King George of the Hellenes Wartime Escape…

As April 1941 dawned, King George II of the Hellenes had much to contemplate from his country home at Tatoi, some twenty miles outside Athens. Although Greek forces had successfully beaten off an invasion by Mussolini’s Italy from occupied Albania, in late October/November 1940, and had subsequently gained control of most of the northern Epirus, an even greater Axis power now posed a very real threat: Following Bulgaria’s signing of the Tripartite Pact on 1 March, German forces moved up to Bulgaria’s frontiers with Greece and Yugoslavia. On 6 April 1941, these troops invaded Greece from Bulgaria, both directly and via the south-eastern corner of Yugoslavia. Although the invaders initially met with stiff opposition from both Greek soldiers and a recently-arrived Allied expeditionary force (composed of British, Australian and New Zealand troops), by 18 April the Axis troops were marching towards Athens where the Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis (who had only lately succeeded as premier following the death of General Ioannis Metaxas on 29 January), weighed-down by this recent turn of events, committed suicide. The King now assumed the Presidency of the Greek cabinet and, in a radio broadcast to his people, appealed to all Greeks to ‘remain united and steadfast’.

On 21 April, George II appointed Emmanouil Tsouderos, an Anglophile Cretan with links to the late Eleftherios Venizelos, as Prime Minister. Tsouderos was perhaps an apt choice as, on 22 April, to avoid capture by advancing Axis forces, Crown Princess Frederika and her children, Constantine and Sophia, flew in a Sunderland Flying Boat from the mainland to Crete. They were followed, next day (his name day) by King George, Crown Prince Paul, other royal family members and the government. Some have posited that the King appointed Tsouderos to act as his ‘protective shield’ for Crete was deemed to be a republican stronghold. On 27 April, German forces occupied Athens and Allied forces and Greek militia were evacuated to Crete.

Meanwhile, diplomatic circles in Germany let it be known that King George was ‘not recognised now as a representative of Greece. He is regarded as an ordinary fugitive.’ The Germans were now looking to work alongside the collaborationist ‘Hellenic State’ government of General Georgios Tsolakoglou, an avowed republican, who seemed more than happy to declare that his country was no longer a monarchy. President Roosevelt certainly disagreed with this view, for he arranged for his son, Captain James Roosevelt, a US air observer, to deliver a friendly note to the King in Crete praising the ‘magnificent fight the people of Greece are putting up’ and adding, ‘I wish you could get more help from us, and more quickly. I can only say I am using every effort.’

However, on 20 May, Crete was subjected to an airborne invasion by German paratroopers and mountain soldiers, who eventually wrestled control of defensive positions in the north, despite determined resistance on the part of the local populace, as well as Greek and Allied forces. Indeed, the King and Prince Peter narrowly escaped capture when the house they were inhabiting at Perivolia was attacked by a squadron of Messerschmitt planes. Later, large gliders landed nearby and German paratroopers engaged the Greek gendarmes and a platoon of New Zealand soldiers who were guarding His Majesty. Although King George avoided capture, he soon lost contact with his cabinet (and the Allied command) during a 72-hour dash over the mountains, with only a faithful squad of 16 New Zealand soldiers to protect him. Indeed, the second night of his adventure was spent at 8000 feet atop a snow-topped mountain range. On another occasion, the King sheltered in a cave alongside shepherds and ate mutton provided by them. The final day of this adventure was spent travelling knee-deep in water along a rocky river bed to evade detection.

The King was evacuated to Alexandria in Egypt from the southern Cretan port of Agia Roumeli, on 23 May, aboard the British destroyer, HMS Decoy. The government-in exile also joined King George there, but it was now much reduced in size, with the Prime Minister also assuming the portfolios of Foreign Minister and Finance Minister.

Although the Greek War Minister, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, was to remain behind with evacuated Greek troops in Egypt, by early July, the King and his government had moved on to South Africa. There, His Majesty was greeted with all the ceremony and decorum due to a visiting Head of State at Pretoria Station: The King of South Africa’s personal representative, the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, introduced King George to the South African Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts while, in the background, a 21-gun salute rang out. The King was later feted by women from the Greek community, in national dress and carrying Greek flags, who strewed rose petals before him as he walked-by. However, although the King George did not remain long in the Union, a large swathe of the Greek royal family decided to take refuge there for the duration of the war. They included Crown Princess Frederika and her children, Princess Catherine, Prince George and his wife Marie Bonaparte, as well as their daughter Eugenie. Smuts had a particular soft spot for the Greek royals and soon took to referring to them as ‘my children’ regardless of their age and rank.

King George, meanwhile, was about to depart for London using a long, circuitous route, when Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, telegraphed him, on 20 July, to say: ‘I have been thinking a great deal about Your Majesty in these months of stress, danger and sorrow and I wish to tell you how much Your Majesty’s bearing amid these vicissitudes has been admired by your many friends in England, as well as by the nation at large.’

The Greek King arrived at the sea port of Liverpool, on 22 September, where he was greeted by the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Derby. He subsequently inspected a Naval Guard of Honour. The King then travelled southwards by train to London and received a right royal greeting at Euston Station from King George VI (‘Bertie’), Queen Elizabeth and his cousin, Marina, the Duchess of Kent. Winston Churchill also made an appearance and was seen to doff his top hat to the Hellenic monarch. The King of the Hellenes was accompanied by a party of forty, who included Crown Prince Paul, Princess Alexandra (the daughter of the late King Alexander of the Hellenes) and her mother Princess Aspasia. Prime Minister Tsoudoros and the government-in-exile were also much in evidence.

The Times, England’s establishment newspaper of choice, carried a positive article: ’London is proud to welcome King George, who is joining the honored band of national leaders who have fought and endured incredible personal hardships, but have never for a moment despaired of ultimate victory. He shared the dangers of the troops during the fighting in Crete which was a delaying action of the utmost value.’ For his part, King George II stated in a radio broadcast that ‘We have come here (to London) the better to direct the interest of the [Greek] nation, for here it is that, in common with our Allies, we shall take decisions regarding our participation in the war. This will be carried on until final victory is won.’

The writer of this blog, Robert Prentice, takes a keen interest in the fate of royalty during World War II. He is the author of the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia Her Life and Times which inter alia relates the involved story of Olga’s wartime adventures in Africa. Available through Amazon and at other on-line and local bookshops.

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