On November 25, 1939 Captain Gregory Mezeviris raised his banner as Supreme Destroyer Commander (SDC) on the new destroyer “KING GEORGE”.
The RHN destroyer “KING GEORGE” was launched on THE CLYDE – GLASGOW, WALES in 1938
The destroyer “KING GEORGE”
It wasn’t the first time that he was assuming similar duties but now he had increased responsibilities. He was the direct Commander of the active Flotilla and in addition commanding all the remaining destroyers and torpedo boats, a total of 20 ships. The active Flotilla participated in the maneuvers and was the main combat force of the Fleet. The Flotilla consisted of 2 destroyers of the “KING GEORGE” class and 4 of the “HYDRA” class. The destroyer “AETOS” was in a situation of reduced activity and was only used in exceptional cases. The ships in reserve were 3 destroyers of the “LEON” class, 2 of the “THYELLA” class and 8 torpedo boats, some of which were undergoing general overhaul. For the reserve ships there was a commanding officer for each class of ships.
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
“When I assumed my new duties, I named as my Chief of Staff Commander P. Lappas, commanding officer of the destroyer “KING GEORGE” and ex-commander of the destroyer “SPETSAI”, my command ship as Commander of the Destroyer Flotilla in 1935. All the commanding officers were young and able, in spite of being named on the basis of their seniority in the officers’ corp. Rear- Admiral Kavvadias replaced Vice-Admiral Economou, as Chief of the Fleet. Under his orders were placed the SDC ships, the battleship “AVEROF” as flagship, the light cruiser “ELLI” and the ships of the Supreme Submarine Command.
Given the critical international situation, in my first address to my ships’ commanders, I stressed the need for a maximum effort in organization and training with the limited means at our disposal. The circumstances imposed limitations in fuel consumption and they were difficulties in covering staff needs. I presented, however, as an example to follow, the case of the Supreme Coastal Defense Command where, with more limited means, such good results were reached. For me, the job was not new and for that reason didn’t present any major difficulties. The only difficulty that I faced right from the start was the different approach of the Chief of the Fleet on various matters and especially in relation to the training methods. Having completely personal and original opinions, he didn’t wish to apply the methods followed by his predecessors in the Fleet in the past decades, which have given very good results. I have always believed in the principle of truthful cooperation with one’s superiors and subordinates. I therefore showed all my good will to keep good relations with the Chief. In a number of cases, following my long insistence, I succeeded in getting my proposals approved. In other instances, concerning the type of the maneuvers, he was adamant. The consequences of the rejection of some of my
proposals appeared in the war period that followed.
The training period started, as usual, with instruction at anchor. For the next phase of training the Chief of the Navy, against my personal opinion, made some
changes to the program that was successfully applied for years. More specifically, he considered unnecessary the execution of mine laying maneuvers from the suitably converted ships, not taking into account the fact that some of the commanders had never before executed similar maneuvers. By the end of this first period, the totality of the Flotilla under my command executed a number of instructions under way in the Saronic Gulf. I drew up the training program to be executed during these sailings, having in mind the seriousness of the international situation and considering that the training in the war mission of the ships should be pushed through, as soon as possible.
Towards the end of February 1940, the Fleet under the command of the Chief aboard “ELLI”, sailed from the naval port of Salamis to execute maneuvers in the
Aegean Sea until April 1940. Most of these maneuvers were executed under adverse weather conditions and were fruitful from a naval training point of view.
As far as training in war missions was concerned, results were poor. It was exactly on that issue that I had a difference of opinion with the Chief.
Undoubtedly, the handling of a ship and keeping her position in line are basic in training new commanding officers. However, when an officer reaches the rank
of Commander, a few instructions under way with these objectives are sufficient. In the usual peace periods when ample time can be devoted, the
execution of spectacular maneuvers and keeping the ships in line with mathematical accuracy may take priority over any other training. However, in the
midst of a World War with the risk of being dragged along at any moment, this type of exercise should not constitute the main objective of the Fleet
maneuvers, but should be complemented with more significant training. Frequent execution of real fire and torpedo launching, anti-submarine
maneuvers, training in the useful at war time sailing patterns for escorting convoys and at the war duties of each ship, are all most essential. From all these
very few were done: A small number of exercises were executed, but no joint maneuvers with the aviation were organized. Eventually more was intended to
be done in some next training periods. Unfortunately, because of the events that followed, there was no other training period for the whole Fleet until the
moment the ships were called to perform their real war-time duty. These events were not at all unpredictable…
Another matter that placed me in a difficult situation was that the Chief of the Navy, having no prior service as Flotilla Commander and being hostile to the
Naval School of War (NSW), did not agree with the teachings of the NSW concerning the tactical use of the ships that were included in a precious book –
the Destroyer textbook – compiled by the British Mission in Greece. These principles were the only we knew and had repeatedly applied, myself and my
subordinates during our prior service in the Fleet. Because the Chief of the Fleet and his Chief of Staff condemned all the well known to us methods of
torpedo attacks, I had to ask him to issue the relative directives for immediate application. Such directives were never issued…
Since the return of the Fleet to the Naval Port in April 1940, till the Italian attack, there was no other opportunity for the whole Fleet to sail for maneuvers in the
open seas, outside the Saronic Gulf. Just a few days after our arrival, I was suddenly ordered to sail as soon as possible commanding a task force of 2
destroyers of the “KING GEORGE” class and 3 submarines to execute maneuvers in the Gulf of Corinth. It was clear that this sudden mission was due
to alarming intelligence relating to the international situation. During this mission that lasted 10 days I took advantage of this opportunity to train the ships
according to my beliefs. With the particular task force composition it was difficult to draw up a training program that would be useful for both types of ships.
However, the time the task force was under way was fruitfully used. The submarines, for one thing, were used as surface ships to execute with the destroyers night maneuvers in the form of war scenarios. These exercises were particularly beneficial to the personnel of the submarines, who were participating for the first time in such maneuvers. The joint maneuvers with the Araxos naval fortress, also a first time participation for Araxos, were equally very
successful. We returned to the Naval Port a few days before Easter and gave a few days of leaves of absence to the crews.
After the Easter holidays I reviewed in detail the situation of the SDC reserve ships. Taking into account the available manpower, the destroyer maintenance
was good and their organization satisfactory. In the contrary, the torpedo boats were in poor condition due to their long abandonment. However, thanks to the
efforts of their commander, their situation had somewhat improved but they were still many deficiencies that made hard their fast mobilization.
In May 1940, by order of the Chief of the Navy, a second “training” flotilla was provisionally formed with the destroyer “AETOS”, two destroyers of the
“THYELLA” class and three torpedo boats. This measure was aimed at determining deficiencies in the mobilization of these ships on the one hand and
training the crews and especially the young commanding officers on the other.
The personnel training would have been really valuable if the ships were manned with their wartime crews. In fact they were manned with personnel
coming from the active Flotilla that were due to return to their ships after the maneuvers. Some of the commanding officers were even from the staff of the
Chief of the Fleet. The personnel detachments, in those difficult moments, had some other side-effects; they created serious anomalies to the ships of the
active Flotilla that were supposed to be in a situation of immediate readiness.
I closely monitored the mobilization of the ships and drew up a 10 day intensive “in harbor” training program that was executed under my immediate
supervision. Then, the ships sailed to execute maneuvers for 6 days in the Saronic Gulf. With the exception of the destroyer “AETOS”, all the other ships of
the “training” Flotilla were planned to be used in war time for the local defense and therefore their training should have been different from the one of the big
destroyers. However, because their crew in war time would be different from the one that was provisionally serving, I took advantage of the opportunity and
applied according to my beliefs a training program for the destroyers, in parallel with the naval training, with very good results. The young commanders, who
repeatedly in the past had participated in such maneuvers, were quickly oriented in their new duties. They have all regretted when the maneuvers came
to an end and the “training” Flotilla was dismantled.
The Fleet on war footing
Italy had already entered World War II. Soon after our return from the maneuvers, I received again an order to sail for the Gulf of Corinth. I was given
the command of the same joint task force that I commanded in April 1940. I had to oversee the fast completion of the mobilization measures as planned for war
time and choose a base of operations east of the city of Patras.
My orders concerned keeping neutrality in our territorial waters and protecting the honor of our flag and the integrity of our country against anyone who would
have designs against her. However, even if the second part of the order cannot have many interpretations, for a small country keeping neutrality in a war
between big countries presents many hidden traps. The circular that the Ministry of the Navy addressed to the naval authorities didn’t help in clarifying
the issue: in the last paragraph it ordered the protection of our national honor at any cost or sacrifices, while, at the same time in a previous paragraph, it
excluded the resort to violence in case of violation of our neutrality, without prior approval from the Ministry… The problem was however that, in most cases,
there was not enough time to request authorization and therefore, for whatever action one would take in such a case he risked to violate one of the two
paragraphs of the circular! Having in mind a specific case, I requested from the Ministry explanatory directives. From the reply I came to a conclusion: If such a
case were to happen, I would act according to my conscience and our naval traditions and wouldn’t spend too much time trying to interpret the paragraphs
of the circular.
I have initially chosen as base harbor the town of Nafpaktos, situated on the north coast of the Gulf o Corinth. When we arrived at our base harbor, I
gathered the ships commanders on board the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, I informed them on the purpose of our mission and stressed that we will protect
at the cost of any sacrifice the honor of our flag. My words were received with enthusiasm. I was especially impressed by Iatridis, the commander of the
submarine “PAPANIKOLIS” who, when the time of action came, developed exceptional initiative and action.
The destroyers were ordered to remain continuously with their engines running, ready to sail at an hour’s notice. Later, as instructed by the General Staff of the
Navy (GSN), I modified the order to save on fuel. The ships were ordered to apply war time service procedures, shore exits were abolished with the
exception of few hour permits given to a small part of the crews and security measures, especially those concerning air attacks, were determined in detail. I
also dealt with the “in harbor” training of the crews but I didn’t get authorization from the Chief of the Fleet to use fuel for “under way” training. My request for
executing a series of real surface and anti-aircraft fire from the destroyers anchored at Nafpaktos, was also refused. I was therefore obliged to limit the
destroyers training to the application of a program of “in harbor” training concerning their war duties. The submarines were executing exercises in the
Gulf of Corinth, but their training was insufficient, since I couldn’t provide a destroyer as target. Only occasionally we were taking advantage from the arrival
of an auxiliary supply ship to use it as target.
There was another reason I wished the execution of “under way” training by the destroyers. The long stay in the same harbor, which lasted more than two
months, under war time living conditions but with no war adventures, was becoming too dull for the crews. In order to keep-up their moral they had to get
busy with interesting jobs, such as “under way” training.
Another task force formed by 4 destroyers of the ‘HYDRA” class, under the Chief of the Fleet, was based at the island of Melos with orders similar to mine. On
July 12, 1940 a very serious event took place at the area covered by this task force. The auxiliary ship “ORION”, while supplying lighthouses, was attacked by
enemy aircrafts. The destroyer “HYDRA” that was immediately sent to provide assistance was also fiercely attacked and reacted with massive fire. The
nationality of the attacking aircrafts was not identified and it was diplomatically said that the attack was due to a misunderstanding. The telegram of the
“HYDRA” report was received in Nafpaktos and as a measure of prevention I ordered the destroyers to get ready to sail. The measures taken were
announced to the GSN who, after a few hours, ordered to turn off the engines.
After this first attack against R.H.N. ships, the security measures of the Nafpaktos task force were re-enforced. Because the Rio anti-submarine net had
not yet been laid and the Nafpaktos harbor was exposed to submarine attacks, I decided at the end of an “under way” training sortie to choose as a new base
the harbor of Itea. Ten days later I was ordered back to Nafpaktos. I was very surprised when I learned the reason of this order, especially in a period of
limitations in fuel consumption. The people of Nafpaktos were very unhappy with the departure of the ships, since their presence was giving life to their town and
was beneficial to the local commerce. They had asked a compatriot, with important acquaintances in the Government, to arrange for the ships to return
to Nafpaktos in time for the annual local religious celebration! We sailed back to Nafpaktos on the eve of the holiday, taking again advantage of this new
opportunity to execute “underway” training.
The Chief of the Fleet, accompanied by several politicians, arrived that same day onboard the auxiliary ship “AVRA” to review the ships of our task force. Among
the politicians was the influential person that had “arranged” our return to Nafpaktos. This man, organized that same evening a dinner party where he
invited all the commanders and executive officers of the ships. This invitation placed me in a delicate situation, since I had forbidden my commanders and
executive officers to be both absent from their ship at the same time. In addition, the auxiliary ship “AVRA” was illuminated at night while, according to
the security measures applied in such situations, the ships of my task force were covering their lights. As a result of this situation, the impression was given
to my crews that the annoying measures that I was applying were not considered necessary by the Chief of the Fleet. I indicated to him my preoccupation; he
replied that according to the officials of the Ministry the situation was not worrisome and he suggested that I relax the measures. However, I was the only
one who was responsible for the task force and since my initial orders from the GSN were not modified by newer, I continued applying exactly the same
measures, in spite the Admiral’s recommendation.
I was sorry that the Admiral didn’t prolong his stay for 24 more hours! The day after his departure, on July 30, 1940, just after sunrise, I was awakened by a loud
explosion and heard the officer on duty giving the order “Alarm, air attack”. I rushed to the deck and observed a jet of water at a distance of some 300 meters
from the destroyer “KING GEORGE” and an aircraft at high altitude disappearing west. I took the necessary precautions in case other enemy
actions would follow. As in the case of the destroyer “HYDRA”, the bombardment was made from very high altitude and we were unable to identify the nationality
of the airplane.
In war-time, any unidentified aircraft over-flying a Navy ship was considered foe and was attacked at sight. However, in our case things were not as simple as
that. The Greek Government had notified the belligerent parts that their airplanes were not permitted to fly over our national territory. The orders given
by the Ministry of the Navy to the R.H.N. Fleet were however different; only in case our ships were attacked we were authorized to shoot against the enemy
airplanes, otherwise we were obliged to simply report the incident. Taking into account the means in our disposal at that time, the probabilities of success
against an attacking aircraft were very slim, even if we were free to start shooting at sight. It is evident that if we had to wait for an aircraft flying at high
altitude to throw its bomb first before we start shooting, the chances were even thinner. To facilitate the situation, I had asked the Ministry to inform me in time
for any friendly aircraft planned to pass over our harbor. The ships had standing instructions to order “alarm” whenever an aircraft was flying over our
anchorage without notification. Several times each day, foreign and Greek aircrafts were passing over our ships without any prior notification. I decided to
modify my orders, because the frequent alarms were irritating the crews. It was determined that from then on any aircraft that would appear would be targeted
by the anti-aircraft (a/a) battery crews, without ordering “alarm”. The fact that for two months the a/a battery crews continuously executed this monitoring, without
any serious incident, contributed with no doubt to the avoidance of starting fire as soon as we were attacked.
Soon after the attack by the foreign airplane I reported the incident to the Ministry and announced that in the future, assuming no opposite order, I’ll shoot
any appearing aircraft without warning. I issued orders in that respect to the ships of my task-force. After a few hours I received the reply from the Ministry
instructing me to revert to my existing orders. In the meantime, however, a tragic misunderstanding was closely avoided. An aircraft appeared over our
anchorage and “alarm” was ordered; I rushed to the a/a batteries of the destroyer “KING GEORGE” to follow their actions. I arrived just in time,
because a voluminous object fell from the aircraft and the machine guns officer had ordered “fire”; I distinguished that it was a Greek Air force plane and
suspended the order. The object thrown surfaced in the sea and was finally identified as a newspaper package thrown by the pilot to entertain us!
The time had come for some variations in our routine. It was decided that the ships in missions would periodically be replaced by other. The Melos task-force
had already been replaced by the light cruiser “ELLI” and the destroyer “AETOS”. Then, the Nafpaktos task force was replaced by 2 “HYDRA” class
destroyers. I passed my duties to the senior commander and with the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “QUEEN OLGA” returned to the Naval Port of Salamis.”