In September of 1906, Gregory Mezeviris, having achieved first place at the School of Naval Cadets’ entrance exams, was beginning his naval career full of dreams and juvenile enthusiasm.
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
At the School o Naval Cadets
“We formed our first impression about the School from the few incoherent phrases addressed to us at the time of our presentation by our Commander, a respectable old man with lordly appearance who should have retired a long time ago, the least appropriate man to inspire future officers.
1906, Freshmen at the R.H.N. School of Naval Cadets
During the four years of our studies a long series of junior officers- supervisors paraded at the School at five-day intervals to fulfill their 24-hour service obligations. One of them, a gentleman of extreme politeness, was a pathological liar who was soon after dismissed from the ranks. We were impatiently looking forward to his day of service, that day being full of freedom and impunity. With his far-fetched and fictitious stories he transformed the dining hours to wild entertainment. Whenever he was accompanying us on military walks, he would break up the line and we would walk in groups with him in the middle offering cigarettes to the cadets, in spite of the fact that smoking in front of superiors was strictly forbidden.
The pleasant 24-hour service of this officer was succeeded by 24 hours of terror, especially for the freshmen. A young officer, among the better educated of that period, would dash into the classrooms like a madman as soon as his service started, and screaming, he would make the most incoherent and usually unjust remarks, while at the same time trying to gauge the extend of the terror he was creating… In reality he was a good man and the older students that knew him better were secretly smiling.
Another one, well known for honesty and integrity, used to curse all and everything. As chief of the cadets he used to invite me after dinner in discussions where he gave me the first lessons on how to criticize one’s superiors. While he avoided referring to the officers serving at the School, few of the remaining ones escaped his criticisms. I shared this information with my classmates and the result was that we started planning, from our school years already, how to purge the Corps and at the same time advance our careers. No wonder that in the following 50 years personnel matters brought up so many upheavals to our Navy.
1908, Training ship “ACHELOOS”
1908, Training trip
There were finally some distinguished officers who however believed that their role was only to exercise loose supervision and to rely mainly on the cadets of the senior class. This custom may sound bizarre but had positive aspects. I dare say that whatever traditions of bravery and solidarity with our colleagues were transmitted to us in the first years of our studies, they can be mainly attributed to our senior students who had also learned from their own seniors. However, the uncontrollable delegation of power to twenty-year olds could become a source of injustice and disappointment for the younger ones, who didn’t dare complain even to the Command! Even worse, the cadets of the senior class, while merciless in cases of the most minor breaches of Regulations by younger cadets, were uninhibited in breaching them themselves. In addition, according to tradition, the president of the senior class – the Chief of Cadets-, a “sacred” figure for the young cadets, never reported his classmates who could even curse him in front of the younger-ones.
1909, Gregory Mezeviris Chief of Cadets (1st from right)
When, in the final year of my studies, I assumed the duties of Chief of Cadets and acquired dictatorial power, I am not sure I avoided all youthful excesses. I however tried to set a good example by showing respect for the Regulations and innovated by demanding from my classmates to do the same. To succeed in my endeavor I relied on the personality of the Commander of the School, Captain Pavlos Kountouriotis, who later became the victor of the Balkan Wars.
1909, Gregory Mezeviris Chief f Cadets (2nd from left seating)
Studying at the School of Naval Cadets
The studies at the School had many shortcomings, especially in the technical courses. There was no Director of Studies and each professor determined according to his own judgment the content of his course. Some opted for a higher than needed level of theoretical teaching, while some others a very low one. There were no laboratories for practical applications. Some of the civilian professors were not appropriate. As for the officer- professors, some didn’t master the subject they were teaching, and others applied the peer teaching method and had delegated to me, as Chief of Cadets, the task of teaching some courses! Finally, they were some other professors specialized in technical branches who considered teaching at the School to be an inferior side-job.
1909, Training trip
There was such leniency in grading that, as a result, only those wishing to do so were taking advantage of the instruction. When much later I was teaching Electricity at the School, I once informed the Commander of the School that one senior class student would fail my course, as he was completely inept at learning. The Commander replied: “I plead with you not to make him fail because it’s a shame for the School”. I of course didn’t follow his request. That student was nevertheless named officer and was promoted up to a certain rank before being dismissed from the Navy.
At that time, the only opportunity that officers had to get an education was the School of Naval Cadets. Postgraduate studies offered after World War I that provided essential additional professional knowledge, didn’t yet exist. Very few officers had the opportunity to be sent by the Greek State for postgraduate studies abroad. It’s really admirable that many of the old generation officers, totally self-taught, succeeded in becoming real scientists.
The military coup of the “Military League” of Goudi on August 15,1909
During our last year at the School we experienced the first coup of our career, the coup of the Military League of Goudi, in which were involved most of the officers of our School. Not wanting to appear to be lacking patriotism and wishing to participate in the effort to redress whatever was wrong, we senior cadets decided to address a letter to the Chief of the Military League asking to become members. Our letter remained unanswered but the Commander of the School, who opposed the mutineers, was informed of our initiative and asked me –as Chief of Cadets- to his office, saying: “So, we are the traitors and you brats are patriots!” and he kicked me out, threatening that he would expel all of us from the School. However, maybe after the intervention of the Military League, threats remained threats…
Some time later we became spectators of a naval battle between Greek ships, when a group of young officers of the Navy who disagreed with the Military League occupied the light ships that were moored at the Naval Yard of Salamis. The battleships moored at Keratsini remained loyal to the Military League and blocked the re-supply of the ships at the Naval Yard of Salamis. The battleships shot at the destroyers that tried to break the blockade, causing casualties and material damage. Once again the cadets who were watching the naval battle decided that we couldn’t remain passive in the face of this operation. We decided to arm our launch with a landing gun and rush oaring to help the young officers we sympathized with! The officer on guard at the School at last saved us from ridicule. “My boys, today our Navy is breaking apart,” he said sadly.
Such incidents weren’t rare in the history of the Royal Hellenic Navy. However, it always succeeded to re-emerge from a crisis and to achieve great things when an opportunity presented itself. I doubt whether other Navies going through such turmoil would have succeeded to survive.
This childish attempt to participate in mutinies was, at least as far as I’m concerned, the first and the last. Numerous military coups and mutinies erupted during my career as an officer. However, I have always opposed them regardless of their origin, even when my inner beliefs were in line with the aims of the mutineers.
Ensign onboard the battleship “PSARA”
In July 1910 we finally were awarded the officer’s epaulets. Order had been re-established in the Navy, the Fleet was restructured and a training Squadron was formed under the orders of Captain P. Kountouriotis. I was placed on the flagship of the Squadron leader, the battleship “PSARA”.
1912, battleship “PSARA”
At that time, as graduates of the School of Cadets we were not really aware of the nature of the service we would be undertaking as young, proud Ensigns. I supposed that my job would be the immediate application of the theoretical knowledge I had acquired at the School and was afraid that, in spite of my brilliant success in the final exams, it would be insufficient. We also assumed that wearing an Ensign’s uniform would introduce us into the officer’s circle on an equal footing. How different was the reality! Our new duties had nothing whatsoever to do with superior mathematics, ballistics, electricity and all the other theoretical courses. All that was now needed was the basic practical knowledge of a non-commissioned officer that we didn’t have. Only three years later, when as a junior lieutenant I served in the submarines, did I realize the need for a theoretical education. Some years later I even considered my School of Cadets education insufficient preparation for post-graduate studies.
As young Ensigns, our position among the other officers was not a privileged one. In line with our Squadron leader’s principles, all our superior officers, even older Ensigns, kept us at a distance while being intimate with the non-commissioned officers.
In the Squadron of these old battleships, maneuvers at sea were rare and basic. Our voyages were aimed mainly at getting us away from the capital, so that the crew would not be tempted by the city’s attractions.
The basic duty of junior officers was to keep watches at anchor, four hour long for ensigns and 24 hours long for other junior officers. During the watch we were wearing redingote and dagger and had to remain on deck continuously, day or night. The main responsibility for this service was delegated to the ensigns. We were never forgiven even minor omissions in the application of the Internal Service Regulation, which we had never been taught and that older officers knew by experience. As a young officer I was critical of my superiors who were placing such emphasis on details and considered that, because they lacked sufficient education to deal with more important issues, they were trying to demonstrate their administrative skills around issues of minor importance. Later in my career I realized that proper order on a war ship depends on such details and I was able to appreciate that those who had insisted on such matters early on were right to do so.
Another duty exclusively assigned to young ensigns was the execution of various chores. From the five ensigns serving on a battleship, three were always on service. One was on watch while the other two were available for chores. One of the chores consisted in accompanying the launch leaving the ship for any purpose. These chores always had priority. As the Navy didn’t dispose of water supply ships, sacs loaded on the launch supplied water to the ships. The ensign accompanying the launch had to wait for hours in some café for the sacs to be refilled, even during maneuvers.
The technical facilities of the old battleships were quite primitive and non-commissioned officers were responsible for maintenance. Training was limited to simple artillery, landing, flares and boat drills. Sharpshooter training was made with Flobert guns fitted on the ship’s guns, the use of real fire being very rare.
Service for ensigns was starting at six in the morning when we all had all to be present for the washing of the deck, even if we had been awake all night on a watch or executing chores. A few permits were issued after the evening work to those who had no watch service, first or second chore.
Under such conditions my first impressions from the profession were rather disappointing. This kind of job was only for men of inferior education, very tiring physically, lacking any possibilities for recreation, and with excessive strictness coming close to injustice. It was however in this way that we learned not to consider any job too lowly for us, that we got used to follow the most absurd-seeming orders and acquired vast reserves of patience. These qualities proved precious in the course of our career.
Conditions improved on the second year of our service on the b/s “PSARA”. The arrival of the b/s “AVEROF” and the British Naval Mission gave new impetus to the Royal Hellenic Navy. The ships sailed more often and drills became more interesting. The internal service of the ships was organized as in the British Navy. The British Admiral issued a new signal code and personally supervised the ensign’s training in this code.
Battleship “PSARA” under a new Commander
A new Commander took over the b/s “PSARA” and under the new command she was replaced as flagship. These changes had an immediate effect on the life of the ensigns serving on that ship. The new Commander used completely different methods of command, maybe not quite in line with sound principles of military discipline, but very pleasant for his subordinates. He had served as Minister of the Navy, considered himself a political person and commanded in a way that was popular. He didn’t exercise any supervision whatsoever on the officers of the ship, who were free to work according to their scruples and diligence and, what was more important for us, he didn’t discriminate against ensigns relative to other officers. The only thing that troubled us was that he was so lenient vis-à-vis the crew that we had often trouble in carrying out our duties. Those willing to work had the possibility to take initiatives; this was for me very important. Watches and chores were no longer our only occupation and we had time to spend on our personal and professional education. We no longer had the impression of being the slaves of the ship.
I soon earned the complete esteem of the new Commander, who entrusted me with the responsibility of the General Supervision of the ship that he considered of great importance. I kept these duties until I moved on to my next assignment. The ensigns of the General Supervision were simple assistants to the Executive Officer of the ship and under his instructions were dealing with the details of the internal service. Many Executive Officers who were quite old and wishing to be relieved of tiring duties were assigning many of these to their young assistants, who thus had complete freedom to act as they saw fit. In the case of an Executive Officer who was not in good terms with the Commander of the b/s “PSARA”, the delegation of duties to me –as ensign of the General Supervision – was almost complete, and the Commander was addressing me on all maters concerning the crew. This kind of service required me to be always alert, from dawn to nightfall, to follow the normal execution of the service of the day and to participate in the life of the men. As a result I was not often on shore leave. However for a young man hard work is not an issue, provided that he is given freedom to act and feels that his superiors appreciate his work.
The institution of ensigns of the General Supervision was only applied to big ships and was a brilliant school for learning the details of the internal service. It is a pity that in recent times, with a fleet structure of only light ships, young officers don’t have this opportunity any more.
I was still serving aboard the b/s “PSARA” when the Balkan Wars erupted.”