Retrieved from the memory hole: British intervention in Greece in the 1940s
by Ian Sinclair
19 June 2017
Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of El-Alamein, D-Day, Arnhem, V.E. Day, V.J. Day – the 70th anniversaries of various well known engagements in the Second World War have been commemorated extensively over the last few years, with official events and widespread media coverage. However, one British engagement in the Second World War did not, as far as I am aware, receive any national recognition – has, in fact, been effectively scrubbed from the nation’s collective memory: the British intervention in Greece.
Though it garnered a huge amount of press coverage at the time, arguably British actions in Greece during and immediately after the war – including aerial attacks on Athens and working with Nazi collaborators – have disappeared down the memory hole because they fatally undermine some of our most sacred national myths: about the so-called just war of 1939-45, the “Greatest Briton” Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee’s much celebrated post-war Labour government.
The occupation of Greece
Before the Second World War Greece was ruled by fascistic General Ioannis Metaxas. Supported by the Head of State, King George II of Greece, and the British, “Metaxas’s regime was a fully fledged police state”, according to historian John Newsinger, “banning strikes, imposing rigid censorship and imprisoning large numbers of socialists, communists and trade unionists in concentration camps.” With the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Metaxas was keen to keep Greece out of the hostilities. Italy had other ideas, invading Greece in October 1940. This initial aggression was repelled, and British and allied forces were invited in to assist after Metaxas’s death in January 1941. However, Germany, keen to shore up its Balkans flank, came to the aid of its axis ally and quickly swept through Greece, taking Athens in April 1941. The king fled – first to Crete, then to London, before eventually settling in Cairo.
With Greece under a tripartite German, Italian and Bulgarian occupation, in September 1941 the Communist Party of Greece set up the National Liberation Front (EAM), and its military wing (ELAS) in spring 1942, to resist the occupiers. In his 1992 book A Concise History of Greece, Richard Clogg explains EAM had two principal aims: “the organisation of resistance and a free choice as to the form of government on the eventual liberation of the country.” The latter aim should be seen in the context of the pre-war dictatorship and the British preference for the return of the King, “for which there was little enthusiasm in occupied Greece”, according to Clogg – largely because of the monarch’s acquiescence during Metaxas’s rule.
Newsinger notes the EAM was “a broad based organisation with Popular Front politics… committed to social reform, women’s liberation, democratisation and national freedom.” With the military occupation biting hard, EAM “encouraged local food production, established soup kitchens, prevented hoarding and profiteering, and controlled the movement of foodstuffs”. ELAS played a key role in helping to save Greek Jews from the Nazis, often offering sanctuary in the hills, with Professor Mark Mazower noting in his book Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 ELAS’s actions “saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Jews.” Quoting Chris Woodhouse, the British Special Operations Executive’s senior officer in Greece at the time, Newsinger notes the resistance carried out hundreds of attacks on the railway network, derailing trains, destroying engines and blowing up tunnels and bridges. Writing after the war, Woodhouse noted ELAS tied down “about three hundred thousand enemy troops.”
Less well known was EAM’s organisation of a trade union front (EEAM), which opposed the occupation by strikes, industrial action and sabotage – an impressive campaign of nonviolent resistance. Newsinger describes EEAM’s success in defying the German’s plan to conscript labour to work in Germany as “one of the most remarkable in the history of the European labour movement during these grim years.” The credit for this achievement “belongs largely to the Communists”, Woodhouse noted.
Answering the question “Was EAM-ELAS a valid popular movement?”, in his 1961 book The Cold War and Its Origins 1917-1960 the historian D.F. Fleming notes it “had the allegiance of great numbers of people.” Newsinger concurs, arguing “In the course of 1942-43 EAM became a mass movement without any precedent in Greek history.”
Keen to reinstall the Greek king and a friendly government to shore up British strategic interests in the Mediterranean, the make-up and popularity of the resistance to the occupation posed a conundrum for Britain. As the British Minister of State in Cairo pointed out to Churchill in 1943: “our military policy (to exert maximum possible pressure on the enemy) and our political policy (to do nothing to jeopardise the return of the monarchies) are fundamentally opposed.” In an attempt to square this unpalatable circle, Newsinger explains the “SOE was charged with keeping assistance to ELAS to a minimum, while making every effort to sustain and encourage [a] rival right-wing guerrilla organisation”, which went on to set up a truce with German forces.
The Battle of Athens and the start of the Greek civil war
By time German forces retreated from a devastated Greece in early October 1944 (500,000 people had died during the occupation – about seven percent of the population), EAM claimed a membership of two million and ran a proto-government in the 80 percent of the country they controlled. Preparing to restore the king, British forces under the command of Lt Gen Ronald Scobie arrived in Athens in mid-October 1944 and installed a provisional government, which included EAM members. However, tensions were rising between the EAM resistance movement and British forces, with Britain hoping to disarm EAM supporters as quickly as possible. Tensions came to a head on 3 December 1944 when Greek police shot dead 28 people and injured hundreds at a peaceful pro-EAM demonstration. In response EAM supporters stormed police stations across Athens, and organised a general strike. On 5 December 1944 Churchill sent a telegram to Scobie, ordering him to clear EAM forces out of Athens, with the infamous instruction he should not “hesitate to act as if… in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” The subsequent street fighting included British tank offensives, artillery bombardments and aerial attacks on neighbourhoods by RAF Spitfires and Beaufighters. “The mortars were raining down and planes were targeting everything”, recalls one Greek eyewitness. Having studied families living in Athens at the time, anthropologist Nemi Panourgia notes that British and government forces “were able to make forays into the city, burning and bombing houses and streets.” One British seaman who was involved in the attack remembers it “was nerve-racking going on deck for all you could hear was the sound of women and children wailing and crying.” The British forces eventually prevailed, but only after releasing thousands of prisoners who had collaborated with the Germans so they could fight EAM, and by receiving reinforcements from Italy. 267 British troops died in the fighting, and nearly a 1,000 were wounded.
Churchill likely felt he has a free hand in Greece to crush the anti-Nazi resistance forces because of the cynical Risk-style Percentages Agreement carving up territories and markets in south-east Europe he had secretly signed with Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin in October 1944. According to the document – one single sheet of paper given a tick by Stalin – the Soviet Union would have 90 percent influence in Romania and 75 percent in Bulgaria; the United Kingdom would have 90 percent in Greece; and they would share 50 percent each in Hungary and Yugoslavia.
Following EAM’s defeat in the Battle of Athens – known in Greece as ‘The Dekemvriana’ – a ‘White Terror’ was instituted, with anyone suspected of supporting, or being a member of, ELAS rounded up and sent to concentration camps. “Thousands… were executed, usually in public, their severed heads or hanging bodies routinely displayed in public squares”, noted Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith in a 2014 Observer piece about the British role in Greece. With the British Police Mission recruiting Nazi collaborators and overseeing the repression, “nowhere else in newly liberated Europe were Nazi sympathisers enabled to penetrate the state structure – the army, security forces, judiciary – so effectively”, they explain. As the historian David Close argued in his book The Origins of the Greek Civil War: “The white terror was made possible only by British backing.”
More slaughter and division was to come. “The Greek Civil War that lasted from 1946 until 1949 completed the destruction of the left”, notes Newsinger. “By the time it was over 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, 40,000 were being held in concentration camps, 5,000 had been executed and another 100,000 had fled the country.”
Shameful British history
The British intervention in Greece was a shameful episode in British history – one that deserves to be better known and which counters a number of cherished national shibboleths. For example, Seamus Milne’s assertion in 2014 that the Second World War was a “just war” sits uneasily alongside the fact RAF Spitfires strafed Athens and the British violently suppressed the Greek resistance who had sacrificed so much fighting the Germans by working with those Greeks who collaborated with the Germans. And this wasn’t a one-off. In a September 2016 Guardian article Ian Cobain highlighted how, in 1945, the British government used captured Japanese troops to quell a nationalist uprising in Vietnam (which had only just been occupied by the Japanese), so France could recover control of her pre-war colony. The British followed a similar strategy in Indonesia – working with the defeated Japanese forces to crush a nationalist uprising to re-establish Dutch rule.
The Greek drama also punctures the myth of Churchill as a great leader and ‘Great Briton’, and shows up the pro-imperialism of Labour Party heroes Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevan, who were intimately involved in the destruction of popular leftist forces in Greece, first under Churchill’s leadership and then during Attlee’s 1945 government, which oversaw the repression in Vietnam and Indonesia.
With Vulliamy and Smith noting the British intervention has “haunted Greece ever since… creating an abyss between the left and right thereafter”, Britain’s nefarious role has had a long and destructive legacy that the British, if they believe themselves to be a humane and fair-minded nation, would do well to remember.