Operation Freehold

This was an Allied conference in Athens, the capital of Greece, in an attempt to reach consensus on that country’s political future (25/26 December 1944).

By the summer of 1944 it had become clear that the Germans would soon withdraw Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe 'E' from Greece as a result of the fact that Soviet forces were advancing into Romania and thence toward Yugoslavia, raising the real threat that the German forces in the southern Balkans might be cut off.

The Greek government-in-exile, now led by a prominent liberal, George Papandreou, moved to Caserta in Italy in preparation for the return to Greece. Under the terms of an agreement reached in Caserta during September 1944, all the resistance forces in Greece were placed under the command of a British officer, Lieutenant General R. M. Scobie. Troops of the Western Allies landed in Greece during October in ‘Manna’, but there was little fighting as the German forces were in full retreat and most of Greece had already been liberated by either ELAS (Ellinikos Laïkos Apeleftherotikos Stratos, or Greek People’s Liberation Army), which was the military arm of the left-wing EAM (Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo, or National Liberation Front) or EDES (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos, or the National Republican Greek League), which was the royalist guerrilla forces led by Colonel Napoleon Zervas. For example, only the central part of Athens was still under German occupation by 13 October, while all other regions were under ELAS control. The German forces were significantly outnumbered by those of ELAS, which by this time had 50,000 men under arms and was re-equipping from supplies abandoned by the Germans.

On 13 October British troops entered Athens, and Papandreou and his ministers followed six days later. King Georgios II remained in Cairo as Papandreou had promised that the future of the monarchy would be decided by referendum. At this point there was little to prevent ELAS from taking full control of the country, but it did not do so because the leadership of the KKE (Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas, or Communist Party of Greece) had been ordered by the USSR not to precipitate a crisis that could jeopardise Allied unity and put at risk Iosif Stalin’s larger post-war objectives. This was a fact known to the leadership of the KKE but not to the partisans of ELAS and ordinary Greek communists.

This became a source of conflict within EAM and ELAS. At Stalin’s order, the KKE leadership tried to avoid a confrontation with the Papandreou government. The majority of ELAS members saw the Western Allies as liberators, although some KKE leaders such as Andreas Tzimas and Aris Velouchiotis did not trust the Western Allies. Tzimas was in touch with the Yugoslav communist leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, and disagreed with ELAS’s co-operation with the Western Allies. The issue of disarming the resistance organisations was a cause of friction between the Papandreou government and its EAM members.

Advised by the British ambassador, Sir Reginald Leeper, Papandreou demanded the disarmament of all armed forces apart from Syntagmatάrches Christodoulos Tsigantes’s Sacred Band and Syntagmatάrches Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos’s Greek 3rd ‘Rimini’ Mountain Brigade, which had been formed after the suppression of the pro-communist mutiny which had broken out during April 1944 among Greek troops in Egypt, and the constitution of a National Guard under government control.

EAM, believing that this would leave ELAS defenceless against right-wing militias and the anti-communist Security Battalions (Tágmata Asfalías) formed as collaborationist groups during the German occupation, submitted an alternative plan of total and simultaneous disarmament, which Papandreou rejected as he had begun to see the Security Battalions as a the most effective means of combating a possible communist coup. As a result the EAM ministers resigned from the government on 2 December.

On the previous day Scobie had issued a proclamation requiring the dissolution of ELAS. Control of an effective ELAS was the KKE’s primary source of strength, and the KKE leader, Georgios Siantos, decided that the demand for ELAS’s dissolution must be resisted. Tito’s influence may have played some role in ELAS’s decision. Tito was outwardly loyal to Stalin but had come to power through his own forces and largely through his own resources, and believed that the communist Greeks should do the same. His influence, however, had not prevented the EAM leadership from putting its forces under Scobie’s command two months earlier, according to the Caserta agreement.

Following the orders of their leader, Georgios Grivas, members of Organisation X, a small and semi-collaborationist resistance movement in the area of Athens, had meanwhile established many outposts in central Athens and resisted EAM for several days until the arrival of the British forces, as their leader had been promised. Fighting broke out in Athens on 3 December during a demonstration, organised by EAM, involving more than 100,000 people. According to some accounts, the police, covered by British troops, opened fire on the crowd, but according to other accounts, it is uncertain if the first shots were fired by the police or the demonstrators. More than 28 people were killed and 148 injured.

This signalled the beginning of the ‘Dekemvriana’ (December events), a 37-day period of full-scale fighting in Athens between ELAS and the forces of the British army and the government. The British attempted to stay neutral, but when the battle escalated they intervened on the ground with artillery and air support. At the beginning the government had only a few policemen, a brigade without heavy weapons and the militia units of Organisation X, already accused of collaboration with the German forces. On 4 December Papandreou gave his resignation to Scobie, who refused to accept it. By 12 December ELAS was in control of most of Athens and Piraeus.

The outnumbered British flew in Major General A. D. Ward’s British 4th Division from Italy as a reinforcement. During the battle with the ELAS, local militias fought alongside the British, triggering a massacre by ELAS fighters. It must be noted that although the British were fighting openly against ELAS in Athens there were no fights in the rest of Greece. In certain cases, as in Volos, some RAF units even gave equipment to ELAS fighters. Fighting continued throughout December with the British slowly gaining the upper hand.

ELAS forces in the rest of Greece did not attack the British. It seems that ELAS preferred a legitimate rise to power, but was drawn into the fighting by the indignation and, at the same time, the fear of its fighters after the slaughter on 3 December, aiming at establishing its predominance. Only this version of the events can explain the simultaneous struggle against the British, the large-scale ELAS operations against Trotskyists and other political dissidents in Athens, and the many contradictory decisions of EAM leaders.

This outbreak of fighting between Allied forces and an anti-German resistance movement, while the war in Europe was still being fought, was a serious political problem for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s coalition government in the UK, and caused much protest in the British press and in the House of Commons. To prove his peace-making intentions, Churchill himself arrived in Athens on 25 December and presided over a conference, also involving Soviet representatives, designed to bring about a settlement. It failed because the EAM and ELAS demands were considered excessive and therefore rejected.

The USSR had meanwhile remained uncharacteristically quiescent about developments in Greece. True to Stalin’s agreement with Churchill about post-war spheres of interest in the eastern Mediterranean, the Soviet delegation in Greece neither encouraged nor discouraged EAM’s ambitions as Greece lay in the British sphere of influence. Had the Soviet position been brought home to the KKE’s leadership, the ‘Dekemvriana’ might have been averted, but it appears that Stalin had no intention of seeking to avert the ‘Dekemvriana’ as the USSR would profit no matter the outcome: if EAM rose to power he would gain a country of major strategic value, but if not he could use the British actions in Greece to justify to the Allies any intervention in his own sphere of influence.

By a time early in January 1945 ELAS had been driven from Athens. As a result of Churchill’s intervention, Papandreou resigned and was replaced by a firm anti-communist, Strategós Nikolaos Plastiras. On 15 January Scobie agreed to a ceasefire in exchange for the withdrawal of ELAS from its positions at Patras and Thessaloníki and its demobilisation in the Peloponnese. This was a severe defeat, but ELAS remained in existence and the KKE had an opportunity to reconsider its strategy especially as, following the fighting in Athens, support for the KKE declined sharply, and as a result most of the prominent non-communists in EAM left the organisation.

Thus was paved the way to the bitter and bloody Greek Civil War of 30 March 1946 to 16 October 1949.