Fiats and Gladiators II

After that triumphant RAF debut, the weather stepped in. Constant rain for forty-eight hours, and low-lying dense cloud for another forty-eight, held up all operations. Nonetheless, on 25 November Pattle took up half a dozen Gladiators to patrol the Korce area, but couldn’t entice any of the enemy to tangle with him. The next day B Flight of 80 Squadron was ordered to move to Ioannina, where conditions were drier and the battlefront nearer. In a clear but freezing sky Pattle’s section spotted three SM79 bombers escorted by twelve CR42s well inside Greek airspace. As the section under Flight Lieutenant Edward ‘Tap’ Jones dived on the bombers, Pattle led his own six planes against the Fiats, which tried to fight back, but abandoned the encounter after Pattle had sent two of them spinning into the ground on fire.

It was during these first encounters that Captain Nicola Magaldi, the CO of 364 Squadriglia who had fired the shots that killed Sergeant Merifield in his Blenheim, was jumped by nine of Hickey’s Gladiators and killed in his turn (perhaps by Pattle himself), to be awarded a posthumous gold medal for valour. The following day ten Fiat CR42s of 364 and 365 Squadriglie found themselves entangled with more Gladiators just south of the Albanian border. One Fiat and one Gladiator collided in the melee, killing both pilots. (The RAF victim was probably 80 Squadron’s Flying Officer Bill Sykes, the first British fighter pilot to die in the Greek campaign.) Captain Giorgio Graffer, the commander of 365 Squadriglia, was killed (posthumous gold medal award) – the second 150 Gruppo squadron commander to be killed in as many days. Two Fiats and one Gladiator were lost, with two more Fiats and three more Gladiators damaged.

Two days before the fall of Korce the Greek General Staff met to discuss air strategy. Present were Metaxas, Papagos, RHAF Operations Chief Group Captain Stergios Tilios and Group Captain Arthur Willetts on behalf of the RAF. The meeting came not a moment too soon, as by now it had become clear that the Greeks and British had worrisomely differing concepts of what the term ‘air strategy’ meant. To the Greek military, as in all second-string European countries which had not had combat experience in the 1930s, an air force was little more than a set of artillery pieces with wings, to send over a trajectory beyond the visibility of land guns and drop high explosive on the enemy. True, any officer could perceive the distinction between a bomber and a fighter operation, but it was seen in simplistic terms as offence (bomber) and defence (fighter). More sophisticated missions for fighters such as escorting bomber formations had not yet been thought of. Though Metaxas can take credit for perceiving the importance of an air force in the first place, Greece could boast no Douhet or Balbo in the theoretical sphere.

Willetts may or may not have been aware that Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, the RAF commander in the Middle East, had sent D’Albiac detailed instructions on how to maintain the relationship with the Greeks. They read, in part:

You will have the status of an independent air force command, but, although not under the control of the Greek General Staff, the conduct of operations of the RAF should, as far as practicable … conform as closely as possible to the Greek plan for the defence of the country.

This was a diplomatic way of trying to bridge the differences, but in case the Greeks didn’t get the message, Longmore was coldly specific:

You are not to allow bombers to be used for artillery or to participate in actual land operations unless the military situation becomes so critical as to justify the temporary diversion of our bombers from strategic bombing to support of the Greek land forces … The possibility of a sudden and complete collapse of Greece must not be lost sight of.

In plain words, helping the Greeks was all very well and noble, but if it meant frittering away men and aircraft on a cause that may well be doomed, then that help would be of little use. Britain of course, had to consider the wider war theatre. In practical terms, that meant that the Greek request for RAF Hurricane fighters, for example, had to be refused. The old stringy Gladiators had to suffice for the present. Besides, the Wellingtons and Blenheim Is of 70 Squadron were deemed quite good enough to hammer the Italians in Albania.

As a ranking RAF officer in Greece, Willetts must have been aware of these directives. Morale was high at the meeting, as Korce was about to fall any day. But a curtain of tension fell when Papagos duly called for British air support to hit the retreating Italian ground troops. As Prince Peter recalled later, at that point Metaxas turned to Willetts with the observation that he knew there was going to be an Italian air attack that day. Papagos, overhearing the aside, gently reprimanded his own prime minister in Greek that he had just spilled a secret to the British. For a commander-in-chief, and in the face of an iron leader such as Metaxas, this was skating dangerously close to insubordination. It can only be explained by Papagos’ panic that the RAF might balk at being a Greek flying artillery arm and insist on operating as it saw fit.

Willetts, though not understanding Greek, guessed what the muttering was about. Such was the passion of the Greek vengeance against the Italian aggressors that Papagos wanted RAF planes not only to bomb the Italians out of their positions, but also to mercilessly strafe them as they retreated. This didn’t sound right to Willetts, who, encouraged by Metaxas’ observation, said on the record that the RAF would be better employed in fighting off the expected Italian air raids. After a lunch break Papagos reiterated his demand as if nothing had happened. This time D’Albiac was present. After sitting through a turgid speech by Papagos detailing the string of Greek victories on the Albanian front D’Albiac reluctantly agreed to send bombers to hasten the Italian withdrawal somewhat, but he drew the line at machine-gunning the fleeing enemy.

Papagos alternated between impatience to keep up the pressure on the Italian army and worry that his logistics setup lagged behind developments on the front line. Still, Gambier-Parry was quite unprepared for what he heard on his next visit to Papagos. If the British were to send troops to help Greece, the Greek C-in-C said casually, ‘they would be welcome’. British airmen now were not enough; grounds troops would be useful, too. Gambier-Parry replied that he would officially forward the request to the proper quarters. There was also the foreign press corps in Athens, demanding loudly that they be allowed at the front, and Metaxas still had not made up his mind about whether he wanted them there. To the Greeks, if not to some of the British, this was still not a ‘journalistic war’.

As Greek forces closed on Korce D’Albiac mostly cooperated with the Greek air demands. He was loth to run counter to the prevailing spirit of optimism and didn’t want to be the fly in the ointment of victory. On 21 November Papagos presented a ‘shopping list’ to D’Albiac: the RAF was asked to bomb not only the Albanian port of Durres but also Bari, Brindisi and Ancona on the Italian mainland, and, while we’re at it, why not Rome itself? The urgency was that an Italian army corps was reported about to disembark in Albania and had to be stopped. D’Albiac agreed, ordering a bombing raid on Durres for that evening and targeting Bari and Brindisi the following night, ‘weather permitting’. Rome was, delicately, not mentioned again.

The weather refused to cooperate for the planned raid on Durres, but on 22 November few cared to quibble about it, for the capital was consumed with the happy news of the fall of Korce. Yet one of those few was Papagos, who complained to D’Albiac. The air commodore promised to bomb Durres that same evening, with some of the twenty-five Blenheim bombers of 211 Squadron scheduled to arrive from the Middle East that afternoon. Later that day Willetts told Papagos that three 211 Squadron bombers would be heading for Durres that night.

‘Papagos jumped from his chair,’ Prince Peter recorded. ‘What?’ he cried. ‘Just three?’ Willetts apologized for not having any more for that night, but pledged a bigger force for the following night. Willetts also politely refused to agree to a request by the Greek C-in-C that the RAF bomb the roads south of Gjirokaster, on the grounds that it would be a ‘tactical’ rather than a strategic strike and thus outside the British remit. The group captain could stand firm against the weight of Greek brass because that same day Air Chief Marshal Longmore had arrived in Athens to see for himself what was being done with his precious planes and crews.

Longmore hit the Greeks like a cold shower. His first meeting with King George went rather badly. With Prince Peter present, the king fulsomely praised Britain’s air help to the Greeks and, perhaps unwisely, mentioned a need for more. The crusty air chief marshal, unimpressed by the crowned head before him, replied gruffly that the king was wrong in automatically counting on the RAF’s help as his (Longmore’s) overwhelming priority was to keep Britain’s air force fighting in the Middle East. In Longmore’s narrowly functional view the Greek sideshow was nowhere near the RAF’s prime concern and the Greeks had to be constantly reminded of that. Essentially, Britain was doing Greece a favour having little to do with Britain’s prime strategic tasks, and losing young men to boot. The king came away from the meeting grumbling about Longmore as ‘a very unpleasant man’.

If the Greek king came off the worse from the encounter with Longmore, Papagos could expect no different. But at least Papagos, an able officer, put up some sort of spirited response. After being lectured by Longmore about the secondary nature of the Greek front to Britain’s strategic concerns, Papagos replied that he saw strategy on a wider scale; in a unified war effort, he opined, every theatre of war was related to every other. For example, he said, an effective strategic bombing of Albania would help reduce the Italian pressure in North Africa. This argument of the interconnectibility of war fronts appeared to make some impression on the parade-ground Longmore, who softened even more after encountering the same reasoned arguments from Metaxas himself.

[Longmore] replied that he agreed, and that despite the dearth of means which he had at his disposal he promised to do what he could. He said he would see to it that more British-built and American-built aircraft became available. Metaxas’ eyes lit up behind his glasses as he saw he had scored a success with the air chief marshal, and he assured him that with the help of the RAF and Royal Navy … Greece would stand up to Hitler if the situation warranted.

Yet the elements are deaf to the concerns of soldiers, and once more bad weather saved Durres from a British bombing. D’Albiac, to placate a touchy Papagos, agreed to bomb Tepelene, Gjirokaster and Pogradec, then still in Italian hands. In support, the RHAF’s Gladiators of 21 Mira would be stationed at northern Greek airfields in preparation for deployment at the captured base at Korce. But Papagos continued to fret about Durres, where Italian reinforcements were, perhaps at that moment, coming off the troopships. Gambier-Parry, to lighten the atmosphere, brought in a spurious message to the king from Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, to the effect that the Italian military leadership was supposedly on the verge of revolting against the fascist party.

As the meeting progressed, news arrived that the RAF had bombed columns of enemy vehicles at Vlore. Orders went out that forward airfields be activated, in particular one located at the bottom of a gorge-like valley at Paramythia, a few miles south of the Albanian border. Paramythia field nestled alongside the bed of the Acheron River, which the ancient Greeks believed to be the entrance to Hades. The landscape is certainly portentous. Great crags soar thousands of feet on either side. The pilot of anything as large as a twin-engined bomber had to be careful to negotiate landings and climb-outs, which of course could not be done in foggy weather or at night. After take-off a Blenheim or a Wellington pilot needed to make a series of tight climbing circles before clearing the peaks. The first British airmen to use Paramythia were the pilots of 815 Naval Air Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, whose ancient-looking but agile Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bomber biplanes could negotiate the approaches with rather more ease. The British quickly dubbed Paramythia ‘Fairy Tale Valley’, inspired both by the unearthly beauty of the place and the Greek word paramythia, which actually means fairy tales.

The great merit of Fairy Tale Valley was that the Italian air force didn’t know about it. The strip was devilishly hard to find by visual aerial reconnaissance alone. The naval pilots were under strict orders to use Paramythia as a facility for over-water operations against the Italian fleet only. The Swordfish could slip in and out from the coast undetected, but 815 NAS was strictly prohibited from tangling with the Regia Aeronautica over Albania or Greece. If the Italians saw Swordfish in the air they would realize that the Fleet Air Arm was using a base in Epiros, and Fairy Tale Valley would be blown.

At the daily air strategy meetings Papagos suggested that the RAF’s Gladiators move up to the base at Ioannina, as their present base at Trikala in central Greece was often under cloud and a target of Italian bombers. Group Captain Tilios, the Senior Greek Air Commander, said he suspected that security leaks had resulted in the Italians bombing the airfields at Kozani and Florina. D’Albiac and Willetts nodded in agreement. The incident with Reuters and the capture of the Greek amphibious commando team in Albania was having its repercussions in Athens, and the Greek security services were paranoid. Gambier-Parry, the British Military Mission head, was on the point of being replaced as lacking experience in the security sphere. The RAF, on the contrary, was becoming increasingly indispensable to the Greek air war despite Air Chief Marshal Longmore’s inhibitions.

It was fortunate that Hickey and Pattle and the rest of 80 Squadron were giving excellent accounts of themselves over the front, not only giving the RHAF priceless tips on air combat but also raising Britain’s military profile in Greece. By early December the squadron at Ioannina had been joined by more Gladiators from 112 Squadron. There were regular patrols over Gjirokaster in southern Albania, which was now in Greek hands and hence a key Italian bombing target. Pattle, meanwhile, had developed an innovative technique for dealing with the SM79 in particular. Stalking the three-engined bomber from the rear, he would deliver a carefully-timed burst of fire – lasting half a second, no more – into the plane’s fuel tank situated between the fuselage and the port engine. For the next ten seconds he would stay on the bomber’s tail while its fuel sprayed out. At the right moment Pattle would fire a second burst into the fuel cloud, and the SM79 would blow up. It wasn’t long before all his squadron mates had learned the trick.

For the RHAF, though, the attrition through December was becoming serious. By now it was easy for the Regia Aeronautica’s bombers to brush by whatever defences the RHAF could put up. Malakis and his crew, the ones who had pulverized the Italian military hospital at Permet, were lost eleven days later. What remained of 1 Army Cooperation (Observation) Mira was blasted on the ground at Kozani and Florina thanks to a daring raid by 364 Squadriglia led by Captain Edoardo Molinari, an Italian ace, and followed by a formation of SM81s. A similar fate befell 2 and 4 Army Cooperation (Observation) Mirai at Florina, which had to be abandoned. The Italians raided Corfu virtually unopposed, killing at least two hundred civilians.

Reinforcements from the RAF’s 112 Squadron gave the Greek fliers a bit of a reprieve, and an opportunity to retire a few of the more battered PZLs. Pattle was always on hand to give the inspiring example, ranging far and wide out of Ioannina with his spectacular air fighting skills. On 3 December he added to his roster of kills by downing two slow-moving Meridionali Ro37 observation planes – soft targets, but kills nonetheless. The PZLs continued their robust works against the Fiat CR42s, but these latter were now being rapidly superseded in the Albanian theatre by the G50 and the even more redoubtable Macchi MC200 Saetta. Greece’s own pot-holed airfields were almost as hazardous as the enemy, writing off about one plane per week. Moreover, with the Italian army retreating farther into Albania and flying weather worsening, the RHAF’s remaining warplanes and crews were hard-pressed to maintain their range and operational endurance.

The RAF’s bombers continued to meet stiff opposition over Vlore, with the Blenheims of 211 Squadron coming under nightly attack from all three squadriglie of 150 Gruppo. One of 211 Squadron’s skippers, Flight Lieutenant George Doudney, got off very lightly indeed when a bullet penetrated his flying helmet but not the contents. The Gladiators of 80 Squadron gave as good as they got, but more often than not 150 Gruppo’s Fiats clawed their quota of RAF bombers regardless. Two of 84 Squadron’s Blenheims were shot down by 365 Squadriglia on 7 December, only one crewmember surviving. A 211 Squadron Blenheim was sent plunging in to the sea off Sarande on 18 December, killing the crew. Four days later Major Oscar Molinari of 160 Gruppo disposed of two Gladiators.

Shortly before Christmas the temperature plummetted so low at Ptolemais airfield that the oil froze in the engines of the PZLs of 22 and 23 Mirai. To forestall the oil lines rupturing, engineers tried to warm them over bonfires, but to no avail. Thanks to an old delouser obtained by a resourceful engineer officer, the engines were steamed into operation, but even then the snow on the runway was too deep for the fighters to take off. As squadriglie of Italian CantZ1007s and SM79s droned overhead on their way to bomb Thessaloniki, the RHAF’s Fighter Chief, Wing Commander Emmanuel Kelaidis, ordered that the PZLs be dismantled and sent overland to the milder conditions of Sedes, about 150 miles to the east. In a remarkable feat of determination that entered Greek air force annals as the ‘Engineers’ Epic’, ground crews forced their ice-numbed fingers into action to unscrew the wings from twenty-two PZLs. The semi-dismantled planes were then towed 26km in a blinding blizzard through wolf-infested hills to the nearest railway station for loading on flatbeds to Thessaloniki and Sedes. There were three such laborious processions. Within days the planes had been reassembled to fight again.

Despite such manifestations of an indomitable Greek air spirit, it was the RAF that now was bearing the brunt of the war in the air. Longmore’s initial fears of Britain’s becoming over-involved in the Greek effort had been overtaken by the pressure of events. The Italian aircrews were well aware of the shift in power. The Greek fliers had been brave enough, but the RAF’s fighter boys showed their experience. The Gladiators of Hickey and Pattle regularly engaged the Italians in what they ruefully termed a carosello infernale, an infernal carousel. On 20 December a formation of six SM79s was broken up before it could bomb an advancing Greek column. Over Gjirokaster on 23 December the dogfights resumed. Hickey and Pattle dived into 364 Squadriglia escorting a formation of SM79 and Breda Br20 bombers and scored a couple of kills in quick succession. The escorting CR42s, however, managed to stay out of range of the Gladiators’ guns, forcing Pattle and his wingmen to try some dangerous manoeuvres in a sky filled with flaming tracer. But Hickey that day ran out of luck. Either Captain Luigi Corsini or Sergeant Major Virgilio Pongiluppi fired the fatal burst into Hickey’s Gladiator, though the 80 Squadron CO might well have survived had he not been machine-gunned to death as he drifted down. In a few weeks he would have returned to his wife and children in Australia. Two other Gladiator pilots were wounded, and five of 80 Squadron’s aircraft seriously damaged.

The Blenheim bombers of 211 Squadron continued their attacks on enemy targets over Christmas, to be met by 150 Gruppo’s fighters. On Boxing Day 364 Squadriglia eliminated a Blenheim that was bombing the Vlore-Himare road, while on New Year’s Eve di Robilant and Sergeant Enrico Micheli downed a Blenheim flown by Sergeant S. Bennett, killing its crew.

While the bulk of the RHAF was deployed over the Albanian front and over Greece’s vulnerable towns, its naval cooperation arm was quietly keeping the Aegean Sea lanes free of enemy submarines. The air force had three maritime mirai, 11, 12 and 13, the last-named equipped with modern Avro Anson patrol aircraft. The sinking of the Elli in August, in fact, was the last successful instance of enemy submarine action in the Aegean Sea until the German conquest in spring 1941. The Ansons and the ageing Fairey III seaplanes protected many a shipload of Greek troops as they were transported to the front from Crete and the islands. Some managed to drop a few bombs on Italian naval installations in Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands.

Meanwhile, D’Albiac – perhaps with one eye on the publicity it could entail – decided to send a few RAF planes to drop packets of toys and sweets for the children of Corfu on Christmas morning. Hardly had the presents been dropped than the Regia Aeronautica bombed the port of Corfu, killing eighteen people having their Christmas dinner. D’Albiac, incensed, gathered together what crews he could from 211 Squadron and sent them off from Tatoi to plaster Vlore that night. The Blenheims were lucky enough to encounter two Italian warships just entering the port and raked their decks with machine gun fire, veering away before the Italian flak crews realized what was happening. The Italian Christmas Day raid on Corfu left a bitter taste in Greek mouths. ‘The bastards!’ Metaxas scrawled in his diary that night.

The end of December saw more losses in 31 Mira, whose Blenheim IVs were being decimated. The fighter squadrons weren’t in much better shape, as bad weather over Albania often prevented them from shooting up the retreating Italian columns. In a little over two months of war, thirty-one RHAF aircrew officers had been killed and seven wounded, plus four NCOs killed and five wounded. Just twenty-eight fighters remained in battleworthy condition, mostly PZLs and Gladiators, while the number of front-line bombers was down to seven. Regardless of the successes of the Greek army in Albania, the air force was on the ropes. The RAF, by default, was about to assume most of the responsibility for the air defence of Greece. For the Greek leadership this was not as welcome a prospect as one might think. For, in Metaxas’ mind at least, it could not help but bring closer the day that Hitler would see Britain becoming more heavily involved on Greece’s side and decide to make his own ‘big brother’ move and intervene on Mussolini’s behalf. If that happened, he knew the game was up. As long as his army was pushing back the Italians in Albania, Metaxas could gamble that the war would end in some kind of armistice line and Greece could get its breath back for a widening world conflict whose outcome at that stage could not be known.

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