Greece is one of those countries that, even though it has a long and tempestuous history, many Brits probably think we haven’t invaded. But, of course, we have.
During the Napoleonic Wars our involvement with Greece was to a certain extent focused on the Ionian Islands lying in the Adriatic to the west of the Greek mainland. France had garrisoned these with French and Neapolitan troops, and we feared that the French would turn the Adriatic into an area from which they could raid our ships in the Mediterranean. We weren’t putting up with that.
As the sea war raged in the Adriatic, we set about removing the offending garrisons. On 1 October 1809, a British squadron including HMS Warrior landed 1,900 troops under the command of Brigadier General John Oswald on Kefalonia, and within hours the Neapolitan troops there had surrendered. Zante and Ithaca surrendered to us shortly afterwards. Soon after that, troops from HMS Spartan seized the island of Kythira, which has connection in legend to the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. And there was love for us. Many Greeks were quite pleased to see us and we set up the 1st Greek Light Infantry under Oswald. And when in March 1810 we invaded the island of Lefkada, our success was helped by the fact that local Greek troops came over to our side. The main fortress surrendered after a siege lasting eight days.
But we had left the big one until last. On Corfu the French had installed a French and Neapolitan garrison consisting of something like 7,400 troops. We had been blockading this with mixed success for some years, but finally, in 1814, the garrison there too gave up and surrendered to us. Hurrah!
The Congress of Vienna placed the islands of Corfu, Kefalonia, Kythira, Ithaca, Paxos, Lefkada and Zakynthos under our protection as the United States of the Ionian Islands. We had only just lost the United States of America, so it must have been nice to get another lot of United States instead, even if they were slightly smaller. Well, quite a lot smaller.
Then in 1827, British ships and a British commander played a key part in gaining Greece independence from the Ottoman Empire. Our naval commander in the Mediterranean, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, was given the subtle diplomatic task of trying to stop fighting in Greece between Turks and Greeks. Instead, in a rather unsubtle manner, he ended up leading a combined British, French and Russian fleet into a confrontation with the combined Ottoman and Egyptian fleet in Navarino Bay on the west coast of the Peloponnese. This resulted in the last major sea battle in which all ships were powered only by sail, and a crushing defeat for the Ottoman and Egyptian fleet that paved the way for eventual Greek freedom.
Our relations with the newly independent Greece were not entirely smooth, however. In 1850, after Don Pacifico, who had been born in British-held Gibraltar, was attacked in Athens, the Foreign Secretary Palmerston sent a British naval squadron to the Aegean to seize Greek property in compensation for Don Pacifico’s losses and to blockade Piraeus. Our actions caused trouble with France and Russia, but Palmerston defended himself in a famous five-hour (five-hour!) speech in which he stated that just as any Roman citizen had once been able to rely on the protection of the Roman Empire, so now any British subject could rely on the protection of Britain.
Though there are still traces of our period in control of the Ionian Islands to be seen today, our time there was not an entirely happy one, and as mainland Greece gained its independence, there was growing local pressure for the islands to be returned to Greek control. In 1862, looking for a new king after getting rid of their last one, the Greek people voted for our very own British Prince Alfred, later to become the Duke of Edinburgh (not Queen Elizabeth II’s Duke of Edinburgh, although there’s a story of Greek connections there as well). Treaty obligations and the opposition of Queen Victoria apparently wouldn’t let him become king, but we felt we owed something to the Greeks for voting for a British candidate and we agreed to hand over the islands. Accordingly on 31 May 1864 Sir Henry Storks and a bunch of British troops finally left Corfu and the Ionian Islands.
In 1885, the Royal Navy again blockaded Greece, since the British government was afraid that the Greeks would defy the Treaty of Berlin. Ironically, our admiral in charge of this blockade was none other than Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the one who didn’t get to be King of Greece before. Presumably he wouldn’t have blockaded himself if he had been King of Greece.
During the First World War we were back in Greek waters and on Greek soil, and in strength. Again, Greek islands played a significant part in the action. For instance, in 1915 Mudros Bay on the island of Lemnos became a key Allied base under British Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss during the Gallipoli campaign, and even after the end of that campaign it remained an important element in the blockade of the Dardanelles. Things on the mainland got off to a slightly rockier start. It probably didn’t help us that the Greek King Constantine was married to the Kaiser’s sister. The Allies tried to get Greece to join them in the war and in 1915 we landed troops at Salonika in northern Greece to fight the Bulgarians. Greece became split between those who wanted to join the Allies and those who supported the king and wanted to remain neutral. Things got a bit tense. Well, very tense.
In 1916, when a demand for the Greeks to hand over artillery batteries was rejected, we invaded Athens. A mainly French force, but including sailors from HMS Exmouth and HMS Duncan, and men from the Royal Marine Light Infantry, landed at Piraeus on 1 December 1916 and headed for Athens. In the ensuing Battle of Athens, both sides suffered casualties, including some British dead, and eventually a compromise deal was reached with some guns being handed over. Things went rather more smoothly for us after the Allies forced King Constantine off the throne and we ended up with a united Greece now on our side. By 1918, British troops were advancing north from Greek territory in an eventually successful campaign against the Bulgarians.
With the Second World War we were back yet again. On 28 October 1940, Italian forces invaded Greece from Albania, bringing Greece into the war. The Greeks did well against the Italians, pushing them back into Albania, but when Germany attacked in April 1941, it was a different story. The Greeks and the British and Commonwealth units fighting with them were unable to hold back the German onslaught. By 30 April, mainland Greece had fallen and in May German paratroopers attacked Crete. After bitter fighting and after taking very heavy losses the Germans captured Crete as well.
As Greek resistance to the Axis occupation developed, we sent in teams to help it grow and to try to direct it towards what we regarded as key objectives. Thus in 1942 Operation Harling saw an SOE team working with guerrillas from both the left-wing ELAS and the right-wing EDES to successfully blow up the Gorgopotamos Viaduct in an attempt to hinder supplies reaching Rommel in North Africa.
In September 1943, as Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, we saw the chance to invade and liberate some of the Greek islands previously held by Italy. Thus began our last major defeat of the Second World War and the Germans’ last major victory. Perhaps the result of the Dodecanese Campaign is one reason why comparatively so few Brits know about it.
An initial key target was Rhodes, and we parachuted a team onto it to negotiate with the Italians there, but unfortunately the Germans arrived and took over the island. Nevertheless, with Greek help, we managed to take Kos, Samos, Kalymnos, Leros, Astypalaia and Symi. But soon after that the Germans hit back. On 3 October, in the strangely named Operation Polar Bear, the Germans landed on Kos and forced the British and Italian troops there to surrender. The loss of Kos deprived us of a vital air base. On 12 November, a German invasion force landed on Leros and again the defenders were not able to hold back the German assault. Over 3,000 British prisoners were taken and the remaining British garrisons in the Dodecanese were evacuated.
Less than a year later, the war had turned decisively against the Germans, and in the autumn of 1944 the Germans were retreating under pressure from the Greek resistance and from Soviet advances into the Balkans to the north. We landed on the Greek mainland again. The Special Boat Service (SBS) captured Araxos airfield and on 4 October parachute troops landed at Megara. The rest of General Ronald Scobie’s Force 140 arrived soon after and on 13 October our troops entered Athens. A bit like our incursion into Athens in 1916, it wasn’t to be the happiest of experiences. We were quickly caught up in the growing conflict over who would rule Greece after the Germans and by December British troops were fighting fierce battles in the streets of Athens. On 24 December, Churchill flew in to try to sort out a ceasefire, and in January and February of 1945, a ceasefire and political deal were eventually agreed. Sadly, ahead lay the bitterly fought Greek Civil War.