Roald Dahl and the Battle of Athens on 20 April 1941

WW2, WW2 in Greece

By Pierre Kosmidis

Roald Dahl (13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990) was a British novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and fighter pilot. His books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide.

He saw service during the last chaotic days of the German invasion of Greece and was one of the few survivοrs of the RAF squadron, which fought over the skies of Athens on April 20, 1941, the same dogfight that cost the life of the “Ace of Aces” Pat Pattle.

Roald Dahl went on to describe the Battle of Athens on April 20, 1941 in his book “Going Solo”.

After six months in hospital following his crash in Libya, Roald rejoined the RAF at the Elefsina aerodrome, near Athens, Greece.

Pilots of No. 80 Squadron RAF relax in front of a Hawker Hurricane at Eleusis, Greece
Pilots of No. 80 Squadron RAF relax in front of a Hawker Hurricane at Eleusis, Greece

This time he is flying a Mark 1 Hurricane.

“To some extent I was aware of the military mess I had flown in to.

I knew that a small British Expeditionary Force, backed up by an equally small air force, had been sent to Greece from Egypt a few months earlier to hold back the Italian invaders, and so long as it was only the Italians they were up against, they had been able to cope.

But once the Germans decided to take over, the situation immediately became hopeless.”

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“Somebody behind a desk in Athens or Cairo had decided that for once our entire force of Hurricanes in Greece, all twelve of us, should go up together.

The inhabitants of Athens, so it seemed, were getting jumpy and it was assumed that the sight of us all flying overhead would boost their morale.

So on 20 April 1941, on a golden springtime morning at ten o’clock, all twelve of us took off one after the other and got into a tight formation over Elevsis airfield. Then we headed for Athens, which was no more than four minutes’ flying time away.

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Round and round Athens we went, and I was so busy trying to prevent my starboard wing-tip from scraping against the plane next to me that this time I was in no mood to admire the grand view of the Parthenon or any of the other famous relics below me.

Our formation was being led by Flight-Lieutenant Pat Pattle. Now Pat Pattle was a legend in the RAF. At least he was a legend around Egypt and the Western Desert and in the mountains of Greece.

He was far and away the greatest fighter ace the Middle East was ever to see, with an astronomical number of victories to his credit. I myself had never spoken to him and I am sure he hadn’t the faintest idea who I was. I wasn’t anybody.

I was just a new face in a squadron whose pilots took very little notice of each other anyway. But I had observed the famous Flight-Lieutenant Pattle in the mess tent several times.

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Dahl’s Hurricane camouflaged at Elefsina airport, April 1941

He was a very small man and very soft-spoken, and he possessed the deeply wrinkled doleful face of a cat who knew that all nine of its lives had already been used up.

On that morning of 20 April, Flight-Lieutenant Pattle, the ace of aces, who was leading our formation of twelve Hurricanes over Athens, was evidently assuming that we could all fly as brilliantly as he could, and he led us one hell of a dance around the skies above the city.

Suddenly the whole sky around us seemed to explode with German fighters. They came down on us from high above, not only 109s but also the twin-engined 110s. Watchers on the ground say that there cannot have been fewer than 200 of them around us that morning.

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I can remember seeing our tight little formation all peeling away and disappearing among the swarms of enemy aircraft, and from then on, wherever I looked I saw an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side.

They came from above and they came from behind and they made frontal attacks from dead ahead, and I threw my Hurricane around as best I could and whenever a Hun came into my sights, I pressed the button.

Dahl’s Hurricane was destroyed during a Luftwaffe ground attack in Elefsina, close to Athens in April 1941. This photo, according to other sources, may be of a destroyed Hurricane in Argos airfield, in the Peloponnese, Greece.

It was truly the most breathless and in a way the most exhilarating time I have ever had in my life.

The sky was so full of aircraft that half my time was spent in actually avoiding collisions. I am quite sure that the German planes must have often got in each other’s way because there were so many of them, and that probably saved quite a number of our skins.

I remember walking over to the little wooden Operations Room to report my return and as I made my way slowly across the grass I suddenly realized that the whole of my body and all my clothes were dripping with sweat.

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Then I found that my hand was shaking so much I could’t put the flame to the end of the cigarette. The doctor, who was standing nearby, came up and lit it for me.

I looked at my hands again. It was ridiculous the way they were shaking. It was embarrassing. I looked at the other pilots. They were all holding cigarettes and their hands were all shaking as much as mine were. But I was feeling pretty good. I had stayed up there for thirty minutes and they hadn’t got me.

They got five of our twelve Hurricanes in that battle. Among the dead was the great Pat Pattle, all his lucky lives used up at last.”

Ace of Aces. Sqn Ldr Marmaduke Thomas St. John "Pat" PATTLE (03.07.1914 – 20.04.1941) - South African fighter Ace with 50 aerial victories - 15 achieved flying Gloster Gladiator, 35 - Hawker Hurricane. He was KIA on 20 April 1941 over Eleusis Bay (Greece) during air combat with Messerschmitt Bf 110's of ZG 26 "Horst Wessel". He led 12 Hurricanes of 33. Squadron.
Ace of Aces. Sqn Ldr Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” PATTLE (03.07.1914 – 20.04.1941) – South African fighter Ace with 50 aerial victories – 15 achieved flying Gloster Gladiator, 35 – Hawker Hurricane. He was KIA on 20 April 1941 over Eleusis Bay (Greece) during air combat with Messerschmitt Bf 110’s of ZG 26 “Horst Wessel”. He led 12 Hurricanes of 33. Squadron.

 

 

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