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”
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
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”
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