Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

The torpedoing of the light cruiser “ELLI”

“On August 15, 1940, while I was in Athens, I was informed by the Director of the Radio -Telegraphy Service of the Navy (D.R.Y.N) of the torpedoing of “ELLI” by an unknown submarine. I rushed to the Naval Port of Salamis to meet the Chief of the Fleet, who had just been informed. He was frenetic and full of indignation against the Secretary General of the Ministry of the Navy. In spite of the previous sudden bombardments of our ships, one of the larger ships of our Fleet had been ordered to remain for hours at anchor in a completely open Gulf.

The Ministry didn’t wish to discontinue the tradition of the good peace-time periods of the participation of our Navy to the religious celebrations of the 15th of August on the island of Tinos! The General Staff of the Navy had proposed to send the destroyer “AETOS” instead of “ELLI”, to avoid taking unnecessary risks for the light cruiser. The Secretary General of the Ministry of the Navy had unfortunately insisted on sending “ELLI”, for a more grandiose participation of the Navy to the celebration. When the murderess torpedo was hitting “ELLI”, her officers were wearing their official uniforms to participate in the celebration and the detachment was preparing to go to shore to attribute the honors. It was an old tradition for thousands of pilgrims to gather on Tinos for the annual celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin; they could not imagine the many serious dangers that the sea was hiding.

The light cruiser “ELLI” R.H.N.

The Italian submarine “DELFINO”

The Italian torpedo hits the dock

As it was natural, all these pilgrims were agonizing over their safe return. It was therefore decided pilgrims to return with a convoy escorted by the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “QUEEN OLGA”. The destroyers sailed from the Naval Port of Salamis the next morning, to allow time for the belligerents to be informed of this movement and avoid….a new misunderstanding. The Chief of the Fleet was on board the “QUEEN OLGA” and me on the “KING GEORGE”. While “under way”, we were applying the usual war-time measures. By the island of Syros we spotted an airplane, with no nationality identification signs, flying at a 2.000 meters altitude towards “KING GEORGE”. I ordered the artillery officer of the ship, the anti-aircraft shooters to closely watch the aircraft and the guns to get ready for fire. In a while, eight small bombs were falling in a distance of a few hundred meters from the “KING GEORGE”. Immediately we started fire against the airplane and the ship was ordered to zigzag at full speed to avoid the enemy fire. Two more eight bomb loads fell, the last a few tenths of meters from the ship. Unfortunately, the rough sea made even more difficult our machine gun shooting and the plane was not hit, but disappeared in the horizon flying at high altitude.

When we reached Tinos, the “QUEEN OLGA” anchored while, for protection purposes, the “KING GEORGE” was moving at high speed around the anchorage. None of our ships disposed at that time submarine localization equipment. As it was determined, the enemy submarine had fired three torpedoes; one had sunk the “ELLI”, while the other two had hit the breakwater. The torpedo splinters found proved that the torpedoes were made in Italy. The only trace that remained of our light cruiser was the top of her mast that was sticking out of the sea…

The pilgrims’ convoy, escorted by the two destroyers, sailed from Tinos in the afternoon. After an uneventful voyage we arrived at the Port of Piraeus, where crowds of people and members of the Government were anxiously waiting the arrival of the convoy.

After this last hostile action, it became at last evident that our desire to keep our neutrality was not by itself sufficient to protect us from tragic hostile surprises. It was necessary to take preventive measures of security. The R.H.N. ships were ordered to change anchorage from the Naval Port of Salamis to the Gulf of Elefsis; the size of the latter allowed the ships’ dispersion in the anchorage, to avoid group destructions in case of air attack. In addition it was decided to place anti-submarine nets for the protection of the harbors of Piraeus, of the Naval Port of Salamis and of some internal sea-ways; the anti-aircraft defense measures were completed, the destroyer task forces were recalled from the island of Melos and from Nafpaktos and the ships of the reserve force were mobilized.

As the Supreme Commander of the ships “in harbor”, I set the modalities of their operation, as per war-time, especially in regard of their anti-aircraft defense. I was also assigned the responsibility to examine with the General Staff of the Navy an action plan for the fastest possible execution of the laying of the planned mine fields, as soon as the relative order was given. Because in that operation all the destroyers fitted with the proper installations would be used, I intensely requested these ships to participate in a mine-laying exercise since such exercise was not made in the previous training period. When, after two months I was ordered to immediately proceed to mine-laying, this was done without prior exercise.

The first convoys in war-time conditions

In the beginning of September 1940 I undertook an interesting mission in the form of a martial operation in an undeclared war; the transportation to the port of Alexandroupolis in northern Greece of military troops of the Archipelagos Brigade. For this operation 4 destroyers, the “KING GEORGE” and 3 of the “HYDRA” class, 5 troops transport ships, 1 tanker for refueling and a squadron of 12 modern “DORNIER” hydroplanes of naval cooperation, were placed under my command. I choose as our base the wide Gulf of Geras on the island of Lesvos, which offered excellent protection from enemy submarines and was convenient for the installation of a hydroplane base. I remained at Geras a few
days, waiting the reservists to assemble in the embarkation ports and organizing the forces at my disposal. In this operation I received valuable help from Reserve Captain R.H.N. K. Panagiotou, named transport ships Commander.

The lack of previous Navy- Air Force cooperation was evident. Most of the pilots were not naval officers and had great difficulty to adapt to the Navy mentality, concerning the way missions were executed. Since there was no Air Force School of War, the principles of operation of the air force of naval cooperation that we were taught in the Naval School of War had not reached those who were supposed to apply them. In addition the airmen were just then learning to use the cryptographic code of the Navy. However, soon most difficulties were overcome, a spirit of sincere cooperation was established and in the report I submitted at the end of this mission I praised the efforts of our airmen.

The whole operation was quite original. We were formally in peace period but the enemy was lying in wait and had already given sufficient samples of his wretched intentions. At any time, we could meet in our course enemy submarines or mines or unidentified airplanes could attack us. These risks were dealt with as in real war-time; with the important difference that even if we located a possible enemy we had to wait for him to attack us first, before we retaliate. An additional particularity that further complicated this situation was that we were deprived of the secrecy of our movements, one of the main means of defense for convoys. And this was because, in order to avoid any real or supposedly misunderstanding concerning the nationality of our ships, the belligerents were informed before hand and with every detail of our planned movements. Two days before the sailing of each convoy we had to notify the date and hour of departure, the composition of the convoy, the course that would be followed, the speed and the expected arrival time at the port of destination. Once this notification made, I was not allowed to make any changes. In practice this meant that the reservists had to be assembled at the embarkation ports exactly as planned and that no delays were allowed at embarkation, disembarkation or while at sea. If for combat reasons I wished to change course, as in the case of a submarine appearance, I wasn’t allowed to do so. Everything had to be calculated with mathematical precision to avoid unpleasant anomalies, as it was planned to form partial convoys from three islands, which then had to assemble at a meeting point and from there be directed to the port of Alexandroupolis as a single convoy. Thanks to the brilliant cooperation of the local military and naval authorities and the excellent organization of the transport ships, everything developed exactly as planned.

The transports were executed in three series and the whole operation lasted three weeks. During these operations there was no enemy manifestation; however an excellent opportunity was given to our destroyers, transport ships and the naval air force to cooperate and prepare for the combat work that they were soon destined to undertake.

Once assembled in the Gulf of Elefsis, the R.H.N. ships were often ordered to sortie under the orders of the Chief of the Fleet for maneuvers in the Saronic Gulf. In spite of my objections, the maneuvers didn’t include intensive training in the use of weapons but were limited to fire exercises and to day and night zigzag courses. The small destroyers of the “THYELLA” class and the torpedo boats had completed their mobilization and were assigned to the needs of the local defense. The 10 large destroyers remained under my command, organized in 3 squadrons. The first was formed from 2 «KING GEORGE” class destroyers, the second from 4 “HYDRA” class and the third from 4 “LEON” class. These squadrons formed the main combat force of the Fleet, after the sinking of “ELLI” and since the battleship “AVEROF” was destined to remain in the Gulf of Elefsis as floating anti-aircraft battery.”