restricted access Diary of a Disaster: British Aid to Greece, 1940–1941 (review)
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144 Reviews Robin Higham, Diary of a Disaster: British Aid to Greece, 1940—1941. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press. 1986. Pp. viii + 261. $27.00. The reasons for the failure of the 1941 British expedition to Greece are generally known, but Robin Higham offers a considerable number of new details from archival sources and personal interviews, and he offers a provocative interpretation. As editor of Military Affairs and author of several publications on British military history, he is well-versed in the subject. Higham places the responsibility for the disaster on Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. Churchill, he insists, failed to understand and adjust to the importance and need for thorough planning and good administration in the conduct of modern warfare. The author pits an impulsive Churchill against "rational, systematic officers" (p. 24), like General Sir John Dill, Air Chief Marshall, Sir Arthur Longmore, and General Sir Archibald Wavell, and the realistic Greek leaders, head of state, John Metaxas, and his Commander in Chief, General Alexander Papagos. In his determination to find the means to press the reluctant and exhausted Greeks to accept British aid, Churchill is presented as "changing his mind about objectives like a puppy in a fire hydrant factory" (p. 76). This an exaggeration, Higham makes a sound case. When the War Cabinet decided on 5 February 1941 to aid Greece, it did so more on wishful thinking than on hard analysis and good planning. Higham reminds us that the Greeks had less than a three-month supply of ammunition and coal to fuel Greek trains. In spite of British shortages in men and matériel, Churchill convinced himself of "mythical" (p. 84) reserves in Egypt. Further, the British planners neither insured the availability of adequate shipping to move the British expeditionary forces to Greece rapidly, nor did they check the availability of airfields and aircraft for use in Greece. Air Vice Marshall John D'Albiac expected these airfields to be ready at the end of April, which Higham points out "was two months after the Germans were expected to attack! And a month before that the Greeks might well be out of ammunition" (p. 84). But no one, aside from the Greeks, would say no to Churchill, who was determined to have a "great coup" (p. 24). Higham claims that no British officer would stand up to Churchill and tell him that "the Greek armed forces were inadequately equipped, that the British could not reequip them, and Wavell did not have the forces to do the job envisioned" (p. 54). The author argues that Metaxas and Papagos understood these points well and that if Metaxas had lived, he would have refused the British offer. IfDiIl and Wavell were indeed "rational and systematic" officers, Reviews 145 why did they agree to the expedition against their better judgment? Higham dismisses Dill as weak and concentrates on Wavell, who he argues fully understood the domestic and international political pressures on the British Prime Minister to achieve a victory against the Axis. The goal was to create a Balkan front of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. Wavell believed that preparations and aid to Greece could be a catalyst for the front, but unlike Churchill he never lost sight of his first priority to protect his recent gains in the Western front against Italy. Higham makes a leap of imagination and claims that Wavell believed he could solidify the Balkan front with "a gallant gesture at almost no cost at all" (p. 236). Since he could read the German preparations for the invasion through ULTRA, Higham contends that Wavell intended to time the arrival of the British expeditionary forces to coincide with the German crossing of the Greek frontier from Bulgaria. If the front had crystalized by that time, there would be chance of success against the German attacks. But if the front had not been formed, he would be able to evacuate his force safely and intact to Egypt. The scheme went awry because of bad weather and German delays which pushed the German attack back into April. This interpretation is unlikely to go unchallenged. Although the Greek side is not a major focus of the book, Higham offers a...