By Efthimis Tsiliopoulos
The 6th June 1944 has been called “The Longest Day.” It was the day Allied forces landed en masse on Normandy, forging the western front against Nazi Germany. Greece despite being under the occupation of the Axis, could not be absent from the war’s “longest day.” Its armed forces were there to hold the torch of freedom high.
The Greek warships that fought with the British navy, were crewed by competent sailors, naval officers and reservists from the Merchant Marine. The capabilities of the Greek seamen were recognized early on by the Allies. Escorting allied convoys in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, these men had gained considerable military experience.
In the historic Normandy landing two Greek warships had been earmarked to participate, the “Flower” class corvettes Tobazis and Kriezis, which had just completed missions escorting convoys in the Atlantic. From the end of April already, the ships’ captains had received detailed instructions and orders for the missions they would execute during the landing and all that was left was to learn the exact date. Upon notification of orders, the ships sailed from Portsmouth in order to avoid information leakage and performed various missions until the day of the landing
On 5 June, the Greek corvettes received the secret signal which informed them about the launching of Operation Overlord. The two Greek warships were only a small part of the huge Allied fleet assembled that numbered 6,690 vessels of all types. However, the Greek sailors had to carry out a significant mission. The Germans had sown vast sea minefields in the Channel which created a significant obstacle that barred the way to the French coast for Allied landing forces. Minesweepers had to pave the way in front of the landing and escort ships, charged with opening five safe channels through the minefields.
The Kriezis and Tobazis were, along with a number of other ships, at the Isle of Wight in southern England. Although the crews knew that the minesweepers would open the channels, they were still worried about striking mines. Their mission was to escort other warships and landing ships to “Gold” Beach where the British 50th Infantry Division of the British 2nd Army would land. Ships sailed under radio silence with all battle stations manned battle, while the fierce storms raged in the English Channel. Reaching the minefield, the minesweepers undertook to lead them to the bus that would follow and the Greek ships were among the first crossing those dangerous waters.
Coming out of the minefield , at 05:30 dawn Tuesday, June 6 , the convoy began a pounding barrage of the French coast . The landing of the first wave went to the Gold Coast and at 07:25 the disembarkation of men.
The Greek warships remained off the coast offering covering fire for the landing forces. During the BBC’s breakfast bulletin at 09:00, crews waited with pounding hearts, the BBC . Naval forces of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway and Greece acted today landing in Europe. At dusk, the Greek ships were attacked by the Luftwaffe, but the ships’ anti-aircraft guns drove them off, with no losses on the Greek side. For the next few days, the two corvettes escorted landing and merchant ships back to England. In the first nine days, Kriezis escorted two convoys from Portsmouth and one convoy from Falmouth to Normandy. Between 16 and 23 June, they underwent repairs and hull cleaning in Falmouth, and between 23 and 29 June escorted convoys from Wales to Cornwall and from 7 July to 10 August escorted nine convoys from Portland U.S. in Normandy.
In the first twenty days, the Tobazis escorted seven convoys from Portsmouth to Normandy, between June 25 and July 12, it escorted convoys between Cornwall and Southampton, and by July 30, it escorted convoys from Falmouth and Solent in Normandy. Until August 9 remained at Southampton for the cleaning of boilers and from 11 – 16 August, it conducted antisubmarine patrols off Cherbourg to protect the fuel pipeline and cable laying vessels.
The contribution of the Greek Merchant Navy in the landing is thought to have been significant. Although data is not available and there is no concrete evidence, it is certain that many Greek merchant ships were among the huge allied fleet. Also , at least two Greek ships were sunk to form the foundations for the construction of two artificial Mulberry breakwaters off the Channel coast.