Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part II

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Churchills 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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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