“I will not express my extreme gratitude to you Commander, as your services were, indeed, excellent”.
November 1939, the Secretary of the Ministry of the Navy
addressing Gregory Mezeviris taking his leave from the
Supreme Coastal Defense Command.
Building coastal defense – Naval fortresses
In August 1938 R.H.N. Captain Gregory Mezeviris is appointed Supreme Commander of the Supreme Coastal Defense Command (SCDC). The coastal defense facilities had, simultaneously, the characteristics of combating and technical units. They were in a phase of extensive development with some of the projects already completed. Several others, among the more important, were in full development. In particular, after research studies that lasted several years, a solution was found for the installation on steep mountain tops of the 30 cm and 20 cm canon towers of the old battleship “LEMNOS”. It constitutes a real title of honor for the staff of the SCDC and the Hellenic firms that undertook the execution of the project that, while only disposing off-hand means, they found such efficient solutions. What was yet missing was the necessary organization of this new facility that was needed for the operation of the canon towers. The fortresses, even those that were equipped with weapons, were seriously understaffed. The few serving officers were lacking in quality, as it was customary to place in these peripheral facilities those who were not fit for any other service! The General Staff of the Navy (GSN) had prepared a plan for a network of observatories and the allocation of the coasts to Naval Defense
Domains Regions. However, everything was still on the drawing board. The organization of the anti-aircraft defense of the Athens- Piraeus- Naval Station of Salamis area, also a SCDC responsibility, was only partially completed.
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
“From my previous position at the GSN, I was aware that one of the reasons that delayed the execution of certain works was the quest for very expensive
perfection by the SCDC technical staff. For this reason, in my first daily order to my staff I indicated that when applying for expenditures, only what was
absolutely necessary should be requested. I also reminded that, in spite of the importance of coastal defense, the Navy exists mainly for the Fleet and all
available funds should not be absorbed by shore facilities.
My first action as commander of the SCDC was to proceed to a detailed review of all works under construction in the country and all shore facilities reporting to
the SCDC. I formed thus a first personal opinion concerning the progress of the works and the order of priority to be given to the various needs of the
fortresses. I applied a system of continuous reviews during the whole period of my service at the SCDC and as a result I had to deal with lots of paperwork
accumulating on my desk whenever I was returning to Athens. The acceleration of the completion of the works and the organization of the coastal defense was
becoming imperative. The international situation was deteriorating and the GSN was urged to acquire satisfactory coastal defense. I had the chance to dispose
of a small number of excellent technical officers and several civilian civil engineers working in the Navy payroll. They were all characterized by their
conscientiousness and patriotism. I appealed to these qualities and advised them not to get into endless discussions and research to find the best possible
solutions but, rather, be satisfied with a good solution. My recommendations were well taken. The studies started being concluded the one after the other,
auctions were announced and the works were allocated as soon as possible.
Under the conscientious and strict supervision of the SCDC staff and thanks to the good work done by the contractors, delivery times were respected and
sometimes shortened. The national industry succeeded in building several missing pieces of equipment for which long expected offers from abroad were not coming.
Just two months had elapsed since I assumed my duties and while the SCDC organization was still primitive, the GSN ordered joint maneuvers of the Saronic
Gulf fortresses with the Fleet. I was given the command of the maneuvers and of the participating air, army and naval forces (submarines and small surface
ships). My very active chief of staff, Commander Constas, dealt with the organization of the fortresses. I personally organized all the other tasks for the
preparation of the maneuvers and issued the entire relative numerous orders.
The fortresses were manned with personnel from all naval schools who reported to the fortresses and underwent special training, just a few days
before the maneuvers. The idea for such maneuvers was very premature and many problems had to be resolved to avoid a major failure and being covered by
ridicule. With the specialty acquired by us Greeks to find off-hand solutions, we succeeded in overcoming the difficulties. We didn’t reach perfection, but there
was no major anomaly. The evaluation made by the Chief of the Fleet was especially positive for SCDC, the serious preparation of the maneuvers and the
issuance of comprehensive orders were praised.
The joint maneuvers of the fortresses made me realize in practice, the multitude of deficiencies still remaining in the organization of the SCDC. Taking advantage
of the favorable impression made at the Navy Command, I tried to at least partially complement the manning of the staff and secure its dwelling. Whatever
I requested was realized with great delay in April 1939, under the pressure of external events. My proposal to recall from reserve and use officers dismissed
after the failed coup d’état of 1935, met strong reaction. Finally, only few officers and non-commissioned officers dismissed from the ranks for other reasons
were recalled to duty. I considered necessary the fortresses that had thus been manned to become combating units and their personnel to be trained in its war
duties. In parallel, measures were taken to draw up Battle Manuals, mobilization instructions, etc., as those kept in war ships. To give the good example, I
personally drew up the Battle Manual of the largest fortress of the Saronic Gulf and I sent copies of it to the other fortresses to be used as template.
Since the beginning of 1939, I had undertaken the responsibility to complete the network of observatories. At year end, all installations and transmissions means
were operational. In addition, the construction of a new fortress of the Evoikos Gulf that had started in 1939 and the planned anti-aircraft defence of the Athens
area were completed in that same year. The invasion of Albania by the Italians in April 1939 had a decisive impact on the development of the. It triggered the
order for urgent preparation for combat action of all weapons of the fortresses of the Saronic Gulf and Araxos and the immediate mobilization of the anti-aircraft
In the evening of Good Friday of 1939, the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy (GSN) gave the relative orders. I replied that all that was humanly possible will
be done. I reminded him my repeated requests of the past months for the completion of the remaining deficiencies and informed him that, according to the terms of the contracts with the contractors, the trial shots of the fortresses were planned for after three months. The Chief of the GSN, with the dynamism that characterized him, removed all existing obstacles at that moment. I was given full authority and freedom of action. An important line of credit was opened in my name to deal with the immediate needs. The operation of the Schools was interrupted, the shore facilities were stripped of their staff, personnel was moved from the Fleet and as a result an important number of officers and men were added to my command.
From the reception of the order, the staff at the SCDC command worked with unparallel enthusiasm for the whole period of the Easter holidays till late at night. Especially moving was the attitude of the civil engineer employees, which had no ties with the traditions of the Navy. In the morning of Good Saturday, I convoked the managers of the two firms that had contracted the installation of the towers in Aigina and Araxos. Until that moment, at any delay of the contractual deadlines, we were threatening with penalties and were exchanging long correspondence. I then used another approach. I no more demanded the respect of the deadlines but rather their shortening. I was not addressing contractors that were pursuing commercial profit; I was appealing to Greek patriots. My appeal was successful. During May 1939 the trial shots of the fortresses’ towers were successfully made, the results honoring the Hellenic Industry.
Several other matters, pending since the creation of the SCDC, were solved in a few weeks. The more serious among them, was the installation of an electric
power generator for the movement of the 30 cm towers. The construction of a tunnel for the installation of the generator had already started. However,
because the machinery was not expected to arrive from abroad any time soon, there was no possibility to operate the generator in the next twelve months. It
was therefore decided to build an electric power generator with off-hand means coming from naval facilities. Three identical generators stripped from ships,
positioned in parallel, could give the needed power. They were installed in a wooden barrack next to a water tank for the cooling of the generators, all
cleverly concealed behind existing trees. At the time of the trial shot, the power generator was operational. I closely followed the pace of work and method used
by the naval staff that undertook to strip from the ships these heavy pieces of equipment and transport them to a high mountain top of the island of Aigina. I
couldn’t find enough good words to praise these unknown workers of our national defense. With similar off-hand means and in an unbelievably short time,
the mobilization of the anti-aircraft defense was completed under the monitoring of the head of that command, the very active Lieutenant Commander Hatziconstantis.
On the international front, the clouds of war dissipated provisionally. The measures taken were relaxed, but their beneficial effects for the SCDC were to
remain. The fortresses had sufficient number of officers and men for their peace time organization. The Naval Defense Areas had Captain as commanders
assisted by a few officers. Central Command was opening credit lines without major difficulties not only for technical projects but also for the needed
personnel dwellings. From the summer of 1939 my attention was therefore concentrated to the organization of the SCDC that had to become a fighting
Command. Till the end of autumn, following the necessary training, almost all fortresses had executed real shots.
As I realized, following a general review of all SCDC facilities, the last six months progress had exceeded all forecasts. Full of life facilities were organized with
our Navy personnel getting ready to defend our Country, where till a few months earlier only lifeless semi-finished equipment was standing on inhospitable
coasts. The appearance of the Araxos Fortress with its numerous and diverse facilities was especially flattering for our national pride. A strong well-organized
military corps had succeeded a disorderly mob of ragged sailors.
The declaration of the Second World War didn’t find the unprepared. An off-hand solution was even found for the fire directing instruments under construction
abroad that were not delivered in time. There was no other major deficiency. All the defense facilities, the fortresses, the anti-aircraft defense and the
observatories were ready to operate under war conditions in a few days from mobilization.
In September 1939, I was informed that I was destined to assume in November of that same year the position of Supreme Destroyer Commander. Before leaving
the SCDC, I made the recommendation to the Secretary of State for the Navy to award the medal of military value to certain of my collaborators serving the SCDC since its creation and among them to the tireless Commander Athanassopoulos who was in danger of loosing his sight as a result of his intense office work. I also recommended the awarding of moral rewards to the civil engineer employees of the SCDC and to a number of employees, of the contracting firms that had undertaken the main projects, who had shown exceptional competence and had served the national interest over and above any material profit. The Secretary agreed but, in spite of my repeated reminders, no action was taken. As I was later informed, the Secretary was of the opinion that in order to avoid complaints in case medals were awarded as proposed, all senior staff should also be decorated! Under these conditions it was surely better not to award any medals at all.
I witnessed another rather amusing scene with the Secretary of State for the Navy. In his office there was a model order of the day typically used to express
his extreme gratification to all Directors, without exception, transferred from the Ministry Services. As I was taking my leave to assume my new duties at the
Fleet, the Secretary said: “I will not express my extreme gratitude to you Commander, as your services were, indeed, excellent”. I sincerely expressed my
gratitude for this… honorable distinction and I assured him that I fully realized and appreciated its deeper meaning. It is a fact that in my case the Secretary was
right, because he was addressing a man who had learned from life experience to value only the satisfaction that gives the feeling of executing one’s duty. He
was however wrong not to realize that for the younger, who still entertained the illusionary dreams of their youth, a real distinction was a tonic to their zeal.