The Italian attack - New Days of glory Part B:
November 1940- March 1941
(source: G. Mezeviris Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)
Towards the end of November 1940, naval transports of troops were practically completed. 60.000 men, 25.000 of horses and mules and several thousand tons of supplies and ammunitions had been moved from the south and the islands to northern Greece.
At the same time the R.H.N. submarines had been patrolling in the Adriatic Sea, as they went on doing for the whole duration of World War II, and in spite of the adverse weather conditions and their old equipment they fulfilled very satisfactorily their mission and had several successes. One of them, the submarine “PROTEUS” commanded by Lieutenant Commander Hatzikonstantis, was lost with all hands onboard on December 29, 1940 some 40 miles east of Bridisi, when it was rammed by the enemy torpedo boat “ANTARES” while she was attacking an enemy convoy and after having sunk the troopship “SARDEGNA”.
Gregory Mezeviris narrates:
The destroyers’ mission – Operations in Adriatic Sea
“The Military authorities and several persons who remained behind the front completely ignored the capabilities of our Navy and didn’t consider sufficient the quiet but serious and tiring work done by our destroyers. They were complaining that the Navy was not attempting to interrupt in the Adriatic Sea the enemy transport of military reinforcements to Avlona, Albania. They couldn’t realize that the means needed to succeed such target were far beyond those that the Hellenic Navy actually disposed. Even the mightier British Fleet of the Mediterranean Sea avoided exposing the R.N. ships to the multitude of dangers that entail closed seas, which were limiting their action to periodic surprise attacks at the southern borders of the Adriatic Sea, with no material result.
To attempt interrupting enemy transports in the Adriatic Sea we could only use our 6 large destroyers, since the 4 “LEON” class couldn’t participate due to insufficient speed, that were also assigned the task to secure our own transports. In addition, they would have to execute this task without the coverage of large ships, in an area that was close to the anchorages and the air-bases of the enemy. The Secretary of State for the Navy, in spite of the objections of the Chief of the Hellenic Navy General Staff, was warmly supporting this idea. He even asked the British Naval Attaché to request from the Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet the disposal of the necessary coverage force. The answer of both the Naval Attaché and the British Admiral was that the British Fleet was too busy in other missions and could not be disposed for the proposed mission.
It was however then decided that 6 destroyers, 2 of the “KING GEORGE” class and 4 of the “HYDRA” class, execute night surprise attacks in the Adriatic Sea, similar to those executed by the whole of the British Fleet of the Mediterranean. The first operation took place in the night of November 14, 1940 under the command of the R.H.N. Chief of the Fleet onboard the destroyer “QUEEN OLGA” and me onboard the “KING GEORGE”. The ships sailed independently to Rio where they met to pass through the Patraikos Gulf mine field channel before dark. From there they sailed at high speed to the island of Sasson in the Otranto Straits, they patrolled in the area for about an hour, didn’t meet any enemy ship and returned to the Patraikos Gulf before sun rise. The purpose of the mission was to destroy any enemy warship or commercial ship that we would meet. It was decided that if a destroyer was forced to reduce speed due to some damage, she would leave the line and return to her base. Thus, the destroyer “KOUNTOURIOTIS” while being tugged through the Corinth Canal had one of her helixes damaged couldn’t cruise at more than 22 knots and was therefore ordered to return to base.
This first operation was quiet daring but didn’t serve any military objective. Although it didn’t bring any concrete result, it was skillfully advertised in Greece and abroad and the naval personnel that participated in the operation with enthusiasm were honorably commented. At the same time, with this publicity, the enemy was informed and he could take the proper measures in case this operation was repeated.
The Adriatic Sea operation was repeated the night of December 15, 1940, without my participation because I was escorting a convoy towards the Dardanelles with the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “HYDRA”. The destroyer “QUEEN OLGA” was undergoing light repairs and the Chief of the Fleet leaded the 4 destroyer operation aboard the “KOUNTOURIOTIS”. One of them, following damage in the engine room, couldn’t cruise at a speed of more than 27 knots and was ordered to return to base. This second operation was also fruitless and the destroyers returned to their base without having encountered any enemy ship.
A third repetition of this operation took place the night of January 5, 1941, again under the command of the Chief of the Fleet with the participation of 5 large destroyers. We sailed under very adverse weather conditions and the night was very dark, which favored the secrecy of our mission but not finding enemy ships. Once again we didn’t meet any enemy ship but this time each destroyer bombarded with 3 salvos the enemy bases of Avlona. It is very puzzling that the enemy didn’t react to our challenging action since, according to the information we had, enemy light cruisers were anchored in Avlona. It is possible that they couldn’t imagine the boldness of our action and believed that it was a trap to bring them in front the main force of the British Fleet.
This mission was the last of its kind. The Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, a distinguished military strategist who had insisted till then to the execution of such operations, realized from the results that these actions were contrary to any sound conception of modern warfare and forbade their repetition.
Training with real fire
The Adriatic Sea operations had however a favorable result. When a small force is asking to fight under such uneven conditions, perfect training must partially compensate the overwhelming supremacy of the opponent. Before attempting to sink the enemy in battle, the artillerists must have realized a number of successful shots during maneuvers. At this end, the Chief of the Fleet since December scheduled sorties of our destroyers in the Saronic Gulf to execute real fires. These fires proved how indispensable they were. I was especially upset by the results of the fires of the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, my flag ship, who had excelled at the few fires executed before the mobilization. The reason was that, by order of the Chief of the Fleet, the experienced artillery officer of the ship had been moved to the inactive battleship “AVEROF” and was replaced by a completely inadequate officer. Amazed by that placement, I intensely but unsuccessfully complained from the first moment and I repeatedly asked his replacement. After the results of the fires I requested in writing the immediate placement of a suitable director of artillery, stressing the fact that the “KING GEORGE”, one of the best units of our Navy, would be in a very adverse situation in case of encounter with the enemy. Unfortunately, the Fleet didn’t send back the experienced artillery officer that had served on the “KING GEORGE”, but asked the Ministry of the Navy to find another one. An experienced and very able officer was finally found in April 1941, too late to take –up his duties because the Germans had already invaded Greece….
After the execution of the fires we observed a relative improvement of the ships’ shooting capabilities but not as much as we wished because the ships’ missions didn’t leave enough free time for maneuvers. The war preparation of the ships is a long term project to be undertaken in time from the peace period.
The Italian ships operations
While the R.H.N. ships were undertaking challenging actions near the enemy bases, the enemy didn’t appear willing to send surface ships to operate against us. The only operations that took place during the War were some insignificant bombardments from enemy destroyers against our Army positions on the shores of Epiros. In addition, a destroyer squadron operating from their Dodecanese bases bombarded some deserted shores of the island of Samos and some inhabited small islands of the area. In all these instances our forces were not present in a larger area and the enemy was retreating so fast that our destroyers couldn’t intervene in time.
Military transports continue
Military transports continued in December 1940 but at lower frequency. During that month 18.000 men and 3.500 horses and mules were transported. Supply transports from the Dardanelles continued at the same rate as previous months. Charged cargo ships sailed independently and assembled in Moudros Bay, where convoys escorted by destroyers were formed. With the prevailing winter weather conditions, sailing was extremely laborious and the destroyers and their equipment were stressed at their limits; especially the destroyers of the “HYDRA” class that were disadvantaged from the point of view of naval virtues. In spite of these limitations, rare were the cases of postponement of a mission for adverse weather conditions because the commanders wished to execute their missions under whatever conditions. The case of the destroyer “HYDRA” is characteristic; in mid-December 1940, after escorting 2 cargo ships to Thessalonica, she was heading to Moudros Bay to take-up a new escort mission. During this trip she was hardly tried and badly damaged by the weather before her commander decided to seek shelter in Alexandroupolis. A 10 days stay in a naval yard was required to repair her damages.
When the military transports became scarcer, the large destroyers were assigned to escort passenger ships that were executing the regular transport lines to Chios, Lesvos and Crete.
Convoys from Egypt- The organization of mixed convoys
Since January 1941, the large destroyers were assigned to escort convoys from Egypt that till then were only executed by British R.N. ships. On January 7, 1941, 11 Greek and British empty cargo ships sailed from Piraeus to Port Said escorted by the R.H.N. destroyers “KING GEORGE”, “QUEEN OLGA” and 3 of the “HYDRA” class. I was the Supreme Escort Commander (SEC) of the convoy and an Englishman, captain of one of the British cargos, was named Commander of the Escorted Ships (CES).
The superior British officers that regulated the navigation of these mixed convoys issued sailing instructions that were communicated to the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet in Greece and to the British Admiralty in Egypt. With the sailing order of the SEC detailed instructions were given to the escort ships and complementary instructions were given to the escorted ships at a captains meeting before sailing. The British Code of convoys was in force for these missions which was very similar to our own and a special Greek-British signal code was applied. The SEC was responsible for the protection of the convoy from any enemy action and the CES was responsible for regulating the sail. The SEC had the obligation to intervene if, according to his judgment, the sail was precarious. A reserve officer of the Navy, Greek or British, was named CES for the most important convoys and for the less important one of the cargo ships captains.
Before the departure of this first mixed convoy I had some scruples concerning the smooth cooperation with the British CES. I soon realized, however, that he combined important professional skills with real understanding of his military responsibilities. In only one occasion I initially faced difficulties that were later overcome. The speed of the convoy that was defined by the order was set on the basis of the information provided by the cargo ships. The Greek cargos had the bad habit to report a theoretical speed that were unable to keep in practice, due to their old age, the poor situation of their engines or the impurities on the ships’ bottoms. The SEC, rightfully, wished to keep the scheduled speed and as a result the slow moving ships started progressively to stay behind the convoy, risking continuing their trip unescorted. I had to intervene and after exchanging several signals the convoy speed was reduced and the cohesion was restored. While we were crossing the Kassos-Crete Straits with moonlight we felt three strong vibrations from explosions, one close to the destroyer “KING GEORGE”. It was not an air-raid, an enemy ship was nowhere to be seen and none of our ships was hit by torpedo or mine. The escort ships had neither launched depth charges against enemy submarines. Finally the British Authorities of Port Said gave the explanation. Those were torpedoes that explode when they reach the end of their trajectory, if they don’t hit a target. They must have been launched from a submarine or a torpedo boat hidden close to the shore.
During this trip we were informed by Athens Radio Station that our victorious Army had seized Klisoura. I immediately informed the ships and ordered the escorts to raise their small flagging; a similar order was issued by the CES for the escorted ships. At our arrival in Port Said the assembled crowds of Greeks, British and Arabs welcome us with enthusiasm. The battle cry “aera” (air) of the Greek soldiers fighting on the Albanian mountains is heard from thousands of mouths on foreign land coming from people of several nations who celebrate! Unforgettable moments of our history of many centuries!
Our stay in Port Said was extended for a few days to allow the assembly of ships to be escorted to Piraeus. During our stay our Consul Mr. Daskalopoulos arranged for a number of receptions to be given in honor of the staff of our destroyers, from the Egyptian Commander of the City, the Greek Community and the British Naval Authorities who received us with exceptional compliments. I had the pleasure to be invited by the British Commander of the Suez Canal, Reserve Vice-Admiral Pipon with whom we had served as Naval Attachés in Paris.
The convoy that sailed from Port Said to Piraeus on January 14, 1941 included 24 large cargo ships, mainly Greek and British, full of precious military supplies, food and coal. The escort was formed by 5 Greek destroyers and the British light anti-aircraft cruiser “CALCUTTA” that joined the force on January 17, 1941. In addition a British mine-sweeper escorted the convoy till we reached Crete. A British reserve Commander that had retired a long time ago and had no previous experience in such duties was named CES of the convoy. Captain Michel, the British naval liaison to the Greek Navy in Greece, boarded the “KING GEORGE” and a Greek reserve officer was detached as liaison by the CES.
Keeping the cohesion of such large convoy of dissimilar ships of various nationalities was by itself quite difficult. Once again, the British fast ships had been placed in the first raw while the Greek ships that followed couldn’t even keep the announced convoy speed. I had realized from the very beginning that, if the speed of the sail was not reduced, the ships that were lagging would separate from the convoy and I signaled my concern to the CES of the convoy. After a long exchange of signals he finally decided to conform. However, on the last day of the sail, while we were crossing an area of intensive enemy submarine operation he decided to sail at full speed with the fast British ships to reach as soon as possible the port of destination. The convoy was going to split in two, so I came to voice distance with the destroyer “KING GEORGE” and informed him that I didn’t dispose of sufficient escorts for both parts of the convoy and I would have to leave unescorted the front runners. After a long exchange of short messages and the intense intervention of the British liaison officer, the CES of the convoy decided to conform and stay with the remaining ships.
The worse happened on the last night of the sail when, due to dense dark and to taking wrong coordinates of his position, the Commander of the convoy mistook the southwest cap of the island of Melos for the small island of Falkonera and sailed straight on the direction of the rocks Ktenia, south of Melos. I politely indicated to him that he was following a wrong course but he insisted on his erroneous recognition and I had to signal him in a strong way to get away from the rocks. He finally realized his mistake and signaled to the convoy ships immediate and massive 120° turn that brought, with the prevailing adverse weather conditions, complete dispersion of the ships. The following morning form sunrise till noon I was working with the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “QUEEN OLGA” on re-assembling the convoy ships. The 3 escort destroyers of the “HYDRA” class, due to the very hard weather conditions and bad visibility, had separated from the escorted ships during the night and I had to recall them by telegraph. The light cruiser “CALCUTTA”, sailing at the back of the convoy, lost trace of the escorted ships after their bizarre night maneuvers. Finally, around noon and with somewhat better weather conditions, all escorted ships and escorts had taken-up again their positions in the convoy. These hours had been for me hours of real agony, because ships carrying precious cargos had been left unescorted in an area where Italian submarines were frequently operating.
Towards nightfall of that day of January 18,1941, the convoy arrived at the port of Piraeus where she was expected in anguish. Just before our arrival the “CALCUTTA” signaled to me “Congratulations for safe arrival of your armada”. Reserve Rear-Admiral Turle, British Naval Attaché in Athens and old Head of a British Mission to Greece, when informed of these events by the British Liaison officer, invited me to his office and asked me to narrate what had happened in the presence of the Commander of the Convoy. Then, in a private discussion, he let me understand that the Commander of the Convoy would not be assigned such missions in the future. He then sent a telegram to the Chief of the Hellenic Navy General Staff asking him “to congratulate me because I successfully averted the A.N.12 Convoy from hitting the Ktenia rocks on 01.30 hour of January 18,1941” adding that “I consider that the safe arrival of all the convoy ships proves the quality of the organization and the skills of the Commanders, Officers and Crews of the escorts”.
This recognition of the work done by the R.H.N. destroyers by a foreigner but an especially qualified person gave the incentive to the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet, who till then hadn’t shown any sign that he recognizes the silent work of the ships, to communicate to the Fleet in his order of the day the congratulations adding “I express at the same time my absolute satisfaction to the Superior Destroyer Commander, his Officers and the destroyers’ crews for the very successful execution of the Escorts, that received a general recognition and expect the same efficiency in dealing with conditions which are becoming more and more difficult”.
A special mission for the destroyer “KING GEORGE”
At the end of January 1941 the aggravation of the illness of Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas was the cause for a special mission of the destroyer “KING GEORGE”. When the condition of the patient became hopeless and his doctors announced that science can do no more and only help from heavens could save him, by request of his family, it was decided to bring from the island of Tinos the sacred Icon of the Virgin. I was therefore ordered on the night of January 28,1941 to sail as soon as possible with the destroyer “KING GEORGE” and bring the Icon, keeping absolute secrecy to avoid being known the seriousness of the health condition of the prime minister. The destroyer was prepared in minimal time and sailed at 30 knots in spite of the bad weather conditions. As we were approaching the island of Tinos we were ordered to return because Metaxas had died.
The naval operations of February 1941
The convoys continued in February, often under adverse weather conditions, with increased risk from enemy submarines whose more frequent appearance didn’t bring any results. Compared to the previous months the destroyers were less occupied in missions and they were more opportunities for executing fires. Even the old battleship “AVEROF” started executing real fires and the impression was given that she was preparing for some mission. It was widely believed that she would participate in an operation of the British Fleet aiming at occupying the Dodecanese. As it became known after the War, the British had repeatedly considered such an operation, but couldn’t assemble sufficient forces for this objective. This operation was finally undertaken after the collapse of Italy but was totally unsuccessful because, due to the insufficient forces that were deployed, the islands that were occupied by the British were re-occupied by the Germans.
Intensification of operations in March 1941
March was an interesting month from the point of view of war missions and events. As spring was approaching, enemy action was becoming more intensive on land, air and sea. Enemy submarine apparitions in the Aegean were becoming more frequent than ever. The Dodecanese air-force is coming out of her winter hibernation.
The more serious danger, the one we all sensed from the first day of the War but tried to ignore, was beginning to clearly appear in the horizon…
The decision of the British Government, after the entrance of the German Army in Bulgaria, to transport armed forces and military supplies from Egypt to Greece increased significantly sea transports. The indispensable military supplies that were urgently needed were transported by British cruisers sailing at high speed. For all the other transports convoys were formed, some of which were assigned to our destroyers.
In the beginning of March the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet informed me that it was necessary to take some measures because a German attack against Greece was becoming more and more probable. In such event our stay in the Elefsis Bay would probably become impossible and it we would have to opt for a new base south possibly in Souda Bay, Crete. To avoid creating worrying impressions the Chief didn’t wish to call a meeting of all the commanders but asked me to privately invite each commander, inform him of the above, and give orders so that each ship gets from the Naval Base the assigned repair parts and supplies that are only collected when a ship is leaving her base for a long period of time. In addition all crews had to be informed to always leave onboard their clothing, even their summer uniforms, because it was possible to get a sudden order to sail to a new base. Following my suggestion, it was requested from the Hellenic Navy General Staff the requisition of two cargos ships one for the warehousing and transport, when necessary, of the bulkier repair parts and another to receive from the Naval Base warehouses the ammunitions for the destroyers. Unfortunately these safety measures were not taken in time, not even after the declaration of war with Germany”.