Italian attack-Part A

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The Italian attack - New Days of glory Part A:

October - November 1940
(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

The first day of the War

 

“At around 4:00 o’clock in the morning of October 28, 1940, I was informed by the Director of the Radio-Telegraphy Service of the Navy (D.R.Y.N.) that Italy had delivered an ultimatum expiring at 6:00 a.m., the conditions of which were rejected by the Greek Government. At the expiration of the ultimatum Greece would therefore be in a state of war. I asked the Director of D.R.Y.N. to notify by wireless the destroyer “KING GEORGE” to sent a boat for me and I immediately rushed from Athens to the Gulf of Elefsis, where the destroyer fleet was anchored. Several ship commanders were waiting on the docks to be carried to their ships but, due to the initial confusion, the telegram had not reached the ship. Time passed by, the day was approaching and it was natural to expect at dawn massive air attacks against Athens, the Naval Port of Salamis and the Gulf of Elefsis, the base of operations of the R.H.N. Fleet. We finally found a small fishing boat that notified the destroyer closer to the coast to send a boat for us.

 

When I finally boarded the “KING GEORGE” it was already past the ultimatum expiration time. The ships were not aware of the news and because the flagship had not arrived, I was obliged to order the first combat measures to be taken by the ships at the Gulf of Elefsis. By urgent message I asked all ships to arm their anti-aircraft weapons, to be in a state of strict vigilance for air attacks and also ordered all permits revoked and engines turned-on. Although several hours went by before receiving the official announcement of the war declaration from the Ministry of the Navy, it was not difficult for the ships’ crews to realize what was all this about as soon as they received my orders…

 

While being busy with the issuance of these orders, I was at the same time trying to read the expression on the faces of the personnel of the “KING GEORGE” to understand the impression made to them by the news. They were not in a state of frenetic enthusiasm, as they were during the Balkan wars, they absolutely realized the seriousness of the situation and that it was quite possible, because of the enemy’s supremacy, to face in the near future a national disaster. At the same time I could distinguish on their faces their steadfast decision to not spare any sacrifice for the honor of our flag. Proof of this decision was the speed at which all the orders were executed.

 

Since sunrise tenths of binoculars were searching the horizon as we were expecting that, at any time, the so much advertised Italian air force would unleash against us hundreds of aircrafts in successive waves. The powerless anti-aircraft machine guns of our destroyers were ready to start fire in case of low altitude attack. The anti-aircraft batteries on shore were responsible for the protection of our Fleet from high altitude attacks. The anti-aircraft training of our ships was insufficient, we would have to gain experience in real war conditions, assuming that the initial attacks wouldn’t be fatal.

 

From our fighters air force we could expect limited protection, since the few available aircrafts were naturally expected to be earmarked to military operations.  The most serious problem that preoccupied us from the first days of the war was the lack of sufficient ammunitions for our anti-aircraft weapons. According to standing orders to the war ships, these ammunitions were to be used sparingly. Since the outbreak of the war, these orders became even stricter. It was ordered not to open fire for any reason whatsoever, before the enemy planes came into shooting range.  

 

Starting at 8:00 a.m. of October 28, 1940, anti-aircraft alarm signals were given from Athens. The first enemy planes were seen over the naval base of the Fleet at around 9:00 a.m., being chased by our own. An air-fight was taking place over the Aigaleo Mountain and the local anti-aircraft battery joined the action. At some point an aircraft flew over the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, received fire and flew away. It is possible that it was taking pictures of the naval base. Other ships opened fire on aircrafts that were flying at relatively high altitudes and I had to remind the orders to sparingly use ammunitions. Alarms were repeated several times that day but there was no attack on the war ships. From that point of view the first day of the war was rather appeasing for the R.H.N. Fleet. We could not then forecast that, even in the days to come, there would be no reason of great anxiety …

 

The Chief of the R.H.N. Fleet called me on the flagship at noon of the first day of the war and ordered me to lead the destroyers and some of the mine-layers to lay the mine fields, in application of the action plan that I had designed following a previous order. He also informed me of the wish of the General Staff of the Navy to start the mine laying on that same day if possible. I replied that the operation will start as soon as the mines were delivered to the ships by the Torpedo – Mines Command. The mine laying would be executed during the night hours to avoid being jeopardized by air attacks. I added that we would our best but, since the ships had no prior training, I could not exclude the possibility of serious anomalies.

 

The laying of the mine fields

 

The delivery of the mines to the ships was frequently interrupted from the continuous air-alarms and as a result was only completed on the evening of October 29th. I took advantage of the delay to better organize the ships and to verbally explain to the commanders how to proceed. I also issued my first order of operations, giving to the ships detailed instructions. The Saronic Gulf mine field was laid on the night of October 29th to the 30th. For the mine laying operation of the Fleves – Tourlos, Aigina field the destroyers “HYDRA” and 3 of the “LEON” class were used. Two more destroyers were used for their anti-submarine protection. I led the mine layers on board of the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, to direct them on the exact mine-laying line.

 

In peace- time periods when mine-laying task forces were executing maneuvers in mine- laying, although  performed in day-light, they had to be repeated several times until this exercise could be considered successful.  Now they had to execute the operation by night and under more adverse conditions, with no prior training of the ships and with some ship commanders and executive officers who were not suitable for such tasks. Under these conditions the mine-laying was considered successful because it was done without any accident; the mine field was not however laid as planned. In spite of the numerous verbal and written instructions some of the ships didn’t follow the line I directed them on and didn’t even keep the regular laying distances.

 

I wasn’t surprised that this first operation of the destroyers was not executed in a satisfactory way, since most of my proposals hadn’t been accepted. With concrete proofs I repeated a previous request and succeeded, for the time being, the replacement of a commander and two executive officers. I was also requesting the replacement of some other officers who, in spite of my strong objections, kept their positions for some more time to be replaced by the Central Command in a matter of hours for more serious mistakes.

 

During that same night two auxiliary mine layers escorted by the destroyer “QUEEN OLGA” laid the mine field between the isle of Moni and Methana bay, while another task force laid the mine fields of the Evoikos Gulf.

 

The R.H.N. supports the operations of the Greek Army

 

On October 31, 1940, the destroyers “PSARA” and “SPETSAI” were ordered to proceed to the north Ionian Sea and bombard enemy positions on the shores of Ipiros. This surprise operation, successfully executed in the dawn, had psychological objectives. The enemy realized from the very beginning that the small R.H.N. did not hesitate to operate close to their bases and our fighting Army was informed that their brothers in the Navy were doing their best to support them in their difficult task. The surprise attack was reducing the risk of destruction of our two ships by the much stronger enemy forces attacking from nearby bases. It could be considered practically sure however that the enemy air force would unleash an attack to punish our ships for their daring action. Strangely enough, our destroyers were not attacked and safely returned to their base.

 

The main task of the R.H.N. – Securing Sea Transports

 

Military transports were very intensive in the first weeks of the war. With the main force of the Fleet, the 10 large destroyers under my orders, we had to initially secure the transportation of the military Divisions of Athens, Crete, Archipelagos (a large part of which had already been transported the previous September) and then any kind of transports from the Aegean islands. The same force had to secure Greece’s supplies from abroad, especially via the Dardanelles. Starting in January 1941, escorts were also undertaken from Egypt. The protection of the internal sea-ways of the Saronic, Corinth and Evoikos Gulfs was entrusted to the small destroyers and the torpedo boats.

 

Since the beginning of World War II, the British Navy based in Alexandria had undertaken the task to secure Eastern Mediterranean sea transports. Its presence was a deterrent for heavy Italian war ships to operate in the Aegean and ran the risk of being cut-off from their bases. The protection of our convoys in internal missions was the responsibility of the R.H.N. The British Naval forces of the Mediterranean insufficient in number before Greece entering the War, had since been overloaded with transports of military equipment and supplies from Egypt to the fighting Greek Army in Greece; they couldn’t therefore be allocated to cover any other of our needs. In the case of some very important convoys only, the British disposed an anti-aircraft cruiser as escort.

 

The enemy disposed an important number of submarines many of which were ready to ambush along the frequently used sea-ways. Enemy aircrafts based in the Dodecanese could attack our convoys in any part of the Aegean, while convoys in the Ionian Sea or in the direction of Crete could be easy target for air attacks coming from Italy. Last but not least, light surface crafts and cruisers from the island of Leros taking advantage of their high speed could execute destructive attacks without running the risk of being cut-off from their bases. We had to defend ourselves against all these enemy weapons, relying only on our own means.

 

Our destroyers had two major deficiencies for their escort task. On one hand they were not equipped with submarine detection instruments, as was the case with most British Navy ships. To protect our convoys we had to use World War I methods and rely on zigzag sailing. On the other hand, our ships were not equipped with anti-aircraft weapons for their defense from high altitude air-attacks while most of the anti-aircraft machine guns they disposed were deficient and frequently out of order. We could neither rely on getting any assistance from friendly fighter planes. Our small naval co-operation aviation could only assist with anti-submarine air-escort in areas close to her bases. The few British airplanes sent to assist us were earmarked to the needs of the military front and the protection of our Capital.

 

The first war Convoy

 

On October 31, 1940, I was ordered to escort, with the “KING GEORGE” and two more destroyers, empty cargo ships to the Dardanelles and then from the bay of Moudros, Lemnos, cargo ships waiting to be escorted to the port of Piraeus. This first convoy was to be very eventful. According to the order, we were supposed to sail through the Evoikos Gulf because the other way through the straits of Kafireas was considered very exposed to submarine attacks. In addition the General Staff of the Navy (G.S.N.) had stressed the need the destroyers to be back to their base in Elefsis soon to undertake a new mission. Unfortunately, the very old cargo ships that we were escorting couldn’t sail at more than 4 or 5 knots. This fact, combined with the delays to pass the Evripos canal was not sufficiently taken into account when scheduling the operation. We were therefore ordered to abandon the ships we were escorting near Oreoi and let them sail unescorted to their destination. The destroyers were thus able to sail at high speed to Moudros.  As we were approaching the island of Lemnos, a hydroplane took-off from the air-base of our naval co-operation aviation. One of our destroyers didn’t identify this hydroplane and opened fire, luckily unsuccessfully. These misunderstandings were natural in the first days of the war, especially because there was no sufficient prior co-operation in maneuvers between the Armed Forces.

 

I took delivery of the charged cargo ships in Moudros and sailed that same night for Piraeus, via the Evripos canal. When we were approaching the Evoikos Gulf, we received an order from the G.S.N. to accelerate. Because the cargo ships were unable to go faster, I decided to follow the shortest way through the straits of Kafireas and the convoy changed cap. Because by taking this new route I was violating prior orders, I informed the G.S.N. of our new course. After several hours of following this new course, I received a new order not to pass through the straits of Kafireas; Once more I changed cap to the direction of the Evoikos Gulf. Because of the new delays thus caused we were ordered once more to abandon the cargo ships at Chalkis and proceed at full speed to Piraeus for the next mission.

 

There were no more such cases; it was realized that the Central Command should issue general instructions and delegate operating decisions to those responsible for their execution.

 

Military Divisions Transports

 

When we arrived at the Elefsis Naval Base, the boarding on the transport ships of the Athens Division was being completed. We departed that same night with the escort of all our destroyers under the Chief of the Fleet on board the “QUEEN OLGA”. We sailed through the Evoikos Gulf towards the port of Volos instead of Thessalonica, our initial destination. We were obliged to pass the Evoikos in day light. We were very lucky not to be attacked by air; a serious air-attack would have had catastrophic consequences, since it would have been very difficult for the ships of this large convoy to maneuver in such narrow sea area. The enemy air force that had developed that day important activity against secondary targets in various cities lost a unique opportunity…The disembarkation in Volos was done with exemplary order and speed during the night hours till dawn. A few hours after the end of the operation and the departure of the ships and after the last military unit had left the shore, the port of Volos was bombarded by the enemy air force.

 

The safe arrival to destination of this first large military convoy and the good news coming from the front gave great optimism to the Fleet. The war was taking an unbelievable turn, our hopes were boosted and we were not seeking to save the honor of our weapons anymore but we were looking forward to reap more important war laurels.

 

The intensive utilization of our destroyers continued till mid- December 1940. During this period our ships were practically constantly on the move. One of the most important missions of that period was the transport in November 1940 of the Crete Division. An important part of this Division was transported from Souda Bay to Thessalonica by 10 transport ships the night of November 17, 1940, under the escort of 8 destroyers under my command.

 

In Souda the British had set base. Important works hadn’t been executed at the base and weren’t executed till I last visited Souda at the end of March 1941. Some primitive defense measures were only taken against light surface crafts and an anti-submarine barrier had been laid, later re-enforced with a second one. In addition a number of anti- fighter aircraft guns had been installed but the air field close to Chania had not been completed. A few old type hydroplanes, mostly used for training, were intended for searching the approaches of Souda Bay.

 

When we arrived at Souda, a young British officer came aboard the destroyer “KING GEORGE” to consult with me on the choice of points of anchorage for our destroyers. As the British were expecting the arrival of a large number of their war ships, he asked me to order our destroyers to anchor in couples. I replied smiling that the R.H.N. had in total just 10 destroyers and I didn’t wish to see them being hit in couples by the same bomb. After consulting with the British Commander of the base, the destroyers anchored separately. After a while a British Squadron arrived under the command of a Rear-Admiral that also included 2 battleships. I visited the Commander of the Squadron who received me with exceptional courtesy and congratulated me for the successes of our Army and the operations of our Navy. He informed me that the reason of their arrival was to offer anti-aircraft protection during the embarkation of the Army Division and that they will be leaving at night- fall. I offered the opinion that an air-attack was very probable because they were such attacks in the previous couple of days. He answered laughing “I hope they’ll come because we dispose on the ships and on shore more than 100 anti-aircraft guns; however you may be sure that today the won’t come…”. The general swimming order given to the British crews that same noon showed that he really meant what he said.

 

Back from the British flagship to the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, I was being expected by the Captain Commander of the light cruiser “H.M.S. COVENTRY”. He informed me that he “had orders to request my instructions in order to escort our convoy, as ship of anti-aircraft protection”. It was the first case of co-operation with the British Fleet and the fact that a ship of the mighty Navy commanded by an officer of my rank was provisionally placed under my orders, even if my title as Supreme Commander gave me formally precedence, provoked to me a sense of national pride. The commander of the cruiser asked me the exact time of departure but I was unable to give him an exact answer. As a result of misunderstanding of the orders given, the military authorities had delayed the start of the embarkation of the troops which could not be completed before night fall. I asked the commander of the “COVENTRY” to be ready for departure at midnight and to expect my signal. I notified the Division Commander that we had to respect the midnight limit and disembarked on the docks to have my own impression of the embarkation progress. When it was dark, the British Fleet left leaving behind the “COVENTRY”. A little later an air alarm was signaled but there was no attack. Finally the convoy left at 01:00 a.m.

 

Night convoys with large number of transport ships and escorts present many difficulties, especially when the captains of the commercial ships participate for the first time in such missions. Thanks to the inherent intelligence and exceptional conscientiousness of the personnel of our Merchant Marine, the detailed instructions of my sailing order had been carefully studied and understood and thus we faced no anomalies.

 

As they were lacking submarine detection instruments, the escorts zigzag at high speed.  This method used during the whole war period, arduous for the personnel and equipment, proved efficient. No submarine attacked and the enemy air force didn’t offer us the opportunity to see in action the anti-aircraft cruiser with the experience of tenths of air attacks.

 

According to our orders, we were scheduled again to pass through the Evoikos Gulf. The British Admiralty not imagining however that we were following such a route, since abandoned by the R.H.N., had instructed the “COVENTRY” to escort us to the Kafireas Straits. Following my approval the cruiser left the convoy at the approach the South Evoikos Gulf. We continued our voyage without problems till the approaches of the Thermaikos Gulf. There I delivered the transport ships to the ships of the Third Squadron to return to the Elefsis Naval Base with the remaining destroyers. During the night we met in the Thermaikos Gulf a small convoy from Kavala escorted by ships of the local defense command. We had not been notified of their presence and were ready to open fire when we recognized each other. After this near miss, proper measures were taken and we were always informed of the movements of friendly forces.

 

The ships of the Third Squadron after disembarking the troops from Crete in Thessalonica, escorted the transports to Heraklion, Crete, through the Evoikos Gulf route, to transport additional troops of the Crete Division. While they were sailing by the Cap Sepiada in the Straits between Skiathos and Magnesia the destroyer “AETOS” reported that he spotted a submarine periscope and a torpedo launched unsuccessfully. The destroyer proceeded to attack the submarine with depth bombs and – on the basis of the information provided by the ship’s commander- the submarine was considered lost. For this action moral rewards were awarded. However, as it was later determined, the over-optimistic opinion concerning the loss of the submarine was not justified.

The Third Squadron returning from Heraklion to Piraeus escorting the military convoy was not annoyed by the enemy; it run however the risk of the most tragic consequences from a mistake committed by the Commander of the escorts: The Commander having misrecognized the shore led by night the convoy over the mine field of Fleves. The 2 destroyers ahead and 7 transport ships full of troops passed over the mine field and only 2 transports and the destroyers at the end of the convoy realized in time the mistake and were safely driven through the Flevopoula passage. Luck was on the side of our Navy and none of the ships hit a mine. The irregular mine-laying that had left wide gaps may have helped our luck! After this event the remaining replacements that I had suggested since the mobilization period took place in the Third Squadron.

 

Enemy submarine attacks Convoy

 

As time went by, reports multiplied of enemy submarine appearances along the routes frequently used by convoys in the Aegean Sea. In several cases torpedoes were launched but always unsuccessfully.

 

In the night of November 29, 1940, an enemy submarine attacked a convoy from Piraeus to Chios and Mytilene, under my orders, escorted by 4 destroyers. At around midnight we were sailing near the Kalogeroi rocks and according to information received from the G.S.N. we were about to meet at that place and hour a convoy heading from Moudros to Piraeus, escorted by ships of the Third Squadron. While waiting for this encounter I was carefully searching the horizon from the bridge of the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, when a look-out reported “suspect object left ahead”. The night was exceptionally dark and there were heavy clouds but I spotted with the binoculars at a distance of 1.000 meters the shadow of a ship with the form of a small cargo ship with a low over the water-line structure in the middle and relatively high in the bow. I was almost sure that it was a ship from the Moudros convoy. I took the precaution to order alarm but avoided to immediately proceed to identify the suspect ship, as I would have done in other cases, to avoid a possible unpleasant misunderstanding with the escorts of that convoy. However, two or three minutes later the shadow disappeared. I considered that this was due to darkness and proceeded towards the suspect ship, when the escort destroyer “SPETSAI” which was following the “KING GEORGE”, suddenly changed cap and sailed at high speed towards the same direction. The “KING GEORGE” returned to his previous position, to avoid leaving the convoy unescorted and we followed “SPETSAI”’ action ready to intervene if needed. The “SPETSAI” disappeared and after a while returned to her position in the convoy and reported that a submarine in the surface had launched a torpedo and then had immediately submerged and disappeared. The destroyer had launched depth charges that had not exploded because they hadn’t heard any explosion. I had many doubts if it was indeed a submarine because illusions are frequent at night during a war.

 

The next day I was however persuaded that the report of the destroyer “SPETSAI” was correct. An Italian communiqué informed that that night the submarine “DELFINO” had sunk by torpedo a destroyer escorting a convoy. The sinking of the ship was of course in the mind of the submarine commander but it was evident that it concerned the attack against us, since no other attack was reported that night in the Aegean. It appears that when we spotted the submarine she was projected in such an angle that its tower couldn’t been seen; in addition the shape of the bow of this type of submarine was unusually tall and bulky.

 

I was inconsolable for having missed such an excellent opportunity because if we would had sailed immediately at high speed against the submarine there were many chances that we would have rammed her! Following my report after this incident measures were taken to avoid night encounters with friendly forces”

 

Captain Mezeviris requested authorization to search coast areas where enemy submarines could probably remain surfaced during the night. The Chief of the Fleet who was reluctant at first gave his approval when a convoy escorted by the destroyer “QUEEN OLGA” received a nocturnal attack by torpedoes near the Straits of Kafireas. However, all searches executed by the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “SPETSAI” in the wider area were fruitless. Other searches executed, following similar events in the area between the islands of Syros and Mykonos, were also fruitless. It appears that the enemy submarines had orders, whenever they executed attacks or noticed in any way, to abandon the area for a period of time and change their patrol sector.