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Chapter no 13 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌The Argos Fiasco‌

Going Solo

When we left the Squadron-Leader’s tent, David and I wandered off together to have a look around the camp. What we were really searching for was something to eat. We had been up since four-thirty that morning and it was now about two in the afternoon. None of us pilots had had anything at all to eat or drink since the night before. We were famished and very thirsty.

There must have been twenty-five tents scattered around that olive grove, but David and I soon located the mess tent. In the rush to move out of Elevsis during the night, it seemed that somebody had forgotten to bring the food.

The local Greeks very quickly got wise to this state of affairs and they were now streaming into the camp bearing vast quantities of black olives and bottles of retsina wine. David and I bought a bucket of olives and two bottles of wine and found a shady patch of grass under a tree where we could sit down to eat and drink. We chose a spot right between our two Hurricanes so that we could keep an eye on them all the time. The number of Greek villagers mooching around was amazing. We must have been the first operational military airfield in history that was open to the public.

So we sat there, the two of us, in the shade of an olive tree on a lovely warm April afternoon, eating the small black juicy olives and drinking the retsina out of the bottles. From where we sat we could see the whole of Argos Bay, but there was no sign of an evacuation fleet nor of the Royal Navy.

There was just one fairly large cargo vessel lying out in the bay and there was a plume of grey smoke rising from her forward hold. We were told that she was yet another fully-laden ammunition ship and that the Germans had been over and bombed her that morning. There was now a fire below decks and everyone was waiting for the enormous explosion.

‘Well, here we are,’ David said, ‘sitting in the sun and drinking pine juice and what a terrific cock-up it all is.’

I said, ‘The Germans know very well that there are seven Hurricanes left in Greece. They intend to find us and they intend to wipe us out. Then they will have the sky all to themselves.’

‘Exactly,’ David said. ‘And they’re going to find us very quickly.’ ‘When they do, this camp will be an inferno,’ I said.

‘I shall be in the nearest slit-trench,’ David said.

It was curiously peaceful sitting there chewing the delicious slightly bitter black olives and spitting out the stones and taking gulps of retsina in between. I kept looking at the ammunition ship out in the bay and waiting for her to blow up.

‘I don’t see any army getting into any ships,’ David said. ‘Who are we going to patrol over this evening?’

‘Tell me seriously,’ I said, ‘do you think we’ll come out of here alive?’ ‘No,’ David said. ‘I think we’ll be dead within twenty-four hours. We’ll either cop it in the air or they’ll get us right here on the ground. They’ve got

enough planes to totally annihilate us.’

We were still sitting in the same place at 4.30 p.m. when there was a sudden roar overhead and a single Messerschmitt 110 swept in low over our camp. The One-One-O, as we called it, was a fast twin-engined fighter with a crew of two and with a longer range than the single-engined 109. We stood up to watch him as he banked round over the water of the bay and came back again straight towards us, still flying low. He showed utter contempt for our defences because he knew we had none, and as he flashed over the second time, we could see both the pilot and the rear-gunner peering down at us with their cockpit hoods wide open. A fighter pilot never expects to come face to face with an enemy flier. To him the machine is the enemy. But now it was only the humans that I saw. All of a sudden those two Germans were so close they made my skin prickle. I saw their pale faces turned towards me, each face framed in a black helmet with the goggles pushed up high over the forehead, and for one thousandth of a second I fancied that my eyes looked into the eyes of the pilot.

That pilot made three workmanlike passes over our camp, then he flew off

to the north.

‘That’s it!’ David Coke said. ‘That’s done it!’

Men were standing up all over the camp. They were discussing the consequences of the 110’s visit. It hadn’t taken the Germans long to find us.

David and I knew exactly what the sequence of events would be from now on. ‘We can work it out,’ I said. ‘It’ll take him roughly half an hour to get back to his base and report our precise whereabouts. It’ll take his squadron another half hour to get ready for take-off. Then another half hour for the whole lot of them to arrive back here and knock the daylights out of us. We can expect to be ground-strafed by a squadron of One-One-Os in an hour and a half’s time, at six o’clock this evening.’

‘We could jump them,’ David said. ‘If the seven of us are all airborne and waiting for them directly overhead at six o’clock we could jump them beautifully.’

The Adjutant came up to us. ‘CO’s orders,’ he said. ‘All seven of you to patrol over the fleet for as long as you can this evening. Take-off is at six o’clock sharp.’

Six o’clock!’ David cried. ‘But that’s just when they’ll be coming over.’ ‘Who will be coming over?’ the Adjutant asked.

‘A squadron of One-One-Os,’ David said. ‘We’ve worked it all out. They’ll be coming over to strafe us at six o’clock.’

‘You seem to have better information than your commanding officer,’ the Adjutant said.

We tried to explain exactly how we thought things were going to happen, but it was no good. ‘Just stick to your orders,’ the Adjutant said. ‘Our job is to give cover to the ships evacuating our army.’

‘What ships?’ David said. ‘And what army?’

I was only a very junior Pilot Officer, but I was damned if I was going to leave it like that. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘will you please try to get permission for us to take off at say half-past five or even a quarter to six instead of six o’clock. It might make all the difference.’

‘I can try,’ the Adjutant said and he went away. He was not a bad fellow.

He returned five minutes later and shook his head. ‘It’s still six o’clock,’ he said.

‘And precisely where are all these ships that we are meant to be protecting?’ I asked.

‘Between you and me,’ the Adjutant said, ‘they don’t actually seem to know. You’d better just fly out to sea and try to find them.’

When he had gone, I said, ‘I know darn well what I’m going to do. At five fifty-five I’m going to be sitting in my cockpit at the end of the landing strip with my engine running, waiting for the signal. Then I’ll be off like a dingbat.’

‘I’ll be right behind you,’ David said. ‘I think we’ll be lucky if we get away before they arrive.’

At five minutes to six I was in position at the end of the strip with my engine running, ready for take-off. David was to one side, all set to follow me. The Ops Officer stood on the ground nearby looking at his watch. The five other pilots were beginning to taxi their planes out of the olive trees.

At six o’clock, the Ops Officer raised his arm and I opened the throttle. In ten seconds I was airborne and heading for the sea. I glanced round and saw David not far behind me. He caught up with me and settled in just behind my

starboard wing. After a minute or so, I looked round, expecting to see the other five Hurricanes coming up to join us. They weren’t there. I saw David looking over his shoulder. Then he looked across at me and shook his head. We couldn’t speak to each other because our radios didn’t work. But we had to obey orders so we continued flying out over the sea. We gave the smoking ammunition ship a wide berth in case it blew up beneath us and we flew on, searching for the Royal Navy.

We stayed up there for over an hour but during all that time we saw not a single ship. We learnt later that the main evacuation was taking place from the beaches of Kalamata, many miles further to the west, where our navy was getting a terrible bombing from the Ju 88s and the Stukas. But nobody had told us. We were on our way back and were just coming into the Bay of Argos again when I spotted something. It was a plane, a smallish twin-engined plane flying towards Argos and hugging the mountains of the coast.

Ha! I thought. A German shufti kite reconnoitring the area. It had to be a German. There were no other aircraft in Greece now except for our Hurricanes, and it wasn’t one of those. I’ll have him, I told myself. I switched my firing-button from ‘safe’ to ‘on’ and flicked on my reflector-sight. Then I opened the throttle and dived flat out for the smallish twin-engined plane. The next thing I saw was David’s Hurricane rushing right up alongside me, dangerously close, and he was waggling his wings at me furiously and waving a hand from the cockpit and shaking his helmeted head from side to side. He kept pointing at the plane I was about to attack. I looked at it again. Oh, my God, it had RAF markings on its body! In five more seconds I’d have shot it down! But what on earth was a little unarmed non-combatant plane doing over here in the battle zone? I could see now that it was a de Havilland Rapide, a passenger aircraft that could carry about a dozen people. We let it go and headed back towards our landing field.

We were still several miles away when we saw the smoke. Some of it was

black and some was grey and it lay like a thick blanket over the landing strip and the olive grove. I trembled to think what we would discover down there when we landed, if indeed it were possible to land through all that smoke.

We circled round and round the blanket of smoke, hoping it would clear away. There was no wind at all. I could just make out the big rock that marked the beginning of the landing strip but the rest was hidden. My fuel gauge was registering nil so it was now or never. It was the same with David. He went in first and I lost sight of him in the smoke. I waited for sixty seconds, then went in after him. It was no joke trying to land a Hurricane on a small narrow strip of grass through thick smoke, but with the big rock to guide me I managed to touch down in more or less the right place. After that,

as the plane ran over the ground at eighty miles an hour, then seventy, then sixty, I shut my eyes and prayed that I wouldn’t crash into David or into anything else ahead.

 

 

I didn’t. I came to a stop and climbed out of the plane right away. ‘David!’ I called. ‘Are you all right?’ I couldn’t see five yards in front of me.

‘I’m here!’ he called back. ‘I’m getting out!’

Together we groped our way back into camp. There was a certain amount of chaos around the place, but to our astonishment the ground was not littered with bloody corpses. In fact there were remarkably few casualties. What had happened was this. I had taken off at precisely six o’clock. David had followed me at one minute past six. Then three others had managed to get

away, making it five altogether. But as the sixth Hurricane was gathering speed for lift-off, a swarm of Messerschmitts had come swooping in over the olive trees. The pilot who was taking off was shot down and killed. The seventh pilot had leapt out of his plane and dived into a slit-trench. So had everybody else in the camp. And there they all had crouched while the Messerschmitts swooped back and forth methodically shooting up everything they could see, the planes, the tents, the refuelling tanker, the ammunition store, the buckets of olives and the bottles of retsina.

All this was more than forty years ago, but even at that distance there seems little doubt that all seven of us should have been sent up well before six o’clock and ordered to patrol, not over a non-existent evacuation fleet, but over the landing ground itself. Then there would have been a grand battle. We might, of course, have lost more planes that way, but we would certainly have been waiting for them and we could have jumped them out of the sun with plenty of height advantage. We might even have got the lot of them. On the other hand, it is easy to be critical of one’s commanders after the event and it is a game that all junior ranks enjoy playing. It is wrong to indulge in it too much.

David and I picked our way into the smoking camp. Somebody, I think it was the Adjutant, was shouting, ‘All pilots this way! Hurry up! Hurry up!’

We went towards the voice and we found the Adjutant and we also found grouped around him quite an assortment of pilots who seemed to have trickled into the camp from heaven knows where. There were the six of us who were the survivors of our own squadron, but there were at least eight or ten other faces I had never seen before. An open truck was pulling through the smoke. It stopped alongside us, and then the Adjutant proceeded to read out the names of what turned out to be the five most senior pilots in the group.

David and I, of course, were not among them.

‘You five’, the Adjutant said, ‘will fly the five remaining Hurricanes to Crete immediately. All the other pilots, and only pilots, are to get into this truck. There is a small aircraft waiting in a field near here to fly you out of the country at once. You are to take nothing with you except your Log Books.’

We raced away to fetch our Log Books from our tents. I looked for my precious camera. It was gone. It had almost certainly been taken by one of the many Greeks wandering round the camp while I was up in the air. I couldn’t really blame him, whoever he was. Now he would be able to sell the good Zeiss product back to the Germans when they arrived. But I found two exposed rolls of film and stuffed them into my trouser pocket. I grabbed my Log Book and ran outside with the other pilots and clambered into the truck. We were then driven out of the camp along a rutted dirt road to a smallish

field. On the field stood the little de Havilland Rapide that I had nearly shot down thirty minutes before. We piled into the aircraft. I could see now why the Adjutant had forbidden us to bring anything with us other than our Log Books. The field wasn’t more than 200 yards long and as the pilot opened his throttles and began his take-off, we none of us thought he was going to make it. Every extra pound of weight in that aeroplane would have narrowed his chances. We bounced over a stone wall at the far end of the field and watched breathlessly as the plane staggered into the air. We just made it. Everyone cheered.

 

 

I had a window-seat and David was beside me. Only twenty minutes ago we had been in among the smoking olive trees and the burnt-out tents. Now we were 1,000 feet up over the Mediterranean and flying towards the North African coast. The sun was going down and the sea below us was turning from pale green to dark blue.

‘We’ll have to do a night landing,’ I said.

‘That will be nothing for this pilot,’ David said. ‘If he could take off from a piddling little field like that with all of us on board, he can do anything.’

We landed two hours later on a moonlit patch of sand known as Martin Bagush in the Western Desert of Libya. In the dark we found a truck which was going back to Alexandria through the night and all of us pilots got into it. We arrived in Alexandria early the next morning filthy, unshaven and with nothing to carry except our Log Books. We had no Egyptian money. I led the lot of them, nine young pilots in all, through the streets of Alexandria to the marvellous mansion that was owned by Major Bobby Peel and his wife. They were the wealthy English couple who had put me up during my convalescence a few weeks before. I rang the doorbell. The Sudanese butler answered it. He stared in alarm at the bedraggled group of young men standing on the doorstep.

‘Hello Saleh,’ I said. ‘Are Major and Mrs Peel in?’

He went on staring. ‘Oh sir!’ he cried. ‘It’s you! Yes sir, Major and Mrs Peel are having breakfast.’

I walked into the house and called out to my friends in the dining-room. The Peels were wonderful. The whole house was put at our disposal. There were bathrooms on all four floors and we swarmed into them. Razors and shaving soap and towels appeared from nowhere. All of us bathed and shaved and then sat down around the huge dining-table to a sumptuous breakfast and told the Peels about Greece.

‘I don’t think anyone else is going to get out,’ Bobby Peel said. He was a middle-aged man too old for service, but he had a high-powered job somewhere in military headquarters. ‘The navy is trying to rescue as many of our troops as they can,’ he said, ‘but they are having a bad time of it. They have no air cover at all.’

‘You can say that again,’ David Coke said.

‘The whole thing was a cock-up,’ someone said.

‘I think it was,’ Bobby Peel said. ‘We should never have gone into Greece at all.’

Alexandria 15 May 1941

Dear Mama,

Well, I don’t know what news I can give you. We really had the hell of a time in Greece. It wasn’t much fun taking on half the German Airforce with literally a handfull of fighters. My machine was shot up quite a bit but I always managed to get back. The difficulty was to choose a time to land when the German fighters weren’t ground straffing our aerodrome. Later on we hopped from place to place trying to cover the evacuation – hiding our planes in olive groves and covering them with olive branches in a fairly fruitless endeavour to prevent them being spotted by one or other of the swarms of aircraft overhead. Anyway I don’t think anything as bad as that will happen again …

The Grecian episode was a very small part of the war that was raging all over the world, but so far as the Middle East was concerned, it was an important one. The troops and planes that were lost in that abortive campaign had all been drawn from our already overstretched forces in the Western Desert, and as a result those forces were now diminished to such an extent that for the next two years our desert army suffered defeat after defeat and Rommel was at one time actually threatening to capture Egypt and the whole of the Middle East. It took two years to rebuild the Desert Army to a point where the Battle of Alamein could be won and the Middle East secured for

the rest of the war.

The handful of pilots who survived the Grecian campaign were tremendously lucky. The odds were strongly against any of us coming out alive. The five who flew our remaining Hurricanes to Crete were to fight valiantly on the island when the Germans attacked a short time later with a massive airborne invasion. I know that one of them at least, Bill Vale from 80 Squadron, survived and escaped when the island was captured, and lived to fight again, but I do not know what happened to the others.

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