Athens, 1944: Some Lighter Moments in a Serious Situation

Athens, 1944: Some Lighter Moments in a Serious Situation

“There’s a lot of ruin in any nation…”

The Greeks are still not laugh­ing about their mid-1940s civ­il war, so lev­i­ty may be inap­pro­pri­ate. Nor was at the time was Win­ston Churchill. “There is a lot of ruin in any nation,” he once mused. In Athens, 1944, Britain was “respon­si­ble for build­ing up the nest of cock­a­tri­ces for EAM [com­mu­nist par­ti­sans] in Greece.” (His vocab­u­lary was broad: A cock­a­trice is a myth­i­cal, two-legged drag­on or ser­pent-like crea­ture with a cock’s head.)

Nev­er­the­less, the peace deal Churchill bro­kered between war­ring Greeks in 1944 had so many hilar­i­ous moments that, 75 years lat­er, we may be per­mit­ted to indulge in lighter aspects. The pre­vi­ous post (“Antithe­sis of Democ­ra­cy,” Athens, 1944) drew much com­ment and sev­er­al asked about these episodes. So here we go.

Moscow, October 1944: the “Naughty Paper”

The 1944 “Per­cent­ages Agree­ment,” with Stalin’s big blue tick at upper right. (Wiki­me­dia Commons

Well-known is the back­ground to Churchill’s Greek excur­sion. It began with what he in his war mem­oirs called the “Naughty Paper.” This was the “per­cent­ages agree­ment” with Stal­in in their Moscow talks (the Tol­stoy Con­fer­ence,  9-19 Octo­ber 1944). The deal was to grant Britain pre­pon­der­ant influ­ence in Allied-occu­pied Greece, a scheme Stal­in hon­ored, for awhile. (Stal­in began med­dling in Greece after Churchill was out of office.) The Sovi­ets made no move to inter­fere when Churchill flew to Athens to bro­ker a truce between com­mu­nist and roy­al­ist insur­gents. Churchill recalled in his memoirs:

The moment was apt for busi­ness, so I said, “Let us set­tle about our affairs in the Balka­ns…. How would it do for you to have 90% pre­dom­i­nance in Rou­ma­nia, for us to have 90% of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?” While this was being trans­lat­ed I wrote [it] out on a half-sheet of paper…. I pushed this across to Stal­in, who had by then heard the translation….

We were only deal­ing with imme­di­ate war-time arrange­ments. All larg­er ques­tions were reserved on both sides for what we then hoped would be a peace table when the war was won. After this there was a long silence. The pen­cilled paper lay in the cen­tre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cyn­i­cal if it seemed we had dis­posed of these issues, so fate­ful to mil­lions of peo­ple, in such an off­hand man­ner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.

Athens, December 1944: “Missed again”

Churchill was much crit­i­cized over the “Naughty Paper.” It was said (omit­ting the con­text) that he and Stal­in were divid­ing the Balka­ns between them. From the record it is clear he was only try­ing to avoid con­flicts between occu­py­ing forces. Con­fi­dent, there­fore, in Stalin’s approval of Britain’s “90% of the say,” he sent troops to “hold and dom­i­nate Athens…with blood­shed if nec­es­sary.” Then on Christ­mas 1944, for­sak­ing fam­i­ly hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, he per­son­al­ly flew there to mediate.

Nego­ti­a­tions by lamp­light: Churchill in Athens, Decem­ber 1944, assured the sur­vival of Greek democ­ra­cy by installing Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos (to WSC’s left) as regent in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

Churchill sta­tioned him­self in HMS Ajax, anchored in strife-torn Piraeus, the har­bor for Athens. (Ajax was famous for her part in pur­suit and scut­tling of the Graf Spee in 1939.) The Piraeus was ringed with smoke and gun­fire. Churchill, as usu­al, was dis­dain­ful of dan­ger. A sec­re­tary recalled him chortling “Missed again!” when rebel gun­ners sent shells hurtling toward the ship.

Ajax‘s Cap­tain John Cuth­bert said, “I hope, sir, that while you are with us we shan’t have to open fire.” Churchill was only amused. “Pray remem­ber, Cap­tain, that I come here as a coo­ing dove of peace, bear­ing a sprig of mistle­toe in my beak—but far be it from me to stand in the way of mil­i­tary necessity.”

Risky encounters

Churchill drove in an armored car to meet the oppos­ing sides. Bul­lets were fly­ing, and he asked his pri­vate sec­re­tary Jock Colville if he had a pis­tol. “I cer­tain­ly had my own.” At the British Embassy a young offi­cer, Robert Math­ew, greet­ed him amidst rifle fire. Math­ew shoved him inside and they land­ed in heap.

“Do you nor­mal­ly push prime min­is­ters around?” Churchill asked.

“Sir, I’d rather have an angry prime min­is­ter than a dead one.”

WSC: “What did you say your name was?”

“Math­ew, sir.”

“Any rela­tion to Gen­er­al Charles?”

“My father, sir.”

Churchill soft­ened: “We charged togeth­er at Omdur­man.” Robert was lat­er Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for Honi­ton, 1955-66.*

He parleyed in an unheat­ed room lit by hur­ri­cane lamps, remind­ing both sides of Greece’s fame and majesty. “Whether Greece is a monar­chy or a repub­lic is a mat­ter for Greeks and Greeks alone to decide,” he told them. “All we wish you is good, and good for all.” Some­how, for the time being, he pulled it off. Both sides drew back, accept­ing Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos as Regent of Greece.

“Man of God or scheming prelate?”

I have this from a reli­able source, the late Bill Rush­er, long­time pub­lish­er of Nation­al Review. Bill passed it along from Hen­ry Ana­tole Grun­wald, lat­er edi­tor-in-chief of Time and U.S. Ambas­sador to his native Aus­tria. In 1965, Grun­wald edit­ed one of the finest trib­utes to Sir Win­ston, Churchill: The Life Tri­umphant

Grun­wald learned the sto­ry from a reporter in Athens, 1944. It’s dou­ble hearsay, of course, but like­ly reli­able. Churchill was wel­comed in Greece by Lt. Gen. Sir Ronald Sco­bie, the British offi­cer com­mand­ing. The PM had nev­er met the Arch­bish­op, and was curi­ous about him, asking:

“Who is this Damask­i­nos? Is he a man of God, or a schem­ing prelate more inter­est­ed in the com­bi­na­tions of tem­po­ral pow­er than in the life hereafter?”

Sco­bie replied: “I think the lat­ter, Prime Minister.”

Churchill said: “Good, that’s our man.”

The Funny Party

At 7pm on Christ­mas Day Damask­i­nos was piped aboard Ajax to meet Churchill. Six feet tall, he wore  a head­dress that raised him near­ly anoth­er foot.  Churchill’s naval aide Cdr. Tom­my Thomp­son then recalled “a dra­mat­ic and entire­ly unfore­seen devel­op­ment.” To his hor­ror he saw advanc­ing towards them the ship’s “Fun­ny Party.”

A Christ­mas-time cus­tom in the Roy­al Navy is a group of sailors career­ing about in extrav­a­gant fan­cy dress. They make rounds of the ship, occa­sion­al­ly throw­ing a one of their num­ber over­board. The first of these Damask­i­nos met was a man in a curly-brimmed bowler, a large white hunt­ing stock, a tiepin in the shape of a gold fox, and a false nose. He had a glass of gin in each hand and was lead­ing oth­ers sim­i­lar­ly attired. Thomp­son recalled:

There they stood—a hula-hula “girl” with a grass skirt and a brassiere with wink­ing red and green lights on either side; the clown Coco; Char­lie Chap­lin; and three oth­er equal­ly bizarre char­ac­ters with grotesque­ly black­ened faces…. When they caught sight of Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos they con­clud­ed with grudg­ing admi­ra­tion that the Commander…had pro­duced some­one far fun­nier than they were—a rival one-man Fun­ny Par­ty. They gaped unbe­liev­ing­ly at the Arch­bish­op with his immense black beard, his tall hat, and his long robes. Then they howled with laughter.

The sailors advanced upon what they beheld as a fel­low cel­e­brant, with every inten­tion of toss­ing him over the side. They were dis­suad­ed with dif­fi­cul­ty, and the cler­ic in ruf­fled dig­ni­ty went on to his meet­ing with Churchill. “From the look of utter increduli­ty on his face it was quite clear that the Arch­bish­op thought he was impris­oned in a gath­er­ing of lunatics.”

His Beatitude and “Plaster-arse”

After the meet­ing Damask­i­nos went to his state­room for a rest. Between Churchill and the Fun­ny Par­ty, he prob­a­bly need­ed it. Some­one remarked that he secured him­self from inter­rup­tion by hang­ing a notice on his door: “His Beat­i­tude is at prayer.”

Churchill said: “I’d like to try that at Down­ing Street, but I’m afraid no one would believe it.”

After the deal with Damask­i­nos, Greek King George II reluc­tant­ly approved his Regency. The con­tentious prime min­is­ter Geor­gios Papan­dreou resigned in favor of Gen­er­al Niko­laos Pla­s­ti­ras and a cease­fire end­ed the fight­ing. Churchill left Athens sat­is­fied that he had saved the peace and kept Greece non-com­mu­nist. Typ­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, the Prime Min­is­ter couldn’t get his tongue around for­eign pro­nun­ci­a­tions. The General’s name is pro­nounced “Plah-steer’-as,” but Churchill, imped­ed by his lisp, couldn’t man­age it. He final­ly set­tled for a more con­ge­nial and easy-to-pro­nounce moniker: “Gen­er­al Plaster-arse.”

* N.B.

Robert Mathew’s sto­ry was told by his son David to Bruce Ander­son, who relat­ed it in The Spec­ta­tor, 12 Decem­ber 2020, p. 162.

One thought on “Athens, 1944: Some Lighter Moments in a Serious Situation

  1. Refresh­ing and believable….I’m deep into vols. 20 and 21 of The Churchill Doc­u­ments recent­ly pub­lished by Hills­dale and they are rich with mate­r­i­al on Greece, its war, and Churchill’s views of it. —Christo­pher C. Harmon

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