Key Point: What Churchill could never admit in his memoirs was that he secretly needed Turkey’s support to allow a British invasion of the Balkans.
Maybe the Turks were just bad at picking the winning side. In World War I the Central Powers were defeated by the Allies, so in October 1939 they switched to ally with Britain and France. Four days after the fall of Paris, Turkish President Ismet Inönü suspected his country might be on the wrong side yet again. To rectify the situation, he signed the German-Turkish Treaty of Friendship, setting the terms for Turkey’s indefinite neutrality.
While the major world powers mauled each other for five years, Inönü tactfully resisted the invitations of both sides to enter the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took a particularly aggressive interest in luring Turkey to the Allied camp. Why did Churchill exhaust so much diplomatic and economic effort on the Turks? After the war had ended, the prime minister conjured myriad reasons for wanting Turkey’s help, but declassified War Cabinet documents tell a different story. The truth Churchill strove to bury was that he needed Turkey’s support, either directly or indirectly, for a planned invasion of the Balkans.
A Military Unprepared For War
At first glance, Ismet Inönü might not appear as the shrewdest, most clever leader to serve during World War II. Those who met him would describe the president of Turkey as a small, wiry man with a soft voice. For a man his size, he had large shoes to fill. The first president of the young Turkish Republic, the revered Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died just 10 months before the outbreak of World War II. His death left Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s chief lieutenant, to lead the fledgling republic in a time of international uncertainty.
Although no one could have foreseen the scope of the looming war, Inönü was a sound choice for president. He spoke German, English, and French and had served in the Turkish military for 17 years, rising from lieutenant to general. As a successful commander, he was elevated to War Ministry adviser and then prime minister in 1923. It was June 11, 1940, when Ismet Inönü finally found himself president. His experience told him that the Turkish military was in no condition for serious combat, and this was most likely the primary motivation for Turkey’s withdrawal into neutrality. As soon as Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Inönü consistently maintained that Germany would never win the war. It was more for pragmatic purposes that he steadfastly kept Turkey a neutral party.
Not long after Turkey declared neutrality, both the Axis and Allied camps made overtures to lure the Turks to their respective sides. From the beginning, Winston Churchill spearheaded the Allied effort to buy Turkey’s loyalty. As early as the fall of 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull reassured British Ambassador Lord Halifax that the British would be allowed to take the lead in negotiating with Ankara. Allied shipments of war matériel to Turkey began immediately, but Churchill strictly controlled the flow of equipment to ensure it would only be enough for defensive purposes. If German military fortunes appeared to wane, Churchill foresaw increased aid to the Turks as the best way to encourage them into the Allied camp.
Churchill’s Overtures to Turkey
In January 1943, Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at Casablanca and outlined the future of Allied grand strategy. American and British staffs clashed throughout the week, but it was the British “Mediterranean strategy” that carried the day. The British vision called for an invasion of Italy supported by more aggressive attempts to draw Turkey into the war. Churchill suggested that this might best be accomplished by a personal meeting with the Turkish leadership on Turkish soil.
That meeting took place at Adana, Turkey, over the last two days of January 1943. On the first day of the meeting, Marshal Fevzi Cakmak, the Turkish chief of the General Staff, outlined the necessary equipment for his military to be combat-ready. The enormous quantities of equipment included 2,300 tanks, 2,600 guns, and 120,000 tons of aviation fuel. Cakmak also requested trucks, other motor transport, and locomotives complete with coal. As the stunned British delegation took notes, Marshal Cakmak chided the British for not filling his standing request for 500 fighter planes.
In his meeting with President Inönü, Churchill agreed to increase Allied supplies to Turkey. In return, Inönü promised nothing more than to reconsider Turkish neutrality. When Churchill inquired about the possibility of Allied air bases in Turkey, Inönü again made no assurances. As long as Axis forces were positioned in Bulgaria, they could threaten Istanbul, the economic center of Turkey. Until this threat was removed or more military assistance was received, the Turks would remain neutral. Remarkably, two days after the Adana Conference Churchill cabled President Roosevelt to report that his visit to Turkey was a “great success.” Unbeknownst to his American allies, Churchill had a very good and very secretive reason to expend so much diplomatic and economic effort to draw Turkey into the war.
“Our Thrust Should be Directed Against the Balkans”
Even as Allied war planners were polishing final details for their invasion of Sicily, British planners were plotting the next move. At Casablanca the Western Allies had agreed to capture Sicily, but the strategic debate was so contentious that no further targets could be agreed upon. No doubt, American Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall was hoping that after the fall of Sicily Allied attention would turn back toward the liberation of France. But as early as Christmas 1942, a month before Casablanca, the British War Cabinet was drafting other plans.
In early December 1942, the War Cabinet printed a secret report titled “Offensive Strategy in the Mediterranean,” which concluded that after successful operations in Italy, “our next thrust should be directed against the Balkans.” Less than a week after issuing the report, the British Joint Planning Staff ordered its Future Planning Section to “examine and report” on the possibility of a Balkan invasion.
Churchill kept close tabs on the reports coming from his War Cabinet. From the beginning he was fully supportive of future operations in the Balkans. During his meeting with President Inönü at Adana, Churchill handed his Turkish counterpart a note called “Morning Thoughts.” The notes hinted that Inönü should face “the possibility of Turkey becoming a full belligerent….” A copy of Churchill’s “Morning Thoughts” filtered back to Washington, alarming Roosevelt and American military planners. The British ambassador, Lord Halifax, tactfully explained to Roosevelt that the memo only represented Churchill’s private opinions and was not written with the consent of the War Cabinet.
With access to declassified War Cabinet documents, it is safe to say that Lord Halifax may not have been entirely forthcoming. By the time Churchill’s “Morning Thoughts” were written, the prime minister would have already had access to War Cabinet directives calling for the preliminary planning for an invasion along the Adriatic coast of the Balkans. Further planning kicked into high gear after the successful conquest of Sicily and the follow-up invasion of the Italian mainland. The Americans were not made privy to this planning process.
A Plan to Take the Aegean
With U.S. and British forces slugging through the mountains of Italy, Churchill’s attention turned toward the Aegean islands. Some historians have suggested that this was just another case of the prime minister’s fertile strategic imagination getting the best of him. But was this really the case, or did Churchill have something else on his mind when he envisioned the capture of the Aegean islands? What we know for certain is that Churchill and Roosevelt exchanged a series of cables discussing the capture of Rhodes and other German-garrisoned islands in the Aegean Sea.
Despite the prime minister’s persistent and increasingly blunt messages, Roosevelt steadfastly refused to divert any forces from the campaign raging in Italy. Perhaps when Churchill was pleading for operations in the Aegean he was recalling a War Cabinet report from December 5, 1942. The report recommended an attack into the Balkans but cautioned that it would not be possible “unless either Turkey comes into the war or Italy goes out of it.”
By October 1943, just when Churchill and Roosevelt were arguing over operations in the Aegean, American war planners were growing ever more suspicious that the British were scheming for a Balkan invasion. In fact, on October 8, 1943, Roosevelt hinted at this when he cabled Churchill. “As I see it, it is not merely the capture of Rhodes but it must mean the necessity and it must be apparent to the Germans, that we intend to go further.… Strategically, if we get the Aegean Islands, I ask myself where do we go from there…?”
Churchill frantically cabled back reassuring messages, promising Roosevelt that he was not asking for a full invasion but only for commando operations. It was too little, too late. The damage had already been done. Roosevelt and his military advisers felt they had sniffed out Churchill’s intentions, but they would have been even more alarmed had they known just how evolved the British invasion plan had become.