Swaths of academics and historians have descended upon the Greek island of Thasos to investigate newfound airplane wreckage on the side of a mountain. But it is a local amateur sleuth who may be the closest to solving a 95-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of a Canadian First World War pilot.
Details on the life of Flight Lieutenant Warner Hutchins Peberdy are largely confined to a graduation photograph from the Curtiss Aviation School in Toronto and a series of scrawled records locked in the British National Archives. Mr. Peberdy left the British Airfield in the village of Prinos on an ill-fated reconnaissance mission in January 1917 and has since been considered missing in action, presumed dead in the Aegean Sea.
Meantime, on Thasos, locals have long shared legends of a crashed airplane near the peak of the island’s Mount Profitis Ilias. This year, the local government invited researchers from the Hellenic Airforce Academy to conduct research on the Prinos airfield for a war memorial. After interviewing 20 seniors in Prinos village, the research team was directed to the wreckage by local shepherds – and immediately, it looked as if the two mysteries were solving each other.
“There is a strong case that this is Peberdy’s plane,” lead researcher Constantine Lagos wrote in an article for Athens News this month. “This is the very first wreckage from a First World War aircraft to be found in Greece and a very rare find anywhere in the world.”
On Tuesday, the team received a report from U.K. experts who reviewed evidence from the crash site and determined the plane was a Sopwith model — throwing a wrench into the Peberdy theory. According to historic reports, Mr. Peberdy was flying a Nieuport model when he disappeared.
The team is now leaning towards the belief that the plane on the mountain side belonged to another pilot who was reportedly shot down by a German ace in the summer of 1917. Canadian, British and Greek pilots engaged in several dog fights against Central Powers forces around the Greek Islands in the latter part of the war. Officers at Prinos thought this yet-to-be-named pilot had ditched in the ocean and drowned, but the discovery could prove otherwise.
“You can never be 100% sure of these things,” Mr. Lagos told the National Post in an interview.
But amateur investigator Tony Oswin hasn’t ruled out that it’s Mr. Peberdy on the mountain.
Mr. Oswin, a guidebook author and former pilot, tracked a mock flight path for Mr. Peberdy’s 1917 scouting mission to Eastern Macedonia, determining that he would have had barely enough fuel to complete his journey in the Nieuport model. He says the Sopwith that litters the side of the island mountain would have had ample fuel capacity to complete the trip, and it’s probable that Mr. Peberdy took it instead.
Mr. Oswin, a British ex-pat living in Thasos, has devoted over 100 hours to cataloguing the Canadian war pilot’s life, frequently updating his Thasos tourism website with new findings.
Enlisting the help of his brother in London, England, Mr. Oswin has pieced together military reports and school records in a web post that reads like a biography of the fallen Canadian.
“There are some stories that just somehow get under your skin,” said Mr. Oswin, who operates a tourist information booth on the Greek island.
According to service records, Mr. Peberdy was born in Rugby, England, and moved to Canada, where he attended a Toronto aviation school and enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service. The records say Mr. Peberdy failed to return from his mission, resulting in the “total loss” of a Nieuport aircraft. His name is on the Chatham Naval Memorial in England.
The research team is scheduled to return to Thasos in June to conduct further excavation of the crash site. Unless concrete findings are made in Thasos, Mr. Peberdy will remain one of almost 28,000 Canadian military personnel from World War One, World War Two and the Korean War who don’t have known graves.
“It’s exciting, particularly [Mr. Peberdy’s] case, because you’re given a puzzle and you’re trying to figure it out,” said casualty identification co-ordinator Laurel Clegg, whose office within the Department of National Defence started an inquiry into the case on Tuesday following her interview with the National Post.
She’s working with British counterparts to determine which nation will take lead, considering Mr. Peberdy was born in Britain but enlisted in Canada.
“It’s a really interesting mix of military historians … combined with people who have a passion for it, like this local [guidebook author],” the forensic scientist said.