As 1944 drew to a close, the British in Greece found themselves in a parlous situation. They had agreed to support the restoration of Greek civil authority while overseeing the distribution of aid and the re-creation of armed forces to ensure internal security, all while commitments elsewhere were straining them almost to the breaking point.
The temporary and unstable government of “National Unity” was led by Giorgios Papandreou. It included representatives of all the major political parties and was constantly destabilized by bickering from all sides.
From the pan left-wing group, Ethnikon Apelefterotiken Metopon (EAM), or National Liberation Front, which had been formed during the German occupation, came seven members including the undersecretary for war. Outside the capital, the EAM controlled four-fifths of the country, imposing taxes and controlling the finances of the Athens government through the Ministry of Finance.
The Kommunistikon Komma Hellados (Communist Party or KKE) provided two members. However, far from being satisfied with this contribution, when the 3rd Greek Mountain (Rimini) Brigade returned from Italy, the EAM/KKE used this as an excuse to bring pressure on the government to demand its disbandment. When the government refused, EAM/ KKE threatened civil war. While the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade had been fighting the common enemy in Italy, the EAM/KKE had been fighting their compatriots in Greece with this outrageous demand as a climax. Papandreou had tried appeasement, but this strongly disciplined and politically dedicated group understood exactly the stakes it was playing for.
The military wing of the EAM/KKE was the Hellenikos Laikos Apeleftertikos Stratos (ELAS), or Greek People’s Liberation Army. It amounted to 35,000 men organized in nine divisions and some independent brigades. In Athens, a corps of around 11,000 men with artillery and a dedicated administrative staff had never been used against the German occupation forces but had been retained as a reserve for what was seen to be the endgame.
Its numbers were maintained through press-ganging and the liberal use of criminals, bandits, and thugs leading to an appalling reputation among the citizens.
In Constitution Square, a mile from the Acropolis in Athens, stood the Hotel Grande Bretagne, site of the British Military Mission. On December 3, 1944, a demonstration against the interim government was organized by EAM/KKE forces and moved toward the square. It was later reported that two grenades had been thrown, but arguments remain as to who fired first. A scuffle began and degenerated into a firefight. This was the signal for the revolution to begin, and ELAS made its move.
ELAS ignored the curfew imposed by the Greek government and infiltrated troops into the city to attack various police stations and other key points. Rioting and fighting spread throughout the city, escalating until 500 police and gendarmes were dead or missing by the end of the week. Initially, ELAS tried to seize control without involving the British, whom they hoped to persuade to stand aside. However, the British decided that they had to maintain order, if possible without resorting to force which the commander, Lt. Gen. Ronald M. Scobie, attempted throughout the 4th and 5th. Under the terms of the Caserta agreement, by which the British were present in Greece, ELAS forces were under Scobie’s command. However, they paid no heed to orders to retire and overran most of the police posts by the night of December 4.
Having failed to preserve order without resorting to force, Scobie ordered Brigadier R.H.B. Arkwright, commander of the 23rd Armoured Brigade, to clear ELAS from the prohibited Athens-Piraeus area at 11:45 am on December 5. At Arkwright’s disposal were the equivalent of eight British and four Greek infantry battalions, but they soon found themselves going backward. After the German occupation forces withdrew from Greece toward the end of 1944, the British had sent the Military Mission under Scobie with III Corps Headquarters from Italy to Athens. Its purpose was to distribute food and medical stores, which were in desperately short supply. This was hampered by the hapless state of the country’s infrastructure following three years of occupation.
At the same time, the Military Mission was to help the Greeks form and maintain a temporary government to see the country through to formal elections. Consequently, the British forces assembled in Greece were ill prepared for internal security operations. Their training and psychological preparation had been in applying maximum force against heavily armed, easily identified, and aggressive opposition in the form of German forces among mountains and river valleys of Italy. Suddenly, they were expected to engage fleeting and indistinct opponents darting through the back streets of Athens where only minimum force was to be applied.
The Athens Corps of ELAS was commanded by Athanasios Klaras, officially its second in command but its de facto field commander. He surrounded himself with 50 bodyguards wearing Astrakhan hats and black beards, ruffians of the first order. Klaras had a fearful reputation for cruelty and despised all things British. He liked to style himself as Ares after the ancient Greek god of war. Decency was meaningless to him, and stretcher parties could expect to be fired upon. Ambulances carried ammunition and civilian hostages. Children were forced to carry messages, while ammunition was carried by old women in their shopping baskets and young women in their baby’s carriages.
Late in 1944, Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, the Greek Navy Minister, appeared in Cairo. Pale and shocked, he reported massacres in the Peloponnese at Pirgo and Kelami perpetrated by Ares with as many as 10,000 killed. Only the presence of a British detachment prevented further atrocities at Sparta. When asked if he had killed 1,200 in the Peloponnese with his own hands, Ares answered, “The figure is wrong, I killed 2,000.” He was known by various names in the British Military Mission where liaison officers accused him of sadistic pleasure in the infliction of pain. Among the mildest was “Archbastard.”
At all levels there was a misunderstanding of the size of the task facing the British. The 2nd (Independent) Parachute Brigade had been scheduled to leave Greece until a directive from Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived. In a telegram to London, Scobie’s superior, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, stated that he did “not anticipate that he [Scobie] will have any difficulty in dealing with any disorders that may occur in that area.” And at the tactical level, there was similar confidence that order would be swiftly restored. Throughout the first day, British troops tried to persuade ELAS groups holed up in police stations to surrender to them, prior to reestablishing Greek police control. At the same time, ELAS continued to attack others outside the reach of British troops.
The only regular forces available to support the government in Athens were the British 23rd Armoured Brigade, 2nd (Independent) Parachute Brigade, 139th Brigade (which had been scheduled to replace it), and the 3rd Greek Mountain (Rimini) Brigade with an additional artillery regiment acting as infantry. These were officially constituted as “Arkforce” at 9 pm on December 5 with a headquarters set up near III Corps just north of Constitution Square. The city was divided into four brigade areas, and clearing operations were scheduled to begin at dawn the following day. As this was taking place, administrative units working in areas dominated by ELAS were to continue as normal without provoking an attack. The only restriction laid down was that a warning was to be issued before opening fire. Unarmed crowds were not to be engaged except with solitary warning shots if they interfered with operations. Buildings occupied by ELAS units could be engaged without regard to other occupants.
The 16th Battalion Encountered Mines, Obstacles, and Strong ELAS Forces in the Narrow Streets of Pireaus.
Arkwright’s main concern was his supply routes. Most of the troops were in central Athens, and the sea and air terminals were only lightly held. Shipping had been diverted into the Straits of Salamis to be unloaded onto the Piraeus Peninsula and Faliron Bay. These major supply dumps were defended by just one squadron of the Royal Air Force Regiment with another two guarding the airhead at Kalamaki. In support, they had only the 64th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, operating as infantry and covering a very wide area. These detachments might easily be overrun if not supported. Consequently, the 2/5th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment was sent to secure the naval headquarters and clear the docks. The 16th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry was dispatched to clear the Faliron Bay beaches.
The 16th Durham Light Infantry soon met up with the RAF Regiment and on the following day worked its way around to where the built-up area of Pireaus began. Here the 16th Battalion encountered mines, obstacles, and strong ELAS forces in the narrow streets. With his troops strung out in a long line, the commanding officer realized his vulnerability but decided to bluff his way out. He was assisted by the repulse of an infiltration on the night of December 8. Meanwhile, the 2/5th Leicesters had a thornier problem to grasp. After skirmishing, they were aided by two tanks in dispersing a crowd besieging the naval headquarters. They then commenced a methodical advance toward the docks at Leondos Harbor.