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Kill Or Be Killed:

The Greco-Turkish War of 1969


By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two parts of this series we examined the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the 1969 Greco-Turkish war and the first battles of the war itself. In this chapter, we’ll look back at the fierce struggles between Greece and Turkey for control of the islands of the Aegean Sea.


Only nineteen days had passed since the start of the Greco-Turkish war when the Turkish armed forces began their campaign to gain control of the islands situated between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea. One island they were particularly eager to establish a foothold on was Cyprus, whose Greek and Turkish enclaves had been at odds with each other long before the September War broke out; the Turkish general staff hoped to accomplish two objectives by taking Cyprus-- one, to frustrate the hopes of the ruling military junta in Athens for unifying the island with the Greek mainland, and two, to gain a staging area from which Turkish air and naval forces could launch more frequent attacks on strategic targets in Greece.

Furthermore, there was a consensus in Ankara that a successful armed occupation of Cyprus could act as a useful tuneup for a future landing operation by the Turkish army against mainland Greece.

Some would suggest Operation Ataturk1 was doomed to fail from the start because of the massive blows dealt to the Turkish air force in the opening hours of the September War. Others assert that it began well but then floundered in its latter stages. A few-- mostly die-hard Turkish nationalists --even claim that the offensive was on the verge of triumph and only floundered at the last second because some of the junior officers involved lost their nerve. But in any case, the high casualty rates incurred by the Turkish army during Operation Ataturk testifies to the determination with which the Greeks resisted Turkey’s efforts to expel them from the Aegean.

Under ideal conditions, with everything going according to plan and Turkish combat forces at full strength, Operation Ataturk would have been a risky enough venture; in view of the raw weather the Aegean was experiencing that September and the serious disadvantage at which the Turkish armed forces found themselves against their Greek adversaries, Ataturk verged on being a suicide mission. At least a few of the more pessimistic souls in the Turkish military’s officer corps feared that their men might be cut to ribbons the moment they set one toe on Greek soil.

And to be sure, the Greek armed forces had done a great deal to toughen up their defenses in the Aegean region. This was especially true where anti-aircraft weapons were concerned; to name just two of Ataturk’s potential targets for invasion, Cyprus, that traditional bone of contention between Greece and Turkey, and Lemnos, the island which had been the scene of the fishing boat incident which first put Greece and Turkey on the path to the September War, had their AA and SAM batteries doubled. Leaving nothing to chance, the ruling junta in Athens ordered the deployment of Greek navy guided missile cruisers in the Aegean Sea to provide additional SAM coverage for Aegean islands under Greek control.

But the Turkish general staff was willing to roll the dice anyway. So was Turkey’s NIO intelligence agency, which was infiltrating agents into Cyprus to wage a secret campaign of terror and sabotage against Greek nationals on the island. At 5:15 AM Istanbul time on September 10th, 1969, the Turkish defense ministry gave the "go" signal for the start of Operation Ataturk.


Greek ruling junta chairman Georgios Papadopoulos was making an inspection tour of Greek army bases near Salonika when he got the word that Operation Ataturk had commenced. True to his aggressive nature, he ordered an immediate counterattack against Turkish landing forces at Cyprus; in response, the Veria-based II Army Corps was dispatched to the island to assist the Greek Cypriots in resisting the Turkish invasion. The 1st Army Aviation Brigade also played a considerable role in the defense of Greek Cypriot territory, its Bell 47G and UH-1 helicopters flying critical reconnaissance missions to keep track of enemy troop movements.

As the pessimists in the Turkish officer corps had feared might happen, the Cyprus landing force sustained devastatingly high losses. Not only were Greek army units subjecting the invasion troops to withering ground fire, but Greek air force fighter jets were bombing the Turkish beachheads without mercy. The Greek navy did its part too, shelling any landing craft within range of their guns and missiles. By 12 noon, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Turkish effort to drive the Greeks off Cypriot soil was going to end in failure-- and a gory failure at that.

Apparent, that is, to everyone except the Turkish political elite and the generals backing them up. The prevailing mentality within the corridors of power in Ankara was that the difficulties being faced by the Cyprus landing force were just a momentary setback; making exactly the kind of strategic error Hitler had committed at Stalingrad, they ordered their troops to stand fast even when any objective observer of the situation could tell a withdrawal was called for. National pride was also a factor in the issuance of this order: the Turkish army high command could not stomach the idea of conceding defeat to the Greeks in such a critical battle, especially considering the entire point of mounting the invasion in the first place had been to drive the Greeks off Cyprus completely.

At 1:30 PM on the afternoon of September 10th, the Hellenic Army surprised Turkish ground forces by making a flank assault on the right wing of the Turkish lines in Cyprus. The Turks, who’d been expecting a direct frontal assault on their center, scarcely knew what hit them. Encouraged by the initial success of their flank attack, the Greeks continued to hammer away relentlessly at the Turkish lines until they started to break apart; by 5:00 PM Turkish ground forces were in full retreat.

Around 6:40 that evening the remnants of the Turkish invasion force sent one last message to Ankara requesting permission to pull out of their rapidly shrinking beachhead. The Turkish army general staff’s response was to tell the beleaguered troops, by now totally surrounded by Greek forces, to stay in their positions until relief forces could be dispatched to shore up the Turkish foothold on the island. But that foothold had been so thoroughly weakened it was only a matter of time before the Turkish beachhead collapsed altogether. At least two Turkish army officers who’d gone in with the initial landing force chose to commit suicide rather than endure the humiliation of being captured by the Greeks; dozens of their men followed suit as the Greek army closed in their positions.

It was just after midnight September 11th when Greek infantry and mechanized units overran the last remaining Turkish defensive position in the invasion zone. Of the thousands of troops who’d hit the beaches of Cyprus eighteen hours and forty-five minutes earlier, scarcely a hundred had survived to be captured; the rest had either been killed in action or taken their own lives. The surviving ships in the Turkish naval forces that had supported the invasion barely managed to return to their home ports in one piece. It was one of the gravest military defeats ever suffered by the modern Turkish nation since its creation after World War I.


The Greek civil population’s joy at the success of their armed forces’ success in turning back the Turkish attempt to conquer all of Cyprus was somewhat tempered by the realization that the Turkish army would try to launch an assault over the Greco-Turkish overland border and, if that assault succeeded in penetrating the border, drive west in attempt to capture Thessaloniki, one of Greece’s oldest and most important cities. The loss of Thessaloniki would be a blow to morale from which it would be very difficult-- if not utterly impossible -- for the Greek cause to recover. And though the Turks’ grand gambit for seizing full control of Cyprus might have ended in failure, there was no reason to doubt they could still make trouble for Greece elsewhere in the Aegean.

And they proceeded to do just that on September 13th, sending a commando detatchment to occupy the Cyclades island of Naxos. There was little resistance encountered by the commandos, and they overcame it in quick order. Indeed, the only Turkish casualty sustained in the Naxos operation was a sprained right hand incurred by a sergeant who tripped and fell as he was disembarking from his landing craft. With their foothold on Naxos secured, the Turks began fanning out to other islands in the Cyclades; by September 17th most of the island chain was in Turkish hands.

Things didn’t go quite so well for the Turks when they attempted to knock out a naval radar station on the island of Skiros. In fact, it was at Skiros that the Turkish navy would suffer a defeat which effectively spelled its demise as a fighting force; on September 19th, 1969 eight Turkish warships were sunk off the Skiros coast by the Greek navy in an early morning fight that took barely 48 minutes. At least one of the Turkish vessels lost in the Skiros engagement sank with all hands on board. The destruction of these warships, coming on top of the disaster of Operation Ataturk, inflicted an agonizing wound on Turkey’s national psyche; within minutes of the sinkings, Chief of the Turkish General Staff2 Memduh Tagmac’s most senior naval advisor had committed suicide and a number of Turkish newspapers, including the influential center-left daily Cumhuriyet, were calling for Tagmac himself to resign.

Anti-war sentiment in Turkey, which had waxed and waned from the opening shots in the September War, grew exponentially in the wake of the Skiros disaster. In a rare display of solidarity the country’s leading Muslim clerics joined forces with their Christian colleagues to demand Turkish president Suleyman Demirel end hostilities with Greece; the Turkish Communist Party, with financial and diplomatic backing from the Soviet embassy in Ankara, defied the secret police to mount a propaganda blitz encouraging students to protest the September War; Istanbul, Turkey’s second-largest city, became the scene of huge daily rallies condemning not only the Sunay government’s war policy but also the government itself; the Turkish air force chief of staff resigned his commission and-- in an unmistakable symbolic rebuke to his former superiors --began speaking out publicly in support of anti- war members of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly.3

But what may have been the most dramatic expression of how much the Turkish public had soured on the war came on September 25th, six short days after the defeat at Skiros. A group of cadets from the Kara Harp Okulu, the Turkish Army’s national military academy, gathered in front of the Turkish General Staff headquarters and doused themselves in gasoline before a crowd of confused onlookers; moments later, that confusion turned to horror as the cadets lit themselves ablaze. They were dead within seconds, burned to ashes in minutes. The only thing they left behind was a statement written by the eldest cadet and sent to the Associated Press offices in Istanbul declaring that the self-immolation was meant to symbolize their anguish at the prospect of being thrust into a war that could no longer be won and their desire to escape such a fate by any means necessary.

The same day that those cadets burned themselves to death, the Greek Army’s 32nd Marines Brigade retook control of Naxos in a surprise amphibious attack that overwhelmed the Turkish commandos who’d been sent to occupy the island twelve days earlier. That attack marked the beginning of the end for Turkish control of the Cyclades; within 36 hours of the initial landings on Naxos, the island chain was entirely under Greek control once more. On September 27th, Greek air defenses made their last air combat kill in the Aegean theater of the September War, shooting down a Turkish air force reconnaissance plane as it was attempting to photograph Greek airfields on Crete.

A wiser leadership might have understood at this point that the handwriting was on the wall and it was time to conclude a cease-fire agreement with Athens. But the Demirel regime, obsessed with saving face, chose instead at this critical moment to order an attack to be launched across the Greco-Turkish overland border with the immediate objective of capturing Thessaloniki and the longer-term aim of forcing the Greeks to endure such heavy losses in defense of their homeland they would have to sue for peace on Ankara’s terms. Yet more blood was about to be spilled in one more fruitless attempt to appease Demirel’s pride...


To Be Continued



[1] Code-named in honor of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

[1] In the Turkish government hierarchy, this post has ultimate responsibility for all Turkish military matters; it is roughly analogous to the U.S. Secretary of Defense or the U.K. Minister of Defence.

[1] The Turkish national legislature.


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