Naval Operations of March 1941

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The Naval Operations of March 1941
(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)

 

 

“Captain you should realize that in the war you will have losses”

                                                                Fleet Admiral Cunningham R.N.  addressing Captain Mezeviris R.H.N.

 

Operation coverage of British cruisers

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

“On March 9, 1941, following a request of the British Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, the R.H.N. destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “PSARA” were used to cover from East from enemy attacks- especially from torpedo boats based in the Dodecanese islands- sea transports from Egypt executed by British cruisers. The British cruisers were scheduled to cross the Kassos Straits at around midnight of March 9. The coverage was to be made from great distance and we were obliged to enter the enemy’s territorial waters and pass close to his bases. I arranged our course so as to get into the enemy area by nightfall and close to the island Karpathos by midnight. We then reversed course and followed a parallel course to the assumed of the British cruisers sailing at the same 30 knot speed. The number of ships at our disposal for covering the British cruisers was quite insufficient and our information concerning the movement of the cruisers was vague, so we couldn’t be sure that our relative position offered real coverage to them. In addition, we were passing close to enemy isles on which we could see inhabited dwellings; some of them were surely observation posts. The night was rather bright and we couldn’t hope to pass through unnoticed. Our attention was tense throughout the night and we were all at battle positions. It was a question of national pride to ensure that the British ships were not attacked from the side we were supervising. Fortunately once more, the inactivity of the enemy facilitated our task.

 

The R.H.N. destroyer “PSARA” sinks an enemy submarine

 

On March 11, 1941, while we were escorting with the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “PSARA” a convoy of 3 troop transport ships from Piraeus to Crete, the “PSARA” had a brilliant success. At around 3 p.m., while sailing close to Falkonera isle, she noticed a submarine periscope which she attacked with depth charges. According to the destroyer Commander the submarine was apparently hit; she surfaced momentarily with a strong lateral tilt and immediately disappeared. The “PSARA” attacked with more depth charges. On board the “KING GEORGE” we didn’t take notice of the submarine surfacing, but just the depth charges detonations, because we were sailing at a distance and at the other side of the convoy and in addition the “PSARA” had not signaled submarine sighting. On the basis of the data given to me by the ship Commander, I was persuaded that the submarine should be considered destroyed and, following my recommendation and approval of the Chief of the Fleet, moral rewards were attributed to the commander of the “PSARA, Commander Konstas, and to two non-commissioned officers that first noticed the submarine.

 

That same destroyer, while escorting a troop transport ship to the island of Chios on March 26, 1941, attacked by depth charges a submerged submarine near the island Psara. The destroyer commander considered that this submarine was also destroyed but the indications were not sufficient. Besides, the exact data on enemy losses published after the armistice don’t refer to submarine damage or destruction on that date in that area.

 

Air attacks and losses

 

Until that time enemy air action against our convoys was not very annoying. In February 1941 the destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “PSARA”, escorting a convoy to the islands of Chios and Mytilene, were attacked by Italian aircrafts from the Dodecanese. Five enemy airplanes flew over Mytilene and unsuccessfully attacked from high altitude with about 80 100mm bombs the destroyer “SPETSAI”, the passenger ship she was escorting and the shore wireless station. The destroyer “SPETSAI” opened intensive fire with no result, because of the high altitude of the planes. Next the airplanes flew over the “KING GEORGE” and the passenger ship she was escorting, while they were crossing the Chios Straits, but didn’t attack.

 

The first violent air attack that caused losses to a convoy was suffered on March 12,1941. A Hellenic-British convoy, under my orders, was attacked south of Crete near the island of Gavdos. The convoy was heading to Alexandria and was composed of 5 empty cargo ships, escorted by the R.H.N. destroyers “KING GEORGE” and “KOUNTOURIOTIS” and the British corvette “SALVIA”.

 

The convoy ships were positioned in two columns and in one of them had boarded the Convoy Commander reserve Captain R.H.N. K.Panagiotou. The “KING GEORGE” was covering the convoy from the left side; the “KOUNTOURIOTIS” from the right and the corvette was placed ahead, being the only escort disposing submarine detection equipment. A short time before sunset a reconnaissance airplane appeared flew for a while at high altitude over the convoy and disappeared. Soon after, the destroyer “KOUNTOURIOTIS” reported 14 airplanes on sight heading north. The planes passed at big distance from the right side of the convoy and disappeared to the direction of Crete. We thought that they were British. However, a quarter of an hour before dark, the airplanes appeared again behind and at the left, approaching the convoy. There was no doubt anymore that they were enemy planes. I signaled to the ships “imminent air attack” and ordered the “KING GEORGE” to sail at full speed towards the cargo ship “G.EMPEIRIKOS” that was lagging behind, continuously sailing behind the convoy and for that reason repeatedly reproved. Three of the aircrafts flying the one behind the other at very low altitude headed towards that ship, while the rest dispersed and attacked the other ships of the convoy. The “KING GEORGE” opened fire, initially with the stem guns from a big distance against the first aircraft heading towards the “G.EMPEIRIKOS” and then, when she approached, against all three aircrafts with her antiaircraft guns. The first aircraft passed over the cargo ship, dropped 3 bombs of which at least one appeared successful, and fell burning in the sea. The second aircraft, possibly damaged, reversed course and disappeared, while the third also dropped his bombs on the cargo ship. The “G.EMPEIRIKOS” received 3 bombs during this attack. While the “KING GEORGE” was protecting the cargo ship, she was unsuccessfully attacked with bombs and machine-gun fire by other aircrafts. Bombs were also dropped on the other ships of the convoy and the destroyer “KOUNTOURIOTIS” was responding with intensive fire. The anti-aircraft fire of the British corvette particularly impressed us. The ship of the Convoy Commander that was not disposing any kind of weapons was continuously firing flares that looked like tracer-shells to deceive the aircrafts and avoid being attacked from low altitude!

 

It was already dark. The destroyer “KING GEORGE” approached the “G.EMPEIRIKOS” to provide assistance and we realized that her crew had abandoned ship. We could distinguish lifeboats in the sea, shouts could be heard, most of the ship was under the water and after a while she sunk. We succeeded in saving 30 out of the 32 seamen. The bombs killed one and another one was drowned.

 

After this rescue, I rushed to meet the other ships of the convoy that had disappeared. I first met the destroyer “KOUNTOURIOTIS” that signaled that she was standing by the Norwegian tanker “SOLHEIM” which was damaged and immobilized. The engine room was full of water, because of a break caused by bombs on the side of the ship, and no improvised repair was possible. I asked the Norwegian captain if he thought that the ship should be abandoned and he replied, “no, please arrange for a towboat to be sent”.  I requested the Naval Commander of Crete to ask the British Authorities of Souda to immediately send a towboat and left the “KOUNTOURIOTIS” near the tanker to escort her to Souda and then come to meet us.

 

From the convoy ships, they were 3 other left in the escort of the corvette; I didn’t know how many of them were still floating. After several hours of intensive search I discovered them. At around midnight I distinguished the characteristic shape of the corvette and then behind her 3 large cargo ships. It was the first moment after 6 hours of continuous stress that I felt a small relief. The disaster was important; it could have been greater. The corvette “SALVIA” had correctly acted; after loosing trace of the other escorts had assembled the ships near her and was escorting them to their destination. In the morning of March 24, 1941, the 2 cargos escorted by the corvette separated and sailed towards Port Said, while the third escorted by the “KING GEORGE” headed to Alexandria where they arrived in the afternoon.

 

Help from Souda to “SOLHEIM” was delayed; the towboat left 12 after my notification. The morning after the day of the attack the immobilized ship and the “KOUNTOURIOTIS” were unsuccessfully attacked by the Italian air force, initially by torpedo-planes then by bomber-planes. Following these attacks and because of worsening weather conditions and rough seas, the destroyer commander decided to embark the Norwegian tanker crew, seek refuge south of Crete and wait there for the towboat to arrive. When the towboat finally arrived, they sailed together to meet the tanker, but the tanker was not there anymore. The “KOUNTOURIOTIS”, the towboat and British airplanes searched the area in the morning of March 24; the search was fruitless.

 

From previous experience of Italian air attacks, we had many doubts whether the planes that attacked us near the island of Gavdos were Italian. When the British authorities in Alexandria were informed of the details of the attack, they declared without doubt that German airplanes from Sicily attacked us.  This was confirmed by a German announcement that a British convoy was attacked and a ship was sunk south of Crete. The announcement even admitted that one of the planes was lost.

 

A meeting with Admiral Cunningham

 

We were accustomed in the 5 past months to execute our missions absolutely with no losses. This first catastrophe of two fifths of an escorted convoy had distressed me. Under this bad psychological situation, I reported to the Chief of the British Fleet of the Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham. He asked me about the events of the last convoy and I reported our losses. His reply immediately redressed my moral. Smiling he said: “Captain you should realize that in the war you will have losses” and added that it was his mistake because he hadn’t put to our disposal a anti-aircraft cruiser, since all had been sent to another important mission. He then informed me that for our trip back to Greece he would put to our disposal an anti-aircraft cruiser and that he hoped that I’d have the opportunity to watch her brilliant fire! I stayed at the Admiral’s office for about 20 minutes; he expressed his admiration for the heroic deeds of the Hellenic Army and he praised the job done by our destroyers that had succeeded in not having any losses till that day. He also referred to the expected German invasion to Greece and he expressed his personal opinion that if decided in time to sacrifice a large part of a national territory, retreating to a line that we could protect, we could eventually extend for a long time our resistance.

 

I took advantage of the opportunity to inform the Admiral that not only our destroyers had insufficient anti-aircraft weapons but also our cargo ships were missing of any means of anti-aircraft defense, while the British disposed -more or less- of adequate means. He expressed his surprise and assured me that he’d do whatever he could.

 

On March 25,1941, I officially participated in the celebration of our National Holiday at the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria. As in Port Said, I was again among the members of a Greek Community characterized by their patriotism. However, the enthusiasm for the heroic deeds of our Armed Forces was overshadowed by recent events. The agreement between Germany and Yugoslavia had been known since the previous day and we all knew that a German attack against Greece was imminent. Even the most optimistic felt that in a short time our Homeland would stop being part of the free Countries. I couldn’t help wondering whether next year we would celebrate our National Independence Day in Greece!

 

The last convoy of March 1941

 

Our departure from Alexandria was precipitated. Our contact in Alexandria, Captain Kondogiannis, conveyed the desire of the Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet that the destroyer “KING GEORGE” participates in a convoy leaving for Piraeus in the evening of March 26. Seven large troop-transport ships, most of them British, transporting to Greece British Army troops and their supplies, formed the convoy. The “KING GEORGE”, 3 Australian destroyers and the British anti-aircraft cruiser HMS “CALCUTTA” that joined the convoy the morning of March 28, formed the escort under my command.  This convoy was associated to the naval battle of Cape Matapan; it seems that one of the objectives of the sortie of the Italian Fleet was to attack that particular convoy.

 

The convoy sailed smoothly until the evening of March 27, when we received an order from the Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet to reverse course at nightfall, sail towards Alexandria till morning and then revert to our initial course. No explanation was given and I assumed that the order was due to the presence of enemy forces. Indeed, when in the morning of March 28 we took again our initial course to pass west of Crete and we were joined by the HMS “CALCUTTA”, her commander signaled that Italian cruisers had sailed from their base to attack our convoy but instead they came upon the British Fleet. He also informed me that, following the Admiral’s orders, the whole Mediterranean Fleet was covering us from the West. The next day the British cruiser informed me that the Italian cruisers that had participated in the attack had been sunk and that the British Fleet was chasing the remaining units of the Italian Fleet. I replied transmitting “congratulations and warmest wishes to the glorious British Navy”.

 

In the afternoon of March 29, our convoy was attacked by a torpedo-plane under curious circumstances. An airplane that looked like a British Sunderland airboat passed west of the convoy heading north. The 2 Australian destroyers that were covering the west flank and the British cruiser that was following the convoy didn’t open fire and I assumed that it wasn’t an enemy airplane. Because of the distance, identification of the plane by the “KING GEORGE” and the 3rd Australian destroyer that were covering the east flank wasn’t possible. However, because I had some doubts, I asked the Australian destroyer “VOYAGER” who was leading the west flank if the plane was friendly and she replied “yes, Sunderland”. The airplane drew away, then reversed course, descended to a low altitude and approached the convoy drawing circles, as the British airboats did when searching for submarines. I considered these maneuvers suspect and ordered the “KING GEORGE” commander to go near the convoy and give instructions both the big guns and the anti-aircraft machineguns to follow the airplane. These measures didn’t prove unwarranted; as the airplane was passing over the middle and in the opposite direction of the convoy, he dropped a torpedo. The “KING GEORGE” immediately opened fire with the big guns, followed a few moments later by the other escorts. The airplane disappeared in the horizon and we failed to shoot-it down. We were lucky because the torpedo hadn’t been dropped correctly and was sunk. I then realized the size of my responsibility as a Greek Superior Commander of a practically British convoy! If one of the troop transport ships was hit, hundreds of shipwrecked men would have had to be saved and at the same time the remaining troop transport ships safely escorted. In such a case the number of escort ships was clearly insufficient for both tasks.

 

In the morning of March 31, 1941, we were sailing north of Crete and there was heavy airplane traffic in the area. Enemy and friendly, Greek and British, airplanes were appearing in the horizon. The British especially had the habit not to give the identification signal. After the events of the previous day I had given the order to the “KING GEORGE” to attack any airplane that approached in case his identity was not apparent or if it didn’t give the agreed identification signals. Several friendly airplanes drew away for that reason, among which a Greek airplane that had come to provide us anti-submarine protection. We hadn’t been notified of its arrival and we let it come near only when we the pilot decided to throw the code flares for recognition. At around sunset of that same day we were arriving at Piraeus.

 

The end of this mission signaled the end of the very intensive career of the destroyer “KING GEORGE”, who successfully executed so many important missions…. In the “Chronicle of the sinking of the destroyer HYDRA” the ship meets her sad end two weeks later.

 

The naval battle of Cape Matapan

 

The Hellenic Navy was asked by the British to participate in the operation of the British fleet that led to the naval battle of Cape Matapan. Indeed, our 7 available large destroyers were assigned to this operation. The remaining large 3 destroyers that didn’t participate in this operation were: the “KING GEORGE” that was escorting the convoy from Alexandria, the “PSARA” assigned to another mission and the “AETOS” that had to return to her base because of damage. The 7 destroyers, under the command of the Hellenic Navy Chief of the Fleet, sailed at full speed to the position they were assigned by the British Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in the Ionian Sea, south of the island of Cephalonia. However, they didn’t get a chance for active action because of late receipt of the order, wrong ciphering of a signal and fast withdrawal of the enemy. On they way back, Italian torpedo planes attacked the ships of the 3rd squadron that were sailing independently. The destroyer “LEON” was found between the paths of two torpedoes that she successfully avoided by skilled maneuvering. At the same time the torpedo planes machine-gunned the ship; there were no casualties, but the on the sides of the ship they were hundreds of bullet traces.  During that same mission, the destroyer “HYDRA” was sent south of Crete to save shipwrecked sailors from the Italian cruisers. In spite of adverse weather conditions, she succeeded taking on board most of them giving priority to the injured.”