Air War
Home Up Air War Flt. Sgt. Mason

 

 

The air war in Greece was fought between the British and Greeks on one side, and Italy on the other, following the Italian invasion of Greece on the 28th October, 1940.  However, from early April on the main threat was the Germans following their invasion of Greece on the 6th of that month.
The photos of the Italian aircraft are courtesy of Finn at www.finn.it/regia and his excellent site on the Italian airforce Regia Aeronautica Italiana.
While Churchill was keen to provide support to Greece, Wavell saw it as a diversion of resource that he preferred to use in his campaign in the North African desert, consequently the Air Force in Greece was never large, but they saw a fair bit of action.  The first days of the invasion saw poor weather which restricted aerial activity, which, when it did take place was largely between fairly old aircraft, some of them open cockpit bi-planes.

British Gloster Gladiator fighter.

Italian CR42 fighter.

The British responded quickly to the Italian invasion, Air Commodore D'Albiac was ordered from Palestine to Greece, promoted to Air Vice Marshal and made commander of the air contingent.  30 Squadron commanded by Sqn. Ldr. Shannon were dispatched to Eleusis, a little north-west of Athens, with their Blenheim 1F fighters and Blenheim 1 bombers.  On the 6th November six Wellingtons of 70 Squadron arrived from Egypt, and 'A' flight of 84 Squadron arrived with their Blenheim 1 bombers.  Over the coming few months the bombers would be used a lot on sorties to the Albanian ports of Valona and Durazzo, as well as oil tanks at Brindisi.  These were tricky sorties involving fairly low level flying through the mountains with no fighter escort.  In mid November the fighter strength in Greece was enhanced by the arrival of 80 Squadron with Gloster Gladiator bi-plane fighters.
On the ground the Greeks fought back well against the Italians and by late November they were driving the Italians back into Albania, the Italian Air Force had also moved further back, but could still attack the Greeks, and they could put up a considerable number of fighters against the British bomber sorties.  In late November 'B' flight of 80 Squadron joined their colleagues at Trikkala and 211 Squadron also arrived from Egypt, joining 84 Sqn. at Menidi.
The RAF continued flying through the December period, with bad weather over the mountainous terrain causing severe icing problems on occasions.  Following the retreat from Greece the British Army soldiers would criticize the RAF for apparently not being there, this was not the case.  Much of what they were doing was not visible to the soldier on the ground, and a lot of aircrew died.  An example was the 2nd December.  A flight of 12 Gladiators were on offensive patrol in support of the Greek Army (probably unseen by the British soldiers) and a flight of nine Blenheim bombers from 211 Sqn. flew against Valona, also unseen by the British soldiers.  Sorties like these would always involve some losses, and while some of these would be replaced by new arrivals from Egypt, it was nothing like the support that the Italians were getting from their German allies.  In December Germany released 53 Ju52 transport aircraft to the Italians, while the Allies in the Greek theatre received five Blenheims.

Blenheim bomber

Wellington bomber

With the end of 1940 the small RAF contingent and their Greek allies could look back on a couple of months of quite intense air activity, some in bad weather, and a lot of the sorties flown either against sea ports or in support of the Greek troops on the ground.  Squadron Leader Hickey, CO of 80 Sqn. who had taken his Gladiator squadron to Greece in mid November was killed on 21st December in a large air battle against the Italians.  His parachute caught fire after he bailed out and he died from injuries as he hit the ground.  He was one of many who died out of sight of the British soldiers.

An Italian Cantz 1007 bomber

An Italian g50 fighter

With the dawn of 1941 there was real possibility of a German invasion into Greece, but Greece still wished to do nothing to provoke the Germans into such a move.  As a result the RAF was not allowed to operate towards Salonika and Bulgaria, they were restricted to operations to the north-west, Albania.  Fairly typical of operations was one launched by 211 Squadron on the 6th January; nine Blenheims attacked Valona and of these one was lost over the target, two crash-landed and two more were damaged by Italian fire.  Further reinforcements arrived in January with 11 Sqn. bringing 12 Blenheims, six of them were the newer MkIV's, and the Gladiators of 112 Sqn. and in February Wellingtons of 37 Sqn as well as the start of the arrival of new Hurricane fighters.
One of the bases that the British flew from was well hidden in the mountains, and called Paramythia, "Valley of Fairey Tales" to the RAF.  Described in 'The air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete' as; Ten miles long, 3000 feet above sea level, and surrounded by mountains reaching 6000 feet to the dominating Mount Kovillas, the valley was accessible only by the air, or by foot and mule.  It was approached by following a dried-up river bed which meandered for many miles until a break in the mountains appeared.  This was wide enough to allow an aircraft the size of a Wellington to fly through - with caution - to reach the airfield, which was a mere 30 minutes flying time from the front.  There were no buildings, only tented accommodation, but despite many reconnaissances, the Italians had not been able to locate the base.  The Blenheims would use it as an advanced landing ground, and the crews light-heartedly discussed the use of their secret weapons on further raids - empty beer bottles and full latrine buckets.
The force in Greece was added to in February '41 when 33 Squadron flew in from Egypt with their Hurricanes, but the weather was not good for a flying program...rain!  Paramythia kept flying through much of it and 10 Blenheims of 11 Squadron flew up from Larissa on the 23rd Feb, but on the way four were forced to return and a fifth crashed in a forced landing.  Of the five remaining aircraft (attached now to 211 Squadron), three were shot down on the 27th and then the remaining two aircraft returned to Larissa.  A short detachment.
Throughout the period many aircraft were lost in operational accidents as well as the combat losses.  Paramythia was visited on the 26th February by Anthony Eden and General Wavell.  On the 9th March the Italians began a new ground offensive causing the Greek C-in-C to request that the RAF bombers, rather than attack 'strategic' targets, should act in support of the ground troops.  For the next four days the RAF went along with this although they believed it to be a misuse of the bomber.  One characteristic of this period was the over-claiming by both sides of the enemy aircraft they believed that they had shot down.  An example was the 9th March when 25 MC200 fighters were engaged by Flt. Lt. Fry's flight from 112 Squadron.  They claimed 8 'kills', only one was actually lost by the Italians.  Both sides were equally guilty of this exaggeration.
There was a further small but significant reinforcement of the British air arm in early March when six Swordfish of 815 Squadron were sent from Crete, under Lt-Cdr Jago.  The aircraft and crews arrived, with torpedoes, at Paramythia on the 12th March, and that evening, together with some Blenheims, went off to attack the port of Valona.  With the arrival of the Swordfish there would be a number of sorties, together with Blenheims and Wellingtons, to attack the ports of Valona and Durazzo.  On the 22nd March Italian reconnaissance aircraft had spotted the use of Paramythia, which now itself started to become a target for Italian bombing and strafing sorties.
From March onwards the air attacks on Crete began to increase, and the island was reinforced by six Fulmars and three Brewster Buffalos, while at the same time Crete lost six of 815 Sqn. Swordfish to Paramythia.  Air support to the island was not strong, but was also backed up by bombing sorties by the Wellingtons of 37 and 70 Squadrons in Egypt against the airfields on the Dodecanese islands.  On 5th April six Blenheim 1Fs of 30 Sqn. arrived on Crete to assist with reconnaissance and night fighting.  While sorties were flown from Crete, and it was the target for Italian bombing and strafing runs, most of the air activity on Crete was as a staging post for aircraft between Egypt and Greece.
On the 6th April the Germans invaded Greece and now the Allied pilots would come up against the German Air Force and their fighters.  In these early days of April the bad weather affected flying, but there were sorties by 30 Sqn, 84 Sqn, 11 Sqn and 113 Sqn all with Blenheims as well as 33 and 80 Squadrons with their Hurricanes and 38 Squadron Wellingtons out of Egypt.  But the German advance was not being stopped by the Allied ground forces.  Although the ground troops were later to complain that the RAF was nowhere to be seen, they were there, but they were now paying a heavy price.  On the 13th April six Blenheims of 211 were ordered to make an unescorted raid on Prilep, the formation ran into German Bf109's and all six were lost.  On the 14th April as the British Army completed its withdrawal to the Olympia-Servia line the RAF evacuation of Paramythia and Yanina began.  Just as the Germans were moving ahead with almost over-whelming force on the ground, so it was in the air.  They had Me109 fighters, and they had them in quantity, Lysanders with Vickers machine-guns were going down to the 109s.
On the 15th April the Luftwaffe made large and successful attacks on the airfields at Larissa, Kalambaka/Vassiliki, Paramythia and Niamata.  They claimed to have destroyed 22 aircraft on the ground, the RAF could not sustain these kind of losses.  By the following day everything was going badly for the Allies, both on the ground and in the air.  Both ground and air forces were withdrawing quickly and the RAF was by now very low in numbers; 22 Blenheim bombers, 14 Blenheim fighters, 18 Hurricanes, 12 Gladiators and 5 Lysanders.  This would not stop the Luftwaffe.  With numbers this low, and the army now almost in full retreat, the air presence would have looked thin to the ground troops.
On the 17th April 7 Blenheim fighters from 30 Sqn were sent to Crete, and the last Wellingtons at Eleusis went back to Egypt.  By the 20th the Luftwaffe bombers and fighters were bombing and strafing with almost no opposition.  This day was the effective end of the RAF in Greece, and 15 Hurricanes battled over Athens against an over-whelming German force.  They did however put up a valiant fight, claiming 22 'kills', but lost two of their number and one later died of burns.  One of those killed that day was Sqn. Ldr. Pattle, DFC and Bar, who got his 50th victory that day, before going down himself.  He had flown out to Greece in late November, at that time he was credited with 4 'kills', so he gained 46 while defending Greece.  It was now time for what remained of the RAF in Greece to leave quickly, Eleusis and Menidi had been very heavily attacked.
Evacuation from Greece.  From the 20th April the RAF began evacuating the remaining aircraft and personnel from mainland Greece.  Blenheims were making the trip to Crete with up to nine passengers apiece, trying to get aircrews and their ground crews back to where they might be of future use.  During the evacuation sorties were flown by the remaining Hurricanes, but by now many were unserviceable and there were precious few to provide any air defence for the ships attempting to evacuate the ground troops.  To the army the air force was just not visible.  By the 23rd Argos was just about the only field flying Hurricanes, but in the early evening it was hit by some 40 Bf110's and when they left there were another 13 wrecked Hurricanes, there were now very few left that were capable of flying.  At 04.30 on the 24th the last remaining aircraft left Greece for Maleme.
During the 24th the full scale evacuation of ground troops was well under way from six beaches in southern Greece; Raphin, Raphtis, Megara, Nauplia, Monemvasia and Kalamata.  Among those being taken off was Flt. Lt. Rixson of 113 Squadron at Nauplia; "The Navy looked after us very well, although the RAF was not all that popular as naturally the German air force had control of the air, and there was very little protection for the Naval ships."
During the evacuation the Germans wanted to cut off the Allied troops who were crossing to the beaches south of Corinth, for this they decided on an airborne assault of the bridge at Corinth.  The task was given to General Sussmann's Brigade which included the 2nd Fallshirmjager Regiment (FJR 2) commanded by Oberst Alfred Sturm, the assault was planned for the morning of the 26th.  At 0600 on that day the attack started with intense bombing and strafing runs on the bridge defenders during which the 10 AA batteries were knocked out.  The defenders were three companies of the 2/6th Australian Battalion, a company of 19th New Zealand Battalion, a squadron of armoured cars from the NZ cavalry and four tanks from the 4th Hussars.
First into the attack were the six gliders carrying Para-engineers whose role was to surprise the defenders and remove the expected detonation charges from the bridge.  They would land in two groups, one north and one south of the bridge, they would be followed in by the paratroops, again landing at both ends of the bridge.  The surprise of the attack was total, but for some reason the bridge was not captured, it blew up.  There is speculation that instead of removing the demolition charges away from the bridge, they were piled on the bridge.  These were either hit by a shell or by one of the Allies shooting at them.  Either way, the bridge was destroyed and the Germans then needed to build another alongside it.  As in Holland and Belgium the 'attack from the air' had shown its ability to gain a rapid and shock surprise victory.
The focus of attention was now turning to Crete as ships arrived from Egypt to take off the men evacuated from Greece.  Also, attempts had to be made to strengthen the air defence of the island, but at the moment this consisted of only a few Hurricanes.  As the evacuation convoys steamed between Greece and Crete, and then Crete and Egypt, there was almost no fighter protection against the attentions of the German dive bombers.  112 Squadron was at Heraklion but with only six of its 14 Gladiators serviceable.  Maleme had five serviceable Fulmars and seven Sea Gladiators as well as seven Blenheim 1Fs of 30 Squadron.  The evacuation efforts continued over a number of nights as the ground forces in Greece pulled back to the evacuation beaches.  On the night of the 28/29 April up to 10,000 men were in the vicinity of Kalamata, a mix of British, Australian, New Zealand, Palestinian, Cypriot and Yugoslavians.  Only a few were taken off, the majority were to surrender, having no way out.  On the same night at Monemvasia some 4,320, mainly New Zealanders, were taken off, among them General Freyberg who would later command the defence of Crete.  On the 29 April a convoy left Suda Bay for Alexandria with nearly 11,000 evacuees.
By the 1 May Operation 'Demon', as the Greek evacuation was called, was over and some 50,700 troops out of around 62,500 deployed to Greece had been evacuated.  Of the 12,000 who were not taken off some 3,000 were believed killed and 9,000 were taken prisoner.  Many of these evacuated to Crete would find themselves fighting again on this island.  The Greek 'adventure' was over and although the soldiers on the ground would frequently abuse the RAF for not being visible it is worth noting the following; the RAf claimed 231 'kills' as well as probables and those destroyed on the ground, they themselves lost 72 aircraft in combat, 55 destroyed on the ground and 82 were abandoned.  148 aircrew were killed.
It was now time to build up the defences on Crete for the attack they knew, from Ultra intercepts, was being planned by the Germans.  Unfortunately this necessary build up had been left unpleasantly late.