ON THE MORNING of 2 November 1940, the Royal Hellenic Air Force's 22 Pursuit Mira (squadron) based at Thessaloniki scrambled to meet an incoming Italian air raid. None of the squadron's eight front-line pilots knew quite what to expect. None had any combat experience or even combat training. Just five days before, Greece had been plunged into World War II. Italian land forces were advancing over the Albanian border. Their bombers were already pounding Greece's cities.
Among those who climbed nervously into the cockpits of their Polish-built PZL-24 fighters was Pilot Officer (Second Lieutenant) Marinos Mitralexis. That morning it fell to 22 Mira to tangle with the Regia Aeronautica's three-engined CantZ-1007 bombers of 50 Gruppo near Thessaloniki.
Mitralexis got in a machinegun burst at one bomber, sending it weaving erratically around the sky. He didn't know it, but his first fire had killed the Italian pilot, Lieutenant Pasqualetto, and the rest of the crew were trying to keep the lumbering bomber aloft. Mitralexis fired again but missed and soon ran out of ammunition, cursing his bad luck.
Mitralexis' wingman, Sergeant (later Wing Commander) Constantine Lambropoulos, described what happened next: "I was pretty close to Mitralexis and saw him fly his plane straight into the Italian. It was the most magnificent thing I've ever seen."
In one of those gestures often seen in war that defy rational analysis, Mitralexis aimed the nose of his PZL right into the CantZ's tail, smashing the rudder and sending the plane out of control. By some miracle, the bomber made a level landing near the village of Gerakarou, and the four dazed survivors staggered out.
They met a daunting sight. A mob of peasants was descending on them, knives and pickaxes in hand, seemingly determined to finish them off. They heard a shout and saw a diminutive Greek air force officer in flying gear drawing his pistol and warning the villagers away. This was none other than Mitralexis, who had nursed his PZL to earth with nothing worse than a bent propeller. He shepherded the four grateful Italians, now prisoners, to his base on foot.
Hellenic Air Force roundrel
All Greece thrilled to the exploit. Mitralexis was promoted to Flying Officer (First Lieutenant) and decorated. Artists' impressions, some verging on the fanciful, filled the newspapers and magazines. The midair collision even appeared on a postage stamp.
Constantine Hatzilakos was one of those whose morale rocketed. As an air cadet at the Tatoi air force academy, he and his classmates itched to get into action. With the first air raids they had been ordered to wear their tin hats and man the base's anti-aircraft defences. They had been taught to fly on docile British-made Avro Tutor biplanes, and couldn't wait to grab the controls of the glamorous PZL.
"The PZL's engine made a ferocious noise passing overhead," recalls Hatzilakos, now 88, and a retired air marshal. "It could even do aerobatics and gave our morale a huge boost."
The Tatoi academy was deluged by applicants.
The Royal Hellenic Air Force (RHAF) certainly needed all the morale it could whip up. Rarely has an air force gone into battle as aerially outgunned as the Greeks were in 1940. Whereas the ground forces on the Albanian front (contrary to what is generally believed in Greece) were about equally matched, the RHAF could field just 52 battle-worthy fighters and 27 medium bombers. The Regia Aeronautica, by contrast, had more than 380 fighters and bombers available for Greek operations, their crews' dogfighting skills honed in the Spanish Civil War.
The Greek mainstay was the PZL-24, a strange gull-winged plane made in Poland featuring a rugged structure and twin 20mm Oerikon cannons. There were also some French-built Bloch MB250s and Potez 633 twin-engined bombers, but they did not play much of a part in the fighting. More effective in Greece's bomber force were the British-built Bristol Blenheim IVs of 31 Mira, which hammered some Italian bases in Albania, inflicting considerable casualties.
The Italians had the cream of their aircraft industry in the air. Besides the CantZs, there were Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero bombers and SM81s, also three-engined and bristling with defences. Escorting them were Fiat CR32 and CR42 biplanes and sleek and deadly all-metal Fiat G50 Freccia monoplanes. They could roam practically at will over the northwest Greek mountains. Among the Italian bomber pilots were the Duce's sons, Bruno and Vittorio, and the foreign minister himself, Count Galeazzo Ciano, captaining CantZs of 47 Stormo that bombed the port of Thessaloniki, causing dozens of casualties.
PZL-24 Polish warplane in Hellenic Air Force livery
Greece's pilots hadn't time to think about the heavy odds against them in the first days of hostilities. On the same day that Mitralexis did his death-defying feat, 22 Mira was scrambled a second time to meet 27 Italian bombers escorted by 18 fighters. Sergeant Lambropoulos, flying a venerable British Gloster Gladiator I biplane, was rattled by the size of the attacking force. Nonetheless, he made a beeline for a formation of five Fiats and sent one spinning down. But he found himself in the fight of his life. "Just when I thought all was lost," he wrote, "I tried a repeat of what I'd seen Mitralexis do that morning."
But the wheeling Fiat was a harder target than the straight-flying CantZ. "I stalled, and the Fiats were all around me firing. I got hit on my right side, right arm and right leg. My plane caught fire and I lost consciousness, reviving to find myself in a spin. With all my remaining strength, I pulled the Gladiator back on an even keel, then turned it upside down to bale out more easily."
But the battered fighter wouldn't give up its pilot. The lace on Lambropoulos' left flying boot got caught in the Gladiator's seat frame and he couldn't get out. The plane resumed its vertical dive, the pilot pinned against the fuselage outside the cockpit and unable to move. He was saved, ironically, by a shell that exploded in the cockpit. Shrapnel sliced through the bootlace, miraculously leaving his foot unhurt. "Barefoot but free, I found myself outside the plane. A few moments later, before my parachute could open, my plane broke into a thousand pieces."
Even then he was not out of danger. The Fiats kept on firing at Lambropoulos as he drifted down. They didn't hit him, but his parachute was holed in 52 places.
The first real aerial battle of the Albanian campaign occurred on 30 October 1940, when five Fiat CR42s of 393 Squadriglia jumped a lone Greek Henschel Hs-126 observation plane, slow and vulnerable. The pilot, Pilot Officer Evanghelos Giannaris, didn't have a chance. He was the first Greek airman to die in World War II.
The RHAF's mission was to provide air cover for the Greek 8th Division that was bearing the brunt of the Italian land incursion. The crack Julia Alpine division, in mountain fighting, had created a salient near Metsovo and was on the way to outflanking the Greek defence from the east. No one knew where the Julia was, until an ancient Breguet 19 of 2 Army Cooperation Mira, flown by Pilot Officer Dimitris Karakitsos with Sergeant Ioannis Katsoulas as observer, stumbled on its leading columns. Their report enabled the Greek army to entrap the Julia division and effectively knock it out of the fight.
By then the snow was setting in, and the RHAF performed feats of ingenuity to keep their overworked planes in the air. Supplies and spare parts were running low, fuel was scarce and combat attrition was telling. By January 1941 the RHAF was down to just 28 fighters and a mere seven bombers, despite strong reinforcements from Britain's Royal Air Force.
In March, Flying Officer George Stavraetos of 31 Mira set off in his Potez 633 to bomb enemy artillery positions. After laying a clutch of 500-pound bombs, he flew smack into a formation of new Macchi MC200 fighters. His navigator/observer, Flying Officer Nikos Volonakis, reported: "We were corkscrewing wildly away when we felt violent hits on the wings and fuselage."
The Potez's port engine caught fire and the whole plane juddered. Stavraetos turned to his navigator. "Jump, Nikos, jump," he said. "There's nothing more we can do." As Volonakis baled out, the plane went into a flat spin.
"I saw the skipper jump from the plane which was now completely aflame," he wrote. "But his parachute didn't open. My God!" He saw nothing more as he floated into cloud. Stavraetos' body was found in the snow, his parachute unopened. He had a large wound in his chest, suggesting that he had been hit and unable to pull the ripcord.
In early 1941 it was clear the end was closing in. The Germans invaded Greece in April. On April 20, a few RHAF and RAF units battled the Luftwaffe above Athens just before the city's fall. RAF Squadron Leader John Pattle went up in his Hurricane, fighting off fatigue and a fever, and downed no fewer than 23 German planes before being shot down and killed himself.
At least 37 Greek aircraft were downed in Greece's six-month struggle against the Axis. Greek sources place Italian losses in the same period at 105 confirmed. Greek pilots carried out a total of 23,200 combat flying hours. 51 Greek aircrew died in action.
Mitralexis and the majority of surviving RHAF officers managed to escape occupied Greece and head for North Africa to join the free Greek forces fighting alongside the British in Hurricanes and Spitfires. Three years after the war, he was killed when an Airspeed Oxford he was riding in crashed into the sea on a flight between Rhodes and Athens.