The surrender of Italy in 1943 opened up an opportunity for Britain in the Aegean. Italian troops garrisoned much of Greece including many Aegean islands. On Rhodes, Allied hopes were pinned on the 40,000-strong Italian force stationed there changing sides. However, quick action by the Germans forced the Italians to surrender, and they were disarmed, along with all the other Italians occupying Greece (with the exception of Kefalonia where they were massacred instead). The British still managed to occupy the islands of Kos, Leros and Samos with a small force by the middle of September. But, as November drew to a close, local German air superiority had won the day, and the remaining British units were forced to withdraw. The defeat was a blow for Churchill, but he was as yet undeterred in his plans for the Eastern Med. (This campaign is covered in detail in David Hughes’ “Disaster in the Aegean” scenario published in TEM 57 and Frank Watsons’ “Dodecanese Adventure” article in the same issue.)
Churchill continued to push for an East Mediterranean strategy at the Cairo and Tehran talks in late 1943. His primary objective now was to open the Aegean and secure a sea route to the Turkish ports, with the aim of bringing Turkey into the war on the Allied side. A major outcome would be a sea route to the Soviet Union through the Dardanelles that bypassed the dangerous waters of the Arctic–echoing his ill-fated 1915 Gallipoli campaign. However the Americans were opposed to the idea for several reasons. They suspected the British of not being wholly committed to the planned invasion of Northwestern Europe, were suspicious of Britain’s political motives with a view to post war influence in the region, and not least were concerned about getting bogged down in the difficult terrain and politics of the Balkans. Another attempt at taking Rhodes was seriously considered by the British, but the US reiterated it would not provide a single landing craft for the attack. (At this stage in the war, the British could only spare minor forces, like they did in the Dodecanese, from their main commitments, and US support thus was needed to ensure success in secondary operations against the Germans.) In the end the realpolitik of the US and the Soviet Union put an end to all the British ideas of major activity in the Eastern Mediterranean until the Germans evacuated Greece in October 1944. The British, though, kept the diplomatic channels working and were able to agree with the Soviets that Greece was to come under the British sphere of influence (while Rumania and Bulgaria were to be left to the Soviets).
In order to deceive the Germans about the upcoming invasion of Normandy, elaborate operational ruses were devised and fed to Nazi intelligence under the overall guise of Operation Bodyguard. One such ploy was Operation Zeppelin, a planned invasion of Greece by (almost) non-existent forces. This phantom invasion threatened landings in Greece, Albania, the Adriatic or even the Black Sea. The desired (and realised) outcome of this plan was that the Germans were forced to keep formations in Hungary in reserve to defend against this perceived threat, instead of in France where they would have been far more useful.
Bulgaria had mostly managed to remain at arm’s length from the war until 1943. Although it joined the Axis in 1941, it never declared war on the Soviet Union and did not participate in Barbarossa. Yugoslav Macedonia and most of Thrace were given over to Bulgarian administration after the Balkan campaign, and Bulgaria spent the next 3 years trying to control these sectors with a variety of harsh methods. By late 1943, though, things were starting to go seriously wrong. Heavy Allied bombing raids on Sofia had shaken the Bulgarians confidence in the alliance with Germany. The Soviets were pushing westwards hard from Ukraine, and a communist insurgency threatened the stability of the government. In addition there were constant fears about the Allies landing in the Aegean or in Thrace and posing a direct threat to Bulgaria itself, not to mention the possibility of Turkish involvement on behalf of the Allies. The Bulgarian 2nd Corps units stationed in Thrace were therefore a first line of defence for the homeland against an Allied attack in the Aegean, but had the situation deteriorated it is likely that these units would have withdrawn to the passes of the Rhodope mountains to defend the Bulgarian homeland. In the end, the Red Army entered the country unopposed on September 5th, 1944 and on the 9th a communist coup succeeded in taking control of the government and country. Subsequently the Bulgarians began fighting alongside the Third Ukrainian Front to drive the Germans from the Balkans, and they remained in the Soviet sphere of influence for another 46 years.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died in November 1938 and was succeeded as President of Turkey by İsmet İnönü. An alliance agreement was signed with Britain and France in 1939. However, this agreement largely failed, as Turkey refused requests to help Greece and stayed out of the war until it symbolically joined the Allies in 1945.
The British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir John Dill met with the Turks in early 1941 as part of their efforts to create a united Balkan Front, but the Turks were in no mood to confront the Germans. The Turkish Army was in a poor state and in dire need of modern equipment, plus the economy required many resources. In addition Turkey was fearful of fighting both the Soviets and Germans (who were still allies) at the same time. Only if attacked would they enter the war.
General James Marshall-Cornwall headed a second British Military mission to Ankara in April. The Turkish authorities demanded impossible amounts of Allied assistance. While these talks were taking place, the Wehrmacht unleashed its assault on Yugoslavia and Greece. Turkey remained neutral.
In June 1941 Turkey signed the German-Turkish Treaty of friendship with Germany, although Hitler had written to İnönü three months earlier guaranteeing the Turkish borders. Stymied, Allied negotiators decided to send just enough supplies to keep the Turks friendly, without actually pressuring them further to enter the war at that stage.
Churchill held direct talks with İnönü at Adana in southern Turkey in January 1943, aiming to bring the Turks into the war by late 1943. This would open up the shipment route to southern Russia and divert German forces away from the Eastern Front. The demands of İnönü in terms of resources and equipment were again prohibitive, and thus Turkey still remained neutral.
Turkey did possess one item of strategic importance–chromite ore which is the major source for chromium. Chromium is an essential component in the steelmaking process, and Germany had no supplies under its control after 1943. The US and Britain signed preclusive trade agreements with Turkey for chromite ore and were the sole buyers from 1940-1942. To their consternation, the Turks then signed a trade agreement with Germany beginning in 1943, and according to Allied estimates the amount was sufficient to meet or even exceed German requirements. Diplomatic pressure from the Allied powers was brought to bear, but did not deter the Turks from continuing to send the precious ore to the Reich. When German negotiators arrived in Ankara in April 1944 to extend the existing agreement, the Allies had had enough. A note from the US and British Ambassadors containing a direct threat was sent to the Turkish Foreign Minister. It ended “…any renewal of agreements or the conclusion of fresh agreements on the same lines will entail the application to Turkey of blockade measures such as the two Governments have throughout the war applied to neutral countries”. Six days later, all shipments of chromite ore to Germany ceased.
Turkey continued to resist all efforts to get it to join the Allies until February 1945, when it made a token declaration of war on Germany in order to become a member of the United Nations. This declaration did not have any practical effect on the war, and Turkey sent no troops into battle.
The British had long-standing interests in the Aegean and tried to protect them throughout the war. They sent valuable forces to disaster in 1941 and after that played a strong hand in the resistance against the Axis occupiers. Despite all of Churchill’s diplomatic manoeuvring, they were unable to successfully return until October 1944 when the Germans evacuated the country in order to avoid being cut off by the Red Army advancing through Rumania and Bulgaria.
Almost as soon as they landed, they became caught up in the “Second Round” of the Greek Civil War when ELAS attacked them and Greek Government forces. The lightly armed irregulars of ELAS were no match for the well trained and supported British, and by February, the ELAS had agreed to peace via the Varzika Agreement.
This agreement was however to provide only a temporary respite for the war-weary citizens of Greece. The civil war flared up again in May1946 and continued for another 3 years until the ELAS was finally dispatched with US and British assistance. Over 100,000 people were reportedly killed before the Communist forces were defeated.
Greek-British ties continue to this day. Both countries are members of the European Union and NATO. Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh is a grandson of Greek King George I.