Twists and Turns of Anglo-Greek History: Churchill’s Greek Emergency Christmas 1944

Seventy-six years ago, on the Christmas Day of 1944, Winston Churchill set foot in Athens in an urgent political-military visit. The extraordinary arrival of the then British Prime Minister was ominous. The security situation in the heart of the Greek capital worsened. The London-backed first postwar Greek government of national reconciliation formed under PM Georgios Papandreou was at the brink of collapse. Its leftist members hailing from the ranks of the communist-led EAM-ELAS resistance movement resigned their posts. The EAM, Greek acronym for National Liberation Front, formed the backbone of the fierce armed resistance against the Nazi occupation in Greece. The National Popular Liberation Army – its Greek acronym ELAS phonetically coinciding with the formal name of the country: Hellas – was the military wing of the same mass resistance movement.

In the last couple of years of German occupation (1943-44) ELAS fighters’ numbers swelled tremendously. By the time of the Nazi withdrawal from Attica, the Greek partisans under ELAS command numbered around 70,000 men and women. In effect, this initially irregular force of guerillas, formed in 1942, was transformed into a formidable regular army, by the time of liberation.

The EAM cabinet members’ resignation sparked a demonstration at Syntagma (Constitution) Square in central Athens. This peaceful demonstration turned into a bloody affair with a high toll of casualties as snipers fired into the leftist demonstrators’ crowd. Soon after, Greece would plunge into the abyss: a full scale civil war between the leftists’ supporters of EAM-ELAS on the one hand and the ill-armed Rightists-Royalists on the other. The latter, though originally the weak side, would soon enjoy the unwavering support of the amassing British troops marching into Athens unopposed having landed at Piraeus.

But what was the chain of significant international events that catapulted Greece into an internecine war whilst the Nazis were still retreating from the millennia old country that gave birth to Western civilization?

As German defeat appeared increasingly certain, Churchill and Stalin were busy carving the freed-from-Nazi-occupation world into predetermined spheres of their respective postwar influence. The infamous percentages agreement with respect to Soviet and British influence in the Balkans was reached already in Moscow where the two Allied leaders met on the 9th of October 1944. At this crucial Kremlin meeting, Churchill jotted down, on a single notebook page, his idea of percentages’ influence in each Balkan country. He passed it on to Stalin who nodded his head in approval. Winston appeared momentarily hesitant: “Don’t you think we are too cynical [to decide the political future of entire peoples in their absence]? I better tear off this [disgraceful] note?” he offered to his wartime ally, Joseph. The latter, true to his name, ‘Man of Steel’, without a second thought, dispelled Winston’s doubts: “Keep it!” The dice was thrown! Greece was going to fall ninety per cent under British, ten per cent under Soviet influence, no matter what the actual sympathies or loyalties were amongst the Greek population.

Stalin, betraying his nationally powerful but internationally weak Greek comrades for the benefit of winning over Bulgaria and Romania, would grant Churchill a free hand to disembark tens of thousands of his troops at Piraeus and march them on to prop up a pro-British royalist regime in Athens.

Nine days after the Moscow percentages’ deal, the Nazis evacuate Athens: the 18th of October 1944 marked the liberation day. An ominous power vacuum ensued.

Five days later, on the 23rd of October 1944, the first British troops enter Athens. They encounter a mixed, if not apprehensive, reaction by the Greek population. The Nationalists-Royalists welcome them as saviors from communist domination. The Leftist anti-royalist camp view them as the new occupation force. Indeed, whilst on the trouble spot, Churchill ordered Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald MacKenzie Scobie, Commander of British Forces in Greece, to ‘rule Athens as an occupied city, if need be’. Taking up battle positions, ELAS guerillas poised for another anti-occupation war. Ironically, this time in their homeland’s capital, against the very allies they, not long ago, collaborated with, to blow up German patrols in the Greek mountains to the north.

Strikingly, Hugh Seton-Watson, Special Operations Executive (SOE) and later MI6 officer, noted in stark frankness: Had the Communists wished to seize power in Athens at this time they could easily have done so. They chose otherwise.

In London, Winston Churchill having secured Stalin’s acquiescence, was contemplating taking on the Greek communists weeks before his urgent Christmas descend in Athens. The British Prime Minister wrote to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (and his deputy in the Conservative Party) on 11th November 1944: I fully expect a clash with EAM and we must not shrink from it, provided the ground is well chosen.

Churchill spent his Greek Emergency Christmas at Hotel Grand Bretagne, Syntagma Square the very scene where the violent clashes first broke out on 3rd December. ELAS Central Athens Command planted explosives all along the underground sewage canals to blow up the hotel, which served as the seat of the British Forces Command. Had they decided to detonate the explosives to eliminate Winston Churchill, they could easily have done so. They chose otherwise.