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CONTRIBUTION AND SACRIFICE OF THE HELLENIC NAVY

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CONTRIBUTION AND SACRIFICE OF THE

GREEK MERCHANT MARINE

IN THE ALLIED EFFORT AGAINST THE AXIS

DURING W.W. II, 1939-45

WITH BRIEF REFERENCE TO THE HELLENIC NAVY

Compiled by Rear Admiral Sotirios Georgiadis H.N. (Ret)

 

DIAGRAMMATIC VIEW OF GREEK MERCHANT MARINE LOSSES DUE TO WAR ACTIONS 1939-45 (REF. 4)

DIAGRAMMATICVIEW.jpg


Introduction

Both the Greek Merchant Marine (GMM) as well as the Hellenic Navy (HN), played together very important roles on the side of the Allies during WW II. The purpose of this short account is to summarize their substantial contribution to the allied war effort and associated heavy sacrifice in men and ships.

 

In peacetime the roles of the GMM and HN are separate and different, but in wartime the two of them combine and operate together in as much as the needs of sea replenishment and transport are concerned. Additionally, GMM seamen are the most valued source of manpower for HN ships, due to their marine qualifications.

 

Although Greece remained neutral until attacked by Italy on the 28th October 1940, the Greek Government called upon the GMM to immediately commence serving the Allies from the first day of WW II, on the 1st September 1939. Early the following year 1940, the Greek Prime Minister sent the Greek Minister of Merchant Marine to London, to formalize the availability of GMM ships to the Allies. On the very first day of WW II, when Germany attacked Poland, the GMM cargo ship IOANNIS CARRAS became the first Greek casualty. She was bombed in the harbor of Gdynia, where she had arrived the previous day. Between 1st September 1939 and 28th October 1940, i.e. before Greece was drawn into WW II, about 350 allied and neutral merchant ships were lost, out of which about 100 or 28% were Greek. GMM continued to serve faithfully the allied cause to the very end of WW II in August 1945.

 

The HN was also the victim of Italian warplane and submarine attacks before Greece entered WW II and in conjunction with the GMM continued to serve effectively its country during the victorious five-month Greek defence against invading Italy at first and later on Germany as well. The latter came to the help of the defeated Italy on 6th April 1941, in order to overcome Greece. When, two months later, the whole of Greece finally came under German occupation, the King, the Hellenic Government and the remaining ships of the HN Fleet did not surrender, but sailed to Alexandria and continued in active service on the side of the Allies until the end of the war in Europe on 10th May 1945. A substantial portion of the State Budget of the Greek Government In Exile was funded by the GMM.

 

Large numbers of GMM men have also served on HN warships during the whole of the period considered. Greek shipowners and seamen, of a younger age at that time, volunteered and manned HN warships. Typical of many such cases is that of Fotis Lykiardopulo, of the well known shipping family, born, raised and living in London, who joined the HN in 1943 in England as a volunteer, attended the British Cadet School and participated in the Normandy Naval Landings in June 1944 on board the British Frigate HMS CHELMER. Stavros Niarchos at the age of 35 and Nicolas Michalos served on the Corvette RHS KRIEZIS, under Commander D. Kiosses RHN, together with about 100 other GMM men. Michael Maris served on the Corvette RHS TOMBAZIS, under Commander G. Panagiotopoulos RHN. Stavros Niarchos was later on transferred and served on the Destroyer RHS SALAMIS. More names of Greek Merchant Mariners who served on Hellenic Navy warships can be found in the Lists at the end of this text.

 

Together with two HN Corvettes, RHS KRIEZIS and RHS TOMBAZIS, the following four GMM cargo ships participated in the allied Normandy operations:2 C/S “AGIOS SPYRIDON”, captained by George Samothrakis, C/S “GEORGIOS P.”, captained by Dimitrios Parisis, C/S “AMERIKI”, captained by Spyridon Theofilatos and C/S “HELLAS”, captained by George Trilivas.

 

Unfortunately WW II GMM records found were not consistent and consequently some of the data presented here is necessarily approximate.

 

Throughout WW II, the GMM lost over 2.000 seamen and more than 60% of its ocean going ships, while the HN lost more than 700 men and about 32% of its fighting ships. The Allies made good HN warships lost and even increased their number during the war, in recognition of the HN substantial contribution. At the same time 15 newly US built Liberty class 10.000 grt cargo ships were made available to the GMM, to compensate in part for its severe loses. Shipping losses did not end with WW II in 1945. They continued beyond that period, due to sea mines laid during the war.

 

German Submarines menaced GMM ships and caused most of their losses mainly in the Atlantic, but also in other seas. The fact that at least during the first year of WW II over 25% of German Submarine torpedoes fired failed due to technical problems, came as an advantage to the Allied ships. It is remarkable, that in the first year of the war, an average of only 6 U-Boats at sea at any time, sank more than 1.000 allied merchant ships, loaded with over 4 million tons of valuable materials. German predictions (Ref. 5, Vol. II, page 48) claim their U-Boats could have sank twice as many ships, in case they did not have such persistent and serious torpedo failures. According to the assessment of the then Commodore Karl Doenitz, Senior Officer of German U-Boats, later Admiral Commander in Chief of the German Navy and finally successor of Hitler (Ref. 5, Vol. I, page 3), neither the German Government nor the Navy had until the end of 1938 considered Britain as a possible enemy. Consequently at WW II outbreak the German Navy possessed the very limited number of 57 commissioned Submarines, out of 300 needed at the time, of which only 45 were operational. German Submarine tonnage was then about 45% that of Great Britain. Neither the existing German Naval Forces, nor those expected from a vast WW II building program, were considered by Admiral K. Doenitz to be sufficient to obtain decisive results against British shipping. The stupendous German Submarine construction program launched and implemented during WW II, resulted in the commissioning of about 1.153 new U-Boats, while the number constructed, but not commissioned, was much higher.

 

The contribution of Greece in the WW II allied effort, as asserted by Hitler, was as follows: “The entrance of Italy into the war proved catastrophic for us. Had the Italians not attacked Greece and had they not needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We would have had the time to capture Leningrad and Moscow, before the Russian cold weather had set in.” Hitler uttered words to this effect on March 30, 1944 to his guest and trusted friend Leni Riefenstahl, the world famous film director, as she writes in her autobiography. On the other hand the Soviet Marshal Zhukov notes in his Memoirs: “If the Russian people were able to raise their tired bodies in front of Moscow’s gates, to hold and turn back the German torrent, they owe it to the Greek people, who delayed the German Divisions for as long as it would have taken to drive us to our knees.”

 

The contribution of the Greek Merchant Marine

At the year 2000 Greek owned merchant shipping is a world leader, holding more than 15% of the total available capacity, with over 5.000 ocean going ships, of more than 115 million gross tons in total. At the outbreak of WW II the GMM held about 2,6% of the world capacity in gross tons (grt), with about 600 ocean going steam ships and about 700 small diesel engined sailing cargo vessels. Some 90% of the GMM steamship capacity consisted of cargo ships. However, Greek tonnage was then larger then that of Sweden, the USSR, Canada, Denmark or Spain.

 

The British in particular, in spite the United Kingdom’s top merchant shipping position, with a capacity of 26,11%, could be supplied and fed only by sea and therefore required all the tonnage they could get, to cover not only home requirements, but also their world wide increased war needs as well. GMM shipping came immediately from the outbreak of WW II to support these requirements, with the implementation of a relevant Greek Government policy and the co-operation of shipowners and crews. It is noted that by mid-1940, the British Royal Navy had only a two-month reserve of fuel. Little more than a year later, in September 1941, a quarter of the entire British merchant fleet lay on the bottom of the sea. An agonized Sir Dudley Pound, the British First Sea Lord, put it starkly by saying: “If we loose the war at sea, we loose the war”8

 

Most GMM cargo ships were coal-burning and very slow, while crew living conditions onboard were very austere and in fact gruelling. Navigational aids were minimal. With many Light Houses shut down during WW II, navigation was hazardous and very much dependent on a simple compass and the sights of the stars by night and coasts by day.

 

GMM crews, manning those slow cargo ships, were easy targets for enemy Submarines and Surface warships. International Law and War Rules were scarcely observed, at the expense of the lives of GMM crews. These stipulated that a neutral merchant ship had at first to be stopped, its cargo searched and only if found carrying war materials could legitimately be sunk, provided her crew was disembarked beforehand and taken to safety. In real life, however, and in most instances, enemy Submarines operating particularly in the Atlantic, used to sink cargo ships on sight. These were the prevailing harsh conditions, which accounted for the very large numbers of GMM crew losses. It is noted that German orders issued to their Submarines on 30th September 1939 (Ref. 5, Vol. I, page 44), stressed amongst other things that: “…. Since the Greeks have sold and chartered numerous ships to England, Greek ships are to be regarded as hostile ….. U-Boats must remain unobserved while attacking ….”

 

There were even cases where enemy ships brutally killed surviving crews, to remove all traces. Victims of such wanton murders were crewmembers of the GMM cargo ship PELEUS, to mention just one case, who survived and boarded their life boats, after their ship was torpedoed and sank by U-852 in the Atlantic at the Equator, near West Africa. U-852 machine-gunned and killed the the survivors. Only her Second Officer Antonis Liosis and two others of her crew escaped, to tell the tale. At the Nuremberg Trial after WW II the U-852 Commander E. H. Wilhelm was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed.

 

Out of a total of about 500 GMM ocean going steam cargo ships, approximately 211 were lost as a result of WW II direct actions. Additionally 107 more cargo ships were lost due to other causes. Furthermore, out of 55 passenger ships, 52 were lost. Finally, out of over 700 diesel engined small sailing cargo vessels, of more than 30 grt each, about 500 were also lost. The largest GMM steam cargo ship annual losses occurred in the Atlantic in the year 1941. Until that time cargo ships were crossing the Atlantic singly and unprotected or under weak convoy coverage. Enhanced warship escort and cargo ship convoy protection applied for the remainder of WW II, reduced annual losses appreciably.

 

The above GMM losses should be compared with the overall allied shipping losses for the whole duration of WW II, as recorded by the British and disclosed after the war (Ref. 5, Vol. III, page 101), according to which about 2.600 merchant ships were sunk, about 95% of which, in the Atlantic. GMM losses, therefore, amount to about 14% of worldwide allied losses, in numbers of cargo and passenger ships.

 

Weapons against shipping included primarily torpedoes, but also mines and bombs. Sea mines were widely used in all parts of the world and especially in straights and port approaches, playing havoc to all shipping. It is estimated that a total of over 700.000 mines were laid throughout WW II. About 70% of them were laid by England and Germany. These mines caused grave losses to shipping not only during WW II, but also long after its end.

During the Italian attempt to invade Greece, launched from inside Albanian territory then occupied by Italy, GMM ships under HN protection, transported successfully about 80% of Hellenic Army materials and personnel from various ports throughout the country to the main ports near the fighting Front, with the loss of only two small GMM cargo ships bombed while at anchor at their destinations. About 140 cargo and 47 passenger ships, with the help of 56 tugs, carried out these tasks.

 

It is not possible to refer here to individual cases of ship dramas, sufferings and accomplishments during WW II, but at least two deeds stand out and deserve particular mention. The first concerns the ship NICHOLAOS G. KULUKUNDIS, captained by Constantine Panorios, which in spite of difficulties and in the face of immense dangers entered the port of Tripoli in Libya and, on 2nd February, 1943 brought much needed fuel to the British 8th Army fighting in North Africa. Winston Churchill greeted and marked the daring feat, by visiting the ship in person on 4th February 1943. The second similar achievement was accomplished by the cargoship ELPIS, captained by Nicolaos Kouvalias, which under heavy bombardment approached Libya and unloaded valuable fuel for the British Army there, drawing the praise of the King of England.

The contribution of the Hellenic Navy

 

The coming outbreak of war, the decision to prepare the country’s defence, and if Greece were forced to abandon her neutrality, to enter the war on the side of the Allies in the ensuing conflict, were announced to the Board of Admirals in a secret session as early as Autumn 1936 by the then Prime Minister John Metaxas (Ref. 6).

All preparations were carried out on time between 1937-40, within the limitations of the meager Greek funds and to a large extent by Greek hands. The HN ordered two Destroyers in England, their guns in Germany, and simultaneously placed orders for material packages for two sister ships to be built in Greece, at the newly established HN Shipyard at Skaramanga, which was intended to cover GMM needs as well. The 1939 edition of “Jane’s Fighting Ships” states that the HN had a newbuilding program consisting of 12 Destroyers and 2 Submarines.

 

It may be of interest to note that only Germany at the time was accepting barter payment (clearing) for military orders, while France England and the US required payment in foreign exchange only, which was very hard for Greece to come by. Furthermore, Germany, in an effort to entice Greece, was absorbing most of the Greece’s agricultural produce.

 

As an extension of the “Metaxas Line” of 20 large permanent border fortifications, the HN constructed and manned 8 shore gun batteries, covering strategic sea passages and permitting the safe transportation of war materials by ships to the fighting Front in the north of the country. The HN was also made responsible for the operation of about 400 sea and air lookouts throughout the country, as well as for the air defence of Athens and most of Greece, save the Front.

 

The 34 HN fighting ships that took part in the battle of Greece from 28th October 1940 to 31st May 1941, were in general old and no match for the 45 times larger and newer Italian Fleet. However, all HN missions were accomplished successfully and without losses during the first five-month defence against Italy. The Greek Fleet lost 28 fighting ships and over 700 men throughout WW II. As soon as Greece came under German occupation, the HN Fleet sailed to Alexandria in Egypt and operated on the side of the Allies till the end of WW II in Europe. In this respect Greece was the only member of the Allies, whose Fleet did not surrender, but continued in its entirety to fight the Axis, while the country itself was under enemy occupation.

 

Due to the replacement by the Allies during WW II of ships sunk, the HN Fleet by the end of 1944 numbered 43 fighting ships, overbalancing its losses. At the same time the HN manpower had risen from about 6.500 in 1940 in Greece, to about 8.500 in 1944 abroad.

 

The main missions of the HN Fleet during the battle of Greece and the remainder of WW II, while by then operating from its main Base abroad in Alexandria, Egypt, were the safe escort of merchant ship convoys, which were transporting men and materials for the war effort. It is indicative of the substantial contribution of the HN Fleet that in 1943, out of 41 warships used then by the Allies as convoy escorts, 27 were British, 11 Greek and 3 French. (Ref. 6)

 

In accomplishing allied war missions between 1941-44, the HN warships covered in sum total about 2 million nautical miles, i.e. they were about 185.000 hours under way. On an average, each HN warship covered about 20.000 nautical miles under war conditions.

Epilogue

Greece, the GMM and the HN all played their roles in WW II and made their contributions on the side of the Allies to the very best of their abilities, paying dearly in, sweat blood and material losses.

 

The only Greek Shipyard, capable of building ships, founded between 1937-39, was bombed and destroyed by the Allies during the spring of the last year of the German occupation of Greece (1944) and thus was rendered useless and incapable of contributing in the construction Naval and/or Marine ships after the end of the war.

 

The GMM licked its war wounds and made a new start after the end of WW II, to conquer a leading position in this worldwide, most competitive and harsh market. The US Government, having built during the war about 2.742 Liberty class cargo ships, which became surplus at the end of WW II, sold in total about 100 of them to Greek Shipowners, under guarantees provided by the Greek Government. These ships constituted the backbone of the GMM, at the start of the post war era. These 100 Liberty ships, included those 15 made available to the GMM during WW II. Soon after that, in 1948, the US sold to Greek shipowners 7 T2 class Oil Tankers, which formed the nucleus of the famous Greek owned Tanker Fleets developed in the following years.

 

The rehabilitation of some large war devastated German Shipyards, soon after WW II, was helped by Greek Shipowners’ orders. Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, followed by Stravros Niarchos, Lyras Brothers, Diamantis Pateras and others, placed merchant ship newbuilding orders from 1948 onwards with the ruined Shipyards in northern Germany (Kiel, Hamburg and Bremen), helping substantially with their re-operation.

 

Much later, in 1955, Stavros Niarchos bought the remains from the 1944 Allied bombing of the 1937 established HN Shipyard at Skaramanga and turned it into the very successful “Hellenic Shipyards SA”, which is building and repairing successfully Merchant as well as Naval ships. The Shipyard became State owned in 1985 and remains so to date.

 

Greece was not as fortunate as all other European allied countries liberated in 1944 from German occupation that immediately made their way forward. Greece, sharing very extended borders with Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, which at the end of WW II were fully controlled by the totalitarian USSR, suffered further severe bloodshed and destruction till 1949, in resisting repeated armed efforts to be drawn forcefully behind the Iron Curtain. The US President’s “Truman Doctrine” in March 1947, concerning military and financial grant aid to Greece and Turkey and the US’ “Marshal Plan” soon after, handing out financial aid for the rehabilitation of European Nations, helped Greece remain in the free and democratic world and start its reconstruction and upgrade from 1950 onward. When NATO was established in 1949, Greece, which had helped the Allies substantially in winning WW II, was not immediately accepted as a member. Greece had to wait for Turkey to become ready, so that both Greece and Turkey could join NATO together.

 

It is reminded that Turkey in WW I was on the side of the Central Powers and not the Allies. In WW II Turkey remained “neutrally pro German” and was of course totally unharmed by the war. On the contrary, Greece in both World Wars was on the side of the Allies and in particular between 1940-49 suffered the largest losses in relation to its size and population. Nevertheless, the Allies placed Greece and Turkey on the same footing immediately after WW II. The “balanced” treatment of Greece and Turkey with respect to the “Truman Doctrine”, the “Marshall Plan” and their simultaneous NATO admittance, are some, but very marked examples of allied mentality and policy.

REFERENCES

1. VICE ADMIRAL E. P. KAVADIAS H.N.(Ret), CHIEF OF THE HELLENIC NAVY FLEET 1939-42 AND DEPUTY DEFENCE MINISTER 1942-43 “THE NAVAL WAR OF 1940 AS I HAVE LIVED IT - MEMORIES BETWEEN 2-3-35 AND 25-3-45”

2. COAST GUARD VICE ADMIRAL CHRIS. DOUNIS (Ret) ARTICLE IN HN NAVAL REVIEW SEPT-OCT 1996 “THE GREAT SILENT: THE GREEK MERCHANT MARINE IN WW II”

3. SPYROS ARMENIAKOS ARTICLE IN HN NAVAL REVIEW, SEPT-OCT 1999 “THE GREEK MERCHANT MARINE CONTRIBUTION IN THE BATTLES OF THE ATLANTIC AND THE MEDITERRANEAN”

4. ALBUM ON THE SACRIFICES OF GREECE IN THE SECOND WORD WAR, BY THE HELLENIC MINISTRY OF RECONSTRUCTION, 1946

5. UK MINISTRY OF DEFENCE (NAVY), “GERMAN NAVAL HISTORY – THE U-BOAT WAR IN THE ATLANTIC 1939-45”

6. VICE ADMIRAL D. FOKAS HN “REPORT ON THE ACTION OF THE HN 1940-44”

7. ROGER JORDAN, “THE PARTICULARS AND WARTIME FATES OF 6.000 SHIPS - THE WORLD’S MERCHANT FLEETS 1939” EDITION 1999

8. US NAVAL INSTITUTE MAGAZINE “NAVAL HISTORY”, JUNE 2000, ARTICLE BY JEROME O’CONNOR

 

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 14 March 2010 01:35  
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