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A British Blunder in the East Mediterranean

On the verge of victory, 58,000 British troops were transferred to a doomed Greece just as Rommel arrived in North Africa

On Dec. 8, 1940, Gen. Archibald Wavell, Commander in Chief Middle East, launched from Egypt the first British offensive in North Africa against the Italian Army in Libya. Two months later Benghazi, about 300 miles from the Egyptian border, had been captured and the Italian Tenth Army, about 120,000 strong, destroyed.

“In view of the highly critical situation with our Italian allies, two German divisions—one light and one panzer—were to be sent to Libya to their help. I was to take command of this German Afrika Korps and was to move off as soon as possible to Libya to reconnoiter the ground.”

Gen. Erwin Rommel, Feb. 6, 1941 diary entry

As British troops entered Benghazi, the Greek government sent to Churchill an urgent request for reinforcements. Italy had invaded Greece on Oct. 28, 1940. That offensive bogged down thanks to a brilliant defense led by Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, who died on Jan. 29, 1941. His successors sought help. The Greek army was nearing a state of exhaustion, and they had reports of German plans to help its Italian ally against Greece.

British Army In Greece 1941

A British army truck in Greece, April 21, 1941. The commitment of valuable men and materiel to assist Greece led to disaster in North Africa. Imperial War Museum photo

This presented a dilemma for the British government. Continue the successful campaign to its conclusion, knocking Italy out of North Africa? Or go on the defensive there and divert troops and arms to Greece?

Greece was Britain’s only ally still in the fight against the Axis. Greece also represented Britain’s only toehold on the continent, a potential base for an offensive through the Balkans and where British aircraft operating out of airfields there would be in range of the Ploesti oilfields in Romania that supplied vital oil to Germany. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Gen. Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), were dispatched on an urgent fact-finding mission.

“The Prime Minister then invited all the Ministers present to express their views. The views expressed were, without exception, in favour of sending military assistance to Greece.”

—Extract of British War Cabinet minutes, Feb. 24, 1941

After briefing Churchill and the War Cabinet upon their return, it was decided that time was on their side, provided Britain acted quickly. Thanks to Ultra, they knew the German offensive against Greece was scheduled for early April. As for North Africa, they knew through Ultra that Gen. Erwin Rommel, a successful tank commander in the Battle for France in 1940, would command the new German force named the Afrika Korps. British military experts believed any German-led offensive could not begin until mid-May, a belief confirmed by Ultra intercepts of German high command orders forbidding offensive operations by Rommel before June. Operation Lustre, the reinforcing of Greece, was ordered. Wavell transferred about 58,000 British and Commonwealth troops from Egypt to Greece.

But Rommel had other ideas. Deciding that surprise worked in his favor, he later said, “I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favorable.” On March 24, he launched a reconnaissance in force attack that quickly developed into an all-out offensive. By the end of April, the Afrika Korps had reached the Egyptian border.

Afrika Korps

Consequences: An Afrika Korps Panzer II in North Africa, part of Rommel’s shock offensive that sent the understrength British reeling back in retreat. Bundesarchiv photo

The German offensive against Greece, which included the invasion of Yugoslavia, kicked off on April 6, 1941. Coordination between the Greek and British armies collapsed for a variety of reasons. Within days, British troops were in full retreat. Beginning on April 24, they were evacuated. Some went to Crete where they were later evacuated or captured; others returned to Egypt.

British troops in North Africa, once so close to total victory, now confronted disaster.

British troops in North Africa, once so close to total victory, now confronted disaster.

British Soldiers On Crete

A group of British soldiers on Crete in a trench with fixed bayonets. After evacuating the Greek mainland, some British soldiers were part of the failed defense of Crete. Imperial War Museum photo

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke was a general and commander in chief of the defensive Home Forces during this period. He succeeded Dill as CIGS on Dec. 25, 1941. In his diary entry of Feb. 17, 1941, Alanbrooke wrote in part: “Unfortunately Dill is away, having left with Anthony Eden for the Middle East. He is likely to be away for 3 weeks. . . .” Years later he appended this post-war note, “I have . . . always considered from the very start that our participation in the operations in Greece was a definite strategic blunder. Our hands were more than full at the time in the Middle East, and Greece could only result in the most dangerous dispersal of force.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1045">

    There were blunders in WW1 as well, as they sent thousands of Australian troops to their death at Gallipoli, as their Generals sipped team a few beaches up

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-1121">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    There were many, many blunders in World War I. Not least the idea that courage and elan could overcome machine guns. That idea cost 60,000 casualties in one day at the Somme. People forget the extent of the slaughter. The average height of a male in Scotland, for example, was three inches shorter after the war than before. Go ahead and ask yourself why, and you get some idea of the losses incurred.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1974">

    upsilon sigma (muslim) in alliance with chinese gma7 network!!! is a threat to the

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-1975">

    upsilon sigma (muslim) in alliance with chinese gma7 network!!! pls have time to review this !!!