Balkan Wars Part 2

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

Balkan Wars 1912- 1913

Days Of Glory- Part 2

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

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

“After the naval battle of Elli [see: The Balkan Wars- Days of Glory Part 1], the enemy forces developed greater action aiming mainly at the harassment of our destroyers that were patrolling in front the Dardanelles Straits.  In one such sortie, on December 9, 1912, some skirmishes took place that ended with the appearance of the battleship “AVEROF” followed in the distance by the old battleships [“PSARA”, “SPETSAI” and “HYDRA”].   In a similar case, on December 22, 1912, the Chief of the Fleet Admiral P. Kountouriotis had probably estimated that he was about to give a battle with the main enemy force and he sent the following signal: “I have the conviction that, with the help of God, we will have the perfect victory, that you will appear worthy descendants of the heroes of 1821 [the Greek War of Independence], sailing as lions, because today’s battle will not only decide the victory of Greece’s freedom, but of the whole Hellenism’s.”

From the drafting of this signal it appears that the Admiral was not fully satisfied from the naval battle of December 3, 1912, and with his sound strategic mind was looking for a perfect victory.

 

The bold action of the Turkish light cruiser “HAMIDIEH”

 

The escape from the Dardanelles Straits of the enemy light cruiser “HAMIDIEH” on the night of January 1, 1913, without being noticed by our destroyers that were patrolling and the ensuing destruction of our auxiliary light cruiser “MACEDONIA” anchored in the port of Syros.  As it was later known, the main objective of the “HAMIDIEH” sortie was the execution of a specific mission in Albania.  The operation against “MACEDONIA” was either symptomatic or was aiming at another much more serious objective.  Our opponent knowing the character of the Greek Admiral may have thought that he wouldn’t leave unpunished the action of the enemy light cruiser and would rush with the b/s “AVEROF” to meet him.  That way the Turkish Fleet would have had an excellent opportunity to attack the remaining units or if these units were accompanying the b/s “AVEROF” our advanced Base of Moudros Bay on the island of Lemnos and the ships that would be present for repairs or re-supply.  However, if those were the intentions of the enemy, they haven’t materialized.  As a matter of fact the order was given from Athens to the b/s “AVEROF” and the Fleet to sail and chase the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH”. The Admiral however who disposed sufficient authority to impose his opinion to his superiors did not execute this order that could jeopardize the whole war effort!

 

This first bold and well-aimed operation of an enemy ship created of course amazement.  The unoccupied at the rear took this opportunity to criticize the officers that let the “HAMIDIEH” escape.  However for those knowledgeable in naval matters, at least for those who haven’t spent their whole careers in Offices, this event was not exceptional.  In theory, the installation of a night patrol in some area presupposes the disposition of a certain number of ships that is function of visibility, the speed that allow the available combustibles, sea conditions and finally the speed of the enemy ship.  In reality, even if the needed number of patrol ships is available, an enemy that knows how to take advantage of the geographical configuration and the light conditions may still escape, this fact not necessarily meaning negligence of the patrolling ships.   We have also reached such conclusions in recent years with the maneuvers of our Fleet, when we were applying the teachings of the Naval School of War, based on the experience of big foreign Navies.

 

The Naval battle of Lemnos – January 5, 1913

 

It was a good thing that the negative impressions that left the actions of the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH” were quickly reversed by a good day, January 5, 1913, the day of the naval battle of Lemnos.

 

That day, the opponent’s movements showed that he was determined this time to give a real battle.  Maybe he hoped to take us by surprise because soon after leaving our advanced Base we came upon the enemy ships.  I cannot exclude that he was also counting that part of our forces would be occupied with chasing the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH”. And that was indeed the case with 4 destroyers that were normally patrolling the Chios- Psara Straits. Due to the absence for repairs of some ships, our light forces were limited and quite inferior to the enemy’s.

 

In that second naval battle, it became apparent that the wish of our personnel was the battle to take such shape that would allow obtaining final results.  From that point of view, those serving on the b/s “AVEROF” were again much happier. “AVEROF” kept the enemy under fire for more than 3 hours and succeeded many hits against his 2 best battleships. This was made clear later, but also during the battle by the numerous fires that ignited on the enemy ships.

The battleship "PSARA". Photograph A. Gaziadis

The old battleships participated only in the first phase of the battle, for about thirty minutes.  Those serving on the b/s “PSARA” had the satisfaction to ascertain at least one good strike on the enemy light cruiser “MESSUDIEH”, target of the b/s “HYDRA” and “PSARA”.  Because the guns of the old battleships were shooting independently, the impression was given to us standing near the aft gun turret of the b/s “PSARA” that the hit was due to this turret.  All men at the stern cheered and with difficulty we could retain those serving under the deck from coming up to look at the results of the explosion on the enemy ship. 

 

With the exception of this successful hit, those from us serving on the old battleships were realizing with sorrow that we were not participating in the second phase of the battle.  Many discussions took place; several frictions were caused among officers that had different opinions and for a long time much ink was used in relation to the activity of the 3 battleships Squadron.   The fact is that the Admiral who was impatient ordered the Squadron by wireless to sail at top speed to meet him.  The signal however was not received by the b/s “SPETSAI”, the Squadron flagship, the wireless being dismantled for repair because in the previous battle it had stopped operating with the gunfire!  One of the strange things of that war!  One thing I know for sure: I was on the bridge and have still a vivid recollection of Captain Andrea Miaoulis filled with indignation.  This brave sailor, nonchalant in his usual appearances but fierce in battle, addressed the officers present and said: “I think I should go out of the line”.  He ordered change of course and full speed till he reached the lateral line of the b/s “SPETSAI” who had the lead, then the flagship changed course took-up position in front of the b/s “PSARA” in the same course as her.  The b/s “PSARA” reduced speed and took again her normal position at the end of the line.  It was too late however for the Squadron to catch up with the departing enemy.

 

In this second battle the results of the experience acquired in the first were apparent.  The fire of the b/s “AVEROF” was very satisfactory and the equipment functioned without serious anomalies.  We couldn’t expect the same results from the old battleships because their equipment wasn’t adequate for acceptable shooting.  But even on these old ships battle organization had made serious improvements. One case of real war had proved sufficient to mend many peacetime shortcomings.  The destroyers had not been active in this naval battle.  The enemy battleships had suffered damages and had come to a situation offering to our destroyers the opportunity for a daytime torpedo attack. However the enemy light forces outdid by large our own and attacking the battleships would have been very difficult and risky.

 

From a confidential order of the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet dated January 13, 1913, comes to light that the non-active participation of our destroyers in the two battles had come to his attention.  The instructions given by this order do not differ significantly from newer perceptions.  The Admiral retains for himself the right to order attack but delegates the initiative of action in case of destruction of the means of communication or in case of torpedo attack.  Not trusting wireless communication arranges once more the destroyers’ position at optical signaling distance from his flagship, i.e. at a shorter distance from the one later considered as optimum.

 

The objective of the enemy destruction set by the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet had not been reached but the tough lesson given was final because the enemy never again dared contest our sea supremacy.  The naval battle of Lemnos was followed by a period of relative calm.  Our destroyers went on with their missions and continued patrolling in front of the Dardanelles Straits.  On our battleships, after the enthusiasms were over, life became boring because they continuously stayed at anchor in the advanced base of Moudros Bay.

 

Executive Officer on the torpedo boat “NIKOPOLIS”

Right then, at that opportune moment, a common desire for all young officers materialized for me. The Commander of the b/s “PSARA” informed me that, in spite his insistent objections because he would be missing my services, the Admiral assigned me as Executive Officer of the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” [previously Turkish t/b “ANTALIA” captured in Preveza].   When leaving the b/s “PSARA” the manifestations of the petty officers, my close collaborators as officer of the General Supervision of the ship, moved me. When the old boatswain wished me farewell in the name of his colleagues, he said to me: “Ensign, you were strict but fair and for every matter we knew who to address ourselves to”.  These words spoken by an old non-executive officer who had minimum formal education, but was an excellent sailor and model of conscientiousness and hard work, were deeply imprinted in my memory and I always had them in mind in my whole career.  

The torpedo boat "NIKOPOLIS", ex-Turkish "ANTALIA"

Photograph A.Gaziadis

Towards the end of January 1913, I went to the Naval Base of Salamis to take over my new position on the t/b “NIKOPOLIS”.  A few days earlier N.Votsis, the ex-Commander of the torpedo boat 11 that had sunk the small Turkish battleship “FETHI BULEND” in the port of Thessalonica, had taken over as Comander.  The Commander, who had become a legendary figure, was one of the attractions of my new assignment.  From my first contact I realized that he wasn’t resting on his own laurels but was aiming at new ones.  Among other targets, he was planning to repeat the Thessalonica operation in Smyrna, where the old battleship “MUIN-I-ZAFFER” was anchored.  He had to abandon this project following intelligence that barriers of barges and chains protected the ship.

The t/b “NIKOPOLIS” after light repairs was ready to sail. However Central Command considered that his presence in the Saronic Gulf was necessary, after the new appearance in the Mediterranean of the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH” coming from the Red Sea.  In contrast with the sang-froid that characterized the actions of the Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet, the new appearance of the enemy cruiser caused a comic panic among the Athenians who were afraid that he would bombard the capital.  The Press advised the people not to worry for the safety of their city because the hero of Thessalonica was vigilant!   Light gun batteries were installed and the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” and submarine “DOLPHIN” were ordered to patrol.  This particular case was used after many years, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, as a very persuasive argument against those that expressed objections to the serious fortification of the vital sea regions of our Country [see: Building Coastal Defenses 1938- 1939].

 

The t/b “NIKOPOLIS” has indeed executed a number of night patrols but the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH” didn’t make an appearance having probably more important missions to execute, than risk near the Naval Base of Salamis, which she must have considered, better guarded.  At the same time, the light cruiser’s presence imposed sending a naval force near the shores of Epirus and Albania, where important troop transports were taking place, among which the transport of the Serb Army from Thessalonica.  For this reason the b/s “PSARA” and 3 destroyers were dispatched.  One of the destroyers that was in need of repairs, was replaced by the t/b “NIKOPOLIS”, placed under the orders of the “PSARA”.  On our way to the Ionian Sea we approached the city of Patras and Lefkas Island were our Commander was received as a hero with manifestations that maybe went beyond the limits of seriousness.

 

During a day patrol of the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” near the Albanian shore, I was ordered to inspect an Austrian cargo ship that was suspected as carrying coal to supply the enemy light cruiser.  The captain of the cargo did not obey to the repeated international signals and wheezes of the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” to stop.  My commander didn’t shy at the Austrian flag and started shooting bullets with the small machine gun in front of the bow of the cargo ship, obliging it thus to stop and reverse.  I climbed on the cargo ship and asked the captain why didn’t he stop; he said to me with an air of contempt: “How can I see such a small ship”, to get the reply: “It was just as well that you heard the shots”. Our inspection didn’t show anything suspicious.

 

On the morning of February 27, 1913 the light cruiser “HAMIDIEH” appeared near the Albanian shores and headed to San Giovanni where several Greek troops transport ships were debarking the Serb Army. She attacked the ships and fired a large number of shells causing damages and casualties, especially among the Serbs.  The only counteraction was the firing by two mountain guns with which the Serbs had armed the steamship “TRIFILLIA”.  That was sufficient for the Turkish cruiser to depart to an unknown destination, without completing her operation.

 

The destroyer “LONGHI” patrolling in the area detected the “HAMIDIEH” on her way to San Giovanni, approached her for identification but the two ships avoided taking any further action.  The “LONGHI” didn’t continue shadowing the cruiser but sailed south to be able to communicate by wireless with b/s “PSARA” and lost contact.  The b/s “PSARA” left immediately Corfu accompanied by the destroyer “AETOS” and the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” but as they had no other reports on the movements of the “HAMIDIEH”, they didn’t find her.   It was much debated whether the destroyer’s commander had rightly interrupted shadowing the “HAMIDIEH”.  He must have found himself in a very difficult situation to decide what to do.  If he continued keeping contact without having the possibility to communicate with the b/s “PSARA”, he would have been obliged to try to sink the cruiser by torpedo attack.  However, a daytime torpedo attack by a single destroyer against a cruiser having whole combat value was condemned to fail.  He should have continued shadowing until nightfall and attack protected by darkness; by that time however he would have risked to run out of fuel.  With the composition of that particular Squadron set to give chase to “HAMIDIEH”, with the b/s “PSARA” having a much lower speed and with the primitive communication means of that time, even if the enemy cruiser was detected by the patrolling destroyer I consider that there were very slim chances of on-time intervention of the main force.  What would have been right was to protect these important troop transports with the b/s “PSARA”. In such a case the cruiser wouldn’t have operated with impunity in San Giovanni.  It appears however that intelligence on the movements of the enemy ship were obscure and the orders coming from Central Command were contradictory and did not allow the Squadron Commander to take the right decisions.  Following this episode the b/s “PSARA” was ordered to escort military transports in the Ionian Sea.  These escorts continued in March 1913 with the participation of the t/b “NIKOPOLIS”.

 

Towards the end of March 1913, the t/b “NIKOPOLIS” returned to the Naval Base of Salamis for a more serious overhaul, happily in a period that the naval operations of Balkan War I had practically seized.”