Hero of the Greek War of Independence (1790 – 1855)
Dimitrios Papanikolis was a naumachos (warrior of the sea) of the Greek navy who fought against the Ottoman Empire during the Greek War of Independence. He distinguished in the seas, most notably in the Battle of Gerontas in 1824 where he became a hero as a pioneer in the use of fire ships in the war. He is one of the heroes of the Greek War of Independence alongside Constantine Canaris and other admirals referred to as μπουρλοτιέρης (burlotieris), meaning he who manages the explosives or he who lights fire (from French burler meaning to burn) indicating his role in the war in handling fire ships to destroy enemy ships.
Born in the island of Psara, Papanikolis’ family had been traditionally involved with ships and trade. He would be employed to his father’s ships and often take part in battles against pirates in the Algerian coast. With the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence he set his ship to the service of the war after arming it with his own expenses. On May the same year Papanikolis set sail to Eressos in Lesbos where, jointly with Georgios Kalaphatis built a fire ship and detonated the Turkish two-decker warship “Behtas Kaptan”. This marked the first successful attempt a fire ship was used in battle against the Ottoman navy.
Later that year in July he took part in a number of battles along the coasts of Asia Minor with his own ship. He was one of the admirals sent to Lesbos in order to defend the island from the incoming fleet of the Ottoman Empire, however, the battle was avoided when the Ottoman navy suffered enormous casualties from Constantine Canaris and his fleet and retreated to Marmara Sea.
In 1824 Papanikolis joined admirals Miaoulis, Matrozos, Nicodemus and Pipinos in the Battle of Gerontas off the coast of Didim in Asia Minor, regarded as the most important victory of the Greeks in the sea during the war. During the battle 70 ships bearing the Greek flag confronted an armada of over 250 flagships and warships of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. On the final day of the battle, which proved to be the most decisive in its outcome, the Greek ships mingled with the Ottoman and the Egyptian fleet enabling the use of fire ships by Papanikolis which blasted the enemy’s frigates. By the end of the Battle of Gerontas Papanikolis had cemented himself as one of Greece’s most glorious heroes of the war alongside his fellow sailors.
After Greece gained its independence, Papanikolis returned to his career as merchant, until King Otto offered to purchase his ship and in return appointed him as member of the royal fleet. He served as president of the maritime court of Greece until his death and held other positions of power such as captain of the corvette “Amalia” and plenipotentiary of Psara. In honour of his services to the freedom of Greece, the navy named 3 ships after him, one of which was used during the Second World War.
- Lycoudis, S.E. Papanikolis Dimitrios. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Ioannis Passas, Athens, 1946.
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