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Kill Or Be Killed:

The Greco-Turkish War of 1969


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In the first part of this series we reviewed the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the September war and the opening shots of the war itself. In this chapter, we’ll look back at Turkey’s response to the initial surprise attack by Greece and the international reaction to the start of hostilities between Greece and Turkey.


The shock of the Turkish masses over the initial Greek surprise attack on naval and air bases in southern Turkey soon gave way to grief over the men lost in the attack; rage about what the Turkish government considered an unprovoked act of aggression; and determination to avenge the attack. Even as Ankara prepared to issue a formal declaration of war against Greece, thousands of Turks gathered in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul for spontaneous anti-Greek demonstrations. Greek flags were burned along with effigies of the men who comprised the junta then ruling in Athens.

Suleyman Demirel went on TV at 1:30 PM Athens time on the afternoon of August 20th to officially announce that a state of hostilities was in effect between Greece and Turkey. As he was giving his speech those Turkish warplanes which had survived the initial attack were being fueled and armed for a counterstrike on the Greeks. Along Greece’s land border with Turkey, Turkish infantry and armored vehicles were lining up to repulse what was thought to be an imminent Greek invasion of the northern Turkish mainland. The Greek armed forces, however, considered it more important to neutralize Turkish defenses in the southern mainland and the Aegean and had organized their battle plans accordingly.

The US embassies in Athens and Ankara duly kept the White House abreast of what was happening, and within 90 minutes of Demirel’s official declaration of war on Greece President Nixon had convened an emergency session of the National Security Council to discuss how Washington should respond. One thing on which the NSC members unanimously agreed was that military intervention was not an option; even without Vietnam tying down much of the US armed forces’ manpower and resources, US involvement in the Greco-Turkish conflict in support of either side would have the instant and highly dangerous effect of destabilizing NATO.

Furthermore, as Secretary of State William P. Rogers pointed out, if the United States overtly backed Greece in this matter it would seriously complicate-- maybe even rupture --US relations with the Muslim world. Turkey has long been one of the cornerstones of Islamic culture; its influence is exceeded only by that of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Alienating the Turks was a risk which not even the notoriously confrontational Nixon would dare to take. The last thing he needed, he told Rogers, was "to have the (expletive) Turks mad at me".1

However, the White House could use its influence to nudge the combatants to the bargaining table-- and proceeded to start doing precisely that on August 22nd when the UN General Assembly held an emergency session to hear the Greek and Turkish UN ambassadors make their respective cases as to which side had been primarily responsible for the hostilities now taking place in the Aegean. At the request of Secretary of State Rogers, the US delegation to the UN introduced a resolution calling for the combatants to immediately open cease-fire negotiations.

In a special meeting of NATO’s Supreme Council held that same day, the US representative on the council candidly told his Greek and Turkish counterparts that the State Department was worried about the deleterious effects of the Greco-Turkish conflict on the ability of NATO to even continue functioning as a united entity, much less meet the Warsaw Pact threat in Europe. But neither this dire warning nor the proposed UN resolution did much to dissuade the combatants from continuing their war against one another; in fact, one senior aide to the Greek military attaché in London privately told his superiors "we should burn Istanbul to the ground".2

It would take weeks of further diplomatic lobbying by the US just to get Athens and Ankara to start talking...


....and in the meantime rivers of blood would be spilled on both sides. Ten days after Suleyman Demirel’s official declaration of war on Greece, Turkish air force jets were deployed to carry out bombing raids against Greek military installations on the island of Crete. It was the most intense air combat operation directed at targets on Greek soil since the Nazi air raid on Athens that opened Hitler’s invasion of Greece in the spring of 1941. Greek air defense units, alerted to the approach of the Turkish raid, immediately scrambled fighters to meet the attackers head-on, and before long a bitter mass dogfight was raging underneath the mid-afternoon Cretan skies. An American military  attaché who was on the island when the Turkish bombing began noted in his official daily report to CINCEUR3 the next day that the air battles between the Greek and Turkish fighters were reminiscent in some ways of the clashes between F-86 Sabrejets and MiG-15s during the Korean War. Although both sides’ fighters carried air-to-air missiles, most of the air combat kills in this battle were scored with guns-- one Greek pilot who survived the engagement had three such kills in the span of five minutes, while a Turkish flyer managed the rather tricky feat of knocking off two planes with a single gunburst. The Turkish pilot blew a single-seat Greek fighter to pieces, and the shrapnel from the explosion hit a twin-seater Greek jet and caused it to spiral out of control into the Aegean.

While not as many Turkish strike planes reached their targets as the high command in Ankara would have liked, the planes that did get through managed to inflict considerable damage. Maleme, site of the Nazi landings on Crete in 1941, saw its town airstrip wrecked from one end to the other by Turkish bombs and its city hall get half of their windows shattered by 20mm cannon fire. Crete’s largest military air base lost its main radar and at least two of its hangars. One lucky hit by a Turkish fighter sank a Greek naval patrol boat just before the surviving planes in the strike force were recalled to their home bases back in Turkey.

At sunrise two days after the Turkish air strike on Crete, the Greek army sent three divisions across the overland border between Greece and Turkey to seize the town of Edirne. In response the Turkish army rushed four of its own divisions to Edirne’s defense, and at high noon on September 2nd, 1969 the two battle groups met east of the town in the first major land engagement of the September War.

The Battle of Edirne was the first major land battle to happen in a European combat theater since the Soviet attack on Berlin in the final days of the Second World War; it also saw the largest use of helicopters by European military forces in a wartime situation since the 1956 Suez crisis. Both the Turkish and Greek armed forces had vast inventories of US-built UH-1 Iroquois choppers and made substantial us of them to deploy troops, transport wounded personnel to field hospitals, or fire rockets at armored vehicles and fixed defensive strongpoints. Not surprisingly, those choppers used in an attack role tended to sustain massive losses from anti-aircraft fire; postwar NATO casualty estimates calculated that one out of every three helos lost in the first weeks of the September War were shot down at the Battle of Edirne.

For three days the Greek and Turkish armies fought over Edirne like two lions laying claim to a freshly killed gazelle. The town was so thoroughly devastated that by the time Greek forces were finally compelled to withdraw from the area late on the evening of September 5th, its ruined state called to mind the infamous comment made by an American infantry officer during the Vietnam War: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."


The rest of the world watched the fighting between Greece and Turkey with interest-- and a certain tinge of anxiety. The Soviet Union, for one, was concerned the hostilities might greatly endanger Soviet interests in the Black Sea region; there were also fears that the governments of the combatant nations might use the conflict as a pretext for cracking down on socialist or Marxist political groups within their own borders, which would hamper Moscow’s efforts to promote Communism in western Europe. And last but not least, some members of the Kremlin’s foreign policy establishment worried that  Bulgaria, one of the USSR’s key Warsaw Pact allies, might get caught up in the fighting if either of the belligerents made a miscalculation in the heat of battle.

The other European members of NATO, most notably Great Britain, feared the Greco-Turkish war might spark a chain reaction that would end in the organization’s collapse; already there had been some sharp disagreements within NATO’s executive council as to what stance the group should take on the conflict, with one such resulting in veiled threats by West Germany’s defense minister to pull his country out of NATO altogether. (The minister subsequently retracted those threats under pressure from then-West German chancellor Willy Brandt.)

Five days after Greek troops pulled out of Edirne, the outside world would have renewed cause for concern as the September War began to roil the islands of the Aegean Sea...


To Be Continued


[1] Quoted from the transcript of a recorded conversation between Nixon and Rogers dated August 21st, 1969.

[2] The incident is mentioned in greater detail in the book Aim For The Eyes: The September War 25 Years Later(copyright 1994 Alfred A. Knopf Publishing Co.).

[3] Commander in Chief Europe; this is the central authority for US military operations in western Europe.


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