Churchill arrives in Athens to broker peace

A paratrooper from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, takes cover on a street corner in Athens during operations against members of ELAS, 18 December 1944.

A paratrooper from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, takes cover on a street corner in Athens during operations against members of ELAS, 18 December 1944.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaving HMS AJAX to attend a conference ashore. Athens can be seen in the background.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaving HMS AJAX to attend a conference ashore. Athens can be seen in the background.

The refusal of the communist ELAS resistance fighters to lay down their arms in Greece was now turning into a civil war. The British troops brought in to assist the new Greek government maintain order were now fully engaged in street fighting in Athens.

It was this war zone that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had chosen to fly to on Christmas Day. He now tried to broker a peace with the assistance of the Greek Archbishop. He was accompanied by his private secretary, John Colville, whose diary provides many insights into the life of Churchill during the war. On the 26th December they were on board HMS Ajax in Athens’ harbour:

This morning the sun is shining brightly and I have just persuaded the P.M. to get up and go out on the quarter-deck. From the bridge one can see the smoke of battle in the street fighting west of the Piraeus, and there is a constant noise of shell-fire and machine-guns.

We had a splendid view of Beaufrghters strafing an E.L.A.S. stronghold on the side of one of the hills surrounding Athens. Four of them went round and round, diving with all their cannons blazing and then joining in behind the tail of the preceding aircraft to continue the process. As E.L.A.S. seem to be deficient of flak, however well provided they may be with other weapons, the Beaufighters seem to be having a very pleasant time.

There is no nonsense about fraternising among the troops here, who, to a man, consider E.L.A.S. and all their works utterly loathsome. I have spoken to several and I gather that there is a general sense of anger at the attitude of the British press and certain elements of the Labour Party.

Nobody here has any illusions about the real character of the rebels. On the other hand E.L.A.S., in spite of their diabolical activities, have a strangely obliging side to them. For instance, the telephone exchange is in the hands of E.L.A.S. but they have never yet made any difficulties about our telephoning messages from the aerodrome to G.H.Q., even though these, in the form sent, provide them with no useful information. Macmillan says that they possess many of the qualities and defects of the Irish.

The above was written after lunch and it is now 11.45 p.m. with the bag almost closing.

This afternoon’s events were the purest melodrama. Just before we left the ship we were straddled by shells and another fell quite close as we landed. The meeting with the Greeks was preceded by long sessions at the Embassy, in which the Archbishop figured prominently.

There were photographs in the garden and the Prime Minister made a stirring speech to the staff of the Embassy thanking them for their excellent work in arduous conditions. This gave enormous pleasure both to Leeper [the Ambassador] and to the staff. It looked as if E.L.A.S. would not turn up for the meeting and the Archbishop had made his opening speech and the P.M. was halfway through his, when there were noises off and three shabby desperadoes, who had been searched and almost stripped before being allowed to enter, came into the dimly-lit conference room.

All the British delegation, the American, the Russian and the Frenchman, rose to their feet, but the Greek Govern- ment remained firmly seated. The P.M. was only prevented from rushing to shake the E.L.A.S. people by the hand by Field Marshal Alexander’s bodily intervention.

The proceedings then began all over again and, with the sound of rocket- firing Beaufighters, and bursting mortar shells without, the light of a few Hurricane lamps within and the spectacle of what was surely the oddest galaxy of stars ever assembled in one place, one had continually to rub one’s eyes to be sure one was not dreaming.

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, 1939-55

A rifleman acts as 'tail-end Charlie', guarding the commander of a Sherman tank from snipers during operations against ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944.

A rifleman acts as ‘tail-end Charlie’, guarding the commander of a Sherman tank from snipers during operations against ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944.

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