Eighty years ago, resistance to the German invasion of Greece nears collapse


Hopes of stopping the German invasion of Greece were vanishing rapidly. The British led forces were still out of contact with any serious Greek army presence and began to fall back from the Aliakmon line towards Thermopylae. The Greek army had not withdrawn from the frontier with Albania, where it had triumphed over the Italians and was not willing to give up any ground, even though the only possibility of holding the Germans would have lain in establishing a cohesive front with the British. The 12 Greek divisions there were thus cut off and surrendered, by some accounts in a side deal with local German commander to avoid the ignominy of surrendering to the Italians. Mussolini insisted that a new surrender to both Axis powers be signed.

The Greek prime minister, an ineffectual former central banker, shot himself but this had little practical consequence as King George II had in practice taken over the dictatorial powers of his predecessor, Ioannis Metaxas, when he died in January. The King fled to Crete which gave an accurate indication of how long it would be possible to hold the Wehrmacht.

The RAF had been giving gallant but futile assistance to the land campaign. It lost probably its most successful fighter pilot, the South African Squadron-Leader “Pat” Pattle, who had achieved most of his combat victories over Greece. There is no accurate figure for the number of enemy planes he shot down, but it was almost certainly over 40. The tally is all the more remarkable because he scored many of these kills flying an obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane; even when Hurricanes replaced the Gladiators, they were older MkIs which had only machine-gun armament. The confusion of the Greek campaign and lack of interest by the Air Ministry’s potent PR machine in a “peripheral” campaign where the RAF was engaged in the shameful task of supporting the army meant that he was never to be accorded the glory of his colleagues based in the UK.

The British army in North Africa was awarded a couple of dubious consolation prizes. The garrison of the port of Tobruk in Libya repelled an Italian attack, taking a large number of prisoners, and it knocked out an example of a previously unknown and impressively powerful German tank, the Panzer IV. The morale uplift from either was illusory. Erwin Rommel had decided to bypass Tobruk, which only served as a supply base for the British advance at the turn of the year, in his unbroken advance towards the Suez Canal. With its 75mm gun, the PzIV was far superior to anything that the British would field for some time.

The League of Nations enjoyed a final and perverse moment of recognition. Since the collapse of France it had led a shadowy existence under an Irish Secretary-General Seán Lester with the Palais des Nations in Geneva shuttered. The Swiss were terrified that any activity of the League would be taken amiss by the triumphant Germans and Italians, but Lester kept as much of its humanitarian programmes going as possible, the first of a long line of Irish neutralist diplomats. For no clear reason Vichy France announced that it was withdrawing from the League. Perhaps Admiral Darlan felt this was a cheap way to show solidarity with Germany and Italy, whose withdrawals from the League in the 1930s had been milestones on the road to war. Vichy’s withdrawal gave de Gaulle’s Free French a cheap opportunity to differentiate themselves from Vichy and show themselves more committed to the international rule of law by refusing to endorse the move.


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