Rather late in the day, I have been reading The Spectator (UK) Christmas Special dated 15/21/29 December 2018. Page 28 refers to one Ronnie Boyd, who had been a teenage Ordinary Seaman aboard HMS Ajax in December 1944, when Winston Churchill arrived in Athens to try to end the ongoing civil war.
“British forces helped put down, with considerable force of arms, a perceived partisan/communist uprising—the so-called Battle of Athens, or the Dekemvriana in Greece,” the article states. There follows the extraordinary statement “Not Winston Churchill’s Finest Hour, it has to be said.” It is accompanied by a mini-cartoon showing WSC on the bridge of HMS Ajax making this announcement. What is it all about?
Well, Athens 1944 was not his foremost finest hour—since, as he wrote, “Nothing surpasses 1940.” But in any list of his many finest hours, it’s among the runners-up.
It wasn’t a “perceived partisan/communist uprising.” It was the real McCoy, by ELAS, the “Greek People’s Liberation Army. Fortunately, in Moscow a few weeks earlier, Churchill had had the foresight to work out an agreement with Stalin to keep Soviet hands off Greece. To his credit, our benevolent “Uncle Joe” did so—for the time being. Some consider the “Percentages Agreement”, handing Stalin dominance over eastern Europe less Greece, another of Churchill’s Not-So-Finest-Hours. But the Greeks seemed all right with it.
Sarajevo, 1992 – Athens, 1944
I wrote this news article in 1993:
A reporter named Burns was talking the other night about the United Nations’ “inspection mission” to Sarajevo in 1992, during the Bosnian War. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and company arrived at the airport, were driven through the streets in bullet-proof limousines. They enjoyed an elaborate lunch while blocks away people were starving. They drove back to the airport, where guards protected their luxury jet. Then they flew home, to abhor the ongoing horror but do nothing.
Which reminds me of Churchill, Greece and December 1944.
Similar situation: civil war had made Athens a killing field. Churchill sent troops, telling his generals to “hold and dominate Athens…with bloodshed if necessary.” Then he flew in personally, stationing himself in HMS Ajax moored in the Piraeus, the harbor for Athens.
He chortled “Missed again!” when ELAS gunners sent shells hurtling toward the ship. He drove into the fighting zone to meet the opposing sides with bullets flying. He asked his private secretary, Jock Colville if he had a pistol: “I certainly had my own.” He parleyed in an unheated room lit by hurricane lamps, reminding both sides of Greece’s fame and majesty. Peace followed in his wake.
Read more about Churchill’s intervention in Athens in December 1944 in Hillsdale College’s The Churchill Documents, Volume 20, Normandy and Beyond, May-December 1944.
For a photo of Churchill signing autographs for HMS Ajax sailors, see previous post.