When the most conservative elements of the middle class go on strike, surely something is terribly wrong. On March 10, 1927, merchants and shopkeepers expressed their disagreement with a devastating policy introduced by the all-party government of Alexandros Zaimis that allowed property owners to increase rental prices by as much as 16 times the current rate. Most businesses shut down, with the agreed-upon exception of bakeries, street vendors, and grocery-stores in remote neighborhoods.
The government took all the necessary measures to address the problem. Restaurants, fishmonger stalls and cafes in central Athens were requisitioned, while the Salamis Naval Station provided twenty cooks to run the establishments. A large number of gendarmes and soldiers patrolled the city to keep these shops open.
Early in the afternoon, a group of strikers made their appearance on Panepistimiou Street, marching behind the flag of the dairy sellers federation. When they reached the Arsakeio Boarding School, their leaders tried to negotiate with the gendarmerie forces, when all of a sudden the soldiers who stood nearby opened fire, killing three strikers and injuring twelve more. As the capital of Greece descended into chaos, Vasilis Laskos set in motion his coup d’état.
The Radio Administration of the Ministry of the Navy began experimental radio broadcasts in Greece in 1923 from the Votanikos Naval Base, where naval officers trained in the use of the wireless telegraph. In the spring of 1927, seven captains attended the training, including the 27-year-old Vasilis Laskos, known among his fellow officers for his courage and individualism. Everyone also knew that he was the adjutant (as well as the nephew) of the former dictator Theodoros Pangalos.
On the day of the strike, the students entered the Naval Base and proceeded to class. Each trainee used a transmitter disconnected from the antenna to send a message of his own choosing. When his turn came, Laskos sat at the radio and sent the following unsigned message in Morse code:
“Observatory – Coup underway. Notify authorities. Headland. Hold.”
The lesson was completed without incident and everyone left for home without realising the confusion that was gripping the authorities hundreds of kilometers away. Laskos’ unsigned radiogram had been received by an Army station in Thessaloniki and was forwarded to the Chief of Staff of the Thessaloniki Army Corps, who informed the General Governor of Macedonia and the Minister of Agriculture, Alexandros Papanastasiou. The latter sent a telegram to the government asking for more information on these stunning news. He was soon reassured that everything was under control both in terms of the alleged coup and the strike’s aftermath.
The mysterious word
Authorities were surprised by the radiogram’s first word (“Observatory”), as this station was supposed to have been dismantled a month ago. When it was confirmed that the station had been decommissioned, they turned their attention to the Votanikos Naval Base, where three captains confirmed that Laskos had sent the message as part of a training exercise. An order was immediately issued for his arrest, but Laskos was spending the day in Eleusis. When he found out that the authorities were looking for him, he appeared voluntarily at the Ministry of the Navy and requested a formal investigation.
The easiest letters
Laskos claimed he did not believe the radiogram would actually be sent because the station’s antennas were disconnected. When they asked him why he chose to transmit these particular words, he said that they were composed of letters that are “close to each other in the radio alphabet” and are therefore easy to send. As for his departure from Athens, he claimed he had gone to Eleusis on a personal court case. To confirm his allegations, he called upon the testimony of the other trainees; when he had realised that the radiogram may have gone out, he had told them that there might be some negative consequences for himself.
The radiogram’s true meaning
Unfortunately, the government seemed unconvinced. According to the authorities, Laskos was a member of a group aimed at overthrowing the legitimate government and restoring the dictator. The radiogram was sent to alert their supporters in the provinces about the imminent coup, and the reference to the “Observatory” was intended to confuse the authorities. The word “hold” called on the coup’s supporters in Macedonia to arrest the Minister of Agriculture, while the code-word “headland” referred to the release of Pangalos from the Intzedin Fort in Crete where he was being held. It was now also evident why the officer had ordered his troops to fire against civilians on the day of the strike; he was a supporter of Pangalos.
The Minister of the Navy ordered that Laskos be detained, while an official inquiry was launched to discover possible collaborators among naval officers. On the 18th of the month, the investigator completed the examination of the witnesses at the Votanikos Naval Base and submitted his report to the Minister of the Navy. There were no grounds for a criminal prosecution, but Laskos would be disciplined because his actions were beneath the dignity of a naval officer.