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Kill Or Be Killed:

The Greco-Turkish War of 1969


By Chris Oakley


Part 1




For generations, Greece and Turkey have been antagonistic towards one another. That antagonism has waxed and waned over the years but never entirely gone away. In fact, in the fall of 1969 it would erupt into full-scale war as a pre-emptive attack by Greece’s military junta to settle a long-standing border dispute with the Turks went severely awry and sparked a bloody regional war which at its height threatened to bring about the collapse of NATO. The 1969 Greco-Turkish conflict also posed a serious danger to US interests in the Middle East; Turkey has a large Muslim population and is in geographic terms practically a back-fence neighbor to many of the major players in the Arab-Israeli wars, and Western security analysts worried that the frontier struggle pitting Athens against Ankara might widen into a larger Mideast war if it went on too long.

The Greco-Turkish war of 1969, or "the September war" as it’s known in modern Greek history books,1 was one of the last major spasms of violence in a violent decade. When the Greek and Turkish armies first exchanged gunfire, the world was little more two years removed from the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs; the United States was still deeply involved in Vietnam; and Czechoslovakia was under occupation by the Soviets, who thirteen months earlier had brutally suppressed Alexander Dubcek’s "Prague Spring" reform experiments. And last but not least there was the long-standing border tension between India and Pakistan, which had led to armed hostilities between those countries twice before and would trigger armed conflict a third time in 1971.

What most Greeks call the September war and is known in Turkey as "the island tragedy"2 had in fact been building since March of 1969, when the chief Turkish delegate to NATO abruptly walked out of a meeting of the organization in Brussels as a protest against an effort by the military government then in power in Greece to unify the island of Cyprus with the Greek mainland. To the Turkish Cypriot minority and the Suleyman Demirel administration in Ankara, this was an intolerable insult; a confrontation of some sort, most foreign observers agreed, was likely-- perhaps even inevitable. The only question was whether it would strictly be a propaganda battle or would escalate into armed conflict.

The first sign that the Greco-Turkish tension might intensify into full-scale war came in July of 1969, when a Greek fishing boat off the island of Lemnos came under fire from Turkish naval patrols after it accidentally strayed into Turkish territorial waters. Though no one was killed or even seriously hurt in that incident, the news of Turkish warships firing on Greek citizens was enough to inflame anti- Turkish sentiment in Greece to a fever pitch; in Athens and Salonika angry demonstrations took place to denounce the Turkish navy captains involved in the confrontation. The Athens rally was especially notable for the fanaticism with which those in attendance vented their rage at the Turks-- at one point in that event a Turkish flag and an effigy of Suleyman Demirel were burned simultaneously.

Thousands of miles from the Greco-Turkish border, the superpowers watched the buildup to war with no small anxiety. In Washington, the administration of President Richard Nixon had its hands full trying to extricate itself from Vietnam; the last thing it needed was another war to fight. Likewise, Leonid Brezhnev and his inner circle at the Kremlin dreaded the prospect of Moscow getting dragged into what one KGB officer attached to the Soviet embassy in Athens aptly referred to as "a quagmire in the Aegean"3. Even in Greece and Turkey there were a sizable number of people who questioned whether it was a good idea to go to war over the Greco-Turkish frontier.

Indeed, although both Greece and Turkey were under authoritarian rule enough of the 1960s counterculture had crept into those nations’ societies to enable modest but dedicated pacifist movements to speak out against their governments’ plans for military confrontation. Some of the more daring spirits in the antiwar crowd took their protests to the lion’s den, as it were, holding rallies near the Turkish general staff’s headquarters in Ankara or the Greek defense ministry’s offices in Athens.

Yet for every person in Greece or Turkey opposing war, there were a dozen in favor of it; one Greek Orthodox Church priest in Salonika went so far as to proclaim that the impending showdown between Greece and Turkey was a "holy war" to defend Christian civilization from the Islamic heathen. Such statements horrified the antiwar movement, and even some of those who supported the impending war found the priest’s comments a bit over the top. Still, they neatly summed up the red-hot fury most Greeks felt toward Turkey after the Lemnos incident.

For that matter the average Turk wasn’t shy about venting anti-Greek sentiments whenever the opportunity arose. One such opportunity came three weeks after the Lemnos incident, when Greek jet fighters shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane after it was spotted trying to photograph Greek naval maneuvers west of Crete; the pilot of the unfortunate spy plane was forced to eject over open seas and nearly succumbed to heatstroke from having to tread water for hours under a blazing midday sun before he was rescued by a Turkish coastal patrol craft. When the pilot appeared on Turkey’s official government TV network that evening to relate the story of what had happened to him, his fellow countrymen became enraged over what they deemed as a case of Greek barbarism; riots erupted in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir as Turks expressed their rage over the shootdown.

Turkey’s foreign minister vehemently accused the Greeks of intentionally trying to interfere with the rescue of the downed pilot-- an accusation the Greek government emphatically denied. In a coldly furious speech before the UN General Assembly, Greece’s ambassador to the United Nations charged the Turks with engineering the spy plane incident in an attempt to distract world attention from their own aggressive actions at Lemnos. The Turkish UN ambassador was quick to lash out at this, branding the Greek ambassador’s assertions "unacceptable slander"4; the two men nearly got into a fistfight and had to be separated.

But the match that actually lit the fuse for the September war came in the form of a routine dispatch sent on August 17th, 1969 by two undercover agents in southern Turkey to the director of the Greek intelligence service. The two agents, assigned to monitor Turkish air force operations, reported that several Turkish fighter squadrons were being redeployed from their regular bases in Turkey’s interior to a group of airfields near the Greek-Turkish border. To the Greek general staff, this constituted the clearest possible sign they could think of that Turkey intended to make war on Greece; borrowing a page from the playbook the Israelis used in the Six-Day War, the Greeks made ready to launch a pre-emptive air strike against the Turks and deploy their navy in force in the Aegean to hit Turkish maritime outposts.


It was just after 6:00 AM Athens time on the morning of August 20th, 1969 when the Greek air force and navy made their first attacks on military installations in southern Turkey. While Greek attack jets bombed Turkish air bases and the SAM batteries guarding those bases,  Greek warships mercilessly struck any Turkish vessels or naval bases which had the misfortune to be within firing range of their guns and missile launchers; one NATO attaché posted to Ankara would later call it "the most violent military engagement this region has seen since Gallipoli".5

Additional Greek jets flew fighter-intercept cover for the attack force, engaging any Turkish air defense planes that tried to stop the bombing raids. Of course, given the punishment the airfields in southern Turkey had sustained after the first wave of bombing, there would be few opportunities for the fighter-intercept patrols to shoot down Turkish planes-- but nonetheless the airmen who were flying those patrols felt exhilarated to be part of what most Greeks saw as the proudest moment in the history of modern Greece since Nazi occupation forces were driven out of the country in 1944. When the official Greek state television and radio news service broadcast the formal announcement of the initial air and naval strikes on southern Turkey, it touched off raucous celebrations throughout all of Greece. Church bells were rung and civic holidays were declared in every major Greek city...


To Be Continued



[1] The nickname comes from the fact that most of the war’s major battles were fought in the month of September.

[2] This name for the September war was coined by the Turks because much of it was fought around the islands of the Aegean Sea and because Turkey would lose many critical battles in this region.

[3] By an interesting coincidence, the CIA station chief in Athens also used the “quagmire” metaphor when submitting an assessment to the White House of how a Greco-Turkish conflict might play out.

[4] “Turkish, Greek UN Envoys Trade Charges Over Aegean Spy Plane Incident”, New York Times, July 28th, 1969.

[5] Quoted from a dispatch sent by the British embassy in Ankara to the Ministry of Defence in London dated August 21st, 1969.

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