- Contributed by
- Platon Kapranos
- People in story:
- Athanasius Kapranos & Andreas Patsourakos
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
A flavour of Greece & Greeks during WW2
My father and four of my uncles fought in the Albanian front during the war and as a result I have countless of stories that have been handed down in the family. I will recall three for you in order to give you a flavour of what the war brought to Greece and its people.
As soon as Italy declared War on Greece on the 28th of October 1940 my father was called to join his unit just outside Athens. Being a medical doctor his first action was to examine the soldiers in order to ensure that they were fit to fight.
He recalls leaving the headquarters and outside coming face to face with Ioannis Metaxas (of Metaxas Brandy fame). The aged rotund man was pacing up and down outside on the side walk next to his parked chauffer driven black Buick limousine. ‘Mr Metaxas what are you doing here?’, ‘you are over the age of conscription and you have already donated so much to the war effort’. ‘This is nothing my dear doctor; material contributions; how can they match the blood that our boys will spill for our country?’ ‘Please allow me to be your chauffer to take you to your unit, it is the least I can do’.
So, there was my dad driven in a black limo entering the great conflict against fascism. A bit of an oxymoron you might say since Greece was under a military dictatorship at the time (another Ioannis Metaxas).
When he joined his unit he was taken to the store rooms and to his surprise he saw in front of his eyes every room stocked to the brims with guns, ammunition and all the other paraphernalia of war. He remembers exclaiming, ‘God save Metaxas for his has provided Greece with ‘the Sword’ to strike her enemies with’!
To cut a long story short, I remember my dad recalling an incident during the physical examination of the conscripts.
They were in the outskirts of Athens close to a small wooded area and he recalls the recruits and volunteers arriving by many means of transportation. He clearly remembers a group of young men from the surrounding villages arriving accompanied by the sounds of cymbals, bagpipes, clarinets and tin whistles as if they were going to a village wedding. He also clearly remembers one of the young men in the group towering above everyone else. He remembers admiring the physique of this person from a distance.
When the turn of the young Hercules came to have his physical, my dad recalls that to his surprise the fellow had an exaggerated hernia in need of attention. So, he told the young man that he would be sending him to the hospital for an operation. The young man grabbed him from the shoulders and told him ‘Doctor, if you send me to the hospital I will kill myself and you will have to carry this in your conscience’. ‘I cannot have all my mates going off to war and myself going to hide in some hospital’. My dad tried to assured him that the operation would be quickly over and that he could rejoin his unit in due course. ‘There is no way I will go to any hospital’, the young man insisted, ‘either I join my unit now or you will have to live with the consequences’.
Considering the ultimatum my dad passed him fit and he recalls saying to himself ‘I hope God will forgive me if I have put this young mans life in danger and I pray that he makes it back to his village’. He never found out what happened to this young fellow. He was just another intoxicated youngster ready to give his life for his country. May he rest in peace.
‘We regret to inform you…..’
My Dad and four uncles fought in the Albanian mountains, successfully against the Italian invasion and then like everyone else distraught at the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ that followed.
However, one of my uncles, Uncle Andreas, he decided that running back to his family and hunkering down for the German occupation was not to his liking and instead in a spur of the moment decision he swapped uniforms and papers with the dead body of a Greek officer he set off to join, through a very tortuous route, the ‘Free Greek Army’ in Africa. He fought in a number of battles the most famous at El-Alamein with the British (that’s how he learned his English as we later found out) and saw the war out in Africa.
Of course while he was still fighting his war, my grandmother had already received the news of his death through the standard Ministry of Defence letter: ‘We regret to inform you that your son Andreas was killed in action during the German invasion ……’ The poor woman had reconciled herself with the loss of her youngest son with the usual stoic motherly acceptance of such a loss at those dreadful times. You can imagine her disbelief (not to say how she did not die of heart attack) when her youngster walked back into their lives at the end of the war, returning victorious from his African campaign.
My dad has collected 5 war medals at the Albanian front. One is for bravery. I would not therefore question that he had what it took. Nevertheless he described to us an incident that showed up the British character at war.
It was soon after the collapse of the northern Greek front to the German onslaught. My father, as a great number of other Greek soldiers walked all the way down to Athens (where we lived) after the collapse. He recalls that on his way down to Athens he stopped at a large farmhouse, which had been used as a temporary field hospital for wounded soldiers, he attended the wounded as best he could and then left a message to the invading Germans that they were to be treated as prisoners of war according to the Geneva conventions. At the time he could speak German and write a bit, as well as French, Latin and Greek. After the war and until the end of his life he never uttered a German word. It was one of the indelible marks that the war inflicted on the generations involved in its passing.
He continued on foot and at some point came across an ant-air craft battery by the side of the dirt road manned by a group of British soldiers. He recalls the officer in charge smoking a pipe with his right hand. As he was passing, a German fighter plane made a dive and strafed the area with machine gun fire. My dad dived in the ditch by the road side and took cover.
The English officer keeping his calm and was directing his gunners to shoot at the plane as if the bullets were not flying all around. My dad peeked from his hiding place and noticed that as the plane had sprayed the area with its gunfire the officer had been hit on his right hand. Without as much as flinching, he took his pipe on his left hand, moved the wounded arm behind his back and continued to direct his crew in firing at the retreating plane.
Once the plane had disappeared, my father, feeling a bit indignant at himself for allowing self preservation to take over, he climbed out and proceeded to look at the officer’s hand. The bullet had gone right through, fortunately without breaking any bones.
‘Son, he said, if you are in a fight, these are the guys you want on your side’. ‘The Tommies might be drunkards but they have guts’.
Something that the British thankfully did not have to suffer during the war was the occupation of their country. Greeks, along with most of the other European mainlanders had to go through this horrific experience. I will not recount specific instances of humiliation, despair or heroism that can colour the feelings of a whole generation of men and women.
I will recall just an eye witness incident of the human brutality on their fellow humans.
The Germans throughout the war had a simple policy when it came to resistance movements: ‘If your resistance killed Germans, they would retaliate by total extermination of whole communities’.
So, it came to pass, in the place we lived (Kokkinia — Nikaia) suburbs of Piraeus that the Germans ordered a round up of all able men over the age of 16 to the local square. It was an unlikely sunny October day and my father remembers being herded like cattle in the local square and ordered to sit down. Through the morning, German soldiers and local hooded collaborators walked about the square and picked various men (mostly with communist affiliations) who disappeared inside the Civic Centre building facing the square.
Later on my dad recalls one of these unfortunates being brought out again supported under the arms by two masked men. One of the man’s eyes was hanging down his face from its socket and most of the rest of his face was disfigured by a severe beating. The poor man was stopped in front of various persons and asked to verify if they were communists or resistance fighters. There is no doubt that in his condition he would probably have pointed out anyone they asked him to point at.
My father was picked up amongst a large number of men and taken inside the Civic Hall. They walked down a corridor and at the end they were being identified by a number of collaborating Greeks. When my father arrived at the front someone there recognised him and told the Germans in charge that there is a mistake because he could vouch for my father being a local doctor a family man and not involved either with the communist party or the resistance. He was then escorted out of a side door and put in the back of an army lorry that was waiting parked at the side of the building next to the high wall that surrounded the enclosed yard of the Civic Hall.
After sometime had elapsed, he heard a muffled popping sound followed by restrained applause. This continued every so often that my father’s curiosity took the best of him and he climbed on top of the roof of the track and glanced inside the yard of the Civic Hall. He could see that chairs had been arranged as when attending an outside function and at the front was an oversized German officer with a hand gun. Every so often two soldiers would walk forward with a detainee that they would hand over to the officer. He would grab hold of them by the scruff of the neck with his left arm and he would place the muzzle of the gun he held in his right hand on the side of their heads. He would then pull the trigger (the popping sound) and he would dispatch of the body in the pile of bodies already gathering at the front. That would be followed by the reserved clapping of his appreciative public.
Before he decided he had seen enough, and climbed back into the lorry in case he was discovered, my dad witnessed at the back of the yard a small commotion. A young kid, probably around 16 and supported under the arms by two soldiers was just about to be walked down to his fate at the front when a man approached and exchanged words with the German officer in charge at the back and instead the young man was led to the side door and into life.
My dad quickly climbed down just in time to see the young person coming out of the door. He had the look of a hunted animal before the hunters move in for the kill. He had urinated through his trousers and most probably had defecated as well. He just collapsed on all fours and like a dog run down the street on all fours and disappeared out of sight.
As humans we are capable of great cruelty to other creatures, including our fellow humans, usually for the most idiotic reasons. Our problem is that we have still not learned to control our instinctive animal nature and continue to inflict unnecessary pain and destruction to other members of our species for the same idiotic reasons that kept us at it in the past. We have not learned from our past deeds. We still get hooked on the few things that divide us rather than the many things that we have in common.
In memory of Athanasius Kapranos and Andreas Patsourakos as well as all those who did not make it through the war, from their son and nephew Dr. Plato Kapranos.
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