“When we made it to the submarine base the sirens were blaring, the navy band was playing endlessly and the Commander was floating on a wave of enthusiastic hands taking him to from the base to the mole to the shipyard. I cannot really describe what the people were feeling at the time,” Nikolaos Tasiakos, 98, remembers in a voice full of pride and raw enthusiasm. His eyes – of the last survivor of the Greek Papanikolis submarine legend of World War II – seem to travel back in time and recall an intense moment in the fighting with Italy in 1940.
Papanikolis Y-2 had become a terror to the Axis Forces and would prove its lethal strike the day before Christmas in 1940, when the Greek submarine sank three Italian troop carriers off Otranto as they were trying to transfer munitions and other war materials to the Albanian shores of Avlona.
The Greek fleet was battling hard at sea aiming to safeguard Greek transports while harassing the Italians, and safeguarding the shores from enemy landings and bombardment. Tasiakos said he remembers everything clearly. “My name is Nikolas Tasiakos, my father’s was Demetrios. I was born in Drakotripa, Hepirus. I have been awarded with a War Cross for my act of valor in battlefield, and other medals and heralds. I am the last man living from the crew of Papanikolis submarine,” is the short description of his identity and life.
Right after the war broke out in late October 1940, the Papanikolis began carrying out patrols in the Adriatic. The Greeks had mixed feelings of anger and joy, wanting to avenge the torpedoing of the Elli off Tinos island. “On our first patrol we did not find anything. It was October 27th. But later on things would change. On December 22, at midnight, we came across Antonietta, a small Italian motor ship full of munition, guns and food. We captured the passengers and tried to sink it but it was all in vain. We had to set it on fire to bring it down. The ship’s captain and crew could not believe their eyes that we were Greeks. They said it was impossible for a Greek submarine to sail their mare nostrum”.
“Our captive proved pure gold. He was the one to tell us that the maritime convoys helping the Italian troops in Albania followed a route that would make them practically invisible to the Greek fleet by sailing first north from Brindisi and then staying close to the Yugoslavian and Albanian coasts. He also told Lieutenant Commander Miltonas Iatridis that the next day a convoy would leave Brindisi. Iatridis was determined to either wait for the convoy or head for the Gulf of Avlona. We had six torpedoes onboard, we would fire them in the Gulf without second thoughts. On Christmas’ Eve our submarine was right off Brindisi. As soon as the Italian vessels came to sight, we cut them off from the front and fired four of the torpedoes against them. All of them hit their targets and we were shaking with every blow. The submarine was shaking and then the bombs began dropping. Our captives were crying out loud and praying ‘Madonna Mia’ all the time.”
“To our good lucκ Iatridis was as calm as man can be. He knew all about the war and the Italian warcraft. He sank the submarine 30 meters below the wreckage and the destroyers’ bombs could not harm us. Words are not enough to describe the look on the faces of our captives. We had orders not to do them harm. We were all united, a strong will to stay alive because we knew that one wrong move would be enough to take us all to our watery graves.”
The crew may had not immediately realized its achievement that day. The Italian convoy was crushed and completely taken aback. The Greek submarine sailed back to Greece and the people expecting them on land left them no room to wonder or doubt their triumph. “It was Friday and we all rushed to the land when our submarine made it to Piraeus harbor. Then we heard an Italian release that Papanikolis was sunk. We burst out laughing,” noted Tasiakos, who still recalls in melancholy and nostalgia the Italian captives becoming friends with the Greek crew.
Iatridis and the Papanikolis became a symbol of the victories of Greece during the War. In 1941 Tasiakos was diagnosed with scurvy and avitaminosis and was hospitalized before heading to Egypt. When the war ended, he returned to Greece. However, he could not get rid of the “sea” bug. He sailed the seas once again, this time with the commercial fleet. “I traveled the world; everywhere; The life of a sailor is not easy by any means. Through waves and typhoons, hunger and storms, I cannot bring myself to stop loving the sea, he said.
(Original text in Greek ANA-MPA)