Operation Thesis

134 squadron operated a mix of Hurricane IIBs and IICs at the time of Thesis. Here ground staff pose on a Mk. IIC piloted by Fg Off W. Wright, seen at bottom right. Note the belt of 20mm ammunition on the shoulder of the standing airman.

Group Captain Max Aitken who masterminded Operation Thesis, the July 1943 air attack on Crete.

The loss of Crete in 1941 meant that the Axis forces had a base threatening the main convoy route between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, thus forcing supplies of men and materiel into the long supply line around the Cape of Good Hope and the Suez Canal.

During June 1942, though, British commandos carried out raids on Cretan airfields, destroying Luftwaffe aircraft and petrol stores. In retaliation, however, the Germans murdered fifty Cretans. A year later, another raid was mounted and resulted in the destruction of yet more enemy aeroplanes but triggered a revenge killing of fifty-two more citizens. It was a murderous act, and one of the `triggers’ for Operation Thesis.

THE REQUIRED TONIC EFFECT

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 the focus of operations shifted away from the Eastern Mediterranean although much thought was given to thwarting German air units based in Greece, Crete and the Dodecanese Islands. Crete was a major problem, especially with strong fighter and bomber forces based there and, importantly, the island’s airfields were being utilised by aircraft transiting from the Greek mainland to Sicily. Operation Thesis was the brainchild of Group Captain Max Aitken. A successful fighter pilot, Aitken had some dozen enemy aircraft to his credit, being posted to HQ Eastern Mediterranean in 1943 to serve in the Fighter Tactics Branch. At his disposal he had a hundred or so Hurricanes with very little to do after the spotlight of war had shifted westwards. Aitken would later write that lack of action ‘resulted in a dangerous psychological situation, which might have a disastrous effect on the morale of the squadrons’.

It was therefore decided by the Air Defence Commander that a large-scale offensive operation employing most of the squadrons in the Command would produce `the required tonic effect’ – and authority for a daylight attack on Crete by all available single-engine aircraft in 219 and 212 Groups, and certain aircraft in 212 (Naval Co-operation) Group, was given by the AOC-in-C. Taking part in such an operation was rendered highly dangerous by the longest sea crossing such a formation had ever undertaken.

A BARRAGE OF `FLAK’

Aitken’s plan was approved, and authority granted for a daylight attack on Crete by all available single-engine aircraft in 212 and 219 Groups and, additionally, certain aircraft in 212 (Naval Co-operation) Group. It was a risky operation, and one that involved the longest sea crossing such a large formation had ever undertaken. The intention was to mount a massed attack aimed at destroying Crete’s wireless transmitter stations and other communications and military establishments. This would be achieved by using eight Martin Baltimore medium bombers from 454 (RAAF) Sqn as the main strike force, plus some ninety Hurricanes from Air Defence Eastern Mediterranean (ADEM) who would hit communications facilities and other targets of opportunity with the operation set for Friday 23 July 1943. On that date, the massed formations left their North African bases comprising thirty six Hurricanes that set off from LG08 at Sidi Barrani, six from 74 Sqn (led by Sqn Ldr J `Spud’ Hayter DFC), six from 451 (RAAF) Sqn (Flt Lt E K Kirkman), six from 238 Squadron (Sqn Ldr H. Cochrane DFC), nine from 335 (Greek) Squadron (Flt Lt G. Pangalos and FLt Lt N Volonakis), and nine from 336 (Greek) Sqn (Flt Lt S. Diamantopoulos). This wave was led to their targets by two Bristol Beaufighters from 227 Sqn as navigator-leaders.

A further fifty four Hurricanes took off from Bu Amud and el-Gamil airstrips, including nine from 123 Sqn (led by Sqn Ldr Ken `Hawkeye’ Lee DFC) nine from 134 Sqn (Sqn Ldr `Stratters’ Stratton DFC), nine from 41 (SAAF) Sqn (Major W. J. B Chapman), nine from 237 Sqn (Sqn Ldr John Walmisley), nine from 94 Sqn (Sqn Ldr A. V. `Darky’ Clowes DFC, DFM) and nine from 7 (SAAF) Sqn, (Major C. Van Vliet DFC). The formation was also guided by 227 Squadron Beaufighters.

Meanwhile, the Baltimores were scheduled to carry out land and shipping strikes against Suda Bay, Heraklion, and other targets of opportunity. Eight bombers, in two box formations of four each, and led by S/Ldr Lionel Folkard in Baltimore AG995, set out on the 230 mile flight. However, as they approached Suda Bay they were greeted by intense flak which disabled the port motor of AG995. Despite serious wounds and damage to the aircraft that had been caused by his own bombs, Folkard managed to force-land on a beach near Heraklion. The crew survived, despite the fact that the Baltimore had skated over mines which were set off with explosions erupting behind the crashing bomber. The badly wounded airmen managed to vacate the smashed-up Baltimore before its bomb load exploded, blowing the aircraft to bits.

`AN INAUSPICIOUS START’

Of the second wave of Baltimores, all four were shot down (FA409, AG869, FA247 and FA224) with only three survivors out of the sixteen crewmen. Three of the Baltimores disappeared without trace, although the crew of the remaining aircraft, FA390/A, had a close call. Flying as No. 2 to Folkard, F/Sgt Ray Akhurst ventured over Maleme airfield at a mere fifty feet and heavy AA fire knocked out the starboard engine and damaged the airframe. The Baltimore struggled back to base at 140mph, despite severe vibration, and with the crew throwing out all they could to lighten the machine. Akhurst had planned to crash-land on a beach near his airfield at Gambut, but found the foreshore littered with debris from a sunken freighter. As he turned back over the sea, so his remaining motor stopped when the aircraft ran out of fuel. With considerable measures of both skill and luck, he managed to ditch in the surf with the aeroplane floating ashore the next day. Empty fuel tanks had provided the necessary buoyancy and allowed for two lucky homing pigeons to be rescued from the wreck. Akhurst received an immediate DFM for his `skilful and determined flying’ but it was little compensation for the unit’s `darkest day’ and one which had decimated the squadron’s flying establishment.

Unfortunately, the Hurricanes fared little better. Ken `Hawkeye’ Lee, of 123 Sqn, a veteran of the Battles of France and Britain, recalled a visit by Aitken to El Adem ahead of the Thesis operation. He addressed the assembled pilots, saying: `Right chaps, tomorrow morning two Beaufighters are going to come over and navigate for you. You are going to fly to Crete at sea level and knock hell out of the place.’ Aitken nominated Lee as Wing Leader, but Lee’s cryptic comment reflected his scepticism as to the wisdom of the operation: `No maps. No photographs. No specific targets. Just go and give them hell.’ It wasn’t an auspicious start.

AIR ARMADA

Lee’s air armada approached the island at low level, releasing their long-range tanks as they reached the coast from where they roared inland and up a picturesque valley. Here, they saw nothing, but as they returned anti- aircraft fire opened up on them. Lee, piloting KZ141, suddenly realised that his trousers were covered in oil and immediately noticed that his oil and engine temperatures were rapidly climbing into the red. As he returned, the Hurricane’s engine cut and he was forced to belly-land in the narrowest of gaps and between two olive trees, a feat the Germans couldn’t believe was deliberate. Lee managed to set off the thermite demolition bomb which destroyed his fighter, but as he scampered away he was knocked flat by a severe blow to his midriff. A German soldier, taking a pot-shot at him, had hit Lee’s webbing belt with the bullet passing through the buckle and out through the ammunition pouch. By rights, he should have died.

Lee was promptly marched off to the nearby village and taken to a group of German army officers who smartly saluted and offered him a late breakfast consisting of omelette and brandy! A squadron commander was a rare catch indeed, and he was duly taken off by staff car to the German HQ at Heraklion and from there to Athens by Junkers 52 where he met other POW survivors of the raid. Two other 123 Sqn Hurricanes had failed to return with Fg Off John Le Mare (RCAF) killed, although West Indian Flt Sgt `Fanny’ Farfan was spirited away by locals, evaded capture and returned to Egypt in September.

238 Sqn, meanwhile, lost two pilots through anti-aircraft fire although both Flt Sgt P. A. George (RAAF) who had been flying KZ130/J and F/Sgt H. Raiment (RNZAF) in HW483/P were made prisoners of war. George survived an offshore ditching but was machine- gunned, fortunately inaccurately, as he swam ashore. The Squadron CO, Sqn Ldr H P Cochrane DFC, piloting HL657/D, was fortunate to get back to base with his badly damaged Hurricane. No 134 Sqn, led by Sqn Ldr W H Stratton DFC, a Battle of France veteran, lost Fg Off `Bill’ Manser (HW299) who apparently made a successful forced-landing but was later reported killed, and Sgt D Horsley (HW372) who also died. Two other flyers from the squadron returned wounded; Fg Off L Lowen in HV905 with a leg wound and Fg Off W H Wright in HW605 who was seriously wounded in the chest.

GREEK UNITS

The two Greek units, both operating from Sidi Barrani, lost four aircraft with only one pilot surviving from these losses. W/O Athanasakis of 336 Squadron, flying BP232, lost a drop tank on take-off, but gallantly if not ill-advisedly chose to continue despite the fact that he must have known he lacked sufficient petrol to return home. His companions alerted him to his predicament, but he pressed on with the mission all the same. Both Greek squadrons attacked the radar station at Ierapetra, in the south- east of Crete and also hit military installations in the face of heavy anti- aircraft fire. Athanasakis reported that his fuel was low and was going to have to land. Wt Off Konstantinos Kokkas, also a Cretan, recalled:

`We hit camps, cars, cannon stations and every military target that was in front of us. Everywhere, though, the anti-aircraft guns responded. We passed through the Agios Nikolaos plain and this is where I heard Athanasakis yelling that he was force-landing.’

Apparently, the Greek flyer crashed near a German patrol that immediately pursued him, although the gallant pilot shot it out with the enemy using his pistol but eventually ran out of ammunition and was subsequently killed. The remaining Hurricanes flew on to Heraklion where they strafed a German camp but lost Wt Off Skantzikas, shot down in KW250 by anti- aircraft fire. Kokkas reported that `the flak was ferocious’ and `I saw a German flag fluttering in a building on my right and sent a burst into it. We were almost touching the windmills and milk-white houses while the Cretans below were throwing their hats into the air, dancing with joy and waving their hands.’ He saw Skantzikas, a former classmate, his aircraft covered in oil, heading for a crash-landing which he survived.

Sadly, two pilots from 335 Squadron were also lost. Flt Sgt Doukas was shot down near the south shore of Mirabello Bay. Although initially reported as a POW he was, in fact, killed. Flt Sgt Laitmer crashed into the sea near Tymbaki, his fate witnessed by a pilot of 238 Sqn. Wt Off Kountouvas reported being attacked by a Junkers 88 south of the island, but escaped unharmed. Interestingly, and despite the mayhem, other pilots reported a `relatively uneventful’ operation! Fg Off Reg Sutton of 451 (RAAF) Squadron, for example, reported that the Sidi Barrani Hurricanes were led in by the two Beaufighters at wave-top height and said of Operation Thesis: `There were no targets where they were supposed to be and where there was not to be any flak, there was bags of it. For the rest, nothing! I fired my guns on the way out for the sake of firing them.’ On their return the squadron found the North African coast hidden by a violent dust storm. Although scheduled to land at Tobruk several Hurricanes had to put down on a road, short of fuel. There was absolutely no visibility over the airfield, but despite two landing accidents in the atrocious conditions nobody was injured.

A SLIPPERY CUSTOMER!

The two Beaufighters leading the el-Gamil Hurricanes were flown by Wg Cdr Russell Mackenzie in EL516/Y and Fg Off `Wally’ McGregor (RNZAF) in JL619/X. The pair intercepted an Arado 196 floatplane at sea level as they neared the coast, with Mackenzie scoring hits although without apparent result and the Arado fleeing at wave height. A short time later another Arado, or perhaps the same one, was attacked but again without result. The slippery customer also appears to have survived a burst from a Hurricane from 94 Sqn.

The twenty-seven Hurricanes from el-Gamil were led by Sqn Ldr `Darky’ Clowes, veteran of the Battles of France and Britain, and his unit, 94 Sqn, approached the island at nought feet at 08.20 hrs, making landfall on the south coast twenty miles from the western tip. The pilots of two aircraft, Sgt W Imrie (KW935/A), and Flt Lt S Whiting (HW738/G), were unable to jettison their long-range tanks but the formation followed the coast until landfall between Maleme and Canea, just east of the islet of Dio and strafed barracks and buildings in the town of Alikianos, a generator and a dam on the River Peatanias and a well- camouflaged camp outside the town. Unfortunately, Sgt Imrie reported he had been hit and crashed among trees on a mountainside to the south-west of Alikianos, his end marked by a mushroom cloud of black smoke.

The squadron flew on, strafing Kastella Selinos on the south coast hitting a wireless transmitter hut before shooting- up a lighthouse on Gavdhos Island and a wireless unit with its accompanying masts. On return it was found that Fg Off Howley’s machine (HL886/R) had slight damage to its airscrew and Fg Off Henderson’s HM118/L had bullet holes in its fuselage. Captain Kirby of 7 (SAAF) Sqn had a close shave when his fighter, KX961, clipped a high-tension cable, damaging the propeller tips and radiator. He returned with a length of cable wrapped round his airscrew but reported: `very little was seen.’

DEBIT AND CREDIT

No 41 (SAAF) Squadron had Lt. W J K Bliss failing to return, whilst their CO, Major Chapman, was hit on a strafing run over Moires near the south coast by a shell that penetrated the port wing root damaging his glycol and oil systems. He nursed the faltering Hurricane back to Bu Amid and although the engine seized up over the airfield he glided in to a safe landing. Lt. Cyril George, from the same squadron, also forced-landed when his engine seized-up due to flak damage. Meanwhile, five other 41 (SAAF) Sqn Hurricanes suffered minor damage. Of the fifty-four fighters which set off from Bu Amid and el-Gamil, eight were lost, with four pilots killed, three POW, one escapee and another two wounded. Three Hurricanes were very badly damaged.

In total, thirteen Hurricanes were lost on the operation with eight pilots killed, four taken prisoner of war and one who evaded capture. To add to this sorry tale, six Baltimores were lost with fourteen crewmen killed and six taken prisoner. Overall, the operation’s losses had minimal return but during the withdrawal cover by Spitfire Vc aircraft of 80 Sqn, Fg Off J C R Waterhouse, piloting JK142, engaged a Junkers 88-D (4U+6K) of 2.(F)/123, shooting it down in flames resulting in the death of Uffz F. Dieroft and his crew.

A CRETAN TRAITOR

Intelligence operatives on the island radioed information back to Cairo on the effectiveness of the operation, including information that three Hurricanes flew low over the village of Souyia, where they encountered machine-gun fire.

They returned and engaged the suspected gun-site, fortuitously killing a Cretan traitor, Tzimanokes, who had betrayed seven British soldiers hiding from the Germans.

At Hag Nikolaos, bombs from the Baltimores fell on an Italian army camp, killing four soldiers, whilst at Ierapetra bombs killed twenty-one military personnel, three civilians and wounded thirty more soldiers. At Pakhiano a motor vessel was unsuccessfully bombed but a strafing attack killed one sailor and wounded two others, including the captain.

POST OPERATIONS

Air Commodore Mark Lax, historian of 454 Squadron (RAAF), was surely right when he described the concept of an attack on Crete as `fundamentally sound’. However, he pinpointed factors that led to failure, including the fact that the planners had forgotten the Allies were operating on double summer time but Axis forces were not. The plan assumed the enemy would be at breakfast and be caught unawares, but breakfast was over when the air armada appeared and the troops back on duty. Secondly, the fighters took some time to form-up and the unfortunate Baltimores arrived first, thus alerting the island’s defences.

Group Captain Aitken, drawing up a post-action report, concluded: `On the face of it, the material damage to the enemy was in no way commensurate with the loss of thirteen Hurricanes and five (sic) Baltimores, together with other aircraft casualties and damage. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the unpalatable medicine administered to the enemy, coupled with the fine tonic effect on 212 and 219 Group, made the operation a success on balance.’ Whether the surviving pilots and aircrew from Operation Thesis shared this rather optimistic assessment might be open to doubt.

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