14.3.41

For the last few days there have been rumours everywhere, also hints in the papers, that “something is going to happen” in the Balkans, i.e. that we are going to send an expeditionary force to Greece.  If so, it must presumably be the army now in Libya, or the bulk of it.[1]  I had heard a month back that Metaxas [2] before he died asked us for 10 divisions and we offered him 4.  It seems a terribly dangerous thing to risk an army anywhere west of the Straits.  To have any worthwhile ideas about the strategy of such a campaign, one would have to know how many men Wavell disposes of and how many are needed to hold Libya, how the shipping position stands, what the communications from Bulgaria into Greece are like, how much of their mechanised stuff the Germans have managed to bring across Europe, and who effectively controls the sea between Sicily and Tripoli.  It would be an appalling disaster if while our own main force was bogged in Salonika the Germans managed to cross the sea from Sicily and win back all the Italians have lost.  Everyone who thinks of the matter is torn both ways.  To place an army in Greece is a tremendous risk and doesn’t offer much positive gain, except that once Turkey is involved our warships can enter the Black Sea: on the other hand if we let Greece down we have demonstrated once and for all that we can’t and won’t help any European nation to keep its independence.  The thing I fear most is half-hearted intervention and a ghastly failure, as in Norway.  I am in favour of putting all our eggs in one basket and risking a big defeat, because I don’t think any defeat or victory in the narrow military sense matters so much as demonstrating that we are the side of the weak against the strong.

The trouble is that it becomes harder and harder to understand the reactions of European peoples, just as they seem incapable of understanding ours.  Numbers of Germans I have spoken to have exclaimed on our appalling mistake at the beginning of the war in not bombing Berlin promptly but merely scattering fatuous leaflets.[3]  Yet I believe all English people were delighted at this gesture (we should still have been so if we had known at the time what drivel the leaflets were), because we saw it as a demonstration that we had no quarrel with the common people of Germany.  On the other hand, in his book which we have just published, Haffner [4] exclaims that it is folly on our part to let the Irish withhold vitally important bases and that we should simply take these bases without more ado.  He says that the spectacle of our allowing a sham-independent country like Ireland to defy us simply makes all Europe laugh at us.  There you have the European outlook, with its non-understanding of the English-speaking peoples.  Actually, if we took the Irish bases by force, without a long course of propaganda  beforehand, the effect on public opinion, not only in the U.S.A. but in England, would be disastrous.

I don’t like the tone of official utterances about Abyssinia.  They are mumbling about having a British “resident”, as at the courts of Indian rajahs, when the Emperor is restored.  The effect may be appalling if we let it be even plausibly said that we are swiping Abyssinia for ourselves.  If the Italians are driven right out [5] we may have the chance to make the most tremendous gesture, demonstrating beyond argument that we are not simply fighting for our own hand.  It would echo all round the world.  But will they have the guts or decency to make it?  One can’t feel certain.  One can foresee the specious arguments that will be put forward for grabbing Abyssinia for ourselves, the rot about slavery, etc., etc.

A considerable number of German planes shot down in the last few nights, probably because they have been clear nights and favourable to the fighters, but there is much excitement about some “secret weapon” that is said to be in use.  The popular rumour is that it is a net made of wire which is shot into the air and in which the aeroplane becomes entangled.[6]

[1] On 12 February, Churchill, in the same telegram in which he congratulated General Wavell on the capture of Benghazi, ordered him to leave a minimum force to hold Cyrenaica, and send the largest force he could to Greece.  The outcome proved Orwell’s worst fears to be correct.

[2] General Ioannis Metaxas (1871-1941), Prime Minister of Greece since 1935, had established a form of dictatorship despite being a strong supporter of the monarchy.  He successfully organised the defence when Italy invaded in 1940, but declined the offer of British tank and artillery units, foreseeing that Churchill could offer only limited aid, which could provoke a German invasion.  A British Expeditionary Force landed at Piraeus on 7 March, the Germans invaded on 6 April, and had conquered Greece by 28 April.

[3] At the beginning of the war, the RAF was required to drop leaflets over Germany, instead of bombs, in a vain hope of persuading the German people of the folly of their leaders’ ways.  It was not an action that commended itself to the ordinary man-in-the-street at the time.  Nevil Shute’s popular novel Landfall [which Orwell reviewed] gave a fair indication of the response to this policy: Pilots flying such a mission in January 1940 ‘were amused and scornful of the job they had to do.  “Hitler doesn’t give a . . . for the stuff,” was the general opinion. . . .  They expressed the view that the Fuhrer welcomed the paper for sanitary reasons’ (chapter V).

[4] Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) had arrived in England from Germany in 1938.  He was not Jewish, but his wife was, and he was strongly opposed to Nazism.  Although Secker & Warburg had published his ‘brilliant analysis of Nazism, Germany – Jekyll and Hyde (Fyvel, 99), which came out the day Paris fell, 14 June 1940, the British authorities interned him, and it took all Warburg’s persuasive powers to have him released.  He became a correspondent on German affairs for The Observer and wrote for Fyvel and Orwell the Searchlight Book Offensive Against Germany, to which Orwell here refers.  The book, which attempted to distinguish between ‘Germany’ and ‘Nazism,’ came out in late February or early March 1941.  Haffner returned to work in Germany in 1954.  His real name was Raimund Pretzel; the pseudonym was adopted from the title of a Mozart symphony.  See Fredric Warburg, All Authors are Equal, 6-8.

[5] The liberation of Eritrea and Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then called) from the Italians was rapidly and efficiently carried out. The exiled emperor, Haile Selassie, was escorted back to Ethiopia on 20 January 1941 and re-entered is capital on 5 May accompanied by General Orde Wingate. The Duke of Aosta, Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, surrendered on 19 May. Forces under General Wavell had, with this surrender, taken some 230,000 Italians prisoner in North and East Africa. Mopping up lasted until October; by then the British commander, General Alan Cunningham, had left to command the 8th Army. Despite Orwell’s fears, Britain recognised an independent Ethiopia on 31 January 1942.

[6] Rumours abound in wartime, and this sounds particularly fanciful. It may, however, refer to the use of radar (then called radiolocation in Britain), which the RAF announced on 17 June as having been instrumental in defeating the Luftwaffe, and possibly to IFF – the Identification Friend or Foe system – a revised form of which had been installed in all Fighter Command’s planes after the fall of France. This might suggest an ‘electronic net’ (information from RAF Museum). Peter Davison

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9 Responses to 14.3.41

  1. anon says:

    there’s a typo in note 5, it should be “Duke of Aosta”

  2. @anon – thanks for spotting! Now amended

  3. Wasn’t there some scheme to drop pornography on Berlin or was that a myth? Some notion that Hitler was scared of angry willies.

  4. M G says:

    There’s also a possible typo here: “Actually, it we took the Irish bases by force, without a long course of propaganda beforehand, the effect on public opinion, not only in the U.S.A. but in England, would be disastrous.”

    Shouldn’t that be ‘if?’

  5. M G says:

    Ah, but think of the hours and hours of fun.

  6. M G says:

    Sorry, that last post was intended for a different blog. That’s what happens when you have several different web pages open at once!

  7. @M G – thanks for noticing that one. Will clean my glasses before the next diary entry…!

  8. Barry Larking says:

    “Sorry, that last post was intended for a different blog.”

    How can you tell?

  9. Pingback: 8.4.41 « THE ORWELL PRIZE

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