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The RAF were almost all withdrawn from the island prior to the invasion.  The few aircraft left at the end of May were flown out rather than sacrifice them and their crews.  The lack of air support would be crucial to the outcome.

The story of one RAF pilot.

LAC Thomas Burrows

Extract from 33 Sqn ORB

Edgar Cerely, MM

In AIR 41/29 "Campaign in Crete" in the National Archives there is a comment on the RAF on Crete; "History of the RAF in the Cretan campaign was primarily negative - the story of the disaster of its absence."

The lack of Allied air support over the island was a primary reason why this was the "first example of a successful airborne invasion over sea by a power which did not possess command of the sea."

The RAF, scathingly attacked by the troops in Greece for apparently taking no part in the operation, were even less in evidence on Crete although all the recommendations to that point had stressed the need for fighter cover.  By mid April Crete had number 30 Squadron with 18 Blenheims based at Maleme, 203 Squadron from Egypt with 9 Blenheims, Sunderland flying boats in Suda and the remnants of 33, 80 and 112 squadrons from the mainland.  These last three squadrons mustered just over 20 Hurricanes and Gladiators spread between Heraklion and Maleme.  Interestingly the forces on Crete had exercised against possible parachute attacks on Maleme and Galatas in late March and early April, so that they had some inkling of what they would need to do, and what were possible targets.  The airfields were not as well prepared as they needed to be, of Maleme and Heraklion only the latter could be used for all types of aircraft, construction was still on-going at both of them.  At Rethymnon the airfield was little more than a landing strip.
The following is an extract from WO 201/2659 (Report on Air Operations) in the National Archives, and gives a view of the situation on April 17;

"7.0  Stacks of fuel and ammunition were available at HERAKLION and MALEME aerodromes and additional fuel was advised from EGYPT.  No maintenance spares were held on the island and no maintenance facilities were available.  [my italics  J Dillon]

8.0  ..... Telephone communication was very poor and a general shortage of material prevented any major improvements being made. ...."

I have been contacted by John Burrows, son of LAC Thomas Burrows, who ran away from home around the time of his 16th birthday to join the RAF, and he trained as an Airframe Fitter as an Apprentice at RAF Halton around 1938.  His first posting was to the Fleet Air Arm, and HMS Illustrious, he later transferred to 112 Squadron and went to Yanina in Greece.  Here, according to his father, they lost all but one of their Gladiators on the first day of the German invasion.  From Greece they moved to Maleme on Crete.  After being attached to the New Zealand infantry during the battle, where he was Mentioned in Dispatches around Maleme he was captured, but escaped pretty quickly, making his was over the White Mountains to Sfakia, he was evacuated on HMS Phoebe.
Although the RAF had been forced to withdraw from the island, operations were flown from bases in North Africa and Egypt, particularly by Wellington squadrons.  On the night of 22/23 May, low level supply drops to troops at Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion were made by three aircraft of 70 Sqn.  The airfield at Maleme, by now in the hands of the Germans, was attacked on the night of the 24th May by six aircraft of 37 Sqn. while another four Wellingtons of 38 Sqn. were also operating over Crete.  This effort, while welcome, was as nothing compared with the Luftwaffe operations.  One supply run carried out by a Wellington of 70 Sqn. was probably particularly well received.  A Flying Officer Sewell dropped supplies to those who were awaiting evacuation from the beaches at Sfakia.
The Blenheim was an early RAF bomber with a small bomb load.  
Both of the Blenheim photos are courtesy of Ben Rogers from his Duxford site.

For technical details of the Blenheim visit Don Clark's site on 211 Squadron, they flew them.
Wing Commander Edward Howell
At the time of the invasion Howell was a Squadron Leader.  He went on to be decorated with the OBE and the DFC.  He wrote of his experiences in his book, Escape to Live, published in 1947.  He died August 4, 2000, aged 88.
The following is taken from the obituary column of The Times, August 16, 2000.
On May 14, 1941, with the Germans assailing Crete from the air, he found himself, as the newly appointed CO of 33 Squadron, climbing into the cockpit of a Hurricane at Maleme in Crete, hoping to disguise from his pilots the fact that he had never flown the type before.
It was to be a baptism of fire.  As he sat in the cockpit attempting to acquaint himself with the controls, he saw his squadron's only other two serviceable Hurricanes suddenly roar off and get airborne.  the next moment a flight of Messerschmitt 109s swept over the airfield.  Taking off through a formation of five of them - which fired at him head-on but missed - Howell grappled desperately with practical matters: "How to get my undercarriage up, the hood closed, the gunsight switched on, the prop into coarse pitch, the firing button on."

Wg Cdr Howell (The Times)

Hurricanes taking off.

After throwing his Hurricane around the sky in a series of evasive manoeuvres, he at length got his guns working and attacked two Me109s, shooting down the first [flown by Sergeant Willi Hagel of 4/JG77] and damaging the second, before returning to Maleme airfield with his ammunition exhausted.  He was given a hero's welcome, since he had been assumed shot down, as the other Hurricanes had been.
The next few days were a desperate time for the squadron.  Reinforcements reached them in dribs and drabs from Egypt, and new Hurricanes were put together by cannibalising damaged aircraft.  Fleet Air Arm pilots also offered their services.  Among further enemy aircraft accounted for by Howell were a Ju52 transport and a Ju87 Stuka.
Message 21 May From C-in-C Mediterranean  WO106/3241

P.M. on 16th repeat 16th Suda Bay was attacked by 30 Ju87s and 88s and 15 to 20 ME109s.  Three pilots of 305 Sqn in Hurricanes of 33 Sqn shot down 3 ME109s certain one probable and one JU87 probable.  2 ME109s forced landed at Maleme.  Two Hurricanes and pilots missing.

With the enemy approaching Maleme and no further Hurricanes serviceable after five days fighting against overwhelming odds, Howell was told to put himself and his men under the command of the New Zealand infantry, for the defence of the airfield.  While patrolling the perimeter he was cut down by a burst of sub-machinegun fire from a German paratrooper. [the article does not give a date, but this was the 20th May.]  His left shoulder was shattered, his right forearm badly damaged, and he was left for dead.  But after several days lying in the open under the blazing Cretan sun, he fell into the hands of the Germans.  Put on a stretcher he was loaded into a Ju52 for evacuation to Athens.  "Later," he recalled, "the incongruity of it all struck me.  One day shooting down a Junkers 52, and a few days later travelling in one as a passenger."
One of those RAF pilots defending Crete was the grandfather of Colin Corne who contacted me after finding the site; "My mother's father was a hurricane pilot on 274 squadron based at lg10 Al Geralwala in Egypt and was shot down over Crete on 26th/27th MAY 1941.  Whilst I have found some reference to his name in Brian Cull and Christopher Shore's book "Air War for Greece Yugoslavia and Crete 1941"
in general I have found it difficult to piece together all the bits and pieces save his eventual demise at Suda Bay, shot down by an Me109.  His aircraft was 24606, a mark 1 hurricane and his name was Sergeant Colin Glover."

Unfortunately Sgt. Glover does not have a known grave, he is remembered on the IWG site at El Alamein in Egypt.

The following is from Howell's 'Escape to Live', and was included in 'Crete Eyewitnessed': The sun blazed down again. I had lost all sense of time.  I must have been unconscious for most of that day and the following night.  On the third day I had a spell of consciousness again.

There were men passing just by me.  I tried to croak at them.  They saw that I was alive and came round me.  Six young German paratroops.  My tongue was dry and swollen.  They saw my need and produced their water-bottles. The first drops to pass my throat were more precious to me than life.  I drank and drank.  I seem to remember draining many water-bottles.  Someone had cold tea with brandy in his.  Another gave me some dried fruit from a cellophane packet.  I was sick.  And drank again.  "Water" was the only word I could whisper through my cracked lips.  Someone pulled a blanket over me and I was alone again.  Only the craving for water remained.

I remember being carried in on a stretcher.  We were passing the old headquarters.  Every lurch of the stretcher was agony.  I passed out again into merciful oblivion.  Then I was lying among a crowd of other wounded and dying men in the village street.  There was someone close by me on either side.  One was silent; he was dead.  The other was one of my own airmen.  I was delirious.

In a state of sepsis and shock, and with his wounds infested with maggots, he hovered for days on the brink of death.  On one occasion his brachial artery burst, drenching him and his bedclothes in blood, and a hasty life-saving operation had to be improvised by an Australian doctor.
All this at least prevented him from being evacuated to Germany at once.  When he was at length considered fit enough to be airlifted, he and the other RAF pilots determined to overpower the crew of the Ju52 and fly it to Turkey, reckoning that they could just manage the various functions of flight with the few sound limbs remaining on them.
But they never got the chance.  Instead they were evacuated by sea to the notorious Dulag 183 in Salonika.  Here conditions were grim, with a senior SS man overruling every measure that the humane commandant enacted for the alleviation of discomfort.
Then Howell had another slice of luck.  Because of the severity of his condition he was sent to a nearby German military hospital, from which he was able to engineer an escape.  There, too, he reflected on the Christian faith which had earlier transformed his brother's life, and began to extricate himself from despondency.  He set himself to regain the physical fitness he knew would be essential to an escape through a regime of daily exercise.
Surveying the hospital, he came to the conclusion that the makeshift dental surgery was the weak link in its security, and asked for treatment there to assess the possibilities.  A puzzled German dentist wondered why a man with severe wounds made such a point of having treatment for virtually perfect teeth, but was not suspicious.  Eventually, in March 1942, after several appointments and with his wounds as much healed as they were likely to get in the circumstances, Howell climbed out of the hospital via the dental block.
There followed several months of wanderings in the northeastern corner of Greece, at times being savaged by shepherds' dogs in the dark, at others being taken in, sheltered and fed by friendly peasants, despite the danger of reprisals against them and their families.  Eventually, in a small village in Chalcidice, he was united with a varied band of other Allied escapers who had been hiding out on the peninsula for several months.  Eventually the skipper of a small caique agreed to sail them to the Turkish island of Imbros, and the 21 fugitives were packed below decks in the frail 20ft craft so as to be out of sight of patrolling German aircraft.  This was not the end of their tribulations.  A man much addicted to ouzo, the caique skipper deposited them not on Imbros, but on neighbouring Lemnos, a Greek island heavily garrisoned by the Germans.  Luckily they discovered this from a shepherd before celebrating their disembarkation too noisily, and rushed back to the beach just as the errant skipper was about to sail.  A few steely words in his ear persuaded him this time to make the right landfall.  In a few more hours they were safe on neutral territory.
Howell's previous experience training the Turkish Air Force now stood him in good stead.  When he mentioned the name of the Turkish Chief of Air Staff, they were spirited to Channakale, where there was a British consul.  From there Howell made his way to Ankara and Cairo.
Personal for C.A.S from Tedder  20/5 (wo106/3241)

....on eighteenth Beamish who is O.C. RAF and Freyburg decided to send out remaining serviceable aircraft since they could do nothing effective against the scale of attack.  I agreed this was sound and 3 Hurricanes and 4 Gladiators flew out dawn nineteenth.  This morning Crete advised that our joint plan to send two flights from Egypt to operate for limited periods over Crete should be suspended.

Extracts from the Operational Record Book (ORB) for 33 Squadron.  Held on microfilm in the PRO at Kew.
On 1 May the Sqn was based at Maleme and consisted of 4 Hurricanes, 8 pilots and "ample ground crew", however there were no spares and only two boxed of tools.  They joined forces with the remnants of 80 Sqn, also at Maleme, who had 4 Hurricanes and 3 pilots.  The group was called the Hurricane Unit, and it was the HU that Sqn Ldr Howell took command of.  Howell was sent in from Egypt with six pilots, and they relieved six of those who had been in operations on Crete since the evacuation of Greece.  On the 15th May two more Hurricanes were flown in from Egypt  On the 18th May Flt Sgt Salmon, in charge of the ground crew, and a large number of the airmen left by Sunderland for Egypt.  When the invasion started the Hurricane Unit soon became unable to operate as an RAF unit, and joined with the infantry in the defence of Hill 107.
"After being taken prisoner by parachutists a party of our airmen, together with some of 30 Sqn, was made to march up the hill towards our lines.  Our forces opened fire against the enemy, killing some of the "hostages" and wounding LAC Hutchinson.  Four of the RAF personnel were later able to escape.  On several occasions the similarity of the RAF Home pattern blue uniform to that of the parachutists resulted in many casualties to our men through the action of others of our own troops."
23:00 on 20/5 "most of our airmen walked 7 miles further back to join the New Zealand Companies H.Q.  By 23/5 most of RAF personnel had moved back to TRAIVOROS 15 miles east of Suda."
20:00 on 26/5 "party left TRAIVOROS packed very tightly in lorries, and travelling throughout the night over a 7,000ft. mountain range to the south coast of Crete, they reached a spot about five miles east of SPARKIA (Sphakia).  All transports were then systematically wrecked."
28/5 "moved westwards."
03:00 28/5 "SPARKIA reached, three destroyers were lying to take off survivors.  Loaded to capacity, sailed for Egypt.  Alex reached at 17:30 on 29/5"
"The Squadron lost about 55 men as well as Sqn Ldr Howell, P/O Butcher, P/O Dunscombe & Sgts Reynish, Loveridge & Butterick.  With the exception of P/O Dunscombe & Sgt Reynish, all pilots known to be prisoners of war.  Fate of 55 men and two pilots mentioned, not known."
I was sent the following information regarding an RAF aircrew on Crete.  Edgar Cerely, MM, wartime bomber navigator, died on November 19 aged 76. He was born on August 28, 1921.

Photo from Wikipedia

The following is his obituary from the Times; 3/12/97.
Edgar Cerely, MM, wartime bomber navigator, died on November 19 aged 76. He was born on August 28, 1921.

FOR his robust and forthright action in escaping from the clutches of the Germans in occupied Crete , Edgar Cerely received the unusual award of a Military Medal while serving in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Though suffering from wounds sustained when his torpedo bomber crash-landed (as well as from the scabies he developed while living in hiding in primitive conditions) he broke free from a column of captives and, thanks to local shepherds, stayed at large in the Cretan mountains throughout the bitter winter of 1941-42. He was subsequently evacuated to North Africa by boat.

Cerely always acknowledged the help given him and his colleagues by the poor shepherds who tended their flocks on the hard-favoured Cretan uplands. Like their Greek mainland compatriots, they have a special place in the affections of wartime RAF pilots who flew in the Eastern Mediterranean theatre. On occasions village poets even composed funeral odes to those British and Commonwealth aircrew who had been shot down and killed while trying to defend Hellenic airspace.


Photo from http://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft

On November 2, 1941, Cerely was a sergeant navigator in a Bristol Beaufort of No 39 Squadron which was searching for enemy shipping off southwest Greece . The aircraft's four-man crew were returning to their base in Egypt when the Beaufort passed through a violent electrical storm which resulted in discrepancies of up to 60 degrees in its three magnetic compasses.

With no means of flying a reliable course, the men continued in what they hoped was the general direction of Egypt until, just as fuel was running low, they saw mountains ahead and prepared for a forced landing. Cerely jettisoned the bombs, and the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Lenton, brought the aircraft down on a rocky shore. Its nose broke off and Cerely was flung through the rent in the fuselage, sustaining severe lacerations. Lenton suffered scalp wounds, but the wireless operator, Sergeant Langley, and the gunner, Sergeant MacConnachie, were uninjured.

Realising that they had put down on enemy-occupied Crete , the men hid for the night in the hills, returning to the wreckage next morning to secure the emergency rations. Setting off into the mountains again, they were lucky enough to encounter a local postman who, after a long and gruelling scramble through rocky defiles, brought them to a village whose inhabitants hid them at great risk to themselves.

In the aftermath of the German victory in May, there were still many British and Commonwealth troops in hiding in Crete , and the SOE was trying to evacuate these while setting up guerrilla activity. The Beaufort crew tried to escape by boat with some of these fugitive soldiers, but the engine failed and they had to return to shore. The SOE then advised them to make for the south coast, another gruelling march over the mountainous interior of the island.

Langley was forced to drop out after four days and was captured by the Germans. Weakened by his injuries, Cerely later collapsed with exhaustion himself, but the other men borrowed a donkey to carry him. On the coast, they joined a group of soldiers who were waiting to be taken off by submarine. But on the appointed day a storm blew up and the dinghies could not be launched.

Advised that the Germans had discovered where they were, they dispersed. Cerely now decided to make for the village of Kefalas on the north coast with a soldier who knew of a rowing boat hidden there. After a long march, guided by Cretan shepherds, the pair reached Kefalas, where they joined up with two more soldiers and a young Cretan who wanted to escape. After several weeks being hidden and fed by local people, by March 1942 the five men had prepared and provisioned the boat and set off, hoping to island-hop to Turkey .

But after three days of arduous rowing, another great storm blew up and drove them onshore. Rounded up by the Germans, they were marched over the mountains towards Heraklion and captivity. But on the first evening, Cerely, who was pretending to have trouble with his makeshift shoes, lagged behind with one of the armed guards while the rest of the file passed round the curve of a mountain. Emaciated and enfeebled though he was, he smashed the guard in the face with all his force and then bounded recklessly down the mountain, eventually tumbling over and cracking a bone in his ankle. A young Cretan found him and carried him to safety.

Looked after by shepherds, Cerely recovered from his injuries and was able to start walking back to the west. By extraordinary coincidence he met his pilot, Reggie Lenton, in the mountains, and they subsequently joined another group of escapers who included MacConnachie. The SOE directed them to a small bay where, this time, they were successfully taken off by caique, landing at Bardia in Libya at the end of May 1942. They had been at large in enemy-occupied Crete for almost seven months. For his resource and bravery, Cerely was awarded the MM.

Returning to England he completed another operational tour, this time in Wellingtons . On one occasion, his aircraft survived a mid-air collision with another Wellington over the Dutch coast. He was commissioned in the course of this tour, and ended the war as a flight lieutenant.

Edgar Roy Cerely was born in Littlehampton and educated at Shoreham Grammar School . He applied for aircrew training at the outbreak of the Second World War.

On demobilisation he worked in the Bank of England, taking early retirement in 1972. He later had a successful picture gallery and framing business in Shoreham-by-Sea. Cerely never forgot his Cretan friends and visited the island on numerous occasions, sometimes for months on end, helping them with the work of putting up new buildings.

He liked pushing himself to the limits of physical endurance. From March to June 1990, then aged 68, he went on a sponsored walk with his nephew, from Sevenoaks across Europe and over the Alps, down through Italy to Athens , resorting to the ferry only for the Newhaven-Dieppe and Brindisi-Patras crossings. They walked 2,675km to raise a substantial sum of money for Save the Children Fund.

Cerely married Ivy Morrall in 1943. She and their son and daughter survive him.