The Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East

FOR Hitler the failure to defeat Great Britain, following the fall of France and the entry of Italy into the war, created a new range of diplomatic and strategic problems. His hopes of peace in the west had been dashed first by Great Britain’s determination to fight on and then by its success in doing so. He told those round him that Great Britain was sustained by the prospect of Germany being embroiled with the Soviet Union, and this misreading of the British mood gave him a new reason – besides the quest for Lebensraum – to deal with the USSR. He faced a complex situation in the Mediterranean which was a theatre of war so long as Great Britain refused to make peace and where the interests of Italy, France and Spain – an ally, a vassal and a coy courtesan – collided. And thirdly, the war at sea, which became once more the chief means of reducing Great Britain, involved some risk of war with the United States.

On 27 September 1940, before the invasion of Great Britain had been officially abandoned. Hitler revived a project for a Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan. Each of the signatories undertook to come to the aid of another in the event of an attack by any state not yet at war. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka Yosuke, was becoming alarmed about the possibility of Japan finding itself at war with the USSR, the United States and Great Britain all at once. He was therefore willing to fall in with Hitler’s plans in order to deter Washington from joining Great Britain in a war against a two-continent coalition, and in order also to put pressure on Stalin to come to terms with Japan in Manchuria. (Matsuoka’s manoeuvres were stultified when Hitler abandoned his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR.) Hitler’s aims were similar. He too needed to deter the United States and intimidate Stalin – although he professed to be anxious to improve relations with the USSR and even to get it to join the pact, which would then have become an anti-American four-power club whose members divided the world into spheres of influence among themselves and collectively dared the United States not to move out of its allotted sphere in the New World. But Molotov, who visited Berlin in November, asked awkward questions about the presence of German troops in Finland and the German guarantee of Rumania and observed that so long as discussion had to be conducted in an air raid shelter, there was something unrealistic about a plan for partitioning a world in which the British Empire was presumed to have ceased to exist.

Hitler’s most immediate problem was the Mediterranean. This theatre was bisected by his ally Italy. At the western end were Vichy France and Spain, at the eastern end the Balkans. In France Hitler had established an occupational régime in the north and along the Atlantic coast and a satellite régime for the rest of the country. But this satellite was a satellite with a difference. Pétain had a certain number of cards in his hand – the not inconsiderable remnants of an important fleet, territories and strategic positions in North and West Africa and the Middle East, a degree of American benevolence, and a willingness to run France on lines broadly acceptable to Hitler and so relieve the Germans of administrative problems so long as they did not try to push Vichy too far. The Nazi leaders disliked the French but they could not treat France in the same way as Czechoslovakia or Poland. Therefore they could not give Italy the satisfaction, nor Spain the bribes, which these other Latin countries wanted at France’s expense.

Hitler regarded Franco’s Spain as a natural ally and as a debtor. A republican Spain he might have invaded without more ado but Franco’s Spain he sought to bargain with. His aim was to lure Franco into active alliance in order to secure control of the western gateway into the Mediterranean and possession of one of the Canary islands as a base for the Battle of the Atlantic. The bait for Franco was Gibraltar. On his side Franco had allied Spain with the Axis by a Treaty of Friendship with Germany in March 1939 and by joining the Anti-Comintern Pact, and in June 1940 he had seemed on the verge of joining the war a few days after Mussolini did so. But there were arguments against as well as for. Hitler’s attack on Roman Catholic Poland in partnership with Stalin had disconcerted the profoundly anti-communist Spanish dictator, and his innate wiliness and caution were accentuated by the need to keep Spain out of further trouble after the civil war and particularly by the need to import food. Franco, whose Ambassador in London was being cajoled by Churchill and was even given to understand that Spain might help itself to part of French North Africa, did not rise to the German bait of a joint German-Spanish attack on Gibraltar and at a long meeting with Hitler and Ribbentrop at Hendaye on 23 October he frustrated the German leaders in a bout of arguing in the course of which, besides pitching Spanish claims very high – Oran, the whole of French Morocco, large quantities of food, fuel and military equipment – he left Hitler in two minds about whether he intended to join in such an adventure at a date which he would not yet disclose or whether the securing of the western end of the Mediterranean would have to be undertaken not with him but against him. Further meetings at the end of the year between Hitler and Franco’s Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Suñer at Berchtesgaden and between Franco and Hitler’s military intelligence chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris in Madrid only increased the uncertainty. Mussolini was equally unsuccessful and Hitler toyed with the idea of a direct parachute attack on Gibraltar, which his advisers however had already considered and rejected. The German invasion of the USSR altered the atmosphere since this was something which Franco could wholeheartedly support and he sent 18,000 men to share in the anti-communist crusade of his fellow dictators. He was shocked by Churchill’s prompt support for Stalin and even more by the Anglo-Russian alliance, which, Eden had assured his Ambassador in London, was unthinkable. But he continued to prevaricate over active operations in his own part of the world, so that Hitler was driven at one time to making inquiries about the chances of a coup to replace him by another general and considered as late as 1943 plans for an invasion of Spain.

If Hitler’s dealings with Franco were a disappointment to the Führer, his relations with Mussolini went more seriously wrong. Mussolini’s ideas were large, impracticable and not always consonant with German policy: if Hitler was to rule from the Atlantic to the Urals, Mussolini was going to rule the Mediterranean and all its circumambient lands (except presumably Spain). For Mussolini the rise of Hitler had offered a means not only of settling scores with Great Britain and France but also of winning an empire beyond Europe while Hitler kept him inviolable in Europe. The symbol of this vision was the Pact of Steel of May 1939. But at that date Mussolini was not ready for war. Like Hitler, but with more reason, he planned not to go to war until 1942 and the defeat of France in 1940 therefore upset his timetable. It did not, however, moderate his visions. At a meeting in October 1940 at the Brenner the Italian leaders made clear to their German partners that their first shopping list included not only a piece of southern France but also Corsica, Malta, Tunisia, part of Algeria, an Atlantic port in Morocco, French Somaliland and the British position in Egypt and the Sudan. Besides running counter to Hitler’s plan to operate a limited accord with France, the creation of an Italian empire of this size, straddling the Mediterranean from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and marching with an equally vast German empire to the north of it, threatened to raise questions about the Middle East which Hitler was, vaguely, proposing to approach via the Caucasus and Mussolini, much more purposefully, via Suez.

Hitler had been generally content to leave Europe south of the Alps to Mussolini. He had expected Mussolini to attack Malta in the summer of 1940 but Mussolini made no move; he was still intent on keeping out of serious wars. The Italian air force was obsolescent and the fleet, though large and in some respects first-class, was lightly armed by comparison with the British and French fleets and untrained in night operations. The army was gravely ill equipped and, although Mussolini did not know it at the time, its morale was poor: shouting fascist slogans proved a bad way of inspiring troops and the Italians were to fight badly until they were pressed back into Tunisia in 1943 and then changed sides later that year to fight the Germans on Italian soil. Mussolini’s decision to go to war in 1940 was therefore the beginning of a series of disasters for Italy. Moreover, his opening of a campaign in Greece which he could not finish was seriously to distort Hitler’s overall strategy.

Hitler had already in July decided to attack the USSR in the following spring and on 18 December he issued his first Barbarossa directive. In it he stated that the USSR might be invaded ‘even before’ the war with Great Britain was over. Since he assumed, correctly, that Great Britain could not help the USSR by opening a second front for at least eighteen months, he was not risking a war on two fronts unless the Russians held out that long. He expected to dispatch the Russians within six months and then revert to the problem of the British. But at the end of 1940 he was forced by the Italians, who attacked in Greece, and by the British, who counter-attacked the Italians in Africa, to undertake far more than he had intended in south-east Europe and eventually in Africa too. The Balkans, instead of being a flank to be secured before Barbarossa, became an independent theatre of war with extensions leading German troops and air squadrons away from the USSR into waters and sands beyond Europe’s southern confines.

The Balkans and Hungary were already dominated by Germany before the war began. Annexed, by economic power, in the thirties they were to be lost in the military clash of the forties. These states had emerged as exemplars of the principle of national self-determination – which, however, they exemplified imperfectly since none of them was nationally homogeneous, although each was sufficiently a nation to have national quarrels with its neighbours. To other states they were chiefly of interest in the light of an older theory: the balance of power. Between the wars France made friends with Rumania and Yugoslavia because they stood for the maintenance of the Versailles settlement of 1919 and opposed any signs of a revival of German hegemony, but the waning of French influence in the thirties and its eclipse at Munich in 1938 forced France’s friends to look elsewhere for salvation. Economically adrift and fearful of their Bulgarian and Hungarian neighbours (both of them hurt by the post-war settlement and waiting to alter the map once more), they were forced to turn to Germany. By 1939 all the states of the region, pro-Versailles or anti-Versailles, were wooing Germany with what they had – which was raw materials – in the hope either of protection or redress. To Germany they were important, as they had once been to France, not for any reasons connected with the politics of the area itself but for extrinsic reasons.

The Russo-German pact of 1939 recognized a Russian interest in the Balkans by assigning Bessarabia to the USSR. A year later Stalin, by annexing northern Bukovina as well, signalled that his interest was not limited to Bessarabia. Rumania thought of going to war but was restrained by Hitler who had other plans. Although in 1939 he had declared himself disinterested in this part of the world, he was not. Rumania’s natural resources and its strategic position on the southern border of the USSR made it very important for him. In the autumn of 1940 he further partitioned Rumania by giving a piece to Hungary (the second Vienna Award, in August) and a piece to Bulgaria (the treaty of Craiova, in September). By this time King Carol was ready to throw in his hand. He had tried unsuccessfully to rule through a minor party and then through the Patriarch as Prime Minister, but after the humiliating territorial losses exacted by Hitler he abdicated and what remained of Rumania was controlled by Germany through Marshal Ion Antonescu with the title of Conducator. In November Rumania, Hungary and Slovakia – a Balkan northern tier along the Russian southern flank – all adhered to the Tripartite Pact. German troops appeared. Hitler was peacefully strengthening his control of the Balkans. He did not want it otherwise. He had no wish for a war in what was to him a storehouse and a waiting area. But on 28 October Mussolini had invaded Greece, and Hitler gradually found himself forced to make new plans and to interpose a military campaign in the Balkans before his invasion of the USSR.

Mussolini had given Hitler no proper notice of his attack on Greece. He sent a letter at the last moment and ante-dated it by five days. This was his way of retaliating against Hitler’s habit of invading other countries without telling his ally in advance. In any case he knew that Hitler would object to his plans, because Hitler had been urging him to bide his time. This silly failure in cooperation was characteristic of the partnership between the Axis allies. Neither of the dictators was by nature a cooperator. They lacked – indeed despised – the habits of intercourse and interchange which are the everyday experience of democratic politicians. Moreover, by the time that their alliance had become formal on the eve of war, their relationship had begun to lose some of its strength. This was more Mussolini’s fault than Hitler’s, for while Hitler entertained a genuine admiration for Mussolini as his forerunner among men of iron will and retained a feeling of obligation to him, Mussolini had from the start been attracted to Hitler partly in spite of himself. He gravitated to the Axis more through repulsion from the western democracies than through any love of Hitler or of Germany, and he quickly allowed congenital jealousy to corrode an alliance which, although it had become essential for his policies, cast him as a manifestly junior, increasingly uncomfortable partner.

Jealousy and suspiciousness were strong features in Mussolini’s character. He was a solitary. He had neither friends nor intimates. He had the singlemindedness and determination of the man who cares little for money or the other ordinary comforts of life (except sex), but he too often failed to relate his purposes to his resources. He was energetic without being industrious, so that his achievements were those of the gambler who leaves even the calculable to chance. His working-class origins, his poverty in early life and his consciousness of defective education and social poise made him aloof, secretive and assertive; he had neither the training nor the character to rectify his shortcomings by methodical hard work or by arguing (as Hitler sometimes did) with people who had ideas or knowledge to offer. He remained sketchily informed about public affairs and averse to listening to advisers who might be cleverer or better informed than he was; his energies, which were considerable until the last years of his life, went into posturing and rhetoric. He believed in the regenerative virtue of violence but much of the violence was, unlike Hitler’s quests for Lebensraum and racial purity, pointless. There is something symbolic about the fact that the prelude to his rule was a spectacular event – the March on Rome which never took place. Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister not because he advanced on the capital like a conqueror but because he outwitted rival politicians by devious scheming which he conducted at a distance in Milan and which made a grand coup unnecessary. He arrived in Rome by train.

Mussolini was a shrewd and stubborn politician who used the apparatus of tyranny because he was also a bully. Being ruthless and unprincipled he liked the short cuts which the strong arm of lawlessness provides, and very soon after becoming Prime Minister he discovered how well these methods can work in both international and domestic affairs. In 1923 General Enrico Tellini and other Italians who were members of a commission engaged in surveying the unsettled Greco-Albanian frontier were murdered on Greek soil. Mussolini bombarded and seized Corfu, berated the Greek government in extravagant style and had the satisfaction of seeing the British and French governments pressing Greece to accept Italy’s humiliating and unjustifiable demands. In the following year Italy scored a substantial victory against Yugoslavia over Fiume because Yugoslavia could muster no outside support for its case. Foreign politicians were beginning to show respect for Mussolini as a statesman of consequence and were therefore contriving to turn a blind eye to such aspects of Fascism as the murder of the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti (to which Mussolini’s language certainly contributed, even though he may have given no precise order for the deed) and the suppression of personal and civil liberties in the name of efficiency and good order: they noted improvements in the public services but ignored the deterioration in manners and morals. By the time that Hitler came to power Mussolini had had a decade of experience in the techniques and fruits of brutality. He was secure at home and respected (by governments) abroad. He was ready to impress Hitler as he had impressed other leaders, but he had not bargained with the possibility that both he himself in relation to Hitler, and Italy in relation to Germany, might have to play a subordinate role in world politics. For the rest of his career he kicked ineffectually against these pricks. The invasion of Greece in the autumn of 1940 was the uncoordinated reflex of an ally who was not a good partner, of a secondary power seeking to establish parity with a first-class power by attacking a third-class one.

Mussolini wanted Italy to be a Balkan power as well as an African one. Greeks were well aware of this and Venizelos had begun in 1928 to mend Greece’s relations with Yugoslavia and Turkey. He made a treaty with Italy in the same year but it became a dead letter. Venizelos wanted to end the old feud with Bulgaria too but in 1930 King Boris married an Italian princess. A Balkan pact concluded (without Bulgaria) in 1934 was mainly an anti-Italian mutual defence measure, but it lacked coherence and strength. By the summer of 1940, after Mussolini had won a little territory from France but not much glory, an Italian offensive in the Balkans seemed more than probable, the more so when the Greek cruiser Helle was torpedoed by an Italian submarine in the Aegean in August. The British guarantee could not be rated very high. The only hope was that Hitler would restrain his ally.

This hope was destroyed when Mussolini’s Ambassador delivered an ultimatum in the middle of the night of 27–8 October. Italian troops had already crossed the Greek frontier with Albania. But the attack was a complete failure. It was undertaken against the advice of all three Italian Chiefs of Staff, who gave Mussolini accurate estimates of Greek resistance. The Duce preferred, however, to listen to his Commander-in-Chief in Albania who promised to overrun the whole of Epirus in ten to fifteen days and secure the capitulation of the Greek army. He assured Mussolini that everything had been prepared down to the smallest detail which, since the attack had been envisaged nearly four months earlier, should have been the case. But there had in fact been little planning and the operation launched on 28 October was more like a whim than a campaign. The invading force of three divisions was totally inadequate and within a week the Greeks were counter-attacking and advancing into Albania. The Italians had attacked in three prongs. Their central prong was cut off, and the two prongs on either side had to be withdrawn. Italian casualties were heavy. Prisoners were taken by the thousand. By the third week in November there were no Italians left on Greek soil. In addition the British Fleet Air Arm damaged three Italian battleships in a night attack at Taranto on 11–12 November, as a result of which Taranto was abandoned and all Italian vessels of war were moved to harbours on the west coast. The British also moved forward into Crete and the Aegean – whence the RAF could threaten the Rumanian oilfields.

Things were also going badly for Italy on the other side of the Mediterranean. There Marshal Graziani had an army of 215,000 men in Libya. So long as France was in the war Graziani had a good case for lying low, since he was sandwiched between the French in Tunisia and Algeria and the British in Egypt, but as soon as France collapsed Mussolini began to urge him into action. Graziani was reluctant but in September, after having been ordered to fight, he began the first of the series of attacks and counterattacks which were to constitute the battle for North Africa which lasted until May 1943. In the first week of December, in a daring offensive of great political moment, the British retaliated. This move, by a force of little more than 30,000 men, was designed to show that Great Britain was still very much in the war. With remarkable daring, Churchill had sent reinforcements to the Middle East in the middle of the Battle of Britain. He hoped that a show of spirit far away from home might even get France back into the war, and although in this the desert campaign failed, it did make Hitler nervous about a rising in France and finally turned Franco against the Gibraltar plan and the entry of German troops into Spain.

Militarily the British offensive was an astonishing success. Throughout December and January the small British force under General Sir Archibald Wavell advanced from Sidi Barrani inside Egypt to Tobruk (which was captured in twenty-four hours) and then, both along the coast and across the desert, to Benghazi in the north-western corner of Cyrenaica. What had begun as a demonstration turned into a major victory. Wavell’s mixed force of British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, French and Polish units covered 500 miles in two months and destroyed an Italian army six times its own size. This success also had wider repercussions. It forced Hitler to send help to the Italians, to revise and enlarge the scope of his contingency plans for a move into the Balkans on the basis that the British too might move into Greece in strength, and to make arrangements despite Russian objections for the entry of German troops into Bulgaria and that country’s adherence to the Tripartite Pact.

But at Benghazi, which was captured on 7 February, the British advance stopped. The British cabinet had decided that it must be limited. Wavell had already been required to send four squadrons of aircraft (Blenheims and Gladiators) to help the Greeks on the Albanian front and anti-aircraft units to defend Athens; he had another war to fight in East Africa; he was responsible for the safety of Palestine and the Suez Canal, which could be threatened by an anti-British government in Iraq or by the Vichy French in Syria; and five days after the fall of Benghazi Rommel arrived in Tripoli, followed a couple of days later by the first of the German tanks which were destined to transform a desert war which now ceased to be an Anglo-Italian affair.

German intervention in North Africa had first been mooted and then dropped in October 1940. In November, during a not very amicable conference at Salzburg between Hitler and Ciano, Hitler began giving instructions and making promises. He urged the Italians to push on into Egypt and he promised air support. During that winter some 400 German aircraft operated in the Mediterranean protecting supply routes to Africa and attacking British shipping and air bases. Malta, which had been inadequately equipped to defend itself against air attack, was besieged by the German and Italian air forces which succeeded in interdicting it to the British navy and making the Mediterranean impassable by British convoys. The British continued their attacks on Italy, bombarding Genoa from the sea and bombing Spezia and Leghorn from the air in February. The Italians retaliated with hazardous but often successful attacks by small torpedo boats on British heavy units in harbour, but on 28 March British naval superiority was massively affirmed in a battle off Cape Matapan in which three Italian cruisers and two destroyers were sunk. Although the main target, the battleship Vittorio Veneto, got away, the Italian navy ceased to be a major factor in the war. (Italy also lost East Africa at this time. In August 1940 the Italians had forced Great Britain to leave British Somaliland and were threatening the Sudan and Kenya but the British returned in February 1941 and with the help of South African, Nigerian, Indian and French troops proceeded to invade Ethiopia and Eritrea. Addis Ababa was abandoned at the beginning of April. Resistance continued in the north and the final, inevitable surrender did not come until November. The campaign was remarkable for the extraordinary exploits of Gideon Force which consisted of Ethiopian and Sudanese men under Lieutenant Colonel Orde Wingate and other British officers and took over 15,000 prisoners in three months.)

In the spring of 1941 the Germans attacked on the Balkan and North African fronts in campaigns which were subordinate to the attack on the USSR to come in June. Hitler had already left one front unsettled when he desisted from his attack on Great Britain in the autumn of 1940. Now, in the south, if he failed to conclude either his Balkan or his North African operations before beginning Barbarossa, he would again have multiplied his commitments. He concluded the one but not the other.

Forebodings of a German occupation of the Balkans raised forlorn hopes of a local alliance to deter it, with British support. After the Italian invasion of their country, Greeks hoped to induce the British to shift their weight in the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to Greece, the better to attack the Italians, but the British lacked the resources for effective operations in the two theatres and were reluctant to risk what they held in the one for possible advantages in the other. The RAF gave modest aid against the Italians in Albania but although this help was increased from February 1941 it was not enough to eliminate the Italians before the advent of the Germans. There were, however, political considerations which weighed with Churchill – quite apart from the philhellene emotions roused in Great Britain by the unexpectedly successful Greek resistance. There was in the first place the British guarantee to Greece in 1939; it was time a British guarantee was honoured. Churchill hoped too that Turkey might be got into the war against the Germans; effective support for Greece would weigh with the rulers of Turkey. (Ineffectiveness did too. Turkey followed its instincts and stayed neutral.) Most importantly, Churchill had an eye on the Americans and the impact on them of the establishment of a Balkan front against the Axis. Great Britain had shown that it could win battles against Hitler but Churchill knew that Great Britain alone could never defeat Hitler on the continent. From the time he took office as Prime Minister Churchill kept his mind firmly, on the big central issue of forming a coalition powerful enough to destroy Hitler’s Germany, and the United States was the essential element in this design. A failure to help the Greeks, whose cause had been very popular in the United States ever since their brave riposte to the Italian invasion in the previous year, might discredit Great Britain; going to their help, even if unsuccessfully, would be accounted to Great Britain for virtue.

At the end of February 1941 Eden, now once more Foreign Secretary, went to Athens with the CIGS, Sir John Dill. By this date German intentions were apparent, Bulgarian adherence to the Tripartite Pact was clearly only a matter of time, and the chances of enlisting Yugoslavia or Turkey in joint operations with Greece and Great Britain were meagre. Bulgaria joined the Pact on 1 March and German troops began to move into that country. Yugoslavia was expected to follow suit sooner rather than later, while the Turks were refusing to join the war without assurances of British military supplies which Great Britain could not spare. Nevertheless from Athens Eden sent Churchill an optimistic assessment of the military possibilities and with this encouragement Churchill who, like Wavell, had been reluctant to prejudice the campaign in North Africa by deflecting ground and air forces to Greece, decided in favour of helping Greece and told Wavell that in the event of a German attack he would have to go to Greece’s help. The Australian and New Zealand governments reluctantly agreed.

The Greek government was no less dubious. Help was welcome, but only if it were substantial. In the Greek view, token help would be worse than useless. Greek and British attitudes were now in some ways the reverse of what they had been two years earlier. Then Greece had wanted a firm British commitment in order to deter Italy while Great Britain had hesitated and recoiled for fear of provoking Italy. Now Greece was anxious not to invite a German onslaught so long as any hope of evading it remained and therefore opposed any British military involvement which would be large enough to provoke but not massive enough to deter or defeat the Germans. Greece had failed in 1940 to get enough British help against the Italians to turn their successes in the field into total victory, even though they had been willing at that stage to promise to enter Great Britain’s war with Germany in return for substantial help against Italy. The Greek government feared, correctly as it turned out, that the only British help available would be inadequate to stop Hitler. Given the limits on Greek military power which remained almost entirely committed to holding the Italians in the north-west, the only possible anti-German strategy was a substantial British force in the north-east with merely token Greek support. But in spite of these doubts the Greek government agreed in principle in February 1941 to admit a British force into Greece and rejected a German offer of immunity from invasion in return for neutrality.

At this point there was a muddle. An attack through Bulgaria, Greece’s traditional enemy, was taken for granted. But Yugoslavia’s attitude was still uncertain. In the vortex of Balkan politics Yugoslavia and Greece had been over the years more friendly than unfriendly, and if this friendship held – indeed, until it was obvious that it would not hold – the Greeks wanted to keep their communications with Yugoslavia open. In order to do this, they must plan to meet the German-Bulgarian attack on a line north and east of Salonica, even though this line was unfavourable for natural reasons and harder for the British to reach. The British favoured the more southerly line along the river Aliakmon and even this position was likely to prove untenable if Yugoslavia allowed the Germans to invade through Yugoslavia as well as Bulgaria – or, as in fact happened, was unable to stop them. The situation was further complicated by the unfinished war with the Italians in the west, since a withdrawal south of the Aliakmon, without a matching retreat in the west, would expose the Greek forces facing the Italians to encirclement by the Germans – which is what happened. The Greek government hoped and expected Eden to clarify Yugoslavia’s position and believed Eden to have agreed that there should be no Greek withdrawal to the Aliakmon line until this had been done. This was the first of a series of muddles for which the blame is still not clear. While the British imagined the Greeks to be regrouping on the Aliakmon line, they were in fact waiting in the north, where they were eventually caught.


In Yugoslavia the Regent Paul had hesitated about following the Rumanian and Bulgarian example and joining the Tripartite Pact. He was urged by Great Britain and the United States to resist German pressure and attack the Italians in Albania, but neither London nor Washington was able to offer any practical help, although Eden dangled territorial bribes before the Regent in return for Yugoslav belligerence against the Italians in Greece. The Regent equivocated. He was pro-British but no fool and he judged that the British wanted to pull him into the war for their own purposes and without any plan to save Yugoslavia from the Axis. In the end, impressed by the fall of France and hoping to get Salonica as his reward, he took the plunge and on 25 March joined the Pact. Two days later his government was overthrown by General Simovic, the leader of a group hostile to the Regent and supported principally by the Serb Orthodox Church. Simovic wanted to steer a neutral course by keeping clear of pacts and wars, and he continued to refuse to attack the Italians. But this was not good enough for Hitler, who was determined to scotch any possible British advance into the Aegean and Greece. He resolved to invade Yugoslavia and Greece and attacked both on 6 April, deploying against the former seven Panzer divisions and 1,000 aircraft. After heavy bombing and grievous casualties Belgrade fell on the 13th. The government capitulated four days later. Yugoslavia disintegrated. On the heels of the German conquerors Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy helped themselves to pieces of what they, wrongly, took to be a corpse; the Croat leader Anté Pavelic arrived from Rome to establish a separate Croat state; Serbia became a German puppet.

Greece was defeated only slightly less abruptly. The German attack had been preceded by a fresh Italian offensive in mid-March. Hopeful and ill-informed, Mussolini crossed to Albania, but had to go back again when his attack failed. The German attack followed. Fifty thousand British, Australian and New Zealand troops, supported by only one squadron of modern aircraft, could do little to succour the Greeks. Seven thousand Greeks were made prisoner and much valuable British material was captured. By the end of April resistance on the Greek mainland was over. Survivors from the Greek and Commonwealth forces were transported to Crete, which had been in British occupation for six months. Unfortunately for them little had been done to defend Crete in the mistaken belief that Great Britain’s command of the sea made it impossible for an airborne invasion to be sustained. Churchill had urged that it be turned into a fortress bristling with everything from tanks to road blocks and defended by armed Cretans as well as British and other Commonwealth troops. He did not know that the requisite defences had not been constructed or that essential reconnaissance of the terrain had been neglected. The 3,500 Greek troops in the island had only one rifle per six men and three rounds of ammunition each; existing airstrips were not mined and proposals to build hidden airstrips in the hills not carried out; in spite of a plentiful supply of Italian prisoners of war landing stages were not constructed on the south shore nor roads to link north and south, with the result that supply ships from Egypt had to circle dangerously round the island and unload under intense enemy air attack; there were hardly any tanks and a fatal lack of radio and telegraph equipment.

The attack began on 20 May with glider and parachute landings from a fleet of 500 transport aircraft. These operations were very costly. Although air cover had been withdrawn from the defences before the invasion began, so that the approach of the air armada was unopposed, the reception was very hot and whole units were wiped out on landing or soon afterwards, many of them before they could reach the weapons which were dropped for them separately. Reinforcements were delayed because the airfields which the Germans were using in Greece were inadequately prepared dust bowls. But during the ensuing night Maleme airfield at the western end of the island was abandoned by the New Zealanders and the Germans started using it the next day. All efforts to dislodge them failed. This was a vital turn in events since, contrary to British belief, the German airborne forces were largely dependent on airfields and could not mount a concentrated attack with units dropped at random over the countryside.

A supplementary sea-borne invasion on the second night was baulked by the British navy, which suffered, however, seriously from air attacks. The defenders, believing that the main weight of the attack was bound to come from the sea, paid more attention to shore defence than to the recapture of Maleme, from which the Germans pressed eastward gradually and in increasing force. A week after the beginning of the attack it was clear that the main issues were the timing of the evacuation of the defenders and the number who would be saved. Withdrawal began on 1 June. Only half the defenders got away. The British Mediterranean fleet suffered seriously (three cruisers and six destroyers sunk, two battleships, three cruisers and an aircraft carrier damaged) in the attempt to thwart the invasion and the subsequent rescue operations and had to suspend the latter for fear of incurring further losses which would jeopardize its control of the eastern Mediterranean.

The capture from the air of an island defended by superior naval forces was a spectacular achievement but a freak. The defenders had failed to make good use of their six months’ occupation of the island, denuded the island of its air fighter defences, failed with a force of 32,000 men to hold all of the three vital airfields and, having abandoned Maleme, failed to recapture it. These failures, leading to a further humiliating evacuation, blackened the reputation of the commander-in-chief, General Sir Bernard Freyberg, all the more so since he had received full and accurate intelligence from Ultra about German strengths and intentions. But the battle for Crete illustrated the limitations of Ultra as much as its value, for Freyberg had been verbally instructed by Wavell not to make tactical use of Ultra without corroborating intelligence from another source. This was standard practice and prevailed throughout the war. So important was Ultra that Churchill decreed that it was better to lose a battle than to lose this source. Consequently Freyberg was prevented from redisposing his forces on the basis of what he learned from Ultra and when he appealed to Wavell to be dispensed from the rule Wavell rejected his plea. Whether Crete would have been saved if the rules had been different it is impossible to say. But it is possible to assert that the rules were sound, since saving Crete at the cost of Ultra would probably have led in the next year to the loss of the far more crucial battle in the Atlantic.

The Germans considered themselves lucky to have won Crete so easily. They tacitly drew the conclusion that they should not have done so. Over a third of their airborne invaders were killed or wounded, the Luftwaffe lost 220 aircraft and no parachute operation of this kind was ever again attempted. Hitler, having won an extra base for helping Rommel and having driven the British beyond air range of Ploesti’s oilfields, scrapped plans for a similar attack on Malta and turned his parachute units into infantry regiments.

It has been suggested that the Cretan operation delayed Barbarossa and so saved Moscow and even possibly the USSR itself in 1941. The Simovic coup in Belgrade occurred on the day, 27 March, for which Hitler had convoked a conference to discuss Barbarossa. The conference discussed Yugoslavia instead, Hitler decided to invade it as soon as possible and he postponed Barbarossa from mid-May to 22 June. Since the thaw came late that year there would have been some postponement anyway. The decision to interpose a Balkan war was chiefly important because the tanks used in it (800 of them) would need a breathing space for refitting between campaigns. This they were able to have. The further decision to take Crete caused some confusion (but nothing more serious) as the forces designated for Crete were moved south while the forces being shifted from Greece to the Russian fronts moved the other way, but the air squadrons left in Greece to cover the Cretan operation could move to their Barbarossa stations at shorter notice and the parachute troops were not intended for use in the USSR at all. Moscow was not saved by a mere alteration to the timetable of a week or two, and although the proposition cannot be incontestably proved or refuted it is very hard to see that the campaigns in Yugoslavia and Greece or the attack on Crete had any significant effect on Barbarossa. What might have helped the USSR would have been a successful defence of Crete and a prolongation of the battle there. At one time it looked to Haider as though Barbarossa would have to be further postponed but on 30 May Hitler confirmed the 22 June date.

The seizure of Crete was at the time more apparent than the cost and Cyprus seemed a possible next step. This was all the more alarming for Great Britain because the French in Syria and Lebanon recognized Vichy, in Iraq Great Britain’s enemies had raised their heads and taken power, in Palestine the Mufti Haj Amin was strongly anti-British, and in Egypt King Faruq was not much less so. Consequently the whole British position in the Middle East was in jeopardy and might be scattered by a German attack.

The British position in the Middle East was anomalous. It rested on force, although with the lone exception of Aden no part of the area was constitutionally within the British Empire. During the nineteenth century the rivalries of the European powers had prevented any one of them from annexing portions of the Ottoman empire in Asia as they had annexed parts of Africa, but Great Britain had established de facto control over Egypt (and Cyprus). It also controlled the Persian Gulf and the lesser principalities along its western shores. The First World War produced the long-awaited withering away of the Ottoman empire and in anticipation the allied powers struck bargains for its partition in order to avoid fighting among themselves. The Russians, however, dropped out owing to the revolution of 1917 and the Italians withdrew when they scented the emergence of a Turkish national state out of the Ottoman imperial debris. Great Britain and France were left in control but the temper of the times required control to be veiled. France in Syria and Lebanon, and Great Britain in Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq established their rule under mandates. These mandates gave Great Britain a solid block of territory in the Middle East all the way from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. British forces dominated the area more effectively than Ottoman forces had ever done and this domination was practically unaffected by the grant of formal independence to Egypt in 1922 or the termination of the Iraqi mandate ten years later. Special treaties ensured the continued presence of British naval, military and air forces (although the treaty with Egypt took over ten years to negotiate) and the development of road, rail and air communications made assurance doubly sure. There was no Arab power to gainsay the British but there were Arab nationalists who, observing European politics in the thirties and remembering the interest of an earlier generation of Germans in the Middle East, hoped that Germany might come in useful to put an end to British rule over them. The German campaigns in the Balkans in the spring of 1941 stimulated these hopes, especially in Iraq.

The Arabs had also a second reason for being anti-British besides their nationalist resentment against the British imperialism which (with French imperialism) had frustrated their hopes of ruling themselves as soon as the Turks had been got rid of. In Palestine the British administration allowed a Jewish immigration which, given the background of the Zionist demand for a Jewish state, was a threat to Arab aspirations. During the First World War Great Britain endorsed the Zionist claim to a national home in Palestine (a camouflaged way of referring to the Jewish state which most Zionists wanted and which their founder, Theodore Herzl, had envisaged at the end of the previous century when he wrote his book The Jewish State). Under British rule the Jews in Palestine increased from less than 10 per cent of the population to nearly 30 per cent and the Arabs, who regarded the Jews as alien colonizers of Arab soil, began to look for foreign friends. The Nazis with their anti-Jewish tirades were an obvious choice for an anti-British flirtation. The Arabs were also impressed by the failure of Great Britain and France to check Mussolini in Ethiopia and encouraged by the extensive Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936. Upon the approach of war Great Britain tried to safeguard its position in the Middle East by dropping attempts, which were in any case futile, to find a way of pleasing both Arabs and Jews in Palestine and adopted instead a pro-Arab policy. In 1938 the BBC started broadcasting in Arabic, the first of its foreign language programmes. In May 1939 a British White Paper proposed severe limits on Jewish immigration (at the very moment when the case for it had been enormously enhanced by Hitler’s concentration camps) and assured the Arabs that beyond these limits further immigration would be subject to Arab acquiescence. The White Paper saved Anglo-Arab relations and the British Empire in the Middle East for the war years – but not beyond.

One of the Arab politicians who wished to play the Germans off against the British and use the war to extract concessions from Great Britain about post-war Palestine was Rashid Ali el-Gailani, who became Prime Minister of Iraq in March 1940. A year later he was briefly ousted but returned with increased power. He was supported by four colonels picturesquely known as the Golden Square who were the principal spokesmen and pressure group for politically-minded army officers. The immediate question for Rashid Ali’s government was whether to honour Iraq’s treaty obligations to Great Britain and allow British troops to use the port of Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf on their way to reinforce the British position in Egypt. Rashid Ali and his friends, besides wanting to take a firm line with Great Britain, were afraid that the pro-British party led by Nuri es-Said would lead Iraq into the war in spite of the fact, as it seemed to them, that Great Britain was losing it. Rashid Ali therefore wanted to find out how much German help he would get if he resisted the British, but he found the Germans disappointingly vague. On the one hand Hitler was reluctant to give the Arabs what they wanted because Mussolini, who was still regarded as having at least an equal say in Middle Eastern affairs, had reservations. An Axis declaration endorsing Arab nationalistic aspirations did not square with Mussolini’s intention to assume overlord-ship of Egypt and the Sudan in place of the British. Consequently Hitler hesitated over his Arab policy and eventually agreed to a declaration which fell short of Arab nationalist hopes. On the other hand Hitler did not want Great Britain to score a success in Iraq because such a success could swing Turkey (which had so far fallen down on obligations to Great Britain and France undertaken in a treaty of October 1939) into the British camp with embarrassing results for Germany’s drive into the Caucasus and beyond. So in the end Hitler promised to give air support to Rashid Ali and to try to get Vichy to send him arms from French stores in Syria.

The British, fearful for their communications with India via Basra and their supplies of Iraqi oil, forced the pace by bringing what forces they wanted to Basra; they ignored Iraqi conditions limiting the numbers of British troops to be allowed on Iraqi soil at any one time and the length of stay of each unit in transit. On 2 May they attacked Iraq. A force from Palestine and another under Brigadier Glubb from the Arab Legion in Transjordan struck north towards Baghdad which surrendered on the last day of the month. Rashid Ali, having expected too much from the Germans, found himself a refugee in Teheran. The Germans, having expected too much from Rashid Ali and done too little for him, lost such chance as they had of taking the Middle East by frontal assault. Great Britain lost no time in making sure of Syria and Lebanon, and Iran too.

One consequence of the Rashid Ali episode had been a temporary intensification of German-French cooperation. The dominant figure at Vichy at this time was the acidly anti-British Admiral Darlan, with whom the Germans were engaged in negotiating the Paris Protocols which provided for extensive and active cooperation in the Middle East and Africa. In the Middle East Darlan agreed to give the Germans transit and landing rights for aircraft on their way to Iraq and to provide Rashid Ali with French arms, but this policy of resurrecting France through a working partnership with the Nazis was too much for Pétain who brought Weygand over from North Africa early in June in a manoeuvre to resist Darlan. The Paris Protocols thereupon lapsed but not before they had caused the British, with the Free French, to invade Syria and Lebanon.

The local French commander, General Dentz, proposed to resist with German help, but Vichy prevaricated partly through fear of British retaliation in Morocco and partly through fear of offending the Americans and so forfeiting the food and other materials which the Americans were sending to France. So Vichy attached conditions to the acceptance of German air support in Syria which caused the Germans to decline to give any help at all. They were in any case doubtful about the wisdom of helping a mandatory power which the Arabs, whom they were courting, wanted to see evicted. The British put pressure on Turkey to refuse facilities for French reinforcements and supplies (except oil which was covered by an existing agreement); Turkey refused, however, a British invitation to enter Syria from the north. General Dentz, strong in spirit and comparatively strong in numbers but weak in everything else, was forced to capitulate on 14 July after five weeks of fighting.

This British success not only extinguished Vichy’s authority in Syria and Lebanon but also constrained de Gaulle to grant these two countries their independence – which was endorsed by Great Britain. But the Gaullists were not happy with the idea of recovering French territory from Vichy and then letting it go from the French empire at British behest, and no further steps were taken until 1943 when elections were held and governments installed with something less than sovereign status. In Lebanon a quarrel between the government and the French led to the arrest of the newly elected President and the dissolution of the newly elected parliament, but Anglo-American intervention forced the French to retreat and to concede real powers to the governments of both countries. Arab countries under British rule took note, waiting their turn. The United States and the USSR recognized independent Syria and Lebanon and although France tried at the end of the war to exact special privileges for itself like those enjoyed by Great Britain in Egypt, Iraq and Transjordan, and even bombed Damascus, it was frustrated by British action and forced to recognize that its defeat in 1940 had cost it its position in the Levant.

A few weeks after the capitulation of General Dentz in July 1941 Great Britain made doubly sure of its Middle Eastern position by occupying Iran in concert with the Russians. The Shah was bundled off to an island in the Indian Ocean and later to South Africa where he died.

Thus at mid-summer 1941 Germany had appropriated the Balkans and Great Britain had replied by dominating the whole of the Middle East. The first of these positions was not to be contested until the general German retreat at the end of the war, which liberated the Balkans. In the Mediterranean and North Africa the war went on. The battle for Cape Matapan in March and the withdrawal of the Luftwaffe for the Russian campaign in June eased the British position, and in July Malta welcomed the first convoy to reach port since January. Another followed in September and for a few weeks Malta became once more a naval base, but the loss of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in the western Mediterranean and the battleship Barham in the east, and damage to Great Britain’s two remaining battleships by Italian mines fixed to them in harbour at Alexandria, reasserted the challenge to British naval power.

On land Rommel advanced, retreated and survived. His first offensive, launched at the end of March 1941, carried him from Tripolitania through Cyrenaica and into Egypt. Benghazi fell but Tobruk was held by an Australian, New Zealand and Polish garrison. (The Australians were replaced by British troops during the siege. Their commander believed that their health had deteriorated so badly that they could not withstand a major attack. Also, the Australian government and commander-in-chief wanted to reassemble all Australian forces in theatre under a unified Australian command. The New Zealand troops remained. New Zealand was the only nation besides Great Britain to send fighting troops to every theatre of war.) Rommel’s success offered tantalizing prospects of a German advance to Suez, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but Hitler decided that all this must wait. The Balkans must come first because they were essential for the launching of Barbarossa before mid-summer. So Rommel had to pause. In May and June he and Wavell engaged in a series of dingdong battles for the Halfaya Pass on the borders of Egypt, and Wavell then made an attempt to relieve Tobruk which failed. In a trial of skill in armoured warfare Rommel came off best, the British suffered serious losses of newly arrived tanks, and Wavell was relieved of his command on the day of the German invasion of the USSR. He was replaced by General Auchinleck with General Cunningham in command on the desert front.

Until November Rommel remained on the Egyptian frontier, experiencing increasing difficulties with his supply lines across the Mediterranean. In that month Hitler sent Field Marshal Kesselring to Rome with the title of Supreme Commander South, reinforced the Luftwaffe’s meagre strength in the Mediterranean and switched half his U-boats from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Generals Auchinleck and Cunningham attacked in mid-November. At the southern end of the front they defeated an Italian armoured division but in the north confused fighting, in which British and German tank formations often found themselves behind what would have been the enemy’s lines if any lines had existed, produced no decisive result. At one moment the defenders of Tobruk attempted a break-out which failed. At another, Rommel, encouraged by British losses, made a dash for Egypt which also failed. Rommel’s two armoured divisions were superior to the British in fire power but inferior in numbers, and in the first week of December he decided to retreat to avoid encirclement. Thus the siege of Tobruk was at last raised, but as Rommel withdrew once more into Tripolitania (his skill in withdrawal was as great as his dash in attack) leaving the British in control of Cyrenaica an acrimonious debate broke out on the British side. The main object of the campaign had not been achieved; the German Panzer army had not been destroyed. During the battle Auchinleck had dismissed Cunningham and summoned General Ritchie from Cairo to take his place. Since the battle and until the present day there has been controversy about the events of these weeks. It has been argued that if the British had waited for Rommel to attack they would have had a better chance of annihilating his forces, and it has also been argued that the retention of forces in the Middle East for this indecisive action contributed to the fall of Singapore in the following February. By this time Rommel had received new tanks via Tripoli and was planning a second eastward advance. The war in Africa was not concluded until eighteen months later and after the second front in North-west Africa, closed by the fall of France in 1940, had been reopened by the Anglo-American invasion of November 1942.

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