C9. The escape to Egypt: February 16 – March 3, 1943
[In April 1941, after the German invasion of Greece, the Greek warships were ruthlessly attacked by LUFTWAFFE resulting in 25 ships sinking between April 4 and 25, 1941. Gradually the remaining ships sailed initially to Souda – Crete and then to Alexandria. At the end of April 1941, 17 Greek ships were assembled in Alexandria (1 warship, 6 destroyers, 3 torpedo boats, 5 submarines and 1 auxiliary), joined the British fleet of the Mediterranean and became the only free Greek territory.]
In May of 1941 Captain Mezeviris was released from the hospital “EVANGELISMOS” where he had been recovering from his wounds following the sinking of “HYDRA”. He then immediately started thinking about escaping to the Middle East.
Most Greek officers remaining in Greece wished to flee from the German occupation to continue fighting for their country from outside its borders. Escaping was extremely difficult, especially during this early period when clandestine groups that helped organize such escapes had not yet been formed. It wasn’t an easy mater to find small boats that would undertake such perilous trips. Furthermore, the funds requested for the passage where not easy to raise. The recommended escape route to Egypt via Turkey was found in many cases closed, as that country didn’t wish to jeopardize its neutrality.
In spite of these difficulties, a few escapes did take place. Most early escapees who managed to reach their final destination had a very difficult time, either during the trip by sea or on their arrival to Turkey. After the end of 1941 these escapes were better organized and became easier. The conquerors however took draconian measures to stop that activity once they realized it was taking place. Those who were arrested while trying to escape where condemned to heavy prison terms, even to death. Especially tragic was the fate of some 40 men who were caught on two boats that had just sailed. Some of the men were held as hostages and executed when a sabotage against the enemy took place in Athens. Among those executed were the crews of the two boats. After that it became even more difficult to find crews ready to risk their lives in such operations.
In the first year of the German occupation Captain Mezeviris’ health had deteriorated to the point that his family doubted that he would live long enough to see the Liberation Day. But by the end of 1942, when he felt that he was recovering his strength, he decided that the time had come to resume his war duties. He asked lieutenant Neofytos, his first secretary aboard the destroyer “HYDRA”, to contact an organization dealing with escapes.
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
“To organize the escape was time consuming. Some plans were abandoned as not realistic. We succeeded in contacting an old comrade who operated a small ship of the British secret service that was used to evacuate British operatives that remained in Greece. Unfortunately, before he could help us, he was denounced and had to escape himself. Finally, his replacement was found in the person of Captain Valassakis R.H.N. Being very smart in dealing with such adventurous situations and willing to help, he organized our escape to the last detail. While extremely active and operating in the occupied city of Athens under the nose of the security forces of the enemy, he had repeatedly avoided being arrested. Whenever I asked to meet him, he would propose a different meeting point. Our last meeting took place in an apartment room, next to the bedroom of some German officers. It was the best way for our meeting not to be considered suspicious!
A very active officer of the Coast Guard and a non-commissioned officer of the Navy, who would be our skipper, trusted collaborators of Captain Valassakis, were willing to take any risk to help us escape. Our departure date was fixed for February 16, 1943. The previous day we went to a police station to get forged identification cards. The officer of the Coast Guard and another man witnessed our new identity. With barely concealed rage, I heard the policeman give strict instructions to the witnesses regarding the accuracy of their depositions. As we were leaving the police station that same policeman approached me and whispered: “Farewell, have a safe trip and God be with you”!
According to the plan, Lieutenant Neofytos and Lieutenant Panagiotopoulos, who had served many years under my command, would accompany me. The morning of our escape finally came. As planned, I left my home unrecognizable, unshaved for several days, wearing dirty clothing, carrying a backpack as my only luggage. We were supposed to be small black-market traders on our way to get wood coal. I met my two comrades and our assigned driver at the point of departure of the truck that was used as public transport, serving some Attica villages.
When, after a two-hours delay, our truck finally left, we realized that the features of many of the passengers did not correspond to their dress. We thus got thus the suspicion that the objective of their trip was similar to ours. Indeed, as we found out later, they were comrades of the Army in another mission traveling with us by pure coincidence. We were stopped at an Italian control point at Bogiati on the outskirts of Athens. We were lucky that the control was limited to our luggage and we were not subjected to bodily search. We later learned that our army comrades were carrying their revolvers on them…
From the end of the truck’s route, we walked to a point on the beach near the village of Kalamos. We stayed until nightfall inside a church and then with our army comrades we boarded a small boat. Towards midnight, we landed on the near-by island of Evia. We split with our Army comrades and each team followed a different trail. We climbed the cliffs and reached a trail that we would follow through the mountain peaks to the east side of the island. I was really relieved to meet there our guide with two mules, one for me and one for our luggage. I was surely not in good enough physical condition for a non-stop four-hour walk. Our escape organizer had thought out every detail with great precision. My two companions walked the whole trail, impressing with their alpine skills. We finally reached our destination, a small farmer village, about one hour away from the bay where we would board our escape boat to Turkey. In the village we waited for the arrival of our boat coming from Piraeus. We were notified that, due to engine trouble, the boat would arrive the following night. That was the most stressful part of our whole adventure. Before us, several escapees had to wait in vain for days, as the boat that they had paid for so dearly never showed up. During our wait at the village, we were invited to stay at the house of some relatives of our guide. They had prepared for us a splendid dinner the like of which that we had not enjoyed since before the Occupation.
At nightfall the next day we were still with no news concerning the arrival of our boat. To avoid jeopardizing the safety of our hosts, we decided to leave the hospitable house and go to our meeting point. At the small bay below the village we met our military friends ready to board a rather large boat and saw a smaller boat waiting for an Aviation team. Our own boat was nowhere to be seen. After a long wait, distressed that we would not be sailing that night, we went to sleep on the floor of a fishermen’s cabin. At around one o’clock in the morning one fisherman who had stayed awake came to tell us that our boat had arrived. After a while we were leaving the Greek coast on a 1½ ton boat, heading for Turkey. In the morning we were sailing in the straits of Kafireas, the weather was good and the German boat that used to patrol that region was nowhere to be seen. In the afternoon the wind became stronger and it was soon impossible to remain on the deck. We all had to squeeze into the small cabin.
According to the instructions that were given to us in Athens before our departure, we were to pass at a distance of at least 10 miles south of the island of Chios in order to avoid meeting the German boat patrolling in the straits between Chios and the Turkish coast. Such an encounter would have been extremely dangerous, as not only our boat’s documents were not in order, but we were also carrying British mail. But the weather had by then become stronger, and it became imperative to reach our destination as soon as possible. Our skipper decided to shorten the trip by sailing close to the coast of Chios, claiming that “in such a weather the German patrol boats don’t get out…”.
Indeed, we changed course and didn’t encounter the Germans. At around midnight we finally arrived at the Gulf of Agrelia, close to the Turkish town Tsesme. Our boat had taken in so much water that our cabin was half-submerged. As we docked our skipper whistled, and a Greek Cypriot appeared who guided us to the only habitable house in a dilapidated neighborhood. In that house we found everything that people in our shipwreck-like condition could wish: A heated room, warm underwear, mattresses to sleep on and plenty of excellent food. We stayed in that room the following day, as we were requested, so as not to be noticed by the customs officers that were supposed to ignore our presence. However, a higher-ranking Turkish officer paid us a visit. We introduced ourselves to him with our real identities. He was very friendly, showed philhellenic sentiments and wished to us to quickly return to our freed Country. We also received the visit of the British vice-consul of Smyrna. He was accompanied by two Greeks who were serving at the British consulate at Tsesme, and who gave us instructions for our next moves.
We were then driven by car to the entrance of the town of Tsesme. We walked to the police station and we presented ourselves as refugees from Chios. In the police officer’s office we came upon one of the Greeks we had met earlier. He pretended that he knew us from Athens; he confirmed our false identities and said that we hadn’t met since before the Occupation.
I was supposedly the lawyer Moschos who had suffered considerably under the German Occupation and escaped to Turkey in search of a job. My two comrades were supposed to be a merchant and an industrialist, who also escaped for the same reasons. The Turkish policemen were asking lots of questions concerning our jobs in Greece and the reasons for our leaving the country. When this “comedy” ended, we were taken by car and with police escort to Smyrna. We stayed at the British consulate building as guests and from the evening of February 19 we enjoyed the protection of the British Empire. That same day our relatives, the appropriate persons in Athens and the Greek authorities in Cairo and London were notified of our arrival. We stayed at the British consulate till February 24, waiting the issuance of our passports. We had been asked not to go out to town to avoid being recognized by the enemy’s secret agents.
In the morning of February 24 we boarded the train to Aleppo, Syria, were we arrived on the night of February 27. We were traveling in the same train, to the same destination with a large group of comrades from various divisions of the Greek Armed forces. At Aleppo, a British Army lieutenant of Greek origin was waiting for us and took us to a hotel for the night. The instructions given by the British authorities of Smyrna and the Vice-President of the Greek Government in exile, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, ensured us a comfortable continuation of our trip.
The following morning a British Army major came to our hotel and put at our disposal his car to drive us to Beirut, where the Greek submarines base was located. As soon as they learned of our arrival, several of the Greek Navy officers serving at the Naval Base rushed to meet us and welcomed us in a touching way. I was thrilled to be again among comrades with a brilliant war record.
I was also pleased to learn that, as soon as my arrival in Smyrna was confirmed, the Superior Naval Council was restructured on the recommendation of the Minister of National Defense. In its new form the five-member Council consisted of the Minister of National Defense P. Kanellopoulos, the Secretary of State for the Navy Rear-Admiral Kavadias, the Chief of the Fleet Rear-Admiral Sakelariou, Vice-Admiral Voulgaris, and myself. During my stay in Beirut I met the Minister of National Defense who had come to help reestablish order following a mutiny that had erupted among some military units stationed there. The Minister remained optimistic concerning the evolution of the situation, and asked to see me again in Cairo after three days.
We left for Haifa the next day in a British car and from there by train to Cairo, where we arrived on March 3. Since our departure from Athens, only 15 days had elapsed: a very short time for such a trip, thanks to the multiple means put to our disposal. That same night, Radio Cairo was emitting a covert message to inform our relatives that we had safely reached our destination…”