coast defense

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

Building Coastal Defenses 1938-1939
(source: Vice Admiral G. Mezeviris,"Four Decades in
the Service of the Royal Hellenic Navy", Athens 1971)

 

“I will not express my extreme gratitude to you Commander, as your
services were, indeed, excellent”
.  

                           November 1939, the Secretary of the Ministry of the Navy
                           addressing Gregory Mezeviris taking his leave from the
                           Supreme Coastal Defense Command.


Building coastal defense - Naval fortresses

In August 1938 R.H.N. Captain Gregory Mezeviris is appointed Supreme
Commander of the Supreme Coastal Defense Command (SCDC). The coastal
defense facilities had, simultaneously, the characteristics of combating and
technical units. They were in a phase of extensive development with some of
the projects already completed. Several others, among the more important, were
in full development. In particular, after research studies that lasted several
years, a solution was found for the installation on steep mountain tops of the 30
cm and 20 cm canon towers of the old battleship “LEMNOS”. It constitutes a real
title of honor for the staff of the SCDC and the Hellenic firms that undertook the
execution of the project that, while only disposing off-hand means, they found
such efficient solutions. What was yet missing was the necessary organization of
this new facility that was needed for the operation of the canon towers. The
fortresses, even those that were equipped with weapons, were seriously
understaffed. The few serving officers were lacking in quality, as it was
customary to place in these peripheral facilities those who were not fit for any
other service! The General Staff of the Navy (GSN) had prepared a plan for a
network of observatories and the allocation of the coasts to Naval Defense
Domains Regions. However, everything was still on the drawing board. The
organization of the anti-aircraft defense of the Athens- Piraeus- Naval Station of
Salamis area, also a SCDC responsibility, was only partially completed.

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

“From my previous position at the GSN, I was aware that one of the reasons that
delayed the execution of certain works was the quest for very expensive
perfection by the SCDC technical staff. For this reason, in my first daily order to
my staff I indicated that when applying for expenditures, only what was
absolutely necessary should be requested. I also reminded that, in spite of the
importance of coastal defense, the Navy exists mainly for the Fleet and all
available funds should not be absorbed by shore facilities.

My first action as commander of the SCDC was to proceed to a detailed review of
all works under construction in the country and all shore facilities reporting to
the SCDC. I formed thus a first personal opinion concerning the progress of the
works and the order of priority to be given to the various needs of the
fortresses. I applied a system of continuous reviews during the whole period of
my service at the SCDC and as a result I had to deal with lots of paperwork
accumulating on my desk whenever I was returning to Athens. The acceleration
of the completion of the works and the organization of the coastal defense was
becoming imperative. The international situation was deteriorating and the GSN
was urged to acquire satisfactory coastal defense. I had the chance to dispose
of a small number of excellent technical officers and several civilian civil
engineers working in the Navy payroll. They were all characterized by their
conscientiousness and patriotism. I appealed to these qualities and advised
them not to get into endless discussions and research to find the best possible
solutions but, rather, be satisfied with a good solution. My recommendations
were well taken. The studies started being concluded the one after the other,
auctions were announced and the works were allocated as soon as possible.
Under the conscientious and strict supervision of the SCDC staff and thanks to
the good work done by the contractors, delivery times were respected and
sometimes shortened. The national industry succeeded in building several
missing pieces of equipment for which long expected offers from abroad were
not coming.

Just two months had elapsed since I assumed my duties and while the SCDC
organization was still primitive, the GSN ordered joint maneuvers of the Saronic
Gulf fortresses with the Fleet. I was given the command of the maneuvers and
of the participating air, army and naval forces (submarines and small surface
ships).   My very active chief of staff, Commander Constas, dealt with the
organization of the fortresses. I personally organized all the other tasks for the
preparation of the maneuvers and issued the entire relative numerous orders.
The fortresses were manned with personnel from all naval schools who
reported to the fortresses and underwent special training, just a few days
before the maneuvers. The idea for such maneuvers was very premature and
many problems had to be resolved to avoid a major failure and being covered by
ridicule.  With the specialty acquired by us Greeks to find off-hand solutions, we
succeeded in overcoming the difficulties. We didn’t reach perfection, but there
was no major anomaly. The evaluation made by the Chief of the Fleet was
especially positive for SCDC, the serious preparation of the maneuvers and the
issuance of comprehensive orders were praised.

The joint maneuvers of the fortresses made me realize in practice, the multitude
of deficiencies still remaining in the organization of the SCDC. Taking advantage
of the favorable impression made at the Navy Command, I tried to at least
partially complement the manning of the staff and secure its dwelling. Whatever
I requested was realized with great delay in April 1939, under the pressure of
external events. My proposal to recall from reserve and use officers dismissed
after the failed coup d’état of 1935, met strong reaction. Finally, only few officers
and non-commissioned officers dismissed from the ranks for other reasons
were recalled to duty. I considered necessary the fortresses that had thus been
manned to become combating units and their personnel to be trained in its war
duties. In parallel, measures were taken to draw up Battle Manuals, mobilization
instructions, etc., as those kept in war ships. To give the good example, I
personally drew up the Battle Manual of the largest fortress of the Saronic Gulf
and I sent copies of it to the other fortresses to be used as template.

Since the beginning of 1939, I had undertaken the responsibility to complete the
network of observatories. At year end, all installations and transmissions means
were operational. In addition, the construction of a new fortress of the Evoikos
Gulf that had started in 1939 and the planned anti-aircraft defence of the Athens
area were completed in that same year. The invasion of Albania by the Italians in
April 1939 had a decisive impact on the development of the. It triggered the
order for urgent preparation for combat action of all weapons of the fortresses
of the Saronic Gulf and Araxos and the immediate mobilization of the anti-aircraft
defense.

In the evening of Good Friday of 1939, the Chief of the General Staff of the Navy
(GSN) gave the relative orders. I replied that all that was humanly possible will
be done. I reminded him my repeated requests of the past months for the
completion of the remaining deficiencies and informed him that, according to
the terms of the contracts with the contractors, the trial shots of the fortresses
were planned for after three months. The Chief of the GSN, with the dynamism
that characterized him, removed all existing obstacles at that moment. I was
given full authority and freedom of action. An important line of credit was
opened in my name to deal with the immediate needs. The operation of the
Schools was interrupted, the shore facilities were stripped of their staff,
personnel was moved from the Fleet and as a result an important number of
officers and men were added to my command.

From the reception of the order, the staff at the SCDC command worked with
unparallel enthusiasm for the whole period of the Easter holidays till late at
night. Especially moving was the attitude of the civil engineer employees, which
had no ties with the traditions of the Navy. In the morning of Good Saturday, I
convoked the managers of the two firms that had contracted the installation of
the towers in Aigina and Araxos.  Until that moment, at any delay of the
contractual deadlines, we were threatening with penalties and were exchanging
long correspondence. I then used another approach. I no more demanded the
respect of the deadlines but rather their shortening. I was not addressing
contractors that were pursuing commercial profit; I was appealing to Greek
patriots. My appeal was successful. During May 1939 the trial shots of the
fortresses’ towers were successfully made, the results honoring the Hellenic
Industry.

Several other matters, pending since the creation of the SCDC, were solved in a
few weeks. The more serious among them, was the installation of an electric
power generator for the movement of the 30 cm towers. The construction of a
tunnel for the installation of the generator had already started. However,
because the machinery was not expected to arrive from abroad any time soon,
there was no possibility to operate the generator in the next twelve months. It
was therefore decided to build an electric power generator with off-hand means
coming from naval facilities. Three identical generators stripped from ships,
positioned in parallel, could give the needed power. They were installed in a
wooden barrack next to a water tank for the cooling of the generators, all
cleverly concealed behind existing trees. At the time of the trial shot, the power
generator was operational. I closely followed the pace of work and method used
by the naval staff that undertook to strip from the ships these heavy pieces of
equipment and transport them to a high mountain top of the island of Aigina. I
couldn’t find enough good words to praise these unknown workers of our
national defense. With similar off-hand means and in an unbelievably short time,
the mobilization of the anti-aircraft defense was completed under the monitoring
of the head of that command, the very active Lieutenant Commander
Hatziconstantis.

On the international front, the clouds of war dissipated provisionally. The
measures taken were relaxed, but their beneficial effects for the SCDC were to
remain. The fortresses had sufficient number of officers and men for their peace
time organization. The Naval Defense Areas had Captain as commanders
assisted by a few officers. Central Command was opening credit lines without
major difficulties not only for technical projects but also for the needed
personnel dwellings. From the summer of 1939 my attention was therefore
concentrated to the organization of the SCDC that had to become a fighting
Command. Till the end of autumn, following the necessary training, almost all
fortresses had executed real shots.

As I realized, following a general review of all SCDC facilities, the last six months
progress had exceeded all forecasts. Full of life facilities were organized with
our Navy personnel getting ready to defend our Country, where till a few months
earlier only lifeless semi-finished equipment was standing on inhospitable
coasts. The appearance of the Araxos Fortress with its numerous and diverse
facilities was especially flattering for our national pride. A strong well-organized
military corps had succeeded a disorderly mob of ragged sailors.

The declaration of the Second World War didn’t find the unprepared. An off-hand
solution was even found for the fire directing instruments under construction
abroad that were not delivered in time. There was no other major deficiency. All
the defense facilities, the fortresses, the anti-aircraft defense and the
observatories were ready to operate under war conditions in a few days from
mobilization.

In September 1939, I was informed that I was destined to assume in November of
that same year the position of Supreme Destroyer Commander. Before leaving
the SCDC, I made the recommendation to the Secretary of State for the Navy to
award the medal of military value to certain of my collaborators serving the
SCDC since its creation and among them to the tireless Commander
Athanassopoulos who was in danger of loosing his sight as a result of his
intense office work. I also recommended the awarding of moral rewards to the
civil engineer employees of the SCDC and to a number of employees, of the
contracting firms that had undertaken the main projects, who had shown
exceptional competence and had served the national interest over and above
any material profit. The Secretary agreed but, in spite of my repeated reminders,
no action was taken. As I was later informed, the Secretary was of the opinion
that in order to avoid complaints in case medals were awarded as proposed, all
senior staff should also be decorated! Under these conditions it was surely
better not to award any medals at all.

I witnessed another rather amusing scene with the Secretary of State for the
Navy. In his office there was a model order of the day typically used to express
his extreme gratification to all Directors, without exception, transferred from the
Ministry Services. As I was taking my leave to assume my new duties at the
Fleet, the Secretary said:
“I will not express my extreme gratitude to you
Commander, as your services were, indeed, excellent”
.  I sincerely expressed my
gratitude for this… honorable distinction and I assured him that I fully realized
and appreciated its deeper meaning. It is a fact that in my case the Secretary was
right, because he was addressing a man who had learned from life experience
to value only the satisfaction that gives the feeling of executing one’s duty. He
was however wrong not to realize that for the younger, who still entertained the
illusionary dreams of their youth, a real distinction was a tonic to their zeal.