Standing to the east of Myrina on Lemnos is a memorial dedicated to a single soldier. He is not a Lemnian but a soldier from far off Larissa in Thessaly. He died on 16 October 1944, fighting to liberate the island from the German occupation.
Recently I wrote of Lemnos’ occupation by the Germans in WW2. In this article I will recount the liberation of the island, drawing on research and the memories of many Lemnians who either witnessed or were told of that great day by their parents and friends. Recollections of Angelo Kalomiris and Chris Mingos from Kontias, Nikolaos and his daughters Liza and Haroula Koutsaplis from Tsimandria, and Dimitris Boulotis are shared here for the first time.
The month of October resonates throughout Greek history: in 1912 the islands of the northern Aegean were liberated from Ottoman rule. In 1918, the armistice ending WWI in the east was signed in Lemnos’ Mudros Bay. And in 1940, Greece said “Oxi” to Mussolini’s ultimatum.
But it is often forgotten – and rarely commemorated – that it was also in October, of 1944, that many parts of Greece were liberated from the four long years of German occupation in the Second World War. This is the story of the liberation of one island – the island of Lemnos on 16 October 1944.
Throughout the war, the Germans were wary of any Allied attempt to liberate Greece through the Aegean islands, including Lemnos. During the occupation they fortified and rebuilt many bridges, much of their desperate work visible on Lemnos to this day; above the small bay of Agia Ioannis near Kontias stands a former German defence bunker.
These German fears were real. Angelo remembers the day the Hellenic Navy submarine RHN Papanikolis sunk a Bulgarian freighter bringing supplies to the German occupiers – much to the delight of the local villagers who were able to scavenge the stores that floated on to Lemnos’ southern shores.
From January 1944 the Allies increased their harassment of the Germans throughout the Aegean by launching raiding forces comprised of Greek and British special forces, aided by the RAF and ships of the Hellenic Navy and Royal Navy. As a result, an estimated 40,000 valuable German troops were held up across the Greek islands. The Allied raiding parties operated around Lemnos in 1944, and Aghios Efstratios seems to have been a location of choice for Allied raiding parties near Lemnos.
In July 1944 the converted caique Merano, captained by George Paspati, sailed from its secret harbour on the Turkish coast to Cape Kopania on Aghios Efstratios. It was part of the Levant Schooner Flotilla which transported Allied raiding forces across the Aegean. Aboard was an eight-man party of the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service soldiers led by British officer Jimmy Lees, the force including Corporal Densham and two Greek officers – Lieutenant Cocavessi from Alexandria and Captain Taniskides. The party set up a temporary observation post on a hill to monitored German convoy movements and radioed these back to headquarters in Egypt.
In September 1944 another Allied raiding vessel called into Aghios Efstratios before landing a six-man Special Boat Service patrol on Lemnos’ southern shores. Other reports talk of Allied air raids on Lemnos, destroying German shipping and blowing up fuel dumps. Indeed a young Nikolaos remembers watching Allied planes flying overhead, bombing the German oil tanks at Moudros and the artillery near his village of Tsimandria.
By 1944, the German occupation of the island was drawing to a close and the defeat of Germany was only a matter of time. The Germans on Lemnos began to withdraw towards Moudros and began destroying their surplus ammunition and armaments. Nikolaos witnessed and survived the huge explosion that destroyed the German bunkers at ‘Cannonia’ and damaged one of the cafes in Tsimandria. Young Chris was saved from almost certain death by the quick action of Angelo. They had come to shoot some birds with their slingshots but had inadvertently ventured too close to the site where the Germans were detonating surplus explosives.
Much to the distress of his mother, Chris was nearly hit by a piece of flying debris and was carried to safety by his older friend Angelo. The resulting explosion left behind a huge hole that became a lake.
As the Germans began to withdraw towards the port of Moudros with the aim of departing the island, three forces came to Lemnos and combined to liberate the island.
The first to arrive were 65 ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) andartes who arrived in Lemnos in two groups from nearby Lesvos which had been abandoned by the Germans on 18 September. Commanded by Captain Stratos Makris, of the Hellenic Army reserve, they first met up with local resistance leaders on Agios Efstratios and then sailed on the caique Eleni, landing at Platy on the southern coast of Lemnos on 16 October.
Nikolaos remembers how happy the villagers were to welcome their liberators. Angelo tells of the emotional arrival of the andartes in his village of Kontias.
They came marching over the hills from the capital at Myrina, the Greek flag carried at their front and singing their songs of liberation. As Angelo recounted this story he began to sing the words of the songs sung as these brave fighters marched to the village square:
“To arms! To arms! In this new battle for the cause of freedom!”
The andartes soon moved off in the direction of Moudros, seeking to harass and attack the Germans as they sought to depart the island.
Soon detachments of the Allied raiding parties landed on Lemnos, commanded by Scottish-born major Jock Lapraik, MC. They included soldiers of the Greek Sacred Squadron – an elite Greek military unit – whose senior commander was Colonel Alkiviadis Bourdaras.
Photographs from the time show the Greek soldiers landing at Myrina and being welcomed by the townsfolk and the local EAM leader on Lemnos, Andreas Noulas. They then made their way to Diapori and on to Moudros, following in the wake of the andartes, seeking out the remaining German forces on the island.
Eventually the combined Allied forces attacked the Germans as they assembled to depart Lemnos from Moudros.
The ensuing fight, with a German ferry armed with mortars shelling the town, saw much of the town destroyed, the wounding of Major Lapraik, and the death of Sacred Squadron lieutenant Panayiotis Dimoulas from Larissa.
Remaining German vessels were sunk by the British warship HMS Argonaut. And so, as legend has it, Jason and the Argonauts had come to Lemnos, and another Argonaut had come again to help its inhabitants!
At the end of the battle of Mudros, many Germans lay dead and over 375 German soldiers were taken prisoner, but only one Allied soldier had been killed. Melbourne’s Argus newspaper alluded to Lemnos’ key role in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 by reporting on 23 October that the Allied troops had retaken “the historic Lemnos Island.”
The liberation of the island was followed by much celebration. Speeches at Myrina were followed by the formal demolition of the German war memorial – the broken stones of the memorial were eventually put to better use by the locals. The destruction of the memorial brought out much excitement in the large crowd who came along to witness it.
Angelo remembers how in trying to calm the enthusiasm of the crowd a policeman’s pistol accidentally discharged, injuring the hand of a young schoolgirl.
Much of Lemnos’ history and mythology is connected to the sea: Jason and the Argonauts called in to Lemnos on their voyage seeking the golden fleece, Odysseus sailed from Lemnos’ northern Pournia Bay on his way to Troy, the Anzacs came and sailed from here to Gallipoli in 1915, and thousands of Asia Minor refugees transformed the island’s population when they arrived by sea from the Asia Minor coast. And of course fishing is in the blood of many Lemnians. So how fitting that the sea that brought the German occupiers in 1941 would see them removed by liberators from the sea in October 1944.
The liberation of much of Greece from Axis occupation in October 1944 should be better remembered as there is much to be proud of.
Across Greece the resistance, aided by the advancing Allied forces, fought successfully to end the long night of enemy oppression. I look forward to the day when October takes its rightful place in Greece’s annual days of remembrance. We owe it to all who fought to liberate Greece.
So if you visit Lemnos in October, think of how the islanders suffered under the German occupation and how Lemnos was liberated.
Stand in the square in Kontias and imagine the singing of the andartes as they marched through the village on their way to fight the Germans. And stand before the memorial on Myrina’s Roman shore and honour the service of that brave Lieutenant from Larissa who died liberating Lemnos all those years ago.
This is the second of two articles on the occupation and liberation of Lemnos in WW2 based on witness testimonies and historical research.
Jim Claven is a historian, freelance writer and Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He acknowledges the work of Lemnos historian Aristides Tsotroudis on Lemnos’ occupation and liberation, and thanks Angelo, Chris, Nikolaos, Liza and Dimitris for sharing their memories. Anyone with more stories of the occupation and liberation of Lemnos should contact Jim Claven via email at [email protected].