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Carr, John. On Spartan Wings: The Royal Hellenic Air Force in World War Two. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2012

ISBN 184884798-X
xvi + 176 pages

Preface; Prologue; maps; photos; Epilogue; Notes; Bibliography; Index

   The Greek Air Force—actually Royal Hellenic Air Force, or RHAF—would seem to be of marginal importance at best, nevertheless John Carr makes the most of the topic with this short but pleasing historical account. Readers won't have their eyes opened to any earth-shattering revelations, but they'll be treated to a brief, professional, enjoyable history of the air units, operations, aircraft, and airmen of this small nation's small air force in a small corner of World War II.
   The first chapter jumps immediately into the opening days of the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941, describing the air operations in terms of missions as well as the adventures of individual aviators. In particular, the author notes the celebrated victory of Greek Pilot Officer Marinos Mitralexis, who—upon running out of ammunition in his Polish-built PZL 24 fighter—rammed and downed an Italian Cant Z1007bis bomber over Salonika. Mitralexis survived this feat, which a number of his comrades subsequently attempted to duplicate, usually without success.
   After engaging readers with these action-packed stories, Carr turns his second chapter to the early history of the RHAF, heaping much credit upon Greek leader Ioannis Metaxas in the pre-war years for his foresight in preparing the weak air force as much as humanly possible for the outbreak of hostilities. The third chapter provides extensive information about the organization, strength, and disposition of the RHAF. At the time of the Italian invasion, the Greeks could muster a grand total of 300 aircrew to fly 128 operational aircraft (not all ready for service). These aircraft represented a grab bag of models manufactured in France, Germany, Poland, the UK, and Yugoslavia.

   The first stage of aerial rearmament was a contract for the purchase of thirty-six PZL 24s from Poland's Panstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze in return for the equivalent value in Greek tobacco—a profitable exchange, if ever there was one. A quantity of Bristol Blenheim IVs—one of Europe's most modern bombers at the time—was also ordered. By 1939 Greece had also placed firm orders for thirty-four Supermarine Spitfire Is, thirty Grumman F4F3A Wildcats, thirty Curtiss P40 Tomahawks, forty-eight Martin Maryland bombers and twenty-four Bristol Blenheim IIIs, plus an undetermined number of French-built Liore-et-Olivier 451Gs, a high-altitude bomber advanced for its time; the outbreak of war cancelled all scheduled deliveries, leaving the RHAF short of 107 modern aircraft that would have at least doubled its strength in the battles that would soon be upon it.
   Among the deliveries from Britain were twelve Fairey Battle Mk I bombers, with an option for twelve more. The Greeks appreciated the dive-bombing capabilities of the Battle, especially in mountainous terrain, which could compensate for its low speed and relative lack of defensive armament. At the same time wealthy Greeks abroad donated four machines. Yet by 1940, Jane's All The World's Aircraft of that year could devote just six brief paragraphs to a description of Greece's service aviation, while Italy's took up six pages. At least three of the six ageing Yugoslav-built Avia B534 fighters had been donated by a rich Greek-American businessman, while another paid for the only two Gloster Gladiators in RHAF service. The PZL 24s were destined to stoutly bear the brunt of fighter operations on the Albanian front.

   Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete by Christopher Shores and the one-volume English abridgment of the Greek official history series provide similar information about the RHAF's organization, strength, and dispositions, but neither contains nearly as much detail as Carr's book.
   In rather less detail, the next chapter of On Spartan Wings deals with the Regia Aeronautica. If there were ever any question about the lack of preparation by Mussolini and his top military men, Carr demonstrates with great clarity how the Italian air force in particular was thrown into the campaign with little planning. He summarizes thusly: "The events of October [1940] gave the unmistakable impression that the air force (like the Italian Navy) simply didn't enter into the calculations of the senior planners. Planes and ships, it was automatically assumed, would be available for use as if they were lorries or bullets." Carr also outlines the strength and organization of Mussolini's air units and measures the important models of Italian fighters and bombers.
   Chapter Five returns to the Italo-Greek War where Carr left it in the first chapter. He continues to follow the air-to-air action by accounting for RHAF missions as well as focusing on individual airmen, such as Flying Officer Yannis Sakellariou, who was overheard singing a popular song with the line "And if fate calls, one day I'll die," shortly before being shot down and killed above the Albanian front. The author sometimes goes a bit out on a limb, such as when he writes "Thanks to that intelligence [from air reconnaissance] the Greeks were able to entrap the entire [Julia] division and knock it out of the fight...." To say the Alpinis were "knocked out of the fight" might not be entirely accurate.
   In any event, here's how Carr describes the action in the air:

   Later in the day 33 Mira was ordered to hit Italian Army units occupying Mount Morova and Mount Ivan in Albania. The two heights guarded the vital pass through which the Greeks could march on Korce. During the operation an enemy fighter poured bullets into Flying Officer George Hinaris's Battle, killing his gunner/observer, Warrant Officer Miltiades Kontidis—the first squadron member to die in the war—and forcing Hinaris to bale out. His flying overalls on fire, Hinaris was saved from immolation by fortuitously dropping into a mountain stream. He came to in a farmhouse, and after receiving first aid was sent to hospital, and captivity, in Tirana. A Fiat CR42 of 363 Squadriglia shot down Sergeant Frangoulis Arnidis's Battle, killing him and his gunner/observer, Warrant Officer George Daravingidis. Flight Lieutenant Dimitrios Pitsikas's plane also took multiple hits. Pitsikas was able to nurse the plane to land at Ioannina, but on the way, his gunner/observer, Warrant Officer Aristophanes Pappas, bled to death. (The Battle's propeller was set up over Pappas's grave.)
   Karnavias led three Potez 63s of 31 Mira to bomb enemy artillery positions on the Devoli river. Vladousis had bombed and just regained the Greek border when his cockpit canopy shattered with a loud bang, and the Potez burst into flame and lurched into a spin. He had been hit by his own side's anti-aircraft guns. Preparing to bale out he told his observer to do the same, but the observer was dead. Floating down, Vladousis found himself under fire from the Greeks on the ground as well as the Italians in the Fiats buzzing overhead. Approaching the ground, he took a letter from his mother from a pocket and waved it, yelling at the top of his voice: 'I'm Greek! Greeeeek, you fellows!'
   Hitting the ground, Vladousis would have toppled into a ravine, but was pulled back just in time by an Army sergeant who recognized him as an old schoolmate. He was trying to relax and chat with the local Army colonel when a captain burst into the room, his face stricken. 'I never imagined the Greek air force had such fast planes!' the captain blurted. 'All I know are the Breguets. How should I know we had Potez 63s?' He had commanded the anti-aircraft battery that had brought Vladousis down and killed his fellow crewman. Shortly after that episode Vladousis doffed his flying overalls to reveal a snappy dress uniform beneath. 'Are you going to war or a dinner dance?' the thunderstruck colonel said.
   'It's war, colonel,' the airman replied with the insouciance that some pilots cultivated as a defence mechanism, 'but since we never know if we're going to come back, we figure we ought to dress properly.'

   Meanwhile, on 3 November the first RAF aircraft began arriving in Greece in preparation for operations against Italian forces. Despite arrival of RAF squadrons, the British delivered only a limited number of secondhand Gladiator bi-planes to the RHAF, and not much else. According to Carr, after two months of war the Greeks were down to 28 fighters and 7 bombers. Given the limited number of RHAF planes, heavy attrition, and lack of replacements, the Brits soon assumed most of the responsibility for the war in the air, focusing on attacking enemy ports, bases, and supply lines rather than providing close support for ground troops. The author devotes some space to explaining how not all Greeks were happy with British priorities, British tactics, or British failure to employ the most modern aircraft in larger numbers.
   A few Greek airmen were dispatched to Habbaniya to undergo pilot training with the RAF (and Carr later writes about some of their adventures during the Iraqi siege of the airbase), but RHAF strength continued to dwindle as the war with Italy dragged on. By the time of the German invasion in April 1941, few pilots or aircraft remained to oppose the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, Carr writes that "...the RHAF shot down four Luftwaffe planes, with anti-aircraft fire accounting for twenty-five more." Despite its last, desperate efforts, the Greek Air Force—and, indeed the entire Greek nation—had no real hope of stopping the German assault, even with Allied support on the ground and in the air. Before long, the only options became surrender or evacuation.

   As German forces occupied Athens and moved with lightning speed on southern Greece, the EKI at Argos had to move, and fast. On 16 April 1941 all remaining RHAF aircraft at Argos and elsewhere were ordered destroyed. It was an exceptionally cool-headed officer or NCO who could literally obey the order to take an axe to the faithful old Breguet XIXs that had been part of their service lives for as long as they could remember.
   No such fate awaited the ten Ansons of 13 Mira, the only active RHAF squadron left, stationed at Hellenikon on the Athenian seafront. The crews had no intention of smashing their planes up, orders or no. But they didn't want them falling into German hands, either. Moreover, the Anson was the only naval cooperation aircraft with a range enabling it to fly directly to Crete. After some hesitation the CO, Squadron Leader Spyros Dakopoulos, fixed the Ansons' departure for six o'clock in the morning of 23 April.
   The planes were lined up and ready to go when a couple of flights of Bf109s zoomed out of nowhere and proceeded to thoroughly and repeatedly strafe what was left on the ground at Hellenikon. Five of the Ansons were shot up beyond repair. After the attackers left, four of the remaining five took off amid the columns of smoke rising from the shattered airfield. Papadopoulos and Flight Sergeant Dimitrios Galanakos flew the first two, followed by two more flown by Flight Sergeant Vasilios Kourdis and Sergeant Nikolaos Kavourinos. A fifth, though holed, was quickly patched up and flown off by Flying Officer Constantine Davakis. It was the last that 13 Mira would see of its homeland for three and a half years.

   The remnants of that squadron, 13 Mira, constituted the only operational unit to escape, but a significant proportion of the remaining manpower of the skeletal Greek Air Foce reached Crete safely by sea, about 800 men including 145 flying cadets. However, the RHAF on Crete had no aircraft to fly. In any event, the Germans soon landed and conquered the island. Many of the Greek airmen escaped to Egypt.
   To a certain extent, the history of the RHAF ended with the defeat of Greece and loss of Crete, but London eventually allowed the Greeks to reestablish their own small national air force in exile under British auspices. Carr devotes the second half of his book to the stories of the Greek airmen who flew with the reborn RHAF under the RAF. Much of this material revolves around the increasingly serious clashes between the traditionally conservative Greek officers and the growing Communist-dominated element, with the first disturbing incidents apparently beginning shortly after the Greeks arrived in Egypt.
   The British ultimately trained and equipped three Greek air squadrons which flew with the RAF in the Mediterranean theater. Several chapters highlight adventures on training flights in Africa, on shipping patrols above the Med, and on missions over Crete. In 1942, RHAF air units also participated in the Battle of Alamein. Overall, tales of accidents, ditching at sea, sandstorms, high jinks, and poodles in cockpits abound, making these chapters something of a montage of veterans' anecdotes. For all their courage and ardor, the brave Greek pilots—a small part of a much larger Allied air force—did not play a big part in the campaign, and the British seldom entrusted the RHAF squadrons with the most crucial missions.
   The latter chapters in particular return to the subject of Communist subversion. According to Carr—although this seems to be a case of inflating the importance of Free Greek units—the Soviets instigated insubordinate activities in order to prevent Greek forces from deploying to Italy, thereby hindering the Allied return to the continent and thus improving Moscow's chances of seizing more territory in Europe. These activities grew into full-blown mutinies among Greek naval and ground units in Syria and Egypt in 1943 and 1944. The RHAF also suffered mutinous activities, especially among ground crews, and some pilots refused to deploy to Italy. At one point pilots returned from a mission to find their ground crews on strike and refusing to service or rearm the planes. Some RHAF aircraft were allegedly lost due to sabotage by enlisted personnel. It's certainly true that numbers of RHAF personnel were arrested and incarcerated due to subversive activities. (For more on Free Greek mutinies, see The Greek Military and the Greek Mutinies in the Middle East, 1941-1944, a source not cited by Carr.)
   Despite those problems, in a bit of irony, all three Greek squadrons were deployed to bases in Italy in the second half of 1944, in some cases flying missions against targets in Albania bombed by the RHAF in 1940. The squadrons didn't remain on Italian soil for long. In November 1944 all three returned to their homeland, only to discover a nation in the midst of upheaval and soon to be embroiled in civil war. As the RHAF's participation in one war drew to close, its participation in another began. The men who were national heroes in 1940, inspired by pilots like Marinos Mitralexis, found themselves regarded with little honor in 1945 despite long years of toil and sacrifice in exile. By the end of the book, the reader gains the impression that to some extent the rather old-fashioned, traditionalist airmen of the Italo-Greek War had been replaced by younger, more modern pilots who served in a substantially more complicated and contentious era.
   The author brings together all aspects of the RHAF during the war years. As to the Italo-Greek phase of the war, some record of the air force can be found in the English edition of the Greek official history, and more in the work of Christopher Shores, including air ops during the German intervention. Nothing in English, however, matches the depth of Carr's work on the 1940-1941 period, and virtually nothing else at all exists in English on the RHAF squadrons in service in exile during 1941-1944 or back at home in 1945. Based on his bibliography, the author has mostly relied on about a dozen key books written in Greek—some self-published—and probably unknown outside of Hellas. Those obscure Greek sources enabled Carr to compile an unsurpassed English-language chronicle of the wartime RHAF.
   Throughout the war, from beginning to end, the Greeks fielded only a small air force, and this is consequently a relatively small history. But in the hands of John Carr, the history of the RHAF and its men emerges as an engaging testament of courage and perseverance—and occasionally humor—in the face of adversity. On Spartan Wings is a worthy effort on an interesting if somewhat marginal topic.
   Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Pen & Sword.

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Reviewed 16 December 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
 

 

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