by Squadron Leader D. P. Tidy
So far, we in this Society have heard mostly of the great battles of history, particularly of Waterloo and El Alamein.
It is possible that an aura of glamour has perhaps been shed over warfare in consequence. As most of you know from bitter experience however, war is not glamorous at all. It is nine-tenths boredom and one-tenth fear.
Tonight I shall tell you about one of the least-known actions in history, and about one of the most unglamorous, least glorious, and yet in its own way, most gallant battles. It is unusual because in the few histories in which the campaign appears it is incorrectly and incompletely recorded. (The best account I have read is Edwin Packer's in Purnell's "History of the Second World War", Volume 4, Number 7, which was kindly pointed out to me by a member of this Society, Mr Terry Sole, but even this is inaccurate and incomplete to the extent that the battle for Simi is not even mentioned).
The action in the Dodecanese was fought, as far as the aerial action was concerned, by No. 7 South African Air Force Squadron and by No. 74 Royal Air Force Squadron, in which latter Squadron I was serving in 1942-43. The campaign lasted for a month from 9th September to 10th October, 1943, and I will attempt to set the scene for you on the map. Kos island, in the Italian Dodecanese group in the Aegean Sea, is about 28 miles long and lay about a mile off the Turkish coast. It had an area of about 115 square miles, and a population of about 20,000, an airfield at Marmari, near Antimachia, and an emergency landing ground under construction at Lambia. Its position made it the key which would unlock the Aegean. If it could be taken, argued the British, Rhodes would fall and with Rhodes, the other islands of the archipelago, garrisoned as they were for the most part with Italians, who would certainly surrender at the first approach of invading forces. The Americans believed the campaign to be a manifestation of British peripheral strategy, linked with expansionist aims in the Balkans and would not sanction adequate land, sea and air forces to mount it. The British however, possibly because the capture of the Dodecanese had been one of Churchill's favourite projects ever since war began, plunged in regardless, ignoring the fact that boldness is no substitute for effective air cover.
Kos was to be taken by a combined assault of all three arms and the part played by the air forces was to follow the usual pattern. First, the bombing of enemy airfields within range in Greece, Rhodes and Crete, and the despatch to them of "intruders" to prevent the Luftwaffe from using them. ("Intruders" for those not familiar with the jargon, were offensive patrols over enemy airfields to shoot up their aircraft and dislocate their flying organization. Alas, they had them as well, and used to shoot us up too). Secondly, attacks on all enemy shipping found in the Aegean; thirdly, the protection of the convoys conveying the assault troops. To these general tasks were added the reconnaissance of Leros, Samos and other islands, and the dropping of leaflets by a flight of Wellingtons operating from the Nile Delta. Eight Dakotas from No. 216 Squadron were detailed to carry airborne troops, and departed to Palestine for the purpose of training with them.
The air forces detailed for the conduct of these operations were not large. In fact the whole invading force was a minimal force scraped together by Sir Henry Maitland Wilson at Churchill's request. The original requirement was for a Division at least; in the event a Brigade (the 234th) was found, and Wilson could barely spare even this. Apart from the troop-carrying and transport Dakotas, there were two day and two night Beaufighter squadrons, a Wellington Torpedo Bomber Squadron, three Baltimore and one Hudson General Reconnaissance squadrons and a detachment of Photographic Reconnaissance Spitfires. This force was based on the mainland of Africa and in Cyprus. In addition, two heavy bomber squadrons of No.240 (RAF) Wing of IX United States Bomber Command took part at a later stage, and of course, the main attacking force of the Germans was met by No.7 SAAF and No.74 RAF Spitfires as we shall see. In all the number of aircraft used amounted to 144 fighters (single and twin-engined) and 116 heavy, medium and torpedo bombers. Of this total of 260 aircraft, 115 were to be lost.
By the end of August, 1943, No. 680 Squadron's aircraft had photographed the whole area to be attacked, and operations began nine days later. The island of Castelrosso (the most southerly in the archipelago) fell into our hands almost immediately, owing to the stout efforts of that wonderful force, the Special Boat Squadron, one of whose members now farms in the Magoebeskloof area of the Transvaal. His name is L. G. (Mickey) Williamson, MC, and I exchanged a few reminiscences with him recently in that most lovely countryside. Since the Germans held Rhodes however, its three airfields, Marizza in the north, Calato in the middle and Cattaria in the south, had to be put out of action. This was accomplished for a time by the attack of thirty-eight Liberators detached for this purpose from the North-West African Strategic Air Force. Their bombs prevented the Luftwaffe from operating on 13th September, the day on which the Special Boat Squadron force set foot on Kos and occupied the port and the airfield near the village of Antimachia, which was found to be serviceable. At dawn the following day two Beaufighters landed and their crews set up a point-to-point wireless telegraphy station. They were followed at dusk by the Spitfires of No.7 SAAF Squadron, under the command of Major Cornelius van Vliet, DFC, and that night 120 parachute troops were dropped by the Dakotas of No. 216 Squadron on Kos, in order to strengthen the 5,000 strong Italian garrison, which was showing distinct signs of lack of moral fibre. That day, too, Leros was occupied without opposition and on the 16th, Samos.
At first light on the 15th, a standing patrol of two Spitfires of No. 7 SAAF Squadron was maintained over Kos to give cover to the transport aircraft and ships bringing stores and reinforcements. Among these were the first troops of the RAF Regiment who flew from Palestine with nine Hispano guns for anti-aircraft defence, followed two days later by a second detachment, which brought up to strength one of the first of the Regiment's Squadrons to be transported to the battlefield by air with all its weapons. The defenders' position on Kos, never enviable, soon became serious and, presently, desperate, for the Italian anti-aircraft defence was negligible and their own resources meagre. To add to their troubles, the area round the airfield they had to protect was too rocky to permit digging in, and there was no time to build blast walls before the enemy was upon them. The Germans began their counter-attack by an air bombardment which opened on 17th September, 1943, and proved to be severe. The Messerschmitt 109s and Junkers 88s involved, met at first with varying success, for the RAF gunners on the ground and the South African Spitfires in the air gave a good account of themselves. "Butterfly" bombs however, made Antimachia temporarily unserviceable and damaged the transport Dakotas, but detachments of the Durham Light Infantry (1st Battalion) were landed, although one Dakota came down in the sea and its occupants were rescued but interned in Turkey.
The Commanding Officer of No. 7 SAAF Squadron, Cornelius van Vliet, DFC, shot down a Me 109 on the 19th. By the end of the war he had shot down at least 12 enemy aircraft, and this made him number six on the list of top-scoring South Africans in World War II, of whom 41 were credited with five or more confirmed "kills."
During the next two days bombing and cannon-fire attacks continued to harass the garrison, who, in order to increase the area in which fighters could land, made great efforts to build an alternative strip near Lambia, at a spot where, on the 18th, seeing that Antimachia was under fierce attack, the pilot of a Dakota had landed rather than return to Cyprus with his load. The strip was completed on the 21st and then ensued a lull which lasted a week. The Luftwaffe was building up, and by the end of the month had transferred over 100 aircraft to the Aegean area to bring its strength to over 360, which included 90 Junkers 88s and Heinkel 111s, 50 Messerschmitt 109s and 65 Junkers 87s. These forces had had to be withdrawn from other theatres of operations as it turned out. (I, of course, knew nothing of these numbers and circumstances at the time; in fact I only found out later who was on my side, let alone the other). Although, as Edwin Packer points out, there were, according to the British Chief of Air Staff, more Allied aircraft in the Mediterranean theatre than in the whole of the Luftwaffe, General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, would permit no permanent allocation of air squadrons to help in the Mediterranean. The command organisation at that time was productive of frustration and misunderstanding. The three Commanders-in-Chief, Middle East were responsible for the Aegean operation, but the disposition of forces was decided upon by Eisenhower, as Middle East command was part of the greater Mediterranean theatre. Eisenhower ruled that in no circumstances was the Dodecanese campaign to be allowed to influence, however slightly, the conduct of other campaigns in the Mediterranean. This meant that Middle East command could not look for permanent help from the Italian war theatre, but must be prepared to improvise when temporary naval and air forces could be spared.
Eisenhower's decision, in which he had the loyal backing of his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was a corollary of the beliefs of the United States Chiefs-of-Staff that the Dodecanese operation typified British diversionary strategy which might well lead to some form of Balkan adventure.
The limited air cover provided for Kos was soon to be shown as totally inadequate. Beaufighter patrols had little influence on the situation for, with a base some 350 miles away, they could remain over the island for a short time only before returning to refuel, and the aircraft was no match for the more manoeuvrable Messerschmitt. Much later, after Kos had already fallen, six squadrons of United States twin-fuselage Lightnings, long-range fighters, were loaned for four days only from the Italian theatre. They operated from Gambut airfield near Benghazi, and on arrival in the Aegean could also only stay 20 minutes before returning to refuel. Dr. Christidis who I see in the audience tonight, was at Gambut at the time, and will tell you how most of these Lightnings were lost in a sandstorm on return, and landed or crashed all over North Africa.
On 26th September, although the anti-aircraft defences had been stiffened by some army Bofors guns, the enemy made conditions on Kos very difficult. By the end of the day only four Spitfires of No. 7 SAAF Squadron were still able to fly, and it was to this situation that nine Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron took off from Nicosia in Cyprus on the 28th. At 12.15, Flight Lieutenant Anderson had to bale out owing to engine trouble, 10 miles south-east of Castelrosso. The formation was flying below 500 feet and he had great difficulty in getting out of his aircraft, and his parachute opened too late. A high speed launch from Castelrosso and Air Sea Rescue aircraft from Cyprus made several fruitless searches, but we never saw Andy again. The other eight Spitfires landed on Kos at 11.30 hours on 28th and at 16.30 John Lewis, on patrol, ran into five Ju 88s returning from Kos and made three stern attacks with no visible results, but his aircraft was damaged by return fire. He is still going strong and I saw him last year for a few beers. He was flying J for john that day, and at 08.15 next morning three more aircraft were scrambled and Willy Wilson met three successive waves of Ju 88s over Antimachia. Out of the first formation he shot down one; he dived through the second and third formations on his own and damaged one of each - one obviously very badly. On his way back he had to escape from five Me 109s and in so doing he caused two of them to collide and one fell in flames.
The combat report, of which I still have a copy, reads:
"On 29th September, 1943, R88851 F/S Wilson, W. J., RCAF, took off to intercept a raid coming into Kos with one other pilot. They became separated before the enemy aircraft arrived so Wilson was working on his own during the whole time that he was airborne. He was flying at about 22,000 feet when he sighted a lone Ju 88 approaching Antimachia. He got behind it and gave it two good bursts from dead astern. The last one continuing until he had to break away at 50 yards. He last saw this aircraft diving away steeply with black smoke coming from it. This aircraft was seen to crash by a Lance Bombadier Miller, A. (1548847) of the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery. By this time the controller had told Wilson that a formation was coming into Antimachia. Wilson saw nine Ju 88s and attacked them head-on. One was seen to break away and continue into a shallow dive. He saw something come off this machine during his attack but saw no further result. The anti-aircraft crew thought that they might have hit this one, though the aircraftmen of No. 7 South African Air Force Squadron said that it was not hit by ack-ack but continued its dive until it crashed.
Another six Ju 88s came in behind these and the formation spread and got somewhat disorganised as Wilson pressed home another attack. He saw bits fly off one but could not observe any further results. Another formation of nine Ju 88s came in after these and Wilson again attacked them single-handed but observed no results. Almost immediately he was attacked by five Me 109s but managed to evade these after a short and very fast mix-up, and flew around the Kos mountains where the Me 109s left him. He then landed at the Salt Flats which had not been landed on before (the report is wrong here, as a Dakota had already landed there as I have already described) and were entirely unknown to him. Just before this engagement a parachute was seen to come down and two Me 109s crashed. No anti-aircraft battery claimed these and Wilson did not fire at any fighters so it appears that two of the Me 109s collided in endeavouring to get into position to attack Wilson."
Bombs from these raids put the airfield at Antimachia out of action. The Squadron personnel moved away from the airfield into a grove of trees nearby, together with the sector operations tent, and everybody lent a hand to fill in the craters on the airfield. Three enemy aircraft came over at intervals during the day, but after dark a Beaufighter from Cyprus dropped mail (just the time to get a bill from ones tailor!). Sixty-two groundcrew of 74 Squadron flew in Dakotas from Nicosia in Cyprus, to Ramat David in Palestine, and 40 of them embarked in a French sloop at Haifa for Castelrosso. The other 22 were left behind and at midnight flew to Kos in a Dakota.
On 1st October, 1943, a concentration of shipping was observed in the Crete ports, and early on the following morning a convoy steaming in a north-north-easterly direction south-east of Melos was sighted by one of our aircraft. Urgent supplies were landed on Kos by five Dakotas, and during their unloading the news came that a small German invasion fleet of 10 vessels was at sea. The 880 soldiers and 235 airmen, including those of No. 7 SAAF Squadron and No. 74 RAF Squadron, prepared to defend Kos unaided, for by then the Italian garrison had made it quite clear that in their view the better part of valour was indeed discretion.
On 1st October, 1943, the sea party of 40 who had left Haifa on 30th September, arrived at Castelrosso and lay there till the next day, while in Kos three ground staff of No. 7 SAAF Squadron assisted the pilots of No. 74 RAF Squadron to change tyres, refuel and re-arm their Spitfires.
On October 2nd the sea party left Castelrosso for Kos and the 22 members of the Squadron who had been left behind at Ramat David were flown to Antimachia by Dakota, landing shortly after midnight. As soon as dawn broke they were organised to destroy signals equipment and baggage. The ominous signs of the end so many of us remembered from France in 1940.
At 04.30 hours on the 3rd the invasion of Kos began. By mid-day, 1,200 Germans, well-armed with light artillery and armoured cars, were ashore and in action. Dive-bombing by Ju 87s added to the difficulties of the defence, and in the afternoon Antimachia was overrun. The main convoy, which had been attacked from the air was estimated to have consisted of seven transports, seven landing craft, three destroyers and numerous caiques (fishing craft) and other small craft. The principal landings took place at Marmari and Tingachi (in the north central part of the island) and at Camare Bay (south-west) with subsidiary landings at Forbici and Capo Foco (on the north-east and south-east tips of the island).
Paratroops were dropped west and south of Antimachia. By 12.00 hours the enemy was reported as having landed 1,500 men, latent estimated at a small brigade of all arms including armoured cars under Lieutenant-General Muller. At about 13.30 hours a further small German paratroop landing of troops from the Brandenburg Regiment was made in the centre of the island, and more troops arrived by sea. The situation was reported as confused, but by 18.00 it was further reported as critical. The Durham Light Infantry fought savagely and gallantly (as so often they had in World War I) and killed many of the invaders, but our positions were gradually overrun. In the face of superior numbers and heavier equipment we withdrew to positions covering the town and port of Kos and the airfield. That evening the enemy strongly attacked our positions and despite the fact that all available men were in the line, our small force was pushed back.
At 05.45 on 4th October the enemy bombed Camare Bay and landed more paratroops. We were stilL resisting in the area of Kos town where the situation was again described as critical. Some of the 3,500 Italians on the island fought the enemy gallantly but their resistance was short-lived. They were ill-trained and ill-equipped, disillusioned by events and tired. This was war; boredom, fear, disillusion and tiredness.
The brunt of the fighting fell on the British garrison, consisting of 1,600 men, of whom only 1,115 were combatant - 880 army and 235 RAF. The total German strength has been put at about 4,000. To this must be added the enemy's air superiority and the out-of-date defences of the island. We were fighting our usual battle, with the odds heavily against us as far as numbers were concerned. The Battle of Britain when one against forty was normal was a bare three years behind us. Lambia fell at 06.00 hours and what was left of the garrison signalled laconically: "Kos town untenable. Intend continuing to fight elsewhere. Destroying wireless set." Fighting continued in the hills but all organised resistance had ceased. We had held Kos barely 20 days. Some 900 Allied troops and about 3,000 Italians were taken prisoner and the SS shot 90 Italian officers for daring to take up arms against their former ally. A German communique of 5th October reporting the cessation of hostilities on Kos gave the number of prisoners taken as 600 British and 2,500 Italians, with more Italians coming in. A number of the British force escaped to neighbouring islands and were rescued by the Special Boat Squadron operating at night, and one of our corporals from 74 Squadron dived into the sea to swim to Turkey, but I have never discovered what happened to him.
Guy de Pass, one of the pilots of 74 Squadron, put in a report which read: "On the morning of 3rd October I awoke at about 04.30 hours and heard the sound of aircraft above me but didn't take much notice. The aircraft continued to fly around and I heard in the distance the sound of a motor launch. By this time I was very apprehensive. Shots from the direction of the landing beaches strip were heard. We arose and moved off in the direction of the road. The firing became more persistent. Flares were being fired and mortar fire could be discerned. It appeared to all of us that the island was being invaded and that enemy troops were in the vicinity. We began to run towards the main road as we were unable to put up any sort of defence and considered that the best policy was to join up with the main party of British troops. It was still fairly dark with plenty of cloud. I saw Flying Officers Bates and Norman, F/Sgt. Maxwell, Sgt. Harris and a South African and joined up with them. When we reached the main road we saw a jeep driven by a South African. We piled in and went straight to Kos. The people in the hotel at Kos, a Major and some RAF Regiment chaps did not believe that the invasion had started. I took the jeep and warned British HQ, the Bofors gun battery and all and sundry. I then handed the jeep over to an RAF Regiment officer who wanted to go to Kos aerodrome to collect some of his men. We pilots of 74 Squadron did not know that a party of our ground crews had landed by air on the previous night on Kos aerodrome, and by 11.00 hours we had boarded an Italian boat in Kos harbour and set sail for Leros. On the way out we ran into some German boats so we turned for Kefalcha on the Turkish coast eventually reaching Castelrosso and Paphos by high speed launch."
The CO ("Spud" Hayter), and four others all went into the hills south of the salt flats and lived on sheep which they killed with their bare hands, eventually reaching Cyprus in a fishing boat.
Meanwhile, the sea-party from Haifa under the doctor, "Hank" Ferris, had been halted off the island of Simi by a Special Boat Squadron detachment under the command of a most remarkable character called Captain J. N. Lapraik. He had discovered by reconnaissance that Kos was in enemy hands and that the RAF could do no good by going on. This was on 3rd October, and the party accordingly disembarked on Simi and Lapraik issued what must surely be the most remarkable order of the day ever. On a dirty piece of lined paper it rests in the Squadron diary to this day, and reads: "For the benefit of the RAF. As you have recently arrived in this area you are naturally unaware of the military situation in general, and in the island in particular, and consequently your actions seem peculiar under the circumstances. Our situation may be compared with that of Singapore when the Japs were only a short distance away and advancing rapidly, i.e. owing to our great strategic importance there is no doubt whatsoever that we shall be attacked. It is merely a question of whether it is tomorrow, or the next day or the one after. Let there be no doubt about it, they will come; therefore we must be prepared. Consequently, it is essential that everyone be absolutely on their toes 24 hours a day. When the guard is called out it will be out in seconds not minutes as was the case last night. When ordered to stand to they will be downstairs and in the bushes like bats out of hell. Everyone must be absolutely on the job all the time no matter what task he is given. We are all doing strange jobs at the moment. We weren't trained as island defenders any more than you were but we have to carry out the task all the same. When you realise that the next island to this, Kos, has been attacked, and almost wound up by the Germans we can understand the gravity of our position so for ____ sake let's get our fingers out and get weaving and we'll show these _____ what we are capable of."
"The instructions from force HQ are not to mimic the defenders of Calais but only to emain in position as long as we are able to inflict material damage and casualties on the enemy, and then to retire and evacuate in accordance with the plan which you know or have been told about. So don't think too much about the do or die aspect. On the other hand remember that we are not ratting but merely endeavouring very sensibly to evacuate very valuable specialist troops who will be the most useful when organised somewhere else.
"Lastly, when you hear yourselves referred to as 'the _____ RAF' it is no more derogatory than No. 1 Patrol being referred to as 'that _____ patrol of Bimoses' or No. 4 Patrol being 'those _____ _____ gunners.' So far however you have worked hard and well without moaning so keep it up, but remember - be quick on the job and keep on your toes because if you don't you've _____ had it, believe me" (only the original doesn't say _____ ).
Air Chief Marshal Sir Joubert de la Ferte' in "The Forgotten Ones" comments: "This remarkable adjuration, fully justified in the circumstances, produced excellent results. The German invasion came at first light on 6th October. A Commando party nearly a hundred strong arrived in a caique from Rhodes. They were fired upon but landed at Pedi Bay and made their way up to a ridge overlooking Simi town. Some penetrated to the upper town and sniped from the houses. These troops had only rifles, machine-guns and hand-grenades, so the Breda and Bren guns available to the defenders were of great value. One of these Bredas was manned by Flight Sergeant Schofield, who wore spectacles on account of short sight. Schofield continued to use his gun even when his spectacles were broken by vibration, the flash eliminator burned off, and the sights had fallen off from the overheated weapon. All the time he was exposed to ground and air attack. Not satisfied with what he had achieved, he managed to capture a prisoner single-handed and only went to the dressing station when a wound he had suffered earlier on turned septic." The official citation awarding him the Military Medal, an unusual decoration for an airman, read: "539610 FS C. L. Schofield was detailed to man an Italian Breda at Simi and stayed on the site for seven days sharing the shifts with other airmen. This gun was in a key position and was incessantly attacked by Stukas, but FS Schofield stuck to his gun the whole time, and it is very probable that he shot one down. FS Schofield is short-sighted and his spectacles were broken by the vibration of the gun. He was also wounded in the arm, but continued at his post until the wound turned septic two days later. He was then put into hospital. On the first day of the invasion of Simi some Germans were detected below his gun position; he helped to rout these and went down and brought back a wounded German. FS Schofield is an excellent armourer and was sent for by the OC British troops to get the Breda in working condition. He did this and kept it going even when the flash eliminator was burned off and the sights fell off owing to the heat of the gun."
During the street fighting on the 6th the Special Boat Squadron men lost one killed and three wounded. Patrols were sent out constantly to make contact with the enemy. After mid-day the Germans went into the hills and towards dusk withdrew to their boat after collecting their dead. A patrol of the Special Boat Squadron counted 30 Germans wounded and 16 killed; in addition we had five fit prisoners and one wounded. The next day at about 06.00 hours three Stukas came over dropping bombs and a Greek hospital was hit causing several civilian casualties who were attended to by our medical officer, "Hank" Ferris. Next day at about 08.00 hours two more Stukas dropped more bombs, causing Greek casualties but one of the Stukas was shot down by our Breda fire and the other was hit and made off to sea losing height rapidly and was seen by the Greeks to hit the hills and crash. At 12.00 hours a Stuka hit the HQ building with a bomb. One Special Boat Squadron man, and LAC Gay, a 74 Squadron cook, were killed. "Hank" Ferris and rescue parties worked for 30 hours to extricate two trapped Special Boat Squadron men who later died from their injuries. Hank's effort was later recognized as the official citation recorded: "Flight Lieutenant R.J.L. Ferris, MB,BCh, No. 74 Squadron, Military Cross. Flt. Lt. Ferris, a Medical Officer of No. 74 Sqn, has displayed outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty. During a period in October, 1943, his HQ was subjected to severe enemy air attacks. On one occasion four men were killed and two others were buried under the debris. Flt. Lt. Ferris immediately set to work removing the bodies and releasing the buried men. His medical equipment had been destroyed and he was compelled to work with a pair of scissors and a small wood saw with which he succeeded in releasing one man after amputating his leg. Flt. Lt. Ferris accomplished this while an air attack was in progress and worked with very little light and while held upside down by his legs. During an engagement between British and enemy ground forces he worked incessantly under most rigorous conditions. His coolness and courage proved a source of inspiration to all."
"Hank" now has a practice in Yorkshire, in a village on Ilkley Moor, and is still as good a doctor and as modest as ever, as I found out when I saw him again in 1966.
In the afternoon of 8th October, 1943, there were two more raids in which one more Stuka was destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. In the evening prisoners and wounded were taken in a caique to Castelrosso, and the dead were buried on the island. The 9th was a quiet day, and in the evening all the personnel from 74 Squadron embarked in two caiques for Castelrosso where they eventually met up - with the others who had escaped with "Spud" Hayter, and on the 10th all 37 RAE men, with Italian officers and naval ratings, set sail in two caiques for Cyprus, arriving on 13th at Limassol after being adrift for 12 hours within sight of land - nothing much went right in that campaign. HSL 2517 had arrived at Castelrosso with a full crew and five pilots from 74 Squadron, and two Cant flying boats had been despatched to Castelrosso on 11th October to evacuate the 50 airmen and seven officers who had arrived from Kos. A Sunderland flying boat from Aboukir also helped on 12th and on 13th the party from Castelrosso arrived at Limassol and two trucks took them to Peristerona to join up with the rest of what was left of the Squadron. The CO and MO remained at Nicosia, joining up with the rest the next day. On 19th the rains came at Peristerona and continued until everything was soaked. Most of the tents, especially the airmen's, leaked, and all their bedding and clothing was soaked. There was very very little glamour or glory about this war, believe me. On 20th heavy rainstorms made it impossible to remain there, so arrangements were made to move to Nicosia main camp (No. 4) and the move was made on 22nd, and on 23rd the main party flew to Idku in two DC 3s. I had meantime moved to Sharjah to join a Blenheim Squadron. The party was over. It had been a fiasco of an operation, but it is worth considering that fewer than 50 airmen, untrained in land warfare, had beaten off the attack of more than double that number of German Commando Troops. So the Tigers (No. 74 Squadron's badge is a tiger's face) had shown that they could fight on the land as well as in the air. It was not without sacrifice however, as 20 of them were dead and missing.
The final messages read: "All 74 Squadron personnel evacuated from Bone Nauthett 14.00 hours 10th October, 1943. Wish to record appreciation magnificent piece of work by all ranks under the most trying and strange conditions. End." Air Vice-Marshal Saul, the Air Officer Commanding, when forwarding this message, added his own to the Commanding Officer of No. 74 Squadron, Squadron Leader J.C. ("Spud") Hayter, DFC.
"I would like to add my own appreciation of the magnificent spirit shown by No. 74 Squadron as a whole throughout the operations in Km Island. Their unity, loyalty and devotion to duty under exceptionally difficult and trying conditions is a fine example of courage and determination to the Air Force as a whole, and reflects considerable credit on your personal leadership in bringing your unit to such a fine state of esprit de corps."
That helped a bit, and Lieutenant-General Sir Desmond Anderson, commanding Force 292, made everyone feel just a little less damp when they heard of his report which read: "As you may know there were some 40 to 50 RAF personnel on their way from Castelrosso to Kos at the time Kos was invaded. Instead of going to Kos these men put into Simi and were present in that island when it was attacked. Captain Lapraik who commanded all the British troops on Simi during this attack has now backloaded the RAF personnel to Castelrosso and on their departure has sent me an appreciation of the excellent work they did under very trying and strange conditions. I should be grateful if this message could be passed to those concerned at the same time adding my personal thanks for the part played in the gallant defence of Simi." As at Dunkirk, as on the Marne and on the Somme, perhaps the retreat was to some extent mitigated by the heroism of those retreating. The battle honour "Mediterranean 1943", one of the eight selected from the Squadron battle honours for emblazoning proudly on the Squadron Standard, is in memory of those who won't be coming back."
The Chief of the South African Air Force, Lt. Gen. J. P. Verster, SM, an old friend from the days of his service in England, has kindly supplied the following additional information concerning No. 7 Squadron SAAF on Kos.
1. The 1st September, 1943, found 7 Squadron establishing itself at El Gamil near Port Said to continue with convoy escort and fighter interception duties, which it had previously been carrying out from Derna. The Squadron was at that time equipped with Spitfire Mk. Vs.
2. On 10th September an instruction was received that six pilots under the leadership of Captain H.E. Kirby (now Colonel Kirby, Officer Commanding Northern Air Defence Sector) were to take off at 06.30 hours, for Cyprus. Personnel were to travel light with clothing and rations for two weeks while a Dakota was to convey the necessary ground staff and equipment to set up an advance base.
3. At 08.44 hours on 11th September the Dakota left Gamil for Cyprus with the ground party which included the Squadron's doctor, Captain Rocher, and was followed by the flight of six Spitfires at 09.10 hours. Two further Spitfires were flown to Cyprus on the 14th, while on the 15th, the OC, Major C.A. van Vljet, DFC, flew across to the island with a Dakota which conveyed further personnel and ground equipment. On the 19th, a further eight Spitfires were flown to Cyprus, while a further Dakota-load of personnel and equipment proceeded to the island on the 20th.
4. On the 2lst it was publicly announced that 7 Squadron had landed and were operating from the island of Kos in the Dodecanese. A signal received from 219 Group on that day read: "The following extract of message received by AOC-in-C from Secretary of State for Air has been forwarded to No. 243 Wing for passing to your Squadron Detachment. We have been following with admiration the work of your Squadrons. Particular congratulation to your Spitfires on the brilliant exploit in shooting down seven enemy aircraft over Kos yesterday. This Headquarters takes the opportunity to join in these congratulations."
5. During the evening of the 22nd news was broadcast of the Squadron's achievements and from comparative obscurity it became famous almost overnight. The Egyptian Gazette printed a photograph of Lt. Edmondson ("I" officer) and Lt. D.R. Fisher (pilot) on its front page. In the article accompanying the photograph the occupation of Kos was described and the fact that the Squadron had shot down 11 enemy aircraft including two Me lOSs for the loss of three Spitfires.
6. On the 24th a signal was received from the DGAF of the SAAF which read: "Personal for Major van Vliet from Major General Venter. Heartiest congratulations on Squadron's grand innings, which is a good start for record century."
7. On 26th September, the adjutant, Captain Frewen, arrived at Kos with Provincial Council Election voting papers and returned to El Gamil on the 30th. The Squadron war diary records that "he was his usual intrepid self except that he showed scars caused by sudden and hurried entries into slit trenches when the occasion arose, which was apparently fairly frequently during his short but hectic stay on Kos."
8. On the 27th September the second German Blitz began on Kos at 11.30 hours, when five plus Me 109s attacked and shot down Lts. K.W. Prescott and J.R. Hynd, who were on patrol. Immediately afterwards the island was bombed and ground strafed by three successive waves of J U 88s, which concentrated on the dispersal and take-off areas. During these raids Me lO9s remained in the air giving top cover to the bombers. One Spitfire was damaged on the ground and the airfield was made unserviceable due to craters and delayed-action bombs, but repairs were immediately effected and the standing patrol of 7 Squadron fighters was resumed at 14.00 hours. During the afternoon, while Major van Vliet and Lt. A.L. Basson were on patrol, they were attacked by Me lO9s, two of which they shot down and tben Lt. Basson was shot down, but baled out and was rescued.
9. At 11.30 hours on the 28th, eight Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron RAF arrived on the airfield and at 15.00 hours another attack was made on the airfield by Me 109s and JU 88s. Captain E.I. Rorvik and Lts. J.W. Taylor and D.S. de Jager, were on patrol at the time, went into the attack and Captain Rorvik and Lt. Taylor were shot down, Lt. Taylor baling out and being subsequently rescued.
10. On the 30th news was received that Kos was being attacked by German seaborne forces and paratroops. Early in October the situation on the island remained obscure and a recce aircraft sent over the island on the 4th was unable to obtain any definite information, but it was believed that the island was in the hands of the Germans.
11. On the 5th news was received that the evacuation of Kos was in progress and on the 15th a signal was received stating that four officers and eight other ranks had escaped from Kos. The doctor, Captain Rocher, was picked up by a German patrol boat while making a determined bid to swim to the Turkish coast some miles from the island.
12. A reunion party was conducted in the local pub in Port Said on 22nd October by the OC and those officers who had escaped from Kos by caique and on the 23rd a signal was received from Major General Theron congratulating the Squadron on its efforts in the Kos operation. So ended a short but epic Chapter in the history of 7 Squadron, SAAF.
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org