Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part II

16 November 1943. Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (left) with the surrendered Fortress commander Brigadier Robert Tilney (right).

The result is succinctly recorded in the official history: “The local commanders did not hesitate; the Chiefs of Staff supported them; and the Prime Minister agreed with both.”

Indeed he did. Maitland Wilson received by return an enthusiastic reply: “Cling on if you possibly can. It will be a splendid achievement. Talk it over with Eden and see what help you can get from the Turk. If after everything has been done you are forced to quit I will support you, but victory is the prize.”

He was as good as his word. In the event, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was not forthcoming. Turkey was more impressed by German victories than by British promises or Soviet threats. There would be no fighter cover from Turkey.

The vital factor of air cover—and the divergence of opinion that resulted between Tedder and Douglas—must be examined together with the rigid command structure, which, in Churchill’s words, “drew an imaginary line down the Mediterranean” and relieved General Eisenhower’s armies of all responsibility for the Dalmatian coast and the Balkans. “These are assigned to General Wilson, of the Middle East Command, but he does not possess the necessary forces. One command has the forces but not the responsibilities, the other the responsibilities but not the forces. This can hardly be considered an ideal arrangement.”

With this command structure, the allocation of air power was also involved. Whereas Wilson was an independent commander and responsible only to London, Douglas and his command in the Middle East were under the operational control of Tedder at Eisenhower’s headquarters. This soon led to difficulties. Douglas wrote:

From the outset I was far from happy about the view of our efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean taken by Eisenhower’s HQ. The answers they were giving to our signals to them could never be considered as properly thought out, and I could not understand Tedder’s position in all this. He had appeared to approve of our plans to start with, and it was not until some three weeks after we had stated our intentions, and we had actually put them into operation, that he lodged his disturbing complaint about not being consulted.

Tedder’s viewpoint was somewhat different:

So far as I was aware the participation of elements of the Mediterranean Air Command had never been properly considered. The fall of Cos only made such an assessment more urgent. I set out in detail for Eisenhower’s eye the ways in which a determined attack on Rhodes would diminish our air strength in the Italian campaign. In particular I anticipated a demand for long range fighters for the purpose of covering convoys and the assault on Rhodes itself.

Eisenhower’s response to Tedder’s warning was to send him a reply to the effect that no specific undertakings should be made for Accolade other than that of bombing German airfields in Greece, which they had both already agreed was desirable. Tedder sent a copy of this to Portal and added that he wholeheartedly endorsed it.

It must also be stressed that even when Accolade was still a possibility, Tedder, in common with the others, stressed that an essential part of the revised plan lay in the retention of Cos and Leros, which in his opinion was as necessary to the capture of Rhodes as its own capture was necessary to their preservation. Thus when Cos went so quickly, it was to be expected that he would then have grave reservations about the rest of the plan.

While Cos was being subjected to heavy air attacks, Douglas had made repeated pleas for the bombing of the Greek and Balkan airfields, but Tedder felt that the bombing of the German supply lines in Northern Italy was of greater importance. He did in fact signal Douglas before the island fell that he was very concerned about the way the Aegean operations were going. He added that commitments were involved that he had had no prior opportunity of assessing. Tedder felt that events were underlining something he had always thought—that from the air point of view, the Balkans were strategically one and the same as the rest of the Mediterranean. He promised that he would do his best to help, but he insisted that he must be kept informed of future plans.

It was at this time that Portal signaled Tedder that in his opinion, the Allies should fight the German Air Force wherever it went. He also thought the Allies could better afford a diversion into the Aegean than could the Germans and that damage inflicted on the Germans in the Aegean was just as desirable as damage inflicted in any other theater.

With Cos gone and Accolade abandoned, the question of extra air diversions became even more acute. Tedder felt that they were becoming more and more wasteful and dangerous; Douglas felt more and more that he was letting down the other two services. With Portal’s message recording his pleasure at the forward policy being adopted by Middle East Command in the Aegean and Tedder’s signal complaining that he had no prior opportunity of assessing the operations then in progress, Douglas was perplexed. “It struck me that in some curious way Tedder appeared to be the only one who was not fully acquainted with what was going on—even London knew and approved. It confirmed for me my opinion that the time was more than ripe for a fundamental change in the structure of the overall command of the air in the Mediterranean.”

From this statement, it can be seen that the two men, although at loggerheads over this particular issue, had both come to the same conclusion, as had Churchill: that the system of command in the Mediterranean at this time was unworkable, unwieldy, and far too inflexible. There can be no denying that in this and in so many similar operations, from the occupation of Norway through the fall of France and on to the desert campaigns, it was the Germans who made unexpected moves and took chances with new and surprising tactics. It has always been the delight of British and American observers and commentators to depict the Germans as dull, methodical plodders who could never adapt. But in fact, time and time again, it was the Allies with their rigid command structures who were caught off-guard by German initiative.

After Leros had suffered the same fate as Cos, both Tedder and Douglas were dispirited. Douglas wrote:

I prepared a paper in which I summarized all that had happened in the last days of the operation. I was in no mood to pull any punches and I started off with the blunt statement: “I am very dissatisfied with the assistance that I received during the Leros operation.” I pointed out that when the deterioration of the weather in Italy had bogged down the battle there—right at the period during which Leros was being attacked—“a wider view should have been taken of the dispositions of heavy and medium bombers and of long-range fighters.” I further pointed out that we had asked “not once but many times” for Liberators and Lightnings to be located in Cyrenaica, and that “all we got were a few B-25s at first with disgruntled and later with untrained pilots and armed with semi-experimental 75-mm guns.”

He continued much in the same vein; recording that between October 27 and November 14, no attack had been made by Allied heavy bombers from the central Mediterranean on the Greek airfields. On November 14, ninety-one B-25s with forty-nine Lightnings as escorts had bombed Sofia, an attack that, if it had been directed against the Greek airfields instead, might have tipped the scales. Douglas came to the conclusion, in this paper and later, that it was the disregard by the Americans in general, and the indifference of the Mediterranean Air Command in particular, that resulted in the Middle East Command’s difficult position during this operation. We can certainly agree with him on the first part of this conclusion. As for the second, Tedder’s feelings were also recorded much later, when the campaign was but a memory. They are nevertheless both sincere and, in the context of the U.S. Chiefs of Staffs’ attitude, pertinent.

Tedder claimed that he had never ignored the fate of Leros, but that even less could he detach himself from the fate of the Italian campaign. He thought that the whole operation was a gamble that had failed to pay off and added that the assumption that heavy bomber raids could knock out the Luftwaffe was quite unrealistic because of the effort they would have required and the weather conditions prevailing at the time. The success of such a scheme was continuity of attack, and this continuity could not have been sustained. He recorded: “One would have thought that some of the bitter lessons of Crete would have been sufficiently fresh in the mind to have prevented a repetition and yet in the sad story of Cos and Leros we had the familiar cries—and justifiable cries—for protection from enemy air attack, complaints of inadequate support from the Air, and heavy casualties in all three Services, because we were compelled once again to attempt the impossible.”

Here again we can sympathize with this opinion. One destroyer captain wrote, “We younger destroyer skippers, I think, blamed Churchill.” This opinion was strongly endorsed by the late Capt. Stephen Roskill, who asserted, “Most of the responsibility for this failure must surely rest with Churchill,” who, Roskill had an “addiction” to capturing islands (for example, his obsession with Pantellaria in 1940 and 1941 and the Azores in the same period) that would have proved difficult to supply. Roskill also stated that the hopes Churchill entertained about Turkey entering the war being the principal plank on which he rested his case “was an illusion.” Another study went even further, naming the campaign “Churchill’s Folly” and claiming that the full story had “never been told”—which, as War in the Aegean was first published in 1974, was patently not so. The author also called the campaign “The Last Great British Defeat of World War II,” a dubious statement, with Arnhem at least as a stronger contender.

But all this criticism of the prime minister, though undoubtedly merited, does not seem entirely fair. Despite Churchill’s propensity for wild schemes and harebrained interventions, such Operation Catherine, the fiasco of Norway, Operation Workshop, the insistence of the dispatch of Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore against the advice of the Admiralty, and so on, there can be no doubt that on this occasion, he really did read Stalin’s future intentions for the Balkans far better than the naive Roosevelt and, indeed, the Americans in general.

Certainly the bright vision was Churchill’s, and he was extremely reluctant to see it thrown away. “Leros is a bitter blow to me,” he told Eden in a telegram sent on November 21. He continued:

One may ask should such an operation ever have been undertaken without the assurance of air superiority? Have we not failed to learn the lessons of Crete, etc.? Have we not restored the Stukas to a fleeting moment of their old triumphs? The answer is that there is none of these arguments that was not foreseen before the occupation of these islands was attempted and if they were disregarded it was because other reasons and other hopes were held to predominate over them. If we are never going to proceed on anything but certainties we must certainly face the prospect of a prolonged war.

He also stated that this campaign “constituted, happily on a small scale, the most acute difference I ever had with Eisenhower.”

Yet he showed not the slightest hint of remorse for all the sacrifice made for naught, only a politicians’ natural desire to gloss over the whole fiasco and quickly forget the part he played in it. Churchill telegraphed Eden: “No attempts should be made to minimize the poignancy of the loss of the Dodecanese. It is, however, just to say that it is our first really grievous reverse since Tobruk 1942. I hope that there will be no need to make heavy weather over this at all.”

On the other hand, the Americans adhered to their perfectly valid point that they were fighting against the Germans and the Russians were their allies. However far-sighted Churchill may have been in 1943, he had already hitched his country to the Soviet cause in June 1941, and his policy of reinforcing Stalin at the expense of the British Far East since then somewhat compromised his later “farsightedness” in the Balkans. After all, Churchill had declared, “If Hitler had invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” If Churchill was dismayed at Roosevelt’s belief that he “could do a deal with Joe,” it must be admitted that he had given the American leader an early lead in pandering to Stalin’s capacious appetite.

Jeffrey Holland, who fought there and returned to the island postwar to ponder the reasons for it all, told us: “The islanders themselves believe that part of the price Churchill would have had to pay (and been prepared to pay) for bringing Turkey into the war would be to accept Turkish sovereignty over the Dodecanese plus Rhodes. Colonel Kenyon thought the whole thing was a bloody shambles.”

As before, it was Turkey that saw things more clearly. Said Giuseppe de Peppo, the Italian ambassador to Turkey, “The Turkish ideal is that the last German soldier should fall upon the last Russian corpse.”

This fiasco in the eastern Mediterranean had shown that Britain alone could not succeed without American participation or backing. The Americans, with their upsurging strength, had now become the major partner, and as such, they were less ready to accommodate views that did not accord with their own. That this was the turning point in Anglo-American strategy is borne out by General Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who recorded in his diary on November 1, 1943, that he regretted that he had not had sufficient force of character to swing the American Chiefs of Staff into line with British thinking on the Mediterranean, but although he blamed himself, he doubted whether it was humanly possible to alter the American point of view more than he had succeeded in doing. Henceforth the United States exerted an ever-increasing domination over the conduct of the war, and it took the lion’s share in writing the final chapters in the postwar state of Europe. Not only had it surrendered the chance to beat the Soviets into the Balkans, but when the maps were redrawn later, they were to be even more generous to the greedy appetite of Stalin.

An isolated American view was that of Gen. Mark Clark, who wrote that “the weakening of the campaigns in Italy in order to invade Southern France instead of pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”

However, Professor Michael Howard dismissed all postwar speculations on the motives of Churchill to thwart the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe as being mainly wrong interpretations of mere wartime expediency on the part of the prime minister. He also added the most pertinent point of all: “The appetites which had been disappointed, especially those for seizing Rhodes and striking across the Aegean at the mainland of Greece, were largely ones which had developed en mangeant and which had not received general Allied—or even general British—sanction.”

There is one puzzling thing that is hard to understand: When the provision of on-the-spot air cover was so vital to the campaign, and the land-based fighters were not forthcoming, why was it that the navies of the two largest maritime nations the world had ever known could not provide aircraft carriers as a substitute? The British fleet alone had several carriers—two fleet carriers, Illustrious and Formidable; a light carrier, Unicorn; and three escort carriers, Attacker, Hunter, and Stalker—on station at the beginning of September, when the total number of British fighter aircraft were but a drop in the ocean of the Allies’ grand total of 4,000 aircraft. To have detached even the escort carriers to operate in the Aegean would have brought the cruisers and destroyers the respite they needed. Indeed, a year later this was done and worked. Instead, they were all withdrawn from the Mediterranean during this period because of heavy losses their aircraft sustained in deck landings supporting the Salerno operation. Perhaps the need for aircraft carriers, even in the landlocked waters of the Mediterranean, is the foremost lesson to be drawn from this campaign. In view of British defense decisions between 1963 and 1997, it seems that nobody in government understood or heeded this lesson, a blindness culminating in the absolute worst of misjudgments—that made by the Thatcher government just before the Falklands War—to sell off the last British carriers and not replace them.

After the Allies had missed their main chance in the Balkans, the Aegean did indeed become a backwater. The German garrisons there were allowed to wither on the vine, and the Allies were satisfied that those troops were locked up away from the fronts in Italy and, later, France. It did not affect the Germans much, for Rome did not fall that easily, nor was Italy quickly conquered. The newly formed Raiding Forces carried out pinprick raids in their usual daring manner, and later escort carriers and cruiser-destroyer strike forces inflicted damage on the German convoy routes, as did strikes by RAF forces. The Soviet steamroller finally plowed through to the north sucking under Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and eventually the Germans withdrew from the Balkans in December 1944. The Allies could take little advantage then; indeed, the British had to make considerable effort in Greece to prevent the establishment of a Communist government, and Yugoslavia and Albania went the same way.

It is, however, futile to wring one’s hands over what might have been. There was no guarantee that the mere conquest of the Aegean would have brought Turkey into the war on the Allies’ side, nor that the Germans would have abandoned Greece. The Allies were never prepared to follow up with a main assault on the Balkans, no matter what the German reaction to the loss of the Aegean might have been. And even if they had achieved success there, it was at Teheran and Potsdam, and not on the battlefield, that the fruits of battle were decided.

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