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Tactics in
Fading Legions




Left Up in the Air
The Air Services of the Low Countries in WWII
By David Meyler
November 2012

This article continues the examination of the smaller air forces in Third Reich and Great Pacific War represented by those single TAC factors. The first article took a look at the Dutch and Belgian air forces. This time we move to the Balkan theatre with an examination of the air services of the kingdoms of Greece and Yugoslavia.


The Royal Hellenic Air Force is perhaps unique in being the only minor power to have fought an long-term air battle largely on its own during the Second World War, two full game turns in the context of Third Reich. This was not because the Greek air force was large or unduly efficient but due to a set of unique circumstances. The Greeks would have been content to sit out the war, but for Mussolini’s expansionist dreams. Under the leadership of the governor of Albania, Visconti Prasca, the Italians launched a very ill-considered invasion of Epirus in northwestern Greece in late October 1940. Prasca had failed to allow for the limited port capacity in Albania to bring in reserves of men and supplies. Since he expected to defeat the Greeks within a week, long-term logistical planning was not done. The field army's immediate food and ammunition supplies, good for only about four days’ worth of campaigning, was considered sufficient.

Greece’s answer to Mussolini:
Ochi! (Hell no!)”

On October 28, 1940, the Italian Tsamouria and XXVI Corps (later expanded and reformed into the 9th and 11th Armies) crossed into Epirus from Albania. Over the first few days, caught by surprise, the Greek 8th Division appeared to be collapsing. But with the onset of the wet autumnal weather, hurried reinforcements and effective air support, the Italian advance was stopped. It was not a war Hitler wanted. The Greeks had no love lost for the Italians, and while the Greek monarchy was pro-British, the de facto head-of-state, General Ioannis Metaxas, was a well-known fascist sympathizer. While willing to accept limited British aid, Metaxas was almost desperate to avoid open confrontation with Germany, but even he could not let the Italians walk into Greece without a fight.

Prasca had made no logisitical arrangements, had made no account for the heavy rain storms typical for the season, and the air force and navy commanders had not been informed of the invasion plans until almost the proverbial last minute. Within the first two weeks, the Italian ground forces were stalled, already desperate for supplies and facing a foe which now outnumbered them. Valley roads turned into a thick morass of yellow mud in the fall rains, while units attempting to advance over the mountains faced ice, sleet and snow.

The Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force, in Albania initially comprised four squadrons of Savoia SM.81 medium bombers and two squadrons of Savoia SM.79 medium bombers, a squadron each of Fiat CR.32, Fiat CR.42 and Fiat G.50bis fighters and three squadrons of Ro.37 reconnaissance aircraft. Between November 1 and 5, two squadrons of SM.79 bombers and six fighter squadrons arrived (three each of G.50bis and CR.42), bringing the total number of combat aircraft based in Albania to 47 G.50s, 46 CR.42s, 14 CR.32s, 31 SM.79s, 24 SM.81s and 25 Ro.37s. This force alone outnumbered the entire Greek air force, but the 4th Air Flotilla based at Brindisi, Italy, was also committed against Greece with 16 bomber squadrons (60 Cant Z.1007b's and 23 Z.506s, 18 SM.81s, 18 Fiat BR.20s), two dive-bomber squadrons (20 Junkers Ju87s) and four fighter squadrons (33 G.50s, 12 Macchi C.200s and nine CR.32s).

A Greek Do.22 before a mission, 1940.

Most of the Greek air force would be concentrated in the Epirus region, but this just totalled three squadrons of PZL P24 fighters (24 operational aircraft in total) and three light bomber squadrons (eight Potez Po63s, 11 Blenheim IVs and ten Fairey Battles). The Italians would begin with a numerical advantage of 6 to 1 in aircraft. But even when good weather allowed, the Italian air force could never translate this advantage into air superiority.

On October 28, the Italians managed to send some bombing raids against the Dolian-Kalibaki road, but the next day the inclement weather precluded all aerial operations. On October 30, Greek Hs126’s made a number of sorties over Kastoria, but lost two aircraft against Italian CR.42’s. The following day, bad weather again restricted operations.

Greek reconnaissance aircraft were active over the front, but the weather had cleared sufficiently on November 1 to allow for increased Italian fighter activity. A flight of two slow BrXIX biplanes was bounced and both aircraft shot down by three Fiat CR.32’s. Italian ground forces received little direct support as their air force concentrated on strategic targets. The Aegean port of Salonika was repeatedly hit. The Greeks had little strategic power, but a trio of Greek Blenheim bombers struck back at the main Italian air base in Albania at Koritza.

In spite of early morning fog on November 2, the Greek air force sent out the lumbering BrXIX’s once again, on patrols along the front covering Samarina, Romios, Kerassovon and Fourka. At about 0700, Italian troop and pack mule columns were spotted moving on Distraton. Bombing raids were sent out as quickly as they could be organized. The Regia Aeronautica intensified its attacks with raids against Ioannina, Larisa, Corfu, Patras and Salonika.

With fresh battalions arriving, the Greeks increased the pressure on the Italians, but November 4 was largely spent consolidating their positions won the day before. Italian fighters strafed Greek troop concentrations while Greek BrXIX’s continued their attacks in the Distraton area. Three were caught by Italian Fiats and only one escaped.

Greek Gladiator.

As winter weather closed in and losses, and wear and tear eroded Greek strength (there being virtually no replacement aircraft and few spares and parts), operations of the Royal Hellenic Air Forces steadily diminished. Andreas Antoniou of the 22nd Mira was the highest scoring Greek pilot with five victories.

General Metaxas died January 29, 1941. The king chose Alexandros Koryzis as his successor. Metaxas had steadfastly turned down British offers of military assistance, although some air support had been accepted and supplies of weapons and ammunition were welcomed. He feared that the arrival of British land forces could only result in a German invasion of Greece to aid their Italian allies, and an open war with Germany was the last thing Metaxas wished to have. With the dictator out of the way, however, the king and Koryzis were free to follow an openly pro-British policy.

Hitler, meanwhile, began to grow more alarmed with each successive Italian failure. The longer the war went on, the more likely British intervention became. Germany's chief concern was the threat to the Romanian oil fields, and they were already in range of British bombers based in Greece. The defeat of the last Italian offensive in March, the arrival of British combat forces in Greece, and Yugoslavia's rejection of a German alliance later that same month convinced Hitler of the need to occupy both Yugoslavia and Greece. The blow fell on April 6.

The British supplied a few replacement aircraft, but only the following formations remained operational: 21st Mira (Gloster Gladiators), 22nd and 23rd Mire (PZL P24s), 24th Mira (Bloch MB151s) -- about two dozen fighters in total. Only remnants of the bomber, support and naval squadrons remained with almost no operational aircraft. Like the army, the air force was quickly overwhelmed by the German invasion.

Greek Order of Battle, October 1940

Elleniki Vassiliki Aeroporia (Royal Hellenic Air Force)

Fighter Command:

  • 21st Mira (squadron) (Kalambaka/Ioannina), 12 PZL P24 (serves as the icon on the Greek TAC)
  • 22nd Mira (Thessaloniki/Sedes), 12 PZL P24
  • 23rd Mira (Larisa), 12 PZL P24
  • (Out of the 36 P24’s, just 24 were operational at the time of the Italian invasion.)
  • 24th Mira (Elevsis), nine Bloch MB151 (just six operational — provided for the air defence of Athens)

Bomber Squadrons:

  • 31th Mira (Niamata), eight Potez Po63
  • 32nd Mira (Larisa), 11 Blenheim IV
  • 33rd Mira (Kouklaina), ten Fairey Battle
  • Ground Support/Reconnaissance Squadrons:
  • 1st and 2nd Mire, nine operational BrXIX between them
  • 3rd Mira, 15 Henschel Hs126
  • 4th Mira, 17 Potez Po25A

Naval Aviation:

  • 11th Mira, nine Fairey IIIF; 12th Mira, 12 Dornier Do22G; and 13th Mira, nine Anson flying boats


While the Yugoslav army proved to be a paper tiger, the air force of the kingdom was an exception. It was relatively large for a smaller power, with about 800 combat aircraft. It was also relatively well equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and Messerschmitt Bf109’s as its principal fighters. And compared to the army, at least, it was ethnically united. Still, shortly before the German invasion, a Croatian officer defected to Germany with details of the air force's deployment. As well, a large number of aircraft were not operational when war broke out (there were 487 operational aircraft, of which half were modern).

A Royal Yugoslav Hurricane.

Not fully mobilized, suffering from poor communications and suffering heavy losses on the ground at the hands of the Luftwaffe, the air force never had a chance to offer an organized resistance. Some squadrons did not realize the war was on for some hours. The native-designed and -manufactured Ikarus Ik3 fighter proved effective over Belgrade (a low-wing monoplane fighter similar in profile to the Hawker Hurricane, the Ik3 was an excellent, modern design whose only real weakness was lack of numbers: 527 km/hour, one 20mm cannon and twin 7.9mm machine guns in the front fuselage, although the name “Icarus” was not perhaps a good omen.) In what is considered the Yugoslav’s air force’s finest hour, 32nd Grupa’s 6 IK3 and 12 Bf109 accounted for 12 German Messerschmitts. However, these efforts could not save Belgrade from suffering severe damage from the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombardments, killing thousands of civilians. Milislav Semiz, flying an Ik3, claimed four victories during the brief campaign.

The most successful air action was an attack by the SM.79 bombers of 66th and 67th Grupa against German columns pursuing Yugoslav army forces into Kosovo. Fighter units fought in vain to cover the various retreating units of the army, and by April 12, all aerial operations had ceased, and many remaining aircraft were set on fire. However, much of the surviving equipment was handed over to the air force of the puppet Croatian state established after the surrender of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav pilots pose in front of an IK-3.

Yugoslavian Order of Battle, April 1941

Jugoslovensko Kraljevsko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo (Royal Yugoslovian Air Force)

2nd Lovacki Puk (fighter regiment)/1st Brigada:

  • 31st Grupa (squadron) (Kragujevac) 11 Messerschmidt Bf109E (two flights or eskadrila)
  • 51st Grupa (Knic) 18 Hawker Hurricane I (two flights)
  • 6th Lovacki Puk/1st Brigada:
  • 52nd Grupa (Zemun) ten Messerschmidt Bf109E, one Messerschmidt Bf110 (captured) (three flights)
  • 32nd Grupa (Krusevac) six Ikarus Ik3 (used as the icon on the Yugoslav TAC), 34 Messerschmidt Bf109E (only about 12 operational) (three flights)

4th Lovacki Puk/2nd Brigada:

  • 33rd Grupa (Bos. Aleksandrava) 14 Hawker Hurricane I (three flights)
  • 34th Grupa (Bos. Aleksandrava) six Hawker Hurricane I, eight Ikarus Ik2 (three flights)
  • 8th Bombarderski Puk (bomber regiment)/2nd Brigada:
  • 68th Grupa Squadron (Ravine) 11 Bristol Blenheim I (two flights)
  • 69th Grupa (Ravine) 12 Bristol Blenheim I (three flights)

3rd Bombarderski Puk/3rd Brigada:

  • 63rd Squadron (Petrovac) 36 Dornier Do17 (three flights)
  • 64th Squadron (Milosevo) 36 Dornier Do17 (three flights)

5th Lovacki Puk/3rd Brigada:

  • 35th Squadron (Leskovac) 16 Hawker Fury (two flights)
  • 36th Squadron (Kumanovo) 14 Hawker Fury (two flights)

1st Bombarderski Puk/4th Brigada:

  • 61st Squadron (Bijeljina) 11 Bristol Blenheim I (two flights)
  • 62nd Squadron (Davidovic) 12 Bristol Blenheim I (two flights)

7th Bombarderski Puk /4th Brigada:

  • 66th Squadron (Preljina) 15 SM.79 (two flights)
  • 67th Squadron (Gorobilje) 15 SM.79 (two flights)

Independent Squadrons:

  • 81st Bombarderski Grupa (Stanceval) 15 SM.79 (two flights)
  • 11th Izvidjacka Grupa (recon squadron (Radinci) nine Bristol Blenheim I, two Hawker Hind (two flights)
  • Independent Eskadrila (Stanceval) three Hawker Hurricane I, three Messerschmidt Bf109E, three Avia BH33E

Army Aviation Units:

  • First Army, 1st Izvikdjacka Grupa (15 aircraft)
  • Second Army, 3rd Izvikdjacka Grupa (19 aircraft)
  • Third Army, 5th Izvikdjacka Grupa (14 aircraft)
  • Fourth Army, 4th Izvikdjacka Grupa (18 aircraft)
  • Fifth Army, 2nd Izvikdjacka Grupa (16 aircraft)
  • Sixth Army, 7th Izvikdjacka Grupa (18 aircraft)
  • Seventh Army, 6th Izvikdjacka Grupa (16 aircraft)
  • Coastal Army Area, Independent Eskadrila (four aircraft)
  • (In total, 120 Breguet BrXIX and Potez Po25)

Naval Aviation:

The small naval air service was organized into four groups with a total of 11 Dornier Do "Wal", 12 Dornier Do22 and 12 Rogozorski SimXIV floatplanes.

Select Bibliography

Buchner, Alex. Der Deutsche Griechenland-Feldzug, Kurt Vowinckel Verlag, Heidelberg, 1957.

Montanari, Mario. La Campagna di Grecia, Stato Maggiore dell'Esercito, Rome, 1980.

Pantazes, Konstantinos. Ta Dyo Ochi, Dodone, Athens, 1972. (A detailed account in Greek of both the Italian and German invasions of Greece.)

Shores, Christopher. Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, 1940-41, Grub Street, London, 1987. (Provides detailed accounts of both the Yugoslav and Greek air forces.)

Terzic, Velimir. Slom Kraljevine Jugoslavije 1941, Narodna Knijga, Belgrade, 1980. (The official Yugoslav account of what is called the April War, the German invasion of the Yugoslav kingdom in 1941, considerable detail on both operations and organization of the Royal Yugoslav forces. Available in both Croatian using the Roman alphabet or Serbian in Cyrillic script.)

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