Sei sulla pagina 1di 6

n

o
i
t
a
Ope r
s
i
s
e
h
T

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly

A Cretan Folly
When the Air Officer Commanding the RAFs Air Defence
Eastern Mediterranean Command (ADEM) authorised a
large air strike against the German occupied Crete in 1943
a formidable armada of Hurricanes and Baltimore bombers
set out to hit the island fortress, but with somewhat mixed
results. Barry M Marsden tells the story.

HE LOSS of Crete in 1941 meant


that the Axis forces had a base
threatening the main convoy
route between the Eastern and
Western Mediterranean, thus forcing
supplies of men and materiel into the
long supply line around the Cape of
Good Hope and the Suez Canal.
During June 1942, though, British
commandos carried out raids on

Cretan airfields, destroying Luftwaffe


aircraft and petrol stores. In retaliation,
however, the Germans murdered
fifty Cretans. A year later, another
raid was mounted and resulted in
the destruction of yet more enemy
aeroplanes but triggered a revenge
killing of fifty-two more citizens. It
was a murderous act, and one of the
triggers for Operation Thesis.

ABOVE: Group Captain Max Aitken who masterminded


Operation Thesis, the July 1943 air attack on Crete.

MAIN PICTURE:
Armourers replenish the
ammunition of a North
Africa-based Hurricane
of the Desert Air Force.

(WW2IMAGES)

www.britainatwar.com 109

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly

ABOVE:
The principal
fighter used on
the operation
was the Hawker
Hurricane Mk.IIC
which was armed
with four 20mm
cannon.

BELOW:
Baltimore
FA390/A was
lucky to reach
North Africa
after the
mission. Here
the wreckage
floats in the surf
with several
rather underclad
airmen checking
it out. This
machine sports
the later turret,
housing two
.50 calibre
Brownings.
(MARK LAX)

THE REQUIRED TONIC EFFECT


Following the Allied invasion of Sicily
in July 1943 the focus of operations
shifted away from the Eastern
Mediterranean although much thought
was given to thwarting German air
units based in Greece, Crete and the
Dodecanese Islands. Crete was a major
problem, especially with strong fighter
and bomber forces based there and,
importantly, the islands airfields were
being utilised by aircraft transiting
from the Greek mainland to Sicily.
Operation Thesis was the brainchild of
Group Captain Max Aitken. A successful
fighter pilot, Aitken had some dozen
enemy aircraft to his credit, being
posted to HQ Eastern Mediterranean
in 1943 to serve in the Fighter Tactics
Branch. At his disposal he had a
hundred or so Hurricanes with very
little to do after the spotlight of war
had shifted westwards. Aitken would
later write that lack of action 'resulted
in a dangerous psychological situation,
which might have a disastrous effect on
the morale of the squadrons.
It was therefore decided by the Air
Defence Commander that a large-scale
offensive operation employing most of
the squadrons in the Command would
produce the required tonic effect and
authority for a daylight attack on Crete
by all available single-engine aircraft in
219 and 212 Groups, and certain aircraft
in 212 (Naval Co-operation) Group, was
given by the AOC-in-C. Taking part in

110 www.britainatwar.com

such an operation was rendered highly


dangerous by the longest sea crossing
such a formation had ever undertaken.

Diamantopoulos). This wave was led to


their targets by two Bristol Beaufighters
from 227 Sqn as navigator-leaders.
A further fifty four Hurricanes took
A BARRAGE OF FLAK
off from Bu Amud and el-Gamil airstrips,
Aitkens plan was approved, and
including nine from 123 Sqn (led by Sqn
authority granted for a daylight attack
Ldr Ken Hawkeye Lee DFC) nine from
on Crete by all available single-engine
134 Sqn (Sqn Ldr Stratters Stratton DFC),
aircraft in 212 and 219 Groups and,
nine from 41 (SAAF) Sqn (Major W. J.
additionally, certain aircraft in 212
B Chapman), nine from 237 Sqn (Sqn
(Naval Co-operation) Group. It was a
Ldr John Walmisley), nine from 94 Sqn
risky operation, and one that involved
(Sqn Ldr A.V. Darky Clowes DFC, DFM)
the longest sea crossing such a large
and nine from 7 (SAAF) Sqn, (Major C.
formation had ever undertaken. The
Van Vliet DFC). The formation was also
intention was to mount a massed
guided by 227 Squadron Beaufighters.
attack aimed at destroying Cretes
Meanwhile, the Baltimores were
wireless transmitter stations and
scheduled to carry out land and shipping
other communications and military
strikes against Suda Bay, Heraklion,
establishments. This would be achieved
and other targets of opportunity. Eight
by using eight Martin Baltimore medium bombers, in two box formations of four
bombers from 454 (RAAF) Sqn as the
each, and led by S/Ldr Lionel Folkard in
main strike force, plus some ninety
Baltimore AG995, set out on the 230 mile
Hurricanes from Air Defence Eastern
flight. However, as they approached
Mediterranean (ADEM) who would hit
Suda Bay they were greeted by intense
communications facilities and other
flak which disabled the port motor of
targets of opportunity with the operation AG995. Despite serious wounds and
set for Friday 23 July 1943. On that
damage to the aircraft that had been
date, the massed formations left their
caused by his own bombs, Folkard
North African bases comprising thirty
managed to force-land on a beach near
six Hurricanes that set off from LG08
Heraklion. The crew survived, despite
at Sidi Barrani, six from 74 Sqn (led by
the fact that the Baltimore had skated
Sqn Ldr J Spud Hayter DFC), six from
over mines which were set off with
451 (RAAF) Sqn (Flt Lt E K Kirkman), six
explosions erupting behind the crashing
from 238 Squadron (Sqn Ldr H. Cochrane bomber. The badly wounded airmen
DFC), nine from 335 (Greek) Squadron (Flt managed to vacate the smashed-up
Lt G. Pangalos and FLt Lt N Volonakis),
Baltimore before its bomb load exploded,
and nine from 336 (Greek) Sqn (Flt Lt S.
blowing the aircraft to bits.

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly

ABOVE: Martin
Baltimore 111s
of 454 RAAF
Squadron warm
up before an
operational
take-off.
Eight aircraft
from this unit
provided the
main punch of
the sortie. The
nearest bomber,
AH158/O, is
armed with
the four .303
Browning
dorsal turret.
(MARK LAX)

AN INAUSPICIOUS START
Of the second wave of Baltimores, all
four were shot down (FA409, AG869,
FA247 and FA224) with only three
survivors out of the sixteen crewmen.
Three of the Baltimores disappeared
without trace, although the crew of
the remaining aircraft, FA390/A, had
a close call. Flying as No.2 to Folkard,
F/Sgt Ray Akhurst ventured over
Maleme airfield at a mere fifty feet
and heavy AA fire knocked out the
starboard engine and damaged the
airframe. The Baltimore struggled
back to base at 140mph, despite
severe vibration, and with the crew
throwing out all they could to lighten

the machine. Akhurst had planned to


crash-land on a beach near his airfield
at Gambut, but found the foreshore
littered with debris from a sunken
freighter. As he turned back over the
sea, so his remaining motor stopped
when the aircraft ran out of fuel.
With considerable measures of both
skill and luck, he managed to ditch in
the surf with the aeroplane floating
ashore the next day. Empty fuel tanks
had provided the necessary buoyancy
and allowed for two lucky homing
pigeons to be rescued from the wreck.
Akhurst received an immediate DFM
for his skilful and determined flying
but it was little compensation for

the units darkest day and one which


had decimated the squadrons flying
establishment.
Unfortunately, the Hurricanes fared
little better. Ken Hawkeye Lee, of 123
Sqn, a veteran of the Battles of France
and Britain, recalled a visit by Aitken to
El Adem ahead of the Thesis operation.
He addressed the assembled pilots,
saying: Right chaps, tomorrow morning
two Beaufighters are going to come over
and navigate for you. You are going to
fly to Crete at sea level and knock hell
out of the place. Aitken nominated
Lee as Wing Leader, but Lees cryptic
comment reflected his scepticism as to
the wisdom of the operation: No maps.
No photographs. No specific targets.
Just go and give them hell. It wasnt an
auspicious start.

ABOVE FAR
LEFT: 134
squadron
operated a mix
of Hurricane
IIBs and IICs
at the time of
Thesis. Here
ground staff
pose on a Mk.IIC
piloted by Fg
Off W. Wright,
seen at bottom
right. Note the
belt of 20mm
ammunition on
the shoulder of
the standing
airman.
(IAN SIMPSON).

ABOVE LEFT:
Squadron Leader
Bill Stratters
Stratton, seen
in the centre of
this group of 1
Squadron pilots,
commanded 134
on Operation
Thesis.
(NO.1 SQUADRON
ARCHIVES)

LEFT: An
excellent shot of
Baltimore C for
Charlie of 454
Sqn. The bar
across the fin
and rudder is a
locking device.
(MARK LAX)

www.britainatwar.com 111

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly

AIR ARMADA
Lees air armada approached the island
at low level, releasing their long-range
tanks as they reached the coast from
where they roared inland and up a
picturesque valley. Here, they saw
nothing, but as they returned antiaircraft fire opened up on them. Lee,
piloting KZ141, suddenly realised that
his trousers were covered in oil and
immediately noticed that his oil and
engine temperatures were rapidly
climbing into the red. As he returned,
the Hurricanes engine cut and he was
forced to belly-land in the narrowest
of gaps and between two olive trees,
a feat the Germans couldnt believe
was deliberate. Lee managed to set
off the thermite demolition bomb
which destroyed his fighter, but as he
scampered away he was knocked flat by
a severe blow to his midriff. A German
soldier, taking a pot-shot at him, had
hit Lees webbing belt with the bullet
passing through the buckle and out
through the ammunition pouch. By
rights, he should have died.
Lee was promptly marched off to the
nearby village and taken to a group of
German army officers who smartly
saluted and offered him a late breakfast
consisting of omelette and brandy! A
squadron commander was a rare catch
indeed, and he was duly taken off by
staff car to the German HQ at Heraklion

and from there to Athens by Junkers 52


where he met other POW survivors of
the raid. Two other 123 Sqn Hurricanes
had failed to return with Fg Off John
Le Mare (RCAF) killed, although West
Indian Flt Sgt Fanny Farfan was
spirited away by locals, evaded capture
and returned to Egypt in September.
238 Sqn, meanwhile, lost two pilots
through anti-aircraft fire although
both Flt Sgt P. A. George (RAAF) who
had been flying KZ130/J and F/Sgt H.
Raiment (RNZAF) in HW483/P were
made prisoners of war. George survived
an offshore ditching but was machinegunned, fortunately inaccurately, as he
swam ashore. The Squadron CO, Sqn Ldr
H P Cochrane DFC, piloting HL657/D,
was fortunate to get back to base with
his badly damaged Hurricane. No 134
Sqn, led by Sqn Ldr W H Stratton DFC,
a Battle of France veteran, lost Fg Off
Bill Manser (HW299) who apparently
made a successful forced-landing but
was later reported killed, and Sgt D
Horsley (HW372) who also died. Two
other flyers from the squadron returned
wounded; Fg Off L Lowen in HV905
with a leg wound and Fg Off W H
Wright in HW605 who was seriously
wounded in the chest.

GREEK UNITS
The two Greek units, both opertaing
from Sidi Barrani, lost four aircraft

"You are going to fly all the


way to Crete at sea level and
knock hell out of the place."
112 www.britainatwar.com

with only one pilot surviving from


these losses. W/O Athanasakis of 336
Squadron, flying BP232, lost a drop
tank on take-off,but gallantly if not
ill-advisedly chose to continue despite
the fact that he must have known
he lacked sufficient petrol to return
home. His companions alerted him
to his predicament, but he pressed on
with the mission all the same. Both
Greek squadrons attacked the radar
station at Ierapetra, in the southeast of Crete and also hit military
installations in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire. Athanasakis reported that
his fuel was low and was going to have
to land. Wt Off Konstantinos Kokkas,
also a Cretan, recalled:
We hit camps, cars, cannon stations
and every military target that was
in front of us. Everywhere, though,
the anti-aircraft guns responded. We
passed through the Agios Nikolaos plain
and this is where I heard Athanasakis
yelling that he was force-landing.
Apparently, the Greek flyer crashed
near a German patrol that immediately
pursued him, although the gallant
pilot shot it out with the enemy
using his pistol but eventually ran
out of ammunition and was
subsequently killed. The
remaining Hurricanes flew on
to Heraklion where they strafed
a German camp but lost Wt Off

TOP LEFT:
Trinidadian Flt
Sgt Fanny
Farfan of 123
was lucky
to survive a
force-landing
on 23 July. He
was rescued
by partisans
and returned
to Egypt by
the SOE. (BRIAN

CULL)

ABOVE:
Sergeant
Bill Evans of
94, who flew
BP237/E over
Crete, poses on
the wing of his
Hurricane IIC.
The outboard
cannon on
this aeroplane
appear to have
been removed
to save weight.
(IAN SIMPSON)

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly

Skantzikas, shot down in KW250 by antiaircraft fire. Kokkas reported that the
flak was ferocious and I saw a German
flag fluttering in a building on my right
and sent a burst into it. We were almost
touching the windmills and milk-white
houses while the Cretans below were
throwing their hats into the air, dancing
with joy and waving their hands. He
saw Skantzikas, a former classmate, his
aircraft covered in oil, heading for a crashlanding which he survived.
Sadly, two pilots from 335 Squadron
were also lost. Flt Sgt Doukas was shot
down near the south shore of Mirabello
Bay. Athough initially reported as a POW
he was, in fact, killed. Flt Sgt Laitmer
crashed into the sea near Tymbaki, his
fate witnessed by a pilot of 238 Sqn. Wt
Off Kountouvas reported being attacked
by a Junkers 88 south of the island, but
escaped unharmed. Interestingly, and
despite the mayhem, other pilots reported
a relatively uneventful operation! Fg Off
Reg Sutton of 451 (RAAF) Squadron, for
example, reported that the Sidi Barrani
Hurricanes were led in by the two
Beaufighters at wave-top height
and said of Operation Thesis:
There were no targets where
they were supposed to be and
where there was not to be any
flak, there was bags of it. For the
rest, nothing! I fired my guns on

ABOVE LEFT:
Sqn Ldr Arthur
Darky Clowes of
94 Squadron, led
the Derna Wing
with 237 and 7
SAAF Squadrons
on the mission.
ABOVE RIGHT:
A battle-worn
12-gun Hurricane
IIB of 134 is
prepared for
action. The two
extra outboard
machine-guns
were mounted
near the end
of each wing
leading edge.
(IAN SIMPSON)

BELOW:
Hurricanes of
237 Squadron
also took part in
the operation.
Here two Mk.IIBs
scramble from a
desert airfield,
the view clearly
showing the
Vokes air filters
under the noses
of the fighters,
essential in the
dust of North
Africa.

the way out for the sake of firing them.


On their return the squadron found the
North African coast hidden by a violent
dust storm. Although scheduled to land
at Tobruk several Hurricanes had to put
down on a road, short of fuel. There was
absolutely no visibility over the airfield,
but despite two landing accidents in the
atrocious conditions nobody was injured.

A SLIPPERY CUSTOMER!
The two Beaufighters leading the
el-Gamil Hurricanes were flown by Wg
Cdr Russell Mackenzie in EL516/Y and
Fg Off Wally McGregor (RNZAF) in
JL619/X. The pair intercepted an Arado
196 floatplane at sea level as they neared
the coast, with Mackenzie scoring
hits although without apparent result
and the Arado fleeing at wave height.
A short time later another Arado, or
perhaps the same one, was attacked
but again without result. The slippery
customer also appears to have survived
a burst from a Hurricane from 94 Sqn.
The twenty-seven Hurricanes from
el-Gamil were led by Sqn Ldr Darky
Clowes, veteran of the Battles of
France and Britain, and his unit, 94
Sqn, approached the island at nought
feet at 08.20 hrs, making landfall on
the south coast twenty miles from the
western tip. The pilots of two aircraft,
Sgt W Imrie (KW935/A), and Flt Lt S
Whiting (HW738/G), were unable to
jettison their long-range tanks but

the formation followed the coast until


landfall between Maleme and Canea,
just east of the islet of Dio and strafed
barracks and buildings in the town
of Alikianos, a generator and a dam
on the River Peatanias and a wellcamouflaged camp outside the town.
Unfortunately, Sgt Imrie reported he
had been hit and crashed among trees
on a mountainside to the south-west
of Alikianos, his end marked by a
mushroom cloud of black smoke.
The squadron flew on, strafing Kastella
Selinos on the south coast hitting a
wireless transmitter hut before shootingup a lighthouse on Gavdhos Island and
a wireless unit with its accompanying
masts. On return it was found that Fg
Off Howleys machine (HL886/R) had
slight damage to its airscrew and Fg
Off Hendersons HM118/L had bullet
holes in its fuselage. Captain Kirby of 7
(SAAF) Sqn had a close shave when his
fighter, KX961, clipped a high-tension
cable, damaging the propeller tips and
radiator. He returned with a length of
cable wrapped round his airscrew but
reported: very little was seen.

DEBIT AND CREDIT


No 41 (SAAF) Squadron had Lt. W J K
Bliss failing to return, whilst their CO,
Major Chapman, was hit on a strafing
run over Moires near the south coast by
a shell that penetrated the port wing root
damaging his glycol and oil systems.

www.britainatwar.com 113

OPERATION THESIS
A Cretan Folly
RIGHT:
Major Corrie
van Vliet, CO
of 7 SAAF
Squadron, is
pictured playing
with the unit
mascot.
(BRIAN CULL)

FAR RIGHT:
A pensive Bill
Evans ponders
events in an
image taken
around the
time of
Operation
Thesis.
(IAN SIMPSON)

RIGHT: W/O
Konstantinos
Kokkas, a Greek
flyer with 336
Squadron,
returned safely
from Operation
Thesis.
(BRIAN CULL)

BELOW LEFT:
Captain Harold
Kirby of 7 SAAF
had a narrow
escape when
he hit hightension cables,
returning with a
souvenir which
he displays for
the camera.
(BRIAN CULL)

He nursed the faltering Hurricane back


to Bu Amid and although the engine
seized up over the airfield he glided in
to a safe landing. Lt. Cyril George, from
the same squadron, also forced-landed
when his engine seized-up due to flak
damage. Meanwhile, five other 41
(SAAF) Sqn Hurricanes suffered minor
damage. Of the fifty four fighters which
set off from Bu Amid and el-Gamil,
eight were lost, with four pilots killed,
three POW, one escapee and another
two wounded. Three Hurricanes were
very badly damaged.
In total, thirteen Hurricanes were
lost on the operation with eight pilots
killed, four taken prisoner of war and
one who evaded capture. To add to this
sorry tale, six Baltimores were lost with
fourteen crewmen killed and six taken
prisoner. Overall, the operations losses
had minimal return but during the
withdrawal cover by Spitfire Vc aircraft
of 80 Sqn, Fg Off J C R Waterhouse,
piloting JK142, engaged a Junkers 88-D
(4U+6K) of 2.(F)/123, shooting it down in
flames resulting in the death of Uffz F.
Dieroft and his crew.

A CRETAN TRAITOR
Intelligence operatives on the island
radioed information back to Cairo
on the effectiveness of the operation,
including information that three
Hurricanes flew low over the village
of Souyia, where they encountered
machine-gun fire.
They returned and engaged the
suspected gun-site, fortuitously killing
a Cretan traitor, Tzimanokes, who had
betrayed seven British soldiers hiding
from the Germans.
At Hag Nikolaos, bombs from the
Baltimores fell on an Italian army
camp, killing four soldiers, whilst at
Ierapetra bombs killed twenty-one
military personnel, three civilians
and wounded thirty more soldiers.
At Pakhiano a motor vessel was
unsuccessfully bombed but a strafing
114 www.britainatwar.com

attack killed one sailor and wounded


two others, including the captain.

POST OPERATIONS
Air Commodore Mark Lax, historian of
454 Squadron (RAAF), was surely right
when he described the concept of an
attack on Crete as fundamentally sound.
However, he pinpointed factors that
led to failure, including the fact that the
planners had forgotten the Allies were
operating on double summer time but
Axis forces were not. The plan assumed
the enemy would be at breakfast and
be caught unawares, but breakfast was
over when the air armada appeared and
the troops back on duty. Secondly, the
fighters took some time to form-up and
the unfortunate Baltimores arrived first,
thus alerting the islands defences.
Group Captain Aitken, drawing up a
post-action report, concluded: On the
face of it, the material damage to the
enemy was in no way commensurate
with the loss of thirteen Hurricanes
and five (sic) Baltimores, together with
other aircraft casualties and damage. On
the other hand, it is undeniable that the
unpalatable medicine administered to
the enemy, coupled with the fine tonic
effect on 212 and 219 Group, made the
operation a success on balance.
Whether the surviving pilots and
aircrew from Operation Thesis shared
this rather optimistic assessment might
be open to doubt.
Sincere thanks are due to Brian Cull
for permission to use the chapter in his
Fighters over the Aegean (Fonthill 2012) as
a framework for this article, and consent
for certain photographs. I am also indebted
to Mark Lax, who wrote and published
From Alamein to the Alps a history of 454
Squadron RAAF (2006) for his kindness
in providing photographs from his book.
Finally, I am much obliged to Ian Simpson
for supplying images of 94 and 134
Squadron aircraft and personnel. Any other
photographs are from my own collection.