Aftermath of March 1,1935 coup


ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The aftermath of the March 1, 1935 coup

Overthrow of regime

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

“When the storm raised by the March 1st, 1935 coup was over, it was an imperative duty for all of us that had remained in the Hellenic Navy to work exclusively on the recreation of a new Navy from ashes.  Being one of the most senior Captains after the massive dismissals, I had to play a significant role in this serious mission.

 

I was therefore very surprised when right after the coup repression proposals for new positions were made to me that were pleasant but outside the active Navy.  I flatly refused to accept the position of Naval Attaché to Ankara, Turkey as well as aide-de-camp of the President of the Hellenic Republic.  The events that followed six months later gave me a possible explanation for these proposals.

 

Destroyer Flotilla Commander

 

It was my wish to return to the Fleet.  The Flotilla Commander having been promoted to Commander of the Light Fleet, his old position was available and I aimed at getting this position that was compatible with my seniority.  I finally succeeded –with some difficulty- in getting this command, thanks to the support of the Light Fleet Commander.

 

On April 15, 1935, I took over the Destroyer Flotilla command on the destroyer “SPETSAI” that was assigned as my flagship.

1935, the destroyer "SPETSAI" flagship of Captain Mezeviris, Flotilla Commander

 

The light cruiser “ELLI” as flagship, the active Flotilla that comprised 3 ‘HYDRA’ type and 3 ‘LEON’ type destroyers and the destroyers in reserve formed the Light Fleet.  Later, for the execution of maneuvers, the active submarines under their Supreme Commander were also placer under the orders of the Light Fleet Commander.  With great difficulty and after stripping the shore services, the ships were manned with a limited number of officers and especially non-commissioned officers.

 

Although late in the season, many maneuvers were executed and personnel interest for them was always high. One could however observe a general situation of low spirits, resulting from the exceptional period we had all lived in the Navy [see: The coup of March 1st 1935-Civil war”].  During the year we visited several Greek ports, as was our custom.  Our reception was not always enthusiastic as in the past, now it depended on the political feelings of the local populations.  We were received with enthusiasm in Peloponnesus but in Chania, Crete people received us politely but with characteristic coldness.

 

On August 5, 1935, while we were executing maneuvers in the Gulf of Corinth, all ships were ordered to hold and I was convoked to board immediately the Admiral’s flagship.  The Admiral informed that a general strike had erupted in Heraklion, Crete, and was handed an order by the Ministry of the Navy to sail full speed with the destroyers “SPETSAI” and “PSARA” to repress the mutiny.  I executed this order and the other ships of the Flotilla were observing with puzzlement this sudden departure.  No one could believe that no more than 5 months after the bombardment of the city of Kavala and the end of the civil war, we were again heading to execute similar operations!  On our way to Crete I informed the task force that we were sailing to Heraklion, Crete and ordered war preparations, without explaining the nature of our task.  I suspect that they realized what it was about!

 

Fortunately, on our way to Crete I received an order by the Ministry of the Navy to proceed to the island of Melos and await further instructions, as there was hope that order would be re-established and the Military Commander had asked to postpone the destroyers’ arrival to avoid exciting the spirits.  The order was indeed re-established that same day, but our stay in Melos was being prolonged and no new orders were coming.  As I learned unofficially, Central Command had made proposals to the Government that we remain there for an indefinite time to supervise Crete; there were also proposals for Melos to become a permanent base for the Fleet in that end.  This strategic idea to create an advanced base for this reason appeared quite strange because if we remained at the Salamis Naval Base our intervention in case of need would be delayed by only 3 hours. After the events of the following October however, I gave another possible explanation to this proposal.  Given that it could be expected these events would not have been approved by most officers in the Fleet, it is possible that it had been decided to keep them away from Athens so as to ignore what was being prepared.

 

The pointless stay of the 2 ships in Melos was creating dissatisfaction among the personnel, because the remaining ships were stationed in the Naval Base of Salamis and their crews were getting the usual –after two periods of maneuvers- few day permits.  The personnel of our ships was always accepting without complaining any long term absence from the main base of the Fleet, for maneuvers or in case national needs. Now however, they were realizing that this situation was due to internal politics.  I had hoped that the sorry adventure the Navy had gone through had at least freed the Fleet’s personnel from such occupations.   I considered it my duty to inform accordingly the Commander of the Fleet by private letter, who obtained our recall and our joining the remaining ships of the Fleet in the Naval Base of Salamis.

 

We stayed at the Naval Base of Salamis until the end of August and we then sailed to execute a scheduled visit of the Turkish Fleet in Constantinople, after previously visiting Thessalonica on the occasion of the International Fair.

 

At the International Fair of Thessalonica- Rumors about a new coup

 

During our stay in Thessalonica, for the first time after the re-organization of the Fleet, issues concerning internal politics were again rekindled. Rumors were circulating that some superior army officers were preparing a coup to overthrow of the republican regime, in spite of the opposite opinion of the Prime Minister and most of the Ministers.  A serious anti-discipline incident in Athens against a General that had played an important role in repressing the coup had created excitement among naval officers.  Some of the commanders serving under my orders that had actively been involved in the repression the coup and the trial that that followed informed me that they were worried about these rumors.  They informed me that they didn’t wish to be involved under any circumstances in actions aiming at overthrowing the regime, since a few months earlier they treated with such severity their colleagues that had been accused for similar actions.  They also informed me of similar worries of their officers many of which because of their political beliefs were completely opposing any action to overthrow the republican regime.  Their position was understandable because those that had joined the Navy in the last 10 years had only served under the Republic and had given their oath of loyalty to that regime.  I replied to the commanders that I personally agreed with their views, that I would communicate them to the Commander of the Fleet and would let them know his answer.

 

The Chief listened to me with some discomfort, eventually due to the fact that just before me he had received the Supreme Commander of the submarines whose well known position was the opposite of mine.  He confirmed however that the Fleet would not get involved under any circumstances in actions aiming to overthrow the regime and would remain loyal to the legal authorities of the State.  He suggested that the officers avoid getting involved in political discussions, deal exclusively with their military duties and trust the loyalty of their Commander. He also characterized with his usual outspokenness the relative actions of those leading the subversive movement in the Navy. I reported this satisfactory answer to my commanders which I thus calmed down.

 

A visit to Constantinople

 

In September 1935, the Hellenic Fleet sailed to Constantinople.  The old cruiser “METZIDIEH” was anchored near the anchorage that that had been indicated for our ships. The commander of the Turkish cruiser was representing during the time of our visit the Commander in Chief of the Turkish Fleet. Our week-long stay was an endless series of celebrations and receptions given by various local authorities and held in a very friendly atmosphere.  During the free hours of the celebrations program visits to historical monuments, such as Saint Sophia and the ethnological museum, had been arranged.  From the naval installations we only visited the Naval School of Chalki. Our visit to the Patriarchate was an especially moving time for us. 

1935, Turkish cruiser "METZIDIEH" anchored at Constantinople

 

We received a last token of the unrivalled Turkish hospitality, while we were leaving for our return voyage. A motor-launch went by all our ships and offered presents of the Turkish Navy to Greek Commanders.  The whole trip was an extremely pleasant parenthesis for all, officers and crews. Even we, the commanders, tried to forget for a few days the moments of anxiety of the recent past and the new responsibilities that lay ahead of us.

 

When towards the end of September 1935 we returned to the Naval Base of Salamis and came again in contact with the Greek reality, we realized that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Those serving in the Fleet had no information on what was happening behind the scenes.  On the occasion of the usual last maneuvers evaluation session that was taking place onboard the light cruiser “ELLI”, because of the various rumors, the Commander of the Fleet with an exceptionally strict look demanded that the officers abstain from any political involvement and be absolutely obedient to his orders.  His last phrase was considered as ambiguous and caused some concern.  Personally I was puzzled because while in the past when were serving together he would always confide in private his personal thoughts, now he avoided doing so.  However, I had no right to express my doubts on the assurances he had gave me in Thessalonica, assurances that were being confirmed by his overall attitude since the coup.

 

Besides, the Minister of the Navy was also fully aware of our beliefs concerning the situation, since I had the opportunity to inform him personally at his office.

 

The coup of October 10,1935

 

On October 10, 1935, at about 13:30, by message received from the Admiral’s flagship, all the ships were ordered to enter in a state of alert and all communications with the shore were forbidden.  I rushed to the flagship to learn the reason of the alert from the Commander of the Fleet.  He received me with unusual coldness and told me that he would invite the commanders at 18:00 to make some announcements and that he therefore couldn’t repeat them twice.  I thus formed the opinion that our Commander had radically changed his beliefs and was awaiting his announcements to take my own decisions.

 

I returned onboard the “ELLI” some minutes before the time set for the meeting.  The deck was full of officers from all the ships loudly discussing the situation, in a state of exasperation.  Among them Commander Skoufopoulos, one of the 3 commanders that had opposed till the end with their ships the coup of March 1,1935 and well known for his democratic beliefs, in a state of distraction, informed me that he had just come from Athens where a Committee of 3 Superior Officers of the 3 Arms (General Papagos, Chief of Staff of the Army, Admiral Economou, Chief of Staff of the Navy and General Reppas of the Air force) in the name of the armed forces had forced the Prime Minister to resign.  The new Government that would be formed would overthrow the republican regime.  He added that he had actively opposed the March 1st, 1935 coup, because he was then persuaded that the arguments of the mutineers about the risks for the Republic were groundless, while now they prove justified.  Similar complaints were heard from almost all the officers present, some of which inwardly royalists but who had actively been involved in the repression of the coup.

 

When the meeting started, the Chief only announced that the Government had resigned and a new one was formed.  The new Government was just then requesting the vote of confidence of the National Assembly and the Fleet was obliged to be loyal to her. Commander Skoufopoulos in a strongly worded protest he explained the reasons of the Government’s resignation and showed an evening newspaper in confirmation of his arguments.  The Chief accepted that indeed the events took place as presented by the Commander, but their fast evolution had not allowed him to ask beforehand for our opinions and had considered that in the best interest of the State and the Navy he was obliged to give his approval to the actions of the Committee. He then added that he wished to know now our beliefs.

 

I spoke first and explained to the Admiral that the beliefs of almost all the officers of the Fleet were known for a long time, that I had personally reported them to him in Thessalonica and that he agreed with them at that time.  The officers that vigorously repressed those who some 6 months earlier tried to overthrow the legal Government consider that it is a matter of honor not to get involved today in the repetition of a similar undertaking.  I furthermore personally considered that, independently of my personal beliefs about the regime, my old capacity as Commissioner of the Extraordinary Court-Martial [see: Consequences of the March 1,1935 coup ] didn’t allow me to overlook this important mater of conscience.  Absolutely all the present commanders agreed with my views and some of them vigorously supported them beyond the disciplinary limits. These discussions were taking place at the quarters of the Chief situated on the deck and were followed by the officers standing outside on the deck.  Some of them came closer and were loudly complaining about the events.  Following my request, the Chief declared that he would go to the Naval Base of Salamis, make a telephone call to the Ministry of the Navy to announce our views and asked us to await his return.

 

When the Admiral left, some of the ship commanders and many of the more hot-blooded more junior officers wanted to return to their ships and order the firing of their engines.  As the senor officer present I ordered them to remain onboard the “ELLI”, to calm down and wait the return of the Admiral.  It became more and more difficult to hold them back as time passed and the Admiral was not returning.

 

The Chief of the Fleet returned finally on board the “ELLI” at around 9:00 p.m. and announced that the National Assembly had given the vote of confidence to the new Government and had restored the Kingdom, subject to a future approval by referendum.  General Kondylis, Minister of the Army in the last Government and one of the main figures in the movement that had installed the Hellenic Republic, had taken over as Vice-Roy and Prime Minister.  The Admiral then stressed that the new regime was now legal and if we did not accept this we would be outlaws.  The next day we learned that many of the plenipotentiaries had left the session and the decision of the National Assembly hadn’t been reached with a real majority.  At any rate the new situation was formally legal.

 

There was nothing we could now do, since the Government we felt the obligation to support had abandoned without any reaction her position under the threats of a three-member Committee.

 

The republican regime had been abolished in a way similar to its establishment; at the initiative of some and the silent tolerance of the many.  If the Greek people really believed in the Republic they wouldn’t have allowed so easily a small team of military officers to abolish her. Besides, this was proved by the referendum that followed.

 

We thus accepted the fait accompli.  Those who had imposed this solution were eventually right.  The same result could have been obtained more simply by organizing a referendum.  One must recognize nevertheless that the position of those who had reacted was absolutely justified.

 

As these events developed, the general impression was that the Fleet as a whole had been represented by the three men Committee.  I thus considered for reasons of good conscience that I had to make my position clear on that point.  I therefore submitted a report to the Commander of the Fleet, with the request to transmit it to Ministry of the Navy, in which I was informing that following the events of October 10, 1935, “as Commander of a section of the armed forces I had never authorized anyone to proceed in my name to any action relating to the system of government of our Country. I was informed of these actions while I was in a state of alert, the moment of the vote in the National Assembly.”  At the same time I asked the Chief of the Fleet to release me from my duties.  As things had turned up I was obliged to abandon again the position that I had so actively aimed at.  The Chief insisted that I do not file this report and remain at the Fleet, but I refused.  He then said that he will propose that I be placed for some time in the Direction of Technical Services with the prospect to later return to the Fleet.

 

In self-appointed suspension from duty

 

A few days later I received an order of the Ministry of the Navy placing me in self-appointed suspension. This was apparently the reply to my report.

 

When I took my leave from the Admiral, he expressed the wish “to serve again together under better conditions”. I feel however that he had formed the impression that I had abandoned him in a critical moment. I hope however that with the calm review of the situation that the passage of time allows he would recognize that I couldn’t act differently, if I didn’t wish to change the line of action that I had drawn from my first steps of my naval career.  I have paid for this line of duty dearly, sometimes from one political camp and sometimes from the other.

 

In addition to being placed in self-appointed suspension, as a result of the position I had held, on the occasion of the establishment of the first annual promotion tables drawn by the Supreme Naval Committee I received 2 unfavourable votes out of 7 and this was happening for the first time in my career.  The Captain, General Director of the Ministry of the Navy commented: “why did you create such fuss…I am much more democratic than you and I didn’t say a word”. On the other hand in Egypt during World War II the Minister of the Navy, Roussos, explained to me that I was the most suitable officer to take over as Commander in Chief of the Fleet but since I served as Government Commissioner in the Court-martial that condemned the officers dismissed in 1935, I couldn’t possibly be their commander now that they joined again the ranks! [see: The Greek Navy in the Middle East- The turmoil March 1943- March 1944 ].

 

Following these events a small number of republican officers resigned, some of them however were later recalled as reservists and served many years.”