GERMAN WITHDRAWAL from the Balkans precipitated a crisis for Churchill which severely damaged his standing in America, engaged him in bitter political dispute at home, and provided the last perilous military adventure of his life. Experience at the end of World War II demonstrated that it is much more difficult to order the affairs of liberated nations than of defeated ones. This is because it is undesirable, if not impossible, to arbitrate their affairs with the same ruthlessness. If Washington’s twenty-first-century neoconservatives had possessed a less muddled understanding of the experience of 1944–45, had studied more closely Allied difficulties managing liberated territories in the Roosevelt-Churchill era, they might have inflicted less grief upon the world in our own times by their blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In almost every European country freed from German domination, former resistance groups armed by the SOE sought to assert themselves in governance. In France, only de Gaulle’s extraordinary personal authority and the presence of the Anglo-American armies—together with Stalin’s abstention from mobilizing his followers in a country where political instability might damage Soviet interests—made it possible to contain the Communists of the FTP. Many ex-maquisards were hastily drafted into the new French army, for service under Eisenhower. In neighbouring Belgium, the exiled government which returned from London in September found itself facing a strong challenge from left-wingers, including Communist resistance members. Having played a modest role in Belgian liberation, they now, to the alarm of the authorities, refused to be disarmed. There was anger about the Belgian government’s alleged reluctance to impose retribution upon those who had served the German occupation regime. On November 25, leftist trades unionists staged a big demonstration in Brussels and appeared bent upon forcing entry to government buildings. Police overreacted, firing on the demonstrators and wounding forty. In the weeks that followed, tensions ran high. The British Army, strongly backed by Churchill, was determined to tolerate neither a threat to its lines of communications with the battlefront nor any attempted Communist takeover. British troops deployed in Brussels in large numbers.
This action restored a resentful peace, but prompted hostile press comment. U.S. correspondents, especially, deplored the use of force to suppress “heroic resistance fighters,” of whatever political persuasion. Churchill displayed insensitivity in his support for the restoration of long-exiled governments to societies traumatised and radicalised by the experience of occupation. However, American enthusiasm for self-determination underrated both the malevolence of the Communists and the danger of anarchy overtaking the liberated nations.
In Albania and Yugoslavia Communist partisan movements set about seizing control as the Germans fell back. No other political element was strong enough to stop them, and in Serbia Tito enjoyed direct assistance from the Red Army. “Tito is turning very nasty,” Churchill told Smuts on December 3. The Yugoslav partisans demanded the expulsion of the British from the Dubrovnik coastal area. At the same time, in eastern Europe, the “Lublin Poles” proclaimed themselves the provisional government of their country, with no offer of participation for the exiled administration in London. All this made Churchill acutely anxious about the future of Greece. In the first days following German withdrawal, arriving British troops were greeted with unbridled enthusiasm. When Eden visited Athens on October 26, his car was mobbed by cheering crowds. Lord Moyne, accompanying him, said brightly: “It is good that there is one country1001 where we are so popular.”
The Greek honeymoon ended abruptly. Armed factions roamed city streets, amid well-founded reports that Communists were slaughtering alleged “reactionaries.” The Papandreou government struggled to assert its control of the country while the Communists of EAM/ELAS refused to demobilise, and guerrilla bands converged on Athens. The British strove to reinforce their weak forces in the capital, scouring the Mediterranean for men. “Everything is degenerating in the Greek government,” the prime minister wrote to Eden on November 28, “and we must make up our minds whether we will assert our will by armed force, or clear out altogether.” Two days later, he reached a predictable decision: “It is important to let it be known that if there is a civil war in Greece we shall be on the side of the Government we have set up in Athens, and that above all we shall not hesitate to shoot.”
The next day, December 1, the six Communist and socialist ministers in the Athens regime resigned en bloc, and called a general strike. On December 3, frightened and ill-disciplined police fired on a demonstration. One policeman and eleven demonstrators were killed. Furious crowds besieged Athens police stations. The police, like other elements of the Papandreou government’s makeshift security forces, were widely perceived by Greeks as having collaborated with the German occupiers. The historian Mark Mazower has written: “Despite Churchill’s belief1002 that he had forestalled a communist attempt to seize power, there is no sign that the uprising in Athens was anything other than a spontaneous popular movement which took the [Communist] party leadership by surprise.” At first, the guerrillas of EAM/ELAS concentrated their fire on Greek government forces. But, when they perceived British troops furthering the cause of their right-wing foes, they started shooting at the “liberators.”
The nuances of this situation eluded British commanders on the spot. They merely perceived their authority violently challenged. It should also be noticed, as it was not by most American observers at the time, that all over Greece the Communists were conducting murderous purges of bourgeois opponents, often along with their families. Churchill was bitterly angry. He assessed the Greek situation, and Communist intentions, through the prism of developments in Poland, Albania, Yugoslavia and Belgium.
The Greek crisis broke while the Belgian one was still making headlines. Churchill was harshly misjudged by Americans, who supposed that he sought an undemocratic outcome in Greece. His mistake was that, for two turbulent months, he conceded to the Greek king, George II, exiled in London, a veto on constitutional arrangements. So intemperate were Churchill’s expressions of hostility to the Communists of EAM/ELAS that Clementine felt moved to write him a note of warning:
My darling Winston1003,
Please do not before ascertaining full facts repeat to anyone you meet what you said to me this morning i.e. that the Communists in Athens had shown their usual cowardice in putting the women & children in front to be shot at. Because altho’ Communists are dangerous, indeed perhaps sinister people, they seem in this War on the Continent to have shown personal courage …
Your loving & devoted Clemmie
Clementine’s words were significant, because they reflected widespread sentiment in Britain as well as America. Allied propaganda throughout the Nazi occupation had made much of the Communist role in resistance, portraying EAM/ELAS, like Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, as heroic freedom fighters. Not only was their contribution to the anti-Nazi struggle exaggerated, but reports of their atrocities, well-known to SOE officers on the ground, were suppressed. Many people on both sides of the Atlantic thus viewed the Greek left in roseate hues.
Worse, Churchill’s lingering desire to salvage the Greek monarchy, despite overwhelming evidence of its unpopularity, compromised his own authority. Almost all his ministers, including Eden and Macmillan, were unwilling to offer even vestigial support to George II. They were also conscious of the rickety character of the Papandreou regime, an unconvincing foundation for the restoration of democracy. Churchill’s instinct was probably right, that if the Allies had done nothing the Communists would have seized Greece with the same ruthlessness they were displaying everywhere else in eastern Europe and the Balkans. But clumsy diplomacy caused the British to be seen, above all in Washington, as would-be imperialist oppressors of a liberated people. Lincoln MacVeagh, the U.S. minister in Athens, criticised the British for “handling this fanatically freedom-loving country as if it were composed of natives under the British raj.”
On December 5, Edward Stettinius, who had just replaced Cordell Hull as U.S. secretary of state, raised the stakes by publicly criticising British policy in Greece and also in Italy, where the British were at loggerheads with the Americans about whether Count Sforza should be permitted a role in the new Rome government. Stettinius said: “We expect the Italians to work out their own problems1004 of government along democratic lines without influence from outside. This policy would apply to an even more pronounced degree with regard to governments of the United Nations in their liberated territories.” Whatever the merits of the argument, it was deeply unhelpful of Stettinius, and damaging to Churchill, thus publicly to have distanced the United States from Britain.
A marked shift in American media sentiment was taking place. Conservative commentators, hitherto bitterly sceptical about British foreign policy, now showed themselves sympathetic to Churchill’s efforts to check the onset of European Communism. The liberal press, however, deplored what it perceived as new manifestations of British imperialism. It is a striking reflection upon the mood of those days that perceived British misconduct in Greece and Italy provoked much more comment and protest in the United States than did Russia’s ruthless handling of its newly occupied eastern European territories.
Many American papers asserted the right of resistance movements, whatever their political complexion, to a voice in the governance of their countries. A State Department opinion survey stated: “‘Liberal’ papers, pleading for a greater representation1005 for Resistance forces, were critical of Churchill’s alleged attempt to maintain a reactionary regime against the wishes of the Greek people.” William Shirer of CBS urged that the United States back up its words by taking action in opposition to British “toryism.” The State Department said: “Substantially universal approval has greeted the proposition1006 that the composition of governments in Italy and in ‘liberated territories’ is an internal affair … Representatives of Greek-American organizations visited the State Department to protest British intervention in Greece … The Department also received numerous letters from organizations and individuals protesting British policy and applauding the United States’s [December 5] declaration.”
Many American newspapers perceived the Soviets and British as tarred with the same brush, both seeking to impose their selfish wills on free peoples. Isolationists blamed Britain, and explicitly Churchill, for “seeking to bury1007 the Atlantic Charter” with its declared right to self-determination. The Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer, for instance, cited “the shooting of Greeks for no greater crime than opposing a Government which seeks to bring back a discredited King” as being “not only a mistake but a tragedy.” There were increasing demands, echoed in Congress, for a revision of Lend-Lease legislation to link U.S. aid to Britain and Russia with less high-handed foreign policies in those countries. The Chicago Sun, urging Lend-Lease revision, observed that “Washington has both the right and obligation to let the British government know that we do not propose to aid the enemies of democracy in Italy, Greece, or elsewhere through Lend-Lease or any other means.”
A Princeton poll1008 in December found that Americans thought Britain likely to be a much less trustworthy postwar ally than China. On December 13, 1944, the U.S. press reported anti-British student protests and marches at Harvard, Radcliffe, Wellesley and Northeastern. In Boston, students waved placards proclaiming: AMERICANS SUPPORT CHURCHILL AS WAR LEADER, NOT TORY. The protesters issued a statement: “We are not against Churchill as a war leader, but against his reactionary policy in Belgium, Italy, and Greece.” U.S. trades unionists also demonstrated against British policy.
An attack on the prime minister by H. G. Wells was widely reported. “Churchill must go,” the aged British literary sage wrote in Tribune: “Winston Churchill, the present1009 would-be British Führer, is a person with a range of ideas limited to the adventures and opportunities of British political life … Now he seems to have lost his head completely … When the British people were blistered with humiliation by the currish policy of the old Conservative gang in power, the pugnacity of Winston brought him to the fore. The country liked fighting and he delighted in fighting. For want of a better reason he became the symbol of our national will for conflict, a role he has now outlived.” Thomas Stokes wrote in the Los Angeles Times on December 12: “What we are seeing is the opening of the big battle between the right and the left for the control of postwar Europe. There’s Great Britain on one side and Russia on the other, with the United States as a sort of arbiter or umpire trying to establish some middle course, and being in the difficult position of the harassed liberal who is caught in the crossfire from each side.”
For Churchill, the only positive news coming out of Greece was that the Russians appeared to be holding back. “This is good,”1010 he wrote to Eden, “and shows how Stalin is playing the game.” For once, the prime minister’s optimism was justified. Throughout the unfolding imbroglio in Greece there was no sign that Moscow sought to meddle. Churchill, indeed, was moved to assert that on this issue he found the Russians much more biddable than the Americans. Stalin acknowledged spheres of influence, however broadly he sought to draw his own. Roosevelt did not.
On December 8, 1944, there was a stormy Commons debate about Greece, in which Emanuel Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan, men of the left, led the attack on the government. Churchill, who once more chose to remind the House that it could dismiss him if it so wished, won a vote of confidence by 279 votes to 30. But many MPs remained dissatisfied. Harold Nicolson thought the prime minister misread the mood of the House, which “at its best was one of distressed1011 perplexity, and at its worst of sheer red fury.” Harold Macmillan, who attended the debate, saw the prime minister afterwards in the Downing Street Annexe. He found him tired and petulant: “He rambled on1012 in rather a sad and depressed way. The debate had obviously tired him very much, and I think he realised the dangers inherent in the Greek policy on which we are now embarked. He has won the debate, but not the battle of Athens.”
Churchill seemed to have dug in his heels. He cabled Rex Leeper, the British ambassador in Greece, on December 10: “In Athens as everywhere else our maxim is ‘no peace without victory.’” Yet Lt. Gen. Ronald Scobie, commanding British troops in Greece, signalled that he lacked sufficient men to hold the capital, never mind to enforce the prime minister’s desired disarmament of the guerrillas. Alexander was now Mediterranean C-in-C, having replaced Maitland Wilson, who was dispatched to become the British military representative in Washington following the sudden death of Sir John Dill. Churchill urged Alexander to find more troops for Greece.
Relations with the Americans took a sharp turn for the worse. On December 5, Churchill had signalled to Scobie, urging him to adopt a ruthless policy towards the Communist guerrillas: “Do not hesitate to fire at any armed male in Athens who assails the British authority or Greek authority … act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” Jock Colville sent this message at five a.m., when amid exhaustion he forgot to mark it “GUARD”—not to be shown to Americans. Adm. Ernest King, on his own initiative and even before learning of Churchill’s draconian signal, ordered that U.S. shipping should not be used to supply or reinforce the British in Greece. Churchill cabled Harry Hopkins on December 9: “It grieves me very much to see signs of our drifting apart at a time when unity becomes even more important, as dangers recede and faction arises.” Hopkins persuaded Admiral King to rescind his order, apparently without reference to Roosevelt. But a Washington Post editorial declared on December 9: “The American people simply do not relish the spectacle of Sherman tanks going into action against the men who held the pass in war-stricken Hellas.” Correspondent Barnet Nover attacked Churchill for his harsh words about the Greek Communist guerrillas: “What suddenly transformed those patriots into ‘bandits’?”
A malevolent hand in the U.S. administration leaked Churchill’s draconian directive to Scobie to columnist Drew Pearson, who published it in the Washington Post on December 11. The ensuing anti-British tirade caused Churchill to draw unfavourable contrasts with Moscow’s useful silence. “I think we have had pretty good treatment from Stalin in Greece,” he wrote to Eden, “much better in fact than we have had from the Americans.” The Post editorialised on December 6 that “the use of force carries within it the seeds of its destruction.” On the eighth, a Post article by Marquis Childs argued: “Winston Churchill and the clique around him want to believe that you can put a little paint and a little varnish on the old order and prop it up in place again. It won’t prop. That’s the meaning of the news out of Brussels and Athens … the course that is being followed in Greece and Belgium is the best way to ensure communism in the end.”
Walter Lippmann wrote in the Washington Post of December 14 that problems had arisen in Greece “because Mr. Churchill is trying to apply the great principle of legitimacy in government without a correct appreciation of the unprecedented condition of affairs which the Nazi conquest and occupation have created.” The problem facing those trying to reconstruct Europe is “how to fuse the legitimacy acquired by Resistance movements with the legitimacy inherited by the old governments.” This was an accurate analysis of Churchill’s dilemma, lacking only an answer to it. Events in Greece, and elsewhere, were critically influenced by the outcome of policies promoted by the prime minister himself through the SOE. It was only possible for ELAS to mount a challenge to the Greek government and its British sponsors because London had provided the Communists with arms.
Halifax cabled gloomily from the Washington embassy, “Our version of the facts is largely disbelieved.”1013 On the ground in Athens, Scobie’s units faced increasingly violent pressure from ELAS guerrillas. Open insurgency was breaking out. Alexander signalled: “British forces are in fact beleaguered in the heart of the city.” Both Macmillan and Leeper, at the British embassy, believed that Churchill failed to grasp the complexities of the situation. However distasteful were the Communists, the Greek right was at least as much so. Macmillan urged the prime minister to accept that the king—“the real villain of the piece”—must remain exiled in London, while the primate of Athens, Archbishop Damaskinos, should be appointed regent, to reconcile the warring factions. Macmillan had little time for the Greek prime minister: “We do not wish to start the Third World War1014 against Russia until we have finished the Second World War against Germany—and certainly not to please M. Papandreou.” The British in Athens, who perceived a regency as offering by far the best chance of a settlement acceptable to the Greek people, were enraged by the perceived duplicity of the Greek prime minister, who urged George II to reject a regency.
Men of the British Army who found themselves seeking to sustain by force the Athens regime were as divided as the rest of the world about the merits of their cause. Capt. Phillip Zorab, for instance, hated the Communists and everything that he saw and heard of their doings: “These ELAS guerrillas don’t care1015 who they hit,” he wrote in a letter home, “and I have four first-hand reports of atrocities committed by them on other Greeks … Greeks now know that when we said that political differences would not be settled by use of arms, we meant it.” Other British soldiers, however, were deeply troubled by the role in which they found themselves cast. Major A. P. Greene, like Zorab a gunner, told his family:
I thought a good deal before writing this letter, because it contains some pretty definite views. But they must be aired or ten years of principles go for naught. Briefly I think our country is being misled on the subject of Greece. I have just finished reading Churchill’s speech, and I disagreed with it vehemently. Greece is a country with no background of real democracy in its modern history … We, the preachers of nonintervention, are forcing on Greece the government we want, and think it wants … Churchill’s speech was, to me, a political falsehood… People at home should know that it is the Manchester Guardian and not Churchill that represents the opinion of 80% of the army here. Whether they be regulars or volunteers, high ranking officers or privates, the vast majority want no part in what, to them, is a face-saving war of Churchill’s own making.
Greene acknowledged that all the local factions were guilty of atrocities, “but I think the bulk of Greek youth wants socialism1016 … I shall stay until I’m so heartily sick of assisting in the installation of a fascist regime in Greece that I summon up enough courage to resign.” He was right in believing that the wartime experience had radicalised Greek youth, as it appears to have radicalised him. Yet if Churchill’s support for restoring the monarchy was mistaken, he was surely justified in his revulsion against allowing power to fall by default into Communist hands, as would have been most likely to happen in the absence of British military intervention.
On December 17, Alexander signalled that another infantry division might be needed to hold Athens, a shocking prospect since the formation would have to be withdrawn from the Italian front. Two days later, 563 RAF personnel at the British air headquarters at Kifissia, outside Athens, surrendered to ELAS after a battle in which 57 airmen had been killed or wounded. During the month’s fighting in Athens, the British Army lost 169 killed, 699 wounded and 640 missing—mostly prisoners—an appalling scale of casualties for what began as a postliberation security operation, equivalent to the loss of two infantry battalions to the Allied order of battle. Macmillan wrote in his diary on December 21: “Poor Winston!1017 What with Greece, Poland and the German breakthrough on the Western Front, this is going to be a grim Christmas.” By the twenty-second, with strife intensifying, Churchill was at last becoming persuadable about the possibility of a regency, and keeping the king out of Greece pending a referendum on his future. But he said crossly to Cadogan: “I won’t instal a Dictator.”1018 In truth, the prime minister was dithering. An almost daily barrage of hostile questions in the Commons sustained pressure on the government. He cabled to Smuts: “I have had endless trouble about Greece where we have indeed been wounded in the house of our friends. Communist and Left-wing forces all over the world have stirred in sympathy with this new chance and the American Press reporting back has to some extent undermined our prestige and authority in Greece. There would be no chance of our basing a British policy upon the return of the King. We must at all costs avoid appearing to be forcing him on them by our bayonets.”
“Setting Europe ablaze.” Instructing French maquisards on the use of the sten submachine gun, supplied in large quantities to the French Resistance by SOE in 1944
An SOE mission looking suitably flamboyant in occupied Yugoslavia
Images of D-Day: Operation Overlord, June 6, 1944, climactic moment of World War II in the west
With his unworthy favourite Alexander in Italy, August 26, 1944
In Paris on Armistice Day, November 11, 1944, an unusually affable moment with De Gaulle
In Athens on December 26, 1944, meeting the warring Greek factions in conference with Eden (far left), Archbishop Damaskinos, Alexander and Macmillan, while gunfire raged in the streets outside
At Yalta in February 1945: The USN’s Admiral King engages in sober conversation with Brooke, Ismay and Marshall.
One of the Valentine tanks supplied by Britain to the Red Army enjoys a moment of triumph as it carries victorious Russian soldiers through the streets of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.
Last set piece of the western campaign: Churchill stands at a vantage point overlooking the Rhine with Brooke and Montgomery before the British crossing in March 1945.
The sublime consummation of Churchill’s war leadership of Britain: On the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the royal family on VE Day, May 8, 1945
The sublime consummation of Churchill’s war leadership of Britain: he addresses his nation, and the world, from Downing Street.
With Truman and Stalin at Potsdam on July 17, 1945. Though he did not know it, Winston Churchill had only nine more days to serve as Britain’s wartime prime minister.
Much grief—even perhaps the bloody strife in Greece—might have been averted if Churchill had reached this conclusion months earlier, and explicitly proclaimed it to the Greek people. But it was hard to resolve the affairs of half a world emerging from the horrors of Nazi occupation amid the new reality of Soviet expansionism. If British policy was sometimes misjudged, so too was American. The British embassy in Washington reported to London about U.S. media opinion: “Indignation with Britain has given way1019 to a kind of disgruntled and disenchanted cynicism which says that it was foolish ever to have supposed that the European, and in particular Russian and British, leopards could really have been expected to change their spots as the result of a few idealistic words from America.”
What now was to be done? On the afternoon of Saturday, December 23, Churchill drove to Chequers, where a large family party was assembled for Christmas. He had scarcely arrived before he declared his determination to abandon the celebration and travel to Athens. His decision caused consternation, above all to Clementine. This was one of the very rare moments of the war at which she broke down, fleeing upstairs in floods of tears. Her husband had just turned seventy, and in poor health. Private secretary John Martin wrote in his diary: “Glad I am not going on an expedition1020 of which I disapprove, the prize not being worth the risks.” Late on Christmas Eve Churchill and his entourage, including Anthony Eden, drove to Northolt and took off for Italy in a new American C-54 Skymaster. “Make it look British,” Churchill urged when the plane was delivered, and the aircraft had been refitted to an extraordinary standard of comfort for the times. Its principal passenger complained only that the clock in his private compartment ticked too loudly, and insisted upon disconnection of an electrically heated lavatory seat.
What did Churchill hope to achieve in Athens? It seemed to him, rightly, essential to Britain’s global prestige, and above all to relations with the United States, that he should succeed in stabilising Greece. It was implausible that this could be achieved under Papandreou. Some broadly based coalition government was needed. His advisers believed that Archbishop Damaskinos might provide the necessary sheet anchor, and supervise the creation of such a regime. Yet Churchill was mistrustful of surrendering the country to some wily local prelate. As ever, he wanted to see, and then to be seen to act, for himself. Early in the afternoon of Christmas Day, his Skymaster landed at Kalamaki Airfield.
One of the welcoming party observed cynically that the visitors “had the air of men to whom a brilliant idea1021 had been vouchsafed after the third glass of port upon which they had immediately decided to act but which they could now no longer very clearly recall.” Macmillan found the prime minister “in a most mellow, not to say chastened mood.”1022 A two-hour conference took place in the plane, the interior of which became icy cold. Churchill’s shivering typist, Elizabeth Layton, was increasingly fearful for “Master’s” health. The security situation was much worse than had been recognised in London, with snipers active in many parts of the Greek capital. Towards evening, a convoy of armoured cars took the party on a long, tense, uncomfortable journey to Phaleron, where they were transferred by launch to the light cruiser Ajax, a veteran of the 1939 river Plate battle, which was anchored offshore, safely beyond small-arms range.
Her captain warned the exalted visitor that it might be necessary to disturb his tranquillity by firing the ship’s main armament in support of British ground forces. Churchill, of course, enthused at the prospect: “Pray remember, Captain, that I come here as a cooing dove of peace, bearing a sprig of mistletoe in my beak—but far be it from me to stand in the way of military necessity.” Shortly afterwards Macmillan, Leeper, Papandreou and Damaskinos boarded the ship. The spectacle of the prelate in full canonical dress, complete with black silver-knobbed staff, brushing past sailors in the ship’s companionways who were celebrating Christmas in fancy-dress, impressed the British as irresistibly droll.
Churchill was captivated by the jolly archbishop, who made plain his revulsion towards the Communists and the atrocities they had committed. The prelate, the prime minister told MPs later, “struck me as a very remarkable man1023, with his headgear, towering up, morally as well as physically, above the chaotic scene.” Colville wrote: “We are now in the curious1024 topsy-turvy position of the prime minister feeling strongly pro-Damaskinos … while [Eden] is inclined the other way.” The next morning, the visitors rose to survey the battlefield—what Churchill called “the pink and ochre panorama of Athens1025 and the Piraeus, scintillating with delicious life and plumed by the classic glories and endless miseries and triumphs of its history.” The shore was bathed in bright sunshine. “One can see the smoke of battle1026 in the streets west of the Piraeus,” wrote Colville, “and there is a constant noise of shellfire and machine-guns. We had a splendid view of Beaufighters strafing an ELAS stronghold.”
Osbert Lancaster, an artist then serving as press attaché at the British embassy, described the arrival the next afternoon of Churchill, once more borne by armoured car from the harbour through the drab, dusty, bullet-scarred streets. The prime minister wore the uniform of an RAF air commodore: “The change in his appearance1027 since I had last seen him at close quarters some three years previously was marked. His face seems to have been moulded in lard lightly veined with cochineal and he badly needed a haircut. But the sound of mortaring and rifle-fire, combined with the historic associations of the countryside through which he had just passed, were clearly already having a tonic effect and he was distinguished from all his companions by an obvious and unswerving sense of purpose none the less impressive for being at the moment indeterminate.” The latter intimation of confusion was unwarranted. The British had already convened a conference of all the warring parties, to meet under Churchill’s auspices but Damaskinos’s chairmanship.
The embassy resembled a besieged outpost during the nineteenth-century Indian Mutiny. Power was cut off, while gunfire provided orchestration. Some fifty staff, many of them women, had been subsisting for nine days on army rations in conditions of acute discomfort. The ambassador’s wife, whom Harold Macmillan found more impressive than her husband, directed domestic operations with a courage and energy likewise worthy of a Victorian imperial drama. Fortunately for the inmates, ELAS guerrillas had only small arms, so the British remained safe if they avoided exposing themselves at doors and windows. Between meetings with commanders, Churchill met and applauded the embassy staff, for whom he afterwards arranged an immediate issue of decorations.
At four p.m., representatives of the Greek factions assembled around a long table in the freezing, otherwise barren conference room of the Foreign Office. The rattle of musketry punctuated the proceedings, with voices sometimes drowned out by rocket and mortar concussions. Churchill seated himself in the centre, flanked by Archbishop Damaskinos, Eden and Macmillan. At one end were American, Russian and French representatives. The Greeks filled in around them, leaving space at a vacant end for the Communists, who were late. Churchill and the prelate spoke brilliantly and at length, with long pauses for interpretation, before news arrived of the absentees, “three shabby desperados.”1028 The Communists had been delayed arguing with British security guards about their demand to bring weapons into the conference chamber. On their appearance, Churchill wrote to Clementine later, “after some consideration I shook1029 the ELAS delegates’ hand[s] and it was clear from their response that they were gratified.” He repeated much of his opening harangue: “Mr. Eden and I have come all this way, though great battles are raging in Belgium and on the German frontier, to make this effort to rescue Greece from a miserable fate and raise her to a point of great fame and repute … Whether Greece is a monarchy or a republic is a matter for Greeks and Greeks alone to decide. I wish you all that is good, and good for all.”
Alexander said, “Instead of me putting my brigades into Greece, I should like to see Greek brigades coming to help me in Italy in the war against our common enemy.” Macmillan was disgusted by the oily platitudes offered by the Communists, who extolled their own desire for peace: “I thought it all very disingenuous1030, especially remembering the frightful atrocities these men are committing both on our troops and on harmless fellow-countrymen throughout Greece. Winston was much moved, however.” Then the foreigners rose and left the table, to enable the Greeks to negotiate with one another.
Once they were outside, their exchanges provided several notable vignettes. The prime minister engaged the head of the Russian military mission in conversation: “What’s your name? Popov? Well, Popov, I saw your master the other day, Popov! Very good friends your master and I, Popov! Don’t forget that, POPOV!” Even the colonel’s limited English enabled him to comprehend Churchill’s attempt to brandish his relationship with Stalin. Then it was explained that the delay in the proceedings had been caused by the need to disarm the Communist delegates. The prime minister looked thoughtful and withdrew a pistol from his own pocket, growling complacently: “I cannot tell you the feeling of security one enjoys1031, knowing that one is the only armed man in such an assembly as that!” He replaced the weapon in his overcoat before retreating with his entourage by armoured car to the embassy, and thence to Phaleron. When his typist Elizabeth Layton seated herself at the opposite end of the naval barge’s cabin to the prime minister, Churchill said: “No, come and sit by me.” To Alexander’s wry amusement, the two travelled back across the chilly water to the Ajax, cosily enfolded together in a huge rug.
The next day, the archbishop came to the British embassy to report on progress of the noisy, bitter talks at the Foreign Office. At one point, apparently, Gen. Nikolaos Plastiras—whom Churchill insistently addressed as “Plaster-Arse”—shouted at a Communist: “Sit down, butcher!”1032 The prime minister was in high spirits, having been taken by Alexander to a vantage point from which the general explained the Athens battlefield. Macmillan saw this as a reprise of Churchill’s famous appearance at a London shoot-out with terrorists, during his 1911 incarnation as home secretary: “Of course this affair is a sort of ‘super Sidney Street,’1033 and he quite enjoyed having the whole problem explained to him by a master of the military art.” When the ELAS delegates asked to see Churchill privately, he was eager to accept. But Macmillan and Damaskinos persuaded him that it was essential now to leave the Greeks to sort out their own affairs. That evening, the archbishop announced Papandreou’s resignation as prime minister. His last act in office was to cable to King George II in London, declaring the united endorsement of Greece’s politicians for a regency. Churchill wrote to Clementine: “This Wednesday has been an exciting1034 and not altogether fruitless day. The hatreds between these Greeks are terrible. When one side have all the weapons which we gave them to fight the Germans and the other, though many times as numerous, have none, it is evident that a frightful massacre would take place if we withdrew.”
Lack of both electricity and camera flashbulbs made it necessary to hold the prime minister’s parting photo session in the embassy garden, much to the dismay of those responsible for his safety. Access was possible only by traversing a short walkway from the drawing room, on which he was visible to the world from Constitution Avenue. Attempts to hustle him behind the safety of the garden wall were frustrated by an onrush of photographers, which caused the prime minister to halt on the walkway. To the dismay of the press attaché behind him, “a short crack followed by1035 a shower of plaster announced that a bullet had hit the wall two feet above our heads. Summoning all my courage, I … gave the infuriated Prime Minister a sharp shove in the back, precipitating him smartly down the steps into the comparative safety of the garden.” On December 28, Churchill flew out of Athens for Naples. He had yearned to linger, and again to meet the Greeks. Macmillan, however, persuaded him that his duty was to return to London and reconcile King George of the Hellenes to the regency. Churchill allowed himself to be buckled into his seatbelt on the Skymaster, acknowledging that “even the most eminent persons are subject to the laws of gravity.” As the plane taxied, he suddenly ordered it to halt. He insisted on passing down to the ground party an amendment to the British final communiqué. Then he took off for Italy, and home.
Back in London the next afternoon, the prime minister twice met the king of the Hellenes, at 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. At 4:00 a.m., George II at last agreed to the regency. Churchill retired to bed, after a working and travelling day that had lasted twenty-two hours. General Plastiras became prime minister, though he was obliged to resign soon afterwards, following the leak of a letter revealing that in 1941 he had offered himself to the Nazis as leader of a collaborationist Greek government. On the night of January 4, 1945, the firepower of the British Army and diminished confidence in their own prospects persuaded the Communist guerrillas to retire to the countryside. An uneasy armistice was agreed to between the factions. Violence in Athens subsided, though it required the deployment of ninety thousand British troops to secure the country. Greece remained in a state of civil war between 1946 and 1949, but a non-Communist—indeed, bitterly anti-Communist—government survived until the Americans relieved the British of responsibility for Greek security.
Churchill’s visit was significant chiefly because it reconciled him to a course of action which all the other British players had already endorsed. The decisive factor in Greece was Stalin’s abstention. It suited Moscow to acknowledge the principle that whichever ally liberated an occupied country should determine its subsequent governance. The ELAS guerrilla leaders were vastly more impressed by the silence of Colonel Popov, Stalin’s man in Athens, than by the eloquence of Britain’s prime minister. In Greece, Churchill received his sole reward for the Moscow “percentages agreement,” which Americans so much disliked. So tormented and riven was Greek society in the wake of the occupation that it is hard to imagine any course of action which might have brought about the peaceful establishment of a democratic government. What emerged was probably the least bad outcome, in which no one could take just pride.
Churchill’s dramatic venture into personal diplomacy commanded less world attention than it might otherwise have done, because it coincided with the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxembourg. According to a State Department survey, the overriding U.S. media impression of British action remained unfavourable: “Anglo-American differences and British military action1036 in Greece during early December received more than twice as much front page space as Churchill’s mission to Athens … Predominant editorial opinion throughout the crisis was never categorically opposed to British leadership in Greece and the Mediterranean, but strongly objected to the possible imposition of an unrepresentative and unpopular government on the Greek people, and to the possible creation of a closed British sphere of interest.” Drew Pearson’s final column of 1944 unfavourably compared Churchill’s “outgrown imperialism” with more enlightened attitudes elsewhere in the British body politic. Criticism of British shortcomings at home and abroad was now a running theme in the U.S. press. Virginius Dabney wrote in the New York Times on December 31 that opinion in the American south, traditionally friendly to Britain, was turning hostile: “The development which has provoked most adverse comment is Winston Churchill’s policy in Greece and Italy. Even in this strongly pro-British region criticism is being heard, not only of Churchill but of the British people.”
The British did not receive this bombardment in silence. On December 30, after a surge of U.S. comment which added allegations of “slacking” to other charges against America’s ally, the Economist delivered a counterblast:
What makes the American criticisms so intolerable is not merely that they are unjust, but that they come from a source which has done so little to earn the right to postures of superiority. To be told by anyone that the British people are slacking in their war effort would be insufferable enough to a people struggling through their sixth winter of black-out and rations and coldness—but when the criticism comes from a nation that was practising Cash-and-Carry during the Battle of Britain, whose consumption has risen during the war years, which is still without a national service act—then it is not to be borne.
There is still a great deal of wishful thinking in Britain, even in the highest quarters, to the effect that good behaviour on our part will procure some great prize, such as an Anglo-American alliance … It is as well to be brutally frank: there is no more possibility of any of these things than of an American petition to rejoin the British Empire … What, then, is the conclusion for British policy towards America? Clearly it is not that any quarrels should be picked … But let an end be put to the policy of appeasement which, at Mr. Churchill’s personal bidding, has been followed, with all the humiliations and abasements it has brought in its train.
Following the Economist’s outburst, the State Department recorded “an orgy of recrimination1037 between the American and British presses.” The Washington embassy reported to London the following week on U.S. attitudes: “The general reaction is that although the British attack1038 was not unprovoked and the British cannot have been expected to take the flood of criticism poured by the United States press and radio lying down, yet the British are surely much too touchy and the tone of their retort is much too harsh.” Though a January 14 Life magazine editorial described the Economist’s criticisms as well-merited, many U.S. publications remained hostile. Office of War Information and State Department surveys1039 in the early months of 1945 found that Americans consistently rated the British more blameworthy than the Russians for the difficulties of the Grand Alliance.
The State Department study noted: “Despite recent press comment sympathetic to the British1040, a confidential opinion poll indicates that dissatisfaction with the British has increased among the public at large. The tabulation shows that mass opinion, dissatisfied with the way in which Russia, Britain and the United States are cooperating, blames chiefly Britain … The ‘nationalist’ press, even in comment praising Field-Marshal Montgomery and the British people, continued to charge that the ‘British and Russians are playing power politics against each other in the middle of this war, while we, at least at this moment, do most of the fighting.’”
Churchill found little to celebrate in what he called the “new, disgusting year” of 1945. Russian intransigence was familiar, but overbearing American behaviour filled a bitter cup. Tempers were frayed to the limit, in government and among the British people. Eden wrote on January 12: “Terrible Cabinet, first on Greece1041 … Whole thing lasted four and a half hours. Really quite intolerable. I was in a pretty bloody temper … for everyone started taking a hand in drafting messages for me.” Churchill found it much harder to sustain relative inactivity in Downing Street than to undertake initiatives abroad, even if these were ill-rewarded. One morning he told his typist Marion Holmes, “You know I cannot give you1042 the excitement of Athens every day.”
There seemed no limit to the troubles sent to vex him. Montgomery gave an outrageously hubristic press conference following his modest personal contribution to the Bulge battle. This excited new American hostility and correspondingly exasperated the prime minister. Churchill was obliged to recognise that there was no more chance of restoring King Peter of Yugoslavia to his throne than King Zog of Albania or King Carol of Romania to theirs. Roosevelt agreed to Stalin’s proposal for a February summit at Yalta, in the Crimea, causing Churchill to cable: “I shall be waiting on the quay. No more let us falter! From Malta to Yalta! Let nobody alter!” In reality, however, the British complained bitterly about the inconvenient venue. They remained resentful that Roosevelt was unwilling to visit their own country, or to accept Churchill’s alternative suggestion of a meeting in Iceland. The prime minister sent congratulations to Stalin on the Russian Vistula offensive, all the more fulsome because of his anxiety for Soviet goodwill in Greece and Poland. Brooke expressed relief that Churchill seemed finally reconciled to the fact that there could be no Adriatic amphibious landing, nor a drive on Vienna. Churchill brusquely dismissed de Gaulle’s demand that he should attend the Yalta conference in the name of his country. “France cannot masquerade as a Great Power1043 for the purposes of war,” he told Eden.
The prime minister said to Marian Holmes, “You wouldn’t like my job1044—so many different things come up which have to be settled in two or three minutes.” At a time when many of his own ministers were wearying of Churchill, Holmes paid a tribute which reflected the passionate affection and loyalty he retained among his personal staff: “In all his moods1045—totally absorbed in the serious matter of the moment, agonized over some piece of wartime bad news, suffused with compassion, sentimental and in tears, truculent, bitingly sarcastic, mischievous or hilariously funny—he was splendidly entertaining, humane and lovable.” While ministers and commanders complained with increasing impatience about the prime minister’s failing concentration and outbursts of irrationality, he remained a unique repository of wisdom. Consider, for instance, his words to Eden, who had been pressing him about arrangements for postwar Germany:
It is a mistake to try to write out1046 on some little pieces of papers what the vast emotions of an outraged and quivering world will be either immediately after the struggle is over or when the inevitable cold fit follows the hot. These awe-inspiring tides of feeling dominate most people’s minds … Guidance in these mundane matters is granted to us only step by step, or at the utmost a step or two ahead. There is therefore wisdom in reserving one’s decisions as long as possible and until all the facts and forces that will be potent at the moment are revealed.
Likewise, on January 18 he delivered to the House of Commons a report on the war situation which some thought was as glittering a display of oratory as he had produced since 1940. In a two-hour speech, he said of Greece:
The House must not suppose that, in these foreign lands, matters are settled as they would be here in England. Even here it is hard enough to keep a Coalition together, even between men who, although divided by party, have a supreme object and so much else in common. But imagine what the difficulties are in countries racked by civil war, past or impending, and where clusters of petty parties have each their own set of appetites, misdeeds and revenges. If I had driven the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister out to die in the snow, if the Minister of Labour had kept the Foreign Secretary in exile for a great many years, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had shot at and wounded the Secretary of State for War … if we, who sit here together, had back-bitten and double-crossed each other while pretending to work together, and had all put our own group or party first and the country nowhere, and had all set ideologies, slogans or labels in front of comprehension, comradeship and duty, we should certainly, to put it at the mildest, have come to a General Election much sooner than is now likely. When men have wished very much to kill each other, and have feared very much that they will be killed quite soon, it is not possible for them next day to work together as friends with colleagues against whom they have nursed such intentions or from whom they have derived such fears.
Churchill said to Colville in those days, speaking of the South African prime minister, “Smuts and I are like two old love-birds1047 moulting together on a perch, but still able to peck.” He “pecked” to incomparable effect. After his difficult passages with MPs about Greece in December, he had now restored his position. Yet he told at least one considerable untruth to the Commons on January 18, denying that events in the Mediterranean were in any way influenced by rival notions about “spheres of influences.” In reality, in his gratitude for Stalin’s forbearance on Greece, he was desperate to be seen to keep his own side of the Moscow bargain. He was exasperated to hear that British diplomats in Romania had been protesting about Soviet actions there, and wrote angrily to Eden: “Why are we making a fuss1048 about the Russian deportations in Romania of Saxons and others? It is understood that the Russians were to work their will in this sphere. Anyhow, we cannot prevent them.” He told Colville on January 23: “Make no mistake, all the Balkans1049, except Greece, are going to be bolshevized; and there is nothing I can do to prevent it. There is nothing I can do for poor Poland either.”
If Churchill often displayed greatness on great matters, his ministers and commanders were increasingly sensitive to “the old man’s” limitations. His rambling dissertations at Cabinet meetings, often about papers which he had not troubled to read, exasperated colleagues. So, too, did his willingness to invite and accept ill-informed opinions across the table from Brendan Bracken and Beaverbrook, in preference to the considered views of Cabinet committees. Clement Attlee wrote him a note of protest about his behaviour, which fired the prime minister’s wrath, but which his own staff and Clementine agreed to be both courageous and just. Attlee had typed the note with his own fumbling fingers, to ensure that no other eyes saw it. Yet Churchill vented his spleen by reading it aloud down the telephone to Beaverbrook. Private secretary John Martin said: “That is the part of the prime minister which I do not like.” Jock Colville agreed. The prime minister was eventually persuaded to reconsider his first thought, of an angry riposte to Attlee. He responded temperately. Then he said: “Let us think no more of Hitlee1050 or of Attler: let us go and see a film.” If he was sometimes roused to stand high upon his dignity, he seldom retained the posture for long. While he sometimes behaved unworthily, he had earned the right to be readily forgiven.