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Greek Tragedies: Air Force, Part 51

The Malta Air/Sea Rescue Unit comes to the rescue of an RCAF pilot forced to ditch his Spitfire in the Mediterranean. [PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM]

The Malta Air/Sea Rescue Unit comes to the rescue of an RCAF pilot forced to ditch his Spitfire in the Mediterranean.

Canadian air force personnel who served in Africa during the Second World War have something in common with the Canadian personnel stationed in Greece during the same time period. The service of both groups is quite interesting, but not widely known.

Invaded by Italian forces in 1940, the Greeks beat back the enemy until Hitler intervened to save Mussolini from his folly. By April 30, 1941, the mainland had been overrun; German airborne troops spearheaded an invasion of Crete and by May 30 the island was occupied. Canadians who had already enlisted in the Royal Air Force were swept up in these battles, including Flight Lieutenant Vernon C. Woodward of Victoria (subject of the book Woody: A Fighter Pilot’s Album) and Alfred L. Bocking of Winnipeg whose story was recounted in Roundel magazine in the mid-1950s. Another Canadian, Kenneth Dundas of Pelly, Sask., survived the Greek campaign only to die in Sumatra in February 1942. His story can be found online at

At least one Canadian airman in Greece wore naval rather than air force dress. Lieut. Lloyd Keith of Calgary joined the RAF in 1936, but was commissioned in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for outstanding gallantry, fortitude and resolution during the Battle of Crete.” He was killed in action off Tobruk in a Fairey Swordfish on June 26, 1941.

Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force—graduates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan—began trickling into the Mediterranean theatre in the fall of 1941. Among them were flight sergeants Albert P. McLean, a navigator from Grimsby, Ont., and Jack Calderwood, an air gunner from Windsor, Ont. Both were posted to No. 107 Squadron on Nov. 4, and the unit had a Blenheim bomber detachment at Malta. McLean and Calderwood died during a low-level attack on enemy shipping in Argostoli harbour in western Greece on Dec. 13 when two of six aircraft were shot down.

Flight Lieutenant Vernon Woodward of Victoria. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Flight Lieutenant Vernon Woodward of Victoria.

Mainland Greece and Crete were home to Axis air bases which threatened Cyprus, Alexandria, the Suez Canal as well as the eastern Mediterranean convoys bound for Malta. Both places were visited by the RAF and—from the autumn of 1942 onwards—American aircraft which dealt more with North African targets than Greek ones. Between Dec. 13, 1942, and Jan. 11, 1943, RAF bombers flew 222 sorties against North African targets and 116 against distant targets elsewhere. The corresponding figures for American bombers were 112 and 81.

Allied fighters also harried the enemy in Crete and Greece. One of the more remarkable sorties involved a Beaufighter of No. 46 Sqdn. on the night of March 5, 1944. The pilot was Wing Commander Max Aitken, RAF, son of Lord Beaverbrook. His navigator and radar operator was Flight Lieutenant Gilbert A. Muir, RCAF, of Winnipeg. Strictly speaking, Muir was a radar specialist on the non-flying list—a distinction often ignored in the Mediterranean theatre. Until the sortie with Aitken, he had seen only German flak, not aircraft.

On this night, the team flew from Idku, Egypt, to Crete, which they circumnavigated while surprising a series of unsuspecting German aircrews. The trip took four hours, 48 minutes, and the final tally was two Junkers transports destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged. The first victim broke up so thoroughly that the Beaufighter almost collided with a detached wing.

Flying Officer Edward Taylor of Victoria, a Beaufighter pilot in No. 252 Sqdn., scored a singular success near Rhodes on March 13, 1944. He intercepted three Ju. 52 transports and shot two down into the sea. The third crashed on land.

The threats from Greece and Crete declined as the Allies ejected the Axis from North Africa and then Sicily. By September 1943 the supply route to Malta was assured. Winston Churchill then ordered an assault on islands in the Peloponnese. His reasons had more to do with “grand strategy” (influence on Turkey) than military sense. Kos and Leros were captured in September 1943 and retaken by the Germans in October and November. Allied casualties were heavy; they included six destroyers, two submarines and 10 coastal craft sunk, 113 aircraft lost and 4,800 men killed or captured. The greatest tragedies involved the former Italian garrisons. Most of these had gone over to the Allies and the men manning them fought valiantly when the Germans returned. Their officers were shot, as were hundreds of other ranks, and survivors were shipped as forced labour to the Eastern Front. The 2001 movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin drew much of its inspiration from the aftermath of the failed campaign.

Pilot Louis Gossen was first to spot a German supply convoy bound for Crete. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA­—E010988368]

Pilot Louis Gossen was first to spot a German supply convoy bound for Crete.

Royal Air Force Beaufighters, operating at extreme range from Cyprus and Egypt, sustained 40 per cent casualties during the Peloponnesian adventure, and at least eight RCAF aircrew were killed.

Letters to next-of-kin masked their failed sacrifices. Flying Officer Percy Glynn of Thorold, Ont., had been piloting one of three Beaufighters of No. 227 Sqdn. which attacked a German convoy on Oct. 3, 1943. Glynn was killed by flak. Writing to his mother, his flight commander described the action as a “big day for us…the repulsion of the invasion force was left completely to the RAF and our particular Wing. Many of our attacks did severe damage to the enemy with losses to ourselves, but this was largely due to some pilots pressing home their attacks. Percy was one of them.”

It was a noble lie—the invasion had not been repulsed. The enemy had quickly seized Kos, even capturing the few Spitfires that had not been evacuated. Yet the comforting falsehood was made more necessary by another tragedy. Glynn’s brother, Sergeant Norman Glynn, had been killed in a flying accident in Britain on July 13, 1943.

In the aftermath of the Kos and Leros debacle, Flt. Lt. Roland Nadeau of Ottawa managed a remarkable escape. A flying control officer, he had gone overseas in February 1942, serving in North Africa and Sicily before a posting to Cairo. Assigned to the Kos expedition, he landed there on Sept. 13, 1943. The German counterattack of Oct. 3 left Nadeau with no aircraft to direct and forced him into a ground-defence role. He had no combat training and was armed only with a service revolver. A sniper’s bullet grazed his nose, and in the company of a British officer he retreated in an “every-man-for-himself” situation.

Nadeau and his companion stole a skiff and tried to make for Turkey, using a flat board as a paddle. They left under shellfire and when the board broke they each took a portion and kept on paddling. The boat then began shipping water from holes made by the shell splinters, but before it sank, the men salvaged a pole—presumably the mast—which they used to keep themselves afloat while swimming to neutral territory.

Squadron Leader Cecil Hulke of Victoria was less fortunate. An RCAF radar officer, he had been posted to the Middle East in November 1941 and was commanding the radar unit on Kos when the Germans landed. He was last seen on Oct. 3. There was a report that he tried to escape to Turkey on a tree trunk, paddling with his hands, but he probably drowned, as even a small boat with a sail took four hours to reach the mainland. Hulke was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and is listed on the El Alamein Memorial which, along with the Malta Memorial, commemorates service personnel who died in the Mediterranean theatre with no known grave.

Hitler regarded Greece as a barrier to an Allied invasion that would threaten his armies in southern Russia. As such, it was to be held at all cost. However, this entailed keeping the German garrisons supplied—easy enough on the mainland, but difficult in the maze of Aegean islands as well as isolated Crete. Allied sea and air power was deployed to starve the garrisons and this reduced the enemy outposts to a state of strategic irrelevance.

There was a price, however. Aerial intrusions into protected harbours and attacks on defended convoys took a toll. Even seemingly inoffensive caiques (light rowboats or skiffs) might be armed blockade runners. Flying Officer Edward Taylor was killed on May 25, 1944, while attacking a caique in Alimnia Bay, close to his earlier success in March. He was hit by a single machine gun and crashed.

On May 31, 1944, the Germans sailed a convoy of four large merchant ships from Piraeus, Greece, under exceptionally strong escort to provision Crete. The credit for finding them went to a Wellington bomber crew of No. 38 Sqdn. which included pilot Louis Gossen of Vancouver, co-pilot Elmer Gossner of Moncton, N.B., and navigator Bruce Hodgins of Clandeboye, Ont. By the light of a quarter moon, they detected and reported the enemy ships, then shadowed them. The enemy did not open fire until it was obvious they had been spotted. Gossen attacked with his own bomb load, although he scored no hits. As he headed back to base, other aircraft moved in to take up the watch.

That evening the convoy was savaged by Baltimore and Marauder bombers as well as rocket-firing Beaufighters, all the while protected by Spitfires and Mustangs. The attacking pilots included FO Ted MacIntosh of Lumsden, Sask., in a Beaufighter, and Pilot Officer Hiram Stevenson of Chipman, B.C., in a Marauder of a South African Air Force unit. There were no Canadian casualties that day, although four Beaufighters were shot down. The ships that made it to Crete were finished off at anchor.

Flying Officer John Granda was decorated by Greece. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA­—E010988377]

Flying Officer John Granda was decorated by Greece.

The strategy of stubborn occupation was overtaken by events; Soviet armies steadily ejected the Germans from Russia, moving into Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Greek garrisons became increasingly a burden, costly to maintain and supply. By September 1944, the Germans were withdrawing from the area. Evacuations from Crete and several other islands were halted when the army ran out of aviation fuel; their remaining garrisons were ordered to stand fast, and the islands remained under Axis occupation until May 1945.

Some members of the RCAF had unique experiences in aerial support of Greek guerrilla bands. Flt. Lt. Edwin J. Stockall of Kelliher, Sask., who had enlisted in the RCAF Construction and Engineering Branch, narrowly escaped capture in North Africa in 1942, and had worked with tactical bombers in Tunisia. On Sept. 26, 1944, Allied forces landed in southern Greece where they met weak opposition from a few German soldiers and Greek collaborators. Stockall’s task was to turn an improvised airstrip used by Spitfires into a forward operating base capable of handling Dakota transport aircraft.

Hundreds of civilian volunteers used hand tools to fill craters, and Stockall put prisoners to work improvising night landing flares from reeds soaked in oil and gasoline. British soldiers, meanwhile, cleared mines, and on Oct. 2 the first Dakotas were landing. The civilian workers had been recruited and organized largely by ELAS, the largest Greek resistance group which essentially governed three-fifths of occupied Greece. Rival Greek partisans had been fighting the ELAS and the Germans for over a year. When British troops attempted to disarm the various groups, they found themselves at war with ELAS. Stockall witnessed a virtual “Allied in Wonderland” situation—cheered as liberators in October 1944, and uncertain who to trust by December. He was witnessing the beginning of the Greek civil war—one of the most brutal conflicts in Europe—which would last until 1948.

In the heady days of the liberation campaign, Stockall found himself in the company of other Canadians. The first five Dakotas to land on his airfield included several RCAF aircrews, including Pilot Officer Don Deeprose of Victoria. The Spitfire pilots who had preceded Stockall to the airstrip included FO Harold H. Miller of Waterloo, Ont. The fighter wing was led by Wing Commander Patrick H. Woodruff of Edmonton who had enlisted in the RAF in 1937. Most of the Canadians would survive the war, but Woodruff was killed in a mid-air collision with another Spitfire on Feb. 27, 1945.

As in other campaigns, the Canadian mosaic proved useful. Flying Officers John L. Granda of Montreal and Harry T. Hionides—an American in the RCAF—were at various times assigned to No. 13 (Hellenic) Sqdn. as instructors and operational aircrew. Both were decorated with Greek awards.

Throughout the war, the “lost legion” of Canadian airmen carried the name of Canada into many campaigns and theatres where an “official” RCAF presence was absent. Our country was probably more recognized and remembered for the famine relief that reached occupied Greece via Sweden and Turkey than for the combat duties. Nevertheless, names on graves and memorials attest to the muscular RCAF contribution in the liberation of that nation.

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