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Kill Or Be Killed:

The Greco-Turkish War of 1969


By Chris Oakley

Part 4




Summary: In the first three parts of this series we examined the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the 1969 Greco-Turkish war; the early battles of the war itself; and the catastrophic defeat Turkey suffered in its attempt to seize control of Greece’s Aegean islands. In this chapter we’ll review the ill-fated Turkish attempt to mount an overland invasion of Greece in the final days of the September War and the Vienna cease-fire negotiations which would eventually end the war.


September 30th was one of the most crucial days of the 1969 Greco-Turkish war. It was on that day when the Demirel regime in Turkey, in a last-gasp attempt to turn the tide of the September War back in its favor, launched an ill-planned and ill-fated overland assault against the Greek border in hopes of establishing a military foothold on the Greek mainland and clearing the way for an assault on Thessaloniki. It was an offensive doomed to failure-- "the nuclear age’s Battle of the Bulge", as one well-known alternate history author has put it. With the Turkish navy to all intents and purposes extinct, the Turkish air forces hanging by the proverbial thread, and the Turkish army bleeding troops and equipment almost hourly it seemed to the outside world that Ankara was committing an almost suicidal folly.

From a military standpoint, the sensible choice for the Turks would have been to pull all their remaining forces back behind their borders and assume a defensive posture. But sensibility had played little role in the Demeriel regime’s war strategy to date, and it certainly wasn’t going to factor much into Ankara’s plans now. What did figure into those plans was an overwhelming desire to avenge the defeats the Greeks had inflicted on Turkey since Operation Ataturk. The Turkish general staff was hellbent on penetrating into mainland Greece and smashing the Greek army in one fell swoop; some of the more bold spirits in the Turkish army’s ranks wanted to push straight to Athens and capture the entire Greek high command. But the Greek armed forces’ advantage over the Turks at that point in the war was far too strong to permit the invasion-- code-named Operation Saladin --to have even a faint hope of succeeding.

The first wave of the assault came just after 8:00 AM Athens time on the morning of September 30th and managed to penetrate just over two miles into Greek territory before it was stopped dead in its tracks by a massive Greek counterassault. By 11:30 AM the second wave of the Turkish assault, which was supposed to have followed the first wave across the Greek frontier and guarded its rear flank as it fought to reach Thessaloniki, was stuck on its own side of the Greco-Turkish border and taking casualties the likes of which had seldom been seen in that theater of war since Gallipoli.

The Turkish air force sustained even higher rates of loss on Operation Saladin than did the Turkish army. Entire squadrons were annihilated in the face of determined resistance from Greek air defense units; there were also a number of casualties resulting from "friendly fire" accidents when Turkish aircraft were mistaken for Greek ones and their pilots shot down by their own comrades. A West German defense attaché who was stationed in Ankara at the time, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, would later recall that the air skirmishes between Greek and Turkish fighters during Operation Saladin were some of the most bitter clashes he’d seen since his own days as a Messerschmitt pilot tangling with RAF Spitfires over the English Channel.

Around 2:00 PM on the afternoon of September 30th, the September War touched Edirne for the second time as Greek attack jets hit a Turkish army munitions dump south of the city and destroyed it. At the height of the air strike, two Greek bombs overshot their intended targets and took out a row of houses which were still being repaired from battle damage sustained during the Greek army’s ill-fated attempt to capture Edirne in the early days of the conflict.1 Those bombs also sparked a huge fire that burned well into the early morning hours of October 1st; postwar statistical data indicates that nearly a quarter of the deaths suffered by Edirne’s civilian population during the September War were a result of the fire.

In the early evening of September 30th, what was left of the Turkish invasion force began to pull back from the Turkish-Greek border, Greek ground and air attacks harassing them every step of the way. Ankara’s last gamble had backfired to the tenth power: far from opening the way for the Turks to gain a foothold on Greek soil and make a serious push for Thessaloniki, Operation Saladin had for all intents and purposes shut and locked the door on any hopes the Turkish armed forces might have had of regaining the initiative in the September War....


...but the Greeks didn’t get off much easier. In fighting to repulse the Turkish attempt to invade Greece, the Greek army had been forced to dip still further into its already seriously taxed reserves; Greek air force maintenance crews were being stretched to the limit trying to keep their pilots’ aircraft operational. In Athens, the Greek defense ministry warned ruling junta chairman Georgios Papodopoulos that the war was putting a dangerous strain on manpower in all sectors of the Greek armed forces. Even the Greek navy, which had been operating in the Aegean virtually unopposed since its victory against the Turkish at Skiros, was reporting that some of its combat personnel were suffering a degree of physical exhaustion from spending so much time on active duty. Simply put, both sides in the Greco-Turkish war were nearing the point of total exhaustion if they hadn’t reached it already.

It was under these circumstances that Greece and Turkey finally agreed to open discussions for a cease-fire accord. On October 5th, 1969 Turkish and Greek diplomats met with U.N. mediators in Vienna to begin negotiations for what both sides hoped would be a quick end to the September War. Not much progress was made during the first few days of the cease-fire negotiations, but the mere fact the two sides were even talking was a major breakthrough given that previous efforts to broker a peace accord had screeched to a halt before they could get started.

As the cease-fire talks were getting underway, the Greco-Turkish conflict dwindled to series of a low-level border skirmishes between squad-level units of the Greek and Turkish armies; the last recorded casualty of the September War was a Turkish private wounded on October 10th, 1969 in a brief firefight near the Turkish border town of Enez.2 The next day, the Turkish army directed its border defense troops to stand down from full alert pending the outcome of the Vienna cease- fire negotiations. The Greek army stood down its own border units on October 12th.

The cease-fire discussions lasted until October 20th, when the belligerents finally reached an accord for ending hostilities. As part of the agreement, the Greek government repatriated hundreds of Turkish POWs who’d been in detention since the Battle of Edirne; in return the Turkish military released scores of captured Greek soldiers. The September War was finally winding down-- and not one moment for the anxious neighbors of the two combatants.

In early November a UN peacekeeping contingent was dispatched to the Greco-Turkish border to ensure that the two countries complied with the terms of the Vienna cease-fire pact. But while the Turkish army might no longer be in conflict with Greece, it would shortly be involved in a death struggle in its own backyard.


New Year’s Day 1970 was a time of celebration for most of the world, but in Turkey the new year was greeted by the Turkish people with a feeling of malaise over the fact they had lost the September War. That malaise, however, would gradually turn into seething anger at the Ankara government over the massive casualty figures that had been incurred by the Turkish armed forces during the 1969 border war. Barely ten days into the new year, in fact, Istanbul became the focal point for an anti-Demeriel rally which would draw close to 100,000 marchers over a three-hour span. The marchers had little in common except for overwhelming disgust with the Demeriel regime and a family member or friend who’d been a casualty of the war. But by the time the rally was over they would have some other things in common: feelings of kinship with other Turks who shared their belief in the need for a regime change in Ankara, determination to make such change happen, and detailed files being kept on their political activities by the Turkish government’s internal security machine....


To Be Continued



[1] See Part 2 for further details.

[2] The private survived his wounds and would eventually become a police officer in Istanbul.


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