Lost planes from World War II. Whispering Death

It is October 20th, 1943. The war rages on. A small boat approaches in the thick darkness and disembarks a small group of seven hand-picked men on the Greek island of Naxos. Lieutenant Aitken, the head of a Long Range Desert Group patrol, and his men have the audacity to be on the remote Greek island under the nose of a German garrison numbering about 650 men. Cautiously and quietly, they march toward the interior of the island. Aided, as always, by the local inhabitants, they hide and spy on the movements of the Germans. A few days later, Aitken notices a suspicious concentration of enemy ships. Four have anchored in the Port of Naxos. “It is not a convoy, but they have to be carrying supplies,” he thinks to himself. He immediately reports his discovery to headquarters.

Bristol Beaufighters flying over the Aegean Sea in formation. Many aircraft fought and were lost during the occupation of the Dodecanese Islands (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

Two American Mitchel B-25s and two British Bristol Beaufighters make their way to the Port of Naxos. It is Saturday afternoon and the residents of the town of Naxos are going about their business. Suddenly, powerful explosions are heard rumbling in the distance. They come from the island of Paros. The aircraft have bombed the airfield the Germans have there. Flying low and fast, just above the sea, they soon reach the Port of Naxos. With an altitude no higher than the masts of the ships in harbour, the aircraft strike with everything they have. Thunderous explosions follow. The whole Port facility shakes; the ships were probably carrying munitions. Distraught inhabitants run for cover. Two of the four ships are sinking in bellowing clouds of black smoke. However, two other aircraft suddenly appear in the sky. The ships’ crews are relieved. The two German Arado 196 light fighters [reconnaissance seaplanes] enter the fray. A determined dogfight immediately ensues. The German pilots try to redeem the losses suffered by their beaten compatriots.

The residents watch transfixed. All aircraft separate, weaving and darting across the sky as they attempt to fire and bring down their foe. A slower American Mitchels is soon shot down, but the fierce battle continues. Hounded by one of the Germans, the crew in one of the Beaufighters struggles to escape. Pilot Captain Hayter makes various maneuvers, while Gunner/Navigator Warrant Officer Harper fires his rear machine gun non-stop. But the more agile German fighter is not to be shaken off. Suddenly, the Beaufighter jolts and lurches as a deafening noise rings out in the confines of the aircraft. In horror, the crew realise that they have been hit. Hayter has lost control of the tail rudder. His Gunner/Navigator reports one side of the the fuselage is peppered with gaping holes. Their aircraft is starting to lose altitude. The German breaks off the attack, leaving his wounded victim to its fate.

A Beaufighter, during exercise (photo: Vassilis Medogiannis archive).

“We’re going down, we’re going down!” Hayter shouts. He throttles back the engines and prepares to ditch. He tries to get as close as he can to the coast. Should they survive, it will make it easier to get ashore and save themselves. Struggling with the controls, he tentatively brings the aircraft lower until it touches the surface. Sheets of water spray up on either side. Then, with a sudden jolt of deceleration, the aircraft drops and starts ploughing its way ungracefully through the water. The slowdown is terrible. Underside panels buckle, the airframe twists and flexes, the noise is terrifying. However, the aircraft eventually comes to rest. Water immediately starts flooding in. Hayter’s face was smashed against the instrument panel in the mayhem. Harper is also seriously injured. Hayter fumbles for the canopy release. He pushes the canopy door open and scrambles out.

Harper follows. Aware that the aircraft will not float for more than thirty seconds, one of them opens the dingy panel on the port wing and grabs the rubber lifeboat. With the aircraft literally sinking under their feet, they climb aboard and start paddling for the shore. The assume that the German garrison on Naxos will already be looking for them.

It is dusk when the injured men reach the shoreline.

Harper, whose injuries are worse, remains as Hayter checks the surrounding area for a temporary hiding place. On the verge of collapse, he eventually manages to find a farmhouse. It belongs to Ioannis Korre whose son, Vasilis, is at home. Vasilis immediately carries the wounded pilot to Sideris’ house, which is not very close. Without a word being said, Sideris receives the airman and begins to attend his wounds. He does his best to treat the pilot’s nose and uses soaked rags to disinfect the deep cut and other wounds. They give him clean, dry clothes and tell him to rest. It is only then that they learn that their young guest is Will Hayter of the 47th squadron of the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force).

Hayter is starving, but his facial injury makes it impossible to eat. So, they give him fluids with a straw made from an Aelamo (a weed). After some time, Hayter has recovered enough to start trying to explain that there is another survivor. Fighting the language barrier with basic words and gestures, he eventually makes his hosts understand where the airmen had come ashore. Sideris immediately sends someone he can trust, Nikiforos Levogiannis (a worker on his estates who was later to become his niece’s husband) to search for the Gunner/Navigator. Flashlight in hand, Nikiforos does his best but comes back empty-handed. When Hayter sees him return alone, he cries inconsolably. “If my companion is not found,” he said earnestly, “I shall die, too.” (Tom Harper was older than Hayter). A new search is instigated, this time with Sideris’ participation. However, their efforts are to no avail. Hayter becomes desperate. He suggests that they call his friend’s name during the search in the hope that if he is alive and hiding somewhere, he will hear it and present himself.

The British Bristol Beaufigher, distinguished by the Vickers machine gun, and the unique but effective torpedo (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive)

Having written the missing man’s name on a piece of paper so as not to forget it, Nikiforos goes out a third time shouting «Harper, Harper…». Nothing. Before daybreak, yet another desperate search was undertaken. Success! On eventually hearing his name, Harper emerges from a small shepherd’s hut where he had sheltered. Nikiforos quickly collects all the airman’s things and erases all traces of the stay in the hut. This impresses Harper and inspires confidence. They make it back to Sideris’ house. Hayter’s relief and joy at seeing his companion again is indescribable. While treating the wounds of the second airman, Sideris asks Nikiforos to immediately go to Chora to get the doctor, Manolis Bardanis. After a three-hour walk from Kampos to Chora, Nikiforos finds the doctor and informs him of the situation. As soon as it gets dark, they make for Sideris’ house on foot. Under adverse and primitive conditions, the doctor stitches up Hayter’s nose, Harper’s lips and treats the rest of their wounds. For several days Hayter cannot eat and can only drink fluids for sustenance.

The plane’s wings are almost gone. Probably weakened by the ditching as well as from nets that may have entangled there. (Photo: Vassilis Mendogiannis archive)

As soon as their situation stabilizes, the airmen’s anxiety about the Germans returns. If found, they would be harshly interrogated, then shipped to Athens and a prisoner of war camp somewhere in Germany. They need to get off the island and behind their own lines as soon as possible.

The ever-prudent Sideris has already initiated an attempt to contact the British patrol operating on Naxos via the Greek resistance. The British have recently installed a radio at Masouri. It is in the mountains, high above the plain and in close proximity to Sideris’ house. However, making arrangements for the airmen proves extremely difficult. It involves a stream of messages going back and forth. All the while, the Germans could be asking about the aircraft and looking for its crew. If so, it will not be long before they get to them.

Eventually, after the members of the British patrol ensure themselves that it is not some elaborate trap, they follow a Greek resistance member, Alberti, to Sideris’ House at night. They cautiously approach and enter the house. The airmen cannot believe their eyes when they see their fellow compatriots. Elated, they embrace and start speaking English excitedly. Lieutenant Aitken explains that they must leave quickly.

“Let’s go!” he says. “I have arranged for a submarine to pick us all up from Panermos – an area on the south east coast of the island.” The airmen hastily pack up their scant belongings. Then they solemnly stand before the people who have helped them so much. After looking at them in the eyes for a few moments, they thank them warmly, kiss Sideris’ hands and walk away. They all board a submarine that same evening and arrive safely on the island of Leros on November 6th, 1943. They are soon returned to their base in Cyprus.

Everything seems to have gone well. However, the aircraft ditching and rescue of the crew become widely known amongst the local inhabitants in the Apollona and Koronida regions of the island. Nearly seven days after the aircraft was shot down, the story finally reaches the ears of the Germans stationed at an outpost in Apollona. Michalis Mylonas Valis lives near the German outpost. His German wife is informed that the German soldiers are looking for Mr. Sideris and that they might even execute him. Valis quickly finds Sideris’ cousin, Yiannis Corre, and tells him at once to go and warn him to take measures.…

Just before takeoff, the crew in a commemorative photo (photo: Vasilis Mendoyannis archive)

The Wreck

My depth was already 24 metres when the aircraft first became discernible in the dark blue hues. I levelled off my descent and ended up hovering right in front of it, just above the nose. Simply enchanting. The aircraft was upright and quite intact, as if it was on a runway at some secret airport. The scene trigged a sense of nostalgia. I thought of stories about people and their contraptions from years gone by. Stories from World War II – the war that humanity will never forget. Stories like the one told above. Today, we can read such stories with ease and in comfort, but let’s take a moment to identify with those people from the past. Their lives challenged fate and created history with every second that passed.

The entire wreck (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

Let’s think, for a moment, about the incredible ordeal the young crew faced on that fateful mission. After bombing, strafing, dogfighting, being shot down and ditching, they somehow managed to survive. In spite of all that, they were injured and in enemy territory, and therefore far from safe. Let’s consider the risk the local Greeks took when they decided to help the wretched airmen. They faced torture and summary execution, even if the Germans merely suspected that they had aided and abetted the enemy. Finally, let’s give thought to the seven member British patrol risking capture and death at the hands of 650 German troops stationed on the island.

But let us now return to the investigation of the wreck. The plane had “landed” at a depth of 34 meters. Compared with similar wrecks we had investigated in Greece over the years, it was in very good condition. The nose cone had detached and one of the propellers was missing from the starboard engine. Such damage was likely to have been caused by the ditching. The remaining propeller had severely bent blades, indicating that the engines were operating when the aircraft plunged into the sea. Bullet damage could be seen on the tail section and fuselage. The tailplane was also damaged, probably by ditching or perhaps fishing nets. The cockpit canopy above the pilot’s seat was open, while the entire glass dome for the rear Gunner/Navigator was missing. The rear machine gun remained where it had fallen, just in front of the Gunner/Navigator’s seat. Bullet casings were scattered everywhere. Harper probably detached the machine gun so as to make his escape.

Inside the cockpit, aircraft flight controls and instruments can be seen (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

The aircraft has been identified as a TF-Mk X Bristol Beaufighter, serial number JM-225*. It is located half a mile off Cape Kouroupa, on the west coast of Naxos. History may teach, but human history thrills…

Right in front of the plane (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

The seat of the Gunner/Navigator is located behind the pilot, mid-point along the fuselage. Bullet casings are scattered everywhere. (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

Inside the wrecked plane, the view from behind the pilot’s seat (photo: Vassilis Medogiannis archive).

On May 1, 1944, Harper sent a document on Hayter’s behalf to Sideris:

The letter of thanks sent by Harper and Hayter to Sideris, immediately after the war (Photo: Vasilis Mendoyannis archive).

“Nothing that I write can express the greatness and the gratitude that I and my comrade Hayter feel, for you and all your fellow men who helped in our rescue. Good luck Mr. Sideri, Mr. Bardanis and everyone else and we wish wholeheartedly to meet in the future.” (Harper F/O RAF, Hayter F/O)

Left, George Sideris with young Captain Bill Hayter (Photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive).

Bristol Beaufighter Aircraft. Whispering Death…

One of the most successful British aircraft of World War II, the legendary Bristol Beaufighter was affectionately known to British aviators by its nickname “Beau”. It was also called “Whispering death” by the Axis powers, specifically by the Japanese…

A British Beaufighter, but with American insignia, which fought against the Japanese (Photo: Vasilis Mendojannis archive).

“They were flying low and slow. They carried only one torpedo, and the distinct noise made by their engines was only perceptible when they were very close to us. The covered engine exhaust valves made them almost silent… at first we heard a soft whistle, it might have been the air from the rigging of the ship, then a continuous monotonous whisper, and then we heard it distinctly. But the torpedo was already away, the ship was devastated by the impact, and in less than half an hour it sank… most were lost.”

Bristol Beaufighters were light bombers with the ability to approach a target from a very low altitude, since they were able to fly at a very low speed. At the same time, they were involved in dogfights and served as protection aircraft accompanying convoys. But they excelled at attacking ships and were particularly deadly against warships. Coming in very low, they aligned themselves with the enemy ship and unleashed their one and only torpedo. The literature reports that Australian Beaufighters [and other type of planes] sank more than 700 Japanese vessels. From 1939 to the end of the war in 1945, a total of 5,564 aircraft were built.

Bristol planes, during assembly at a factory in England (Photo: Archives).

In the Aegean theater of war, their main rival was the German Junkers-88 (Ju-88), also twin-engined, but with a four-person crew. Although the Beaufighter was faster, with a maximum speed of 488 kilometers per hour (compared to the Ju-88’s 470 kilometers per hour), Ju-88’s were more agile and more capable in dogfights. However, the Beaufighter was renowned for its firepower and sizable bomb payload. Moreover, they were very durable and could withstand a good deal of punishment. Indeed, many managed to return to base, even after sustaining heavy fire during combat. Nonetheless, it is estimated that more than 100 Beaufighter aircraft were lost in Greece alone.

A similar aircraft was located near the Port of Sitia, in Crete (previously published by us in an issue of Thalassa). The aircraft is in poor condition, with a lot of damage and large pieces missing. Also in Leros, small pieces of a similar aircraft have been lifted with nets (photo: Vassilis Medogiannis archive).

Despite its hefty weight, the Bristol Beaufighter was quite fast and very well-armed. It was manned by two people. The Mk X had two powerful Hercules 1,770 horsepower engines and a range of 2,366 kilometers. It had six fixed forward-facing 7.7 mm caliber machine guns (four on the starboard wing, two on the port wing) and a 7.7 mm rear gun – the well-known Vickers K – which was operated by the Gunner/Navigator in the event of a dogfight. Vickers machine guns were extensively used as anti-aircraft defense on many ships, as well as by the British infantry in their operations. The Vickers K was mounted in the rear gunner’s position, which was a transparent dome (called a cupola), aft of the cockpit and mid-point along the fuselage. The aircraft also had four forward-firing 20-millimeter Haspano Mk III cannons which were mounted in the nose, just below the pilot’s position. Finally, the external bomb payload could be a single torpedo, two 113-kilogram bombs mounted beneath the fuselage, or eight 41-kilogram air-to-surface rockets mounted under the wings. It had a wingspan of 17.63 meters and a total fuselage length of 12.70 meters.

One of the two engines (photo: Vasilis Medogiannis archive)

 

We warmly thank the diving center of Naxos, Blue Fin Divers, Panagiotis Niflis who led us to the wreck of the aircraft and Nikos Levogiannis, for the information we borrowed from the amazing book of “Comiaki Naxos” Volume C.

Author: Kimon Papadimitriou

Kimon Papadimitriou, Dr Ing Rural and Surveying Engineering, is member of Laboratory Training Staff at the School of Rural and Surveying Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In 2015 he developed the PADI Underwater Survey Diver distinctive specialty training course. Subsequently, he was certified to teach the Wreck Detective training course.