Radschlepper Ost [Škoda RSO]

Looming majestically in the Zuffenhausen forecourt, Porsche’s Skoda-built Type 175 was created to duplicate on the Eastern Front the artillery-shifting achievements of Austro Daimler’s Goliath in the First World War.

With the war in Russia dragging on into a second year, the HWA asked Ferdinand Porsche to design and build a modern version of the high-wheeled Austro-Daimler M 17 Goliath tug that had been so successful both in the First World War and afterwards. Fully briefed, Karl Rabe began to delineate its characteristics on Monday, 26 January. He entered it in his log as the Type 175, known as the Radschlepper Ost or ‘Wheeled Eastern Tractor’.

Partner in the project was Skoda of Pilsen, reawakening an important First World War relationship. On 2 February Porsche and Rabe hosted a day-long discussion in Zuffenhausen with an 11-man delegation from the Czech company led by veteran design engineer and director Emil Řezníček. Skoda would produce the huge 9-ton vehicles to Porsche’s designs.

Spaced on a 118.1-inch wheelbase, the same as that of the M 17, at just under 5ft in diameter the steel wheels of the Type 175 were even larger than those of its First World War counterpart. While small cleats were integral with the wheels, larger ones and ice studs were stowed on board to be attached when required. The use of steel was a direct response to the shortage of rubber, tyres of such size consuming far too much of this scarce resource.

Another shortage was of lead, for which the batteries in the submarines of Admiral Karl Dönitz had absolute priority. Accordingly Porsche and Rabe provided a small crank-started VW-based parallel-twin engine to start the main four-cylinder unit. The latter was a long-stroke four of 6.0 litres with overhead valves and air cooling by a blower driven from the nose of the crankshaft. Reached at a modest 2,000rpm, its peak output was 80bhp. A five-speed gearbox translated this into 11,000lb of pulling power, implemented when required by a chassis-mounted winch.


This is a heavy prime mover with four large wheels, intended for use on the Russian front. This vehicle should not be confused with the Raupenschlepper Ost, a fully-tracked prime mover also intended for use on the Russian front.


•  Length: 20 feet.

•  Width: 7 feet 4 inches.

•  Height: 10 feet.

•  Wheels (steel): Four, 4 feet 10 inches in diameter.

•  Engine: 4-cylinder, in-line, air-cooled, 90 horsepower.

•  Fuel: Gasoline.

•  Capacity: 6,024 cubic centimeters. (367.46 cubic inches.) (with 2-cylinder, air-cooled, 12 horsepower auxiliary starter engine)

•  Drive: 4 wheel, with locking differential.

•  Gears: Five forward, one reverse.

•  Speed, road: 6 miles per hour (average)

•  Weight unloaded: 9 tons.

•  Useful load: 4.5 tons.

•  Trailed load: 5.6 tons.

•  Winch capacity: 5.6 tons.


Operation Uranus – Don Front

On the Don Front, the going was more difficult. Batov threw his 65th Army at General Alexander Freiherr Edler von Daniels’s 376th Infantry Division, but his infantry made little progress against a determined German defense. Batov found easier going at the junction of the 376th and the 1st Romanian Cavalry Division, and the Soviets were able to advance as they pushed the Romanians aside. Von Daniels was forced to arc his left flank to prevent the Russians from breaking into his rear as a result of the Romanian cavalry’s retreat.

In Stalingrad, Paulus was informed of the Soviet attack at 9:45 AM, but he seemed relatively unconcerned. The German general ordered Heim’s XLVIII Panzer Corps to advance toward Kletskaya to support the Romanians and then went back to briefings concerning the fight for the city. Heim put his units on the road and headed toward his objective, but at 11:30 new orders arrived, this time from Hitler’s headquarters. The feisty panzer general cursed roundly as he read the message ordering him to turn his forces northwest to the Bolshoy area and stop Romanenko’s armored units. Valuable time and fuel were lost as he reformed his attack force.

Meanwhile, Paulus began receiving more reports concerning the Russian attack. The first fragmented information had caused little alarm. After all, they were coming from Romanians, and everyone knew that they tended to exaggerate and were prone to unnecessary panic.

Toward noon, the situation became clearer. This time the staff officers of the 6th Army definitely took notice. A Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft reported hundreds of Soviet tanks advancing across the steppes northwest of Stalingrad. Clear reports from German liaison officers flatly stated that the 9th, 13th, and 14th Romanian Infantry Divisions had been shattered and were no longer capable of any organized resistance.

Although Paulus had three panzer divisions (14th, 16th, and 24th) and three motorized divisions (3rd, 29th, and 60th) at his disposal, he did nothing to form a strike force to stop the Soviet armor. Preferring to keep them engaged in and around Stalingrad-a pure waste of armor in an urban battle-he relied on Heim’s panzer corps to deal with the Russian attack.

A German panzer corps in 1942 was a formidable weapon that could take on a Soviet Tank Army and usually come out on top. Heim’s corps, however, was a panzer corps in name only, something that seemed to slip by the generals that were expecting him to stop the Russians.

By the time Heim was ordered to attack, his 22nd Panzer Division had only about 30 combat-ready tanks. His motorized elements were critically short of fuel, and the orders changing the direction of his attack only made the problem worse.

Heim’s mechanized units were also plagued by the forces of nature. While bivouacked, mice had gotten into the tanks and armored personnel carriers and had gnawed on or through some of the electrical wires in the vehicles, causing them to break down as the systems shorted out. Another problem was the width of his tank treads. The Russian T-34 had a wide, gripping track while German tanks had narrow tracks, causing them to slip and slide on the icy terrain. Nevertheless, Heim and his men pushed forward, hoping to surprise the Russian spearhead.

The weather worsened during the afternoon of the 19th, with the freezing mist lowering visibility to almost zero, and maps were practically useless as the Soviets continued their drive. Taking into account the possibility of bad weather, Russian commanders had enlisted area peasants as guides, but even they were having a difficult time traversing the mist-shrouded landscape.

It started getting dark before 4:00 PM, which only added to the difficulties faced by the Russian tank crews as they pushed toward their objectives. To make things worse, the wind picked up and snow began falling, which led to almost blizzard-like conditions on the steppes.

Having essentially obliterated the Romanian defenses, the Soviet tank commanders felt reasonably assured that their only threat would come from a possible German counterattack. All things considered, that attack would probably be directed against Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps, as that unit was advancing closest to the main 6th Army forces at Stalingrad.

It would have worked that way if Heim had not received new orders sending him toward Bolshoy. Heim’s panzers, now numbering about 20, hit Butkov’s 1st Tank Corps near the Chir River at Pestchany. It was an uneven battle from the start, with the Germans being outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered. In an almost suicidal action, an armored group led by Oberst (Colonel) Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski tore into the Russians. Supported by the 22nd Panzer’s antitank battalion, von Oppeln’s tanks managed to isolate and destroy several Soviet tanks in Butkov’s spearhead.

The Soviets regrouped, and the unequal struggle continued into the night until Heim ordered the battle to be broken off. He told his commanders to make for the Chir River crossings and get to the west bank of the river, thus saving his panzer corps from encirclement and annihilation. Those retreating units would remain a thorn in the side of the Russians for days to come.

The retreat order had the expected consequences for Heim as a furious Hitler recalled him to Berlin, stripped him of his rank, and had him imprisoned. He was released 10 months later without having been tried. On August 1, 1944, his rank was restored, and he was appointed commander of Fortress Boulogne on the Western Front.

At Heeresgruppe B headquarters, Generaloberst Baron von Weichs recognized the danger he faced earlier than most. He issued directives at 10:00 PM on the night of November 19 to try and forestall the looming disaster.

“The situation developing on the front of the 3rd Romanian Army dictates radical measures in order to disengage forces quickly to screen the flanks of 6th Army,” he wrote.

Among those measures was ordering all offensive operations in Stalingrad to cease. He also directed Paulus to detach two motorized formations, an infantry division, and all anti-tank units he could spare to stop the assault forces of Vatutin and Rokossovsky. These measures may have blunted the Soviet advance, but it was already too late. On November 20, the second stage of Uranus began as Eremenko’s southern anvil began moving to meet the northern hammer.

The same bad weather plaguing the northern Soviet forces also hampered the Russians in the south. Icy fog made the going slow as the assault forces of the Stalingrad Front edged closer to Constantinescu’s 4th Romanian Army. At 10 AM, the Russian artillery opened up along the front. Soon after, the initial assault troops were already pouring through the Romanian line.

German soldiers in the 297th Infantry Division, adjacent to the 20th Romanian Infantry Division, watched in awe as the human flood of Russians advanced. As on the northern sector, some of the Romanians fled or surrendered almost immediately, while others fought bravely until being overwhelmed. Reports came in speaking of Romanian antitank crews firing their pitiful 37mm guns until they were crushed beneath the marauding Soviet tanks of the initial attack forces.

The leading Russian armored and mechanized forces performed well, but command and control problems, the bad weather, and problems getting across the Volga River crossing points delayed the spearhead units designated to exploit the breakthrough. Maj. Gen. V. T. Volsky’s 4th Mechanized Corps, designated to advance with Maj. Gen. N. I. Trufanov’s 51st Army, was supposed to strike between Lakes Sarpa and Tsatsa, but its units had not yet concentrated. The same could be said for Colonel T. I. Tanaschishin’s 13th Mechanized Corps.

Angry messages flew back and forth as the delay continued. The spearhead units were supposed to attack at 10 AM, but it was already well after noon, and there was still no sign of movement from the corps. General Markian M. Popov, the deputy commander of the Stalingrad Front, headed to Volsky’s headquarters and confronted him directly.

The angry exchange between the two lasted for some time before Volsky finally gave in and ordered his still disorganized units forward. Tanaschishin was also ordered forward immediately. It was already past 4 PM, and the Soviet timetable was hours behind schedule. As they moved out, Volsky’s units became intermixed, causing further confusion as they headed westward.

The Germans reacted much more quickly to the southern attack than they had on the previous day. General Hans-Georg Leyser’s 29th Panzergrenadier Division, nicknamed the Falcon Division, was ordered to hit the flank of Tanaschishin’s 13th Mechanized Corps. The 29th was a first-rate division, and its troops moved out quickly to meet the foe.

About 10 miles south of Beketovka, Leyser’s armored columns slammed into elements of Tanaschishin’s corps. The panzers bloodied the Russian tanks and sent the mechanized units reeling, causing the Soviets to beat a hasty retreat. It was a shining moment in an otherwise dismal day for the Germans, but the victory was short lived.

Farther west, the Soviets were running rampant through the retreating Romanians. Leyser was ordered to turn his division around to protect the exposed southern flank of the 6th Army, leaving the field to Tanaschishin’s forces, which were regrouping for a counterattack.

While the fighting raged south of Stalingrad, the northern sector reeled under hammer blows from the South West and Don Fronts. General Strecker’s IX Army Corps, its left flank left hanging by Dumitrescu’s retreat, was forced to form an arc to meet the advancing Russians. General von Daniels’s 376th shifted its front westward to meet the 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps, while General Heinrich-Anton Deboi’s 44th Infantry Division, forced to leave much of its heavy equipment in place because of lack of fuel, extended its line to cover the gap left by von Daniels’s shift.

Meanwhile, Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps turned toward the southeast. Its objective was the Don River town of Golubinski, which happened to be Paulus’s headquarters. At the same time, units of the 5th Tank Army continued to smash isolated pockets of Romanians that tried to stand and fight.

Operation Uranus –Begins

The senior Soviet officers got very little sleep during the night of November 18. Shortly after midnight, the Russian artillery started firing smoke shells from the eastern bank of the Don. Soviet propaganda units had already set up loudspeakers close to the front weeks before, so the Germans and their allies paid little attention to the political messages and music that blasted through the night air. As usual, Axis soldiers regarded the loudspeakers as more of a nuisance designed to keep them from getting a good night’s sleep.

This time, however, the smoke and noise from the Russian line had a different purpose. Under cover of these distractions, Soviet armored and mechanized forces streamed across the Don to the already established bridgeheads. A little after 2 AM, more than a million men from the three attack fronts received their orders. They were told that they were about to participate in a deep raid toward the enemy rear. The word “encirclement” was not mentioned to the troops in case something went wrong with the plan. Nevertheless, the old timers knew that something was up. There were too many men and too many vehicles for this to be just a raid. Are we, they wondered, finally starting to see the beginning of the road to victory?

The Russians were helped by snow and a thick fog that cut visibility down to almost nothing. On the German-Romanian line, sentries strained to see just a few feet ahead of them, but all seemed fine except for the damned Soviet loudspeakers blaring in the distance. Only a few yards away, Red Army engineers, camouflaged in white uniforms, had been working their way toward the enemy lines all night, clearing mines and cutting wire obstacles to make a path for the Russian assault forces.

On the Soviet side, commanders anxiously looked at their watches. The fog offered good concealment and would not hinder the effects of the planned Russian artillery bombardment, as the guns had been pre-sighted for just such a situation. Minutes ticked away until, at 7:20 AM Moscow time (5:20 AM German time) the Soviet artillery commanders received the code word “Siren.”

The earth trembled as battery after battery of Katyushas (Stalin Organs) sent their rockets screaming toward the enemy lines. A ghostly glow reflected off the fog as the batteries fired again and again. To be on the receiving end of the rockets tested the courage of the best German units. For the Romanians of Dumitrescu’s 3rd Army, the effect was devastating.

Strongpoints and trenches literally disintegrated as the rockets struck their preplotted sites. Communications between the forward outposts and higher headquarters were shattered, and many of the ammunition dumps close to the front were destroyed in spectacular explosions. Many of those not killed outright in the bombardment were already fleeing to the rear, trying to escape the carnage.

Ten minutes later, the massed Russian artillery was given the order to fire. Thousands of guns roared at once, causing many an artilleryman to bleed at the ear from the concussions caused by so many artillery pieces firing at the same time. Almost immediately, shells began crashing into Romanian artillery emplacements and secondary positions behind the front line. Those fleeing from the opening bombardment were now caught in a second rain of steel, which further decimated the retreating troops. Black earth churned up from shell impacts was interspersed on the snow with red blotches that had a few seconds earlier been men fleeing for their lives.

The bombardment kept up for one hour and 20 minutes. Dazed Romanians lucky enough to escape death from the rain of explosives were in a state of near paralysis as they desperately tried to dig their way out of their shattered positions. Wounded men howled in agony for their comrades to help them while the surviving NCOs and officers worked to regain control over their troops.

Above the cries of the wounded, a new sound was heard. It was not the sound of artillery or tank motors, but the deep, guttural sound of a beast preparing to pounce on its prey. The Romanians strained to see through the fog, hoping not to see what they knew was coming. As the fog lessened, shapes appeared-first hundreds and then thousands. Coming toward them were the massed echelons of Romanenko’s 14th and 47th Guards and 119th Rifle Divisions. The sound that the Romanians now heard-the one that struck fear into their very souls-was the Russian battle cry coming from thousands of soldiers: “Urra! Urra! Urra!”

In some sectors of the Romanian front, soldiers made split-second decisions on whether they would live or die. Hundreds of them threw down their weapons and, with hands held high, hoped for the best as the Russians bore down on them. For the most part, the Soviet assault forces bypassed them and continued their advance, leaving the surrendering Romanians to be picked up later by units in the second or third wave of the attack.

In other Romanian sectors the story was different. The 13th Romanian Infantry Division, for example, occupied a sector of the front opposite the 21st Army. When the Soviet infantry attacked, survivors in the front trenches repulsed them. A second attack, this time supported by tanks, met the same fate. Frustrated, Christyakov ordered another round of shelling. At the same time, he ordered A. G. Kravchenko’s 4th Tank Corps and P. A. Pliev’s 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps to prepare to attack.

Christyakov wanted to hold these units in reserve until the Romanian line was broken, but the resistance of the 13th and some other Romanian divisions had already upset his timetable. Together with fresh waves of infantry, the Soviet assault smashed the remaining positions of the Romanian IV Army Corps, allowing the 21st Army to advance.

To the west of the IV Corps, the Romanian II Army Corps, facing the 5th Tank Army, was undergoing its own personal hell. Following the bombardment and infantry assault, Romanenko unleashed V. V. Butkov’s 1st Tank and A. G. Rodin’s 26th Tank Corps, followed by the 8th Cavalry Corps. The attack hit the Romanian 9th, 11th, and 14th Infantry Divisions like a sledgehammer, and their positions crumbled as the Russian armor rolled forward.

The Soviet cavalry spread out toward the west, severing communications between the Romanians and General Giovanni Messe’s 8th Italian Army. As the Romanians fled, the cavalry formed a barrier against any possible counterattack while the armored and infantry forces swung southeast toward the Chir River and Kalach.

The gods smiled on the Soviets about mid-morning as the fog dissipated enough for the Red Air Force to enter the fray. Aircraft from K. N. Smirnov’s 2nd and S. A. Krasovsky’s 17th Air Armies swooped down upon the retreating Romanians with a vengeance. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen as the Soviet pilots bombed and strafed enemy troops and positions.

The Mons Myth

Evaluation of British Effectiveness

Armies fight the way they have trained to fight. For a century, the British army trained for colonial war. The short duration of the Haldane reforms was not adequate to prepare the British army for continental warfare. Therefore, at Mons and Le Cateau II Corps attempted to fight colonial-warfare battles.

Due to lack of preparation, the BEF made grave errors at both the operational (army and corps) and tactical levels, the worst of which was ignorance of the enemy. The British were to engage the premier military force of the twentieth century, and should have been much more circumspect. By rights, the BEF should not have lived to tell the tale.

The BEF had to avoid casualties and fight only for a very good reason. Mons performed no useful operational purpose; it gave the Germans a day to close the distance with the BEF, and could have led to a disaster. During the retreat to Le Cateau the BEF failed to delay the Germans with rearguards. Combined with deficiencies in British staff work and traffic control, which by the morning of 26 August caused command and control to collapse, the German IV AK and HKK 2 were allowed to catch II Corps and force it to fight under extremely unfavourable circumstances. Motivated by the pounding it took at Le Cateau, II Corps finally got serious about retreating on the night of 26–27 August, and in two days of continuous movement broke contact.

BEF troop-leading was poor. The army and corps commanders did not issue clear, timely orders. Subordinate commanders did not understand the commander’s intent. Confused and uninformed battalion commanders failed to exercise their initiative.

There was no rhyme or reason to the distribution of forces for the defence at Mons and Le Cateau. The most exposed and most important sectors were weakly held. The salient north of Mons and the 5th Division right flank at Le Cateau were indefensible. The positions at Le Cateau offered the enemy covered and concealed avenues of approach and close-range firing positions. Most seriously, while the commander’s intent at Le Cateau was clearly to withdraw, most of the positions were on the forward slope, where withdrawal would lead to a massacre.

The British Cavalry Division was an operational liability. Before Mons it failed to perform its reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions. On 24 August it left the II Corps left flank floating in the air. In the retreat to Le Cateau it failed to delay HKK 2 and IV AK; indeed, the cavalry division could provide no useful information concerning enemy strengths or locations. At Le Cateau, citing exhaustion, it did nothing.

The artillery failed to effectively support the infantry. At Mons it was unable to provide fire support at all. During the withdrawal there were no artillery rearguards. At Le Cateau the British artillery was completely dominated by equal or inferior numbers of German guns and was generally unable to put fire on the German infantry. Indeed, it drew German fire onto its own infantry by setting up in their immediate vicinity.

Individual physical fitness was inadequate: many of the troops, particularly the reservists, were not marching fit. From 24 August on, British commanders began ordering their men to abandon equipment in order to ‘march light’. On 25 August the British infantry was outmarched and overtaken by infantry of IV AK and the Jäger of HKK 2.

‘Rapid rifle fire’ was not the battle-winning wonder weapon that British historians have made it out to be. Repeatedly German infantry, supported by artillery and MG fire, was able to cross hundreds of metres of open ground in the face of ‘rapid rifle fire’, close with the British infantry and throw it out of its position or destroy it in place. The idea that ‘rapid rifle fire’ was so effective that the Germans took it for MG fire finds no support in German sources.

German Military Effectiveness

German tactical doctrine and troop training proved themselves unequivocally in combat. The BEF escaped destruction at Mons and Le Cateau solely due to egregious errors by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff.

The organisation of HKK 2, combining cavalry, large numbers of machine guns, artillery and high-quality infantry, was a resounding success and HKK 2 performed superbly, in spite of Marwitz’s command failures at Haelen. It screened the strength and movements of the 1st and 2nd Armies so effectively that they gained operational surprise over the BEF and the French 5th Army. The operational mobility HKK 2 displayed on 24 and 25 August is nothing short of astounding. At Le Cateau HKK 2, though heavily outnumbered, delivered a stinging defeat to the British 4th Division and the 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division.

The Germans fought as a combined-arms team, which allowed them repeatedly to successfully execute one of the most difficult missions in modern warfare: hasty attack over open terrain against a deployed enemy. At Mons the German artillery provided effective fire support, often moving to within a few hundred metres of the British positions to do so. At Le Cateau the German artillery engaged, suppressed or destroyed the British artillery, which was generally unable to fire effectively on the German infantry. The massing of six MGs under a company commander allowed a concentration of fire at the decisive place and time. Artillery and MG fire support gave the German infantry fire superiority and allowed it to move across large stretches of exposed ground to close with the enemy. German engineers brought the infantry and artillery across obstacles and assisted the infantry in street fighting.

Day after day the German infantry marched hard. This operational mobility allowed it to appear where the enemy did not expect, and in force. German marches were well-organised: the troops always got some rest at night, even if it was a wet bivouac, and the field kitchens ensured that they got a hot meal.

At Mons the IV AK commander concentrated his Schwerpunkt, his main point of effort, against the weakest point in the British line, as did the 7th Division commander at Le Cateau. Tactical leaders of all grades were aggressive and exercised their initiative to utilise covered and concealed avenues of approach and firepower to close with the enemy.

Taken together, these factors produced superior combat power. At Mons all three engaged German corps were able to establish bridgeheads over the Canal du Centre at the cost of casualties that were little higher than those of the defenders. In two days of pursuit III AK caught up with I Corps and forced it to retreat away from II Corps, splitting the BEF in half, while IV AK and HKK 2 were able to overhaul II Corps and force it to fight. At Le Cateau the German troops, although significantly outnumbered, inflicted disproportional casualties on the British and drove them from their position.

Superior German operational mobility and tactical combat power was negated by unforced errors made by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff. The real culprit was Hermann von Kuhl, the chief of staff; for the army commander, Kluck, was not a General Staff officer and operational decisions were clearly Kuhl’s responsibility. All Kuhl had to do was make the obvious staff-school solution to the operational problems at hand and the BEF would have been destroyed. Instead, Kuhl was too clever by half.

Cavalry reconnaissance reports made it clear on 22 August that a large British force was west of Mons. Nevertheless, Kuhl retained the notion that the British would concentrate at Lille for so long that the 1st Army missed its chance to inflict a truly serious defeat on II Corps on 23 August.

The BEF was now in range, only a day’s march ahead of the 1st Army or even less. The only correct solution to the operational problem facing the 1st Army on 24–25 August was to continue the march south-west. With HKK 2 coming up on the right, there was every prospect of turning the BEF left flank and forcing the British to fight. Instead, Kuhl decided that on 25 August the British were withdrawing to Maubeuge and turned the entire 1st Army and HKK 2 south-east. This was the wrong solution. Even if the British were moving to Maubeuge, the correct solution would be to continue the march south-west to allow the 1st Army to conduct a deep envelopment of the Anglo-French left.

Kuhl had been one of Schlieffen’s star pupils, one of the officers closest to the old master strategist. Schlieffen had continually warned against shallow envelopments, which the enemy could avoid. Kuhl was breaking Schlieffen’s cardinal rule.

Throughout the campaign, Kuhl would display a consistent inability to make operationally sound decisions. His mistakes from 5–9 September would be the reason for the failure of the German campaign and the loss of the Battle of the Marne. He would offer the French the 1st Army’s unprotected right flank. He then disregarded orders to fall back and defend the German flank in favour of a pointless offensive which allowed the French to pry open the German front.

Had the 1st Army merely continued the march south-west on 25 August, it would not have required Hindenburg and Ludendorff to produce a western Tannenburg on 26 August. Three brigades of IV AK alone had inflicted a severe defeat on II Corps. Had III AK been attacking the II Corps right and IV AK the left, the British would have been facing eight brigades and the result would have been a British disaster. The British left was guarded only by Sordet’s cavalry and French Territorials: HKK 2 had already convincingly demonstrated an ability to summarily deal with these and advance rapidly into the British rear, turning disaster into catastrophe.

The destruction of II Corps would not have ended the war, as Tannenberg did not end the war with Russia. The German advance into France was going to run out of momentum and come to a halt on 5 September in any case. But the removal of three divisions would have been a serious blow to the British army.

The Significance of Mons and Le Cateau

The Mons Myth encourages soldiers, policymakers and citizens to believe that doctrine and years of tactical training are unimportant: war is simple and all that an army needs is patriotism, ‘field sports’, personal heroism and rifle marksmanship. Such a belief, widespread in the British army and British society before the First World War, resulted in the death or maiming of an entire generation of young Britons.

This is what happens when an army that has neglected doctrine and tactical training meets up with an army that made a religion of both. The denouement came at Le Cateau, where the German army showed that it knew how to attack a numerically superior enemy force and win.

Reaching such a pinnacle is complex and difficult. Most armies never do. It requires realistic doctrine, combined-arms cooperation, mobility, security and intelligence, troop-leading procedures, and individual initiative, all perfected in long, hard training. There must be an institutional commitment to tactical excellence. These qualities, developed in forty years of peacetime work, were the reasons for German success at Mons and Le Cateau.

German Artillery 1914

Field Artillery

The mission of the field artillery was to support the infantry. The objective was also to bring a superior number of guns into action at the decisive place and time. In German doctrine the priority of fire was directed against the targets that were most dangerous to the infantry. At the beginning of an engagement, priority of fire was normally given to counter-battery fire, to cover the infantry approach march. The intent was to gain fire superiority over the enemy artillery. During the infantry firefight, priority of fire was generally given to fire on the enemy infantry, but counter-battery fire would continue to be conducted. Given the increased use of the terrain for cover and concealment by all arms, targets for the artillery would often be fleeting and there would not be enough time to eliminate the target entirely.

The French Model 97 75mm gun was the first to incorporate a recoil brake. Since the gun was now stable, the gun aimer and loader could remain seated on the gun, which allowed an armoured shield to be added protect the gun crew. The new French gun could fire up to twenty rounds a minute, against eight or nine for the German Feldkanone 96, which had just been introduced. Given this increased firepower, the size of the battery could be reduced from six guns to four. The French also introduced the armoured caisson. The 75mm caused a sensation and the French imagined it to be practically a war-winning weapon. French tactics prescribed that the 75mm would provide the firepower necessary to support the infantry attack with rafales, intense bursts of fire, to shake the enemy infantry. This was area fire, which made up in volume what it lacked in accuracy.

German divisional field artillery consisted of two weapons: a 7.7cm flat-trajectory gun (Feldkanone 96 n/A) and a 10.5cm high-trajectory light howitzer (leichte Feldhaubitze 98/09). The maximum effective range of the 7.7cm gun is a subject of some controversy; there were frequent complaints that the French 75mm considerably outranged the German gun. In fact, the theoretical maximum range was rarely relevant. In practice, the maximum effective range was variable, depending on the ability of the battery commander to acquire targets, see the fall of shot and adjust his shells onto the target. The author of the FAR 25 regimental history said that 4,400m was long range, and targets at 5,000ms were out of range, even though the maximum range of the shrapnel fuse for 7.7cm gun was 5,300m, and for the contact fuse 8,100m.

The light howitzer was provided with a recoil brake and the tube could be elevated to a high angle, which allowed it to fire easily from covered positions. The parabolic arc taken by the shell made it very effective against targets behind cover and in field fortifications. The howitzer was a German specialty: the French army did not possess any. Instead, the French developed a shell for the 75mm had fins that gave it a curved line of flight supposed to mimic that of the howitzer shell. This expedient was unsuccessful in combat and the French were to regret the lack of a howitzer.

A wartime-strength German battery included six guns or howitzers, 5 OFF, 188 EM and 139 horses, the battery commander’s observation wagon, two supply wagons, a ration wagon and a wagon for fodder. Each regiment had six batteries divided into two three-battery sections, which were commanded by majors. A field artillery regiment included 36 guns, 58 OFF, 1,334 EM and 1,304 horses, including two light ammunition columns, each with 24 caissons. There were 4 OFF, 188 EM and 196 horses to each ammunition column. Ammunition columns were formed only at wartime and for a few training exercises. The field artillery did not have mobile field kitchens, which was found to be a severe problem in mobile operations. In each active army corps there were three gun and one howitzer regiments: one division had two gun regiments, the second a gun and a howitzer regiment. Reserve divisions had only one gun regiment.

A German field artillery piece was drawn by six horses and consisted of the gun, its limber and a six-man gun crew, and an ammunition caisson, with its own five-man crew. The gun and caisson were provided with armoured shields that protected the crews against small arms fire and shrapnel. The gun could be operated even if 50 per cent of the crew were casualties. Artillery batteries could immediately replace losses in personnel and horses by drawing on the regimental ammunition columns, which took replacements from the divisional ammunition columns and so on.

The gun commander rode on a horse, ‘drivers’ rode on the gun team horses, the gunners rode on the limber or the gun itself. The German field artillery battery of six guns would generally deploy in firing position with 20 paces (about 13m) between guns. The caisson and two of the caisson crew would deploy to the right side of the gun. The gun and caisson limbers with the horses, ‘drivers’ and the two remaining caisson crew would pull back 300m to the rear so that they would not be engaged by counter-battery fire directed at the guns. In practice, this proved to be too close and the horses and limbers were often hit by fire aimed at the guns. When the battery needed to move, the horses and limbers would be brought forward. The light ammunition columns would deploy 600m behind the gun line and move forward based on flag signals.

The horses were the vulnerable point in an artillery battery. The guns could not unlimber and go into position, or limber up to withdraw, without significant horse casualties if they were in infantry fire at medium range (800m to 1,200m). Under close-range infantry fire (under 800m) the vulnerability of the horses immobilised the battery.

There were two types of battery positions. In the open firing position the guns were not covered or concealed. The gunners could see to their front and directly aim the guns over open sights. The guns were also visible to the enemy. A battery could occupy an open position easily and could fire quickly and effectively, especially against moving targets. It could rely on the gun shields for protection against small arms fire, but in an open position it was visible to enemy artillery and vulnerable to counter-battery fire. Open positions would be used in a mobile battle.

In a covered (or defilade) firing position, the guns went into battery position behind cover or concealment (frequently on the reverse slope of a hill). The guns were aimed by the battery commander, who set up his command wagon in a position where he could observe the enemy; the guns were then laid in for direction from the battery command wagon using an aiming circle (similar to a theodolite) and firing commands (deflection and elevation, type and number of rounds, fuse setting) were usually transmitted by field telephone from command wagon to the guns. Covered battery positions were nearly invulnerable to counter-battery fire, unless the dust thrown up by the muzzle blast betrayed the gun’s position. Frequently the enemy would be reduced to attempting to suppress guns in a covered position by using area fire based on a map reconnaissance of likely covered positions, a procedure that demanded large quantities of time and ammunition. The disadvantage of covered positions was that occupying them was time-consuming, because of the extensive reconnaissance needed to find a suitable position in the first place, followed by the time necessary to lay the battery using the aiming circle. Adjusting fire would take more time than in an open position. Covered positions would be used at the beginning of an engagement, in artillery duels, and against stationary targets and dug-in positions.

There was also a half-covered position, in which the guns were defilade, but could be aimed by the gunners standing on the gun. Such positions were preferable to open positions while at the same time allowing a more rapid support of the infantry that completely covered positions.

Guns could also occupy an overwatch position. The battery was then deployed in a covered position, laid on an azimuth in the general direction of the expected target. When the target was observed, the battery was manhandled into firing position.

If the time and suitable positions were available, the artillery would initially occupy covered positions, but in the course of the battle, the artillery would almost always be forced to displace and fire from half-covered or open battery positions. If necessary the artillery, like the infantry, was to advance by bounds. Some batteries might be moved forward to provide close-range direct-fire support. When the infantry began the assault, the artillery would fire on the enemy defensive position for as long as possible, until the danger of friendly fire became too great (usually 300m) and then shift its fire to the rear of the enemy position. When the enemy withdrew, he would be pursued by fire, with the artillery moving forward at a gallop and on their own initiative, if necessary, to keep the enemy in range.

Prior to the introduction of long-range quick-firing artillery around the turn of the century it was common to employ artillery in long continuous lines. In order to use the terrain effectively and avoid counter-battery fire, artillery was now to be employed in groups. Enemy counter-battery fire was rarely able to destroy a gun or caisson; its usual effect was to suppress the guns by forcing the crews to take cover. For that reason, the crews were to dig revetments around the gun positions as soon as possible, even in the attack.

If the guns came under effective fire, the artillery commanders had to decide, on the basis of the overall situation, whether the gunners could cease fire and take cover, which involved the crews’ retreating several hundred metres, leaving the guns and caissons in place, or if the artillery had to continue to fire, even if it meant that the crews were destroyed or the guns were overrun. Under overwhelming fire the artillery commanders down to battery level were authorised to order the crews to take cover.

It was the responsibility of the artillery to maintain liaison with the infantry through the use of forward observers (FO). The FO would communicate with his battery through field telephones or signal flags. His most important mission was to keep the guns informed as to the relative locations of the friendly and enemy troops, so that as this distance was steadily reduced, the guns could place fire on the enemy for the longest possible time. The artillery also regularly sent forward officer patrols, frequently in conjunction with cavalry patrols, in order to develop targets for their batteries.

The standard shell for gun artillery was shrapnel with a time fuse. The shrapnel shell exploded above and in front of the target, covering the target area with metal balls. In practice, setting the time fuse was difficult and shrapnel often burst too high. There was also a high-explosive round with contact fuse, which was used by howitzers and also by guns.

Beginning in the 1890s the German artillery underwent a profound transformation. In 1890 the cannons were not provided with recoil brakes and gunnery practice took place from open positions at ranges of less than 3,000m. Firing from covered positions was inaccurate and slow. Then the improvements came fast and furious. FAR 69 recorded receiving the light howitzer in 1899, with aiming circle and field telephones to facilitate firing from covered positions. In the spring of 1906 FAR 69 received the cannon with recoil mechanism and gun shield. In 1907 a new artillery regulation introduced a doctrine commensurate with the new equipment and made combat effectiveness the sole standard for training. Firing with time fuses became normal, the field guns received stereoscopic battery telescopes, field telephones (1908) and aiming circles, and armoured observation wagons. Reservists were recalled to active duty to receive training in the new equipment. The German field artillery in 1914 had good equipment and had plenty of time to train with it.

Heavy Artillery

For over twenty years prior to the First World War, the German army worked to perfect its heavy artillery, which involved constructing a mobile 15cm schwere Feldhaubitze 02 (sFH 02 – heavy field howitzer 1902) for the corps artillery and a 21cm mortar for the army-level artillery, and then creating the techniques and doctrine to use them. Originally, the impulse for this development was the need to be able to quickly break the French fortress line, and in particular the Sperrforts located between the major French fortresses. This mission shifted to one which emphasised destroying French field fortifications and finally to counter-battery fire. Particular emphasis was also laid on integrating the sFH into combined arms training, including live-fire exercises. By the beginning of the war, the German heavy artillery was fully proficient in all three missions. No other country in Europe possessed such combat-effective heavy field artillery. French heavy artillery was not so numerous, nor so mobile, nor as technically and tactically effective as the German.

Every German active-army corps included a battalion of four batteries of schwere Feldhaubitze, each battery having four guns, sixteen guns and thirty-two caissons in total. The battalion also had an organic light ammunition column. The reserve corps did not have this battalion, which significantly reduced its combat power.

The 15 cm gun was characterised by the destructiveness of its high-explosive shell (bursting radius 40m to the sides, 20m front and rear), combined with its long range (most effective range 5500m, max effective range 7,450m) and high rate of fire. It was particularly effective against enemy artillery, which was otherwise protected by its gun shield, and against infantry in field fortifications (the shell came down nearly vertically and was capable of penetrating 2m of overhead cover) or in defilade behind masking terrain. It was less effective against moving targets than the field artillery. The heavy field howitzer was less mobile than the field gun, but nevertheless was able to move long distances at a trot. The sFH battalion normally fought as a unit, firing from covered positions.

The 7.7cm gun fired a 6.85kg shell at a rate of up to 20 per minute. The 10.5cm howitzer fired a 15.8kg shell at a rate of four per minute; the heavy howitzer fired a 39.5kg shell at a rate of three to six per minute.

The German army also possessed a mobile 21cm mortar, which was principally intended for assignment at the army level, to be used against permanent fortifications. A mortar battery had four mortars; each battalion consisted of two batteries. The mortar could move only at a walk, the gun being separated for movement into three sections: gun carriage, barrel and firing platform.

The German field army began the war with 808 15cm sFH, 112 21cm mortars, 196 10cm canons and 32 13cm canons; 1,148 mobile heavy guns in total. It had a store of 1,194,252 shells, that is, about 1040 shells per gun.

The French field army, in contrast, had only 308 heavy guns, which were older and technically inferior to the German guns, mostly 155cm ‘Rimailho’ canons that had to be broken down in two sections for movement, with a maximum range of 6,300m. The Germans therefore had 4–1 superiority in heavy artillery. The French also had 380 ‘de Bange’ heavy guns in siege artillery units.

Each French division had nine four-gun batteries; the corps artillery consisted of twelve more batteries. Heavy howitzers were an army weapon; a French corps could not expect to receive more than four guns. The Germans thought that the French would augment each corps with another six reserve batteries, which was not the case. A French corps therefore at best had 120 guns versus 158 (including 16 heavy howitzers) for the German corps. The French began the war with about 1,300 shells for each 75mm.

General Heer, one of the leading authorities on French artillery, wrote a perceptive comparison of French and German doctrines. Heer began by saying that both armies expected the war to consist of manoeuvre battles, and both armies emphasised the offensive. However, the French laid particular emphasis on movement, especially the decisive advantages that accrued to forward movement. The Germans, on the other hand, recognised the importance of firepower and understood how to use it better than the French. The German leadership was convinced that infantry could not advance in the face of modern firepower, and especially not against artillery fire. They considered it essential that the battle begin with systematic counter-battery fire. Live-fire exercises taught the Germans the value of heavy artillery in mobile battles in general, but especially in counter-battery fire. Finally, the Germans decentralised the control of artillery down to division level. There were no corps and army artillery commanders. Thomasson said that the German optical fire control was outstanding, and unknown to the French. It permitted the Germans to be able to adjust artillery fire ‘magnificently’.

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.