HC Deb 30 April 1941 vol 371 cc443-6
Mr. Noel-Baker (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any statement to make regarding the attitude of the Greek Government to the decision to withdraw the British Forces from Greece?

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir, pending any statement that may be made in the course of next week's Debate, I think that the House should know at once that on 21st April the Greek President of the Council communicated to His Majesty's Minister at Athens a note of which the following is a translation: The Greek Government, while expressing to the British Government and to the gallant Imperial troops their gratitude for the aid which they have extended to Greece in her defence against the unjust aggressor, are obliged to make the following statements: — 'After having conducted for more than six months a victorious struggle against strongly superior enemy forces, the Greek army has now reached a state of exhaustion and moreover finds itself completely deprived of certain resources indispensable for the pursuit of war, such as munitions, motorised vehicles and aeroplanes—resources with which it was in any case inadequately supplied from the outbreak of hostilities. This state of things makes it impossible for the Greeks to continue the struggle with any chance of success and deprives them of all hope of being able to lend some assistance to their valiant Allies. At the same time, in view of the importance of the British contingents, in view of the aviation at their disposal and in view of the extent of the front heroically defended by them, the Imperial forces have an absolute need for the assistance of the Greek army without which they could not prolong their own resistance for more than a few days. In these conditions the continuation of the struggle, while incapable of producing any useful effect, would have no other result than to bring about the collapse of the Greek army and bloodshed useless to the Allied forces. Consequently, the Royal Government is obliged to state that further sacrifice of the British expeditionary force would be in vain and that its withdrawal in time seems to be rendered necessary by circumstances and by interests common to the struggle. From this document the House will see that the decision to withdraw the British forces from Greece was taken in full agreement with and in conformity with the wishes of the Greek Government.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Will the Foreign Secretary convey to M. Tsouderos, the Greek Prime Minister, on behalf of the House and the nation, our deep gratitude for the magnificent courage and endurance which the Greek Army have shown and for their loyalty as Allies?

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir, I feel, and I am sure the whole House feels, that no tribute can be too high for what they have achieved.

Mr. Granville

In view of the many false reports which have been issued from Axis propaganda sources, will the right hon. Gentleman see that the fullest world publicity is given by the Minister of Information to that statement?

Mr. Eden

That is precisely why I made the statement in this House.

Mr. Thorne

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to make a statement with regard to what has become of their navy?

Mr. Leach

Could a copy of the right hon. Gentleman's statement be sent to the Vichy Government?

Mr. Lees-Smith

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make with regard to the withdrawal of our Forces from Greece?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

As I am most anxious to give the House, the nation and the Empire information at the earliest possible moment, and also in view of the extravagant claims made by the enemy, I think it right now to give the figures, so far as they are known, of the evacuation of the Empire Forces from Greece. Up to the time when evacuation was seen to be inevitable, we had landed about 60,000 men in Greece, including one New Zealand and one Australian division. Of these at least 45,000 have been evacuated, and considering that our Air Force was, through the superiority of the enemy, forced to leave the air-fields from which it could alone effectively cover the retreat of our troops, and that only a small portion of it could cover the points of embarkation, this must be considered remarkable. The conduct of the troops and especially the rearguards in fighting their way to the sea merits the highest praise. This is the first instance where air bombing, prolonged day after day, has failed to break the discipline and order of the marching columns who, besides being thus assailed from the air, were pursued by no less than three German armoured divisions as well as by the whole strength of the German mechanised forces which could be brought to bear. In the actual fighting, principally on Mount Olympus,. around Grevena and at Thermopylae, about 3,000 casualties, killed and wounded, are reported to have been suffered by our troops. This was a very small part of the losses inflicted on the Germans, who on several occasions, sometimes for two days at a time, were brought to a standstill by forces one-fifth of their number. Nor, of course, does it take any account of German losses incurred in their assaults on the Greek and Yugoslav Armies.

It will, I dare say, be possible to give a fuller account in the Debate next week, but I think I have said enough to show the House that, painful as are our losses, we have much to be thankful for and the Empire Forces have much to be proud of.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

When the right hon. Gentleman says that 45,000 men have been evacuated, does he mean that they successfully reached their bases without mishap?

The Prime Minister

I believe that is so; indeed I think I am well within the figure, but, as I say, I have given the information in the terms in which it was given to me.

Mr. Garro Jones

Does the Prime Minister feel able to make any general statement about the evacuation, or alternatively the destruction, of the heavy equipment of the Forces?

The Prime Minister

The heavy equipment could not, of course, be removed, bat the Germans are not short of heavy equipment.

Mr. Benson

May I ask whether 45,000 is the maximum number we can expect to be evacuated?

The Prime Minister

I think I said "at least 45,000." Supposing anything else were going forward, I naturally could not refer to it.

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