Balkan Wars Part 1

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

Balkan Wars 1912- 1913

Days Of Glory- Part 1

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

 

 “With the help of God, the wishes of our King and in the name of Justice, I sail with fierce impetus and with the conviction of victory against the enemies of our Nation”   

                                               December 3, 1912, Admiral P. Kountouriotis Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

“My personal remarks on the naval operations of the Greek- Turkish war are remarks of a young officer with only two years experience and may not have important value. Recollecting however ex-post these events in the light of the experienced I have acquired since, I realize that what I had then sensed was close to reality.

 

As far as equipment is concerned, the balance of power weighted without doubt in favor of our adversary.  While the battleship “AVEROF” was a modern ship, a precious acquisition for that period, the three old battleships [“HYDRA”, “SPETSAI” and “PSARA”] were of an old experimental type, equipped with old-fashioned artillery and primitive means of fire direction and were running the risk of sinking by a single smashing blow.

 

The acquisition of four 1,000 tons patrol destroyers [“AETOS”, “LEON”, “PANTHER” and “IERAX”] that had arrived in Greece without torpedoes, significantly strengthened our light forces. However these destroyers would have been worthless if the two enemy cruisers had been correctly utilized.

 

Training on the old battleships was insufficient [see “First steps in the Navy”] and for several members of the crews the first time they had taken part in the execution of real fire was during the naval battles. The modern equipment of the b/s “AVEROF” was much more adequate for the application of the new methods that were presented by the British Mission. But even on this battleship training was far from perfect and for that reason in the second battle, after the experience gained at the first, the ship’s firing was more efficient.

 

The personnel of the light ships showed excellent naval qualities that allowed the continuation of patrols off the Dardanelles Straits under extremely adverse winter conditions and with no respite.  The action of the torpedo boats would have been even more important, had they had training opportunities in torpedo attacks. Such opportunities were given to our destroyers in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II.

 

What brought Victory were the moral powers, the inherent abilities of the Greek to adapt and the naval virtues of our seamen.

 

The personality of the Chief of the Fleet, Admiral P. Kountouriotis

 

Decisive influence for Victory had the successful choice of Admiral Pavlos Kountoutiotis as Chief of the Fleet. While he lacked staff training, was endowed by nature with the qualities of a true leader and was applying by instinct sound war principles.  Having set as his objective the destruction of the opponent, he did all within his power to succeed in his endeavor.  Intrepid in the face of the enemy, often audacious, he very well knew how to assume responsibilities and how to raise his stature vis-à-vis Central Command, when necessary.  He enjoyed complete respect and absolute estimation from his subordinates, who new very well at the same time that he wasn’t disposed to tolerate any discussion on his orders and that he would harshly punish any faint-heartedness.

 

The technical training of most of the officers was insufficient; this shortcoming was however more than off-set by their high spirit and their decisiveness for victory at any cost.  Similar qualities characterized our crews.  They had complete faith to their superiors, defied dangers, endured hardships, were driven by extreme enthusiasm and were persuaded for Victory.

 

I don’t wish to underrate the opponent, whose bravery at least in land war has always been well-known.  From his overall action however one can deduct that, with the only exception of the sortie of the cruiser “HAMIDIEH”, they were lacking decisiveness and were professionally inferior to us. 

 

My views on these matters may seem contrary to some historical publications that present the two opponents at a much higher professional level.  I believe however that pointing-out shortcomings, in parallel with achievements, is quite useful in drawing conclusions for the future.

 

War preparations on the b/s “PSARA”

 The Battleship "PSARA"

The b/s “PSARA”, along with most ships of the Aegean Fleet, had arrived at Phaleron Bay in the eve of the declaration of war. At Phaleron the mobilization of personnel and supplies were completed and the ships were prepared for combat. During that period, everyone executed his job with enthusiasm and tireless energy and we all tried by our own initiative to cover the training gaps in peace time, when we didn’t have to face real conditions.  Once more, the Greek ingenuity prevailed and with off-hand solutions many situations were settled. It’s worthwhile mentioning some characteristic scenes, almost comic, that today would appear inconceivable:

 

In modern Navies, imposed ship actions during mobilization and war periods are described in detail in Mobilization Files and in Battle Books. In peace-time periods moreover, there are frequent drills for application of these measures.  In the contrary, during those periods these books were unknown and there was only one book of Division of personnel to the various positions containing in summary some general instructions. 

 

When, as officer of the General Supervision of the ship, I was entrusted with the relative preparations without any further instructions, I could only rely on my common sense and my very small experience.  In executing this assignment I unexpectedly came into conflict with some very strange beliefs of the Commander and, at some point, I even had to face for the first time his anger.  On these old battleships there were several inflammable materials and wooden constructions that had to be transported ashore.  For that reason a small ship had accosted the b/s “PSARA”, on which were loaded the materials that according to my judgment were not necessary in war period. Among these items were the skylights of the roofs of the Commander and the officers’ apartments that were being replaced by steel plates. Just when the Commander’s skylight was being removed, as soon as he realized what was going on he came up to the deck, fiercely reprimanded me for touching his apartment and ordered his skylight to remain in place.  It was not however the only occasion that in the execution of my assignments I dissatisfied unwillingly this brave seaman and real gentleman.

 

I had ordered to place in position the special plates used to provisionally shut wholes in the ship’s bilge. These plates that had never been tested were thus placed into position with their chains attached, as was required in war period.  Unfortunately, my Commander became aware of this too and being superstitious ordered the special plates to be stored in the warehouse, considering my preventing action a bad omen.  A few days later we had to use these repair plates, not during a battle but when while anchoring the anchor tore the bilge because of the anchor winch malfunctioning.

 

For similar reasons we faced the outright refusal of the Commander, when the ship’s doctor and I asked his permission to prepare under the battleship’s deck a first aid station for the injured in battle.  In this case the Commander proved right ex-post, thanks to the miss hits of our opponent during the battles.  These bright people with so many qualities had also their superstitions and weaknesses.

 

Similar beliefs were also prevailing concerning the continuation of our incomplete training during the war period.  The Commander avoided giving his approval for at anchor drills, not to tire the crew.  However with the then prevailing conditions, service on the battleships was not at all tiring and a measured occupation of the crew in drills and works would have contributed keeping up war spirits and discipline.  Because of insufficient ammunitions, the only opportunities we had for executing fire were during the battles.  Those who have collaborated with the British Fleet during World War II know how intensive was training on war ships, when they weren’t busy in war missions.

 

Our shortcomings, which with another opponent could have proved fatal, had no effect on the personnel moral.  One was the prevailing central idea from the chief to the last sailor: As continuators of glorious traditions we were about to face the age-long enemy, for the manifold time in the history of our Nation, we had the obligation to win and we would win.  With these thoughts we sailed from Phaleron Bay on October 5, 1912

 

October 5,1912, The R.H.N. Fleet sails from Phaleron Bay 

[Photo by A.Gaxiadis from "The Balkan Wars" Naval Museum of Greece, 2005]

The first war missions

 

The first war mission was the uneventful occupation of the island of Lemnos and in particular Moudros Bay that was to be used as advanced Naval Base by our Fleet. In a period that the airplane weapon was still unknown, there could be no better choice for advanced Base. Setting base at Moudros Bay was by itself a first important step for dominating the Aegean Sea. After Lemnos, the b/s “PSARA” and our other ships liberated the remaining North Aegean islands under Turkish occupation.

 

During one of these missions the b/s “PSARA” was ordered to inspect an Austrian steamship heading for the Dardanelles Straits.  I was part of the landing force that was sent to the Austrian ship and was present in a moving incident:  As soon as our boat accosted the steamship, a man in civilian dress came running down the ladder wearing a Turkish fez that he threw away as he stepped on the boat and exclaimed: “Thank God, I’m free!”  He was a Greek Army officer serving at the Greek Consulate of Thessalonica, responsible for the Greek national organizations operating there, who had illegally boarded the Austrian steamship hoping to escape in case of inspection by a Greek war ship.  He then climbed back on the steamship followed by us and pointed-out Turkish officers in civilian dress who had also boarded in Thessalonica.  They admitted their status and were taken prisoners.  During this inspection a British passenger that was taking photos of our inspection asked me my home address. You can imagine how surprised my family was when they received my photo from London!

1912, Ensign Mezeviris inspecting Austrian steamship 

1912, Landing force from b/s "PSARA" inspecting Austrian steamship

The first impressive operation by a Greek war ship that caused unimaginable enthusiasm in the Fleet was the sinking inside the Thessalonica harbor of the small Turkish battleship “FETHI BULEND” by the torpedo boat 11 that entered the port by night. Although the enemy ship was disarmed, as we learned later, the operation kept its value because the entrance of the Thermaikos Gulf had a good for that period shore defense and was protected by minefield.  For this first exploit exceptional honors were granted to its commander Lieutenant N. Votsis, who was promoted by absolute choice to the higher rank.  As far as this last measure is concerned, a measure again repeated during World War II, I don’t think that was to the benefit of the future career of the honored very able officer.  It created unhealthy for the internal peace of the Navy discontent among his colleagues that were passed-over, many of which were also very able with an excellent war service record, but were not given a similar opportunity.

 

The battleship sorties continued with the occupation of the island of Lesvos and the protection of the landing at Alexandroupolis of the Bulgarian Army that was transported from Thessalonica.  Then, the Admiral executed a demonstration along the shore of the Gallipolis Peninsula. He repeated these provocative movements of the Fleet in new sorties, but he did not succeed in attracting the enemy ships. Nevertheless, these actions were received with enthusiasm by the personnel and contributed to keep-up high spirits.  They were particularly pleasant to those serving on the battleships that had tired from their long wait in the Moudros Bay base and were jealous of their colleagues on the destroyers assigned to patrol the Dardanelles Straits, a very tiring but interesting life of true seamen.

 

The Naval Battle of Elli

 

When the sun rose on December 3, 1912, the first great day of modern Hellenic Navy was illuminated.  The main force of the R.H.N. Fleet was sailing between the island of Imbros and Gallipoli Peninsula.  Until that day, our hopes to encounter the enemy had been dissipated.  Officers and crews were amused by related satiric poems of an Ensign circulating in the Fleet.  At sunrise, a large number of ship smokes appeared on the horizon towards the Dardanelles Straits and just after the hoisting of the flag the trumpets sounded the joyful announcement of battle mobilization.

 

As ordered by my Commander, I went to gun turrets and in the middle of hails I read to the crews the historical signal of the Admiral:

 

“With the help of God, the wishes of our King and in the name of Justice, I sail with fierce impetus and with the conviction of victory against the enemies of our Nation” 

 

During the battle, my duty as safety officer was to lead the battle corps in fire extinguishing, damage repairs, etc.  However, such occasion didn’t occur at the two battles that followed.  Thus, I was able to follow the evolution of the battle from the deck, even if I had frequently to go under deck to inspect the teams working there with no officer supervision.

 

I still vividly recall the scene with the b/s “AVEROF” sailing at full speed, separating from the remaining ships to closely chase the enemy Fleet under the fire of the shore defense posts of the Dardanelles Straits.  At some point, in spite of the falling shells that raised water jets that concealed her, the b/s “AVEROF” appeared encircled from all sides.  On the old battleships we were watching with anguish the ship in danger, unable to offer any help for lack of sufficient speed.  When danger receded and the b/s “AVEROF” came out of this difficult situation with minor damages only, there was a general sentiment of relief and on all the ships frenzied enthusiasm prevailed.

 

As it was later analyzed, this boldly action did not bring the anticipated result of fatal blow to the enemy, especially because the critical moment the b/s “AVEROF” reduced significantly her speed due to overheating of the plastic shutters of her guns.  However the enemy departure to the safety of their base, in spite of being in particularly favorable for them position and having suffered rather minor damages, constituted a great moral victory for the Greek Admiral.

 

The battle disposition of the four patrol destroyers at 1.000 meters from the battleships and at the opposite side of the enemy risking from the long shots of the enemy shells seemed to me curious, in spite of my then lack of experience.  The main destination in battle of these ships not disposing torpedoes was to repulse attacks by light enemy ships against our main force.   According to modern perceptions, their right positioning in battle would have been a few miles ahead of the battleships’ bow and on their fighting side.  Similar should have been the position of the destroyers equipped with torpedoes whose objective was to attack and eventually repulse the main force of the enemy.  At that time it had been said that the patrol destroyers had been positioned in such a way in order to use their quick-firing arms against the enemy battleships, if the battle range descended under the limits of their efficient firing range.  Most probably however the Admiral wished to have all his ships concentrated under his immediate orders and at optical signal contact distance, as he didn’t trust wireless communication of that period.

 

Some events that took place on the b/s “PSARA” are characteristic of that War:

 

The officer in charge of a gun turret, considering that the inactivity during the battle of his men manning the quick-firing arms was detrimental to their moral, ordered to open fire without giving any target element from a distance much further than the firing range of the guns. When I made him a relative remark I got back the answer: “let them fire as they wish, provided they shoot”.  After wasting quite a few shells that were falling in between the two sides, the officer decided to order to stop fire.  The re-supply of ammunitions for these guns from the magazines was manual and was executed by a team of men from the galley under the orders of a civilian cook of athletic build!  The speed of re-supply was such that in spite the important number of shells used, when firing stop the deck was full of unused ammunition.  It was immediately ordered to return these shells to the magazines, as they presented unnecessary risk.

 

At a battle intermission, I came out on the deck and discovered that the men manning the stern ammunition magazines had abandoned their post, had climbed from the internal ladder of the aft mast to the parapet and were observing the evolution of the battle cheering and waiving their hats each time they thought an enemy ship was hit.  It was hard for me to persuade these enthusiastic men to return to their positions.

 

The old battleships that came out of the battle unharmed, some hours later run a serious risk from a friendly torpedo that escaped from the b/s “AVEROF” and passed at a short distance from the battleships line.”