Showing posts from 2021

Eighty years ago, misplaced nostalgia provides consolation for strategic weakness

    The first phase of the German invasion of Greece succeeded without difficulty. The Greek army was too small properly to man the Metaxas Line, which covered the frontier with Bulgaria through which the Germans attacked. The line put up no worthwhile resistance and the Greek army cut off in Macedonia surrendered. The British led forces were building up in Greece under General “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson. They had established a defensive line along the Aliakmon River well to the south of the frontier with the hope that the Greek army   would fall back on it and make a strongly held position. They did not and the first clashes between Wilson’s troops and the advancing Germans saw them fighting without direct Greek support. The Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand had overcome their misgivings and permitted their nations’ troops to be committed in Greece. As a New Zealand division was put into the Australian Corps, it was announced with some fanfare that the ANZAC corps of World War

Eighty years ago, the false dawn begins to fade

    An optimistic observer might have thought that Britain was doing tolerably well in its war against Germany and Italy in the first months of 1941. But if a week is a long time in politics, it can be even longer in a war. A thoughtful observer might have been rethinking Britain’s prospects after the first week of April. Winston Churchill had hailed the Yugoslavian coup d’etat, which removed the regime that allied itself to Germany and Italy, as a country regaining its soul. He little appreciated just how short a time it would have to enjoy its new status. Immediately after the coup Hitler had decided to treat Yugoslavia as an enemy and to launch a full-scale military attack. The codename for the attack Strafgericht (criminal or, literally, punishment court) gives a flavour of Hitler’s thinking. The assault began with a heavy air raid on Belgrade and the elimination of the poorly equipped Yugoslav air force. Land offensives were launched both against Yugoslavia and Greece, which en

Eighty years ago, a Balkan worm turns

  The Yugoslavian worm turned. A widely supported coup d’etat led by General Simovi ć overthrew the government that had just signed the tripartite pact with Germany and briefly imprisoned its leaders. The 17 year old King Peter, who had been on the throne since his father’s murder in 1934, was declared to be of age to rule and his uncle Prince Paul was removed as Regent. Peter took the royal oath and was wildly cheered as he drove himself through the streets of Belgrade. Paul was handed over to the British and spent the rest of the war in exile in Kenya despite his close ties to the British royal family. The Germans recalled their ambassador and demanded an immediate demobilization. The coup compromised Germany’s widely expected attack on Greece and its still deeply secret attack on the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy won a clear victory in what was to be its last full-scale sea battle in which major fleets manoeuvred against each other and fought with their big guns, Cape Matapan sout

Eighty years ago, an icon of Royal bagpiping goes to the bottom

  As Prince Paul, the anglophile Regent of Yugoslavia, twisted and turned to escape unremitting German attempts to bring the country into the Axis, his British friends came to his assistance to improve his freedom of movement domestically. For long the strong man of Yugoslavian politics had been Milan Stoyadinovitch, who was broadly friendly towards Hitler and Mussolini, although he was chiefly interested in his own power and was widely thought to entertain hopes of making himself dictator. Prince Paul had Stoyadinovitch arrested and handed over to the British army in Greece. He was then interned in Mauritius as (in Churchill’s words) “a potential Quisling and enemy”. Churchill insisted the Governor of Mauritius, “should be informed he [Stoyadinovitch] is a bad man …Food and comfort should be appropriate to the scale of a Colonel.” The British foray into internal Yugoslav politics did not help ward off the diplomatically inevitable. In spite of growing popular opposition, in particul

Eighty years ago, the next Balkan domino wobbles

    The Luftwaffe scaled up its bombing raids on British cities, even though its forces were being redeployed from France to the Balkans. Some crews were flying multiple sorties in a night. The Germans had developed tactics to defeat the first methods that the British had used to frustrate the electronic beam navigation systems such as setting false targets, but their most effective practice was to bomb port cities which were far easier to identify visually at night. Inland cities were only attacked on moonlit nights. Cardiff, Clydebank, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Merseyside and Bristol all suffered badly. Casualties were mercifully light but huge damage was done to the housing stock. The   effectiveness of the bombing was due in part to the deployment of heavy bombs up to 2,500kg with a far higher explosive fill ratio than the RAF used. With British land intervention in support of Greece and German intervention in support of Italy imminent, Mussolini ordered a final attempt by the Ital

More of Snakehips

Eighty years ago, Churchill christens his second battle of the war and the Blitz claims a famous victim

    Churchill christened his second battle of the war and it may well have been the more important one. In the Battle of Britain the Germans had failed to gain air supremacy over England; had they won it would have made an invasion possible, but not necessarily inevitable or inevitably successful. If the Germans had won the Battle of the Atlantic, as Churchill named the conflict between German U Boats and long range bombers on one side and merchant shipping to Britain and its air and sea escorts on the other, Britain would have been unable to go on fighting. Unlike the very public designation of the Battle of Britain, the term Battle of the Atlantic first appeared in a confidential directive, which Churchill signed as Minister of Defence. The Directive gave full priority in supplies of anti-aircraft weapons to the ships and promoted catapult-armed merchant vessels to provide air cover, but otherwise it was light on detail. One public result of the directive was to give the Admiralty fo

Eighty years ago, the opening phase of the war in the south Balkans draws to a close

    After a prolonged but ultimately doomed hesitation, the Bulgarian government bowed to the inevitable and allowed German troops into the country. The promise of territory to be seized from Greece and Yugoslavia was enough to make the Bulgarians accede to demands that they sign the Tripartite pact. This had little immediate practical consequence, but did signal that Bulgaria was aligned with the three main Axis powers. With Germany still formally allied to the Soviet Union, there appeared little risk for Bulgaria. German troops immediately entered the country in force, prior to attacking Greece on its southern border. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, fresh from his failure to interest Turkey in resisting the Axis, found a “changed and disturbing situation” in Athens. The Greek army had even begun its promised to a more defensible line. Eden’s response was to agree to practically anything the Greeks asked, thus committing Britain to full-scale military support. The suc

Eighty years ago, the British army in North Africa enounters Erwin Rommel for the first time

  British commitment to the southern Balkans was signalled unambiguously when the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, visited Turkey then Greece. The duo were rapturously received by the public in Turkey, which provided some consolation when they were told by their hosts that the country was far to weak militarily to intervene against the likely German attack on Greece. The Turks tried to save British face further by accepting that was supplies intended for them might be diverted to Greece. The meetings in Athens formally set the seal on the British decision to send troops to support the Greeks. The British army had already encountered the Wehrmacht (and the Luftwaffe ) in Libya, where the first elements of what was to become the Afrika Korps had arrived under the command of Erwin Rommel, then an unknown name to the British. Operation Unternehmen Sonnenblume (Operation Sunflower) was intended to rescue the Italians from the r