Greece had suffered terribly during the years of German occupation, before the Nazis withdrew in October 1944. An alliance of resistance groups from across the political spectrum had fought a vigorous campaign against the occupiers – but the civilian population had borne the brunt of inevitable reprisals.
Throughout Greece massacres of civilians had been commonplace, even if only the Kondomari, Crete massacre is particularly well remembered because there is a photographic record.
The best organised resistance group had been the communist group ELAS and the left wing EAM – and the British Special Operations Executive had done much to support their operations. Now the British government were wary of the communists and wanted to see them disarmed. Tensions mounted inside Athens as it became apparent that Britain supported the right wing elements of the coalition Greek national government. Regular British troops were now sent to Greece to help maintain order.
At first the British troops found themselves generally welcomed. As individuals many of the troops themselves were sympathetic to the socialist cause:
In my childhood I had always been reading the Classics and the thought of going to Athens was something quite remarkable to me. Something that I thought I should never have been able to take advantage of.
One of the companies that night was placed on the Acropolis itself. Nothing much happened and next morning I said to Signaller Tony Sacco, “How was it, Tony,” and he said, “Nothing else but bloody stones up there and it’s freezing cold” I thought, “Well, that’s the practical view of what the Acropolis was like!
All of the army by that time was pretty well socialist. Everyone was of the view that the Conservatives were to blame for all sorts of ills that we had in the war, the general level of the economy and the way that people felt about the future. So that, by and large, they were all pretty well Labour.
Even though people admired Churchill for his ability to lead the country, his politics were completely suspect – he was a Conservative and was blackened with the rest of the Conservatives.
We felt that what the Government was trying to do in Greece was to restore the monarchy, which we all surmised was really not what the people wanted, but was going to be imposed upon them.
Therefore in the beginning there was a fair amount of favourable feeling towards this insurgency.
Signaller Ronald Elliott, Signal Section, HQ Coy, 16th DLI
‘Maintaining order’ in a civilian population was never going to be an easy task for regular troops who had straight from the battlefields of Italy:
During this early phase the troops were not usually fired on. There had been some sort of shooting incident in the street and there was an angry mob around.
One didn’t know at all what to do, we really had no rules of engagement or anything like that. I determined the only way to deal with it was by a show of strength. So I fell in my platoon, very conspicuously in the street, went into open order and ordered them to fix bayonets. Then we marched briskly down the street to where this mob was and of course everybody just melted into the side lines.
Then there were people there weeping and wailing over a man who’d been shot through the head — it was obviously an assassination of some sort.
Then we were thanked by the people who offered us wine to drink, which turned out to be Retsina which we’d never had before. Retsina’s got a very, very bitter taste of resin – I thought we were being poisoned and I declined to drink it, which was very embarrassing really.
Lieutenant Russell Collins, Carrier Platoon, Support Coy, 16th DLI
A recent Observer article analyses the British involvement in Greece at some length.