Modern Greek history has a select number of events that live in the collective spirit of its people and culture. One of those events took place in 1910 when the Hellenic Kingdom purchased its first state of the art Heavy Cruiser. That ship was originally intended for use by the Italian Navy but was deemed excess by Rome prior to its completion. A buyer was sought and the Ottoman Empire was approached but could not afford the asking price. The Greek government was made aware of the situation and swooped in and closed the deal.
The most important side note to the acquisition is the fact it was made possible by the generous bequest of a wealthy Greek businessman from Egypt, named Georgios Averof. Due to his generosity, the heavy cruiser was named after him: the Royal Hellenic Naval Service RHNS Georgios Averof, heavy cruiser, was launched on March, 12, 1910 with sea trials completed on May 16, 1911.
The mystery of the Averof revolves around its unique configuration and how it crossed paths with the most infamous world arms merchant of the time. The intersection of the two make for a fascinating story that is seldom, if ever discussed.
The Averof was not a typical heavy cruiser. It had a unique configuration unlike any other ship sailing at the time – it was manufactured by the Italians as a Pisa class heavy cruiser and only two others served in the Italian Navy. They all had French boilers driving the engines and German masts and motors. However, the Averof, unlike the Italian heavy cruisers, was outfitted with state-of-the-art British guns. They were purchased from the preeminent English arms company Vickers-Armstrong.
The Averof became the biggest ship in the Greek Navy with a displacement of approximately 10,000 tons and a complement of 32 officers and 655 sailors. Max speed was roughly 23 knots.
The Averof had four (two by two), 9.2-inch, 45 caliber guns; eight: 7.5-inch, 45 caliber guns; eighteen: three-inch 40 caliber rapid fire guns; eight: 1.85-inch 50 caliber rapid fire guns; and three: 18-inch torpedo tubes.
By the time the Averof had completed its trial runs, the ship only carried half the munitions it was designed to carry. A definite handicap in a battle. The Balkan War was looming in 1911. However, the breaking point was yet to come, and the Italians were at war with the Ottomans, creating a brief distraction. The Hellenic Kingdom would have to move quickly if it wanted to be ready for the coming war. The lack of munitions on the Averof placed it at a grave disadvantage, basically sidelining the greatest warship in the Greek arsenal even before the action started.
Entering the picture is the most enigmatic figure of his time, Mr. Zed Zed, Basil Zaharoff, or Mr. Basil Zacharias – “the Merchant of Death,” as he was known, a world-renowned international arms dealer and representative of Vickers-Armstrong Arms UK. There is no question that the following two facts drove Mr. Zacharias’ trajectory towards the plight of the Hellenic Kingdom and the Averof specifically. Zacharias was a superbly successful arms dealer, a representative and Director of Foreign Markets with a focus on the Balkan region. A Hellene himself, he harbored a personal interest in the plight of his ancestral home, and was positioned perfectly to play a role in the needs of Greece. There is no doubt he took a part in filling orders for munitions. It is widely accepted that certain western European governments preferred to hold back their overt support so as not to upset the balance of power. It was a better visual if it looked like they were playing a cautious hand. Which would allow the appearance of neutrality. Private business transactions, kept from the public eye, would maintain deniability of any specific endorsement or support over one nation or another, and maintain the ability to oversee international relations without the entanglement of business affairs. A kind of separation of business and diplomacy.
Again, this allowed a man like Zacharias a free hand to do what he felt was necessary. He could support his ancestral homeland and make his bosses some money – two birds with one stone.
By November of 1912 the Averof was badly in need of munitions for its gun batteries, but the heroic fate of Zacharias and the Averof were sealed. A Greek freighter made its way to England on a secret mission to resupply the Averof. No escort was present when the freighter made its way to an out of the way dock on the Thames. Under complete secrecy and cover of night, the freighter loaded a shipment of munitions and slowly made its way back to Greece to resupply the Averof. No doubt the arrangement was set up with the help of Zacharias.
The Averof successfully used the resupply to win all her battles throughout the two Balkan Wars.
Two of the better-known sea battles that Averof won are the Battle of Elli taking place on the 3rd of December 1912, and the battle of Limnos on the 5th of January 1913. The Averof’s victories established the dominance of the Greek Navy in the Aegean.
For those interested in visiting the Averof, it can be found in Palaio Faliro, Greece, where it serves as a permanent floating museum.
Next time we look into other Forgotten Heroes: Volunteer Nurses from England.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory/.