armoured, into Tripoli. They did not, as it turned out, think it necessary to occupy Pantelleria, but we could not doubt that their plans were progressing to establish a north-and-south passage through Italy to Africa, and at the same time and by the same measures to interrupt all our movements east and west in the Mediterranean.

On top of this now came the menace to the Balkan States, including Greece and Turkey, of being enticed or coerced into the Hitler empire, or conquered if they did not comply. Was the same hideous process we had witnessed, in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France to be reproduced in Southeast Europe? Were all the Balkan States, including heroic Greece, to be subjugated one by one, and Turkey, isolated, to be compelled to open for the German legions the road to Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia? Was there no chance of creating a Balkan unity and Balkan front which would make this new German aggression too costly to be worth while? Might not the fact of Balkan resistance to Germany produce serious and helpful reactions in Soviet Russia? Certainly this was a sphere in which the Balkan States were affected by interest, and even, so far as they allowed it to influence their calculations, by sentiment. Could we from our strained but growing resources find the extra outside contribution which might galvanise all these states, whose interests were largely the same, into action for a common cause? Or ought we, on the other hand, to mind our own business and make a success of our campaign in Northeast Africa, let Greece, the Balkans, and it might be Turkey and all else in the Middle East, slide to ruin?

There would have been much mental relief in such a clear-cut decision; and it has found its adherents in the books of various officers occupying subordinate positions who have given us their views. These writers certainly have the advantage of pointing to the misfortunes which we sustained, but they had not the knowledge to consider sufficiently what the results of the opposite policy might have been. If Hitler had been able, with hardly any fighting, to bring Greece to her knees and the whole of the Balkans into his system and then force Turkey to allow the passage of his armies to the south and east, might he not have made terms with the Soviets upon the conquest and partition of these vast regions and postponed his ultimate, inevitable quarrel with them to a later part of his programme? Or, as is more likely, would he not have been able to attack Russia in greater strength at an earlier date? The main question which the ensuing chapters will probe and expose is whether His Majesty’s Government by their action influenced in a decisive, or even in an appreciable manner, Hitler’s movements in Southeast Europe, and moreover whether that action did not produce consequences first upon the behaviour of Russia and next upon her fortunes.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had, as is set forth in the previous volume, already given modest aid to Greece from the time when she was attacked by Italy, and four British air squadrons were operating with some success from Greek airfields. It is at this point worth while seeing what was actually in progress on the German side.

On January 7 Ribbentrop informed the heads of the German mission in Moscow:

Since early in January the movement of strong German troop formations to Rumania has been going on via Hungary. The movement of troops is being carried on with full concurrence of the Hungarian and Rumanian Governments. For the time being the troops will be quartered in the south of Rumania. The troop movements result from the fact that the necessity must be seriously contemplated of ejecting the English completely from the whole of Greece. German troops have been provided in such strength that they can easily cope with any military task in the Danubian region and with any eventualities from any side. The military measures being carried out by us are aimed exclusively against the British forces getting a foothold in Greece, and not against any Balkan country, including Turkey.

As for instructions for conversations, in general a reserved attitude is to be taken. In case of urgent official inquiries it is to be pointed out, depending on circumstances, that such inquiries are to be made in Berlin. In so far as conversation cannot be avoided an opinion in general terms is to be given. In so doing our having reliable reports regarding larger and larger reinforcements of English troops of all kinds in Greece may be given as a plausible reason and the Salonika operation of the last World War may be recalled.[1] Concerning the strength of the German troops, maintenance of the present vagueness is desired for the time being. Later on we shall presumably be interested in making known the full strength of the troops, and, beyond that, in stimulating exaggeration. The cue for that will be given at the proper time.

Also the same day to the German Ambassador in Japan:

I request that the Japanese Foreign Minister be personally and confidentially informed that at present rather strong German troop contingents are being transferred to Rumania. The movements are carried on with the full concurrence of the Hungarian and the Rumanian Governments. These troop shipments are being carried out as a security measure for an intervention that may become necessary in Greece if English military forces gain a foothold and necessitate such intervention there.

Schulenburg, the German Ambassador at Moscow, replied on January 8:

Numerous rumours are already circulating here concerning the sending of German troops to Rumania; the number of men in the movement is even estimated at two hundred thousand. Government circles here, the radio, and the Soviet press have not yet taken up the matter.

The Soviet Government will take the strongest interest in these troop movements, and will wish to know what purposes these troop concentrations serve, and particularly to what degree Bulgaria and Turkey [Straits] might possibly be affected by them. Please give me appropriate instructions.

The German Foreign Minister answered the same day.

Ribbentrop to Schulenburg 8 Jan. 41

I request you not to broach the question of increased German troop movements to Rumania with the Soviet Government.

Should you be approached regarding the matter by Herr Molotov or some other influential person in the Soviet Government, please say that according to your information the sending of German troops was exclusively a matter of precautionary military measures against England. The English already had military contingents on Greek soil, and it was to be expected that they would further increase those contingents in the immediate future. Germany would not under any circumstances tolerate England’s gaining a foothold on Greek soil. Please do not go into greater detail until further notice.

      *      *      *      *      *      

By the middle of January the Russians were deeply perturbed, and raised the issue in Berlin. On January 17 the Russian Ambassador called at the German Foreign Office and communicated the substance of the following memorandum:

According to all reports, German troops in great numbers are in Rumania, and are now prepared to march into Bulgaria, having as their goal the occupation of Bulgaria, Greece, and the Straits. There can be no doubt that England will try to forestall the operations of German troops, to occupy the Straits, to start military operations against Bulgaria in alliance with Turkey, and turn Bulgaria into a theatre of operations. The Soviet Government has stated repeatedly to the German Government that it considers the territory of Bulgaria and of the Straits as the security zone of the U.S.S.R., and that it cannot be indifferent to events which threaten the security interests of the U.S.S.R. In view of all this the Soviet Government regards it as its duty to give warning that it will consider the appearance of any foreign armed forces on the territory of Bulgaria and of the Straits as a violation of the security interests of the U.S.S.R.

On January 21 the Russian Ambassador was called to the German Foreign Office and told that the Reich Government had not received any reports that England contemplated occupying the Straits. Nor did they believe that Turkey would permit English military forces to enter her territory. However, they were informed that England intended and was about to gain a foothold on Greek territory. It was their unalterable intention not to permit English military forces to establish themselves on Greek territory, which would mean a threat to vital interests of Germany in the Balkans. Certain troop concentrations in the Balkans, which had the sole purpose of preventing the British from gaining any foothold on Greek soil, were therefore in progress. The Reich Government believed that this action was also serving Soviet interests, which would be opposed to England’s gaining a foothold in these regions.[2]

There for the moment the matter rested.

      *      *      *      *      *      

A few days later I addressed myself to the President of Turkey.

Prime Minister to President Inönü, Angora 31 Jan. 41

The rapidly growing danger to Turkey and to British interests leads me, Mr. President, to address you directly. I have sure information that the Germans are already establishing themselves upon Bulgarian aerodromes. Hutments are being prepared, and advance servicing personnel numbering several thousands have arrived. This has been done with the full connivance of the Royal Bulgarian Air Force and undoubtedly of the Bulgarian Government. Very soon, perhaps in a few weeks, the movement into Bulgaria of German troops and air squadrons will begin. The air squadrons will only have to fly from their stations in Rumania to the bases they are preparing in Bulgaria, and will immediately be able to come into action. Then, unless you promise the Germans not to march against Bulgaria or against their troops passing through Bulgaria, they will bomb Istanbul and Adrianople the same night, and also dive-bomb your troops in Thrace. No doubt they would hope either to reach Salonika unopposed or to compel the Greeks to make peace with Italy and yield them air bases in Greece and in the islands, thus endangering the communications between our armies in Egypt and the Turkish Army. They would deny the use of Smyrna to our Navy, they would completely control the exits from the Dardanelles, and thus complete the encirclement of Turkey in Europe on three sides. This would also facilitate their attacks upon Alexandria and Egypt generally.

Of course I know, Mr. President, that, confronted with these mortal dangers, Turkey would declare war. But why is it necessary to hand over to the enemy the enormous advantage of being able to secure the mastery of the Bulgarian airfields without a shot being fired or a word being said?

Germany is in fact preparing to repeat on the frontiers of Turkey the same manoeuvre as she accomplished on the frontiers of France in April and May, 1940. But in this case, instead of hesitating and overawed neutrals like Denmark, Holland, and Belgium, she has in Bulgaria a confederate and former ally who has beyond all doubt abandoned the will, and never had the power, to resist. All this, I repeat, may fall upon us in February or in March, and all will be open to the Germans even without moving any large masses of troops from the moment when the Bulgarian airfields have been fitted to receive the German Air Force and are occupied by the advanced aircraft personnel and ground staff. Do we propose to sit still with folded hands and watch the steady preparation of this deadly stroke?

It seems to me that we should be held gravely blameworthy by our respective nations if we were to fail in ordinary prudence and foresight. Even now we have waited too long.

I therefore propose to you, Mr. President, that you and I should repeat in defence of Turkey the same kind of measures which the Germans are taking on the Bulgarian airfields. My Government wish to send to Turkey at the earliest moment when accommodation can be provided at least ten squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft, apart from the five now in action in Greece. If Greece should surrender or be beaten down, we will transfer these other five air squadrons to Turkish airfields, and, further, we will fight the air war from Turkish bases with ever-increasing air forces of the highest quality. Thus we shall help to give the Turkish Army the additional air support which they need to sustain their famous military qualities.

But, more than that, we shall place Turkey in a position, once our squadrons are on the Turkish aerodromes, to threaten to bombard the Rumanian oilfields if any German advance is made into Bulgaria, or if the air personnel already in Bulgaria is not speedily withdrawn. We will undertake not to take such action from Turkish airfields except by agreement with you.

There is more to come. The attitude of Russia is uncertain, and it is our hope it may remain loyal and friendly. Nothing will more restrain Russia from aiding Germany, even indirectly, than the presence of powerful British bombing forces which could [from Turkey] attack the oilfields of Baku. Russia is dependent upon the supply from these oilfields for a very large part of her agriculture, and far-reaching famine would follow their destruction.

Thus Turkey, once defended by air power, would have the means perhaps of deterring Germany from overrunning Bulgaria and quelling Greece, and of counterbalancing the Russian fear of the German armies. If this decisive position is to be saved there is not an hour to lose, and on receipt of your assent His Majesty’s Government will immediately give the necessary orders for our advanced personnel, either in uniform or in plain clothes, as you prefer, to start at once for Turkey.

Further, we are prepared to send you a hundred A.A. guns, which are now either in or on their way to Egypt. These would be complete with personnel, either in uniform, if you so desire, or in the guise of instructors.

All other measures which have been discussed with Marshal Chakmak, and also the naval measures, will at the right moment be brought into operation.

The victories we have gained in Libya will enable us to give a far more direct and immediate measure of aid to Turkey in the event of our two countries becoming allied in war, and we will make common cause with you and use our growing strength to aid your valiant armies.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I also sent the following to the Chiefs of Staff:

Prime Ministry to C.O.S. Committee 31 Jan. 41

We must not overlook the decision we conveyed to General Wavell, that once Tobruk was taken the Greek-Turkish situation must have priority. The advance to Benghazi is most desirable, and has been emphasised in later telegrams. Nevertheless, only forces which do not conflict with European needs can be employed. As the forecast is now that Benghazi cannot be captured till the end of February, it is necessary that this should be impressed upon General Wavell. For instance, the air support promised to Turkey cannot be delayed till then. It may, however, be possible to reconcile both objectives.

The Chiefs of Staff accordingly telegraphed to the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East inviting their attention to my message to President Inönü, and adding the following:

Steps to counter German infiltration into Bulgaria must now have the highest priority. Advantage of going on to Benghazi and thus securing Egypt and the fleet base in the Eastern Mediterranean are fully realised, provided that it can be done without prejudice to European interests. Its capture as soon as possible is, therefore, of the highest importance. Your wish to take “Mandibles” [Rhodes] is welcomed by us, and we have sent the three Glen ships to you at the cost of paralysing for some months similar operations in the Western Mediterranean. We did this in hope of preventing airborne German air occupation of “Mandibles,” which would hamper our communications with Turkey. We have asked you to speed this operation as much as possible.

In conclusion we must repeat that the Graeco-Turkish situation predominates and should have first place in your thoughts.

I understood at this time how perilous the position of Turkey had become. It was obviously impossible to consider the treaty we had made with her before the war as binding upon her in the altered circumstances. When war had broken out in 1939, the Turks had mobilised their strong, good, brave army. But this was all based upon the conditions of the First Great War. The Turkish infantry were as fine as they had ever been, and their field artillery was presentable. But they had none of the modern weapons which from May, 1940, were proved to be decisive. Aviation was lamentably weak and primitive. They had no tanks or armoured cars, and neither the workshops to make and maintain them nor the trained men and staffs to handle them. They had hardly any anti-aircraft or anti-tank artillery. Their signal service was rudimentary. Radar was unknown to them. Nor did their warlike qualities include any aptitude for all these modern developments.

On the other hand, Bulgaria had been largely armed by Germany out of the immense quantities of equipment of all kinds taken from France and the Low Countries as a result of the battles of 1940. The Germans had, therefore, plenty of modern weapons with which to arm their allies. We, for our part, having lost so much at Dunkirk, having to build up our home army against invasion and to face all the continuous pressure of the Blitz on our cities as well as maintain the war in the Middle East, could only give very sparingly and at the cost of other clamant needs. The Turkish army in Thrace was, under these conditions, at a serious and almost hopeless disadvantage compared with the Bulgarians. If to this danger were added even moderate detachments of German air and armour, the weight upon Turkey might well prove insupportable.

The only policy or hope throughout this phase of the ever-extending war was in an organised plan of uniting the forces of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey; and this we were now trying to do. Our aid to Greece had been limited in the first place to the few air squadrons which had been sent from Egypt when Mussolini first attacked her. The next stage had been the offer of the technical units set out in the Chiefs of Staff telegram, which had been declined by the Greeks on grounds which were by no means unreasonable. We now reach the third phase, where it seemed possible to make a safe and secure desert flank at and beyond Benghazi and concentrate the largest army of manoeuvre or strategic reserve possible in Egypt.

In this condition we reached the month of February.


My italics.—Author.

Nazi-Soviet Relations, pp. 268, 271-72.

3
Blitz and Anti-Blitz, 1941: Hess

The Blitz Continues—Need to Estimate the German Air Strength—Differences Among the Departments—Mr. Justice Singleton’s Inquiry, December, 1940—His Report, January 21, 1941—German Preparations to Invade Russia—And to Bomb and Starve Us Out—Three Phases in the Blitz—Our Smoke-Screens and Decoy Fires—The Luftwaffe Turns to the Ports, March and April, 1941—My Visit to Bristol, April 12—We Continue to Twist the Enemy’s Beams—Incendiary Attack on London, May 10—Fires out of Control—The House of Commons Is Destroyed—The German Air Fleet Moves to the East—We Investigate German Radar Defence—The Battle of the Beams Postponed—A Week-End at Ditchley—Unexpected and Fantastic News—Rudolf Hess Lands in Scotland—A Guess at His Motives—The German Explanation—Lord Simon’s Interview with Him, June 10—A Vision of Hitler’s Mind—My Directions About His Treatment—I Tell President Roosevelt—Stalin’s Curiosity in 1944.

As the end of the year 1940 approached and the Blitz continued to assail us, it seemed most necessary to peer into the future and attempt to measure our ordeal. How much longer and with what increase of severity must we expect the night onslaughts on our factories and people to continue? First we must form the most trustworthy estimate of the German air strength, actual and relative, and of their programme for 1941.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air and C.A.S. 2 Dec. 40

One cannot doubt that the Germans will be making tremendous efforts to increase their air force this winter, and that a far more serious attempt must be expected against us in the spring. It is most necessary to form the best opinion possible about the potential scale of the German increase (a) by March 31, (b) by June 30—these dates not being arbitrary if other dates are more convenient and equally illustrative. It is important not to exaggerate the German capacity, and therefore the limiting factors—for example, engines, special raw materials, pilot-training, effect of our bombing—are of special interest. On the other hand, full weight should be given to the German use of factories in the captive countries.

I should be glad if your Intelligence Branch would let me have a paper (not more than two or three sheets) upon this vital matter, and it would be convenient if they could keep in touch with Professor Lindemann while they are preparing this, so that we do not have to argue about the various bases of calculations adopted. While I want the report to be short, I want to be cognisant of the data and reasoning processes on which it has been built up. I am not sure to what extent the Ministry of Aircraft Production comes into this. It would be a comfort if an agreed view could be presented by the departments. Let me know how you will set about this. One week is all that can be spared.

      *      *      *      *      *      

With the aid of Professor Lindemann and his Statistical Branch I began to explore this obscure domain. We probed the Air Ministry statements. We confronted them with the quite separate figures and widely differing judgments of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and of the Air Ministry Intelligence, and with the views of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. I let the argument rip healthily between the departments. This is a very good way of finding out the truth. There was a great deal of friendship and accord between the less senior officers of these three departments, and I was very glad to convene them all together one afternoon at Chequers. Both sides produced their facts and figures, and each was tormented by doubt. The evidence was so conflicting, and all the witnesses so earnestly desirous of finding the truth, that I felt a judicial mind, a keen, clear, unhampered brain, should sift and weigh. Accordingly I persuaded all concerned to give their best to a factual inquiry by an eminent judge.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air and C.A.S. 9 Dec. 40

I spent four hours on Saturday with the officers of the Air Ministry Intelligence Branch and those of the Ministry of Economic Warfare. I have not been able to reach a conclusion as to which are right. Probably the truth lies midway between them. The subject is of capital importance to the whole future picture we make to ourselves of the war. It would also influence the use we make of our forces in the meanwhile. I am most anxious that the two branches mentioned, whose officers are in the most friendly relations, should sit together in an inquiry to sift the evidence and ascertain the facts. There should be an impartial chairman accustomed to weigh evidence and to cross-examine, and I wondered whether for this purpose Mr. Justice Singleton, who had war experience as a gunner and recently conducted an inquiry for me into bomb-sights, would not be able to guide the discussions and throw a valuable light on the obscurities of this all-important scene. He would, of course, have to be given all the available information. Before taking any decision I should like to have your views. Meanwhile I have set out a statement of what I learned in our discussion on Saturday, as something for the departments to bite on. Every fact in it is open to question, modification, or offset. I have sent a copy to each branch, and it would form the staple of the investigations I contemplate.

I composed this statement myself, and it took a good many hours’ concentration. As it is somewhat technical, I print it in Appendix D where it should be read by those who wish to probe the question at issue.[1]

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air 13 Dec. 40

Out of the estimated monthly German aircraft production of 1800 machines, the Intelligence Branch of the Air Ministry consider that only 400 are provided for training. This seems very few, considering that the Air Ministry’s view is that the Germans are maintaining about two and a half times our strength in the front lines. Alternatively, if the Air Ministry’s requirement of trainers is warranted, and it our trainers are not profusely and unthriftily used, and [if] large numbers [are not] kept about the aerodromes in an unserviceable state, the German front-line strength cannot well be maintained on such a small proportion of trainers.

Mr. Justice Singleton is coming to lunch with me on Sunday, and I will set him to work on the inquiry on which we are agreed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Justice Singleton got on famously with the airmen and other experts. On January 21 he presented me with his final report. It was most difficult to compare British and German air strengths in actual figures. Each side divided its air force into authorised establishments, total aircraft, “operationally fit,” and “front line.” These categories were different, arbitrary, and variable. Moreover, the Royal Air Force was divided between home and overseas, while at this moment the Germans were all at home. I do not therefore baffle the reader with disputable statistics. The Judge concluded that the strength of the German Air Force, compared with the British, might be taken as roughly four to three. Although the Air Ministry (Intelligence) still thought the Germans had more and the Ministry of Economic Warfare that they had less, there was a considerable measure of agreement, and the Singleton estimate became our working basis. I was encouraged by his report, which showed that we were steadily overhauling the Germans in the air. At the beginning of the Battle of France they were at least more than double. Now they were reported as only four to three. After the war we learnt that it was actually nearer three to two. This was a great improvement. We had not yet reached our full rate of expansion, nor had we received the great wave of American help which was on the way.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the end of 1940, Hitler had realised that Britain could not be destroyed by direct air assault. The Battle of Britain had been his first defeat, and the malignant bombing of the cities had not cowed the nation or its Government. The preparations to invade Russia in the early summer of 1941 absorbed much of the German air power. The many very severe raids which we suffered till the end of May no longer represented the full strength of the enemy. To us they were most grievous, but they were no longer the prime thought either of the German High Command or of the Fuehrer. To Hitler the continuance of the air attack on Great Britain was a necessary and convenient cover to the concentration against Russia. His optimistic time-table assumed that the Soviets, like the French, would be overthrown in a six-weeks campaign and that all German forces would then be free for the final overthrow of Britain in the autumn of 1941. Meanwhile the obstinate nation was to be worn down, first, by the combination of the U-boat blockade sustained by the long-range air, and secondly, by air attacks upon her cities and especially her ports. For the German Army “Sea Lion” (against Britain) was now replaced by “Barbarossa” (against Russia). The German Navy was instructed to concentrate on our Atlantic traffic and the German Air Force on our harbours and their approaches. This was a far more deadly plan than the indiscriminate bombing of London and the civil population, and it was fortunate for us that it was not pursued with all available forces and greater persistence.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Viewed in retrospect, the Blitz of 1941 falls into three phases. In the first, during January and February, the enemy were frustrated by bad weather, and, apart from attacks on Cardiff, Portsmouth, and Swansea, our Civil Defence Services gained a well-deserved breathing-space, by which they did not fail to profit. A system of Port Emergency Committees, representing all the main interests concerned in port organisation, had been set up long before the war by the Committee of Imperial Defence. Sharpened by the hard experience of the winter of 1940, and aided by the readiness of the Ministry of War Transport to decentralise, these bodies were now able to conduct the struggle very much more efficiently themselves, and could rely with confidence on outside assistance through the regional commissioners. Nor were more active methods of defence neglected. Smoke-screens, highly unpopular with the local inhabitants whose homes they contaminated, were prepared, and later proved their worth in protecting Midland industrial centres. Decoy fires, or “starfish,” were made ready for the distraction of enemy bombers, and the whole defensive plan was knit together into one coherent system.

When better weather came, the Blitz started in earnest over again. The second phase, sometimes called “the Luftwaffe’s tour of the ports,” began in early March. It consisted of single or double attacks, which, though serious, failed to cripple our harbours. On the eighth and for three succeeding nights Portsmouth was heavily attacked and the dockyards damaged. Manchester and Salford were attacked on the eleventh. On the ensuing nights it was the turn of Merseyside. On the thirteenth and fourteenth the Luftwaffe fell for the first time heavily on the Clyde, killing or injuring over two thousand people and putting the shipyards out of action, some till June and others till November. At John Brown’s Shipbuilding Works large fires caused stoppages, and normal production was only restored in April. This firm had been affected since March 6 by an extensive strike. Most of the strikers had been bombed out of their homes, but the raid sufferings and peril brought them back to eager duty. Merseyside, the Midlands, Essex, and London all had another dose before the month was out.

The heaviest blows did not fall till April. On the eighth the concentration was on Coventry, and in the rest of the country the sharpest impact was at Portsmouth. London had heavy attacks on the sixteenth and seventeenth; over twenty-three hundred people were killed, more than three thousand seriously injured. In this third and final phase the enemy went on trying to destroy most of our principal ports by attacks prolonged in some cases over a whole week. Plymouth was attacked from April 21 to 29, and though decoy fires helped to save the dockyard, this was only at the expense of the city. The climax came on May 1, when Liverpool and the Mersey were attacked for seven successive nights. Seventy-six thousand people were made homeless and three thousand killed or injured. Sixty-nine out of a hundred and forty-four berths were put out of action, and the tonnage landed for a while was cut to a quarter. Had the enemy persisted, the Battle of the Atlantic would have been even more closely run than it was. But as usual he turned away. For two nights he battered Hull heavily, where forty thousand people had their dwellings destroyed, the food stores were wrecked, and the marine engineering works were crippled for nearly two months. In that month he struck again at Belfast, already twice raided.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On April 12, as Chancellor of Bristol University, I conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on Mr. Winant, the United States Ambassador, on Dr. J. B. Conant, President of Harvard University, and on Mr. Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia. My wife came with me. Our train lay for the night in a siding in the open country, but we could see and hear the heavy air raid on the city of Bristol. We pulled into the station early in the morning and went straight to the hotel. There I met a number of dignitaries, and almost immediately started on a tour of the most stricken parts of the town. The Air Raid Services were feverishly at work and people were still being dug out of the ruins. The ordeal had been severe, but the spirit of the citizens was invincible. At one of the rest centres a number of old women whose homes had been wrecked and who still seemed stunned were sitting there, the picture of dejection. When I came in they wiped away their tears and cheered wildly for King and Country.

The ceremony went forward as planned. I spent an hour driving round the worst hit places, and then repaired to the University. Everything proceeded with strict formality, but the large building next to the University was still burning and the bright academic robes of some of the principal actors did not conceal the soaked and grimy uniforms of their night’s toil. The whole scene was moving.

Many of those here today [I said] have been all night at their posts, and all have been under the fire of the enemy in heavy and protracted bombardment. That you should gather in this way is a mark of fortitude and phlegm, of a courage and detachment from material affairs, worthy of all that we have learned to believe of ancient Rome or of modern Greece.

I go about the country whenever I can escape for a few hours or for a day from my duty at headquarters, and I see the damage done by the enemy attacks; but I also see, side by side with the devastation and amid the ruins, quiet, confident, bright, and smiling eyes, beaming with a consciousness of being associated with a cause far higher and wider than any human or personal issue. I see the spirit of an unconquerable people. I see a spirit bred in freedom, nursed in a tradition which has come down to us through the centuries, and which will surely at this moment, this turning-point in the history of the world, enable us to bear our part in such a way that none of our race who come after us will have any reason to cast reproach upon their sires.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile the Wizard War was unfolding in its own strange way. The forging of its first new weapons has already found mention in an earlier volume.[2] The plans for the air defence of Great Britain had, as early as the autumn of 1937, been rewritten round the assumption that the promises made by our scientists for the still unproven radar would be kept. The first five stations of the coastal radar chain, the five guarding the Thames Estuary, had watched Mr. Chamberlain’s aeroplane go and come on its peace missions of September, 1938. Eighteen stations from Dundee to Portsmouth began in the spring of 1939 a twenty-four-hour watch, not to be interrupted in the next six years. These stations were the watchdogs of the air-raid warning service; they spared us alike grave losses in war production and intolerable burdens on our civil defence workers. They spared the anti-aircraft gun crews needless and tiring hours at action stations. They saved us from the exhaustion of man and machine that would have doomed our matchless but slender fighter force had it been compelled to maintain standing patrols. They could not give the accuracy required for night-time interception, but they enabled the day fighters to await their prey at the most favourable altitudes and aspects for attack. In their decisive contribution to victory in the day battles they were supported and supplemented by other stations of new technical design,[3] which gave warning—all too brief, but invaluable—of the approach of the low fliers.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During 1941 we went on deflecting the German beams despite their various improvements. An example may be cited. On the night of May 8 the Germans planned two attacks, the first upon the Rolls-Royce Works at Derby and the second on Nottingham. Through our interference with their beams, which were set upon Derby, they bombed instead Nottingham, where small fires were still burning from the previous night. Their original error then carried their second attack to the Vale of Belvoir, about as far from Nottingham as Nottingham is from Derby. The German communiqué claimed the destruction of the Rolls-Royce Works at Derby, which they never got near. Two hundred and thirty high-explosive bombs and a large number of incendiaries were, however, unloaded in the open country. The total casualties there were two chickens.

The worst attack was the last. On May 10 the enemy returned to London with incendiary bombs. He lit more than two thousand fires, and, by the smashing of nearly a hundred and fifty water mains, coupled with the low tide in the Thames, he stopped us putting them out. At six o’clock next morning hundreds were reported as out of control, and four were still going on the night of the thirteenth. It was the most destructive attack of the whole night Blitz. Five docks and seventy-one key-points, half of which were factories, had been hit. All but one of the main railway stations were blocked for weeks, and the through routes were not fully opened till early June. Over three thousand people were killed or injured. In other respects also it was historic. It destroyed the House of Commons. One single bomb created ruin for years. We were, however, thankful that the Chamber was empty. On the other hand, our batteries and night fighters destroyed sixteen enemy planes, the maximum we had yet attained in night fighting, and largely the fruits of our winter’s toil in the Wizard War.

This, though we did not know it, was the enemy’s parting fling. On May 22 Kesselring shifted the headquarters of his air fleet to Posen, and at the beginning of June the whole force was moved to the east. Nearly three years were to pass before our Civil Defence organisation in London had to deal with the “baby Blitz” of February, 1944, and the later onslaught of the rockets and the flying bombs. In the twelve months from June, 1940, to June, 1941, our civilian casualties were 43,381 killed and 50,856 seriously injured, a total of 94,237.

Except for their radar aids to anti-aircraft gunnery the enemy had hitherto concentrated on offensive devices like the beams, and 1941 was far spent before they felt the need of looking after themselves. In Britain, of course, we had trusted to our large and costly navigation schools for finding our targets, and thought of radar primarily for self-preservation. After the beams had been mastered and as things got better generally, we studied German radar for the purpose of removing obstacles to our hitting back. In February, 1941, we found and photographed for the first time a German radar station for detecting aircraft, and almost at once we picked up its transmissions. Having found this specimen near Cherbourg, we searched for others like it along the western coastline of occupied Europe by photographic reconnaissance and secret agents. By the middle of 1941, the Royal Air Force was seeking to make heavy night attacks on Germany. To do this we had to know all about their defensive devices. These were likely to depend, as ours did, largely upon radar. From a study of German radar on the coast we gradually worked our way back to the German night-fighter defences. These stretched in a great belt running from Schleswig-Holstein through Northwest Germany and Holland to the Franco-Belgian frontier. But neither our new measures nor those of the enemy played a great part during the latter months of 1941. The German bomber force had been hopefully scheduled to begin its return from Russia six weeks after the invasion. Had it returned, it would have been supported in its attack, on Britain by many new beam stations with more powerful transmitters along the Channel coast to help it bludgeon its way through the English jamming. It would have encountered many new transmitters on our side to distort and divert the new beams, as well as greatly improved radar on our night fighters. The ever-spreading character of the Russian entanglement prevented this new battle of the beams, and the great radio efforts on both sides remained for the time being unused.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On Sunday, May 11, I was spending the week-end at Ditchley. After dinner news arrived of the heavy air raid on London. There was nothing that I could do about it, so I watched the Marx Brothers in a comic film which my hosts had arranged. I went out twice to inquire about the air raid, and heard it was bad. The merry film clacked on, and I was glad of the diversion. Presently a secretary told me that the Duke of Hamilton wished to speak to me from Scotland. The Duke was a personal friend of mine, but I could not think of any business he might have with me which could not wait till the morning. However, he pressed to speak with me, saying it was an urgent matter of Cabinet importance. I asked Mr. Bracken to hear what he had to say. After a few minutes he came back with the news, “Hess has arrived in Scotland.” I thought this was fantastic. The report, however, was true. As the night advanced, confirmatory messages arrived. There was no doubt that Hess, the Deputy Fuehrer, Reich Minister without Portfolio, Member of the Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich, Member of the Secret Cabinet Council for Germany, and the Leader of the Nazi Party, had landed alone by parachute near the Duke of Hamilton’s estate west of Scotland.

Piloting his own plane and dressed as a flight lieutenant of the Luftwaffe, he had flown from Augsburg and baled out. At first he gave his name as “Horn,” and it was not till after his reception at a military hospital near Glasgow, where he had been brought for minor injuries caused by his drop, that it was learned who he was. He was soon removed by various stages to the Tower, and thence to other places of captivity in this country, and remained here till October 6, 1945, when in the cells of Nuremberg he rejoined such of his colleagues as had survived the war and were being tried for their lives by the conquerors.

I never attached any serious importance to this escapade. I knew it had no relation to the march of events. Throughout Britain, the United States, Russia, and above all Germany, there was a profound sensation, and books have been written about it all. I shall merely set down here what I believe to be the true story.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Rudolf Hess was a good-looking, youngish man to whom Hitler took a fancy, and who became an intimate member of his personal staff. He worshipped the Fuehrer, and felt passionately about the world issue at stake. He dined at Hitler’s table, often alone or with two or three. He knew and was capable of understanding Hitler’s inner mind—his hatred of Soviet Russia, his lust to destroy Bolshevism, his admiration for Britain and earnest wish to be friends with the British Empire, his contempt for most other countries. No one knew Hitler better or saw him more often in his unguarded moments. With the coming of actual war there was a change. Hitler’s meal-time company grew perforce. Generals, admirals, diplomats, high functionaries, were admitted from time to time to this select circle of arbitrary power. The Deputy Fuehrer found himself in eclipse. What were party demonstrations now? This was a time for deeds, not for antics.

We must discount to some extent the merits of his action by a certain strain of jealousy which affected his nature at finding that under war conditions he no longer played his old part of friendly confidant with the beloved Fuehrer. Here, he felt, are all these generals and others who must be admitted to the Fuehrer’s intimacy, and crowd his table. They have their parts to play. But I, Rudolf, by a deed of superb devotion will surpass them all and bring to my Fuehrer a greater treasure and easement than all of them put together. I will go and make peace with Britain. My life is nothing. How glad I am to have a life to cast away for such a hope! Such moods, however naïve, were certainly neither wicked nor squalid.

Hess’s idea of the European scene was that England had been wrested from her true interests and policy of friendship with Germany, and above all from alliance against Bolshevism, by the warmongers, of whom Churchill was the superficial manifestation. If only he, Rudolf, could get at the heart of Britain and make its King believe how Hitler felt towards her, the malign forces that now ruled in this ill-starred island and had brought so many needless miseries upon it would be swept away. How could Britain survive? France was gone. The U-boats would soon destroy all sea communications; the German air attack would overpower British industry and beat down British cities.

But to whom should he turn? There was the Duke of Hamilton who had been known to the son of his political adviser Karl Haushofer. He had met him at the Olympic Games. He knew also that the Duke of Hamilton was Lord Steward. A personage like that would probably be dining every night with the King and have his private ear. Here was a channel of direct access.

      *      *      *      *      *      

“It seemed,” said a German press notice a few days later, “that Party Member Hess lived in a state of hallucination, as a result of which he felt he would bring about an understanding between England and Germany. . . . The National Socialist Party regrets that this idealist fell a victim to his hallucination. This, however, will have no effect on the continuance of the war which has been forced on Germany.” For Hitler the event was embarrassing. It was as if my trusted colleague, the Foreign Secretary, who was only a little younger than Hess, had parachuted from a stolen Spitfire into the grounds of Berchtesgaden. The Nazis no doubt found some relief in arresting Hess’s adjutants.

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 13 May 41

On the whole it will be more convenient to treat him [Herr Hess] as a prisoner of war, under the War Office and not the Home Office; but also as one against whom grave political charges may be preferred. This man, like other Nazi leaders, is potentially a war criminal, and he and his confederates may well be declared outlaws at the close of the war. In this case his repentance would stand him in good stead.

2. In the meanwhile he should be strictly isolated in a convenient house not too far from London, and every endeavour should be made to study his mentality and get anything worth while out of him.

3. His health and comfort should be ensured, food, books, writing materials, and recreation being provided for him. He should not have any contacts with the outer world or visitors except as prescribed by the Foreign Office. Special guardians should be appointed. He should see no newspapers and hear no wireless. He should be treated with dignity, as if he were an important general who had fallen into our hands.

Prime Minister to Sir Alexander Cadogan 16 May 41

Please make now a fairly full digest of the conversational parts of Hess’s three interviews, stressing particularly the points mentioned by me in the statement I prepared [for the House] but did not deliver. I will then send this to President Roosevelt with a covering telegram.

2. I approved the War Office proposal to bring Hess to the Tower by tonight pending his place of confinement being prepared at Aldershot.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 17 May 41

Foreign Office representative has had three interviews with Hess.

At first interview, on night of May 11-12, Hess was extremely voluble, and made long statement with the aid of notes. First part recapitulated Anglo-German relations during past thirty years or so, and was designed to show that Germany had always been in the right and England in the wrong. Second part emphasised certainty of German victory, due to development in combination of submarine and air weapons, steadiness of German morale, and complete unity of German people behind Hitler. Third part outlined proposals for settlement. Hess said that the Fuehrer had never entertained any designs against the British Empire, which would be left intact save for the return of former German colonies, in exchange for a free hand for him in Europe. But condition was attached that Hitler would not negotiate with present Government in England. This is the old invitation to us to desert all our friends in order to save temporarily the greater part of our skin.

Foreign Office representative asked him whether when he spoke of Hitler having a free hand in Europe he included Russia in Europe or in Asia. He replied, “In Asia.” He added, however, that Germany had certain demands to make of Russia which would have to be satisfied, but denied rumours that attack on Russia was being planned.

Impression created by Hess was that he had made up his mind that Germany must win the war, but saw that it would last a long time and involve much loss of life and destruction. He seemed to feel that if he could persuade people in this country that there was a basis for a settlement, that might bring the war to an end and avert unnecessary suffering.

At second interview, on fourteenth May, Hess made two further points:

(1) In any peace settlement Germany would have to support Rashid Ali and secure eviction of British from Iraq.

(2) U-boat war with air co-operation would be carried on till all supplies to these islands were cut off. Even if these islands capitulated and the Empire continued to fight, the blockade of Britain would continue, even if that meant that the last inhabitant of Britain died of starvation.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At third interview, on May 15, nothing much emerged save incidentally some rather disparaging remarks about your country and the degree of assistance that you will be able to furnish to us. I am afraid, in particular, he is not sufficiently impressed by what he thinks he knows of your aircraft types and production.

Hess seems in good health and not excited, and no ordinary signs of insanity can be detected. He declares that this escapade is his own idea and that Hitler was unaware of it beforehand. If he is to be believed, he expected to contact members of a “peace movement” in England, which he would help to oust the present Government. If he is honest and if he is sane this is an encouraging sign of ineptitude of German Intelligence Service. He will not be ill-treated, but it is desirable that the press should not romanticise him and his adventure. We must not forget that he shares responsibility for all Hitler’s crimes and is a potential war criminal whose fate must ultimately depend upon the decision of the Allied Governments.

Mr. President, all the above is for your own information. Here we think it best to let the press have a good run for a bit and keep the Germans guessing. The German officer prisoners of war here were greatly perturbed by the news, and I cannot doubt that there will be deep misgivings in the German armed forces about what he may say.

Hess’s own explanations to the doctors were hardly more illuminating. On May 22 his doctor reported as follows:

He said he was horrified at the heavy air raids on London in 1940, and loathed the thought of killing young children and their mothers. This feeling was intensified when he contemplated his own wife and son, and led to the idea of flying to Britain and arranging peace with the large anti-war faction which he thought existed in this country. He stressed that personal advantage played no part in this scheme—it was an increasing idealistic urge.[4]

It was with such thoughts in his mind that he was impressed on hearing his astrologer or fortune-teller, Haushofer, express similar sentiments, and mention the Duke of Hamilton as a person of common sense, who must be horrified at this senseless slaughter. Haushofer had also remarked that he had seen Hess on three occasions in a dream piloting an aeroplane he knew not where. Hess took these remarks, coming from such a man, as a message to fly to this country as an emissary of peace, to seek the Duke of Hamilton, who would conduct him to King George. The British Government would be thrown out of office and a party desiring peace installed in its place. He was insistent that he would have no dealings with that “clique”—the ruling Administration—who would do all in their power to thwart him, but he was very vague as to what statesmen would replace them, and seemed to be extremely ill-informed as to the names and standing of our politicians. . . . He described how he approached Willi Messerschmidt and obtained facilities for long-distance flying inside Germany in training for the event, and how when he was prepared he set out on his voyage. He maintained that there were no confederates, and that he showed considerable skill in arranging his journey, working out the route himself, and flying with an accuracy which enabled him to land only some ten miles from his destination, Dungavel.[5]

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Cabinet invited Lord Simon to interview him, and on June 10 a meeting took place. “When the Fuehrer,” said Hess, “had come to the conclusion that common sense could not prevail in England, he acted just according to the rule of conduct of Admiral Lord Fisher: ‘Moderation in war is folly. If you strike, strike hard and wherever you can.’ But I can confirm that it was indeed always difficult for the Fuehrer to give orders for these [air and U-boat] attacks. It pained him deeply. He was constantly in full sympathy with the English people who were victims of this method of waging war. . . . He said that even if victorious one should not impose any severe conditions on a country with which it was desired to come to an agreement.” Then, the keynote for Hess: “I thought that if England once knew of this fact it might be possible that England on her part would be ready for agreement.” If only England knew how kind Hitler really was, surely she would meet his wishes!

      *      *      *      *      *      

Much learned medical investigation has been devoted to Hess’s mental state. Certainly he was a neurotic, a split soul seeking peace in the pursuit of power and position and in the worship of a leader. But he was more than a medical case. He believed passionately in his vision of Hitler’s mind. If only England could share it too, how much suffering could be saved and how easy it would be to agree! A free hand for Germany in Europe and for Britain in her own Empire! Other minor conditions were the return of the German colonies, the evacuation of Iraq, and an armistice and peace with Italy. As it was, England’s position was hopeless. If she did not agree to these conditions, “sooner or later the day will come when she will be forced to accede to them.” To this Lord Simon replied: “I do not think that that particular argument will be very good for the British Cabinet, because, you know, there is a good deal of courage in this country, and we are not very fond of threats!”

Considering how closely Hess was knit to Hitler, it is surprising that he did not know of, or that if he knew he did not disclose, the impending attack on Russia, for which such vast preparations were being made. The Soviet Government were deeply intrigued by the Hess episode, and they wove many distorted theories around it. Three years later, when I was in Moscow on my second visit, I realised the fascination which this topic had for Stalin. He asked me at the dinner table what was the truth about the Hess mission. I said shortly what I have written here. I had the feeling that he believed there had been some deep negotiation or plot for Germany and Britain to act together in the invasion of Russia which had miscarried. Remembering what a wise man he is, I was surprised to find him silly on this point. When the interpreter made it plain that he did not believe what I said, I replied through my interpreter, “When I make a statement of facts within my knowledge I expect it to be accepted.” Stalin received this somewhat abrupt response with a genial grin. “There are lots of things that happen even here in Russia which our Secret Service do not necessarily tell me about.” I let it go at that.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Reflecting upon the whole of this story, I am glad not to be responsible for the way in which Hess has been and is being treated. Whatever may be the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had, in my view, atoned for this by his completely devoted and frantic deed of lunatic benevolence. He came to us of his own free will, and, though without authority, had something of the quality of an envoy. He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded.


See Appendix D, Book One.

Volume I. Chapter 9.

Called in our jargon C.H.L. and C.H.E.L.

The Case of Rudolf Hess, edited by J. R. Rees, p. 2.

Ibid., pp. 18-19.


The Mediterranean War

Vital Importance of Malta—Admiral Keyes’s Plan to Take Pantelleria—Its Postponement—Naval Encounter with the German Air Force, January 10—The Aircraft-Carrier “Illustrious” Disabled—“Southampton” Sunk and “Gloucester” Damaged—Air Reinforcements for Malta—Determined German Attacks on the Island—Governor Dobbie—Admiral Somerville’s Raid on Genoa, February 9—Need for Carrier-Borne Fast Fighter Aircraft—Reinforcement of the Malta Garrison—Activities and Successes of Our Submarines—An Enemy Convoy Annihilated—Capture of Benghazi, February 6—Conquest of Cyrenaica Complete—The Eden-Dill Mission to the Middle East—My Telegram to General Wavell of February 12—His Reply—Foreign Secretary’s Instructions—Telegram to General Smuts, February 15—I Take Charge of the Foreign Office—My Telegram to Mr. Eden, February 20—Mr. Eden’s Simultaneous Message—Menace of Mines to the Suez Canal—Mr. Eden’s Report of February 21—He Goes to Athens—His Report of February 22—Greece Will Fight On—She Accepts Offer of British Troops—War Cabinet in Favour of Sending an Army to Greece—The Inscrutable Future.

Since the days of Nelson, Malta has stood a faithful British sentinel guarding the narrow and vital sea corridor through the Central Mediterranean. Its strategic importance was never higher than in this the latest war. The needs of the large armies we were building up in Egypt made the free passage of the Mediterranean for our convoys and the stopping of enemy reinforcements to Tripoli aims of the highest consequence. At the same time the new air weapon struck a deadly blow, not only at Malta but at the effective assertion of British sea power in these narrow waters. Without this modern danger our task would have been simple. We could have moved freely about the Mediterranean and stopped all other traffic. It was now impossible to base the main Fleet on Malta. The island itself was exposed to the threat of invasion from the Italian ports, as well as to constant and measureless air attack. Hostile air power also imposed almost prohibitive risks upon the passage of our convoys through the Narrows, condemning us to the long haul round the Cape. At the same time the superior air force of the enemy enabled them, by deterring our warships from acting fully in the Central Mediterranean except at much loss and hazard, to maintain a rivulet of troops and supplies into Tripoli.

About 140 miles from Malta, in the throat of the western Narrows between Sicily and Tunis, lay the Italian island of Pantelleria, reputed strongly fortified and with an invaluable airfield. This place was important to the enemy’s route to Tunis and Tripoli, and in our hands would markedly expand the air cover we could give around Malta. In September, 1940, I had asked Admiral Keyes to make a plan for seizing Pantelleria with the newly formed commandos. The idea was to attach two or three troopships to the tail of one of our heavily guarded convoys. While the main body was engaging the enemy’s attention these would drop off in the darkness and storm the island by surprise. The project, which was called “Workshop,” gained increasing support from the Chiefs of Staff. Keyes was ardent, and claimed to lead the assault in person, waiving his rank as an Admiral of the Fleet.

In my circle we did not deem the actual capture too hard to try, but the difficulties of holding the prize while we were already hard pressed in Malta caused misgivings. Nevertheless, on December 28, 1940, I issued the following minute:

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee

Constant reflection has made me feel the very high value of “Workshop,” provided that a thoroughly good plan can be made and it is given a chance. The effect of “Workshop,” if successful, would be electrifying, and would greatly increase our strategic hold upon the Central Mediterranean. It is also a most important step to opening the Narrows to the passage of trade and troop convoys, whereby so great an easement to our shipping could be obtained. Urgency is supplied by the danger that the Germans, if they take over Italy, will take over “Workshop” island and make it a very difficult proposition both for nuisance value and against assault.

The Chiefs of Staff set to work on the problem at once, and I returned to the charge in the New Year.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 13 Jan. 41

The effective arrival of German aviation in Sicily may be the beginning of evil developments in the Central Mediterranean. The successful dive-bombing attacks upon Illustrious and the two cruisers show the need for having these ships fitted with aerial mine-throwers. I do not know why Illustrious could not have had a couple. The improved naval pattern of aerial mine should be pressed on with to the utmost. The need for high-speed aircraft to catch dive-bombers out at sea seems very great. Surely we ought to try to put half a dozen Grummans on Formidable before she goes into the Mediterranean.

2. I am very apprehensive of the Germans establishing themselves in Pantelleria, in which case with a strong force of dive-bombers they will close the Narrows. I fear this may be another example of the adage “A stitch in time saves nine.”

3. It is necessary now that “Workshop” should be reviewed. It has become far more urgent, and also at the same time more difficult, and once the Germans are installed there it will become more difficult still. I should be glad if revised and perfected plans could be ready by today week. Plans should also be made to find an opportunity at the earliest moment. The question of whether to try it or not can only be settled after these matters of method and timing have been satisfactorily disposed of.

4. I remain completely of opinion that “Workshop” is cardinal.

All agreements were obtained, but with our other affairs we could not meet the date at the end of January at which we had aimed. At a conference at Chequers on the morning of January 18, I agreed with the First Sea Lord and the other Chiefs of Staff to put it off for a month. I think I could have turned the decision the other way, but, like the others, I was constrained by the pressure of larger business, and also by talk about the commandos not being yet fully trained. Keyes, who was not present, was bitterly disappointed. The delay proved fatal to the plan. Long before the month had passed, the German Air Force arrived in Sicily, and all wore a very different complexion. There is no doubt about the value of the prize we did not gain. Had we been in occupation of Pantelleria in 1942 many fine ships that were lost in our convoys, which we then fought through to Malta, might have been saved, and the enemy communications with Tripoli still further impaired. On the other hand, we might well have been overpowered by German air attack, lost our vantage, and complicated our defence of Malta in the interval.

I felt acutely the need of Pantelleria. But our hour had passed. Too much was upon us from many quarters. It was not till May, 1943, after the destruction of the German and Italian armies in Tunis, that, under a heavy bombardment, Pantelleria was taken by a British landing force at the order of General Eisenhower. We were then all-powerful in this theatre, and though the task was deemed very serious beforehand there was no loss.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Our first serious naval encounter with the German Air Force occurred on January 10. The Fleet was engaged in covering a series of important movements, including the passage of a convoy through the Central Mediterranean from the west, the replenishment of Malta from the east, and various minor shipping movements to Greece. Early that morning the destroyer Gallant was mined in the Malta Channel while attending on the battle fleet. Presently shadowing aircraft appeared, and in the afternoon the severe attack of the German bombers began. Their efforts were concentrated on the new carrier Illustrious, under Captain Boyd, and in three attacks she was hit six times with big bombs. Heavily damaged and on fire, with eighty-three killed and sixty seriously wounded, she successfully fought back, thanks to her armoured deck, and her aircraft destroyed at least five assailants. That night, under increasing air attack, and with disabled steering gear, Captain Boyd brought the Illustrious into Malta.

During the night Admiral Cunningham with the battle fleet escorted the east-bound convoy south of Malta unmolested. The next day the cruisers Southampton and Gloucester, by then well to the east of Malta, were hit by dive-bombers approaching unobserved down sun. The Gloucester was only slightly damaged by a bomb which failed to explode, but the Southampton was struck in the engine-room. A fire started which could not be controlled, and the ship had to be abandoned and was sunk. Thus, although the convoys passed on safely to their destinations the cost to the Fleet was heavy.

The Germans realised the desperate position of the wounded Illustrious in Malta, and made determined efforts to destroy her. However, our air power in the island had already grown, and nineteen enemy planes were shot down in a single day during the contest. In spite of further hits while in the dockyard, the Illustrious was made capable of sailing on the evening of January 23. The enemy, seeing she was gone, tried hard to find her, but she reached Alexandria safely two days later.

By this time no fewer than two hundred and fifty German aircraft were working from Sicily. Malta was attacked fifty-eight times in January, and thereafter till the end of May three or four times daily with only brief respites. But our resources mounted. Between April and June, 1941, Admiral Somerville’s Force H ferried six considerable flights to within flying distance of Malta, and two hundred and twenty-four Hurricanes, together with a few of other kinds, reached the battle scene from the west. Supplies and reinforcements also got through from the east. By June the first fierce onslaught had been repulsed, and by the skin of its teeth the island survived. Its main ordeal was reserved for 1942.

In General Dobbie Malta found a governor of outstanding character who inspired all ranks and classes, military and civil, with his own determination. He was a soldier who in fighting leadership and religious zeal recalled memories of General Gordon, and, looking farther back, of the Ironsides and Covenanters of the past.

Prime Minister to General Dobbie, Malta 21 Jan. 41

I send you, on behalf of the War Cabinet, our heartfelt congratulations upon the magnificent and ever-memorable defence which your heroic garrison and citizens, aided by the Navy and above all by the Royal Air Force, are making against Italian and German attacks. The eyes of all Britain, and indeed of the whole British Empire, are watching Malta in her struggle day by day, and we are sure that success as well as glory will reward your efforts.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Amid the stresses of the ever-expanding scale of events in the Mediterranean we tried to find means of bringing the war to the Italian mainland. The morale of the Italian people was said to be low, and a blow here would depress them still more and bring closer the collapse which we desired. On February 9, Admiral Somerville carried out a daring and successful raid on the port of Genoa. Force H, comprising the Renown, Malaya, and Sheffield, appeared off the town and subjected it to heavy bombardment for half an hour. At the same time aircraft from the Ark Royal bombed Leghorn and Pisa and laid mines off Spezia. Complete surprise was achieved, and the only opposition from the shore batteries at Genoa was slight and wholly ineffective. Much damage was done to port installations and shipping. Aided by low clouds, Admiral Somerville’s ships withdrew, successfully evading interference from the enemy fleet, which was searching for them west of Sardinia.

The reinforcement of Malta, now that the Germans were taking an interest in the Mediterranean, was urgent.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 6 Feb. 41

Although of course the difficulties of [the enemy] assaulting Malta are enormously increased by the British fuelling base in Suda Bay, nevertheless I shall be glad to see a second battalion sent there at the earliest opportunity, making seven British battalions in all. Considering that in view of the Italian rout there should be no great difficulty in sparing this seventh battalion from Egypt, and that the trouble is carrying them there by the Fleet, one must ask whether it is not as easy to carry two as it is to carry one. It seems a pity to let the baker’s cart go with only one loaf, when the journey is so expensive and the load available, and it might as easily carry two. Pray consider this. But no delay.

      *      *      *      *      *      

By the beginning of April we were able to intensify our attacks on enemy shipping feeding Rommel’s forces in Libya. In this British submarines operating from Malta played a leading part, and the scale of their activities and successes mounted steadily. In this sphere Lieutenant-Commander Malcolm Wanklyn was outstanding, and his exploits later earned him the Victoria Cross. The following year he was lost with his ship, the Upholder, but his example lived among those who carried on his work.

On April 10 a striking force of four destroyers under Captain Mack in the Jervis was sent to Malta to operate against enemy convoys. Within a week they achieved a spectacular success. On a night of bright moonlight they encountered a convoy of five southbound ships with an escort of three destroyers. All were annihilated in a general scrimmage at close range. Our destroyer Mohawk was also torpedoed and had to be sunk, but her captain and most of her crew were saved. In this action alone 14,000 tons of enemy shipping fully loaded with vital war materials was destroyed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Good news continued to reach us from the Desert. On February 6 Benghazi was entered, three weeks ahead of the expected date, by the 6th Australian Division. By daybreak on February 5 the 7th British Armoured Division (now at a tank strength of one brigade), had reached Msus after much rough going. The division was directed to cut the coastal road. That evening an enemy column of about five thousand ran into the road block at Beda Fomm and promptly surrendered. Early on February 6 the enemy main columns started to come down the road, and there was severe fighting throughout the day with successive groups, including a considerable number of tanks. By nightfall the enemy were in a desperate plight, with a confused mass of vehicles almost twenty miles in length, blocked in front and attacked in flank. Soon after dawn on February 7 they made a final attack with thirty tanks. When this, too, failed General Berganzoli surrendered with his army.

Thus, in two months the Army of the Nile had advanced five hundred miles, had destroyed an Italian army of more than nine divisions, and had captured 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks, and 1290 guns. The conquest of Cyrenaica was complete.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In spite of these victories, so grave and complex were the issues, both diplomatic and military, which were at stake in the Middle East, and General Wavell had so much on his hands, that at the meeting of the Defence Committee on February 11 it was proposed to send the Foreign Secretary and General Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to join him in Cairo.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 12 Feb. 41

Accept my heartfelt congratulations on this latest admirable victory, and on the unexpected speed with which Cyrenaica has been conquered. I have carried out your wishes in mentioning Generals O’Connor and Creagh.

2. Defence Committee considered whole situation last night, comprising, first, the extremely favourable developments in United States supplies; second, increasingly menacing attitude of Japan and plain possibility she may attack us in the near future; third, undoubted serious probability of attempt at invasion here. In this general setting we must settle Mediterranean plans.

3. We should have been content with making a safe flank for Egypt at Tobruk, and we told you that thereafter Greece and/or Turkey must have priority, but that if you could get Benghazi easily and without prejudice to European calls so much the better. We are delighted that you have got this prize three weeks ahead of expectation, but this does not alter, indeed it rather confirms, our previous directive, namely, that your major effort must now be to aid Greece and/or Turkey. This rules out any serious effort against Tripoli, although minor demonstrations thitherwards would be a useful feint. You should, therefore, make yourself secure in Benghazi and concentrate all available forces in the Delta in preparation for movement to Europe.

4. Both Greece and Turkey have hitherto refused our offers of technical units, because they say these are too small to solve their main problem, but conspicuous enough to provoke German intervention. However, this intervention becomes more certain and imminent every day, and may begin at any time now. If Turkey and Yugoslavia would tell Bulgaria they will attack her unless she joins them in resisting a German advance southward, this might create a barrier requiring much larger German forces than are now available in Rumania. But I fear they will not do this, and will fool away their chances of combined resistance, as was done in the Low Countries.

5. Our first thoughts must be for our ally Greece, who is actually fighting so well. If Greece is trampled down or forced to make a separate peace with Italy, yielding also air and naval strategic points against us to Germany, effect on Turkey will be very bad. But if Greece, with British aid, can hold up for some months German advance, chances of Turkish intervention will be favoured. Therefore, it would seem that we should try to get in a position to offer the Greeks the transfer to Greece of the fighting portion of the army which has hitherto defended Egypt, and make every plan for sending and reinforcing it to the limit with men and material.

6. We do not know what Greece will say to a great offer of this kind. We do not know what are her means of resisting an invasion from Bulgaria by German forces. It is reasonable to assume that they have a plan to move troops from Albania to hold the passes and the lines of defence already built along or near the Bulgarian frontier. They cannot surely have pursued their advantage in Albania without any thought of this mortal danger to their right and almost rear. If they have a good plan it would be worth our while to back it with all our strength and fight the Germans in Greece, hoping thereby to draw in both Turks and Yugoslavs. You should begin forthwith plans and time-tables, as well as any preparatory movements of shipping.

7. It is not intended that you should delay [the capture of] Rhodes, which we regard as most urgent.

8. In order to give the very best chance to concerting all possible measures, both diplomatic and military, against the Germans in the Balkans, we are sending the Foreign Secretary and General Dill to join you in Cairo. They will leave on February 12, and should reach you 14th or 15th February. Having surveyed the whole position in Cairo and got all preparatory measures on the move, you will no doubt go to Athens with them, and thereafter, if convenient, to Angora. It is hoped that at least four divisions, including one armoured division, and whatever additional air forces the Greek airfields are ready for, together with all available munitions, may be offered in the best possible way and in the shortest time.

9. We can form no opinion here as to what ports of Greece we should use or what front we should try to hold or try to get them to hold. That can only be settled on the spot with the Greek Command.

10. In the event of its proving impossible to reach any good agreement with the Greeks and work out a practical military plan, then we must try to save as much from the wreck as possible. We must at all costs keep Crete and take any Greek islands which are of use as air bases. We could also reconsider the advance on Tripoli. But these will only be consolation prizes after the classic race has been lost. There will always remain the support of Turkey.

General Wavell replied on February 12, returning me compliments for my congratulations. He had naturally been considering the problem of assistance to Greece and Turkey for some time. He hoped he might be able to improve on his earlier estimate of available reserves, especially if the Australian Government would give him a certain latitude. He had already spoken to Mr. Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, who was in Cairo on his way to London, about this, and found him very ready to agree to what he suggested. He welcomed the visit of the Foreign Secretary and General Dill. “We will do our best,” he said, “to frustrate German plans in the Balkans, but Greek and Turkish hesitations and Yugoslav timidity have made our task very difficult. Owing to difficulties of shipping and ports our arrival is bound to be somewhat piecemeal.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

I drafted and obtained formal Cabinet approval for the instructions to the Foreign Secretary on his mission.

12 Feb. 41

During his visit to the Mediterranean theatre the Foreign Secretary will represent His Majesty’s Government in all matters diplomatic and military. He will report whenever necessary to the War Cabinet through the Prime Minister.

2. His principal object will be the sending of speedy succour to Greece. For this purpose he will initiate any action he may think necessary with the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East, with the Egyptian Government, and with the Governments of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. He will of course keep the Foreign Office informed, and he will himself be informed by the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister of all changes of plan or view occurring at home.

3. The C.I.G.S. will advise on the military aspect, and the Foreign Secretary will make sure that in case of any difference his views are also placed before His Majesty’s Government.

4. The following points require particular attention: (a) What is the minimum garrison that can hold the western frontier of Libya and Benghazi, and what measures should be taken to make Benghazi a principal garrison and air base? The extreme importance is emphasised of dropping the overland communications at the earliest moment, (b) The régime and policy to be enforced in Cyrenaica, having regard to our desire to separate the Italian nation from the Mussolini system, (c) The execution of the operation “Mandibles” [Rhodes] at the earliest moment, including, if necessary, repacking of the commandos at Capetown [for an opposed landing], having regard, however, to its not becoming an impediment to the main issue, (d) The formation in the Delta of the strongest and best-equipped force in divisional or brigade organisations which can be dispatched to Greece at the earliest moment. (e) The drain to be made upon our resources for the purpose of finishing up in Eritrea and breaking down the Italian positions in Abyssinia. The former is urgent; the latter, though desirable, must not conflict with major issues. It may be necessary to leave it to rot by itself. (f) The great mass of troops, over 70,000, now engaged in the Kenya theatre must be severely scrutinised in order particularly to liberate the South African divisions for service in Egypt. Any communication with General Smuts had better pass through the Prime Minister. A further conference between the Foreign Secretary and General Smuts might well be convenient. (g) The Foreign Secretary, when visiting Athens with the C.I.G.S., General Wavell, and any other officers, is fully empowered to formulate with the Greek Government the best arrangements possible in the circumstances. He will at the same time try to keep H.M.G. informed, or seek their aid as far as possible. In an emergency he must act as he thinks best. (h) He will communicate direct with the Governments of Yugoslavia and Turkey, duplicating his messages to the Foreign Office. The object will be to make them both fight at the same time or do the best they can. For this purpose he should summon the Minister at Belgrade or the Ambassador in Turkey to meet him as may be convenient. He will bear in mind that while it is our duty to fight, and if need be, suffer with Greece, the interests of Turkey in the second stage are no less important to us than those of Greece. It should be possible to reconcile the Greek and Turkish claims for air and munitions support. (i) The Foreign Secretary will address himself to the problem of securing the highest form of war economy in the armies and air forces of the Middle East for all the above purposes, and to making sure that the many valuable military units in that theatre all fit into a coherent scheme and are immediately pulling their weight. (j) He should advise H.M.G. through the Prime Minister upon the selection of commanders for all the different purposes in view. In this he will no doubt consult with General Wavell, who enjoys so large a measure of the confidence of H.M.G. The selection of the general who commands in Greece is of the highest consequence, and it is hoped that an agreed recommendation may be made on this point. (k) Air Chief Marshal Longmore will be required to give effect to the wishes and decisions of the Foreign Secretary in accordance with the general scope of the policy here set out. But here again in the event of any difference the Foreign Secretary will transmit the Air Chief Marshal’s views to the War Cabinet through the Prime Minister. The duty of the air force in the Middle East is to provide the maximum air effort in Greece and Turkey compatible with the nourishing of operations in the Sudan and Abyssinia and the maintenance of Benghazi. (l) The Foreign Secretary will consult with Admiral Cunningham upon naval operations necessary for all the above purposes, and will ask H.M. G. for any further support, either by transports or warships, which may seem necessary. (m) He will propose to H.M.G. any policy concerning Iraq, Palestine, or Arabia which may harmonise with the above purposes. He may communicate direct with these countries and with the Government of India, though not in a mandatory sense. The India Office must be kept informed. (n) He will report upon the whole position at Gibraltar, Malta, and, if possible, on return, at Takoradi. (o) In short, he is to gather together all the threads, and propose continuously the best solutions for our difficulties, and not be deterred from acting upon his own authority if the urgency is too great to allow reference home.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I thought that Smuts should know of Eden’s mission, and hoped that he might be able to go to Cairo himself.

Prime Minister to General Smuts 15 Feb. 41

Joyful acceleration capture Benghazi, Cyrenaica, gives us secure flank for Egypt. Kismayu is also good. We must now try to help Greeks and spur Turks to resist forthcoming German offensive towards Aegean. Cannot guarantee good results on mainland of Europe, but we must do our best and save what islands we can from the wreck should our utmost efforts prove vain. We have therefore sent Foreign Secretary and C.I.G.S. to Cairo, thereafter visiting Athens and Angora, in order to concert strongest possible front. They will probably be three weeks in Middle East. Pray consider whether you could meet them. Please duplicate to me through United Kingdom High Commissioner any messages you send to them.

During Mr. Eden’s absence I took charge of the Foreign Office. This was, of course, a heavy addition to my work. I had, however, been accustomed to read all the top-level daily telegrams and special reports since I became Prime Minister, and in my correspondence with President Roosevelt and other heads of Governments I had drafted many of the most important outgoing messages. Except in special cases I left the interviews with foreign Ambassadors to the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, and to Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The whole story of foreign affairs and war strategy was at this time fused into one single theme, and this I had in any case to comprehend, and as far as possible shape.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 20 Feb. 41

Thankful you have arrived safely. I was making great exertions to carry 50th Division to you, and had wrung additional shipping from Shipping Ministry, with generous contribution by Admiralty. Am baffled by reply. Clearly H.Q. Middle East is not accurately informed about composition of convoys. . . . Hope you will be able to clear all this up. Essential that exact details of convoys and field states should be known at both ends. My impression is one of enormous jumbles of ration-strength troops in Middle East with many half-baked tactical formations. The 6th British Division and 7th Australian Division both seem likely to be imperfect for some time. Find out what we can send to make these effective fighting units. Some local improvisation by transfer from other half-baked units should surely be possible. Establishments are not sacrosanct if practical results obtainable on different basis. Latest Middle East ration-strength return shows increase of nearly 50,000 between December 31 and January 31. Does nothing emerge in the shape of fighting units from this reinforcement? If fighting formations are so few compared with ration strength, and in addition movement of these few formations to another theatre is so lengthy and nothing can be done to improve matters, we must recognise limits of our power to act on mainland, and indeed whole Middle East proposition must be relegated to secondary sphere.

2. Am concerned at check developing at Keren. Abyssinia might be left, but we had hopes Eritrea would be cleaned up. Try to include this in your disposition of air and other forces.

3. Do not consider yourselves obligated to a Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will only be another Norwegian fiasco. If no good plan can be made please say so. But of course you know how valuable success would be.

This crossed telegrams from Mr. Eden, which gave a clear picture of the convictions of the men on the spot, and included the conclusions of the conference in Cairo between him and Dill with three Commanders-in-Chief.

We are agreed we should do everything in our power to bring the fullest measure of help to Greeks at earliest possible moment. If the help we can offer is accepted by the Greeks we believe that there is a fair chance of halting a German advance and preventing Greece from being overrun. Limitation of our resources, however, especially in the air, will not allow of help being given to Turkey at the [same] time if Greece is to be supported on an effective scale.

After explaining that the scantiness of our air resources made it doubtful whether a line so advanced as to cover Salonika could be held, he continued:

General Wavell proposes the following military dispositions: Cyrenaica will be garrisoned by one of the less trained and equipped Australian divisions, Indian Motor Brigade, at present under training, and one armoured brigade group, which represents all remaining at present of the 7th Armoured Division. You will remember that this armoured division was never at full strength. Further complication reported by Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean is that troops at Benghazi cannot at present be maintained by sea owing to destruction of port. Supply must, therefore, be by road from Tobruk. The 6th Division is being formed, and will be used for Rhodes. Forces committed to operations in Eritrea cannot be reduced until operations there have been successfully completed. Keren is proving a tough nut to crack. On the other hand, it is agreed that forces in Kenya can be reduced, and warning orders have been issued for withdrawal of South African division with a view to its movement to Egypt when shipping can be made available. I hope to see Smuts on this and other matters before I return home.

General Wavell has therefore the following forces available for Greece in the immediate and near future: firstly, one armoured brigade and the New Zealand division, now raised to three infantry brigades, ready to sail; to be followed by Polish Brigade, an Australian division, a second armoured brigade, if required, and a second Australian division, in that order. Dispatch of this force will inevitably strain administrative resources to the utmost and must involve much improvisation.

Timings cannot yet be given, as these depend on discussion with the Greeks and shipping. It is estimated that to move the above forces at least fifty-three ships will be required. These can, of course, only be obtained by holding ships of convoys arriving in the Middle East, with all that that implies. Additional to present anxiety is the menace of mines to the Suez Canal. Energetic measures are being taken to deal with this, but until they are fully organised and material arrives from home there is always a risk that the Canal may be closed for from five to seven days.

My own conclusion, which General Dill and Commanders-in-Chief share, is that in the immediate future assistance to the Greeks, who are fighting and are threatened, must have first call on resources. Extent of help which we can later give Turks must depend upon volume of air reinforcements that can reach the Middle East and war wastage in African operations.

My present intention is to tell the Greeks of the help we are prepared to give them now, and to urge them to accept it as fast as it can be shipped to them. If they will accept this help and brave any risk it may entail of involving them in early hostilities with Germany there is a fair chance that we can hold a line in Greece. If we now split our small resources, especially in the air, we can effectively help neither Greece nor Turkey.

The word “urge,” which I have italicised, in this telegram must not be misunderstood. Mr. Eden meant it to apply, not to the principle of acceptance by the Greeks of British help, but to the timing of their acceptance, if that was their resolve.

I replied:

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 21 Feb. 41

I have always felt it essential you should see Greeks before Angora, otherwise commitments might have been made to Angora which would tie your hands about Greeks, who are actually fighting. Therefore, am in complete agreement with procedure you propose.

And to General Smuts:

21 Feb. 41

I share your misgivings that Russian attitude has undermined Turks, and it may be that they will do no more than maintain an honest neutrality. Whole Greek position must be considered now by our envoys at Cairo. Will keep you informed.

On the same day Mr. Eden sent another telegram from Cairo:

As regards the general prospects of a Greek campaign, it is, of course, a gamble to send forces to the mainland of Europe to fight Germans at this time. No one can give a guarantee of success, but when we discussed this matter in London we were prepared to run the risk of failure, thinking it better to suffer with the Greeks than to make no attempt to help them. That is the conviction we all hold here. Moreover, though campaign is a daring venture, we are not without hope that it might succeed to the extent of halting the Germans before they overrun all Greece.

It has to be remembered that the stakes are big. If we fail to help the Greeks there is no hope of action by Yugoslavia, and the future of Turkey may easily be compromised. Though, therefore, none of us can guarantee that we may not have to play trump cards, we believe that this attempt to help Greece should be made. It is, of course, quite possible that when we see the Greeks tomorrow they may not wish us to come.

We have discussed the question of command. Dill, Wavell, and I are all agreed that we must select a figure who will command respect with the Greeks and exercise authority over the Greek officers with whom he will have to work. It is also necessary to choose a first-class tactical soldier. We have, therefore, decided that the command should be given to Wilson, who will be replaced in the military governorship of Cyrenaica by Neame, at present commanding in Palestine. . . . Wilson has a very high reputation here among the general public, as well as among the soldiers, and his appointment to lead the forces in Greece will be a guarantee to the Greeks that we are giving of our best.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On February 22, Mr. Eden, with General Wavell, Sir John Dill, and other officers, flew to Athens, to confer with the Greek King and Government. When Mr. Eden arrived in the evening for the first contacts with the Greeks he was taken to the Royal Palace at Tatoi. The King at once asked him if he would receive his Prime Minister alone. He explained to the King his reluctance to do this, because he wished the discussions to be on an entirely military basis. If we were to send assistance to Greece it should be because of military reasons, and he did not want political considerations to play an undue part. However, the King persevered in his request, and he consented. At the meeting the Prime Minister, M. Korysis, read him a statement setting forth the outcome of the Greek Cabinet discussions in the past day or two.

As this statement forms the basis of our action, I set it forth in full.

Mr. Eden to Prime Minister 22 Feb. 41

Following is summary of written declaration given to me by President of the Council at outset of our meeting today:

“I desire to repeat most categorically that Greece, as a faithful ally, is determined to go on fighting with all her forces until final victory. This determination is not limited to the case of Italy, but will apply to any German aggression.

“2. Greece has only three divisions in Macedonia on the Bulgarian frontier. Consequently, a purely military problem arises of what reinforcements should be sent to enable the Greek army to resist the German. While more or less accurate information is available about German forces in Rumania and about forces mobilised in Bulgaria, the Greek Government, for their part, so far only know what British help might be given to them within a period of a month’s time. Moreover, they do not know what are the intentions of Turkey and Yugoslavia. In these circumstances, Your Excellency’s arrival in the Middle East is of the greatest help, not only for the purpose of clarifying the situation, but also of turning it to the common advantage of Great Britain and Greece.

“3. I desire to repeat once again that, whatever the outcome and whether Greece has or has not any hope of repulsing the enemy in Macedonia, she will defend her national territory, even if she can only count on her own forces.”

The Greek Government wished us to understand that their decision had been taken before they knew whether we could give them any help or not. The King had wished Mr. Eden to know this before the military conversations opened, and this was the basis upon which they took place.

After military conferences and staff meetings held all night and the next day, Mr. Eden sent us the following most important telegram, dated the twenty-fourth:

Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister 24 Feb. 41

Agreement was reached today [23d] with the Greek Government on all points.

When at the end of discussions I asked whether the Greek Government would welcome the arrival in Greece of British troops in numbers and on conditions we proposed, President of Council slated formally that the Greek Government accepted our offer with gratitude and approved all detailed arrangements reached between the two General Staffs.

2. On arrival here this afternoon we met with the King of Greece, the President of Council and General Papagos. I gave an account of the international situation as we see it and dealt in detail with German designs upon the Balkans. I then explained that the conclusion had been reached by Ministers and Chiefs of Staff in London, with which Commanders-in-Chief here are in full agreement, that we should give maximum help to Greece at the earliest possible moment. We then gave details of the forces which we should be able to make available for Greece, explaining that this was all we could do at the moment. What we should be able to do in future depended on the development of the general war situation and the state of our resources. All I could say was that the troops we offered were well equipped and well trained and we were confident that they would acquit themselves well.

3. The President of Council, after reaffirming the determination of Greece to defend herself against Germany, reiterated the misgivings of the Greek Government lest insufficient British help should merely precipitate German attack, and stated that it was essential to determine whether available Greek forces and forces which we could provide would suffice to constitute efficacious resistance to the Germans, taking into account the doubtful attitude of Turkey and Yugoslavia. Before the Greek Government committed themselves, the President of the Council, therefore, wished the military experts to consider the situation in the light of the British offer. I made plain the logical conclusion of the attitude taken up by the President of Council. If we were to delay action for fear of provoking the Germans, such action must inevitably be too late.

4. From the ensuing discussion between General Dill, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, and the Air Officer Commanding on the one hand, and General Papagos on the other hand, it emerged that in view of the doubtful attitude of Yugoslavia the only line that could be held and would give time for withdrawal of troops from Albania would be a line west of the Vadar, Olympus-Veria-Edessa-Kajmakcalan. If we could be sure of Yugoslav moves it should be possible to hold a line farther north from the mouth of the Nestos to Beles, covering Salonika. It would be impracticable, unless Yugoslavia came in, to hold a line covering Salonika in view of exposure of Greek left flank to German attack.

He then described the detailed arrangements which had been agreed:

The discussions lasted some ten hours, and covered the main points of political and military co-operation. . . . We were all impressed by frankness and fair dealing of Greek representatives on all subjects discussed. I am quite sure that it is their determination to resist to the utmost of their strength, and that His Majesty’s Government have no alternative but to back them whatever the ultimate consequences. While recognizing the risks, we must accept them.

In a further message he said:

We are all convinced that we have chosen the right course and as the eleventh hour has already struck felt sure that you would not wish us to delay for detailed reference home.

The risks are great, but there is a chance of success. We are accepting difficulties which will make a heavy demand upon our resources, more particularly of fighter aircraft. . . .

On these messages, which carried with them the assent of both Dill and Wavell, it was decided in the Cabinet to give full approval to the proposals.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 24 Feb. 41

The Chiefs of Staff having endorsed action on lines proposed in your telegrams from Cairo and from Athens, I brought whole question before War Cabinet this evening, Mr. Menzies being present. Decision was unanimous in the sense you desire, but of course Mr. Menzies must telegraph home. Presume, also, you have settled with New Zealand Government about their troops. No need anticipate difficulties in either quarter. Therefore, while being under no illusions, we all send you the order, “Full steam ahead.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

So far we had not taken any steps which went beyond gathering the largest possible strategic reserve in the Delta and making plans and shipping preparations to transport an army to Greece. If the situation changed through a reversal of Greek policy or any other event, we should be in the best position to deal with it. It was agreeable, after being so hard pressed, to be able to wind up satisfactorily the campaigns in Abyssinia, Somaliland, and Eritrea and bring substantial forces into our “mass of manoeuvre” in Egypt. While neither the intentions of the enemy nor the reactions of friends and neutrals could be divined or forecast, we seemed to have various important options open. The future remained inscrutable, but not a division had yet been launched, and meanwhile not a day was being lost in preparation.

5
Conquest of the Italian Empire

Origin and Growth of the Italian Empire in Africa—The Disaster of Adowa, 1896—The Italian Descent on Tripoli in 1911—Mussolini’s Ambitions—Remarkable Development of the Italian Colonies—Imposing Fortifications and Military Power—“The Chance of Five Thousand Years”—Wavell’s New Plan—Operations to Clear the Sudan—The Hard Core of Keren—Wingate Raises Rebellion—The Emperor Returns to Abyssinia—Unused Forces in Kenya—Smuts Points to Kismayu—Cunningham Calls a Halt—We Press for Action—Kismayu Taken—A Lightning Campaign in Italian Somaliland—All British Somaliland Regained—Attack on French Somaliland and Blockade of Jibuti—President Roosevelt’s Concern for the Italian Civil Population in Abyssinia—The Struggle for Keren—Tribute to the Indian Troops—The Italian Navy Eliminated from the Red Sea—Pursuit of the Italians—The Emperor Re-enters his Capital—Surrender of the Duke of Aosta—The End in Abyssinia.

When Mussolini declared war on Great Britain at the moment of the fall of France in 1940, the Italian Empire in North and East Africa presented a majestic appearance. The kingdom of Italy had been a late-comer among the nation states of nineteenth-century Europe. Weak in industrial strength, and thus in military power, but thrust forward by her expanding population, she entered the race for Africa under a serious handicap. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Italian eyes had turned increasingly to African expansion. Sixteen years later Massawa was occupied and the Colony of Eritrea was formally established as Italian sovereign territory. The colony of Italian Somaliland, with its access to the Indian Ocean, also slowly grew. In between these two early settlements lay the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. Upon this wild land Signor Crispi marched with the imperialist movement of the nineties, and hoped thereby to gain for Italy the prestige of a major Power in European affairs. The frightful disaster at Adowa in 1896, when the Italian army invading Abyssinia was annihilated, caused his fall and a halt to Italian adventures in Africa.

This tragic episode bit deep into Italian memories. When the Balkan States attacked Turkey in 1911, in the advent of the First World War, the Italian Government shocked and alarmed the sedate world of those days by leaping across to Tripoli and beginning its conquest. The need of France and Great Britain to gain Italy against the darkening German menace and the Turkish defeat in the Balkan fighting enabled a tenuous Italian foothold to be established on the North African coast. The fact that Italy was on the winning side in the first great struggle ratified her acquisition of Tripoli and Cyrenaica, which reviving Roman memories, was presently rechristened Libya. The rebellion of the Senussi remained a continuing challenge to the industrious occupation and colonisation of Arab deserts by the teeming population of Italy.

Such was the position when Mussolini came to power on the flowing Fascist tide against Bolshevism. The years which followed saw the planned expansion of Italy as an African colonial Power. The North African territories were subjugated under the stern military rule of General Graziani. Rebellions were ruthlessly quelled; the settlers multiplied; the desert was reclaimed; forts and aerodromes were built; roads and railways spread along the Mediterranean shore. Behind all this heavy but by no means ineffective expenditure of Italian resources lurked the national desire to avenge the defeat and shame of Adowa. My first volume has described the manner in which Mussolini’s resolve and audacity overcame the timid, half-hearted resistance of Britain through the League of Nations and reduced to failure the authority of “fifty nations led by one.” We have also seen how all this conflict and the conquest of Abyssinia played its part in the advent of the Second World War.

In June, 1940, when the British Empire seemed to Fascist eyes reeling to ruin, and France was almost prostrate, the Italian Empire in Africa spread far and wide. Libya, Eritrea, Abyssinia, Somaliland, nourished by Italian taxation, comprised a vast region in which nearly a quarter of a million Italian colonists toiled, and began to thrive, under the protection of more than four hundred thousand Italian and native troops. All the ports on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were fortified. The British Intelligence readily accepted the Italian statements of their scale of armament, and classed them as naval bases of a high order. If the British Empire fell, as then seemed to Mussolini certain, Egypt, British Somaliland, and British East Africa, added to the existing possessions of Italy, would form indeed an immense area of the earth’s surface under Italian sovereignty, the like of which had not been seen since the days of the Caesars. Here was what the ill-starred Ciano had called “the chance of five thousand years.” It was this gleaming vision which was now to be abruptly extinguished.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Up till December, 1940, our attitude towards the Italians throughout the east of Africa had been purely defensive. General Wavell held a conference in Cairo on December 2 at which he laid down a new policy. He did not yet contemplate any deep penetration by Regular troops into Abyssinia, but the Italians, who had occupied Kassala and Galabat in the Sudan on July 4, 1940, were to be ejected. When these minor offensives were completed, Wavell originally intended to withdraw the majority of the troops for operations in the Middle East, leaving to the patriot movement, fostered and nourished by British officers, arms, and money, the task of making the Italian position within Abyssinia impossible, and eventually of reconquering the country.

The operations to clear the Sudan began in January under General Platt. The opening phase met with easy success. Platt had the 5th British-Indian Division, which was reinforced in January by the 4th British-Indian Division, brought over from the Western Desert, where it had played its part in the victorious battles of December. The force was supported by six air squadrons. Two Italian divisions evacuated Kassala on January 19 under the threat of attack and after a bombardment from the air. Soon after they also withdrew from Galabat, and quitted the Sudan. Our pursuit from Kassala was carried on without serious check until it came up to the very strong mountain position at Keren. At this point the enemy’s two metropolitan divisions were firmly installed and holding tenaciously. Several attacks in early February could make no progress, and Platt decided that to force such a position he must accept the administrative delays involved in staging a fully prepared assault.

Meanwhile the work of raising rebellion in Abyssinia progressed. A small force under Brigadier Sanford of one Sudanese battalion and a number of selected British officers and N.C.O.’s, of whom Colonel Wingate was afterwards to gain high distinction, formed the core of the rising. As their successes grew they received help from increasing numbers of patriots. The Emperor re-entered his kingdom on January 20, and a large part of the western district of Gojjam was steadily cleared of the enemy.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Readers of the previous volume will be aware of my discontent with the large numbers of troops which had so long stood motionless in Kenya. Smuts had visited Kenya in November, 1940, and urged that we should assume the offensive, aiming at the Italian port of Kismayu.

He had telegraphed to me as follows:

5 Nov. 40

In Kenya I visited most of the fronts and studied plans with General Cunningham and his staff. There too the morale is good and the general position favourable, but there too prolonged inactivity in and by the desert will present danger to us. Best objective to go for in the near future is Kismayu, which is serious present threat to Mombasa, our essential base. Once Kismayu is captured and well held the bulk of our forces could be moved from that forbidding desert area towards the north so as to threaten Addis Ababa. For the Kismayu move Cunningham requires larger force than at first contemplated, and I shall send another infantry brigade from the Union as soon as sea transport is available. Additional Bren [guns] are badly wanted, and further transport for water and supply purposes will be provided. With serious internal unrest in Abyssinia and an attack both from the south and north, the Italians may crack in the summer, and considerable forces may thus be released for the more important theatre farther north.

This was in the fullest accord with my views. The brigade was sent from the Cape, and I understood that all preparations were moving for an advance in January before the rains set in. I was therefore shocked to see the following telegram:

General Wavell to C.I.G.S. 23 Nov. 40

Cunningham has decided not possible to carry out bold operations this winter. He proposes to carry out series of minor operations in Northern Kenya about middle of December, and requires both West African brigades for these. . . .

The High Commissioner for South Africa told us that General Smuts had expressed disappointment that the expedition against Kismayu, which he had hoped would be in January, was apparently being postponed till May in spite of the dispatch of the 3d Union Brigade. At the meeting of the Defence Committee on November 25, 1940, I inquired why the projected operation against Kismayu had been postponed until May. Sir John Dill said that he had received a telegram from General Wavell saying that he would shortly be holding a conference of commanders, including General Cunningham, to consider plans for the next six months.

We were none of us satisfied with this, and the Committee invited the Chiefs of Staff to call for a full explanation of the matter from General Wavell, and to report further to the Prime Minister.

I minuted as follows to the Secretary of State for War and the C.I.G.S.:

26 Nov. 40

I understand we are to receive from you a full account of the reasons now alleged to prevent the operation against Kismayu before May, and that you will make a strenuous effort not to succumb to these reasons. If it should be decided that nothing can be done till May, the West African brigade must go with the first set of empty transports to the West Coast, relieving the battalion now at Freetown.

The proposal to keep the brigade and not to fight is most depressing.

As a result of Wavell’s conference on December 2, it was decided to attack the Italians in Kassala and to stimulate the rebellion in Abyssinia by all possible means. But the attempt to capture Kismayu was still to be postponed till after the spring rains, which meant May or June.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I continued to gird at the numbers and the inaction of troops in Kenya.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 26 Jan. 41

I was perplexed by your telegram of the twenty-first. I thought you wanted to have a large strategic reserve in the Delta, and this is in accordance with the directions we have given from here. Certainly there is no need to send another South African division to swell the 70,000 troops of various kinds who are now virtually out of action in Kenya. I asked General Smuts, and he has agreed, to keep the destination of the new division fluid, as I thought that by the time transport, etc., could be arranged he might be willing for them to come north to join the Army of the Nile. How can you expect me to face the tremendous strain upon our shipping, affecting as it does all our food and import of munitions, in order to carry more divisions from this country to the Middle East, when you seem opposed to taking a South African division, which would only have less than half the distance to come? I hope indeed that both the South African divisions now in Kenya will in a few months be moved to the Delta, and that the West African brigade will be sent, as promised, back to Freetown. On no account must General Smuts be discouraged from his bold and sound policy of gradually working South African forces into the main theatre.

Under the strong pressure from home Wavell eventually decided to make the effort before the rains. He animated the Kenya Command, and we were presently informed that the Nairobi forces hoped to carry out Operation “Canvas” (as the attack on Kismayu was called) between February 10 and 16. This signified a real movement in the East African theatre. I was much relieved to get Wavell’s telegram of February 2, 1941, in which he said:

In Kenya I have approved the proposal to attempt capture of Kismayu about the middle of February. Enemy has strong positions and supply situation limits our force, but think attempt has reasonable chance of success. . . . Generally I have given instructions to both Platt and Cunningham for the maximum effort they can make against Italian East Africa in the next two months.

Thus we achieved the forward movement. The results showed how unduly the commanders on the spot had magnified the difficulties and how right we were at home to press them to speedy action.

February marked the beginning of General Cunningham’s attack in strength. An Italian force of six brigades and six groups of local levies held the river Juba, near the mouth of which lies the port of Kismayu. Against them General Cunningham deployed, on February 10, four brigade groups. Kismayu was taken without opposition on the fourteenth. North of the port, beyond the river, stood the main enemy position at Jelib. That was attacked on the twenty-second, from both flanks and from the rear. A considerable success was gained. The enemy was completely routed, over thirty thousand being killed, captured, or dispersed into the bush. The enemy air had been roughly handled by the South African airplanes and took no part in the battle. Nothing now remained to hinder the advance to Mogadishu, the major seaport of Italian Somaliland, two hundred miles farther north. Our motorised troops entered it on the twenty-fifth, to find great quantities of material and stores and over four hundred thousand gallons of precious petrol. On its airfield lay twenty-one destroyed aircraft. General Cunningham rightly judged that there was no enemy to oppose his next move. He had sufficient troops, even though the 1st South African Division, except for one brigade, was held back for operations elsewhere. Distance was the only problem. Transport and supply were the decisive factors. Cunningham got permission from General Wavell to make his next objective Jijiga, no less than 740 miles from Mogadishu. After pausing only three days the advance was renewed on March 1, and, brushing aside only light opposition, and meeting little interference from the enemy air force, whose airfields were subjected to frequent attacks, reached Jijiga on March 17. These were fine operations.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 1 March 41

Hearty congratulations on the brilliant result of the campaign in Italian Somaliland. Will you convey to General Cunningham the thanks and appreciation of His Majesty’s Government for the vigorous, daring, and highly successful operations which he has conducted in command of his ardent, well-trained, well-organised army. Will you ask him to convey this message to his troops. Publish as you find convenient.

You will no doubt discuss future operations with General Smuts on the seventh. As you know, I have always wanted the South African divisions to come forward to the Mediterranean shore.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 2 March 41

Your congratulations are very much appreciated. I have conveyed your message to General Cunningham.

2. Cunningham is pushing light forces on to Ferfer [about two hundred miles north of Mogadishu and Dolo], which will complete occupation of Italian Somaliland. Owing to situation as regards supplies and transport, he does not think he can advance on Harrar before March 21. He is coming to Cairo March 7, and we will discuss future plans and moves of South African divisions.

3. Have already instructed Aden to reconnoitre Berbera with view to reoccupation if possible.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At this point our troops from Aden could help. Our four air squadrons there had, apart from their duties over the Red Sea, been supporting from their central position both Cunningham’s and Platt’s campaigns by attacking the enemy air bases. On March 16 two of our battalions were landed at Berbera. The enemy garrison of a brigade melted away, leaving two hundred prisoners in our hands. All British Somaliland was now quickly regained, and through the port of Berbera General Cunningham’s further advance could now be more readily sustained. He resumed his advance to Harrar, which surrendered on March 26, and on March 29 he entered Diredawa. This brought us to the railway from French Somaliland. Had the port of Jibuti been opened to us by the Vichy French, it would have greatly eased supply. That, however, was not to be. At Diredawa General Cunningham collected his resources for the final bound to Addis Ababa. During the month of March he had traversed eight hundred and fifty miles from Mogadishu with the 11th African Division and the 1st South African Brigade. Since the crossing of the river Juba his troops had accounted for more than fifty thousand of the enemy, killed, prisoners, or dispersed, at a cost of under five hundred casualties.

As a result of these successes various complications arose. General Wavell feared that the policy of strict blockade of Jibuti favoured by Generals de Gaulle and Le Gentilhomme would merely stiffen its resistance. He proposed instead making an offer to admit sufficient supplies, such as milk for children, to prevent distress, to allow any troops wishing to join the Free French to do so and to evacuate the rest to some other French colony, and to negotiate for the use of the railway for supplying his own forces. But at home we took a different view.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 1 April 41

We consider that you should follow policy laid down in Chiefs of Staff telegram of March 25 as closely as possible, subject to any modification which may seem desirable after your discussions with General de Gaulle. In particular, the initial approach to French Somaliland should be made by Free French authorities, and there should be no hesitation in using the blockade weapon to the full. Do not worry about the susceptibilities of Weygand and Vichy. We will look after them at this end.

2. I hope that on this and similar matters you will feel able to give full weight to the views of General de Gaulle, to whom His Majesty’s Government have given solemn engagements, and who has their full backing as leader of the Free French Movement.

      *      *      *      *      *      

President Roosevelt was concerned about the Italian civil population in Abyssinia.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 4 April 41

Count Sforza’s suggestion [about Italian noncombatants] has been most attentively considered here. I beg you to realise our difficulties. Duke of Aosta might indeed be ready to yield Addis Ababa and march off into the mountains to carry on the war for some weeks, or even months, while leaving us with the whole responsibility for the health and safety of the civilian population, numbering scores of thousands. We have no means of discharging such a task until the organised fighting ends. We do not even hold port Jibuti, the railway line is broken, every ounce of transport we possess is sustaining our troops in their long advance. Result might well be a lamentable breakdown, whole burden of which would be cast on us, like the concentration camps in the old South African War. The moment the Duke brings the fighting to an end we will strain every nerve, and there might be prospects of success. Any prolongation of Italian resistance in Ethiopia delays our reinforcement of Libya, and you can see how urgent that has become. It is not merely a case of giving the enemy an immense military advantage, but undertaking a task in which we should fail.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 30 May 41

It will be convenient to have [Jibuti] in the near future, and I shall be glad if you will consider what forces would be necessary to break the French resistance, and whether they could be found without prejudice to other needs. The time to strike depends, of course, upon events in Syria, which may lead to a breach with Vichy, or alternatively to co-operation between the French army in Syria and the Free French. Either way the seizure of Jibuti might be fitted in. Meanwhile the blockade should be maintained with the utmost strictness, and any preparatory concentrations on the Jibuti frontier which you think helpful may be made. In this way actual fighting may be avoided, as is greatly to be desired. The moment for action can only be fixed in consultation with us.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile the campaign in Abyssinia had progressed. Keren resisted obstinately. The flanks of this position could not be turned; only direct frontal attack was possible. To build up his resources for this effort and to deploy both his divisions Platt had but a single road, which lay in full view of the enemy. Railhead was a hundred and fifty miles away, so that not only did his preparations take several weeks, but surprise was out of the question. The air forces, including those from Aden, now played an invaluable part. In the first phase of this campaign Italian pilots had shown considerable initiative, but after the arrival of Hurricanes for the South African fighter squadron superiority was soon achieved. During the preparatory stages of the final Keren battle the Italian army was constantly harried on the ground and in the air. Soon the enemy ceased to interfere with troop movements, and when the battle opened support from the air did much to pave the way for our advance and to break enemy morale. The battle proved stubborn and cost us three thousand casualties. After the first three days, March 15 to 17, there was a pause for regrouping. On the twentieth General Wavell telegraphed that the fighting had been severe. The enemy had been counter-attacking fiercely and repeatedly, and although their losses had been extremely heavy and they had achieved only one success, there were no immediate signs of a crack. The Italians were evidently making desperate efforts to save this stronghold, and their air force was active. From London it looked rather evenly balanced, and we raised the question of reinforcements. These, however, were not needed. The attack was renewed on March 25, and two days later the Italian defence broke and Keren fell. Pursuit was rapid. Asmara fell on April 1, and Massawa, with ten thousand prisoners, surrendered on April 8.

The victory at Keren was mainly gained by the 4th and 5th British Indian Divisions. I paid them the tribute that their prowess deserved.

Prime Minister to Viceroy of India 7 April 41

The whole Empire has been stirred by the achievement of the Indian forces in Eritrea. For me the story of the ardour and perseverance with which they scaled and finally conquered the precipitous heights of Keren recalls memories of the North-West Frontier of long years ago, and it is as one who has had the honour to serve in the field with Indian soldiers from all parts of Hindustan, as well as in the name of His Majesty’s Government, that I ask Your Excellency to convey to them and to the whole Indian Army the pride and admiration with which we have followed their heroic exploits.

I hastened to send Generals Cunningham and Platt and their gallant armies my heartfelt congratulations and those of His Majesty’s Government upon “this timely and brilliant culmination of your memorable and strenuous campaign.”

Other clearances were also effected. On entering the war Italy had a force of nine destroyers, eight submarines, and a number of minor vessels in the Red Sea. All these had now been accounted for by the Royal Navy and the Fleet air arm. By April 11 President Roosevelt was able to declare that the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden were no longer “combat zones” and were therefore open to American ships.

What remained of the Italian army in Eritrea retreated two hundred and thirty miles south through the mountains and fortified itself on the position of Amba Alagi. General Platt followed in their tracks. The 4th Indian Division and the majority of the supporting air squadrons were now diverted to Egypt, as a part of events presently to be narrated. With what remained Platt closed with the enemy. General Cunningham had reached Addis Ababa on April 6, where remnants of the Italian Air Force lay in wreckage on the airfield. He thrust the South African brigade northward through Dessie, and it came upon the rear of the Italians at Amba Alagi. With their retreat thus cut off, with General Platt attacking from the north, harassed by patriots, machine-gunned and bombed from the air, the Italian resistance could not last long. In early April Wingate’s Sudanese battalion and local units, together with the irregulars who had come over to the Emperor, drove twelve thousand of the enemy in Gojjam into Debra Markos. Half of them were taken; the rest fled north to Gondar. The Emperor re-entered his capital on May 5.

      *      *      *      *      *      

When we look back upon the part played by Mussolini in the European crisis and the events leading to the war arising out of his attack on Abyssinia, and remember how he had successfully defied the League of Nations—“Fifty nations led by one”—we can see how easily firmness and action might have cleared this complication from the darkening European scene. Now, at any rate, among all our stresses and dangers we had made a good job of it. It was not without emotion springing from past thoughts and experience that I was able to offer my salutations to Haile Selassie.

Prime Minister to the Emperor of Ethiopia 9 May 41

It is with deep and universal pleasure that the British nation and Empire have learned of Your Imperial Majesty’s welcome home to your capital at Addis Ababa. Your Majesty was the first of the lawful sovereigns to be driven from his throne and country by the Fascist-Nazi criminals, and you are now the first to return in triumph. Your Majesty’s thanks will be duly conveyed to the commanders, officers, and men of the British and Empire forces who have aided the Ethiopian patriots in the total and final destruction of the Italian military usurpation. His Majesty’s Government look forward to a long period of peace and progress in Ethiopia alter the forces of evil have been finally overthrown.

The Duke of Aosta, a cousin of the King of Italy, had been Governor-General of Italian East Africa and Viceroy of Ethiopia since 1937, and Commander-in-Chief of the Italian armies in these territories since 1939. A chivalrous and cultivated man, partly educated in England and married to a French princess, he was not popular with Mussolini. The Duce regarded him with some justification as lacking in ruthlessness and commanding military ability. He surrendered with the remnants of his army on May 17, and died in 1942 as a prisoner of war in Nairobi.

In the operations since January the greater part of the enemy forces, originally more than 220,000 strong, had been captured or destroyed. There still remained many thousand men in the mountain fastnesses of Abyssinia.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It will be convenient to complete here the tale of the destruction of the Italian Empire and armies in East Africa, which formed the accompaniment of so many graver events elsewhere. Our earlier fears that the Italian civil population of twenty thousand in Addis Ababa would be slaughtered by the Abyssinians were relieved. Farther north forty-five hundred Italians and levies, pressed into Debra Tabor by patriots, surrendered on July 2 to a British force of one squadron and one company. Southwest Abyssinia was cleared by part of the 11th African Division from Addis Ababa and the 12th advancing northward from the Kenya border. In a long series of operations much handicapped by ground and weather, by the first week of July they cleared the whole area of forty thousand enemy. During the summer native troops under Belgian command came from the Congo, two thousand miles across Africa, to take part in the final stages, and themselves took 15,000 prisoners. Only Gondar remained. But by now the rains had come, and this last stroke had to wait till they had passed. The net began to close in late September, and when the end was reached on November 27, 11,500 Italians, 12,000 local troops and forty-eight field guns fell into our hands.

Thus ended Mussolini’s dream of an African Empire to be built by conquest and colonised in the spirit of ancient Rome.

6
Decision to Aid Greece

A Strategic Reserve in the Delta—The Moment of Resolve—Our Freedom to Withdraw—Hopes of a Balkan Front—Admiral Cunningham on the Naval Risks to Be Run—My Telegram to General Smuts of February 28— Mr. Eden’s Discussions with the Turks, February 28—My Comment Thereon—Yugoslavia the Key—The German Army Moves into Bulgaria—Changed and Disturbing Situation at Athens—Views of the Chiefs of Staff—My Reflections upon It and My Message to Mr. Eden, March 6—Distress of Our Ambassador at Athens—To Help or to Abandon Greece?—A Measured Reply from Mr. Eden—Smuts and the Commanders-in-Chief Advise Us to Go On—A Short Cabinet and a Final Decision, March 7—Response from New Zealand—And from the Poles—My Telegram to Mr. Eden of March 14—My Message to President Roosevelt of March 10.

Hitherto we had not committed ourselves to the Greek adventure, except by continuous large-scale preparations in Egypt, and by the discussions and agreements at Athens which have been described. The preparations could be arrested by a single order, and anyhow the assembly of a strategic reserve of four divisions in the Delta was good in itself. The Greeks had departed in so many ways from the terms of the Athens Agreement that we could, had we so wished, have asked for release from it. Dangers approached from every quarter, but up to the early days of March I felt fairly comfortable and in essentials free, with a “mass of manoeuvre” in hand.

Now the moment had come when the irrevocable decision must be taken whether or not to send the Army of the Nile to Greece. This grave step was required, not only to help Greece in her peril and torment, but to form against the impending German attack a Balkan Front comprising Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey, with effects upon Soviet Russia which could not be measured by us. These would certainly have been all-important if the Soviet leaders had realised what was coming upon them. It was not what we could send ourselves that could decide the Balkan issue. Our limited hope was to stir and organise united action. If at the wave of our wand Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey would all act together, it seemed to us that Hitler might either let the Balkans off for the time being or become so heavily engaged with our combined forces as to create a major front in that theatre. We did not then know that he was already deeply set upon his gigantic invasion of Russia. If we had, we should have felt more confidence in the success of our policy. We should have seen that he risked falling between two stools, and might easily impair his supreme undertaking for the sake of a Balkan preliminary. This is what actually happened, but we could not know at the time. Some may think we builded rightly; at least we builded better than we knew. It was our aim to animate and combine Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey. Our duty so far as possible was to aid the Greeks. For all these purposes our four divisions in the Delta were well placed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On March 4 Admiral Cunningham left us in no doubt as to the considerable naval risks in the Mediterranean which were involved in the move of the Army and the Royal Air Force to Greece. This meant continuous convoys of men, stores, and vehicles for the next two months. Destroyers in particular would have to be very heavily worked, and fighter and anti-aircraft defence would be weak for some time to come. If the Germans started an air offensive from Bulgaria we must expect losses in the convoys both at sea and at their ports of disembarkation, Nor could we rule out surface action by the Italian Fleet. This could be met by our battleships based on Suda Bay in Crete, but only at the expense of weakening the destroyer escort for the convoys and leaving the supply line to Cyrenaica practically unprotected. All this in its turn would increase the strain on Malta. The vulnerability of the Suez Canal to magnetic and acoustic mines gave cause for much anxiety just when these big movements of troops and convoys were starting. All offensive plans, including the combined operations against Rhodes, must, the Admiral said, be postponed. His resources would be taxed to the limit, but he was convinced that our policy was right and that the risks should be faced. The shelving of Rhodes was to us all a serious disappointment.We recognised its commanding importance. Rhodes, and also Scarpanto, with their invaluable airfields so near to Crete, were key points. Many times in the years that followed did we plan to assault Rhodes. Never could we fit it in to the main course of events.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I now learned that General Smuts was going to Cairo at Mr. Eden’s earnest request, and I cabled to him:

28 Feb. 41

I am so glad you are going to meet Eden and Dill. We have taken a grave and hazardous decision to sustain the Greeks and try to make a Balkan Front. I look forward to receiving your personal views upon this after your conference. This decision makes it most necessary to reinforce Egypt and Libya, and I hope you will arrange with Wavell and Dill to bring “Acanthus” [the 1st South African Division] forward to the Mediterranean at the earliest moment, asking me about shipping difficulties, which are great. Our affairs are helped by rapid successes gained in East Africa. It is only a few weeks ago they were telling us they could not move on Kismayu till May. Now we have Mogadishu and the whole place in our hands.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Eden’s account of his discussions with the Turks was not encouraging. They realised their own dangers as acutely as we did, but they, like the Greeks, were convinced that the forces we could offer would not be sufficient to make any real difference to an actual battle.

Mr. Eden to Prime Minister 28 Feb. 41

C.I.G.S. and I this morning had discussion on extremely frank and friendly basis with President of the Council, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Marshal Chakmak.

Our decision to send Greece the maximum assistance at the earliest possible moment was well received. They reiterated Turkey’s determination to fight if attacked by Germany, and stated their conviction that German attack on Greece meant that Turkey’s turn would come next. But since Turkey’s forces at present had no offensive power they considered the common cause would be better served by Turkey remaining out of the war until her deficiencies had been remedied and she could be employed with the maximum effect.

If attacked, Turks felt confident that they could hold the Germans for a time, though they would hope that we should be able immediately to come to their assistance. . . . They stated their readiness to concert action with Yugoslav Government, from whom, however, they had so far only received an evasive reply to [their] approach made at our instance. They felt concerned lest Russians should attack [them] if Turkey became involved in war with Germany.

The upshot of these discussions is that Turkey undertakes in any event to enter the war at some stage. She will, of course, do so immediately she is attacked. But if she is given time by Germans to re-equip herself she will take advantage of it, and will then make war at a moment favourable to the common cause, when her weight can be used with real effect.

To this I replied:

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Athens 1 March 41

Obvious German move is to overrun Bulgaria, further to intimidate Turkey by threat of air attacks, force Greece out of the war, and then turn on Yugoslavia, compelling her to obey; after which Turkey can be attacked or not, at their hostile convenience.

Your main appeal should now be made to Yugoslavia. A sudden move south by Yugoslavia would produce an Italian disaster of the first magnitude, possibly decisive on whole Balkan situation.[1] If at the same moment Turkey declared war the enemy could not gather sufficient forces for many months, during which our air strength will grow. I am absolutely ready to go in on a serious hazard if there is reasonable chance of success, at any rate for a few months, and all preparations should go forward at fullest speed. But I should like you so to handle matters in Greece that if upon final consideration of all the factors, including Rhodes possibilities, you feel that there is not even a reasonable hope, you should still retain power to liberate Greeks from any bargain and at the same time liberate ourselves. Evidently you and we have a few days in which to make our final decision. Meanwhile all should proceed as arranged.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Our efforts to warn the Yugoslavian Government must now be described. The whole defence of Salonika depended on their coming in, and it was vital to know what they would do. On March 2 Mr. Campbell, our Ambassador at Belgrade, met Mr. Eden in Athens. He said that the Yugoslavs were frightened of Germany and unsettled internally by political difficulties. There was a chance, however, that if they knew our plans for aiding Greece they might be ready to help. Mr. Eden and the Greeks feared lest the enemy should find out. On the fifth the Foreign Secretary sent Mr. Campbell back to Belgrade with a confidential letter to the Regent. In this he portrayed Yugoslavia’s fate at German hands, and said that Greece and Turkey intended to fight if attacked. In such a case Yugoslavia must join us. The Regent was to be told verbally that the British had decided to help Greece with land and air forces as strongly and quickly as possible, and that if a Yugoslav staff officer could be sent to Athens we would include him in our discussions. The defence of Salonika would depend on Yugoslavia’s attitude. If she gave way to Germany the consequences would be obvious. She was urged instead to join us and have a British army to fight by her side. Our effort in Greece would be a vigorous one, and we had a good chance of holding a line.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On March 1 the German Army began to move into Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Army mobilised and took up positions along the Greek frontier. A general southward movement of the German forces was in progress, aided in every way by the Bulgarians. On the following day Mr. Eden and General Dill returned to Athens from Angora and military conversations were resumed. As the result of these Mr. Eden sent a very serious message.

Mr. Eden and C.I.G.S. to Prime Minister 5 March 41

On arrival here we found a changed and disturbing situation and the atmosphere quite different from that of our last visit.

2. General Papagos had on the last occasion insisted strongly that the withdrawal of all troops in Macedonia to the Aliakhmon line was the only sound military solution. We had expected that this withdrawal to the Aliakhmon line had already begun. Instead we found that no movement had in fact commenced, Papagos alleging that it had been agreed that the decision taken at our last meeting was dependent on the receipt of an answer from Yugoslavia as to their attitude. . . .

3. Papagos now proposed to hold the line of fortifications near the Macedonian frontier with four divisions, although he thought they could not hold out for long, and also simply to remain where he was on the Albanian front. This seemed an admission of despair, as he himself practically admitted.

4. He proposed that British troops should, as they arrived, be moved up piecemeal to the Macedonian frontier line, although it was unlikely that they could arrive in time. We naturally refused to accept this proposal, which was so entirely different from the conditions under which we had agreed to send our forces. We telegraphed to the Commander-in-Chief Middle East to come to Athens for discussion. He arrived March 3, and discussions have been practically continuous. As attitude of Papagos was unaccommodating, we had to enlist the aid of the King, who was throughout the very trying discussions which followed calm, determined, and helpful.

5. We were finally offered three Greek divisions. . . .

6. We were thus faced with following alternatives: (a) To accept the plan of Papagos, to which he constantly returned, of attempting to dribble our forces piecemeal up to Macedonian frontier. (b) To accept three Greek divisions offered for Aliakhmon line, the equivalent of about sixteen to twenty-three battalions, instead of thirty-five we had been led to expect on our previous visit, and to build up our concentration behind this. (c) To withdraw our offer of military support altogether.

7. We were agreed that course (a) could only lead to military wavering, while course (c) seemed equally disastrous. . . .

8. We therefore agreed, after some misgivings, to solution (b), but with the proviso that the command and organisation of the whole Aliakhmon line was entrusted to General Wilson as soon as he was in a position to take it over. This was agreed to.

9. Our military advisers did not consider it by any means a hopeless proposition to check and hold the German advance on this line, which is naturally strong, with few approaches. At the worst it should always be possible to make fighting withdrawal from this line through country eminently suitable for rear-guard action. . . .

10. We are all sure that we have in a very difficult situation arrived at correct decision. These two days have been indescribably anxious, but now that decision has been taken there is a marked improvement in the general atmosphere on Greek side. The hard fact remains that our forces, including Dominions contingents, will be engaged in an operation more hazardous than it seemed a week ago. You will no doubt decide on any communications to be made to the Dominions Governments. . . .

      *      *      *      *      *      

A marked change now came over our views in London. The Chiefs of Staff recorded the various factors developing unfavourably against our Balkan policy, and particularly against sending an army to Greece. They first emphasised the main changes in the situation: the depression of the Greek Commander-in-Chief; the omission of the Greeks to carry out their undertaking of twelve days earlier to withdraw their troops to the line we should have to hold if Yugoslavia did not come in; the fact that thirty-five Greek battalions were to have helped us hold this line, and that now there were to be only twenty-three at most, all newly formed, untried in battle, and lacking in artillery. In addition it had been expected that the Greeks would be able to withdraw some divisions from their Albanian front. “General Papagos now says that this cannot be done, as they are exhausted and outnumbered.”

Turning to our own difficulties, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out that they had always expected that Rhodes would be captured before, or simultaneously with, the move to Greece; instead, this could not now be done till the move was over. This would mean that instead of our being able to concentrate our air forces against the German advance we should now have to conduct “considerable” air operations against Rhodes in order to protect our lines of communication to Greece. Finally, the Suez Canal was for the moment completely blocked by mines, and was not expected to be cleared until March 11. Half the ships carrying motor transport were north of the Canal and all the personnel ships south of it. Time, moreover, was running short. The Chiefs of Staff estimated that the Germans could concentrate two divisions on the Aliakhmon line by March 15 and three more by the twenty-second. One of these would be armoured. Assuming that the Greeks could only delay them in front of this line for a short time, the best we could hope for would be to have one armoured and one New Zealand brigade against the first two German divisions.

“The hazards of the enterprise,” they concluded, “have considerably increased.” They did not, however, feel that they could as yet question the military advice of those on the spot, who described the position as not by any means hopeless.

      *      *      *      *      *      

After reflecting alone at Chequers on the Sunday night upon the Chiefs of Staff paper and the trend of discussion in the War Cabinet that morning I sent the following message to Mr. Eden, who had now left Athens for Cairo. This certainly struck a different note on my part. But I take full responsibility for the eventual decision, because I am sure I could have stopped it all if I had been convinced. It is so much easier to stop than to do.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 6 March 41

Situation has indeed changed for worse. Chiefs of Staff have presented serious commentary, which follows in my next. Failure of Papagos to act as agreed with you on February 22, obvious difficulty of his extricating his army from contact in Albania, and time-table of our possible movements furnished by Wavell, together with other adverse factors recited by Chiefs of Staff—for example, postponement of Rhodes and closing of Canal—make it difficult for Cabinet to believe that we now have any power to avert fate of Greece unless Turkey and/or Yugoslavia come in, which seems most improbable. We have done our best to promote Balkan combination against Germany. We must be careful not to urge Greece against her better judgment into a hopeless resistance alone when we have only handfuls of troops which can reach scene in time. Grave Imperial issues are raised by committing New Zealand and Australian troops to an enterprise which, as you say, has become even more hazardous. We are bound to lay before the Dominions Governments your and Chiefs of Staff appreciation. Cannot forecast their assent to operation. We do not see any reasons for expecting success, except that, of course, we attach great weight to opinions of Dill and Wavell.

We must liberate Greeks from feeling bound to reject a German ultimatum. If on their own they resolve to fight, we must to some extent share their ordeal. But rapid German advance will probably prevent any appreciable British Imperial forces from being engaged.

Loss of Greece and Balkans is by no means a major catastrophe for us, provided Turkey remains honest neutral. We could take Rhodes and consider plans for “Influx” [descent on Sicily] or Tripoli. We are advised from many quarters that our ignominious ejection from Greece would do us more harm in Spain and Vichy than the fact of submission of Balkans, which with our scanty forces alone we have never been expected to prevent.

I send you this to prepare your mind for what, in the absence of facts very different from those now before us, will probably be expressed in Cabinet decision tomorrow.

Attached to this was the grave commentary, summarised above, of the Chiefs of Staff.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As soon as my warning telegram was read by Sir Michael Palairet in Athens he showed lively distress, and telegraphed to the Foreign Secretary, who had now reached Cairo, as follows:

6 March 41

I have just read the Prime Minister’s message to you. I need not emphasise to you the effect of our now withdrawing from the agreement actually signed between Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Greek Commander-in-Chief and now in process of execution here by General Wilson himself. How can we possibly abandon the King of Greece after the assurances given him by the Commander-in-Chief and Chief of the Imperial General Staff as to reasonable chances of success? This seems to me quite unthinkable. We shall be pilloried by the Greeks and the world in general as going back on our word.

2. There is no question of “liberating the Greeks from feeling bound to reject the ultimatum.” They have decided to fight Germany alone if necessary. The question is whether we help or abandon them.

And again to Mr. Eden later in the day:

King of Greece spoke today to Air Attaché with deep appreciation of your visit and absolute determination to carry out agreed plan of action against German attack. He has every confidence in the chances for success, and is satisfied that this confidence is shared by General Papagos and his Government. He emphasised the great importance of speed, and particularly of adequate air forces here, in order to break up the German air attack, which is their customary opening offensive. Initial German defeat in the air would, more than anything else, do away with the myth of German invincibility and give the whole country the same confidence which he has in prospects for success. I have not yet seen him myself since you left.

And still later:

General Wilson has had a most satisfactory talk with General Papagos this morning. He is greatly encouraged by the marked improvement in the latter’s attitude. He found him most helpful and anxious to co-operate in every possible way.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden (Cairo) 6 March 41

War Cabinet are taking no decision until we receive your reply.

Mr. Eden to Prime Minister 6 March 41

Chief of Imperial General Staff and I, in consultation with the three Commanders-in-Chief, have this afternoon re-examined the question. We are unanimously agreed that, despite the heavy commitments and grave risks which are undoubtedly involved, especially in view of our limited naval and air resources, the right decision was taken in Athens. Palairet’s telegrams to Cairo show the position from Greek angle.

2. This is merely to indicate to you how our minds are working while we await Cabinet view.

And later:

Mr. Eden to Prime Minister 6 March 41

We have had further discussion this evening with General Smuts and Commanders-in-Chief, and further detailed appreciation follows tomorrow morning.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 7 March 41

I will bring your measured and deliberate reply before the Cabinet today. Meanwhile all preparations and movements should go forward at utmost speed.

2. I am deeply impressed with steadfast attitude maintained by you and your military advisers, Dill, Wavell, and, I presume, Wilson, on the broad merits, after full knowledge of local and technical situation and in view of the memorandum by the C.O.S. Committee.

3. Two points are dominant. First, we must not take on our shoulders responsibility of urging Greeks against their better judgment to fight a hopeless battle and involve their country in probable speedy ruin. If, however, knowing how little we can send at particular dates, they resolve to fight to the death, obviously we must, as I have already said, share their ordeal. It must not be said, and on your showing it cannot be said, that, having so little to give, we dragged them in by overpersuasion. I take it, from your attitude and Athens telegrams, that you are sure on this point.

4. Second point. It happens that most of the troops to be devoted to this solemn duty are the New Zealand Division and after March the Australians. We must be able to tell the New Zealand and Australian Governments faithfully that this hazard, from which they will not shrink, is undertaken, not because of any commitment entered into by a British Cabinet Minister at Athens and signed by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but because Dill, Wavell, and other Commanders-in-Chief are convinced that there is a reasonable fighting chance. This I regard as implied by your positive reactions to our questioning telegrams.

5. Please remember in your stresses that, so far, you have given us few facts or reasons on their authority which can be presented to these Dominions as justifying the operation on any grounds but noblesse oblige. A precise military appreciation is indispensable.

6. You know how our hearts are with you and your great officers.

On the seventh the promised fuller statement of the case reached us in London.

Mr. Eden to Prime Minister 7 March 41

Following are the views of your envoys:

Whole position again fully reviewed with the Commanders-in-Chief and Smuts. While we are all conscious of the gravity of the decision, we can find no reason to vary our previous judgment.

2. There has been no question of urging Greece against her better judgment. At our first meeting at Tatoi Greek Prime Minister handed me at the outset of the proceedings written statement announcing Greece’s determination to resist an attack by Italy or Germany, if necessary alone. The Greek Government have consistently maintained this attitude, with varying degrees of confidence as to the outcome. The Greeks appreciate that there is no honourable peace open to them with Italy and Germany menacing their frontiers. The Greeks can only share the fate of Rumania, or continue the struggle whatever the odds.

3. We have already undertaken commitments towards Greece. Eight squadrons of the R.A.F., ground defences and anti-aircraft personnel, have been operating there for months past.

4. Collapse of Greece without further effort on our part to save her by intervention on land, after the Libyan victories had, as all the world knows, made forces available, would be the greatest calamity. Yugoslavia would then certainly be lost; nor can we feel confident that even Turkey would have the strength to remain steadfast if the Germans and Italians were established in Greece without effort on our part to resist them. No doubt our prestige will suffer if we are ignominiously ejected, but in any event to have fought and suffered in Greece would be less damaging to us than to have left Greece to her fate. . . .

In the existing situation we are all agreed that the course advocated should be followed and help given to Greece.

We devoutly trust, therefore, that no difficulties will arise with regard to the dispatch of Dominions forces as arranged. At the same time, if the operation is to have a fair chance of success, it is vital to find means of supplementing the very serious gap in our forces, particularly in the air. As we have already many times emphasised since our arrival, weakness in the air is our chief anxiety in this theatre of war. Germans, working on interior lines, are increasing their weight of attack from Sicily and Tripoli, from the Balkans and the Dodecanese. We are making no corresponding increase in our own reinforcements, and drastic reduction in the promised allotment of Tomahawks has come as a grievous blow. Royal Air Force here are daily engaged with the Italian Metropolitan Air Force in Albania, and with an ever-increasing proportion of German Air Force in other areas.

The struggle in the air in this theatre will be a stern one. Longmore requires all the help that can be given. If he can hold his own most of the dangers and difficulties of this enterprise will disappear.

Accompanied by the Chiefs of Staff, I brought the issue before the War Cabinet, who were fully apprised of everything as it happened, for final decision. In spite of the fact that we could not send more aircraft than were already ordered and on the way, there was no hesitation or division among us. Personally I felt that the men on the spot had been searchingly tested. There was no doubt that their hands had not been forced in any way by political pressure from home. Smuts, with all his wisdom, and from his separate angle of thought and fresh eye, had concurred. Nor could anyone suggest that we had thrust ourselves upon Greece against her wishes. No one had been overpersuaded. Certainly we had with us the highest expert authority, acting in full freedom and with all knowledge of the men and the scene. My colleagues, who were toughened by the many risks we had run successfully, had independently reached the same conclusions. Mr. Menzies, on whom a special burden rested, was full of courage. There was a strong glow for action. The Cabinet was short; the decision final.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 7 March 41

Cabinet this morning considered project in light of your telegrams from Athens and Cairo, and my telegrams. Chiefs of Staff advised that, in view of steadfastly expressed opinion of Commanders-in-Chief on the spot, of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and commanders of the forces to be employed, it would be right to go on. Cabinet decided to authorise you to proceed with the operation, and by so doing Cabinet accepts for itself the fullest responsibility.[2] We will communicate with Australian and New Zealand Governments accordingly.

In a more personal strain I telegraphed two days later:

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 9 March 41

I entirely agree with all your handling of the Balkan telegrams. There seems still a chance of Yugoslavia coming in, and more than a chance of her keeping the door shut.

2. While you are on the spot you should deal faithfully with Egyptian Prime Minister, Farouk, and anyone else about our security requirements. It is intolerable that Rumanian Legation should become a nest of Hun spies, or that the Canal Zone should be infested by enemy agents. I am relying on you to put a stop to all this ill-usage we are receiving at the hands of those we have saved.

3. Will you tell Smuts how glad I should be if now he is so near he could come and do a month’s work in the War Cabinet as of old.

4. Do not overlook those parts of your instructions dealing with the economy of the Middle East armies. Am relying on you to clean this up, and to make sure that every man pulls his weight. A few days might well be devoted to this.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile New Zealand made a fine response to our request for her division.

Prime Minister to Prime Minister of New Zealand 12 March 41

We are deeply moved by your reply, which, whatever the fortunes of war may be, will shine in the history of New Zealand and be admired by future generations of free men in every quarter of the globe.

To make good the request and assumption at the end of your message shall be our faithful, unremitting endeavour.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Cairo 14 March 41

I have come to the conclusion that it is better for you to stay in Middle East until the opening phase of this crisis has matured. Your instructions give you the means of concerting the political and military action of all the factors involved. The attitude of Yugoslavia is still by no means hopeless, and a situation may at any moment arise which would enable you to go there. Turkey requires stimulus and guidance as events develop. No one but you can combine and concert the momentous policy which you have pressed upon us and which we have adopted. The War Cabinet needs a representative on the spot, and I need you there very much indeed.

2. I saw Sikorski this morning and asked for the Polish Brigade. He agreed in the most manly fashion, but he asked that this Brigade, which was one of the few remaining embodiments of Polish nationality, should not be lightly cast away or left to its fate. I promised full equipment and no greater risks than would be run by own flesh and blood. He said, “You have millions of soldiers; we have only these few units.” I hope you appreciate what we are asking of these valiant strangers, and that General Wavell will have this in his mind always.

3. I feel very much the fact that we are not using a single British division. I am arranging to send the 50th Division with Convoy W.S. 8, leaving April 22. A special convoy would only have saved a week, and we cannot afford the extra escort.

4. We have not been told by Wavell whether Glens[3] got through Canal, but presume this will be regarded as urgent in the highest degree. A source of which you are aware shows that preparations are being made to withdraw German personnel from Rhodes in expectation of its British occupation. You ought not to be easily contented with delaying Rhodes indefinitely. We need to take it at earliest moment, and thereafter we need the 6th British Division, whether things go well or ill. We must not be reproached with hazarding only other people’s troops. You ought to press hard and long for taking Rhodes before the end of this month.

5. Can you tell me why Papagos does not draw three or four divisions from Albania to strengthen his right front? Recent check which Italians are said to have received and fact that German advance has not yet begun may still give time for this. Present strategic layout of Greek Army looks to me most dangerous. Papagos must have good reasons, and if you have learned them pray let me know.

6. Of course, if Yugoslavia came in this would justify Greek strength in Albania. But this is not yet known. Presume you and Dill have studied carefully possibilities of a Yugoslav attack on Italians in Albania. Here they might win victory of the first order, and at the same time gain the vast mass of the equipment they need to preserve their independence and can never find elsewhere in time.

7. Do not let Lemnos be picked up by the Germans as an air base for nothing.

8. It seems right to obtain a decision at Keren before withdrawing air squadrons you have thereabouts.

9. Your message containing Longmore’s complaints overlooks what is on the way.

After giving the details of these air reinforcements I added:

The fact that Longmore thinks you ought to come home via Lagos, in which view Portal concurs, is final reason for my wish for you and Dill to remain on scene. For otherwise, apart from larger considerations in my paragraph 1, you will both be out of action at either end during a most critical seven days. Everything is going quietly here, and we have begun to claw the Huns down in the moonlight to some purpose. God bless you all.

I thought it right to inform President Roosevelt of our plans in a message which may well end this anxious chapter.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 10 March 41

I must now tell you what we have resolved about Greece. Although it was no doubt tempting to try to push on from Benghazi to Tripoli, and we may still use considerable forces in this direction, we have felt it our duty to stand with the Greeks, who have declared to us their resolve, even alone, to resist the German invader. Our Generals Wavell and Dill, who accompanied Mr. Eden to Cairo, after heart-searching discussions with us, believe we have a good fighting chance. We are therefore sending the greater part of the Army of the Nile to Greece, and are reinforcing to the utmost possible in the air. Smuts is sending the South Africans to the Delta. Mr. President, you can judge these hazards for yourself.

At this juncture the action of Yugoslavia is cardinal. No country ever had such a military chance. If they will fall on the Italian rear in Albania there is no measuring what might happen in a few weeks. The whole situation might be transformed, and the action of Turkey also decided in our favour. One has the feeling that Russia, though actuated mainly by fear, might at least give some reassurance to Turkey about not pressing her in the Caucasus or turning against her in the Black Sea. I need scarcely say that the concerted influence of your Ambassadors in Turkey, Russia, and above all in Yugoslavia, would be of enormous value at the moment, and indeed might possibly turn the scales.

In this connection I must thank you for magnificent work done by Donovan in his prolonged tour of Balkans and Middle East. He has carried with him throughout an animating, heart-warming flame.


My subsequent italics.—Author.

My subsequent italics.—Author.

This refers to three fast transports specially prepared for military operations. See Volume II, page 463.

7
The Battle of the Atlantic, 1941

The Western Approaches

A Supreme Anxiety—Combination of U-Boats and Aircraft—Strain on the Western Approaches—Our Counter-Measures—A Struggle to Breathe—Landed Cargoes Drop by Half—Damage to Shipping and Congestion at the Ports—Formation of the Import Executive, January—The Work of the Lord President’s Committee—My Minute of January 28—And of February 22—Move of the Command of the Western Approaches from Plymouth to Liverpool, February 17—Storm Havoc Among Our Older Ships—Hitler’s Menace of January 30—The Admiralty Salvage Organisation—Sorties by German Cruisers—The “Scheer” in the South Atlantic—The “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” Break Out—Eighty Thousand Tons of Shipping Sunk in Two Days, March 15-16—Raiders Take Refuge in Brest, March 22—Hitler’s Error—The Battle of the Atlantic—The Battle of the Atlantic Committee—My Directive of March 6—The U-Boats in “Wolf-Packs”—Tactical Problems—Help from the United States, March 11—Passing of the Lend-Lease Bill—The Imports Budget, March 26—Close Relations with the United States—The “Dunkerque” Incident—Pressure by President Roosevelt on Vichy.

Amid the torrent of violent events one anxiety reigned supreme. Battles might be won or lost, enterprises might succeed or miscarry, territories might be gained or quitted, but dominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay our mastery of the ocean routes and the free approach and entry to our ports. I have described in the previous volume the perils which the German occupation of the coast of Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees brought upon us. From any port or inlet along this enormous front the hostile U-boats, constantly improving in speed, endurance, and radius, could sally forth to destroy our seaborne food and trade. Their numbers grew steadily. In the first quarter of 1941 production of new craft was at the rate of ten a month—soon afterward increased to eighteen a month. These included the so-called 500-ton and 740-ton types, the first with a cruising range of 11,000 miles and the latter of 15,000 miles.

To the U-boat scourge was now added air attack far out on the ocean by long-range aircraft. Of these the Focke-Wulf 200, known as the Condor, was the most formidable, though happily at the beginning there were few of them. They could start from Brest or Bordeaux, fly right round the British Island, refuel in Norway, and then make a return journey next day. On their way they would see far below them the very large convoys of forty or fifty ships to which scarcity of escort had forced us to resort, moving inward or outward on their voyages. They could attack these convoys, or individual ships, with destructive bombs, or they could signal the positions to which the waiting U-boats should be directed in order to make interceptions. Already in December we had begun preparations for the desperate expedient of an underwater dynamite carpet from the mouths of the Mersey and the Clyde to the hundred-fathom line northwest of Ireland.[1]

Meanwhile we had ordered the expansion and redeployment of the Air Coastal Command, giving it high priority in pilots and machines. We planned to increase this command by fifteen squadrons by June, 1941, and these reinforcements were to include all the fifty-seven American long-range Catalinas which we expected to receive by the end of April. The denial to us of all facilities in Southern Ireland again exerted its baleful influence on our plans. We pressed forward with the construction of new airfields in Ulster as well as in Scotland and the Hebrides.

The evil conditions thus described continued, some in an aggravated form. The stranglehold of the magnetic mine, was only loosened and kept from closing by triumphs of British science and ingenuity, carried into effect by the ceaseless toil of twenty thousand devoted men in a thousand small craft with many strange varieties of apparatus. All our traffic along the east coast of Britain was under constant menace from German light bombers or fighter aircraft, and was in consequence severely restricted and reduced. The port of London, which in the First World War had been deemed vital to our existence, had been cut down to a quarter of its capacity. The Channel was an actual war area. Bombing raids on the Mersey, the Clyde, and Bristol gravely hampered these sole remaining major commercial ports. The Irish and Bristol Channels were closed or grievously obstructed. Every expert authority, if presented a year earlier with the conditions now-prevailing, would have pronounced our plight hopeless beforehand. It was a struggle to breathe.

The very magnitude and refinement of our protective measures—convoy, diversion, degaussing, mine-clearance, the avoidance of the Mediterranean—the lengthening of most voyages in time and distance and the delays at the ports through bombing and the black-out, all reduced the operative fertility of our shipping to an extent even more serious than the actual losses. At the outset the Admiralty naturally thought first of bringing the ships safely to port, and judged their success by a minimum of sinkings. But now this was no longer the test. We all realised that the life and war effort of the country depended equally upon the weight of imports safely landed. “I see,” I minuted to the First Lord in the middle of February, “that entrances of ships with cargo in January were less than half of what they were last January.”

The pressure grew unceasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our new construction. The vast resources of the United States were only slowly coming into action. We could not expect any further large windfalls of vessels such as those which had followed the overrunning of Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries in the spring of 1940. Moreover, damaged shipping far exceeded our repairing resources, and every week our ports became more congested and we fell further behind. At the beginning of March over 2,600,000 tons of damaged shipping had accumulated, of which about 930,000 tons were ships undergoing repair while loading cargoes, and nearly 1,700,000 tons were immobilised by the need of repairs. Indeed, it was to me almost a relief to turn from these deadly undertides to the ill-starred but spirited enterprises in the military sphere. How willingly would I have exchanged a full-scale attempt at invasion for this shapeless, measureless peril, expressed in charts, curves, and statistics!

      *      *      *      *      *      

Early in January, 1941, we had formed the Import Executive, consisting of the principal importing departments, under the chairmanship of the Minister of Supply, and the parallel body, the Production Executive, under the Minister of Labour. The principal object of the first of these bodies was to grapple with the import situation, to improve the organisation of shipping and transport, and to solve the many intricate problems of labour and organisation arising at the ports. I now worked closely with these powerful bodies, which often sat together, and I sought to concert their action.

Prime Minister to Minister of Shipping 4 Jan. 41

The Import Executive will explore the whole of this situation, the development of which was one of the reasons for calling the said Executive into being. I shall myself keep in the closest touch with the Import Executive, and will endeavour to give the necessary decisions. It is hoped that by the more efficient use of our shipping, its turn-round, port and labour resources, the tonnage available may be increased beyond the 33,000,000 tons which is all you can at present foresee. The Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Transport, together with the Ministry of Labour, will co-operate actively with the Import Executive, and their work will be effectively concerted by that Executive. In addition to this, the Admiralty will be asked to concentrate more effort upon the repair of ships, even to some extent to the detriment of new merchant shipbuilding. We hope American aid will be forthcoming, and that greater security will be achieved by our convoys as the nights shorten and our main reinforcements of escorting craft come into service.

Prime Minister to Import Executive 23 Jan. 41

I request that you will not consider yourselves bound by the estimate of losses put forward by the Ministry of Shipping, or take that as the foundation for future calculations. The Ministry of Shipping have reached a total of 5,250,000 tons per annum by taking as their basis the period since the collapse of France, including the quite exceptional losses of the Norwegian and French evacuations. A better alternative method of calculation would be to take the monthly rate for the whole year 1940, which is 4,250,000 tons; or, again, for the whole war, which is between 3,750,000 and 4,000,000 tons, provided the extraordinary evacuation losses are deducted.

2. It is probably prudent to assume that this rate will continue. It does not follow, however, that it will not be reduced as our improved methods come into play and the additional destroyers reach the Fleet. Bearing this in mind, I think it would be safe to work on the monthly average since the beginning of the war.

My estimate was fully justified by events in the year 1941.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the beginning of the year, I asked Sir John Anderson, the Lord President of the Council, to make it his particular task to grip and drive forward the plans for harnessing to our warmaking machine the full economic resources of the nation.

Prime Minister to Lord President of the Council 28 Jan. 41

While the Import and Production Executives necessarily are concerned with the practical handling of the business committed to them, it is essential that the larger issues of economic policy should be dealt with by your committee, and primarily by you. This is in accordance with the drift of well-informed public opinion. You should, therefore, not hesitate to take the initiative over the whole field. You should summon economists like Keynes to give their views to you personally. You should ask for any assistance or staff you require, utilising, of course, the Statistical Department. Professor Lindemann and his branch will assist you in any way you wish, and will also act as liaison between you and me. I wish you to take the lead prominently and vigorously in this committee, and it should certainly meet at least once a week, if not more often.

Will you consult with Sir Edward Bridges on the above, and let me know how you propose to implement it.

Anderson bent to this task, his energy, mature judgment, and skill in administration. His long experience as a civil servant at home, and as Governor of Bengal, had given him a wide knowledge of Government departments and of the official machine. He soon gained the confidence of his Ministerial colleagues, and shaped the Lord President’s committee into a powerful instrument for concerting departmental plans over the whole range of wartime economic policy. As time went on this committee came to exercise on behalf of the War Cabinet a large measure of authority and power of decision in this and other spheres. Its sure control over economic policy and Home Front problems helped to free me for the military field.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Prime Minister to Sir Andrew Duncan, Minister of Supply 22 Feb. 41

The Prime Minister would be glad if you would bring the attached notes and diagrams to the attention of the Import Executive. They have been prepared under the Prime Minister’s personal direction by Professor Lindemann. They disclose a most grave and as yet unexplained tendency, which, if it is not corrected, will hazard the life of Britain and paralyse her war effort.

The Prime Minister does not understand how it is that, when the sinkings are less (although very serious) and the volume of tonnage (apart from its routing) very little diminished, there should be such a frightful fall in imports.

He is very glad to see that there is a sharp recovery in the last two weeks, and he hopes this may be the first fruits of the Import Executive.

The Prime Minister will be glad to see the Import Executive Committee at 5 P.M. on Tuesday, with a view to learning from them whether they have any further measures to propose to avert a potentially mortal danger.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As early as August 4, 1940, I had asked the Admiralty to move the controlling centre of the western approaches from Plymouth to the Clyde.[2] This proposal had encountered resistance, and it was not until February, 1941, that the increasing pressure of events produced Admiralty compliance. The move to the north was agreed. The Mersey was rightly chosen instead of the Clyde, and on February 17 Admiral Noble was installed at Liverpool as Commander-in-Chief of the western approaches. Air Chief Marshal Bowhill, commanding the Coastal Command, worked with him in the closest intimacy. The new joint headquarters was soon operating, and from April 15 the two commands were forged into a single highly tempered weapon under the operational control of the Admiralty.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The new year opened with violent and almost continuous storms, causing much havoc among the older ships which, despite their age and infirmity, we had been compelled to use on the ocean routes. Presently, in Berlin, on January 30, 1941, Hitler made a speech threatening us with ruin and pointing with confidence to that combination of air and sea power lapping us about on all sides by which he hoped to bring about our starvation and surrender. “In the spring,” he said, “our U-boat war will begin at sea, and they will notice that we have not been sleeping [shouts and cheers]. And the air force will play its part, and the entire armed forces will force a decision by hook or by crook.”

Prime Minister to Import Executive 25 Feb. 41

I learn that the Admiralty salvage organisation has recently made as great a contribution to the maintenance of our shipping capacity as new construction, about 370,000 gross tons having been saved in the last five months of 1940, as against 340,000 tons built, while the number of ships being dealt with by the salvage organisation has increased very rapidly, from ten in August to about thirty now.

They are to be congratulated on this, and I feel sure that if anything can be done to assist in the expansion of their equipment and finding of suitable officers your Executive will see that such measures are taken.

Meanwhile we cannot take full advantage of these results owing to shortage of repairing capacity. I have no doubt that your Executive is planning an increase of this capacity, and meanwhile is making use of facilities overseas in the case of all vessels capable of doing one more voyage before repair.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Apart from the U-boat war upon us, we were at this time seriously affected by the sorties of powerful German cruisers. The attack on a convoy by the Scheer in November, 1940, when she sank the noble Jervis Bay, has already been recorded. In January she was in the South Atlantic, moving towards the Indian Ocean. In three months she destroyed ten ships, of sixty thousand tons in all, and then succeeded in making her way back to Germany, where she arrived on April 1, 1941. We had not been able to deploy against her the powerful forces which a year before had tracked down the Graf Spee. The cruiser Hipper, which had broken into the Atlantic at the beginning of December, 1940, was sheltering in Brest. At the end of January the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, having at length repaired the damage inflicted upon them in Norway, were ordered to make a sortie into the North Atlantic, while the Hipper raided the route from Sierra Leone. In their first attempt to break out, these battle-cruisers, under the command of Admiral Lutjens, narrowly escaped destruction by the Home Fleet. They were saved by persistent fogs, and on February 3 successfully passed through the Denmark Strait unobserved. At the same time the Hipper had left Brest for the southward.

On February 8 the two German battle-cruisers, astride the Halifax route, sighted an approaching British convoy. The German ships separated so as to attack from different angles. Suddenly, to their surprise, they perceived that the convoy was escorted by the battleship Ramillies. Admiral Lutjens at once broke off the engagement. In his basic instructions he had been ordered to avoid action with an equal opponent, which he was to interpret as meaning any one British fifteen-inch-gun battleship. His prudence was rewarded, and on February 22, he sank five ships, dispersed from an outward-bound convoy. Fearing our reactions, he then moved to an area farther south, and on March 8 he met a convoy from Freetown. But here again he found a battleship, the Malaya, in company, and he could do no more than call for U-boats to converge and attack. The U-boats sank five ships. Having shown himself in this area, he once more returned to the West Atlantic, where he now achieved his biggest success. On March 15 he intercepted six empty tankers, dispersed from an outward-bound convoy, and sank or captured them all. The next day he sank ten more ships, mostly from the same convoy. Thus in these two days alone he destroyed or captured over eighty thousand tons of shipping.

But the Rodney, escorting a Halifax convoy, was drawing near. Admiral Lutjens had run risks enough and had much to show. Early on March 22 he entered Brest. During their cruise of two months the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had sunk or captured twenty-two ships, amounting to 115,000 tons. Meanwhile the Hipper had fallen upon a homeward-bound Sierra Leone convoy near the Azores which had not yet been joined by an escort. In a savage attack lasting an hour she destroyed seven out of nineteen ships, making no attempt to rescue survivors, and regained Brest two days later. These were heavy losses for us, additional to the toll of the U-boat war. Moreover, the presence of these strong hostile vessels compelled the employment on convoy duty of nearly every available British capital ship. At one period the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet had only one battleship in hand.

The Bismarck was not yet on the active list. The German Admiralty should have waited for her completion and for that of her consort, the Tirpitz. In no way could Hitler have used his two giant battleships more effectively than by keeping them both in full readiness in the Baltic and allow rumours of an impending sortie to leak out from time to time. We should thus have been compelled to keep concentrated at Scapa Flow or thereabouts practically every new ship we had, and he would have had all the advantages of a selected moment without the strain of being always ready. As ships have to go for periodic refits, it would have been almost beyond our power to maintain a reasonable margin of superiority. Any serious accident would have destroyed that power.

      *      *      *      *      *      

My thought had rested day and night upon this awe-striking problem. At this time my sole and sure hope of victory depended upon our ability to wage a long and indefinite war until overwhelming air superiority was gained and probably other Great Powers were drawn in on our side. But this mortal danger to our life-lines gnawed my bowels. Early in March exceptionally heavy sinkings were reported by Admiral Pound to the War Cabinet. I had already seen the figures, and after our meeting, which was in the Prime Minister’s room at the House of Commons, I said to Pound, “We have got to lift this business to the highest plane, over everything else. I am going to proclaim ‘the Battle of the Atlantic.’ ” This, like featuring “the Battle of Britain” nine months earlier, was a signal intended to concentrate all minds and all departments concerned upon the U-boat war.

In order to follow this matter with the closest personal attention, and to give timely directions which would clear away difficulties and obstructions and force action upon the great number of departments and branches involved, I brought into being the Battle of the Atlantic Committee. The meetings of this committee were held weekly, and were attended by all Ministers and high functionaries concerned, both from the fighting services and from the civil side. They usually lasted not less than two and a half hours. The whole field was gone over and everything thrashed out; nothing was held up for want of decision. An illustration of the tempo of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941 is afforded by the meetings of this committee. It met weekly without fail during the period March 19 to May 8. It then met fortnightly for a spell, and finally much less frequently. The last meeting was on October 22.

Throughout the wide circles of our war machine, embracing thousands of able, devoted men, a new proportion was set, and from a hundred angles the gaze of searching eyes was concentrated. March 6, as the preceding chapter may have shown, was an exacting day, when the decision about sending the Army to Greece hung in the balance. Nevertheless, before it ended my directive entitled “The Battle of the Atlantic” was achieved. I read this to the House in the Secret Session of June 25, 1941, but it is necessary to the story to reprint it here.

The Battle of the Atlantic

Directive by the Minister of Defence, March 6, 1941

In view of various German statements, we must assume that the Battle of the Atlantic has begun.

The next four months should enable us to defeat the attempt to strangle our food supplies and our connection with the United States. For this purpose—

1. We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

2. Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week.

3. All the measures approved and now in train for the concentration of the main strength of the Coastal Command upon the northwestern approaches, and their assistance on the East Coast by Fighter and Bomber Commands, will be pressed forward. It may be hoped that, with the growing daylight and the new routes to be followed, the U-boat menace will soon be reduced. All the more important is it that the Focke-Wulf, and, if it comes, the Junkers 88, should be effectively grappled with.

4. In view of the great need for larger numbers of escorting destroyers, it is for consideration whether the American destroyers now in service should go into dock for their second scale of improvements until the critical period of this new battle has been passed.

5. The Admiralty will re-examine, in conjunction with the Ministry of Shipping, the question of liberating from convoys ships between thirteen and twelve knots, and also whether this might not be tried experimentally for a while.

6. The Admiralty will have the first claim on all the short-range A.A. guns and other weapons that they can mount upon suitable merchant ships plying in the danger zone. Already two hundred Bofors or their equivalents have been ordered to be made available by Air Defence Great Britain and the factories. But these should be followed by a constant flow of guns, together with crews or nucleus crews, as and when they can be taken over by the Admiralty. A programme for three months should be made.

7. We must be ready to meet concentrated air attacks on the ports on which we specially rely (Mersey, Clyde, and Bristol Channel). They must, therefore, be provided with a maximum defence. A report of what is being done should be made in a week.

8. A concerted attack by all departments involved must be made upon the immense mass of damaged shipping now accumulated in our ports. By the end of June this mass must be reduced by not less than 400,000 tons net. For this purpose a short view may for the time being be taken both on merchant and naval shipbuilding. Labour should be transferred from new merchant shipbuilding which cannot finish before September, 1941, to repairs. The Admiralty have undertaken to provide from long-distance projects of warship building or warship repairs up to five thousand men at the earliest moment, and another five thousand should be transferred from long-distance merchant shipbuilding.

9. Every form of simplification and acceleration of repairs and degaussing, even at some risk, must be applied in order to reduce the terrible slowness of the turn-round of ships in British ports. A saving of fifteen days in this process would in itself be equivalent to 5,000,000 tons of imports, or a tonnage [equal to] 1,250,000 of the importing fleet saved. The Admiralty have already instructed their officers in all ports to aid this process, in which is involved the process of repairs, to the utmost. Further injunctions should be given from time to time, and the port officers should be asked to report what they have done and whether they have any recommendations to make. It might be desirable to have a conference of port officers, where all difficulties could be exposed and ideas interchanged.

10. The Minister of Labour has achieved agreement in his conference with employers and employed about the interchangeability of labour at the ports. This should result in a substantially effective addition to the total labour force. In one way or another, at least another forty thousand men must be drawn into ship-repairing, shipbuilding, and dock labour at the earliest moment. Strong propaganda should be run locally at the ports and yards, in order that all engaged may realise the vital consequences of their work. At the same time, it is not desirable that the press or the broadcast should be used unduly, since this would only encourage the enemy to further exertions.

11. The Ministry of Transport will ensure that there is no congestion at the quays, and that all goods landed are immediately removed. For this purpose the Minister will ask the Chairman of the Import Executive for any further assistance required. He should also report weekly to the Import Executive upon the progress made in improving the ports on which we specially rely by transference of cranes, etc., from other ports. He should also report on the progress made in preparing new facilities at minor ports, and whether further use can be made of lighterage to have more rapid loading or unloading.

12. A Standing Committee has been set up of representatives from the Admiralty Transport Department, the Ministry of Shipping, and the Ministry of Transport, which will meet daily and report all hitches or difficulties encountered to the Chairman of the Import Executive. The Import Executive will concert the whole of those measures and report upon them to me every week, in order that I may seek Cabinet authority for any further steps.

13. In addition to what is being done at home, every effort must be made to ensure a rapid turn-round at ports abroad. All concerned should receive special instructions on this point, and should be asked to report on the measures which they are taking to implement these instructions, and on any difficulties that may be encountered.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On this same busy March 6 I also produced a memorandum on the strength of the Army in the light of all I had learnt about the import situation. This will be found among the Appendices.[3]

      *      *      *      *      *      

The U-boats now began to use new methods, which became known as “wolf-pack” tactics. These consisted of attacks from different directions by several U-boats working together. Attacks were at this time usually made by night, the U-boats operating on the surface at full speed unless detected in the approach. Under these conditions only the destroyers could rapidly overhaul them.

These tactics, which formed the keynote of the conflict for the next year or more, presented us with two problems. First, how to defend our convoys against this high-speed night attack, in which the Asdic was virtually impotent. The solution lay not only in the multiplication of fast escorts, but still more in the development of effective radar. Moreover, a prompt answer here was imperative or our losses would soon become unbearable. The small scale of the earlier onslaughts of the U-boats, against which we had been relatively successful, had created an undue sense of security. Now, when the full fury of the storm broke, we lacked the scientific equipment equal to our needs. We addressed ourselves vigorously to this problem, and by the unsparing efforts of the scientists, supported by the solid teamwork of sailors and airmen, good progress was made. The results came slowly, and meanwhile grave anxiety and heavy losses continued.

The second need was to exploit the vulnerability to air attack of the surfaced U-boat. Only when we could afford to court attack in the knowledge that we were masters would the long-drawn battle be won. For this we needed an air weapon which would kill, and also time to train both our sea and air forces in its use. When eventually both these problems were solved the U-boat was once more driven back to the submerged attack, in which it could be dealt with by the older and well-tried methods. This vital relief was not achieved for another two years.

Meanwhile the new “wolf-pack” tactics, inspired by Admiral Doenitz, the head of the U-boat service, and himself a U-boat captain of the previous war, were vigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and the other tiptop U-boat commanders. Swift retribution followed. On March 8 Prien’s U-47 was sunk with himself and all hands by the destroyer Wolverine, and nine days later U-99 and U-100 were sunk while engaged in a combined attack on a convoy. Both were commanded by outstanding officers, and the elimination of these three able men had a marked effect on the progress of the struggle. Few U-boat commanders who followed them were their equals in ruthless ability and daring. Five U-boats were sunk in March in the western approaches, and though we suffered grievous losses, amounting to 243,000 tons, by U-boat, and a further 113,000 tons by air attack, the first round in the Battle of the Atlantic may be said to have ended in a draw.

      *      *      *      *      *      

An all-important event now impended upon the other side of the Atlantic. I was in close touch with Hopkins in these days. After thanking him for the “packet of 250,000 rifles and ammunition, which has safely arrived,” I cabled on February 28:

I am, however, increasingly anxious about the high rate of shipping losses in northwestern approaches and the shrinkage in tonnage entering Britain. This has darkened since I saw you. Let me know when the [Lend-Lease] Bill will be through. The strain is growing here.

Presently came good tidings from the United States. The Lend-Lease Bill had passed Congress, and on March 11 received the eager assent of the President. Hopkins sent me the earliest intimation. This was at once a comfort and a spur. The stuff was coming. It was for us to get it over.

Prime Minister to Mr. Hopkins 9 March 41

Thank God for your news. Strain is serious. Kindest regards.

To President Roosevelt from Former Naval Person 9 March 41

Our blessings from the whole British Empire go out to you and the American nation for this very present help in time of trouble.

In my broadcast of February 9 I had already said, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” This could only be an interim pronouncement. Far more was needed, but we did our best.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had now to make our budget of imports for the U-boat year 1941, exactly like a Chancellor of the Exchequer in finance. By the end of March all the studies and discussions of our ways and means were completed, and I could submit to the War Cabinet my final proposals for the size and character of the three branches of the fighting services, and also the quantity and character of the imports for which we should strive.

The Import Programmes

Memorandum by the Prime Minister, March 26, 1941

We should assume an import of not less than 31,000,000 tons in 1941. On this basis food cannot be cut lower than 15,000,000 tons, and 1,000,000 is required for the Board of Trade. This leaves 15,000,000 for the Ministry of Supply, as against 19,000,000 to which they were working on the 35,000,000 programme. A cut of 4,000,000 has therefore to be made by the Ministry of Supply, for which a revised programme should be framed. Ferrous metals, timber, and pulp seem to offer the main field of reduction. As we can now buy steel freely in the United States, the keeping in being of the whole of the existing steel industry cannot be accepted as an indispensable factor. We must try to import in the most concentrated forms and over the shortest routes. This principle must also influence food imports.

2. Should our total imports fall below 31,000,000, the deficit should for the present be met by the Ministry of Food and the Ministry of Supply on the basis of one ton cut in food to two tons in supply. Should the imports exceed 31,000,000, the benefit will be shared in the same proportion. The position will be reviewed in the autumn, when this year’s harvest is known.

3. I have received from the War Office a reply to my notes about Army Scales, which they have had under consideration for three weeks.[4] My notes do not look farther ahead than 1942, and must be subject to review in the light of events. My figure of “about two millions” may be interpreted as desired by the War Office at “2,195,000 [men],” for which the arrangements are completed. The War Office proposal to substitute for my figure of fifteen armoured divisions twelve armoured divisions and nine army tank brigades may be approved, and the target figure for the grand total of the Imperial Army in March, 1942, of fifty-nine and one third “equivalent divisions” may be accepted. The resultant saving on man-power intake from now to the end of 1942 is about 475,000. This saving, and the increase in armoured forces at the expense of infantry and artillery, should afford an important relief to the Ministry of Supply in hutments, clothing, and projectiles.

4. The Purvis Programme, which was submitted to President Roosevelt in January to give him the general scale, may now be more precisely defined as the Ministry of Supply desire, and in so doing, if convenient, the adjustment may be made to cover the change in the proportion of armoured forces. However, it is important that no diminution should be made in anything we need and are likely to get from the United States; in particular, the equipment for the ten extra divisions should stand.

5. The Naval Programme is the subject of a separate note,[5] but the following principles which have a bearing on imports may be stated here.

The remaining three King George V class battleships must be completed at full speed. The construction of Vanguard, which is the only capital ship which can reach us in 1943 and before 1945, is most desirable. One new monitor is also needed. No other heavy ships can be proceeded with at present, and no more armour-plate can be provided for other naval purposes for the next six months; nor should new armour-plate factories be laid down. This position will be reviewed on September 1 in the light of (a) the Battle of the Atlantic, (b) the relationship of the United States to the war.

The requirements of the Admiralty for armour-plate must not exceed the 16,500 tons provided for 1941, nor the 25,000 tons for 1942. If these limits are observed, the Ministry of Supply should be able to execute the increased tank programme.

6. The Ministries of Food and Agriculture should, upon the basis of 15,000,000 tons import in 1941, concert an eighteen months’ programme, drawing as may be necessary upon our meat reserves on the hoof to cover the next six months, but endeavouring to provide by concentrated imports the most varied dietary possible for the nation at war. By taking a period as long as eighteen months it should be possible to avoid hurried changes in policy, to use reserves as balancing factors, and to make the best use of the assigned tonnage.

7. The British air power will continue to be developed to the utmost within the above limits and with the present priorities and assignments.

When these precise instructions received the assent of the War Cabinet they were obeyed without demur by all concerned.

      *      *      *      *      *      

From the time of the passing of the Lend-Lease Bill our relations with the United States grew steadily closer. Under our pressures we adopted a stronger attitude towards Vichy France. The recent depredations of the German battle-cruisers had shown the mischief of these powerful ships, soon to be reinforced by the Bismarck. There was also the fear that the Germans might gain control over the French Fleet and bring the fast battleship Dunkerque into their service.

I cabled to President Roosevelt:

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 2 April 41

We have entirely trustworthy information that Vichy Government received “permission” from Armistice Commission to transfer the battleship Dunkerque, with escort protection of the whole Strasbourg group, from Oran to Toulon for “disarmament.”

2. It seems certain that object of transfer is to effect repairs, and we must, of course, assume it is being done on German orders.

3. I do not need to point out to you the grave danger to which this exposes us. The menace from German surface raiders is already great enough. The addition of such a vessel to the raiding fleet would set us a hard problem indeed. If any value were to be attached to Admiral Darlan’s word, it might be hoped that he would in the last resort order out of French metropolitan ports naval units ready for sea. But if Dunkerque is docked and immobilised for repairs, that gives the Germans time to swoop and gain possession of her.

4. I fear this is a sinister confirmation of our worst suspicions of Darlan.

5. You have already, through your Ambassador in Vichy, indicated to the French Government that negotiations for the supply of grain to unoccupied France would be greatly facilitated if French warships in metropolitan ports were gradually transferred to North African Atlantic ports. Here we have Darlan not merely failing to comply with your wishes, but deliberately flying in the face of them.

6. I earnestly hope that you may at once indicate to Marshal Pétain that if Darlan persists in this action he will be cutting off relief from his country and finally forfeiting American sympathy. We ourselves in this situation could, of course, lend no assistance to the revictualling of France. There may be just a chance that Marshal Pétain may deter him from this action, but if not the matter for us is so vital that we may, even in spite of all the dangerous implications, have to make an effort to intercept and sink this vessel. I should like to hear from you that you would understand the necessity for such a step.

7. It is, of course, of first importance that neither the French nor their masters should be made aware that we might take the drastic action mentioned in paragraph 6.

Urgent as was the matter, I would not take action till I knew what the President felt and wished.

Prime Minister to First Lord 3 April 41

No attack should be made upon the Dunkerque unless or until an answer is received from President Roosevelt which expresses no objection. Absence of any reference to the topic in his answer may be taken as consent.

2. On this reply being received, the First Lord should, if possible, consult the Lord Privy Seal in my absence, and decide.

3. Personally, my bias is strongly in favour of making the attack. Alas, we cannot be sure of success. Perhaps it is ten to one against a successful attack on a ship properly escorted by destroyers.

4. The reaction on Vichy would not, in my opinion, be serious. They would know they were found out doing a pro-Hun trick. So far as the French people are concerned, nothing would be easier than by repeated broadcasts to explain that this ship was being delivered over in a helpless condition into the German power, as in the event of a German descent she could not get away from the dock at Toulon like the mobile units of the French Fleet.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The next days we learned from the President that there would be at least a pause, because the Dunkerque would not be leaving Oran within the next ten days. On April 6 he told us that Mr. Matthews, the American Counsellor at Vichy, had asked Marshal Pétain for an urgent appointment. This was granted, but as soon as Matthews told Pétain that he wished to discuss the Dunkerque the Marshal, who was obviously not informed upon the situation, sent for Darlan. Darlan arrived and said that, of course, this information came from the English, and complained that they wanted theirs to be the only fleet in the Mediterranean. He admitted that he was bringing the battleship to Toulon because he could not have it repaired at Oran, and anyway he was not going to leave it there. The Marshal and he had pledged their word of honour that French ships would not fall into German hands, and he repeated this assurance. The Dunkerque would not be moved immediately, and would not be ready for ten days or more. The American Embassy at Vichy believed that this was true, and thought that even if the ship were brought to Toulon she could not be put into service before the end of August. Darlan had then made a series of anti-British statements, and the Marshal had promised Mr. Matthews a formal reply. The President said that Pétain apparently grasped the written word better than he trusted his memory, and might upon closer study give us the promise for which we asked.

I expressed my thanks and continuing concern.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 6 April 41

Most grateful for your spirited intervention about Dunkerque. It is quite true that Toulon could not repair her for from three to six months, but why do we want that hanging over our head anyway? Darlan’s honour about her never falling into German hands is rooted in dishonour. A ship in dry dock or under heavy repair could not possibly get away before the Germans could lay hold of Toulon. Their officers and agents are on the spot all the time, and remember how easy we found it to cop the French ships at Portsmouth and Plymouth. We ought to stick to our settled policy of resisting all transfers of French ships from African to German-controlled or potentially German-controlled French ports, and encourage all movement the other way. If Darlan gets Dunkerque to Toulon, why should he not ask for Jean Bart from Casablanca or Richelieu from Dakar? Therefore, I urge strong and stern continuance of utmost pressure you can exert. Evidently this is most powerful, as we have certain knowledge that they were to sail morning fourth and all preparations made. Pétain does not know half what this dirty Darlan does. It would be far better if your pressure deterred Darlan, as it has already, than that we should have to take rough action, with all its dangers.

2. Question is whether timely publicity might not help deter. Do you mind if I say something like this on Wednesday in Commons: “There was always the risk that Darlan might bring Dunkerque from Oran to Toulon in order to prepare her for war purposes. Such an act would affect the balances of naval power throughout the world, and would affect American interests besides our own. Representations have been made to Marshal Pétain by the United States Government which should have shown Vichy Government how undesirable this step would be from the point of view of French interests. His Majesty’s Government would certainly be bound to regard it as a menacing act done at Hitler’s instigation and as a step in Admiral Darlan’s schemes for gaining personal control of France as the Germans’ trusted agent. In these circumstances His Majesty’s Government would hold themselves free to take any action which was suitable against this ship, either in passage or while under repair in Toulon Harbour. They would greatly regret if such a situation arose, as they have no wish or policy towards France other than her liberation from the German yoke and the maintenance of the integrity of the French Empire.” Please let me know what you think of this, or whether you can get the matter settled behind the scenes.

On April 9 I used these words to the House of Commons, and the Dunkerque incident was finally settled by the submission of the Vichy Government to President Roosevelt’s pressure.

President Roosevelt to Former Naval Person 11 April 41

I have received the following [note] from Vichy, dated April 8:

“By a memorandum handed to Marshal Pétain on April 4, the American Chargé d’Affaires called attention to a report according to which the French Government, ‘authorised by the Wiesbaden Armistice Commission,’ was preparing to transfer the Dunkerque from Oran to Toulon, at the very moment when the Government of the United States was expressing its interest in an opposite movement of naval forces. ‘Should such a transfer take place,’ adds the memorandum, ‘the Government of the United States could no longer envisage the continuation of the policy which it desired to pursue for the supplying, as far as possible, of its indispensable aid to unoccupied France, to say nothing of the other acts of co-operation envisaged.’

“The Marshal’s Government loyally admits without any embarrassment that it had in fact intended to have the Dunkerque made ready for transfer to Toulon in the near future. But this measure had been envisaged with full sovereignty, without any foreign pressure whatsoever, and solely for technical reasons.

“The Government of the United States is fully aware that the Dunkerque was severely damaged in the month of July, 1940, as the result of an odious assault in which numerous Frenchmen were killed.

“The ship is today in condition to move; but its final repairs require a stay in dry dock, which can only be made in Toulon, the only arsenal of either North Africa or the unoccupied zone able to accommodate it. This is the sole reason why the transfer of the Dunkerque was envisaged and remains necessary. Nevertheless, in view of the political significance which the Government of the United States seems disposed to attach to this transfer, the French Government agrees to delay the preparation of the ship until the conclusion of an agreement on this subject. It desires thus to show the Federal Government its will to pursue loyally, for its part, as far as its means will permit, the policy undertaken with a view to assuring the supplying of French Africa and the unoccupied zone.

“But by postponing putting into final shape one of its most precious war vessels the French Government is making a heavy sacrifice of self-respect and interest which affects its possibilities of defending its Empire as well as its means of protecting French maritime traffic.

“The French Government thus expects the American Government to use its good offices in London in order to obtain from the British Government the guarantee that as long as the Dunkerque remains in North Africa no further capture will be exercised against our legitimate commercial traffic between the French colonies, French Africa, and the unoccupied zone. It is evident in fact that a country as threatened with famine as France is cannot be asked to renounce the utilisation of all its means of defence if the commercial maritime traffic for the protection of which guarantees have been offered continues to be pursued and attacked.”

Of course no such guarantee was given by us, and the powerful intervention of President Roosevelt at this time enabled our relations with Vichy France to become somewhat less hostile.


A proposed mine barrier which was never laid. See Volume II, Book II, Chapter 30, page 607.

Volume II, Book II, Chapter 30, page 601.

See Appendix D, Book One.

See Appendix F. Book One.

See Appendix G. Book Two.

8
The Battle of the Atlantic: 1941

The American Intervention

Armed Aid from the United States—Secret Staff Discussions in Washington—Development of American Naval Bases—The U-boats Move Westward—Importance of Iceland—The Halifax Route—Growth of the Royal Canadian Navy—Advanced Escort Base at St. John’s, Newfoundland—Losses Continue to Mount—More Than Eight Hundred Thousand Tons Sunk in Three Months—Further American Aid—Extension of the Security Zone, April 11—The Sea Frontier of the United States—The Azores—My Telegram of April 24—Admiralty Talks with Admiral Ghormley—President Roosevelt Declares an Unlimited National Emergency, May 27—Hitler’s Dread of War with the United States—U-Boat Difficulties—A Dangerous Combination Disrupted—We Begin to Gain the Upper Hand, June—Our Need for More and Faster Escorts—And Lone-Range Aircraft—And Good Radar—Catapulting of Fighters Against the Focke-Wulf—Publication of the Weekly Sinkings Discontinued—Achievements of Our Combined Headquarters at Liverpool—The United States Occupy Iceland, July 7—The Threat from Brest—The Unified Direction of the War Machine—Our Losses and Intense Efforts—Appointment of Lord Leathers—Mr. Lewis Douglas—Improvement in Clearance of Goods from Our Ports.

Important changes now took place in the U-boat war. The elimination of the three German “aces” in March and the improvement in our defence measures had their effect on U-boat tactics. Finding the western approaches too hot, they moved farther west into waters where, since the Southern Irish ports were denied us, only a few of our flotilla escorts could reach them and where air protection was impossible. From our bases in the United Kingdom our escorts could only provide effective protection to our convoys over about a quarter of the route to Halifax. Early in April a wolf-pack struck a convoy in longitude 28° West before the escort had joined it. In a protracted action ten ships were sunk out of a total of twenty-two, one U-boat also being destroyed. Somehow we had to contrive to extend our reach or our days would be numbered.

Hitherto help from across the ocean had been confined to supplies; but now in this growing tension the President, acting with all the powers accorded to him as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and enshrined in the American Constitution, began to give us armed aid. He resolved not to allow the German U-boat and raider war to come near the American coast, and to make sure that the munitions he was sending Britain at least got nearly halfway across. As early as July, 1940, he had sent a naval and military mission to England for “exploratory conversations.” Admiral Ghormley, the United States Naval Observer, was soon satisfied that Britain was inflexibly resolved, and could hold out against any immediate threat. His task, in collaboration with the Admiralty, was to determine how the power of the United States could best be brought to bear, first under the existing policy of “all aid short of war,” and secondly in conjunction with the British armed forces if and when the United States should be drawn into war.

From these early beginnings sprang the broad design for the joint defence of the Atlantic Ocean by the two English-speaking Powers. In January, 1941, secret Staff discussions began in Washington covering the whole scene, and framing a combined world strategy. The United States war chiefs agreed that should the war spread to America and to the Pacific the Atlantic and European theatre should be regarded as decisive. Hitler must be defeated first, and on this conception American aid in the Battle of the Atlantic was planned. Preparations were started to meet the needs of joint ocean convoy in the Atlantic. In March, 1941, American officers visited Great Britain to select bases for their naval escorts and air forces. Work on these was at once begun. Meanwhile the development of American bases in British territory in the West Atlantic, which had begun in 1940, was proceeding rapidly. The most important for the North Atlantic convoys was Argentia, in Newfoundland. With this and with harbours in the United Kingdom American forces could play their fullest permissible part in the battle, or so it seemed when these measures were planned.

Between Canada and Great Britain are the islands of Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland. All these lie near the flank of the shortest, or great-circle, track between Halifax and Scotland. Forces based on these “stepping-stones” could control the whole route by sectors. Greenland was entirely devoid of resources, but the other two islands could be quickly turned to good account. It has been said, “Whoever possesses Iceland holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.” It was upon this thought that, with the concurrence of its people, we had occupied Iceland when Denmark was overrun in 1940. Now we could use it against the U-boats, and in April, 1941, we established bases there for the use of our escort groups and aircraft. Iceland became a separate command, and thence we extended the range of the surface escorts to 35° West. Even so there remained an ominous gap to the westward which for the time being could not be bridged. In May a Halifax convoy was heavily attacked in 41° West and lost nine ships before our anti-U-boat escort could join it.

Meanwhile the strength of the Royal Canadian Navy was increasing, and their new corvettes were beginning to emerge in good numbers from the building yards. At this crucial moment Canada was ready to play a conspicuous part in the deadly struggle. The losses in the Halifax convoy made it quite clear that nothing less than end-to-end escort from Canada to Britain would suffice, and on May 23 the Admiralty invited the Governments of Canada and Newfoundland to use St. John’s, Newfoundland, as an advanced base for our joint escort forces. The response was immediate, and by the end of the month continuous escort over the whole route was at last a reality. Thereafter the Royal Canadian Navy accepted responsibility for the protection, out of its own resources, of convoys on the western section of the ocean route. From Great Britain and from Iceland we were able to give protection over the remainder of the passage. Even so the strength available remained perilously small for the task, to be performed. Meanwhile our losses had been mounting steeply. In the three months ending with May U-boats alone sank 142 ships, of 818,000 tons. Of these, 99 ships, of about 600,000 tons, were British. To achieve these results the Germans maintained continuously about a dozen U-boats in the North Atlantic, and in addition endeavoured to spread-eagle our defence by determined attacks in the Freetown area, where six U-boats in May alone sank thirty-two ships.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the United States the President was moving step by step ever more closely with us, and his powerful intervention soon became decisive. As we had found it necessary to develop bases in Iceland, so he in the same month took steps to establish an air base for his own use in Greenland. It was known that the Germans had already installed weather-reporting stations on the Greenland east coast and opposite Iceland. The President’s action was therefore timely. Furthermore, by other decisions not only our merchant ships but our warships, damaged in the heavy fighting in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, could be repaired in American shipyards, thus giving instant and much-needed relief to our heavily strained resources at home. The President confirmed this in a telegram of April 4, which also stated that he had allotted funds to build another fifty-eight launching yards and two hundred more ships.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 4 April 41

I am most grateful for your message just received through the Ambassador about the shipping.

2. During the last few weeks we have been able to strengthen our escorts in home northwestern approaches, and in consequence have hit the U-boats hard. They have now moved farther west, and this morning (April 3) sank four ships on the twenty-ninth meridian one day before our escort could meet them. Beating the U-boat is simply a question of destroyers and escorts, but we are so strained that to fill one gap is to open another. If we could get your ten cutters taken over and manned we would base them on Iceland, where their good radius would give protection to convoys right up to where they meet our British-based escorts. Another important factor in northwestern approaches is long-distance aircraft. These are now coming in. Meanwhile, though our losses are increasingly serious, I hope we shall lessen the air menace when in a month or six weeks’ time we have a good number of Hurricane fighters flying off merchant ships patrolling or escorting in the danger zone.

Great news arrived a week later. The President cabled me on April 11 that the United States Government proposed to extend their so-called security zone and patrol areas, which had been in effect since very early in the war, to a line covering all North Atlantic waters west of about West Longitude 26°. For this purpose the President proposed to use aircraft and naval vessels working from Greenland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the United States, Bermuda, and the West Indies, with possibly a later extension to Brazil. He invited us to notify him in great secrecy of the movement of our convoys, “so that our patrol units can seek out any ships or planes of aggressor nations operating west of the new line of the security zones.” The Americans for their part would immediately publish the position of possible aggressor ships or planes when located in the American patrol area. “It is not certain,” the President ended, “that I would make a specific announcement. I may decide to issue the necessary naval operative orders and let time bring out the existence of the new patrol area.”

I transmitted this telegram to the Admiralty with a deep sense of relief.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 16 April 41

I had intended to cable you more fully on your momentous message about the Atlantic. Admiralty received the news with the greatest relief and satisfaction, and have prepared a technical paper. They wonder whether, since Admiral Ghormley arrives here in about two days, it would be better to discuss this with him before dispatch. I do not know whether he is apprised or not. The matter is certainly of highest urgency and consequence. There are about fifteen U-boats now operating on the thirtieth meridian, and of course United States flying-boats working from Greenland would be a most useful immediate measure.

Two days later, on April 18, the United States Government announced the line of demarcation between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres to which the President had referred in his message of April 11. This line, drawn along the meridian of 26° West, became thereafter the virtual sea frontier of the United States. It included within the United States’ sphere all British territory in or near the American continent, Greenland, and the Azores, and was soon afterward extended eastward to include Iceland. Under this declaration United States warships would patrol the waters of the Western Hemisphere, and would incidentally keep us informed of any enemy activities therein. The United States, however, remained non-belligerent and could not at this stage provide direct protection for our convoys. This remained solely a British responsibility over the whole route.

Both the British and American naval chiefs were at this time anxious about the Azores. We strongly suspected that the enemy were planning to seize them as a base for U-boats and aircraft. These islands, lying near the centre of the North Atlantic, would in enemy hands have proved as great a menace to our shipping movements in the south as Iceland in the north. The British Government for its part could not tolerate such a situation arising, and in response to urgent calls from the Portuguese Government, who were fully alive to the danger to their own country, we planned and prepared an expedition to forestall such a German move. We had also made plans to occupy Grand Canary and the Cape Verde Islands, should Hitler move into Spain. The urgency of these expeditions vanished once it became clear that Hitler had shifted his eyes towards Russia.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 24 April 41

I now reply in detail to your message of April 11. The delay has been caused by waiting for Admiral Ghormley, whose arrival was uncertain. The First Sea Lord has had long discussions with Ghormley, as the result of which I am advised as follows:

2. In the Battle of the Atlantic we have two main problems to deal with in addition to the menace from aircraft round our coast. These problems are those of the U-boats and the raiders.

3. As regards the U-boats, we have had considerable success in dealing with these pests when they were working somewhere in the longitude of 22° West in the northwestern approaches. Whether it was because of our success or for some other reason, they are now working in about 30° West.

4. We have, however, been able gradually to strengthen our escorting forces, thanks to the United States destroyers which were sent us, and by the use of Iceland as a refuelling base for the escorts.

5. It may be expected that the enemy’s reaction to this will be to send his U-boats still farther west, and as most of them are based on either L’Orient or Bordeaux they can do this without operating farther from their bases than they are at the present time.

6. It is quite likely therefore that the area to the westward of 35° West and to the southward of Greenland will be the next danger area, and it is one which it is difficult for us to deal with. Aerial reconnaissance which could be carried out from Greenland to cover this area would therefore be of the greatest value, as if a U-boat were located we should be able to reroute our convoys by signal so as to pass clear of the danger.

7. Another area in which we are having considerable trouble is that from Freetown up through the Cape Verdes to the Azores. We cannot route our convoys very far to the west owing to the [limited] endurance of the vessels on this run. In fact, it is only by reducing their cargo and taking in extra fuel that they can make the passage. We are providing such escort for these convoys as we are able, but it is quite inadequate, and it would be of the greatest help if air reconnaissance by one of the United States carriers would cover the water some distance in advance of the convoys.

8. There will be no difficulty in giving the American naval authorities notification of the movements of convoys.

9. As regards raiders, one great danger point is off Newfoundland, as we have a very large amount of shipping proceeding independently through this area. This was the area in which the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made such a bag. Any additional long-range air reconnaissance which could be carried out from Newfoundland or Nova Scotia would be of the greatest assistance.

10. We hope to station a powerful capital ship in either Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, which would be able to take advantage of any information which we receive regarding the activities of raiders.

11. There are various areas on our trade routes in which the enemy is liable to operate and which are west of the longitude 26° West. There are also certain areas in the North and South Atlantic off the trade routes in which the enemy maintain their supply ships and where they go to refuel. Up to the present time we have been unable to search out these seas, as we have not had the ships to do it with. If we knew that reconnaissance was going to take place over any given area we would endeavour to have in the vicinity a force which would be capable of dealing with any raider which was located. Apart from any information which your ships were able to broadcast, the mere fact of air reconnaissance taking place over these areas would give the enemy a great feeling of uneasiness.

12. It is understood that arrangements have already been made for secret intercommunication between British and United States warships.

13. For yourself alone. There is another matter closely connected with the above which is causing me and the Naval Staff increasing anxiety. The capacity of Spain and Portugal to resist the increasing German pressure may at any time collapse, and the anchorage at Gibraltar be rendered unusable. To effect this the Germans would not need to move a large army through Spain, but merely to get hold of the batteries which may molest the anchorage, for which a few thousand artillerists and technicians might be sufficient. They have already done some of their usual preliminary penetration into Tangier, and thus both sides of the Straits might quickly pass into the hands of expert hostile gunners.

14. Of course, the moment Spain gives way or is attacked we shall dispatch two expeditions which we have long been holding in readiness, one from Britain to one of the islands in the Azores, and subsequently to a second island, and the second expedition to do the same in the Cape Verdes. But these operations will take eight days from the signal being given, and one can never tell that the Germans may not have forestalling plans on foot. With our other naval burdens we have not the forces to maintain a continuous watch. It would be a very great advantage if you could send an American squadron for a friendly cruise in these regions at the earliest moment. This would probably warn Nazi raiders off, and would keep the place warm for us as well as giving us invaluable information.

15. I have had long talks with Mr. Forrestal, and am taking him and Harriman with me tomorrow night to study the position in the Mersey area, so important to the northwestern approaches.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile, as a result of the Admiralty talks with Admiral Ghormley, a detailed plan for helping us in the Atlantic had been arranged with the United States.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 24 April 41

Greatly cheered by the news about “Navy Western Hemisphere Defence Plan No. 2.” It almost entirely covers the points made in my cable to you, which crossed the official communication. We are deeply impressed by the rapidity with which it is being brought into play. We have just received a report which indicates that a surface raider is operating in a position about three hundred miles southeast of Bermuda. Everything will be done to tell the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet about our convoys and other matters. Admiral Ghormley is in closest touch with the Admiralty, and the necessary Staff arrangements will be perfected.

2. The route taken by British shipping to and from the Cape is dependent on the areas in which U-boats are suspected, but a route west of 26° West is being used at the present time, and will be used whenever possible.

3. We welcome the energetic steps the United States Navy are taking to prepare the bases in the northwestern approaches. . . . The action you have taken may well decide the Battle of the Atlantic in a favourable sense.

We are, of course, observing the strictest secrecy. You will, I am sure, however, realise that if it were possible for you to make any kind of disclosure or declaration on these lines, it might powerfully influence the attitude both of Turkey and Spain at a cardinal moment.

The effects of the President’s policy were far-reaching, and we continued our struggle with important parts of our load taken off our backs by the Royal Canadian and the United States Navies. The United States was moving ever nearer to war, and this world-tide was still further speeded by the irruption of the Bismarck into the Atlantic towards the end of May. This episode will be described in due course. In a broadcast on May 27, the very day that the Bismarck was sunk, the President declared, “The war is approaching the brink of the Western Hemisphere itself. . . . The Battle of the Atlantic now extends from the icy waters of the North Pole to the frozen continent of the Antarctic.” He went, on, “It would be suicide to wait until they [the enemy] are in our front yard. . . . We have accordingly extended our patrols in North and South Atlantic waters.” At the conclusion of this speech the President declared an “Unlimited National Emergency.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

There is ample evidence to show that the Germans were greatly disturbed at this extension of American activity, and Admirals Raeder and Doenitz besought the Fuehrer to grant greater latitude to the U-boats and permit them to operate towards the American coast as well as against American ships if convoyed or if proceeding without lights. Hitler, however, remained adamant. He always dreaded the consequences of war with the United States, and insisted that German forces should avoid provocative action against her.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The expansion of the enemy’s efforts also brought its own correctives. By June he had, apart from those training, about thirty-five U-boats at sea, but the manning of the numbers of new craft now coming forward outstripped his resources in highly trained crews, and above all in experienced captains. The “diluted” crews of the new U-boats, largely composed of young and unpractised men, showed a decline in pertinacity and skill. Furthermore, the extension of the battle into the remoter expanses of the ocean disrupted the dangerous combination of the U-boats and the air. German aircraft in large numbers had not been equipped or trained for operations over the sea. None the less, in the same three months of March, April, and May 179 ships, of 545,000 tons, were sunk by air attack, mainly in the coastal regions. Of this total 40,000 tons were destroyed, as has been described in an earlier chapter, in two fierce attacks on the Liverpool docks early in May. I was thankful the Germans did not persevere on this tormented target. All the while the stealthy, insidious menace of the magnetic mine had continued around our coasts, with varying success; but our counter-measures remained dominant, and by 1941 sinkings by mines were greatly diminishing.

By June the steady growth of our defence measures both in home waters and in the Atlantic, aided by Canada and America, began once more to gain the upper hand. The utmost exertions were being made both to improve the organisation of our convoy escorts and to develop new weapons and devices to aid them in their task. The chief needs were for more and faster escorts with greater fuel endurance, for more long-range aircraft, and above all for good radar. Shore-based aircraft alone were not enough, and every convoy needed shipborne airplanes to detect any U-boat within striking distance in daylight, and by forcing it to dive prevent it making contact, or making a report which would draw others to the scene. Even so, the value of the air arm at this stage was still chiefly for reconnaissance. Aircraft could observe U-boats and force them down, but the power to kill was not yet developed, and at night their value was greatly limited. The lethal power of the air in U-boat warfare was yet to come.

Against the Focke-Wulf assailant, however, the air weapon could be quickly turned to good account. By the use of fighter aircraft discharged from catapults mounted in ordinary merchant ships, as well as in converted ships manned by the Royal Navy, we soon met this thrust. The fighter pilot, having been tossed like a falcon against his prey, had at first to rely for his life on being retrieved from the sea by one of the escorts.

The Focke-Wulf, being challenged itself in the air, was no longer able to give the same assistance to the U-boats, and gradually became the hunted rather than the hunter.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Our losses from enemy action during the fateful months show the stresses of this life-and-death struggle:

Gross Tons
January320,000
February402,000
March537,000
April654,000
May500,000
June431,000

The April figures, of course, include the exceptional losses in the fighting around Greece.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I watched the process with constant attention.

Prime Minister to Minister of Information 14 April 41

The publication of the weekly sinkings is to be discontinued henceforward—that is, no more, no publication next Tuesday. When the press ask why have the week’s figures not come out, the answer will be they are to be published monthly instead of weekly. When the comment is made that we are afraid to publish weekly because, as you say, we “desire to cover up the size of our most recent shipping losses,” the answer should be, “Well, that is what we are going to do anyway.” Friends and enemies will no doubt put on their own interpretation. But only the facts will decide. We shall have a lot of worse things than that to put up with in the near future.

I will answer any questions on the subject myself in the House.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges, General Ismay, and other members of Atlantic Committee concerned 28 April 41

It is not intended to use the catapult ships as ordinary freighters; nor can a number like two hundred, which has been mentioned, be at any time contemplated.

2. There are at present five catapult patrol vessels working like the Pegasus. These should be joined at the earliest moment by the first ten catapult-fitted merchant ships, and from these fifteen vessels there must be found a regular patrol covering or accompanying the convoys in the Focke-Wulf zone.

3. As some of these vessels are probably heavier, faster, and more valuable merchant vessels than are required for this patrolling service, they are to be replaced at earliest by other smaller vessels which the Ministry of Shipping can better spare. The large ones already fitted, having been relieved, may ply on the Freetown-Britain route, as they will have the opportunity of going through two danger zones in each voyage, and the catapult Hurricanes will thus have adequate opportunities of fighting.

4. If the fifteen ships devoted to the northwestern approaches patrol are proved to be a success and it is thought necessary to increase their numbers, a proposal should be put forward. At the same time the Beaufighter aircraft now employed on patrol duties should be returned to Fighter Command, where they are most urgently needed for night fighting.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We developed and expanded our bases in Canada and Iceland with all possible speed, and planned our convoys accordingly. We increased the fuel capacity of our older destroyers and their consequent radius. The newly formed Combined Headquarters at Liverpool threw itself heart and soul into the struggle. As more escorts came into service and the personnel gained experience, Admiral Noble formed them into permanent groups under group commanders. Thus the essential team spirit was fostered and men became accustomed to working in unison with a clear understanding of their commander’s methods. These escort groups became ever more efficient, and as their power grew that of the U-boats declined.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile in June President Roosevelt made an important move. He decided to establish a base in Iceland. It was agreed that United States forces should relieve the British garrison. They reached Iceland on July 7, and this island was included in the defence system of the Western Hemisphere. Thereafter American convoys escorted by American warships ran regularly to Reykjavik, and although the United States were still not at war they admitted foreign ships to the protection of their convoys.

Throughout these critical months the two German battle-cruisers remained poised in Brest. At any moment it seemed that they might again break out, to cause further havoc in the Atlantic. It was due to the Royal Air Force that they continued inactive. Repeated air attacks were made on them in port, with such good effect that they remained idle through the year. The enemy’s concern soon became to get them home; but even this they were unable to do until 1942. Hitler’s plan for the invasion of Russia soon brought us much-needed respite in the air. For this new enterprise the German Air Force had to be re-deployed in strength, and thus from May onward the scale of air attack against our shipping fell.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is worth while at this point to anticipate some of the results which were gained in the Battle of the Atlantic by the intensive study which we made of all the knowable factors at work. It was a great advantage that the whole process of our many decisions could be passed continuously through a single mind, and that, as Prime Minister, I received in so full a measure from my colleagues the authority necessary to give a unified direction throughout this vast administrative sphere. The war machine over which I presided as Minister of Defence was capable of enforcing all decisions with precision.

At the end of June I reported, on the authority of the Admiralty, to the House of Commons a decisive decline in British losses by aircraft attack in the North Atlantic:

February86,000 tons
March69,000
April59,000
May21,000
June (to date)18,000[1]

In my directive of March 6 I had aimed at reducing the 1,700,000 tons of shipping immobilised by the need for repairs by 400,000 tons by July 1. Later on we became more ambitious and set ourselves as a target a reduction of 750,000 tons by the same date. Actually we achieved a reduction of 700,000 tons. This was accomplished in the teeth of the air attacks made on the Mersey and the Clyde at the beginning of May. The welcome addition of a large number of ships, hitherto given up as hopeless, which were rescued by our splendid Salvage Service and added to the repair list, was another gain. A substantial saving in the turn-round of ships was also effected by various processes, and every day’s saving in the turn-round was worth a quarter of a million tons in effective imports during a year.

There were many complications in all this. We could not always arrange to discharge a ship at the most convenient port. One carrying a mixed cargo might have to visit several ports during the process of discharge, with added risk of destruction by air or mine during coastal passages; and all the time the ports themselves, particularly those on the East Coast, were subject to attack which might temporarily paralyse them. London, by far our main port, was largely immobilised owing to the risk of sending large vessels round to the East Coast in the face of attacks by air, by E-boats, and by mines. Thus the East Coast ports could not take their full share of the load, and the greater burden fell upon the ports in the west—Liverpool, the Clyde, and the Bristol Channel. None the less, by intense efforts London, the Humber, and the more northerly ports on the East Coast remained open to coastal and a certain amount of ocean-going traffic throughout these harassing times.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the height of this struggle I made one of the most important and fortunate appointments of my war administration. In 1930, when I was out of office, I accepted for the first and only time in my life a directorship. It was in one of the subsidiary companies of Lord Inchcape’s far-spreading organisation of the Peninsular and Oriental shipping lines. For eight years I regularly attended the monthly board meetings and discharged my duties with care. At these meetings I gradually became aware of a very remarkable man. He presided over thirty or forty companies, of which the one with which I was connected was a small unit. I soon perceived that Frederick Leathers was the central brain and controlling power of this combination. He knew everything and commanded absolute confidence. Year after year I watched him from my small position at close quarters. I said to myself, “If ever there is another war, here is a man who will play the same kind of part as the great business leaders who served under me at the Ministry of Munitions in 1917 and 1918.”

Leathers volunteered his services to the Ministry of Shipping on the outbreak in 1939. We did not come much into contact while I was at the Admiralty, because his functions were specialised and subordinate. But now in 1941, in the stresses of the Battle of the Atlantic, and with the need for combining the management of our shipping with all the movements of our supplies by rail and road from our harried ports, he came more and more into my mind. On May 8 I turned to him. After much discussion I remodelled the Ministries of Shipping and Transport into one integral machine. I placed Leathers at its head. To give him the necessary authority I created the office of Minister of War Transport. I was always shy of bringing people into high Ministerial positions in the House of Commons if they had not been brought up there for a good many years. Experienced Members out of office may badger the newcomer, and he will always be unduly worried by the speeches he has to prepare and deliver. I therefore made a submission to the Crown that a peerage should be conferred upon the new Minister.

Henceforward to the end of the war Lord Leathers remained in complete control of the Ministry of War Transport, and his reputation grew with every one of the four years that passed. He won the confidence of the Chiefs of Staff and of all departments at home, and established intimate and excellent relations with the leading Americans in this vital sphere. With none was he more closely in harmony than with Mr. Lewis Douglas, of the United States Shipping Board, and later Ambassador in London. Leathers was an immense help to me in the conduct of the war. It was very rarely that he was unable to accomplish the hard tasks I set. Several times when all staff and departmental processes had failed to solve the problems of moving an extra division or transshipping it from British to American ships, or of meeting some other need, I made a personal appeal to him, and the difficulties seemed to disappear as if by magic.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I was able to tell the House in secret session on June 25 some encouraging facts about the clearance of goods from our ports.

I have never allowed the excuse to be pleaded of congestion at our ports, because, in spite of all our difficulties, we are in fact only handling and budgeting to handle about half the pre-war traffic. Nonetheless, a great effort is being made. Inland sorting depots which enable the goods to be got away quickly from the air-raided quaysides into the country are recommended by the Select Committee. Six of these are in process of construction to serve our West Coast ports. The first will come into partial operation in September. To get the best out of the South Wales ports we are quadrupling the railway line from Newport to the Severn Tunnel; part of the quadrupled line is already in operation. Some of the transport bottlenecks are found at inland junctions on the western side of the Island, because a greater strain is being cast upon them than they were constructed to bear. These are being opened up. A considerable development of overside discharge at suitable anchorages has been organised, not only as a relief but as an alternative in case of very heavy attack.

A large expansion in our crane facilities is on foot, both to equip new emergency ports and to make existing port facilities more flexible under attack. In May alone a hundred and fifty mobile cranes were delivered from British factories and from the United States, as compared with the previous average of fifty in the last four months.

On all this I felt able to ask the House to approve stopping, as already ordered, the weekly publication of our tonnage losses, which had been of so much assistance to the enemy, but to which the press and Parliament attached fictitious importance. As has been mentioned, I had already given directions to this effect in April. “I have no doubt,” I now said, “there will be a howl, not only from the Germans, but from some well-meaning patriots of this Island. Let them howl. We have got to think of our sailors and merchant seamen, the lives of our countrymen and of the life of our country, now quivering in the balance of mortal peril.”

The House seemed greatly reassured by all this account, and gave me a full measure of support.

If we can resist [I said] or deter actual invasion this autumn, we ought to be able, on the present undertaking of the United States, to come through the year 1941. In 1942 we hope to be possessed of very definite air ascendancy, and to be able not only to carry our offensive bombing very heavily into Germany, but to redress to some extent the frightful strategic disadvantages we suffer from the present German control of the Atlantic seaports of Europe. If we can deny to the enemy or at least markedly neutralise the enemy-held Atlantic ports and airfields, there is no reason why the year 1942, in which the enormous American new building comes to hand, should not present us with less anxious ordeals than those we must now endure and come through.

I ended thus:

I will add only one other word. Let us not forget that the enemy has difficulties of his own; that some of these difficulties are obvious; that there may be others which are more apparent to him than to us; and that all the great struggles of history have been won by superior will-power wresting victory in the teeth of odds or upon the narrowest of margins.


The total losses in the undermentioned five months in 1941 from air attack, including Allied and neutral shipping, and the losses in Greece, are now known to be as follows:

MonthBritishAlliedNeutralTotal
    
February51,86534,2433,19789,305
March70,26636,7805,731112,777
April122,503164,0069,909296,418
May115,13121,004125136,260
June39,30118,4493,66461,414
---------------------------
Totals399,066274,48222,626696,174

9
Yugoslavia

Peril of Yugoslavia—The German Net Closes—Colonel Donovan’s Mission to Belgrade, January, 1941—Pressure on the Regent—Hitler’s Offer of February 14—Bulgaria Adheres to the Tripartite Pact—Prince Paul at Berchtesgaden, March 5—Yugoslavian Opposition—Attempts to Rally the Yugoslavs—Secret Pact with Germany, March 25—My Telegram of March 26—A Bloodless Revolution in Belgrade, March 27—Prince Paul Forced to Resign—Popular Enthusiasm—Hitler’s Rage—His Decision to Crush Yugoslavia—Orders the Destruction of Belgrade—His Telegram to Mussolini—Dislocation of the German Plans—No Balkan Bloc—Hitler’s Threat to Hungary—Treachery of the Chief of the Hungarian General Staff—Mr. Eden’s Warning—Suicide of Count Teleki, April 2—My Hopes for Yugoslavia—And for Turkey—My Message to Mr. Eden, March 28—New Significance of Our Aid to Greece—My Telegram to Australia, March 30—The Yugoslav Opportunity in Albania—Dill’s Mission to Belgrade—Confusion and Paralysis—Dill’s Report of April 4—My Appeal and Warning—The Soviet Gesture—Operation “Punishment,” April 6-8—The Uncomprehending Bear.

The murder of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in October, 1934, at Marseilles, which has already been mentioned, opened a period of disintegration for the Yugoslav State, and thereafter its independent position in Europe declined. The political hostility of Fascist Italy and the economic advance of Hitlerite Germany into Southeast Europe had speeded this process. The decay of internal stability, the antagonism between Serb and Croat, sapped the strength of this Southern Slav State. Under the regency of Prince Paul, an amiable, artistic personage, the prestige of the monarchy waned. Doctor Machek, the leader of the Peasant Party of Croatia, pursued obstinately a policy of non-co-operation with the Government of Belgrade. Extremist Croats, protected by Italy and Hungary, worked from bases abroad for the detachment of Croatia from Yugoslavia. The Belgrade Government turned away from co-operation with the Little Entente of Balkan Powers to follow a “realist” line of understanding with the Axis. The champion of this policy was M. Stoyadinovic, who signed the Italo-Yugoslav Pact of March 25, 1937. This attitude seemed to be justified by what happened at Munich the year after. Weakened internally by an alliance between the Croat Peasant Party and the Serb opposition, who were suspicious of the closer relations with Italy and Germany, Stoyadinovic was defeated in the elections, and in February, 1939, was forced to retire.

The new Prime Minister, Cvetkovic, and his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Markovic, sought to appease the swelling Axis power. In August, 1939, agreement with the Croats was reached and Machek entered the Belgrade Government. In the same month came the news of the Soviet-German Pact. In spite of ideological differences, the Serbs had always felt drawn by Slav instincts towards Russia. The Soviet attitude at the time of Munich had encouraged them to hope that the unity of Eastern Europe might still be maintained. Now the signing of the fateful pact seemed to deliver the Balkans at a stroke into Axis hands. The fall of France in June, 1940, deprived the Southern Slavs of their traditional friend and protector. The Russians revealed their intentions about Rumania and occupied Bessarabia and Bukovina. At Vienna in August, 1940, Transylvania was awarded to Hungary by Germany and Italy. The net around Yugoslavia was closing. In November, 1940, Markovic first trod in secrecy the road to Berchtesgaden. He escaped without formally committing his country to the Axis side, but on December 12 a pact of amity was signed with the minor Axis partner, Hungary.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As these impressions grew they caused us concern. In this atmosphere Prince Paul carried the policy of neutrality to its limits. He feared particularly that any move by Yugoslavia or her neighbours might provoke the Germans into a southward advance into the Balkans.

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 14 Jan. 41

The Cabinet today should consider these telegrams from Belgrade about Prince Paul’s views. They leave me unchanged. It is for the Greeks to say whether they want Wavell to visit Athens or not. It is the Greeks who must be the judges of the German reactions.

Secondly, if the Germans are coming south they will not require pretexts. They are, it would seem, already acting in pursuance of a carefully thought-out plan which one can hardly assume will be hurried or delayed in consequence of any minor movements of ours. The evidence in our possession of the German movements seems overwhelming. In the face of it Prince Paul’s attitude looks like that of an unfortunate man in the cage with a tiger, hoping not to provoke him while steadily dinner-time approaches.

At the end of January, 1941, in these days of growing anxiety, Colonel Donovan, a friend of President Roosevelt, came to Belgrade on a mission from the American Government to sound opinion in Southeastern Europe. Fear reigned. The Ministers and the leading politicians did not dare to speak their minds. Prince Paul declined a proposed visit from Mr. Eden. There was one exception. An air force general named Simovic represented the nationalist elements among the officer corps of the armed forces. Since December his office in the air force headquarters across the river from Belgrade at Zemun had become a clandestine centre of opposition to German penetration into the Balkans and to the inertia of the Yugoslav Government.

On February 14 Cvetkovic and Markovic obeyed a summons to Berchtesgaden. Together they listened to Hitler’s account of the might of victorious Germany and to his emphasis on the close relations between Berlin and Moscow. If Yugoslavia would adhere to the Tripartite Pact, Hitler offered, in the event of operations against Greece, not to march through Yugoslavia, but only to use its roads and railways for military supplies. The Ministers returned to Belgrade in sombre mood. To join the Axis might infuriate Serbia. To fight Germany might cause conflict of loyalty in Croatia. Greece, the only possible Balkan ally, was heavily engaged with Italian armies of more than two hundred thousand men, and was under the menace of imminent German attack. English help seemed doubtful, and at the best symbolic. In order to help the Yugoslav Government to reach a satisfactory decision, Hitler proceeded with the strategic encirclement of their country. On March 1 Bulgaria adhered to the Tripartite Pact, and the same evening German motorised elements reached the Serbian frontiers. Meanwhile, to avoid provocation, the Yugoslav Army remained unmobilized. The hour of choice had now struck.

On March 4 Prince Paul left Belgrade on a secret visit to Berchtesgaden, and under dire pressure undertook verbally that Yugoslavia would follow the example of Bulgaria. On his return, at a meeting of the Royal Council and in separate discussion with political and military leaders, he found opposing views. Debate was violent, but the German ultimatum was real. General Simovic, when summoned to the White Palace, Prince Paul’s residence on the hills above Belgrade, was firm against capitulation. Serbia would not accept such a decision, and the dynasty would be endangered. But Prince Paul had already in effect committed his country.

      *      *      *      *      *      

From London I did what I could to rally the Yugoslavs against Germany, and on March 22 I telegraphed to Doctor Cvetkovic, the Yugoslav Premier.

22 March 41

Your Excellency: The eventual total defeat of Hitler and Mussolini is certain. No prudent and farseeing man can doubt this in view of the respective declared resolves of the British and American democracies. There are only 65,000,000 malignant Huns, most of whom are already engaged in holding down Austrians, Czechs, Poles, and many other ancient races they now bully and pillage. The peoples of the British Empire and of the United States number nearly 200,000,000 in their homelands and British Dominions alone. We possess the unchallengeable command of the oceans, and with American help will soon obtain decisive superiority in the air. The British Empire and the United States have more wealth and more technical resources and they make more steel than the whole of the rest of the world put together. They are determined that the cause of freedom shall not be trampled down nor the tide of world progress turned backwards by the criminal dictators, one of whom has already been irretrievably punctured. We know that the hearts of all true Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes beat for the freedom, integrity, and independence of their country, and that they share the forward outlook of the English-speaking world. If Yugoslavia were at this time to stoop to the fate of Rumania, or commit the crime of Bulgaria, and become accomplice in an attempted assassination of Greece, her ruin will be certain and irreparable. She will not escape, but only postpone, the ordeal of war, and her brave armies will then fight alone after being surrounded and cut off from hope and succour. On the other hand, the history of war has seldom shown a finer opportunity than is open to the Yugoslav armies it they seize it while time remains. If Yugoslavia and Turkey stand together with Greece, and with all the aid which the British Empire can give, the German curse will be stayed and final victory will be won as surely and as decisively as it was last time. I trust Your Excellency may rise to the height of world events.

But on the evening of March 24 Cvetkovic and Markovic crept out of Belgrade from a suburban railway station on the Vienna train. Unknown to public opinion and the press, they signed the pact with Hitler at Vienna on the next day. Even before the returned Ministers laid before the Yugoslav Cabinet the text of the pact, three colleagues had resigned, and rumours of imminent disaster swept through the cafés and conclaves of Belgrade.

I now sent instructions to Mr. Campbell, our Minister in Belgrade.

26 March 41

Do not let any gap grow up between you and Prince Paul or Ministers. Continue to pester, nag, and bite. Demand audiences. Don’t take NO for an answer. Cling on to them, pointing out Germans are already taking the subjugation of the country for granted. This is no time for reproaches or dignified farewells. Meanwhile, at the same time, do not neglect any alternative to which we may have to resort if we find present Government have gone beyond recall. Greatly admire all you have done so far. Keep it up by every means that occur to you.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Direct action, if the Government capitulated to Germany, had been discussed for some months in the small circle of officers around Simovic. A revolutionary stroke had been carefully planned. The leader of the projected rising was General Bora Mirkovic, commander of the Yugoslav Air Force, aided by Major Knezevic, an army officer, and his brother, a professor, who established political contacts through his position in the Serb Democrat Party. Knowledge of the plan was confined to a small number of trustworthy officers, nearly all below the rank of colonel. The network extended from Belgrade to the main garrisons in the country, Zagreb, Skopje, and Sarajevo. The forces at the disposal of the conspirators in Belgrade comprised two regiments of the Royal Guard, with the exception of their colonels, one battalion of the Belgrade garrison, a company of gendarmes on duty at the Royal Palace, part of the anti-aircraft division stationed in the capital, the air force headquarters at Zemun, where Simovic was chief, and the cadet schools for officers and non-commissioned officers, together with certain artillery and sapper units.

When during March 26 the news of the return from Vienna of the Yugoslav Ministers and rumours of the pact began to circulate in Belgrade, the conspirators decided to act. The signal was given to seize key points in Belgrade, and the royal residence, together with the person of the young King, Peter II, by dawn on March 27. While troops, under the command of resolute officers, were sealing off the Royal Palace on the outskirts of the capital, Prince Paul, knowing nothing or too much of what was afoot, was in the train bound for Zagreb. Few revolutions have gone more smoothly. There was no bloodshed. Certain senior officers were placed under arrest. Cvetkovic was brought by the police to Simovic’s headquarters and obliged to sign a letter of resignation. Machine guns and artillery were placed at suitable points in the capital. Prince Paul on arrival in Zagreb was informed that Simovic had taken over the Government in the name of the young King, Peter II, and that the Council of Regency had been dissolved. The military commander of Zagreb requested the Prince to return at once to the capital. As soon as he reached Belgrade, Prince Paul was escorted to the office of General Simovic. Together with the other two regents, he then signed the act of abdication. He was allowed a few hours to collect his effects, and, together with his family, he left the country that night for Greece.

The plan had been made and executed by a close band of Serb nationalist officers without waiting upon public opinion. It let loose an outburst of popular enthusiasm which may well have surprised its authors. The streets of Belgrade were soon thronged with Serbs, chanting, “Rather war than the pact; rather death than slavery.” There was dancing in the squares; English and French flags appeared everywhere; the Serb national anthem was sung with wild defiance by valiant, helpless multitudes. On March 28 the young King, who by climbing down a rain-pipe had made his own escape from Regency tutelage, took the oath in Belgrade Cathedral amid fervent acclamation. The German Minister was publicly insulted, and the crowd spat on his car. The military exploit had roused a surge of national vitality. A people paralysed in action, hitherto ill-governed and ill-led, long haunted by the sense of being ensnared, flung their reckless, heroic defiance at the tyrant and conqueror in the moment of his greatest power.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Hitler was stung to the quick. He had a burst of that convulsive anger which momentarily blotted out thought and sometimes impelled him on his most dire adventures. In a cooler mood, a month later, conversing with Schulenburg, he said, “The Yugoslav coup came suddenly out of the blue. When the news was brought to me on the morning of the twenty-seventh I thought it was a joke.” But now in a passion he summoned the German High Command. Goering, Keitel, and Jodl were present, and Ribbentrop arrived later. The minutes of the meeting are found in the Nuremberg records. Hitler described the Yugoslav situation after the upheaval. He said that Yugoslavia was an uncertain factor in the coming action against Greece (“Marita”), and even more in the “Barbarossa” undertaking against Russia later on. He deemed it fortunate that the Yugoslavs had revealed their temper before “Barbarossa” was launched.

The Fuehrer is determined, without waiting for possible loyalty declarations of the new Government, to make all preparations in order to destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a national unit. No diplomatic inquiries will be made nor ultimatums presented. Assurances of the Yugoslav Government, which cannot be trusted anyhow in the future, will be “taken note of.” The attack will start as soon as the means and troops suitable for it are ready.

Actual military support against Yugoslavia is to be requested of Italy, Hungary, and in certain respects of Bulgaria too. Rumania’s main task is the protection against Russia. The Hungarian and Bulgarian Ambassadors have already been notified. During the day a message will be addressed to the Duce.

Politically it is especially important that the blow against Yugoslavia is carried out with unmerciful harshness and that the military destruction is done in a lightning-like undertaking. In this way Turkey would become sufficiently frightened and the campaign against Greece later on would be influenced in a favourable way. It can be assumed that the Croats will come to our side when we attack. A corresponding political treatment (autonomy later on) will be assured to them. The war against Yugoslavia should be very popular in Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria, as territorial acquisitions are to be promised to these States: the Adriatic coast for Italy, the Banat for Hungary, and Macedonia for Bulgaria. This plan assumes that we speed up the schedule of all preparations and use such strong forces that the Yugoslav collapse will take place within the shortest time. . . . The main task of the air force is to start as early as possible with the destruction of the Yugoslav Air Force ground installations and to destroy the capital, Belgrade, in attacks by waves.

On the same day the Fuehrer signed “Directive No. 25”:

My intention is to invade Yugoslavia by powerful thrusts from the area of Fiume and Sofia in the general direction of Belgrade and farther to the south, with the objective of inflicting on the Yugoslav Army a decisive defeat, as well as to cut off the southern part of Yugoslavia from the rest of the country and to turn it into a base for further operations of German-Italian forces against Greece.

In detail I order the following:

(a) As soon as the concentration of sufficient forces is concluded and meteorological conditions permit, all Yugoslav surface installations and Belgrade must be destroyed by continuous day and night air attacks.

(b) If possible simultaneously, but under no circumstances sooner, Operation “Marita” must be started, with the primary limited objective of seizing the harbour of Salonika and the Dios Mountains.

He now telegraphed to Mussolini:

Duce, events force me to give you, by this, the quickest means, my estimate of the situation and the consequences which may result from it.

From the beginning I have regarded Yugoslavia as a dangerous factor in the controversy with Greece. Considered from the purely military point of view, German intervention in the war in Thrace would not be at all justified as long as the attitude of Yugoslavia remained ambiguous and she could threaten the left flank of the advancing columns on our enormous front.

2. For this reason I have done everything and have honestly endeavoured to bring Yugoslavia into our community bound together by mutual interests. Unfortunately these attempts did not meet with success, or they were begun too late to produce any definite result. Today’s reports leave no doubt of the imminent turn in the foreign policy of Yugoslavia.

3. I do not consider this situation as being catastrophic, but nevertheless it is a difficult one, and we on our part must avoid any mistake if we do not want, in the end, to endanger our whole position.

4. Now I would cordially request you, Duce, not to undertake any further operations in Albania in the course of the next few days.

Hitler saw as clearly as we did the one chance of the Yugoslavs to strike a deadly blow.

I consider it necessary that you should cover and screen the most important passes from Yugoslavia into Albania with all available forces. These measures should not be considered as designed for a long period of time, but as auxiliary measures to prevent for at least fourteen days to three weeks a crisis arising.

I also consider it necessary, Duce, that you should reinforce your forces on the Italian-Yugoslav front with all available means and with the utmost speed.

. . . If silence is maintained, Duce, on these measures I have no doubt we shall both witness a success that will not be less than that of Norway. This is my granite conviction.

The night was spent by the generals in drafting the operation orders. Keitel in his evidence confirms our view that the greatest danger to Germany was “an attack upon the Italian Army from the rear.” Jodl testified as follows: “I worked all night at the Reich Chancellery [which also shows the surprise nature of the case]. At 4 A.M. on the twenty-eighth I put an aide-mémoire into the hands of General von Rintelen, our liaison officer with the Italian General Staff.” Keitel records: “The decision to attack Yugoslavia meant completely upsetting all military movements and arrangements made up to that time. ‘Marita’ had to be completely readjusted. New forces had to be brought through Hungary from the north. All had to be improvised.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

From the time of Munich, Hungary had attempted to extend her post-1920 frontiers in the wake of the German diplomatic victories at the expense of Czechoslovakia and Rumania, while at the same time trying to maintain a neutral position in the international sphere. Hungarian diplomacy sought to avoid precise commitments to the Axis about becoming an ally in the war. Hungary adhered at Vienna to the Tripartite Pact, but, like Rumania, undertook no definite obligations. Neither Hitler nor Mussolini desired a quarrel between the Balkan countries. They hoped to get control of them all at the same time. For this reason they had imposed a settlement upon Hungary and Rumania about Transylvania. Mussolini’s attack on Greece, which Hitler did not favour, brought with it the prospect of British intervention in Southeastern Europe. Pressure was therefore brought upon Yugoslavia to follow the example of Hungary and Rumania in joining the Axis bloc. When the Yugoslav Ministers had been summoned to Vienna for this purpose everything seemed settled. The dramatic events of March 27 in Belgrade upset all hope of a united Balkan group adhering to the Axis.

Hungary was directly and immediately affected. Although the main German thrust against the recalcitrant Yugoslavs would clearly come through Rumania, all lines of communication led through Hungarian territory. Almost the first reaction of the German Government to the events in Belgrade was to send the Hungarian Minister in Berlin by air to Budapest with an urgent message to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy:

Yugoslavia will be annihilated, for she has just renounced publicly the policy of understanding with the Axis. The greater part of the German armed forces must pass through Hungary. But the principal attack will not be made on the Hungarian sector. Here the Hungarian Army should intervene, and, in return for its co-operation, Hungary will be able to reoccupy all those former territories which she had been forced at one time to cede to Yugoslavia. The matter is urgent. An immediate and affirmative reply is requested.[1]

Hungary was bound by a pact of friendship to Yugoslavia signed only in December, 1940. But open opposition to the German demands could only lead to the German occupation of Hungary in the course of the imminent military operations. There was also the temptation of reoccupying the territories on her southern frontiers which Hungary had lost to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. The Hungarian Premier, Count Teleki, had been working consistently to maintain some liberty of action for his country. He was by no means convinced that Germany would win the war. At the time of signing the Tripartite Pact he had little confidence in the independence of Italy as an Axis partner. Hitler’s ultimatum required the breach of his own Hungarian agreement with Yugoslavia. The initiative was, however, wrested from him by the Hungarian General Staff, whose chief, General Werth, himself of German origin, made his own arrangements with the German High Command behind the back of the Hungarian Government. Details regarding the passage of troops were being arranged on this basis.

Teleki at once denounced Werth’s action as treasonable. On the evening of April 2, 1941, he received a telegram from the Hungarian Minister in London that the British Foreign Office had stated formally to him that if Hungary took part in any German move against Yugoslavia she must expect a declaration of war upon her by Great Britain. Thus the choice for Hungary was either a vain resistance to the passage of German troops or ranging herself openly against the Allies and betraying Yugoslavia. In this cruel position Count Teleki saw but one means of saving his personal honour. Shortly after nine o’clock he left the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and retired to his apartments in the Sandor Palace. There he received a telephone call. It is believed that this message stated that the German armies had already crossed the Hungarian frontier. Shortly afterward he shot himself. His suicide was a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack upon Yugoslavia. It clears his name before history. It could not stop the march of the German armies nor the consequences.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The news of the revolution in Belgrade naturally gave us great satisfaction. Here at least was one tangible result of our desperate efforts to form an Allied front in the Balkans and prevent all falling piecemeal into Hitler’s power. I received the earliest telegrams only half an hour before I had to address the Conservative Central Council for the first time as leader of the party. I ended as follows:

Here at this moment I have great news for you and the whole country. Early this morning the Yugoslav nation found its soul. A revolution has taken place in Belgrade, and the Ministers who but yesterday signed away the honour and freedom of the country are reported to be under arrest. This patriotic movement arises from the wrath of a valiant and warlike race at the betrayal of their country by the weakness of their rulers and the foul intrigues of the Axis Powers.

We may, therefore, cherish the hope—I speak, of course, only on information which has reached me—that a Yugoslav Government will be formed worthy to defend the freedom and integrity of their country. Such a Government in its brave endeavour will receive from the British Empire, and, I doubt not, in its own way, from the United States, all possible aid and succour. The British Empire and its Allies will make common cause with the Yugoslav nation, and we shall continue to match and strive together until complete victory is won.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Eden had reached Malta on his way home, but on the news of the Belgrade revolution I thought he should change his plans and be upon the spot with Generals Dill and Wavell.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden 27 March 41

In view of coup d’état in Serbia it would surely be well for you both to be on the spot in Cairo so as to concert events. Now surely is the chance to bring in Turkey and form a joint front in the Balkans. Can you not get a meeting in Cyprus or Athens of all concerned? When you know the situation, ought you not to go to Belgrade? Meanwhile we are doing all possible and carrying on.

I telegraphed to the President of Turkey:

27 March 41

Your Excellency: The dramatic events which are occurring in Belgrade and throughout Yugoslavia may offer the best chance of preventing the German invasion of the Balkan Peninsula. Surely now is the time to make a common front which Germany will hardly dare assail. I have cabled to President Roosevelt to ask him for American supplies to be extended to all Powers resisting German aggression in the East. I am asking Mr. Eden and General Dill to concert all possible measures of common safety.

During the day I drafted the following message to Mr. Eden, who had already reached Athens.

28 March 41

Let us visualise clearly what we want in the Balkans and from Turkey, and work towards it as events serve.

2. Together Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and ourselves have seventy divisions mobilised in this theatre. Germans have not yet got more than thirty. Therefore, the seventy could say to the thirty, “If you attack any of us you will be at war with all.” The Germans would either attack in mountainous regions and with poor communications at heavy odds, or alternatively they would have to bring large reinforcements from Germany. But even this does not cure their difficulties, because, first, it will take some months to bring the reinforcements to the theatre, and, secondly, the theatre itself, and indeed the communications leading to it, are not strong enough to carry much larger forces without a prolonged process of improving the communications. Therefore, it is very likely that a triple note by the three Balkan Powers would lead to the maintenance of peace, or to a lengthy delay in the German advance. Perhaps the advance could not be made for many months, and then they miss the season. Meanwhile British reinforcements and British and American supplies will vastly increase resisting power of the Allied armies. There is, therefore, a good prospect if the three Allies could be brought into line that no invasion southwards would be tried by the enemy. Here is what the Turks want.

3. This is Turkey’s best chance of avoiding war. For look at the alternative. If all three remain disunited the Germans may feel that it will be better to leave Greece and Yugoslavia alone and turn their whole striking force rapidly against Turkey in Thrace. There have been suggestions of this in various telegrams. Thus, by doing nothing Turkey runs the greatest danger of having everything concentrated upon her. One can hardly doubt that the mass of Turkish troops gathered in Thrace would soon be driven back in confusion upon the Chatalja [lines] and the Bosporus, without any obligation or opportunity on the part of Yugoslavia or Greece to take the pressure off by counter-attack, or by lengthening the fighting front.

4. The proper order for anyone to give who had the power would be (a) the diplomatic declaration of unity and demand to be let alone as set forth above, and (b) a simultaneous withdrawal of the bulk of the Turkish Army to Chatalja and the Asiatic shore, leaving only strong covering troops and rear guards in Thrace. Such a policy of firm, united declaration, coupled with sound strategic withdrawal, would prevent the Germans from gaining a decisive victory in Thrace, would not require any offensive from Turkey, and would, unless the Germans shied off, expose them to a stalemate front from, say, the lines of Chatalja through the Rupel-Nestor sector right up along the northern Serbian front. Even this could not develop for a long time. But what a dangerous and uninviting prospect for an enemy for whom quick successes are especially important! Surely this is the true Turkish interest, if it can be brought about, and we ought to try to make them see it, however unresponsive they may be. The Turks’ greatest danger is to be taken on alone jammed up in Thrace.

5. How does this above square with British interests? If Germany, notwithstanding the objections, attacks in the Balkans, we must play our part there with our full available strength. If, on the other hand, she pretends that she never wished to bring war into the Balkans, and leaves Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey alone, then we might turn our forces to a strong summer and autumn campaign in the Central Mediterranean, including Tripoli, Sicily, and the Italian toe. We should have a good pad in our right hand to protect our Middle Eastern interests, and take smart action on a medium scale with our left in the Central Mediterranean.

6. Is it not possible that if a united front were formed in the Balkan Peninsula Germany might think it better business to take it out of Russia, observing that we have had many reports of heavy concentrations in Poland and intrigues in Sweden and Finland?

7. Pray consider these opinions for what they are worth.

I also cabled to Mr. Fadden, the Acting Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia.

30 March 41

When a month ago we decided upon sending an army to Greece it looked rather a blank military adventure dictated by noblesse oblige. Thursday’s events in Belgrade show the far-reaching effects of this and other measures we have taken on whole Balkan situation. German plans have been upset, and we may cherish renewed hopes of forming a Balkan front with Turkey, comprising about seventy Allied divisions from the four Powers concerned. This is, of course, by no means certain yet. But even now it puts “Lustre” [the expedition to Greece] in its true setting, not as an isolated military act, but as a prime move in a large design. Whatever the outcome may be, everything that has happened since our decision was taken justifies it. Delay will also enable full concentration to be made on the Greek front instead of piecemeal engagements of our forces. Result unknowable, but prize has increased and risks have somewhat lessened. Am in closest touch with Menzies. Wish I could talk it over with you.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It was settled that Eden should remain in Athens to deal with Turkey and that General Dill should proceed to Belgrade. Anyone could see that the position of Yugoslavia was forlorn unless a common front was immediately presented by all the Powers concerned. There was, however, open to Yugoslavia the chance already mentioned of striking a deadly blow at the naked rear of the disorganised Italian armies in Albania. If they acted promptly they might bring about a major military event, and while their own country was being ravaged from the north might possess themselves of the masses of munitions and equipment which would give them the power of conducting the guerrilla in their mountains which was now their only hope. It would have been a grand stroke, and would have reacted upon the whole Balkan scene. In our circle in London we all saw this together. The diagram below shows the movement which was deemed feasible.

General Dill was now in Belgrade, and I sent him this message:

1 April 41

A variety of details shows rapid regrouping against Yugoslavia. To gain time against Germans is to lose it against Italians. Nothing should stop Yugo developing full strength against latter at earliest. By this alone can they gain far-reaching initial success and masses of equipment in good time.

The mistakes of years cannot be remedied in hours. When the general excitement had subsided, everyone in Belgrade realised that disaster and death approached them and that there was little they could do to avert their fate. The High Command thought themselves forced to garrison Slovenia and Croatia, to maintain a fictitious internal cohesion. They could now at last mobilise their armies. But there was no strategic plan. Dill found only confusion and paralysis in Belgrade. “In spite of my best endeavours,” he reported to Mr. Eden on April 1, “I was unable to persuade President of the Council to agree to visit by you in the immediate future. He made it plain that the Yugoslav Government, mainly for fear of the effect on the internal situation, were determined to take no step which might be considered provocative to Germany.” At this moment all the might of Germany within reach was descending like an avalanche upon them.

On April 4 General Dill sent a full account of his mission to Belgrade, which shows how utterly remote from their immediate peril were the minds of the Yugoslav Ministers. One would have thought from their mood and outlook that they had months in which to take their decision about peace or war with Germany. Actually they had only seventy-two hours before the onslaught fell upon them. Dill wrote:

Final result of Belgrade visit was disappointing in many ways, but it was impossible to get [General] Simovic to sign any sort of agreement. Nevertheless, I was impressed with offensive spirit of Yugoslav leaders, who will fight if Yugoslavia is attacked or if Germany attacks Salonika. Staff discussions today should have useful results in exchange of views, and, I hope, in agreement on best plans to meet various eventualities. None of these plans will be binding on either side, but there is reasonable prospect that when time comes Yugoslavs will be prepared to carry them out.

Fact is that Simovic, though a leader and able, is in no sense dictator. He had difficult task in keeping Cabinet together, and dare not propose to them any form of agreement with us. Nor can he effect such agreement without knowledge and consent of Cabinet. But he and War Minister Ilic, who is tougher but less intelligent, seem determined to fight. . . .

Yugoslavs’ forces are not yet ready for war, and Simovic wants to gain time to complete mobilisation and concentration. For internal political reasons he cannot take first step in hostilities, but must await German move. He expects Germany to attack Southern Yugoslavia from Bulgaria and leave Greece alone at the moment. . . . Yugoslavs will aid in Albania, but will not attack even there until Germany attacks them or their vital interests.

Simultaneously with this I made the following appeal:

Prime Minister to General Simovic 4 April 41

From every quarter my information shows rapid heavy concentration and advance towards your country by German ground and air forces. Large movements of air forces are reported to us from France by our agents there. Bombers have even been withdrawn from Tripoli, according to our African Army Intelligence. I cannot understand argument that you are gaining time. The one supreme stroke for victory and safety is to win a decisive forestalling victory in Albania, and collect the masses of equipment that would fall into your hands. When the four German mountain divisions reported by your General Staff as entraining in the Tyrol reach Albania, a very different resistance will confront you than could be offered by rear of the demoralised Italians. As this is the first time I have had the honour to address Your Excellency, I send my heartiest good wishes for the success of your Administration and for the safety and independence of the brave nation whose fortunes you guide.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We have now to chronicle the only occasion when a dash of sentiment was allowed to mingle in the calculations of the Kremlin oligarchy.

The national movement in Belgrade had been a spontaneous revolt entirely divorced from the activities of the small illegal but Soviet-sponsored Yugoslav Communist Party. After waiting a week Stalin decided to make a gesture. His officials were negotiating with M. Gavrilovic, the Yugoslav Minister in Moscow, and with a mission sent from Belgrade after the revolution. Little progress had been made. During the night of April 5-6 the Yugoslavs were summoned abruptly to the Kremlin. They were confronted with Stalin in person, who presented them with a pact in draft, ready for signature. The work was speedily done. Russia agreed to respect “the independence, sovereign rights, and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia,” and in the event of that country being attacked Russia would adopt an attitude of good will “based on friendly relations.” This was at any rate an amicable grimace. Gavrilovic stayed alone till morning discussing with Stalin the question of military supplies. As their conversations came to an end the Germans struck.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the morning of April 6 German bombers appeared over Belgrade. Flying in relays from occupied airfields in Rumania, they delivered a methodical attack lasting three days upon the Yugoslav capital. From rooftop height, without fear of resistance, they blasted the city without mercy. This was called Operation “Punishment.” When silence came at last on April 8 over seventeen thousand citizens of Belgrade lay dead in the streets or under the débris. Out of the nightmare of smoke and fire came the maddened animals released from their shattered cages in the zoological gardens. A stricken stork hobbled past the main hotel, which was a mass of flames. A bear, dazed and uncomprehending, shuffled through the inferno with slow and awkward gait down towards the Danube. He was not the only bear who did not understand.

Operation “Punishment” had been performed.


Ullein-Reviczky. Guerre Allemande: Paix Russe, page 89.

10
The Japanese Envoy

Disturbing News from the Far East—Question of Reinforcing Hong Kong—Flutter in the Japanese Embassy—My Telegrams to President Roosevelt, February 15 and 20—A Visit from the Japanese Ambassador on February 24—And on March 4—German Anxiety Lest Japan Should Embroil Herself with the U.S.A.—Three Decisions in Tokyo—Matsuoka’s Mission—His Meeting with Ribbentrop, March 27—And with Hitler—“Moral Communism”—My Letter to Matsuoka of April 2—He Visits Rome—Tarries in Moscow—A Doom-Balance—Stalin’s Affability—Prince Konoye’s Desire for an Understanding with the U.S.A.—Matsuoka’s Reply to My Letter—The Japanese War—Cabinet Decides on Compromise—Matsuoka Resigns—Japanese Hopes of a Settlement—Three Coldly Calculating Empires Wrong.

The New Year had brought disturbing news from the Far East. The Japanese Navy was increasingly active off the coasts of Southern Indo-China. Japanese warships were reported in Saigon Harbor and the Gulf of Siam. On January 31 the Japanese Government negotiated an armistice between the Vichy French and Siam. Rumours spread that this settlement of a frontier dispute in Southeast Asia was to be the prelude to the entry of Japan into the war. The Germans were at the same time bringing increased pressure to bear upon Japan to attack the British at Singapore. “I tried,” said Ribbentrop at his Nuremberg trial, “to induce Japan to attack Singapore because it was impossible to make peace with England, and I did not know what military measures we could take to achieve this end—in any case, the Fuehrer directed me to do everything I could through diplomatic channels to weaken England’s position and thus achieve peace. We believed that this could best be done through an attack by Japan on England’s strong position in East Asia.”[1]

      *      *      *      *      *      

About this time several telegrams arrived from our Commander-in-Chief in the Far East urging the reinforcement of Hong Kong. I did not agree with his views.

Prime Minister to General Ismay 7 Jan. 41

This is all wrong. If Japan goes to war with us there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there. Instead of increasing the garrison it ought to be reduced to a symbolical scale. Any trouble arising there must be dealt with at the Peace conference after the war. We must avoid frittering away our resources on untenable positions. Japan will think long before declaring war on the British Empire, and whether there are two or six battalions at Hong Kong will make no difference to her choice. I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous.

Later on it will be seen that I allowed myself to be drawn from this position, and that two Canadian battalions were sent as reinforcements.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the second week of February I became conscious of a stir and flutter in the Japanese Embassy and colony in London. They were evidently in a high state of excitement, and they chattered to one another with much indiscretion. In these days we kept our eyes and ears open. Various reports were laid before me which certainly gave the impression that they had received news from home which required them to pack up

without a moment’s delay. This agitation among people usually so reserved made me feel that a sudden act of war upon us by Japan might be imminent, and I thought it well to impart my misgivings to President Roosevelt.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 15 Feb. 41

Many drifting straws seem to indicate Japanese intention to make war on us or do something that would force us to make war on them in the next few weeks or months. I am not myself convinced that this is not a war of nerves designed to cover Japanese encroachments in Siam and Indo-China. However, I think I ought to let you know that the weight of the Japanese Navy, if thrown against us, would confront us with situations beyond the scope of our naval resources. I do not myself think that the Japanese would be likely to send the large military expedition necessary to lay siege to Singapore. The Japanese would no doubt occupy whatever strategic points and oilfields in the Dutch East Indies and thereabouts they covet, and thus get into a far better position for a full-scale attack on Singapore later on. They would also raid Australian and New Zealand ports and coasts, causing deep anxiety in those Dominions, which have already sent all their best-trained fighting men to the Middle East. But the attack which I fear the most would be by raiders, including possibly battle-cruisers, upon our trade routes and communications across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

We could by courting disaster elsewhere send a few strong ships into these vast waters, but all the trade would have to go into convoy and escorts would be few and far between. Not only would this be a most grievous additional restriction and derangement of our whole war economy, but it would bring altogether to an end all reinforcements of the armies we had planned to build up in the Middle East from Australian and Indian sources. Any threat of a major invasion of Australia or New Zealand would, of course, force us to withdraw our Fleet from the Eastern Mediterranean, with disastrous military possibilities there, and the certainty that Turkey would have to make some accommodation for reopening of the German trade and oil supplies from the Black Sea.

You will therefore see, Mr. President, the awful enfeeblement of our war effort that would result merely from the sending out by Japan of her battle-cruisers and her twelve eight-inch-gun cruisers into the Eastern oceans, and still more from any serious invasion threat against the two Australian democracies in the Southern Pacific.

Some believe that Japan in her present mood would not hesitate to court or attempt to wage war both against Great Britain and the United States. Personally I think the odds are definitely against that, but no one can tell. Everything that you can do to inspire the Japanese with the fear of a double war may avert the danger. If, however, they come in against us and we are alone, the grave character of the consequences cannot easily be overstated.

The agitation among the Japanese in London subsided as quickly as it had begun. Silence and Oriental decorum reigned once more.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 20 Feb. 41

I have better news about Japan. Apparently Matsuoka is visiting Berlin, Rome, and Moscow in the near future. This may well be a diplomatic sop to cover absence of action against Great Britain. If Japanese attack which seemed imminent is now postponed, this is largely due to fear of United States. The more these fears can be played upon the better, but I understand thoroughly your difficulties pending passage of [Lend-Lease] Bill on which our hopes depend. Appreciation given in my last “Personal and Secret” of naval consequences following Japanese aggression against Great Britain holds good in all circumstances.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On February 24 Mr. Shigemitsu, the Japanese Ambassador, came to see me. A record was kept of the meeting.

I dwelt upon the long and friendly relations of the two countries, my own feelings ever since the Japanese Alliance of 1902, and the great desire that we all felt here not to sunder the relations between the two countries. Japan could not expect us to view with approval what was going on in China, but we had maintained a correct attitude of neutrality, and indeed a very different kind of neutrality to that which we had shown when we had helped them in their war against Russia. We had not the slightest intention of attacking Japan, and had no wish to see her other than prosperous and peaceful, and I said what a pity it would be if at this stage, when she already had China on her hands, she got into a war with Great Britain and the United States.

The Ambassador said that Japan had no intention of attacking us or the United States, and had no desire to become involved in a war with either Power. They would not attempt to attack Singapore or Australia, and he repeated several times that they would not attempt to gain a footing or make encroachments in the Dutch East Indies. The only complaint which Japan had, he said, was our attitude to China, which was encouraging China and adding to their difficulties. . . . I felt bound to remind him of the Triple Pact which they had made with the Axis Powers, and that this naturally was ever in our minds. One could not believe that a pact so much in favour of Germany and so little in favour of Japan had not got some secret provisions, and at any rate Japan had left us in doubt as to what interpretation she would put upon it in certain eventualities. The Ambassador said they had made explanations at the time, and that their object was to limit the conflict, etc. I told him the Axis Pact had been a very great mistake for Japan. Nothing had done them more harm in their relations with the United States, and nothing had brought Great Britain and the United States closer together.

I then renewed my friendly assurances. His whole attitude throughout was most friendly and deprecatory, and we have no doubt where he stands in these matters.

On March 4, after he could certainly have reported to Tokyo, I recorded in a minute a second visit from Mr. Shigemitsu.

The Japanese Ambassador called upon me today and spoke in agreeable terms of the great desire in Japan not to be involved in war and not to have a rupture with Great Britain. He described the Tripartite Pact as a pact of peace, and said it arose only out of the desire of Japan to limit the conflict. I asked him specifically whether the pact left Japan the full right of interpreting any given situation, and I put it to him that nothing in the pact obliged her to go to war. He did not dissent from this; in fact, he tacitly assented. I received all his assurances with cordiality, and asked him to convey my thanks to the Foreign Minister of Japan. I do not think Japan is likely to attack us unless and until she is sure we are going to be defeated. I doubt very much whether she would come into the war on the side of the Axis Powers if the United States joined us. She would certainly be very foolish to do so. It would be more sensible for her to come in if the United States did not join us.

This was for very different reasons also the German view. Germany and Japan were both eager to despoil and divide the British Empire. But they approached the target from different angles. The German High Command argued that the Japanese ought to commit their armed forces in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies without worrying about the American Pacific bases, and the main fleet which lay on their flank. Throughout February and March they urged the Japanese Government to strike without delay at Malaya and Singapore and not to bother about the United States. Hitler had already enough on his shoulders without drawing them in. Indeed, we have seen how many American actions he put up with, any one of which would have provided ample grounds for war. Hitler and Ribbentrop were above all things anxious that Japan should attack what they called “England”—the name still lingers—and not on any account embroil themselves with the United States. They assured Tokyo that if Japan acted with vigour against Malaya and the Dutch East Indies the Americans would not dare to move. The Japanese naval and military leaders were by no means convinced by this reasoning, or that it was disinterested. In their view an operation in Southeast Asia was out of the question unless either a prior assault was made on the American bases or a diplomatic settlement reached with the United States.

Behind the complex political scene in Japan three decisions seem to emerge at this time. The first was to send the Foreign Secretary, Matsuoka, to Europe to find out for himself about the German mastery of Europe, and especially when the invasion of Britain was really going to begin. Were the British forces so far tied up in naval defence that Britain could not afford to reinforce her Eastern possessions if Japan attacked them? Although he had been educated in the United States, Matsuoka was bitterly anti-American. He was deeply impressed by the Nazi movement and the might of embattled Germany. He was under the Hitler spell. Perhaps even there were moments when he saw himself playing a similar part in Japan. Secondly, the Japanese Government decided that their navy and army command should have a free hand to plan operations against the American base at Pearl Harbour and against the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya. Thirdly, a “liberal” statesman, Admiral Nomura, was to be sent to Washington to explore the chances of a general settlement with the United States in the Pacific. This not only served as a camouflage, but might lead to a peaceful solution. Thus agreement between conflicting opinions was reached in the Japanese Cabinet.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Matsuoka set out on his mission on March 12. On the twenty-fifth, passing through Moscow, he had a two hours’ interview with Stalin and Molotov, and he assured the German Ambassador, Schulenburg, that he would repeat to Ribbentrop personally all details of the conversation.

The captured documents published by the American State Department throw a searching light on Matsuoka’s mission and upon the whole German mood and mind. On March 27 the Japanese envoy was cordially welcomed in Berlin as a kindred spirit by Ribbentrop. The Reich Foreign Minister dilated upon the might of his country.

Germany [he said] was in the final phase of her battle against England. During the past winter the Fuehrer had made all necessary preparations so that Germany stood completely ready today to meet England anywhere. The Fuehrer had at his disposal perhaps the strongest military power that had ever existed. Germany had 240 combat divisions, of which 186 were first-class assault divisions and 24 were Panzer divisions. The Luftwaffe had grown greatly and had introduced new models, so that it was not only a match for England and America in this field, but definitely superior to them.

The German Navy at the outbreak of the war had had only a relatively small number of battleships. Nevertheless, the battleships under construction had been completed, so that the last of them would shortly be put into service. In contrast to the First World War, the German Navy this time did not stay in port, but from the first day of the war had been employed against the foe. Matsuoka had probably gathered from the reports of the past few weeks that large German battle units had interrupted the supply lines between England and America with extraordinary success.[2]

The number of submarines heretofore employed was very small. There had been at most eight or nine boats in service against the enemy at any one time. Nevertheless, even these few U-boats, in conjunction with the Luftwaffe, had sunk 750,000 tons per month in January and February, and Germany could furnish accurate proof of this at any time. This number, moreover, did not include the great additional losses that England had sustained through floating and magnetic mines. At the beginning of April the number of submarines would increase eight- to tenfold, so that sixty to eighty U-boats could then be continually employed against the enemy. The Fuehrer had pursued the tactics of at first employing only a few U-boats, and using the rest to train the personnel necessary for a larger fleet, in order then to proceed to a knock-out blow against the enemy. Therefore, the tonnage sunk by the German U-boats could be expected in the future greatly to exceed what had already been accomplished. In these circumstances the U-boat alone could be designated as absolutely deadly.

On the continent of Europe Germany had practically no foe of any consequence other than the small British forces that remained in Greece. Germany would fight off any attempt of England to land on the Continent or entrench herself there. She would not, therefore, tolerate England’s staying in Greece. The Greek question was of secondary importance, but by the thrust towards Greece, which would probably be necessary, dominant positions in the Eastern Mediterranean would be won for further operations.

In Africa the Italians had had bad luck in recent months, because the Italian troops there were not familiar with modern tank warfare and were not prepared with anti-tank defence, so that it was relatively easy for the British armoured divisions to capture the not very important Italian positions. Any further advance of the British had been definitely blocked. The Fuehrer had dispatched one of the most able of German officers, General Rommel, to Tripoli with sufficient German forces. The hope that General Wavell would attack had unfortunately not been realised. The British had come upon the Germans in some skirmishes at an outpost, and had thereupon abandoned any further intention of attacking. Should they by chance attempt another attack upon Tripoli [tania] they would court annihilating defeat. Here too the tables would be turned some day, and the British would disappear from North Africa, perhaps even more quickly than they had come.

In the Mediterranean the German Luftwaffe had been doing good work for two months and had inflicted heavy shipping losses on the British, who were holding on tenaciously. The Suez Canal had been blocked for a long time, and would be blocked again. It was no longer any fun for the British to hold out in the Mediterranean.

If, then, we summed up the military situation in Europe we should come to the conclusion that in the military sphere the Axis was completely master of Continental Europe. A huge army, practically idle, was at Germany’s command, and could be employed at any time and at any place the Fuehrer considered necessary.

Leaving the military for the political scene, Ribbentrop said:

Confidentially, he could inform Matsuoka that present relations with Russia were correct, to be sure, but not very friendly. After Molotov’s visit, during which accession to the Three-Power Pact was offered, Russia had made conditions that were unacceptable. They involved the sacrifice of German interests in Finland, the granting of bases on the Dardanelles, and a strong [Soviet] influence on conditions in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria. The Fuehrer had not concurred, because he had been of the opinion that Germany could not permanently subscribe to such a Russian policy. Germany needed the Balkan Peninsula above all for her own economy, and had not been inclined to let it come under Russian domination. For this reason she had given Rumania a guarantee. It was this latter action particularly that the Russians had taken amiss. Germany had further been obliged to enter into a closer relationship with Bulgaria in order to obtain a vantage-point from which to expel the British from Greece. Germany had had to decide on this course because this campaign would otherwise not have been possible. This too the Russians had not liked at all.

In these circumstances relations with Russia were externally normal and correct. The Russians, however, had for some time demonstrated their unfriendliness to Germany whenever they could. The declaration made to Turkey within the last few days was an example of this. Germany felt plainly that since Sir Stafford Cripps became Ambassador to Moscow . . . ties between Russia and England were being cultivated in secret and even relatively openly. Germany was watching these proceedings carefully.

Ribbentrop continued:

He knew Stalin personally, and did not assume that the latter was inclined towards adventure; but it was impossible to be sure. The German armies in the East were prepared at any time. Should Russia some day take a stand that could be interpreted as a threat to Germany the Fuehrer would crush Russia. Germany was certain that a campaign against Russia would end in the absolute victory of German arms and the total crushing of the Russian Army and the Russian State. The Fuehrer was convinced that in case of action against the Soviet Union there would in a few months be no more Great Power of Russia. In any case, the Fuehrer was not counting on the treaties with Russia alone, but was relying first of all on his Wehrmacht.

It must also not be overlooked that the Soviet Union, in spite of all protestations to the contrary, was still carrying on Communistic propaganda abroad. It was attempting not only in Germany, but also in the occupied areas of France, Holland, and Belgium, to continue its misleading propagandist activity. For Germany this propaganda naturally constituted no danger. But what it had unfortunately led to in other countries Matsuoka well knew. As an example, the Reich Foreign Minister cited the Baltic States, in which today, one year after the occupation by the Russians, the entire intelligentsia had been wiped out and really terrible conditions prevailed. Germany was on guard, and would never suffer the slightest danger from Russia.

Further, there was the fact that Germany had to be protected in the rear for her final battle against England. She would therefore not put up with any threat from Russia if such a threat should some day be considered serious. Germany wanted to conquer England as rapidly as possible, and would not let anything deter her from doing so.

These were grave words for the Reich Foreign Minister to use on such an occasion, and Matsuoka could certainly not complain that he had not been kept well informed. Ribbentrop then reiterated that

the war had already been definitely won for the Axis. It could in any case no longer be lost. It was now only a question of time until England would admit having lost the war. When, he could, of course, not predict. It might be very soon. It would depend upon events of the next three or four months. It was highly probable, however, that England would capitulate in the course of this year.

Finally he spoke of America.

There was no doubt that the British would long since have abandoned the war if Roosevelt had not always given Churchill new hope. It was difficult to say what Roosevelt’s intention was in the long run. It would be a long time before the American aid in munitions for England would really be effective, and even then the quality of airplane deliveries was doubtful. A country far from the war could not turn out the highest quality aircraft. What the German fliers had thus far encountered they described as “junk.”

The Three-Power Pact [he said] had above all the goal of frightening and keeping America out of the war. The principal enemy of the New Order was England, who was as much the enemy of Japan as of the Axis Powers.

Ribbentrop then stated that

the Fuehrer, after careful consideration, believed that it would be advantageous if Japan would decide as soon as possible to take an active part in the war upon England. A quick attack upon Singapore, for instance, would be a decisive factor in the speedy overthrow of England. If today in a war against England Japan were to succeed with one decisive stroke on Singapore Roosevelt would be in a very difficult position. If he declared war upon Japan he must expect that the Philippine question would be resolved in favour of Japan. He would probably reflect for a long time before incurring such a serious loss of prestige. Japan, on the other hand, through the conquest of Singapore would gain an absolutely dominant position in that part of East Asia. She would in fact “cut the Gordian knot.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

After an interval for luncheon, Matsuoka was received by Hitler. The Fuehrer dwelt in his own words upon German military triumphs. Since the war began sixty Polish, six Norwegian, eighteen Dutch, twenty-two Belgian, and one hundred and thirty-eight French divisions had been eliminated, and twelve or thirteen British divisions had been driven from the Continent. Resistance to the will of the Axis Powers had become impossible. Hitler went on to speak of the British losses in tonnage. The real U-boat warfare was just beginning. In the present and coming months England would be damaged to an extent far surpassing her present rate of losses. In the air Germany had absolute supremacy, in spite of all the claims of the English to success. The attacks of the Luftwaffe in the coming months would actually grow much stronger. The effectiveness of the German blockade had made rationing more severe in England than in Germany. Meanwhile the war would go on in preparation for the final stroke against England.

Matsuoka listened to this harangue. He expressed his thanks for the frankness with which he had been treated. He said that on the whole he agreed with the view of the Fuehrer. There were in Japan, as in other countries, certain intellectual circles which only a powerful individual could hold firmly under control. Japan would take action in a decisive form if she had the feeling that otherwise she would lose a chance which could only occur once in a thousand years. He had explained to the two princes of the Japanese Imperial Family that preparation could not always be complete and perfect. Risks must be run. It was only a question of time when Japan would attack. The hesitant politicians in Japan would always delay, and act partly from a pro-British or pro-American attitude. Personally he wished the attack to come as soon as possible. Unfortunately he did not control Japan, but had to bring those who were in control round to his point of view. He would certainly be successful some day, but at the present moment and under these circumstances he could make no pledge on behalf of the Japanese Empire that it would take action. He would give his closest attention to these matters on his return. He could make no definite commitment, but he personally would do his utmost. These were considerable reservations.

He then referred to his conference with Stalin when he had passed through Moscow. He had at first wanted only to make a courtesy call on Molotov, but the Russian Government had proposed a meeting between him, Stalin, and Molotov. He had conversed with Molotov, taking into account the necessary translations, for perhaps ten minutes, and with Stalin for twenty-five minutes. He had told Stalin that the Japanese were moral Communists, though he did not believe in political and economic Communism. This Japanese ideal of moral Communism had been overthrown by the liberalism, individualism, and egoism produced in the West. The ideological struggle in Japan was extremely bitter, but those who were fighting for the restoration of the old ideals were convinced they would finally win. The Anglo-Saxons represented the greatest hindrance to the establishment of the New Order. He had told Stalin that after the collapse of the British Empire the differences between Japan and Russia would be eliminated. The Anglo-Saxons were the common foe of Japan, Germany, and Soviet Russia. After some reflection Stalin had stated that Soviet Russia had never got along well with Great Britain and never would.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The conversations in Berlin were continued throughout March 28 and 29 without altering the essential features: first, the Germans strove hard to persuade Japan to attack the British Empire; secondly, they admitted that their relations with Russia were uncertain; and, thirdly, they made it plain that Hitler hoped earnestly to avoid a conflict with the United States.

To neither of the important questions whether Germany still intended, as before, to effect a landing in Britain and how German-Soviet relations were now viewed did Matsuoka obtain a clear answer. To his question as to whether, on his return journey through Moscow, he should touch on political questions lightly or go into them more deeply, Ribbentrop answered through his interpreter: “You had better treat your visit as a mere formality.”[3]

      *      *      *      *      *      

Without, of course, knowing the substance or character of these secret Berlin parleys, but deeply impressed with their importance, I thought I would use the Japanese Ambassador, whom Matsuoka had summoned to meet him on the Continent, to convey to his chief a few counter-considerations. Mr. Shigemitsu, who, if he was hostile to Britain and the United States and working for war against us, must have been a very good deceiver, accepted with a courtly gesture the task of delivering my message. In the end he did not travel, and the letter was telegraphed to our Ambassador in Moscow, to be given to Mr. Matsuoka on his return journey by the Siberian Railway.

Mr. Churchill to M. Yosuke Matsuoka 2 April 41

I venture to suggest a few questions which it seems to me deserve the attention of the Imperial Japanese Government and people.

Will Germany, without the command of the sea or the command of the British daylight air, be able to invade and conquer Great Britain in the spring, summer, or autumn of 1941? Will Germany try to do so? Would it not be in the interests of Japan to wait until these questions have answered themselves?

2. Will the German attack on British shipping be strong enough to prevent American aid from reaching British shores, with Great Britain and the United States transforming their whole industry to war purposes?

3. Did Japan’s accession to the Triple Pact make it more likely or less likely that the United States would come into the present war?

4. If the United States entered the war at the side of Great Britain, and Japan ranged herself with the Axis Powers, would not the naval superiority of the two English-speaking nations enable them to dispose of the Axis Powers in Europe before turning their united strength upon Japan?

5. Is Italy a strength or a burden to Germany? Is the Italian Fleet as good at sea as on paper? Is it as good on paper as it used to be?

6. Will the British Air Force be stronger than the German Air Force before the end of 1941, and far stronger before the end of 1942?

7. Will the many countries which are being held down by the German Army and Gestapo learn to like the Germans more or will they like them less as the years pass by?

8. Is it true that the production of steel in the United States during 1941 will be 75,000,000 tons, and in Great Britain about 12,500,000, making a total of nearly 90,000,000 tons? If Germany should happen to be defeated, as she was last time, would not the 7,000,000 tons steel production of Japan be inadequate for a single-handed war?

From the answers to these questions may spring the avoidance by Japan of a serious catastrophe, and a marked improvement in the relations between Japan and the two great sea Powers of the West.

I was rather pleased with this when I wrote it, and I don’t mind the look of it now.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Matsuoka meanwhile went to Rome, where he saw Mussolini and the Pope. We now have the German account of what he said to Hitler on April 4, when he returned to Berlin. The Duce, he said, had informed him about the war in Greece, Yugoslavia, and North Africa, and of the part which Italy herself had in these events. Finally he had spoken of Soviet Russia and America. The Duce had said that one must have a clear notion of the importance of one’s opponents. The enemy Number 1 was America and Soviet Russia came only in the second place. By these remarks the Duce had given him to understand that America as enemy Number 1 would have to be very carefully watched, but should not be provoked. On the other hand one must be thoroughly prepared for all eventualities. Matsuoka had agreed with this line of thought.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Before his homeward journey by the Trans-Siberian Railway Matsuoka tarried for a week in Moscow. He had several long conversations both with Stalin and Molotov. The only account we have of these is from the German Ambassador Schulenburg, who of course was only told what the Russians and Japanese wished him to know. It seemed that all the declarations, true or boastful, of German might had by no means convinced the Japanese envoy. The guarded attitude of the German leaders towards a collision with the United States had made a dint in Matsuoka’s mind. At the same time he was aware, from Ribbentrop’s language, of the menacing, widening gulf between Germany and Russia. How much he told his new hosts about this we cannot tell. But certainly, surveying the scene with peculiar advantages, and after receiving from Sir Stafford Cripps the telegraphed version of my letter with its questions, it would appear that Matsuoka found himself closer to Molotov than to Ribbentrop. In this doom-balance of mighty nations Japan was asked by Germany to take the irrevocable step of declaring war on Britain, and potentially on the English-speaking world. By Russia she was only asked to mark time, to wait and see. Evidently he did not believe that Britain was finished. He could not be sure what would happen between Germany and Russia. He was not inclined, or perhaps he had not the power, to commit his country to decisive action. He greatly preferred a neutrality pact, which at least gave time for unpredictable events to unfold, as they must do soon.

Accordingly, when Matsuoka visited Schulenburg in Moscow on April 13 to make his farewell call, he mentioned with incongruous preciseness that a Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact had been arranged at the last moment, and “in all likelihood would be signed this afternoon at 2 P.M. local time.” Both sides had made concessions about the disputed island of Sakhalin. This new agreement, he assured the German Ambassador, in no way affected the Three-Power Pact. He added that the American and English journalists who had reported that his journey to Moscow had been a complete failure would be compelled now to acknowledge that the Japanese policy had achieved a great success, which could not fail to have its effect on England and America.

Schulenburg has recorded the demonstration of unity and comradeship arranged by Stalin at the railway station on Matsuoka’s departure for Japan. The train was delayed for an hour for salutes and ceremonies, apparently unexpected by both the Japanese and Germans. Stalin and Molotov appeared, and greeted Matsuoka and the Japanese in a remarkably friendly manner and wished them a pleasant journey. Then Stalin publicly asked for the German Ambassador. “And when he found me,” said Schulenburg, “he came up and threw his arm around my shoulder. ‘We must remain friends. You must now do everything to that end.’ ” Later Stalin turned to the German Military Attaché, first having made sure that he had got the right man, and said to him, “We will remain friends with you in any event.” “Stalin,” adds Schulenburg, “doubtless brought about this greeting of Colonel Krebs and myself intentionally, and thereby he consciously attracted the attention of the numerous persons who were present.”

These embraces were a vain pretence. Stalin should surely have known from his own reports the enormous deployment of German strength which now began to be visible to British Intelligence all along the Russian frontier. It was only ten weeks before Hitler’s terrific onslaught on Russia began. It would have been only five weeks but for the delay caused by the fighting in Greece and Yugoslavia.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Matsuoka returned to Tokyo from his European visit at the end of April. He was met at the airport by the Prime Minister, Prince Konoye, who informed him that on that very day the Japanese had been considering the possibilities of an understanding in the Pacific with the United States. This was contrary to Matsuoka’s theme. Though beset by doubts, he was still on the whole a believer in ultimate German victory. Backed by the prestige of the Tripartite Pact and the neutrality treaty with Russia, he saw no special need to conciliate the Americans, who, in his opinion, would never face simultaneous war in the Atlantic against Germany and in the Pacific against Japan. The Foreign Minister, therefore, found himself confronted with a mood in Government circles widely different from his own. In spite of his vehement protests the Japanese resolved to continue the negotiations at Washington, and also to conceal them from the Germans. On May 4 Matsuoka took it upon himself to acquaint the German Ambassador with the text of an American Note to Japan offering to reach a general Pacific settlement, beginning with American mediation between Japan and China. The main obstacle to this proposal was the American requirement that Japan should first evacuate China.

      *      *      *      *      *      

While in Moscow Mr. Matsuoka had received my message, and on his return journey in the train across Siberia he wrote a barren reply, which was dispatched on his arrival in Tokyo.

Mr. Matsuoka to Mr. Winston Churchill 22 April 1941

Your Excellency,

I have just come back from my trip, and hasten to acknowledge the receipt of a paper handed to me at Moscow on the evening of the twelfth instant by Sir Stafford Cripps with a remark that it was a copy in substance of a letter addressed to me, dated London, the second April, 1941, and forwarded to Tokyo.

I wish to express my appreciation for the facilities with which your Government made efforts to provide our Ambassador when he wanted to meet me on the Continent. I was deeply disappointed when I learned that he could not come. Your Excellency may rest assured that the foreign policy of Japan is determined upon after an unbiased examination of all the facts and a very careful weighing of all the elements of the situation she confronts, always holding steadfastly in view the great racial aim and ambition of finally bringing about the conditions envisaged in what she calls Hakko-ichiu, the Japanese conception of a universal peace under which there would be no conquest, no oppression, no exploitation of any and all peoples. And, once determined, I need hardly tell Your Excellency that it will be carried out with resolution but with utmost circumspection, taking in every detail of changing circumstances.

I am, believe me,

Your Excellency’s obedient servant,

Yosuke Matsuoka

      *      *      *      *      *      

Matsuoka and his colleagues in the Japanese Government were soon to confront a situation which required such an “unbiased examination.” On June 28, a week after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, a meeting of the Japanese Cabinet and officials of the Imperial Household was held. Matsuoka found his position irremediably weakened. He had “lost face” because he had not known of Hitler’s intention to attack Russia. He spoke in favour of joining Germany, but the majority opinion was overwhelmingly against him. The Government decided to adopt a compromise policy. Armament preparations were to be augmented. Article 5 of the Tripartite Pact was invoked, which stated that the instrument was not valid against Russia. Germany was to be informed confidentially that Japan would fight “Bolshevism in Asia,” and the Neutrality Treaty with Russia was cited to justify non-intervention in the German-Russian War. On the other hand, it was agreed to go ahead in the Southern seas and to complete the occupation of South Indo-China. These decisions were not agreeable to Matsuoka. In order to stir up agitation for entering the war on Germany’s side, he had one of his speeches printed as a pamphlet for wide distribution. The copies were suppressed by the Japanese Government. On July 16 he disappeared from office.

But while the Japanese Cabinet were not prepared to follow in the wake of German policy, their policy did not represent a triumph for the moderates in Japanese public life. The strengthening of the Japanese armed forces was pressed forward, and bases were to be established in South Indo-China. This was a prelude to attack on the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. It seems, from the evidence up till now available, that the leaders of Japanese policy did not expect from the United States or Great Britain any vigorous counter-measures to this projected southward advance.

Thus we see as this world drama marches on how all these three coldly calculating empires made at this moment mistakes disastrous alike, to their ambitions and their safety. Hitler was resolved on the war with Russia, which played a decisive part in his ruin. Stalin remained, to Russia’s bitter cost, in ignorance or underestimation of the blow about to fall on him. Japan certainly missed the best chance—for what it was ever worth—of realising her dreams.


Nuremberg Documents, Part X, page 200.

This refers to the sortie by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau into the Atlantic in February and March.

Kordt, Wahn und Wirklichkeit, page 303.

11
The Desert Flank: Rommel: Tobruk

The Vital Desert Flank—Wavell’s Dispositions—His Estimate of the Situation of March 2—Rommel’s Arrival in Tripoli, February 12—His Determination to Attack—A Great General—The Gateway at Agheila—Our Inadequate Resources—Personal Inspection by Wavell and Dill, March 17—My Telegram to Wavell of March 26—His Reply—The Position in Cyrenaica—Rommel’s Attack upon Agheila, March 31—Failure of Our Armoured Forces—My Telegram of April 2—Unexpected German Strength—Evacuation of Benghazi—Capture of Generals Neame and O’Connor—Importance of Holding Tobruk—Wavell’s Decision—German Mastery of the Air—My Directive of April 14—My Telegram to President Roosevelt, April 16—Wavell’s Explanation.

All our efforts to form a front in the Balkans were founded upon the sure maintenance of the Desert flank in North Africa. This might have been fixed at Tobruk; but Wavell’s rapid westward advance and the capture of Benghazi had given us all Cyrenaica. To this the sea corner at Agheila was the gateway. It was common ground between all authorities in London and Cairo that this must be held at all costs and in priority over every other venture. The utter destruction of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica and the long road distances to be traversed before the enemy could gather a fresh army led Wavell to believe that for some time to come he could afford to hold this vital western flank with moderate forces and to relieve his tried troops with others less well trained. The Desert flank was the peg on which all else hung, and there was no idea in any quarter of losing or risking that for the sake of Greece or anything in the Balkans.

At the end of February the 7th British Armoured Division had been withdrawn to Egypt to rest and refit. This famous unit had rendered the highest service. Its tanks had travelled far and were largely used up. Its numbers had shrunk by fighting and wear and tear. Still there was a core of the most experienced, hard-bitten, desert-worthy fighting men, the like of whom could not be found by us. It was a pity not to keep in being the nucleus of this unique organisation and rebuild its strength by drafts of officers and men arriving trained, fresh, and keen from England, and to send up to them the pick of whatever new tanks or spare parts could be found. Thus the 7th Armoured Division would have preserved a continuity of life and been resuscitated in strength.

It was only after some weeks, marked by serious decisions, that I realised that the 7th Armoured Division did not exist as a factor in the protection of our vital Desert flank. The place of the 7th Armoured Division was taken by an armoured brigade and part of the support group of the 2d Armoured Division. The 6th Australian Division was also relieved by the 9th. Neither of these new formations was fully trained, and, to make matters worse, they were stripped of much equipment and transport to bring up to full scale the divisions soon to go to Greece. The shortage of transport was severely felt and affected the dispositions of the troops and their mobility. Because of maintenance difficulties farther forward, one Australian brigade was held back in Tobruk, where also was a brigade of motorised Indian cavalry recently formed and under training.

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Our Intelligence reports now began to cause the Chiefs of Staff some concern. On February 27 they sent a warning telegram to General Wavell:

In view of arrival of German armoured formations and aircraft in Tripolitania the question of defence commitments in Egypt and Cyrenaica has been considered here. Would be grateful if you would telegraph a short appreciation.

This drew an important considered reply which included the following:

2 March 41

Latest information indicates recent reinforcements to Tripolitania comprise two Italian infantry divisions, two Italian motorised artillery regiments, and German armoured troops estimated at maximum of one armoured brigade group. No evidence of additional mechanical transport landed, and enemy must still be short of transport. Latest air reconnaissance, however, shows considerable increase in mechanical transport on Tripoli-Sirte road.

2. Tripoli to Agheila is 471 miles and to Benghazi 646 miles. There is only one road, and water is inadequate over 410 miles of the distance; these factors, together with lack of transport, limit the present enemy threat. He can probably maintain up to one infantry division and armoured brigade along the coast road in about three weeks, and possibly at the same time employ a second armoured brigade, if he has one available, across the desert via Hon and Marada against our flank.

3. He may test us at Agheila by offensive patrolling, and if he finds us weak push on to Agedabia in order to move up his advanced landing grounds. I do not think that with this force he will attempt to recover Benghazi.

4. Eventually two German divisions might be employed in a large-scale attack. This, with one or two infantry divisions, would be the maximum maintainable via Tripoli. Shipping risks, difficulty of communications, and the approach of hot weather make it unlikely that such an attack could develop before the end of the summer. Effective interference by sea with convoys and by air with Tripoli might extend this period.

The Italian air threat to Cyrenaica is at present almost negligible. On the other hand, the Germans are well established in Central Mediterranean. . . . German parachute troops might be landed on our lines of communication in combination with armoured forces. I do not anticipate that parachutists will be used with the scale of attack likely to be developed in near future, but they are a possible accompaniment of a large-scale attack at later date.

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But now a new figure sprang upon the world stage—a German warrior who will hold his place in their military annals. Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim, in Württemberg, in November, 1891. He was a delicate boy, and was educated at home till, at the age of nine, he joined the local Government school, of which his father was headmaster. In 1910 he was an officer cadet in the Württemberg Regiment. When he did his training at the military school at Danzig his instructors reported that he was physically small, but strong. Mentally he was not remarkable. He fought in the First World War in the Argonne, in Rumania, and in Italy, being twice wounded and awarded the highest classes of the Iron Cross and of the order Pour le Mérite. Between the two wars he served as a regimental officer and on the Staff. On the outbreak of the Second World War he was appointed commandant of the Fuehrer’s field headquarters in the Polish campaign, and was then given command of the 7th Panzer Division of the Fifteenth Corps. This division, nicknamed “the Phantoms,” formed the spearhead of the German break-through across the Meuse. He narrowly escaped capture when the British counter-attacked at Arras on May 21, 1940. Thereafter he led his division through La Bassée towards Lille. If this thrust had had a little more success, or perhaps not been restrained by orders from the High Command, it might have cut off a large part of the British Army, including the 3d Division, commanded by General Montgomery. His was the spearhead which crossed the Somme and advanced on the Seine in the direction of Rouen, rolling up the French left wing and capturing numerous French and British forces around Saint-Valery. His division was the first to reach the Channel, and entered Cherbourg just after our final evacuation where Rommel took the surrender of the port and thirty thousand French prisoners.

These many services and distinctions led to his appointment early in 1941 to command the German troops sent to Libya. On February 12 he arrived with his personal staff at Tripoli to campaign with the ally against whom he had formerly won distinction. At that time Italian hopes were limited to holding Tripolitania, and Rommel took charge of the growing German contingent under Italian command. He strove immediately to enforce an offensive campaign. When early in April the Italian Commander-in-Chief tried to persuade him that the German Afrika Corps should not advance without his permission, Rommel protested that “as a German general he had to issue orders in accordance with what the situation demanded.” Any reservations because of the supply problem were, he declared, “unfounded.” He demanded and obtained complete freedom of action.

Throughout the African campaign Rommel proved himself a master in handling mobile formations, especially in regrouping rapidly after an operation and following up success. He was a splendid military gambler, dominating the problems of supply and scornful of opposition. At first the German High Command, having let him loose, were astonished by his successes, and were inclined to hold him back. His ardour and daring inflicted grievous disasters upon us, but he deserves the salute which I made him—and not without some reproaches from the public—in the House of Commons in January, 1942, when I said of him, “We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy of 1944 to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy chivalry finds no place. Dull butcheries on a gigantic scale and mass effects overwhelm all detached sentiment. Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.

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In London we accepted Wavell’s telegram of March 2, as the basis of our action. The Agheila defile was the kernel of the situation. If the enemy broke through to Agedabia, Benghazi and everything west of Tobruk were imperilled. They could choose between taking the good coast road to Benghazi and beyond or using the tracks leading straight to Mechili and Tobruk, which cut off the bulge of desert, two hundred miles long by a hundred miles broad. Taking this latter route in February, we had nipped and captured many thousands of Italians retiring through Benghazi. It should not have been a matter of surprise to us if Rommel also took the desert route to play the same trick on us. However, so long as we held the gateway at Agheila the enemy was denied the opportunity of bemusing us in this fashion. There are good positions there, but partly owing to the extra strain on transport from Tobruk, through the port of Benghazi not being judged usable, they were not adequately defended.

All this depended upon a knowledge not only of the ground, but of the conditions of desert warfare. So rapid had been our advance, so easy and complete our victories, that these strategic facts were not effectively grasped at this stage. However, a superiority in armour and in quality rather than numbers, and a reasonable parity in the air, would have enabled the better and more lively force to win in a rough-and-tumble in the desert, even if the gateway had been lost. None of these conditions were established by the arrangements which were made. We were inferior in the air; and our armour, for reasons which will be explained later, was utterly inadequate, as was also the training and equipment of the troops west of Tobruk.

On March 17 Generals Wavell and Dill visited Cyrenaica and made a personal inspection. They motored through Antelat to Agheila, and Dill was immediately struck by the difficulty of defending the large stretches of desert between Agheila and Benghazi. In a telegram on March 18 from Cairo to his deputy at home he said that the outstanding fact was that between the salt-pans east of Agheila and Benghazi the desert was so open and so suitable for armoured vehicles that, other things being equal, the stronger fleet would win. There were no infantry positions on which to fight. Of course, the maintenance problem over these vast distances of desert remained and entirely favoured defence. Wavell, he said, had this difficult defence problem well in hand.

In a conversation with the Australian Staff of General Morshead, whom he met on the way, the C.I.G.S. is said to have expressed the opinion that the force looked like getting “a bloody nose” in the near future, adding, “This will not be the only place either.”[1] This latter opinion was not in harmony with any statement he made to us.

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There had been during March increasing evidence of the arrival of German troops from Tripoli towards Agheila, and on March 20 Wavell reported that an attack on a limited scale seemed to be in preparation and that the situation on the Cyrenaica frontier was causing him some anxiety. If our advanced troops were driven from their present positions there would be no good blocking points south of Benghazi, as the country was dead-level plain. Administrative problems should, however, preclude anything but a limited advance by the enemy.

I telegraphed:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 26 March 41

We are naturally concerned at rapid German advance to Agheila. It is their habit to push on whenever they are not resisted. I presume you are only waiting for the tortoise to stick his head out far enough before chopping it off. It seems extremely important to give them an early taste of our quality. What is the state and location of 7th Armoured Division? Pray give me your appreciation. I cordially approve your request to General Smuts for a brigade of 1st South African Division. Everything must be done to accelerate movement of 2d South African Division. The 50th British Division starts twenty-second. . . .

Wavell replied to this at once as follows:

27 March 41

No evidence yet that there are many Germans at Agheila; probably mainly Italian, with small stiffening of Germans.

2. I have to admit to having taken considerable risk in Cyrenaica after capture of Benghazi in order to provide maximum support for Greece. My estimate at that time was that Italians in Tripolitania could be disregarded and that Germans were unlikely to accept the risk of sending large bodies of armoured troops to Africa in view of the inefficiency of the Italian Navy. I, therefore, made arrangements to leave only small armoured force and one partly trained Australian division in Cyrenaica.

3. After we had accepted Greek liability evidence began to accumulate of German reinforcements to Tripoli, which were coupled with attacks on Malta which prevented bombing of Tripoli from there, on which I had counted. German air attacks on Benghazi, which prevented supply ships using harbour, also increased our difficulties.

4. Result is I am weak in Cyrenaica at present and no reinforcements of armoured troops, which are chief requirement, are at present available. I have one brigade of 2d Armoured Division in Cyrenaica, one in Greece. The 7th Armoured Division is returning [to Cairo], and as no reserve tanks were available is dependent on repair, which takes time. Next month or two will be anxious, but enemy has extremely difficult problem and am sure his numbers have been much exaggerated. I cannot, however, at present afford to use my small armoured force as boldly as I should like.

Steps to reinforce Cyrenaica are in hand. . . . My own chief difficulty is transport.

He added what may well remind us of his many cares:

Have just come back from Keren front. Capture was very fine achievement by Indian divisions, and their tails are high in spite of fairly heavy casualties. Platt will push on towards Asmara as quickly as he can, and I have authorised Cunningham to continue towards Addis Ababa from Harrar, which surrendered yesterday.

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Rommel’s attack upon Agheila began on March 31. General Neame had been ordered, if pressed, to fight a delaying action back to near Benghazi, and to cover that port as long as possible. He was given permission to evacuate it if necessary after making demolitions. Our armoured division at Agheila, which had in fact only one armoured brigade and its support group, therefore, withdrew slowly during the next two days. In the air the enemy proved greatly superior. The Italian Air Force still counted for little, but there were about a hundred German fighters and a hundred bombers and dive-bombers. On April 2 General Wavell reported that the forward troops in Cyrenaica were being attacked by a German colonial armoured division.

Some forward posts were overrun yesterday and losses occurred. Losses not serious at present, but the mechanical condition of the armoured brigade is causing Neame much concern, and there seem to be many breakdowns. As I can produce no more armoured units for at least three or four weeks, I have warned him to keep three brigades in being, even if it involves considerable withdrawal, possibly even from Benghazi.

I was still under the impression, derived from Wavell’s previous estimates, of the enemy’s limited potential strength.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 2 April 41

It seems most desirable to chop the German advance against Cyrenaica. Any rebuff to the Germans would have far-reaching prestige effects. It would be all right to give up ground for the purposes of manoeuvre, but any serious withdrawal from Benghazi would appear most melancholy. I cannot understand how the enemy can have developed any considerable force at the end of this long, waterless coast road, and I cannot feel that there is at this moment a persistent weight behind his attack in Cyrenaica. If this blob which has come forward against you could be cut off you might have a prolonged easement. Of course, if they succeed in wandering onward they will gradually destroy the effect of your victories. Have you got a man like O’Connor or Creagh dealing with this frontier problem?

On April 2 the support group of our 2d Armoured Division was driven out of Agedabia by fifty enemy tanks, and retreated to the Antelat area, thirty-five miles to the northeast. The division was ordered to withdraw to the neighbourhood of Benghazi. Our armoured forces under the German attack became disorganised and there were serious losses. The message ended, “Orders have been given for demolitions in Benghazi.” General Wavell flew to the front on the third, and reported on his return that a large part of the armoured brigade had been overrun and disorganised by superior German armour. This would uncover the left flank of the 9th Australian Division east and northeast of Benghazi. “Their withdrawal may be necessary.” In consequence of the enemy’s strength in Libya he said the 7th Australian Division could not go to Greece, but must move to the Western Desert instead. The 6th British Division, still incomplete, must become the reserve. “This will involve the postponement of the attack on Rhodes.” Thus at a single stroke, and almost in a day, the desert flank upon which all our decisions had depended had crumpled and the expedition to Greece, already slender, was heavily reduced. The seizure of Rhodes, which was an essential part of our air plans in the Aegean, became impossible.

The evacuation of Benghazi was ordered. The support group was sent northward to cover the withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division, which began early on April 4. At the same time the 3d Armoured Brigade were to move on Mechili to block any attempt on the part of the enemy to interfere with the withdrawal. To reinforce them there two regiments of the Indian Motorised Cavalry Brigade were ordered up from Tobruk.

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I was disturbed by this new and unexpected situation, and cabled the same day to Mr. Eden, who was still in Athens.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden 3 April 41

Evacuation Benghazi serious, as Germans, once established in aerodromes thereabouts, will probably deny us use of Tobruk. Find out what is strategic and tactical plan to chop the enemy. Let me know to what point retirement is ordered. How does 9th Australian Division get back, and how far? Remember that in his telegram of March 2, Wavell gave many cogent arguments for believing his western flank secure.

2. Far more important than the loss of ground is the idea that we cannot face the Germans and that their appearance is enough to drive us back many scores of miles. This may react most evilly throughout Balkans and Turkey. Pray go back to Cairo and go into all this. Sooner or later we shall have to fight the Huns. By all means make the best plan of manoeuvre, but anyhow fight. Can nothing be done to cut the coastal road by a seaborne descent behind them, even if it means putting off Rhodes?

Mr. Eden replied from Cairo:

5 April 41

Dill and I arrived safely this evening, and have had full discussion with Wavell and Tedder in Longmore’s absence in the Sudan.

The general conclusion to which we have all come is that the Italian-German effort in Cyrenaica is a major diversion well timed to precede the German attack in the Balkans. This judgment in no way diminishes the seriousness of the indirect threat to Egypt, for quite clearly the enemy must be expected to press any advantage he gains. Unfortunately, his first moves attained a greater measure of success than had been expected, and he is following up his initial success. . . .

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Wavell had gone to the Desert front with the intention of putting O’Connor in command. That officer, who was not well at the moment, had represented to the Commander-in-Chief that it would be better if he did not actually take over command from Neame in the middle of the battle, but that he should be at hand to help him with his expert local knowledge. Wavell agreed. The arrangement did not work well or last long. On the night of the sixth the retreat from Benghazi was in full progress. The 9th Australian Division was withdrawing eastward along the coastal road, and in order to avoid the traffic General Neame took General O’Connor in his car, and without escort of any kind motored along a by-road. In the darkness they were suddenly stopped, and the pistols of a German patrol presented through the car windows left them no choice but personal surrender. The loss of these two gallant lieutenant-generals, Neame a V.C., and O’Connor on the whole our most experienced and successful desert commander, was grievous.

In the afternoon of April 6, at a conference in Cairo at which Wavell, Eden, Dill, Longmore, and Cunningham were present, the question of where to make a stand was discussed. Wavell decided to hold Tobruk if possible, and with his usual personal mobility flew thither on the morning of the eighth with the Australian General Laverack, whom he placed in temporary command. Eden and Dill started on their homeward journey, and the War Cabinet anxiously awaited their return with all the knowledge they had gathered in Athens and Cairo.

Wavell reported that the withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division seemed to be proceeding without interference though twenty-four hundred Italian prisoners had to be left at Barce. But later the same day he telegraphed that the position in the Western Desert had greatly deteriorated. The enemy had moved on Mechili by the desert route, and there were further vehicle losses in the 2d Armoured Division by mechanical breakdowns and air bombing. The 3d Armoured Brigade had little or no fighting value.

Meanwhile I sent the following message to General Wavell:

7 April 41

You should surely be able to hold Tobruk, with its permanent Italian defences, at least until or unless the enemy brings up strong artillery forces. It seems difficult to believe that he can do this for some weeks. He would run great risks in masking Tobruk and advancing upon Egypt, observing that we can reinforce from the sea and would menace his communications. Tobruk, therefore, seems to be a place to be held to the death without thought of retirement. I should be glad to hear of your intentions.

Wavell flew to Tobruk on April 8 and gave orders for the defence of the fortress. He started back for Cairo as night fell. The engine failed and they made a forced landing in the dark. The aircraft was smashed and they stepped out onto the open desert, they knew not where. The Commander-in-Chief decided to burn his secret papers. After a long wait the lights of a vehicle were seen. Fortunately it proved to be a British patrol, who approached in menacing fashion. For six hours the Staff in Cairo were alarmed, not without reason, at Wavell’s disappearance.

On his return to Cairo the Commander-in-Chief replied. After giving a detailed statement of the troop positions, he said:

Although first enemy effort seems to have exhausted itself, I do not feel we shall have long respite and am still very anxious. Tobruk is not good defensive position; long line of communication behind is hardly protected at all and is unorganised.

As the last sentence of this message seemed to leave the question of Tobruk in doubt, I drafted the following message in conclave with the Chiefs of Staff:

Prime Minister and Chiefs of Staff to General Wavell 10 April 41

We await your full appreciation. Meanwhile you should know how the problem looks to us. From here it seems unthinkable that the fortress of Tobruk should be abandoned without offering the most prolonged resistance. We have a secure sealine of communications. The enemy’s line is long and should be vulnerable, provided he is not given time to organise at leisure. So long as Tobruk is held and its garrison includes even a few armoured vehicles which can lick out at his communications, nothing but a raid dare go past Tobruk. If you leave Tobruk and go 260 miles back to Mersa Matruh may you not find yourself faced with something like the same problem? We are convinced you should fight it out at Tobruk.

But before the meeting broke up we learned of Wavell’s final decision to hold Tobruk.

I propose [he said] to hold Tobruk, to place a force in Bardia-Sollum area with as much mobility as possible to protect communications and act against flank or rear of enemy attacking Tobruk, and to build up old plan of defence in Mersa Matruh area. Distribution of force so as to gain time without risking defeat in detail will be difficult calculation. My resources are very limited, especially of mobile and armoured troops and of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. It will be a race against time.

Our message was therefore not sent. Instead:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 10 April 41

We all cordially endorse your decision to hold Tobruk, and will do all in our power to bring you aid.

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The retreat to Tobruk was carried out successfully along the coast road. But inland only the headquarters of the 2d Armoured Division arrived at Mechili, on April 6, having lost all touch with its subordinate formations. On April 7 this headquarters and the two Indian motorised regiments found themselves surrounded. Attacks were repulsed, and two ultimatums to surrender, one signed by Rommel, were rejected. A number of men fought their way out, bringing in a hundred German prisoners, but the great majority were forced back into the camp, and there surrendered. The missing 3d Armoured Brigade, now reduced to a dozen tanks, moved on Derna, reputedly because of shortage of petrol, and near that place was ambushed and destroyed on the night of April 6. Throughout the operations the German Air Force had had complete air superiority. This contributed in no small degree to the enemy success. On the night of the eighth the Australians reached Tobruk, which had by then been reinforced by sea with a brigade of the 7th Australian Division from Egypt. The enemy, whose forward troops included parts of the 5th (Light) Panzer Division, one Italian armoured and one infantry division, took Bardia on April 12, but made no effort to penetrate the frontier defences of Egypt.

The enemy pushed on very quickly round Tobruk and towards Bardia and Sollum, with heavy armoured cars and motorised infantry. Other troops attacked the Tobruk defences. The garrison, consisting of the 9th Australian Division, one brigade group of the 7th Australian Division, and a small armoured force, beat off two attacks, destroying a number of enemy tanks. In view of the changed situation and loss of the generals, Wavell had to reorganise the system of command as follows: Tobruk fortress, General Morshead; Western Desert, General Beresford-Peirse; troops in Egypt, General Marshall-Cornwall; Palestine, General Godwin-Austen.

If I get time [said the Commander-in-Chief] to put the above organisation into effect we shall be back to something resembling situation of last autumn, with additional excrescence of Tobruk. But we shall be much harder pressed on ground, and shall not escape with ineffective air attack that Italians made last year. I can see no hope of being able to relieve Tobruk for at least several months. . . . The possible attitude of Egypt is obviously going to be matter of great anxiety. The next few months will be very difficult, quite apart from what happens in Greece.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 13 April 41

We are, of course, going all out to fight for the Nile Valley. No other conclusion is physically possible. We have half a million men there or on the way and mountains of stores. All questions of cutting the loss are ruled out. Tobruk must be held, not as a defensive position, but as an invaluable bridgehead on the flank of any serious by-pass advance on Egypt. Our Air and Navy must cut or impede enemy communications across Central Mediterranean. Matter has to be fought out, and must in any case take some time. Enemy’s difficulties in land communication, over eight hundred miles long, must make attack in heavy force a matter of months. Even if Tobruk had to be evacuated from the sea, which we command, there are other strong fighting positions already organised. I personally feel that this situation is not only manageable, but hopeful. Dill and Eden, who have just come back, concur.

Good news now arrived from Tobruk, where the audacious and persistent enemy met their first definite rebuff.

General Wavell to War Office 14 April 41

Libya. Between two hundred and three hundred German p.o.w., captured at Tobruk morning April 14, stated they were badly shaken by our artillery fire and were very short of food and water. These troops wept when their attack was driven off, and their morale is definitely low.

Perhaps it was because their morale and expectations had been so high that they wept!

Prime Minister to General Wavell 14 April 41

Convey heartiest congratulations from War Cabinet to all engaged in most successful fight. Bravo Tobruk! We feel it vital that Tobruk should be regarded as sally-port and not, please, as an “excrescence.” Can you not find good troops who are without transport to help hold perimeter, thus freeing at least one, if not two, Australian brigade groups to act as General Fortress Reserve and potential striking force?

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After considering the whole situation at this moment when a temporary stabilisation on the Egyptian frontier and at Tobruk seemed to have been achieved, I issued the following to the Chiefs of Staff:

Directive by the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence

The War in the Mediterranean

April 14, 1941

If the Germans can continue to nourish their invasion of Cyrenaica and Egypt through the port of Tripoli and along the coastal road, they can certainly bring superior armoured forces to bear upon us, with consequences of the most serious character. If, on the other hand, their communications from Italy and Sicily with Tripoli are cut, and those along the coastal road between Tripoli and Agheila constantly harassed, there is no reason why they should not themselves sustain a major defeat.

2. It becomes the prime duty of the British Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Cunningham to stop all seaborne traffic between Italy and Africa by the fullest use of surface craft, aided so far as possible by aircraft and submarines. For this all-important objective heavy losses in battleships, cruisers, and destroyers must if necessary be accepted. The harbour at Tripoli must be rendered unusable by recurrent bombardment, and/or by blocking and mining, care being taken that the mining does not impede the blocking or bombardments. Enemy convoys passing to and from Africa must be attacked by our cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, aided by the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. Every convoy which gets through must be considered a serious naval failure. The reputation of the Royal Navy is engaged in stopping this traffic.

3. Admiral Cunningham’s fleet must be strengthened for the above purposes to whatever extent is necessary. The Nelson and Rodney, with their heavily armoured decks, are especially suitable for resisting attacks from the German dive-bombers, of which undue fears must not be entertained. Other reinforcements of cruisers, minelayers, and destroyers must be sent from the west as opportunity serves. The use of the Centurion as a blockship should be studied, but the effectual blocking of Tripoli Harbour would be well worth a battleship upon the active list.

4. When Admiral Cunningham’s fleet has been reinforced he should be able to form two bombarding squadrons, which may in turn at intervals bombard the port of Tripoli, especially when shipping or convoys are known to be in the harbour.

5. In order to control the sea communications across the Mediterranean, sufficient suitable naval forces must be based on Malta, and protection must be afforded to these naval forces by the air force at Malta, which must be kept at the highest strength in fighters of the latest and best quality that the Malta aerodromes can contain. The duty of affording fighter protection to the naval forces holding Malta should have priority over the use of the aerodromes by bombers engaged in attacking Tripoli.

6. Every endeavour should be made to defend Malta Harbour by the U.P. weapon [rockets] in its various developments, especially by the F.A.M. [Fast Aerial Mine], fired by the improved naval method.

7. Next in importance after the port at Tripoli comes the 400-mile coastal road between Tripoli and Agheila. This road should be subjected to continuous harassing attacks by forces landed from the Glen ships in the special landing-craft. The commandos and other forces gathered in Egypt should be freely used for this purpose. The seizure of particular points from the sea should be studied, and the best ones chosen for prompt action. Here again losses must be faced, but small forces may be used in this harassing warfare, being withdrawn, if possible, after a while. If even a few light or medium tanks could be landed, these could rip along the road, destroying very quickly convoys far exceeding their own value. Every feasible method of harassing constantly this section of the route is to be attempted, the necessary losses being faced.

8. In all the above paragraphs the urgency is extreme, because the enemy will grow continually stronger in the air than he is now, especially should his attack on Greece and Yugoslavia be successful, as may be apprehended. Admiral Cunningham should not, therefore, await the arrival of battleship reinforcements, nor should the use of the Glen ships be withheld for the sake of Rhodes.

9. It has been decided that Tobruk is to be defended with all possible strength. But [holding] Tobruk must not be regarded as a defensive operation, but rather as an invaluable bridgehead or sally-port on the communications of the enemy. It should be reinforced as may be necessary both with infantry and by armoured lighting vehicles, to enable active and continuous raiding of the enemy’s flanks and rear. If part of the defences of the perimeter can be taken over by troops unprovided with transport, this should permit the organisation of a mobile force both for the fortress reserve and for striking at the enemy. It would be a great advantage should the enemy be drawn into anything like a siege of Tobruk and compelled to transport and feed the heavy artillery forces for that purpose.

10. It is above all necessary that General Wavell should regain unit ascendancy over the enemy and destroy his small raiding parties, instead of our being harassed and hunted by them. Enemy patrols must be attacked on every occasion, and our own patrols should be used with audacity. Small British parties in armoured cars, or mounted on motor-cycles, or, if occasion offers, infantry, should not hesitate to attack individual tanks with bombs and bombards, as is planned for the defence of Britain. It is important to engage the enemy even in small affairs in order to make him fire off his gun ammunition, of which the supply must be very difficult.

11. The use of the Royal Air Force against the enemy’s communications, or concentrations of fighting vehicles, is sufficiently obvious not to require mention.

All this was easier to say than do.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I kept President Roosevelt fully informed.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 16 April 41

I cannot tell what will happen in Greece, and we have never underrated the enormous power of the German military machine on the mainland of Europe.

I am personally not unduly anxious about the Libyan-Egyptian position. We estimate Germans have one colonial armoured division and perhaps the whole of one ordinary armoured division, comprising, say, 600 to 650 tanks, of which a good many have already been destroyed or have broken down. There are no German infantry yet in Cyrenaica, except the few battalions comprised in the German armoured divisions. Difficulties of supply of petrol, food, water, and ammunition must be severe, and we know from prisoners of the strain under which these audacious formations are working. We are naturally trying to bring our own armoured forces, which were largely refitting at the time of the attack, into action, and are reinforcing Egypt from all parts of the Middle East, where we have nearly half a million men. Tobruk I regard as an invaluable bridgehead or sally-port. We do not feel at all outmatched at present in the air, and are growing stronger constantly. The whole power of the Mediterranean Fleet, which is being strongly reinforced, will be used to cut the sea and coastal communications. There are, of course, Italian forces besides the Germans, and we believe the Germans are now sending, or trying to send, a third armoured division from Sicily.

The repulse of the German attacks on Tobruk on the 14th/15th seems to me important, as this small, fierce fight, in which the enemy lost prisoners, killed, and tanks, together with aircraft, out of all proportion to our losses, is the first time they have tasted defeat, and they are working on very small margins. Meanwhile our efforts to turn off the tap have met with a noteworthy success in the Central Mediterranean. Four destroyers from Malta in the early hours of this morning, sixteenth, caught a German-Italian convoy of five large ships loaded with ammunition and mechanical transport and escorted by three Italian destroyers. The whole convoy and all its escort were sunk. We lost one destroyer in the fight. We are keeping the strength of our forces secret for the present.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The beating-in of our Desert flank while we were full-spread in the Greek adventure was, however, a disaster of the first magnitude. I was for some time completely mystified about its cause, and as soon as there was a momentary lull I felt bound to ask General Wavell for some explanation of what had happened. It was not till April 24 that I burdened him with this request.

We still await news of the actions at Agheila and Mechili which resulted in the loss of the 3d Armoured Brigade and the best part of a motorised cavalry brigade. Evidently there was a severe defeat, and it is essential to our comprehension of your difficulties, as well as of our own, that we should know broadly what happened, and why. Were the troops outnumbered, outmanoeuvred, or outfought, or was there some mistake, as is alleged, about premature destruction of petrol store? Surely the reports of the survivors should have made it possible lo give us a coherent story of this key action. I cannot help you if you do not tell me. . . .

Wavell replied on the twenty-fifth. He pointed out that as practically all the senior officers concerned were missing and could give no account of their actions or motives care must be taken not to prejudice them unfairly. Characteristically he took the responsibility upon himself. His summary followed the same day. In this he said that he had been aware that the headquarters of the 2d Armoured Division and 3d Armoured Brigade would take some time to become skilful in desert conditions and desert warfare. He had hoped that they would have a period of minor skirmishing on the frontier for at least a month or so before a serious attack developed, and that this would give them time to adapt themselves. Actually the attack took place before they had settled down, and was launched at least a fortnight before his Staff had calculated on a time and space basis that it was possible, but in approximately the strength he had anticipated. He had expected a limited advance to Agedabia, and captured documents and prisoners’ statements had since confirmed that this was the enemy’s intention. The subsequent exploitation by the enemy of his initial success, which, it is now known, came as a complete surprise to him, was made possible only through the early and unfortunate disappearance of the 3d Armoured Brigade as a fighting force. There was complete evidence to prove that the enemy’s advance from Agedabia was hastily improvised in eight small columns consisting of both German and Italian units, several of which outran their own maintenance and had to be supplied by aircraft.

Our 3d Armoured Brigade was an improvised organisation containing one regiment of cruiser tanks in poor mechanical condition, one regiment of light tanks, and one regiment armed with captured Italian medium tanks. In view of the state of the armoured fighting vehicles at the end of the Cyrenaican campaign, it was the best he could produce if any armoured force was to accompany the troops to Greece. If it had been at full strength and had had more time to settle down as a fighting formation, it should have been capable of dealing with the opposition expected.

I did not become aware till just before the German attack of the bad mechanical state of the cruiser regiment, on which we chiefly relied. A proportion of these tanks broke down before reaching the front, and many others became casualties from mechanical defects during the early fighting. The same seems to have occurred with the other cruiser regiment of the 2d Armoured Division, which went to Greece. Our light tank was powerless against German tanks, which were all armed with guns. Regiment armed with [captured] Italian tanks had not had time to get accustomed to them.

Instructions to armoured division were to withdraw gradually if attacked by superior strength, so as to maintain force in being until difficulties of supply weakened enemy and gave opportunity for counter-stroke. These were my instructions.

As matters turned out, this was mistaken policy. Immediate counter-stroke would at least have inflicted serious losses on enemy and delayed him considerably. It might have stopped him altogether. As it was, 3d Armoured Brigade practically melted away from mechanical and administrative breakdowns during the retreat, without much fighting, while the unpractised headquarters of the 2d Armoured Division seems to have lost control. This was partly due to inexperience of signal personnel. . . .

When I visited the front after the first day’s action, I felt need of a commander experienced in desert warfare, and telegraphed for O’Connor to come and assist Neame. Both these generals were captured during the withdrawal by patrol from the enemy column which penetrated to Derna.

Such is the outline of disastrous episode, for which main responsibility is mine. Obviously mistakes were made in the handling of the headquarters 2d Armoured Division and 3d Armoured Brigade during the withdrawal, but I hope that judgment on this will be reserved until those mainly concerned can give full account and reasons for actions. Their difficulties were considerable.

Fighting spirit of troops even in retreat and disorganisation seems to have been excellent, and there were many instances of cool and determined action.

I replied:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 28 April 41

Thank you very much for your general outline of what occurred on the western frontier. We seem to have had rather bad luck. I expect we shall get this back later. Every good wish.


Major-General R. J. Collins, Lord Wavell, page 355.

12
The Greek Campaign

Naval Victory off Matapan, March 28—Our Expedition to Greece—Disappointing News from General Papagos—The R.A.F. Outnumbered—The Germans Attack—Shattering Blow at the Piraeus, April 6—Yugoslavia Overrun—And Capitulates—Danger to Our Left Flank—General Papagos Suggests Evacuation—The Retreat to Thermopylae—My Telegram to Wavell of April 17—Suicide of the Greek Prime Minister—My Directive of April 18—The Enemy Kept at Bay—Hope of a Stand at Thermopylae—Decision to Evacuate, April 21—Final Greek Surrender, April 24—Namsos Over Again—Disaster at Nauplion—Achievement of the Royal Navy—Four-Fifths of Our Forces Rescued—Greek Martial Honour Undimmed—President Roosevelt’s Gracious Appreciation—My Reply to Him of May 4—My Broadcast, May 3.

Towards the end of March it was evident that a major movement of the Italian Fleet, probably towards the Aegean, was impending. Admiral Cunningham decided temporarily to move our convoys out of the way, and himself left Alexandria after dark on March 27 in the Warspite with the Valiant and Barham, the carrier Formidable, and nine destroyers. Light forces, comprising four cruisers and four destroyers, under Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, then at Crete, were ordered to join the Commander-in-Chief next day south of the island. At dawn on the twenty-eighth an aircraft from the Formidable reported four enemy cruisers and six destroyers on a southeasterly course. At 7.45 A.M. these same ships were in sight from the cruiser flagship, Orion. The Italian force included three eight-inch-gun cruisers, whereas all the British were six-inch-gun ships. But after half an hour’s inconclusive action the enemy retired, and the British cruisers turned in pursuit. Two hours later the Orion sighted an enemy battleship—the Vittorio Veneto—which opened fire on her at a range of sixteen miles. Once more the rôles changed, and the Orion and her cruisers again retired towards the British battle fleet, then approaching at full speed and about seventy miles away. An air striking force launched by the Formidable now arrived on the scene and attacked the Italian battleship, which at once withdrew to the northwest.

Meanwhile our air patrols sighted another enemy force of five cruisers and five destroyers to the northward about a hundred miles from the advancing British fleet. After further air attacks from the Formidable, and also from shore bases in Greece and Crete, it became clear that the Vittorio Veneto was damaged and could not make more than fifteen knots. In the evening a third air attack from the Formidable found all the enemy ships protecting the injured battleship with their A.A. batteries. Our planes did not seek to penetrate the barrage, but hit the heavy cruiser Pola, which was seen to haul out of line and stop. As darkness fell, Admiral Cunningham decided to make a destroyer attack, and also to accept the uncertainties of a night action with his battle fleet, in the hope of destroying the crippled battleship and cruiser before they could gain the cover of their own shore-based aircraft. On the way in the darkness he surprised two Italian cruisers, the eight-inch-gun Fiume and Zara, which were going to the Pola’s aid. At close range the Fiume was immediately overwhelmed and sunk by fifteen-inch broadsides from the Warspite and Valiant. The Zara, engaged by all three battleships, was soon reduced to a blazing wreck.

Admiral Cunningham then withdrew the fleet to avoid mistaking friends for foes, and left his destroyers to deal with the damaged ship and with the two destroyers which had been with her. They also found and sank the crippled Pola. In this fortunate night encounter, with all its chances, the British fleet suffered no loss of any kind. In the morning, as our aircraft could not find the Vittorio Veneto, our fleet returned to Alexandria. This timely and welcome victory off Cape Matapan disposed of all challenge to British naval mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean at this critical time.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The expedition to Greece, in its order of embarkation, comprised the British 1st Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division, and the 6th Australian Division. These were all fully equipped at the expense of other formations in the Middle East. They were to be followed by the Polish Brigade and the 7th Australian Division. The movement began on March 5. The plan was to hold the Aliakhmon line, which ran from the mouth of the river of that name through Veria and Edessa to the Yugoslav frontier. Our forces were to join the Greek forces deployed on this front, namely, the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions, each of six battalions and three or four batteries, the 19th (Motorised) Division, weak in numbers and training, and about six battalions from Thrace. This army, nominally the equivalent of seven divisions, was to come under the command of General Wilson.

The Greek troops were far less than the five good divisions General Papagos had originally promised.[1] The great majority of the Greek Army, about fifteen divisions, was in Albania, facing Berat and Valona, which they had not been able to capture. They repulsed an Italian offensive launched on March 9. The rest of the Greek Army, three divisions and frontier defence troops, was in Macedonia, whence Papago declined to withdraw them, and where, after four days’ fighting, when the Germans attacked, they ceased to be a military force. The 19th Greek (Motorised) Division, which joined them, was also destroyed or dispersed.

Our air force in Greece in March numbered only seven squadrons (eighty operational aircraft), and was badly handicapped by the scarcity of landing grounds and inadequate signal communications. Although some small reinforcements were sent in April, the R.A.F. were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the enemy. Two of our squadrons fought on the Albanian front. The remaining five, supported by two Wellington squadrons from Egypt for night operations, had to meet all other needs. They were matched against a German air strength of over eight hundred operational aircraft.

The attack on Southern Yugoslavia and Greece was entrusted to the German Twelfth Army, of fifteen divisions, of which four were armoured. Of these, five divisions, including three armoured, took part in the southward drive towards Athens. The weakness of the Aliakhmon position lay on its left flank, which could be turned by a German advance through Southern Yugoslavia. There had been little contact with the Yugoslav General Staff, whose plan of defence and degree of preparedness were not known to the Greeks or ourselves. It was hoped, however, that in the difficult country which the enemy would have to cross the Yugoslavs would at least be able to impose considerable delay on them. This hope was to prove ill-founded. General Papagos did not consider that withdrawal from Albania to meet such a turning movement was a feasible operation. Not only would it severely affect morale, but the Greek Army was so ill-equipped with transport and communications were so bad that a general withdrawal in the face of the enemy was impossible. He had certainly left the decision till too late. It was in these circumstances that our 1st Armoured Brigade reached the forward area on March 27, where it was joined a few days later by the New Zealand Division.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the early morning of April 6, German armies invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia. Intensive air attacks were at the same time launched on the Piraeus, where our expeditionary convoys were discharging. That night the port was almost completely wrecked by the blowing-up of the British ship Clan Fraser alongside the quay with two hundred tons of T.N.T. on board. Here was a misfortune which made it necessary to divert supplies to other and minor ports. This attack alone cost us and the Greeks eleven ships, aggregating forty-three thousand tons.

Henceforward the maintenance of the Allied armies by sea continued against an increasing scale of air attack, to which no effective counter could be made. The key to the problem at sea was to overcome the enemy’s air bases in Rhodes, but no adequate forces were available for such a task, and meanwhile heavy shipping losses were certain. It was fortunate that the recent Battle of Matapan had, as Admiral Cunningham stated in his dispatch, taught the Italian Fleet a lesson which kept them out of action for the rest of the year. Their active intervention during this period would have made the Navy’s task in Greece impossible.

Simultaneously with the ferocious bombardment of Belgrade the converging German armies already poised on the frontiers invaded Yugoslavia from several directions. The Yugoslav General Staff did not attempt to strike their one deadly blow at the Italian rear. They conceived themselves bound not to abandon Croatia and Slovenia, and were therefore forced to attempt the defence of the whole frontier line. The four Yugoslav army corps in the north were rapidly and irresistibly bent inward by the German armoured columns, supported by Hungarian troops which crossed the Danube and by German and Italian forces advancing towards Zagreb. The main Yugoslav forces were thus driven in confusion southward, and on April 13 German troops entered Belgrade. Meanwhile General List’s Twelfth German Army, assembled in Bulgaria, had swung into Serbia and Macedonia. They had entered Monastir and Yannina on the tenth, and thus prevented any contact between the Yugoslavs and Greeks and broken up the Yugoslav forces in the south.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Confronted by the collapse of Yugoslav resistance. Mr. Campbell, the British Minister in Belgrade, had left the capital with its garrison. He now sought instructions, which I sent him as follows:

Prime Minister to British Minister in Yugoslavia 13 April 41

It will not be possible at any time to send British surface warships, or British or American merchant ships or transports, up the Adriatic north of Valona. The reason for this is the air, which did not exist effectively in the last war. The ships would only be sunk, and that would help no one. All the aircraft we can allot to the Yugoslav theatre is already at the service of the Yugoslav General Staff through Air Marshal D’Albianc. There are no more at present. You must remember Yugoslavs have given us no chance to help them and refused to make a common plan, but there is no use in recriminations, and you must use your own judgment how much of this bad news you impart to them.

2. We do not see why the King or Government should leave the country, which is vast, mountainous, and full of armed men. German tanks can no doubt move along the roads and tracks, but to conquer the Serbian armies they must bring up infantry. Then will be the chance to kill them. Surely the young King and the Ministers should play their part in this. However, if at any time the King and a few personal attendants are forced to leave the country and no aeroplanes can be provided, a British submarine could be sent to Kotor or some other neighbouring place.

3. Apart from the successful defence of mountain regions, the only way in which any portion of the Serbian Army can get in touch with our supplies by land is through establishing contact with Greeks in Albania and through Monastir. They could then share in the defence of Greece and in the common pool of supplies, and if all fails every effort will be made to evacuate as many fighting men as possible to islands or to Egypt.

4. You should continue to do your utmost to uphold the fighting spirit of the Yugoslav Government and Army, reminding them how the war in Serbia ebbed and flowed back and forth last time.

But the days of the Yugoslav guerrillas were still to come. On April 17 Yugoslavia capitulated.[2]

      *      *      *      *      *      

This sudden collapse destroyed the main hope of the Greeks. It was another example of “One at a time.” We had done our utmost to procure concerted action, but through no fault of ours we had failed. A grim prospect now gaped upon us all.

At the moment of the German advance into Greece the 1st British Armoured Brigade was forward on the river Vardar. The New Zealand Division lay on the river Aliakhmon. On their left were the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions. The leading troops of the 6th Australian Division were also arriving. By April 8 it was clear that Yugoslav resistance in the south was breaking down and that the left flank of the Aliakhmon position would shortly be threatened. To meet this an Australian brigade group, later joined by the 1st Armoured Brigade, was posted to block the approach from Monastir. The enemy advance was delayed by demolitions and some effective bombing by the Royal Air Force, but on April 10 the attack on our flank guard began. It was arrested during two days of stiff fighting in severe weather.

Farther west there was only one Greek cavalry division keeping touch with the forces in Albania, and General Wilson decided that his hard-pressed left flank must be pulled back on Kozani and Gravena. This move was completed on April 13, but in the process the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions began to disintegrate, and could no longer play an effective part. Henceforward our Expeditionary Force was alone. By April 14 the New Zealand Division had also withdrawn to guard the important mountain pass north of Mount Olympus. One of its brigades was covering the main road to Larissa. The enemy made strong attacks, which were held. But Wilson, still menaced upon his left flank, decided to withdraw to Thermopylae. He put this to Papagos, who approved, and who himself at this stage suggested British evacuation from Greece.

Prime Minister to General Wilson, Athens 13 April 41

I am glad to see the movement of 20th Greek and Cavalry Division to close the gap between the Greek western army and your army. It is glaringly obvious that a German advance southward through this gap will not only turn your Aliakhmon position, but far more decisively round up the whole of the Greek Army in Albania. It is impossible for me to understand why the Greek western army does not make sure of its retreat into Greece. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff states that these points have been put vainly time after time. All good wishes to you in this memorable hour.

I am also glad to hear that King is not leaving Greece at present. He has a great opportunity of leaving a name in history. If, however, he or any part of the Greek Army is forced to leave Greece every facility will be afforded them in Cyprus, and we will do our best to carry them there. The garrisoning of Crete by a strong Greek force would also be highly beneficial, observing that Crete can be fed by sea.

The next few days were decisive. Wavell telegraphed on the sixteenth that General Wilson had had a conversation with Papagos, who described the Greek Army as being severely pressed and getting into administrative difficulties owing to air action. He agreed to a withdrawal to the Thermopylae position. The first moves were already made. Papagos also repeated his suggestion that we should re-embark the British troops and spare Greece from devastation. Wilson considered that this course should commence with the occupation of the new position and that evacuation should be arranged forthwith. Wavell’s instructions to Wilson were to continue the fighting in co-operation with the Greeks so long as they were able to resist, but authorised any further withdrawal judged necessary. Orders had been given for all ships on the way to Greece to be turned back, for no more ships to be loaded, and for those already loading or loaded to be emptied. He presumed that a formal request to this effect from the Greek Government should be obtained before our actual re-embarkation. He assumed Crete would be held.

To this grave but not unexpected news I replied at once.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 17 April 41

We have no news from you of what has happened on Imperial front in Greece.

2. We cannot remain in Greece against wish of Greek Commander-in-Chief, and thus expose country to devastation. Wilson or Palairet should obtain endorsement by Greek Government of Papagos’s request. Consequent upon this assent, evacuation should proceed, without, however, prejudicing any withdrawal to Thermopylae position in co-operation with the Greek Army. You will naturally try to save as much material as possible.

3. Crete must be held in force, and you should provide for this in the redistribution of your forces. It is important that strong elements of Greek Army should establish themselves in Crete, together with King and Government. We shall aid and maintain defence of Crete to the utmost.

On the seventeenth General Wilson motored from Thebes to the palace at Tatoi, and there met the King, General Papagos, and our Ambassador. It was accepted that withdrawal to the Thermopylae line had been the only possible plan. General Wilson was confident that he could hold that line for a while. The main discussion was the method and order of evacuation. The Greek Government would not leave for at least another week.

The Greek Prime Minister, M. Korysis, has already been mentioned. He had been chosen to fill the gap when Metaxas died. He had no claim to public office except a blameless private life and clear, resolute convictions. He could not survive the ruin, as it seemed, of his country or bear longer his own responsibilities. Like M. Teleki in Hungary, he resolved to pay the forfeit of his life. On the eighteenth he committed suicide. His memory should be respected.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It was necessary in this convulsive scene to try to assign proportions and priorities as far as possible. Air Marshal Longmore appealed for guidance in the use of his overstrained air power. I therefore sent a directive to the Chiefs of Staff, which they endorsed and telegraphed textually to the Middle East commanders.

Chiefs of Staff to Commanders-in-Chief 18 April 41

Following directive has been issued by the P.M. and Minister of Defence:

It is not possible to lay down precise sequence and priority between interests none of which can be wholly ignored, but the following may be a guide. The extrication of New Zealand, Australian, and British troops from Greece affects the whole Empire.

2. It ought to be possible to arrange shipping in and out of Tobruk either before or after the evacuation crisis, observing that Tobruk has two months’ supplies.

3. You must divide between protecting evacuation and sustaining battle in Libya. But if these clash, which may not be avoidable, emphasis must be given to victory in Libya.

4. Don’t worry about Iraq for the present. It looks to be going smoothly.

5. Crete will at first only be a receptacle of whatever can get there from Greece. Its fuller defence must be organised later. In the meanwhile all forces there must protect themselves from air bombing by dispersion and use their bayonets against parachutists or airborne intruders if any.

6. Subject to the above general remarks, victory in Libya counts first, evacuation of troops from Greece second. Tobruk shipping, unless indispensable to victory, must be fitted in as convenient. Iraq can be ignored and Crete be worked up later.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The retreat to Thermopylae was a difficult manoeuvre, since, while the enemy was kept at bay in the Tempe Gorge, the Olympus Pass, and at other points, our whole force had to pass through the bottleneck of Larissa. Wilson expected the most dangerous threat on his western flank, and placed a brigade group at Kalabaka to deal with it. But the crisis came on the east, at the Tempe Gorge and the Olympus Pass. The pass was sternly defended for the necessary three days by the 5th New Zealand Brigade. The Tempe Gorge was even more critical, as it was for the Germans the shortest approach to Larissa. It was defended at first only by the 21st New Zealand battalion, later reinforced by an Australian brigade. This was held for the three days needed for all our troops to pass through the Larissa bottleneck.

Until April 13 bad weather had prevented the full use of the enemy’s tenfold superiority in the air, but on the fifteenth a heavy dawn attack on the airfield near Larissa destroyed many of our remaining aircraft. The rest were ordered back to Athens, there being no intermediate landing grounds. The weather was again bad on the sixteenth and seventeenth, but then it cleared, and the German Air Force came out in strength and harassed continually the stream of troops making for Thermopylae. They were not unresisted, for in a raid near Athens twenty-two of the enemy machines were brought down for a loss of five Hurricanes.

These stubborn and skilful rear-guard actions checked the impetuous German advance at all points, inflicting severe losses. By April 20 the occupation of the Thermopylae position was complete. Frontally it was strong, but with the need to guard the coast road, to watch for possible intrusion from Euboea, and above all to prevent a move on Delphi, our forces were strained. But the Germans made slow progress and the position was never severely tested. On this same day the Greek armies on the Albania front surrendered.

I did not, however, give up hope of a final stand at Thermopylae. The intervening ages fell away. Why not one more undying feat of arms?

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 20 April 41

I am increasingly of the opinion that if the generals on the spot think they can hold on in the Thermopylae position for a fortnight or three weeks, and can keep the Greek Army fighting, or enough of it, we should certainly support them, if the Dominions will agree. I do not believe the difficulty of evacuation will increase if the enemy suffers heavy losses. On the other hand, every day the German Air Force is detained in Greece enables the Libyan situation to be stabilised, and may enable us to bring in the extra tanks [to Tobruk]. If this is accomplished safely and the Tobruk position holds, we might even feel strong enough to reinforce from Egypt. I am most reluctant to see us quit, and if the troops were British only and the matter could be decided on military grounds alone, I would urge Wilson to fight if he thought it possible. Anyhow, before we commit ourselves to evacuation the case must be put squarely to the Dominions after tomorrow’s Cabinet. Of course, I do not know the conditions in which our retreating forces will reach the new key position.

On the twenty-first General Wavell asked the King about the state of the Greek Army and whether it could give immediate and effective aid to the left flank of the Thermopylae position. His Majesty said that time rendered it impossible for any organised Greek force to support the British left flank before the enemy could attack. General Wavell replied that in that case he felt that it was his duty to take immediate steps for re-embarkation of such portion of his army as he could extricate. The King entirely agreed, and seemed to have expected this. He spoke with deep regret of having been the means of placing the British forces in such a position. General Wavell then impressed on His Majesty the need for absolute secrecy and for all measures to be taken that would make the re-embarkation possible—for instance, that order should be preserved in Athens and that the departure of the King and Government for Crete should be delayed as long as possible; also that the Greek army in Epirus should stand firm and prevent any chance of an enemy advance from the west along the north shores of the Gulf of Corinth. The King promised what help he could. But all was vain. The final surrender of Greece to overwhelming German might was made on April 24.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We were now confronted with another of those evacuations by sea which we had endured in 1940. The organised withdrawals of over fifty thousand men from Greece under the conditions prevailing might well have seemed an almost hopeless task. It was, however, accomplished by the Royal Navy under the direction of Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell afloat and Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman with Army Headquarters ashore. At Dunkirk on the whole we had air mastery. In Greece the Germans were in complete and undisputed control of the air and could maintain an almost continuous attack on the ports and on the retreating army. It was obvious that embarkation could only take place by night, and, moreover, that troops must avoid being seen near the beaches in daylight. This was Namsos over again, and on ten times the scale.

Admiral Cunningham threw nearly the whole of his light forces, including six cruisers and nineteen destroyers, into the task. Working from the small ports and beaches in Southern Greece, these ships, together with eleven transports and assault ships and many smaller craft, began the work of rescue on the night of April 24.

For five successive nights the work continued. On the twenty-sixth the enemy captured the vital bridge over the Corinth Canal by parachute attack, and thereafter German troops poured into the Peloponnese, harrying our hard-pressed soldiers as they strove to reach the southern beaches. During the nights of the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth 17,000 men were brought out, with the loss of two transports. On the following night about 19,500 were got away from five embarkation points. At Nauplion there was disaster. The transport Slamat in a gallant but misguided effort to embark the maximum stayed too long in the anchorage. Soon after dawn, when clearing the land, she was attacked and sunk by dive-bombers. The destroyers Diamond and Wryneck, who rescued most of the seven hundred men on board, were both in turn sunk by air attack a few hours later. There were only fifty survivors from all three ships.

On the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth efforts were made by two cruisers and six destroyers to rescue 8000 troops and 1400 Yugoslav refugees from the beaches near Kalamata. A destroyer sent on ahead to arrange the embarkation found the enemy in possession of the town and large fires burning, and the main operation had to be abandoned. Although a counter-attack drove the Germans out of the town, only about 450 men were rescued from beaches to the eastward by four destroyers, using their own boats. On the same night the Ajax and three destroyers rescued 4300 from Monemvasia.

These events marked the end of the main evacuation. Small isolated parties were picked up in various islands or in small craft at sea during the next two days, and 1400 officers and men, aided by the Greeks at mortal peril, made their way back to Egypt independently in later months.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The following table gives the final evacuation figures for the Army:


Forces
In Country at Time of Attack
Evacuated to Crete
Evacuated to Crete and later to EgyptDirect to Egypt (Including Wounded)
United Kingdom troops19,2065,2993,2004,101 
Australian17,1256,4512,5005,206 
New Zealand16,7207,1001,3006,054 
Totals53,05118,8507,00015,361 
The losses were:

Forces

Losses
Percentage of Total Losses 
United Kingdom troops6,60655.8  
Australian2,96825.1  
New Zealand2,26619.1  
Totals11,840100.0  

In all 50,662 were safely brought out, including men of the Royal Air Force and several thousand Cypriots, Palestinians, Greeks, and Yugoslavs. This figure represented about eighty per cent of the forces originally sent into Greece. These results were only made possible by the determination and skill of the seamen of the Royal and Allied Merchant Navies, who never faltered under the enemy’s most ruthless efforts to halt their work. From April 21 until the end of the evacuation twenty-six ships were lost by air attack. Twenty-one of these were Greek and included five hospital ships. The remainder were British and Dutch. The Royal Air Force, with a fleet air arm contingent from Crete, did what they could to relieve the situation, but they were overwhelmed by numbers. Nevertheless, from November onward the few squadrons sent to Greece had done fine service. They inflicted on the enemy confirmed losses of 231 planes and had dropped 500 tons of bombs. Their own losses of 209 machines, of which 72 were in combat, were severe, their record exemplary.

The small but efficient Greek Navy now passed under British control. A cruiser, six modern destroyers, and four submarines escaped to Alexandria, where they arrived on April 25. Thereafter the Greek Navy was represented with distinction in many of our operations in the Mediterranean.

      *      *      *      *      *      

If in telling this tale of tragedy the impression is given that the Imperial and British forces received no effective military assistance from their Greek allies, it must be remembered that these three weeks of April fighting at desperate odds were for the Greeks the culmination of the hard five months’ struggle against Italy in which they had expended almost the whole life-strength of their country. Attacked in October without warning by at least twice their numbers, they had first repulsed the invaders and then in counter-attack had beaten them back forty miles into Albania. Throughout the bitter winter in the mountains they had been at close grips with a more numerous and better-equipped foe. The Greek Army of the Northwest had neither the transport nor the roads for a rapid manoeuvre to meet at the last moment the new overpowering German attack cutting in behind its flank and rear. Its strength had already been strained almost to the limit in a long and gallant defence of the homeland.

There were no recriminations. The friendliness and aid which the Greeks had so faithfully shown to our troops endured nobly to the end. The people of Athens and at other points of evacuation seemed more concerned for the safety of their would-be rescuers than with their own fate. Greek martial honour stands undimmed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I have now set forth in narrative the outstanding facts of our adventure in Greece. After things are over, it is easy to choose the fine mental and moral positions which one should adopt. In this account I have recorded events as they occurred and action as it was taken. Later on these can be judged in the glare of consequences; and finally, when our lives have faded, History will pronounce its cool, detached, and shadowy verdict.

There is no doubt that the Mussolini-Hitler crime of overrunning Greece, and our effort to stand against tyranny and save what we could from its claws, appealed profoundly to the people of the United States, and above all to the great man who led them. I had at this moment a moving interchange of telegrams with the President.

. . . My thoughts [he said] in regard to the Eastern Mediterranean are: You have done not only heroic but very useful work in Greece, and the territorial loss is more than compensated for by the necessity for an enormous German concentration and resulting enormous German losses in men and material.

Having sent all men and equipment to Greece you could possibly spare, you have fought a wholly justified delaying action, and will continue to do so in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, including North Africa and the Near East. Furthermore, if additional withdrawals become necessary, they will all be a part of the plan which at this stage of the war shortens British lines, greatly extends the Axis lines, and compels the enemy to expend great quantities of men and equipment. I am satisfied that both here and in Britain public opinion is growing to realise that even if you have to withdraw farther in the Eastern Mediterranean, you will not allow any great débâcle or surrender, and that in the last analysis the naval control of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean will in time win the war.

My reply may be thought less responsive than this generous message deserved. I felt myself held in such harsh duress by events, and was also so conscious of the sentiment alive in the United States, that I sought to make claims on the future.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 4 May 41

Your friendly message assures me that no temporary reverses, however heavy, can shake your resolution to support us until we gain the final victory. . . .

We must not be too sure that the consequences of the loss of Egypt and the Middle East would not be grave. It would seriously increase the hazards of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and could hardly fail to prolong the war, with all the suffering and military dangers that this would entail. We shall fight on whatever happens, but please remember that the attitude of Spain, Vichy, Turkey, and Japan may be finally determined by the outcome of the struggle in this theatre of war. I cannot take the view that the loss of Egypt and the Middle East would be a mere preliminary to the successful maintenance of a prolonged oceanic war. If all Europe, the greater part of Asia and Africa, became, either by conquest or agreement under duress, a part of the Axis system, a war maintained by the British Isles, United States, Canada, and Australasia against this mighty agglomeration would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition. Therefore, if you cannot take more advanced positions now, or very soon, the vast balances may be tilted heavily to our disadvantage. Mr. President, I am sure that you will not misunderstand me if I speak to you exactly what is in my mind. The one decisive counterweight I can see to balance the growing pessimism in Turkey, the Near East, and in Spain would be if United States were immediately to range herself with us as a belligerent Power. If this were possible I have little doubt that we could hold the situation in the Mediterranean until the weight of your munitions gained the day.

We are determined to fight to the last inch and ounce for Egypt, including its outposts of Tobruk and Crete. Very considerable risks are being run by us for that, and personally I think we shall win, in spite of the physical difficulties of reinforcing by tanks and air. But I adjure you, Mr. President, not to underrate the gravity of the consequences which may follow from a Middle-Eastern collapse. In this war every post is a winning-post, and how many more are we going to lose?

With regard to Vichy, we are more than willing that you should take the lead, and work out how to get the best from them by threats or favours. You alone can forestall the Germans in Morocco.[3] If they are once installed, it will not be necessary for them to go overland; they will soon get airborne troops to Dakar.

I shall await with deep anxiety the new broadcast which you contemplate. It may be the supreme turning-point.

Let me thank you for the splendid help in shipping and tankers which we owe to your action, and for all your generous and bold assistance to us and to the common cause.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In my broadcast the night before I had tried not only to express the feelings of the English-speaking world, but to state the dominant facts which ruled our fate.

While we naturally view with sorrow and anxiety much that is happening in Europe and in Africa, and may happen in Asia, we must not lose our sense of proportion and thus become discouraged or alarmed. When we face with a steady eye the difficulties which lie before us, we may derive new confidence from remembering those we have already overcome. Nothing that is happening now is comparable in gravity with the dangers through which we passed last year. Nothing that can happen in the East is comparable with what is happening in the West.

Last time I spoke to you I quoted the lines of Longfellow which President Roosevelt had written out for me in his hand. I have some other lines which are less well known but which seem apt and appropriate to our fortunes tonight, and I believe they will be so judged wherever the English language is spoken or the flag of freedom flies:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,

  Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

  Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

 

And not by eastern windows only,

  When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!

  But westward, look, the land is bright.


Papagos has since claimed that his first agreement to the holding of the Aliakhmon line was contingent on a clarification of the situation with the Government of Yugoslavia, which never was reached.

King Peter was evacuated from Kotor in an R.A.F. Sunderland flying-boat. Mr. Ronald Campbell had made his way to the Adriatic coast. On April 18 he and his staff fell into Italian hands. An attempt was made to rescue him and his staff, and a week later the British submarine Regent was sent to the Bay of Kotor. She found the Italians in possession. An Italian officer was taken on board as a hostage, while an officer from the submarine parleyed with the Italians for the release of the British diplomatic party. Meanwhile three Stukas arrived and bombed and machine-gunned the Regent, wounding the captain and members of the crew. She had to put to sea under fire from the shore batteries and escape through the minefields. The British diplomats and staff were moved to Italy and interned. In June they were repatriated to England in accordance with international usage after negotiations with the Italian Government.

My subsequent italics.—Author.

13
Tripoli and “Tiger”

From Desert Sand to Salt Water—Admiral Cunningham’s Anxieties—Our Need to Strike at Tripoli—The Hard Alternative to Bombardment—Drastic Proposal by the First Sea Lord—Admiral Cunningham’s Reply—A Successful and Bloodless Operation, April 21—Admiral Cunningham’s Strong View—Credit for All—My Explanations to Admiral Cunningham—The American Aid—Disquieting News from Wavell—My Minute of April 21—The Defence Committee Agree to Send Three Hundred Tanks Through the Mediterranean—A Severe Comment on Tobruk, April 22—Reinforcements for Rommel—Operation “Tiger” Arrives—A Brilliant Success—Tanks for Crete—My Wish to Repeat Operation “Tiger”—Wavell Does Not Press.

Disaster on our Desert flank had produced the consequences in Africa which have been described. It also meant the failure to take Rhodes which impaired our communications with Greece. It severely injured that already hazardous enterprise, though this would have foundered by itself. We must now add to the tale of what happened in the desert sand the simultaneous events upon salt water. Anyone can see how great was the strain which the Greek expedition had put upon our Eastern Mediterranean Fleet. But this was only one of the demands made upon them at this chaotic time. As early as April 10, Admiral Cunningham felt himself seriously affected by the sudden leap forward of Rommel’s triumphant armoured forces.

If [he warned us] the Germans can get sufficient forces across in the next month, they will probably gain control up to Mersa Matruh at least, and if they do this, it will be questionable if Alexandria will be usable for the Fleet against attack by fighter-escorted aircraft. The German prospects of achieving this are good unless Tripoli is destroyed. I do not think it feasible to do this by bombardment. It is not only a question of the risk to the battle fleet, but of lasting effects being sufficient to make it justifiable. I feel continuous air attack is solution. . . . I consider, therefore, that it is essential that long-range bombers should be flown out immediately to Egypt for this work and that nothing should stand in way of this. It may well be a matter of days, and the results will decide whether we are going to be able to hold the Eastern Mediterranean. I would again emphasise the time factor, which is vital.

There could, alas, be no question of building up in Egypt within a few weeks a long-range bomber force capable of having any appreciable effect on Tripoli. Bombardment from the sea, besides being far more effective and economical in effort, was the only practical measure within our power, and I felt that the Fleet might perhaps make a vital contribution to the defence of Egypt in this way, notwithstanding the heavy strain it was then bearing in the Greek campaign.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The need to strike at Tripoli led to vehement discussion between the Admiralty and Admiral Cunningham, in which the First Sea Lord, strong in the consciousness of the American aid accorded by the President, confronted the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean with a hard alternative to risking his fleet by a bombardment in a most dangerous area. The incident is unusual in our naval records.

Admiralty to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean 15 April 41

It is evident that drastic measures are necessary to stabilise the position in the Middle East. After thorough investigation it is considered that air action alone against Tripoli will not sufficiently interrupt the flow of reinforcements which are entering Libya chiefly through that port.

It is essential, therefore, to do something at Tripoli which may interrupt their communications drastically and for a considerable time. We are of opinion that heavy and consistent mining of the harbour and approaches would have a considerable effect, but we cannot wait until this is proved. It is essential, therefore, to take other measures at the earliest moment.

There are two alternatives: (a) bombardment of the harbour, (b) attempting to block it.

Their Lordships are in agreement with you that the result of bombardment is uncertain and could not be expected drastically to reduce the rate of reinforcement even temporarily. It has been decided, therefore, that an attempt must be made to carry out a combined blocking and bombardment, the latter being carried out by the blocking ships at point-blank range as they approach the harbour.

After carefully considering the types of ship which can be used, it has been decided that Barham and a “C” Class cruiser should be used for the purpose.

The use of Barham for this purpose will no doubt fill you with the deepest regret, but it is considered far preferable to sacrifice one ship entirely with the chance of achieving something really worth while than to get several ships damaged in bombardment the result of which might be most disappointing.

This order was intended to convince the gallant Cunningham of the scale of events as we saw them in Whitehall, and of the almost desperate risks that should be run at this crisis. Admiral Cunningham vehemently protested against the suggestion that he should sacrifice a first-class battleship like the Barham.

Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean to Admiralty 15 April 41

I fully realise the grave consideration which must have been given to the matter before their Lordships and H.M. Government came to the decision to make the sacrifice entailed by this operation, but I would submit that such a price is only justified if first of all success is reasonably assured, and, secondly, if, having been successful, the result will be efficacious. I do not consider either condition would be fulfilled. As regards success, it seems to me doubtful if there is one chance in ten of getting this large ship into the right position.

Even if we are successful, we shall have lost a first-class fighting unit whose passing is liable to give an inestimable fillip to Italian naval morale, and by this very effort shall give the enemy the measure of how desperate we consider Cyrenaican situation to be.

If operation fails or is only partially successful, these aspects will be intensified. We shall furthermore have to replace the ship by taking another unit away from the Battle of the Atlantic.

In return for all this at best we shall make the actual harbour unusable, but unloading will still be possible, and alternative French harbours are available.

Nor in these considerations have I taken into account the certain loss of nearly a thousand officers and men from the two ships, who will have to be sent recklessly into the operation, unaware of what they are in for, and whom I see no prospect of being able to bring away.[1]

Rather than send in Barham without support and with such slender chances of success, I would prefer to attack with the whole battle fleet and to accept the risks.

For the above reasons I have seen fit to query their Lordships’ decision, and most earnestly request that reconsideration be given in light of these remarks.

It was not without relief that we received the news that the Fleet would bombard Tripoli, and the Admiralty hastened to concur and share from a distance the burden of responsibility. At daylight on April 21, Cunningham appeared off Tripoli with the battleships Warspite, Barham, and Valiant, the cruiser Gloucester, and destroyers, and bombarded the town for forty minutes. To the astonishment of all, complete surprise was achieved; the coastal batteries did not reply for twenty minutes, nor was there any opposition from the air. Much damage was done to shipping in the harbour, as well as to quays and to port installations. Large fires were started in a fuel depot and the buildings surrounding it. The British fleet withdrew without loss. Not a ship was even hit.

Tripoli [reported Admiral Cunningham] was bombarded for 42 minutes at 5 A.M. today, Monday, at a range of between 14,000 and 11,000 yards. To my astonishment, surprise was achieved, probably owing to the preoccupation of the German Air Force in the other zones. . . . My remarks on the policy of this bombardment will follow in due course.

The Commander-in-Chief pursued this signal with another, in which he expressed his feelings strongly.

C.-in-C. Mediterranean to Admiralty 23 April 41

We are finding our present commitments rather more than we can deal with efficiently.

I wish to make it quite clear that I remain strongly opposed to this policy of bombardment of Tripoli by Mediterranean Fleet. We have got away with it once, but only because the German Air Force were engaged elsewhere. Thus we achieved surprise. It has taken the whole Mediterranean Fleet five days to accomplish what a heavy flight squadron working from Egypt could probably carry out in a few hours. The fleet has also run considerable, and in my opinion unjustifiable, risks in this operation, which has been at the expense of all other commitments, and at a time when these commitments were most pressing. . . .

I cannot see how Nelson and Rodney can be spared [from the Atlantic] to join Mediterranean Fleet.

To me it appears that the Air Ministry are trying to lay their responsibilities on Navy’s shoulders and are not helping us out here on naval side of the war as they should.

In my opinion this story reflects credit upon both the high Admirals concerned, and illustrates for the benefit of future naval readers the extraordinary pressures under which we were all acting in this crisis. It may well be that the Admiralty, with my cordial agreement, forced their Commander-in-Chief to run an unnecessary risk; and the fact that no loss was sustained is no absolute proof that they were right on the merits. On the other hand, we at home alone could measure the proportion of world events, and final responsibility lay with us. While remaining wholly convinced of the vigour and correctness of the First Sea Lord’s action, I thought it necessary to offer the Commander-in-Chief the fullest explanation, and a wider view of the war scene than was possible from Alexandria.

Prime Minister to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean 24 April 41

There can be no departure from the principle that it is the prime responsibility of the Mediterranean Fleet to sever all communication between Italy and Africa.

2. I am sorry that the haze caused by the aircraft attack hampered your firing at Tripoli. We ought to have foreseen this, but it is no use repining, and after all results were substantial and achieved without casualties in ships or men. Personally, I was not surprised at this immunity, and certainly the fact that the main batteries of the principal enemy base in Africa, although under German control, were at twenty minutes’ notice shows that the enemy cannot be always ready everywhere at the same time. I suppose there is no doubt that the blocking plan would, in these circumstances, have come off.

3. About your air support: you should obtain accurate information, because no judgment can be formed without it. The Chief of the Air Staff tells me that the same weight of bombs as you fired of shells into Tripoli in 42 minutes, namely, 530 tons, might have been dropped: (a) by one Wellington squadron from Malta in 10½ weeks, or (b) by one Stirling squadron from Egypt in about 30 weeks. . . .

5. The main disposition of forces between the various theatres rests with the Defence Committee, over which I preside, and not with the Air Ministry, who execute our decisions. Ever since November I have tried by every method and every route to pump aircraft into the Middle East. Great risks have been run and sacrifices made, especially when two-thirds of one whole fighter squadron were drowned in trying to fly to Malta, and when Furious was taken off her Atlantic duties to make three voyages to Takoradi. I always try hard here to sustain you in every way and acclaim your repeated successes, and I earnestly hope you will also believe that we at the centre try to make sound and bold decisions amid our many difficulties. . . .

7. You wonder how I could have suggested that Nelson and Rodney should be spared from the Atlantic to join the Mediterranean Fleet. I thought they were specially suitable because of their deck armour and the apprehensions entertained of the dive-bomber attacks. Whether they could be spared or not depends upon the situation in the Atlantic. About this, in view of your high position, I will now inform you. I have been for a long time in constant intimate communication with President Roosevelt. He has now begun to take over a great part of the patrolling west of the twenty-sixth meridian West. The whole American Atlantic Fleet, with numerous flying-boats, entered into action in the first phase of this plan at midnight of April 24. United States warships will cruise along our convoy routes, shadow—or, as they call it, “trail”—all raiders or U-boats observed, and broadcast their positions in plain language to the world at four-hourly intervals, or oftener if needed. It is desired that this shall not be announced suddenly, but become apparent as it develops. The matter is, therefore, confided to you in the highest secrecy. The easement and advantage of it to the Admiralty is enormous, and, of course, it may easily produce even more decisive events. Therefore, you do not need at this moment to be unduly concerned about the Atlantic, and can devote your resources, which we are increasing in so many ways, to the cutting-off of enemy communication with Africa, whether by Tripoli or Cyrenaica. On this depends the Battle of Egypt.

8. I have taken the pains to give you this full account out of my admiration for the successes you have achieved, your many cares, my sympathy for you in the many risks your fleet has to run, and because of the commanding importance of the duty you have to discharge.

      *      *      *      *      *      

My supreme object continued to be a victory in the Western Desert to destroy Rommel’s army before he became too strong and before the dreaded new armoured division reached him in full strength. This would at any rate save our position in Egypt from the wreck. I must, therefore, recount an episode for which I took a more direct measure of responsibility than usual. The disaster which Wavell had sustained on his Desert flank had stripped him almost entirely of his armour. On Sunday, April 20, I was spending the week-end at Ditchley and working in bed, when I received a telegram from General Wavell to the C.I.G.S. which disclosed his plight in all its gravity.

Though the situation in Cyrenaica has improved [he said], the future outlook will cause anxiety for some time, owing to my weakness in tanks, especially cruiser tanks. As you realise, this desert warfare depends very largely upon armoured strength. . . . The enemy has probably at least a hundred and fifty tanks, of which about half are medium, in the fighting line in Cyrenaica. Most of these are now in the Bardia-Sollum area, and the enemy may be preparing further forward movements, if he can arrange supply. I have one weak unit in Tobruk of mixed cruiser, infantry, and light tanks, and in the Matruh area one squadron of cruisers. . . . The best I can hope for by the end of the month is one cruiser regiment less one squadron, and one infantry tank regiment less one squadron, to assist defence of Matruh. During May I may get another thirty or forty cruisers out of the workshops to make another weak unit, and some infantry tanks which will probably be required for the close defence of Alexandria against possible raids. I cannot count on getting any tanks back from Greece, and no more are in sight for some time.

He added the following:

Stop press. I have just received disquieting intelligence. I was expecting another German colonial division, which disembarked at Tripoli early this month, to appear in the fighting line about the end of the month. Certain units have already been identified. I have just been informed that latest evidence indicates this is not a colonial but an armoured division. If so, the situation is indeed serious, since an armoured division contains over 400 tanks.[2] of which 138 are medium. If the enemy can arrange supply, it will take a lot of slopping. I will cable again when I have digested this unwelcome news.

In a separate telegram of the same date General Wavell described his tank position in detail.

It will be seen [he said] that there are only two regiments of cruiser tanks in sight for Egypt by the end of May, and no reserves to replace casualties, whereas there are now in Egypt, trained, an excellent personnel for six tank regiments. I consider the provision of cruiser tanks vital, in addition to infantry tanks, which lack speed and radius of action for desert operations. C.I.G.S., please give your personal assistance.

On reading these alarming messages I resolved not to be governed any longer by the Admiralty reluctance, but to send a convoy through the Mediterranean direct to Alexandria carrying all the tanks which General Wavell needed. We had a convoy containing large armoured reinforcements starting immediately round the Cape. I decided that the fast tank-carrying ships in this convoy should turn off at Gibraltar and take the short cut, thus saving nearly forty days. General Ismay, who was staying near by, came over at noon to see me. I prepared the following personal minute to him for the Chiefs of Staff. I asked him to go to London with it at once and make it clear that I attached supreme importance to this step being taken.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for Chiefs of Staff 20 April 41

See General Wavell’s latest telegrams. The fate of the war in the Middle East, the loss of the Suez Canal, the frustration or confusion of the enormous forces we have built up in Egypt, the closing of all prospects of American co-operation through the Red Sea—all may turn on a few hundred armoured vehicles. They must if possible be carried there at all costs.

2. I will preside at noon tomorrow (Monday), the twenty-first, at a meeting of C.O.S. and Service Ministers, and any necessary action or collection of information must proceed forthwith.

3. The only way in which this great purpose can be achieved is by sending the fast mechanical transport ships of the fast section of [Convoy] W.S. 7 through the Mediterranean. General Wavell’s telegram shows that machines, not men, are needed. The risk of losing the vehicles, or part of them, must be accepted. Even if half got through, the situation would be restored. The five M.T. ships carry 250 tanks, all but fourteen of which are “I” tanks. Every endeavour should be made to increase the numbers of cruiser tanks in this consignment. I am told twenty more can be loaded at a delay of perhaps twenty-four hours—that is, M.T. convoy would sail on the morning of April 23.

4. The personnel will go by the Cape, subject to any modifications which the C.I.G.S. may desire.

5. I have asked the Ministry of Shipping to try to find two other M.T. ships of equal speed, without regard to other interests, by the date mentioned. If these are found, an additional hundred cruiser tanks should be taken from the best armoured division at home, assuming that they are fitted for tropical warfare, apart altogether from the special “desert-worthy” fittings.

6. The Admiralty and Air Ministry will consider and prepare this day a plan for carrying this vital convoy through the Mediterranean. Of course, we must accept the risk, and no guarantee can be expected. Malta, however, should have been reinforced by then. The Mountbatten destroyers and other naval reinforcements should have reached there (or else be with the convoy). The enemy’s dive-bombers have many other objectives, and they will not know what the convoy contains.

7. Speed is vital. Every day’s delay must be avoided. Let me have a time-table of what is possible, observing that at sixteen knots the distance is only about eight days—say, ten—from the date of sailing, namely, April 23. This would give General Wavell effective support during the first week in May. Secrecy is of the highest importance, and no one outside the highest circles need know of the intention to turn off at Gibraltar. Everyone on board the convoys must think they are going round the Cape.

The Chiefs of Staff were assembled by the time Ismay reached London, and they discussed my minute until late into the night. Their first reactions to the proposals were unfavourable. The chances of getting the M.T. ships through the Central Mediterranean unscathed were not rated very high, since on the day before entering the Narrows and on the morning after passing Malta they would be subjected to dive-bombing attacks out of range of our own shore-based fighters. The view was also expressed that we were dangerously weak in tanks at home, and that if we now suffered heavy losses in tanks abroad there would be demands for their replacement, and consequently a further diversion of tanks from the home forces.

However, when the Defence Committee met the next day Admiral Pound, to my great satisfaction, stood by me and agreed to pass the convoy through the Mediterranean. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Portal, said he would try to arrange for a Beaufighter squadron to give additional protection from Malta. I then asked the committee to consider sending a hundred additional cruiser tanks with the convoy. I was willing to accept two days’ delay in sailing. General Dill opposed the dispatch of these additional tanks in view of the shortage for home defence. Considering what he had agreed to ten months before, when we sent half our few tanks round the Cape to the Middle East in July, 1940, I could not feel that this reason was at this time valid. As the reader is aware, I did not regard invasion as a serious danger in April, 1941, since proper preparations had been made against it. We now know that this view was correct. It was settled that this operation, which I called “Tiger,” should proceed, and that a sixth ship should be added to the convoy to include sixty-seven Mark VI (cruiser) tanks. This ship could not, however, be loaded in time to sail with the convoy, though every effort was made.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I made haste to tell Wavell the good news.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 22 April 41

I have been working hard for you in the last few days, and you will, I am sure, be glad to know that we are sending 307 of our best tanks through the Mediterranean, hoping they will reach you around May 10. Of these, 99 are cruisers, Mark IV and Mark VI, with the necessary spare parts for the latter, and 180 “I” tanks.

2. In your telegram of April 18 you said you had the trained personnel for six regiments. We are, therefore, sending only the vehicles to you by the short cut. The men go round the Cape as already arranged, subject to some adjustments.

3. You will receive through the regular channels (a) full details of the tanks which are being sent and of the spare parts, which fit in with what you have got already, and (b) directions as to various fittings you have to make for desert service. I hope you will immediately set to work on all preparations so that a real evolution can be made of this job, and the famous 7th Armoured Division, whose absence was so unexpected to us, will resume under Creagh its victorious career.

4. On the receipt of the detailed information you should furnish us with your plan for bringing these vehicles into action at the very earliest moment. If this consignment gets through the hazards of the passage, which, of course, cannot be guaranteed, the boot will be on the other leg and no German should remain in Cyrenaica by the end of the month of June.

5. In making your preparations for bringing these vehicles into action you should pretend that they are coming round the Cape, as secrecy is most important, and very few here have been told. Thus, when you get them the chance of surprise may be offered. All good wishes.

      *      *      *      *      *      

While all this was on the move Tobruk lay heavily upon our minds. General Wavell reported on the twenty-fourth that the air fighter situation was serious. All Hurricanes in Greece had been lost, and as a result of recent enemy air attacks on Tobruk a large proportion of the Hurricanes there had been destroyed or damaged. Air Marshal Longmore considered that any further attempt to maintain a fighter squadron inside Tobruk would only result in heavy loss to no purpose. Thus the enemy would have complete air superiority over Tobruk until a fresh fighter force could be built up. However, the garrison had beaten off an attack that morning, causing the enemy heavy casualties and taking one hundred and fifty prisoners.

There was much anxiety at this time, and some pessimism. I could not refrain from a severe comment.

Prime Minister to C.I.G.S. 22 April 41

We must not forget that the besieged are four or five times as strong as the besiegers. There is no objection to their making themselves comfortable, but they must be very careful not to let themselves be ringed in by a smaller force, and consequently lose their offensive power upon the enemy’s communications. Twenty-five thousand men with one hundred guns and ample supplies are expected to be able to hold a highly fortified zone against forty-five hundred men at the end of seven hundred miles of communications, even though those men be Germans; in this case some of them are not. The figures which I have used are those which have been furnished to me by the War Office. We must not put our standards too low in relation to the enemy.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Soon General Wavell sent us more disquieting information about Rommel’s approaching reinforcements. The disembarkation of the 15th German Armoured Division, less its losses in crossing the Mediterranean, would probably be completed by April 21. Several units had already been identified opposite Tobruk or in the Capuzzo area. Prisoners of war stated that the division was still short of supply transport. From our observation of shipping arriving in Tripoli, it seemed that twenty-one shipments, averaging five thousand or six thousand tons, were still required to complete the division. The question of its maintenance eastward depended on the use of Benghazi and other small ports in Cyrenaica. There were signs that Benghazi was being regularly used. At least fifteen days would be required for the gathering of supplies. On this assumption the 15th Armoured Division, the 5th Light Motorised Division, and the Ariete and Trento divisions would be able to move forward after the middle of June, instead of only from July onward—an acceleration of a fortnight upon the previous estimate.

Wavell added that he must confess that German performance so often exceeded calculations that he was not confident that they would not improve on his estimate of their abilities. They had, for instance, begun an advance the previous evening from the Sollum area which would not be justified by what was believed to be their supply situation.

It seemed very unsatisfactory to us at home that Benghazi, which we had failed to make a useful base, was already playing so important a part now that it had passed into German hands.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During the next fortnight my keen attention and anxieties were riveted upon the fortunes of operation “Tiger.” I did not underrate the risks which the First Sea Lord had been willing to accept, and I knew that there were many misgivings in the Admiralty. The convoy, consisting of five fifteen-knot ships, escorted by Admiral Somerville’s Force H (Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal, and Sheffield), passed Gibraltar on May 6. With it also were the reinforcements for the Mediterranean Fleet, comprising the Queen Elizabeth and the cruisers Naiad and Fiji. Air attacks on May 8 were beaten off without damage, seven enemy aircraft being destroyed. During that night, however, two ships of the convoy struck mines when approaching the Narrows. One, the Empire Song, caught fire and sank after an explosion; the other, the New Zealand Star, was able to continue with the convoy. On reaching the entrance to the Skerki Channel, Admiral Somerville parted company and returned to Gibraltar. He detached six of his destroyers, with the cruiser Gloucester, to reinforce the convoy escort. In the afternoon of the ninth Admiral Cunningham, having seized the opportunity to pass a convoy into Malta, met the “Tiger” convoy with the fleet fifty miles south of Malta. All his forces then shaped their course for Alexandria, which they reached without further loss or damage. The opportunity was also taken during these operations to carry out two night bombardments of Benghazi with light naval forces on May 7 and 10.

I was delighted to learn that this vital convoy, on which my hopes were set, had come safely through the Narrows and was now protected by the whole strength of the reinforced Mediterranean Fleet. While this hung in the balance, my thoughts turned to Crete, upon which we were now sure a heavy airborne attack impended. It seemed to me that if the Germans could seize and use the airfields on the island, they would have the power of reinforcing almost indefinitely, and that even a dozen “I” tanks might play a decisive part in preventing their doing so. I, therefore, asked the Chiefs of Staff to consider turning one ship of “Tiger” to unload a few “I” tanks in Crete on their way through. My expert colleagues, while agreeing that tanks would be of special value for the purpose I had in mind, deemed it inadvisable to endanger the rest of the ship’s valuable cargo by such a diversion. Accordingly, I suggested to them on May 9 that if it were “thought too dangerous to take the Clan Lamont into Suda, she should take twelve tanks, or some other ship should take them, immediately after she has discharged her cargo at Alexandria.” Orders were sent accordingly. Wavell replied on May 10 that he “had already arranged to send six infantry tanks and fifteen light tanks to Crete,” and that they “should arrive within next few days if all goes well.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

Naturally I was eager to repeat the brilliant success of “Tiger.” I had not perhaps realised what a strain it had been on all concerned, although clearly I had borne the main responsibility. I considered my judgment about the dangers of the Mediterranean passage was at last vindicated. My naval friends, on the other hand, declared we had enjoyed a stroke of good luck and weather which might never recur. The Admiralty certainly did not wish to be led into a succession of these hazardous operations, and I encountered resistance which I found serious. I should not have been deterred from seeking and obtaining a Cabinet decision upon the issue but for the fact that General Wavell himself did not press the point, and indeed took the other side. This cut the ground from under my feet. Accordingly fifty cruiser and fifty infantry tanks went round the Cape in a later convoy, which did not anchor off Suez till July 15.

Many things had happened by then. However, not all were bad.


A ship to be sacrificed as a blockship or a fireship requires, after being brought near the objective, only a skeleton crew.

This proved an excessive estimate.

14
The Revolt in Iraq

The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930—“The Golden Square”—Reinforcements from India—The Attack upon Habbaniya—Spirited Assistance from the Flying School—Wavell’s Reluctance—His Many Cares—Firm Attitude at Home—Better News from Habbaniya—Collapse and Flight of the Iraqi Army—My Telegram to Wavell of May 9—His Reply—Arrival of the “Habforce”—Hitler’s Belated Directive, May 23—The Advance on Baghdad—Flight of Rashid Ali—Iraq Effectively Occupied—The Regent Returns to Baghdad—Serious Dangers Narrowly Averted at Small Cost—Divergence Between London and Cairo.

The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 provided that in time of peace we should, among other things, maintain air bases near Basra and at Habbaniya, and have the right of transit for military forces and supplies at all times. The treaty also provided that in war we should have all possible facilities, including the use of railways, rivers, ports, and airfields, for the passage of our armed forces. When war came Iraq broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but did not declare war; and when Italy came into the war, the Iraq Government did not even sever relations. Thus the Italian Legation in Baghdad became the chief centre for Axis propaganda and for fomenting anti-British feeling. In this they were aided by the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had fled from Palestine shortly before the outbreak of war and later received asylum in Baghdad.

With the collapse of France and the arrival of the Axis Armistice Commission in Syria, British prestige sank very low and the situation gave us much anxiety. But with our preoccupations elsewhere military action was out of the question, and we had to carry on as best we could. In March, 1941, there was a turn for the worse. Rashid Ali, who was working with the Germans, became Prime Minister, and began a conspiracy with three prominent Iraqi officers, who were styled “the Golden Square.” At the end of March the pro-British Regent, Emir Abdul Ilah, fled from Baghdad.

It was now more than ever important to make sure of Basra, the main port of Iraq on the Persian Gulf, and I minuted to the Secretary of State for India:

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for India 8 April 41

Some time ago you suggested that you might be able to spare another division taken from the frontier troops for the Middle East. The situation in Iraq has turned sour. We must make sure of Basra, as the Americans are increasingly keen on a great air assembling base being formed there to which they could deliver direct. This plan seems of high importance in view of the undoubted Eastern trend of the war.

I am telling the Chiefs of Staff that you will look into these possibilities. General Auchinleck also had ideas that an additional force could be spared.

Mr. Amery telegraphed in this sense to the Viceroy on the same day, and Lord Linlithgow and the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck, promptly offered to divert to Basra an infantry brigade and a regiment of field artillery, most of which was already on board ship for Malaya. Other troops were to follow as quickly as possible. The brigade group disembarked without opposition at Basra on April 18, under cover of an airborne British battalion which had alighted at Shaiba the day before. The Government of India was requested to follow them up as quickly as possible with two more brigades also assigned to Malaya.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee, and all concerned 20 April 41

Troops should be sent to Basra as fast as possible. At least the three brigades originally promised should be hurried there.

And also:

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 20 April 41

It should be made clear to Sir Kinahan Cornwallis[1] that our chief interest in sending troops to Iraq is the covering and establishment of a great assembly base at Basra, and that what happens up-country, except at Habbaniya, is at the present time on an altogether lower priority. Our rights under the treaty were invoked to cover this disembarkation and to avoid bloodshed, but force would have been used to the utmost limit to secure the disembarkation, if necessary. Our position at Basra, therefore, does not rest solely on the treaty, but also on a new event arising out of the war. No undertakings can be given that troops will be sent to Baghdad or moved through to Palestine, and the right to require such undertakings should not be recognised in respect of a Government which has in itself usurped power by a coup d’état, or in a country where our treaty rights have so long been frustrated in the spirit. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis should not, however, entangle himself by explanations.

When accordingly Rashid Ali was informed by our Ambassador that more transports would reach Basra on the thirtieth, he said that he could not give permission for any fresh landings until the troops already at Basra had passed through the port. General Auchinleck was told that the landings should go forward none the less, and Rashid Ali, who had been counting on the assistance of German aircraft, and even of German airborne troops, was forced into action.

His first hostile move was towards Habbaniya, our air force training base in the Iraqi Desert. On April 29, 230 British women and children had been flown to Habbaniya from Baghdad. The total number in the cantonment was just over 2200 fighting men, with no fewer than 9000 civilians. The Flying School thus became a point of grave importance. Air Vice-Marshal Smart, who commanded there, took bold and timely precautions to meet the mounting crisis. The Flying School had previously held only obsolescent or training types, but a few Gladiator fighters had arrived from Egypt, and eighty-two aircraft of all sorts were improvised into four squadrons. A British battalion, flown from India, had arrived on the twenty-ninth. The ground defence of the seven miles perimeter, with its solitary wire fence, was indeed scanty. On the thirtieth Iraqi troops from Baghdad appeared barely a mile away on the plateau overlooking both the airfield and the camp. They were soon reinforced from Baghdad, until they numbered about nine thousand men, with fifty guns. The next two days were spent in fruitless parleys, and at dawn on May 2 fighting began.

      *      *      *      *      *      

From the outset of this new danger General Wavell showed himself most reluctant to assume more burdens. He said he would make preparations and do what he could to create the impression of a large force being prepared for action from Palestine, which might have some effect on the Iraqi Government. The force he could make available would in his opinion be both inadequate and too late. It would be at least a week before it could start. Its departure would leave Palestine most dangerously weak, and incitement to rebellion there was already taking place. “I have consistently warned you,” he said, “that no assistance could be given to Iraq from Palestine in present circumstances, and have always advised that a commitment in Iraq should be avoided. . . . My forces are stretched to the limit everywhere, and I simply cannot afford to risk part of them on what cannot produce any effect.”

In Syria resources were equally strained. The Commanders-in-Chief Middle East had said that the maximum force that could be spared for Syria until the Australians were re-equipped was one mechanised cavalry brigade, one regiment of artillery, and one infantry battalion, subject to no Iraq commitment. This force could not be expected to deal with the number of troops which the Germans would be able to send to Syria, and should not be sent unless the Vichy French were actively resisting. If it was decided to send troops into Syria it would certainly be better to send British in the first instance and not Free French, whose intervention would be bitterly resented.

On May 4 we sent General Wavell our decisions about Iraq:

A commitment in Iraq was inevitable. We had to establish a base at Basra, and control that port to safeguard Persian oil in case of need.

The line of communication to Turkey through Iraq has also assumed greater importance owing to German air superiority in the Aegean Sea. . . . Had we sent no forces to Basra the present situation at Habbaniya might still have arisen under Axis direction, and we should also have had to face an opposed landing at Basra later on instead of being able to secure a bridgehead there without opposition. . . . There can be no question of accepting the Turkish offer of mediation. We can make no concessions. The security of Egypt remains paramount. But it is essential to do all in our power to save Habbaniya and to control the pipeline to the Mediterranean.

General Auchinleck continued to offer reinforcements up to five infantry brigades and ancillary troops by June 10 if shipping could be provided. We were gratified by his forward mood. General Wavell only obeyed under protest. “Your message,” he said on the fifth, “takes little account of realities. You must face facts.” He doubted whether the forces he himself was gathering were strong enough to relieve Habbaniya, or whether Habbaniya could hold out till they might arrive on the twelfth. “I feel it my duty to warn you in the gravest possible terms,” he said, “that I consider the prolongation of fighting in Iraq will seriously endanger the defence of Palestine and Egypt. The political repercussions will be incalculable, and may result in what I have spent nearly two years trying to avoid, namely, serious internal trouble in our bases. I, therefore, urge again most strongly that a settlement should be negotiated as early as possible.”

I was not content with this.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee 6 May 41

The telegrams from Generals Wavell and Auchinleck should be considered forthwith, and a report made to me at the House of Commons before luncheon today.

The following points require attention: (1) Why should the force mentioned, which seems considerable, be deemed insufficient to deal with the Iraq Army? What do you say about this? Fancy having kept the cavalry division in Palestine all this time without having the rudiments of a mobile column organised! (2) Why should the troops at Habbaniya give in before May 12? Their losses have been nominal as so far reported. Their infantry made a successful sortie last night, and we are told that the bombardment stops whenever our aircraft appear. Great efforts should be made by the air force to aid and encourage Habbaniya. Surely some additional infantry can be flown there as reinforcements from Egypt? The most strenuous orders should be given to the officer commanding to hold out.

How can a settlement be negotiated, as General Wavell suggests? Suppose the Iraqis, under German instigation, insist upon our evacuating Basra, or moving in small detachments at their mercy across the country to Palestine. The opinion of the senior naval officer at Basra is that a collapse or surrender there would be disastrous. This is also the opinion of the Government of India. I am deeply disturbed at General Wavell’s attitude. He seems to have been taken as much by surprise on his eastern as he was on his western flank, and in spite of the enormous number of men at his disposal, and the great convoys reaching him, he seems to be hard up for battalions and companies. He gives me the impression of being tired out.

The proposals of C.-in-C. India for reinforcing Basra seem to deserve most favourable consideration.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Supported by the Chiefs of Staff, I brought all this to an issue before the Defence Committee when it met at noon. There was a resolute temper. The following orders were sent at their direction:

Chiefs of Staff to General Wavell and others concerned 6 May 41

Your telegram of yesterday has been considered by Defence Committee. Settlement by negotiation cannot be entertained except on the basis of a climb down by Iraqis, with safeguard against future Axis designs on Iraq. Realities of the situation are that Rashid Ali has all along been hand-in-glove with Axis Powers, and was merely waiting until they could support him before exposing his hand. Our arrival at Basra forced him to go off at half-cock before the Axis was ready. Thus there is an excellent chance of restoring the situation by bold action, if it is not delayed.

Chiefs of Staff have, therefore, advised Defence Committee that they are prepared to accept responsibility for dispatch of the force specified in your telegram at the earliest possible moment. Defence Committee direct that Air Vice-Marshal Smart should be informed that he will be given assistance, and that in the meanwhile it is his duty to defend Habbaniya to the last. Subject to the security of Egypt being maintained, maximum air support possible should be given operations in Iraq.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile at Habbaniya the squadrons of the Flying School, together with Wellington bombers from Shaiba, at the head of the Persian Gulf, attacked the Iraqi troops on the plateau. They replied by shelling the cantonment, their aircraft joining in with bombs and machine guns. Over forty of our men were killed or wounded that day, and twenty-two aircraft destroyed or disabled. Despite the difficulty of taking off under close artillery fire, our airmen continued their attacks. No enemy infantry assault developed, and gradually their batteries were mastered. It was found that the enemy gunners would not stand to their pieces under air attack or even if our aircraft were to be seen overhead. Full advantage was taken of their nervousness, and it was possible from the second day to turn a proportion of our air effort to dealing with the Iraqi Air Force and their bases. On the nights of May 3 and 4, offensive land patrols from Habbaniya moved out to raid the enemy lines, and by the fifth, after four days of attack from the Royal Air Force, the enemy had had enough. That night they withdrew from the plateau. They were followed up, and a very successful action yielded four hundred prisoners, a dozen guns, sixty machine guns, and ten armoured cars. A reinforcing column from Falluja was caught on the road and destroyed by forty of our aircraft dispatched from Habbaniya for the purpose. By May 7, therefore, the siege of Habbaniya was over. The defenders had been reinforced by fighter aircraft from Egypt; British women and children had all been evacuated by air to Basra; the Iraqi Air Force of about sixty planes had been virtually destroyed. This good news only reached us late and bit by bit.

Prime Minister to Air Vice-Marshal Smart 7 May 41

Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are all watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent. Keep it up.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Prime Minister to General Wavell 7 May 41

It would seem that the Habbaniya show has greatly improved, and audacious action now against the Iraqis may crush the revolt before the Germans arrive. They can, of course, fly there direct in heavy bombers, but these would only have what they stand up in and could not operate long. We must forestall the moral effect of their arrival by a stunning blow. I presume that, if Rutba and Habbaniya are clear, [our] column will take possession of Baghdad or otherwise exploit success to the full. Other telegrams are being sent to you about rousing the tribes and about Government policy.

General Wavell replied to the Chiefs of Staff direct:

8 May 41

I think you should appreciate the limits of military action in Iraq during next few months without a favourable political situation. Forces from India can secure Basra, but cannot, in my opinion, advance northward unless the co-operation of the local population and tribes is fully secured. Force from Palestine can relieve Habbaniya and hold approaches from Baghdad to prevent farther advance on Habbaniya; but it is not capable of entering Baghdad against opposition or maintaining itself there. . . . In order, therefore, to avoid a heavy military commitment in a non-vital area, I still recommend that a political solution be sought by all available means.

Although I realised his cares and his devotion, I continued to press General Wavell hard.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 9 May 41

The Defence Committee have considered your telegram of May 8 about Iraq. Our information is that Rashid Ali and his partisans are in desperate straits. However this may be, you are to fight hard against them. The mobile column being prepared in Palestine should advance as you propose, or earlier if possible, and actively engage the enemy, whether at Rutba or Habbaniya. Having joined the Habbaniya forces, you should exploit the situation to the utmost, not hesitating to try to break into Baghdad even with quite small forces, and running the same kind of risks as the Germans are accustomed to run and profit by.

2. There can be no question of negotiation with Rashid Ali unless he immediately accepts the terms in C.O.S. telegram. Such negotiation would only lead to delay, during which the German Air Force will arrive. We do not think that any ground forces you may be able to divert to Iraq will affect your immediate problem in the Western Desert. The air force must do its best to cover both situations. Only in the event of your being actually engaged or about to engage in an offensive in the Western Desert should Tedder deny the necessary air support to the Iraq operations.

I tried to reassure General Wavell that we had no extensive operation in view and were only seeking to cope with the immediate need.

You do not need to bother too much about the long future in Iraq. Your immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad, and to beat down Rashid Ali’s forces with the utmost vigour. We do not wish to be involved at present in any large-scale advance up the river from Basra, nor have we prescribed the occupation of Kirkuk or Mosul. We do not seek any change in the independent status of Iraq, and full instructions have been given in accordance with your own ideas upon this point. But what matters is action; namely, the swift advance of the mobile column to establish effective contact between Baghdad and Palestine. Every day counts, for the Germans may not be long. We hoped that the column would be ready to move on the tenth, and would reach Habbaniya on the twelfth, assuming Habbaniya could hold out, which they have done, and a good deal more. We trust these dates have been kept, and that you will do your utmost to accelerate movement.

Wavell responded gallantly to the many cumulative calls made upon him.

Without waiting for “Tiger” [he reported on the thirteenth] I ordered all available tanks to join Gott’s force and attack the enemy in the Sollum area. . . . If things go well in the Western Desert I will try to move additional troops to Palestine for action towards Iraq. . . . We will try to liquidate this tiresome Iraq business quickly. . . . I am doing my best to strengthen Crete against impending attack. I discussed the question of Syria with Catroux this afternoon.

      *      *      *      *      *      

By this time “Tiger” had begun to arrive safely at Alexandria, and I cherished many hopes of good results in Crete, in the Western Desert, and in Syria. Varied fortunes attended these interrelated ventures.

Prime Minister to General Auchinleck 14 May 41

1. I am very glad you are going to meet Wavell at Basra. He will tell you about “Tiger” and “Scorcher” [defence of Crete]. A victory in Libya would alter all values in Iraq, both in German and Iraqi minds.

2. We are most grateful to you for the energetic efforts you have made about Basra. The stronger the forces India can assemble there the better. But we have not yet felt able to commit ourselves to any advance (except with small parties when the going is good) northward towards Baghdad, and still less to occupation in force of Kirkuk and/or Mosul. This cannot be contemplated until we see what happens about “Tiger” and “Scorcher.” We are, therefore, confined at the moment to trying to get a friendly Government installed in Baghdad and building up the largest possible bridgehead at Basra. Even less can we attempt to dominate Syria at the present time, though the Free French may be allowed to do their best there. The defeat of the Germans in Libya is the commanding event, and larger and longer views cannot be taken till that is achieved. Everything will be much easier then.

It will be well to complete the Iraq story before the impact of more sanguinary events, though not graver dangers, fell upon us in Crete.

The advance guard of the relieving “Habforce,” a motorised brigade group from Palestine, arrived at Habbaniya on May 18 to resume the attack on the enemy, now holding the bridge across the Euphrates at Falluja. By this time the Iraqis were not the only enemy. The first German aircraft were established on Mosul airfield on May 13, and thenceforward our air force had as a principal task to attack them and prevent their being supplied by railway from Syria. The attack on Falluja by the advance guard of “Habforce” and the land elements of the Habbaniya garrison took place on May 19. Inundations hampered direct approach from the west, and small columns were, therefore, dispatched over a flying bridge upstream from the town to cut off the retreat of the defenders; another party made an air landing to block the road to Baghdad. It had been expected that this action, together with air bombardment, would make the enemy, about a brigade strong, surrender or disperse. But in the end ground attack was needed. A small force on the west bank whose task had been to prevent by rifle fire the demolition of the vital bridge was ordered to rush it; they did so successfully and without casualties. The enemy gave way; three hundred prisoners were taken. A counter-attack three days later was beaten off.

Some days were spent in making preparations for the final advance on Baghdad, during which our air action against the German Air Force on the northern airfields of Iraq finally crushed their effort. Later an Italian fighter squadron appeared, but accomplished nothing. The German officer charged with co-ordinating the action of the Axis air squadrons with the Iraqi forces, a son of Field Marshal Blomberg, landed at Baghdad with a bullet in his head, thanks to misjudged firing by his allies. His successor, General Felmy, though more fortunate in his landing, could do nothing. His vigorous instructions from Hitler were dated May 23, by which time all chance of useful Axis intervention had passed.

Hitler’s Directive No. 30. Middle East

Field Headquarters: May 23, 1941

The Arab Freedom Movement is, in the Middle East, our natural ally against England. In this connection the raising of rebellion in Iraq is of special importance. Such rebellion will extend across the Iraq frontiers to strengthen the forces which are hostile to England in the Middle East, interrupt the British lines of communication, and tie down both English troops and English shipping space at the expense of other theatres of war. For these reasons I have decided to push the development of operations in the Middle East through the medium of going to the support of Iraq. Whether and in what way it may later be possible to wreck finally the English position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, is still in the lap of the gods. . . .

The advance upon Baghdad began on the night of May 27, and made slow progress, being hindered by extensive inundations and blown-up bridges over the many irrigation waterways. However, our forward troops reached the outskirts of Baghdad on May 30. Although they were weak in numbers and there was an Iraqi division in the city, their presence was too much for Rashid Ali and his companions, who that day fled to Persia, accompanied by other troublemakers, the German and Italian Ministers and the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem. The next day, May 31, an armistice was signed, the Regent of Iraq was reinstated, and a new Government took office. We soon occupied with land and air forces all the important points in the country.

Thus the German plan for raising rebellion in Iraq and mastering cheaply this wide area was frustrated on a small margin. The landing of an Indian brigade at Basra on April 18 was timely. It forced Rashid Ali into premature action. Even so there was a race with our meagre forces against time. The spirited defence of Habbaniya by the Flying School was a prime factor in our success. The Germans had, of course, at their disposal an airborne force which would have given them at this time Syria, Iraq, and Persia, with their precious oilfields. Hitler’s hand might have reached out very far towards India, and beckoned to Japan. He had chosen, however, as we shall soon see, to employ and expend his prime air organism in another direction. We often hear military experts inculcate the doctrine of giving priority to the decisive theatre. There is a lot in this. But in war this principle, like all others, is governed by facts and circumstances; otherwise strategy would be too easy. It would become a drill-book and not an art; it would depend upon rules and not on an instructed and fortunate judgment of the proportions of an ever-changing scene. Hitler certainly cast away the opportunity of taking a great prize for little cost in the Middle East. We in Britain, although pressed to the extreme, managed with scanty forces to save ourselves from far-reaching or lasting injury.

It must be remembered that the revolt in Iraq was but one small sector of the immense emergency in the Middle East, which lapped General Wavell on all sides simultaneously. This comprised the impending German onslaught upon Crete, our plans to attack Rommel in the Western Desert, the campaigns in Abyssinia and Eritrea, and the bitter need to forestall the Germans in Syria. In the same way the whole Mediterranean scene, as viewed from London, was but a secondary part of our world problem, in which the invasion menace, the U-boat war, and the attitude of Japan were dominant features. Only the strength and cohesion of the War Cabinet, the relations of mutual respect and harmony of outlook between political and military chiefs, and the smooth working of our war machine enabled us to surmount, though sorely mauled, these trials and perils.

The reader will be conscious of the tension which grew between the British War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff and their overstrained but gallantly struggling Commander-in-Chief in Cairo. The authorities at home, over whom I presided, directly overruled from Whitehall the judgment of the man on the spot. They took the issue out of his hands and assumed the responsibility themselves for ordering the relief of Habbaniya and for rejecting all ideas of negotiation with Rashid Ali or accepting Turkish mediation, which at one time was mentioned. The result was crowned with swift and complete success. Although no one was more pleased and relieved than Wavell himself, the episode could not pass without leaving impressions in his mind and in ours. At the same time General Auchinleck’s forthcoming attitude in sending, at our desire, and with the Viceroy’s cordial assent, the Indian division to Basra so promptly, and the readiness with which Indian reinforcements were supplied, gave us the feeling of a fresh mind and a hitherto untaxed personal energy. The consequences of these impressions will be seen as the story unfolds.


The British Ambassador in Baghdad.

15
Crete: The Advent

The Situation in Crete—Weak and Inadequate Defences—The Overloaded Administration in Cairo—Agreement at Home and on the Spot About Defending Crete—Our Precise Intelligence—Wavell’s Visit, April 30—Bernard Freyberg in Command—My Telegram to Admiral Cunningham of May 1—Efforts to Reinforce Our Air—Wavell and Freyberg Under No Illusions—Freyberg’s Telegrams to Wavell and to the New Zealand Government—Wavell’s Telegram of May 2—Anxiety in New Zealand—My Message to Mr. Fraser, May 3—Freyberg Undaunted—German Blockade of Crete from the Air—Our Pitiful Air Resources—The German Plan of Attack—“Colorado” and “Scorcher”—A Breathless Pause—Wavell’s Humour—I Keep Smuts Informed—On the Verge.

The strategic importance of Crete in all our Mediterranean affairs has already been explained by argument and events. British warships based on Suda Bay or able to refuel there could give an all-important protection to Malta. If our base in Crete was well defended against air attack the whole process of superior sea power would come into play and ward off any seaborne expedition. But only a hundred miles away lay the Italian fortress of Rhodes, with its ample airfields and well-established installations. The capture and occupation of Rhodes and been our aim since the beginning of the year, and the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation, a splendid body of men, most carefully trained and fitted together, fifty-three hundred strong, had been sent from England either for Rhodes or Suda Bay as circumstances might require. Besides this the commando force, over two thousand strong, under Colonel Laycock, had also come round the Cape, and with the British 6th Division, which was being formed in Egypt, would have made an assaulting force capable of taking Rhodes. The pressure of events had forced us to postpone this enterprise, and meanwhile Crete was vulnerable in a high degree should German aircraft be sent to Rhodes. The Mobile Naval Defence Organisation was kept in hand at Alexandria for emergencies instead of helping either to take and hold Rhodes or to work up and man the defences of Suda Bay.

Locally in Crete everything had proceeded in a halting manner. The reader has seen my repeated injunctions to have Suda Bay fortified. I had even used the expression “a second Scapa.” The island had been in our possession for nearly six months, but it would only have been possible to equip the harbour with a more powerful outfit of anti-aircraft guns at the expense of other still more urgent needs; nor was the Middle East Command able to find the labour, locally or otherwise, to develop the airfields. There could be no question of sending a large garrison to Crete or of basing strong air forces upon its airfields while Greece was still in Allied hands. But all should have been in readiness to receive reinforcements should they become available and should the need arise. There had been, however, neither plan nor drive. Six successive commanders were appointed in as many months. The Middle East Command should have made a more careful study of the conditions under which Crete might have to be defended from air or sea attack. The need of providing if not a harbour at least landing facilities on the southern side of the island at Sphakia or Timbaki and the making of a road therefrom to Suda Bay and the airfields by which Western Crete could have been reinforced from Egypt was not foreseen. The responsibility for the defective study of the problem and for the feeble execution of the direction given must be shared between Cairo and Whitehall.

It was only after the disasters had occurred in Cyrenaica, in Crete, and in the desert that I realised how overloaded and undersustained General Wavell’s organisation was. Wavell tried his best; but the handling machine at his disposal was too weak to enable him to cope with the vast mass of business which four or five simultaneous campaigns imposed upon him.

      *      *      *      *      *      

With the German conquest of Greece, Crete became the last foothold for the Greek King and Government, and an important repository for evacuated troops of all kinds. We could be sure that German eyes were glaring upon it. To us it seemed a vital outpost both of Egypt and Malta. Even in this welter of failure and wreckage in which we were now plunged there were no disagreements between the authorities, either at home or on the spot, about holding Crete. “I am assuming,” telegraphed Wavell (April 16), “that Crete will be held.” And the next day, “We are making preparations for evacuation [of Greece] and for holding Crete.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had known for a long time the efforts Goering had made to create and develop a powerful airborne force, capable of a large-scale descent from the air. This had appealed to the ardent and devoted Nazi youth of Germany. The German Parachute Division was a corps d’élite which had played its part in our thoughts about home defence against invasion. All such plans, however, require at least the temporary command of the daylight air. This the Germans had failed to gain in Britain. Crete was a different tale. Ample and, as it seemed, long-lasting air superiority both in the Balkans and in the Aegean Sea was now the enemy’s master weapon.

At no moment in the war was our Intelligence so truly and precisely informed. In the exultant confusion of their seizure of Athens the German staffs preserved less than their usual secrecy, and our agents in Greece were active and daring. In the last week of April we obtained from trustworthy sources good information about the next German stroke. The movements and excitement of the German XIth Air Corps, and also the frantic collection of small craft in Greek harbours, could not be concealed from attentive eyes and ears. All pointed to an impending attack on Crete, both by air and sea. In no operation did I take more personal pains to study and weigh the evidence or to make sure that the magnitude of the impending onslaught was impressed upon the Commanders-in-Chief and imparted to the general on the actual scene.

Our Joint Intelligence Committee in London made an appreciation on April 28 of the scale and character of the hostile design against Crete in which they expressed their belief that simultaneous airborne and seaborne attack was imminent. They thought that the enemy could gather in the Balkans for all purposes 315 long-range bombers, 60 twin-engine fighters, 240 dive-bombers, and 270 single-engine fighters; that he might drop 3000 to 4000 parachutists or airborne troops in the first sortie, and that he might make two or three sorties per day from Greece and three or four from Rhodes, all with fighter escort. There would be heavy bombing attacks prior to the arrival of the airborne and seaborne troops, and no lack of troops or shipping for the seaborne attack.

This was immediately telegraphed to the Cairo headquarters, and I emphasised it the same day by a personal message to General Wavell.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 28 April 41

It seems clear from our information that a heavy airborne attack by German troops and bombers will soon be made on Crete. Let me know what forces you have in the island and what your plans are. It ought to be a fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops. The island must be stubbornly defended.

Although General Wavell did not at first wholly accept our view that Crete was the target, and thought that the Germans might be deliberately letting rumours circulate to cover their real plans, he acted at once with his customary energy and mobility and flew to the island. His answers show the situation.

General Wavell to Prime Minister and C.O.S. 29 April 41

Crete was warned of possibility of airborne attack on April 18. Besides original permanent garrison of three infantry battalions, two heavy A.A. batteries, three light A.A. batteries, and coast defence artillery, Crete now contains at least 30,000 personnel evacuated from Greece. These are being organised for the defence of the vital places on the island: Suda Bay, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion. Morale reported good. Arms mainly rifles, with low proportion light machine guns. In addition certain units of Greek recruits have been organised for defence of aerodromes and [guarding] prisoners of war.

2. The Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation is due to reach the island during first fortnight in May.

3. Propose visiting Crete tomorrow, and will report on return.

4. It is just possible that plan for attack on Crete may be cover for attack on Syria or Cyprus, and that real plan will only be disclosed even to [their] own troops at last moment. This would be consistent with German practice.

I had suggested to the C.I.G.S. that General Freyberg should be placed in command of Crete, and he proposed this to Wavell, who had immediately agreed. Bernard Freyberg and I had been friends for many years. When as a young volunteer from New Zealand in the First World War he had made his way through many difficulties to England, he had an introduction to me, and met me one day in the Admiralty in September, 1914, and asked for a commission. I was at that time forming the Royal Naval Division, and I soon made the necessary recommendations. In a few days he became a sub-lieutenant in the “Hood” Battalion. Here is no place to describe the long succession of glorious deeds of valour by which he rose in four years of front-line war to the command of a brigade, and in the crisis of the German summer offensive of 1918 was placed in command of all the troops, amounting almost to a corps, which held the gap in front of Bailleul. The Victoria Cross and the D.S.O. with two bars marked his unsurpassed service.

Freyberg, like his only equal, Carton de Wiart, deserved the title with which I acclaimed them of “Salamander.” Both thrived in the fire, and were literally shot to pieces without being affected physically or in spirit. One day in the nineteen-twenties, when I was staying at a country house with Bernard Freyberg, I asked him to show me his wounds. He stripped himself, and I counted twenty-seven separate scars and gashes. To these he was to add in the Second World War another three. But of course, as he explained, “You nearly always get two wounds for every bullet or splinter, because mostly they have to go out as well as go in.” At the outset of the new war no man was more fitted to command the New Zealand Division, for which he was eagerly chosen. In September, 1940, I had toyed with the idea of giving him a far greater scope. Now at length this decisive personal command had come to him. Freyberg is so made that he will fight for King and Country with an unconquerable heart anywhere he is ordered, and with whatever forces he is given by superior authorities, and he imparts his own invincible firmness of mind to all around him.

At home we did our utmost to help our hard-pressed commanders and troops.

Prime Minister to Admiral Cunningham 1 May 41

We are making extreme exertions to reinforce you from the air. It has been decided to repeat as soon as possible and on a much larger scale the recent operations [for air reinforcement]. Ark Royal, Argus, Furious, and Victorious will all be used to carry up to 140 additional Hurricanes, as well as 18 Fulmars, with pilots. We hope that 64 Hurricanes and 9 Fulmars will arrive in Middle East by May 25. Meanwhile, 25 fighter pilots leave May 23 for Takoradi to hasten ferrying of Hurricanes and Tomahawks. Capacity of route to Egypt via Takoradi freed by above use of carriers will be employed to increase the flow of Tomahawks and Hurricanes. Greatest possible shipment of Blenheims will be made at the same time. I may have more to signal about bomber reinforcements later.

2. I also congratulate you upon the brilliant and highly successful manner in which the Navy have once again succoured the Army and brought off four-fifths of the entire force.

3. It is now necessary to fight hard for Crete, which seems soon to be attacked heavily, and [also] for Malta as a base for flotilla action against the enemy’s communications with Libya. Constantly improving attitude of United States and their naval co-operation justifies risks involved. Your plans for “Tiger” are excellent and give good chances.

4. But above all we look to you to cut off seaborne supplies from the Cyrenaican ports and to beat them up to the utmost. It causes grief here whenever we learn of the arrival of precious aviation spirit in one ship after another. This great battle for Egypt is what the Duke of Wellington called “a close-run thing,” but if we can reinforce you and Wavell as proposed by Operations “Tiger” and “Jaguar” [air reinforcements], and you can cut off the tap of inflow, our immense armies in the Middle East will soon resume their ascendancy. All good wishes.

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Freyberg and Wavell were under no illusions.

General Freyberg to General Wavell 1 May 41

Forces at my disposal are totally inadequate to meet attack envisaged. Unless fighter aircraft are greatly increased and naval forces made available to deal with seaborne attack, I cannot hope to hold out with land forces alone, which as result of campaign in Greece are now devoid of any artillery, have insufficient tools for digging, very little transport, and inadequate war reserves of equipment and ammunition. Force here can and will fight, but without full support from Navy and air force cannot hope to repel invasion. If for other reasons these cannot be made available at once, urge that question of holding Crete should be reconsidered. I feel that under terms of my charter it is my duty to inform New Zealand Government of situation in which greater part of my division is now placed.

He also informed his own Government:

1 May 41

Feel it is my duty to report military situation in Crete. Decision taken in London that Crete must be held at all costs. Have received appreciation scale of attack from War Office. In my opinion Crete can only be held with full support from Navy and air force. There is no evidence of naval forces capable of guaranteeing us against seaborne invasion, and air forces in island consist of six Hurricanes and seventeen obsolete aircraft. Troops can and will fight, but as result of campaign in Greece are devoid of any artillery and have insufficient tools for digging, little transport, and inadequate war reserves of equipment and ammunition. Would strongly represent to your Government grave situation in which bulk of New Zealand Division is placed, and recommend you bring pressure to bear on highest plane in London either to supply us with sufficient means to defend island or to review decision Crete must be held. I have, of course, made my official representation on this matter to C.-in-C. Middle East.

General Wavell to C.I.G.S. 2 May 41

Defence of Crete will present difficult problem for all three services, mainly on account of enemy air superiority. Ports and aerodromes, being in north of island, involve greater exposure of aircraft and shipping. Only good road in island (and that none too good) runs east and west along north coast, and also exposed.

2. There are no good roads north and south or harbours on south coast, though with time it may be possible to develop them. There is a great shortage of transport in island.

3. Food for civil population will have to be imported in considerable quantities. If towns heavily bombed and we are unable to provide fighter protection we may be faced with political problem.

4. To garrison island effectively at least three brigade groups required and considerable number of A.A. units. Present garrison three British Regular battalions, six New Zealand battalions, one Australian battalion, and two composite battalions of details evacuated from Greece. Those from Greece are weak in numbers and equipment. There is no artillery. Scale of A.A. defence inadequate, but is being reinforced.

5. As regards air force, there are at present no modern aircraft in island.

6. Greek troops at present are mostly untrained and unarmed.

7. Difficulties are being dealt with, and will be overcome if we get time, but air defence will always be difficult problem.

The Government of New Zealand were not unnaturally anxious about their division. I explained the position to them and to Mr. Fraser, their Prime Minister, who had just arrived in Cairo on his journey to England.

Prime Minister to Prime Minister of New Zealand 3 May 41

I am very glad that the exigencies of evacuation should have carried the New Zealand Division, after its brilliant fighting in Greece, in such good order to Crete. Naturally, every effort will be made to re-equip them, and in particular artillery, in which General Wavell is already strong, is being sent. The successful defence of Crete is one of the most important factors in the defence of Egypt. I am very glad that General Wavell has accepted my suggestion to put Freyberg in command of the whole island. You may be sure we shall sustain him in every way possible.

2. Our information points to an airborne attack being delivered in the near future, with possibly an attempt at seaborne attack. The Navy will certainly do their utmost to prevent the latter, and it is unlikely to succeed on any large scale. So far as airborne attack is concerned, this ought to suit the New Zealanders down to the ground, for they will be able to come to close quarters, man to man, with the enemy, who will not have the advantage of tanks and artillery, on which he so largely relies. Should the enemy get a landing in Crete that will be the beginning, and not the end, of embarrassments for him. The island is mountainous and wooded, giving peculiar scope to the qualities of your troops. We can reinforce it far more easily than the enemy, and there are over thirty thousand men there already.

3. It may be, however, that the enemy is only feinting at Crete, and will be going farther east. We have to consider all contingencies in the employment of our scanty and overpressed air force. Why is it scanty and overpressed? Not because we do not possess ever-growing resources and reserves here. Not because we have not done everything in human power to reinforce the Middle East with air. It is simply because of the physical difficulties of getting aircraft and their servicing personnel to the spot by the various routes and methods open to us. You may be sure we shall try our best to reinforce our air power, and we are at this moment making very far-reaching but hazardous efforts. The disposition between competing needs of such air forces as are in the East must be left to the Commanders-in-Chief. I am not without hope that things will be better in the Middle East in a month or so.

4. Everyone here admires the dignity and stoicism of New Zealand in enduring the agonising suspense of the evacuation. Its successful conclusion, after inflicting so much loss upon the enemy and paying our debt of honour to Greece, is an inexpressible relief to the Empire.

Freyberg was undaunted. He did not readily believe the scale of air attack would be so gigantic. His fear was of powerful organised invasion from the sea. This we hoped the Navy would prevent in spite of our air weakness.

General Freyberg to Prime Minister, England 5 May 41

Cannot understand nervousness; am not in the least anxious about airborne attack; have made my dispositions and feel can cope adequately with the troops at my disposal. Combination of seaborne and airborne attack is different. If that comes before I can get the guns and transport here the situation will be difficult. Even so, provided Navy can help, trust all will be well.

When we get our equipment and transport, and with a few extra fighter aircraft, it should be possible to hold Crete. Meanwhile there will be a period here during which we shall be vulnerable.

Everybody in great form and most anxious to renew battle with our enemy, whom we hammered whenever we met him in Greece.

All New Zealanders greatly and justly incensed at not being mentioned adequately in B.B.C. and press accounts of the vital and gallant part played by them in Greek rear-guard action.

I immediately did my best to remedy the sense of injustice from which the New Zealanders were suffering.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 7 May 41

Please pass following to General Freyberg, unless you disagree:

Everyone in Britain has watched with gratitude and admiration the grand fighting deeds of the New Zealand Division upon the ever-famous battlefields of Greece. It is only gradually that we have learned and are learning the full tale, and the more the accounts come in the more we realise the vital part you played in a task of honour and a deed of fame. Throughout the whole Empire and the English-speaking world the name of New Zealand is saluted. Our thoughts are with you now. God bless you all.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The geography of Crete indeed made its defence problem difficult. There was but a single road running along the north coast, upon which were strung all the vulnerable points of the island. Each of these had to be self-supporting. There could be no central reserve free to move to a threatened point once this road was cut and firmly held by the enemy. Only tracks unfit for motor transport ran from the south coast to the north from Sphakia and Timbaki. As the impending danger began to dominate directing minds strong efforts were made to carry reinforcements and supplies of weapons, especially artillery, to the island, but it was then too late. During the second week in May the German Air Force from its bases in Greece and in the Aegean established a virtual daylight blockade of Crete, and took their toll of all traffic, especially on the northern side, where alone the harbours lay. Out of twenty-seven thousand tons of vital munitions sent in the first three weeks of May to Crete, under three thousand could be landed, and the rest had to turn back with the loss of over three thousand tons. Our strength in A.A. weapons was sixteen heavy A.A. guns (3.7-inch mobile), thirty-six light A.A. guns (Bofors), and twenty-four A.A. searchlights. There were only nine part-worn infantry tanks, distributed at the airfields, and sixteen light tanks. On May 9 a part of the Mobile Naval Base Organisation arrived, including one heavy and one light A.A. battery, which were deployed for the better protection of Suda Bay. Altogether about two thousand men of this organisation landed in Crete, but over three thousand were held back in Egypt, though they might have got there. Six thousand Italian prisoners of war were an additional burden to the defence.

Our defending forces were distributed principally to protect the landing grounds. At Heraklion were two British and three Greek battalions; about Retimo the 19th Australian Brigade and six Greek battalions; in the neighbourhood of Suda two Australian and two Greek battalions; at Maleme a New Zealand brigade near the airfield and a second brigade in support farther east. Some parties of riflemen were added to these garrisons, consisting of temporary units of men evacuated from Greece. The Greek battalions were weak in numbers, armed with a mixed assortment of rifles and little ammunition. The total of Imperial troops that took part in the defence amounted to about 28,600.

But of course it was only our weakness in the air that rendered the German attack possible. The R.A.F. strength early in May was twelve Blenheims, six Hurricanes, twelve Gladiators, and six Fulmars and Brewsters of the Fleet air arm, of which only one-half were serviceable. These were distributed between the Retimo landing-strip, the Maleme airfield, for fighters only, and the Heraklion airfield, which accepted all types. This was but a trifle compared with the overwhelming air forces about to be hurled upon the island. Our inferiority in the air was fully realised by all concerned, and on May 19, the day before the attack, all remaining aircraft were evacuated to Egypt. It was known to the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff, and the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East that the only choice lay between fighting under this fearful disadvantage or hurrying out of the island, as might have been possible in the early days of May. But there was no difference of opinion between any of us about facing the attack; and when we see in the light and knowledge of the after-time how nearly, in spite of all our shortcomings, we won, and how far-reaching were the advantages even of our failure, we must be well content with the risks we ran and the price we paid.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We may now set out the German plan of attack, which we have learnt since the war. It was confided to the XIth Air Corps, comprising the 7th Air Division and the 5th Mountain Division, with the 6th Mountain Division held in support. Nearly sixteen thousand men, mostly paratroops, were to be landed from the air, and seven thousand by sea. Additional air support was to be given by the Eighth Air Corps. The number of aircraft made available was: bombers, 280; dive-bombers, 150; fighter (M.E.109 and M.E.110), 180; reconnaissance, 40; gliders, 100; Ju.52’s (transport aircraft), 530; total, 1280.

The seaborne troops and a quantity of supplies were to be carried in two organised convoys of Greek caiques.[1] They had no protection except from the German Air Force. We shall see presently what was their fate.

The air attack was planned on three areas: in the east Heraklion; in the centre Retimo, Suda, Canea; and of course most important, Maleme, in the west. The immediate preparation for the attack was in general an hour’s concentrated bombing of the ground and anti-aircraft defences with bombs of up to a thousand pounds weight. This was to be followed by the arrival of the leading troops in gliders and/or by parachute descents. These again were to be followed by reinforcements in transport aircraft. It was vital to the whole conception that Maleme airfield should be secured. Mere landings of parachute troops in the countryside several miles away would not have enabled the troop-carrying airplanes to land the 6th Mountain Division by forties and fifties and then return for further instalments. The Germans would have to have effective and undisturbed possession of the airfield, not only for landing but for taking off again. Only by repeated journeys could they bring the numbers which were the foundation of their whole enterprise.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We adopted the code name “Colorado” for Crete and “Scorcher” for the German onslaught as we imagined it.

The breathless days slipped by. They were only rendered endurable by other cares. The hour drew near.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 12 May 41

Will you consider whether at least another dozen “I” tanks with skilled personnel should not go to help [against] “Scorcher.”

Prime Minister to General Wavell 14 May 41

All my information points to “Scorcher” any day after seventeenth. Everything seems to be moving in concert for that and with great elaboration. Hope you have got enough in “Colorado,” and that those there have the needful in cannon, machine guns, and armoured fighting vehicles. It may well be that in so large and complicated a plan zero date will be delayed. Therefore, reinforcements sent now might well arrive in time, and certainly for the second round, should enemy gain a footing. I should particularly welcome chance for our high-class troops to come to close grips with those people under conditions where enemy has not got his usual mechanical advantages, and where we can surely reinforce much easier than he can. I suppose Admiral is with you in every detail of this, and that you and Tedder have concerted the best possible air plan, having regard to other tasks. All good wishes.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 15 May 41

I am increasingly impressed with the weight of the attack impending upon “Colorado,” especially from the air. Trust all possible reinforcements have been sent.

Wavell’s good-humour did not desert him in these moments.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 15 May 41

Have done best to equip “Colorado” against beetle pest. Recent reinforcements include six “I” tanks, sixteen light tanks, eighteen A.A. guns, seventeen field guns, one battalion. Am preparing small force, one or two battalions, with some tanks, to land south side “Colorado” as reserve. Propose also holding Polish Brigade as possible reinforcement. But problem landing reinforcements is difficult.

2. Cunningham, Tedder, and I discussed “Colorado” May 12, followed by inter-Service staff meeting. We have concerted plans as far as possible.

3 “Colorado” is not easy commitment, and German blitzes usually take some stopping. But we have stout-hearted troops, keen and ready to fight, under resolute commander, and I hope enemy will find their “Scorcher” red-hot proposition.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 16 May 41

Have just received following from Freyberg:

“Have completed plan for defence of Crete and have just returned from final tour of defences. I feel greatly encouraged by my visit. Everywhere all ranks are fit and morale is high. All defences have been extended, and positions wired as much as possible. We have forty-five field guns placed, with adequate ammunition dumped. Two infantry tanks are at each aerodrome. Carriers and transport still being unloaded and delivered. 2nd Leicesters have arrived, and will make Heraklion stronger. I do not wish to be overconfident, but I feel that at least we will give excellent account of ourselves. With help of Royal Navy I trust Crete will be held.”

Prime Minister to Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean 18 May 41

Our success in “Scorcher” would, of course, affect whole world situation. May you have God’s blessing in this memorable and fateful operation, which will react in every theatre of the war.

Prime Minister to General Freyberg 18 May 41

We are glad to hear of the strong dispositions which you have made, and that reinforcements have reached you. All our thoughts are with you in these fateful days. We are sure that you and your brave men will perform a deed of lasting fame. The Royal Navy will do its utmost. Victory where you are would powerfully affect world situation.

I exposed my general view at this time fully to Smuts, who was in constant contact.

Prime Minister to General Smuts 16 May 41

I am, as usual, in close sympathy and agreement with your military outlook. I recently had measures taken to reinforce Wavell where he was weakest, and I have hopes that we shall be successful in heavy offensive fighting in the Western Desert during the next few weeks. We also expect a strong attack by the enemy on Crete almost immediately, and have made all possible preparations for it. If favourable decisions are obtained at these two points our problems in Syria and Iraq should be simplified. We are also reinforcing Middle East most powerfully from the air by every conceivable method. I have good hopes that we shall win the campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean this summer, and maintain our hold upon the Nile Valley and the Suez Canal. President Roosevelt is pushing United States supplies towards Suez to the utmost. The South African Army will be very welcome on the Mediterranean shore.

2. The western end of the Mediterranean is more doubtful, but Spain has hitherto stood up well to German pressure. We shall let Darlan know at the proper time that if Vichy aircraft bomb Gibraltar we shall not bomb France, but the Vichy skunks wherever they may hide out. We have not overlooked the possibility of Gibraltar Harbour becoming unusable, and have made the best preparations open to us. Perhaps the United States may be willing to come more closely into the West African business, especially at Dakar.

3. Finally, the Battle of the Atlantic is going fairly well. Instead of Hitler reaching a climax of blockade in May as he expected, we have just finished the best six weeks of convoys for many months. We shall certainly get increasing American help in the Atlantic, and personally I feel confident our position will be strengthened in all essentials before the year is out. The Americans are making very great provision to replace shipping losses in 1942, and I feel they are being drawn nearer and nearer to their great decision. It is better, however, not to count too much on this.

4. It looks as if Hitler is massing against Russia. A ceaseless movement of troops, armoured forces, and aircraft northward from the Balkans and eastward from France and Germany is in progress. I should myself suppose his best chance was to attack the Ukraine and Caucasus, thus making sure of corn and oil. Nobody can stop him doing this, but we hope to blast the Fatherland behind him pretty thoroughly as the year marches on. I am sure that with God’s help we shall beat the life out of the Nazi régime.

5. The King tells me he is going to send you a special message for your birthday on May 24, so I will send my heartfelt good wishes now.

Thus we reached the verge.


Caique: a type of schooner, now usually motor-driven.

16
Crete: The Battle

The German Air Corps—The Attack Begins, May 20—Retimo and Heraklion Held—But Maleme Lost, May 23—The Navy Joins In—Destruction of German Convoys—Costly Days for the Navy, but Admiral Cunningham Throws Everything into the Scale—Loss of the “Gloucester” and the “Fiji”—“Kelly” and “Kashmir” Sunk—A Grave Telegram from Admiral Cunningham—And a Serious Report from General Freyberg—All Hope of Success Gone—We Decide to Evacuate, May 26—A Bitter and Dismal Task—Tragedy of the Heraklion Rescue—Admiral Cunningham’s Decision to Continue the Evacuation—German Severities on the Island Population—The Price Paid—A Pyrrhic Victory.

In many of its aspects at the time it was fought the Battle of Crete[1] was unique. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. It was the first large-scale airborne attack in the annals of war. The German Air Corps represented the flame of the Hitler Youth Movement and was an ardent embodiment of the Teutonic spirit of revenge for the defeat of 1918. The flower of German manhood was expressed in these valiant, highly trained, and completely devoted Nazi parachute troops. To lay down their lives on the altar of German glory and world-power was their passionate resolve. They were destined to encounter proud soldiers many of whom had come all the way from the other side of the world to fight as volunteers for the Motherland and what they deemed the cause of right and freedom. Here was the collision of which this chapter tells the tale.

The Germans used the whole strength they could command. This was to be Goering’s prodigious air achievement. It might have been launched upon England in 1940 if British air power had been broken. But this expectation had not been fulfilled. It might have fallen on Malta. But this stroke was spared us. The German Air Corps had waited for more than seven months to strike their blow and prove their mettle. Now at length Goering could give them the long-awaited signal. When the battle joined we did not know what were the total resources of Germany in parachute troops. The XIth Air Corps might have been only one of half a dozen such units. It was not till many months afterwards that we were sure it was the only one. It was in fact the spear-point of the German lance. And this is the story of how it triumphed and was broken.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The battle began on the morning of May 20, and never was a more reckless, ruthless attack launched by the Germans. Their first and main aim was the Maleme airfield. For an hour the surrounding positions were subjected to the heaviest bombing and machine-gunning hitherto experienced from the air. The bulk of our A.A. artillery was put out of action practically at once. Before the bombardment was over, gliders began to land west of the airfield. At 8 A.M. parachutists were dropped in large numbers from heights varying from three hundred to six hundred feet, in the area between Maleme and Canea. One German regiment of four battalions in the morning, and a second in the afternoon, were thrown in by a continuous stream of aircraft, utterly regardless of losses to men and machines. They were resolutely encountered on and near the airfield by a battalion of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, with the rest of the brigade in support to the eastward. Wherever our troops were noticed, they were subjected to tremendous bombardment, bombs of five hundred and even a thousand pounds being used in profusion. Counter-attacks were impossible in daylight. A counter-attack with only two “I” tanks proved a failure. Gliders or troop-carriers landed or crashed on the beaches and in the scrub or on the fireswept airfield. In all, around and between Maleme and Canea over five thousand Germans reached the ground on the first day. They suffered very heavy losses from the fire and fierce hand-to-hand fighting of the New Zealanders. In our defended area practically all who alighted were accounted for, most being killed. At the end of the day we were still in possession of the airfield, but that evening the few who were left of the battalion fell back on its supports. Two companies sent up to reinforce were too late to make a counter-attack for the airfield, which was still, however, under our artillery fire.

Retimo and Heraklion were both treated to a heavy air bombardment on that morning, followed by parachute drops in the afternoon of two and four battalions respectively. Heavy fighting followed, but at nightfall we remained in firm possession of both airfields. At Retimo and Heraklion there were also descents on a smaller scale, with hard fighting and heavy German casualties. The result of this first day’s fighting was, therefore, fairly satisfactory, except at Maleme; but in every sector bands of well-armed men were now at large. The strength of the attacks far exceeded the expectations of the British command, and the fury of our resistance astonished the enemy.

This was the report we got:

General Freyberg to General Wavell 20 May 41

Today has been a hard one. We have been hard pressed. So far, I believe, we hold aerodromes at Retimo, Heraklion, and Maleme, and the two harbours. Margin by which we hold them is a bare one, and it would be wrong of me to paint optimistic picture. Fighting has been heavy and we have killed large numbers of Germans. Communications are most difficult. Scale of air attacks upon Canea has been severe. Everybody here realises vital issue and we will fight it out.

The onslaught continued on the second day, when troop-carrying aircraft again appeared. Although Maleme airfield remained under our close artillery and mortar fire, troop-carriers continued to land upon it and in the rough ground to the west. The German High Command seemed indifferent to losses, and at least a hundred planes were wrecked by crash-landing in this area. Nevertheless, the build-up continued. A counter-attack made that night reached the edge of the airfield, but with daylight the German Air Force reappeared and the gains could not be held.

On the third day Maleme became an effective operational airfield for the enemy. Troop-carriers continued to arrive at a rate of more than twenty an hour. Even more decisive was the fact that they could also return for reinforcements. Altogether it was estimated that in these and the ensuing days more than six hundred troop-carriers landed or crashed more or less successfully on the airfield. Under the increasing pressure of these growing forces the plan for a major counter-attack had finally to be abandoned, and the 5th New Zealand Brigade gradually gave way until they were nearly ten miles from Maleme. At Canea and Suda there was no change, and at Retimo the situation was well in hand. At Heraklion the enemy were landing east of the airfield, and an effective hostile lodgment there began and grew. After the opening attacks on May 20 the German High Command switched off Retimo and Heraklion and concentrated mainly on the Suda Bay area.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Air reconnaissance having reported the presence of caiques in the Aegean, Admiral Cunningham had on the twentieth dispatched a light force to the northwest of Crete. It consisted of the cruisers Naiad and Perth, and the destroyers Kandahar, Nubian, Kingston, and Juno, under the command of Rear-Admiral King.

A powerful force under Rear-Admiral Rawlings, consisting of the battleships Warspite and Valiant, screened by eight destroyers, lay to the west of Crete on the lookout for the expected intervention by the Italian Fleet. Throughout the twenty-first our ships were subjected to heavy air attacks. The destroyer Juno was hit, and sank in two minutes with heavy loss of life. The cruisers Ajax and Orion were also damaged, but continued in action.

That night our weary troops saw to the northward the whole skyline alive with flashes and knew the Royal Navy was at work. The first German seaborne convoy had started on its desperate mission. In the afternoon groups of small craft were reported approaching Crete, and Admiral Cunningham ordered his light forces into the Aegean to prevent landings during the darkness. At 11.30 P.M., eighteen miles north of Canea, Rear-Admiral Glennie, with the cruisers Dido, Orion, and Ajax and four destroyers, caught the German troop convoy, composed chiefly of caiques escorted by torpedo boats. For two and a half hours the British ships hunted their prey, sinking not less than a dozen caiques and three steamers, all crowded with German troops. It was estimated that about four thousand men were drowned that night.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile Rear-Admiral King, with the cruisers Naiad, Perth, Calcutta, and Carlisle and three destroyers, spent the night of the twenty-first patrolling off Heraklion, and at daylight on the twenty-second began to sweep northward. A single caique loaded with troops was destroyed, and by ten o’clock the squadron was approaching the island of Melos. A few minutes later an enemy destroyer with five small craft was sighted to the northward, and was at once engaged. Another destroyer was then seen laying a smoke-screen, and behind the smoke were a large number of caiques. We had in fact intercepted another important convoy crammed with soldiers. Our air reconnaissance had reported this fact to Admiral Cunningham, but it took more than an hour for this news to be confirmed to Rear-Admiral King. His ships had been under incessant air attack since daylight, and although they had hitherto suffered no damage all were running short of A.A. ammunition. Their combine speed was also reduced, as the Carlisle could steam no more than twenty-one knots. The Rear-Admiral, not fully realising the prize which was almost within his grasp, felt that to go farther north would jeopardise his whole force, and ordered a withdrawal to the west. As soon as this signal was read by the Commander-in-Chief, he sent the following order:

Stick it out. Keep in visual signalling touch. Must not let Army down in Crete. It is essential no seaborne enemy force land in Crete.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It was now too late to destroy the convoy, which had turned back and scattered in all directions among the numerous islands. Thus at least five thousand German soldiers escaped the fate of their comrades. The audacity of the German authorities in ordering these practically defenceless convoys of troops across waters of which they did not possess the naval command as well as that of the air is a sample of what might have happened on a gigantic scale in the North Sea and the English Channel in September, 1940. It shows the German lack of comprehension of sea power against invading forces, and also the price which may be exacted in human life as the penalty for this kind of ignorance.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Rear-Admiral’s retirement did not save his squadron from the air attack. He probably suffered as much loss in his withdrawal as he would have done in destroying the convoy. For the next three and a half hours his ships were bombed continuously. His flagship, the Naiad, and the Carlisle, whose commander, Captain T. C. Hampton, was killed, were both damaged. At 1.10 P.M. they were met by the battleships Warspite and Valiant, with the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji and seven destroyers under Rear-Admiral Rawlings, who were hastening through the Cythera Strait from the westward to support them. Almost at the moment when the Warspite arrived, she was hit by a bomb which wrecked her starboard four-inch and six-inch batteries and reduced her speed, and as the enemy had now escaped, the combined British squadrons drew off to the southwestward. Inflexibly resolved, whatever the cost, to destroy all seaborne invaders. Admiral Cunningham had indeed thrown everything into the scale. It is clear that throughout these operations he did not hesitate for this purpose to hazard not only his most precious ships, but the whole naval command of the Eastern Mediterranean. His conduct on this issue was highly approved by the Admiralty. In this grim battle the German command was not alone in playing the highest stakes. The events of these forty-eight hours of sea-fighting convinced the enemy, and no further attempts at seaborne landings were attempted until the fate of Crete had been decided.

      *      *      *      *      *      

May 22 and 23 were costly days for the Navy. The destroyer Greyhound in Rear-Admiral Rawlings’s squadron was bombed and sunk. Rear-Admiral King, senior officer of the now combined forces, ordered two other destroyers to rescue survivors and the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji to protect them against air attack, which was incessant and increasing. This delayed the whole fleet and greatly prolonged the air attack upon them. At 2.57 P.M. on the twenty-second, Rear-Admiral King, informed that their A.A. ammunition was running short, told the two cruisers to withdraw at discretion. At 3.30 P.M. the Gloucester and Fiji were reported approaching the fleet from astern at high speed under heavy aircraft attack. Twenty minutes later the Gloucester, hit by several bombs, was brought to a full stop, badly on fire, and with her upper deck a shambles. The Fiji had no choice but to leave her, and, having lost contact with the Fleet and being short of fuel, she steered more directly towards Alexandria with her two destroyers. Three hours later, after surviving nearly twenty attacks by formations of bombers and having fired all her heavy A.A. ammunition, she fell a victim to an M.E.109 which approached unseen through the clouds. There was a heavy explosion. The ship took a list, but still made seventeen knots, until another attack came and three more bombs struck home. At 8.15 P.M. she capsized and sank, but 523 out of her company of 780 were picked up from the water by her two destroyers, which returned after dark.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile the Fleet, twenty miles to the westward, had been subjected to recurrent air attacks, during which the Valiant was hit, but not seriously damaged. At 4 P.M. Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the Kelly, with four other destroyers of the latest type, with which flotilla we had just reinforced the Central Mediterranean, arrived from Malta and joined the Fleet. After dark his destroyers were sent back to search for survivors from the Gloucester and Fiji. But this work of mercy was brushed aside by the Commander-in-Chief in favour of patrolling the north coast of Crete during the dark hours. Here again was a right decision, however painful. All the night of the twenty-second Mountbatten’s destroyers patrolled off Canea, while Captain Mack in the Jervis and three others scoured the approaches to Heraklion. One caique crowded with troops fell to the Kelly, another was set on fire, and at dawn the destroyers withdrew to the southward.

During the night Admiral Cunningham learned the general situation and of the loss of the Gloucester and Fiji. Owing to a clerical error in the signal distribution office at Alexandria it appeared to him as if not only the cruisers, but the battleships also, had expended nearly all their A.A. ammunition. At 4 A.M., therefore, he ordered all forces to retire to the eastward. In fact the battleships had ample ammunition, and Cunningham has stated since that had he known this he would not have withdrawn them. Their presence the following morning might possibly have prevented another disaster which must now be recorded.

At dawn on the twenty-third the Kelly and Kashmir were retiring at full speed round the west of Crete. After surviving two heavy air attacks they were overtaken at 7.55 A.M. by a formation of twenty-four dive bombers. Both ships were quickly sunk, with a loss of 210 lives. Fortunately the destroyer Kipling was near by, and, despite continuous bombing, rescued from the sea 279 officers and men, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, while she herself remained unscathed. Next morning, while still fifty miles away from Alexandria, and crowded from stem to stern with men, she ran completely out of fuel, but was safely met and towed in.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Thus, in the fighting of May 22 and 23 the Navy had lost two cruisers and three destroyers sunk, one battleship, the Warspite, put out of action for a long time, and the Valiant and many other units considerably damaged. Nevertheless, the sea-guard of Crete had been maintained. The Navy had not failed. Not a single German landed in Crete from the sea until the battle for the island was ended.

The Commander-in-Chief did not know as yet how well he had succeeded.

The operations of the last four days [he signalled on the twenty-third] have been nothing short of a trial of strength between the Mediterranean Fleet and the German Air Force. . . . I am afraid that in the coastal area we have to admit defeat and accept the fact that losses are too great to justify us in trying to prevent seaborne attacks on Crete. This is a melancholy conclusion, but it must be faced. As I have always feared, enemy command of air, unchallenged by our own air force, and in these restricted waters, with Mediterranean weather, is too great odds for us to take on except by seizing opportunities of surprise and using utmost circumspection. . . .

It is perhaps fortunate that H.M.S. Formidable [aircraft-carrier] was immobilised, as I doubt if she would now be afloat.

To this the Admiralty replied at once:

If it were only a duel between the Mediterranean Fleet and the German Air Force, it would probably be necessary to accept the restrictions on the movements of the Fleet which you suggest. There is, however, in addition the battle for Crete. If the Fleet can prevent seaborne reinforcements and supplies reaching the enemy until the Army has had time to deal successfully with all airborne troops, the Army may then be able to deal with seaborne attacks. It is vitally important therefore to prevent a seaborne expedition reaching the island during the next day or two, even if this results in further losses to the Fleet. Their Lordships most fully appreciate the heavy strain under which your fleet is working.

As the agony in Crete approached its climax, I telegraphed to President Roosevelt:

23 May 41

Battle in Crete is severe, because, having no airfields within effective range, we cannot bring any air force into action either to aid the defence or protect our patrolling squadrons. Two of our cruisers and two destroyers were sunk today. We are destroying many of the highest class German troops, and have sunk at least one convoy.

And to Wavell:

23 May 41

Crete battle must be won. Even if enemy secure good lodgments fighting must be maintained indefinitely in the island, thus keeping enemy main striking force tied down to the task. This will at least give you time to mobilise “Tiger Cubs” and dominate situation Western Desert. While it lasts it also protects Cyprus. Hope you will reinforce Crete every night to fullest extent. Is it not possible to send more tanks and thus reconquer any captured aerodrome? Enemy’s exertions and losses in highest class troops must be very severe. He cannot keep it up for ever. Following for General Freyberg from me: “The whole world is watching your splendid battle, on which great events turn.”

The Chiefs of Staff were in full accord, and telegraphed to the Commanders-in-Chief:

24 May 41

Our difficulties in Crete are great, but from all the information we have so are those of enemy. If we stick it out enemy’s effort may peter out. It seems to us imperative that reinforcements in greatest strength possible should be sent as soon as possible to island to ensure the destruction of the enemy already landed before they can be seriously reinforced. The vital importance of this battle is well known to you, and great risks must be accepted to ensure our success.

Admiral Cunningham replied to the Admiralty message of the twenty-third:

C.-in-C. Mediterranean to Admiralty 26 May 41

Their Lordships may rest assured that determining factor in operating in Aegean is not fear of sustaining losses, but need to avoid loss which, without commensurate advantage to ourselves, will cripple Fleet out here. So far as I am aware, enemy has not yet succeeded in getting any considerable reinforcements to Crete by sea, if indeed he has sent any at all, though I agree this may soon be appreciable.

2. Surely we have already sufficient experience of what losses are likely to be. In three days two cruisers and four destroyers were sunk, one battleship is out of action for several months, and two other cruisers and four destroyers sustained considerable damage. We cannot afford another such experience and retain sea control in Eastern Mediterranean.

3. In point of fact, supply by sea has not yet come much into picture, as, despite loss and turning back of his convoys, enemy is so prolific in air that for the moment he is able to reinforce and keep his forces supplied by air at will. This process is quite unchecked by air action on our part, and sight of constant unhindered procession of Ju. 52’s flying into Crete is among factors likely to affect morale of our forces.

4. I feel that their Lordships should know that effect of recent operations on personnel is cumulative. Our light craft, officers, men, and machinery alike are nearing exhaustion. Since “Lustre” [Greece] started, at end of February, they have been kept running almost to limit of endurance, and now, when work is redoubled, they are faced with an air concentration beside which, I am assured, that in Norway was child’s play. It is inadvisable to drive men beyond a certain point.

5. I have been able to do rather more than was foreshadowed. Each night destroyers and cruisers sweep north coast of Crete, we have bombarded Maleme, and this morning attacked Scarpanto. Melos is also receiving attention from a submarine. . . . I have not, however, yet received reinforcements of reconnaissance aircraft which I so earnestly requested.

6. Since writing above I learn H.M.S. Formidable and H.M.S. Nubian have been hit by bombs and are returning to harbour. I have no details.

Still heavier trials lay before this resolute Commander-in-Chief, to which he proved himself more than equal.

      *      *      *      *      *      

But now late on the twenty-sixth grave news reached Wavell from Freyberg.

I regret to have to report [said Freyberg] that in my opinion the limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command here at Suda Bay. No matter what decision is taken by the Commanders-in-Chief from a military point of view, our position here is hopeless. A small ill-equipped and immobile force such as ours cannot stand up against the concentrated bombing that we have been faced with during the last seven days. I feel I should tell you that from an administrative point of view the difficulties of extricating this force in full are insuperable. Provided a decision is reached at once, a certain proportion of the force might be embarked. Once this section has been reduced the reduction of Retimo and Heraklion by the same methods will only be a matter of time. The troops we have, with the exception of the Welsh Regiment and the commandos, are past any offensive action. If you decide, in view of the whole Middle-East position, that hours will help we will carry on. I would have to consider how this would be best achieved. Suda Bay may be under fire within twenty-four hours. Further casualties have been heavy, and we have lost the majority of our immobile guns.

To Freyberg I telegraphed:

27 May 41

Your glorious defence commands admiration in every land. We know enemy is hard pressed. All aid in our power is being sent.

Prime Minister to Commanders-in-Chief Middle East 27 May 41

Victory in Crete essential at this turning-point in the war. Keep hurling in all aid you can.

      *      *      *      *      *      

But that night we learned that all hope of success was gone.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 27 May 41

Fear that situation in Crete most serious. Canea front has collapsed and Suda Bay only likely to be covered for another twenty-four hours, if as long. There is no possibility of hurling in reinforcements. . . .

2. On the island itself our troops, majority of whom had most severe trial in Greece from overwhelming air attack, have been subjected to same conditions on steadily increasing scale in Crete. Such continuous and unopposed air attack must drive stoutest troops from positions sooner or later and makes administration practically impossible.

3. Telegram just received from Freyberg states only chance of survival of force in Suda area is to withdraw to beaches in south of island, hiding by day and moving by night. Force at Retimo reported cut off and short of supplies. Force at Heraklion also apparently almost surrounded.

4. Fear we must recognise that Crete is no longer tenable and that troops must be withdrawn as far as possible. It has been impossible to withstand weight of enemy air attack, which has been on unprecedented scale and has been through force of circumstances practically unopposed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the fourth day of the land battle General Freyberg had formed a new line in the Maleme-Canea sector. Thanks to the free use of the airfield, the Germans’ strength grew continually. May 26 was the decisive day. Our troops forced back in the neighbourhood of Canea had been under ever-growing pressure for six days. Finally they could stand it no more. The front was broken on the landward side and the enemy reached Suda Bay. Communication with Freyberg’s headquarters failed, and retirement southward across the island to Sphakia began on his delegated authority. Late that night the decision to evacuate Crete was taken. There was much confusion on the trek across the mountains. Fortunately two commandos, about seven hundred and fifty men, under Colonel Laycock, had been landed at Suda by the minelayer Abdiel on the night of the twenty-sixth. These comparatively fresh forces, with the remains of the 5th New Zealand Brigade and the 7th and 8th Australian battalions, fought a strong rear-guard action, which enabled almost the whole of our forces in the Suda-Canea-Maleme area that still survived to make their way to the southern shore.

At Retimo the position was firmly held, although the troops were completely surrounded on the landward side and food and ammunition ran low. They received some rations by motor craft, but no orders to break for the south coast could reach them. Steadily the enemy closed in, until on the thirtieth, with their food exhausted, the survivors surrendered, having killed at least three hundred Germans. About one hundred and forty individuals contrived their escape.

At Heraklion the German strength east of the airfield grew daily. The garrison had been reinforced by part of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had landed at Timbaki and fought their way through to join them. The Navy now came to the rescue, just in time.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had to face once again the bitter and dismal task of an evacuation and the certainty of heavy losses. The harassed, overstrained Fleet had to undertake the embarking of about twenty-two thousand men, mostly from the open beach at Sphakia, across three hundred and fifty miles of sea dominated by hostile air forces. The Royal Air Force had done their best from Egypt with the few aircraft which had the necessary range. The principal target was the enemy-held Maleme airfield, which received a number of bombing attacks both by day and night. While these operations threw a heavy strain on the crews, their necessarily small scale could not have any appreciable effect. Air Marshal Tedder promised to provide some fighter cover for the ships, but this, he warned us, would be meagre and spasmodic. Sphakia, a small fishing village on the south coast, lies at the foot of a steep cliff five hundred feet high traversed only by a precipitous goat track. It was necessary for the troops to hide near the edge until called forward for embarkation. Four destroyers, under Captain Arliss, arrived on the night of the twenty-eighth and embarked seven hundred men, besides bringing food for the very large numbers now gathering. Fighter protection was available for the return voyage, which was made with only minor damage to one destroyer. At least fifteen thousand men lay concealed in the broken ground near Sphakia, and Freyberg’s rear guard was in constant action.

A tragedy awaited the simultaneous expedition by Rear-Admiral Rawlings, which, with the cruisers Orion, Ajax, and Dido and six destroyers, went to rescue the Heraklion garrison. His force was under severe air attack from Scarpanto from 5 P.M. till dark.The Ajax and the destroyer Imperial were near-missed, and the former had to return. Arriving at Heraklion before midnight, the destroyers ferried the troops to the cruisers waiting outside. By 3.20 A.M. the work was complete. Four thousand men had been embarked and the return voyage began. Half an hour later the steering gear of the damaged Imperial suddenly failed, and collision with the cruisers was narrowly averted. It was imperative that the whole force should be as far as possible to the south by daylight. Rear-Admiral Rawlings nevertheless decided to order the destroyer Hotspur to return, take off all the Imperial’s troops and crew, and sink her. He himself reduced speed to fifteen knots, and the Hotspur, carrying nine hundred soldiers, rejoined him just before daylight. He was now an hour and a half late on his time-table, and it was not until sunrise that he turned south to pass through the Kaso Strait. Fighter protection had been arranged, but partly through the change in times the aircraft did not find the ships. The dreaded bombing began at 6 A.M., and continued until 3 P.M., when the squadron was within a hundred miles of Alexandria.

The Hereward was the first casualty. At 6.25 A.M. she was hit by a bomb and could no longer keep up with the convoy. The Admiral rightly decided that he must leave the stricken ship to her fate. She was last seen approaching the coast of Crete. The majority of those on board survived, though as prisoners of war. Worse was to follow. During the next four hours the cruisers Dido and Orion and the destroyer Decoy were all hit. The speed of the squadron fell to twenty-one knots, but all kept their southerly course in company. In the Orion conditions were appalling. Besides her own crew, she had 1100 troops on board. On her crowded mess-decks about 260 men were killed and 280 wounded by a bomb which penetrated the bridge. Her commander, Captain G. R. B. Back, was also killed, the ship heavily damaged and set on fire. At noon two Fulmars of the Fleet air arm appeared, and thereafter afforded a measure of relief. The fighters of the Royal Air Force, despite all efforts, could not find the tortured squadron, though they fought several engagements and destroyed at least two aircraft. When the squadron reached Alexandria at 8 P.M. on the twenty-ninth it was found that one-fifth of the garrison rescued from Heraklion had been killed, wounded, or captured.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We have seen how hard the Commanders-in-Chief in Cairo were pressed from home both by the political and military authorities, and much of this pressure was passed on to our forces in contact with the enemy, who responded nobly. But after the experiences of the twenty-ninth, General Wavell and his colleagues had to decide how far the effort to bring our troops off from Crete should be pursued. The Army was in mortal peril, the Air could do little, and again the task fell upon the wearied and bomb-torn Navy. To Admiral Cunningham it was against all tradition to abandon the Army in such a crisis. He declared, “It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. The evacuation [that is, rescue] will continue.” But it was only after much heart-searching and after consultation both with the Admiralty and General Wavell that the decision was taken to persevere. By the morning of the twenty-ninth nearly five thousand men had been brought off, but very large numbers were holding out and sheltering on all the approaches to Sphakia, and were bombed whenever they showed themselves by day. The decision to risk unlimited further naval losses was justified, not only in its impulse but by the results.

On the evening of the twenty-eighth, Rear-Admiral King had sailed, with the Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, the assault-ship Glengyle, and three destroyers, for Sphakia. On the night of the twenty-ninth about six thousand men were embarked there without interference, the Glengyle's landing-craft greatly helping the work. By 3.20 A.M. the whole body was on its way back, and, though attacked three times during the thirtieth, reached Alexandria safely. Only the cruiser Perth was damaged, by a hit in a boiler-room. This good luck was due to the R.A.F. fighters, who, few though they were, broke up more than one attack before they struck home. It was thought that the night of the twenty-ninth-thirtieth would be the last for trying, but during the twenty-ninth it was felt that the situation was less desperate than it had seemed. Accordingly, on the morning of the thirtieth, Captain Arliss once more sailed for Sphakia, with four destroyers. Two of these had to return, but he continued with the Napier and Nizam (a destroyer given to us by the Prince and people of Hyderabad), and successfully embarked over fifteen hundred troops. Both ships were damaged by near-misses on the return voyage, but reached Alexandria safely. The King of Greece, after many perils, had been brought off with the British Minister a few days earlier. That night also General Freyberg was evacuated by air on instructions from the Commanders-in-Chief.

On May 30 a final effort was ordered to bring out the remaining troops. It was thought that the numbers at Sphakia did not now exceed three thousand men, but later information showed that there were more than double that number. Rear-Admiral King sailed again on the morning of the thirty-first, with the Phoebe, Abdiel, and three destroyers. They could not hope to carry all, but Admiral Cunningham ordered the ships to be filled to the utmost. At the same time the Admiralty were told that this would be the last night of evacuation. The embarkation went well, and the ships sailed again at 3 A.M. on June 1, carrying nearly four thousand troops safely to Alexandria. The cruiser Calcutta, sent out to help them in, was bombed and sunk within a hundred miles of Alexandria.

Upward of five thousand British and Imperial troops were left somewhere in Crete, and were authorised by General Wavell to capitulate. Many individuals, however, dispersed in the mountainous island, which is a hundred and sixty miles long. They and the Greek soldiers were succoured by the villagers and country folk, who were mercilessly punished whenever detected. Barbarous reprisals were made upon innocent or valiant peasants, who were shot by twenties and thirties. It was for this reason that I proposed to the Supreme War Council three years later, in 1944, that local crimes should be locally judged, and the accused persons sent back for trial on the spot. This principle was accepted, and some of the outstanding debts were paid.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Sixteen thousand five hundred men were brought safely back to Egypt. These were almost entirely British and Imperial troops. Nearly a thousand more were helped to escape later by various commando enterprises. Our losses were about thirteen thousand killed, wounded, and taken prisoners. To these must be added nearly two thousand naval casualties. Since the war more than four thousand German graves have been counted in the area of Maleme and Suda Bay; another thousand at Retimo and Heraklion. Besides these were the very large but unknown numbers drowned at sea, and those who later died of wounds in Greece. In all, the enemy must have suffered casualties in killed and wounded of well over fifteen thousand. About a hundred and seventy troop-carrying aircraft were lost or heavily damaged. But the price they paid for their victory cannot be measured by the slaughter.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Battle of Crete is an example of the decisive results that may emerge from hard and well-sustained fighting apart from manoeuvring for strategic positions. We did not know how many parachute divisions the Germans had. Indeed, as the result of what happened in Crete, we made preparations, as will presently be described, for home defence against four or five of these audacious airborne divisions; and later still we and the Americans reproduced them ourselves on an even larger scale. But in fact the 7th Airborne Division was the only one which Goering had. This division was destroyed in the Battle of Crete. Upward of five thousand of his bravest men were killed, and the whole structure of this organisation was irretrievably broken. It never appeared again in any effective form. The New Zealanders and other British, Imperial, and Greek troops who fought in the confused, disheartening, and vain struggle for Crete may feel that they played a definite part in an event which brought us far-reaching relief at a hingeing moment.

The German losses of their highest class fighting men removed a formidable air and parachute weapon from all further part in immediate events in the Middle East. Goering gained only a Pyrrhic victory in Crete; for the forces he expended there might easily have given him Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, and even perhaps Persia. These troops were the very kind needed to overrun large wavering regions where no serious resistance would have been encountered. He was foolish to cast away such almost measureless opportunities and irreplaceable forces in a mortal struggle, often hand-to-hand, with the warriors of the British Empire.

We now have in our possession the “battle report” of the XIth Air Corps, of which the 7th Airborne Division was a part. When we recall the severe criticism and self-criticism to which our arrangements were subjected, it is interesting to read the other side.

British land forces in Crete [said the Germans] were about three times the strength which had been assumed. The area of operations on the island had been prepared for defence with the greatest care and by every possible means. . . . All works were camouflaged with great skill. . . . The failure, owing to lack of information, to appreciate correctly the enemy situation endangered the attack of the XIth Air Corps and resulted in exceptionally high and bloody losses.

In the German report of their examination of our prisoners of war the following note occurs, which, in my gratitude to those unknown friends, I venture to quote:

As regards the spirit and morale of the British troops, it is worth mentioning that in spite of the many setbacks to the conduct of the war there remains, generally, absolute confidence in Churchill.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The naval position in the Mediterranean was, on paper at least, gravely affected by our losses in the battle and evacuation of Crete. The Battle of Matapan on March 28 had for the time being driven the Italian Fleet into its harbours. But now new, heavy losses had fallen upon our Fleet. On the morrow of Crete Admiral Cunningham had ready for service only two battleships, three cruisers, and seventeen destroyers. Nine other cruisers and destroyers were under repair in Egypt, but the battleships Warspite and Barham and his only aircraft-carrier, the Formidable, besides several other vessels, would have to leave Alexandria for repair elsewhere. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been lost. Reinforcements must be sent without delay to restore the balance. But, as will presently be recorded, still further misfortunes were in store. The period which we now had to face offered to the Italians their best chance of challenging our dubious control of the Eastern Mediterranean, with all that this involved. We could not tell they would not seize it.


See map, page 302.

17
The Fate of the “Bismarck”

Danger in the Atlantic—The “Bismarck” and “Prinz Eugen” at Sea, May 20—The Denmark Strait—The Destruction of the “Hood,” May 24—The “Bismarck” Turns South—Suspense at Chequers—The “Prinz Eugen” Escapes—Torpedo Hit on “Bismarck” at Midnight—Contact Lost on May 25—But Regained on the Twenty-Sixth—Shortage of Fuel—The “Sheffield” and the “Ark Royal”—The “Bismarck” Out of Control—Captain Vian’s Destroyers—“Rodney” Strikes, May 27—My Report to the House—Credit for All—My Telegram to President Roosevelt.

After the Greek collapse, while all was uncertain in the Western Desert, and the desperate battle in Crete was turning heavily against us, a naval episode of the highest consequence supervened in the Atlantic.

Besides the constant struggle with the U-boats, surface raiders had already cost us over three-quarters of a million tons of shipping. The two enemy battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Hipper remained poised at Brest under the protection of their powerful A.A. batteries, and no one could tell when they would again molest our trade routes. By the middle of May there were signs that the new battleship Bismarck, possibly accompanied by the new eight-inch-gun cruiser Prinz Eugen, would soon be thrown into the fight. A combination of all these fast, powerful vessels in the great spaces of the Atlantic Ocean would subject our naval strength to a trial of the first magnitude. The Bismarck, mounting eight fifteen-inch guns, and built regardless of treaty limitations, was the most heavily armoured ship afloat. Her displacement exceeded that of our newest battleships by nearly ten thousand tons, and she was at least their equal in speed. “You are the pride of the Navy,” said Hitler when he visited her in May.

To meet this impending menace the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Tovey, had at Scapa our new battleships, King George V and Prince of Wales, and the battle-cruiser Hood. At Gibraltar lay Admiral Somerville with the Renown and Ark Royal. The Repulse and the new carrier Victorious were at this moment about to sail with a convoy of more than twenty thousand men for the Middle East. The Rodney and Ramillies, which the Bismarck could probably have sunk had she met either of them singly, were on convoy escort in the Atlantic, and the Revenge was at Halifax ready to sail. In all at this time eleven convoys, including a precious troop convoy, with its risk of fearful loss of life, were at sea or about to sail. Cruiser patrols covered the exits from the North Sea and vigilant air reconnaissance watched the Norwegian coast. The naval situation was both obscure and tense, and the Admiralty, with whom I was in constant touch, became conscious of something coming, and also, acutely, of our full-spread target of merchant shipping.

In the early hours of May 21 we learned that two large warships had been seen leaving the Kattegat with a strong escort, and later the same day both the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were identified in Bergen Fiord. Clearly some important operation impended, and instantly our whole Atlantic control apparatus flashed into intense activity. The Admiralty pursued the sound and orthodox principle of concentrating upon the raiders and running risks with the convoys, including even the troop convoy. The Hood, with the Prince of Wales and six destroyers, left Scapa soon after midnight on the twenty-second to cover the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, already on patrol in the dreary, icebound stretch of water between Greenland and Iceland known as the Denmark Strait. The cruisers Manchester and Birmingham were ordered to guard the channel between Iceland and the Faroes. The Repulse and Victorious were placed at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief, and the troop convoy was allowed to sail naked, except for destroyer escorts, from the Clyde.

Thursday, May 22, was a day of uncertainty and suspense. In the North Sea all was unbroken cloud and rain. In spite of these conditions a naval aircraft from Hatston (Orkney) penetrated into Bergen Fiord and forced home a determined reconnaissance in the teeth of heavy fire. The two enemy warships were no longer there! When at 8 P.M. this news reached Admiral Tovey he at once set forth in the King George V, with the Victorious, four cruisers, and seven destroyers, to take up a central position to the westward so as to support his cruiser patrols whichever side of Iceland the enemy might choose. The Repulse joined him at sea the following morning. The Admiralty judged it probable that the enemy would pass through the Denmark Strait. That evening, within a few minutes of receiving the report, I telegraphed to President Roosevelt:

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 23 May 41

Yesterday, twenty-first, Bismarck, Prinz Eugen, and eight merchant ships located in Bergen. Low clouds prevented air attack. Tonight [we find] they have sailed. We have reason to believe that a formidable Atlantic raid is intended. Should we fail to catch them going out, your Navy should surely be able to mark them down for us. King George V, Prince of Wales, Hood, Repulse, and aircraft-carrier Victorious, with ancillary vessels, will be on their track. Give us the news and we will finish the job.

The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen had in fact left Bergen nearly twenty-four hours before, and were now to the northeast of Iceland, heading for the Denmark Strait. Here the pack-ice had narrowed the strait to only eighty miles, mostly shrouded in dense mist. Towards evening on the twenty-third first the Suffolk and then the Norfolk sighted two ships approaching from the north, skirting the edge of the ice in a patch of clear weather. The Norfolk’s sighting report was received first in the Admiralty, and was at once broadcast in secret code to all concerned. The hunt was on; the quarry was in view; and all our forces moved accordingly. The Commander-in-Chief turned to the westward and increased his speed. The Hood and the Prince of Wales shaped their course to intercept the enemy at daylight the next morning west of Iceland. The Admiralty called Admiral Somerville, with Force H (Renown, Ark Royal, and the cruiser Sheffield), northward at high speed to protect the troop convoy, now more than halfway down the Irish coast, or join in the battle. Admiral Somerville’s ships, already under steam, left Gibraltar at 2 A.M. on the twenty-fourth. They carried with them, as it turned out, the Bismarck’s fate.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I went to Chequers on Friday afternoon (May 23). Averell Harriman and Generals Ismay and Pownall were to be with me till Monday. With the Battle of Crete at its height it was likely to be an anxious week-end. I had, of course, a most complete service of secretaries in the house, and also direct telephone connections with the duty captain at the Admiralty and other key departments. The Admiralty expected the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen to come through the Denmark Strait in the early dawn, and that the Prince of Wales and the Hood, with two or three cruisers, would bring them to battle. All our ships were moving towards the scene in accordance with the general plan. We spent an anxious evening, and did not go to bed until two or three o’clock.

At about seven I was awakened to hear formidable news. The Hood, our largest and also our fastest capital ship, had blown up. Although somewhat lightly constructed, she carried eight fifteen-inch guns, and was one of our most cherished naval possessions. Her loss was a bitter grief, but knowing of all the ships that were converging towards the Bismarck I felt sure we should get her before long, unless she turned north and went home. I went straight to Harriman’s room at the end of the corridor, and, according to him, said, “The Hood has blown up, but we have got the Bismarck for certain.” I then returned to my room, and was so well tired out that I went to sleep again. At about half-past eight my principal private secretary, Martin, came into the room in his dressing-gown with a strained look on his ascetic, clear-cut face. “Have we got her?” I asked. “No, and the Prince of Wales has broken off the action.” This was a sharp disappointment. Had then the Bismarck turned north and gone home? Here was my great fear. We now know what happened.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All that night (May 23-24), amidst driving rain and snow, the Norfolk and Suffolk with great skill shadowed the enemy, despite the weather and his efforts to shake them off, and all through the night their signals showed the exact positions of friend and foe. As the Arctic twilight grew into day the Bismarck could be seen twelve miles to the south on a southerly course. Soon there was smoke on the Norfolk’s port bow. The Hood and Prince of Wales were in sight, and mortal conflict was at hand. In the Hood as day was dawning the enemy was discerned seventeen miles to the northwest. The British ships turned to engage, and the Hood opened fire at 5.52 A.M. at a range of about twenty-five thousand yards. The Bismarck replied, and almost at once the Hood suffered a hit which started a fire in the four-inch battery. The fire spread with alarming speed, until it engulfed the whole midship part. All the ships were now in full action, and the Bismarck too was hit. Suddenly came disaster. At 6 o’clock, after the Bismarck had fired her fifth salvo, the Hood was rent in twain by a mighty explosion. A few minutes later she had vanished beneath the waves amidst a vast pall of smoke. All but three of her valiant company, more than fifteen hundred men, including Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland and Captain Ralph Kerr, perished.

The Prince of Wales quickly altered her course to avoid the wreckage of the Hood and continued the now unequal fight. Very soon the Bismarck’s fire began to tell upon her. Within a few minutes she received four hits from fifteen-inch shells, one of which wrecked the bridge, killing or wounding nearly all upon it. At the same time the ship was holed underwater aft. Captain Leach, one of the few survivors from the bridge, decided to break off the action for the moment and turned away under a smoke-screen. He had, however, inflicted damage on the Bismarck which reduced her speed. She had in fact been struck underwater by two heavy shells, one of which pierced an oil tank, resulting in serious and continuing loss of oil which later had important consequences. The German commander persisted on his course to the southwest, leaving behind a marked oil trace.

The command now passed to Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker on his bridge in the cruiser Norfolk. It was for him to decide whether to renew the fight at once or hold on to the enemy till the Commander-in-Chief should arrive with the King George V and the aircraft-carrier Victorious. A dominant factor was the state of the Prince of Wales. This ship had only recently been commissioned, and scarcely a week had passed since Captain Leach had been able to report her “fit for battle.” She had been severely mauled, and two of her ten fourteen-inch guns were unserviceable. It was highly doubtful whether in this condition she was a match for the Bismarck. Admiral Wake-Walker, therefore, decided not to renew the action, but to hold the enemy under observation. In this he was indisputably right.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Bismarck would indeed have been wise to rest content with what amounted by itself to a resounding triumph. She had destroyed in a few minutes one of the finest ships in the Royal Navy, and could go home to Germany with a major success. Her prestige and potential striking power would rise immensely, in circumstances difficult for us to measure or explain.

Moreover, as we now know, she had been seriously injured by the Prince of Wales, and oil was leaking from her heavily. How then could she hope to discharge her mission of commerce destruction in the Atlantic? She had the choice of returning home victorious, with all the options of further enterprises open, or of going to almost, certain destruction. Only the extreme exaltation of her Admiral or the imperious orders by which he was bound can explain the desperate decision which he took. When I saw my American friend at about ten o’clock, I had already learned that the Bismarck was steaming southward, and I was, therefore, able to speak with renewed confidence about the final result.

I had to read for very long hours each day to keep abreast of the ceaseless flow of military, Foreign Office, and Secret Service telegrams, which streamed in by private telephone and dispatch-riders. This was a great comfort, because as long as one is doing something the mind is saturated and cannot worry. Nevertheless, only one scene riveted my background thoughts: this tremendous Bismarck, forty-five thousand tons, perhaps almost invulnerable to gunfire, rushing southward towards our convoys, with the Prinz Eugen as her scout. Then I thought of these convoys. Their battleships had left during the hunt. There was the troop convoy, with all its precious men on board, now well to the south of Ireland, with Admiral Somerville closing it at full speed, and presently to be between it and peril. I questioned the duty captain about times and distances. His reports were reassuring. Although the convoy only made about twelve knots and the Bismarck could, so far as we knew, do twenty-five, there was a lot of salt water between them. Besides, as long as we could hold fast to the Bismarck we could dog her to her doom. But what if we lost touch in the night? Which way would she go? She had a wide choice, and we were vulnerable almost everywhere.

The House of Commons, too, might be in no good temper when we met on Tuesday. They had been blown out of their Chamber on May 10 and were now crammed into the Church House, not far away. This was indeed a port in a storm, but there were no conveniences. Writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, dining-rooms, all the customary facilities, were improvised and primitive. The air-raid alarms were frequent and means for Members getting about scarce. How would they like to be told on Tuesday when they met that the Hood was unavenged, that several of our convoys had been cut up or even massacred, and that the Bismarck had got home to Germany or to a French-occupied port, that Crete was lost, and evacuation without heavy casualties doubtful? I had great confidence in their pluck and fidelity if once they could be convinced that their business was not being muddled. But could they be? My American guest thought I was gay, but it costs nothing to grin.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All through the twenty-fourth the British cruisers and the Prince of Wales continued to dog the Bismarck and her consort. Admiral Tovey, in the King George V, was still a long way off, but signalled that he hoped to engage by 9 A.M. on the twenty-fifth. The Admiralty summoned all forces. The Rodney, five hundred miles away to the southeast, was ordered to steer a closing course. The Ramillies was ordered to quit her homeward-bound convoy and place herself to the westward of the enemy; and the Revenge, from Halifax, was also directed to the scene. Cruisers were posted to guard against a break-back by the enemy to the north and east, while all the time Admiral Somerville’s force was pressing northward from Gibraltar. Subject to all the uncertainties of the sea, the net was drawing tighter.

That evening about 6.40 the Bismarck suddenly turned to engage her pursuers, and there was a brief encounter. We now know that this movement was made to cover the escape of the Prinz Eugen, which then made off at high speed to the south, and after refuelling at sea reached Brest unchallenged ten days later. Admiral Tovey had sent the Victorious ahead to make an air attack in the hope of reducing the enemy’s speed. The Victorious was newly commissioned, and some of her air crews had little fighting experience. At 10 P.M., covered by four cruisers, she released her nine Swordfish torpedo-aircraft on a hundred-and-twenty-mile flight against a strong head wind with rain and low cloud. Led by Lieutenant-Commander Esmonde and guided by the Norfolk’s wireless, the aircraft two hours later[1] found the Bismarck, and attacked with great gallantry against intense fire. They scored a torpedo hit under the bridge. On board the Victorious the question of the recovery of the air squadron was causing acute anxiety. By now it was pitch-dark, with a high wind and blinding showers of rain, and the pilots had had little practice in deck-landing even in daylight. Furthermore, the homing beacon, by which alone they could be safely guided to the ship, had failed. Despite any prowling U-boats, searchlights and signal lamps were used to help the pilots in their approach. It is pleasant to record that their splendid efforts were rewarded. All succeeded in landing safely in the darkness amidst general rejoicing and relief.

Once more everything seemed to be set for a morning climax, and once more the Admiralty hopes were dashed. Soon after 3 A.M. on the twenty-fifth the Suffolk suddenly and unexpectedly lost contact with the Bismarck. She had been shadowing by radar with skill from a position on the enemy’s port quarter. All ships were now zigzagging as they moved south into waters infested by U-boats, and it was this which brought about the misfortune. At the end of each outward leg of her zigzag course the Suffolk lost radar contact, but regained it on the inward leg. Perhaps she was overconfident after such prolonged and successful shadowing. But now when she turned once more to the westward the enemy was no longer on the presumed course. Had he turned west or doubled back to the north and east? This caused the utmost anxiety and rendered all concentration futile. After making a cast to the westward at daylight the King George V turned eastward in the belief that the Bismarck was making towards the North Sea, and the whole British pursuit now trended in this direction. At the Admiralty there was a growing opinion that the Bismarck was steering for Brest, but it was not until six o’clock that this hardened. The Admiralty forthwith deflected all our forces towards the more southerly route. But meanwhile the confusion and delay arising from the loss of contact had enabled the Bismarck to slip through the cordon and gain a commanding lead in her race for safety. By 11 P.M. she was already well to the eastward of the British flagship. She was short of oil through the leakage. The Rodney, with her sixteen-inch guns, still lay between her and home, but she too was moving to the northeastward and crossed ahead of the Bismarck during the afternoon. The day which had begun so full of promise ended in disappointment and frustration. Happily, from the south, breasting the heavy Atlantic seas, the Renown, the Ark Royal, and the cruiser Sheffield were steadily approaching on an intercepting course.

By the morning of May 26 the problem of fuel for all our widely scattered ships, which had now been steaming hard for four days, began to clamour for attention. Already several of the pursuers had had to reduce speed. It was clear that in these wide expanses all our efforts might soon be vain. However, at 10.30 A.M., just as hopes were beginning to fade, the Bismarck was found again. The Admiralty and Coastal Command were searching with Catalina aircraft working from Lough Erne in Ireland. One of these now located the fugitive steering towards Brest and still about seven hundred miles from home. The Bismarck damaged the aircraft and contact was lost. But within an hour two Swordfish from the Ark Royal spotted her once more. She was still well to the westward of the Renown and not yet within the German air cover radiating powerfully from Brest. The Renown, however, could not face her single-handed. It was necessary to await the arrival of the King George V and Rodney, both still far behind the chase. But now Captain Vian, of Altmark fame, still in the Cossack, with four other destroyers which had been escorting the troop convoy and had been ordered to leave it, received a signal from a Catalina aircraft which gave him the Bismarck’s position. Without waiting for further orders he at once turned towards the enemy.

Further confusion was in store in this clutching and grabbing scene. Admiral Somerville, hastening northward, sent on the Sheffield to close and shadow the enemy. The Ark Royal was not informed of this movement, and when she launched her air striking force their radar led them to the Sheffield, which they attacked but did not hit. The Sheffield, understanding the mistake, dodged successfully and did not fire.[2] The airplanes, penitent, returned to the Ark Royal, and the Sheffield gained contact with the Bismarck and henceforth held her for sure. Fifteen Swordfish again left the Ark Royal a little after 7 P.M. The enemy was now less than forty miles away, and this time there was no mistake. Directed on their prey by the forgiving Sheffield, they pressed home their attack with determination. By 9.30 their work was done. Two torpedoes had certainly hit, and possibly a third. A shadowing aircraft reported that the Bismarck had been seen to make two complete circles, and it seemed she was out of control. Captain Vian’s destroyers were now approaching, and throughout the night they surrounded the stricken ship, attacking with torpedoes whenever the chance came.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On this Monday night I went to the Admiralty and watched the scene on the charts in the War Room, where the news streamed in every few minutes. “What are you doing here?” I said to the Controller, Admiral Fraser. “I am waiting to see what I have got to repair,” he said. Four hours passed quickly away, and when I left I could see that Admiral Pound and his select company of experts were sure the Bismarck was doomed.

The German commander, Admiral Lutjens, had no illusions. Shortly before midnight he reported, “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuehrer!” The Bismarck was still four hundred miles from Brest, and no longer even able to steer thither. Strong German bomber forces were now sent forward to the rescue, and U-boats hastened to the scene, one of which, having already expended her torpedoes, reported that the Ark Royal had passed her within easy striking distance. Meanwhile the King George V and the Rodney were drawing near. Fuel was a grave anxiety, and Admiral Tovey had decided that unless the Bismarck’s speed could be greatly reduced he would have to abandon the chase at midnight. At my suggestion the First Sea Lord told him to go on even if he had to be towed home. But by now it was known that the Bismarck was actually steaming in the wrong direction. Her main armament was uninjured, and Admiral Tovey decided to bring her to battle in the morning.

A northwesterly gale was blowing when daylight came on the twenty-seventh. The Rodney opened fire at 8.47 A.M., followed a minute later by the King George V. The British ships quickly began to hit, and after a pause the Bismarck too opened fire. For a short time her shooting was good, although the crew, after four gruelling days, were utterly exhausted and falling asleep at their posts. With her third salvo she straddled the Rodney, but thereafter the weight of the British attack was overwhelming, and within half an hour most of her guns were silent. A fire was blazing amidships, and she had a heavy list to port. The Rodney now turned across her bow, pouring in a heavy fire from a range of no more than four thousand yards. By 10.15 all the Bismarck’s guns were silent and her mast was shot away. The ship lay wallowing in the heavy seas, a flaming and smoking ruin; yet even then she did not sink.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At eleven o’clock I had to report to the House of Commons, meeting in the Church House, both about the battle in Crete and the drama of the Bismarck.

This morning [I said], shortly after daylight the Bismarck, virtually at a standstill, far from help, was attacked by the British pursuing battleships. I do not know what were the results of the bombardment. It appears, however, that the Bismarck was not sunk by gunfire, and she will now be dispatched by torpedo. It is thought that this is now proceeding, and it is also thought that there cannot be any lengthy delay in disposing of this vessel. Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful, as she is the newest, battleship in the world.

I had just sat down when a slip of paper was passed to me which led me to rise again. I asked the indulgence of the House and said, “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.” They seemed content.

It was the cruiser Dorsetshire that delivered the final blow with torpedoes, and at 10.40 the great ship turned over and foundered. With her perished nearly two thousand Germans and their Fleet Commander, Admiral Lutjens. One hundred and ten survivors, exhausted but sullen, were rescued by us. The work of mercy was interrupted by the appearance of a U-boat and the British ships were compelled to withdraw. Five other Germans were picked up by a U-boat and a ship engaged in weather reporting, but the Spanish cruiser Canarias, which arrived on the scene later, found only floating bodies.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This episode brings into relief many important points relating to sea warfare, and illustrates both the enormous structural strength of the German ship and the immense difficulties and dangers with which her sortie had confronted our very numerous forces. Had she escaped, the moral effects of her continuing existence as much as the material damage she might have inflicted on our shipping would have been calamitous. Many misgivings would have arisen regarding our capacity to control the oceans, and these would have been trumpeted round the world to our great detriment and discomfort. All branches rightly claimed their share in the successful outcome. The pursuit began with the cruisers, which led to the first disastrous action. Then when the enemy was lost it was aircraft that found him and guided the cruisers back to the chase. Thereafter it was a cruiser which directed the seaborne aircraft who struck the decisive blows, and finally it was the destroyers who harassed and held him through a long night and led the battleships to the last scene of destruction. While credit is due to all, we must not forget that the long-drawn battle turned on the first injury inflicted on the Bismarck by the guns of the Prince of Wales. Thus the battleship and the gun were dominant both at the beginning and at the end.

The traffic in the Atlantic continued unmolested.

To President Roosevelt I telegraphed on the twenty-eighth:

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 28 May 41

I will send you later the inside story of the fighting with the Bismarck. She was a terrific ship, and a masterpiece of naval construction. Her removal eases our battleship situation, as we should have had to keep King George V, Prince of Wales, and the two Nelsons practically tied to Scapa Flow to guard against a sortie of Bismarck and Tirpitz, as they could choose their moment and we should have to allow for one of our ships refitting. Now it is a different story. The effect upon the Japanese will be highly beneficial. I expect they are doing all their sums again.


The British ships were keeping double British Summer Time (two hours in advance of Greenwich). Furthermore, they were by now a long way to the west of the meridian of Greenwich, and therefore their clock time was about four hours ahead of the sun. Thus the attack took place about 8 P.M. by sun time.

One aircraft signalled to the Sheffield, “Sorry for the kipper!”

18
Syria

Danger in Syria—German Agents and Aircraft Arrive—Reactions on Egypt and Turkey—Admiral Darlan Negotiates with the Germans—Our Strained Resources—My Minute to the Chiefs of Staff of May 8—Telegram to Wavell of May 9—Wavell and the Free French—Misunderstanding Between General Wavell and the Chiefs of Staff—Wavell’s Preparations and Doubts—Operation “Exporter”—The Defence Committee Approve Wavell’s Plan—My Telegram to General de Gaulle of June 6—Telegram to President Roosevelt of June 7—The Advance Begins—Reinforcements Needed and Forthcoming—Capture of Damascus—General Dentz Requests Armistice, July 12—Important Results of the Syrian Campaign.

Syria was one of the many overseas territories of the French Empire which on the collapse of France considered themselves bound by the surrender of the French Government, and the Vichy authorities did their utmost to prevent anybody in the French Army of the Levant from crossing into Palestine to join us. The Polish Brigade marched over, but very few Frenchmen. In August, 1940, the Italian Armistice Commission appeared, and German agents, who had been interned on the outbreak of war, were released and became active. By the end of the year many more Germans had arrived, and, with ample funds, proceeded to arouse anti-British and anti-Zionist feeling among the Arab peoples of the Levant. By the end of March, 1941, Syria forced itself on our attention. The Luftwaffe were already attacking the Suez Canal from bases in the Dodecanese, and they could obviously, if they chose, operate against Syria, especially with airborne troops. With the Germans in control of Syria, Egypt, the vital Canal Zone, and the oil refineries at Abadan would come under the direct threat of continuous air attack. Our land communications between Palestine and Iraq would be in danger. There might well be political repercussions in Egypt, and our diplomatic position in Turkey and throughout the Middle East would be gravely weakened.

On May 2, Rashid Ali appealed to the Fuehrer for armed support against us in Iraq, and the following day the German Embassy in Paris was instructed to obtain permission from the French Government for the transit of planes and war materials across Syria to Rashid Ali’s forces. Admiral Darlan negotiated a preliminary agreement with the Germans on May 5 and 6 by which three-quarters of the war material assembled in Syria under the control of the Italian Armistice Commission was to be transported to Iraq and the German Air Force granted landing facilities in Syria. General Dentz, the Vichy High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief, received instructions to this effect, and between May 9 and the end of the month about a hundred German and twenty Italian aircraft landed on Syrian airfields.

At this time, as we have seen, the Middle East Command was strained to the limit. The defence of Egypt was dominant; Greece had been evacuated; Crete had to be defended; Malta pleaded for reinforcement; the conquest of Abyssinia was not yet complete; troops had to be provided for Iraq. All that was available for the defence of Palestine from the north was the 1st Cavalry Division, of excellent quality, but stripped for other needs of its artillery and ancillary services. General de Gaulle pressed for prompt military action by the Free French forces, if necessary unsupported by British troops. But, with the experience of Dakar behind us, it was felt, both by General Wavell on the spot and by all of us in London, that it was inadvisable to use the Free French alone, even to resist a German advance through Syria. It might, however, be inevitable.

Nevertheless, we could not let Syria go without doing our utmost with anything that could be scraped up. Reluctant as we were to add to Wavell’s burdens, it was necessary to press him to do what he could to help the Free French. On April 28 he replied that all he could manage was a single brigade group. On this telegram I minuted: “It seems most necessary that General Wavell should prepare the brigade group and mobile group [he mentions] as far as he can, and have it in readiness on the Palestine border.” Accordingly the Chiefs of Staff sent instructions to Wavell that no definite offer of help should be made to General Dentz, but that if he resisted a German landing, by sea or air, all available British help would be given to him at once. General Wavell was also told that immediate air action should be taken against any German descent.

The outlook was threatening, and on May 8 I minuted to the Chiefs of Staff:

General Ismay for C.O.S. Committee

I must have the advice of the Staffs upon the Syrian business available for Cabinet this morning. A supreme effort must be made to prevent the Germans getting a footing in Syria with small forces and then using Syria as a jumping-off ground for the air domination of Iraq and Persia. It is no use General Wavell being vexed at this disturbance on his eastern flanks. . . . We ought to help in every way without minding what happens at Vichy.

I shall be most grateful if the Staff will see what is the most that can be done.

On May 9, with the approval of the Defence Committee, I telegraphed to General Wavell:

You will no doubt realise the grievous danger of Syria being captured by a few thousand Germans transported by air. Our information leads us to believe that Admiral Darlan has probably made some bargain to help the Germans to get in there. In face of your evident feeling of lack of resources we can see no other course open than to furnish General Catroux with the necessary transport and let him and his Free French do their best at the moment they deem suitable, the R.A.F acting against German landings. Any improvement you can make on this would be welcome.

On May 14 the Royal Air Force was authorised to act against German aircraft in Syria and on French airfields. On the seventeenth General Wavell telegraphed that in view of the dispatch of troops from Palestine to Iraq the Syrian affair would involve either using Free French alone or bringing troops from Egypt. He felt strongly that the Free French would be ineffective and likely to aggravate the situation; and he concluded by saying that he hoped he would not be burdened with a Syrian commitment unless it was absolutely essential. The Chiefs of Staff replied that there was no option but to improvise the largest force that he could provide without prejudice to the security of the Western Desert, and that he should prepare himself to move into Syria at the earliest possible date. The composition of that force would be left to him.

On May 21—at the moment of the German attack on Crete—Wavell ordered the 7th Australian Division, less the brigade at Tobruk, to be ready to move to Palestine, and instructed General Maitland Wilson, who early in the month on his return from Greece had assumed command of Palestine and Transjordan, to prepare a plan for an advance into Syria.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At this time a misunderstanding arose between us at home and General Wavell, through his deriving the impression from a telegram of the Chiefs of Staff that we were relying on the advice of the Free French leaders rather than upon his own. He, therefore, telegraphed to the C.I.G.S. that if this was so he would prefer to be relieved of his command. I hastened to reassure him on the point, but at the same time I felt it necessary to make it clear that we were determined upon the Syrian adventure and to assume the full burden of responsibility for what was, after all, hardly a military proposition.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 21 May 41

Nothing in Syria must detract at this moment from winning the Battle of Crete or in the Western Desert. . . .

There is no objection to your mingling British troops with the Free French who are to enter Syria; but, as you have clearly shown, you have not the means to mount a regular military operation, and, as you were instructed yesterday, all that can be done at present is to give the best possible chance to the kind of armed political inroad described in Chiefs of Staff message of twentieth.

You are wrong in supposing that policy described in this message arose out of any representations made by the Free French leaders. It arises entirely from the view taken here by those who have the supreme direction of war and policy in all theatres. Our view is that if the Germans can pick up Syria and Iraq with petty air forces, tourists, and local revolts, we must not shrink from running equal small-scale military risks and facing the possible aggravation of political dangers from failure. For this decision we, of course, take full responsibility, and should you find yourself unwilling to give effect to it arrangements will be made to meet any wish you may express to be relieved of your command.

Wavell showed by his reply that he fully understood. He explained that the proved inaccuracy of Free French information about the position in Syria made him unwilling to commit himself to military action at a time when Crete, Iraq, and the Western Desert required all available resources.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 22 May 41

This Syrian business is disquieting, since German Air Force established in Syria are closer to the Canal and Suez than they would be at Mersa Matruh. The [Vichy] French seem now wholly committed to the Germans. I am moving reinforcements to Palestine, after full discussion with Cunningham, Tedder, and Blamey, because we feel we must be prepared for action against Syria, and weak action is useless. The whole position in Middle East is at present governed mainly by air power and air bases. Enemy air bases in Greece make our hold of Crete precarious, and enemy air bases in Cyrenaica, Crete, Cyprus, and Syria would make our hold on Egypt difficult. The object of the Army must be to force the enemy in Cyrenaica as far west as possible, to try to keep him from establishing himself in Syria, and to hang on to Crete and Cyprus. It will not be so easy, with our resources and those of the air force. I know you realise all this and are making every effort to provide requirements, and we are doing our best to secure Middle East. We have some difficult months ahead, but will not lose heart.

I replied on the following day:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 23 May 41

Many thanks for your telegram. These are very hard times, and we must all do our best to help each other. . . .

Syria. It is your views that weigh with us, and not those of Free French. You had better have de Gaulle close to you. Let me know if I can help you with him. We cannot have Crete battle spoiled for the sake of Syria. Therefore, interior methods may be the only ones open at the moment. . . .

Iraq. We hope Habforce will soon enter Baghdad, establishing Regent there.

As the hopes of holding Crete diminished, the possible German threat to Syria commanded increasing attention. On May 25 General Wavell telegraphed his outline plan for “Exporter,” the code name now allotted to the Syrian operation. General Wilson was preparing to advance northward with a force consisting of the 7th Australian Division, the Free French troops, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, now motorised, and certain other units. Wavell estimated that the earliest date by which he could move would be the first week of June. Although the danger of the establishment of German air bases in the Levant was most serious in its possible consequences, particularly if it synchronised with German land operations through Turkey—a possibility which could not be ignored—priority must be given to the attempt to obtain a successful military decision in the Western Desert Operation “Battleaxe.”

On the night of May 27 the Defence Committee of the Cabinet was summoned to consider the general situation throughout the Middle East, and I embodied their conclusions in a telegram to General Wavell.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 28 May 41

. . . Our immediate action in the Middle East is dictated by the following facts: (1) Possession of Crete will enable enemy to establish direct line of communication to Cyrenaica via west coast of Greece and Crete. Unless we can establish air forces in Cyrenaica we can neither interrupt this line nor can we easily maintain Malta and continue interruption of Tripoli line of communication. (2) Attack through Turkey and/or through Syria cannot develop in real strength for a good many weeks.

Our first object must be to gain a decisive military success in the Western Desert and to destroy the enemy armed forces in a battle fought with our whole available strength.

Meanwhile, it is important to establish ourselves in Syria before the Germans have recovered from the immense drain on their air power which the vigorous resistance of Freyberg’s army has produced. Accordingly, the general plan outlined in your telegram of May 25 is approved.

Preparations for the occupation of Syria, therefore, went forward amid anxieties about the fall of Crete and prior concentration on the Western Desert.

On June 3 I telegraphed to General Wavell:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 3 June 41

Please telegraph exactly what ground and air forces you are using for Syria. What are you doing with the Poles? It seems important to use and demonstrate as much air power as possible at the very outset, and even the older machines may play their part, as they did so well in Iraq.

2. There is a storm of criticism about Crete, and I am being pressed for explanations on many points. Do not worry about this at all now. Simply keep your eye on Syria, and above all “Battleaxe.” These alone can supply the answers to criticisms, just or unjust. The air superiority available for “Battleaxe” far exceeds anything you are likely to have for many months. As Napoleon said, “La bataille répondra.” All good wishes.

Wavell replied on the fifth informing us of the forces he would use. Fighting would be avoided as far as possible, progress being at first by propaganda, leaflets, and display of force. If resistance was encountered, the utmost force would be used. He said he had always estimated the strength required for the occupation of Syria as two divisions and one armoured division, or at least [some] armoured brigades. He must, therefore, regard success as at least problematical, and dependent on the attitude of the French garrison and local population.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Remembering the baffling and confused nature of the problems which confronted de Gaulle, I now sent on the eve of our joint expedition into Syria the following telegram of good will:

Prime Minister to General de Gaulle 6 June 41

I wish to send you my best wishes for success of our joint enterprise in the Levant. I hope you are satisfied that everything possible is being done to provide support to the arms of Free France. You will, I am sure, agree that this action, and indeed our whole future policy in the Middle East, must be conceived in terms of mutual trust and collaboration. Our policies towards the Arabs must run on parallel lines. You know that we have sought no special advantages in the French Empire, and have no intention of exploiting the tragic position of France for our own gain.

I welcome, therefore, your decision to promise independence to Syria and the Lebanon, and, as you know, I think it essential that we should lend to this promise the full weight of our guarantee. I agree that we must not in any settlement of the Syrian question endanger the stability of the Middle East. But subject to this we must both do everything possible to meet Arab aspirations and susceptibilities. You will, I am sure, bear in mind the importance of this.

All our thoughts are with you and the soldiers of Free France. At this hour, when Vichy touches fresh depths of ignominy, the loyalty and courage of the Free French save the glory of France.

I must ask you in this grave hour not to insist on declaring Catroux High Commissioner for Syria.

As usual, I kept President Roosevelt fully informed.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 7 June 41

We enter Syria in some force tomorrow morning in order to prevent further German penetration. Success depends largely upon attitude of local French troops. De Gaulle’s Free French outfit will be prominent, but not in the van. He is issuing a proclamation to the Arabs offering in the name of France complete independence and opportunity to form either three or one or three-in-one free Arab States. Relations of these States with France will be fixed by treaty safeguarding established interests somewhat on the Anglo-Egyptian model. General Catroux is not to be called High Commissioner, but French Delegate and Plenipotentiary.

2. I cannot tell how Vichy will react to what may happen. I do not myself think they will do much worse than they are now doing, but of course they may retaliate on Gibraltar or Freetown. I should be most grateful if you would keep up your pressure upon them. We have no political interests at all in Syria except to win the war.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All Wavell could muster for the advance was the 7th Australian Division, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, recently returned from Eritrea, and the Free French force under General Le Gentilhomme, comprising six battalions, one battery, and a company of tanks. Air support was limited at first to about seventy aircraft in all. The Crete battle had priority with both sides. Two cruisers and ten destroyers, besides smaller craft, were spared for the Syrian effort. The Vichy forces, under General Dentz, comprised eighteen battalions, with a hundred and twenty guns and ninety tanks, thirty-five thousand men in all, an air force amounting to ninety aircraft, and a naval force of two destroyers and three submarines based on Beirut.

The task assigned to the Allied army was to capture Damascus, Rayak, and Beirut as a preliminary to the occupation of the whole country. The advance began on June 8, and at first met little opposition. No one could tell how much Vichy would fight. Although our attack could hardly achieve a surprise, it was thought by some that the enemy would offer only a token resistance. But when the enemy realised how weak we were they took heart and reacted vigorously, if only for the honour of their arms. The Free French were held ten miles short of Damascus, and a counter-movement round their eastern flank threatened their line of communications. The Australians, on the coast road, made slow progress over difficult ground. A British battalion was overwhelmed at Kuneitra by a counter-attack of two battalions with tanks. At sea contact was made with the Vichy destroyers, but they fled with superior speed. On the ninth a brief encounter took place at sea, in which the destroyer Janus was severely hit. On the fifteenth, while bombarding Sidon, two British destroyers were damaged by air attack, but a Vichy destroyer approaching the coast from the west was sunk by the Fleet air arm.

As a result of the first week’s fighting, it was clear to Wavell that reinforcements were necessary. He was able to collect transport for one brigade of the 6th British Division, which was now partly formed, followed at the end of June by a second brigade. He also arranged for a brigade group of the 1st Cavalry Division, “Habforce,” which had taken part in the capture of Baghdad, to advance on Palmyra through the deserts from the south; and two brigades of the 10th Indian Division in Iraq were ordered to move up the Euphrates on Aleppo. This enlargement of the campaign began to take effect from June 20. Damascus was captured by the Australians on the twenty-first, after three days of severe fighting. Their advance was aided by a daring raid by Number 11 Commando, which was landed from the sea behind the enemy lines. In this devoted stroke the Commando lost their leader, Colonel Pedder, and all its other officers were either killed or wounded, together with nearly a hundred and twenty other ranks, or one quarter of its total strength.

The operations of the first week of July brought the Vichy collapse into sight. General Dentz realised that his limit was reached. He still had about 24,000 men, but he could not hope to offer continued resistance. Barely one-fifth of his air force remained. At 8.30 A.M. on July 12, Vichy envoys arrived to sue for an armistice. This was granted, a convention was signed, and Syria passed into Allied occupation. Our casualties in killed and wounded were over 4600; those of the enemy about 6500. One distasteful incident remained. British prisoners taken during the fighting had been hurriedly shipped off to Vichy France, whence they would certainly have passed into German keeping. When this was discovered and no redress was offered, General Dentz and other highly placed officers were taken into custody as hostages. This had the desired effect, and our men were returned.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The successful campaign in Syria greatly improved our strategical position in the Middle East. It closed the door to any further attempt at enemy penetration eastward from the Mediterranean, moved our defence of the Suez Canal northward by two hundred and fifty miles, and relieved Turkey of anxiety for her southern frontier. She could now be assured of aid from a friendly Power if she were attacked. Although, for the sake of the narrative, it has been necessary to divide the four sets of operations in Iraq, Crete, Syria, and the Western Desert from one another, it must not be forgotten that they were all running together, and reacted upon each other to produce a sensation of crisis and complexity combined. Nevertheless, it may be claimed that the final result constituted in effect, though not in appearance, an undoubted and important victory for the British and Imperial armies in the Middle East, the credit of which may be shared between our authorities in London and Cairo.

The battle in Crete, which cost us so dear, ruined the striking power of the German airborne corps. The Iraq revolt was finally crushed, and with pitifully small and improvised forces we regained mastery of the wide regions involved. The occupation and conquest of Syria, which was undertaken to meet a desperate need, ended, as it proved for ever, the German advance towards the Persian Gulf and India. If under all the temptations of prudence, the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff had not made every post a winning-post, and imposed their will on all commanders, we should have been left only with the losses sustained in Crete, without gathering the rewards which followed from the hard and glorious fighting there. If General Wavell, though exhausted, had broken under the intense strain to which he was subjected by events and by our orders, the whole future of the war and of Turkey might have been fatefully altered. There is always much to be said for not attempting more than you can do and for making a certainty of what you try. But this principle, like others in life and war, has its exceptions.

One more operation, the battle in the Western Desert, which ranked first with me and the Chiefs of Staff, has still to be described. And this, though denied success, brought Rommel to a standstill for nearly five months.

19
General Wavell’s Final Effort: “Battleaxe”

The Need to Defeat Rommel—Wavell’s Determination—The Attack on Sollum and Capuzzo, May 15-16—A Limited Success—“Tiger Cubs’ ” Teething Troubles—Arrival of the Fifteenth Panzer Division—Halfaya Lost, May 26—Preparations for “Battleaxe”—Enemy Strength Underestimated—Our Attack Starts, June 15—All Goes Wrong, June 17—Rommel Does Not Pursue—The Willing Horse—My Telegrams of June 21—General Auchinleck Relieves General Wavell—Need for Devolution at Cairo—An Intendant-General—A Telegram—Captain Oliver Lyttelton—His Appointment as Minister of State in the Middle East—My Telegram to President Roosevelt of July 4.

All our hearts at home had throughout been set on beating Rommel in the Western Desert. There was no difference of any kind between us, soldiers or civilians, in the supreme consequence we assigned to this. The tragedy of the evacuation of Greece, the distractions in Iraq and Syria, the dire struggle in Crete, all paled before the gleam of hope which we attached, and rightly, to victory in the Western Desert. One did not have to argue this matter in London.

Wavell, of course, had all the other troubles leaping upon him from day to day. He was, however, firmly with us in thought that the crushing of Rommel’s venturous offensive and the consequent relief of Tobruk would make amends for all. Moreover, he realised what risks we had run to give him back the armour which he had lost when the desert flank crumpled. He had loyalty to Operation “Tiger.” He knew what this effort of sending nearly three hundred tanks to him through the Mediterranean had meant. His spirit was buoyant, and he did not overlook the broad principle that in war as in life everything is relative. Our united strategic conception may be claimed to be correct. At this time we had a spy in close touch with Rommel’s headquarters, who gave us accurate information of the fearful difficulties of Rommel’s assertive but precarious position. We knew how narrow was the margin on which he hoped to maintain himself, and also the strong and strict injunctions of the German High Command that he was not to cast away his victories by asking too much of fortune.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 7 May 41

You and your generals alone can judge the tactical possibilities whether at Sollum or Tobruk. But if “Tiger” comes through it will be a moment to do and dare. I am asking for a rapid transfer from Malta of Hurricanes to your command once the “Tiger’s” tail is clear. Those Hun people are far less dangerous once they lose the initiative. All our thoughts are with you.

Wavell, who had all our information, tried on his own initiative, even in the imminent advent of Crete, to claw down Rommel before the dreaded 15th Panzer Division arrived in full strength over the long road from Tripoli, and before Benghazi was effectively opened as a short cut for enemy supply. He, therefore, wished to strike at Rommel’s force even before the tanks delivered by “Tiger”—“Tiger Cubs,” as Wavell and I called them in our correspondence—could be brought into action. The armoured force in the Western Desert at the beginning of May consisted of only two squadrons of cruisers and two squadrons of infantry tanks, stationed southeast of Matruh. Wavell hoped to build this up into an adequate striking force by early June. He thought he saw an opportunity for a blow before the Tiger Cubs could be ready. He hoped to catch the enemy unawares before they could be reinforced by the 15th Panzer Division.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 9 May 41

I have ordered all available tanks to be placed at disposal of Gott’s force for offensive action in Sollum area. This is now in active preparation and should take place soon. I shall only cancel it if complete disaster overtakes “Tiger.” . . .

General Wavell to Prime Minister 13 May 41

Without waiting for “Tiger” I ordered available tanks to join Gott’s force to attack enemy Sollum area. Action should take place in next day or two, and I think Gott should be able to deal with forward enemy troops. If successful, will consider immediate combined action by Gott’s force and Tobruk garrison to drive enemy west of Tobruk. It may be necessary to wait for some of “Tiger” to do this, but am anxious to act as quickly as possible before enemy can be reinforced.

I had full and active agreement from the Chiefs of Staff. What a relief it was to have no differences at home!

Chief of the Air Staff to Air Marshal Tedder 14 May 41

After Chiefs of Staff had today expressed general agreement with your appreciation the Prime Minister discussed it fully with me. He was much pleased with the general layout, and felt glad that you had the handling of the important and complicated air operations impending.

2. Following general observations on time-table and relative emphasis may assist without fettering your freedom of action.

3. Victory in Libya comes first in time and importance. Results would dominate Iraq situation in German and Iraqi minds.

4. Our object in Iraq is to get back a friendly Government in Baghdad, and you should do all you can to help in this, but nothing must prejudice victory in Western Desert.

5. From here it seems probable that “Scorcher” [the attack on Crete] will happen after smaller operations in Libya, and before larger, which depend on “Tiger Cubs.” You should allow for, but not rely on, “Colorado” [Crete] being attacked later than expected owing to complexity of operations.

6. One clear-cut result is worth a dozen wise precautions. Longer views about Iraq, Syria, and preparations in Palestine can be taken later. Prime importance of Desert operations would justify accepting necessary risks elsewhere.

      *      *      *      *      *      

A force under General Gott, consisting of the 7th Armoured Brigade, mustering about fifty-five tanks, and the 22d Guards Brigade, now advanced northwestward along the top of the escarpment, and on May 15 captured Sollum and Capuzzo, the armoured brigade on the left moving on to Sidi Azeiz. The enemy were quick to counter-attack, and retook Capuzzo the same afternoon, inflicting heavy casualties on the Durham Light Infantry, who had taken it. This enforced the withdrawal of the 7th Armoured Brigade from Sidi Azeiz. The enemy, employing about seventy tanks, showed greater strength than had been expected. Although we still held Sollum that night, it was decided to withdraw the whole force next day, the 16th, leaving garrisons on the pass over the escarpment at Halfaya and at Sidi Suleiman.

Wavell’s report of this action was not sanguine. He said that after a preliminary advance which cleared the enemy from the Sollum-Bardia area, an enemy counter-attack with tanks had forced our troops back to Halfaya. We were able to maintain forward posts in Sollum, and a sortie by the Tobruk garrison achieved a local success. We had inflicted significant casualties. At home we were pleased.

Prime Minister to General Wavell 17 May 41

Results of action seem to us satisfactory. Without using Tiger Cubs, you have taken the offensive, have advanced thirty miles, have captured Halfaya and Sollum, have taken five hundred German prisoners, and inflicted heavy losses in men and tanks upon the enemy. For this twenty “I” tanks and one thousand or one thousand five hundred casualties do not seem to be at all too heavy a cost.

2. News from Tobruk is also good, especially as enemy’s loss is greater than ours. Enemy is certainly anxious about Tobruk, and reports with apparent satisfaction when it is quiet. It seems of the utmost importance to keep on fighting at Tobruk.

3. Enemy is bringing up reinforcements and is seeking to re-establish the situation. We should surely welcome this, as he may not be in a condition to stand severe continuous fighting. Dill and I both feel confident of good results of sustained pressure, because the extremely worried state of the enemy is known to us. We feel sure you should keep at it both at Sollum and Tobruk. He cannot possibly fill the gap as you can. Presume you are using your powerful mechanised field artillery to the full at both places, compelling him to fire off ammunition, of which we know he is short. We should also be grateful if, without burdening yourself personally, you could have some officer on your staff send a fuller report of the events and position as known at your headquarters each evening. This is all the more desirable when operations of such outstanding importance for the world situation as those of the Western Desert are in progress.

4. What are your dates for bringing Tiger Cubs into action?

General Wavell to Prime Minister 18 May 41

Enemy proved rather stronger than we thought, and has forced us back on defensive till Tiger Cubs come into action. This will not be before end of month, and it would be better if they could be given more time to settle down, but this must depend on situation. Enemy is collecting strength in forward area and may try further advance.

You will have heard of Aosta’s surrender, which practically completes East African campaign.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On May 20 Wavell reported that a tank battalion of the 15th Panzer Division was believed to have arrived in the forward area. Thus the opportunity of defeating Rommel before he could be reinforced had passed. Despite preparations made in advance, the delays in unloading, refitting, and making desert-worthy the Tiger Cubs proved severe. The mechanical condition of many of the “I” tanks was found on arrival to be indifferent.

General Wavell to Prime Minister 25 May 41

Many thanks for your message. We realise that our burdens and responsibilities here, though heavy, are nothing to those you shoulder so gallantly. . . .

Weaning of Tiger Cubs proceeding satisfactorily, but even tigers have teething troubles.

“I remember,” says my wife, “terrible anxiety and even anger at Chequers on several Sundays because the newly arrived tanks could only come into action so slowly.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

But trouble soon descended. During the ensuing week considerable movement of enemy armoured vehicles was observed. From documents captured later it was learnt that Rommel was expecting a serious attack to relieve Tobruk, and was determined to recapture and hold Halfaya in order to make such an attempt more difficult. He deployed the greater part of the newly arrived 15th Panzer Division, which, except for a small reconnaissance force thrown out to the south, he concentrated on the frontier between Capuzzo and Sidi Omar. Halfaya was held by a battalion group composed of the 3d Battalion Coldstream Guards, a regiment of field artillery, and two squadrons of tanks. The remainder of our frontier troops, except for observation patrols to the south, had been withdrawn considerable distances to the rear. The enemy advanced on Halfaya on May 26, and that evening captured a feature north of the pass which gave good observation over the whole position held by the Coldstream. A counter-attack to regain the feature was unsuccessful, and next morning after heavy shelling a concerted attack by at least two battalions and sixty tanks placed our small force in great jeopardy. Reserves were too distant to be able to intervene, and it remained only to extricate the force without more ado. This was accomplished, but losses were severe; only two of our tanks remained effective, and the Coldstream Guards lost eight officers and a hundred and sixty-five men. The enemy had gained his objective, and proceeded to install himself firmly at Halfaya. As he had hoped, his occupation of this position was to prove a considerable hindrance to us three weeks later.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Preparations for “Battleaxe” continued actively; but there was a darker side.

General Wavell to C.I.G.S. 28 May 41

All available armoured strength, which will be deciding factor, is being put into “Battleaxe.” Various difficulties are delaying reconstitution 7th Armoured Division. Earliest date for beginning of forward move from Matruh will be June 7, and may be later.

2. I think it right to inform you that the measure of success which will attend this operation is in my opinion doubtful. I hope that it will succeed in driving enemy west of Tobruk and re-establishing land communications with Tobruk. If possible we will exploit success further. But recent operations have disclosed some disquieting features. Our armoured cars are too lightly armoured to resist the fire of enemy fighter aircraft, and, having no gun, are powerless against the German eight-wheeled armoured cars, which have guns and are faster. This makes reconnaissance difficult. Our infantry tanks are really too slow for a battle in the desert, and have been suffering considerable casualties from the fire of the powerful enemy anti-tank guns. Our cruisers have little advantage in power or speed over German medium tanks. Technical breakdowns are still too numerous. We shall not be able to accept battle with perfect confidence in spite of numerical inferiority, as we could against Italians. Above factors may limit our success. They also make it imperative that adequate flow of armoured reinforcements and reserves should be maintained.

On May 31 General Wavell reported the technical difficulties which he was having with the re-formation of the 7th Armoured Division. The earliest date at which he was able to launch “Battleaxe” would be June 15. While he realised the dangers of postponement, with the risk of enemy air reinforcements and a heavy attack on Tobruk, he felt that, as the forthcoming battle would be primarily a tank engagement, he must give the armoured division every chance, and the extra days gained by waiting should “double the possibilities of success.”

I now awaited in keen hope and fear our attack in the Desert, from which results might be gained which might change in our favour the whole course of the campaign. The extra fortnight that had passed before the Tiger Cubs could be assimilated by the 7th Armoured Division made me fear that the 15th Panzers would all have reached Rommel.

According to our Intelligence there were now known to be in, or approaching, Eastern Cyrenaica the German 5th (Light) Panzer and the 15th Panzer Divisions, with the Italian Ariete Armoured Division, the Trento Motorised Division, and the Brescia Infantry Division. Another Italian infantry division was in reserve at Derna. In disquieting contrast with our own performances earlier in the year, the Germans had brought Benghazi rapidly into use, and the bulk of their forces was probably already being maintained to a large extent through that port.

In his dispatch Wavell states that the bulk of the enemy lay before Tobruk with about one hundred and thirty medium and seventy light tanks. In the forward area it was estimated that there were only one hundred medium tanks, with the equivalent of seven German and nine Italian battalions. Two-thirds of the enemy’s tank strength was, therefore, believed to be seventy miles back from the frontier. If Tobruk by a sortie could hold for a while the enemy around it, we should have at the outset a superiority in armour on the frontier of one hundred and eighty to one hundred tanks. Wavell comments that these estimates were wrong. So far as now can be established, Italian tanks were not used at all in the frontier battle. The Germans had succeeded in concentrating forward a large part of their own armour without our becoming aware of it. Actually they brought rather more than two hundred tanks into action against our one hundred and eighty.

      *      *      *      *      *      

“Battleaxe” started early on June 15. General Creagh commanded our armour, and General Messervy the 4th Indian Division and the 22d Guards Brigade. The whole force, comprising about twenty-five thousand men, was under General Beresford-Peirse. At first things went reasonably well. Although the enemy defence about Halfaya held out against the combined attack from north and south, the Guards Brigade took Capuzzo in the afternoon with several hundred prisoners. A part of this brigade also moved on against the western defences of Sollum, but there they were stopped. The 7th Armoured Brigade, moving in protection of the outer flank, reached a position west of Capuzzo without encountering enemy tanks. On June 16 no progress was made. Halfaya and Sollum held firm against us, and in the afternoon strong forces of enemy tanks appeared, moving with the clear intention of outflanking our attack from the west. The 7th Armoured Division, both the brigade and the support group, moved to deal with this threat. They engaged the enemy near Sidi Omar, but were outnumbered and forced to withdraw. The flank of the main attack, which it was their task to protect, was thereby imperilled.

Next day, June 17, everything went wrong. In the morning the Guards Brigade were still in Capuzzo and facing Sollum. Capuzzo was taken from them by a considerable force, with tanks reported to be one hundred strong. The 7th Armoured Brigade, with only about twenty cruiser tanks now in action, had spent the night near Sidi Suleiman. The enemy force, which had forced them back overnight from Sidi Omar, made towards Halfaya and threatened to cut off the Guards Brigade. To deal with this threat Creagh proposed an attack with the 7th Armoured Brigade from the south, while the 4th Armoured Brigade, to be relieved of its task of co-operating with the Guards Brigade, attacked from the north. But as soon as the 4th Brigade started to move off yet another enemy armoured column coming in from the west threatened the Guards’ flank. The armoured brigade held this attack off, but the enemy pressure continued, and Messervy informed Creagh that he could not part with the brigade lest his infantry be cut off.

At this decisive moment General Wavell flew to General Beresford-Peirse’s battle headquarters. He still hoped to turn the scale by Creagh’s armoured attack. He got into his airplane and flew to the 7th Armoured Division. He had no sooner reached it than he learned that General Messervy had independently decided that with the double threat against his flank and rear, which he now estimated as at least two hundred tanks, he must immediately retreat to avoid being surrounded. He had given orders accordingly. Wavell, out on the desert flank with Creagh, was confronted with this fact and concurred in the decision. Our stroke had failed. The withdrawal of the whole force was carried out in good order, protected by our fighter aircraft. The enemy did not press the pursuit, partly no doubt because his armour was heavily attacked by R.A.F. bombers. There was probably, however, another reason. As we now know, Rommel’s orders were to act purely on the defensive and to build up resources for operations in the autumn. To have embroiled himself in a strong pursuit across the frontier, and suffered losses thereby, would have been in direct contravention of orders.

The policy of close protection of our troops by fighter aircraft, though effective, led to dispersion and a relatively high rate of air casualties. When, on the second day, the enemy air effort intensified, it was decided to modify the policy and, while continuing a degree of protection, to operate offensively in large units and farther afield. When the withdrawal began, on the seventeenth, our fighters not only fended off three out of four considerable air attacks on our troops, but also co-operated with the bombers, often at low level, against enemy columns. These attacks undoubtedly impeded the enemy’s movement and inflicted considerable casualties. Our airmen rendered good service to the withdrawing troops, but they were hampered by the difficulty of distinguishing between our own and enemy forces.

Our casualties in the three days’ battle were just over one thousand, of which a hundred and fifty were killed and two hundred and fifty missing. Twenty-nine cruisers and fifty-eight “I” tanks were lost, the cruisers mainly from enemy action. A considerable portion of the losses in “I” tanks were due to mechanical breakdowns, there being no transporters to bring them back. The best part of one hundred enemy tanks were claimed as accounted for; five hundred and seventy prisoners were taken and many enemy corpses buried.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Although this action may seem small compared with the scale of the Mediterranean war in all its various campaigns, its failure was to me a most bitter blow. Success in the Desert would have meant the destruction of Rommel’s audacious force. Tobruk would have been relieved, and the enemy’s retreat might well have carried him back beyond Benghazi as fast as he had come. It was for this supreme object, as I judged it, that all the perils of “Tiger” had been dared. No news had readied me of the events of the seventeenth, and, knowing that the result must soon come in, I went down to Chartwell, which was all shut up, wishing to be alone. Here I got the reports of what had happened. I wandered about the valley disconsolately for some hours.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The reader who has followed the exchange of telegrams between General Wavell and me and with the Chiefs of Staff will be prepared in his mind for the decision which I took in the last ten days of June, 1941. At home we had the feeling that Wavell was a tired man. It might well be said that we had ridden the willing horse to a standstill. The extraordinary convergence of five or six different theatres, with their ups and downs, especially downs, upon a single Commander-in-Chief constituted a strain to which few soldiers have been subjected. I was discontented with Wavell’s provision for the defence of Crete, and especially that a few more tanks had not been sent. The Chiefs of Staff had overruled him in favour of the small but most fortunate plunge into Iraq which had resulted in the relief of Habbaniya and complete local success. One of their telegrams had provoked from him an offer of resignation which was not pressed, but which I did not refuse. Finally, there was “Battleaxe,” which Wavell had undertaken in loyalty to the risks I had successfully run in sending out the Tiger Cubs. I was dissatisfied with the arrangements made by the Middle East Headquarters Staff for the reception of the Tiger Cubs, carried to his aid through the deadly Mediterranean at so much hazard and with so much luck. I admired the spirit with which he had fought this small battle, which might have been so important, and his extreme disregard of all personal risks in flying to and fro on the wide, confused field of fighting. But, as has been described, the operation seemed ill-concerted, especially from the failure to make a sortie from the Tobruk sally-port as an indispensable preliminary and concomitant.

Above all this there hung the fact of the beating-in of the desert flank by Rommel, which had undermined and overthrown all the Greek projects on which we had embarked, with all their sullen dangers and glittering prizes in what was for us the supreme sphere of the Balkan War. General Ismay, who was so close to me every day, has recorded the following: “All of us at the centre, including Wavell’s particular friends and advisers, got the impression that he had been tremendously affected by the breach of his desert flank. His Intelligence had been at fault, and the sudden pounce came as a complete surprise. I seem to remember Eden saying that Wavell had ‘aged ten years in the night.’ ” I am reminded of having commented: “Rommel has torn the new-won laurels from Wavell’s brow and thrown them in the sand.” This was not a true thought, but only a passing pang. Judgment upon all this can only be made in relation to the authentic documents written at the time which this volume contains, and no doubt also upon much other valuable evidence which time will disclose. The fact remains that after “Battleaxe” I came to the conclusion that there should be a change.

General Auchinleck was now Commander-in-Chief in India. I had not altogether liked his attitude in the Norwegian campaign at Narvik. He had seemed to be inclined to play too much for safety and certainty, neither of which exists in war, and to be content to subordinate everything to the satisfaction of what he estimated as minimum requirements. However, I had been much impressed with his personal qualities, his presence and high character. When after Narvik he had taken over the Southern Command I received from many quarters, official and private, testimony to the vigour and structure which he had given to that important region. His appointment as Commander-in-Chief in India had been generally acclaimed. We have seen how forthcoming he had been about sending the Indian forces to Basra, and the ardour with which he had addressed himself to the suppression of the revolt in Iraq. I had the conviction that in Auchinleck I should bring a new, fresh figure to bear the multiple strains of the Middle East, and that Wavell, on the other hand, would find in the great Indian command time to regain his strength before the new but impending challenges and opportunities arrived. I found that these views of mine encountered no resistance in our Ministerial and military circles in London. The reader must not forget that I never wielded autocratic powers, and always had to move with and focus political and professional opinion. Accordingly I sent the following telegrams:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 21 June 41

I have come to the conclusion that the public interest will best be served by the appointment of General Auchinleck to relieve you in the command of the armies of the Middle East. I have greatly admired your command and conduct of these armies both in success and adversity, and the victories which are associated with your name will be famous in the story of the British Army, and are an important contribution to our final success in this obstinate war. I feel, however, that after the long strain you have borne a new eye and a new hand are required in this most seriously menaced theatre. I am sure that you are incomparably the best man and most distinguished officer to fill the vacancy of Commander-in-Chief in India. I have consulted the Viceroy upon the subject, and he assures me that your assumption of this great office and task will be warmly welcomed in India, and adds that he himself will be proud to work with one who bears, in his own words, “so shining a record.” I propose, therefore, to submit your name to His Majesty accordingly.

2. General Auchinleck is being ordered to proceed at once to Cairo, where you will make him acquainted with the whole situation and concert with him the future measures which you and he will take in common to meet the German drive to the East now clearly impending. I trust he may arrive by air within the next four or five days at latest. After you have settled everything up with him you should proceed at your earliest convenience to India. No announcement will be made, and the matter must be kept strictly secret until you are both at your posts.

Prime Minister to Viceroy of India 21 June 41

Will you kindly convey the following to General Auchinleck. I have already telegraphed to General Wavell.

After very careful consideration of all the circumstances I have decided to submit your name to the King for the command of His Majesty’s armies in the Middle East. You should proceed forthwith to Cairo and relieve General Wavell. General Wavell will succeed you as Commander-in-Chief in India. You should confer with him upon the whole situation, and should also concert with him the measures you will take in common to arrest the eastward movement of the German armies which is clearly impending. Pray let me know when you will arrive. The change is to be kept absolutely secret until you are installed in your new post.

Wavell received the decision with poise and dignity. He was at that time about to undertake a flight to Abyssinia which proved extremely dangerous. His biographer records that on reading my message he said, “The Prime Minister is quite right. There ought to be a new eye and a new hand in this theatre.” In regard to the new command, he placed himself entirely at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I had for several months past been extremely distressed by the apparent inadequacy of the Cairo Staff, and I increasingly realised the undue burdens of so many different kinds cast upon our struggling Commander-in-Chief. He had himself, together with the other Commanders-in-Chief, as early as April 18 asked for some relief and assistance. His view was endorsed by his two professional colleagues. “We consider it necessary for some authority to be established here to deal, inside the broad lines of policy laid down by His Majesty’s Government, with the political aspects of issues affecting more than one department or territory. This will, of course, entail his being directly responsible to the War Cabinet and not to any one department.” The Commanders-in-Chief had felt the convenience of having high political authority close at hand during Mr. Eden’s visit. They were conscious of a vacuum after his departure.

I had already by June 4 appointed General Haining to the unusual office, which I created, of “Intendant-General.” This officer had deputised for the C.I.G.S. during his absence abroad, and was consequently familiar with War Cabinet procedure and the wider aspects of the war. I hoped he would be able to relieve Wavell of all the business of supply and technical administration. I meant him to overhaul the whole rearward administrative machine, paying particular attention to the great tank and aircraft repairing establishments, as well as to the ever-growing railway, road, and port development which was now in progress. Thus the commanders would be freed from a mass of detail, and need think only of the fighting.

My son Randolph, who had gone out with the commandos, now to some extent dispersed, was at this time serving in the Desert. He was a Member of Parliament and had considerable contacts. I did not hear much or often from him, but on June 7 I had received through the Foreign Office the following telegram which he had sent from Cairo with the knowledge and encouragement of our Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson:

Personal and Secret. From Randolph Churchill to Prime Minister

Do not see how we can start winning war out here until we have a competent civilian on the spot to provide day-to-day political and strategic direction. Why not send a member of the War Cabinet here to preside over whole war effort? Apart from small personal staff, he would need two outstanding men to co-ordinate supply and direct censorship, intelligence, and propaganda. Most thoughtful people here realise need for radical reform along these lines. No mere shunting of personnel will suffice, and the present time seems particularly ripe and favourable for a change of system. Please forgive me troubling you, but consider present situation deplorable and urgent action vital to any prospects of success.

It is the fact that this clinched matters in my mind. “I have been thinking,” I replied to him a fortnight later, “a good deal for some time on the lines of your helpful and well-conceived telegram.” And thereupon I took action.

I had brought Captain Oliver Lyttelton into the Government as President of the Board of Trade in October, 1940. I had known him from his childhood. His father, Alfred Lyttelton, had been Mr. Balfour’s Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1904, and had before the Home Rule split been a youthful private secretary to Mr. Gladstone. He was for many years a distinguished member of the House of Commons. His son was thus brought up in a political atmosphere. He served in the Grenadiers through the hardest fighting of the First World War, being wounded and decorated several times. I remember going to see him in hospital in 1918 after he had had the good luck to be wounded by a poison-gas shell, which burst at his feet and burned him all over, instead of being killed, as he would have been, by a more orthodox and humane high-explosive projectile. After leaving the Army he had entered business and made and lost and made again a fortune. Knowing his remarkable personal qualities, I did not hesitate to bring him into Parliament and high office. As President of the Board of Trade his administration had won respect from all parties in our National Government. I had not liked his proposals of 1941 for clothing coupons, but I found these were received with favour by the Cabinet and the House of Commons, and there is no doubt they were necessary at the time. My unusual choice had been vindicated by the results, although he had still much to learn as a newcomer in the House of Commons. He was an all-round man of action, and I now felt that he was in every way fitted for this new and novel post of a War Cabinet Minister resident in the Middle East. This would take another large slice of business off the shoulders of the military chiefs. I found this idea most readily acceptable to my colleagues of all parties. Accordingly:

Prime Minister to General Wavell 29 June 41

The King has been pleased to appoint Captain Oliver Lyttelton, formerly President of the Board of Trade, to be Minister of State in the War Cabinet, vice Lord Beaverbrook, who becomes Minister of Supply. Captain Lyttelton leaves by air on the thirtieth, and should reach Cairo July 3, with a small nucleus secretariat. He will represent the War Cabinet in the Middle East, and his prime duty will be to relieve the High Command of all extraneous burdens, and to settle promptly on the spot in accordance with the policy of H.M.G. many questions affecting several departments or authorities which hitherto have required reference home. This is largely in accordance with your telegram of April 18, but goes a good deal further. The instructions I am giving to Captain Lyttelton follow in my next.

Please inform General Auchinleck when he arrives and Sir Miles Lampson. Complete secrecy should be observed about Captain Lyttelton’s journey and mission till he has arrived.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All these new arrangements, with their consequential administerial reactions, fitted in with, and were appropriate to, the change in the command in the Middle East. I cannot better sum them up than by the telegram which I sent to President Roosevelt, who was now giving us most important material aid in this theatre.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 4 July 41

Following are considerations which weighed with us in deciding upon change in command in the Middle East. Wavell has a glorious record, having completely destroyed the Italian Army and conquered the Italian Empire in Africa. He has also borne up well against German attacks and has conducted war and policy in three or four directions simultaneously since the beginning of the struggle. I must regard him as our most distinguished General. Nevertheless, though this should not be stated publicly, we felt that, after the long strain he had borne, he was tired, and a fresh eye and an unstrained hand were needed in this most seriously menaced theatre. Incomparably the best and most distinguished officer to take his place was General Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief in India. We feel sure that Auchinleck will infuse a new energy and precision into the defence of the Nile Valley, while Wavell will make an admirable Commander-in-Chief in India who will aid him in the whole of the great sphere which India is now assuming, as our flank moves eastward. As Commander-in-Chief India Wavell will have operations in Iraq under his control.

Wavell has accepted this decision gracefully, saying that he thinks us wise to make the change and get new ideas and action on the many problems in the Middle East. The Viceroy has assured me that his shining achievements will secure him a very warm welcome in India from the Army and public opinion.

The present lull in the German offensive in the Middle East has provided a convenient opportunity for change-over. It coincides also with the appointment of Oliver Lyttelton as Minister of State to represent the War Cabinet in that theatre and relieve the Commanders-in-Chief of many non-operational functions which have hitherto greatly increased their burdens, such as relations with the Free French, relations with the Emperor of Abyssinia, the administration of occupied enemy territory, propaganda, and economic warfare. The Minister of State will also exercise general supervision over the activities of the Intendant-General (another innovation), including all matters locally connected with supplies from the United States.

The Intendant-General (General Haining) will relieve the Army Commander-in-Chief of detailed control of rearward administrative services and supply arrangements.

All these changes will, I hope, result in a greatly increased vigour and drive in our effort in the Middle East, and ensure that the fullest use is made of the formidable resources steadily accumulating there from the United Kingdom, the overseas Empire, and the United States. Harriman will doubtless be reporting upon them. He is being asked to await Lyttelton’s arrival in Cairo (now expected on July 5), so as to pool all information and settle arrangements for the reception of American supplies.

20
The Soviet Nemesis

Soviet Miscalculations—The German Deployment in the East—A Prospect Too Good to be True—Views of the Joint Intelligence Committee—Warning of the Chiefs of Staff, May 31—A Lightning Flash—My Personal Warning to Stalin, April 3—A Vexatious Delay—Hitler Twice Postpones “Barbarossa”—The Three Army Groups—Attempts to Restrain Hitler and Ribbentrop—My Telegram to General Smuts of May 16—Stalin’s Illusions—The Tass Broadcast of June 14—A Fateful Telegram from Ribbentrop, June 21—War Declared, June 22—Schulenburg—Hitler’s Policy of Ruthlessness—A Week End at Chequers—President Roosevelt’s Assurance—The German Attack—My Broadcast of June 22.

Nemesis personifies “the Goddess of Retribution, who brings down all immoderate good fortune, checks the presumption that attends it . . . and is the punisher of extraordinary crimes.”[1] We must now lay bare the error and vanity of cold-blooded calculation of the Soviet Government and enormous Communist machine, and their amazing ignorance about where they stood themselves. They had shown a total indifference to the fate of the Western Powers, although this meant the destruction of that “Second Front” for which they were soon to clamour. They seemed to have no inkling that Hitler had for more than six months resolved to destroy them. If their Intelligence Service informed them of the vast German deployment towards the East, which was now increasing every day, they omitted many needful steps to meet it. Thus they had allowed the whole of the Balkans to be overrun by Germany. They hated and despised the democracies of the West; but the four countries, Turkey, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, which were of vital interest to them and their own safety, could all have been combined by the Soviet Government in January with active British aid to form a Balkan front against Hitler. They let them all break into confusion, and all but Turkey were mopped up one by one. War is mainly a catalogue of blunders, but it may be doubted whether any mistake in history has equalled that of which Stalin and the Communist chiefs were guilty when they cast away all possibilities in the Balkans and supinely awaited, or were incapable of realising, the fearful onslaught which impended upon Russia. We have hitherto rated them as selfish calculators. In this period they were proved simpletons as well. The force, the mass, the bravery and endurance of Mother Russia had still to be thrown into the scales. But so far as strategy, policy, foresight, competence are arbiters, Stalin and his commissars showed themselves at this moment the most completely outwitted bunglers of the Second World War.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Hitler’s “Barbarossa” directive of December 18, 1940, had laid down the general grouping and primary tasks of the forces to be concentrated against Russia. At that date the total German strength on the Eastern Front was thirty-four divisions. To multiply that figure more than thrice was an immense process both of planning and preparation, and it fully occupied the early months of 1941. In January and February the Balkan adventure into which the Fuehrer allowed himself to be drawn caused a drain-away from the East to the South of five divisions, of which three were armoured. In May the German deployment in the East grew to eighty-seven divisions, and there were no less than twenty-five of their divisions absorbed in the Balkans. Considering the magnitude and hazard of the invasion of Russia, it was improvident to disturb the concentration to the East by so serious a diversion. We shall now see how a delay of five weeks was imposed upon the supreme operation as the result of our resistance in the Balkans, and especially of the Yugoslav revolution. No one can measure exactly what consequences this had before winter set in upon the fortunes of the German-Russian campaign. It is reasonable to believe that Moscow was saved thereby. During May and the beginning of June many of the best-trained German divisions and all the armour were moved from the Balkans to the Eastern Front, and at the moment of their assault the Germans attacked with a hundred and twenty divisions, seventeen of which were armoured and twelve motorised. Six Rumanian divisions were also included in their Southern Army Group. In general reserve a further twenty-six divisions were assembled or assembling; so that by early June the German High Command could count on at least a hundred and fifty divisions, supported by the main striking power of their air force, about twenty-seven hundred aircraft.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Up till the end of March I was not convinced that Hitler was resolved upon mortal war with Russia, nor how near it was. Our Intelligence reports revealed in much detail the extensive German troop movements towards and into the Balkan States which had marked the first three months of 1941. Our agents could move with a good deal of freedom in these quasi-neutral countries, and were able to keep us accurately posted about the heavy German forces gathering by rail and road to the southeast. But none of these necessarily involved the invasion of Russia, and all were readily explainable by German interests and policy in Rumania and Bulgaria, by her designs on Greece and arrangements with Yugoslavia and Hungary. Our information about the immense movement taking place through Germany towards the main Russian front, stretching from Rumania to the Baltic, was far more difficult to acquire. That Germany should at this stage, and before clearing the Balkan scene, open another major war with Russia seemed to me too good to be true.

We did not know the tenor of the conversations of November, 1940, between Molotov, Hitler, and Ribbentrop at Berlin, nor of the negotiations and proposed pacts which had followed them. There was no sign of lessening German strength opposite us across the Channel. The German air raids on Britain continued with intensity. The manner in which the German troop concentrations in Rumania and Bulgaria had been glazed over and apparently accepted by the Soviet Government, the evidence we had of large and invaluable supplies being sent to Germany from Russia, the obvious community of interest between the two countries in overrunning and dividing the British Empire in the East, all made it seem more likely that Hitler and Stalin would make a bargain at our expense rather than a war upon each other. This bargain we now know was within wide limits Stalin’s aim.

These impressions were shared by our Joint Intelligence Committee. On April 7 they stated that there were a number of reports circulating in Europe of a German plan to attack Russia. Although Germany, they said, had considerable forces available in the East, and expected to fight Russia some time or other, it was unlikely that she would choose to make another major war front yet. Her main object in 1941 would, according to them, remain the defeat of the United Kingdom. As late as May 23 this committee from the three services reported that rumors of impending attack on Russia had died down, and that there were reports that a new agreement between the two countries was impending. This they considered likely, since German economy would require strengthening to meet the needs of a long war. The necessary assistance could be obtained by Germany from Russia either by force or agreement. They thought the latter would be the German choice, although a threat of force would help to bring it about. This threat was now building up. There was plenty of evidence of the construction of roads and railway sidings in German Poland, of the preparation of aerodromes and of large-scale troop concentrations, including troops and air units from the Balkans.

Our Chiefs of Staff were ahead of their advisers; and more definite. “We have firm indications,” they warned the Middle East Command on May 31, “that the Germans are now concentrating large army and air forces against Russia. Under this threat they will probably demand concessions most injurious to us. If the Russians refuse, the Germans will march.”

It was not till June 5 that the Joint Intelligence Committee reported that the scale of German military preparations in Eastern Europe seemed to indicate that an issue more vital than an economic agreement was at stake. It was possible that Germany desired to remove from her eastern frontier the potential threat of increasingly powerful Soviet forces. They considered it as yet impossible to say whether war or agreement would result. On June 10 they stated, “The latter half of June will see either war or agreement.” And finally on June 12 they reported, “Fresh evidence is now at hand that Hitler has made up his mind to have done with Soviet obstruction, and to attack.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

I had not been content with this form of collective wisdom, and preferred to see the originals myself. I had arranged, therefore, as far back as the summer of 1940, for Major Desmond Morton to make a daily selection of titbits, which I always read, thus forming my own opinion, sometimes at much earlier dates.[2]

It was thus with relief and excitement that towards the end of March, 1941, I read an Intelligence report from one of our most trusted sources of the movement and counter-movement of German armour on the railway from Bucharest to Cracow. This showed that as soon as the Yugoslav Ministers made their submission in Vienna, on March 18, three out of the five Panzer divisions which had moved through Rumania southward towards Greece and Yugoslavia had been sent northward to Cracow, and secondly, that the whole of this transportation had been reversed after the Belgrade revolution and the three Panzer divisions sent back to Rumania. This shuffling and reversal of about sixty trains could not be concealed from our agents on the spot.

To me it illuminated the whole Eastern scene like a lightning flash. The sudden movement to Cracow of so much armour needed in the Balkan sphere could only mean Hitler’s intention to invade Russia in May. This seemed to me henceforward certainly his major purpose. The fact that the Belgrade revolution had required their return to Rumania involved perhaps a delay from May to June. I sent the momentous news at once to Mr. Eden in Athens.

Prime Minister to Mr. Eden, Athens 30 March 41

My reading of the Intelligence is that the bad man concentrated very large armoured forces, etc., to overawe Yugoslavia and Greece, and hoped to get former or both without fighting. The moment he was sure Yugoslavia was in the Axis he moved three of the five Panzers towards the Bear, believing that what was left would be enough to finish the Greek affair. However, the Belgrade revolution upset this picture and caused the northward move to be arrested in transit. This can only mean, in my opinion, the intention to attack Yugoslavia at earliest, or alternatively [to] act against the Turk. It looks as if heavy forces will be used in Balkan Peninsula and that Bear will be kept waiting a bit. Furthermore, these orders and counter-orders in their relation to the Belgrade coup seem to reveal magnitude of design both towards southeast and east. This is the clearest indication we have had so far. Let me know in guarded terms whether you and Dill agree with my impressions.

I also cast about for some means of warning Stalin, and, by arousing him to his danger, establishing contacts with him like those I had made with President Roosevelt. I made the message short and cryptic, hoping that this very fact, and that it was the first message I had sent him since my formal telegram of June 25, 1940, commending Sir Stafford Cripps as Ambassador, would arrest his attention and make him ponder.

Prime Minister to Sir Stafford Cripps 3 April 41

Following from me to M. Stalin, provided it can be personally delivered by you:

I have sure information from a trusted agent that when the Germans thought they had got Yugoslavia in the net—that is to say, after March 20—they began to move three out of the five Panzer divisions from Rumania to Southern Poland. The moment they heard of the Serbian revolution this movement was countermanded. Your Excellency will readily appreciate the significance of these facts.

The Foreign Secretary, who had by this time returned from Cairo, added some comments:

If your reception gives you opportunity of developing the argument, you might point out that this change in German military dispositions surely implies that Hitler, through the action of Yugoslavia, has now postponed his previous plans for threatening Soviet Government. If so, it should be possible for Soviet Government to use this opportunity to strengthen their own position. This delay shows that the enemy forces are not unlimited, and illustrates the advantage that will follow anything like a united front.

2. Obvious way of Soviet Government strengthening its own position would be to furnish material help to Turkey and Greece, and through latter to Yugoslavia. This help might so increase German difficulties in Balkans as still further to delay the German attack on Soviet Union, of which there are so many signs. If, however, opportunity is not now taken to put every possible spoke in the German wheel danger might revive in a few months’ time.

3. You would not, of course, imply that we ourselves required any assistance from Soviet Government or that they would be acting in any interests but their own. What we want them to realise, however, is that Hitler intends to attack them sooner or later if he can; that the fact that he is in conflict with us is not in itself sufficient to prevent him doing so if he is not also involved in some special embarrassment, such as now confronts him in Balkans, and that it is consequently in Soviet interests to take every possible step to ensure that he does not settle his Balkan problem in the way he wants.

The British Ambassador did not reply till April 12, when he said that just before my telegram had been received he had himself addressed to Vyshinsky a long personal letter reviewing the succession of failures of the Soviet Government to counteract German encroachments in the Balkans, and urging in the strongest terms that the U.S.S.R. in her own interest must now decide on an immediate vigorous policy of co-operation with countries still opposing the Axis in that area if she was not to miss the last chance of defending her own frontiers in alliance with others.

Were I now [he said] to convey through Molotov the Prime Minister’s message, which expresses the same thesis in very much shorter and less emphatic form, I fear that the only effect would be probably to weaken impression already made by my letter to Vyshinsky. Soviet Government would not, I feel sure, understand why so short and fragmentary a commentary on facts of which they are certainly well aware, without any definite request for explanation of Soviet Government’s attitude or suggestion for action by them, should be conveyed in so formal a manner.

I have felt bound to put these considerations before you, as I greatly fear that delivery of Prime Minister’s message would be not merely ineffectual but a serious tactical mistake. If, however, you are unable to share this view, I will, of course, endeavour to arrange urgently for an interview with Molotov.

On this the Foreign Secretary minuted to me:

In this new situation I think there may be some force in Sir Stafford Cripps’ arguments against the delivery of your message. If you agree I would propose to tell him that he need not now deliver the message, but that if Vyshinsky responds favourably to his letter he should give the latter the facts contained in your message. Meanwhile I should ask him to telegraph to us as soon as possible a summary of the letter which he has sent to Vyshinsky and to send us the text by the next opportunity.

I was vexed at this and at the delay which had occurred. This was the only message before the attack that I sent Stalin direct. Its brevity, the exceptional character of the communication, the fact that it came from the head of the Government and was to be delivered personally to the head of the Russian Government by the Ambassador, were all intended to give it special significance and arrest Stalin’s attention.

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 16 April 41

I set special importance on the delivery of this personal message from me to Stalin. I cannot understand why it should be resisted. The Ambassador is not alive to the military significance of the facts. Pray oblige me.

And again:

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 18 April 41

Has Sir Stafford Cripps yet delivered my personal message of warning about the German danger to Stalin? I am very much surprised that so much delay should have occurred, considering the importance I attach to this extremely pregnant piece of information.

The Foreign Secretary, therefore, telegraphed on the eighteenth to the Ambassador instructing him to deliver my message. As no answer was received from Sir Stafford, I asked what had happened.

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary 30 April 41

When did Sir Stafford Cripps deliver my message to Mr. Stalin? Will you very kindly ask him to report.

Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister 30 April 41

Sir Stafford Cripps sent the message to M. Vyshinsky on April 19, and M. Vyshinsky informed him in writing on April 23 that it had been conveyed to M. Stalin.

I very much regret that, owing to an error, the telegrams reporting this were not sent to you at the time. I attach copies.

These were the enclosures:

Sir Stafford Cripps, Moscow, to Foreign Secretary 19 April 41

I have today sent text of message to Vyshinsky, asking him to convey it to Stalin. It was not clear from your telegram whether commentary was to be incorporated in message or added as from myself, and consequently, in view of my letter to Vyshinsky of April 11 and my interview with him yesterday, I felt it preferable to abstain from adding any commentary, which could only have been repetition.

Sir Stafford Cripps, Moscow, to Foreign Secretary 22 April 41

Vyshinsky informed me in writing today that message had been conveyed to Stalin.

I cannot form any final judgment upon whether my message, if delivered with all the promptness and ceremony prescribed, would have altered the course of events. Nevertheless, I still regret that my instructions were not carried out effectively. If I had had any direct contact with Stalin I might perhaps have prevented him from having so much of his air force destroyed on the ground.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We know now that Hitler’s directive of December 18 had prescribed May 15 as the date for invading Russia, and that in his fury at the revolution in Belgrade this date had on March 27 been postponed for a month, and later till June 22. Until the middle of March the troop movements in the north on the main Russian front were not of a character to require special German measures of concealment. On March 13, however, orders were issued by Berlin to terminate the work of the Russian commissions working in German territory and to send them home. The presence of Russians in this part of Germany could only be permitted up to March 25. In the northern sector strong German formations were already being assembled. From March 20 onward an even heavier massing would take place.[3]

On April 22 the Soviet complained to the German Foreign Office about continuing and increasing violations of the U.S.S.R. boundary by German planes. From March 27 to April 18 eighty such cases had occurred. “It is very likely,” added the Russian note, “that serious incidents are to be expected if German planes continue to fly across the Soviet border.”

The German reply was a series of counter-complaints against Soviet planes.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During this time the one hundred and twenty German divisions of the highest quality were assembling in their three army groups along the Russian front. The Southern Group, under Rundstedt, was, for the reasons explained, far from well found in armour. Its Panzer divisions had only recently returned from Greece and Yugoslavia. Despite the postponement of the date till June 22, they badly needed rest and overhaul after their mechanical wear and tear in the Balkans.

On April 13 Schulenburg came from Moscow to Berlin. Hitler received him on April 28, and treated his Ambassador to a tirade on the Russian gesture towards Yugoslavia. Schulenburg, according to his minute of this conversation, strove to excuse the Soviet behavior. He related that “Russia was alarmed by the rumours predicting a German attack. He could not believe that Russia would ever attack Germany. Hitler said that he had been forewarned by events in Serbia. What had happened there was to him an example of the political unreliability of states.” But Schulenburg adhered to the theme which had governed all his reports from Moscow. “I am convinced that Stalin is prepared to make even further concessions to us. It has already been indicated to our economic negotiators that (if we applied in due time) Russia could supply us with up to five million tons of grain a year.”[4]

Schulenburg returned to Moscow on April 30, profoundly disillusioned by his interview with Hitler. He had a clear impression that Hitler was bent on war. It seems that he had even tried to warn the Russian Ambassador in Berlin, Dekanosov, in this sense. And he fought persistently in the last hours of his policy of Russo-German understanding.

Weizsäcker, the official head of the German Foreign Office, was a highly competent civil servant of the type to be found in the Government departments of many countries. He was not a politician with executive power, and would not, according to

British custom, be held accountable for State policy. He is now undergoing seven years’ penal servitude by the decree of the courts set up by the conquerors. Although he is, therefore, classified as a war criminal, he certainly wrote good advice to his superiors, which we may be glad they did not take. He commented as follows upon this interview:

Weizsäcker to Ribbentrop Berlin, April 28, 1941

I can summarise in one sentence my views on a German-Russian conflict. If every Russian city reduced to ashes were as valuable to us as a sunken British warship, I should advocate the German-Russian war for this summer; but I believe that we should be victors over Russia only in a military sense, and should, on the other hand, lose in an economic sense.

It might perhaps be considered an alluring prospect to give the Communist system its death-blow, and it might also be said that it was inherent in the logic of things to muster the Eurasian continent against Anglo-Saxondom and its following. But the sole decisive factor is whether this project will hasten the fall of England.

We must distinguish between two possibilities:

(a) England is close to collapse. If we accept this assumption we shall encourage England by taking on a new opponent. Russia is no potential ally of the English. England can expect nothing good from Russia. Hope in Russia is not postponing England’s collapse. With Russia we do not destroy any English hopes.

(b) If we do not believe in the imminent collapse of England, then the thought might suggest itself that by the use of force we must feed ourselves from Soviet territory. I take it as a matter of course that we shall advance victoriously to Moscow and beyond that. I doubt very much, however, whether we shall be able to turn to account what we have won in the face of the well-known passive resistance of the Slavs. I do not see in the Russian State any effective opposition capable of succeeding the Communist system and uniting with us and being of service to us. We should, therefore, probably have to reckon with a continuation of the Stalin system in Eastern Russia and in Siberia and with a renewed outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1942. The window to the Pacific Ocean would remain shut.

A German attack on Russia would only give the British new moral strength. It would be interpreted there as German uncertainty about the success of our fight against England. We should thereby not only be admitting that the war was going to last a long time yet, but we might actually prolong it in this way, instead of shortening it.

On May 7 Schulenburg hopefully reported that Stalin had taken over the chairmanship of the Council of People’s Commissars in place of Molotov, and had thereby become head of the Government of the Soviet Union.

The reason for this may be sought in the recent mistakes in foreign policy which led to a cooling-off of the cordiality of German-Soviet relations, for the creation and preservation of which Stalin had consciously striven.

In his new capacity Stalin assumes responsibility for all acts of the Government, in both the domestic and foreign fields. . . . I am convinced that Stalin will use his new position in order to take part personally in the maintenance and development of good relations between the Soviets and Germany.

The German Naval Attaché, reporting from Moscow, expressed the same point in these words: “Stalin is the pivot of German-Soviet collaboration.” Examples of Russian appeasement of Germany increased. On May 3 Russia had officially recognised the pro-German Government of Rashid Ali in Iraq. On May 7 the diplomatic representatives of Belgium and Norway were expelled from Russia. Even the Yugoslav Minister was flung out. At the beginning of June the Greek Legation was banished from Moscow. As General Thomas, the head of the economic section of the German War Ministry, later wrote in his paper on the war economy of the Reich: “The Russians executed their deliveries up to the eve of the attack, and in the last days the transport of rubber from the Far East was expedited by express trains.”

We had not, of course, full information about the Moscow moods, but the German purpose seemed plain and comprehensible. On May 16 I cabled to General Smuts: “It looks as if Hitler is massing against Russia. A ceaseless movement of troops, armoured forces, and aircraft northward from the Balkans and eastward from France and Germany is in progress.” Stalin must have tried very hard to preserve his illusions about Hitler’s policy. After another month of intense German troop movement and deployment, Schulenburg could telegraph to the German Foreign Office on June 13:

People’s Commissar Molotov has just given me the following text of a Tass dispatch which will be broadcast tonight and published in the papers tomorrow:

Even before the return of the English Ambassador Cripps to London, but especially since his return, there have been widespread rumours of an impending war between the U.S.S.R. and Germany in the English and foreign press. These allege:

That Germany supposedly has made various territorial and economic demands on the U.S.S.R., and negotiations are impending between Germany and the U.S.S.R. for a new and closer agreement.

2. That the Soviet Union is supposed to have declined these demands, and that as a result Germany has begun to concentrate her troops on the frontier of the Soviet Union in order to attack the Soviet Union.

3. That on its side the Soviet Union is supposed to have begun intensive preparations for war with Germany and to have concentrated its troops on the German border.

Despite the obvious absurdity of these rumours, responsible circles in Moscow have thought it necessary to state that they are a clumsy propaganda manoeuvre of the forces arrayed against the Soviet Union and Germany, which are interested in a spread and intensification of the war.

Hitler had every right to be content with the success of his measures of deception and concealment, and with his victim’s state of mind.

Molotov’s final fatuity is worth recording.

Schulenburg to the German Foreign Office Moscow, June 22, 1941, 1.17 A.M.

Molotov summoned me to his office this evening at 9.30 P.M. After he had mentioned the alleged repeated border violations by German aircraft, with the remark that Dekanosov had been instructed to call on the Reich Foreign Minister in this matter, Molotov stated as follows:

There were a number of indications that the German Government was dissatisfied with the Soviet Government. Rumours were even current that a war was impending between Germany and the Soviet Union. They found sustenance in the fact that there was no reaction whatsoever on the part of Germany to the Tass report of June 15; that it was not even published in Germany. The Soviet Government was unable to understand the reasons for Germany’s dissatisfaction. If the Yugoslav question had at the time given rise to such dissatisfaction, he—Molotov—believed that by means of his earlier communications he had cleared up this question, which, moreover, was a thing of the past. He would appreciate it if I could tell him what had brought about the present situation in German-Soviet Russian relations.

I replied that I could not answer his question, as I lacked the pertinent information; that I would, however, transmit his communication to Berlin.

      *      *      *      *      *      

But the hour had now struck.

Ribbentrop to Schulenburg Berlin, June 21, 1941

Upon receipt of this telegram all of the cipher material still there is to be destroyed. The radio set is to be put out of commission.

2. Please inform Herr Molotov at once that you have an urgent communication to make to him and would, therefore, like to call on him immediately. Then please make the following declaration to him:

“. . . The Government of the Reich declares that the Soviet Government, contrary to the obligations it assumed, (1) has not only continued, but even intensified, its attempts to undermine Germany and Europe; (2) has adopted a more and more anti-German foreign policy; (3) has concentrated all its forces in readiness at the German border.

“Thereby the Soviet Government has broken its treaties with Germany and is about to attack Germany from the rear, in its struggle for life. The Fuehrer has, therefore, ordered the German armed forces to oppose this threat with all the means at their disposal.”

Please do not enter into any discussion of this communication. It is incumbent upon the Government of Soviet Russia to safeguard the security of the Embassy personnel.

At 4 A.M. on June 22 Ribbentrop delivered a formal declaration of war to the Russian Ambassador in Berlin. At daybreak Schulenburg presented himself to Molotov in the Kremlin. The latter listened in silence to the statement read by the German Ambassador, and then commented, “It is war. Your aircraft have just bombarded some ten open villages. Do you believe that we deserved that?[5]

In the face of the Tass broadcast it had been vain for us to add to the various warnings which Eden had given to the Soviet Ambassador in London or for me to make a renewed personal effort to arouse Stalin to his peril. Even more precise information had been constantly sent to the Soviet Government by the United States. Nothing that any of us could do pierced the purblind prejudice and fixed ideas which Stalin had raised between himself and the terrible truth. Although on German estimates 186 Russian divisions were massed behind the Soviet boundaries, of which 119 faced the German front, the Russian armies to a large extent were taken by surprise. The Germans found no signs of offensive preparations in the forward zone, and the Russian covering troops were swiftly overpowered. Something like the disaster which had befallen the Polish Air Force on September 1, 1939, was now to be repeated on a far larger scale on the Russian airfields, and many hundreds of Russian planes were caught at daybreak and destroyed before they could get into the air. Thus the ravings of hatred against Britain and the United States which the Soviet propaganda machine cast upon the midnight air were overwhelmed at dawn by the German cannonade. The wicked are not always clever, nor are dictators always right.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is impossible to complete this account without referring to a terrible decision of policy adopted by Hitler towards his new foes, and enforced under all the pressure of the mortal struggle in vast barren or ruined lands and winter horrors. Verbal orders were given by him at a conference on June 14, 1941, which to a large extent governed the conduct of the German Army towards the Russian troops and people, and led to many ruthless and barbarous deeds. According to the Nuremberg documents, General Halder testified:

Prior to the attack on Russia the Fuehrer called a conference of all the commanders and persons connected with the Supreme Command on the question of the forthcoming attack on Russia. I cannot recall the exact date of this conference. . . . At this conference the Fuehrer stated that the methods used in the war against the Russians would have to be different from those used against the West. . . . He said that the struggle between Russia and Germany was a Russian struggle. He stated that since the Russians were not signatories of the Hague Convention the treatment of their prisoners of war did not have to follow the Articles of the Convention. . . . He [also] said that the so-called Commissars should not be considered prisoners of war.[6]

And according to Keitel:

Hitler’s main theme was that this was the decisive battle between the two ideologies and that this fact made it impossible to use in this war [with Russia] methods, as we soldiers knew them, which were considered to be the only correct ones under international law.[7]

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the evening of Friday, June 20, I drove down to Chequers alone. I knew that the German onslaught upon Russia was a matter of days, or it might be hours. I had arranged to deliver a broadcast on Saturday night dealing with this event. It would, of course, have to be in guarded terms. Moreover, at this time the Soviet Government, at once haughty and purblind, regarded every warning we gave as a mere attempt of beaten men to drag others into ruin. As the result of my reflections in the car, I put off the broadcast till Sunday night, when I thought all would be clear. Thus Saturday passed with its usual toil.

Five days earlier, on the fifteenth, I had cabled to President Roosevelt as follows:

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt 15 June 41

From every source at my disposal, including some most trustworthy, it looks as if a vast German onslaught on Russia was imminent. Not only are the main German armies deployed from Finland to Rumania, but the final arrivals of air and armoured forces are being completed. The pocket-battleship Lutzow, which put her nose out of the Skaggerak yesterday and was promptly torpedoed by our coastal aircraft, was very likely going north to give naval strength on the Arctic flank. Should this new war break out, we shall, of course, give all encouragement and any help we can spare to the Russians, following the principle that Hitler is the foe we have to beat. I do not expect any class political reactions here, and trust a German-Russian conflict will not cause you any embarrassment.

The American Ambassador, who was my guest at the week-end, brought me the President’s answer to my message. He promised that if the Germans struck at Russia he would immediately support publicly “any announcement that the Prime Minister might make welcoming Russia as an ally.” Mr. Winant delivered this important reassurance verbally.

      *      *      *      *      *      

When I awoke on the morning of Sunday, June 22, the news was brought to me of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. This changed conviction into certainty. I had not the slightest doubt where our duty and our policy lay. Nor indeed what to say. There only remained the task of composing it. I asked that notice should immediately be given that I would broadcast at nine o’clock that night. Presently General Dill, who had hastened down from London, came into my bedroom with detailed news. The Germans had invaded Russia on an enormous front, had surprised a large portion of the Soviet Air Force grounded on the airfields, and seemed to be driving forward with great rapidity and violence. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff added, “I suppose they will be rounded up in hordes.”

I spent the day composing my statement. There was not time to consult the War Cabinet; nor was it necessary. I knew that we all felt the same on this issue. Mr. Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, and Sir Stafford Cripps—he had left Moscow on the tenth—were also with me during the day.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The following account of this Sunday at Chequers by my private secretary, Mr. Colville, who was on duty this week-end, may be of interest:

On Saturday, June 21, I went down to Chequers just before dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Winant, Mr. and Mrs. Eden, and Edward Bridges were staying. During dinner Mr. Churchill said that a German attack on Russia was now certain, and he thought that Hitler was counting on enlisting capitalist and Right Wing sympathies in this country and the U.S.A. Hitler was, however, wrong and we should go all out to help Russia. Winant said the same would be true of the U.S.A.

After dinner, when I was walking on the croquet lawn with Mr. Churchill, he reverted to this theme, and I asked whether for him, the arch anti-Communist, this was [not] bowing down in the House of Rimmon. Mr. Churchill replied, “Not at all. I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

2. I was awoken at 4 A.M. the following morning by a telephone message from the F.O. to the effect that Germany had attacked Russia. The P.M. had always said that he was never to be woken up for anything but invasion [of England]. I therefore postponed telling him till 8 A.M. His only comment was, “Tell the B.B.C. I will broadcast at nine tonight.” He began to prepare the speech at 11 A.M., and except for luncheon, at which Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Cranborne, and Lord Beaverbrook were present, he devoted the whole day to it. . . . The speech was only ready at twenty minutes to nine.

In this broadcast I said:

The Nazi régime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. It is devoid of all theme and principle except appetite and racial domination. It excels all forms of human wickedness in the efficiency of its cruelty and ferocious aggression. No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies, and its tragedies, flashes away. I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial. I see them guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray—ah, yes, for there are times when all pray—for the safety of their loved ones, the return of the bread-winner, of their champion, of their protector. I see the ten thousand villages of Russia where the means of existence is wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play. I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents fresh from the cowing and tying-down of a dozen countries. I see also the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts. I see the German bombers and fighters in the sky, still smarting from many a British whipping, delighted to find what they believe is an easier and a safer prey.

Behind all this glare, behind all this storm, I see that small group of villainous men who plan, organise, and launch this cataract of horrors upon mankind. . . .

I have to declare the decision of His Majesty’s Government—and I feel sure it is a decision in which the great Dominions will in due course concur—for we must speak out now at once, without a day’s delay. I have to make the declaration, but can you doubt what our policy will be? We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi régime. From this nothing will turn us—nothing. We will never parley, we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land, we shall fight him by sea, we shall fight him in the air, until, with God’s help, we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its peoples from his yoke. Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. Any man or state who marches with Hitler is our foe. . . . That is our policy and that is our declaration. It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it, as we shall faithfully and steadfastly to the end. . . .

This is no class war, but a war in which the whole British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations is engaged, without distinction of race, creed, or party. It is not for me to speak of the action of the United States, but this I will say, if Hitler imagines that his attack on Soviet Russia will cause the slightest divergence of aims or slackening of effort in the great democracies who are resolved upon his doom, he is woefully mistaken. On the contrary, we shall be fortified and encouraged in our efforts to rescue mankind from his tyranny. We shall be strengthened and not weakened in determination and in resources.

This is no time to moralise on the follies of countries and Governments which have allowed themselves to be struck down one by one, when by united action they could have saved themselves and saved the world from this catastrophe. But when I spoke a few minutes ago of Hitler’s blood-lust and the hateful appetites which have impelled or lured him on his Russian adventure, I said there was one deeper motive behind his outrage. He wishes to destroy the Russian power because he hopes that if he succeeds in this he will be able to bring back the main strength of his army and air force from the East and hurl it upon this island, which he knows he must conquer or suffer the penalty of his crimes. His invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles. He hopes, no doubt, that all this may be accomplished before the winter comes, and that he can overwhelm Great Britain before the Fleet and air power of the United States may intervene. He hopes that he may once again repeat, upon a greater scale than ever before, that process of destroying his enemies one by one by which he has so long thrived and prospered, and that then the scene will be clear for the final act, without which all his conquests would be in vain—namely, the subjugation of the Western Hemisphere to his will and to his system.

The Russian danger is, therefore, our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe. Let us learn the lessons already taught by such cruel experience. Let us redouble our exertions, and strike with united strength while life and power remain.


Oxford English Dictionary.

Prime Minister to General Ismay 5 Aug. 40

I do not wish such reports as are received to be sifted and digested by the various Intelligence authorities. For the present Major Morton will inspect them for me and submit what he considers of major importance. He is to be shown everything, and submit authentic documents to me in their original form.

Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941, published by the State Department of the United States, 1948, page 279.

Ibid., page 332.

This was the last act of Count Schulenburg’s diplomatic career. Late in 1943 his name appears in the secret circles of conspiracy against Hitler in Germany as possible Foreign Minister of a Government to succeed the Nazi régime in view of his special qualifications to negotiate a separate peace with Stalin. He was arrested by the Nazis after the attempted assassination of Hitler in July, 1944, and imprisoned in the Gestapo cells. On November 10 he was executed.

Nuremberg Documents, Part VI, page 310.

Ibid., Part XI, page 16.

 

 

 

END OF BOOK ONE


Book Two

 

War Comes to America

1
Our Soviet Ally

Hitler’s Plan for the Invasion of Russia—Soviet Demands on Britain—“Second Front Now”—Russian Ignorance of Amphibious War—I Address Stalin—A Military Mission Goes to Moscow—Naval Contacts—A War Alliance Proposed—Stalin Presses for the Second Front—Our Reasoned Reply—Our Efforts to Supply the Russian Army—Ten Thousand Tons of Rubber—Fruitless Attempts to Establish Friendly Relations with Stalin—The German Attack Develops—Russia’s Attitude to Poland—Our View—Russia a Burden upon Us at First.

Hitler’s invasion of Russia altered the values and relationships of the war. The Soviet prejudices had blinded them to many of the steps which comprehension and prudence would have dictated for their own safety. On the other hand, by indifference to the fate of others they had gained time, and when their hour of trial struck, on June 22, 1941, they were far stronger than Hitler imagined. Perhaps not only he but his generals had been misled by their poor performance against the Finns. Nevertheless, it was the Russians who were taken by surprise, and tremendous initial disasters fell upon them. It will not be possible in this account to do more than place before the reader the salient features of the new colossal struggle of armies and populations which now began.

The German line of battle was drawn up along the whole frontier from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Northern Army Group, under von Leeb, with twenty-nine divisions, including three armoured and three motorised, was to advance from East Prussia upon Leningrad. The Central Army Group, under von Bock, consisting of fifty divisions, including nine armoured and six motorised, was to move from Northern Poland on Smolensk. The Southern Army Group of von Rundstedt, with forty-one divisions, including five armoured and three motorised, was to drive from Southern Poland to the lower Dnieper. A further twenty-six divisions were held, or would shortly be available, as the General Reserve. Over twenty-seven hundred aircraft supported the attack. In the North twelve Finnish divisions were to advance on Leningrad to support the main attack. In the South eleven divisions of the Rumanian Army were to stand on the defensive along the river Pruth, and six to join in the advance of Army Group South. In all one hundred and sixty-four divisions rolled eastward.

The invaders, according to the best accounts available, were confronted by a hundred and nineteen Russian divisions and at least five thousand aircraft. Sixty-seven more divisions were available in Finland, the Caucasus, and in Central Russia. Although nearly equal in numbers to the German armies, the Russians were at once swept back by deep-plunging armoured thrusts, and their air force suffered severe losses. Other countries had been surprised and overrun. Only vast Russia had the supreme advantage of depth; and this was once again to prove her salvation. In the first month the Germans bit and tore their way three hundred miles into Russia. Smolensk was taken after stern fighting in which the Russians had counter-attacked heavily. But Leningrad was not attained, and Kiev was still in Russian hands.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Up to the moment when the Soviet Government was set upon by Hitler they seemed to care for no one but themselves. Afterwards this mood naturally became more marked. Hitherto they had watched with stony composure the destruction of the front in France in 1940, and our vain efforts in 1941 to create a front in the Balkans. They had given important economic aid to Nazi Germany and had helped them in more minor ways. Now, having been deceived and taken by surprise, they were themselves under the flaming German sword. Their first impulse and lasting policy was to demand all possible succour from Great Britain and her Empire, the possible partition of which between Stalin and Hitler had for the last eight months beguiled Soviet minds from the progress of German concentration in the East. They did not hesitate to appeal in urgent and strident terms to harassed and struggling Britain to send them the munitions of which her armies were so short. They urged the United States to divert to them the largest quantities of the supplies on which we were counting, and above all, even in the summer of 1941 they clamoured for British landings in Europe, regardless of risk and cost, to establish a second front. The British Communists, who had hitherto done their worst, which was not much, in our factories, and had denounced “the capitalist and imperialist war,” turned about again overnight and began to scrawl the slogan, “Second Front Now,” upon the walls and hoardings.

We did not allow these somewhat sorry and ignominious facts to disturb our thought, and fixed our gaze upon the heroic sacrifices of the Russian people under the calamities which their Government had brought upon them, and their passionate defence of their native soil. This, while the struggle lasted, made amends for all.

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The Russians never understood in the smallest degree the nature of the amphibious operation necessary to disembark and maintain a great army upon a well-defended hostile coast. Even the Americans were at this time largely unaware of the difficulties. Not only sea but air superiority at the invasion point was indispensable. Moreover, there was a third vital factor. A vast armada of specially constructed landing-craft, above all tank landing-craft in numerous varieties, was the foundation of any successful heavily opposed landing. For the creation of this armada, as has been and will be seen, I had long done my best. It could not be ready even on a minor scale before the summer of 1943, and its power, as is now widely recognised, could not be developed on a sufficient scale till 1944. At the period we have now reached, in the autumn of 1941, we had no mastery of the enemy air over Europe, except in the Pas de Calais, where the strongest German fortifications existed. The landing-craft were only a-building. We had not even got an army in Britain as large, as well trained, as well equipped, as the one we should have to meet on French soil. Yet Niagaras of folly and misstatement still pour out on this question of the Second Front. There was certainly no hope of convincing the Soviet Government at this or any other time. Stalin even suggested to me on one occasion later on that if the British were afraid he would be willing to send round three or four Russian army corps to do the job. It was not in my power, through lack of shipping and other physical facts, to take him at his word.

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There was no response from the Soviet Government to my broadcast to Russia and the world on the day of the German attack, except that parts of it were printed in Pravda and other Russian Government organs, and that we were asked to receive a Russian Military Mission. The silence on the top level was oppressive, and I thought it my duty to break the ice. I quite understood that they might feel shy, considering all that had passed since the outbreak of the war between the Soviets and the Western Allies, and remembering what had happened twenty years before between me and the Bolshevik Revolutionary Government. I therefore addressed myself to Stalin and expressed our intention to bring all aid in our power to the Russian people.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin 7 July 41

We are all very glad here that the Russian armies are making such strong and spirited resistance to the utterly unprovoked and merciless invasion of the Nazis. There is general admiration of the bravery and tenacity of the soldiers and people. We shall do everything to help you that time, geography, and our growing resources allow. The longer the war lasts, the more help we can give. We are making very heavy attacks both by day and night with our air force upon all German-occupied territory and all Germany within our reach. About four hundred daylight sorties were made overseas yesterday. On Saturday night over two hundred heavy bombers attacked German towns, some carrying three tons apiece, and last night nearly two hundred and fifty heavy bombers were operating. This will go on. Thus we hope to force Hitler to bring back some of his air power to the West and gradually take some of the strain off you. Besides this the Admiralty have at my desire prepared a serious operation to come off in the near future in the Arctic, after which I hope contact will be established between the British and Russian Navies. Meanwhile by sweeps along the Norwegian coast we have intercepted various supply ships which were moving north against you.

We welcome arrival of Russian Military Mission in order to concert future plans.

We have only got to go on fighting to beat the life out of these villains.

The first step was clearly to make such contact as was permitted by the Soviet authorities with the Russian Military Command. Accordingly, after obtaining the necessary consent from our new allies, a powerful Military Mission was at once dispatched to Moscow. It was also urgent to create relations between the two navies. On July 10 I sent the following minute to the Admiralty:

Prime Minister to First Lord and First Sea Lord 10 July 41

It seems absolutely necessary to send a small mixed squadron of British ships to the Arctic to form contact and operate with the Russian naval forces. This should be done in advance of the particular operation we have in hand. The effect upon the Russian Navy and upon the general resistance of the Russian Army of the arrival of what would be called a British fleet in the Arctic might be of enormous value and spare a lot of English blood.

The advantage we should reap if the Russians could keep the field and go on with the war, at any rate until the winter closes in, is measureless. A premature peace by Russia would be a terrible disappointment to great masses of people in our country. As long as they go on it does not matter so much where the front lies. These people have shown themselves worth backing, and we must make sacrifices and take risks, even at inconvenience, which I realise, to maintain their morale. . . . The squadron would no doubt go to Archangel.

Pray let me know about this at your earliest.

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We also hoped at this early stage to establish the general basis of a war alliance between the two countries.

Prime Minister to Sir Stafford Cripps 10 July 41

Please immediately convey following message from Prime Minister to M. Stalin:

Ambassador Cripps having reported his talk with you and having stated the terms of a proposed Anglo-Russian agreed declaration under two heads, namely, (1) mutual help without any precision as to quantity or quality, and (2) neither country to conclude a separate peace, I have immediately convened the War Cabinet, including Mr. Fraser, Prime Minister of the Dominion of New Zealand, who is with us now. It will be necessary for us to consult with the Dominions of Canada, Australia, and South Africa, but in the meanwhile I should like to assure you that we are wholly in favour of the agreed declaration you propose. We think it should be signed as soon as we have heard from the Dominions, and published to the world immediately thereafter.

2. For your own information, what we have in mind is a declaration in the following terms: H.M. Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of the U.S.S.R. have agreed and declare as follows: (1) The two Governments mutually undertake to render each other assistance of all kinds in the present war against Germany. (2) They further undertake that during this war they will neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement.

3. As Dominions Governments have to be consulted, you should not yet communicate actual text to Stalin. But it will help to show you what we mean and to give him any explanations he may require.

Official communications passed between the two Foreign Offices, but it was not until July 19 that I received the first direct communication from M. Stalin. On that day M. Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in London, called on me to deliver the following message:

M. Stalin to the Prime Minister 18 July 41

Let me express my gratitude for the two personal messages which you have addressed to me.

Your messages were the starting-point of developments which subsequently resulted in agreement between our two Governments. Now, as you said with full justification, the Soviet Union and Great Britain have become fighting allies in the struggle against Hitlerite Germany. I have no doubt that in spite of the difficulties our two States will be strong enough to crush our common enemy.

Perhaps it is not out of place to mention that the position of the Soviet forces at the front remains tense. The consequences of the unexpected breach of the Non-Aggression Pact by Hitler, as well as of the sudden attack against the Soviet Union—both facts bringing advantages to the German troops—still remain to be felt by the Soviet armies.

It is easy to imagine that the position of the German forces would have been many times more favourable had the Soviet troops had to face the attack of the German forces, not in the regions of Kishinev, Lwow, Brest, Kaunas, and Viborg, but in the region of Odessa, Kamenets Podolski, Minsk, and the environs of Leningrad.

It seems to me therefore that the military situation of the Soviet Union, as well as of Great Britain, would be considerably improved if there could be established a front against Hitler in the West—Northern France, and in the North—the Arctic.

A front in Northern France could not only divert Hitler’s forces from the East, but at the same time would make it impossible for Hitler to invade Great Britain. The establishment of the front just mentioned would be popular with the British Army, as well as with the whole population of Southern England.

I fully realise the difficulties involved in the establishment of such a front. I believe however that in spite of the difficulties it should be formed, not only in the interests of our common cause, but also in the interests of Great Britain herself. This is the most propitious moment for the establishment of such a front, because now Hitler’s forces are diverted to the East and he has not yet had the chance to consolidate the position occupied by him in the East.

It is still easier to establish a front in the North. Here, on the part of Great Britain, would be necessary only naval and air operations, without the landing of troops or artillery. The Soviet military, naval, and air forces would take part in such an operation. We would welcome it if Great Britain could transfer to this theatre of war something like one light division or more of the Norwegian volunteers, who could be used in Northern Norway to organise rebellion against the Germans.

Thus the Russian pressure for the establishment of a Second Front was initiated at the very beginning of our correspondence, and this theme was to recur throughout our subsequent relations with monotonous disregard, except in the Far North, for physical facts. This, my first telegram from Stalin, contained the only sign of compunction I ever perceived in the Soviet attitude. In this he volunteered a defence of the Soviet change of side, and of his agreement with Hitler before the outbreak of the war, and dwelt, as I have already done in my first volume, on the Russians’ strategic need to hold a German deployment as far as possible to the west in Poland in order to gain time for the fullest development of Russian far-drawn military strength. I have never underrated this argument, and could well afford to reply in comprehending terms upon it.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin 20 July 41

I am very glad to get your message, and to learn from many sources of the valiant fight and the many vigorous counter-attacks with which the Russian armies are defending their native soil. I fully realise the military advantage you have gained by forcing the enemy to deploy and engage on a forward westerly front, thus exhausting some of the force of his initial effort.

2. Anything sensible and effective that we can do to help will be done. I beg you however to realise limitations imposed upon us by our resources and geographical position. From the first day of the German attack upon Russia we have examined possibilities of attacking Occupied France and the Low Countries. The Chiefs of Staff do not see any way of doing anything on a scale likely to be of the slightest use to you. The Germans have forty divisions in France alone, and the whole coast has been fortified with German diligence for more than a year, and bristles with cannon, wire, pillboxes, and beach-mines. The only part where we could have even temporary air superiority and air-fighter protection is from Dunkirk to Boulogne. This is one mass of fortifications, with scores of heavy guns commanding the sea approaches, many of which can fire right across the Straits. There is less than five hours’ darkness, and even then the whole area is illuminated by searchlights. To attempt a landing in force would be to encounter a bloody repulse, and petty raids would only lead to fiascos doing far more harm than good to both of us. It would all be over without their having to move or before they could move a single unit from your front.

3. You must remember that we have been fighting alone for more than a year, and that, though our resources are growing and will grow fast from now on, we are at the utmost strain both at home and in the Middle East by land and air, and also that the Battle of the Atlantic, on which our life depends, and the movement of all our convoys in the teeth of the U-boat and Focke-Wulf blockade, strains our naval resources, great though they be, to the utmost limit.

4. It is therefore to the North we must look for any speedy help we can give. The Naval Staff have been preparing for three weeks past an operation by seaborne aircraft upon German shipping in the north of Norway and Finland, hoping thereby to destroy enemy power of transporting troops by sea to attack your Arctic flank. We have asked your Staffs to keep a certain area clear of Russian vessels between July 28 and August 2, when we shall hope to strike. Secondly, we are sending forthwith some cruisers and destroyers to Spitzbergen, whence they will be able to raid enemy shipping in concert with your naval forces. Thirdly, we are sending a flotilla of submarines to intercept German traffic on the Arctic coast, although owing to perpetual daylight this service is particularly dangerous. Fourthly, we are sending a minelayer with various supplies to Archangel.

This is the most we can do at the moment. I wish it were more. Pray let the most extreme secrecy be kept until the moment when we tell you publicity will not be harmful.

5. There is no Norwegian Light Division in existence, and it would be impossible to land troops, either British or Russian, on German-occupied territory in perpetual daylight without having first obtained reasonable fighter air cover. We had bitter experiences at Namsos last year, and in Crete this year, of trying such enterprises.

6. We are also studying as a further development the basing of some British fighter air squadrons on Murmansk. This would require first of all a consignment of anti-aircraft guns, then the arrival of the aircraft, some of which could be flown off carriers and others crated. When these were established our Spitsbergen squadron could come to Murmansk and act with your naval forces. We have reason to believe that the Germans have sent a strong group of dive-bombers, which they are keeping for our benefit should we arrive, and it is therefore necessary to proceed step by step. All this however will take weeks.

7. Do not hesitate to suggest anything else that occurs to you, and we will also be searching earnestly for other ways of striking at the common foe.

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From the first moment I did my utmost to help with munitions and supplies, both by consenting to severe diversions from the United States and by direct British sacrifices. Early in September the equivalent of two Hurricane squadrons were dispatched in H.M.S. Argus to Murmansk, to assist in the defence of the naval base and to co-operate with Russian forces in that area. By September 11 the squadrons were in action, and they fought valiantly for three months. I was well aware that in the early days of our alliance there was little we could do, and I tried to fill the void by civilities.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin 25 July 41

I am glad to inform you that the War Cabinet have decided, in spite of the fact that this will seriously deplete our fighter aircraft resources, to send to Russia as soon as possible two hundred Tomahawk fighter airplanes. One hundred and forty of these will be sent from here to Archangel, and sixty from our supplies in the United States of America. Details as to spare parts and American personnel to erect the machines have still to be arranged with the American Government.

2. Up to two to three million pairs of ankle boots should shortly be available in this country for shipment. We are also arranging to provide during the present year large quantities of rubber, tin, wool and woollen cloth, jute, lead, and shellac. All your other requirements from raw materials are receiving careful consideration. Where supplies are impossible or limited from here, we are discussing with the United States of America.

Details will of course be communicated to the usual official channels.

3. We are watching with admiration and emotion Russia’s magnificent fight, and all our information shows the heavy losses and concern of the enemy. Our air attack on Germany will continue with increasing strength.

Rubber was scarce and precious, and the Russian demand for it was on the largest scale. I even broke into our modest reserves.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin 28 July 41

Rubber. We will deliver the goods from here or United States by the best and quickest route. Please say exactly what kind of rubber, and which way you wish it to come. Preliminary orders are already given. . . .

3. The grand resistance of the Russian Army in defence of their soil unites us all. A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany. No one has yet had what they are going to get. The naval operations mentioned in my last telegram to you are in progress. Thank you very much for your comprehension in the midst of your great fight of our difficulties in doing more. We will do our utmost.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin 31 July 41

Following my personal intervention, arrangements are now complete for the dispatch of ten thousand tons of rubber from this country to one of your northern ports.

In view of the urgency of your requirements, we are taking the risk of depleting to this extent our metropolitan stocks, which are none too large and will take time to replace. British ships carrying this rubber, and certain other supplies, will be loaded within a week, or at most ten days, and will sail to one of your northern ports as soon as the Admiralty can arrange convoy. This new amount of ten thousand tons is additional to the ten thousand tons of rubber already allotted from Malaya.

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I tried my best to build up by frequent personal telegrams the same kind of happy relations which I had developed with President Roosevelt. In this long Moscow series I received many rebuffs and only rarely a kind word. In many cases the telegrams were left unanswered altogether or for many days.

The Soviet Government had the impression that they were conferring a great favour on us by fighting in their own country for their own lives. The more they fought, the heavier our debt became. This was not a balanced view. Two or three times in this long correspondence I had to protest in blunt language, but especially against the ill-usage of our sailors, who carried at so much peril the supplies to Murmansk and Archangel. Almost invariably however I bore hectoring and reproaches with “a patient shrug; for sufferance is the badge” of all who have to deal with the Kremlin. Moreover, I made constant allowances for the pressures under which Stalin and his dauntless Russian nation lay.

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The German armies in Russia had driven deep into the country, but at the end of July there arose a fundamental clash of opinion between Hitler and Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief. Brauchitsch held that Timoshenko’s Army Group, which lay in front of Moscow, constituted the main Russian strength and must first be defeated. This was orthodox doctrine. Thereafter, Brauchitsch contended, Moscow, the main military, political, and industrial nerve centre of all Russia, should be taken. Hitler forcefully disagreed. He wished to gain territory and destroy Russian armies on the broadest front. In the North he demanded the capture of Leningrad, and in the South of the industrial Donetz Basin, the Crimea, and the entry to Russia’s Caucasian oil supplies. Meanwhile Moscow could wait.

After vehement discussion Hitler overruled his Army chiefs. The Northern Army Group, reinforced from the centre, was ordered to press operations against Leningrad. The German Centre Group was relegated to the defensive. They were directed to send a Panzer group southward to take in flank the Russians who were being pursued across the Dnieper by Rundstedt. In this action the Germans prospered. By early September a vast pocket of Russian forces was forming in the triangle Konotop-Kremenchug-Kiev, and over half a million men were killed or captured in the desperate fighting which lasted all that month. In the North no such success could be claimed. Leningrad was encircled but not taken. Hitler’s decision had not been right. He now turned his mind and will-power back to the centre. The besiegers of Leningrad were ordered to detach mobile forces and part of their supporting air force to reinforce a renewed drive on Moscow. The Panzer group which had been sent south to von Rundstedt came back again to join in the assault. At the end of September the stage was reset for the formerly discarded central thrust, while the southern armies drove on eastward to the lower Don, whence the Caucasus would lie open to them.

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The attitude of Russia to Poland lay at the root of our early relations with the Soviets.

The German attack on Russia did not come as a surprise to Polish circles abroad. Since March, 1941, reports from the Polish underground upon German troop concentrations on the western frontiers of Russia had been reaching their Government in London. In the event of war a fundamental change in the relations between Soviet Russia and the Polish Government in exile would be inevitable. The first problem would be how far the provisions of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August, 1939, relating to Poland could be reversed without endangering the unity of a combined Anglo-Russian war alliance. When the news of the German attack on Russia broke upon the world, the re-establishment of Polish-Russian relations, which had been broken off in 1939, became important. The conversations between the two Governments began in London under British auspices on July 5. Poland was represented by the Prime Minister of her exiled Government, General Sikorski, and Russia by the Soviet Ambassador, M. Maisky. The Poles had two aims—the recognition by the Soviet Government that the partition of Poland agreed to by Germany and Russia in 1939 was now null and void, and the liberation by Russia of all Polish prisoners of war and civilians deported to the Soviet Union after the Russian occupation of the eastern areas of Poland.

Throughout the month of July these negotiations continued in a frigid atmosphere. The Russians were obstinate in their refusal to make any precise commitment in conformity with Polish wishes. Russia regarded the question of her western frontiers as not open to discussion. Could she be trusted to behave fairly in this matter in the possibly distant future, when hostilities would come to an end in Europe? The British Government were in a dilemma from the beginning. We had gone to war with Germany as the direct result of our guarantee to Poland. We had a strong obligation to support the interest of our first ally. At this stage in the struggle we could not admit the legality of the Russian occupation of Polish territory in 1939. In this summer of 1941, less than two weeks after the appearance of Russia on our side in the struggle against Germany, we could not force our new and sorely threatened ally to abandon, even on paper, regions on her frontiers which she had regarded for generations as vital to her security. There was no way out. The issue of the territorial future of Poland must be postponed until easier times. We had the invidious responsibility of recommending General Sikorski to rely on Soviet good faith in the future settlement of Russian-Polish relations, and not to insist at this moment on any written guarantees for the future. I sincerely hoped for my part that with the deepening experience of comradeship in arms against Hitler the major Allies would be able to resolve the territorial problems in amicable discussion at the conference table. In the clash of battle at this vital point in the war, all must be subordinated to strengthening the common military effort. And in this struggle a resurgent Polish army based on the many thousands of Poles now held in Russia would play a noble part. On this point the Russians were prepared to agree in a guarded fashion.

On July 30, after many bitter discussions, agreement was reached between the Polish and Russian Governments. Diplomatic relations were restored, and a Polish army was to be formed on Russian soil and subordinated to the supreme command of the Soviet Government. There was no mention of frontiers, except a general statement that the Soviet-German treaties of 1939 about territorial changes in Poland “have lost their validity.” In an official Note of July 30 to the Polish Government the Foreign Secretary stated our view:

On the occasion of the signature of the Soviet-Polish Agreement of today I desire to take this opportunity of informing you that in conformity with the provisions of the agreement for mutual assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland of the 25th of August, 1939, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom have entered into no undertaking towards the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics which affects the relations between that country and Poland. I also desire to assure you that His Majest