Extract from ch.4 of To the stars the hard way: a history of 50 Wing RAF
by Bertram Owen
...following the route that was already becoming familiar to the RAF, the two squadrons flew from Exeter to Gibraltar on the 25th March, then along the North African coast, making several refuelling stops, to Libya. The war diary of Squadron Leader Fife records:
“30th. From El Adem airfield to Maleme, in Crete, with 10 Blenheims. Others to follow once serviceable. Many rumours regarding intentions. Talk of raiding Ploesti - not currently possible. Difficult to sleep - v.poor living arrangements.
31st. Rest of squadron joined us at Maleme. Moore’s boys due to arrive tomorrow. Concerned at shortage of spares and bombs here.
April 1st. Dicky and Roy up to their usual jokes. Orders came through at 1400 - prepare for shipping strike off Albania. Orders cancelled at 1600 just as we were warming up. Sure to be a show tomorrow?
2nd. Our first mission in the theatre. Flew fifty miles NW of Corfu looking for Italian ships - none found. Sighted unknown aircraft in distance - ours? Theirs?
3rd. Orders to transfer to mainland. Accompanied by some 30 French fighters, both our squadrons landed at airfield near Athens. Billeted in usual type of hole, vermin everywhere. Met French Captain called Montgolfier, like the balloonist; seems keen.
5th. Finally some action. Raided Italian position at Vlore in Albania. Return fire uncomfortably heavy - three planes damaged. Udall’s gunner, Harry B, took a fragment in the leg - big legs we always said.
6th. Big news today - Germans are in for keeps. They raided Piraeus - our lads got stuck in to them. We need more planes.
7th. Belgrade took a pasting. Len says we are to help the Yugos. Don’t see much future in that.
8th. Flew over Mount Olympus today. No sign of Huns yet. Three Italian biplanes sighted in distance - they came closer, gunners drove them off.
9th. Terrible news - Germans have Salonika. Worse, the kitchens have run out of spuds.
12th. Two ops yesterday. First was a wash-out, couldn't find target. Three crates u/s because of lack of spares. Took 9 Blenheims to raid German supply lines near Salonika. Attacked 10-15 M.T. and some hits scored, but bounced by 110s on withdrawal. Freeman and Pascoe shot down, two others damaged. Roy badly hurt, will need new gunner - hope to get him evac’d.
13th. Unlucky for some. Escorted by French fighters, to Salonika again, saw 20-30 M.T. on the move and attacked, think we scored some hits. Big dog-fight between French and 110s. Montgolfier says he lost 2 and shot down 4. He certainly kept them off us, only 2 damaged. Word is the Army is falling back to Olympus.
15th. Pretty bad day. Poor Farrell crashed on take-off, no survivors. All our crates are showing the strain - three more u/s this morning, mechanical or electrical faults. Took the Sqn to attack German tanks near Mt. Olympus, our arty. was to lay down smoke, but couldn’t see it. Saw M.T. convoy moving south and bombed it instead, but enemy flak heavy, Yellow section caught a packet - 1 shot down, other 2 u/s on return to base.
17th. Len says the game is up, says some Army units already pulling back. Not sure if that’s right, he’s inclined to see a glass half empty. But it is true that about Greeks falling back from Albania. German planes overhead in afternoon - French got one or two. We saw big explosions N of Olympus - looks like the Sappers carrying out demolitions.
20th. Not had much time to write last few days. Constant flying. Only 3 Blenheims serviceable in our sqn - Moore’s boys no better. Ten crates sat like pork for lack of spares. Also only enough bombs for 2-3 more ops.
23rd. Anzacs making a stand on the coast, sounds hot down there. Hot for us too. (afternoon) 20-30 German bombers raided us, 6 of our planes wrecked - mostly the lame ducks. Poor Benji killed. We put up a show in the evening, had a go at Sedes airfield. V. bad flak, lost Brodie, but think we got some hits.
24th. Ordered back to Crete for the time being. Between us Moore & I have only 7 serviceable. Montgolfier now commanding French fighter group, his C.O. gone - he has less than 10. Saw another German raid on our base as we left it behind - hope the new boys have an easier time of it, but somehow I doubt it.”
50 Wing had taken a hammering, but their efforts undoubtedly contributed to the standstill on the Olympus line as April closed. By early May the Allied air forces had built up to several hundred machines in the theatre. They had mostly Hurricanes and Curtiss 81s operating from the mainland, the robustness of these types being severely tested. The main challenge they faced was defending their own airfields from incessant hit-and-run raids by Me110s and Ju88s now operating from airfields in Bulgaria and inside Greece. As for the Blenheims of 63 Wing who now arrived to replace 50 Wing outside Athens, Squadron Leader Fife guessed correctly, and they lost half their number in a few weeks.
Extract from ch.8, A Song at the Sacrifice
by Theogenes Barker
...of course no-one wished to hear my opinion. Having realised that my advice had fallen on deaf ears, I made what arrangements I could for the safety of Eleni and the children, and sent them to her relatives in Alexandria. My colleagues at the Embassy had begun to follow this example.
We had several meetings with General Wilson, who put a brave face on things. ‘We’ll have a full division of armour,’ he said in confidence, ‘and the French have a corps on our flank.’ Still, somewhat pessimistically, I felt the situation looked decidedly sticky even before the Germans invaded. The Yugoslav revolution briefly gave us hope, but Bulgaria’s attitude and the swift collapse of Yugoslav resistance made me fear the worst. The Greeks had made me proud of them, and I longed to have their mighty struggle better rewarded. However they were running low on supplies even before the Germans attacked. I had my hands full negotiating over the scale of support, since we could not provide as much assistance as they needed. One ray of hope came on the 5th, when we heard that the first big shipment of food from the US would arrive later in the month, aboard the freighter Murchison
...Many have complained since regarding the French attitude, claiming it doomed the hopes of holding the Germans further north, and that had they sent their corps immediately after the fall of Tripoli, the situation could have been saved. I disagree, and did so at the time. There was no hope of holding Salonika once Bulgaria was in, and Winston’s notion of forming a front with the Yugoslavs was a pipe dream. Anyway, in the event the French divisions, not to forget the Poles, did sterling service, often overlooked in English-language accounts of the campaign, I have to say.
‘The overriding factor is the air,’ Wilson said to us in early April, ‘It might be the Germans could maintain and reinforce their squadrons more quickly than we could.’ All the events of that momentous spring were under this shadow. My heart moved to see the gallantry of the Allied fliers, always outnumbered, operating from rough airstrips with little protection. In my diary I recorded one air-fight:
“7th April. To Piraeus on business; as I arrived there was a tremendous hubbub and a wave of aircraft approached, I think from the north, large planes with a different engine note to the Italian machines we have heard before. German, I guessed, they were attacking the port. As I watched I saw three French fighters zoom overhead and attack the enemy, scattering them, so that the bombs missed the port but landed close to where I stood. I retreated quickly. One of the fighters got too close to one of the bombers, they collided and both went down.”
Despite such courage, the Allied planes could not be everywhere. On another day, I think the 16th though my diary is unclear, I was caught in an air raid with some bombs landing not far away, though the actual target, we realised later, was one of our airfields.
The hardest fighting started on the 21st, and in one or two places it looked like the Germans might break through - I think Jumbo came close to ordering a fall back to Thermopylae. The rumour mill said the French were cracking, and we set to work burning sensitive papers. All the hundreds of hours we had slaved over our exquisitely crafted memos, now up in smoke! It helped restore some perspective.
Luckily we had the Anzacs and 2nd Armoured in place to counter-attack, but it was a close-run thing. Later I heard that some of our batteries had run out of ammunition entirely by the 26th, and if the enemy could have made one more push, they’d have broken through. I suppose they had exhausted themselves too. Some of us saw significance in the Germans halting at the feet of Olympus, as though the Gods themselves had intervened: I felt that nothing less would have stopped them at that point.
On the 27th the higher-ups ordered an evacuation of non-essential personnel. I and many others, including Bingo and Carton de Wiart, left from Piraeus on the 27th aboard the Clan Fraser
. We suffered two or three air attacks, one of which hit the ship but mercifully did not explode. Another ship near to us, heading into the port, was less lucky. As bad luck would have it, it was the Murchison
. I saw it sink, but we could not stop to rescue the survivors - a horrid mess. A synecdoche, one might say, for the whole Greek campaign.
Amid my feelings of distress there was an incident that gave me much cause for reflection later. Carton de Wiart could not be persuaded to take cover. He stood by the rail, cursing the enemy. ‘Aren’t there any guns on this tub?’ he shouted. ‘Show me a Lewis, I want a pop at those villains.’ Eventually we reached Crete and got ashore…
We civilians felt rather surplus to requirements, and somewhat ashamed of ourselves. The Army seemed to feel the same way, and we had rather Spartan living arrangements. We saw tremendous activity everywhere, French troops digging in, our engineers preparing defences and improving the airfields, RA gunners setting up their batteries. One night, sitting by a camp-fire outside our tent, Bingo and I discussed the prospects. He was evidently feeling mellow with the warm evening and the retsina.
‘Theo, I don’t fancy their chances now,’ he said, ‘blitzkrieg in open country is one thing, but this is another. They missed the bus.’
I was still pretty shaky after our experiences. ‘What if they come by air?’ I asked. ‘They have paratroopers, and they conquered Holland and Corsica quickly enough.’
‘They got cut up badly though,’ he said. ‘Paratroopers can’t do it all by themselves. I doubt they’ll use them at all.’
‘The poor Greeks are exhausted,’ I said, ‘they’ve still got to hold their line.’
He sought to calm my fears. ‘‘The Italians would have to break through, which I doubt. No, I don’t think they’ll take Athens any time soon.’
‘They have to try,’ I replied. ‘The bad man can read a map. You know as well as I do where he gets his oil. Our planes can reach Roumania from Attica, and if bombs hit those wells it’s goodnight Mr. Chips.’ He looked sceptical. ‘I think they have to try. They’ll throw the kitchen sink at us, and they’ll have enough planes to win.’
As it turned out, we were both wrong, so you could say that there was no change there…