Betty and Tony Ambatielos
Tony Ambatielos in the flesh (left) and a campaign image (right) as a political prisoner drawn by Paul Hogarth
Born Elizabeth R M Bartlett in Pontypridd in O style=”float: left; padding: 5px;” ctober 1917 (the birth was not registered until 1918), the young Betty’s mother was a school teacher and her father worked for the Inspectorate of Coal Mines, the precursor to today’s HM Inspectorate of Mines, the body concerned with mining safety. She was still quite young when the family moved to Yorkshire, owing to her father’s work, and Betty entered adulthood with a pretty strong Yorkshire accent.
Betty Bartlett was a significant figure in her own right in the Communist movement by the time of the Second World War. Having studied and trained to become a teacher, she joined the Communist Party in 1937 and, within only a few months, she was working for the Party in its Birmingham district office. Betty was elected to the national Party’s Central Committee with the second highest vote in August 1943 – just one vote behind Idris Cox (see separate entry), the then leader of all Welsh Communists. In 1940 she was sent by the party to Cardiff to liaise with the Greek Seamen’s Union, the secretary of which was Antonis (Tony) Ambatielos, a prominent Greek Communist.
The couple soon fell in love and Betty would become better known from the late 1940s for some decades on the left in the UK and internationally – and in Greece for the rest of her life – as Betty Ambatielos, a Welsh Communist who became a doughty campaigner for Greek democracy. Having met in Cardiff, the couple appear to have married in Brentford, Middlesex in 1945 and almost immediately moved to Greece, where Betty joined Tony in membership of the Greek Communist Party (KKE).
Ambatielos was a Greek seafarer who found sanctuary during the Second World War in Britain and was leader of a Communist-led maritime union, who had been sentenced to death in his absence. These circumstance would lead. Betty Bartlett, an extraordinary young woman from south Wales would become an internationally renowned campaigner in the process.
During the end of the Second World War, for some, the Nazi occupation of Greece during it clouded the fact that the pre-war regime had in fact been itself fascistic. The only effective anti-Nazi resistance inside Greece was Communist-led. There had never been a strategy to win Greece for the Communist bloc, indeed the highly successful left-led resistance movement EAM/ELAS (Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopon/ Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos) called for a government of national unity. Greeks in England formed a Greek United Committee in 1943 under the sponsorship of Sir Compton Mackenzie. But much of the practical support came from the Federation of Greek Maritime Unions (FGMU), which had its wartime base in Cardiff and Tony Ambatielos was based there as its General Secretary and a key figure in the overall strategy. It was in Cardiff that he met and fell in love with Betty Bartlett, a local Communist.
The UK government was hostile to EAM/ELAS, marking Greece in the post-war period to be within a British sphere of influence, even if that meant promoting native fascists to run the country. The popularity of Greek Communists within the country was a severe inconvenience and annoyance to Britain. So much so that, in 1944, Winston Churchill prohibited favourable mention of the Greek resistance movement of EAM-ELAS by the BBC. To ensure it gained news coverage, the FGMU set up a news agency with Diana Pym as its secretary. Press releases and, from 1946, a Weekly Survey of Greek News were issued. Pat Sloan was director of the news agency from 1946 to 1962.
To put pressure on the British government, the League for Democracy in Greece (LDG) was additionally launched at a public meeting at the Garrick Theatre in London in October 1945 with D M Pritt QC, MP in the chair. Diana Pym became secretary. After the end of the global war, civil war followed in Greece, with the rightist forces being aided by the British military. Along with several thousand other leading Communists, Tony Ambatielos was imprisoned. Indeed, repression by the right-wing victors was carried out in a highly vindictive war. The death sentence initially imposed on Ambatielos was commuted, in part due to an international campaign spearheaded by a driven Betty.
In pursuance of the campaign to highlight Tony’s subsequent long imprisonment, Betty wrote a pamphlet, “Asimina Ambatielos: the story of a heroic Greek mother”. FGMU produced a pamphlet in New York in 1949, reprinted from an earlier British edition, of a pamphlet entitled “They shall not die, the trial of Greek freedom”. Whilst the League for Democracy in Greece also produced a pamphlet, in 1951, by Betty and Anthony Simmons, based on her letters to Tony whilst he was in prison.
Marion Pasco (after 1952 Marion Sarafis, wife of Stefanos Sarafis, former commander of the armed wing of the wartime resistance movement) acted as joint secretary of the League for Democracy in Greece from 1946-1952, with Diana Pym. The League had support from some Labour MPs and many progressive trades unionists. It supplied information for questions in the House and in taking up individual cases of prisoners with the Foreign Office. Many trade union branches, Trades Councils and local Labour parties were address; in 1949, League speakers addressed no less than 255 meetings.
Paralleling the vagaries of the political routes towards and away from democracy in Greece, Tony Ambatielos found himself in and out of prison in Greece, over time. By the early 1960s, Greek jails still contained about a thousand prisoners who had been seized more than a decade ago in the aftermath of the civil war.
In July 1963, Betty (under the name of Betty Bartlett-Ambatielos) produced the pamphlet “Give me back my husband: Release Tony Ambatielos and all the political prisoners of Greece. This prefaced a state visit of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece, against which demonstrators from a wide range of the left and peace movement booed Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth for associating with the Greek monarchy, which headed a semi-fascistic state. Seemingly, this stunned the British royals considerably. For they – and wider society – had assumed a notion that they were intensely popular. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation had only taken place ten years earlier. But it was as if the history and background of the Greek royals was designed to be a provocation.
On the surface, it appeared that there was no major problem. As the Princess of Hanover, Frederika was a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. As a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth this made her technically a British princess of the British royal family. But she was also granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II. More decisively and embarrassingly, having lived in Nazi Austria as a girl, she had once belonged to the Hitler Youth. In school in Italy during her late teens, at a time when three of her brothers served in the German Wehrmacht, she known to have been a staunch defender of Nazi Germany.
Protests and the associated counter-action against demonstrators were intense. For three days the centre of London had been a battlefield, with 5,000 uniformed police, and many plain clothes police, watching for demonstrators and frog-marching them to vans; several hundred people were arrested. One of the protesters was Betty Ambatielos, who burst through the police cordon to rush towards Frederika’s carriage shouting, “Release my husband!”.
The furore over the visit forced the Labour Party’s leader, Harold Wilson, to agree to boycott a state banquet. Back in Greece, the protests had such a big effect that they caused a political crisis which brought down the Prime Minister, Karamanlis, who had in fact advised against the royals’ trip.
The British police also came under scrutiny for their actions during the protest. Detective Sergeant Harry Challenor, who was notorious for his ability to “find” evidence, was exposed trying to frame a group of young demonstrators. He claimed pieces of brick had been found in their pockets, implying they could have thrown them at the queen or police guarding her. The accused were all cleared after no brick dust was found on them.
So that the royal party could see Shakespeare’s “A midsummer night’s dream” in security, the foreign office was driven to buy up all 1,100 tickets for one night’s performance at the Aldwych Theatre.
A false report that a bomb had been planted in the theatre led to delays as police in evening clothes searched with a mine detector. Six rows of police held back thousands of protestors, who greeted the royal arrivals with shouts of “Sieg Heil!”. Leaving the theatre, Queen Elizabeth was seen to look startled and dismayed at being intensively booed. It was probably the first
Remarkably, the next day, the new Greek premier, Panayotis Pipinelis, gave Betty Ambatielos a 45-minute hearing. Shortly after, 19 of the prisoners – but not Tony Ambatielos – were freed as a gesture. No doubt the deep impression of extreme hostility to Greece amongst the British public saw releases in an attempt to restore its image. A limited return to civilian rule was permitted and, in the thaw, Tony Ambatielos was able to return to Britain to be granted political asylum and be re-united with Betty for the first time for 18 years. A ten minute silent film, “Dinner for Ambatielos”, was made by Plato Films of the celebrations on the release from jail and arrival in the UK of Tony.
The FGMU press agency closed at the end of 1962, but civilian rule proved to be a short-lived phenomenon. Betty was herself arrested by the Greek government when she visited the country in 1967. Since she was a British subject, numerous questions were asked in the House of Parliament about her arrest on 21st April, one of thousands made supposedly for security reasons. The local British Consul saw Betty four times and the Ambassador in Athens made strong representations to the Greek government. The Greek Ambassador in London was vigorously lobbied that she should be released, in the absence of specific charges against her.
With the accession to power once again of a military junta, the FGMU agency was re-opened in 1969 by Tony and Betty Ambatielos. Its work continued until Tony Ambatielos returned to Greece in 1974, anticipating the many difficulties that were now besetting the military junta. Ambatielos was yet again arrested but the military colonels’ junta now failed and elections and also a referendum on the monarchy, which had been so severely compromised as having facilitated military rule, followed.
A formal complaint to the ILO that Greece was in breach of its ratification of the “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention” of 1948 (No. 87), and the “Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention” of 1949 (No. 98) was only heard in 1975, after the military government had folded. The complaint noted that Ambatielos was by no means the only member of the seafarers’ union to be imprisoned. The Greek Government claimed that these were not arrested because of trade union activities but “for attempting to establish an underground communist organisation”. Notwithstanding the lack of freedom for unions to operate independently of the state, the Greek government argued that none of those arrested was a genuine active trade unionist since none of them represented any workers!
The new civilian government took office in July 1974 and promptly promulgated a Presidential Decree for an amnesty, releasing all prisoners detained for political reasons, including Ambatielos. With the advent of political democracy in Greece, the League was re-named `Friends of Democracy in Greece’ and continued on a stand-by basis, with a small list of supporters and a bi-annual bulletin.
Betty returned to Greece that year to work for the International Relations Section of the KKE Central Committee, becoming a reserve member of the CC at the 10th and 11th Congresses of that Party.
Tony Ambatielos died in August 1995 and highly distinguished figure in his native country and a Communist member of the European Parliament. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou extended condolences to the family: “I was informed of the death of the former deputy, veteran fighter and distinguished member of the KKE (Greek Communist Party) Antonis Ambatielos with particular regret. I express my deep condolences to his family and party.” Tony Ambatielos was buried in the Anastaseos Cemetery in Piraeus. Betty died in Greece in October 2011.
Miscellaneous sources; Time Magazine July 19th 1963; ILO Case No. 784, Report No. 147 (Greece): Vol. LVIII, 1975, Series B, No. 1-2; Morning Star 19th October 2011; Statement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on the death of the death of the veteran Communist Comrade Betty Ambatielos;
Statement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) on the death of the veteran Communist Comrade Betty Ambatielos
The Central Committee announces the death of comrade Betty Ambatielou, veteran communist, dedicated to the cause of the working class, to communism and the KKE. She was born in South Wales, October 1917. Her father was a coal miner. Her maiden name was Bartlett. She studied and worked as a teacher.
In 1939 she became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which she served in various positions of responsibility and in 1943 became a member of its Central Committee. In 1944 she married the seaman, cadre of the KKE, Antonis Ambatielos and in 1945 moved to Greece and became a member of the KKE.
As a correspondent of the Daily Worker, she denounced to the workers of Great Britain the savage terrorism, execution, torture of Greek communists and militants of the EAM movement. In 1949 she went to London, where she played a leading role in the creation of the League for Democracy in Greece, which had as its main goal the salvation of thousands of communists who had been condemned to death as well as the release of political prisoners.
In 1963 she became known all over the world, when during the visit of Frederica to London, at the head of a large demonstration of Greeks and Cypriots she attempted to visit her and give her a petition which demanded the release of the political prisoners. The request was rejected. On the same day, Frederica attempted to leave the Claridge Hotel by the back door and found herself confronted by demonstrators and Betty Ambatielos held her by the shoulders preventing her leaving. In 1967 she was arrested by the Colonels Dictatorship and after being held for weeks in a camp, she was deported to Britain against her will. In 1968 she defended the revolutionary characteristics of the Party and worked for the regroupment of the party organizations abroad. In 1974 she returned to Greece and worked for the International Relations Section of the CC. At the 10th and 11th Congresses of the Party she was elected as a reserve member of the CC. Her funeral will be a civil ceremony and will take place 4 pm on Monday 17 October in the Anastaseos cemetery in Piraeus.
Obituary: Betty Ambatielos
Wednesday 19 October 2011
by Yvonne Lysandrou
Betty Ambatielos, nee Bartlett, was born in 1917.
Her mother was a school teacher and her father a Welsh coalmining inspector.
She joined the Communist Party in 1937 and within a few months was working for its Birmingham district offices.
In 1940 she was sent by the party to Cardiff to liaise with the Greek Seamen’s Union, the secretary of which was Tony Ambatielos, a prominent Greek communist.
The aim was to help co-ordinate the raising of personnel to man the ships keeping the lifeline from the US to Britain open during the war.
Betty and Tony married at the end of 1944 shortly before moving back to Greece which had by then been freed from nazi occupation.
Tony was arrested in 1945 at the start of the Greek civil war and was imprisoned with other communist trade union leaders.
Betty stayed in Greece from 1945 to 1949 campaigning ceaselessly for his release and although she failed to secure this particular objective she did succeed in helping to get his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1948.
In 1949 she moved back to Britain where she was a founding member of the League for Democracy of Greece, which became for many years the main organisational campaigning and lobbying vehicle for Greek democracy.
Betty believed that her campaign to secure the release of Tony and other Greek political prisoners would be more effective if conducted from London, and in this she was correct.
She organised appeals, lobbied British MPs, addressed meetings, drew up petitions and worked tirelessly to keep public opinion aware of the Ambatielos case.
That campaign reached new heights in 1961 when Betty personally confronted the Greek prime minister George Karamanlis on the platform of Victoria Station at the start of his head of state visit to Britain.
It reached even greater heights two years later in 1963 when Betty organised a round-the-clock street protest and vigil outside Claridges hotel where Queen Frederika of Greece was staying.
Although Betty was slandered in the British and Greek right-wing press, being falsely accused of verbally abusing and physically assaulting Frederika when all that she was trying to do was to present her with a personal letter on behalf of her imprisoned husband, she kept her dignity and fighting spirit and carried on.
When Tony was finally released after 17 years in prison in 1964, Betty moved back to Greece where she became an active member of the EDA, a Greek progressive political movement. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was at that time banned.
Following the seizure of power by the Greek colonels in April 1967 Betty was imprisoned on the island of Yioura but was then released after a number of weeks due to international pressure.
Returning to London in June 1967 she immediately threw herself into the campaign to restore democracy to Greece.
Following the collapse of the military junta in 1974 Betty returned to Greece to join Tony who had been released from his second spell of imprisonment – he had again been arrested in the summer of 1973 while helping to co-ordinate the underground resistance movement – and who had by then become a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the KKE.
In 1981 Betty was elected a member of the central committee of the KKE, having served for a number of years prior to that as deputy head of its international department.
A great communist, spirited fighter and immensely talented public speaker, Betty Ambatielos will always be remembered for her selfless dedication to the cause of Greek democracy.
The day our Betty led the jeers for a nazi sympathiser
Sunday 23 October 2011
I was saddened to read of the passing away of Betty Ambatielos.
Your report brought to mind the revulsion at the unwelcome official visit to London in 1963 by nazi sympathiser Queen Frederika of Greece.
As you say, she was greeted by angry activists who gave the hated woman a deserved hard time on the capital’s streets.
Betty, a devoted campaigner, was one of the demonstrators repulsed by the lavish exultation paid to the fascist.
I was then a working journalist and covered the arrival of our royal lot and their nasty guests at a Covent Garden gala performance.
They were all met with loud jeering, appropriate expletives and booing from protesters across the road – expressing sentiments which I, professionally, could not deliver myself.
Nevertheless, the salutation was music to my ears.