The Royal Hellenic Navy (RHN) escaped from occupied Greece in April 1941 and continued its war action by the side of the Allies. Following a first period of adjustment, the war performance and organization of the Fleet had significantly improved. This improvement was especially noticeable from May 1942 under the Command of the new Chief of the Fleet Rear-Admiral Sakellariou.
The situation of the Greek Fleet in the Spring of 1943
All the surface ships that had escaped from Greece were in active service: The destroyer “QUEEN OLGA”, the two “HYDRA” class destroyers and the three “AETOS” class destroyers were carrying out convoy escorts. The battleship “AVEROF” remained at Port Said acting as floating antiaircraft battery and siege of the Chief of the Fleet and his staff. The three small destroyers were used for auxiliary services in the Suez Canal. None of these ships had incurred any human losses or damages from enemy action.
On the contrary, from the submarines only two were still in action: “TRITON” had a glorious end in the Greek waters after a brilliant record of war action, “GLAFKOS” was sunk in Malta following an enemy air raid and “NIREFS” was in long overhaul.
During the same period, the Greek Navy was strengthened with five escort ships of the Hunt class, two of which were still under delivery in England and a corvette. The British Admiralty had furthermore allocated to the Greek Navy a British submarine, still under delivery in England and an Italian submarine that had been seized by the British and was undergoing a long overhaul.
The ships that escaped from Greece had initially undergone much-needed repairs for long months. Their antiaircraft weapons were modernized and were fitted with anti-submarine equipment. Two of their major shortcomings were thus fixed.
The entire organization of the naval services was completely different from the one in Greece: The Superior Destroyer Command, commanded by Captain Mezeviris, was suppressed. The destroyer “QUEEN OLGA” along with the new units was integrated in British naval commands and the old destroyers were executing missions ordered by the British authorities. The submarines based in Beirut were under Greek command. The duties of the Chief of the Fleet were limited to administrative maters, all ship movements being ordered and related expenses covered by the British Chief of the Fleet. As required by the British, the commanders of the RHN ships that cooperated with British ships could not have a rank above Lieutenant Commander or else in all mixed escorts the commanders would be Greek. As a consequence, officers with the rank of Captain and most Commanders were excluded from sea duty. The General Staff of the Navy was abolished and its jurisdiction was transferred to the chief of the Fleet. The Ministry of the Navy had a shadow power and dealt with a few general personnel matters.
Agitation and nervousness in the Navy
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
“The Minister of National Defense Panagiotis Kanellopoulos after failing to
reestablish order in the brigades stationing near Beirut, resigned beginning of March 1943. The situation was getting worse. Pamphlets were secretly being distributed inside the military units and the ships, in which officers were accused as being fascists. The ships nevertheless continued their missions, in spite some agitation among the crews caused by mobilized sailors from the Merchant Marine. Fears were expressed that order in the ships would be jeopardized. Those who favored a change of situation in the Navy exaggerated these fears.
Since my arrival in Egypt, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet the officers serving in the fighting Navy, since their ships were busy with their missions. From the contacts I had with officers serving in Alexandria and Beirut, I realized that there was a diffuse dissatisfaction. Several of these officers considered that the applied management methods were extremely strict and sometimes cruel and unfair. I ignore whether these accusations were objective, as these judgments were coming from officers that had personal reasons to be dissatisfied. These complaints were reaching the Government and were targeting to exercise pressure to the political authorities to take measures against the Naval Command.
Rumors were circulating at that time that the Government was preparing to resign and a government reshuffling was expected with the participation of purely republican elements. The departing Secretary of State for the Navy announced to me the Government reshuffling, in the evening of March 24, 1943. Lawyer Roussos from Alexandria, a fanatic republican that had served as Minister in a previous Government in Greece, was appointed Minister of the Navy. The Government announcement of the reshuffling also included the acceptance of the non-submitted resignation of the Chief of the Fleet, giving thus a political character to that office.
Reservist Captain K. Alexandris Naval attaché in London was appointed Chief of the Fleet. An officer with many qualifications he was removed from the Navy with the rank of Commander in 1935, following his participation in a failed coup d’état, had never exercised a superior command and had not participated in the war in Greece. His nomination came as a big surprise to the naval circles with the exception of those that were introduced to the mysteries of the political behind scenes. A comrade that had not participated in the 1935 mutiny, but had close ties with those that had, unveiled to me that these developments were being prepared for a long time and added “you must realize that the 1935 mutiny has now prevailed”.
The new situation was a heavy draw back for me. The appointment of an officer that was my junior to the first naval position, excluded my placement in any service. After the removal of the two admirals it was natural for me to expect to be named Chief of the Fleet, as I was not only senior to all the other officers but also had an important war record in Greece. The majority of the officers serving in Egypt recognized this unfair treatment.
When the next morning I paid a visit to the new Minister and intensely complained for the unfair treatment, he replied that his predecessor informed him of my war record and I would surely have been the appropriate Chief of the Fleet. However, having served as prosecutor in the Extraordinary Naval Tribunal in 1935, I wouldn’t be acceptable as Chief from those that I had condemned! The Minister suggested that I meet the Prime Minister and the King. Prime Minister Emmanuel Tsouderos praised my personality and said that I was the most appropriate to be appointed Chief of the Fleet. He was “surprised how that thing happened”. He referred me back to the Minister of the Navy to fix the matter…
King Georges II favorably received me and asked detailed information about the situation in Greece. Concerning my personal problem he said, as one could expect, that it was clearly an issue for the Government. For reasons of etiquette, Crown Prince Paul received me next and, with the spontaneity that characterized him, said that he completely disagreed with all that happened. In a new common meeting with the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Navy, they both repeated their praises but didn’t give a solution. In a new meeting with the Minister I was appalled hearing him propose to me the position of Naval Attaché in Ankara, Turkey, a position that he considered very important. I declared to him that I would submit by writing my position on the matter. In my report I outlined my career, I strongly protested for the recent developments and made several proposals for positions entailing war duty. More specifically, I proposed to be retired and recalled as reservist. That way, I would automatically become junior in seniority to the new Chief of the Fleet and could therefore serve under his orders in my old position of Supreme Destroyer Commander. I received a rude reply to my report that persuaded me that it was useless to pursue my efforts. Besides, the appointment of a new Minister of the Navy was expected.
In May 7, 1943 a new sudden development took place. The new Chief of the Fleet was promoted to Rear-Admiral, before even taking up his new position. The 8-year career in peace and war of his senior officers was thus erased, while during this period he was removed from the Navy. This governmental decision had a very bad impact among the Officers and those with the rank of Captain strongly protested for this second injustice. The new Chief of the Fleet, himself, and the Director General of the Ministry submitted a request asking my promotion and rehabilitation to my seniority. The new Minister of the Navy, Sofoklis Venizelos, informed me that he would take action to correct the injustice that was made to me. Indeed, two weeks later I was informed of my promotion to Rear-Admiral effective from the day my junior Chief of the Fleet was promoted. In addition I was honored with the War Cross for my successful war service and for being injured at the sinking of the destroyer “HYDRA”. My promotion didn’t however solve the problem of getting a position entailing active war duty. I was just named member of the Supreme Naval Council that was re-established. The Minister said that he wished to re-establish and place me in charge of the office of the General Staff of the Navy but that however he has been prevented from realizing his project.
Finally, he proposed to me the position of Naval Attaché in London. In spite of continuous pressure to accept the position, I once again refused. Besides, I considered ridiculous for the small Greek Navy to have an Admiral as Naval Attaché.
The war action of the RHN ships
In spite of the turmoil caused by the administrative changes, the fighting ships continued unobstructed their missions. Their officers were dedicated to their duties, were continuously on the move and didn’t have the time or mood to talk politics. However, subversive actions taken to change the previous situation and the publication of illegal newspapers that defamed several of the superior officers could not leave untouch the ships crews. The acceptance of the demands of the agitators of the Brigades didn’t lead to the re-establishment of order. In the contrary, the gate to anarchy had opened and the events of April 1944 were in preparation. Soon appeared the first cases of indiscipline, the more serious being the ones that took place onboard the destroyer “IERAX”. Order was re-established in the short run by the drastic measures that were taken.
In July 1943, the RHN ships took active part in the landing in Sicily. The Ministry of the Navy gave me the authorization to board the first destroyer leaving for Sicily. I boarded the destroyer “KANARIS” as a simple passenger, a war correspondent as I joked. I had thus the opportunity to get acquainted to every detail of these new ships of the British Admiralty, the Hunt class destroyers. These escorts proved quite successful because they combined satisfactory speed with the most up-to-date anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons and were equipped with the then unknown to us radars. Four destroyers of that same class “ADRIAS”, “KANARIS”, MIAOULIS” and “PINDOS” were participating in the Sicily operations.
The destroyer “KANARIS” commanded by Lieutenant Commander Damilatis was participating in the first wave of the landing operation and had the opportunity to demonstrate a brilliant action. It was a great honor for our Navy that “KANARIS” was the first allied ship that entered the port of Augusta before the occupation of the city and had received the fire of the coastal defense. For two weeks she was sailing almost all the time. These days were for me the best since my arrival in the Middle East. From the very beginning I realized how different were the war conditions that we had known in Greece, especially during the period of the German attack. To protect themselves from enemy submarine attacks, the escorts didn’t have to rely on zigzags or pure chance but to the perfect localization instruments with which they were equipped. We landed troops and supplies on Syracuse and Augusta. The, up to a few days earlier, enemy ports were now allied bases. The people of Sicily were watching with indifference our movements. The almost undamaged coastal gun batteries were the real proof of the eagerness of their surrender.
In Augusta we met the destroyer “ADRIAS” bearing the traces from her recent clash with German torpedo boats. The commander of this ship, Commander Toumbas, with skilful handlings had succeeded in sinking two of the three torpedo boats and cause severe damages to the third. The enemy boats had machined-gunned “ADRIAS”, had wounded several members of the crew but had not inflicted any serious damage to her. On our way back to Alexandria we approached Malta, were several heavy-armored British ships were waiting for the Italian Navy to show-up.
Towards a new mission
Back in Alexandria, with deep and reciprocal regret I left the Commander and staff of the destroyer “KANARIS”. As soon as I returned to our base, I was convened by the Minister of the Navy who, once again, asked me to undertake a mission to London to negotiate the concession of new ships to replace the old ones that would soon become useless. Recognizing the importance of this mission for the RHN, I accepted a special mission to London that would end when the objectives would be met and refused the position of Naval Attaché or the title of Chief of Naval Mission that were proposed to me.
Since the government reshuffle of March 1943, the two RHN admirals serving in Egypt had been ordered to move out of Egypt. Rear-Admiral Sakellariou had already moved to the U.S.A., while Rear Admiral Kavadias had received permission to remain in Cairo. Admiral Kavadias suggested to me that I shouldn’t go to England, as he did, because the intention of the authorities was to send us away from Egypt. I replied that I didn’t consider correct in war time to refuse any service that was requested from me, if that service was not incompatible with my rank.
On August 20, 1943, I was flying from Cairo to London aboard a R.A.F. bomber.”
Rear-Admiral Mezeviris’ mission to London lasted five months and was quite successful. The new ships that were granted by the British Admiralty along those that were offered by the American Navy compensated for the war losses and allowed the replacement of the old and useless ships.
The Greek Navy in turmoil
“On January 17, 1944 I was, once again, back to Egypt. The first information I was getting in Alexandria was especially worrisome. There was an apparent calm among the crews, a calm that comes before the storm. The officers serving on the ships, who raised the main weight of the war effort, were very worried. The Navy Command, on the contrary, was completely satisfied with the situation and did not share these fears.
It is possible that some of the measures taken by the previous Command were too strict, even hard, and for this reason many were dissatisfied. The new Command, on the other hand, considered that by satisfying all kinds of demands the crews would stop complaining. Plenty of promotions were made, salaries were increased, permits for absences were easily given and there was extreme lenience in punishing offences. A ship commander had once complained to me that the naval authorities had not accepted his request to prosecute as deserters men from his crew that had refused to board his ship, leaving for a mission. The excessive benefits and the continuous satisfaction of the crew demands had jeopardized discipline.
The measures taken to the benefit of the officers were similar. They satisfied those who benefited from them but angered most of the officers corp. Under the conditions that the RHN was operating and especially with the limitations imposed by the British, concerning the rank of ship commanders, officers from the rank of Commander could not serve on ships in war missions. In addition, the number of Captains and Commanders already serving in Egypt were more than sufficient to cover the limited needs of shore facilities. The promotion of an officer to the rank of Captain rendered him in reality useless and a lot of ingenuity was needed to find for him a position of relatively small importance. Before my mission to London, in the rare occasions that the Supreme Naval Council was in cession, I used to disagree with any proposal to increase the number of positions and such proposals were always rejected. Unfortunately, during my absence to London plenty of promotions were awarded thoughtlessly.
Since the government reshuffle of March 1943 more officers removed from the Navy after the 1935 mutiny, came to the Middle East. All these officers were re-established to their seniority and several among them were awarded two additional ranks to the rank they had when they retired. These promotions, however, were not really beneficial even to the promoted officers themselves. With a lower rank they would have got more important positions on the ships and would have had the opportunity to distinguish themselves in action. Furthermore, in order appease the permanent officers, the 1935 re-established officers were integrated as supernumeraries! Soon, the supernumerary Captains reached the number of twelve on a total number of twenty three positions in the organization
Believing that I could help in facing the critical situation that had developed, I submitted once more to the Minister of the Navy my old proposal for the re-establishment of the General Staff of the Navy. Some Staff Offices were already in operation with limited responsibilities under the Captain, General Director of the Ministry. The Minister was favorable to my proposal but wished to have the agreement of the Supreme Naval Council. Unfortunately, all the other members of the Council considered that the situation in the Fleet was brilliant and that there was no reason to create new institutions that could create problems to the smooth functioning of the Navy. One member of the Council added that “There is no room in Alexandria for an Admiral senior to the Chief of the Fleet”. After this, I interrupted any further effort to participate in the command of the Navy and stopped visiting the Ministry. The only information I was getting of the developments was from officers that have served in the past under my orders.”