I am going to make a confession. When I was a kid growing up I used to read plenty about World War Two. Not surprising really as my father was a wartime submarine commander who had stories aplenty to tell about his small part in Hitler’s downfall.That isn’t the confession, by the way, merely the prelude to the confession.
Like all schoolboys, inspired I think by the sixpenny war mags, we also played out various aspects of the war, brave Tommy single-handedly rescues innocent children from the hands of the vicious, cruel marauding Hun, that kind of thing.
“Achtung, Hände hoch,” became staple diets of our everyday conversation along with “Englischer Schweinhund”.
These days, of course, it is politically totally incorrect but back then in the early 1970s, in a time before Britain joined the EEC, it was just the way things were. I am not going to apologise through the rosé-tinted glasses of hindsight. That is not my confession either but we are getting to it so stay with me on this one.
Occassionally, one of my chums, very probably good-natured James Greenhalgh got to be a member of the resistance. James always seemed to have a permanent cold, so I suspect he got the resistance job because his drippy nose enabled him to put on a suitably nasal and shruggy French accent.
But as far as we were concerned, and as far as we were taught in later years in school, Winston Churchill beat the Nazis. He probably could have done it single-handedly like good old Tommy as far as we were concerned but he kindly allowed Monty, 633 Squadron and my dad to finish the job.
Oh and he let the Americans have a bit of the action too. And the Russians. But they were the commie enemy in the 1970s so we didn’t give much credit to the Red Army. If the resistance was to be included then as far as we knew that only existed in France.
And here is my confession. I was wrong. Wrong about most of the above but most particularly wrong about the resistance. It wasn’t just a band of hardy Frenchies that battled away against the Nazis, the Greeks did it as well, arguably to greater effect.
I am ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about the Greek resistance until I moved to Athens in 2004. Only then, when I began to read more did I discover more about the fantastically brave and pig-headed response of the facist dictator Ioannis Metaxas when the Italian ambassador informed him that Italian troops would be entering the country that night and would he like to surrender now to Il Duce’s representative there and then .
“Ochi!” growled Metaxas in his pyjamas and dressing gown, dismissing the ambassador with that one word. “No!”
The Greeks duly sent their army to the Albanian border and kicked Mussolini’s boys back beyond the mountains. It was a magnificent victory, the first non-Axis success of the war and the one that prompted Churchill’s famous comment.
“Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
That day of refusal is marked Greece every year in on October 28 – now known simply as Ochi Day (sometimes spelt Oxi in English). From the celebrations that take place, it seems almost more sacred than the National Day of March 25, something that Frau Merkel and her cohorts should understand when dealing with the Greeks of today. Not only had I never heard of this war in the mountains but I had no idea of the effect which was to drag the Germans into Greece. That hadn’t been the plan at all. And once Mussolini had dragged the Greeks into the war, inevitably Hitler, like a frustrated elder brother looking after his wayward Italian sibling, sent the Panzer divisions south, pulling them away from involvement in other fronts.They broke through the border in the north-east and the Battle of Greece got underway, Greeks and British fighting all the way but being squeezed down through Greece. The British, it seems, apart from instances of individual bravery, did not cover themselves in glory in the Battle of Greece but the Greeks certainly did.
Unlike certain other European nations which ushered the Nazis up the highway on a red carpet into the capital, the Greeks fought. A hopeless battle but a brave one which echoed their struggles against the Ottomans. “Freedom or death” was the catchphrase in the 19th century fight for independence and it was much the same as the tanks rolled through Greece.
In the Battle of Crete, the Greek army fought tooth and nail alongside the British, Australians and New Zealanders before losing a battle they ought to have won.
I knew none of this.
Nor did I know of the Nazi occupation, the collaboration, the split in the Greek resistance between the right (favoured by Churchill and the Americans) and the left (favoured by Stalin) which colours political allegiances to this day and of the operations such as the attack on the bridge at Gorgopotamos on November 25, 1942.
I knew nothing of the massacres that went on at Kaisairiani, just up the road from where I lived in Athens, Distomo and Komeno, to pick out just three of many.
I knew nothing of the mass-round up of the Jews in Thessaloniki and Athens until my daily walk home from work took me past the Synagogue in Meledoni Street, spitting distance from Thisseo, where they were rounded up on the morning of March 23, 1944 and sent to labour camps.
Likewise, I was ignorant of the Allied blockade of Piraeus, the mass starvation that took place in the winter of 1942 – in December of that year 10,000 people died of malnutrition per week. And needless to say that I had not even heard of the four years of Greek Civil War that kicked off just six weeks after the country was liberated, a civil war that gangrenised the wounds that had festered in Greek society during the occupation.
The scars have never healed. Opened up the military junta that took power between 1967 and 1974, those wounds have opened up again in the last couple of years, the polarity between communist left and fascist right reaching toxic levels.
Yes, I had seen The Guns of Navarone and read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but in short, until going to live there, I knew nothing of the Second World War in Greece. And I had no idea that British school children were so damned ignorant and the teachers so damned arrogant to ignore the bravery of the people that fought the war in Greece.
That is my confession.
Next week Barney will post an interview with Themis Marinos, last surviving member of the Harling Mission which undertook the destruction of the railway bridge at Gorgopotamos.
©Barney Spender 2012