Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning)

An early Macchi C.202 (no radio mast) of 81ª Squadriglia, 6° Gruppo, 1° Stormo CT; this photo appears to have been taken in Libya.

C.202 of Regia Aeronautica 168ª Squadriglia, 54° Stormo CT c.1943

Although a sufficient improvement over the Fiat CR.42 and G.50 to have warranted production as a stopgap fighter, the Saetta was barely a match for the Hurricane and no match for the Spitfire. A closer examination of the C.200’s airframe, however, revealed an essentially clean design with an excellent combination of stability and maneuverability. All it needed was a better engine.
With that in mind, Castoldi privately approached the Daimler-Benz A. G. and purchased a twelve-cylinder air-cooled DB 601Aa engine. He then commenced work on an aerodynamically refined adaptation of the C.200 airframe to accept the German engine, at the same time abandoning the C.201, another project to reengine the Saetta. The result of his efforts, which took to the air at Varese on August 10, 1940, restored the racy appearance of the Castoldi floatplanes to the basic C.200 design, as well as to its performance potential. So successful were its tests that the Ministerio dell’Aeronautica immediately ordered the new fighter into series production—not only at Macchi’s Varese factory but also at Breda’s plant at Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan. While more DB 601 Aas were ordered to power the first production batch, Alfa Romeo acquired a license to manufacture the engine as the R. A. 1000 R. C. 41-I Monsone (Monsoon), which was rated at 1,040 horsepower at 2,400 revolutions per minute. The Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning), as the new fighter was designated, had a maximum speed of 372 miles per hour at 18,370 feet, featured self-sealing fuel tanks, a molded armor-plate pilot’s seat, and an enclosed cockpit, although it lacked an armor-glass windscreen. Armament was initially the same as the C.200—two synchronized 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns—but ammunition capacity was increased from 370 to 400 rounds per gun. Later-production series Folgores added two 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT guns in the wings.
The first C.202s were delivered to the 4o Stormo C. T. at Gorizia in July 1941. After accustoming themselves with the new fighter’s characteristics, pilots of the wing’s 9o Gruppo, comprised of the 73a Squadriglia (Fotoricognitori) and 96a and 97a Squadriglie C. T., commenced operations against Malta from their base at Comiso on September 29, 1941. On the following afternoon, Italy’s new lightning bolt struck for the first time when five Hurricane fighter-bombers of No. 185 Squadron, escorted by six other Hurricanes, attacked Comiso. Three C.202s of the 97a Squadriglia scrambled up to intercept them, and in the running fight that followed, Tenente Iacopo Frigerio shot down Pilot Officer Donald W. Lintern, who was last seen bailing out near Gozo Island.
After returning to their base to refuel, five of the Hurricanes accompanied a Fairey Fulmar of the Kalafrana Rescue Flight in a search for Lintern. They never found him, but they did come under attack by the C.202s. Tenente Luigi Tessari and Sgt. Raffaello Novelli were jointly credited with downing an enemy fighter, which they reported to have fallen into the sea and blown up ten kilometers south of Cap Scaramia. Their victim was the Fulmar, but it ditched relatively intact, and its crew, Lt. D. E. C. Eyres and Sub-Lt. Bernard Furlong, were subsequently rescued by a Fairey Swordfish floatplane of their flight. One of the Hurricane pilots, Flt. Lt. Charles G. St. David Jeffries, claimed to have probably downed one of the unidentified enemy fighters, while Pilot Officer Peter J. B. Veitch and Flt. Sgt. A. W. Jolly each claimed to have damaged one; Tessari returned with numerous holes in his fuselage.
The 9o Gruppo carried the fight back to Malta on the morning of October 1, as Capt. Mario Pluda led seven C.202s to escort two C.200s on a reconnaissance mission. At 1150 hours, eight Hurricane Mark IIAs of No. 185 Squadron took off to intercept, but as they reached an altitude of 24,000 feet, thirty miles northeast of the embattled island, they were jumped by the Folgori. Capitano Carlo Ivaldi, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, and Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari claimed two Hurricanes shot down and two probables in their first pass; but only one Hurricane was lost along with its pilot, Squadron Leader P. W. B. Mould—the same “Boy” Mould who, as a member of No. 1 Squadron, had scored the first confirmed Hurricane victory in France on October 30, 1939. Mould’s total account stood at eight, plus one shared, when he became one of the C.202’s earliest victims. The Italians did not get off scot-free, however. Sergeant Ernest G. Knight scored hits on Ivaldi’s main fuel tank, and he only just made it to Sicily before the last of his fuel drained away, force landing on the beach near Pozzallo.
The Folgore quickly demonstrated its inherent mastery over the Hurricane, and by the end of 1941, at least one of the 9o Gruppo’s pilots, Teresio Martinoli, had been credited with five out of an eventual personal total of twenty-two victories (one of them German while flying for the Allies in Italy’s Co-Belligerent Air Force), including Peter Veitch, whom he shot down and killed off Malta on October 4. The C.202’s numbers were too small to have a decisive impact over Malta in the late months of 1941, however. By the time it was available in significant quantities in 1942, Spitfire Mark Vs had arrived to engage the Italian fighters on roughly equal terms. Nevertheless, the C.202 gave a much-needed boost to the confidence of Italian fighter pilots and became the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter mainstay until Italy capitulated on September 8, 1943. A more potent variant with a license-produced version of the DB 605 engine and heavier armament, the C.205 Veltro (Greyhound), would continue to be a formidable fighter thereafter, in the hands of both Allied Co-Belligerent pilots and the diehard Fascisti of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana.

Variants and production
Like its predecessor C.200, the C.202 had relatively few modifications, with only 116 modifications during its career, most of them invisible, externally. The total series production ordered was 1,454: 900 to Breda, 150 to SAI Ambrosini, 403 to Aermacchi. The amount produced was actually 1,106 and not 1,220 as previous stated. Breda built 649 (Series XVI deleted, Series XII and XV partially completed caused the difference); Aermacchi made 390 examples, SAI only 67.
One of the differences between prototype and series production was the lack of radio antenna and the retractable tailwheel (these differences resulting in a slightly higher top speed); the difference in speed was not so great and so, the series version had the fixed tailwheel and the radio antenna. The support for the engine, originally steel, was replaced with a lighter aluminium structure.

C.202
Starting with the Serie VII, the fighter had a new wing with a provision for two 7.7 mm (.303 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns and an armored windscreen (previously, only the armored seat and the self-sealing tanks were provided). Serie IX’s weight was 2,515/3,069 kg with the 7.7 machine guns seldom installed.

C.202AS
Dust filters for operations in North Africa (AS – Africa Settentrionale, North Africa); they little affected the speed and so, almost all Folgores had them and thus were in C.202AS standard; finally, starting with Serie XI there was a provision for two 50, 100 or 160 kg bombs, small bombs clusters (10, 15, 20 kg) or 100 l drop tanks. These underwing pylons were rarely utilized, as Folgores were needed in the interceptor roles.

C.202CB
Underwing hardpoints for bombs or drop tanks (CB – Caccia Bombardiere, Fighter-Bomber)

C.202EC
probably meaning Esperimento Cannoni, it was another link between Veltro and Folgore. One aircraft (Serie III, s/n MM 91974) was fitted with a pair of gondola-mounted 20 mm cannon with 200 rounds each (it flew on 12 May 1943); later it was turned into a C.205V. Another four examples were so equipped, but, despite the good results in the trials (aimed to boost the Folgore’s firepower), there was no further production, because the cannons penalized the aircraft’s performance. There was, in the Folgore, no room to mount them inside the wings or the nose, so the MC.205V/Ns was developed. Nevertheless, the XII series could have introduced a new wing with MG 151 provisions. This is not well documented, as this series was produced by Breda after the Armistice, and was interrupted with the devastating USAAF bombings, together with many other aircraft; among them, also Macchi 205 production and the 206 prototype (30 April 1944; in five days, the USAAF destroyed both Fiat and Macchi facilities, eliminating all of Italy’s fighter production).

C.202RF
Equipped with cameras for photo-reconnaissance missions (R – Ricognizione, Reconnaissance), very few produced, later the recce role was covered by Veltros.

C.202D
Prototype with a revised radiator, under the nose, similar to the P-40 (s/n. MM 7768)

C.202 AR.4
at least one was modified as “drone director” (coupled with S.79s), and it was planned to use Folgores also as ‘Mistel’, with an AR.4 “radiobomba” (a sort of remote-control kamikaze bomber).
C.202 with DB 605 and other engines
Macchi MC.202 with DB 605 were initially known as MC.202 bis; later as the C.205 Veltro. Macchi C.200, C.202 and C.205 shared many common components. The MC.200A/2 was a MC.200 with Folgore wings (MM.8238). After the Armistice, Aeronautica Sannita or the Co-Belligerent Italian AF began MC.205 modifying C.202s with DB 605s. These aircraft were known also as Folgeltro. Around two dozen were made. Another Folgore was modified with DB 601E-1 (1,350 PS) in summer 1944, but this hybrid with Bf 109F technology crashed on 21 January 1946. The MC.204 was a version with a L.121 Asso (1,000 hp); proposed early in the war (28 September 1940), but all the effort continued only with DB 601 engines. Early Folgores had original DB 601s, while from the Serie VII, RC.41s were available.
After the war, 31 C.202 airframes were fitted with license-built Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines and sold to Egypt as C.205 Veltros, with another 11 ‘real’ MC.205s (with MG 151 cannons in the wings).

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Austria-Hungary – Air Service 1917

The Russian collapse left the small Austro-Hungarian air service with an intensifying air war against Italy on the Southwestern Front, where it was outnumbered and confronted with Caproni attacks. Austrian battle fliers saw their first action in the tenth Battle of the Isonzo, in May and June, while the best fighter pilots, Godwin Brumowski, Julius Arigi, and Frank Linke-Crawford, continued to score as they shifted from the Hansa-Brandenburg D1 to the Austrian-built Albatros D3. For the twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, in October, 150 Austrian aircraft, reinforced by 90 German planes, including bomber units, were pitted against 320 Italian aircraft, including 85 Capronis. Though short of aircraft, the air arm fought well and routed the Italians. By the fall the air arm had grown to 66 flight companies and one G-plane squadron, only 5 units short of the planned expansion, but no company had more than 60 percent of its designated aircraft or pilot complement.

In 1917 a newly created naval aviation command had its arsenal at Pola with stations along the Adriatic coast. Naval aviator Gottfried Banfield, commander of the Trieste naval air station, fought Italian ace Francesco Baracca to a draw in his flying boat on New Year’s Day 1917, then went on to score the first night victory and attack Italian motorboat patrols. Naval aviators were forced on the defensive during the summer over the Adriatic, and the navy had to order landplanes, since flying boats could not reach the altitude of the Capronis that were striking Pola and other targets. During the Isonzo battles, Austro-Hungarian naval fliers attacked harbors and supply bases and performed reconnaissance missions over land.

In 1917 the Castiglioni conglomerate supplied the Austro-Hungarian army with C1 observation planes and D1 fighters, and the navy with CC flying boat fighters and K-boats for reconnaissance and bombing. The navy intended to rely on planes from Hansa-Brandenburg and engines from Rapp, later BMW in Munich, which Castiglioni acquired in July to increase deliveries of Porsche’s 350-hp engine. Yet the German army and navy monopolized the services of Brandenburg and BMW, with catastrophic effects on engine, and consequently K-boat, production. By fall the naval air arm had only fighters and no bombers.

As German mobilization reduced the flow of German supplies to 32 planes for the entire year, Austro-Hungarian aviation forces were forced to rely on their own limited resources and Brandenburg subsidiaries Ufag and Albatros. The Hindenburg Program prohibited the previous system of exporting aircraft frames, while the Prussian army was more reluctant to grant export permits for aircraft materials and plant machinery.

The army’s policies generally did little to solve production problems. In 1917 the aviation arsenal and a special military price commission determined that aircraft price increases were needed to keep pace with rising labor and material costs, but the War Ministry granted none because it was not assured of sufficient funds to cover raises. Such stringency impeded production and robbed the industry of the reserves accumulation necessary for postwar survival. Profit per plane in Austria-Hungary, where serial deliveries were small and production problems great, needed to exceed that in Germany, but it did not.

The deficient organization of exemptions compounded the aircraft factories’ problems in the summer of 1917. In the absence of an oft-requested central agency to distribute workers to industry, ordinary carpenters performed intricate work in the factories while skilled furniture makers and carpenters passed their time in frontline companies “making ingenious war mementoes to amuse themselves,” and large-scale-lathe hands did the precision work of turning motor cylinders while precision-lathe hands did large-scale work in metal factories.

In September the high command established a General Inspectorate to assume control of aviation in the rear from the War Ministry. In Germany the high command had granted the air force a procurement bureaucracy with some autonomy from the War Ministry. The Austro-Hungarian method of superimposing a new agency on top of the existing hierarchy was more comparable to the German high command’s superimposition of the War Office on the War Ministry in the Hindenburg Program. It yielded similar results, as the General Inspectorate merely complicated command in aviation.

In light of such rampant military and industrial inefficiency, monthly aircraft deliveries in 1917 were low and erratic. Starting at 37 aircraft in January, deliveries rose to 135 in May, plummeted to 67 in June because of strikes and shortages, peaked at 211 in August, gradually declined to 142 in November, and stopped altogether in December because of severe winter shortages. Despite this dismal ending, the industry did increase its deliveries of aircraft from 732 in 1916 to 1,272 in 1917 and of engines from 854 to 1,230.

In July, the army aviation arsenal was determined to reach 400 aircraft monthly in 1918, but could secure only 4,500 workers through October to add to the existing labor force of nearly 6,000, when it estimated needs at a grandiose and unattainable 28,000 workers. The technological prerequisites for the expansion were also lacking. German firms adamantly refused to allow the dissemination of German technical reports in Austria, Austrian factories were reluctant to exchange information, and the arsenal’s research institute did not share its proceedings with the firms. In any case, Theodore von Karman, one of the arsenal’s best scientists, was preoccupied with the development of helicopters rather than war planes.

Despite the difficulties, in the fall the AOK stipulated the production of 750 planes and 1,000 engines monthly in 1918 and further insisted on having twin-engine G-planes and armored infantry J-planes. The aviation arsenal, aware of insurmountable difficulties yet reluctant to contradict the high command, concluded that the numbers were attainable. Ultimately, the disastrous effects of the winter coal shortage in December brought the arsenal to its senses, and it revised expectations to only 125 to 200 planes monthly through April 1918. Conceding that its reach had far exceeded its grasp, the arsenal grimly prepared to face what would be the final year of the war.

Austria-Hungary – Air Service 1916

Aviatik-Berg B.III Pilot – Zug Friedrich Schallinger, Observer – Fah Gustav Wangler. Russian Front, June 1916.

The small Austro-Hungarian air arm worked to capacity on the far-flung fronts. On the Western Front one unit patrolled 8 kilometers of territory, on the eastern front a unit patrolled 32 kilometers of war zone, and a unit in the Balkans monitored 70 kilometers of front. In Macedonia a four-plane Fokker unit was responsible for 200 kilometers of war front. On the Eastern and Balkan Fronts, supply was particularly difficult. In the Balkans aviators contended with mountains and disease; on the Southwestern Front in Italy they confronted mountains and violent storms. By the end of 1916, with Serbia defeated and Russia and Rumania collapsing, the Southwestern Front against Italy on the Isonzo River became the main emphasis of Austria-Hungary’s air arm and army.

The air arm continued to expand slowly. At the beginning of 1916 the army was 22 flight companies short of Conrad von Hötzendorff’s prewar goal of 40 by early 1916. Soon the army raised its goal to 48 companies and managed to have 44 of at most eight planes each by the year’s end.

Austro-Hungarian naval aviators were increasingly engaged on the Italian Front. Italian Capronis could not reach the 420 kilometers to Vienna from the Isonzo River, but escorted by Nieuports they could and did bomb Pola, Trieste, Fiume, and Cattaro. Naval aviators had to defend against these raids, fly reconnaissance and bombing missions against ships, submarines, and harbors, and escort cruiser sorties against the Otranto blockade. They also attacked troop assembly points and supply dumps on the Isonzo battlefield starting in March 1916.

Austria-Hungary’s included army aces Capt. Godwin Brumowski, who became a pilot in July 1916 and commanded a fighter unit on the Italian Front, and Sgt. Julius Arigi, a noncommissioned officer pilot who began his career in 1916 as a two-seater Brandenburg C1 pilot stationed in Albania. There Sergeant Arigi and his observer intercepted six Italian Farmans and shot down five in a 30-minute fight on 22 August. Gottfried Banfield, who had been in aerial combat since July 1915, commanded the naval air station at Trieste from February 1916 until the war’s end. Flying Lohner boats, and ultimately the Brandenburg CC boat, he continued to down enemy aircraft despite the Allies’ increasing aerial supremacy on the Southwestern Front.

As the Italian war effort put more pressure on Austria-Hungary’s limited aviation resources, the army and navy sought to increase their forces. On 22 January a high command committee of representatives from the General Staff, War Ministry, and the aviation troops command met to set guidelines for aircraft procurement. The navy was allowed to dispense a total of 264 aircraft contracts among four Austrian firms, while the army could rely on domestic factories and Hansa-Brandenburg. These guidelines presumed a tremendous increase in production during 1916 over the 281 airplanes produced domestically in 1915, yet raw-material and skilled-worker shortages meant that the industry was not likely to perform much better in 1916.

The skilled-labor shortage was one of the most severe impediments to production, and the air department and the industry only narrowly averted disaster by preventing the War Ministry from inducting exempted personnel born between 1878 and 1897. In response to requests for 5,126 skilled workers in 1916, the aviation department received 2,857, and even then the industry was receiving primarily woodworkers when it urgently needed metalworkers. Despite these problems, the industry produced 807 aircraft in 1916, a substantial improvement over the 281 produced in 1915, while by January 1917 the firms employed nearly 6,000 workers, a tremendous increase from the 200 to 300 in August 1914. This growth, however, did not keep pace with the escalating air war.

To compensate for these deficiencies, in April 1916 the army high command established an aircraft acceptance section under its plenipotentiary in Berlin. As this procurement bureaucracy was formalized, the German armed forces’ increasing demand for aircraft reduced its exports to Austria-Hungary from 186 in 1915 to 95 in 1916. Camillo Castiglioni’s connection to Germany consequently became more important for procurement than official military channels, as his three companies—the German parent firm, Hansa-Brandenburg, and its licensed producers, Austrian Albatros and the Hungarian Aircraft Works—became the primary channel for the flow of German aircraft technology to Austria-Hungary.

After spring 1916 the Austro-Hungarian air arm relied primarily on the Castiglioni conglomerate. The Brandenburg C1 was the army’s standard reconnaissance plane from spring 1916 to the war’s end, while the D1 was the mainstay of the fighter force from fall 1916 until mid-1917, despite its early reputation as a Sarg, or coffin. The navy relied on the Brandenburg CC flying boat fighter and the large bomber-reconnaissance K-boat in 1916 and 1917. As alternatives the navy had only a few Lohner L-boats; the army possessed Lloyd and Aviatik products.

When the conglomerate attempted to capitalize on this dependence by raising prices, the navy accepted a price increase from 38,000 to 60,000 crowns in July 1916, while the army permitted only minuscule increases, thus allowing little or no profit on its planes. These disparate responses exacerbated the interservice rivalry, as Brandenburg attempted to cancel its army contracts to tend to the more lucrative naval offers. After lengthy disputes, the Austrian High Command merely confirmed its adherence to the 1916 norms granting the army all of Brandenburg’s production, which made little difference, since in 1917 and 1918 the German navy would monopolize Brandenburg’s production and the Austro-Hungarian forces would buy only from its subsidiaries.

Skilled-labor and material shortages also impeded engine production in the dual monarchy. Stoppages in deliveries of Austro-Daimler and Warchalowky Hiero engines resulted from copper, tin, and nickel shortages. When Austro-Daimler chief Ferdinand Porsche developed a 250-hp 12-cylinder V engine and a 360-hp six-cylinder engine in 1916, a license had to be negotiated with the Rapp engine works in Munich in November 1916 to build the engine for naval K-boats.

RAF: The Establishment of a Peacetime Service

To understand why the fantasy figure of the airman was created, it is necessary to explore the political establishment of the airforce after the war. To guarantee its place as a permanent military body, the Royal Flying Corps began a series of reforms, under the aegis of General Smuts, in 1917–1918 that ended the division of military and naval aviation and formed the RAF.8 This unification report became one of the most important documents of the 1914–1918 war, developed because, as official naval historian Arthur Marder explained, the ‘intensified competition between the Army and Navy for aircraft’ was wasting resources. Instead the Smuts report of August 1917 ‘recommended the fusion of the RNAS and RFC … under an Air Ministry and Air General Staff.’ This did not immediately mean that the air service was better resourced, but established a system for efficiency. Most significantly, it gave overall control to an aerial ministry rather than a military or naval representative.

The Royal Air Force came into being on 1 April 1918, almost six years after the Royal Flying Corps was first formed. The significance of the Smuts Report is that it made the airmen of the First World War unique. Through their actions, aerial combat was recognized and embodied in a third service, and there would never again be division of control for aerial resources. Yet the disappointment and political manoeuvring between the Admiralty and the War Office that the report engendered had ramifications for the professional culture of the RAF for more than a decade.

Naval pilots were reluctant to accept the new regime. Major Draper of 8 Squadron (No. 208 RAF) was dismayed at the loss of naval identity. ‘I know everyone from myself down to the last man were very upset at the change,’ he complained, because they lost ‘that special distinction which had earned for Naval 8 a reputation second to none … . Unofficially we never dropped the old ways completely.’ Draper then referred to a post-war photograph clearly showing some members of the Squadron still sporting their old RNAS uniforms. ‘PIX,’ a fellow RNAS pilot, described a farewell dinner held on 31 March 1918, demonstrating the loyalty naval men felt towards their dying service. The ‘Royal Naval Air Service was passing away’, he mourned:

It was the oldest of the two British flying services having its origins in 1910 … . But the debt which the nation owes to it for the development of engines and efficient aircraft, no less than for its operations on land and sea over the whole world, had hardly been appreciated … . And now its people were asked to give up the legends about the mighty pilots who had created the service, the traditions which had accumulated so rapidly in war time, the uniform and routine which so well fitted their work, the comradeship which had permeated the personnel owing to its limited number, and the name which numberless brave men had laid down their lives to make honourable … . Below the khaki! I feel hardly human.

His epitaph for the service demonstrates the extremely strong allegiances men had formed to the notion of their flying group. The RNAS man was always naval first and pilot second. The resistance of naval pilots was only in the form of words as their duties still had to be performed. It ‘was a bitter blow to most of us to be suddenly shorn of our glories as sailors’, wrote the pilots of Portsmouth Command, ‘and to discard the Naval uniforms and customs, but again officers and men sunk their personal feelings and entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of things.’ Their words encapsulated the feeling of loyalty and duty, irrespective of service, with which veteran-pilots chose to represent their time at war.

The RFC, however, made little comment on the change; its uniform, titles and chain of command remained largely unaltered. The Smuts report, although necessary to establish the air service as a separate political institution, was not designed to win the allegiance of its pilots. It was based on operational necessities that resulted in frequent clashes between its political and organizational centres, and the needs of its pilots in the inter-war period. Once airmen had achieved their independent status, the airforce seemed at a loss, with nothing left to prove. Although the establishment of the RAF was a political and economic necessity, it did not result in a coherent purpose for the peacetime service. ‘As a result,’ historian Malcolm Cooper argued, ‘the RAF entered the post-war period poorly integrated into the defence community and quite lacking in a clearly defined strategic function.’ This shift from action to politics defined the inter-war period and explains the loss of direction sustained by the RAF at this time.

War had given the RFC both a political standing and a united purpose, but in the 1920s, the RAF found its new role difficult to sustain. First, it suffered from the necessary reduction of all services and the mass demobilization of its men. The Royal Flying Corps had relied heavily on the enthusiasm of youth and the initiative of its pilots to improve combat methods, so the return of a large proportion of these men to the civilian world was a significant blow to the drive of the new air service. The War Office estimated a total of 150,000 men were serving in the RAF by 12 March 1919, but insisted on reducing this to 79,570. The vast majority of these men were between 20 and 30 years old and had exemplified the youthful drive of the service. The RFC, unlike its fellow services, had an informal culture; developments were sustained and propelled by the men within. Without the unifying purpose of war, decline was understandable. Malcolm Cooper’s vivid description of the ‘bonfires of unwanted aircraft’ burning throughout the country could be seen as a metaphor for the shift from action to politics that left the RAF as a vulnerable veteran of war rather than the world-leading service it had been in November 1918.

To survive, the RAF had to carve a permanent role in Britain’s armoury and demonstrate its independent value in both war and peace. The new service, therefore, capitalized on the exuberance of its remaining young men and their enthusiasm for flight, focusing on the development of the new bomber aircraft. A formal Boy’s Service was created, based on a wartime precedent, to feed new recruits through the training system and ensure the RAF’s sustainability. ‘The Air Force also enlists boys between the ages of 15 and 16½, after an entrance examination conducted by the Local Education Authority,’ contemporary writer Wilkinson Sherrin explained, where they were given ‘a first-class technical training and then serve 10 years with the regular Air Force’. This was far longer than service during the war but would offer greater opportunity to train and develop men.

The University Air Squadrons (UAS) also capitalized on the growing association of youth and flight to entice the young men of Oxford and Cambridge into the air. This created and maintained a reserve of potential flyers should war recur. Most importantly, the association with Cambridge in particular allowed the RAF to exploit and promote the academic study of aeronautics at the highest level. Consequently, a Research Flight was included in the Cambridge squadron to develop and test new methods. To further emphasize the link between the study of aeronautics and the role of the pilot, Sir Bennett Melville Jones was simultaneously the university’s first Professor of Aeronautics and the leader of the Research Flight. Once established, academic study was undertaken to further embed the ‘science of flight’ into the country’s academic centres, with ‘investigations ranged from upper air microbiological experiments to the causes of aircraft accidents’. The UAS was a mutually advantageous arrangement, offering an exciting career path to educated recruits, whilst utilizing the resources of the nation’s finest research institutions to refine the processes of aviation.

The University Air Squadrons were extremely popular with Oxbridge students. The Oxford squadron easily filled the hundred student places with a large waiting list. Applications were so numerous that senior members of the institution could select only the most outstanding candidates, adding to their sense of exclusivity and privilege. The majority of men demobilized in 1920 were between 20 and 25 years old, which meant they would have been recruited during the ‘traditional’ university years. The UAS training was similar to wartime teaching, Boys’ Service veteran John Ross explained, with ‘lectures on air navigation, rigging, airmanship and engines’. The UAS offered consistent training to recruits during their time at University, slowly building their knowledge. To do this, Ross explained, each man ‘received an average of nine flights per term, totalling five hours and 45 minutes (dual and solo). Each flight was of about 35 minutes’ duration.’ Over three terms for three years, this culminated in a valuable body of experience and an instinctive knowledge of flight. After taking written and practical examinations, successful candidates were awarded the Air Ministry Proficiency Certificate and could apply to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and then for a permanent commission in the RAF. Should war return to Europe, the University pilots could be readied for active service. This strengthened the position of the RAF and ensured that flight became not only an exciting privilege, but also a serious academic pursuit. By thus exploiting the union of youth and flight, the RAF attracted considerable notice.

Avro Lancaster – Coastal Command

Designed as a back up in case Merlin production was interrupted, the 300 Hercules-powered Lancaster Mk.IIs built were dropped by Bomber Command in the interests of commonality in autumn 1944. Because of their better performance at lower altitudes many of them found their way to Coastal Command, operating alongside Liberators in the long range anti-submarine role.

Bulged bomb bay doors and ventral turret were removed to reduce drag and nose-mounted Yagi aerials formed part of the ASV equipment. Front turrets were faired over and provision was made for 4 fixed 20mm cannon in the nose, although only 2 were often carried. Some aircraft had their upper turrets removed to save weight and increase range.

Though the Lancaster is rightly associated in particular with Bomber Command, it was briefly a Coastal Command aircraft too during the war and served in peacetime. It would have added considerably to the ability of the Command to perform a number of its tasks, had it been made available in larger numbers and on a permanent basis. Here was an example of “Cinderella Service” treatment.

In 1940 the Avro Chief Designer Roy Chadwick and his team were working on a four-engine version of the Avro Manchester, two-engine bomber, which would be equipped with Rolls Royce Merlin engines. With the Merlin badly needed for Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, the Air Ministry did not encourage the project at first. Eventually, a request to go ahead with the design was made, with the stipulation that as many Manchester components as possible should be used.

The first flight of a prototype Lancaster took place on January 9 1941. On December 24 1941 No. 44 Squadron, based at Waddington, Lincolnshire, became the first squadron in Bomber Command to receive Lancasters. The earliest Lancaster participation in an operation occurred on March 3 1942 when four of the type from No. 44 Squadron laid mines in the Heligoland Bight between the mouth of the River Elbe and the Heligoland Islands.

Over 7,000 Lancasters were built and fifty-seven Bomber Command squadrons were equipped with them during the Second World War.

Today the Lancaster lives on most prominently in the shape of PA474, the aircraft operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from Coningsby, in varying guises.

Nearby, at the former Bomber Command airfield at East Kirkby, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre offers the chance to taxi in Lancaster NX611, “Just Jane”. There are hopes that this aircraft will fly again.

During the Second World War, Coastal Command made representations to be allocated Lancasters, but it was not until after hostilities had ended that Lancasters were formally added to the Command. During the war itself some Lancasters were loaned to Coastal Command, but the pressure to keep all of these outstanding aircraft focused on the bomber offensive was always very strong. The Lancaster represents one of the key instances where Coastal Command did not reach the top of the list of Air Ministry priorities.

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.

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.