Athens 1944: Not Churchill’s Finest Hour? Hmm….

Athens 1944: Not Churchill’s Finest Hour? Hmm….


A r ead­er writes: “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.

Athens “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 finest hours, it’s right up there.

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.

Further Reading

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.

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