The Dekemvriana defeat of ELAS in Athens - through the eyes of a British Officer

The Dekemvriana - Τα Δεκεμβριανά - Athens, December 1944 

The heavy fighting that took place on the streets of Athens in December 1944 doesn't feature highly in the official histories of the Second World War. Perhaps that's because a battle between the Greek resistance forces of ELAS and British Army troops, who had been welcomed into Athens as "allies" just a few months previously, does not fit easily into a simple narrative of "Victory in Europe". 

17.12.44: Paratroopers advance on Evripidou Street © IWM NA 20908  

The defeat for ELAS, and the Greek Civil War that followed, also exposes how Stalin, and the cynical policies of the Communist Party leadership, extinguished the hopes of so many who had fought to fight fascism in Greece, just as they had done in Spain during its Civil War at the end of the 1930s.

The Photographer - Lt. Noel Powell-Davies

What might surprise anyone reading this post, one that I openly acknowledge is written from the standpoint of a socialist, is that the pictures that are included in it were taken by my father's brother, my Uncle Noel. He was a paratrooper who acted as an official photographer for the British Army in North Africa, Italy and Greece. 

Lt. Powell-Davies, North Africa, July 1943 © IWM NA 4286

Many, although certainly not all, of the photographs that he took are now displayed in the Imperial War Museum's digital archive. His photographs from Greece in 1944/45 provide a telling record of how events developed, although of course through the eyes of a British paratrooper.

A brief history up to the German withdrawal

The events of December 1944 can only be understood by knowing something about the preceding years of occupation. After the defeat of the invading Italians by the Greek army in 1940, which then forced Hitler to send in occupying troops in 1941, resistance grew as famine gripped the country. 

The preceding history of struggle for national independence had created a strong sense of Greek national identity, including the idea of heroic resistance to external powers. The main force ready to organise resistance, with both the determined membership and the organisational experience from underground work under the pre-war Metaxas dictatorship, was the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece. During the Axis occupation, the KKE built around it a wider "National Liberation Front" organisation, EAM, plus its youth movement, EPON, and its military wing, ELAS.

15.10.44: EPON and EAM banners above the crowds welcoming British troops into Athens © IWM NA 19426  

By the end of the war, there were around 50,000 armed 'andartes' fighting across large parts of mainland Greece, mainly affiliated to EAM/ELAS. ELAS' fighting capabilities were strengthened thanks to Italian weaponry left after the fall of Mussolini and the withdrawal of Italy from the war. In the 'Free Greece' under their control, an alternative state was created, running judicial and economic affairs and providing education and communications. 

But the resistance wasn't only being organised in the mountains. EAM was also organising in the cities, not least Athens, with the EPON youth playing a significant role. 1943 had seen significant strikes and demonstrations, with one estimated to have had numbered as many as 100,000 protestors.

However, the KKE's leadership shared the cynical political outlook of the Stalinist bureaucracy that had taken hold of the Soviet Union. Stalin was only concerned about ruthlessly maintaining his position at the head of the privileged caste. Lenin had successfully argued that the only way to win "Land, Bread and Peace" was for workers and peasants to organise independently of treacherous capitalist political parties. But Stalin, although pretending to stand in the revolutionary traditions of Lenin, now argued for the completely opposite policy of building alliances with supposedly 'progressive' elements of the capitalist class. This had been the failed strategy that had led to the victory of fascism under Franco in Spain in the 1930s.

As one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, explained about the defeat in Spain, "Moscow feared above all that the disturbance of private property in the Iberian Peninsula would bring London and Paris nearer to Berlin against the USSR. After some hesitations, the Kremlin intervened in the events in order to restrict the revolution within the limits of the bourgeois [capitalist] regime. All the actions of the Moscow agents in Spain were directed toward paralysing any independent movement of the workers and peasants and reconciling the bourgeoisie with a moderate republic". 

In the summer of 1944, following this political line, KKE negotiators agreed that EAM Ministers would become part of the British-backed "Government of National Unity" to be led by the liberal anti-communist politician, George Papandreou. As part of the agreement, ELAS was to accept orders from Britain's General Scobie, acting as Supreme Allied Commander in Greece. This imposed decision divided the KKE Central Committee, with some sensing betrayal, but Stalin and the Soviet leadership made clear to the Greek Communists that this was the path they were expected to follow.

18.10.44: Prime Minister Papandreou returning to Greece, accompanied by General Scobie © IWM NA 19509

Stalin had no interest in seeing EAM/ELAS taking power in Greece through a genuine mass movement, because, after winning such a victory, the Greek masses would demand genuine workers' democracy, not Stalinist dictatorship. Such an example would inspire Russian workers to demand the same in the Soviet Union too. Instead, trading the wishes of the masses of Greece for the narrow interests of Soviet foreign policy, Stalin concluded the 'Percentages Agreement on the Balkans' with Churchill in early October 1944. This gave Britain 90% control of Greece, with Stalin guaranteed the same percentage in Romania. (A deal later confirmed in the Yalta agreement in February 1945).

Just as these "percentages" were being agreed in Moscow, with the advance of the Red Army into the Balkans threatening to cut off their route of retreat back towards Berlin, the German Army abandoned Athens. On 12 October, the streets were filled with celebrating crowds, but EAM, although they could have had quickly taken control of most of Athens, did not move to set up a workers' government. Instead, they welcomed British troops when they arrived in the city just three days later.

14 October 1944 - British paratroopers land in Greece

Churchill, acutely aware of the dangers to British interests of a power vacuum in Greece, prepared for British forces to be taken from the fighting in Italy and sent to Athens instead. The German military understood Churchill's tactics, reporting that the Allies "have hitherto allowed our forces to be moved from the islands to the mainland with almost no opposition by sea or in the air, but they mobilise the red bands against our escape routes on the mainland. By this they apparently intend to keep German forces on the Greek mainland until the moment when their own operation is possible, and in this way they hope to prevent a general revolution".

After the German's hurried withdrawal, Noel Powell-Davies' 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade were ordered to prepare for an immediate landing outside Athens. His photographs show the understandable tension amongst the paratroopers, not knowing what dangers they were about to face in Greece.

13.10.44: Pensive paratroopers in front of the memorial in Taranto to troops killed there in 1943, © IWM NA 19397, and 14.10.44, on board, © IWM NA 19487

The paratroopers were dropped near Megara, west of Athens, with some casualties being sustained owing to high winds over the landing site. The troops were soon being greeted by local Greeks as they formed up to move towards Athens.

14.10.44: Megara: Greek civilians aid paratroopers injured in the jump © IWM NA 19496 © IWM NA 19494

14.10.44: Paratroopers landing at Megara © IWM NA 19491 © IWM NA 19498

14.9.44: Starting the march towards Athens © IWM NA 19502

15 October 1944 - Welcomed into Athens

Noel's photographs from 15th October 1944 reveal the enthusiastic welcome given to the British troops from thousands of ordinary Athenians. After the hardship of occupation, they must have hoped that the arrival of the British army signalled the end of war and the start of their hopes for a better life being fulfilled. Noel notes that at one point "British troops had to take refuge from the excited citizens". EAM banners are prominent amongst the thronged crowds filling the streets.

15.10.44: © IWM NA 19432 © IWM NA 19435 © IWM NA 19436 © IWM NA 19427

Some of the photos contain EAM and KKE slogans. One banner across the road into the city proclaims "Well Come Ours Allies In Athens - EAM - ELAS - EPON". Graffiti on the walls in Athens, above ELAS and KKE lettering, says "Three Cheers Roosevelt, Three Cheers Churchill". So, rather than slogans raising workers' demands, the KKE leadership was simply emphasising that they were united with "the Allies". However, Churchill, another politician driven by his own class interests, was soon to show that he had no intention of reciprocating that desire for unity.

15.10.44: EAM Slogans © IWM NA 19422 © IWM NA 19431

16-19 October 1944 - Further arrivals - Tanks, Ministers, Troops.

Noel's photographs confirm that, by 16 October, armoured brigades were landing by sea at Piraeus, bringing tanks and other heavier weaponry with them for use by the British troops.

16.10.44: Armoured Brigade troops arriving from Piraeus © IWM NA 19442

After Papandreou and the Government-in-exile had returned to Athens on October 18th, Noel's photographs show that a series of celebratory events were organised in the centre of Athens on October 19th. The Greek flag was raised on the Acropolis and crowds (from "various factions of the civil population" notes Noel) gathered to listen to the new premier give a speech before placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier above Syntagma Square.

19.10.44: Greek Flag raised on the Acropolis © IWM NA 19521 © IWM NA 19551

19.10.44: Syntagma Square © IWM NA 19541 © IWM NA 19555 © IWM NA 19525

"Various factions of the civil population"

Noel's note that "various factions" had joined together in the celebrations on October 19th was his first acknowledgement that the Coalition Government was trying to cobble together forces that had been sharply opposed to each other, both before, and now after, wartime occupation. But it's unlikely that the depth of that opposition would have been appreciated by Noel, nor his British commanders.

The pre-war Metaxas dictatorship had been fiercely anti-communist and the right-wing nationalist forces that supported it still had a base amongst the conservative layers that lived in the wealthier parts of central Athens. During the war itself, ELAS had fought to achieve dominance against other militias, such as the right-wing republican EDES, while the SS had used fascist Greek paramilitaries and collaborationist Security Battalions to terrorise, arrest and often execute anyone suspected of being associated with EAM. 

Mark Mazower in his book "Inside Hitler's Greece" gives a chilling account of what life was like in Athens during the last year of German occupation: "The torture chambers at [the Greek collaborationist anti-communist] Special Security HQ ... were as notorious as those of the SS itself. Each dawn revealed the corpses of men ... dumped on street corners. Imitating their German masters, Special Security officers and the Security Battalions even carried out mass executions of  hostages to avenge the death of their colleagues ... often carried out in full view of the public. One woman could not forget seeing 'five corpses hanging in the square and two killed in front of the police station'". 

Noel's archive contains two photos that he labels as "different types among the Greek partisans, drawn up on parade together for the first time". However, the eyes of at least one of those partisans suggests that this was already an uneasy unity.

19.10.44: Different partisans on parade © IWM NA 19549 © IWM NA 19550

The KKE negotiators had agreed that ELAS would submit to the command of General Scobie but the deep divisions in society were only being temporarily put to one side. It wasn't long before the divisions, and the short-sightedness of KKE policy, became clear. 

Mazower gives two examples of how an inevitable clash was being prepared: "Colonel Spiliotopoulos, whom the Papandreou government had appointed to the key post of military commander of the Athens area, had actually been helping to co-ordinate right-wing anti-communist groups during the occupation and was regarded by ELAS as a collaborator". ... "Having already privately agreed with Stalin that Greece lay in Britain's sphere of influence, [Churchill] was in no mood for compromise with the Left. 'I fully expect a clash with EAM,' Churchill noted as early as 7 November, 'and we must not shrink from it, provided the ground is well chosen.' "

November 1944: The British Landing in Thessaloniki

During October, the German army had also been retreating from northern Greece, and Noel's photographs show that his Brigade became part of the main British force now sent to the key northern city of Thessaloniki [Salonika]. Noel records that the convoy left Piraeus to sail north via Skiathos on 8th November 1944.

8.11.44: Paratroopers and an Indian Division land at Thessaloniki © IWM NA 20080

His photos confirm the account by Mazower that ELAS troops had entered Salonika in advance of the British troops, against Scobie's orders. However, Noel simply notes on his photo that "landing craft pull in towards the 'White Tower', famous landmark of Salonika, which was guarded by E.L.A.S. Partisans", suggesting, as Mazower notes, that, despite the concerns of Scobie's commanders, ELAS and the British troops nevertheless worked together harmoniously enough at this stage. The pictures also confirm that the paratroopers were accompanied by Indian infantry:

8.11.44: Indian troops checking for mines by the White Tower © IWM NA 20083 

The "unity of the Allies" falls apart in Athens

While Noel was in Thessaloniki, back in Athens the "unity" between the Allies and ELAS was beginning to crumble. As with all history, different parties will have different perspectives on what now took place and why. Here's my take on events: 

The hopes of the KKE leadership that there could be a long-lasting "unity" between forces with such contrasting interests was, at best, naïve. On the one hand, Churchill, a hardened Tory politician, was determined not to let Greece fall into 'communist hands', and had already made clear that he was prepared to use British military force to stop that happening if necessary. Equally, the wealthy and powerful in Greek society had no intention of sharing their riches with the impoverished peasants, labourers and workers. They had also shown that they were quite prepared to use ruthless repression and dictatorship if necessary to maintain their position.

From November 1944, the Papandreou Government started to set up National Guard battalions, to take the place of British troops after they had withdrawn from Greece. But the majority of its Officers were being appointed from right-wing supporters of the pre-war Metaxas dictatorship and collaborationist members of the wartime Security Battalions, some of whom were being released from prison straight into the National Guard. 

6.1.45: National Guardsmen being trained to fire a rifle © IWM NA 21442 

ELAS increasingly felt that, while they were being expected to disarm, their right-wing opposition were simply regrouping in different uniforms. While there's no direct evidence for this in Noel's photos, one photograph from mid-December shows a British Officer talking to 'Lt. Cols. Tsagarakis and Daskapolis of the 22 and 24 Cadre Battalions'. The caption states that these "will soon become two full non-political Regular Army Battalions". 'Becoming non-political' presumably implies that these Battalions had previously been politically organised - and, if so, very probably from the right.

12.12.44: Lt. Cols. Tsagarakis and Daskapolis © IWM NA 20774

The agreement signed by ELAS had stated that all the different armed groups would disarm. However, Papandreou now insisted that the staunchly right-wing Third Mountain Brigade would be exempt from this requirement. Their arrival in Athens on November 8th understandably further alarmed EAM/ELAS. 

By December, the attempts by Papandreou and the KKE leadership to hammer out an agreement had come to nothing. In an effort to strengthen their negotiating position, EAM ministers resigned their posts in the the government and a mass demonstration was called for the next day, Sunday 3 December. But, as thousands filled Syntagma Square, the demonstrators were fired upon from police positions on the Parliament building and the British HQ in the Grande Bretagne Hotel, killing over 20 and injuring many more. This shooting, quite possibly a deliberate provocation to spark a conflict, was the beginning of the Dekemvriana battles.

The Battle for Athens begins

Martial law was declared but EAM and its supporters responded with strikes and demonstrations. Some ELAS fighters, with the bitter memories of arbitrary arrests and public executions fresh in their minds, stormed police stations and attacked other government buildings. However, their anger was aimed at the right-wing collaborationists at first, not the British troops who they had been told to treat as Allies. But, on 5 December, Churchill cabled Scobie with clear instructions: "Do not however hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress .... We have to hold and dominate Athens. It would great thing for you to succeed in this without bloodshed if possible, but also bloodshed if necessary". 

Scobie's initial attempts to clear the streets failed. ELAS, with their superior numbers and use of snipers, pushed British troops back until, by mid-December, they only controlled a few square miles in the centre of Athens. But Churchill ordered Scobie not to agree a negotiated truce, as was sought by EAM. Instead Churchill ordered in reinforcements and armour, making clear to Scobie that: "The clear objective is the defeat of EAM. The ending of the fighting is subsidiary to this .... Firmness and sobriety are what are needed now, and not eager embraces, while the real quarrel is unsettled". 

Some of those reinforcements included Noel's 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade. Military records suggest they had returned to Italy from Thessaloniki only to be now brought back to Athens once again. Noel records their arrival in Piraeus on December 12th:

12.12.44: Landing unopposed at Piraeus © IWM NA 20771 

The next shots in his photographic archive are dated December 16th. The photos and notes confirm that, until the arrival of the British Army reinforcements, ELAS had been very much holding their own in the battles around Omonoia Square:

16.12.44: Omonoia Square © IWM NA 20904 © IWM NA 20905

These shots into the square show the fighting taking place - a Sherman tank "on a mission against ELAS snipers", and a British vehicle that has "not got through unscathed". Noel adds that "there has been no day without its toll of deaths in this deserted square". In the notes accompanying another photograph, Noel adds that "Omonoia Square must be held, as 8 large thoroughfares lead into it, making it an important junction. By sheer persistence and weight of numbers, ELAS continually infiltrate at night into positions commanding the square".

16.12.44: Looking towards Mount Lykavittos © IWM NA 20898 © IWM NA 20899

These two shots taken from Central Athens towards Mount Lykavittos, and the accompanying notes, give an impression of the small area that was securely under British control at this time. The kneeling soldier is on the roof of the Metoxiko Tameio Stratou building on Koloktroni Street, then being used as British GHQ. Noel's notes for the other picture, taken over the University buildings, explain that "the autostrada runs 3 miles from our beachhead to the centre of Athens, and convoys and reinforcements get through at night. From the strongpoint at which the cameraman was situated can be seen Mt. Lycabettus, held by our troops". 

16.12.44: A Beaufighter over the Acropolis © IWM NA 20900

This shot, looking in the other direction towards the Acropolis shows a Beaufighter plane flying overhead, used to target ELAS positions. Noel's notes state that "the Acropolis is the key defence bastion of one flank of the British positions. Behind this lies [the] Piraeus, still largely in E.L.A.S. hands".

December 17th - "Fighting Reconnaissance by Day"

Noel's photographs for the following day, December 17th, show paratroopers, supported by tanks advancing "warily and under constant sniping" along Evripidou street, to the south of Omonoia Square.

17.12.44: 'Fighting Reconnaissance' on Evripidou  © IWM NA 20909 © IWM NA 20922 © IWM NA 20918 © IWM NA 20923

December 18th - "From Defence to Attack"

Noel's notes imply that the previous day's patrol - along Evripidou street as far as Plateia Eleftherias and then returning to base - had been used as 'Fighting Reconnaissance'. But, the next day's photographs are entitled "From Defence to Attack", suggesting that the British commanders were now confident that they could use their superior armour and weaponry to decisively attack ELAS positions.

These photographs show how the troops were able to advance using cover from armoured cars and tanks. One shows a "Tail End Charlie" being used to "guard the tank commander from snipers from the rear".

18.12.44: 'From Defence to Attack' © IWM NA 20937 © IWM NA 20934 © IWM NA 20938 © IWM NA 20936

Noel's notes show that where ELAS continued to hold out in individual houses, British troops assaulted the buildings directly:

18.12.44: "The house that held out till last" © IWM NA 20939 © IWM NA 20941

The fighting was clearly fierce but it must have been an uneven battle given the superior firepower of the British forces. As well as ELAS fighters being killed (I haven't posted the photos showing dead bodies lying in the street), others were taken prisoner.  

18.12.44: A wounded ELAS Lieutenant is taken prisoner © IWM NA 20940

One of Noel's photographs says that during the day's fighting the 5th Battalion of the Scots Para. Regiment had "21 rebels killed, 15 wounded, 55 prisoners" but that they were "all in civilian clothing and none of them true Andartes". Sadly, that reads to me that Noel and the British troops were wrongly concluding that, because these men weren't dressed like partisans from the mountains, they weren't nevertheless part of the same resistance movement that had fought so hard against occupation. 

18.12.44 British mortar position by St. Paul's Anglican Church © IWM NA 20945

Noel's captions for the day's photographs don't give a clear location for where the fighting was taking place. However, he does record that "the prisoners were temporarily caged under the South bluff of the Acropolis" and that "ELAS attacked the building fiercely, but were beaten off. This mortar section [photographed above] helped to break up the attack".

Colorised version of © IWM NA 20937

Update: A colorised version of © IWM NA 20937 makes it clearer that the Sherman tank is on Faliro (Noel's caption labels it as the 'Faleron autostrada') facing Petmeza street, about 500m to the south of the Acropolis.

British troops continue to force ELAS back
Noel's photos confirm how, over the following week, ELAS continued to be forced back. 

One of the areas that was fought over was the 'vegetable market' (presumably the one to the south of Omonoia Square). One of Noel's shots, taken sometime between 20th and 23rd December has the following caption: "The vegetable market deep in E.L.A.S. territory breaks into fire after Sherman tanks have shot up snipers threatening the Pireaus road". However, one from December 24th shows the market "gutted by fire ... civilians carry on as best they can now that ELAS have been cleared out, and the fighting has passed on".

20-24.12.44 - fighting at the vegetable market © IWM NA 21066 © IWM NA 21071

Another area of fierce fighting on December 24th was around the gasworks at Gazi, to the west of the ancient centre of the city. In an attempt to try and resist the advance of British tanks, Noel's photos show that ELAS had manged to bury steel girders in the road towards the gasworks. They had to be removed by Sappers of the Parachute Squadron of the Royal Engineers:

24.12.44: ELAS try to block advancing tanks © IWM NA 21064 © IWM NA 21069

By the end of Christmas Eve, British troops had retaken the gasworks from ELAS:

24.12.44: Fighting around the gasworks © IWM NA 21053 © IWM NA21055 © IWM NA 21058 (colorised)

The Imperial War Museum archive of Noel's photos contains a number of other photos of the day's fighting, including the following:

24.12.44: "Various" © IWM NA 21060 © IWM NA 21056 © IWM NA 21054 © IWM NA 21062 

This shot shows the troops being offered a "strange resin-flavoured wine" - presumably their first encounter with retsina:

24.12.44: Troops being offered retsina © IWM NA 21061

However, while there are smiles in the photo above, the December days of the Dekemvriana were bitterly fought and came at great human cost. By the time they were over it has been estimated that there were as many as 50,000 Greek dead and 2,000 British casualties.

The "inexhaustible flow" of new Greek National Guardsmen 

Noel's photos also confirm that British commanders were also able to deploy growing numbers of the 'Greek National Guard'. In fact, one of his captions refers to the "inexhaustible flow" of new recruits.

New National Guardsmen 16.12.44 © IWM NA 20903 - 19.12.44 © IWM NA 20870

However, as already discussed, these new recruits were, according to most historians, drawn largely from right-wing opponents of ELAS and former members of the Security Battalions and Special Security men who, up until then, had been held in camps as collaborators with the Nazi occupiers. 

Did Noel and his fellow paratroopers have any inkling of who they were now fighting alongside? Mazower's take on this is that "British military police officers, who had little idea of what had been happening in Athens earlier that year, sympathised with the plight of these detainees, many of whom as they naively saw it - were just professional policemen 'out of a job through no fault of their own'. Hemmed in for days in the centre of Athens, the British were in no position to refuse offers of assistance and during the fighting, former gendarmes, Battalionists and right-wing collaborators were given arms and incorporated into National Guard units".

What did British troops think about the battle being waged?

A letter sent by Noel from Athens to his parents, my grandparents, at the end of 1944, gives some insight into what he, and perhaps other British troops, were thinking:

A letter home from Noel 23.12.44

Again, the letter suggests to me that British troops were being told that they weren't fighting the 'real andartes' of the Greek resistance. Instead, the soldiers were being told that they were now fighting "a new, different type of young townsman". In addition, "it transpired that EAM and KKE joined forces" - so that they were now facing an enemy led by the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, who appeared to have had hidden their real intentions to challenge for power behind the front of 'EAM'.

Unfortunately, the accusation that the KKE had been dishonest about their politics had a kernel of truth to it. Following the line set from the Stalinists in Moscow, the KKE and EAM had failed to boldly agitate for a socialist Greece in a way that could have appealed to both Greek workers and peasants, but could also have provided the basis of a class appeal to British soldiers not to be used to undermine a genuine revolution. 

It's unclear what attempts were made to appeal to the British troops. A Trotskyist source suggests that at the very start of the Dekemvriana, on December 5th, a demonstration was held in front of the British Embassy with signs saying: "British Soldiers! Let us choose our own government!". However, the KKE's main message - that the British Army was welcome as an ally, on the basis of mutual national interests, rather than class politics - surely played into Churchill's hands. When Churchill ordered Scobie to move against ELAS, it was all too easy for the British troops to believe that the fighting had been brought about simply because EAM-KKE-ELAS were seeking to undermine that supposed 'unity'.

Much of the EAM/KKE graffiti visible in Noel's photos is in Greek, a language that very few of the British troops would have understood (certainly not in its modern form!). Some of Noel's earlier photos from the initial arrival in Athens in October capture some slogans painted in English for the troops to understand. But EAM-ELAS-KKE graffiti behind the sentries guarding a former German HQ simply again stresses unity with the allies. The slogans of the nationalist youth group ESAS are at least clearer in showing what they want from the British - calling for "enlargement of Greece" and that "only a strong and powerful Greece can ensure peace in the Balkans":

16.10.44: Graffiti on the walls of Athens © IWM NA 19440 © IWM NA 19441

As Noel's letter shows, even an officer like him would have been susceptible to a clear class appeal. His family was socialist in outlook, his eldest brother a member of the Communist Party. Noel writes to his parents, "don't imagine that ... we are all mere military morons ... Don't forget we are your sons and brothers".  He adds that "if the Communist Party would care to examine its records, it may be able to trace a cheque signed by me at the time of the Spanish Civil War". 

If a Lieutenant like Noel may have had some uneasiness about what he was being asked to do, how much more would that have been true for the army ranks, particularly at a time when the experience of war was shifting consciousness to the left, as was to be soon demonstrated in the landslide victory for Labour in Britain in the 1945 General Election?

Update: For anyone reading this blog, perhaps from Greece, who may not know about how Churchill was decisively defeated in 1945, this video from an election rally in London in July 1945 might give you an idea of how he was then seen by many workers (from newsreel footage - the only images NOT taken by Noel):

Indeed, there is evidence that Army Command was concerned that the ranks might indeed refuse to follow orders. At a similar time as Noel was writing home to his parents, the British commander in chief, Field Marshal Alexander, wrote a report to the Foreign Office warning that "we could go quicker if we stormed our way through the streets with tanks and 'Rotterdamed' whole quarters by air bombardment as the Germans and Russians in a similar situation would probably do. But, apart from other disadvantages of such a policy, the troops would refuse to do it".

However, the final page of Noel's letter shows that, at the end of what had then been over a week of intense fighting, he had to justify his actions to his parents - and to himself - "Heaven save us from ELAS-EAM-KKE. They represent neither the people of Greece nor right and truth nor even the Andartes who fought the Germans":

The last page of the letter home from Noel 23.12.44

He talks of "the Greek people who have welcomed me to their homes, and to whose expressions of fear I was too stupid to listen". However, in such a politically polarised country, those fears may well have been the fears of wealthier Athens, while Noel had not heard the fears and hopes of those supporting ELAS-EAM-KKE.

The response to events back in Britain

Events in Athens were certainly provoking an angry response inside the Labour Party and trade unions, including in Pontypridd, Noel's town of birth in South Wales, where the constituency party passed a resolution attacking the government's policy of intervention.

At the Labour Party's postponed Annual Conference in December, the moderate General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, feeling the pressure from below, warned that there was "nothing more repugnant" to British workers than "the utilisation of our splendid British boys to shoot down the Greek guerrillas"Aneurin Bevan attacked the Labour Minister in Churchill's Coalition Government, Ernest Bevin, "for an account of events that had been 'garbled and inadequate where it is not unveracious', and who had lined up with the only three other bodies in the world to have supported British actions, 'namely, Fascist Spain, Fascist Portugal, and the majority of the Tories in the House of Commons' ".

Churchill, perhaps now wanting to bring an end to the fighting, arrived in Athens on Christmas Eve 1944 to personally conduct peace talks. Noel's photographs record the visit, recording the crowds in front of the Hotel Grande Bretagne and the arrival of Churchill at the Greek Foreign Ministry: 

26.12.44: "The news of the arrival of Mr. Churchill spread like wildfire, and the first large crowds since December 3rd were seen on the streets". © IWM NA 21049

26.12.44: "Churchill, wearing R.A.F. uniform, arrives for the conference with E.L.A.S. He is seen with Lt. Gen. Scobie and Archbishop Damaskinos, the proposed Regent of Greece" © IWM NA 21047

However, no settlement was agreed and the fighting continued. On the following day, December 27th, Noel photographs Field Marshal Alexander on top of the Acropolis as he "looks down at enemy movement in the burning area of Athens":

27.12.44: Field Marshal Alexander on the Acropolis © IWM NA 21086

On New Year's Eve, Noel records paratroopers advancing under mortar fire in the Metaxourgeio District, to the west of Omonoia:

31.12.44: Roof-top fighting in the Metaxourgeio area © IWM NA 21438 © IWM NA 21437

A glance at a map of Athens to see where this District is situated will show that British troops were still only advancing slowly through the streets of Athens. Nevertheless, the outcome of the battle between lightly armed ELAS fighters and the British Army, armed with tanks, heavy weaponry and aircraft, was eventually only going to have one result. 

ELAS retreat from Athens

With ELAS unable to secure a settlement, a new Government headed by the right-wing General Plastiras, without any EAM representation, was formed on 3 January 1945. Shortly after, ELAS retreated fully from Athens. 

On 12 February a truce was signed at Varkiza and ELAS surrendered its weapons. But its opponents did not. What followed was a right-wing reign of terror and then Civil War. 

Once again, Noel's photographs provide telling pictorial evidence of events. His final set of shots, entitled "Final Mopping Up", record some of the last actions of the Dekemvriana events on 6 January 1945:

6.1.45: Destroyed and burning buildings © IWM NA 21418 © IWM NA 21420

6.1.45: An ELAS armoured car (previously Italian) is stopped in Gazi © IWM NA 21422

6.1.45: ELAS prisoners removing their own casualties and dead © IWM NA 21429 © IWM NA 21431

6.1.45: Rounding-up ELAS prisoners © IWM NA 21430



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