In 1940 and 1941, the reach of World War Two expanded to North and East Africa and southeast Europe, where Hitler was making new alliances and conquests.
In North Africa, the British army became engaged in a contest to prevent German forces and their Italian allies, who had entered the war on June 10, 1940, from seizing the vital Suez Canal in Egypt.
Freeing Ethiopia, Defending Greece
In May of 1941, the British liberated Ethiopia from more than five years of Italian occupation. Nearer home, Winston and his Cabinet watched with concern a sinister pattern that was developing in south-east Europe.
On January 9, 1941, Winston received a decoded message revealing that the Luftwaffe was preparing for an invasion of Greece. An Italian attack the previous October had gone badly wrong and the Germans were stepping in to rescue their ally.
In March, 1939, Britain had promised to help the Greeks if they were attacked. Winston and his War Cabinet were anxious to make good that promise, but there were difficulties. In North Africa, the German Afrika Korps led by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel was achieving spectacular success in the Western Desert. Withdrawing men and supplies for Greece could compromise British efforts to safeguard Egypt and the Suez Canal.
Winston, for once, was cautious. “Do not consider yourself obligated to the Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will be another Norwegian fiasco,he told his Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden and General Archibald Wavell, the Commander in Chief of British forces in the Middle East. ”If no good plan can be made, please say so. But of course,” the Prime Minister added slyly, “you know how valuable success would be.”
Hitler’s New Allies
As Winston had hoped, plans to send aid to Greece went ahead. Meanwhile, a pro-Nazi bloc was taking shape in southeast Europe. Hungary and Romania allied themselves to Germany in 1940 and Bulgaria was soon to follow. Yugoslavia completed a quartet on March 24, 1941 when Dr. Dragosha Cvetkovic, its pro-Nazi Prime Minister signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler.
However, the treaty was repudiated two days later when royalist insurgents overthrew Cvetkovic. An enraged Hitler gave orders that the Yugoslavs should be brought to heel “with merciless brutality.”
Punishing Yugoslavs, Suppressing Greeks
Hitler’s forces saw to it that his orders were carried out with their Operation Punishment. On April 17, after eleven days of valiant but futile resistance, the Yugoslav Army surrendered. Their brief struggle had cost them ninety thousand prisoners, more thousands of civilian deaths and the almost total devastation their capital city, Belgrade.
The Greeks suffered a similar fate. On April 6, the Luftwaffe struck Piraeus, the port of Athens. At the time, British military supplies were being unloaded. Six ships were sunk and another, loaded with two hundred tons of high explosives, blew up at its moorings. The explosion was so immense that Piraeus was devastated.
Elsewhere, the German forces moved swiftly through the Greek defense lines, capturing Salonika on April 9 and forcing the withdrawal of the Greek First Army and its surrender twelve days later.
The British in Greece and Crete
The British forces in Greece were now in a truly desperate position. Some 75,000 men under the command of General Henry Maitland Wilson were obliged to make a rapid retreat. Plans were made to evacuate troops to the island of Crete which had been a British base since 1940.
But the Luftwaffe prevented the British from making an easy getaway. JU-87 Stukas, the much-feared German war planes, dive-bombed and machine-gunned the transports for a week, killing thousands of men. In all, only fifty thousand managed to evacuate to Crete.
The Germans pursued them in overwhelming numbers, landing a total of twenty-two thousand men on the island after May 20. The exhausted, ill-equipped defenders held out for more than a week until the Royal Navy arrived to evacuate them. In the process, the Navy lost more than two thousand men and five thousand soldiers had to surrender to the enemy.
Advance of the Afrika Korps
The disastrous seven-week campaign in Greece and Crete severely damaged British morale and prestige. Then came further bad news form North Africa, where the lightning advance of Rommel’s Afrika Korps had pushed British forces back across the desert as far as the Egyptian frontier.
Winston put an optimistic interpretation on the downturn in British fortunes. Broadcasting from Chequers, his country home in Kent, he reassured the nation of ultimate victory. “No prudent and far-seeing man” he said “can doubt that the eventual and total defeat of Hitler and Mussolini (the Italian dictator) is certain, in view of the respective resolves of the British and American democracies.”
But beneath the façade of confidence, Winston was very much on edge. On April 27, when Major-General John Kennedy, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, suggested over dinner at Chequers that the British Army might have to evacuate Egypt, the Prime Minister became so incensed that his other guests had problems calming him down.
Ten days later, Winston’s mood darkened even further when he was criticized in the House of Commons over Egypt, the fiasco in Greece and Crete and the successes of German submarines in the vital Battle of the Atlantic.
This last was the most serious of all, for Britain’s survival depended upon supplies of food, armaments and other materials from the United States. The severity of the news from the Atlantic could not be denied. In the three months from March to June 1941 alone, 501,000 tons of shipping had been sunk.
Winston’s job, it seemed, was on the line and he demanded a vote of confidence.He won by 447 votes for, to three against. It was a decisive margin of victory, but the experience was nevertheless extremely unsettling.
- Kurowski, Franz: Das Afrika Korps: Erwin Rommel and the Germans in Africa, 1941-43 (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Stackpole Books, 2010) Text in English. ISBN-10: 0811705919/ISBN-13: 978-0811705912
- Last Lift from Crete: The Nicholas Everard World War II Saga Book 2 by Alexander Fullerton (Ithaca, New York: McBooks Press, 2005) ISBN-10: 1590130936/ ISBN-13: 978-1590130933