Eighty years ago, a Balkan worm turns


The Yugoslavian worm turned. A widely supported coup d’etat led by General Simović 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 south of Greece. The Italian navy was tasked with blocking British army reinforcements to Greece which had started to build up. Aided by superior intelligence and ship-borne radar, the British fleet inluding three battleships and an aircraft carrier under Admiral Cunningham engaged Admiral Iachino’s, which had one battleship and six large cruisers. The Italians lost half of their cruisers and their battleship Vittorio Veneto was severely damaged by British aircraft. No British ship was sunk and minor damage only was inflicted on four small cruisers. Philip Mountbatten, then a junior naval officer, commanded the searchlights on one of the British battleships and earned a mention in despatches for his work during the nightime phase of the battle. Cunningham bitterly regretted the failure to sink Vittorio Veneto but the victory left the British in command of the eastern Mediterranean until the fall of Greece and Crete two months later gave the Axis air bases to exploit their superior air power.

The RAF launched its long campaign against the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst which had just put into the western French port of Brest after a successful cruise against allied shipping in the Atlantic. The location put the ships in comfortable range of British bombers but the episode demonstrated the limitations of aircraft against precise, well-defended targets. The ships were given the unusually expressive codename of Toads, loathsome creatures lurking in safety. The first attack was a night raid by over 100 medium bombers which failed to achieve any hits whatever although no planes were lost.

The British government gave MPs a free vote on a motion to block the ministerial order permitting theatres to open on Sunday. Supporters of the motion gave reasons that ranged from rabid Sabbatarianism, through supposed concern for national health to knee-jerk conservatism that saw Sunday theatre as the thin of the wedge of other threats to British national life. The most vehement and long-winded of the Sabbatarians also manged to introduce a denunciation of jazz music into his speech. The Conservative MP for Finchley John Crowder spoke for the motion and sneered at music-hall and theatre proprietors. When he stood down as MP  in 1959 with the ritual knighthood for long service as a docile back-bencher, he complained that his constituency association had been left a choice between a Jew and a woman to replace him. The woman was Margaret Thatcher. The debate was poor advert for Parliamentary democracy and featured numerous interjections from the eccentric Viscountess Astor, who seems to have supported the motion but was chiefly relishing the pleasure of her own voice. When another MP was faced with the contrast between seeing Clark Gable in a gangster movie, which would still be legal, and John Gielgud in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which would not, informed the House that Clark Gable did not appear in person.  The motion was passed by 144 to 136.


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