75 years ago thousands of starving Greek soldiers and sailors in the allied-controlled Mediterranean were attacked and then imprisoned in isolated desert camps in Africa when they peacefully protested to their own government-in-exile. A new political system for post-war Greece was their aspiration. The Greek government and king with willing British involvement ended these liberal aspirations. The turmoil lasted for three weeks in April 1944 and led to the fall of two Greek emigre prime ministers in quick succession. The British secret intelligence service declared it could not guarantee the safety of Greek King George II if he visited Egypt, the epicentre of the turmoil.
The uprising is an episode many in both the right and the left would like forgotten. The Greek government-in-exile and monarch lost control of a major part of their military and handed over control to the British. Churchill and his government doggedly continued their wartime backing of George and his administration, even though the king had paved the way for the prewar military dictatorship of the General Metaxas. In secret Anglo communications about subduing the protest they were careful in their maneuvering so that the “blame shall fall on the British and not on the slender tottering Greek government.”
For their efforts, the rebellious Greeks were labelled as reckless by representatives of the organisation they were promoting. This was the Political Committee of National Liberation formed by the armed anti-Nazi resistance movement in the Greek mountains. In the immediate aftermath of the upheaval three officials arrived from enemy-occupied Greece. They publicly declared what the protestors tried to do were “actions deplored and condemned by all.” That the protestors were already isolated in their desert camps or onboard ships when they made their protest, makes the tactics employed questionable.
It is a Greek tragedy. The main group the Antifascist Military Organization (ASO) a coalition of political groups including republicans, social democrats and communists was decimated. This helped paved the way for the right-wing elements in the Greek military to ascend and influence post-war Greece to the point where they often ignored their own government The British response of non-negotiation, immediate demands for unconditional surrender and forced removal to destinations unknown bewildered and then enraged the sailors and troops. Protestors became mutineers. Greek civilians were also arrested. The British ambassador wired London that “What is happening here amongst the Greeks is nothing less than a revolution.”
The protestors wanted “an inter-allied commission” to hear their case. Surrounded and with water and food supplies cut off, their statements of non-violence were met by blunt British plans. Churchill advised his local commanders to use “a few ranging shots” from artillery against the main Greek army unit, the Greek Brigade at Burg el Arab. The location is close to a present-day beach tourist strip. If loyalist Greeks were incapable of quelling the naval in nearby Alexandria Harbour, he wanted fast attack craft to torpedo their headquarters ship and to strafe the decks with machine guns. In the end a group of loyalist sailors boarded and overwhelmed the mutinous vessels. There were a number of deaths. A preliminary British assault of the Greek brigade led to the killing of a British officer and surrender of the Greeks.
The death penalty for the military ring leaders was sought by the new Greek prime minister George Papandreou, grandfather of the more recent leader with the same name. At first it had Churchill’s full backing. But public sympathy for the mutineers grew. Even a Tory party committee led by Lord Perth did not want them executed. Churchill backed away from Papandreou. Imprisonment for thousands followed in Eritrea and what is now Libya.
In both places, British soldiers raided the barbwire enclosed barracks. One justification was fear of further armed rebellion. It as a dubious argument. The camp was purpose-built by the British who also maintained a guard. It was more likely an harassment tactic. There was another raid in the Eritrean camp. There the inmates refused to give up some of their fellow Greeks and take down protesting banners and their flag. Medical treatment was withdrawn and the only bread and water was provided. They mutineers refused to eat these “crumbs”. It was not until after the war in Europe was over that the inmates were allowed to go home.
For those involved it had a lasting psychological impact on the protestors. In Melbourne a former inmate of the camps told his daughter that he retreated from his community church and anything to do with politicians. He advised “just take care of your family”. Another migrant Greek mixed with old veterans now residing in Australia and wrote that “it is difficult for them to say that they went behind the wire.” Anyone visiting the floating naval battleship Averof in Piraeus, outside Athens would never know it was one of the mutinous ships. There is no memorial to remind anyone about an uprising that made world headlines in early 1944.
Doctor Martyn Brown is a historian and has recently co-produced a radio documentary on the 1944 Greek mutiny.