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Chapter no 12 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌The Last Day But One‌

Going Solo

But the twentieth of April was not over yet.

I was standing quite naked beside the three-legged basin outside the tent with David Coke trying to wash off some of the sweat of battle when boom bang woomph wham rat-tat-tat-tat-tat a tremendous explosion of noises slammed into us overhead with a rattle of machine-guns and a roar of engines. I jumped and David jumped and looking up we saw a long line of Messerschmitt 109s coming straight at us very fast and low with guns blazing. We threw ourselves flat on the grass and waited for the worst.

I had never been ground-strafed before and I can promise you it is not a nice experience, especially when they catch you out in the open with your pants down. You lie there watching the bullets running through the grass and kicking up chunks of turf all around you and unless there is a deep ditch nearby there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. The 109s were coming at us in line astern, one after the other, skimming just over the tents, and as each one roared past overhead I could feel the wind of its slipstream on my naked back. I remember twisting my head sideways to watch them and I could see the pilots sitting upright in their cockpits, black helmets on and khaki-coloured oxygen masks over their noses and mouths, and one pilot was sporting a bright yellow scarf around his neck tucked neatly into his open shirt. They wore no goggles and once or twice I caught a glimpse of a pair of German eyes bright with concentration and staring directly ahead.

‘We’ve had it now!’ David was shouting. ‘They’ll get every one of our

planes!’

‘To hell with the planes!’ I shouted back. ‘What about us?’

‘They’re after the Hurricanes,’ David shouted. ‘They’ll pick them off one by one. You watch.’

The Germans knew that the few planes we had left in Greece had just landed after a battle and were now refuelling, which is the classic moment for a ground-strafe. But what they did not know was that our airfield defences consisted of no more than a single Bofors gun tucked away somewhere in the

rocks behind our tents. Most front-line aerodromes in those days were heavily protected against low-level attacks and because of this no pilot enjoyed going on a ground-strafe. I did some of it myself later on and I didn’t like it one bit. You are flying so fast and so low that if you happen to get hit there is very little you can do to save yourself. The Germans couldn’t know we had only one wretched gun to protect the whole aerodrome so they played it safe and made just that one swift pass over our field and then beat it for home.

They had disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived, and when they had gone the silence across our flying field was amazing. I wondered for a moment whether perhaps everyone had been killed except David and me. We stood up and surveyed the scene. Then several voices began shouting for stretchers and over by the Ops Hut I could see someone with blood on his clothes being helped towards the doctor’s tent. But the surprise of the moment was that our single Bofors gun had actually managed to hit one of the Messerschmitts. We could see him across the aerodrome about forty feet up with black smoke and orange flames pouring from his engine. He was gliding in silently for an attempted landing, and David and I stood watching him as he made a steep turn in towards the field.

‘That poor sod will be roasted alive if he doesn’t hurry,’ David said.

 

The plane hit the ground on its belly with a fearful scrunch of tearing metal and it slid on for about thirty yards before stopping. I saw several of our people running out to help the pilot and someone had a red fire-extinguisher in his hand and then they were out of sight in the black smoke and trying to get the German out of the plane. When we saw them again they were hauling him by his arms away from the fire and then a pick-up truck drove out and they put him in the back.

But what of our own planes? We could see them in the distance scattered

around the perimeter of the airfield at their dispersal points and not one of them was burning.

‘They were in such a bloody hurry I think they’ve missed them altogether,’ David said.

‘I think so, too,’ I said.

Then the Duty Officer was running between the tents and shouting, ‘All pilots to their aircraft! All aircraft to scramble at once! Hurry up there! Get a move on!’ He ran past David and me shouting, ‘Get your clothes on, you two! Get out there at the double and get your planes in the air!’

It was common practice for a second wave of ground-strafers to come in and attack soon after the first, and the CO rightly wanted our planes in the air before they arrived. David and I flung on shirts and shorts and shoes and dashed towards our Hurricanes, and as I ran I was wondering whether my own plane was even capable of taking off again so soon after the last battle.

Less than one hour had gone by since I had landed. When I reached the Hurricane, there were three airmen fussing around the fuselage, including our Flight-Sergeant rigger.

‘Have you repaired the rudder?’ I shouted at him.

‘We’ve put a new wire in,’ the Flight-Sergeant said. ‘It was cut clean through.’

‘Is she refuelled and rearmed?’

‘All ready for you,’ the Flight-Sergeant said.

I gave the plane a quick once over. It was remarkable what they had managed to do in so little time. Bullet holes had been stopped up and torn metal had been flattened out and cracks had been filled and there were little patches of red canvas over all eight of the gun ports on the leading edges of the wings, showing that the guns had been serviced and rearmed. I climbed into the cockpit and the Flight-Sergeant came up on to the wing to help me strap in. ‘You want to be careful out there now,’ he said. ‘They’re swarming like gnats all over the sky.’

‘You’d better be careful yourself,’ I said. ‘I’d rather be in the air than down here next time they come in.’

He gave me a friendly pat on the back and then slid the hood closed over my head.

It was astonishing that the ground-strafers had not hit a single one of our Hurricanes, and all seven of us got safely up into the air and circled the flying field for about an hour. We were hoping now that they would come back again then we could swoop on them from above and the whole thing would have been a piece of cake. They did not return and down we went once more and landed.

But the twentieth of April was still not over.

I went up twice more during that afternoon, both times to tangle with the clouds of Ju 88s that were bombing the shipping over Piraeus, and by the time evening came I was a very tired young man.

That night we were told (and by we I mean the seven remaining pilots in the squadron) that at first light the next morning we were to take off and fly to a very secret small landing field about thirty miles along the coast. It was clear that if we stayed another day at Elevsis we would be wiped out, planes and all. We crowded around a table in the mess tent and by the light of a paraffin lamp someone, I think it was the squadron Adjutant, tried to show us where this secret landing field was. ‘It’s right on the edge of the coast,’ he said, ‘beside a little village called Megara. You can’t miss it. It’s the only flat bit of land around.’

‘Are we going to operate from there?’ someone asked. ‘God knows,’ the Adjutant said.

‘But what do we do after we’ve landed?’ we asked him. ‘Will there be

anybody there except us?’

‘Just get the hell out of here at dawn tomorrow and go there,’ the wretched man said.

‘But what’s the point of it all?’ someone said. ‘Right at this moment we have seven quite decent Hurricanes and if we hang around with them here in this crazy country they are certain to be destroyed on the ground or shot down in the air in the next couple of days. So why don’t we fly them all to Crete tomorrow morning and save them for better things? We’d be there in an hour and a half. And from Crete we could fly them to Egypt. I’ll bet they could use seven extra Hurricanes in the Western Desert.’

‘Just do as you’re told,’ the Adjutant said. ‘Our job is to keep these seven planes going so that we can give air cover to the army which is about to be evacuated off the coast by the navy.’

‘With seven machines!’ a young pilot said. ‘And flying out of a little field along the coast with no fitters and no riggers and no refuelling wagons! It’s ridiculous!’

The Adjutant looked at the young pilot and said simply, ‘It’s not my idea.

I’m only passing on orders.’

David Coke said, ‘Will anyone be at this place Megara when we arrive at dawn tomorrow?’

‘I don’t think so,’ the Adjutant said.

‘So what are we supposed to do? Just sit around on the grass?’

‘Look,’ the poor Adjutant said, ‘if I knew any more, I’d tell you.’ He was about forty, a volunteer, too old for flying, and he had been a seller of

agricultural implements before the war. He was a good man, but he was as much in the dark as we were. ‘They’re going to come over here and shoot this place to pieces tomorrow,’ he went on. ‘All of us, ground-crews included, are pulling out tonight. By the time you get up tomorrow morning the place will be empty. So make sure you all get away the moment there’s enough daylight for a take-off. Don’t hang about.’

‘Where are you all going to?’ somebody asked him. ‘Are you joining us at our secret little landing ground?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘we’re not. We’re going farther along the coast. I don’t even know myself where it is.’

‘Is it another secret landing field?’ ‘I think it is,’ the Adjutant said.

‘Then why don’t we fly there direct tomorrow?’ someone asked him. ‘What’s the point of going to this deserted Megara place?’

‘I don’t know!’ the Adjutant shouted, exasperated. ‘Where’s the CO?’ somebody asked.

‘That’s enough!’ the Adjutant shouted. ‘Go to bed all of you and get some sleep!’

One of us had an alarm clock and the next morning he woke us all up at

4.30 a.m. When I stepped out of our tent, Elevsis aerodrome lay silent and deserted in the pale half-light of the dawn. All tents except for those being used by the pilots had been struck and taken away. Only the old corrugated- iron hangar and the Ops Room hut and a few other wooden huts remained. The seven of us assembled in a little group, rubbing our hands together in the chill morning air. ‘Isn’t there a hot drink anywhere?’ someone said.

There wasn’t anything.

‘We’d better get going,’ David Coke said.

It was about 5 a.m. when we walked across the deserted and silent landing field to our planes. I think all of us felt very lonely at that moment. An aircraft is never unattended when you go out to it. There is always a fitter or a rigger to pull the chocks away from the wheels after you have started the engine.

And if the engine won’t start or if the batteries are low, someone brings along the trolley and plugs it in to give your batteries a boost. But there was nobody around. Not a soul. The top rim of the sun was just coming up above the hills beyond Athens and little sparks of sunlight were glinting on the dew in the grass.

I climbed into my Hurricane and hooked up all the straps. I switched on, set the mixture to ‘rich’ and pressed the starter button. The airscrew began to turn slowly and then the big Merlin engine gave a couple of coughs and started up. I looked around for the other six. They had all managed to get started and

were taxiing out for take-off.

The seven of us assembled at about 1,000 feet over the aerodrome and then we flew off along the coast to look for our secret landing strip. Soon we were circling the little village of Megara, and we saw a green field alongside the village and there was a man on an ancient steam-roller rolling out a kind of makeshift landing strip across the field. He looked up as we flew over and then he drove his steam-roller to one side and we landed our planes on the bumpy field and taxied in among some olive trees for cover. The cover was not very good, so we broke branches off the olive trees and draped them over the wings of our planes, hoping to make them less conspicuous from the air. Even so, I figured that the first German to fly over would be sure to see us and then it would be curtains.

 

 

The time was 5.15 a.m. There was not a soul on the field except for the man sitting on his steam-roller. We wondered what we ought to do next. If our planes were going to be strafed, then the further away from them we were the better, just so long as we kept them in view. There was a stony ridge about 200 feet high between us and the sea and we decided that this might be as safe a vantage point as any. So up we went and when we got to the top we sat down on the big smooth white boulders and lit cigarettes. Immediately below us and to one side lay the olive grove with the seven Hurricanes half-hidden but still pretty conspicuous among the trees. To the other side lay the blue Gulf of Athens, and I could have thrown a stone into the water it was so close.

A large oil tanker was lying about 500 yards off the shore. ‘I wouldn’t want to be on that tanker,’ somebody said.

Somebody else said, ‘Why doesn’t the silly sod get the hell out of here?

Hasn’t he heard about the Germans?’

In a way it was very pleasant to be sitting high up on that rocky ridge early on a bright blue Grecian morning in April. We were young and quite fearless. We were undaunted by the thought that there were only seven of us with seven Hurricanes on a bare field and fifty miles to the north about one half of the entire German Air Force was trying to hunt us down. From where we sat we had a fine view of the Bay of Athens and the blue-green sea and the crazy oil tanker lying at anchor.

Breakfast-time came but there was no breakfast. Then we heard the roar of aircraft engines close by and a group of some thirty 109s came whistling very low over the village of Megara, not half a mile away from us. They flew on, heading straight for Elevsis, the place we had left at the crack of dawn. We had got out just in time.

Only a few minutes later, a bunch of Stuka dive-bombers flew directly over our heads at about 3,000 feet, going straight towards the tanker, and above them a host of protective fighters were swarming like locusts.

‘Get down!’ somebody shouted. ‘Hide under the rocks and keep still! Don’t let them see us!’

But surely, I thought, they would see our planes in the olive grove? They were by no means completely hidden.

The Stukas came over in line astern and when the leader was directly above the oil tanker he dropped his nose and went into a screaming vertical dive. We lay among the boulders on top of the ridge watching the first Stuka. Faster and faster it went and we could hear the engine note changing from a roar to a scream as the plane dived absolutely vertically down upon the tanker. To me it looked as though the pilot was aiming to dive his plane straight into the funnel of the ship, but he pulled out just in time and then I saw the bomb coming out of the belly of the plane. It was a big black lump of metal and it fell quite slowly right on to the tanker’s forward deck. The Stuka was well away and skimming over the sea as the bomb exploded, and when the great flash came, the whole ship seemed to lift about ten feet out of the water, and already a second Stuka was screaming down followed by a third and a fourth and a fifth.

Only five Stukas dived on to that tanker. The remainder stayed up high and

watched because the ship was already blazing from end to end. We were very close to the whole thing, not more than 500 yards away, and when the tanks blew open, the oil spread out over the surface of the water and turned the ocean into a fiery lake. We could see half a dozen of the crew climbing on to the rails and jumping over the side and we heard their screams as they were roasted alive in the flames.

Up above us the Stukas which hadn’t dived turned round and headed for home and the escorting fighters went with them. Soon they were all out of sight and the only sounds we heard were the hissing noises of water meeting fire all along the sides of the stricken tanker.

We had seen plenty of bombings in our time, but we had never seen men jumping into a burning sea to be roasted and boiled alive like that. It shook us all.

‘It doesn’t seem as though anybody has any brains around here,’ somebody said. ‘Why didn’t the Greeks tell that tanker Captain to get the hell out?’

‘Why doesn’t someone tell us what to do next?’ somebody else said. ‘Because they don’t know,’ another voice said.

‘Seriously,’ I said, ‘why don’t we all just take off and fly to Crete? We’ve got full tanks.’

‘That’s a bloody good idea,’ David Coke said. ‘Then we can refuel and fly to Egypt. They’ve hardly got any Hurricanes at all in the Desert. These seven would be worth their weight in gold.’

‘You know what I think,’ a young man called Dowding said, ‘I think someone wants to be able to say that the brave RAF in Greece fought gallantly to the last pilot and the last plane.’

I figured that Dowding was probably right. It was either that, or our superiors were so muddle-headed and incompetent that they simply didn’t know what to do with us. I kept thinking about what the Corporal had said to me only a week before when I had first landed in Greece. ‘This is a brand new kite,’ he had said, ‘and it’s cost somebody thousands of hours to build it. And now those silly sods behind their desks in Cairo ’ave sent it out ’ere where it ain’t goin’ to last two minutes!’ It had lasted more than that, but I couldn’t see how it was going to last much longer.

We sat up on our rocky ridge beside the deep blue sea and occasionally we glanced at the burning tanker. No one had got out of her alive, but there were a number of charred corpses floating in the water. Either the current or the tide was bringing the corpses slowly towards the shore and every half hour or so I looked over my shoulder to see how close they were getting. There were about nine of them and by eleven o’clock they were only fifty yards from the rocks below us.

Somewhere around midday a large black motor-car came creeping on to our landing field. All of us became suddenly very alert. The car crept slowly over the field as though searching for something, then it turned and headed for the olive grove below us where our planes were parked. We could make out a driver at the wheel and a shadowy figure sitting in the back seat, but we couldn’t see who they were or what they were wearing.

‘They might be Germans with submachine-guns,’ somebody said. We realized we were totally unarmed. None of us carried even a revolver.

‘What make of car is it?’ David asked.

We could none of us recognize the make. Someone thought it might be a Mercedes-Benz. All eyes were watching the big black motor-car.

It pulled up beside the olive grove. We sat in a close group up on our rocky ridge, alert and apprehensive. The back door opened and out stepped a formidable figure in RAF uniform. We were close enough to see him quite clearly. He had a pale orange-coloured moustache and a thick body. ‘My God, it’s the Air Commodore!’ Dowding said, and it was. This man, who had his headquarters in Athens, had been, and indeed still was, in command of all the RAF in Greece. A few weeks ago he had directed the activities of three fighter squadrons and several bomber squadrons, but now we were all he had left. I was surprised he had managed to find out where we were.

‘Where the hell is everybody?’ the Air Commodore shouted. ‘We’re up here, sir!’ we called back.

He looked up and saw us. ‘Come down at once!’ he shouted.

We clambered down and straggled up to him. He was standing beside the motor-car and his fierce pale-blue eyes travelled slowly over our little group. He reached into the car and brought out a thick parcel wrapped in white paper and sealed with red sealing-wax. The parcel was about the size of an average Bible, but it was floppy and bent slightly as he held it in his hands.

‘This package’, he said, ‘must be delivered back to Elevsis at once. It is of vital importance. It must not be lost and it must not fall into enemy hands. I want a volunteer to fly there with it immediately.’

Nobody leapt forward, but that wasn’t because we were afraid of returning to Elevsis. None of us was afraid of anything. We were just fed up with being pushed around.

Finally I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I am a compulsive volunteer. I’ll say yes to anything.

‘Good man,’ said the Air Commodore. ‘When you land, there’ll be somebody waiting for you. His name is Carter. Ask him his name before you give him the package. Is that clear?’

Someone said, ‘They’ve just been ground-strafing Elevsis again, sir. We saw them go by. One-O-Nines. Masses of them.’

‘I know that,’ snapped the Air Commodore. ‘It makes no difference. Now you,’ he said, staring at me with his fierce pale-blue eyes, ‘you’re to deliver this package to Carter right away and don’t fail me.’

‘I understand, sir,’ I said.

‘Carter will be the only person on the place,’ the Air Commodore said.

‘That is if the Germans haven’t got there already. If you see any German planes on the aerodrome, for God’s sake don’t land. Get away at once.’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘Where shall I go?’

‘Back here. Fly straight back here. What’s your name?’ ‘Pilot Officer Dahl, sir.’

‘Very well, Dahl,’ he said, weighing the package up and down in one hand. ‘This is on no account to fall into enemy hands. Guard it with your life. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said, feeling important.

‘Fly very low all the way,’ the Air Commodore said, ‘then they won’t spot you. Land quickly, find Carter, give this to him and get the hell out.’ He handed me the package. I wanted very much to know what was in it but I didn’t dare ask.

‘If you are shot down on the way, make sure you burn it,’ the Air Commodore said. ‘You’ve got a match on you, I hope?’

I stared at him. If this was the kind of genius that had been directing our operations, no wonder we were in a mess.

‘Burn it,’ I said. ‘Very well, sir.’

Good old David Coke said, ‘If he’s shot down, sir, I imagine it’ll burn with him.’

‘Exactly,’ the Air Commodore said. ‘Now then, when you arrive back here, don’t land. Just circle the field.’ He turned to the others and said, ‘The rest of you will be waiting in your cockpits, and as soon as you see him overhead, you are to taxi out and take off. You’, he said, pointing at me, ‘will join up with them and all of you will fly on to Argos.’

‘Where’s that, sir?’

‘It’s another fifty miles along the coast,’ the Air Commodore said. ‘You’ll see it on your maps.’

‘What happens at Argos, sir?’

‘At Argos’, the Air Commodore said, ‘everything has been properly organized to receive you. Your ground crews are there already. So is your Squadron-Leader.’

‘Is there an aerodrome at Argos, sir?’ somebody asked.

‘It’s a landing strip,’ the Air Commodore said. ‘It’s about a mile from the sea and our navy is standing offshore waiting to take off the troops. Your task will be to give air cover to the navy.’

‘There are only seven of us, sir,’ someone said.

‘You’ll be doing a vital job,’ the Air Commodore announced, his moustache bristling. ‘You will be responsible for the protection of half the Mediterranean fleet.’

God help them, I thought.

The Air Commodore pointed a finger at me. ‘You,’ he said, ‘get cracking!

Deliver that parcel and get back here as fast as you can!’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said. I went over to my Hurricane and got in and did up my straps. I put the mysterious package on my lap. On the floor of the cockpit under my legs I had the paper-bag with my belongings, as well as my Log Book. My camera, I remember clearly, was hanging by its strap from my neck. I taxied out and took off. I flew very low and fast, and in eight minutes I had reached Elevsis airfield. I circled the field once, looking for Germans or their planes. The place seemed totally deserted. I glanced at the windsock and banked straight in to land against the wind.

Just as I came to the end of my landing run, I heard the air-raid sirens wailing somewhere in the distance. I jumped out of my plane with my precious package and lay down in the ditch that surrounded the field. A great swarm of Stuka dive-bombers came over with their escort of fighters above them, and I watched them as they flew on to Piraeus harbour. At Piraeus they began dive-bombing the ships.

I got back into my Hurricane and taxied up to the Operations Hut. The small buildings were splattered with bullet marks and the glass in all the windows was shattered. Several of the huts were smouldering.

I got out of my plane and walked towards the wreckage of huts. There was not a soul in sight. The entire aerodrome was deserted. In the distance I could hear the Stukas diving on to the shipping in Piraeus harbour and I could hear the bombs exploding.

‘Is there anybody here?’ I called out.

I felt very lonely. It was like being the only man on the moon. I stood between the Ops Hut and another small wooden hut alongside. The small hut had grey-blue smoke coming out of its shattered windows. I held the famous package tightly in my right hand.

‘Hello?’ I called out. ‘Is there anybody here?’

Again the silence. Then a figure shimmered into sight beside one of the huts. He was a small middle-aged man wearing a pale-grey suit and he had a trilby hat on his head. He looked absurd standing there in his immaculate clothes amidst all that wreckage.

‘I believe that parcel is for me,’ he said. ‘What is your name?’ I asked him. ‘Carter,’ he said.

‘Take it,’ I said. ‘By the way, what’s in it?’ ‘Thank you for coming,’ he said, smiling slightly.

I took an instant liking to Mr Carter. I knew very well he was going to stay

behind when the Germans took over. He was going underground. And then he would probably be caught and tortured and shot through the head.

‘Will you be all right?’ I said to him. I had to raise my voice to make it heard over the crash of bombs falling on Piraeus harbour.

He reached out and shook my hand. ‘Please leave at once,’ he said. ‘Your machine is rather conspicuous out there.’

I returned to the Hurricane and started the engine. From my cockpit I glanced back to where Mr Carter had been standing. I wanted to wave him goodbye, but he had disappeared. I opened the throttle and took off straight from where I was parked. I flew back fast and low to the field at Megara where the other six were waiting for me on the ground with their engines running. When they saw me overhead, they took off one by one and we all joined up in loose formation and flew on to look for this place that was called Argos.

The Air Commodore had said it was a landing strip. It was in fact the narrowest, bumpiest, shortest little strip of grass any of us had ever been asked to land a plane upon. But we had to get down, so down we went.

It was now about noon. The Argos landing strip was surrounded by those ever-present olive trees and in among the trees we could see that a whole lot of tents had been put up. Nothing stands out from the air more than a bunch of tents, even when they are tucked away among the olive trees. Oh brother, I thought. How long will it take them to find us here? A few hours at the most. No one should have put up any tents. The ground-crews should have slept under the trees. So should we. Our Squadron-Leader had his own tent and we found him sitting in it behind a trestle table. ‘Here we are,’ we said.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘You’ll be doing a patrol over the fleet this evening.’

We stood there looking at the Squadron-Leader as he sat behind his trestle table that had no papers on it.

There is something wrong about this, I told myself. There is no way in the world the Germans are going to allow us to operate our seven aircraft from this place. Our superiors were evidently expecting the worst because deep slit-trenches had been dug amongst the olive trees. But you cannot hide aeroplanes in slit-trenches and you cannot hide tents anywhere, especially tents that are a brilliant shining white.

‘How long will it take them to find us here, sir?’ I remember asking. The Squadron-Leader passed a hand over his eyes, then rubbed his eye-

sockets with his knuckles. ‘Who knows?’ he said.

‘They’ll wipe us out by tomorrow,’ I said, greatly daring.

‘We can’t run away and leave the army with no air cover,’ the Squadron- Leader said. ‘We must do our best.’

We all trooped out of the tent feeling not very happy about anything.

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