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F - 142 : Greek Prison Islands

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

The decaying Barracks on the former Prison Island of Gyaros

Cruising in the turquoise waters of the Aegean does not prepare for the deserted prison islands we occasionally discover. Barely mapped, we find them in the western Aegean with their decaying barracks and rusting barbed wires. Abandoned for 50 years after Greece decreed an amnesty for communists fighting in the civil war, they slowly decay. In another 50 years they may have gone all together.

The Island of Makronissos was first used for Turkish Prisoners of War in 1912

The prison islands are a reminder of dark spots in Greece’s history, mostly - but not only - of the civil war that ravaged the country from 1944 to 1949. Islands were first used as internment camps during the Balkan Wars in 1912 and housed thousands of Turkish prisoners of war. A few decades later, during the dictatorship of General Metaxas (1936 – 1941), political opponents were "internally exiled" to the islands of Santorini, Zante, Kythera and Icaria.

But what we discover in the Cyclades is something different. The two prison islands of Gyaros and Makronissos were concentration camps. More than twenty thousand prisoners lived here for two decades. Their daily routine was forced labour, "re-education" and torture. Another camp was located in Leros, once Italy's naval base in the Dodecanese. The Italian officer barracks were used to intern young communists for re-education. In 1957, it was converted into the "Psychopaths' Colony of Leros". Another. tool to silence the political opposition on the left. We know the practice from the Soviet Union.

The former Italian Naval Base of Leros was converted into a Re-education Camp in 1949 - Photo from an English Reconnaissance Flight during World War II

With the end of World War II, peace did not arrive in Greece. It was Europe's only country which descended into a full civil war - as vicious as the Spanish Civil War. Its roots go back to Greece's occupation by the Axis (Germany, Italy, Bulgaria) from 1941 - 1944..

After the Wehrmacht defeated the Greek Army in early summer 1941, it left the occupation to Italy. Germany needed its forces for the upcoming attack on the Soviet Union. With the Royalist Greek Army destroyed, the political left was the only force capable of mounting an armed resistance. As in the French resistance, the communist party – the only party with a clandestine underground organisation – took the lead. The exiled Greek Government of National Unity had little influence. On the ground, the left dominated. Supplied by English Special Forces, it had the guns and called the shots.

Wehrmacht Estimates of ELAS Strength in 1944

When the Allies (UK, US) landed in Calabria in December 1943 (see my blog E - 151 ), the Italian Government capitulated. Italian troops were ordered to surrendered. This caused a major problem for Germany who now had to send troops to Greece which it did not have. The Germans were so resentful of the surrender that they massacred several Italian garrisons (see blog E - 111). Germany could only spare enough forces to occupy the large towns and ports. In most of the country, the Wehrmacht was not present.

The communist led ELAS Liberation Army quickly took advantage. Organized like Tito’s partisans and trained by English Special Forces, they could hold their ground in open battle. Compared to the French Resistance, they were a far more effective fighting force. Their sympathisers observed every single German troop movement and kept the ELAS informed on any German intention. No German unit could move freely. They were continuously ambushed and had to operate in company size units.

Where German troops were not present, the ELAS took over government duties and started building the socialist people’s democracy they dreamed of. ELAS could draw on the resources of the alienated Greek refugees from Anatolia who refused to fight for King and Country but volunteered to build a new Greece instead. The exiled Greek Government in Alexandria could only watch.

This stalement changed when the Red Army destroyed Germany’s Army Group South in the summer campaign 1944 in the Ukraine. Bulgaria switched its alliance to the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the German forces were at risk of being cut off. A general retreat was ordered. German troops torched and destroyed what they could. On 12 October 1944, they left Athens but not before having executed 47 resistance fighters and set 400 buildings ablaze. By November 1944 all German units had withdrawn. Apart from a few royal partisan groups, ELAS now controlled the entire country.

Athenians celebrate the End of War on 12 October 1944

The situation was challenging for the Greek Government in exile. It had to ask Great Britain to secure the capital. The 2nd Para Brigade arrived on 14th October in Athens. For a few days, the town was peaceful and people celebrated the end of the war in the street. Not for long, unfortunately.

4th Para Battalion of 2nd Para Brigade fighting ELAS in the Streets of Athens

On 1st of December the Greek Government decreed that all groups of the resistance had to disarm and surrender their weapons. The six communist government ministers immediately resigned. A large but peaceful ELAS rally in Athens with 200’000 people on 3rd December was dissolved with force by British Paras. 28 participants were killed. Civil war erupted. It took the Greek Government to early January to establish control. Without the help of Churchill and the British Army, which sent almost 100'000 men to Greece, ELAS would have won and ousted the Greek Government.

The communist left was defeated but not destroyed. In 1946 civil war resumed. Supported by communist Yugoslavia and Albania, ELAS regrouped and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) with 16’000 fighters was formed. They were effective and could kept the Greek Army of 90’000 on the run. But they were not strong enough to conquer a large town which would have served as their capital. Both sides massacred civilians, kidnapped children and torched the opponents properties. The atrocities left deep scares which would take decades to heal. The left and right hated each other with incredible passion.

EDS Sanctuaries in Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria - all closed. by 1949

Eventually, the Cold War took over and changed the odds in favour of the Greek Government. Significant military help from the US arrived, Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito broke with Stalin and denied the DSE the save havens they needed. By 1949, the DSE had lost. Most of its fighters were dead, wounded or captured. In four years of fighting, more than 150’000 people were killed. About 1 million were internally displaced. The government and the public were in no mood for tolerance.

Summary Military Tribunal for Communist Fighters - Many got the Death Sentence

On the islands of Gyaros, the “Dachau of the Aegean”, and Makronissos, concentration camps were built for the 20’000 captured DSE members. These islands were in use from 1946 to 1973, when the military dictatorship ended. Today, both Gyaros and Makronissos are uninhabited protection zones. Their isolation made them the perfect home for protected species. It is said that scuba diving is excellent at the two islands. A few modest memorials remember visitors of the past. But with no ferry link, there are few visitors. The old re-education camp in Leros is also decaying. Almost nothing reminds visitors of its past. You need to know the location to find it.

The Italian Barracks which were used to treat opposition politicians labelled "psychopaths"

Today's silence in these places may be the best reminder that the use of force to pursue political goals is never a good idea. Dialogue and compromise is boring and tedious at times. But far better than war. These places are a memorial to us on what really matters and what happens if we lose this simple truth out of sight.


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