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Diary of a Disaster

Diary of a Disaster: British Aid to Greece, 1940-1941

Copyright Date: 1986
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Diary of a Disaster
    Book Description:

    On October 28, 1940, the Italian army under Benito Mussolini invaded Greece. The British had insisted on guaranteeing Greek and Turkish neutrality, despite the fact that Greece was never more than a limited campaign in an unlimited war as far as they were concerned. The British, however, were never quite sure that Greece was not their last foothold in Europe, and they harbored dreams of holding on to this last bastion of civilization and of protecting it with a diplomatic and military alliance -- a Balkan bloc. These dreams bore little relation to military and economic realities, and so the stage was set for tragedy.

    InDiary of a Disaster, Robin Higham details the unfolding events from the invasion, though the Italian defeat and the subsequent German invasion, until the British evacuation at the end of April 1941. The Greek army, while tough, was small and based largely upon reserves. They were also largely equipped with obsolete French, Polish, and Czech arms for which there was now no other source than captured Italian materiel. Transportation was also lacking as Greece lacked all-weather roads over much of the country, had no all-weather airport, and only one rail line connecting Athens with Salonika and Florina in the north.

    Added to the woes of the Greek military, the British commander-in-chief for the Middle East, Sir Archibald Wavell, faced huge logistical challenges as well. Based in Cairo, he was responsible for a huge theatre of operation, from hostile Vichy French forces in Syria to the Boers in South Africa nearly six thousand miles away. His air force was comprised of only a handful of modern aircraft with biplanes and outdated, early monoplanes making up the bulk of his force. Radar was also unavailable to him. His navy was woefully short on destroyers and often incommunicado while at sea. While Wavell had roughly 500,000 men under his command, he was severely limited in how he could use them. The South Africans could only be deployed in East Africa and the Austrians and New Zealanders could not be employed without the consent of their home governments. In short, Churchill had instructed Wavell to offer support that he did not really have and could not afford to give to the Greeks.

    Higham walks readers through these events as they unfold like a modern Greek tragedy. Using the format of a diary, he recounts day-by-day the British efforts though the failure of Operation Lustre, which no one outside of London thought had any chance of stemming the Nazi tide in Greece.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5050-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface & Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-x)

    Wars are not won solely by the powers of personality and diplomacy, however attractive these may be to publishers and readers. Ultimately wars have to be fought and won by adherence to the principles of war, which in the modern day include not only the concentration of forces upon defined objectives but also an understanding of the needs and limits of available technology.

    At the heart of this story is the study of the interplay between heroic and popular personalities of the likes of Churchill and Eden, who had only a vague comprehension of the realities of war in a...

  5. 1 Prologue
    (pp. 1-10)

    Moving through the receiving line at a postwar reception, the taciturn Field Marshal Earl Wavell came to Major-General Sir Frederick de Guingand. He stopped, poked him in the chest, and said, “Freddie, there was more to Greece than you’ll ever understand.”¹

    In the months between the Italian invasion of Greece on 28 October 1940 and the British evacuation at the end of April 1941, General Sir Archibald Wavell was the British commander-in-chief, Middle East, and de Guingand was a major on his planning staff. The British decision to aid Greece changed both their careers. It led Wavell to the thankless...

  6. 11 The Metaxas Phase 28 October 1940 - 29 January 1941
    (pp. 11-75)

    The Greek prime minister, General Ioannis Metaxas, was a pudgy little man with a pasty face, who had not the slightest physical resemblance to either a general or a dictator, according to C. L. Sulzberger of theNew York Times.¹ He was spending the weekend at his country villa at Kifisia, then ten miles outside Athens on the road to Marathon. At three o’clock on Monday morning, 28 October, he was roused by the Italian ambassador, Count Emmanuel Grazzi, who handed him an ultimatum, properly couched in diplomatic French, which demanded the right of the Italians to occupy certain strategic...

  7. III The Garden of Eden 29 January 1941 - 4 March 1941
    (pp. 76-153)

    The weeks after the death of Metaxas were less significant for Greek than for British history. The story we have now to tell explains a great deal about how history is made by people, not by luck, and how the ignoring of geographical and timely obstacles leads to disaster. The Prime Minister in London kept changing his mind about the objectives like a puppy in a fire-hydrant factory. The presence of senior politicians in unusual places complicated the decision-making process, while the timorousness of those who had doubts again prevented timely warnings. Once the rational Metaxas was removed from the...

  8. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  9. IV Denouement and Disaster 5 March 1941 - 26 April 1941
    (pp. 154-233)

    Early on 5 March Cairo notified Athens and London that, because of the closing of the Suez Canal, ships for carrying lorries were at a premium; since there were available inside the Mediterranean only half the required ships, motor transport would become the big bottleneck as the LUSTRE forces moved to Greece.

    And Eden and Dill sent a third communique, on that cloudy day in Athens, outlining the military position: the Germans might attack in the next seven days, by which time the three Greek divisions should be on the Aliakmon Line. The implication was that the Germans should be...

  10. V Conclusion July 1985
    (pp. 234-237)

    Forty-five years after the events related here, it is possible to stand back and make some dispassionate comments. Of the senior participants, the only one I know to be still alive and active is General Sir James MarshallCornwall, whose memoirs were completed in 1981 and published in 1984. But if the people have passed, recent events have made it seem quite likely that the same sorts of decisions will be made, leading down the same tragic path, for much the same reasons as in the past—human frailties and misjudgments. If we work back now from the smaller points to...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 238-259)
  12. Bibliographical Comment
    (pp. 260-264)
  13. Index
    (pp. 265-269)