Walking Samos – On the Trail of the Resistance and Liberation of Samos

Recently I wrote of my tour of the beautiful island of Samos and the daring and little-known role of the islanders in the First World War. Today I continue my story, recounting Samos’ role in the Greek resistance to the Axis occupation in the Second World War and its liberation.

There are few physical reminders on Samos of the dark days of the war. Walking the island in the summer sun, it is hard to imagine the fear and trepidation that must have struck the people of the Island as the Axis occupation began in 1941. Along with much of Greece they would suffer terribly in the famine of 1941 and 1942 – and beyond. Yet the occupation and suffering did not dampen the islander’s willingness to resist and fight for their freedom – as they had done over one hundred years before in the Greek revolution of 1821. Before visiting Samos I read three moving accounts of Samos and its liberation, written by Allied soldiers who came to the Island to help in its liberation and were struck by its beauty and the strength of its people. This is their Samos.

Around 9 September 1943 British Lieutenant Michael Parish landed on Samos with a small Allied party to secure the surrender of the Italian forces on the Island, following Italy’s armistice with the Allies on 3 September. Travelling across the island from southern port of Tigani (modern day Pythagorio) to Vathy he writes of the beautiful vineyards and olive groves as he passed along the mountain roads Samos was “arcadia itself.” A day or so later on an “awe inspiring” journey across the island, visiting many villages and meeting the resistance, he wrote of being “overwhelmed by the spirit of the people and their leaders.” A few days later Parish had negotiated the formal surrender of Samos and the transfer of Italian forces to Allied command.

Some 500 British and Greek Allied troops (including the Danish-born Captain Anders Lassen) now arrived on Samos to bolster its defence. Everywhere they went the Allied troops were welcomed enthusiastically by the locals, who thronged the streets and welcomed them into their homes, sharing their food and their wine. Parish wrote of being welcomed “to an acclaim from the population the like of which would have had to be seen to be believed.”

Samos had indeed already been effectively liberated by its own people in the days before the Allied troops arrived, the EAM-ELAS resistance on the Island numbering in the hundreds. They had been operating on the Island soon after the occupation began in May 1941, assisting escaping Allied soldiers to cross to Turkey. Parish writes that two of the then leaders of the Samos resistance were named Zaimis and Betsos. Soon the Allied troops were carrying out their most important tasks, distributing food to the locals and preparing for the islands defence, aided by an expanded resistance and a division of Italian soldiers eager to join in the fight against the Germans.

How appropriate that Samos’ poet Anacreon had written in his poem Praise of Bacchus of the need to enjoy your wine for we do not know what tomorrow will bring? For now the Allied forces on the Island would need to prepare for its defence against the anticipated German attack.

READ MORE: Samos: The independent isle 1832-1912

From the mountain forests of Samos and across the sea. Samos. Photo Jim Claven 2013.

As you walk along the harbour front of Vathy there are no reminders of the destruction wrought by the Germans on 17 November. The port was bombed relentlessly, coming in waves of 15 and 20 planes at a time, in the end destroying 20% of its buildings and killing and wounding soldiers and civilians, 140 civilians being killed in a single afternoon. Despite the lack of anti-aircraft weapons, one German bomber was hit by the defenders and destroyed. Tigani ruined. Looking down on the little town today the only reminder of that terrible day is the newness in the buildings.

The fall of nearby Leros and the imminence of a full-scale German invasion led to the decision to evacuate the Island by 19th November. Concerned at German retaliation on the locals, thousands departed with the Allied forces, landing on a beach near Kusadasi in Turkey. Over three nights an armada of fishing boats led by military motorboats sailed from Vathy. By 19 November thousands of civilians, resistance members, Allied soldiers, surrendered Italians and German prisoner had been transported to Turkey. One of the locals appears to have been the Greek Samian singer Kaiti Gkrey. Captain Anders Lassen insisted that all Samians who wanted to leave would be taken, even returning after the German re-occupation of the Island to bring more to freedom. He was the last Allied soldier to depart Samos.

After landing the Allied soldiers made their way across Turkey to Allied lines in Palestine. Some of these refugees appear to have stayed in the abandoned Greek villages along the Asia Minor coast, the presence of Greek refugees here having been noted later by Major Maurice Cardiff. Others no doubt may have made the same journey as the soldiers, reaching the refugee camps established for them by the Allies across Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Samos and its remaining inhabitants were now occupied by the Germans. Surviving photographs show the invasion fleet arriving in Vathi harbor and the harbor becoming home to German defences. A German propaganda film shows German troops enjoying some Samos wine at the harbor following the occupation.

READ MORE: Insider’s guide to the two sides of Samos: Greek tourist paradise vs refugee ‘jungle’

Monument to the Greek Sacred Regiment, Zoodohos Pigi Momastery, Samos. Photo Jim Claven 2013.

If you make your way along Samos’ northern coast to Karlovasi and drive inland you can take one of the Island’s “resistance trails.” It was on this beach in August 1944 that a small Allied force of 15 Greek Sacred Squadron troops led by British Major Maurice Cardiff came ashore to be met by the resistance. They were then led up into the wooded mountains of central Samos to the village of Platanos. Here they met the leader of the 300 strong ELAS resistance on Samos, the 22-year-old charcoal-burner named Kosta Zafiris, who was introduced as Achilles.

By this time some 60 of the 600 Germans soldiers on the Island had already surrendered to the resistance. The remaining Germans withdrew to Rhodes. Major Cardiff – backed by the resistance and threats of an imminent Allied invasion – now led the final negotiations for the surrender of the Italians forces on Samos. Apart from a small party of 25 committed Italian fascist soldiers who escaped to Leros, the rest of the estimated 1,300 strong Italian troops surrendered. News of the surrender brought cheering crowds on to Vathy’s harbour front.

And so Samos was formally liberated on 4th October 1944. Soon more soldiers of the Greek Sacred Squadron under the commander of Brigadier Turnbull and Colonel Kristoudolos Tsigantis had landed at Karlovasi, the birthplace of Samos’ liberation leader Logothetis, surely a great omen.

British journalist Richard Capell who accompanied this Allied force, has left us an equally moving account of the liberation and the joy of the population, as warm as that previously experienced by Lieutenant Parish in 1943. They were welcomed as soon as they arrived on the beach, the locals “feasting us with fruit and wine and loaded us with flowers.” As they made their way to Vathy they were stopped outside the town by a village doctor who insisted the liberators join him in a celebratory meal. As Capell writes: “… We ate in his trellised courtyard. There was small fish from the bay, just caught, and hospitable fingers stripped backbone away and handed me the excellent morsels, while the entire village, crowded on the scene, gazed. The grapes that hung over our heads were like Joshua’s, and wine was served in great pitchers. After this the lorry went onwards with song.”

A great celebration was organized by the ELAS leader Zafiris at Vathy, including a church service, followed by speeches and a grand luncheon, guests being served by young women wearing their EAM armbands. No doubt the celebration was well lubricated with Samian wine. Capell writes of having nothing but praise for the resistance, their assistance being vital to the Allies.
I can recommend the drive through the mountains to the north east above Vathy to visit the impressive memorial to the Greek Sacred Squadron and the liberation of Samos below the Zoodohos Pigi Momastery, with its impressive views of the sea below. Travel over to Karlovasi with its connection to the final liberation of the Island and as the former home of Yiannis Ritsos, resistance fighter and one of Greece’s greatest modern poets. The liberation of Samos would be reported across the world, including Australia.

So next time you are on Samos and enjoying its hospitality (especially its wine), archeological sites and beautiful beaches, visit liberation memorial and make a toast to the people who endured the Axis occupation, to the brave resistance led by a modern Achilles and the final liberation of Samos in 1944!

Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer, Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee and author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean, 1915-16. For further reading see Michael Woodbine Parish’s Aegean Adventures 1940-43 and the end of Churchill’s Dream, Maurice Cardiff’s Achilles and the Tortoise and Richard Capell’s Simiomata: A Greek Notebook. He can be contacted at jimclaven@yahoo.com.au.