THE DECIMATION OF THE FLEET (1940-1945)

 

<< FROM CRISIS TO WAR (1930-1939) POST-WAR RECONSTRUCTION (1946-1952) >>

 

Greek shipowners knew long before the outbreak of WWII that they would side with the British in case of war. Despite occasional differences, their long-time association with the British shipping industry, as well as the decision by many Greek shipowners to reside and work in London, the metropolis of world shipping, had resulted in the UK being their ‘second homeland’. 

 

The declaration of war in September 1939 marked the informal engagement of Greek shipping in hostilities, though a year went by before Greece gave its resounding answer to Mussolini’s ultimatum. This led to the loss of about 90 Greek steamers due to acts of war, during a period when the country was still neutral.

 

With the exception of 15 cargo ships chartered to the Swiss government shortly before its outbreak, throughout the war the entire Greek merchant fleet transported goods alongside the Allied Forces. Its contribution to the successful outcome of the crucial Battle of the Atlantic was decisive. 

 

Back in Greece, the Metaxas government had rushed to adopt measures to manage the situation before the war began. The sale of ships to foreign interests was prohibited and penalties were imposed to rioters among seafarers. It further introduced an emergency tax on profits and capital gains of cargo vessels. At the same time, the Wartime Risk Insurance Agency was established, making mandatory the coverage against risk for ships’ crews. 

 

By the end of 1939, the Greek-flagged fleet numbered some 500 vessels, while about 100 additional Greek-owned steamships were sailing under British and Panamanian flags. With the outbreak of WWII, the British authorities attempted to charter a large number of Greek steamers. Their offer was extremely low, and, despite the pressure exerted, it was flatly rejected by Manolis Kulukundis, who was heading the negotiations. In addition to this, Charalambos Simopoulos, the Greek ambassador in London, expressed his strong objection to such a proposal which also carried the risk of jeopardisingexposing Greece’s neutral status. Greek ships continued operating and enjoying the benefits of a fast rising market until April 1940 when a deal was eventually reached, under which 150 vessels were chartered to the British over a period of six months. 

 

The Italian attack on Greece on 28 October 1940 marked the entry of Greece into WWII. Greek cargo ships played a crucial role, transporting about 4/5 of supplies and troops bravely fighting on the Albanian front. At the same time, Greek merchant ships, besides operating alongside the Allied forces, continued serving the country’s supply requirements through consecutive voyages.

 

Following the defeat of the Italians, Germany had no alternative but to occupy Greece with its own forces. On 6 April 1941, supported by their air force, the German troops invaded the country from the Greek-Bulgarian borders and managed to advance further south. Following successive air strikes, almost 120 Greek vessels, including the country’s entire passenger fleet and five hospital ships, were hit and sunk in Greek waters. Only four passenger vessels managed to survive by escaping to the Middle East.  A few weeks later, on 27 April 1941, the German swastika was raised on the Acropolis, thus confirming the occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers.

 

Among Germany’s first priorities following the occupation of Athens was to secure the control of Greek cargo steamers serving in international waters. Georgios Tsolakoglou, the prime minister of the German-appointed government, sent a letter to the Union of Greek Shipowners on 5 May 1941, requesting its members to convey orders to their ships according to which all vessels would have to be placed at the disposal of German forces. However, a few days before the occupation of Athens, the shipowners’ legal advisor, Georgios Daniolos, had taken the initiative to burn all the files that could link the ownership of the ships to particular individuals. 

 

Despite this, the Germans kept trying to get their hands on the Greek fleet. They offered to acquire the ships with official Bills of Sale, telling the Union representatives that in any case the ships under British control were useless to their owners. The offer was tempting, however the Greeks pretended that they were only managers of the ships, their real owners being based abroad. The Germans continued to press and even threaten with imprisonment in order to achieve their goal, but in the end they failed to break the owners’ resolve. 

 

Meanwhile, the remaining Greek ships were requisitioned by order of the official government of Greece, headed by Emmanuel Tsouderos. Formed with the support of the British when the German forces were approaching Athens, the government had eventually moved to Crete. Following the requisition order, all ships were placed under the control of the British authorities throughout the war, plus an additional six-month period after its end, according to the Anglo-Hellenic Agreement signed by the government in the absence of shipowners. The Greek merchant marine offered invaluable services to the Allies by carrying a total of 40 million tons of supplies but suffered the tragic loss of over 2,000 Greek seafarers as well as the decimation of about 70% of the fleet’s pre-war capacity, with its owners lacking the necessary funds for its reconstruction. It must be stated that throughout the war, shipowners acted as managers of their own ships, receiving fixed monthly hires to cover operating costs which alas were continuously rising. This was the result of excessive demands by Greek seafarers, whose requests were readily met by the Greek government, exiled at the time to Cairo. 

 

The epic performance of Greek shipping in the war was regrettably marred by several incidents that occurred on the part of seafarers following the fall of Greece in April 1941. This had led many of them to the United Kingdom and especially to Cardiff where the Panhellenic Seamen’s Federation (PNO) first set up offices, followed two years later by the communist-controlled Organization of Greek Seamen’s Unions (OENO). The latter, with the support of local leftist unions, managed to take control of the situation on board many Greek ships and proselytize many seafarers who were physically and mentally exhausted by the tragic wartime conditions. Ships were being continually torpedoed and their crews were concerned about the fate of their families back home since it was practically impossible to arrange for money to be sent to them. At the same time, the government in exile was unable to address these serious issues. This situation led many seafarers to desperation and prompted them to actions that disrupted the order on the ships, going so far as mutiny in a few cases. Despite the fact that the entire Greek seafaring family demonstrated heroism and self-sacrifice throughout the War, such behaviour and excessive demands by seafarers led to a heavy increase in operating costs. These events resulted in the loss of the competitive status of Greek-flagged ships, as their operating expenses had become less compared only to those of the US fleet. Even worse, the co-operation between owners and seafarers, which had served as the cornerstone for the evolution of Greek shipping, had been seriously shaken.

 

At the end of the war, the Greek-flagged fleet had been reduced to a mere 150 ships, less than those that had survived WWI. The task of reconstruction was now even harder because of the Greek government’s agreement to charter the entire fleet to the British authorities at a relatively low hire. This had deprived the industry of sufficient funds to rebuild the fleet in the post-war years.

 

Thus, the only significant financial benefit from the enormous sacrifice of the Greek fleet was some 12,000,000 pounds, representing surplus money from the chartering of the Greek fleet and used by the Greek government in Cairo to cover its operating costs during the war. 

 

The owners of the ships involved in this transaction never received any compensation. However, in acknowledgment of the invaluable contribution of the industry, the government had the status of the sub-Ministry of Merchant Marine upgraded to ministry.

« From a Crisis to a War (1930-1939) The Post-war Reconstruction (1946-1952) »
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