Fiats and Gladiators I

From the outset, and unlike the Greek Army, the Royal Hellenic Air Force was heavily outgunned and outclassed, and would become more so as the conflict progressed. At the outbreak of war the Regia Aeronautica outnumbered the RHAF’s front-line strength by three to one. The Italian air force at the time was one of the best-trained in Europe. Italy’s aerospace industry, coddled by the Mussolini administration, was turning out redoubtable aircraft such as the Fiat G50bis Freccia (Arrow) monoplane fighter, the Macchi C200 Saetta (Lightning) fighter, the CantZ 1007bis bomber and the trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 and SM81 bombers. Many Italian combat pilots had honed their air-fighting skills in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s Italy had experienced a surge of interest in air sports and aviation in general, encouraged by Mussolini’s own attainments as an aviator. It was part of the Duce’s broader drive to re-mould the Italian people into a warlike nation like the Romans of old.

The Regia Aeronautica had been an independent service since 1923. It was lucky to have contained pioneering thinkers such as Major Giulio Douhet, who worked out the strategic bombing doctrines that would find their full fruition later in the war. Marshal Italo Balbo refined Douhet’s ideas to come up with the idea of a massed bomber force that could penetrate enemy territory like a mailed fist. Balbo became hugely popular in Italy thanks to his flying-boat team’s highly-publicized international flights, including a tour of America. Well might Mussolini boast to his fascist party cadres on 18 November:

The Italian air force is always at the peak of its task. It has dominated and continues to dominate the skies. Its bombers can reach the most distant of objectives, its fighters are making life difficult for the fighters of the enemy. Its men are truly men of our time: their characteristic is a calm intrepidity.

Mussolini had some cause to boast. In terms of numbers, aircrew and firepower the Regia Aeronautica looked good and was good. But what he didn’t mention was that the senior air force command was ill-equipped to aggressively command such a force. The air force Chief, General Pricolo, was allowed nothing like free rein for his task. Worse, he wasn’t even told of the plan to invade Greece until the critical high-level meeting of 15 October, which he hadn’t even been invited to attend! One might justifiably wonder what had happened to the innovative strategic ideas of Douhet and Balbo. The only possible answer is that the attack on Greece was simply not conceived in air terms. Visconti Prasca’s visions were of an exclusively army triumph; there was also a lingering contempt for Greece and Balkan nations generally as not having air forces worthy of the name, and hence not requiring specific air planning to any major degree. Pricolo fretted at this, but seems not to have had the strength of character to do anything about it – he, too, just wanted to keep his job.

As the Greek air force was thought to be a flimsy adversary, the Regia Aeronautica employed obsolescent biplane fighters in the first phase of the Greece operation. About half of the available fighter force consisted of Fiat CR42 Falco (Falcon) biplanes and older Fiat CR32s, the latter already at the end of their career. The CR42 was about a match for the Greeks’ PZL24 and Gladiator. Eighty examples of a newer all-metal monoplane fighter, the Fiat G50bis, were available, plus twelve of the even better Macchi MC200. The Italian bomber force included the menacing-looking three-engined Cant Z1007bis Alcione (Halcyon), an aircraft that could take a lot of punishment and was highly manoeuvrable. Fifty examples of the Cant Z506B Airone (Heron), a seaplane version of the Cant Z1007, were also in service. Also lined up on Albanian airfields were squadrons of Savoia-Marchetti SM81 Pipistrello (Bat) bombers. The SM81 was in the process of being superseded by the sleeker and more durable trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero (Hawk). Eighteen Fiat BR20M Cicogna (Stork) twin-engined bombers were also operational. The Regia Aeronautica’s planes were organized into squadriglie of nine aircraft each, which was slightly smaller than an RAF squadron or Greek mira. Three squadriglie made up a gruppo (somewhere between a squadron and a wing), and two gruppi made up a stormo, or wing.

The Royal Hellenic Air Force had been an independent arm for eleven years, producing its first crop of nine graduating aircrew officers in 1931. Through the politically turbulent 1930s the fledgling air force had experienced its ups and downs. Both the army and navy looked down on the upstart service as little more than a flying club for well-to-do young men. The RHAF College, known as the Icarus School, had narrowly escaped being closed down in 1932. The air force’s survival was assured only in 1934 with the creation of the General Air Staff. Still, even in 1940, Greek air operations were under the full control of the army, in the person of Major General Petros Ekonomakos.

On 28 October the RHAF could field four air observation and army cooperation mirai, three of naval cooperation aircraft, four of fighters and three of medium bombers, totalling some 160 planes, though perhaps two-thirds were serviceable. The main fighter was the Polish-built PZL24, a rugged machine but rapidly being outclassed in Europe. Before the war Greece had managed to buy a dozen modern Bristol Blenheim IV bombers and another dozen single-engined Fairey Battles from Britain, and a similar number of Potez 63 bombers from France. The naval cooperation mirai had the advantage of modern British Avro Anson patrol bombers. When war broke out Greece had ordered 107 additional modern aircraft such as the redoubtable Supermarine Spitfire, the American Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Martin Maryland bomber. It never got to receive them.

The immediate operational need of the RHAF was to repel the waves of Italian bombers while employing the army observation squadrons to keep track of the invading Italian land forces. The fighters had an unequal fight on their hands from the start. The first real aerial encounter of the war took place on 30 October, when a few Henschel Hs126 observation aircraft took off to locate Italian troop formations and had the worst of an encounter with five Fiat CR42s. One Henschel went down, killing its observer, Pilot Officer Evangelos Giannaris, the first Greek airman to die in the campaign. Another Henschel went down that same morning, killing its two-man crew, while Italian bombers hammered the port of Patras.

The Greek aircrews learned how to fight the hard way. ‘We didn’t know how to fly then,’ said Flying Officer George Doukas of 24 Pursuit Mira later. ‘We couldn’t even shoot. We knew nothing of firing distances or angles of attack. We went to war … as if we were on parade. We were blown out of the sky.’ Greek pilots had very little, if any, training in evasive manoeuvres. To compound the problem for the Greeks, the Italian bombers would come in at high altitude – at least 20,000ft – which was at the limit of the PZLs’ and Gladiators’ operational ceiling. It was a rare sortie that didn’t see some Greek airborne casualty.

Units of the crack 53 Land Fighter Stormo (Wing) had arrived at bases in Albania on 1 November – 150 Gruppo (Group), comprising 363, 364 and 365 Squadriglie. Their pilots were a bit disappointed in having been given the Fiat C42s to fly, especially as the stormo had specifically trained for the new Macchi MC200 fighters, and were naturally quite proud of the fact. But the Macchis were kept safe at Turin while the older biplanes were fed into the war against Greece. While 365 Squadriglia was transferred to 160 Gruppo Autonomo at Tirana, 364 was stationed at Vlore and 365 at Gjirokaster, sometimes interchangeably.

As the Siena, Ferrara and Centauro Divisions were advancing on Kalpaki, Metaxas himself telephoned the RHAF’s bomber chief, Group Captain Stephanos Philippas, at his headquarters at Larissa. An enemy column was rolling towards Doliana, Metaxas barked, and had to be stopped that very night ‘even if no-one comes back’. Philippas detailed a flight of 31 Bombing Mira to do the job. The 31 Mira CO, Flight Lieutenant George Karnavias, gulped. None of his crews had ever flown a night operation before. But orders were orders. As night fell, three of his pilots climbed into their twin-engined Potez 63s and headed off into the mountain blackness. One of them was Flight Lieutenant Lambros Kouziyannis, wounded in the head on the previous day’s mission. He jumped out of his hospital bed to join the operation, ignoring the protests of his CO.

The pilots’ only guide on the way, apart from their glowing instruments, was the dim candlelight from the clifftop Meteora monasteries to starboard. The crews had to shield their eyes from the bombers’ white-hot exhaust shooting from the engine housings. The lights of an Italian column approaching Kalpaki became visible as the Potez 63s roared over Ioannina and its shimmering lake. Kouziyannis, his head bandaged, bombed the column, defying a hail of flak on the dive. On his way back he got lost and found himself over blacked-out Athens rather than his base at Larissa. His bomber ran out of fuel over the city, but managed to glide the few miles to the base at Tatoi. He had just cleared the airfield fence and was breathing a prayer of thanks when he collided with a parked trainer in the darkness. The concussion crippled Kouziyannis for the rest of his life.

As the Italians continued to bomb Thessaloniki and other cities, killing scores of civilians, Greek bombers sometimes gave as good as they got. Early in November 31 Bombing Mira took off from Athens to bomb the Italian base at Korce. A formation of Blenheims under Flying Officer Constantine Margaritis pounded the base, killing nineteen airmen who had gathered in the ops room for a briefing, and wounding twenty-five others. Two Italian fighters were damaged on the ground. The Fairey Battles of 33 Mira were equally audacious, sneaking into Albanian airspace and shooting up Italian columns. Those planes, though, were primitive. The pilot of a Battle could communicate with his gunner/observer in the back only through a speaking tube – engine noise permitting, of course. Maps were scarce; the only available map of southern Albania had to be rotated among several crews.

The Fiats of 365 Squadriglia continued tangling with the inexperienced Greek airmen, to the latters’ cost. On 4 November Second Lieutenant Lorenzo Clerici and Sergeant Pasquale Facchini pumped streams of bullets into a couple of Breguet XIXs of 2 Air Observation Mira that were strafing the troops of the Julia Division, sending one of them spinning down in flames.

Greece’s three bombing mirai, 31, 32 and 33, were only gradually introduced to the principles of tactical air warfare. Their task at the outbreak of war was to act as long-range artillery in support of ground operations, a task made easier as the RAF gradually took over the strategic bombing of enemy targets in Albania. These missions took a steady toll of aircrews. One of the Blenheim IVs of 32 Mira was downed over Gjirokaster on 11 November. The Blenheim IV was one of the few modern bombers in the RHAF’s armoury and the loss of even one was significant at a time when the Regia Aeronuatica, in response to the Italian setbacks in the ground war, poured some 250 more fighters into its Albanian bases. Metaxas confessed to having nightmares about the erosion of the air force’s firepower.

The main reason why the Greeks had to advance quickly on the eastern part of the front to capture Korce was that it was a base from which Greece’s cities were being regularly bombed. The Blenheims of 32 Mira and Battles of 33 Mira were sent to soften up Korce on 14 November, in advance of the Greek III Corps thrust, destroying fifteen enemy aircraft on the ground in two waves, for the loss of one more 32 Mira Blenheim – probably to one of Italy’s more renowned airmen, Second Lieutenant Maurizio di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia. Flight Lieutenant Panayotis Orphanidis was returning to Larissa from the Korce raid when he found a Fiat CR42 stuck on his Blenheim’s tail, firing intermittently and weaving to get a better shot. The Blenheim was the faster plane, but it couldn’t quite shake off the pursuer. More than 160 bullets smashed into the bomber’s fuselage and wings, holing the fuel and oil tanks, which luckily were nearly empty, and wounding the gunner. Orphanidis knew that the Italian would have his best chance as the bomber slowed down to make the turn to land at Larissa. So instead of making the turn he continued on and across the eastern Greek coast, setting a course for Sedes base at Thessaloniki. Somewhere over the water the Fiat, apparently low on fuel, gave up the chase.

As Orphanidis and his friends were trying to flatten the Korce base, six of the smaller and more agile Battles of 33 Mira swept at low level from Corfu and snaked between the mountain ranges to stage an audacious raid on the Gjirokaster base. Despite the flaming wall of flak they had to penetrate, not one Battle was hit (though 363 Squadriglia reported a damaged ‘probable’). Typical of the effect on the RHAF’s morale was a letter by Pilot Officer Yannis Kipouros to his mother after the operation: ‘I know that one day I might plunge to earth defending my beautiful country,’ he wrote. ‘What are the Italians defending? … The joy I feel when completing a mission is indescribable.’ Kipouros (who was to disappear without a trace on a mission in a few weeks’ time) was venting a more general optimism among the Greeks, as mid-November was seeing the tide turn on the ground, with the Julia Division knocked out and the rest of the Italian army stalled before Kalpaki.

The RHAF’s army cooperation and observation mirai were active in their obsolescent but hardy Henschel Hs126 monoplanes, strafing and harassing Italian columns inside Albanian territory. A large Italian bomber force struck at the advanced Greek base at Florina, the headquarters of 31 Mira, but without hitting a single aircraft or major installation. The 31 Mira CO, Squadron Leader Grigorios Theodoropoulos, wondered whether the enemy were ‘just unlucky, or inexperienced and hasty’.

While the Greek drive on Korce was getting up steam, the Fairey Battles of 31 Mira were ordered to hit the Italian forces on Mount Morova and Mount Ivan, the high points defending the southern approaches to the town. The raid was not unopposed. Performing prodigies of flying in this sector was di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia who scored a devastating hit on Flying Officer George Hinaris’ plane, killing his gunner/observer and forcing him to bale out, his flying suit on fire. Hinaris was saved by falling into a stream, though he was badly burned. In the same action Di Robilant accounted for Flight Lieutenant Dimitris Pitsikas’ Battle, which managed to limp to a landing at Ioannina, though by that time Warrant Officer Aristophanes Pappas, the gunner/observer, was dead in the back seat. While that was going on, three Potez 63s of 31 Mira attacked enemy artillery positions in the Devoli River valley. Vladousis’ plane was hit by his own side’s anti-aircraft guns. His gunner/observer already dead, Vladousis jumped from the stricken plane into a maelstrom of fire from the wheeling Fiats and the Greeks on the ground. To identify himself to the latter, he took a letter from his mother from his pocket and as he floated to earth he waved it like a white flag, yelling, ‘I’m Greek, you fellows!’ at the top of his voice.

Once down, he was saved from toppling over a cliff by a sergeant whom he recognized as an old school friend. As Vladousis was chatting with the local sector colonel, the captain of the offending anti-aircraft battery burst in with profuse and embarrassed apologies. The officer, it seemed, had no idea that the RHAF had twin-engined bombers such as the Potez 63 in the air – all he knew about, apparently, were the antique Breguet XIXs. Anything more modern than that, it was assumed, had to be Italian. Relaxing, Vladousis took off his flying overall and in that way he told the army something more about the indomitable spirit of the air force, for underneath it he was wearing his full dress uniform. To the thunderstruck colonel Vladousis quipped, ‘Since we never know if we’re going to come back, we might as well dress properly.’ Just as many airmen carried (and still carry) personal talismans as psychological defence mechanisms against worrying too much about death, the dress uniform was almost Spartan in its significance. It was like Leonidas’ Spartans combing their hair before the fatal encounter at Thermopylai. So Vladousis, if he was going to meet death, was determined to do it with dignity.

Two days before the fall of Korce 32 Mira was sent to bomb the base at Gjirokaster. Pilot Officer Alexander Malakis, perhaps because of a navigation error, bombed nearby Permet by mistake. The attack flattened an Italian military hospital, killing at least fifty patients. Next door to the hospital an ammunition dump exploded and burned for three days. While Malakis and his crew were decorated for the raid, Rome howled about a gross violation of the Geneva Convention. What actually happened is disputed to this day. Malakis claimed to have bombed by mistake, as Permet resembled Gjirokaster. The Greeks, moreover, asserted that the ammunition dump – ostensibly the real target – had been deliberately placed next to the hospital to deter attacks. This ‘explanation’, however, implies that Permet could have been the legitimate target after all. And certainly there was no lack of Greeks in uniform whose memories of Italian aggression were quite fresh and thus not overly scrupulous about what they hit.

The suddenness of the Greek advance on Korce caught the Regia Aero-nautica by surprise. Hours before the base’s capture, a SM79 bomber collided with three Fiats while trying to take off. It was abandoned to the Greeks who repainted it with blue and white roundels and added it to their bomber force. The Battles of 33 Mira were sent to harass the retreating Italian column but came under attack by a swarm of Fiats which forced the Greeks to break off the operation. One Battle was seriously damaged and its gunner/observer wounded.

The undoubted heroics displayed by the outgunned RHAF drew the admiration of Metaxas, but he fretted that the loss rate could not be sustained for very long. Even with the help of the RAF from the early days of November, and even when the ground campaign began turning in the Greeks’ favour in the middle of the month, the air war was giving Metaxas serious jitters. Grateful as he was for what British aerial help could be spared from the Middle East theatre, he could only gloomily observe his own airmen and planes dwindling mercilessly.

More British aerial help arrived on 18 November in the form of 80 Squadron, equipped with Gloster Gladiator IIs. Led by Squadron Leader William Hickey, the fighters touched down at Eleusis along with a lumbering Bristol Bombay transport carrying ground crews and spares. From that day the boys in RAF blue were given hero status by the grateful Athenians. Understandably, the crews that first night took full advantage of the adulation in the form of endless free drinks and meals, but Hickey himself wasn’t free to join in the fun, having to receive his orders from the Greek High Command. These were for 80 Squadron’s B Flight under the South African-born Flight Lieutenant Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle to fly on to Trikala in central Greece the next morning, refuel, and carry out the RAF’s first fighter patrol in Greek skies.

Pattle and his flight, plus his CO Hickey, landed at Trikala to find the crews of the RHAF’s 21 Pursuit Mira ‘enjoying a meal of bread and cheese and olives … washed down with a very strong-smelling but sweet-tasting wine,’ which they shared with the Britons. Thus fortified, three of 21 Mira’s PZL24s led Hickey and nine of 80 Squadron’s Gladiators on their first familiarity flight over the northwest Greek mountains. By the time the formation reached the Italian base at Korce the PZLs had to turn back because of a lack of fuel, leaving B Flight to see what it could pick off.

The eagle-eyed Pattle, leading the flight’s second section, was the first to see four Fiat CR42s of 150 Gruppo climbing to intercept them and signalled to Hickey. As both pilots went into an attacking dive, the Fiats scattered. Pattle got onto the tail of one of them and coolly blasted it at 100yds – the first of the redoubtable South African’s many kills in the Greek and Albanian theatres of the war. Over Korce airfield Pattle expertly evaded an attack by a 154 Gruppo Fiat G50 monoplane fighter, of the kind that was now being fed into the campaign in increasing numbers, and a few minutes later downed another CR42. At that point low air pressure knocked out the Gladiator’s guns, so he had to fly wildly around the sky getting out of the way of aggressive Italians until the gun pressure could build up again, but by that time his fuel was low and at tree-top height weaved his way through the mountains to Trikala, where 80 Squadron was feted as having accounted for nine Italian fighters and a couple more probables. As a reward, the pilots were put up at Trikala’s best hotel.

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